~ Beginnings ~
by GreyOne

WARNING: This story contains scenes of a sexual nature between two adult women. If that sort of thing bothers or offends you then please read no further. People under 18 years of age should not read this story as it contains adult themes.

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Hercules, and Iolaus are owned by MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended.

Feedback to: grayone@erols.com


Dim, flickering light.
Damp; bone chilling damp.

The light seemed to emanate from the distant walls and from the river that flowed turgidly through the immense cave. Pale blue flames engulfed floating masses of black ice. An occasional swirl and roil of the surface hinted at things unseen and better unimagined. The far shore seemed not so much far way as dim, misted, shadowed and unattainable.

The smell. Oh, yes, the smell! An oppressive mixture of mildew, the bottom side of rotten logs, eggs gone bad, and old meat that was carried on currents of damp air and seemed to stick to everything and clog the nose and lungs. The throat itched to cough, but coughing only cleared the way for more of the same.

Low moans, distant shrieks, and long periods of utter, devastating silence.

Time seemed to have little meaning here. It seemed a place where an eternity could pass in an hour, an hour seem like an eternity.

At some point, across the waters a muted, rhythmic splashing began. As the sound grew louder, a darker shade emerged from the mist and unintelligible mutterings could be heard. A barge appeared, poled by an old man, the source of the mutterings. He was clothed in grey robes and his hair fell in greasy mats around his shoulders.

"As if this job was such a big deal! You'd think they did me a favor. 'Immortal among the mortals' hah! Miserable, tedious, ungrateful wretches," and more of the same.

He stomped from one side of the barge to the other, pushing down and back with the pole, grunting with effort at each thrust. Reaching this side of the river, he tied off the barge with ropes at the decayed wharf and looked over at a line of the recently deceased that shuffled up and waited patiently. The ferry man took a coin from each, checking the value with a bite of his teeth and continuing his musings on his fate and that of this new lot under his fetid breath.

When the blond girl appeared as next in line, he started in shock and anger.

"What! You again! This makes how many times? Three? or is it four by now? Let me guess: you died saving Xena again, right? Gabrielle, you've got to get a better contract, girl; isn't she supposed to be YOUR protector?"

"Yeah, well, Charon, it seemed like the only thing to do at the time. Actually, I didn't think. There was this spear coming at her back and I've never quite got the hang of that 'grab it out of the air' routine, so...."

"Don't think you're going to get out of this one as easily as the last. Hades and I really caught it the last time. You guys are giving death a bad name. Coming, going, coming, going -- as if there was nothing to it. People are starting to talk. This time, you're here to stay. Where's the coin for passage, by the way? Don't tell me you came without one again!"

"Sorry. I spent our last dinar on some food in the village. When you're a bard, times can be lean. Want a story, instead? There's this one about ... "

"No, no, no! I heard enough of your stories the last time around. It almost made it worthwhile to send you back for nothing. Get in and let's get this over with."

Gabrielle seated herself quietly at the front of the barge. That very quiet seemed to make Charon uneasy. He kept looking at her as he untied the barge and began to pole across the river. Finally, he stopped, and leaning on his pole he looked her in the eye.

"What's with the quiet? This isn't like you. I don't trust it."

Gabrielle looked up into the dark gulfs of his eyes and quickly away.

"I think this may actually be it. Xena and I have been together for a while, and I think she's tiring of me. I thought if I was more like her -- you know, fighting, flipping, doing the eyebrow thing and the lopsided grin, even if I never could get the hang of the catch the spear or toss the Chakrum -- she'd like me better, that I'd be handy to have around. Lately, though, she's been even quieter and more distant than ever. And I don't just mean her usual "Warrior Princess" aloof self -- if I get anywhere near her, she takes a walk, moves away, decides to gather wood, whatever. She's gotten more reckless in battle, too, like she doesn't care anymore, like doing good has gotten boring and she'd like to try her old ways again. She's got a real edge to her. I don't think she's going to come for me."

Charon harumphed and went back to his poling. "Well, it's about time. Get over it, girl. Death happens to everyone. Why not you, too?"

As the barge neared the middle of the river, it began to slow. Then it stopped. Charon pushed and sweated and pushed some more to no avail.

A hand appeared on the side; then two; and a shrouded figure pulled itself up onto the barge beside Charon.

"Xena?" whispered Gabrielle softly.

For an old man, he had sharp ears. "Hah! In your dreams!"

And turning with a bow and a simper, "Lady Styx -- to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? And, why have you stopped me? You know the ferry and the crossing are mine."

In a hollow, but somehow still sweet voice from the folds of the shroud, came the response. "And the river is mine, Charon. You have your rules and I have mine, and mine take precedence."

He cringed and whined, "I don't like this. No, I don't like this one bit. I'm not going to like this, am I? It's going to be like when Herc beat me up. And, me an old man. Big deal! And, who gets punished? Me! Of course. It's just not fair."

The shroud seemed to move in what could only have been a shrug.

"It's tough, Charon, but the rules (what few there are) cannot be broken easily. Or ignored. Remember, 'An oath sworn by the waters of the Styx'...."

"But that only applies to the gods, the immortals. What's that got to do with these mortals I am ferrying? No. Wait. Let me guess. It only has to do with THIS particular mortal. The blonde here, right?" and he gestured toward Gabrielle.

She had been listening, but without much interest. What did a debate between two gods have to do with her, anyway, but this remark of Charon's piqued her curiosity enough to ask, "What oath? What's the rule? How am I involved? I mean...."

Charon interrupted her, waving her off dismissively. "If a god swears by the waters of the Styx, the oath is sacred. Break it and you get a great year in some sort of la-la land and banished from Olympus for eight more after that. And, the great years are eight of yours. This isn't your conversation. Shut up and sit down."

Lady Styx had followed the exchange with some impatience. "Actually, Charon, I'm afraid it does have to do with her. Sorry about that. Nobody told you I guess, but Ares swore an oath by my waters that for at least seven years (you know how he likes those mystical numbers) Gabrielle would stay with Xena, come hell (you will forgive the expression) or high water. This particular little episode with the spear happened when he was out having a romp with Aphrodite and now he's got to make good or face the great year in a coma (can you seriously imagine Ares letting himself get that far out of it? I can, but it's wishful thinking). Then exile for another eight great years. Whew. By that time, Xena'd be dead and the game over with. Not what he had in mind. Anyway, he made some sort of deal with Zeus and he's going to make it all go away. At least most of it."

Gabrielle had continued listening, needless to say, but not without an occasional movement to interrupt or ask a question. Her efforts were ignored. Finally, in exasperation, she jumped between them. "Excuse me, your imortalnesses, but don't I have a say in this? Maybe Charon is right, maybe it's time I stayed dead. I'm not interested in Ares' deals, and having him in a coma and exiled from Olympus for all that time wouldn't exactly bother me. Like maybe Xena would just as soon I stayed dead too, and maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. So, give me a break here and let it alone. Besides, what do you mean 'most of it'?"

Lady Styx glanced at Charon. "Is she always this way?" He shrugged and nodded. Styx towered over Gabrielle growing somehow larger and more threatening. "Look little girl, you do NOT have a choice (although you seem to have plenty to say about it). This is a god matter, and it's been decided."

With that, the shrouded figure glided towards Gabrielle, who shrank backwards from her touch and soon found herself hanging over the edge of the barge by her fingertips, suspended above the vile waters.

"Eeuch! Isn't there another way?"

"No!" and with that Lady Styx pried her fingers from the edge and Gabrielle fell .... Chapter 1: A new beginning Gabrielle kept her eyes closed and did not yet breathe. There's wind among trees, and, I guess that's Argo cropping lazily at some grass. There's a smoky smell, but it's a campfire and something else... soup, maybe? And what's that? Mint? She let one eyelid open slightly and took in the campsite. Yes, Argo over there. Xena tending the fire and a pot of something. OK, just a bad dream. But when she shifted her position, she felt the stab of pain across her shoulder and yelled, "Aiyah! Hades, that hurts!"

Xena looked up and gave one of her lopsided grins. "Feeling better, hmm? Want something to eat? Sure you do." She ladled out some soup into a bowl, and grabbing some hard flat bread came over to sit beside Gabrielle and help her eat.

"Wait. What happened today, anyway? As far as you are concerned."

Xena arched an eyebrow quizzically. "As far as 'I' am concerned? You don't remember?"

Gabrielle nodded, and Xena thought a minute. "Okay, eat up; it's not a long story."

(It never is with you, mumbled Gabrielle. I always have to fill in the details.)

"Hmm? What? Well, anyway. For once you agreed to ride Argo instead of pig headedly trying to keep up on foot. It was okay for the first couple of miles, but then we reached that area by the swamp and something spooked her. I never could figure out what. It's not like Argo, but, anyway, she spooked and ran and when I found you, you were flat on your back in the water and you'd hit your head on something and landed hard on something, a stump or root, I guess. I was a little worried about a concussion, you were out so long, but you seemed ok, aside from that nasty bruise on your back. That and a bad smell. That swamp water was REALLY bad. I don't know if I got it out of your clothes. I tried, but laundry's not my thing and I had a hard enough time getting you to where you were tolerable. Luckily, there's a big patch of mint over there."

"That's it? No battle, no spear, no 'Gabrielle sacrificing her life for her friend' -- one more time?"

"What are you talking about, Gabrielle? It was just an accident, and if you had ever learned to ride properly, it wouldn't have happened." Xena was obviously being patient and it was wearing thin.

"That's all, huh. Well, let me tell you . . ." but seeing the expression on Xena's face, Gabrielle's voice trailed off. "It doesn't matter. You're right, just a dream while I was out of it."

Xena nodded, and gave her a small smile. "Well, I'm glad you are ok, and it wasn't more serious."

"Are you really? Oh, I know you wouldn't wish me any harm, but lately I've felt you would just as soon be on your own again."

Xena tensed and sat up straight. She looked away and drummed her fingers on her thigh for a moment. "I'm sorry it seemed that way. I've had a lot on my mind." She seemed a bit, what? Nervous? Xena?

She rose and went to put some more wood on the fire. She tended it carefully, too carefully, poking at the logs, throwing in bits of twigs and leaves from the cleared area around where she crouched.

Gabrielle sighed, "That's what I mean." Xena looked up and then away again to the fire as Gabrielle continued. "You seem to be always keeping about ten feet between us, as if you can't stand to be around me, anymore. Unless, I am sick or wounded or something. Look, just don't bother, ok? I understand; it's just not working for you any more having me around. I'm not as good in a fight, and I can't ride, so I slow you up, and things like this happen, so just don't bother. The next village we get to, I'll head out on my own." And, she turned over in her bedroll. Her throat hurt as if she were being strangled, but she would NOT cry. She WOULD tough this one out. Hey, get angry. Why not? Just because I'm not a warrior, just because I can't ride well doesn't mean I'm not tough, doesn't mean I don't have value, damn it! I don't have to "tag along." She doesn't have to feel sorry for me and "let" me come along. I'm fine. Just fine, thank you.

Xena was still, focused. Then, she looked across the fire at the back of Gabrielle's head for a long, long time.


"Gabrielle?" There was no movement.

Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, why does it always seem to go like this? After all we've been through? If I get a bit withdrawn, you are always thinking that I don't care about you. And, ok, sometimes it's because I think we shouldn't be travelling together. But it's not because I don't care for you; it's because I care too much. I'm a danger to you. And, maybe you are a danger to me. It's better not to care in a battle. It's better not to worry about being hurt or about someone else being hurt. I can't fight the way I used to, and it scares me."

Gabrielle turned over and getting up on one elbow, wincing a bit from the strain on that bruised shoulder, gave Xena her undivided attention.

Xena poked the fire some more. She rubbed her forehead, took a breath, and then looked directly at Gabrielle.

"We've been together, how long? Sometimes it seems like all my life. I can't imagine it without you. At first, yes, I did just think of you as a young kid. Your hero worship was kind of cute, certainly a change from the usual fear and loathing." Xena smiled, remembering. "It was appealing. I liked it. It made me feel like maybe I really could make up for things. You gave me a bit of hope. But, after a while, I don't know when, things changed -- and no, stop before you start, I don't mean I got tired of you. It's like you grew up and got a better sense of who you were. You learned so damn fast! How to use your stories to calm things down or stall for time when we needed it, how to fight with a staff, how to live on the road, sometimes on the run. I got to depend on you. Like I said, that scares me."

Gabrielle started to say something, but Xena raised a hand to her. "Let me finish."

She fed another log to the fire, pushed the coals around, and took a deep breath. "Things have been different between us lately, because they ARE different. One day I looked around at you expecting to see the kid, and I saw a young woman instead. A very attractive young woman, someone I respected, someone I really cared about, someone I really wanted to think well of me. And, I realized that I had grown to love you. That was fine. A little scary, but fine. Then I also realized that . .. " and she hesitated, stopped, and looked again at Gabrielle. "You know, sometimes in a battle there's a still moment when everything is suspended and all the different choices are laid out before me, and I know I have to pick one, but I don't know how it will turn out. This is like that."

"Anyway. At first, I thought it was just a momentary thing....I'd been too long alone, too long on the road, I could take care of that, the feelings would go away. They haven't. I don't want you to think I'm asking anything of you. I don't want to scare you." Poking the coals some more, she sighed and then smiled her lopsided grin at the fire. "This is not exactly what I had planned. Here I am, the great Warrior Princess! And damned if I know what to do. I can't pretend things are the way they used to be; I don't pretend well. And, I can't very well just go along feeling the way I do. It just adds to the danger for both of us."

"Xena? Hey, look at me.... No, come over here instead and talk to me -- it's hard to see you through the fire, especially since you keep torturing it."

Xena squared her shoulders, stood, and crossed over to where Gabrielle was. She sat down cross-legged in front of her.

"Xena, the only times you've frightened me were when you'd get hurt or when you'd talk about leaving me. But, I'm not clear on what you are trying to say."

Xena gave a small rueful smile. "Hmmm. I didn't get to that, did I? Ok. Gabrielle, somewhere along the line, I fell in love with you. Do you know what that means, do you know what I am saying?"

Gabrielle did not speak for a moment, and then she quietly said, "You really are very brave, my friend. I know what you are saying. I am not such a country girl as all that. Sometimes I am still that hero worshipping kid I once was, but, yes, I have grown up. You're right, things have changed, and we cannot go along as before." She reached out and laid her hand on Xena's. "I don't know if what I feel for you is what you feel for me. I know that I love you more, and differently, than anyone before. I know that I want to stay with you. And . . . " she hesitated and blushed and looked down at her hand ... "that there are times when all I have wanted in the world was to do just this, reach out and touch you, and have you touch me. And not have to make up reasons for doing so."

Xena put her other hand over Gabrielle's and they sat together in the light of the fire an eternity, at least a heart beat or two.

Who said it first? It seemed as if they spoke together: "What now?" And, they laughed.

Xena thought a moment. "I think we need some time to think about this, see how we are going to work this out, and we can't do that when we're fighting warlords every day." She frowned and then said decisively, "We'll go to Elis."

"Why Elis?" Gabrielle asked.

"It's a land of peace. No weapons, no fighting within the borders. Really nice country, too. We're close by, and, besides, it'll make a good story for you. I think those games they are having at Olympia are becoming really important."

She reached over and gently brushed a lock of hair back behind Gabrielle's ear. "Go to sleep now. We'll start first thing in the morning." End Chapter One Chapter 2: On the Road

The sun was just breaking over the horizon. The light was still dim, but growing stronger and the morning dew sparkled on the grass and clung to spider webs among the bushes. Argo's breath came in a light fog, and she stamped impatiently as Xena checked the gear on her back.

"Easy, girl. We'll be going soon enough." But, glancing over at the campsite, she added, "At least I think we will, if a certain someone ever manages to wake up. Gabrielle! Come on. It's time!"

Muffled groans from under the blanket. "Already? It's still dark. How about another half an hour? Ok, ok, I know: 'We have to get going now so that we'll get there (wherever that is) before dark.'"

Xena folded her arms and waited to see exactly how long it would take this time.

Gabrielle's other words were lost in the blanket folds as she struggled to dress without exposing any of her skin to the chill morning air. A final, all-purpose shiver and a brief flurry and she was dressed and her blanket was rolled for traveling.

"Ok, I'm ready. Do I get anything to eat before we leave? Or am I on a diet or something?"

Xena shook her head in amusement at the usual morning routine. "Catch," and she tossed Gabrielle some bread and then a piece of fruit, which she caught without difficulty. "I was going to ask you how you were feeling this morning, but you seem fine -- good eye-hand coordination, reflexes operating smoothly, normal mood -- for morning."

Gabrielle gave her the eyebrow in response, and between bites, asked, "And, which way are we going today? And, what kind of traveling will it be, if I may ask?"

Xena gestured down the road. "We'll keep on this until we reach those foothills. Then we'll take the path over the mountains. Hills really. On the other side, you can see the sea. We'll be on the borders of Elis then, the region. On the plain below is the town of Elis and the Olympia area. It's not the easiest traveling, but we've had harder."

Xena stopped to give Gabrielle a speculative look. "I know after yesterday, you probably don't want to get anywhere near Argo, but we would make better time if we rode together at least for some of the day. What do you think? Can you do that?"

For a moment Gabrielle looked a bit confused. "Yesterday? What did Argo have to do ...? Oh, yeah. Hmmmm. I tell you what; let's start with you riding and me walking, and I'll tell you a story about what 'I' remember about yesterday."

What with all the "details" that Gabrielle added to make the story a real story, the sun was well up and they were only a couple of miles from the foothills before she finished. "So, what do you think? Did I really save your life (again) and die, and get brought back because the gods were playing some sort of game with each other? Or, was it just some sort of dream brought on by a knock in the head. It gets a little hard to tell sometimes when the gods get involved. But, I tell you -- one argument in favor of my memory is that I don't hold anything against Argo, and I think if she had thrown me in a swamp I'd hold a grudge. Brother, would I! Sorry, old girl," and she gave Argo a pat, "but I think you are getting a bad rap in the current reality."

Xena could not help but smile at that, but her brow then furrowed in some concern. "I don't know Gabrielle. I prefer this reality and your getting thrown to your dying for me. And, I don't like the gods messing with me and mine. But...well...maybe we need to stay alert. And, since you don't hold anything against Argo, how about riding with me for a while? Another couple of miles and we'll have to walk anyway." She reached down and lifted the smaller woman up in front of her on Argo's back.

Gabrielle settled in, leaning back slightly for balance, just as Xena leaned forward and put her arms around Gabrielle to grasp the reins. They had ridden this way before, but not for a while. Xena felt warmer than the day would warrant. She was very conscious of the way their thighs touched, the feel of Gabrielle's body within the circle of her arms, the smell of her skin, and the light sound of her breathing. Xena held herself somewhat stiffly, attempting a delicate balance between enjoying the closeness and not giving into it. Gabrielle, on the other hand, seemed to just relax and let herself be there. She settled back some more, and sighed, "This is nice." She was quiet for a while, and then looked back over her shoulder and up at Xena's face. "You know, I've been thinking about what you said last night."

Xena got, if anything, stiffer. "And?"

"And, you said that you couldn't fight the way you used to, that you worried about what would happen to me, if you got hurt, and you worried about me being hurt if I was fighting with you. And, that it scared you."

Xena relaxed. A little.

Gabrielle continued, "I was thinking of solutions. One, obviously, is not to fight, but that's not you. You have things to do and fighting is part of that, or being willing to, and you're not going to change that. I wouldn't want you to. Being scared is probably a good thing for you. As little as you've told me about the old days, I get the impression that you fought ruthlessly and recklessly, as if you didn't care whether you lived or died."

"I didn't care, Gabrielle, and frankly no one else did either, and I can't blame them."

"Ok, but there are lots of brave people who fight very well for what's right, and they care and have people who care about them. Maybe, the problem is that caring and fighting the way the old Xena did won't work, but you could learn to fight a new way, a way that still allows you to ... well, have me around for one thing."

"That's an interesting idea, Gabrielle. Maybe there's something to that. I'll think about it. In the meantime, "Xena's arms tightened around Gabrielle's waist and she leaned forward to bury her face ever so lightly in the blonde hair. "I DO want you around."

By this time, they had reached the path that would take them over the hills more rapidly than the main roads. The track was narrow and rocky, so they both dismounted. After agreeing to stop at the top for something to eat, Xena led the way with Argo and Gabrielle followed. She thought of last night, and the things Xena had said, and how she had looked at her. She thought of this morning and how somehow more than "nice" it had been to be sitting there with Xena wrapped around her. ("Nice." Great word choice! And I'm the bard, the eloquent one! And, look at her: Striding up the mountain as if it were a flat village street. I'm going to be panting when we reach the top, and she'll maybe, just maybe, have a slight sheen of perspiration. It'll just be enough to energize her and she'll have that glow she gets when she feels really alive, and if the view is any good, she'll smile and my heart will break.) She stopped a moment in her tracks. (My "heart will break"? Where did that come from? Why didn't it seem strange until after I thought about it?) And, she started walking again.

The pastures there were lush and green. The sheep they could see on the far hills were plentiful and looked fat and healthy. The sky was high and the palest of blues, the color it gets only on clear spring days. The chalky limestone rocks set up a soft contrast to the greens and blues, and when they reached the top, they could see the sea below, dark at the horizon, but a spectacular deep blue below. Gabrielle's mouth gaped and she said not a word, just stared. Xena touched her arm in concern, "Are you ok?"

Gabrielle started. "Xena -- the sea -- it's exactly the color of your eyes! That's incredible!"

Xena flushed and shrugged. "Well, yeah. Anyway. How about a break and something to eat?"

Gabrielle shook herself and mumbled under her breath. "Sure. Right. Food. Of course."

There was a low wall, something left over from a nameless building that was long gone. It made a convenient spot to sit and lay out the bread and cheese and the few olives left in their stores of food. The skin held water now, but the strong wine that it had held previously lightly flavored the water and lent a festive touch to the simple food.

Finishing, Gabrielle stretched and stood up to walk along the wall, admiring the view of the sea. Reaching a particularly good view, she called Xena over to admire it and they easily stood together, Gabrielle's hand on Xena's shoulder, Xena's arm about Gabrielle's waist. At some point, in response to some thought, Gabrielle turned to say something to Xena, but she forgot what it was. She cocked her head to one side and smiled in delight. Xena was mystified. "What?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Well, it's another view. I don't think I've ever looked you straight in the eye before. I usually have to look up at you. Way up when you're on Argo. It's kind of nice." (There's that word again!)

Xena laughed, too. "Well, all right. Take advantage while you can. We're NOT taking the wall with us."

So, Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes, the blue pools that would forever remind her of the sea. And, Xena looked back, into Gabrielle's green eyes. Who would ever think that green could have such warmth, such fire? Their smiles faded as Gabrielle leaned forward the few inches between them to lightly, tentatively place a kiss on Xena's lips. They were warm and inviting, the kisses soft and gentle. Xena held herself as still as she could and still encourage the exploration. Gabrielle's hand moved to Xena's neck and she leaned into the kiss seeking more. Xena's hand went up to Gabrielle's cheek and her fingers lightly traced the line of cheek and throat. As their lips parted and their tongues first touched, Gabrielle suddenly flushed and drew back with a small gasp. Xena turned away in bitter disappointment, but Gabrielle pulled her back. "No," and she laughed, "I just forgot to breathe. That's all." And Xena's smile was so open, so wide, so dazzlingly happy that Gabrielle couldn't help it, she burst into tears.

It took a while to explain that. And then the sheep (and the shepherd) started to come over the crest of the hill, headed towards the lower fields, and it was time to go. Chapter 3: Elis

It was early evening when they reached the outskirts of Elis and a priest appeared to bar their way. He chanted: "No weapons in Elis, no arms, no wars, or disputes in Zeus's sacred territory. Leave them here; you'll have no need of them. They'll wait here for you," he said gesturing towards the stone building off the road. Gabrielle offered her staff but the priest declined it. "Sometimes a staff is a weapon, and sometimes it is just a staff. A sword is never anything but a sword." He looked pointedly at Xena.

She'd known that this would be required, but Xena found herself reluctant to part with her sword, the chakrum, and small daggers carried secretly on her person. Still it was necessary and she handed over each one, but slowly. She followed him to the building to see them stored properly and, recognizing some familiar arms in a corner, asked the priest where the owner was staying.

Smiling, she grabbed Gabrielle's arm in hers and set off over the fields to a prosperous farm nearby, to, as she said, "stay with an old friend."

"Xena -- which old friend? Most of your old friends aren't exactly charmers, you know? I think I'd like a little briefing."

But Xena just grinned and pulled her and Argo along. As they rounded the corner of the farm house, she gave a wild whoop and leaped on the back of the tall man before her. They wrestled briefly, Xena laughing. "Hercules! Your reflexes are still not great. You rely too much on strength!" He laughed back at her. "Xena! As beautiful and unpredictable as ever! I'd heard you were around, but I thought Elis would be too tame for you."

Gabrielle coughed. When that didn't work, she tried a little louder. Xena turned and put her arm around her and said, "Gabrielle and I are looking for a place to stay while we're here. Have room for us?"

"Hi, Gabrielle, good to see you again. Plenty of room here for such great company. The housekeeper will get you settled in. Say, when you have a moment, Xena, I'd like to talk to you about something. Maybe you can help me out."

"You know I owe you, Herc. A lot." Taking Gabrielle aside for a moment, she asked "Could you take care of the gear, while I find out what Hercules needs? It's not like him to ask a favor, and it would mean a lot to me to be able to do something for him."

"Sure, I'll take care of everything," and she led Argo toward the barn. (How would I describe this? "The two proud warriors walked off to trade battle stories, compare war wounds, and talk of old comrades in arms, while the faithful side kick took care of the horse." Hmmm. Sometime, I've got to write a story about the strong and stalwart side kick that doesn't end in domestic details. I could have stayed home for this part of the deal. Oh, well; a bath would be good and something different to eat...)

Hercules and Xena walked arm in arm around the farm, and he pointed out the improvement he was making. Then, he asked her if she had heard much about the games on her travels.

"Sure. Every -- what? four years? -- you have contests here for athletes. Male athletes, anyway. The games are dedicated to Zeus and there's a big temple at Olympia for him." Herc nodded. "They used to be Hera's games, but you know we don't get along so well. She still holds a grudge against my Mother for what happened with Zeus. Anyway, the games have gotten better and better, and the peace of Elis is beginning to extend beyond the borders. I want athletes and spectators to be able to get here without having to risk their lives. But the local kings bicker among themselves and there is constant warring and raiding. It's bad for the games and it's bad for the people."

Xena turned and faced Hercules. "What can you do about that? It's what petty kings and warlords are like. It's in their nature. It's a ... " and she stopped. Hercules smiled, "Yes, I know, it's a 'guy' thing. But there's lots of guy things -- like the games -- that don't tear up the countryside and peoples lives. I know I'm not usually a big thinker, but I've been talking to some people, and I think maybe we could do something. I want to get these guys to agree to a truce once every four years. It doesn't seem like much. I call it the 'ekecheiria' -- has a ring to it, doesn't it," he said proudly. Xena looked dubious.

"No, really," Hercules went on. "Think about it. If they all observe the truce for the year of the games, everyone can come to Olympia to train and compete and see the games." "Ok, Herc. Works for you. But, what's in it for them?"

"That's just the problem. I know that they get a year off from war and a chance to recover from that. But unless they all agree, none of them will, and I don't know how to get them all to agree. That's what I wanted to talk to you about."

Xena took his arm again as they walked back to the house. "I don't know. Let me think about it. And I'll talk to Gabrielle, too. She's really good with the people side of things; I can't tell you the times she's gotten us out of a fix with one of her stories or made some friends we ended up owing our lives."

"Thanks, Xena, for whatever you can do. Maybe we can talk some more tomorrow. I've got to go round up Iolaus now. We have a 'state' dinner thing tonight. You'll be well taken care of here. See you in the morning."

With her usual perceptiveness, Xena tried the kitchen first in looking for Gabrielle. She was there all right, listening raptly to the cook. He was a tall man in his middle years, but still well built. He was smiling indulgently at the young girl, flirting a bit, and he talked while he worked making bread for the evening meal.

"Xena, this is Coroebus, and he's got the most fantastic stories to tell about the games! He actually won the first one. You know, when they only ran a single race. And he's been to all the rest and knows all the stuff that happens behind the scenes. This next year they're initiating a thing called the Pentathlon where there are five events. If they let women compete, you could probably beat them, Xena. One of the events is a discus, and we all know what you can do with a chakrum! And, even if I can't go to the games, I am going to have terrific tales to tell!"

Xena greeted Coroebus with the respect due the original Olympian, but she also made sure that he knew that she was protective, perhaps proprietary about Gabrielle. He took it with good humor, and they settled down at the table to give the meal the attention it deserved. After weeks of hard traveling, small towns with miserable inns, it was a treat to have good wine and eat fresh bread, succulent lamb, vegetables, ripe fruit, and fragrant cheeses.

After dinner and a walk out to the pasture to check on Argo, they went up to their room.

Xena had been preoccupied, and she finally turned to her friend. "Gabrielle. I need your help."

"What with? Your armor? You want me to brush your hair or ...?"

"No, I want your advice."

That struck Gabrielle speechless. At least for a moment. "I beg your pardon?"

"Seriously. Let me tell you what Hercules is involved in here," and Xena outlined the plan and problems she and Hercules had discussed earlier. "Do you have any ideas?"

(This is too good an opportunity to miss, Gabrielle thought. I've got to come up with something. Anything.) "Well, the crucial piece seems to be what you pointed out -- what's in it for the local tyrants. Besides peace and prosperity, that is. The 'guy' thing is also good. There's some potential there; I can feel it."

Gabrielle paced up and down the small room, rubbing her chin. Every once in a while she would stop, look pleased, but then shake her head and resume pacing. Finally, there came a time when she didn't shake her head. She looked at Xena and said, "Ok, try this. Chances are these guys are in competition with each other, right? I mean, they are always fighting to see who is the biggest, toughest, richest, etc. etc. And, they've got to prove it before the other guy proves it all over them. You following me?" Xena nodded. "Ok, so you combine that with Herc's arguments: what you say is: One -- constant war is expensive, they need a year off every once in a while to regroup. Two -- war is a way of winning something, but once every four years you can pick another way. Three -- you can pick your athletes to be in the games. Sponsors of winners have proven they are the best and rumor has it Zeus looks favorably on winners and their people. Four -- everyone will agree to the truce so no one will have any advantage. And, if anyone breaks the truce ..." she trailed off. "I'm not sure about that part."

Xena looked thoughtful. "That's good, Gabrielle. It might work. I think Herc and I can handle truce breakers. That's more in our line."

Saying that, she started to unbuckle her armor. Gabrielle motioned her to the bed. "Let me help you with that. I know, I know. You can handle it yourself, but why should you when you don't have to? Now, sit down." She knelt behind Xena on the bed and unbuckled the shoulder pieces and then the back of the body armor, while Xena undid the wrist guards. There were red places on Xena's shoulders where the leather must have been too worn. Gabrielle rubbed them with her thumbs to get the circulation going. "Didn't it bother you? Amazing. We really have to fix that. Lean forward a little; you're really tight. Let me loosen up these muscles." But even when the tender spots had been soothed and the knots worked out, her hands continued to move, just lighter now, less a massage and more a caress. Xena's eyes were closed. Her forearms rested on her knees, her head hung loosely, her dark hair falling forward around her face and she gave herself up to the small, but surprising strong hands that seemed to channel all the fatigue and tension out of her back, and shoulders, and neck. Then a different kind of tension began to build, and she could feel Gabrielle's breath on her neck and her lips delicately touch that sensitive area just at the hair line. "Tell me," Gabrielle asked. "Just how many women have you been with?"

Xena started, then turned to face her, but said nothing. Gabrielle jabbed her playfully with a fist. "What's the matter? Can't count that high?" Xena shook her head. "No, that's not it. There hasn't been anyone. Well, not really."

"What exactly does 'not really' mean?"

"When I was much younger, there was a woman, a girl really. We were just getting to know one another. She was killed. We'd never been ... close; I always regretted that." "Oh. Xena, I'm sorry," and Gabrielle put her arms around her and held her until the time came when she just had to say it. "So, that means you don't know what you are doing here, either!"

Xena raised an eyebrow and smiled her lopsided grin. "I wouldn't exactly say that. I know what I like; I'm pretty sure I could please you. I tell you what. I'm going to kiss you this time. When I am finished, I want you to tell me how you feel. Are we just ...what? 'affectionate friends' or something more."

Gabrielle smiled, a little nervously. Xena cupped her face in her hands and lowered her own face to place light kisses on Gabrielle's forehead and temples. Then she rubbed her cheek softly against Gabrielle's cheek, and brought her lips around to trace the line of her jaw to her mouth. Like someone blind, using their fingers to discover a face, Xena's lips traced the line of Gabrielle's mouth, memorizing their shape and texture, the full under lip, their warmth, their softness. And when she felt the lips open to her, when she felt Gabrielle's body move toward her, her tongue found new delights, new depths as her kisses were met with kisses, and their tongues explored each other. Then she moved lower, to trace the lines of Gabrielle' throat with her lips, with her tongue, to taste her skin and feel the heat of it and the pounding of the blood. Gabrielle's head arched back to let her, and she found that shallow area at the base of the throat and then worked back up the other side of Gabrielle's neck, her lips and tongue sometimes hungry, sometimes light and teasing. And, then they kissed again, mouth and tongues demanding more, until they both were flushed and Gabrielle made a small noise in her throat of desire and need. Reluctantly, Xena stopped kissing her and pulled her into her arms, rocking her, and stroking her hair, murmuring, "Shhh, now; it's ok" until both their breathing quieted.

"You are so sweet. I could seduce you, I know. But, I want more than that. Much more. I want you to want me as much as I want you. Not yet. But, we are more than friends, aren't we?" and Gabrielle, still shaken, could only nod her head. And Xena's arms held her tighter, embracing her and reveling in the feeling. "It feels so good to hold you! Gods, I have wanted to do this for so long!" And she smiled, and Gabrielle looked up to match that smile and use her own fingers to trace the face before her with wonder. And they lay together that night wrapped about one another, pretending to sleep so as not to disturb the sleep of the other.

Xena slipped out of bed early, admitting to herself that patience was a virtue she valued because it was not natural to her. She hoped a strenuous workout with Argo, a mad gallop down to the beach might burn out some of the energy that threatened to overwhelm her best intentions. She wanted to be sure, she wanted it to be right, to be perfect. Gabrielle was left in bed thinking that Xena thought entirely too much.

Chapter 4: Day 2 in Elis

When she came back from the morning gallop, Hercules, Iolaus, and Gabrielle were gathered around the table having breakfast. The four friends conferred and more fully developed the plan. Iolaus suggested that they could send out runners carrying boughs from the olive trees in Zeus's sacred groves to the primary warlords and kings, calling them to a conference with Hercules in the north and Xena in the east. If these leaders could be convinced to take the oath of peace for the year of the games, the others would fall in place. Hercules would guarantee the truce and punish the truce breakers -- he and Zeus, that is.

The runners would need to have a two day's lead, which gave Hercules time to brief Xena on the cast of characters she would meet in the east and work out strategies for dealing with them. It also left some time to do a little sightseeing at Olympia, to see a wonder of the known world, the statue of Zeus made by Pheidias of ivory and gold. It was immense! Over 42 feet high and there was even a spiral staircase to reach the top. Xena wasn't much inclined to dealings with the gods, but in this magnificent temple she was struck by the difficulty of the task before them. She and Hercules were fighters, warriors. What they were going to try to do was not in their usual repertoire. They were not going to be attacking or defending, they were not going to be forcing a peace, they were going to be trying to convince men to not fight at scheduled times. Under the circumstances, she joined willingly in the sacrifice to Zeus that Hercules arranged, and the signs for the project were propitious, if not totally unclouded.

Gabrielle was fascinated by the complex at Olympia. Oh, there were stories to tell there! The visit also gave her some time to wander off by herself, to think through the storms of emotions that were giving her no peace.

She looked at Xena with new eyes, she watched her in new ways. She was quiet. She found moments to touch her, lightly, in passing, to smile and then move on. Xena smiled back and was always very much aware of where Gabrielle was, following her with her eyes, making sure that they were not separated long. Hercules and Iolaus noticed and grinned at each other and, when her back was turned, at Xena.

They would set out the next day to establish what they could of an Olympian in peace. But, for tonight, there was tonight.

As they walked through the door to the bedroom, Xena closed the door, and Gabrielle backed her up to the wall. Looking her squarely in the eye, making Xena look down so she could do so, she asked, "Exactly what are your plans? Not for tomorrow, for tonight?"

Xena had a feeling that things had suddenly gotten out of hand. "Well. I thought ...." and her hands stroked Gabrielle's shoulders and arms as she leaned forward for a kiss. But Gabrielle stopped her. "You think too damn much, Miss Warrior Princess! You are not going to put me through what you did last night again. Is that clear?"

There seemed nothing much else to say, except, "Ok."

"Now, come on." And Gabrielle led Xena to the bed, where Xena stopped. "But I wanted things to be perfect for you." And Gabrielle replied, "But it will be -- I'll stop talking and you can stop thinking. Deal?" Xena nodded and smiled. And they reached for one another and tumbled laughing on the bed. Somehow both their clothes became nonexistent, and Xena found herself lying on top of Gabrielle, her arms on either side of Gabrielle's head, kissing her deeply, feeling the breasts against her own breasts, the smooth belly against her own belly. Their lips and tongues circled, their mouths pressed against each other, hard. Blue eyes and green in the candlelight, dark with desire and arousal. They had begun sweetly, gently once again, but tonight there was more urgency. Xena's lips moved down Gabrielle's throat and her teeth grazed the soft skin and the throaty moans of response sent her lower to the swelling of Gabrielle's breasts and then the erect nipples that she licked and teased until Gabrielle forced her head down in mute request for more and harder. And, Xena found herself grow more aroused, she could not get enough of her, her hands seemed to be everywhere, her lips, her mouth, and Gabrielle's skin was flushed and hot with a fever, her lips were moist and open, her heart pounded powerfully within her chest, and it seemed the exquisite pleasure and pain would never end. But a pressure was building, and Xena moved lower yet, kissing, nipping at the tender skin of the inner thighs, kissing and rubbing her face on the soft swell of her lower belly and into the blonde hairs that curled there. But Gabrielle felt an ache within herself that never seemed to be touched, an emptiness that had no fill and just as she despaired, she felt Xena's tongue ever so softly stroke her there, her fingers slide so smoothly, silkenly around and then inside and she mouthed a long "oh" and a sigh. Her breathing grew more rapid as Xena's tongue and fingers picked up the rhythm. Her fingers twined in Xena's hair and the pressure inside her built, her back arched, her hips rolled and suddenly, wrenched out of the bottom of her soul she yelled and her body bucked and arched again. And again.

Xena waited a moment and then moved up to cover Gabrielle's body with her own. To stroke the blonde hair and kiss those lips and whisper endearments over and over and nuzzle in the soft skin beneath her ear. Gabrielle tried to reach her, but her body seemed to have difficulty coordinating. Xena whispered to her that it was ok, she'd be fine, it was enough tonight, sleep, my love. And Gabrielle slept.

Waking very early the next morning, Xena stretched languidly but found herself alone and felt momentarily devastated by a sense of terrible loss. But there was quick relief when the door opened and Gabrielle came in with a tray of food, crawled back in bed and gave her a kiss sweet with the taste of honey and figs. Xena sighed, "I should have known you'd be hungry."

"You should be, too," and Gabrielle broke off a piece of honey cake and fed it to her. It was good, and when Gabrielle put another piece in her mouth, Xena held her hand and licked each finger clean and then proceeded to suck on the fingers and watch her lover's reaction. Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Oh. Oh, my. That's ... that feels .... you've got to ... stop that. It's my turn." But, Xena pulled her down and kissed her and would have made love to her again, but Gabrielle stopped her, saying, "When are you going to stop being afraid to let me love you?" It was Xena's turn to be surprised. "That's what I'm doing, isn't it?" And, Gabrielle simply nodded and with her hand in the middle of Xena's chest gently pushed her over on her back. "Let me," was all she said. She was slow, partly tentative, partly a bit fearful about getting it right. She could also see the small controlled fear in Xena's eyes. She wanted to reassure, to comfort, to prove that it was ok, everything was very right. The night before had been so intense, it felt burned in her brain, her body. Thinking about that she followed the same path, finding herself kissing Xena's eyes and lips, teasing her mouth with licks of her tongue until both their lips parted and their tongues met. Using her fingers to see Xena's body, to feel the strength beneath the soft skin, to feel the heartbeat beneath her lips, to hear her breathing deepen. The breasts were a surprise, so soft, so delightful to touch and then to kiss. And she felt the tension build in Xena and let her hand drift down to twine in the dark silky hair. She felt Xena's legs open, and she slipped her hand lower to feel another kind of silkiness, a smooth slickness among the folds that led her fingers on and in. And she let her lips follow her hand, kissing Xena's belly, letting her tongue trace around the navel and then slip lower.

There was mystery here, the unknown, and some anxiety -- will I like it, won't I, will she? But, as her tongue found places that wrenched a throaty moan from Xena, and felt her body respond, she discovered that passion mirrors passion, desire reflects desire, and they build off one another. As Xena's breathing deepened, so did hers, as one groaned with pleasure, so did the other, as one flushed so did the other, as the heat between them built and the urgency. Her fingers slipped in and then out, in and then out. Her tongue stroked soft and then hard. Xena's body glistened with sweat and her head thrashed from side to side. Her hands grasped convulsively at the sheets, her back arched, and she uttered a series of "ahs" that became longer and louder and faster, until the excitement, the pleasure became a torture begging release and the release came in a rush of light and sound, and neither of them was really ever sure who yelled. And Gabrielle felt Xena's body sweetly clasp her fingers, shudder, and then be still. She moved up to take Xena's face in her hands, to tell her how much she loved her and they fell into one another's eyes and arms. Chapter 5: Negotiations

Morning had to come eventually. It was time to pick up their arms and set out for the conferences -- Herc and Iolaus to the north, Xena and Gabrielle to the east.

Skepticism was the initial response. Xena first had to convince them that she spoke for Hercules; then she had to speak to them as a fellow warlord about the costs of constant warring, the benefits of an occasional peace. Gabrielle proved a perfect balance, using her eloquence to flatter their vanity, stroke their pride in the athletes of their districts, interest them in the fame that bards would bring to the Olympic heroes and the men who sponsored them, the towns that called them their own. Oxylus, the host for this conference, was a self-made king, who gained his kingdom by war, not inheritance. He was not as susceptible to the flattery, and was leery of any advantage his neighbors might get over him. But even he, finally, considering his sons and their future (as well as some promising athletes in his personal guard) agreed. And, with his agreement, the rest came around and the oaths were sworn to honor the "ekech...", the "ecish..." -- oh, well, let's just call it the Olympic truce.

Everyone was happy with the conclusion. Everyone was enthusiastic about the promise of the arrangement. Well, almost everyone.

There was one group they had not accounted for in their plans, one group that found Hercules' and Xena's efforts a threat to their livelihood. If there was no war every four years, that meant no pay for mercenaries every four years. They weren't farmers, they were fighters, and peace would not serve their interests. Oh, some could see the road to other places, but there was one small group of particularly limited imaginations that had only worked and fought here in the Pelopponisos. Battus, their leader saw only that the Warrior Princess and her pals were putting him out of business without so much as a "sorry about that." His resentment smoldered as the conference progressed and burst into flame with the swearing of the oath. Someone would pay, he decided, that woman and her friend would pay, and the gods be damned! And, with any luck, when they died, the truce would die, too.

The day of their return, Xena and Gabrielle set out early. The day was fine, and they were well-provisioned for the trip. Gabrielle was energized and enthusiastic.

Xena didn't seem to think the tale worth telling, but Gabrielle begged to differ. "As usual, you have no sense of the dramatic moment, what makes a good story," she sighed. "Don't you get it? Here's the Warrior Princess as the fighting diplomat, an ambassador of good will with a sharp sword to back it up! Making peace between warring factions, gathering allies to defend that peace! It's a whole new image -- 'Xena, the Warrior Ambassador' or maybe 'Xena, the Arbitrator'? No, I'll have to work on that."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Just don't make me listen to it, ok?"

The road curved sharply among the trees in the forest ahead, obscuring the view. The attack came just as Xena and Gabrielle made the turn: five men ahead of them, five behind, all armed with swords and knives.

Xena instantly assumed a defensive crouch, sword drawn and assessed the situation, while Gabrielle took her staff in a fighting mode and the two women stood back to back.

Sunlight glinting dully on sword blades, arms thrusting, leather armor creaking, duck, side-step, kick, slash, leap, kick, punch, slash again. Grunts, screams, yells; the smell of sweat and fear, and blood, and death. Whirl, punch, elbow, kick, slash, stab, duck. Keep cool, act don't react, vary the pattern, don't be predictable, see everything, move, move, move! Only three left now, and they are more cautious, make them angry, taunt them, when they lunge, feint to the side, leap over them, attack from behind, kick, slash, stab, punch.

It was going well, one more was down, but then Battus stepped out of the trees with three fresh troops and matters got more serious. Swords flashed and thrust, sometimes into air, sometimes into flesh. Battus concentrated on Xena, her sneering smile and beckoning gestures making him wild with rage. He lunged as she parried off one of the other mercenaries, but his blade glanced off her shoulder and caught between the leather and a brass whorl on her arm guard. She pulled him off balance and knocked him in the head with her sword hilt; he fell like a stone. The fighting was at close quarters, and Gabrielle was tiring, Xena could tell by her gasping breaths. She'd have to risk it. "Gabrielle! On three!" and with that she threw her chakrum, banking it off a tree to fly back at the knot of fighting bodies. As the third second arrived, Xena and Gabrielle both ducked under the swords of their assailants and the chakrum took out one more before burying itself in a tree.

Coming up to continue the fight, they found they were alone as Oxylus and a troop of his horse guard thundered around the curve and chased the still standing mercenaries into the trees.

The fight was over. Nine of the mercenaries lay around them; some dead, some unconscious. Gabrielle was bruised but untouched, Xena's shoulder needed a couple of stitches, and both were breathing heavily. Gabrielle sat down in the middle of the road with an emphatic "Whew! And, I thought this was supposed to be a quiet trip!"

Oxylus let his guardsmen take care of the mopping up and made sure the two women are all right. "I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner," he said as he watched Gabrielle tend to Xena's wound. "One of that scum's men is not such a bad fellow and he told me what was planned. I feel the mercenaries here are my responsibility. When I pay them they follow my orders. When I don't require their services, I expect them to behave or get out. Hercules can guarantee the truce between kings, but we'll have to protect it within our own borders." And, over Xena's protests, Oxylus sent a squad to escort them to Elis.

Hercules had also been successful at the conference in the northern kingdoms. Xena's story about Oxylus and his approach toward the mercenaries was of interest. "The mercenaries may be a recurring problem, but if we can get the others interested in his approach, insuring the truce will be a lot easier." Xena laughed. "I don't think there will be a problem getting the word out. Gabrielle has been telling every bard she can find about the Olympic truce and all that went into it. Just do me a favor and don't listen to any of them, ok? She gives me a bit more credit than I deserve."

Hercules hosted a celebratory feast the evening of their return. There were dishes from all over the province, music and dancing. The rich dark wine flowed freely and Hercules rose to propose a toast: "To my friends, Xena and Gabrielle, for their efforts in establishing the Olympic peace, I salute you!" Before he drank, he leaned down to whisper in Xena's ear, "And, much happiness to you both -- it's time for you, Xena." She clasped his hand gratefully and rose to propose a toast herself: "And I salute Hercules and his vision of peace. Let the games begin!" Epilogue:

A few weeks later, it was time to leave. The athletes would be arriving soon to begin their training and women would not be wanted around the sacred precincts. Neither Xena nor Gabrielle much liked the idea of there being places they were forbidden to go, simply because they were women. Rather than take chances and be tempted to rebel against the gods and local custom, it seemed like a good time to take advantage of the truce and make their way north to Corinth.

Riding out, Gabrielle mused. "Zeus should be pleased. His games now have a good chance of becoming something beyond athletics. Come to think of it, it's been a little odd. Think about it: Here we had soldiers and armies and mercenaries, but no war. Instead, a truce and peace. It's like .... oh, Xena! Ares hasn't been around at all. Do you suppose that was the deal?"

"What do you mean?" Xena asked.

"Well remember my 'dream'? When I died again? That Ares had to make a deal with Zeus to get out of trouble at having broken his oath? Maybe the deal was not to interfere as Hercules established the games and the truce?"

"If that's what happened, Gabrielle, we'd better be VERY careful. Ares is going to be really unhappy with this. And, when Ares is unhappy, lots of people are unhappy."

"Sounds like more work for the Warrior Princess and her faithful side kick."

Putting an arm around Gabrielle, Xena said, "No, I don't think so. I think it means more work for US, and you need to come up with a name for what we are that doesn't make you a 'side' anything."

"Hmmm. Let me see.... how about...the two Musketeers?" (What? asked Xena; I don't know where that came from either, replied Gabrielle. How about . . .)

The End

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