“The answer is yes, Xena. I’m going to marry him.”
Xena’s world tips slightly upon hearing Gabrielle say these words. Of course the answer is yes. She’s been waiting for Gabrielle’s mind to catch up to her heart. Wishing her heart weren’t so big, so open, so loving. It’s Xena’s favorite thing about Gabrielle, but now it’s going to tear them apart.
Despite her anguish, she smiles down at Gabrielle.
“Congratulations,” she says. “You should go tell him.”
Gabrielle nods and runs off to catch up with her betrothed, shooting a quick smile back at Xena.
There’s no point in sharing with Gabrielle how this tears her heart apart. When her young friend makes a decision, it’s impossible to talk her out of it. Xena’s grief at losing her companionship wouldn’t stop Gabrielle from marrying Perdicus; it would only make her feel guilty for leaving Xena.
And a marriage should be something to celebrate, not mourn.
It’s a quick affair, arranging the ceremony. Xena suggests that they wait until they travel to Poteidaia so that their families can be present, but Perdicus insists on marrying Gabrielle in the next town they find.
“I don’t want to waste another day a bachelor when Gabrielle has my heart so completely.”
Xena can’t hate him. He loves Gabrielle. It’s obvious in the way that he looks at her, speaks to her, speaks about her. A farm boy, turned soldier, turned poet. It’s fitting that Gabrielle should marry someone nearly as eloquent as she. Their children will be master storytellers.
“You’ll have to wait at least one more day,” Xena says. “Gabrielle has to go through the ceremonial bath the night before the wedding, and the next town is still another hour’s ride away. By the time we get there it’ll be too late for her to begin the ritual.”
Perdicus sighs and looks at Gabrielle, their hands held between them. Gabrielle looks at him, then Xena.
“We can wait,” she says. “I need to find a dress, anyway.”
Xena chuckles. Gabrielle will probably spend half the day tomorrow haggling, bartering, arguing with shopkeepers and merchants in the market. She will probably ask Xena to come along. Ordinarily Xena would make an excuse to get out of the chore of shopping - and Callisto’s return is enough of an excuse to get out of attending the wedding itself - but tomorrow she plans on spending every last minute with Gabrielle. Callisto can wait.
“I’ll come with,” she says, and the smile she receives in return is worth every excruciating trip to the market she’s ever made.
Without much money in their purse, Gabrielle can’t afford the kind of gown she dreamed of wearing to her wedding as a girl. She finds a simple off-white dress, which she proclaims she will accessorize with a crown of daisies. Xena breaks off for a moment and returns to her with a bouquet of wildflowers. Gabrielle grins and embraces her.
“These will be perfect for the wedding,” she says. “Thank you, Xena.”
How Gabrielle has grown in the time since Xena has known her. No longer a seedling, now blossoming up and out and away from Xena. As independent as the wildflowers, she must decide her own fate. Xena imagines herself a wildflower, too, sticking out of the bouquet at an odd angle, slowly growing away from Gabrielle.
And what is Perdicus? Not a wildflower, even for all his travels and experience. Perhaps he’s the twine that holds the bouquet together. Perhaps that is what Gabrielle needs.
“Come on,” Xena says. “Let’s get these in a vase and get you ready for your bath.”
The water is not very warm, and Xena watches her friend shiver as the priestesses of Hera wash her arms, wring a cloth over her head to rinse away her doubts. They are forbidden to speak during this ceremony, but Gabrielle’s eyes stay on Xena’s the whole time, her expression inscrutable. Xena holds her gaze, smiling softly. As the maid of honor, she is allowed to be in the water, washing Gabrielle with a cloth of her own.
She moves closer to Gabrielle in the water, tries to capture some warmth between their bodies. Gabrielle watches her and then tips her head back so that Xena can wash her neck. Xena tries not to let her eyes wander downward, as they have so many times before during their shared baths. The priestesses are watching her. Hera is watching her. She swallows and wonders if this will be the last time she and Gabrielle bathe together.
She gently runs the cloth down Gabrielle’s neck, watching the rise and fall of her friend’s chest, and the slight shivering of her shoulders. She lifts first Gabrielle’s left arm out of the water, then her right, running the cloth down the length of each limb before briefly squeezing her fingers. Gabrielle smiles at her, and the priestesses nod. The bathing is done; now they are to redress in white robes and travel home silently, Gabrielle to reflect on her duties as a wife, and Xena to show respect for Gabrielle’s purity.
They reach the inn and climb into bed, grateful for the warmth of the blankets. Xena feels Gabrielle continue to shiver beside her and breaks her silence.
“Still cold?” she whispers, the sound loud and harsh against all the things unsaid between them. Gabrielle shakes her head.
“Xena, I’m scared,” she whispers back.
This is the first time Gabrielle has expressed doubt in any form since she first told Xena that her answer was yes.
“What of?” Xena whispers back, inching closer to Gabrielle and resting her hand on Gabrielle’s shaking shoulder.
“I always thought that when the time came for me to marry, I’d have no doubts. But this has all happened so fast, I haven’t even had time to think about everything else that’s to come.”
“Are you having doubts now?” Xena asks.
Gabrielle shakes her head. “Not doubts. At least, not in the marriage itself.”
“In what, then?”
Gabrielle looks at Xena, green eyes piercing blue in the dark.
“Gabrielle,” Xena starts, “if it makes you feel any better, I have never doubted you. Not your resolve, nor your abilities.”
Gabrielle is silent for a moment. Then she whispers, “In a conflict, maybe. As a wife, I don’t know how I’ll measure up.”
“If seeing you every day for the last year and a half is any evidence, you’ll be wonderful,” Xena says. The same look that Gabrielle wore in the baths now crosses her face again. What can she say to make Gabrielle feel better when she cannot even read the expression on her friend’s face?
Gabrielle looks away and moves closer to Xena on the bed. They play a brief game of twister until they find a comfortable position - Gabrielle’s head resting in the crook of Xena’s arm, her body curled into Xena’s. For a moment they lie together in silence, Xena rubbing Gabrielle’s shoulder with her free hand. Then:
“Do you know how teachers mentor their students in some parts of the country?”
Xena has no idea what Gabrielle means by this vague and seemingly random question. “No,” she says cautiously. “How?”
Gabrielle sighs and tries again. “How older men mentor younger men. In Athens. And other places, I think.”
“What,” Xena asks, “you mean pedestery?”
Gabrielle whispers, “Yes,” so quiet Xena can hardly hear it.
There’s a moment of cautious silence between them, and then Xena says, “Yes, I know about that.”
More silence. For a few minutes Xena waits for her young friend to say something else, but all there is is the sound of Gabrielle breathing shakily into her ear and the flickering of the candle on the table beside the bed. Finally, she begins to shift to blow the candle out. A hand reaches out and grabs her wrist, stopping her.
“Xena,” Gabrielle whispers, “you’ve taught me so much in the last year. I see you as my mentor as much as you are my friend. I hope you don’t mind my saying that.”
“No,” Xena says. “I don’t mind.” In truth, she does sometimes think of Gabrielle as her student. They run through drills together on quiet days, Xena correcting Gabrielle’s posture, the way she holds her staff. She points out which plants are safe to eat in the wild, and which to avoid. But as much as Gabrielle is Xena’s student, she is also her teacher. She helps Xena understand and control the darkness within her. She shows Xena the beauty in the world that she long ago lost the ability to see on her own.
If she thinks about it too much, she will get emotional in front of Gabrielle. And now is not the time for that. She stays silent and waits for Gabrielle to speak again, holding her breath, unsure of what her friend will say next. Her heart begins to pound as pieces of what Gabrielle has already said begin to come together and take shape. She shoos away her senselessness and wishful thinking. Gabrielle is getting ready to say goodbye to her teacher, and that is all.
“I don’t know if Perdicus expects me to be good at it,” Gabrielle says. She gestures toward her own body as if to demonstrate what ‘it’ is.
“In my experience,” Xena says, holding her breath, “men are grateful just to have a woman in their bed.”
“Maybe,” Gabrielle says. “But that doesn’t make me less afraid.”
She seems to be waiting for Xena to say something, to assuage her fears. But what can Xena say that will make up for Gabrielle’s lack of experience?
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Xena says, turning onto her side so she can properly look at Gabrielle. “If you’re tense, you won’t enjoy it.”
Gabrielle looks down, her eyes lingering somewhere around Xena’s stomach.
“Would you...teach me?” she asks.
Xena’s breath catches. She’s afraid to say anything, afraid Gabrielle didn’t just ask what she thinks she just asked. Afraid she did.
“What?” she finally says. Giving Gabrielle one last chance to not say the thing that she says next.
“How to be with Perdicus,” Gabrielle says. “Let me be your eromenos . Just for tonight.”
Xena swallows and looks at Gabrielle, marking the anxiety on her face as their eyes meet. She’s sure her own face is displaying a similar kind of panic. It’s not an easy proposition to make or accept. There are girls who kiss each other for practice, and there are women who bed together as though they were married. And there’s this, this request, somewhere in between. An unprecedented middle ground between a kiss on a dare and a confession of real desire.
As if she can hear all the thoughts rolling around inside Xena’s head, Gabrielle captures Xena’s hand between her own and pulls it to her chest. “Please,” she whispers.
Xena can feel Gabrielle’s heart pounding under her hand. She swallows again. Licks her lips. Presses her hand tighter to Gabrielle’s chest.
“Yes,” she says.
She leaves Gabrielle alone for a moment so she can use the latrine and gather a few things before her friend becomes, for one night only, her lover.
“Try to rest while I’m gone,” she tells her.
“I’m not tired,” Gabrielle protests, her voice giving out under all their whispering.
Xena smirks, allows herself a moment of boldness. Leans in and says, voice low, “You will be.”
The shiver that runs through Gabrielle seems to continue on into Xena’s own body. Moving away, recomposing herself, she says, “I’ll be back before you know it.” She presses a quick kiss to Gabrielle’s hairline, and then she is gone.
Returning with a bundle of cloth under her arm, she finds her friend still in bed, still awake. Gabrielle reaches out her arms for Xena, beckoning her to join her. Xena does, placing the bundle on the small table beside the bed. It falls slightly open, but Gabrielle does not see its contents. Her eyes are on Xena’s mouth, her own lips parted.
“We have to be very quiet,” Xena says. “Perdicus and Joxer are sleeping in the room right next door.”
“And they are asleep?” Gabrielle confirms.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks.
“What happens first?” Gabrielle asks.
Xena chuckles at Gabrielle’s eagerness. She supposes she should be the one to draw the line, to tell Gabrielle, You are betrothed. The only person you should be sleeping with is your husband.
But Gabrielle has her mind set on this, and there’s no changing it. Not that Xena wants to. In her wildest dreams, she never thought this would happen.
“First he kisses you,” Xena says, hovering over Gabrielle.
Xena obliges. Their lips meet with all the tenderness Xena hopes Perdicus will have for Gabrielle tomorrow. Her lips tingle where they touch Gabrielle’s. How perfectly they fit together, how wonderful it is to caress her friend’s lips with her own.
She leans away again before she can become addicted, before the kiss is too deep and it’s too late. She never thought this would happen, and now that it’s happening, it’s occurring to her that perhaps it’s a bad idea, not because of how it will affect Gabrielle, but because of how it will affect her. For Gabrielle, this is just practice. At best, Xena thinks, it’s Gabrielle’s way of sending their friendship off before she begins her own adventure.
Xena has known women. Loved women. Lao Ma. M’Lila. And now, and most importantly, Gabrielle. For the better part of their time together she denied her feelings even to herself. Gabrielle is so young, and so innocent, and to fall in love with Xena is to swallow poison, to ingest a wildflower only to find, too late, that it’s hemlock. So Xena held Gabrielle at an arm’s distance, afraid to let her get too close. Afraid to get too close herself.
But when Gabrielle died, Xena’s feelings had nowhere to go but the surface. Every loving thought she had held at bay made itself known to her, insistent on being heard. Now she nurses her love for Gabrielle like a precious thing, held tightly to her chest, never to be let out of her sight.
If she lets Gabrielle touch her, there’s no telling where else that love will go, how much more quickly and explosively it will grow.
But it’s too late. Gabrielle wraps her arms around Xena’s neck and pulls her down, pressing their lips, their bodies together. She is lost in the smell of juniper, the faint taste of mint on Gabrielle’s tongue, the warmth of her body trapped under Xena’s.
She has no idea how long they kiss. It could be minutes or hours. Time has no meaning; all that matters is the sensation of their robed bodies sliding against one another, the sound of fabric rubbing against fabric. Gabrielle’s fingers are spread across Xena’s back as though trying to hold her together. Don’t let go, Xena thinks.
Eventually she breaks the kiss, presses their foreheads together. “He may not want to kiss for long,” she says, steering them back toward the purpose of the night, “but if he’s a decent man he’ll wait for you to be ready before he moves on.”
“Moves onto what?” Gabrielle asks, her eyes searching Xena’s.
Silently, Xena pulls at the ribbon keeping Gabrielle’s robe tied. She looks at Gabrielle, and Gabrielle nods slightly. Xena peels the white silk away, first one side, then the other, baring Gabrielle’s body to the cold air.
She’s seen Gabrielle naked many times, but never before has she been allowed to look. Still holding onto some self-control, she attempts to keep her expression neutral as her gaze sweeps over Gabrielle’s hard and soft body. The curve of her breasts, the light pink nipples at their peaks. The dip of her navel and the toned muscles surrounding it, evidence of long hours riding and sparring. The shape of her hips and the patch of hair like a shadow between her legs as she rubs them together.
“He’ll want to look at you,” Xena finally says after she has taken everything in.
Gabrielle bites her lip and says, “Will he let me look at him?” Her hands toy with the string on Xena’s robe.
“He should,” Xena replies, shrugging her robe off her shoulders in one fluid motion. “He’ll - he’ll want you to touch him, too.”
Gabrielle’s lips quirk up slightly. She drags both her eyes and her hands across Xena’s body, watching Xena’s responses to her touch. Xena closes her eyes and feels fingers fluttering across her stomach, tracing a scar, moving up her ribs, tracing another scar, cupping her breasts, rubbing her nipples.
“That’s good,” Xena pants. “Some men really like - that .” She loses her coherence for a moment when Gabrielle lightly pinches her nipples.
“Some men, huh?” asks Gabrielle with a sly grin. Xena swats her on the shoulder.
“This is about you,” Xena says. “He might not tell you what he likes. You have to listen to his responses and keep doing what he seems to like.”
“Sort of like in a fight, when you have to pay attention to look for your enemy’s weakness?”
Eyes wide, Xena nods. And in a moment, she’s on her back, Gabrielle pinning her down to the bed. A roll Xena taught her last week, one to be used in combat if her opponent ever had her pinned to the ground. She doesn’t have the breath to tell Gabrielle, Very good . Gabrielle has found her weaknesses already.
Gabrielle leans down and kisses her hard, bites her bottom lip and sucks on it. Xena moans and Gabrielle immediately breaks contact and moves her hand to Xena’s mouth.
“We have to be quiet, remember?” she says, uncovering Xena’s mouth and resting her hands on Xena’s upper arms.
“Are you sure you need my help, Gabrielle?” Xena whispers. “You seem to have a good idea of what you’re doing.”
“You’re a good teacher,” Gabrielle says, “and I’m a fast learner. What’s next?”
Xena laughs. “It’s not a series of steps you have to follow,” she says.
“I didn’t say it was,” Gabrielle whispers back. “Wouldn’t he be touching me by now?”
Xena can take a hint. She runs her hands along Gabrielle’s sides, grazing the sides of her breasts and then pinching her nipples the same way Gabrielle had pinched hers. Gabrielle gasps in response and tightens her grip on Xena’s arms. Xena leans up, pulls Gabrielle to her, takes a nipple in her mouth. Listens to the sound of Gabrielle responding: her breath, the way it changes; her heartbeat, quietly pounding. She almost thinks she can hear the nerves on Gabrielle’s skin standing up, vibrating where they are stimulated.
“Will he be this intuitive?” Gabrielle asks, stroking the back of Xena’s head.
Xena knows this is intended as a compliment and not a real question, but she pulls away and frowns at Gabrielle. “Probably not.”
“Hey!” Now Gabrielle swats her on her shoulder.
“He’ll have little to no experience,” Xena explains. “You might have to tell him what you like, what you want. If you don’t tell him, he won’t learn.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle says.
“Practice,” Xena says. She watches Gabrielle’s face, neck, and chest all turn pink at the command. She smirks, lost in a haze of Gabrielle. Waits.
“I want you to touch me between my legs,” Gabrielle says. “Not too hard.”
Xena reaches between them and slides her index finger through Gabrielle’s folds, coating it in her arousal. Gently, she rubs Gabrielle’s clit. “Like this?” she asks.
“Even softer,” Gabrielle says. Then: “Yes. Like that, gods.” She begins to lightly grind herself against Xena’s hand. “Stay right there,” she whispers. Xena watches in awe, her palm held out and up and open in offering to Gabrielle, and Gabrielle, grinding against it, thrusting her hips in tiny circles, working her way toward a release that arrives quickly and seems to wash over Gabrielle as gently as its buildup.
Xena moves her hand away once Gabrielle’s hips still. Gabrielle collapses atop her, a smile on her lips. Xena wraps her arms around Gabrielle’s body and kisses the top of her head.
“That was amazing,” Gabrielle says when she has collected her breath.
“It’s not over,” Xena says. Then pauses. “Well, if you want it to be over, it’s over. And if he argues, you call for me, I won’t be far aw -”
Gabrielle silences her with a kiss.
“I know it’s not over,” she says. “I saw what you put on the side table.”