Gabrielle has many questions.
Early on, her questions are about fighting. She asks about attack and defense techniques, how to safely land a punch, where Xena learned this or that. As they travel together, she becomes more bold, more personal.
It’s to be expected; she’s ten years Xena’s junior, and her upbringing in Poteidaia was sheltered, to say the least. A small, traditional town where marriages were arranged by parents, to take place on the night of their daughter’s 18th birthday, is not where Xena would expect Gabrielle to receive a comprehensive sex education. The daughter of a farmer, Gabrielle is more likely to have baled hay than rolled in it.
Xena doesn’t begrudge her her questions. After all, it’s Gabrielle’s incessant talking that keeps Xena distracted from the darkness within her that still threatens to consume her. For all her annoyance, she is grateful for Gabrielle’s idle chattering.
Still, when Gabrielle asks about Marcus, Xena remains silent, a cue for Gabrielle to drop the subject.
“Were you and he lovers?” she asks, curiosity clouding any sensitivity she might have on the subject of Xena’s dead friend.
“Gabrielle, please,” Xena says, giving her friend a meaningful look, “I’m in mourning.”
Gabrielle immediately looks remorseful. “Oh,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
They continue walking, Xena leading Argo’s reins, Gabrielle leading Xena.
After a moment of silence, Gabrielle says, “You know, they say that talking helps to ease the pain.”
“I’d rather not.”
Gabrielle slows down to walk alongside Xena.
“All right,” she says. “I don’t want to push you. I guess I was just curious about it.”
“Our relationship?” Xena asks.
“No,” says Gabrielle. “Well, yes, but I mean, I want to know more about... it .”
“Gabrielle, you’re going to have to be a little less vague if you want your curiosity sated,” Xena says, although she can already see where this is going.
“I mean sex ,” Gabrielle says, lowering her voice to almost a whisper on the last word. “I know you’ve had lovers, and I haven’t, and no one has ever told me much about it.”
“I assume you know the basics,” Xena says, glancing over at her young friend. Gabrielle blushes.
“I know that a man and a woman get naked together, and - and he...enters her,” she says shyly.
“That’s more or less it,” says Xena, “although there can be a lot more to it. There’s passion, and pleasure. It can be funny or awkward. It all depends on who you’re with.”
“Have you been with many?”
They walk into a small clearing, and Xena stops. “Here’s as good a place as any to make camp,” she says.
This time, Gabrielle knows to drop it.
“Iolaus is so sweet,” Gabrielle says for the fifth time that day. “Do you think we’ll see him again any time soon?”
Xena smiles. “Hercules and I run into each other every once in a while, so I’m sure this won’t be the last time you see him.”
“Do you think he knows I’m a maiden?” Gabrielle asks, worry showing itself in her voice. Xena laughs.
“Gabrielle,” she says, putting her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, “the whole world knows you’re a maiden.”
Gabrielle smiles at that, looks down, shakes her head. “I just haven’t met the right man,” she says. “Maybe it’s Iolaus.”
“Maybe,” Xena replies. “But don’t let that stop you from meeting other people in the meantime.”
Her small friend has come more and more out of her shell in the months that they’ve traveled together. Now, as she unfurls her bedroll next to the fire they built, Xena is the one to ask a question for once.
“Was that your first kiss?”
Gabrielle, ever the blushing virgin, turns red once more. “No,” she says. “The man I was to marry, Perdicus, kissed me sometimes when no one was looking. Sometimes I wanted to do more, but I always stopped before it went too far. There wasn’t ever that feeling of connection that I got when I was with Iolaus, or even that I have when I’m with you.”
The warrior princess raises her eyebrows and looks away from Gabrielle, a small smile on her face. There will be plenty of time to unpack the meaning in that, but Xena isn’t too keen on corrupting her young friend just yet. Rarely has Xena been with someone without power being an influence; she would not wish for that to be Gabrielle’s first experience with love. She doesn’t trust herself to be as gentle with Gabrielle as she deserves. And besides, Gabrielle is far too young; it would be inappropriate. No, hands off is best.
“What’s it like?” Gabrielle asks, settling down on top of her own bedroll, and Xena can see that there’s no getting out of this conversation now.
“I’ve told you before, it’s different with every person. I know that best of all. I haven’t always had the best discretion in choosing lovers,” Xena admits. “When I was your age, sex and power were the only two things on my mind, and I conflated one with the other.”
“Almost all of the partners I've had have been people I considered useful. I let them use my body so that I could use their resources.”
“That sounds practical,” Gabrielle says lightly. Xena chuckles.
“Sure,” she says, “but not pleasurable.”
She wonders whether or not she's going to get into it, and before she can decide, she's already talking again: “I didn't realize just how good it could feel until I touched myself for the first time, years after I took my first lover.”
“Really?” Gabrielle says, laughing. “Was it that hard to figure out?”
Xena realizes Gabrielle is taunting her, that her friend has already figured out this particular aspect of her own sexuality. Her stomach drops, though not uncomfortably.
“With men, I wasn't focused on how I felt,” Xena says, pushing the feeling away, “I was focused on what I could get.”
“Was it always like that?” Gabrielle asks. “Even your first time?”
Xena shakes her head.
“The first time I was with a man, it was for the experience. I wanted to get it over with, so my virginity wasn't something I carried around with me wherever I went.” She pauses, but Gabrielle stares at her as if to say continue , so Xena does. “I was fifteen. There was a great storm in Amphipolis, and the inn was completely packed with travelers seeking shelter. One of the visitors was a young man, maybe around seventeen or eighteen. We had no more rooms, so I let him stay in mine.”
“Didn’t your mother realize?” Gabrielle asks.
“I took precautions to be sneaky,” Xena says. “I told her I would sleep in the stables to keep the horses calm during the storm. Later I crept back into my room, where he was waiting for me.”
“And that was it?” Gabrielle says. “You just decided you wanted to, so you did it?”
Xena shrugs. “I grew up in an inn, hearing others going at it through the wall. It was never sacred to me. It was just another experience to have. It’s a miracle I didn’t get pregnant. I didn’t learn about ways to prevent that until a year or so later.”
“There are ways to prevent it?”
Xena chuckles. How little Gabrielle knows, she thinks. And how unfair it is that no one has ever told her these things before. “By timing it with your moon cycle, or using a sheep’s bladder as a barrier.”
Gabrielle wrinkles her nose. “There isn’t anything cleaner you could use?”
“I’m sure there is,” Xena says, “but only the gods know what that might be. There are other ways to do it, though.”
“To prevent pregnancy?”
“No,” says Xena, “to do it.” Gods, she’s beginning to sound like Gabrielle, talking around the subject as if she herself were a young bride. “Sex isn’t just the final act - it doesn’t even need to include penetration. There’s foreplay, and other ways of touching one another without the risk of pregnancy or disease. The lips on your face are not the only ones a man can kiss.”
The campfire illuminates Gabrielle’s face as a flush extends from her cheeks down to her neck. Xena has never seen her so red. She’s sure she imagines Gabrielle’s voice take on a somewhat breathier quality when she asks, “And you’ve done that?”
In more ways than one, Xena thinks, but again, she decides not to voice this. She’s not sure what exposure Gabrielle has had to the works of Sappho; it’s quite possible such writings would have been prohibited in a farm town like Poteidaia.
What Xena says instead is equally as risqué, however, and her voice drops of its own accord as she thinks about her past escapades: “I’ve done just about everything.”
She’s sure she imagines Gabrielle gasping quietly. The strawberry blonde’s voice is even when she says, “I can’t imagine being so cavalier about it. I know people back home who have fooled around, but I always thought you should wait until you meet someone special.”
“We’re very different people, Gabrielle. What’s right for me isn’t always what’s right for you.” Xena looks up at the sky. “I think someday you will meet that person, and when that happens, everything else will come naturally.”
Gabrielle smiles slightly, her eyes focused on an image in her mind. “I think I’ve already met that person.”
Iolaus, Xena knows, is the man she’s referring to. She can’t think of a man more suited for Gabrielle’s delicate sensibilities. Maybe she’ll make a point to run into them sooner than later - if for no other reason than to cease to be Gabrielle’s only source of sex education.
Thinking about sex too much makes her want it, and these conversations stir up more than their fair share of memories. Her time with Hercules was too brief for them to rekindle the flame they once had beyond a few stolen kisses. Now that she’s no longer traveling alone, she can’t relieve herself of the tension growing in her. Gabrielle’s a heavy sleeper, but Xena has never been good at keeping quiet. She’s not sure that touching herself in her friend’s company is the best way to test just how heavy of a sleeper she really is.
Instead, she lies down facing away from Gabrielle. “Good night,” she grumbles, eyes already closed. Everything is red behind her eyelids, the firelight flickering on her face. She throws a wrist over her eyes and sinks down further into her bedroll.
“Good night, Xena,” Gabrielle whispers.
Xena awakens to a rustling sound. She opens her eyes but does not move, not wanting to give herself away in case their attackers are counting on her vulnerability. She sees her chakram lying by her head - if she needs to, she can grab it in less than a second and rid herself and Gabrielle of any problems they might have.
Gabrielle. Xena listens closely, her mind coming to the state of alertness her body has already reached. The rustling is coming from behind her, which means that whoever is planning to ambush them is going to take Gabrielle first.
She holds her breath and watches the embers glowing dimly in their fire circle, listening even more closely for a sign of how many could be out there. She can hear her friend breathing raggedly behind her, as though she were in pain, as though -
Two and two come together, and Xena realized they are not being attacked, although she would much prefer that to the situation she’s just found herself in.
She can’t see what Gabrielle is doing, but she’d bet every dinar she has that her friend’s hand is under her skirt, taking care of a problem that Xena, too, seems to be having. Though much more quietly than if it were Xena performing the same action on herself.
Having been jolted out of her dreams, she’s far too awake to relax back into her bedroll and let sleep overtake her again. Now that she knows what’s happening, she couldn’t sleep if her life depended on it. Heat overtakes her body, and she breathes out as quietly and evenly as she can, listening to Gabrielle’s breath catch and trying to keep her breath from doing the same.
She should try to sleep. She doesn’t want to intrude upon Gabrielle’s privacy, and she knows how vulnerable this activity can be. Part of her feels like a complete pervert, listening to her friend masturbate. But it’s not like she’s trying to listen. It’s just that Gabrielle is right there, her sighs so soft, and every once in a while the sound of something slick and personal, and Xena can’t not hear it. If she could turn off her hearing, she would. Out of respect for Gabrielle.
But since she can’t…
No. She thinks of other things, tries to distract herself. The fight they had last week with some bandits. Running into Hercules… The feeling of Hercules’s body between her thighs the first time she took him… What it would feel like to have Gabrielle in the same position, to be the one to coax these amazing noises out of her...
No! She can’t let her mind wander that far, lest her own breathing become too ragged and give away her awakened state. It isn’t fair to Gabrielle, to continue to be a voyeur without her consent.
Of course, what would be even crueler would be to deny Gabrielle her orgasm, one that Xena can sense is fast approaching. Maybe a compromise can be made.
Xena pretends to awaken quickly and loudly, grabbing her chakram and looking around the fire circle without turning around to look at Gabrielle. She hears Gabrielle gasp and the rustling of a skirt being frantically pulled back into place.
“Did you hear that?” Xena says, turning to Gabrielle when she senses that her friend is decent. Gabrielle is breathing heavily, her eyes wide and her cheeks flushed.
“Hear what?” she squeaks.
Xena is silent for a moment, pretending to listen. “Never mind. It must have been my imagination. I’m going to go relieve myself. I might be a while. Go back to sleep.”
She throws some kindling onto the fire before getting up to find some bushes where she can relieve herself far away from Gabrielle. She intended for Gabrielle to think she was going to pee, but her body has other demands of her. With one hand under her skirt and the other stuffed into her mouth to keep herself quiet, she works herself toward a long-overdue orgasm of her own. She leans against a tree, breathing heavily. After a few more minutes, she heads back to their camp.
Gabrielle is still awake when she arrives, although she’s looking very relaxed now, with a slight shine on her brow. Xena hides her smirk, knowing that the alone time she gave her friend (and herself) was used well. “You’ve been gone a while,” Gabrielle remarks.
“I told you I would be,” Xena grumbles. “Rabbit didn’t agree with me.”
“Tomorrow we’ll go fishing, then,” Gabrielle says.
“Sounds good,” says Xena. “Get some sleep.”
She thinks she hears Gabrielle say “good night,” but she’s already relaxed so far into her bedroll that even the dying fire brightening the vision behind her closed eyes doesn’t keep her from falling into an immediate and deep sleep.