The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' and Iolaus from the TV show 'Hercules - The Legendary Journeys' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. All other characters are created by myself, and belong to me.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Korkyra: Thank you for your help! :)
Written: June 2011.
Timeline: Season 2, but I'm not following the canon so there's no Solan, no Perdicus and no Callisto.
This story can easily be read on its own but is actually a continuation of the storyline I started in 'It Happened On Winter Solstice Night' and continued in 'A Weekend With Aphrodite' and 'Under Siege'. If you're interested in finding out what happened to 'my' Xena and Gabrielle prior to this story, go ahead and read the other ones.
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Looking for some peace and quiet after their recent fight against the warlord Abraxus, Xena and Gabrielle set up camp at a picturesque lake at the foot of a waterfall. Plans for a romantic evening are soon forged, but before those plans can be carried out, an old friend stops by causing unwanted complications for Xena and frustrations for Gabrielle...
A golden mare carrying two riders - a tall, raven-haired warrior in a deep brown battle dress and a strawberry-blonde in a pea-green top and a rust-brown skirt - emerged from a faint mist and walked into a small clearing near a lake formed by a waterfall. When the mare stopped on her own accord, the warrior leaned forward and patted the horse's neck.
"Great work, Argo. This looks just right. Gabrielle...?"
Chuckling, Xena patted Argo's neck again and then reached down to loosen the vice-like grip around her waist created by Gabrielle's strong arms. Looking around, she knew they had come across the perfect spot for their much-needed break.
The clearing they had arrived at wasn't large, but it was protected from the rest of the world by a row of tall hedges and a few hawthorns. An inviting, crystal clear lake was pooling at the foot of a fifty-foot tall hill, formed by a slow-moving waterfall that streamed down the side of the small mountain.
Located a couple of feet above the surface of the lake next to the waterfall, the black mouth of a natural cave, connected to the shore by a narrow, rocky ledge, promised some shelter in case the weather would turn poor.
Craning her neck and looking towards the skies, Xena was sure they would get some rain at some point, so she reckoned that a cave might come in handy. After checking the undergrowth and discovering that it held an ample supply of nuts and berries, she nodded to herself.
"Perfect," she said quietly.
Xena needed to get off Argo to stretch her legs but she couldn't do it before Gabrielle came to - at the same time, she knew it would be detrimental to her health to wake Gabrielle up before she was ready. Eventually, Xena decided to go for a classic trick and began to run her fingers up and down Gabrielle's arms.
Moments later, Gabrielle stirred, yawning widely - and loudly - in Xena's ear.
"Mmmm... where are we...? Oh, Xena, this is perfect! Just perfect!" Gabrielle said and clambered down from the tall mare.
Running over to the edge of the crystal clear lake, she looked down into it and squealed loudly. "Xena, this is just what we need. I think we should stay here!"
"Good. So do I," Xena said and dismounted Argo.
"Did you know it was here?"
"No, Argo found it for us."
"Remind me to buy her a few extra carrots the next time we come to a village," Gabrielle said, kneeling down to test the water.
"I will. And even if I forget, I'm sure she'll remind you," Xena said with a chuckle. After removing the saddle bags and putting them on the ground, she reached up and took off the tack, the saddle and the blanket protecting Argo's back.
"Go on, girl, have some fun. We'll call you when we need you," Xena said, patting the golden mare's flank. As a response, Argo nodded her big head and whinnied loudly before running off.
"Wow, the water isn't even cold!" Gabrielle said from her position at the shore of the lake.
"Yes, it's nice and warm. Do you think it's got something to do with that cave over there?" Gabrielle said, pointing at the dark hole in the rockface.
"Could be. It's something we should explore later on, that's for sure," Xena said and put the tack and the saddle down on the ground.
"Can't wait... of course, we have more pressing things to do first," Gabrielle said and pulled Xena into an embrace. The warrior grinned, folded her hands behind Gabrielle's back and leaned down to make their mouths come tantalizingly close to each other.
"Unless I'm very much mistaken, we've been together for six moons now," Gabrielle whispered.
"Mmmm. We have."
"And... ummm... there's something we haven't... ummm..."
"Yes, there is."
"But this is such a romantic place, and..." Gabrielle said, looking up at the trees forming a canopy above them, at the gently flowing waterfall, and at the clear lake. "... and I think that... maybe... tonight, when the stars come out, we could... we could t-try to... well, if you want to, of course...?"
Gabrielle's voice trailed off and a crimson hue slowly colored her neck and cheeks. She looked away, unable to hold the Warrior Princess' loving gaze.
"Gabrielle, I'd love to. It's a big step, though. Are you s-"
"Oh, no, please don't ask me if I'm sure. I'm completely sure... I've been thinking about it for weeks now," Gabrielle said and put her hands on Xena's sides.
"Oh, really? Then I'd say you're ready," Xena said saucily.
"I had that coming, didn't I ?" Gabrielle said with an embarrassed snicker. "Anyway, if you set up the camp and the firepit, I'll go find us some lunch."
"Changing the subject are we? All right. I think it's high time for a kiss, though," Xena said and pulled Gabrielle back towards her. Grinning, she leaned down and claimed the bard's lips in a soft, but loving, kiss.
When they separated, Xena moved her thumb across Gabrielle's cheekbone a few times. "It's a big step, love. What if you won't like it? I'm worried that it might destroy what we have."
Shaking her head, Gabrielle reached up and took Xena's hand in her own. "There's no chance of that. I get the sweetest feeling whenever you touch me... or even look at me... my skin tingles and my heart soars. All in all, it's what the bards call love."
"I love you, too, but still..."
"What's with Xena Worrywart Princess all of a sudden? I thought I was supposed to be the sensitive one!" Gabrielle said and gently slapped Xena's stomach.
"I guess you're right," Xena said, smiling. "But it's still a big step."
A gurgling rumble interrupted their conversation, causing Gabrielle to wave her hand and look down at her stomach. "I'm hungry. I'll go find something to eat."
"Yes, dear," Xena said and took a step back to be out of range in case Gabrielle wanted to slap her gut again. Instead, the bard spun around on her heel, picked up her Amazon fighting staff and went into the bushes to get some nuts and berries.
Wearing an unreadable expression on her face, Xena watched Gabrielle for a short while, but then turned around to get started on building the firepit.
A half-candlemark later, Gabrielle returned to their refuge carrying a neatly folded piece of cloth that held a large amount of nuts, berries and fruits.
Xena had been busy setting up their camp and she was just putting the finishing touches on it - by hauling two logs over to the firepit - when Gabrielle walked into the clearing.
"Xena, do you think these yellowish fruits are edible? I can't recall ever seeing them before," Gabrielle said as she sat down on the log. She spread the piece of cloth out on her lap and showed Xena the fruits in question.
"They're new to me, too. Same size as lemons but in a darker shade of yellow... hmmm. I guess one of us will have to sample them," Xena said and dug down into her cleavage for her breast dagger.
With a flick of the wrist, she sliced one of the fruits in half and took a look at the yellowish meat. "Looks good... smells good, too. Very sour, though," she continued after tasting the juice.
"I think I'll stick to the berries, then," Gabrielle said, scooped up a handful of raspberries and popped them into her mouth.
"It's probably some variation of a lemon. It would be great in some tea, actually," Xena said and picked up one of their mugs. She gave the yellowish fruit a very hard squeeze, draining it completely. Once it was dry, she chucked it over her shoulder. "It wasn't too bad so I'll keep this for later."
In the trees high above them, a bird began to sing in a very elegant, melodious fashion, and Gabrielle quickly put a hand on Xena's arm to make a silent plea to the Warrior Princess to keep quiet. The magic moment only lasted for a few moments but the smile on Gabrielle's face gave away how much she was enjoying herself.
"How beautiful," she said, looking around in vain for the bird that had been singing. "This is such a perfect spot. The burbling waterfall, the lake, the birds... I could stay here for a moon or more!"
"I'm glad Argo found it for us," Xena said and snatched a handful of nuts from the piece of cloth. "What do you want to do after lunch?"
"Oh, I don't know. Explore the cave, perhaps?" Gabrielle said and took the last few berries. Once the cloth was empty, she folded it up and put it back into one of their saddlebags.
"We could do that. We're going to need a torch. Even in broad daylight, it'll be pitch black in there," Xena said, wiped off the breast dagger and put it back down her cleavage.
"All right. When I was picking the nuts off the bushes, I saw several branches that would do nicely."
With a broad grin, Xena leaned over to muss Gabrielle's hair.
"What?" Gabrielle said, furrowing her brow.
"You're turning into quite the Amazon. Pretty soon, you won't be needing me for hunting and all that."
"No, but I'll be needing you for all sorts of other things, Xena," Gabrielle said with a wink.
"Good. Which reminds me... once we're done exploring the cave, you need some staff practice."
"Ohhhh..." Gabrielle said in a voice that came dangerously close to a nasal whine.
"It's a fairly simple maneuver, but it's one that's good to have in your arsenal."
"The last time you said that, my thigh was bruised for a week afterwards," Gabrielle said and got up. She ran her thumbs inside the belt on her rust- brown skirt and began to shuffle around on the spot.
"Xena, I need to go. Where did you dig our latrine?"
"I haven't had time to do it yet," Xena said with a broad smile. Reaching into their utility bag, she found a small shovel that she proceeded to hand to Gabrielle. "Not over by the bushes, they're hawthorns."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said flatly and walked in the other direction.
A candlemark later, Xena used their flints to ignite a makeshift torch and began to step out onto the narrow, rocky ledge that would take them to the cave.
"Careful, Xena, it looks slippery," Gabrielle said, scrunching up her face.
"It's not too bad. Come on, give me your hand."
Gabrielle did as asked and grabbed hold of Xena's outstretched hand - together, they moved across the narrow ledge inch by inch, headed for the mouth of the cave.
"Almost there," Xena said, peeking around the corner and into the pitch black interior.
"Good! This cave better be spectacular!"
"Three more steps and we're there. One... two... three, I've got you," Xena said and pulled Gabrielle into the cave.
Xena held the torch in front of her to make the flickering light illuminate the cave. It was larger than they had anticipated, widening out to roughly seven yards across just beyond the entrance and stretching in further than the torch could reach.
The burbling noises from the waterfall sounded very different inside the cave - instead of a constant splashing, it was closer to a soothing hiss. There was also an unusual, salty smell in the air, one that Xena's sensitive nose immediately picked up on.
"I think there's a hot spring in here somewhere. Smells like it, anyway," she said as she took a few steps forward.
"Yeah. Come on, let's explore it," Xena said and lowered the torch so she could see the condition of the floor. "Looks good, there aren't many rocks."
"Right behind you, Xena," Gabrielle said and put a hand on the small of Xena's back.
As the two women walked further into the cave, the flickering light from the torch shone on the walls, illuminating all kinds of strange, crude drawings of horses, bulls and hunters.
"Xena, what are these drawings? They're beautiful. Do you think they were drawn by children?"
"It's possible, but in any case, they're very, very old. They're probably from when mankind was still young."
"We've been there," Gabrielle said with a chuckle, remembering their adventures with Aphrodite.
"There's the hot spring," Xena said, moving the torch over to shine on a deep hollow in the floor of the cave.
"With room for two. How convenient. We're two," Gabrielle said and hooked her arm inside Xena's.
"Yeah. Hmmm. Someone's been in here recently. There's a burnt-out torch over at the far wall of the spring. And those rocks have been moved by hand."
"A shelter for hunters?"
"Could be. Anyway, it looks good. I don't think the water is too hot," Xena said and shifted the torch to her left hand. Crouching down next to the spring, she probed the bubbling water with her fingers. "No, it's perfect."
"The thing we talked about before... you know?"
"Would it be feasible to... uh," Gabrielle said, nodding at the hot spring.
"Well... I think we should try it on dry land for starters. If you get a taste for it, we could always experiment a little."
"Oh... okay," Gabrielle said, biting her lips.
Xena reached over and mussed Gabrielle's hair. "And now, my bard, it's time for your staff practice."
"Mirror my actions... left sweep, right sweep, parry, thrust, right sweep," Xena said, holding a branch in a horizontal position.
"Uhh... would you mind running that by me again?" Gabrielle said with a cheeky laugh.
"First, assume a fighting stance... yes, like that," Xena said, nodding in approval when Gabrielle crouched down a few inches and stood with her feet slightly apart.
"Then left sweep, right sweep," Xena continued, slowly moving the branch to demonstrate.
Gabrielle mirrored the warrior's moves, moving the staff first left, then right.
"Good. Now parry and thrust," Xena said, parrying by moving the staff up across her body and immediately moving the butt towards the imaginary target. "Thrust and..."
"And right sweep," Gabrielle said, sweeping the staff around. "Hey, I think I got it."
"Good. Now do it at real speed."
"Right. Stand back," Gabrielle said and rolled her shoulders. After bopping up and down on the balls of her feet for a few moments, she went through the deadly maneuvers, moving the staff so fast that it became a blur in the air.
"Very good. Now you need to do it until it comes naturally to you."
Groaning, Gabrielle performed the maneuvers over and over again until her arms were trembling and her back was almost numb.
While Gabrielle was practicing, Xena kept a close eye on the young Amazon, secretly admiring her stamina and technique. "One more time for good measure," she said, honeying her voice.
"Oh, but I've done it nineteen times already!"
"In a fight, you may need to do it fifty times in a row. Just one more... please."
"Oh, all right... but then I need a break," Gabrielle said and performed the set one last time. "There. Are you satisfied?"
"Fully. Come here," Xena said and picked up a rag. Once Gabrielle was standing by her side, completely out of breath and flushing all over, she began to wipe down the young redhead's neck, chest and arms. "You know, Gabrielle, I'm really very proud of you. When we first met, you couldn't even stomp a cockroach, but now you're fast becoming a force to be reckoned with."
"Well, if I am, it's all your doing."
"I may have brought it to the surface, but it was there the whole time, love," Xena said and leaned down to give Gabrielle a kiss on the lips.
Gabrielle's heart rate picked up again, but this time, it wasn't from the staff work. The mere touch of Xena's lips on her own sent a tingle through her body, and she knew she was more than ready to take their relationship to the next level. "I need a dip in the lake to get the sweat and the travel dust off me. Would you mind washing my hair in a little while?"
"Of course not. I'd love to," Xena said, moving a stray lock of the aforementioned strawberry-blonde hair away from Gabrielle's brow.
"Good. Afterwards... well, there's a little something I need your help with. It's been bothering me from before we ran into Abraxus and those thugs."
"Oh?" Xena said and moved closer to Gabrielle.
Xena furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes. "Stuck?"
"In a story. I need you to listen to a few pages, uh, I mean paragraphs of my latest story. There's something wrong somewhere, and I was thinking that you might be able to give me a few pointers."
"Oh... a story... I don-"
"All you have to do is to sit down and listen. You know how to sit, don't you?" Gabrielle said, cocking her head and wearing a puppy-dog look that broke down Xena's defenses in a heartbeat.
"Anything for you, love. But don't complain if you can't use my advice."
"I won't," Gabrielle said and stood up on tip-toes so she could give Xena a nice kiss in return.
"Is the coast clear?" Gabrielle said, hiding behind one of the trees.
Sitting at the firepit, Xena did a thorough scan of the area. The only living creatures were a handful of birds and a family of squirrels but they all scurried away, unable to meet the Warrior Princess' hard gaze.
"Good. If someone shows up while I'm bathing, would you mind applying some Chakram to them?"
"Good. Here I come," Gabrielle said but kept hiding behind the trees.
"Gabrielle, there's nothing and nobody here..." Xena said in a slightly flat tone.
Gabrielle grunted and stepped out from behind the tree. Her feet and legs were bare, but she was wearing a gray shift that she had bought once when they had spent a night in a small village.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she hurried over to the edge of the lake.
"Did you remember the soap?"
"Ugh! No!" Gabrielle said and ran over to the saddlebags. Once she had all the equipment needed for bathing, she ran back to the shore and looked into the clear water.
"Gabrielle, I thought you had overcome your fear of being nude in public?"
"No, I overcame my fear of being nude with you. That's something completely different."
"I don't know what you're afraid of. You have such a nice body," Xena said and stood up. In one heartbeat flat, she stripped out of her leathers and walked towards the shore of the lake as naked as the day she was born. After finding a suitable place, she dove head-first into the lake.
Once she resurfaced, she flipped her wet hair out of her face and started treading water. "It's lovely. I think you should come in."
"Oh... all right," Gabrielle said and stepped down into the water at a shallow spot. Once she was submerged up to her neck, she took off the soaked shift and put it back on dry land in a place where she could reach it once she was done bathing.
She began treading water next to Xena, marveling in the feel of the lukewarm water. "You know, I don't think I've ever experienced a warm lake before. Not like this, anyway."
"It's got something to do with the hot spring. It's probably underneath it all."
"Hmmm. Would you mind doing my hair now?"
"Not at all, Gabrielle. Come on, let's move over to the shore. There's a natural ledge where I jumped in."
Swimming slowly, Gabrielle followed Xena over to the shore of the lake. Once they had reached it, she turned her back towards the warrior and dunked her head under water to get her hair wet.
"Need the soap," Xena said, moving Gabrielle's hair into an impromptu ponytail.
"Thanks. Come, sit on my lap," Xena said and pulled Gabrielle closer.
"What are you sitting on?"
"That's gotta hurt!" Gabrielle said, trying to turn around, but Xena shook her head and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, turning her away.
"I'm fine. Are you ready?"
"Just lean towards me. I'll do the rest," Xena whispered into Gabrielle's ear, prompting the bard to think about the things that would happen come nightfall. A pleasant buzz raced through her system, and she gulped, feeling curiously apprehensive yet excited at the same time.
After she had worked up a lather, Xena began to wash Gabrielle's hair, moving her fingers back and forth through the golden tresses to make sure they were all well taken care of.
As she did so, she could feel Gabrielle gradually turn into putty on her lap. The bard's breathing changed and became deeper, and her arms were just resting idly in her lap. Xena chuckled, knowing exactly what was going through Gabrielle's mind.
Once the hair was done, Xena moved her hands forward to massage Gabrielle's scalp. It only took two strokes for Gabrielle to let out a long, throaty moan that made Xena break out in a cheeky grin.
When Gabrielle realized that the moan had been out loud, she snapped out of her reverie and sat up straight on Xena's lap, once again feeling a crimson hue color her cheeks. "Gods... I'm... uh, I was... I..."
"Your hair is ready. Do you want me to continue the massage?"
"Uh... maybe later. Maybe tonight?" Gabrielle said, turning around so she was facing Xena.
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, leaning in to place a little peck on Xena's lips.
"Anytime, love. Once we're out of the water, do you want a little nap, or-"
"No... no-no-no-no-no, you're helping me with my story, remember?" Gabrielle said, splashing a little water in Xena's direction.
"Oh, you wanted to do that today?" Xena said, putting on her most innocent look.
"Hardy har har. Just for the record, it's an action sequence so I doubt you'll doze off in the middle of it."
"Well, it's been a hot day... and the sun is out..."
"Oh, you!" Gabrielle said and playfully splashed an armful of water directly into Xena's chest. When she saw Xena's left eyebrow slowly creep up her bronzed forehead, she knew she was in trouble. With a loud squeal, Gabrielle quickly ducked down under the lake's surface to try to escape the inevitable watery wrath of the Warrior Princess.
A short while later, the two women sat by the firepit drying their hair. The looks of love flying back and forth between them could have made Aphrodite squeal in delight, but even without the Goddess of Love around, it was clear to see that something was brewing.
After putting her hair brush back in the saddlebags, Gabrielle found the leather scroll case Xena had bought for her last Winter Solstice and took out her inkwell, her quill and an unfinished piece of parchment. "So... are you ready?"
"Sure," Xena said and made herself comfortable on the log.
Gabrielle looked down at the unfinished parchment and crinkled her nose, wondering where she should start. She had already edited the text several times, turning the scroll into quite a mess: it was a confusing blur of written lines, interesting words she wanted to keep for later, lines she had crossed out and lines she had abandoned altogether. "Oh, this is difficult..."
"What do you want to accomplish with the scene?" Xena said, chewing on a piece of beef jerky.
"What's going on?"
"It's the story of what happened when you, me and Toris fought Cortese. But it's just... ugh. Not working. I can't get Cortese's voice right. He always comes up sounding like a wimp. But he wasn't."
"No, actually, he was a wimp. A foppish wimp in a fancy frock."
"That's not how I saw him," Gabrielle said and chewed on her quill. "Maybe I should focus on your relationship with your brother instead...?"
"That's too personal, Gabrielle. We argued a lot. I'm not sure I'd want the world to know about that."
"That's true. Darn." Gabrielle looked at the parchment and chewed a bit more on the quill. After a moment, she began to jot down a few cues. "Hang on... I just... got... inspired," she continued, talking around the words she was writing.
Closing her eyes, Xena listened to the raspy sound of the quill hitting the parchment. When the sound seemed to continue even after Gabrielle had stopped writing, Xena went into a high state of alert and began to look around the clearing.
"Shhh. Something's out there," Xena said, reaching for her sword. At the last moment, she changed her mind and took the Chakram off its little hook instead.
"Man, God or beast?" Gabrielle whispered, quickly putting down her writing tools and grabbing her staff.
"Man. Stay here," Xena said and disappeared into the undergrowth, moving so quickly that Gabrielle only saw a brief flash of silver from the Chakram.
Scrambling to her feet, Gabrielle went into a defensive position, holding the staff horizontally so she could respond to any kind of attack.
At the same time, Xena ran silently through the forest, searching for the person she had felt watching them. It didn't take her long to spot somebody crouching down next to a tree, observing the clearing she had just left behind.
The peeping Tom was wearing a purple vest and dark pants, and he was sporting a shock of blond hair that grew more and more familiar for every foot Xena came closer to him.
Once she realized who it was, she stepped out into the open and put her hands on her hips. "Ya could've just said hello, Iolaus."
The hunter jerked upright in surprise and spun around to face Xena. "Hi, Xena. Boy, I didn't even hear you coming," Iolaus said with a chuckle, putting out his arm.
After clasping arms with the hunter, Xena looked back at the clearing, easily spotting Gabrielle who was still standing in a defensive position.
"Were you spying on us?"
"No, of course not. I was just admiring Gabrielle's stance. She's come a long way, hasn't she?" Iolaus said and brushed off his pants.
"Yes, she has," Xena said, cocking her head. She began to think back to when she and Gabrielle had last met Iolaus. 'We haven't seen him since the business with Prometheus... and he and Gabrielle definitely had a thing going on back then... Hmmm,' she thought.
"Anyway, I was hoping you'd offer me some dinner...?" Iolaus said, putting his hands on his vest.
"Well... we actually don't have any food yet. We've only been here for a few candlemarks."
"Oh... Hey, I can provide the food. I'll find a rabbit or something... okay?"
"Er... sure. Come back to the camp and say hello to Gabrielle. She must be getting worried by now," Xena said slightly brusquely before spinning around on her heel.
When Gabrielle saw who the mysterious watcher was, she began to chew on the inside of her cheek, unknowingly thinking the same thoughts that had raced through Xena's mind a scant few candledrips before.
Plastering a smile on her face and hoping it looked real, she let her staff fall down to the ground and put out her arm.
Instead of clasping Gabrielle's arm, Iolaus pulled her into an embrace that made Xena narrow her eyes down into blue slits.
"Wow, you look fantastic. How are you doing, Gabrielle?" he said, putting his hands on her upper arms.
"I'm great, Iolaus, thanks. You look healthy, too," Gabrielle said, feeling the most awkward she ever had.
"Yeah... travelling with Herc keeps me fit. I've made an agreement with Xena; she'll let me stay for dinner if I catch the food."
"Oh... okay. Sure, we'd love to, uh, eat dinner with you," Gabrielle said, shooting the Warrior Princess a puzzled look over Iolaus' shoulder. Xena scratched her cheek and shrugged.
"Great! Is rabbit okay with you?" Iolaus said and took a step back.
"Rabbit sounds fine," Xena said.
"Gotcha. One furry critter coming right up," the hunter said and ran back out into the forest.
Gabrielle tracked him with her eyes. Once he had vanished between the trees, she put her hands on her hips and scrunched up her face. "Xena, I thought we already had plans for tonight?"
"Well, we did, but... but I couldn't very well tell him about 'em, could I?" Xena said with a faint chuckle. When the expression on Gabrielle's face didn't change, Xena licked her lips and bared her teeth in an embarrassed gesture. "Yeah, uh... I'm sorry, love. I'll make it up to you. Anyway, we're not leaving in the morning, you know. There's always tomorrow evening."
"Mmmm," Gabrielle said, spun around on her heel and walked over to the firepit where she sat down and took one of her scrolls.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry, I didn't want to... to... oh." Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Oh, boy, this is going to be a fun night," she said to herself.
As the first rays of the new day peeked over the horizon, Gabrielle stoked the fire with a stick. When the embers came back to life, she folded her arms across her chest and watched the flames flicker up from the fresh straw she had used as an incendiary.
Constantly grumbling under her breath, she looked back over her shoulder at the trio of sleeping furs. Xena still hadn't risen and Iolaus was still snoring loud enough to annoy even Charon, the ferryman.
Grumbling a bit louder, Gabrielle reached for her boots, intent on finding some berries and fruits for their breakfast. Once her boots were on securely, she stomped out of the camp.
A quarter of a candlemark later, Xena stirred and rolled over onto her back. Looking to her left, she could see that Gabrielle's sleeping fur was empty. She sighed, wishing that she had been able to convince Gabrielle not to move her fur to the other side of the fire the night before.
Her sensitive ears told her that Iolaus was still sleeping, and she hoped he would be for a fair while yet. After swinging her legs out of the sleeping fur, she quickly put on her boots and went over to their latrine.
The two women met on their way back to the camp. The initial silence was terribly awkward for both of them, but Gabrielle just shrugged, making a berry fall out of her hand.
At once, Xena bent down, picked up the errant raspberry and offered it to Gabrielle with a hopeful smile. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I should have told him to take a hike yesterday."
"Ah, that would've been rude. We don't have that many friends in the first place. I'll live. I had just been looking forward to our little plan, you know...?"
"I'll make it up to you, I promise," Xena said, mussing Gabrielle's hair.
"Is he still asleep?"
Xena listened intently - even at fifty paces, she could still hear Iolaus' characteristic snoring. "Yup."
"He snores worse than Joxer! I mean, how is that humanly possible?"
"I know from personal experience that Iolaus is a special case. Come on, let's get some breakfast," Xena said and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder.
While they were walking back, Gabrielle felt a brief stab of something she reluctantly identified as jealousy. "When you say special case, what do you mean exactly?"
"I mean that he's a good guy but he has his quirks."
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. He's no match for you," Xena said with a crooked grin.
After breakfast, the three people sat quietly around the firepit, working on their favorite pastimes: Iolaus was chipping away on a new set of arrow heads, Gabrielle was working on the Cortese story and Xena was sharpening her blade - however, she never took her eyes off Gabrielle.
A few candledrips later, Gabrielle sighed and put away the scroll. She ran her hands through her hair in frustration and began to pace back and forth in front of the firepit.
"Anything wrong, Gabs?" Iolaus said, looking up from his woodwork.
"No, she's always like this when one of her scrolls is giving her a hard time," Xena said, suddenly realizing that the last three sharpening strokes had been on the hilt instead of on the blade. She chuckled and began paying closer attention to what she was doing.
"Would you guys mind if I took a little trip around the forest? I won't be too long," Gabrielle said.
"No, go ahead. It usually helps you clear your mind," Xena said, shooting Gabrielle a loving look.
"That's what I'm hoping for. See you later," Gabrielle said and took off in a slow jog.
"See ya, Gabs," Iolaus said, smiling. "Wow, she's turned into a real spunky young woman. I like spunky young women. They keep us old folks on our toes, right?" he said with a chuckle, thumping Xena's knee with his fist.
"Yeah..." Iolaus echoed dreamily, causing Xena to miss the blade again.
Once Gabrielle returned, she tried to go back to the scroll but the words still wouldn't come to her. Growling, she stuffed the scroll and her writing utensils down into her scroll case. "I think I'm going to throw that one away. It just doesn't work," she said and propped her head up on her arm.
"Maybe a fresh set of ears would help. I'd love to help you on your story," Iolaus said.
"Well, thank you, but it would be a waste of time, I'm afraid. That story is ripe for the dunghill."
"I wish I had your skills. Writing can't be easy," Iolaus said and put away the knife he had been using to carve the arrow heads. Dusting off his hands, he got up and moved over to sit next to Gabrielle.
Behind them, Xena looked up and bared her teeth.
"No, it's not easy. That's why it's such a great feeling when everything flows... of course, sometimes, it refuses to flow anywhere," Gabrielle said.
"Mmmm," Iolaus said, looking straight at Gabrielle with a smile on his lips. "It's like hunting. Even if you do the same things every time, sometimes they just won't work. And then we have the days where the hunt comes naturally. It's just you and the prey, circling each other, moving closer to each other until the inevitable outcome."
"Uh, yeah..." Gabrielle said, feeling a blush creep up on her cheeks.
"Your neck looks a bit stiff from all that writing. Do you want me to give you a little rub-down? Herc always says I have magic fingers... not like that, ha ha."
"Iolaus... I need a word with you," Xena said in a voice dripping of impending doom for the hunter. She had moved silently over to stand directly in front of the log Gabrielle was sitting on, and her face showed more than a little darkness.
"Sure. What's up?"
"There's something you need to know about Gabrielle and I."
"We're together, so don't even think about trying any moves."
Only a few moments after Xena had said the words, Gabrielle's blush exploded into an all-out flushing attack that colored her skin from the tips of her ears to the soles of her feet. She bit hard down on her lips and tried to look anywhere but at the man sitting next to her.
"Together... like in... 'together'-together...?" Iolaus said, making quotation marks in the air with his fingers.
"That's exactly what I mean."
"Oh..." Iolaus said, looking from Gabrielle to Xena and back again. "Hey, I'm sorry, Gabs. I didn't know. It's just that whenever I see a beautiful woman who appears to be single, my instincts take over and I... well. You know the rest," he continued, grinning.
"I certainly do... and thanks for the compliment," Gabrielle croaked.
"Well, Iolaus, now you know. We would prefer you kept it to yourself," Xena said, still using the voice of doom.
"Oh, yeah, yeah, may Zeus himself strike me down if I ever speak a word about it," Iolaus said, nodding enthusiastically.
"But we can still be friends, right?" Iolaus said to Gabrielle. He put out his hand, palm-up, and Gabrielle promptly slapped her own hand down on it.
"Yes. That doesn't have anything to do with the other thing," Gabrielle said and got up. She went over to stand next to Xena and wrapped her arm around the warrior's waist.
Iolaus grinned again, thinking about the kisses he had shared with both Xena and Gabrielle. "Here's hoping for eternal happiness for the two of you," he said and tipped his non-existent cap. "I'm definitely thrilled on your behalf. You look great together... Wow, this is awkward. I nearly made a big mistake there."
"Well, you didn't. All right, let's move on. It'll be lunch time in a candlemark or so and the food doesn't just catch itself you know," Gabrielle said, relieved that the mess had been sorted out before she had needed to slap anyone silly.
"Xena, how about a little contest? My bow against your Chakram?" Iolaus said as he got up from the log.
Xena cocked her head, appearing to be deep in thought. Gabrielle looked from one to the other, knowing that it would soon turn into a no-holds barred contest. Rolling her eyes, she stomped back to her long-forgotten scroll case.
"You're on, Iolaus. First one to three kills wins," Xena said and put out her arm.
"What are the stakes?"
"Well... how about the loser skins the catch."
"Deal," Iolaus said, clasping arms with the Warrior Princess.
While Xena and Iolaus were busy hunting for whatever they could find, Gabrielle shook her head repeatedly, unable to get rid of the feeling that the two hunters were only trying to impress her. 'Unlucky for them, I'm my own woman... and I've already made up my mind,' she thought, biting down on the shaft of her quill.
After staring at a blank piece of parchment for a few candledrips, she put everything away again and began preparing the small camp for the coming lunch by pulling one of the logs a bit closer to the firepit and setting up two Y-shaped sticks on either side of the pit.
When she couldn't find a suitable branch to use as a spear for the catch, she left the camp and went into the woods to cut one down from a tree.
It only took her a few candledrips, but upon her return, fresh stick in hand, she froze mid-step, staring wide-eyed at the object occupying the center of the camp.
A skunk - a huge skunk - had taken residence on one of the logs, looking very much like it wanted to stay there for good. A split second after Gabrielle had noticed the skunk, the skunk noticed her and jumped off the log.
The two beings stared daggers at each other for several moments and it soon turned into a standoff - unfortunately for Gabrielle, the standoff was resolved when the skunk slowly raised its tail.
Gabrielle instantly howled, dropped the stick she was carrying, spun around on her heel and sprinted back into the woods. She was going so fast that she didn't have time to see where she was going, and roughly fifty feet into the forest, she slipped and fell on her face.
Cursing and growling, she scrambled to her feet and continued the escape.
At the same time down at the other end of the forest, Xena's sixth sense - used solely for when Gabrielle was in trouble - kicked in, and she threw down the rabbit she had caught and sprinted back to the camp.
When she arrived at the clearing, the skunk had returned to its place on the log, daring anyone to go near it. Seeing the animal made the pieces of the puzzle fall into place in Xena's mind, and a crooked grin briefly flashed across her face.
"Gabrielle? ... Gabri-ELLE!? Are you all right?"
Xena thought she could hear a muted reply from somewhere deep into the forest, but she wasn't completely sure. Harrumphing, she drew her Chakram and aimed at the exact center of the black-and-white stripes to put an end to the little crisis.
At the last moment, Xena realized that Gabrielle probably wouldn't want her to kill the skunk - even if it had scared her off into the woods - so she began to set up a plan to lure the animal away from the camp.
Before she had time to go through with it, Iolaus came up behind her, holding three rabbits on a string. "Hey, hey, look who won the contest... Whoa! Where did that beast come from?"
"No idea, but I know where it'll be going," Xena said, still holding her Chakram high in the air, ready to strike at any moment in case the skunk would attack her.
"Out there somewhere."
"Do you want me to go and find her?"
Xena briefly looked at Iolaus' expectant face, and she growled and shook her head. "No thanks."
Even though the skunk had been basking in the attention, it had grown tired of the drama and it finally slithered off the log and moved away from the little clearing, stopping at the edge of the trees to give the two humans a funny look.
Once the skunk had left the scene, Xena rolled her eyes and put the Chakram onto the little hook on her belt. "Hmmm!" she said, looking at the three rabbits Iolaus was carrying.
"Let's call it a draw. You had an emergency to deal with," Iolaus said and threw down the three carcasses next to the firepit.
"No. You won fair and square. As soon as I've found Gabrielle, I'll start skinning them," Xena said and left the clearing.
"Okay, we can do that. I'll get the fire going," Iolaus said, but Xena didn't even turn around to acknowledge it.
A few candledrips later, Xena stood among a cluster of trees, trying to pick up Gabrielle's trail. She had already looked high and low, but she wasn't able to find the bard anywhere.
"Where could she be? I mean, it's not like she would climb a tree..." Xena said out loud, looking upwards. "... or maybe she would," she continued when she spotted Gabrielle's characteristic rust-brown skirt and pea-green top clinging onto the trunk at least twenty feet in the air.
"Gabrielle, what in the world are you doing up there?"
"There was a skunk! And it raised its tail!"
"Iolaus and I chased it away. You can come down now."
"I... uh, can't. I'm sort of... stuck."
"Yeah, stuck, like in can't-get-down-on-my-own," Gabrielle said and leaned her forehead against the tree trunk. "I wanted to get out of the way but suddenly, I found myself halfway up Mount Olympus here. Don't even think about laughing."
"I'd never laugh at you, Gabrielle," Xena said solemnly and took the scabbard off her back. Jumping up to the lowest branch, she began to climb the tree. A few candledrips later, she was at a level with the stuck bard, except that she was on the other side of the trunk.
"I can't get over there, Xena."
"One thing at a time."
Xena inched around the wide trunk, climbing a bit down so she was a foot or so below Gabrielle. Looking up, she could see that she was perfectly placed.
"You didn't just look up my skirt, did you?" Gabrielle said, laughing nervously.
"What if I did?" Xena said, winking.
"Xena! Rescue now, joke later!"
"All right, all right. I'm coming up. When you can, reach over and grab hold of my back."
"Don't you mean when I dare?"
"No. You're the bravest person I know. Hang on, can you reach me yet?"
Gabrielle tried moving her left hand down. Her right arm was strong enough to hold onto the tree without making her lose her balance, but the tight grip didn't give her enough leeway to reach Xena's leather-clad shoulder. "Not quite. Another few inches upwards."
"I'll be there," Xena said and moved up to the next branch.
Gabrielle was finally able to grab hold of Xena's leathers and she swung her body over onto Xena's back. The added weight almost made Xena lose her grip, but she managed to hang on with her fingertips.
"Are you okay back there?"
"You can hold on tighter if you- YOWCH! That's... a bit... too tight!"
"Sorry," Gabrielle said, loosening her grip slightly.
"We're going down now," Xena said and started climbing downwards, taking it very gently so she wouldn't scare Gabrielle more than necessary.
When the two women were finally standing on the forest floor, Gabrielle blushed so hard that she was afraid the color would never wear off. She hid her face in her hands, unwilling to look at Xena.
"Hey... come on, it wasn't that bad," Xena said, clipping the scabbard onto her back.
"Yes it was," Gabrielle said in a muffled voice.
"I'm just glad I was here to help you... and don't forget, you've helped me countless times. Like the other day... if you hadn't set the horses free while I was inside Abraxus' camp, things might have gone really badly for me. There's even a risk I wouldn't be here talking to you now."
"Not the same."
"No?" Xena said and mussed Gabrielle's strawberry-blonde hair.
"No, because back in Abraxus' camp, I'll bet that you had everything under control. But now... now I was just behaving like a big chicken and I made a foolish mistake."
"We learn as long as we live, Gabrielle. Are you planning on climbing another tree in the near future?"
"Hades, no!" Gabrielle said and removed her hands from her face.
"There... you see? You did learn something. Come on, let's get back to the camp. Iolaus said he would get the fire going. We'll have lunch ready in a matter of 'drips."
Back at the camp, Iolaus was down on his hands and knees, blowing gently into the fire to get it to produce just the right amount of smoke. The three rabbits were lying next to the firepit, ready to be skinned.
When he heard the two women approach the camp, he looked up and leaned back to rest on his knees.
"Good to see a man hard at work," Xena said jokingly, making Iolaus chuckle and dust off his hands.
"I have the fire going, oh great Warrior Princess. And the catch is ready to be processed," he said, pointing at the three carcasses.
"Oh, goodie. Gabrielle, would you mind getting... oh," Xena said, suddenly noticing something on Gabrielle's chest she hadn't seen back at the tree.
"What?" Gabrielle said, looking down her pea-green top.
"You have some moss stuck down your cleavage. Here, let me help you scoop it up," Xena said and stuck two fingers down the top.
"No, I... uh... eek...! Quit tickling me! I got it, thanks!" Gabrielle said, swatting Xena's hand away. When she tried to fish up the piece of moss herself, all she succeeded in doing was to push it even further down.
A curiously strangled chuckle coming from Iolaus made both Xena and Gabrielle turn towards the hunter. His eyes were sparkling and he had his hand across his mouth to stop a belly-laugh from escaping his lips. "Hey, that's unfair... I got the three rabbits but you got the prize!"
Two pairs of eyes - one blue, one green - looked at Iolaus, both communicating silently that it was a good time for him to keep quiet.
"A joke. That was a joke... never mind."
"Ohhhh!" Gabrielle growled and stomped away from the two others to get the moss out of her top.
"While you're over there, would you mind getting some water?" Xena shouted, but she never got a reply.
Not long after lunch, dark, ominous clouds started forming over the little clearing. Gabrielle was too busy with the Cortese scroll to notice, but both Xena and Iolaus were looking up at the sky, trying to gauge when the rain would start.
"Won't be long now. Five candledrips at the most," Iolaus said and pulled his bow over his shoulder so he could move quickly if he had to.
"Ten candledrips," Xena said, still looking at the dark gray clouds.
"Wanna bet?" Iolaus said, putting out his hand.
"You're on," Xena said and slapped her palm down onto Iolaus'.
"By the Gods, you're like a couple of kids! What's next, a spitting contest?" Gabrielle grumbled, peeking over the rim of the scroll.
"Gabrielle, we better pack up. Judging by those clouds, we're going to be soaked in about nine candledrips or so," Xena said and got up from the log.
"Four," Iolaus said, earning himself a dark glare from Xena.
Above them, the trees began to sway back and forth in the ever-increasing breeze. The thick branches started creaking and groaning from the strain of fighting the wind, and foliage occasionally fluttered to the ground.
In the far distance, the first thunderclaps could be heard, making Gabrielle pack her things into the saddlebags. "Are we going to the cave, Xena?"
"Yeah. We need to go in there before the rain starts. The ledge was slippery enough in the dry, I wouldn't want to chance it in the wet," Xena said and helped Gabrielle to her feet.
"Good thinking. I'm right behind you."
"There's a cave?" Iolaus said, all ready to go.
"Yes, next to the waterfall. Gabrielle and I explored it yesterday. There's a hot spring in there, down at the far end."
"Oh, great. I could use a good, warm bath. I'm sure you could, too... not like that!" Iolaus said when both Xena and Gabrielle groaned at him. "Sweet Aphrodite, I need to watch what I say around here. Everything gets misinterpreted!"
The edge of the wind held an unmistakable scent of water, prompting the three people to hurriedly pack their belongings and walk over to the ledge that would take them to the cave.
"I'll go first, then Gabrielle, then you, Iolaus," Xena said and put the saddlebags over her shoulder before grabbing Gabrielle's hand.
Iolaus nodded and made sure his bow wasn't loose. "Okay by me. I'll bring up the rear. I have lots of experience of bringing up the rear."
"Xena, what about Argo? She's out there somewhere," Gabrielle said, putting a hand on Xena's arm.
"She'll be fine. Come on. I don't want to get soaked. You know how long it takes for my leathers to dry," Xena said and began to move out onto the narrow, slippery ledge.
"Well?" Iolaus said, looking at Gabrielle who was standing at the mouth of the cave, watching the rain come down hard.
"I'd say it started somewhere around seven candledrips since we first talked about it, Iolaus."
"You said five, Xena said ten, and I'm calling it a draw. You'll just have to find something else to compete over."
"Oh, we can do that, no problem," Iolaus said with a grin. After patting Gabrielle on the shoulder, he went deeper into the cave where he sat down on a rock opposite Xena.
A few candledrips later, Xena couldn't take any more of the cheeky grin the hunter was wearing, and she cocked her head and looked him in the eye. "What? Do I have something in my teeth?"
"Nope. I'm just trying to, uh, compare the image I have of you in my mind with the one I see now."
"It's been two years now, hasn't it? Since we met for the first time, I mean."
"More or less, yeah," Xena said and unhooked her Chakram to have something to do while they were waiting for the thunderstorm to pass.
"I'm pretty much still the same guy, but boy-oh-boy have you changed. You know, you've even changed from that time with Prometheus last year."
"Changed for the better, I hope."
"Oh, yeah. I mean, when you were still a bad girl, you lied to my face and then you tried to kill both me and Herc. You could hardly get any worse," Iolaus said with a cheeky grin. He leaned forward and slapped Xena's knee to show that he didn't mean it in a negative way.
"Hmmm! Well, it's all Gabrielle's doing. I can't take any credit whatsoever," Xena said quietly, looking at Gabrielle's silhouette against the mouth of the cave.
Iolaus turned his head to follow Xena's gaze, grinning from ear to ear. "She's quite a special girl, isn't she? I'm sorry that I tried to make a pass for her. It's just that, you know... last time, she gave me one Hades of a kiss... and I was sort of hoping I might get a repeat performance. Or maybe even going a bit further than that," Iolaus said, whispering the last few words.
"Gabrielle is only kissing me now," Xena said sternly, poking her index finger into the hunter's shoulder.
"Ow! I got it, I got it," Iolaus said, rubbing his arm.
"What are you two up to now? I can't leave you for a candledrip, can I?" Gabrielle said as she walked down to the far end of the cave where she sat down next to Xena.
"Oh, this and that. I don't have to ask if it's still raining," Xena said, listening to the unmistakable hissing sound of drops hitting the surface of the lake.
"It's not raining, it's pelting down. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better... I was only looking outside for a few candledrips, but I saw nearly a handful of lightning bolts."
"Mmmm," Xena said and put her Chakram back on the belt.
"Anyone for some jerky?" Gabrielle said, holding up a piece of dried meat that she had found in the saddlebags.
"I never say no to salty meat," Iolaus said and snatched it out of Gabrielle's hand, stopping abruptly when he noticed that both women were staring at him. "What? You're misinterpreting me again! By the Gods..." he said, chewing on the dried meat.
Half a candlemark later, the rain had eased off but the main front of the thunderstorm had reached them, and a non-stop barrage of lightning bolts and thunderclaps were trying to rip through the small mountain above them.
"Xena, I'm worried about Argo," Gabrielle said.
"Ah, she'll be fine. She's used to this kind of weather. They experience it all the time up north in Scythia."
When Gabrielle began to bite her fingernails, a sure-fire sign that she was nervous, Xena relented and got up from the rock. "All right, I'll take a quick look around. I remember seeing an apple tree somewhere out there. I could use an apple right now."
"Oh, yes please!" Gabrielle said - moments later, her stomach joined the chorus and growled loudly.
"Gabs, it's only been two candlemarks since you wolfed down half a rabbit! I guess you're pretty insatiable, huh?" Iolaus said. "For food! Man, I'm better off fighting hydras," he continued, burying his face in his hands and shaking his head over the two identical death glares he received.
"I'll be back in a little while," Xena said, mussing Gabrielle's hair.
"Don't do anything heroic while you're out there. If you see any collapsed bridges or people in need or anything like that, come back here and we'll sort it out together," Gabrielle said, reaching up and grabbing hold of Xena's hand to make sure the warrior understood the finer details of the point.
"I understand, Gabrielle. Anyway, I won't be long... don't worry about me, okay?"
"I'll decide if I want to worry about you or not... but apart from that, Iolaus and I are calm incarnate. Ain't that right?"
"Yep. I know how to play patty-cake and everything," Iolaus said with a knowing grin.
"Uhhh, great," Gabrielle said, scratching her hair.
When Xena turned around and left, Gabrielle got up and followed her over to the mouth of the cave. Once they reached the opening, she put a hand on Xena's elbow and pulled her to a stop. "I meant it, Xena. Please be careful."
"I will. Come here," Xena said and leaned down, intent on giving Gabrielle a little goodbye kiss.
"Ahem. Don't forget we've got company..." Gabrielle said, looking towards the bottom end of the cave.
"I'm quite sure Iolaus already knows what it looks and feels like to kiss a girl," Xena said and claimed Gabrielle's lips in a tender kiss.
Once they separated, Xena winked at Gabrielle and then left the safety of the cave, turning left to tip-toe across the wet and slippery ledge that would take her to the shore.
Gabrielle kept standing in the opening for a few candledrips, tracking Xena as she took the long way around the clearing to stay away from the trees in the midst of the thunderstorm. Once the leather clad figure was obscured by the heavy mist created by the humidity, Gabrielle shivered and walked back to Iolaus.
"You and Xena, huh?" Iolaus said thoughtfully, propping his chin up on his hand.
"You know, I didn't think that you, of all people, would have a problem with that, Iolaus," Gabrielle said and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Who says I do? It's just surprising, that's all."
"It's more common than you think."
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that. It's just that I know a different Xena... or rather, I knew Xena when she was different. Trust me, Gabrielle, had you met the old Xena, you wouldn't have liked her... wouldn't have liked her at all. She was a cold, calculating, conniving... well, I'm sure you can guess the rest."
"But she changed," Gabrielle said and found their waterskin. She uncorked it and took a little sip.
"So she did."
"You want some water?"
"No, thank you. You and Xena... is it forever?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but it took a while for her to get the words sorted. "It is for me. For Xena... well, sometimes I think she's tired of me already. When I bungle yet another simple job, like today when I got stuck in that Gods-be-damned tree... I see something in her eyes that wasn't there earlier," she said with a shrug.
"Oh, I agree. And I know very well what was in her eyes earlier," Iolaus said with a chuckle.
"I beg your pardon? You're supposed to comfort me, not stick a dagger in my back, Iolaus."
"Yeah, but I see love in her eyes, Gabrielle. Love for you."
"Mmmmm," Gabrielle said, blushing so badly that it affected her vocal chords.
"Let's change the subject. Did she ever tell you what happened when she first met me and Hercules?"
Gabrielle put the cork back in the skin and put it away. She hesitated slightly, not really sure if she wanted to hear the story. "I've heard bits and pieces. I've heard about the Gauntlet one of her men forced her through. I've even written a story about it."
"Something happened before that. You grew up in Potaideia, right? A sheep town?"
"Yes... what's that got to do with anything?"
"It may have been a dull place to grow up in, but it was definitely a blessing in disguise, Gabrielle. Xena, the old Xena that is, raided so many of the villages near you, killed so many people..."
"Xena never killed women and children."
"Perhaps not, but the results were the same. Anyway, that's not what I wanted to say. When I first met Xena, she tricked me. Badly. She turned up the... well, the word 'charm' doesn't really fit, heh heh."
Gabrielle chuckled and shot Iolaus a knowing look.
"Ah, you know what I mean. She turned it up... way up... and I got snared in. I was a bit lonely at the time and I thought she wanted me for my absolute cuddliness, but all she wanted was my sword in her service..."
"... not like that! Well, it actually was like that at first... ahem... but mostly she wanted me to kill Hercules for her, and I damn near did. Thank the Gods I came to my senses in time. Of course, when I did, she put me at the top of her hit list."
"I'm sorry to hear that. But Hercules eventually pushed her in the right direction."
"Yes, he did. He pushed Xena and she followed his advice. If she hadn't, I don't know what we would have done," Iolaus said and shuffled around to find a comfortable place on the hard rock.
"Well, I'm glad you didn't do anything irreversible. If you had, I would've been one of Draco's slaves now. You know Draco, the warlord, right?"
"Only by name."
"Well, he had caught me, my sister and most women from my village. Xena came and rescued us all. That's when I decided that small-town life wasn't for me. I wanted to be an adventurer," Gabrielle said with conviction.
"Have you been on any adventures, then?"
"Oh, plenty!" Gabrielle said and moved to the edge of her rock. "We have experienced so many crazy, strange things. Just recently, Xena and I met Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love! She had written some kind of love poem... actually, it was horrible, but never mind... and when she read it aloud, we were whisked away to the future!"
"Cross my heart, hope to end up in Tartarus. We were transported to the far, far future and ended up in a museum full of stuff from our time... and people were driving around in metal boxes that honked!"
Iolaus leaned back and started rubbing his brow. After a few heartbeats, he leaned his head back and let out a resounding belly-laugh. "Oh, and there I was, thinking that I was the greatest jokester. Boy, I can't hold a candle to you. Honking metal boxes? That's priceless, Gabrielle!" he said, continuing to laugh.
"And it also happens to be true," Gabrielle said surly and crossed her arms over her chest.
A metallic clang and the sound of a horse whinnying somewhere outside the cave made both of them look in that direction. Iolaus quickly stopped laughing, got up and ran towards the mouth of the cave.
What he saw made him grimace in frustration.
"Gabrielle!" he whispered, waving his hand to signal that she should come to him. A few moments later, they were both looking outside - the rain had stopped completely and the thunder was moving away. In its place, three bandits were setting up camp on the shore of the lake.
"Oh, great," Gabrielle said and went back to grab her staff.
"I can't see Xena anywhere," Iolaus said, drawing his sword.
"We'll have to deal with them ourselves. Let's try to talk to them first... if that fails, we'll clobber some heads, okay?"
"Works for me."
Gabrielle and Iolaus quickly stepped out the cave and inched across the narrow ledge without being noticed by the three bandits.
The leader of the small band of thugs, an unwashed fellow with bad teeth, unkempt facial hair and unspeakably filthy feet in open sandals, was so busy counting a handful of coins that he didn't pay any attention to the two fighters before they were right in front of him.
"Greetings, strangers. Are you new around these parts?" Iolaus said, holding his hand near the hilt of his sword.
"What's it to you, shorty?" the bandit leader said, scooping up his share of the loot and pouring it into a leather pouch that he proceeded to hang from his belt.
"I just haven't seen you around before, 's all."
"You got a name?"
"Jabkar. The mighty."
"But of course."
"Who the scrawny kid? She your daughter?" the bandit leader said, earning himself a few chuckles from his men.
"No, she's a friend."
"She for hire?"
Gabrielle's nostrils briefly flared, but she forced herself to remain calm. 'After all, Gabrielle, it was your idea to talk to these creeps first,' she thought, trying to count to ten.
"Too bad. We just take her anyhow," Jabkar said and got up. After pulling the other two thugs up as well, he drew his sword and began to grin - an ugly, toothless affair.
"Clobber time?" Iolaus said, never taking his eyes off the tree thugs.
"Clobber time," Gabrielle echoed and swung her staff directly into Jabkar's gut. When the bandit leader doubled over, she swung the butt of the staff upwards and struck his chin hard, producing a hollow thunk.
Jabkar staggered backwards, clutching his chin and his gut. "Get 'em! Get 'em you morons!" he shouted to his two companions who quickly drew their swords and joined the fray.
Effortlessly, Iolaus jumped up and delivered a two-legged dropkick to the face of the thug nearest to him which sent him flying. At the same time, Gabrielle went to work on the final thug, going in deep and pelting him with hits from the staff.
When Gabrielle's thug went down on his knees, she backed off and concentrated on what Jabkar was doing - a mistake, as it turned out. No sooner had Gabrielle taken her eyes off the third thug before he had scooped up a handful of dirt and had thrown it in her face.
When she turned her head away to shield her eyes, Jabkar used it as an opening. He jumped forward, grabbed the staff and began to wrestle it out of Gabrielle's hands.
Iolaus quickly disposed of the dirt-throwing man by kicking him in the face, and then he jumped up and wrapped his arm around Jabkar's neck to get the brute to back off.
Gabrielle tried hard to pull the staff back from the thug but she knew at once that she wasn't strong enough. Thinking fast, she adjusted her battle plans and slammed the heel of her boot down onto Jabkar's toes.
When the thug howled and began to dance around on the spot, Gabrielle attacked his other foot with similar results. Even Jabkar the Mighty couldn't stand erect with both feet off the ground so he let go of the staff and fell to his knees.
Iolaus quickly jumped off him, giving him a parting whack right on the back of his head that made the thug let out a bellowing roar.
In one, fluid motion, Gabrielle bent down, picked up the staff and performed the first two parts of the double sweep Xena had taught her - against Jabkar's chin. This time, the thug's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the ground with a resounding whoomp.
"Excellent work, Gabrielle!" Iolaus said and put out his arm. Gabrielle clasped it and wiped a few beads of sweat off her forehead.
"Thank you. You did great, too."
"Isn't that an Amazon fighting staff?"
"Yes it is."
"Ohhh... that explains everything," Iolaus said as he cut off the coin pouch from Jabkar's belt.
"What...? Explains what? Me and Xena? Iolaus!" Gabrielle barked, putting her hands on her hips.
"Not like that! Aw, Sweet Aphrodite... I meant your fighting style... never mind!"
Suddenly, Gabrielle's sixth sense was triggered and she began to scan the edge of the forest to see what might have caused it - moments later, Xena emerged from the mist, walking next to Argo and nursing her left arm.
"Xena? Xena!" Gabrielle shouted and set off in a run.
When the two women met, Gabrielle flew into Xena's arms and gave her an unbridled hug and a tender kiss. Once they separated, Gabrielle stared at the three-inch long abrasion on Xena's left upper arm.
"What's that?" Gabrielle hissed. "Didn't I tell you to... to... to... to be careful! Not to try anything foolish while you were out there on your own?!"
"You did, and-"
"But you obviously didn't listen! Oh, Xena, what am I going to do with you!"
Xena chuckled and shook her head. "Gabri-"
"Maybe I should do something radical, like getting a blacksmith to chain the two of us together or something!"
"Gabrielle! May I be allowed to speak... please?" Xena said, cutting off Gabrielle's indignant stream of words by placing her index finger across Gabrielle's lips.
"Oh, all right. What do you have to say for yourself? What was it? A collapsed bridge? No, it couldn't have been as you're not wet. A bear cub that needed rescuing? Did Argo get her hoof stuck in a sink hole? Was it a fair maiden in distress?"
Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Are you quite done?"
"For now, but there's plenty more where that came from if I don't like your explanation!"
"I slipped on a wet rock and fell," Xena mumbled.
"I didn't quite get that...?"
"On my way out... I slipped on a wet rock and fell flat on my face," Xena said and rolled her eyes. "I landed on a pine cone. It was kinda sharp, as you can see."
"A pine cone?"
"A pine cone, yes. It happens."
"You... the almighty Warrior Princess slipping on a rock and falling on a pine cone? Yeah, right. You're going to have to do better than that," Gabrielle said, tapping her foot on the ground.
"Why did you ask if you won't believe me? Anyway, what's been going on here?" Xena said, looking at Iolaus hog-tying the three thugs. When Gabrielle didn't offer a reply, Xena clicked her tongue, egging Argo into a slow walk back to the camp.
"You really slipped on a rock?"
"Yes, Gabrielle. I'm not perfect. Did these thugs attack you?"
"Yeah, but it was nothing we couldn't handle. I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only clumsy person in this little family of ours. Ohhhh, I'm definitely going to add you falling down when I write this scroll...! It'll give it a touch of-"
Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's arm and shot her one of her patented 'you don't want to make me mad now, do you?'-looks.
"Or I could leave it out...? Let's see what happens when I write it. I may find a way to work around it."
Chuckling, Xena moved her arm up to wrap it around Gabrielle's shoulder. After giving it a little squeeze, she pulled the bard very close and leaned in to kiss the top of the strawberry-blonde head.
"Hey, Xena. Trouble?" Iolaus said, pointing at the abrasion on Xena's arm.
"Nah, just a little incident. You got to have all the fun by the looks of things...?"
Iolaus took the opportunity to kick Jabkar in the rear. "Ah, this was nothing. Just a couple of degenerates. What do you think we should do with them?"
"They stink. How about throwing them into the lake? Soggy thugs typically aren't aggressive," Xena said with a grin.
"Now why didn't we think of that," Iolaus said and grabbed Jabkar by the scruff of the neck.
A few candledrips later, three soaking wet thugs shuffled away from the clearing, cursing and swearing in the local dialect.
"All done," Iolaus said, dusting off his hands.
"Yep. Great teamwork," Gabrielle said, slapping her hands together like she wanted to make a point. When the words didn't come, she looked first at Xena and then back at Iolaus. "Ummm, Iolaus, could you... would you feel... would it be rude if we asked you to... no, it would be rude. Forget it."
Waving her hand, Gabrielle spun around and left for the cave.
"Okay...?" Iolaus said, not quite grasping what it was Gabrielle was trying to tell him. When she didn't come back to continue the conversation, he shrugged in confusion.
Grinning, Xena put down the saddlebags next to the drenched firepit and began to straighten out the circle of stones so they could get a fire going.
"Xena, would you mind clueing me in?" Iolaus said, scratching his hair.
"I think Gabrielle was trying to gauge if you would feel hurt or disappointed if we asked you to leave...?"
"Nah, I wouldn't. Did I outstay my welcome...?"
"Oh, no, it's just that... well, we had sort of... planned something for last night," Xena said and sat down on one of the logs. "And I have a feeling she's getting frustrated."
Iolaus sat down and furrowed his brow. Once the words had filtered through his brain, he shot up and broke out in a cheeky grin. "Oh... ohhh! Oh, I get it. Mmmm, yeah, I can definitely see why. I've had that happen to me a couple of times and it just kills the whole day. We wouldn't want that, would we?"
"Not if I can help it. And I can, because... after all, I have many skills," Xena said, crossing her mile-long thighs.
"Boy, don't I know it. Uh-huh. You won't hear a peep out of me. I'm outta here faster than you can spell Alcibiades the Elder. I just have to say goodbye to Gabrielle first."
Still grinning, Iolaus reached out and clasped arms with Xena. "See you around, Xena. It's been a hoot. Take care."
"See you later, Iolaus... and you, too."
The hunter went over to the mouth of the cave and looked inside, quickly spotting Gabrielle sitting on a rock near the hot spring, writing in one of her scrolls.
"Yeah?" she said, putting down the quill.
"I just wanted to say that I'm leaving. So... see you some time."
"Wait a minute... you're leaving?"
"Xena and I just had a little talk an' I know you don't want any spectators."
"Wha...? What did she say to you?" Gabrielle said and got up.
"Oh, not much really. Only that you had something special planned and that you may be gettin' frustrated."
"Frustrated? I'm not frustrated," Gabrielle growled, clenching her fists.
"Uh-huh? Anyway, I just wanted to let you know," Iolaus said and began to move away from the cave.
"Oh, will you get over here and give me a hug!"
Iolaus grinned and gave Gabrielle a nice squeeze. "Is that better?"
"Good. Take care, Gabrielle. I'd hate it if something happened to you. Oh, by the way... take it easy with Xena. She may look tough, but I know she's quite soft on the inside... not like that! Aw, Hades!" Iolaus said, reeling from the look of pure outrage Gabrielle shot him. "That's it! I'm better off fighting the Minotaur or Echidna or any of the other critters!" Iolaus continued as he ducked out of the cave.
Gabrielle's stern look slowly eased into a frown and finally into a grin. Chuckling, she went back to the rock where she had left her diary. As she sat down, she re-read the title of the day's entry: 'The night I will make love to the Warrior Princess.'
A quarter of a candlemark later, Xena inched across the narrow ledge and entered the cave, hoping to get an explanation as to why Gabrielle still hadn't come out.
"Gabrielle?" she said, standing in the opening.
"Yes? Is it dinner time?"
"Not quite. What are you doing in here?" Xena said, walking towards the bard.
"Oh, nothing, really. Just updating my diary," Gabrielle said and hurriedly put away the scroll and her quill.
"Xena, what did you say to Iolaus?"
"Just a little hint of what we had talked about. Are you still up for it?"
"Heh, you make it sound like a chore... or something to cross off a list," Gabrielle said and patted the rock next to her. Xena smiled and went over to sit down.
"It's a big step for both of us," Xena said and put her hand on Gabrielle's knee.
"But one I'm ready to make."
Xena nodded, thinking back to her first kiss; to her first time... and to the first time with another woman. Reaching over, she took Gabrielle's hand in her own and began to play with the delicate fingers. "In here, or...?"
"No. Out in the camp. In our sleeping furs... underneath the stars. You might say that I wouldn't want Aphrodite to miss it."
Xena chuckled and gave Gabrielle's hand a reassuring squeeze. "Oh, she'll notice. That's a guarantee."
"I'm a little worried... worried that I won't be able to satisfy you," Gabrielle said quietly. "I mean, you have so much experience, but I'm an absolute beginner... I'm not even that, I'm a novice, a toddler in the world of physical love, a-"
"Listen, Gabrielle, it'll be all right. Don't worry about it. Just remember the basic rules for beginners: one, haste makes waste. Two, tell me if you don't like what I'm doing. Three, tell me if you do like what I'm doing."
"You'll know when we get there," Xena said and squeezed Gabrielle's hand again.
"Uh... okay. Anyway, what time of the day is it?"
"Would you mind showing me a few flips and kicks?"
"Yeah. If you don't mind...?"
Xena cocked her head, looking at the blush creeping up on Gabrielle's cheeks. After she had connected the dots in her mind, Xena grinned and got up. "No problem. Just sit back and watch," Xena said, pulling Gabrielle up from the rock.
A few candledrips later, Gabrielle sat on the log nearest to the fire, watching like in a trance - wide-eyed and gap-mouthed - as Xena went through an almost endless array of high-skill flips, kicks and mid-air spins.
"I call this one the... Gabrielle? Are you awake?"
"Oh, I'm awake, all right."
"Good. Okay... let's cut to the chase. Now it's your turn."
"C'mere. Don't be afraid. I won't put you through anything you're not ready for."
"Uh... that's, uh... good," Gabrielle said and got up from the log. "What did you have in mind in particular?"
"Well, stand like this," Xena said and put her hands on Gabrielle's sides. "Legs slightly apart, like this," the warrior continued, putting a gentle, caressing hand on Gabrielle's thighs.
Gabrielle snickered as she felt Xena's warm hand on her bare skin - the touch created a wave of tingles that soon spread out to the rest of her.
"Good. Now crouch down slightly and jump up."
"Oh, but Xena, I can't perform such a flip!"
"I think you can. Come on, try it. You might be a natural."
"You better catch me if I fall, okay?"
"I'm right here. Now try."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and willed herself into doing the best flip she possibly could. Clenching her fists, she crouched down slightly and released the muscles in her thighs.
To her great surprise, she took off at the first attempt and performed a graceful mid-air forward salto - unfortunately, the landing was less graceful. When her feet re-connected with the ground, she lost her balance and started falling on her butt, despite flapping her arms like windmills.
"Ohhhhh!" Gabrielle howled, sure that she was headed for a hard landing - but she never got any further because a single heartbeat later, Xena grabbed her around her waist and held her in a vice-like grip.
"Ohhh...! Thank you. I was about to say hello to the ground there... again," Gabrielle said and brushed her hair out of her eyes.
"No. I would've caught you."
"Yeah... hey! Hey! I flipped! Did you see that? By the Gods, I actually made an honest-to-goodness flip! In mid-air, even!"
"That deserves a kiss, don't you think?"
"It certainly does," Xena said and leaned forward to claim Gabrielle's lips.
Inches before she would've made contact, Gabrielle stopped her by putting a hand on her chest.
"Is something wrong, love?"
"This is it, isn't it? We're going to... to..."
"If you want to."
"I do, but... it wasn't how I had planned it..."
"Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow. Just like when we kissed for the first time. Remember?" Xena said quietly.
"I remember," Gabrielle whispered. A series of moving pictures started flashing across her mind's eye - of how she had ventured out in a fierce blizzard to search for Xena when the warrior hadn't returned as promised, of how she had found Xena buried under a foot of snow, half-dead from blood loss and the cold, of how she had stitched a nasty wound in the warrior's side... and of how the terrible event had led them to that first, wonderful kiss.
"Gabrielle, what does your heart tell you?"
"It tells me that I love you... and that I want you."
"And there you have it," Xena said and put her hand on the side of Gabrielle's neck.
When Gabrielle felt Xena's callused hand on her skin, she closed her eyes and leaned into the touch. Smiling, she pulled the warrior closer and allowed herself to be kissed senseless.
The kiss went on for several candledrips until the need for air became so pressing that they had to break it off. Once they had separated, Gabrielle knew from the tingling sensations that raced through her body that all she wanted was to make love to Xena - and she also knew that by experiencing the sensual side of herself, she would never be quite the same again. It was indeed the big step Xena had said it would be.
"Make love with me... please," Gabrielle whispered, brushing the tip of her nose against Xena's.
Xena nodded and took a step back. Without warning, she picked Gabrielle up and held her in her strong arms, earning herself a surprised squeal in the process. With very little effort, Xena walked over to the sleeping furs and put the surprised bard down on one of them.
Kneeling down next to Gabrielle, Xena unbuckled her breastplate and her shoulderpads. The gauntlets came next, followed by her boots. As she put her hands on the laces of her leathers, Gabrielle stopped her with a shy smile.
"May I?" she said faintly.
With hands that trembled slightly, Gabrielle unlaced Xena's deep brown leathers and peeled the two sides back to reveal the near-perfect body inside. Unable to take her eyes off the two melon-sized globes that became visible, Gabrielle reached up to caress them, marveling over the way Xena reacted to her touch. At the same time, Gabrielle could feel her own body respond - hardening in some places and growing very hot in others.
When Xena placed a warm hand on Gabrielle's chest directly below her breasts, the bard's breath hitched and her cheeks flushed. "Xe-Xena, would you mind undoing my top?"
"I'd love to," Xena said and began to pull the little string that held the pea-green top together. Soon, she removed the two layers of cloth, exposing Gabrielle's breasts. The bard's skin was flushed and her nipples were standing to attention, practically begging for someone to caress them.
Xena followed the unsaid wish and brushed her hand gently across Gabrielle's left breast, making the bard draw a sharp breath and arc her back off the sleeping fur.
"Ohhhh...!" Gabrielle breathed, looking at Xena with hooded eyes.
Xena chuckled and leaned down. Before long, she was busy placing a line of little kisses down Gabrielle's cleavage. "Remember, please tell me at once if I'm doing something you're not comfortable with," Xena whispered.
"Uh-huh... so far so good," Gabrielle said; her voice gaining a husky quality that made Xena's nape hairs stand on edge.
Grinning broadly, Xena leaned down and resumed her duties.
A candlemark later, the two women lay inside the sleeping fur, wrapped tightly in each other's arms. Their garments were strewn about around the fur, with Gabrielle's unmentionables thrown haphazardly on top of her rust brown skirt.
"I'm not a child anymore... I'm finally a woman. Thank you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, kissing the side of Xena's head.
"Well, thank you, Gabrielle. I said that you were a quick study, didn't I?"
"I think you did, yes. Gods, my father would have a heart attack if he could see us now. Mother, too... probably Lila as well," Gabrielle said, snickering into Xena's thick locks.
"Could be. I'm not so sure they didn't hear you..." Xena said, pretending to have gone deaf on her left ear.
"Oh... was I that loud? It just... it just happened."
"It's all right, Gabrielle. Don't think about it."
Gabrielle snickered again, shuffling around inside the sleeping fur. "I remember my mother telling me that I should expect my first time to hurt. That I should make sure that the man I was with got his before I could start thinking about my own needs. Pah, nonsense... all of it. It didn't hurt at all and you made me feel so safe, Xena. I loved it. I love you."
"I love you, too, Gabrielle," Xena said and claimed Gabrielle's lips in a tender kiss.
After separating, Gabrielle looked up towards the heavens. "Well, the stars aren't out yet..."
"No, but Aphrodite definitely got an earful..." Xena said under her breath.
Gabrielle turned her head and shot her lover a mock look of outrage. "You are just begging to be tickled, Miss Warrior Princess!"
Moving like a greased lightning, Gabrielle began to tickle Xena mercilessly - her fingers were all over Xena's body; high, low and everywhere in between, soon beating the otherwise invincible warrior into submission.
"I yield! I yield to the almighty Gabrielle...!" Xena said hoarsely, completely red-faced from the sweet torture.
Once the lop-sided fight was over, Gabrielle laughed out loud and wrapped her arms around Xena's body to pull her into a warm, loving embrace. "Oh, Xena, I love you... I love you and I'll never, ever let you go," she whispered into Xena's ear.
"I love you, too. And I'm never" - kiss - "going" - kiss, kiss - "anywhere."