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            The night air was warm, but a cool breeze blew on occasion.  Gabrielle was surprised how readily her own skin would prick and shiver, the warm summer having made her body forget such things in so short a time.  Xena built up a fire, and they lay beside it.  Gabrielle noticed how the breeze blew smoke against Xena, who lay in closer to the flames.  She never seemed to mind this.  

            Back in Potedia, Gabrielle and Lila had always fought to keep their clothes from smelling like smoke.  It wasn't considered desirable, making them appear common, and they bought dried lavender and sage to pack with their dresses and lay out on them at night.  It was strange to remember how much their lives were permeated with the anxiety of pleasing imagined men, of getting a husband. 

            Gabrielle had come to love the faint smell of wood smoke that clung to Xena's skin and seemed to have become permanently imbedded in the leather of her clothing.  She remembered once when Xena picked up the smell of wood smoke coming from a nearby farmhouse.  A clean smell, Xena had called it.  Something harmless, something apart from war, Gabrielle thought she meant. 

            Gabrielle let her nose and lips trail over Xena's arm now, loving the familiar smell.  Xena in response, reached over to take her hand.  They had never been to this place before, not even to this province, yet the presence Xena lying on the blanket beside her imbued the camp with the feel of being a home.  Remembering Potedia with its familiar places and people, it amazed Gabrielle that Xena could stand in for so much.   

            Xena felt also a bit unfamiliar to her tonight.  She had surprised Gabrielle twice earlier.  They had gone into a nearby town to find a good dinner.  As Xena sat, looking irritated at her empty bowl, the innkeeper brought another.  Xena turned in surprise to watch him as he wandered away, then looked at Gabrielle.  She sat smiling with a smug look.  She shrugged. 

            "I figured you'd want another," she said.  Xena looked down at the bowl of stew a moment.  Without commenting, she picked up her spoon and started to eat, as Gabrielle continued smiling and went back to her bowl.  No one else could have read the threads of emotion on Xena's stoic face.  But Gabrielle knew her.  She had at once done her friend a favor and bested her – the most enjoyable kind of joke. 

            Xena was often disappointed when her food was gone, and Gabrielle wondered why she never ordered more.  They had money, and they refused greater gifts almost always from those they helped, who wanted to repay them in any way they could think how.  The least you can do is let them feed you well, she thought, looking at Xena, who was already halfway through her second bowl of food and seeming much more content. 

            The first surprise came when Xena caught the attention of a man standing near the bar.  She'd gone up to get two more cups of wine, and Gabrielle saw him watching Xena closely.  He made some comment, flirtatious no doubt.  Xena turned only her head. She looked him up and down, and Gabrielle could see, with a thrill in her own chest, that she liked what she saw.  Gabrielle saw her give a sly sort of smile.  Taking the two cups in her hands, she turned around and made some parting comment.  The man seemed pleased, but he turned away to the bar, the connection dropped. 

            Xena sat beside her and tore away at the last of the coarse, dark bread they'd been given, eating it all, including the scraps, having refrained from eating more than half while Gabrielle was still eating.  When they'd had their drinks, and Gabrielle got up to pay, Xena surprised her again.

            "Let's head out tonight.  There's a river nearby," she said.  Xena was usually eager to stay in town, even in the seediest of situations.  Gabrielle had determined soon after they met that Xena thought beds were a miracle designed by the gods.  She accepted each one as a sacred, no matter its state or location.  Gabrielle loved hot water, which was scarce in her life now, and she loved towns, but tonight she felt glad they were leaving.  Gabrielle just nodded, and the two made their way out. 

            Now, by the fire, Xena seemed peaceful but lost in her own thoughts.  Gabrielle wondered if she was still thinking of a very particular bed – back to the town and the man. 

            "What'd that man at the bar say to you?" Gabrielle asked.  Xena took a moment to catch up with her, showing she had forgotten the man and was lost somewhere else.  Her look seemed to Gabrielle like a wary one. 

            "Just trying his hand," Xena said with a smirk. 

            "Was he handsome?" Gabrielle asked with a smile. 

            "Handsome enough," Xena said with a faint grin. 

            "Well, I hope you didn't drop him for my sake.  You aren't tied to me, you know," Gabrielle said.  The backs of her fingers glanced Xena's arm as she spoke. 

            "Thanks," Xena said, looking over.  "Likewise."  Her tone and face were flat, unreadable. 

            Gabrielle had been wanting to say those words to Xena for a long time.  Now that she had, she felt relieved.  But it seemed there was more to say.  She had opened a conversation that had remained closed to them.  She caught the same mood coming from Xena, like she was preparing to say something and hadn't been able to pull together the threads.

            "I just prefer your company," Xena added. 

            They lay for a while in silence.  Gabrielle thought on what Xena had just said.  She tried to let her own interpretations drop away, seeing the simple meaning of the statement.  And really it seemed quite sincere.  Nothing coded. 

            She had always worried about Xena turning down lovers over her from their first days together.  She wanted Xena to be able to do what she wanted, live a full life, not worry about Gabrielle being alone or unprotected.  It was obvious Xena had been with a lot of men in the past, and Gabrielle could see no reason why she wouldn't do the same now – except herself.  But as time passed, she realized there was more to it.  Xena didn't seem to worry about Gabrielle when they fell in with Hercules, or when Marcus had returned.  She was open with her friend and confided in her, trusting in her guidance and support. 

            Now that they were lovers, Gabrielle had experienced a new wave of the same worry.  Another insecurity, probably, she realized now.  She should ask Xena and take what she said at face value, she thought, lying there, up on her elbows, staring over Xena at the fire.  There were other things she worried about, but they had never talked about being lovers, and before that never talked about sex.  Maybe it's because this was going to happen, Gabrielle thought, because some unspoken instinct that they would end up together made the topic intimidating.  It felt like tonight they could broach the subject, and Gabrielle tried to conjure some bravery.  She cleared her throat, ignoring the awkwardness of her own starting gesture. 

            "Xena," she said, "How come you leave it to me to initiate things?  Between us.  Not everything, but, at the start."  Xena seemed surprised at this. 

            "Do I?" she said.  "I don't know if that's accurate." 

            "Give me an example of it not being," Gabrielle said.  A teasing tone of challenge had come into her voice. 

            "Pine grove, two weeks back," Xena said, as if placing a bid in a poker match.

            "I touched your side before we got up onto Argo.  And, I got up onto Argo," Gabrielle said.

            "Mm," Xena said, a sound of defeat confirming both.  Her defensiveness melted, as she silently conceding to Gabrielle.  "Maybe I'm just rusty.  At getting things started." 

            "Well, you seem just fine once you get going," Gabrielle said.  She laughed and had to turn away a moment, a bit embarrassed herself by the dig she'd given her friend.  Xena glanced at her through her own coy smile.  Every time they came together, new things happened.  Gabrielle had been surprised at how much passion they were finding together.  "I am serious, though, Xena.  You aren't still protecting me from something are you?" 

            "No, I don't think so," Xena said.  Her tone carried little emotion, but it seemed genuine.   Gabrielle wasn't sure where to go from there, so she just asked a question she'd been harboring for years. 

            "Xena, do you miss it?  Being with a lot of men?  Like in your old life?" Gabrielle asked.

            "No, not really," Xena said. 

            "I used to wonder if you were having lovers in secret," Gabrielle said.

            "Gabrielle, I'm not that sly.  Or quick," Xena said, an eyebrow darting up at her joke.  She added then, definitively, "There aren't any you don't know about." 

            "I guess it had been a long time for both of us, then," Gabrielle said.  Xena didn't say anything, but glanced at Gabrielle in obvious agreement.  Gabrielle added then, "It seems strangely hard to find situations where you can have lovers without a huge risk." 

            "It feels that way," Xena said.

            "I thought I had to get married to have a lover," Gabrielle said.  They were silent a moment, having drawn near the subject of Perdicus.  Gabrielle had never talked to Xena about him in this regard, only about her grief and her blood lust, born out of guilt.  Never about choices.  Or about sex. 

            "I thought that as a girl," Xena said. 

            "When did you stop believing it?" Gabrielle asked.

            "Somewhere along the way," Xena said.  Her voice came from deep in her chest, emotionless.  Gabrielle knew her well enough to catch a depth of meaning in how neutral she'd become.  Gabrielle was like a fox whose ears perked at the slightest flicker of deep emotion.  It made her curious.    

            "I used to imagine all the time what it would be like," Gabrielle said, she shook her head and laughed a soft laugh at her past self. 

            "Did you get what you were hoping for?"  Xena asked, her tone cautious, wary of encroaching, but surprising Gabrielle with the apparent depth of her interest. 

            "I wasn't pleased by Perdicus," Gabrielle said.

            "What do you mean?" Xena asked.  She was obviously surprised and seemed upset by this.  "You didn't find pleasure with him in bed?  Were you unresponsive to him?"  Gabrielle sniffed and touched her mouth self-consciously. 

            "He didn't touch me before," Gabrielle said. 

            "Really?" Xena said in disbelief.  There was a pause.  "Maybe he just didn't know a lot." 

            "Maybe," Gabrielle said.  "What was your first time like?" 

            "Me?" Xena said.  She practically flinched.  Her shock was so real, Gabrielle had to restrain herself not to burst out laughing.  She held it in, on an instinct.

            "Has no one ever asked you that before?" Gabrielle said.  Xena looked away, neutral again.

            "I guess not," she said.  She was too blank.  Gabrielle had hurt her feelings, she was sure of it, though she wasn’t sure how. 

            "Tell me about your first love," she said, gentler now, and touched her arm lightly with the back of her fingers.  There was such a long pause, Xena lying there looking off into the sky in her own thoughts that she added, "If you want to," and touched her with her fingertips.      

            "Those are two different stories," Xena said, her eyebrows lifting a moment. 

            "How about the first time?" Gabrielle said.  Another long pause followed, and Gabrielle waited, looking at Xena.  She would not press for the story if Xena wanted to remain closed.  She felt privacy about such things was every person's right.  But she wasn't willing to hide her curiosity, and she couldn't tell yet whether Xena wanted the conversation to drop.  Xena seemed strangely inexperienced with intimate conversations, and sometimes she would take a while to sort out what she would say.  Xena softened somewhat and started again. 

            "I was sixteen," she said, "A man came to our village, very rich and much older than me."  Gabrielle smiled and gave a soft laugh, picturing the romance.  "He focused on me from the moment he first saw me.  I guess I was considered something of a beauty," she cocked an eyebrow and glanced at Gabrielle at this, who gave another laugh, but knitted her brows at the strange sarcasm in Xena's tone.  "The best our town had to offer, and so his obvious choice. 

            "He started coming over as a suitor, even though we weren't his station.  My mother thought he was marvelous.  Lyceus," she said, smiling slightly, "Hated him.  It was jealousy, my mother said, because he was afraid I'd be taken away from him." 

            "You had a romance that young?"  Gabrielle said, remembering Xena's words then, "Did it end badly?"

            "No, not a romance," Xena said, her voice taking that neutral quality again.  "I couldn't make up my mind.  It was like I didn't have one of my own.  The whole town was proud of the match and assumed I'd say yes.  I avoided him, and he grew angry, and my mother with him.  He was to move on to Athens, and so he pressed me.  I finally rejected his offer.  Lyceus backed me, making it hard for mother to hold sway with us teamed up like that. 

            "He and my mother were both shocked by what I'd done.  It insulted his pride, being rejected by a peasant girl.  They felt it wasn't my right." Gabrielle felt a flash of rage hearing this.  Then looking at Xena she felt an uneasy, cold feeling coming over her, terribly familiar.

            "He cornered me in a barn soon after with two men with him.  The held knives on me while he came, and he took me.  He thought he'd left me with no choice but to marry him and move away with him.  To escape my shame.  Otherwise, I'd be left with fear he'd spread rumors, knowing I could never marry now.  My ruin would be found out on my wedding night." 

            "What did you do?" Gabrielle said, anger vivid in her voice.  She was hoping for brilliant sword play, retribution, one of Xena's master schemes. 

            "Nothing," Xena said.

            "What do you mean?" Gabrielle said.

            "I wouldn't be trapped and that was that,"  Xena said.  Her brilliant pride showed in her face.  Something she must have possessed even so young, Gabrielle realized.  "He left.  I never heard of him again.  I won, in a way."  She gave a soft sort of huff then and smiled, "It's funny, thinking of it now.  Three men, and none of them the least bit warriors.  It would be so easy now…. Then, they could do whatever they wanted with me, could've killed me and I wouldn't even have drawn blood.  I'd have just stood there, silent.  Just like I did."  A hardness had come into Xena's voice and look.  Gabrielle realized she meant to end the story right there. 

            "Xena," Gabrielle said, "That's such a terrible story."

            "It happens to women all the time," Xena said without much feeling, almost as if she were comforting her.  "I'm not special." 

            "Xena, you were a sixteen-year-old girl," Gabrielle said.  She touched her friend's shoulder.  The sentiment seemed lost on Xena, who looked at her blankly.  "Did you tell anyone?"  Xena gave a sort of sarcastic sneer. 

            "Who was there to tell?  My mother?" she said.  She grew less hard then, uneasy with her distance from Gabrielle.  "No, I didn't tell anyone."  For the first time, Gabrielle saw a flicker of pain in her face, a sadness.  They looked at one another for a long time, in silence. 

            "Did it change anything?" Gabrielle asked. 

            "Many things," Xena said.  "When the pain finally stopped," her voice had the slightest hitch, which caused Gabrielle's stomach to twinge with pain, "I went to Lyceus and asked him to start teaching me his sword training when he came home from his lessons.  I decided I wouldn't be so easily cornered the next time.  The two of us grew even closer.  We caused even more trouble."  She smiled at this. 

            "I'm lucky in a way," Xena said. 

            "Why do you say that?" Gabrielle said.  "Xena someone hurt you, and there was no one there enough for you even to tell."  She was still angry, and her voice cracked, showing how upset she was.  She touched Xena's shoulder again, firmer this time.  Xena looked at her face a long time, as if studying it, before she went on. 

            "It disillusioned me," Xena said, "Took me off the track of thinking I could be a good girl in a nice marriage.  It made me angry, and stronger."  Gabrielle felt she wanted to argue with Xena, but it was useless.  She put her head down on her arms, tending to her own feelings and leaving Xena be. 

            "Was that the only time you were forced?" Gabrielle asked bringing her face back up.  Xena gave Gabrielle a strange look, her brow tight and her eyes concentrated, as if thinking hard.

            "You mean like with weapons?" she said.  Gabrielle had a vague sense of unease, as if her ears were strangely muted and she was struggling to comprehend the words Xena had just said.  They looked at each other over what felt like a huge distance.  A darkness had come into Xena's face that made Gabrielle suddenly wary of what she was asking, what all she was going to find out. 

            "I guess I just mean without free choice," she said.  She leaned back again to look at the sky.  Gabrielle could tell from Xena's face she decided not to answer her question.  She put her head down on Xena's shoulder.  She smelled wood smoke again and kissed her arm.  She lay quietly, letting the conversation drop. 

            Xena went on suddenly, unprompted by Gabrielle. 

            "I couldn't imagine sex that wasn't about power when I was younger, even when I had it.  It seemed like a trick or a mirage," Xena said.  "I turned the tables permanently after Ceasar," Xena said.  "He was the last straw.  Men wanted to make me subject.  It was proven to me time and again.  I learned to use that to make them subject to me.  It seemed only fair, a match of wills and cunning.  Just like in war.  The same pleasure," Xena said.  She closed her eyes and tightened her jaw, and Gabrielle could see her regret but wondered if Xena felt also the ghost of an old pleasure now withheld, taunting her. 

            Gabrielle tried to imagine her friend seducing her, drawing her into a trap.  It was such a strange vision.  And a terrible one.  Xena with power, but without autonomy, not herself. 

            "Was there ever any love?" Gabrielle said. 

            "Sometimes," Xena said, her voice rumbled softly.  Gabrielle felt herself open at the tone, one that indicated Xena's guard was down, and she spoke from her heart, vulnerable. 

            "Will you tell me about it?" Gabrielle asked.  Xena looked at her and gave a nervous smile, one side of her mouth lifting.  She licked her lips before speaking.

            "You asked about my first love… that was Petracles.  There'd been lots of others, but he was the first I really wanted, really desired," the last words drew themselves out, revealing Xena.  She had closed her eyes in pain and a longing that was visible still, remembering.  Gabrielle was surprised to hear there was love when she knew it ended with such betrayal.  She thought of the man, his confidence, his sensuality, and the strange way he seemed to have betrayed himself, with Xena.  Xena swallowed before continuing. 

            "He knew so many things about… about women's bodies, women's passion," she glanced at Gabrielle, who felt surprised to find them both become shy, "He taught me things, about myself.  I didn't know how it could feel.  There were times when he would spend hours, bring me to pleasure over and over again, which I didn't even know I could do before I met him, and he wouldn't even bother about himself.

            "I tried to coax him into letting me pleasure him more, but it didn't work.  I think he found it easier, or more satisfying somehow.  Part of it was control, maybe, but that wasn't all of it.  He wasn't entirely what he pretended to be. 

            "For years, I wished I'd never met him," Xena ended, touching her tongue to her lips again, before tightening her jaw. 

            "You loved Marcus," Gabrielle said, a statement and question at once. 

            "Yes.  I'm surprised how much love there was between me and Marcus," Xena began, "We were comrades, in the job, equals.  I trusted him, in that way.  It made us a good match.  I think he thought we'd be together, work together, leave Trachus.  He didn't understand my ambitions, how deep they ran, and how it was such a small part of my plans.  When it became clear I meant to leave, we shared harsh words.  I was cruel to him.  He tried to manipulate me, as a result, win me in the most foolish ways.  It baited me, and I tossed him aside, which then was as much mercy as I could manage, then. 

            "I'm glad I got the chance to be with him again, after.  But it was hard, like I had to unlearn all these things from before.  I don't know what he would have wanted, but it didn't matter anymore.   It made things simple."

            "And before him was Hercules," Gabrielle said. 

            "Yes," Xena said.  Her tone lightened dramatically.  She felt more familiar now to Gabrielle.  "Fighting wasn't about power for him, and that was something I didn't understand.  Seeing it changed me.   I accepted mercy from him and love. 

            "It was different than any time before.  When we were together, he cared as much about my pleasure as his own.  It wasn't about power either, or possession.  It showed me how skewed things were in the past, how they might have been." 

             "I used to wonder why you didn't stay with Hercules," Gabrielle said. 

            "Does it seem heartless of me?" Xena asked.  She looked at Gabrielle with surprising vulnerability. 

            "No," Gabrielle said.  "I've thought on it a lot, to be honest.  Every time we meet up.  The two of you fall into each other's arms so easily.  It doesn't seem like your love goes away.  And it's such an important thing, to both of you.  It really changed you, and I've heard him talk about it like that, as well. 

            "I guess of all the stories I've heard, it made me feel the best about sex.  What it could be like, and what it could do for people.  It feels simple, I guess.  Without all the demands.  Free, you know?  But not without meaning." 

            Xena smiled at this. 

            "What do you think you want from sex now?" Gabrielle asked.  She saw Xena balk at the question, overwhelmed. 

            "I just don't want to hurt anyone," Xena said.

            "Well, you certainly aren't hurting me," Gabrielle said.  Xena gave a soft smile. Gabrielle saw the tenderness and happiness in her face, but there was an edge of doubt to it. 

            "You really aren't," Gabrielle said.  "You know that don't you?" 

            "Yes, I know that," Xena said.  "Gabrielle, I hope that, when you find the love your looking for, the one that does fulfill your dreams, you'll find that I was part of bringing you there."

            "I hope the same thing for you," Gabrielle said. 

            "You will be," Xena said.  "That I know already." 

            "Me, too," Gabrielle said.  Xena was still looking at her, and Gabrielle could feel there was a thought under the surface, one Xena was debating whether to share. 

            "This is the most love I've had," Xena said.  She touched Gabrielle's cheek.  She looked at her as if she were a sacred object, with that edge of almost fear.  "I never thought there could be so much."

            Gabrielle knew her too well and read beneath the sudden blank look that followed.  She had become self-conscious, worried.   Gabrielle took her hand and kissed the back of it, holding the back of it to her face again.  It had the desired affect, and Xena came back to her, meeting her look and facing what was there.  The tenderness between them felt so immense, Gabrielle felt her fingers tremble with its weight as she touched Xena's arm again. 

            They kissed, and began to draw each other near.  And soon they were both planning to be awake late into the night.    

The End (Of the middle.)