Note: This story takes place between Forgiven and King Con.
"Are you a man or a woman?"
Xena smiled, almost unconsciously. "A woman."
It surprised her sometimes how fond she had grown of the quiet times that she and Gabrielle spent together. Living life from one crisis to the next, Xena had never realized how much pleasure there was in simply being with another person. Though her friend could be irritating, well closer to exasperating at times, her mere presence gave Xena a comfort that she had never known. Her childhood could graciously have been described as restless, and her life since . . . well, she tried with varying success to not dwell too much on that time in her life.
"Are you Valaska?"
"Nope." Xena smiled again, this simple game that Gabrielle had created passed many a long afternoon. Such a seemingly childish and pointless exercise in logic brought them both the easy comfort of companionship. At times when Gabrielle's mind wasn't consumed with her stories, and Xena's mind wasn't searching for a creative solution to whatever problem they'd encountered, this simple game was always there to pass the time. Though Gabrielle had created others, this was Xena's favorite, largely because it required little effort on her part. She suspected that Gabrielle realized that as well.
"Are you Ephiny?"
"Are you alive or dead?"
"Alive and kicking."
As Gabrielle considered her clues, Xena glanced up at the sky. The storm clouds were rolling in faster than she had hoped. Mentally, she abandoned the idea of making to the next town and the comfort of an inn to ride out the storm. As she looked around and sorted through her memories of this place, settling on a vague memory of a small cave a little way off the path.
"Come on," she gestured up at the sky, "We're going to have to find some shelter soon."
Gabrielle nodded pleasantly as she turned to follow Xena off into the woods without comment. Xena's mind flashed back to the young girl that had followed her so long ago, pushing her to the limit of patience with constant chattering. Yes, her friend had changed a great deal.
"Are you a god, or mortal?"
"Mortal." Xena kept a scrupulously straight face. The true secret to the fun of this game was that Gabrielle knew quite well Xena always tried to get tricky, stretching the bounds of truth in her answers to deliberately lead her friend's thinking astray. She had tremendous respect for Gabrielle's logic, which made fooling her all the more satisfying.
"Nope." Xena squinted through the trees ahead as Gabrielle scowled in thought beside her. "How much food do we have left?"
"We've got enough bread and cheese for a couple of days," Gabrielle answered after a brief mental inventory. "And a couple of apples."
Argo whinnied softly, and Xena smirked in response. "All right, we'll save them for you." She petted the mare's nose fondly. "You two go on ahead, I'll see if I can't catch something for tonight." She noted Gabrielle's pleased look. "Keep heading to the west until you clear these trees, there should be a small cave in the side of that mountain just beyond there."
Gabrielle glanced up at the sky for a moment. "All right, I'll go ahead and gather the firewood, but you get to clean whatever you catch." Xena raised an eyebrow in response, to which Gabrielle pointed her finger in accusation. "You promised."
Sighing, Xena acquiesced with a gesture and turned off the small path they had been following. She had held out a vague hope that Gabrielle had forgotten her losing again at that silly pantomime game the night before. With a wry grin, she realized that she should know better by now.
A few yards away from the trail, as she began to creep though the trees like a predator, Xena heard Gabrielle's distant call.
With a soft laugh and a shake of her head, Xena raised her hand to her mouth and called back. "NO!" Imagining that she heard a distant 'hrumpf', Xena's smile still touched her lips as she turned back to her hunt.
Xena absently fingered her chakram as she sat at the edge of a small clearing a little while later. She glanced up at the sky as she heard several small forest creatures scurrying about around her. She estimated about how long it would take for the storm to reach them as her eyes caught site of a plump rabbit on the other side of the clearing. With a smile she let it continue unmolested. It wouldn't do to get to the cave too quickly. If she waited long enough, Gabrielle would have the camp completely set up by the time she got there. She knew that her friend recognized this subterfuge as well, but never commented on it. With a deep breath, Xena continued to listen to the life teaming in the trees surrounding her and waited.
Not long after, Xena heard what she had been waiting for. From high above a resounding crash of thunder pounded the air. Standing, Xena's eye caught a small flock of plump birds that had been startled out of the tree above her. Focusing quickly, her chakram sliced through the air. She listened carefully as she heard first one, then another soft thump in the nearby clearing before cleanly catching her returning chakram.
She heard the fire crackling a small way inside the cave as she cleared the edge of the trees, their dinner hanging loosely from her hand. Gabrielle was humming softly as she brushed Argo. She felt the first drops of the storm touch her skin just before she casually strolled into the cave. Gabrielle entered just behind her.
"Xena, look what I found." Turning, Xena saw Gabrielle holding a skin of wine with a smirk on her face.
"What?" Xena asked with an exaggerated look of innocence.
"You were hiding this from me." Gabrielle stated matter-of-factly, her amusement clearly evident on her face.
"Not really, I was just saving it for . . . "
". . a rainy day?" Gabrielle laughed as Xena managed to shrug a bit guiltily. Turning toward the entrance to the cave, Gabrielle noted that a few drops had quickly turned into a steady stream as thunder continued to roll above them. "What a coincidence." Humming again, Gabrielle carried the wine with her as she moved closer to the fire with an incredibly smug look on her face. "You'd better hurry up and clean those, the fire's just about ready."
Sighing in defeat, Xena moved to her saddle bag to pick out their hunting knife.
A short while later, as their dinner hung roasting above the fire, Xena was busily repairing a small cut in the back of her breastplate, while Gabrielle sat in contemplation over a half-finished scroll.
"Are you royalty?" Gabrielle's head didn't even bother moving from her scroll as she spoke.
"No, definitely not."
"Hmm," Gabrielle brought the tip of her quill to her lips. "Do you bear a striking resemblance to my best friend?"
Laughing softly, Xena shook her head. "Cewtainly not." Gabrielle's head shot up to catch a haughty, pious look on her friend's face.
"Gee, thanks Leah." Gabrielle answered with a smirk. Pausing for a moment, Gabrielle continued looking at Xena before breaking into a fit of laughter. Xena raised an eyebrow at her friend's mirth. The impression hadn't been all that funny.
"Yes?" Her tone spoke volumes of sarcasm. When Gabrielle didn't answer immediately, Xena glanced over to confirm that the wine skin hadn't been opened yet.
"I was just . . . " Gabrielle finally managed between giggles. ". . just trying to picture you living the life of a . . ." another fit of giggles erupted, " . . . virgin priestess."
Xena's eyebrow disappeared completely behind her bangs as she regarded her friend's mirth in silence. The look, however, seemed to set Gabrielle off all the more, as she collapsed again, this time falling completely off the small rock she had been sitting on.
"Gabrielle?" Xena suppressed a grin as Gabrielle snorted. "Do you smell something burning?" Gabrielle's laughter ceased almost instantly as she scampered toward the fire, only to find their dinner still mostly raw. The gaze that sliced through the air toward Xena could only be described as wicked.
"You're gonna pay for that."
"Is it my fault that you always fall for it?" Xena asked sweetly.
Frowning, Gabrielle headed for the wineskin.
"You'd better get something on your stomach first." Xena offered in an insufferably smug voice. Gabrielle tipped the wineskin to her lips, ignoring Xena completely.
"Are you an Amazon?" Gabrielle asked after swallowing.
"Huh uh" Xena's voice was muffled as she bit off the leather twine and completed her repairs.
Gabrielle's brow furrowed in frustration. "Is it someone you met before me?" With a grin, Xena shook her head. Gabrielle's scowl deepened.
Later, as the two polished off the last remnants of dinner and sat listening to the, often loud, crashes of thunder that pounded the air, Gabrielle tipped the wineskin once again to her lips.
"You'd better slow down with that, or you're gonna wake up with a nasty hangover."
"I don't like this weather." Gabrielle replied, as if in answer.
"Well, drinking yourself into the ground isn't going to make it go away." Gabrielle sighed and handed Xena the wineskin, falling into silence as she gazed into the undulating flames.
Looking at her friend's face curiously, Xena took a long drink from the skin. "Is something wrong?"
"Hmm? Oh, no." Gabrielle replied with a distant look in her eyes. "Just thinking."
Xena weighed her next question carefully before asking it, wondering if she really wanted to know the answer. "About what?" To her surprise, Gabrielle flushed slightly with embarrassment. Now quite curious, Xena stared at her in amusement, challenging her to answer the question.
"I was just thinking about . . . well . . . Perdicus, I guess."
Gabrielle sighed as her cheeks flushed a bit deeper red. "I just get lonely sometimes, you know?" Glancing at Xena, Gabrielle saw the understanding in her eyes clearly. "It's hard to find love like that just to have it taken away." Hearing a sigh from Xena, Gabrielle turned to see her friend's eyes grow distant. "What's funny is, I wonder sometimes if I would have been happy."
"Why? You loved him, didn't you?"
"Of course I did. It's just that . . . well, I wonder what it would be like to be living back in Potedia. How long would it have been before I longed to come out on the road again? Before I fell back into that life that I worked so hard to get out of?"
"Gabrielle, you're not the same person you were back then. Who and what you are . . . no one can take that away from you."
With a soft smile, Gabrielle gazed back into the fire. "I know that. But . . . " pausing for a moment, she seemed to search the flames for her answer, "I don't belong there. Xena, I don't ever remember feeling as happy and content in my whole life as I do right now." She motioned about the cave. "This cave feels more like home to me now than Potedia ever did."
Taking another sip from the wineskin, Xena handed it back to Gabrielle. "You must have had good times . . . "
"Of course I did." Gabrielle replied quickly. "But back there I was like an anomaly, different from everyone and everything . . . You know, the world changes, it grows and adapts. Potedia is always the same." With a pause as she took another sip of wine, Gabrielle smiled. "When I was a kid, I thought home was a place, you know, where you kept your things, where you were always safe. But now I see home more as a feeling." Turning slightly, she looked directly into the eyes of her best friend. "You're the only person I've ever met whose just accepted me for what I am, good, bad, or otherwise. I hope you know how much that means to me."
With a slightly embarrassed smile, Xena took back the wine and downed another mouthful. "You know, I could say the same for you." Pausing for a moment in thought, Xena felt the warm flush of the wine flow through her. "Well, that's not exactly right. You certainly don't hesitate to let me know when you think I'm wrong." Xena felt a thin note of tension flow through the air between them, each pushing away unwanted memories. "Of course, it wasn't always that way." She moved on quickly. "I used to wonder why in the world you put up with this life. I think I spent the first six months wondering when you were going to get sick of it all and go back home."
To her surprise, Gabrielle didn't smile, but instead let their eyes meet in a steady gaze. "You know, I don't think I ever thought like that. I just worried that you'd finally get sick of me and send me away. For a long time, every day that passed was like a gift, because I thought it would never last." Pausing a moment in thought, Gabrielle caught her gaze again. "Why didn't you send me away? I know it must have been hard putting up with me."
Xena took her breath in to emit a teasing comment, but stopped short at the serious gaze on Gabrielle's face. "I guess maybe I was lonely too." She replied finally. "I'd never had a real friend before. You know I'm not sure I even knew what it was. You taught me that."
With an embarrassed laugh, Gabrielle declined the wineskin as Xena moved to pass it back. "Here we go getting all mushy again."
Unbidden, Xena's mind flashed back to the beginning of their conversation, and she fought back a nagging doubt in her mind. "Gabrielle? You said before that you were feeling . . . lonely. I . . .You . . . You do know that all I want for you is to be happy. If you find . . . "
Gabrielle held up her hand with a smile. "I know." Another sigh. "You know, dreams are so much easier when you're a little girl." Xena's brow knit at the apparent non-sequitur. "I mean, when I was young, everything was so much less complicated. Now, I don't know what I'd wish for the future."
"I don't think I understand." Xena scooted forward to sit on the ground and lean up against the small rock she had been sitting on.
Gabrielle thought for a moment, trying to make sense of her thoughts. "I guess I've been thinking about this since Tripolis. Nearly dying'll do that for you." She smiled, though Xena didn't. "Anyway, I guess something like that makes you think more about the future. I used to wish for someone to love, you know. I suppose I thought of settling down, having a family. Part of me has always wanted those things."
"Yeah." Xena nodded slowly.
"Now . . . I just don't know what I'd do if someone came into my life. I mean, what happens? He travels with us? For how long? Or is it good-bye again?...I just don't want that. I mean, you know what I think part of my problem with Tara was?" Xena shook her head mutely. "I think I was a little bit jealous. Isn't that silly? I guess I saw her trying so hard for your attention, and I just didn't like it. It's hard to imagine what it would be like if we had someone traveling with us permanently." Watching her friend closely, Xena saw a troubled expression fall across her face and hold there. Despite the dim light, she could clearly see Gabrielle shiver.
Xena fought down a lump in her throat. The question that came to her lips was entirely too dangerous. And this conversation was already perilously close to a line that Xena scrupulously avoided. Not trusting herself to speak at all, she took another long gulp of wine, noting with some concern that the skin was almost empty.
When Xena didn't respond, Gabrielle fell into another brief silence before continuing. "Which leaves me right back where I started from."
Xena thought for long moments before continuing, mentally editing at least a dozen statements. "You know, Gabrielle, I spent a lot of my life without any want for . . . companionship . . . and I can tell you, that when someone comes along that you truly love, it's a gift . . . and you shouldn't turn your back on that possibility." Xena drained the last of the wine, suddenly feeling all too sober. She shifted uncomfortably against the sandy floor. Feeling her mouth dry out, she licked her lips unconsciously. "I used my body for a long time, to give and to take. To get what I wanted." She paused, picking her words with great care. "To give people what they wanted from me. After a while, it becomes almost impersonal." Blind pleasure, she sighed at the memory. But there's the pain too, she thought. The memory of what it felt like to be touched in love, rather than just in pleasure, stayed with you, eating a little more of your soul each time, until you become numb to it.
Looking up, Xena barely felt the tear that slid down her cheek. "I guess the point is . . . after all that, it gives you an appreciation for real love. You don't want to go throughout your life never knowing that again. And you don't want to experience the alternative either." To Xena's ears, her voice sounded sad and hollow.
Gabrielle's eyes were very serious as she considered Xena's words. "Like I said." She spoke finally with a hint of a wry smile. "It's all a lot more complicated now." With a deep sigh, Gabrielle stood up and stretched, gazing out into the rain. She turned and moved toward Xena. Blue eyes flashed with something very close to fear, until she realized that Gabrielle was walking around her toward the mouth of the cave. "I'll be back in a minute, guess I shouldn't have had all that wine."
Xena merely nodded and watched her friend walk out of the cave. Without realizing it, she exhaled a deep breath. For the first time since the conversation had begun, Xena allowed herself a moment to pay attention to her own body. She found her heart was thudding within her chest and her hands felt shaky. Glancing down at her hands as she forced them to calm, Xena's mind recalled what they were capable of. She chided herself for the thoughts that betrayed her. Without a doubt, Xena knew that she could give Gabrielle more pleasure than her young husband had ever dreamed possible. And yet, she knew that Gabrielle would never ask that of her.
And that thought made her want to give it all the more. Looking at her hands, though, she thought too, of terror and pain they could inflict, that they had inflicted . . . Shuddering at the memory, she fought down a wave of nausea as images of Gabrielle, bruised and bloodied at her own hand fell across her mind. Her heart warred inside her between revulsion at the idea of these hands touching Gabrielle, and the desire to show her ultimate pleasure. To take away the memory of that pain and replace it with ecstacy.
Until Gabrielle came into her life, Xena held a vague notion that she knew what love was. It wasn't until much later that she realized that this little girl had known and understood more about love than she had ever dreamed existed. Slowly, patiently, Gabrielle had taught her about love. She understood now how deeply it could run, and they had learned together the pain that could be born from it. And yet, she couldn't suppress the longing to show Gabrielle the pleasure that could be born from it as well. Xena found that the memory of all those nights of blind lust, pleasure and self-indulgence would seem less painful if she could use what they had taught her to show Gabrielle the true heights of ecstacy.
Xena could remember giving pleasure and taking it. But she could never remember sharing it. Her thoughts now weren't of lust, or even desire. Xena's thoughts were of love.
Blinking rapidly, Xena realized Gabrielle was standing right in front of her with a curious look on her face. She was also soaking wet.
"Are you all right?"
"Huh? Oh yeah, Gabrielle, I'm fine." Standing up, Xena scowled disapprovingly. "Why didn't you stay closer to the cave?" Gabrielle frowned. "What? There's an overhang right out there where Argo . . . " Xena's eyes widened as her words tapered off at the guilty glance from her friend. Biting her lip, Xena's eyebrow slowly ascended. "I thought you had gotten over that." She put her hands gently on her hips and smirked down at her friend.
"I know, I know." Gabrielle's scowl deepened immensely as she blew away some of the water sliding down her face. "I just couldn't help it."
"You know, she's not really watching you." Xena fought mightily to keep from laughing.
With a clenched jaw, Gabrielle gazed upwards. "Just drop it, okay."
Biting down on her lip Xena merely nodded and moved over to the saddlebags. "Here, you need to get out of those now." She pulled a clean blanket out of the pack and tossed it to her friend, snickering at the squishing sound as it made contact. Grumbling, Gabrielle began taking off her soaked clothes and tossing them to Xena, who wrung them out and laid them over a rock without any further comment, though her eyes spoke volumes.
As Gabrielle sat back down on a small rock by the fire, drying off and fighting off some shivers, Xena retrieved a brush. Without thinking, she moved over behind her friend, nudging her shoulder. Gabrielle turned around and, eyeing the brush, obediently moved forward onto the ground as Xena settled onto the rock behind her. Setting the brush on her lap, her hands began to untie soggy blonde braids. Barely noticing the silence, her fingers moved through Gabrielle's hair, tugging each braid loose. "Ow." Gabrielle flinched and reached back to still Xena's hand.
Pursing her lips, Xena consciously gentled her touch. "Sorry." As her fingers slowed in their motion, Xena found herself much more aware of their position. By the time she had tugged loose the last braid, and felt Gabrielle's soft sigh, Xena was beginning to panic. Her recent thoughts were too close to the surface and she was entirely too close to Gabrielle. And yet she couldn't stop. With a clenched jaw, she reached down for the brush in her lap and tugged a quick pass through the silky hair. Feeling Gabrielle flinch at the roughness, Xena steeled herself and forced her hands to move as slowly and gently as she could bear.
Almost immediately she felt Gabrielle's entire body relax and another, slightly louder, sigh escaped. Xena's mind was now shrieking warnings to her. In desperation, she tried to put her mind on something . . . anything . . . other than what she was doing. A dozen thoughts flew through her mind and vanished just as quickly as she felt her body beginning to react to the soft sounds of pleasure coming from Gabrielle. Finally, in desperation, and possibly because of the rhythm of brush strokes a tune began to filter through her mind. Though she couldn't recognize it at first, she clung to it anyway, grateful for the diversion. She mentally hummed the tune for a few moments before the words came to her.
'With Gabby as his sidekick, fighting with her little stick. Righting wrongs and . . . '
Stopping suddenly, Xena realized what the song was. 'That's enough!' She thought to herself, eternally grateful that she hadn't actually sung the words out loud. Jumping back off the rock, she thought she heard a disappointed sigh come from Gabrielle, but ignored it. There were limits after all. Dropping the brush back into the saddlebag, Xena turned and strode toward the cave, mumbling an "I'll be back in a minute," as she went.
In truth, she didn't make it very far. About five steps outside the cave, she turned and leaned back against the rock, tilting her head back and letting the cold rain fall over her. Shaking her head, she mentally berated herself for coming so close to losing control. Letting the cold water fall over, she hoped it would freeze some of the wine out of her system. A simple evenings' conversation had suddenly turned into something much more serious. Xena didn't know how much Gabrielle might have guessed about her reaction or her thoughts. But she thought it best not to take any more chances. When she got back, it was time to lie down and pray for sleep.
Xena started as she heard a sound come from inside the cave. Taking a deep breath, she started back, pausing when she realized she hadn't been gone long enough to justify her trip, but deciding to take the chance that Gabrielle wouldn't notice. Walking back inside the cave, Xena took two steps and stopped cold.
Her eyes were drawn to a jerking motion as Gabrielle jumped up onto a small rock, hastily rearranging her blanket and looking away guiltily. Unable to move, and having to remind herself to breathe, Xena had no doubts about what she had inadvertently walked in on. In pure shock, she stared at Gabrielle, who had begun to fidget nervously, not daring to look up.
A long, uncomfortable silence stretched between them. Finally, Xena was able to blink and pull her thoughts into some kind of order. "I . . . uh. I'm . . . uh" Xena's mind went blank again as Gabrielle glanced up at her. As their eyes locked, neither seemed able nor willing to break the gaze. Gabrielle's face was flushed with both embarrassment and desire, while Xena's mouth had suddenly lost any hint of moisture and she felt as though she had just swallowed a stone.
Xena opened her mouth again, but no words came. Finally, in blind panic, she spun to exit the cave, the only coherent thought in her mind telling her to flee.
"Xena." As though entranced, Xena stopped. Gabrielle's voice was an octave lower than usual. That one word was somehow a command and a plea at the same time. Not having the slightest notion what to do, Xena stood motionless, less than a foot away from the mouth of the cave and a clean escape.
"Xena?" Her voice was softer this time, although still quite low, more of a request.
Somehow, though, she seemed to have lost the ability to move of her own free will. Which truth be told might have been for the best, because if she had it was entirely possible she'd still be running. Her breath quickened as she heard Gabrielle get up and soft footfalls as she slowly approached.
So many emotions raced though Xena's mind that she had no chance of obeying any one of them. Like a trapped animal, her eyes darted around, gazing at the dark forest outside in longing.
She felt a tremor rock her entire body as soft fingertips brushed up against her shoulder, a gentle request for her to turn around. Swallowing hard, the only movement she could manage was to close her eyes tightly and struggle for a deep breath.
She felt her friend move slowly around her body, the blanket that surrounded her gently grazing against Xena's skin. Her eyes tightly closed, Xena felt a soft hand touch her cheek. Another deep tremor rocked her body at the touch, and as she took another deep breath, she realized that the hand now resting on her cheek was the same hand that had been so guiltily jerked away just a few moments before. The scent, along with the realization, caused a low groan to escape from her chest.
"Xena." It was whispered this time, cajoling, . . . almost seductive. Opening her eyes, Xena gazed down at her friend. The soft, dancing firelight played off her features and caused her, still damp, hair to shine.
Feeling any number of sensations, that all seemed to be central to one particular area of her anatomy, Xena seemed incapable of doing anything other than staring, frozen in place. She watched Gabrielle's face. Her eyes, dyed golden by the firelight, searched Xena's own for the answers to an unspoken question.
Reflexively, Xena swallowed, noting that her hands had begun to tremble. She couldn't help another brief glimpse into the safe oblivion of the forest.
Letting out a small sigh, Gabrielle let her hand trail lightly down Xena's arm until it came to rest, warmly, in her own hand. With a gentle, if slightly sad, smile she lead Xena back toward the fire.
"Come on." Her voice was soft and light, barely above a whisper.
Xena let herself be lead, stiffly back toward the fire.
"Take those off." The command was also very soft, as Gabrielle tugged lightly on cold, wet leather. As she walked away, Xena began to comply, her mind predominantly blank. Free from the leather, she felt her nakedness keenly, an unusual experience for a normally immodest person. Closing her eyes again, Xena waited, unsure about what was about to happen. Unsure about what she wanted to happen.
An involuntary flinch greeted the first touch she felt. Opening her eyes, she realized that she didn't feel the soft warmth of her friend, but the cool roughness of cloth. She reached up to take the blanket that now lay across her shoulders and pull it fully around her body. She felt a light touch on her shoulder and a gentle urging to sit.
Her eyes still a bit wild, Xena seated herself on the small rock and closed her eyes as Gabrielle removed the band that held her hair in place and began to move the brush through her hair. Despite her better judgment, she felt herself relaxing under the gentle brush strokes. Gabrielle finished brushing out her hair quickly, perhaps knowing that Xena had little patience for such things, perhaps for another reason. As she finished, Xena felt soft fingers trail lightly through her hair. "I'm sorry." Gabrielle's voice was tinged with emotion. Xena's brow furrowed at the words. "I usually don't . . . " She heard Gabrielle take a calming breath. "I shouldn't have done that."
Xena's heart pounded furiously within her chest as she understood the tone of her friend's words, and their implication. She didn't know whether to laugh with relief, or to cry.
"No, Xena." Gabrielle's tone had become more sure, more forceful, as though she were trying to convince them both as she walked around to sit on the sandy cave floor. She paused, her mouth moving silently, searching for words. "I've already embarrassed myself tonight, I might as well finish the job." She said finally, with a rueful smile. "You and I both know that I've had thoughts about . . . well . . . about you and me."
Xena watched her face in silence, as Gabrielle stared at the floor.
"But the thing is . . . I mean . . . you mean so much to me . . . " Gabrielle stammered to a halt, taking a deep breath in frustration. Finally her head moved up, her eyes capturing Xena's with determination. "I love you more than anything, more than anyone I've ever known." Xena continued to watch, understanding the meaning implied. "But I wouldn't ever want anything to happen between us for the wrong reasons. It's too important . . . You're too important to me." Falling silent, Gabrielle let her gaze fall from Xena's.
Taking a deep breath, Xena strove to pull her thoughts into coherence. Her body, mind and heart battled silently within her. She knew that Gabrielle was acting, in part, because of the hesitation and fear that she had sensed coming from Xena, herself. Though her body was quite certain what it wanted, her mind threw up dozens of protests. It was within her heart that she felt the fear. She wasn't quite certain if she was afraid of hurting Gabrielle, of being hurt by her, or most frightening of all, of losing herself completely within that love.
"Xena?" She looked up to find Gabrielle watching her. "I want you to promise me something . . . " Xena took a deep breath, knowing that Gabrielle never spoke those words lightly. "Promise me that whatever decision you make, whatever you decide that you want . . . It'll be what's right for you, and not what you think is right for me, or think that I want."
Xena watched the firelight dance across Gabrielle's face. "What do you want, Gabrielle?"
Her friend's face grew troubled as she searched inside of herself for an answer. "I'm not sure." She said finally. "I just don't want to make any more mistakes." Gabrielle paused again, as if deciding whether or not she should continue. "I'm here, Xena. As for the rest, I don't want either of us to do anything that we're not sure about, or not ready for." Xena watched as Gabrielle choked down a tear. "Somewhere along the line you became my home. More than that, you became the only home I really wanted. It took me a while to really understand that, but I know it now. Nothing is going to change that." With a sigh and a little smile, Gabrielle stood up and moved back toward their saddlebags. "We should get some sleep."
Xena took a deep breath, realizing that Gabrielle had no intention of pushing the matter any further, at least for now. She was both sad and grateful for the reprieve.
"Xena?" Blinking, Xena turned her gaze to her friend. "You're not Tara are you?" Gabrielle was holding her sleeping blanket, eyeing her suspiciously.
And with that Xena laughed, much longer and harder than she should have. She felt many of her fears being sponged away with that laughter, while Gabrielle's eyes grew more slitted. "No." Xena replied with a smile that was born deeply with her.
Muttering to herself, Gabrielle walked over to an open space on the sandy floor that was large enough for both of their blankets. "All right, I give up. Who is it?"
Xena's grin grew even larger. "Lila."
Gabrielle, who had been in mid step stopped abruptly, jerking her body toward Xena in surprise, not seeing the rock that rested next to her foot. "Lila?! Xena you . . . OW!" Crumpling to the floor, Gabrielle grabbed at her right ankle.
Xena was quickly by her side, her hands gently probing the injured ankle. She looked up at Gabrielle with a smirk.
"I'm not buying you another pair of boots."