‘Yes,’ Xena said with a resigned sigh. ‘Yes, we are.’
Beside her, Gabrielle smirked, mischief in her eyes. She leaned in until she was far too close and then nuzzled her head against Xena’s shoulder and snaked an arm around Xena’s waist.
‘Xena and I have been together for a while now,’ she practically purred, smiling up at a suddenly very flustered warrior princess.
‘Well, you’re a lucky girl, Gabrielle.’ Sappho drawled. ‘I’ve heard that Xena has as many skills in the bedroom as she does in battle.’
‘She’s a very...attentive lover...’
It was at that point that Xena decided she had to intervene.
‘Gabrielle,’ she said, keeping a rather awkward smile on her face. ‘Can I ahve a word with you in private please?’
‘Of course, Cupcake.’
With a glare, Xena gently, but firmly steered a giggling bard into a quieter area of the room.
‘Cupcake?!’ she practically growled.
Gabrielle looked up at her with an all-too-innocent expression. ‘You said to pretend we were a couple.’
‘Yeah, but ‘Cupcake’...’
Xena was interrupted by a change in the tempo of the music. It was becoming slower and mpre intimate. The dance floor was slowly clearing until only Sappho’s niece and her partner were left in the centre.
‘What’s happening?’ Gabrielle asked.
‘The happy couple’s first dance.’
‘But...’ Gabrielle fell silent as the two women drew closer together, hands on each other’s waists and hips. ‘Xena, are they...?’
‘They’re the happy couple.’
Gabrielle’s eyes widened, understanding beginning to dawn. She looked around the room, noticing more and more pairs of women. ‘Are they all...?’
‘Pretty much,’ Xena said.
‘So that’s why they all thought we were together.’
Xena decided that it was time to explain things fully. ‘Gabrielle, Sappho’s...’ she trailed off, unsure of how to finish the sentence without somehow raising the subject of their own ambiguous relationship. Eventually, she settled for simply saying ‘Sappho’s poems are all about women.’
Gabrielle’s smirk had returned. ‘So that’s why those sailors on the ship were sniggering when we anchored here and that’s why Sappho put us in the honeymoon suite.’
‘Actually, I have no idea why Sappho put us in the honeymoon suite. I’m still working that one out. I’ve stayed here loads of times before and...’ Xena trailed off again, catching a new expression on Gabrielle’s face.
‘And what?’ Gabrielle prompted, looking entirely serious now. ‘When you stayed here before, who did you...? I mean, not that it’s any of my business. I’m just curious.’
‘Just...people...’ Xena said and then realised that that answer wasn’t good enough. ‘Lao Ma, Helen, once with Borias, but that was just plain weird...’
‘All the people you’ve loved.’ Gabrielle’s voice was flat.
‘No,’ Xena said hastily. ‘No one I’ve loved, or at least not really loved. Maybe people who I thought i loved.’ She paused and then, before she knew what she was going to say, added ‘Haven’t been here with anyone I’ve loved until today.’ Immediately she wished she hadn’t said it as she felt a blush starting to creep up her cheeks.
‘Didn’t know you felt that way about Mentor.’ Gabrielle’s tone was teasing and she was smiling again, her face glowing in the candlelight She slipped an arm around Xena’s waist again and, this time, it didn’t feel like she was teasing at all.
The mood between them had changed now, all traces of teasing had gone. Xena didn’t know what this new game they were playing was, but she didn’t try to fight it. They sat very close to one another at dinner, both of them enjoying the pretence of being a couple immensely even though neither of them would have admitted it. And it came so naturally to them; they casually traded touches and glances, they sampled the food from each other’s plates, drank from the same wine glass. They were seated side-by-side, Roman style, on long benches and, during the speeches, Gabrielle leant back into Xena’s shoulder and stayed nestled there for the better part of an hour. Against her better judgement, Xena wrapped both of her arms around the smaller woman and held her close.
After dinner there was more dancing which Xena steadfastly avoided for as long as she could. The mood between them was so intense now that Xena didn’t know if she would be able to keep things at their current level in a setting as intimate as a dance. She could tell Gabrielle wanted to dance though and the younger woman was beginning to look somewhat annoyed at Xena’s reluctance.
They stood at the back of the room, nibbling from a tray of canopies. Gabrielle’s hand found its way to the small of Xena’s back and began to propel her towards the dance floor, but Xena stepped away. The wine and the music were making her dizzy and it was already taking all of her self-control not to drag Gabrielle from the room and kiss her in the darkened hallway outside.
Gabrielle looked a little hurt by Xena’s rejection, but, before she could say anything, Sappho was next to them again.
‘Why aren’t you two dancing?’ She asked.
‘Xena doesn’t dance,’ Gabrielle said, an edge of annoyance creeping into her voice.
‘But it’s a wedding. Everyone has to.’
‘I’d really rather not,’ Xena said, a little abruptly.
‘Well then,’ said Sappho, all business now. ‘I shall have to find another partner for Gabrielle. Perhaps...’ and here she paused and looked around. ‘Perhaps Penelope.’
Xena followed her gaze and found a very pretty redhead smiling and waving in their direction. She seemed to ooze sex appeal and Xena felt irrational jealousy stab through her.
‘I’ve changed my mind,’ she said. ‘I think i will dance after all.’
She took Gabrielle’s hand and led her out into the centre of the dance floor. To Xena’s relief, the music had a quick, upbeat tempo. It was a country dance which both of them knew and which required nothing more intimate than a bit of hand holding.
Gabrielle was smiling now, matching the other dances step for step. Despite her grace on the battlefield, Xena was a rather ungainly dancer. She stumbled along beside Gabrielle, hopelessly out of time, but found that she was enjoying herself none the less, just because Gabrielle was.
In the corner of the room, Sappho sidled over to Aphrodite-Mentor. ‘Looks like we’re making progress,’ she said, gesturing to a smiling Gabrielle who had grasped Xena firmly by the shoulders in order to demonstrate a particularly complex dance step.
Beside her, Aphrodite was busy trying to imagine Hermes’ winged sandals on Mentor’s large and rather hairy feet. ‘But not enough,’ she muttered and then walked over to the musicians to suggest a different tune.
The music changed and slowed. The dancers began to divide up into couple and Gabrielle looked up at Xena, questions in her eyes.
‘You want to sit this one out?’ she asked.
Xena knew she should say yes, but she very much didn’t want to and, for once, she let her heart win out over her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Unless you do?’
‘Not at all,’ there was no hesitation in Gabrielle’s voice.
The two of them faced each other and, feeling suddenly shy, Xena took Gabrielle’s right hand in her left and placed her own right hand on Gabrielle’s waist while Gabrielle’s left hand found its way to her shoulder. They found each other’s eyes then and an embarrassed giggle passed between them.
‘Come on,’ Gabrielle said gently and they slowly began to move in time with the music. Almost immediately, Xena’s foot came down on top of Gabrielle’s.
‘Sorry,’ Xena said, blushing again.
‘That’s ok.’ A pause, then ‘maybe I should lead?’
‘I think that might be for the best.’
With Gabrielle leading, things went more smoothly, although Xena still had trouble finding the right rhythm.
‘Try looking down and watching my feet,’ Gabrielle suggested and Xena did so, staring resolutely at her partner’s shoes. When she felt that she finally had the rhythm, she looked up and found Gabrielle staring resolutely at her. Suddenly their faces were very close together.
‘Hi,’ Xena said softly and smiled.
‘Hi yourself,’ Gabrielle replied. Then, after a moment added, ‘Maybe we should copy the other couples a bit more if we want people to think we’re one.’
Xena glanced around and saw that the other couples were all dancing very close together. She swallowed and found that all rational thought had temporarily deserted her. Before, she could talk herself out of it, she pulled Gabrielle in close and wrapped her arms around her so that their bodies were pressed together, cheek to cheek, and, just like that, the dance was forgotten. They were simple swaying together, their bodies moulded against one another, caught up in their own private universe. Xena could have stayed that way forever.
At that moment, the music stopped.
They pulled away from each other, both looking a little dazed. Gabrielle went to step backwards, but Xena tightened her grip on her waist. All of a sudden, and without quite knowing how it had happened, they were kissing each other hungrily, soft lips on soft lips, tongues urgently probing, breath coming in short, ragged gasps. They only pulled away when the need t breathe became overwhelming and then they stood, foreheads pressed together, faces millimetres apart.
‘Xena,’ Gabrielle whispered after a moment, ‘Are we still pretending?’