Shadows of the Soul
The storm raged outside. Gabrielle only heard it at the edges of her awareness, though, as she concentrated on her first time exploration of another person’s body. Xena’s skin was soft, and had a silky quality to it, but as Gabrielle had discovered, under that layer of softness lay coiled power, muscle and bone that shifted and moved as she tried to apply what she’d learned the previous night.
Xena made interesting noises. Gabrielle discovered quickly that if she did something the queen liked, she purred. Not like a cat, but it was a low, rumbling sound deep in her chest. She heard it the first time when she shyly cupped Xena’s breast in her hand and stroked it. She heard it again when she replaced her fingers with her mouth, at first tentatively and then with more confidence as she ran her tongue over the nubbly edges of her nipple.
It was intoxicating, hearing that sound. Gabrielle felt a burn start in her own guts as she proceeded delicately, her other hand stroking the queen’s other breast as Xena’s fingers moved in a slow rhythm through her hair.
She pressed her bare body against Xena’s, reveling in the heat that contrasted the cool air of the room. Her thigh slid between the queen’s, and she felt a sudden pressure as her leg was clamped briefly, and then released. She slipped her hand down Xena’s side, following the curve of her hip to her upper leg, feeling the incredible power under her fingertips before she traced a line down the skin on the inside of her thigh and got another purrl.
It was a little dangerous, a little intimidating. Gabrielle wasn’t really sure of what she was doing and the chance she might do something dumb or worse was definitely on her mind as she tried very hard to remember what had made her feel the best, though through all that pleasure things were pretty much a hazy, erotic blur.
She hoped Xena would feel that way too. Gabrielle pledged to try her best to make sure of that. Her entire body was tingling, remembering what it was like to feel the queen’s sure touch on her and she closed her eyes, rubbing her body along Xena’s as she gently explored her.
This time she got a growl. Gabrielle opened one eye and looked up, to find a fiercely grinning Xena looking back at her. “Did I do something wrong?” She caught a breath.
“Noooooo.” Xena lifted herself up using just her stomach muscles and kissed Gabrielle on the mouth. “I shoulda known someone who cleaned under the bed would figure this out without a problem.” She cupped Gabrielle’s face in one hand. “Just don’t bite me.”
“Bite?” Gabrielle blinked. “I would never do that.”
“Good girl.” Xena kissed her again, reveling in the tingling her body was experiencing. She let her body back down and went back to wrestling with her will, so accustomed to taking charge it was difficult for her to just lay back and let Gabrielle experiment. She wanted to take hold of the girl, and show her there.. and there.. and this.. but equally as strongly, she wanted to see what surprises Gabrielle might have for her.
Like that. Xena bit off a groan as Gabrielle’s tongue found a sensitive spot. Her hands clenched on the sheets and she felt her body surge up, pressing against Gabrielle’s as the slave bore down a little, her weight shifting as she slid lower. Her touch was hesitant, but Xena could feel the reaction deep inside her guts and this time she didn’t block the low sound of appreciation.
She could sense Gabrielle pause, and she felt the shoulderblade under her left hand heave as she took a deep breath before her attentions became very intimate. A light stroking became more confident as she uttered approval, and then everything connected and she lost track of where she was as her body curled around Gabrielle’s in a series of sudden, and shuddering contractions.
For a moment, she couldn’t even breathe. Then her lungs forced themselves open and she sucked air into her chest, letting out a heartfelt groan as she exhaled. It had been a very long time since she’d let someone else do that to her. She loosened her grip on Gabrielle and felt the girl start breathing herself again, and fuzzily she realized that she’d probably scared the fleece off her yet one more time.
But she had to catch her breath before she could fix that. Tingling shudders were still working their way through her and she felt Gabrielle’s touch gentle, stroking her lightly as she mindlessly caressed the girl’s face, pressed against Xena’s belly.
After she felt her breathing settle a little, she pulled Gabrielle up closer and kissed her, feeling the heated flush on the slave’s face through her fingertips. “Good job.” She whispered into a very pink ear. “I’ll keep you.”
She felt Gabrielle smile. Her hands traveled over Gabrielle’s body, noting the arousal at her touch that made her smile, recognizing the response as a nascent craving for her that charmed the queen down to her very toes.
Yeah. She’d keep her. Xena closed her eyes as feather light kisses traveled up her throat. For sure.
Xena was curled on her side, watching the storm rattle the leaded window panes. She didn’t really have any ambition to move, trading off her attention to the weather with the more interesting vision of Gabrielle’s slight form busy over near the fire.
Her new bedmate was making lunch. Xena was personally inclined just to have Gabrielle for lunch, but she admitted a bowl of whatever it was that smelled wonderful over there wouldn’t be too bad for an appetizer either.
Having someone cook for her personally, like this, was a very novel experience. Most of Xena’s prior bed partners had weaker cooking skills than she did, and the rest she would not have trusted with a spoon, much less a chopping knife in her presence.
It wasn’t as though she didn’t have servants, she had plenty of them. But none of them really wanted to do things for her. They had to. Gabrielle, Xena was convinced, really liked doing things for her, and wanted to.
Or at least, she’d told herself that.
But as she watched Gabrielle’s profile, relaxed and smiling as she worked, it was hard to force herself to believe otherwise. “Hey, Gabrielle?”
“Hm?” The girl looked up from her task.
“C’mere a minute.”
Gabrielle set the pot she’d just stirred to one side of the fire and got up, crossing the stone floor on silent bare feet to Xena’s side. She knelt by the bed, pushing the fair hair back out of her eyes as she did and waited, watching Xena’s face.
Xena could see all the way back through the crystal clear depths of her eyes. Open. Trusting. “Do you like me?”
“W..” Gabrielle stopped and blinked, her thoughts going briefly internal. “Do I like you?”
“That’s what I asked you, yes.” The queen replied patiently. “Do you?”
The girl’s face went still, as she searched Xena’s face. “Like you.” She spoke softly, almost reflectively. “I liked my friends at home. I liked the lambs. I liked watching the stars at night when the sheep were birthing.”
What the heck was that supposed to mean? Xena’s brows creased.
“I think I more than like you.” Gabrielle went on, suddenly. “Because I feel more about you than I did for any of those things.”
Oh. That sounded pretty good. Xena reasoned. “Ah. Okay. Good.”
“Why?” Gabrielle asked, curiously.
“I just wondered.” The queen said. “It’s not a condition I’m very familiar with.” She added. “Most people don’t. Like me, that is.” She ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair. “I was hoping you did.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I do.”
“Even despite the fact that I’m a hedonistic despot, and you’re my helpless slave?” Xena asked. “Even despite the fact that I had your sister killed?”
“You didn’t kill my sister.” Gabrielle responded in a quiet voice. “You had slaves killed, one of whom happened to be my sister. That’s a big difference to me.” She said. “And you didn’t make me a slave. You just bought me as one.”
Xena mulled that over. “Took a lot of thinking to come up with that, didn’t it?”
Xena touched her cheek. “I’m glad you can think.” She rubbed her thumb across Gabrielle’s cheekbone. “But I notice you didn’t refute the hedonistic despot part.” A twinkle appeared in her eyes.
The girl’s eyes dropped briefly, and her lips twitched in to a smile.
“I’m glad you like me, Gabrielle. Despite all that.” Xena heard the sincerity in her own voice, and she guessed Gabrielle did as well, because she looked up and her face went serious. “I am glad.”
They looked at each other in silence for a little while. “So, what’s for lunch.” Xena nudged her in the belly with her knuckles. “I can hear you growling from here.”
Gabrielle glanced down at herself, then grinned ruefully. “It’s a soup I used to make for us when we were out in the fields.” She said. “Nothing fancy.”
“It doesn’t have lamb in it, does it?”
“No.” Gabrielle got up and returned to the fire, stirring her creation with a wooden spoon. “But we used to have this, and bread and cheese.” She poured some of the homey soup into one of the china bowls and set it on the tray, then she carefully took the slice of bread she’d toasted over the fire and put it on a plate, topping it with fragrant goats cheese. Surveying her handiwork, she picked up the tray and carried it over to Xena’s bedside.
“Whoa… no crumbs in bed.” Xena grinned, as she peeled the covers back and slid out from under them, standing up and motioning Gabrielle back the way she came. “Over there.” She picked up her robe and put it on, tying it as she joined the blond woman in front of the fireplace. She settled in the big, comfortable chair and watched as the tray was set down next to her. “That’s better.” She pointed. “Sit.”
Obediently, Gabrielle retrieved a bowl for herself, along with a slice of bread and cheese. She settled in the other chair and pulled her legs up crossed under her, setting her bread and cheese down on one knee while she took a spoonful of the soup.
A loud rumble of thunder made her look up towards the window, and as she looked away, she caught Xena’s eye.
The queen slowly shook her spoon at her. “You can cook.” She pointed at the soup. “This beats anything that overstuffed imported chef downstairs ever gave me.” Xena took a bite of her toast and cheese and winked at her. “I can almost taste you in it.”
Predictably, Gabrielle blushed. She grinned with pleasure at the praise, though, and played with a spoonful of her own soup before she sipped it. Her mind kept going back to Xena’s question, though, and she pondered over her answer as they both at their lunch.
Xena had been right. It had taken her a lot of thought to come to terms with how she felt, and to understand the guilt she still experienced because of it. She had to deal with herself honestly, though, and she couldn’t deny the strength of what she felt for Xena.
What was more, she didn’t want to deny it. A very pragmatic part of her simply told her that it was in her own, bald, self interest to remain in close contact with Xena, to help her, to serve her, to make her happy. The pragmatism helped assuage the guilt, but if she was truly honest with herself, she knew that pragmatism had nothing to do with the deep, wild, passionate emotion she felt when she looked into Xena’s eyes.
Like her? “Xena?” Gabrielle heard herself say.
“Yeeeesss?” The queen responded, around a mouthful of bread and cheese.
Gabrielle looked up and over at her, meeting those incredible blue eyes. “I love you.”
Xena stared at her for a long moment. Then she swallowed. “Do you?”
The queen looked deeply introspective for a long moment. Then her eyes dropped to the bowl in her hand. “Well.” She murmured softly. “Maybe that’s the little something extra in this then. Now I know what love tastes like.”
Gabrielle sucked her spoon in unexpected delight. “That’s a really poetic thing to say.”
Xena’s eyebrow quirked. “Don’t’ start that with me.” She warned, with a smile that belayed the tone.
“Yes, ma’am.” Gabrielle smiled back.
“Don’t start that either.”
Their eyes met and in the silence between them, Xena’s spoke volumes that Gabrielle drank giddily in, wondering if the queen even realized it.
Thunder rolled again, and she decided she was beginning to really like rainy days.
“Tell me a story.” Xena settled her arms around Gabrielle’s waist, as she let her head rest against the chair back. They’d finished lunch, and she’d pulled the blond woman into her lap and now they were just relaxing and watching the rain fall. “A funny story.”
“Funny?” Gabrielle repeated.
“Yeah, you know… makes you laugh?” Xena released one arm and ran her fingers down Gabrielle’s bare ribs.
The reaction was totally unexpected. Gabrielle squealed, and almost convulsed, bursting out into a flood of giggles.
“Whoa.” Xena gave her companion an interested look. “Now that’s ticklish.” She repeated the experiment, with much the same results. “Gabbbbrriiieeellle.” She purred in the girl’s ear, chuckling herself.
“Eee….oh, stop.. please..” Gabrielle squirmed, trying to grab at Xena’s agile fingers. “Oooo…”
“Ho ho ho.” Xena was delighted with this new diversion.
Xena started laughing.
“Whoa, not in my ear.” Xena was still laughing, but she gave Gabrielle a break and ceased her torture, folding her arm around the slave’s middle again and giving her a squeeze. “See? You didn’t even have to tell a story to get me to laugh.”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle giggled a few more times as she rubbed her face. “I’m sorry. I forgot I was so.. um.. wow.” She inhaled deeply. “Okay…. Um, a funny story, right?”
“Uh huh. Has to be funnier than that noise you just made.” Xena informed her. “So you better come up with something good, because that was pretty damn funny.” A sexy grin spread across her face. “Or else I’ll have to go find my own amusement again…” She freed one hand and wiggled the fingers.
“Eerrrr.” Gabrielle settled down. “Well, I’ll try. Let’s see.. would you like to hear about Horace the pig?”
“Horace the PIG?” The queen gave her a look. “Oh, I can see where this is going.” She wiggled her fingers again.
“Noo..no.” Gabrielle quickly took hold of the threatening hand. “Really, it’s funny.” She instinctively laced her fingers with Xena’s, feeling the power in them as the queen casually tightened her grip.
“Oh yeah?’ Xena regarded their clasped hands curiously. “How funny can a pig be?”
“When you put grease on it, very.” Gabrielle reassured her.
“Grease?” A dark eyebrow cocked suspiciously. “You put grease on a pig?”
“Well.. sort of yeah… it was kind of an accident but…”
“Okay. Let’s hear it.” Xena put her feet up on the small poufy stool designed for the purpose. She noticed that Gabrielle seemed to have no inclination to let her hand go, and since it made her feel good, Xena had no inclination to pull it loose.
It was very strange, this feel good thing. Xena searched her memory and tried to find another instance of it, and despite her wide and varied experience she had to admit she couldn’t. Holding Gabrielle’s hand felt good. Sitting next to her felt good. Touching her felt good. In fact, she couldn’t hardly seem to make herself let go of the kid.
She was glad Gabrielle liked her. No, Xena corrected herself. Loved her.
Loved her. Now there was another strange thing. Xena had not expected the slave to tell her that, regardless of the truth of it.
Or maybe she had expected it. Xena blinked, feeling a very unusual sense of confusion. She’d felt very good when she’d heard Gabrielle say that, in a way she’d never known before. In a vague way, she thought she knew why – there had been many people in her past who’d said that to her, but this was, she knew, the first person she’d wanted to hear it from.
And she had.
“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice broke into her musing. “Are you okay?”
“Sure.” Xena cleared her throat. “What makes you think I’m not?” She asked sharply. “What’s going on with the pig?”
“Well.” Gabrielle was mindful of the fact that she was in easy reach of those darn fingers. “I was just making pig noises, and you didn’t react, so I figured…”
“What?” The queen eyed her. “You were not.”
Gabrielle blinked innocently at her.
“Oink.” Gabrielle snorted softly. “Oink.. oink…” She grinned at the look on Xena’s face. “Yeah, I was.”
“Hmph.” Xena maintained her dignity. “I was thinking.” She said. “Do that again.” She instructed. “G’wan.”
Gabrielle obediently snuffled and oinked.
Xena snickered at her. “That’s pretty damn cute.” She leaned over lazily and nibbled Gabrielle’s ear, making the oink break and rise into a squeak. “Now, that’s a funny little piggie.” She stopped and her brow creased. “Did I say that?”
Gabrielle giggled softly.
“Okay, okay. Get on with the story.” The queen settled back and paid attention, setting aside the annoying and confusing thoughts buzzing around her head. “Then maybe we’ll go downstairs and I’ll pick what I want you to cook for dinner.”
Gabrielle squirmed around a little so she could look up and watch Xena’s face as she spoke. The fire crackled happily nearby and it’s light softened the strong planes of the queen’s face, giving it a gentler cast. A tiny hint of a smile kept pulling at Xena’s lips, and Gabrielle knew the same tension was present on her own, as she let herself feel a moment of emotion she understood to be happiness.
It felt really weird. She wasn’t scared, and she wasn’t worried, she was just really glad to be curled up with Xena in this big, comfortable chair telling stories next to the fire.
“Okay, so once upon a time, there was a pig named Horace.”
“Why?” Xena asked suddenly.
“Why not?” Gabrielle asked. “Anyway, Horace the pig got up one day, and…”
“Did you name him?”
The slave halted her speech, and regarded the queen. “Um….”
The blue eyes twinkled. “I’m a lousy listener, huh?” Xena pulled her a little closer and let her cheek rest against Gabrielle’s fair head. “Sorry. G’wan.”
“Once upon a time, there was a pig named Horace.” Gabrielle intoned. “He lived on a farm with all his brothers and sisters, and his mother, Eunace.”
Xena started laughing silently.
“Eunace liked to chew on her stall, and when she did that, she made a little hole in the corner of it. The hole was too small for Eunace to get through, but she chewed, and chewed and chewed, and it was still too small for her, but not…”
“Right.” Gabrielle pulled their clasped hands up to lay against her chest. “So Horace, being a very smart little pig, squeezed out through the hole and went adventuring.” She could still feel Xena chuckling. “This isn’t the funny part yet.”
The queen snickered. “You named your pigs.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle said. “Don’t you?”
“Gabrielle, I don’t name things I’m going to eat.” Xena told her, then paused and smirked. “You already came with a name, so that didn’t count.”
Gabrielle snuck a hand inside the queen’s robe and tickled her ribs, operating on wild instinct.
“Ah!” Xena yelped. “Hey!”
The slave tickled her again. “Oh, my.” She felt the skin twitch under her touch. “Your majesty, I think you’re ticklish.”
“Am not.” Xena scrabbled at the hand inside her rob. “Never have been, never will… hey!!!” She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle since she was unable to get hold of those little fingers and lifted her up bodily, rising from the chair and leaping with her onto the bed. “Now, we’ll see who’s tickling who.”
“Oh…oh..oh….yikes!” Gabrielle squirmed, but the queen had her shift off in the blink of an eye, and she was being assaulted by light touches that started on the backs of her thighs. “Ooooooooooo!!!!”
“Bet this is worse..” Xena chuckled evilly, reaching down and tickling her behind the knees.
“Auggghh!” Gabrielle confirmed it with a tortured holler. “Eeeyoooo!!!!!” She twisted and curled up, then reached behind the queen’s leg to get her back. “Ah!”
“Why, you little…” Xena started laughing, this time much harder, and with some abandon. “I’ll get you for that! You won’t be able to stand up when I’m done with you!” She flipped Gabrielle over onto her back and pinned her legs down, then attacked her ribs.
The girl let out a yell that made Xena’s eyes pop wide open. She quickly leaned over and kissed her to prevent a repeat, her mischevious fingers slowing their motion and moving from teasing to seductive. When she lifted her head, she looked down at Gabrielle’s face, the girl’s eyes now closed and her mouth sporting a grin.
Xena circled Gabrielle’s navel with the tip of her finger, and felt the surface start to rock as she chuckled. The misty green eyes opened and gazed up at her. They smiled at each other.
Then the girl got a hand free and got to Xena’s ribs again. “Geerrrrrr!!!” Xena wriggled away, rolling onto her side to escape. She tangled her limbs with Gabrielle’s and they fought for skin space, reducing each other to an unexpected ball of laughter in the center of the bed.
Xena let the chuckles work their way out of her, feeling pleasantly tired from the unfamiliar exercise. She wrapped her arms and legs around her new little bedmate and pulled her close, with a sense of pure, animal content alien in it’s sudden presence.
She had a vague suspicion she might actually be happy.
For the moment, anyway.
“Not that stairwell.” Xena pointed to the main one instead. “I hate it. Damn thing’s too small, and it stinks.” She lead the way across the round hall, neatly flicking the folds of her long robe out of her path. The storm had kept up outside, and a damp draft was blowing through the stronghold, fluttering the torches in their iron sconces on the wall.
Gabrielle was glad to follow her. She looked around her as she walked down the grand staircase, absorbing the grandeur of the narrow, woven tapestries on the wall that alternated with iron columns and the occasional slit window. “This is nice.”
“It’s a stair.” Xena glanced around.
“Well, it’s much nicer than the stair I know.” Gabrielle amended, with a smile. And certainly much wider. Six men could walk abreast up the steps and not touch, she reckoned.
“Ahh…. That’s right. You didn’t get the snooty tour, didja?” Xena said. “Well. I can fix that.”
“I don’t think I got any tour. Stanislaus warned me not to wander.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Xena muttered. “Can’t have the slaves sightseeing in all the nooks and crannies, can we? Might find a hole to hide in.”
Gabrielle looked at her, not really sure of what the tone or content of her words meant. She wasn’t sure if Xena was making fun of the slaves, or making fun of Stanislaus and his rules, or what. There was truth in the statement, she knew, though. Given a chance, anyone she’d met downstairs, who wasn’t in a position like Stanislaus, or cook’s, would gladly escape into a hidey hole if they could. “Hm.” She grunted. “Well, you could always treat them better.”
Xena looked at her.
Gabrielle shrugged slightly. “I mean, you could make them want to be here. Like you said, life is pretty tough outside. I think maybe if people made the choice to trade their freedom for a place to live and lots of good food, they’d work a lot better.”
“Gabrielle, you’ve obviously lived your whole life on a sheep farm. Nobody wants to be a slave.” The queen added a bit of a grin to soften the mean words. “Voluntary servitude.. do you see the contradiction there?”
“Yes, I do.” Gabrielle skipped a step to keep up with Xena’s long strides, admiring her companions’ proud, erect posture and graceful walk. “But…like you were saying the other day, isn’t everyone really a slave to something? I mean, look at the army.”
“They’re not slaves.” Xena stated firmly.
“No, but they agree to work for you, and die for you, don’t’ they?”
“For a fee, sure. For board, food, and cash.” Xena said. “It’s not slavery, it’s a job.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle glanced up, to see huge banners crossing the roof they were walking under. “Can they just stop and leave?”
No answer. Gabrielle looked over at the queen, who was watching her with hooded eyes. “Can they?”
Xena looked away as they reached the bottom of the steps, giving the two guards standing there a brief nod. They braced to attention and put a hand over their chests, keeping their eyes straight forward. She indicated a long, grand hallway leading off to the right and started down it, remaining silent until they had passed the first set of closed, ornate wooden doors set into deep alcoves on either side. “I’m not fond of deserters.” She finally said. “Most of the men know that.”
Gabrielle absorbed the words. “Okay, so..”
“Gabrielle.” Xena stopped walking, and turned to her. “This conversation is done.” Her tone dropped into uncompromising seriousness.
The slave paused and returned her gaze for a moment. She took a breath. “All right.”
Xena turned and resumed walking. After several minutes of silence, she glanced behind her, to where Gabrielle was quietly following, her head bent slightly and her eyes fastened on the stone floor. The slave’s words had nettled her, and she’d come close to letting her temper loose on the kid.
Maybe Gabrielle knew that. Xena studied the slave’s profile out of the corner of her eye. Besides, she was talking nonsense. Xena didn’t have time to listen to nonsense.
So… you were asking for a story about pigs….why? Her annoying conscience spoke up suddenly. To gain.. valuable data about the husbandry skills of the far western peasants in case you decide to invade them, right?
Xena almost booted her conscience out the nearest slit window. Shut up. She ordered it. That was different.
“I’m sorry, did you ask me something?” Gabrielle spoke up, in low tone.
“No.” Xena replied gruffly.
They continued walking along. After a bit, Gabrielle straightened up, squaring her shoulders back and lifting her chin.
Xena kept a corner of her eye on the kid. They entered the big hall that opened up to the dining chambers on one side, and the sloping ramp down to the kitchen on the other. She stopped just inside the door, and reached out to take hold of Gabrielle’s shoulder.
The blond woman stopped and waited.
“I remember the first time I stepped inside this place.” The queen spoke in a quiet voice. “I’d just conquered the previous king’s army, and beheaded the bastard on the field.”
Gabrielle turned and looked at her.
“I was covered in blood.. in dirt, in horse crap, you name it.” Xena went on. “And I came in here, through that door..” She pointed to the huge, double hung portal. “After fifteen years of having no home at all, now I had this.” She moved closer and draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I had to figure out a way to keep it. Some of the things I did were cruel, and they were meant to scare people so badly they’d just do what I said and not question.”
Gabrielle relaxed a trifle, hearing the words under the words.
“A lot of men died getting me this.” Xena looked at her with utter seriousness. “I’m not making any changes that are gonna risk losing it.”
Gabrielle took a breath. “Wasn’t what I meant.” She replied softly. “I want to make it stronger for you. I want people to look at you, and feel happy to be here.” A pause. “Like I am.”
Xena felt the hitch in her breathing as she got caught in that gentle regard. “It’s.. a nice thought.” She said. “But it’s never gonna happen, kid.” She gave her head a little shake, and jerked her chin towards the ramp. “C’mon. Let’s go see what trouble we can get into.”
After a brief hesitation, Gabrielle decided to table her argument for the moment. She put her arm around Xena’s waist and walked along side her, holding back a tiny smile as she felt Xena pull her a little closer, almost as if in comfort. Experimentally, she gave the queen a squeeze, and saw a smile appear on her face. “Xena?”
“I’m sorry I made you angry. I didn’t mean to.. I just wanted you to think about what I was saying.”
The queen exhaled. “I wasn’t angry.” She said. “I was almost angry, but you didn’t quite get me there. Maybe next time.” She released Gabrielle as they reached the ramp, twitching her robe straight as she approached the entrance.
Two guards on either side of the hall snapped to attention as she came even with them. She lifted a hand and they relaxed, their eyes following Gabrielle’s slighter form with interest as she trotted after the queen.
This hall was smaller than the upper ones, but it was still far grander than the kitchen tunnels. Gabrielle noticed long trestle tables tucked against the walls on either side and she reached out to run her fingers over one as they passed.
Staging areas, she remembered, where trays of food and drink were poised for delivery to the banqueting hall on the half level above. Ahead of her, she could smell the kitchen, smoke from the fires and the scent of roasting meat foremost. Dinner smelled like beef, and even though they’d had a nice sized lunch, her stomach was growling at the thought.
“Is that you?” Xena chuckled. “I’m gonna have the healer check you for worms.” She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair affectionately. “We’d better get something easy for you to cook. Don’t want you passing out from hunger or anything.”
They entered the kitchen. Eyes went to them in startled surprise, then most of the staff either bowed or dropped to their knees.
Xena paused, framed in the doorway, and put her hands on her hips. She surveyed the kitchen with a pair of very icy blue eyes. She could see signs of faint neglect in the corners, and a sense of displeasure settled itself squarely in her guts. With cold deliberation, she stalked across the room and went to the spits, studying them carefully.
Then she turned and pinned the cook with a glare. “When were those cleaned last?”
“Mm… majesty?” The cook clasped her hands over her ample chest. “O..only this last week.. it’s just we’ve been so busy and…”
Xena crossed the kitchen and took hold of the woman’s hair, pulling her head up and back so she was forced to meet the queen’s eyes. “Too busy to make sure we don’t all die of poison and dirt?” She growled. “I think you’ve got your priorities wrong.” She flexed her other hand and closed her fingers around her dagger, already aiming for a spot under the woman’s chin. “And frankly, I’m sick of your food.”
Gabrielle knew she only had seconds. She bolted across the floor and got up next to Xena, threading an arm through the queen’s knife wielding one and putting a hand on her shoulder. “Your majesty.” She pleaded. “Remember the games. It’s been very hectic.”
Xena had frozen when Gabrielle touched her, there, in the middle of the kitchen in front of all the slaves. Fortunately, her body had gone still instead of reacting and that, that alone was what saved Gabrielle’s life. She turned her eyes on the blond woman and let the rage surface.
Gabrielle didn’t look away. “It was.” She shrugged a tiny bit. “But I’ll stay here and clean it.”
That brought Xena out of her paralysis. “The Hades you will.” She got out in a clipped tone, before she turned back to the cook. “I will be back down here tomorrow morning. If there is one speck of dirt in this place, you’ll die, and fill your spot with one of the cows from the stockyard.”
The woman’s jaw trembled.
Xena released her, wiping her hand on the woman’s chemise with an expression of distaste. Then she focused her attention on Gabrielle, who was still clinging to her arm.
Gabrielle released her, and stepped back, watching her face. Then she waited.
Xena realized suddenly that the girl fully expected her to hit her. That she’d chosen her course of action knowing that the result was going to be punishment, and pain. Her hand clenched into a fist, and she watched Gabrielle’s eyes close and her brow tense involuntarily. The queen had every right to do it, Xena knew that, and she knew not only did she have the right, it was expected of her.
And yet, she couldn’t. She let a breath out with an explosive sigh and turned away. Damn it.
She turned back to find Gabrielle watching her with an quiet, warm… unfathomable look. It made her shiver, because things were happening inside her guts she didn’t even begin to understand.
Xena was really upset. Gabrielle sat quietly by the fire, laying out the things the queen had picked out and deciding what to do with them. Behind her, Xena was pacing back and forth, her agitated tension so apparent it was making Gabrielle’s teeth ache just listening to her.
It made her anxious, she realized, and she gazed unhappily at an onion as she felt her stomach tie itself into knots. Part of that was because she knew she’d done something, several somethings, that had really angered Xena, and outside of being scared of what the queen might do, she found herself unexpectedly hurting to have lost the relaxed companionship they’d shared only hours earlier.
Absurdly, she felt like crying and it had nothing to do with the onion. It was like the time she’d broken her mother’s old mixing dish, the one she’d had from her own mother. It had been an accident, but Gabrielle had seen the grief in her mother’s eyes, and she’d known there was nothing she could do to bring the shattered bowl back.
That was how she felt, like she had the shattered pieces of something she’d only just begun to know in her hands, with no way to put them back together again and make them whole.
It made her sad.
With a sigh, she put the vegetable down and pulled a tray over. It contained two large fish, their blank eyes glaring balefully at her in the firelight. Fish weren’t something she’d had a lot of experience with, since the only stream close by Potadeia had served the village for everything and the fish tended to keep their distance.
Once in a while, though, her father had traded some mutton, or a skein of wool for the occasional string of trout and she’d seen her mother carefully preparing them. So now, she studied the fish, trying to decide whether to filet them or not.
A slight crash made her jump. She turned, to find Xena sprawled in one of the big chairs, her head resting against her fist, a sullen, dour look on her face. Cold blue eyes were fastened on Gabrielle, and she knew if she tried to filet anything under that gaze, she’d end up losing a thumb at least.
Well, Gabrielle.. you got yourself into this. You got her mad. Now go do something about it. Gabrielle gathered her courage and wiped her hands off, then she got to her feet and approached Xena’s faintly twitching form. The queen’s eyes followed her as she took the next seat and folded her hands in her lap.
“Problem?” Xena asked, sharply.
It was as though they’d never been close at all. Gabrielle had to stop, and swallow a huge lump that formed in her throat.
“Well?” The queen barked.
No. Gabrielle felt the pain all the way down into her soul. The bowl was broken. She got up without a word and went back to the fire, kneeling down next to the fish and picking up the small, rounded blade she’d set down before. Tears fell from her eyes onto the wooden trencher, darkening it as she quietly worked, her own breathing sounding harsh in her ears.
She heard Xena get up, but she kept her back to the queen and her head down even when she felt Xena’s close presence at her back.
And then she almost slipped and cut herself when the queen took a seat right next to her on the ground. She chanced a peek, and found Xena’s face so caught in turmoil it was hard to look away.
So she didn’t. She sat back on her heels and wiped her forearm over her eyes and sniffled.
Xena picked up a bean and threw it viciously into the fire, watching the sparks snap up from it. She picked up another and repeated the motion, her lips writhing into a snarl.
Well. Gabrielle slowly went back to her task. She wondered why Xena had traded her comfortable chair for the floor. It didn’t seem like she wanted to stop Gabrielle from what she was doing, or talk to her, or even just watch the fire.
So why was she there?
With a faint shake of her head, Gabrielle decided to stuff the fish, and roast them. She neatly slit the bellies open and removed the insides, cleaning them carefully with hands that almost didn’t shake under the queen’s dour stare.
Then she took bits of the vegetables she’d cut and put them inside the fish, along with several handfuls of grain before she wrapped each fish in a piece of wet parchment and tucked them into the side of the fire to cook.
Okay. Gabrielle cleaned up her tray and stood, taking it over to the sideboard table. She wiped her hands off and turned her head, watching the still figure next to the fire. Some of the anger seemed to have subsided, but she could see Xena’s hand, resting on her knee, clenching and unclenching.
She squared her shoulders and walked back to the fire, sitting down cross legged next to the queen.
For a few moments, they both merely watched the flames. Then Gabrielle turned her head and looked at the sullen profile next to her. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Very slowly, the queen tipped her head to one side and glared at her. “What?”
Something clicked. “Do you want to talk about it, or do you just want to get out your sword and cut my head off, like the others.” Gabrielle had to force the last few words out. “Or just throw me down the stairs. That’ll probably do it and it won’t make a mess in here my replacement will just have to clean up.”
She had no idea where her fear had gone to. She only knew it had been replaced by a manic courage, and the intense need to break through that icy gaze to find the flickering glimpse of a friend she’d seen before.
Briefly, Xena stared at her. Then the long, dark lashes fluttered closed and she let her head rest on her arm, her body going very still.
The tacit need made Gabrielle reach out and put a hand on the queen’s shoulder, surprised when she felt a shiver in the skin at her touch. “Xena.” She spoke in a low voice.
The sound vibrated inside her, and Xena had all she could do not to respond to it. Her chest felt like it was being pulled apart, the ache so intense it made her bite the inside her lip until it bled. She wanted to be angry. She wanted to lash out and destroy this thing that was making her confused, and unsure, and knocking her as offbalance as she’d ever been in her life.
And yet, her body was leaning into the warm touch on her shoulder and wanting much more. The animal part of her, usually so reliable, was shedding it’s fierce exterior and responding in completely unexpected ways, circumventing her will with stubborn persistence.
She felt Gabrielle’s arm slide around her shoulders, and then the pressure as the kid leaned her head against her upper arm.
And Xena broke. She released her anger, and accepted the comfort Gabrielle was offering, feeling the tight wound tension in her unwind as she gave her body what it was demanding.
The touch. Gabrielle stroked the side of her face as she leaned her head against the slaves. Xena stopped fighting it and admitted to herself, finally, that she’d broken her first, and most important rule. The one pledge she’d made to herself after Lyceus died, and she’d sealed herself off from the rest of humanity.
“Listen… I’m…. I know.. I did something really stupid, and I know you’re really mad at me for it… but… Xena, I just…”
“I know.” Xena closed her eyes and whispered. “You just did what you thought was right.”
Gabrielle exhaled softly. “Yes.” She admitted. “I… know what you do to people who do that to you.” She swallowed audibly. “And.. I don’t blame you if you..”
“Gabrielle.” Xena felt peacefully exhausted. “Shut up. I can’t kill you.”
The slave fell silent.
“I can’t even hardly yell at you. I could no more toss you down the stairs than I could fly over the moon in my underwear.” Xena felt Gabrielle shift slightly, and she knew the kid was looking up at her, probably from under those adorable, shaggy blond bangs.
“Oh.” Gabrielle said, very unoriginally. “Um.”
“Besides… Hades. Maybe you were right.” Xena went on. “My army.. the first one I had, holed up in a cave during the first winter after I got them together. I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the rocks about how to run things, and I lost most of them to the scour because I didn’t have sense to keep the place clean.”
“All those bodies.” Xena went on quietly. “I can still smell the death… hear the screams.” Her voice was distant. “Hades of a way to learn a lesson, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle was silent for a bit. “I’m sorry.”
“So was I. Armies are hard to come by.” The queen remarked. “Gabrielle, I may act like a bloodthirsty lunatic most of the time, but occasionally there’s a reason behind it.”
Another bit of silence. “Then why did you stop down there?”
Ah, now there was the point of it. “Because you wanted me to.” Xena replied with startling honesty. “And that stopped me just long enough for me to think twice about what I was doing.”
“I don’t like thinking twice, Gabrielle.” The queen said. “It’s dangerous.”
Gabrielle could feel the pressure of Xena’s cheek against the top of her head, and despite the queen’s words, she showed no signs of wanting to move away. Gabrielle didn’t feel like moving away either, and she reasoned that was a good sign. Xena’s words troubled her, and made her think hard about a lot of things, and most of all about how the world was never a black and white place.
Not anymore, anyway. “I’m sorry.” She repeated softly.
“Me too.” Xena replied. “Because it made me realize something even more dangerous.” She exhaled heavily.
“What?” Gabrielle asked, trying to imagine the answer.
“That I’m in love with you.”
Not even in her wildest, spiced vegetable induced nightmares could she have imagined that answer. Gabrielle felt her eyes pop wide open and she stared past Xena’s knee at the fire in utter surprise. “Bft.” A tiny snort escaped from her throat.
“Mm. Irony, thy name is Xena.” The queen mused. The danger drew itself in black and white images, stark in her inner vision. A wry smile appeared on her face, and she shifted, circling Gabrielle with her arm and accepting, at last, what had happened to her.
It was all she could do, anyway. Against this, against the power and the intensity of what she felt for this little scrap of a shepherd’s kid, she was helpless as a newborn and she knew it. The danger would come soon enough – for now, she might as well experience the joy it offered.
The future would take care of itself.
Gabrielle poked the fish experimentally, judging it almost done. It was very quiet in the room, and the fire sounded loud to her.
Almost as loud as Xena’s breathing, warming the outer edge of her left ear. The queen had wrapped herself around Gabrielle and was resting her chin on her shoulder. It was like wearing a living cloak, but keeping her mind off that living cloak was making dinner preparations somewhat precarious.
She hardly even knew why she was trying to keep her mind off it, except that it seemed a shame to burn such nice fish. Gabrielle had realized some minutes ago that she wasn’t hungry, she didn’t care about dinner, and there was so much jumbled emotion running through her body she doubted she’d even be able to swallow.
Xena’s arms were clasped loosely around her waist, and her legs were circling Gabrielle’s as they both sat on the floor in front of the fire. The queen’s eyes were mostly closed, and she seemed to just be enjoying the closeness as much as Gabrielle was.
She loves me. Gabrielle felt like singing. She felt like bouncing in her place, and wriggling with happiness, but she was afraid she’d disturb Xena’s sleepy peace if she did more than just grin. It was an incredible, and very unexpected turn of events after the tension of the last while.
“Is it food yet?” Xena’s low rumble tickled her ear.
“I think so, yes.” Gabrielle replied. She turned her head and found herself nose to nose with the queen. Feeling bold, she tilted her chin and gave Xena a kiss on the lips, feeling the soft surface move as Xena smiled. Pausing, she backed off a little to gauge the queen’s reaction to her audacity.
Xena leaned back and pulled her backwards until she was laying half in the queen’s lap. Then Xena returned the kiss with leisurely passion.
Oo. Nice reaction. Gabrielle gazed up at the dark haired woman as she lifted her head, grinning at her and letting some of the happiness she felt inside her show.
Xena’s eyes brightened visibly.
The ice was gone, Gabrielle realized. She lifted her hand and stroked Xena’s cheek, seeing all the way through the queen’s expressive blue orbs and into her soul. The person she found looking back at her wasn’t what she’d expected, the vulnerability and openness surprised her.
But Xena blinked, almost as though she realized, and then winked at her as she indicated the fireplace. “If it’s food, let’s eat it.” She said. “Grab it, and bring it to the table out there. I’ll get something we can drink with it.” She dipped her head and kissed Gabrielle again, nibbling her lips and gently exploring with her tongue. “Sound like a plan?”
The tip of Gabrielle’s tongue appeared as she regarded Xena. “I think that sounds great.” She agreed.
“Good.” Xena hoisted her up. She stood and stretched, then shook herself and walked from the bedroom into the outer chamber, leaving Gabrielle to retrieve the two fragrant packets of hopefully cooked fish.
Gabrielle wiped the sweat from her forehead, suddenly wishing the window were open a little to let some cool air in. She set the wooden trencher down and got to business. The packets were emitting steam, so she carefully eased them from the coals to the trencher, keeping her fingers out of the way as she opened them.
Oo. They smelled good, at least. Gabrielle peeked inside, pleased at the condition of her masterpieces. With a grin, she picked up the trencher and carried it to the door, slipping through it into the outer chamber.
She halted at the sight of the table set with flickering candles and sparkling crystal goblets. Xena appeared with a tall bottle, holding it to the light and looking into it’s golden depths, as she casually motioned the slave over. “Oh.”
Xena paused in the middle of opening the bottle, and cocked an eyebrow at her. “Oh, what?” She asked. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle walked over and set the trencher down. “It’s so pretty.” She indicated the table. “How did you do that so fast?”
“I.” Xena gracefully filled her goblet, then tipped the bottle to fill Gabrielle’s. “Have many skills.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle eased the trencher to the middle of the table. “I think I knew that already.”
“Oh, really?” The queen chuckled easily. “Get those things open and let’s see what we’ve got.”
Gabrielle opened the parchment and folded it back, exposing the tasty smelling fish. She slid one off onto the china plate in front of Xena’s big seat, then put the remaining, smaller one on her own.
“Hey.” Xena seemed to be in a very playful mood. “You gave me the big one.”
“Well.” Gabrielle tucked the parchment back onto the trencher. “You are the queen.” She met Xena’s eyes, and returned the grin. “And you are bigger than I am.”
Xena put her hands on her hips and regarded the slave. “Ain’t that the truth.” She said, giving her head a little shake as she walked around behind Gabrielle’s chair and pulled it out. Then she waited.
Gabrielle looked at the chair, then at her, unsure of what was going on.
“Sit.” Xena told her.
Cautiously, Gabrielle edged in front of the seat, very surprised when it was pushed under her and she ended up sitting down abruptly. “Oh!” She looked over her shoulder at Xena, who still had her hands on the chair back. “Why did you do that?”
Xena leaned her forearms on the wood and half smiled. “Because it’s what you do for women you care for.” She said. “It’s.. um… polite.” She took her seat and lifted her glass, it’s crystal depths colored deep amber with the rich mead she’d poured into it. “You like this.”
Gabrielle picked up her own glass and sniffed it. “Oh, yes.” She smiled. “I did. You’re right.”
Xena extended her glass towards Gabrielle. “Here’s to us, then.”
Us. Gabrielle suddenly felt different. She felt different because as she looked into Xena’s eyes, she knew the queen was seeing her differently, and it was a very nice change. She touched the edge of her glass to Xena’s. “Here’s to us.” She repeated softly.
They drank, watching each other through the candlelight. Gabrielle straightened a little in her chair, resisting the urge to fuss with her disordered blond locks. She put her goblet down, feeling the pleasant burn as the mead worked it’s way down into her stomach. “Would you like to hear the rest of the pig story?”
“No.” Xena investigated her plate, lifting the silver two pronged fork and laying the fish open. It’s flesh was soft and fragrant, and the grains inside had absorbed the juices and softened. It smelled great. Xena picked up a bit of the fish with the fork and put it into her mouth, savoring it slowly before she swallowed. “I want to talk about you.” She ran her tongue over the fork prongs.
Gabrielle looked up from her plate, a trifle surprised. “Me?” She put her fork down and took a sip of her mead. “What about me? I think it would be a lot more interesting to talk about you.”
“Me?” Xena leaned on her elbow, resting her head against her fist as she gazed across the table. “You know all about me.”
“No I don’t.” Gabrielle laughed gently. “I bet if we knew each other for the rest of our lives, I’d still wouldn’t know all about you.” She set her cup down.
Xena took a mouthful of fish and chewed it. “You make a very good trout, Gabrielle.” She changed the subject. “Where’d you learn to cook?”
Gabrielle ate some of the grains. “Well.” She swallowed. “I guess it’s just something I took to. I wasn’t much good at anything else around the farm.” She admitted. “I can’t sew, or make baskets, or knit… my father told me I’d better find something I could do or he’d…” Gabrielle stopped speaking for a long moment. “Anyway, one of my friends in the village was the son of the innkeeper, and he got his mother to show me the ropes, a little.”
Xena watched her companion in silence, chewing her food and thinking. “Gabrielle?”
“Yes?” Warm, green eyes met hers.
“Were you happier back there, or right here?” Xena asked. “Doesn’t sound to me like you were having a picnic before the slavers got you.”
The blond woman cupped her hands around her goblet and sipped slowly from it. There were so many answers to that question, and she had to decide which one Xena deserved to hear from her. “It was all right.” She finally answered, with a half shrug.
“Didja want to stay there?” Xena asked.
“No.” Gabrielle answered, after a slight hesitation. “I always… Everyone made fun of me for it, really, but I always wanted to go out and see the world…you know, look at other places, meet people… “ She looked up at Xena. “So here I am. I guess I got what I wanted after all, didn’t I?”
“I guess you did.” Xena mused. “Probably not the route you wanted to take to get here, though.”
Gabrielle gazed into the depths of her cup. She thought about the last night she’d been at home, about the yelling and the anger that had made her trip to the river that next morning a welcome relief. “Sometimes you can’t pick your roads.” She said, her lips pressing into a thin line. “But…if I had to be on this road, I’m glad it lead here.”
“I’m glad too.” Xena said. “It’s been a long time… since I’ve had someone around who I could just… talk to.” She frowned at the now empty cup in her hands. “I’d forgotten what that felt like.”
Gabrielle got up and retrieved the mead bottle, filling Xena’s cup and then her own. She remained standing, wordlessly stroking Xena’s shoulder with her hand as the queen sipped. “I…” She paused, then took a breath and started again. “I didn’t really have many people to talk to at home either. Most of my friends were just… none of them wanted to do anything but stay in Potadeia, and get married, and have kids.”
“They thought I was strange.” Gabrielle admitted.
“You are.” Xena told her, eyes twinkling. “But I like that.” She took Gabrielle’s hand and pulled her down to sit on her lap as she wrapped an arm around her. She picked up a bit of root from her plate and offered it to the blond woman.
Gabrielle put her arms around Xena and accepted the tidbit, giving her a hug just because she could.
Xena put down her cup and returned the hug and they sat there for a bit just wrapped in each other’s arms. She could feel the pressure of Gabrielle’s body wrapped around her and when she breathed in, the girl’s scent filled her lungs.
She ran a hand down Gabrielle’s side and felt a feather light kiss on the nape of her neck in response.
A crack of thunder startled both them. Xena surged to her feet in pure reaction, still holding onto Gabrielle as she pulled a knife off the table and crouched, all before her conscious mind slapped her in the back of the head and pointed at the window.
“Whoa.” Gabrielle yelped softly.
Another crack of thunder, and the entire exterior of the castle was blasted by a bolt of lightning, rattling the dishes on the table and sending a bit of mead sloshing from Gabrielle’s cup. With a crash, a pane of the window cracked and fell inward, and the room filled with the scent of the storm as the wind entered.
Xena released Gabrielle and took a step towards the window, then stopped as another bolt of lightning struck the outside of the stronghold, shattering the rest of the window panes.
Hail blew in, flying across the room.
“Um… your majesty… “ Gabrielle had never seen a storm this bad before. Even the one that had almost destroyed the sheep pen hadn’t been this violent. “I’m not sure…”
“I’m sure.” Xena grabbed the bottle of mead, and Gabrielle and bolted for the bedroom, ducking hailstones as she dove through the door and slammed it behind her. “Damned if I need Zeus to chase me into bed.” She checked the shutters, which had remained secure, set the bottle down, then threw Gabrielle into the huge bed and dove after her.
Maybe the storm outside lent a bit of extra danger. Gabrielle felt chills running up and down her body as she tumbled into the bed, barely having time to stretch out before the surface bowed under Xena’s weight as the queen joined her.
The low light outlined the queen’s body as she got between Gabrielle and the fire. Gabrielle reached for her as her own body reacted to the energy she could sense so close. Her hands touched bare skin and slid over it as Xena came to rest leaning half over her, the queen’s weight resting on her elbows.
“Well now.” Xena’s voice was pitched low. “This is good a place as any to ride out the storm, isn’t it?”
Gabrielle could feel Xena’s breathing under her hands, and felt a fire ignite in her guts as her fingertips explored the powerful contours. “Yeah.” She answered briefly, almost not hearing the rattling of the windows as the hail slammed into them.
Her own heartbeat fairly drowned it out, increasing when Xena leaned closer and took the laces of her shirt in her teeth and ripped them out. She felt the faint sting as the end of one hit her in the throat, then the chill as one sleeve was pulled down off her shoulder, exposing her chest.
This time was different. Gabrielle welcomed the lips that caressed her throat. This time she only felt excitement, and the building need, and a desire that set her skin on fire. Fear was never a part of it. She traced the outlines of Xena’s breasts with teasing fingers, listening for that low, rumbling purr and smiling when it came, moments later.
Xena’s hand slid down her other shoulder, peeling her shirt off and down around her waist. Gabrielle ducked her head and traded touch for touch, nibbling her way along Xena’s neck and tasting her skin with abashedly abandoned licks.
It felt so good. Everything felt so good, and the craving for more grew. She slid her lips along the silky surface of Xena’s skin, teasing her sensitive nipple as she felt a touch move slowly up the inside of her thigh.
Xena nipped her playfully on the navel and she squeaked.
They both laughed.
Gabrielle ran her fingers through Xena’s hair, loving the feel of it against her skin. She pulled gently and tilted her head, finding lips that met hers, and a tongue that teased between them, curling around her own. She shifted a hand lower, down across Xena’s belly, and felt the muscles under her touch tense.
There was a scar there. Gabrielle made a fuzzy note to ask about it. Later.
Xena’s thigh slid between hers, and she found herself rolled over onto her back, being gently explored. It put her in an excellent position to do some herself, and she let her fingers and lips wander, touching and tasting everything she could reach.
A rumble of thunder rolled through the stronghold, and it matched the rumble of pleasure that came, unexpectedly, from both of them.
It was hard to concentrate, Gabrielle felt her body arching almost out of her control as she continued her touching, hearing a second, low groan from Xena as the queens’ body pressed against hers. They were both sweating, despite the chill, and her tongue tasted salt on Xena’s skin as she planted feather light kisses down the centerline of her torso.
She wasn’t sure if it was luck, or just the natural melding of their mutual need, but she felt Xena’s body tensing as her own responded to a building tide of desire and their voices rose in conjoined howls. Gabrielle held her breath as rippling waves of convulsions moved through her and she felt Xena’s muscles clamp down over her as the queen shared the moment.
It was awesome.
Gabrielle waited for the intensity to subside, and she nuzzled Xena’s skin, sliding her body against the queen’s in an ecstasy of giddy passion. She felt like no amount of contact was close enough, and she wrapped herself around Xena’s, wanting to feel her all over.
“Mm.” Xena’s lips were close to her ear. “Niiiiicce…. Let’s try that again.”
Oh yeah….Gabrielle chuckled weakly. If this is what being a love slave meant, boy, was it ever underrated.
The hail beat petulantly against the leaded windows, and the wind moaned, it’s power impotent against the fire within.
Xena woke to find sunlight hitting her in the face. She blinked her eyes open in surprise, squinting at the window which showed an already bright sky. The storm had ended, apparently, and the weather cleared, all while she’d slept.
The air was cold, though, and she realized the storm must have brought in the beginning of winter weather. She could taste the dryness on the air, though where she was she was very comfortably warm and cozy.
The down cover helped, but finding Gabrielle’s body draped over her provided the real warmth and she gazed down at the tousled blond head in bemused affection. It was resting on her shoulder, and Gabrielle had one arm thrown over her and one leg, pinning her down with a light, but very perceptible pressure.
She closed her eyes and just let herself feel the trust in that embrace.
It was a first, in a lifetime of experiences, and she reveled in it. No matter what she’d expected love to be like, it had never been this. She shifted slightly, and kissed Gabrielle on the top of her head, feeling her nestle closer in unconscious reaction.
Ah. It had been a very long time since she’d felt peace like this. Xena let her eyes drift open, and study the ceiling. If she ever had. She halfway remembered a time, when she was very young before the terror came to Amphipolis. A warm kitchen, her mother.. her brothers.
But it had been a very long time ago, and she’d lost the ability to even want to go back to a time when all she’d cared about was being warm and well fed, and happy. Xena’s brow creased lightly. But in a way, Gabrielle touched that part of her, and made her remember what it had been like to have family.
Was that good? Xena slowly rubbed Gabrielle’s bare back. Caring about something meant risking the loss of it. She’d learned that the hard way. But wasn’t the risk worth it? Hadn’t she been alone long enough? She let out a breath, acknowledging the long ignored loneliness she’d surrounded herself with quite deliberately.
Well, Gabrielle was hers. Xena examined the girl’s profile. Willingly hers, as well as hers by right of ownership and unlike all her other previous bedmates, this one was worthy of being trusted and loved in return because she’d proven herself so.
Now what was she going to do? She couldn’t have Gabrielle keep on as her chambermaid, much as she loathed the idea of allowing yet another slave into her quarters. She had to find a position for Gabrielle that was in keeping with her status of being Xena’s lover.
She could, Xena acknowledged, merely just name her as her consort, but… Her eyes studied the slightly rounded jawline. That would be a waste of resources. The kid was smart, and she had a talent Xena knew she herself was sadly lacking in.
Xena decided to think about the answer to her little blond riddle for a while before she made any decisions. In the meantime, she’d have Stanislaus find a new slave to clean the floors, after she got herself back into her routine today. She knew the break in the weather removed any excuse for her to keep shy of her duties, and there were things to do and people to harass after her one day’s truancy from statehood.
And she was already late in starting. Xena observed the splash of sunlight creeping across the floor. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept past sunrise, but then again… a wicked grin appeared. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d spent most of the night making love, either.
Ah well. Xena gave the window a last glance, and acknowledged the fact that she had to get up and go be queen. Gently, she tickled Gabrielle’s back, watching the sleeping girl’s face slowly acquire tension as her body twitched.
After a moment, Gabrielle’s eyes opened, and she blinked a few times, then tilted her head up. “Mm.” She peered sleepily up at the queen. “Hello.”
“Good morning.” Xena put a fingertip on the slave’s nose. “You’re going to have to find a different pillow. I have to go tyrannize the masses.”
Gabrielle looked down. “Oh. Sorry.” She eased off the queen, rolling onto her side and leaning on her elbow. “Um… yeah. I’ve got a lot to do… the outer room’s a mess.”
“I’ll get someone to take care of that.” Xena told her. “I’ve got something else for you to do, since you’re so smart, as well as cute.” She smiled as a blush worked it’s way up from Gabrielle’s neck, showing a charming pink in the sunlight. “I want you to go around the stronghold.. .find out what people are really thinking.”
Gabrielle hesitated, then cocked her head to one side. “What makes you think I can?”
“Beeecaauuusee…” The queen ran a fingertip around her bedmate’s lips. “If you can do it with me, you can do it with anyone. There’s something still going on, and I want to know what it is.”
Slowly, Gabrielle nodded. “Okay.” She reached out and took Xena’s hand, bringing it to her lips and kissing it. “I’ll do my best.” She folded her fingers around the queen’s and rubbed the backs of her knuckles against her cheek. “I don’t know if anyone will talk to me downstairs, though.”
“Maybe not.” Xena murmured. “But you can bet all the nobles will. They’ll offer you the world, my little lamb.” She flexed her fingers, squeezing the girl’s. “Anything to get at me.”
“My world is nothing without you in it.” Gabrielle replied simply. “So they don’t have anything to offer.”
Aw. Xena considered herself thoroughly charmed. “You’ve got the soul of a poet, Gabrielle. Where’d you find it?” She teased. “Someone leave it by the river somewhere?”
Gabrielle smiled wistfully.
The queen chuckled, and gave her a slap on the butt. “All right. Move. I’ve got to go see what damage that damn storm did last night. Let’s go surprise the court and see what trouble we can get into.” She pulled the covers back and slid out of bed, taking a moment to stretch fully in the cool air. “Ahhhh.”
Xena turned and put her hands on her hips, cocking an eyebrow wickedly. “Why, Gabrielle. Losing your down on the farm shyness already?”
“No.. I mean..” Gabrielle scrambled out of bed and circled the queen, peering at her back. “Your back’s better.”
Xena shifted a shoulderblade, flexing her arm experimentally. It no longer hurt. “Ah.” She rotated her shoulder, then extended her arm across her body carefully. The motion didn’t even produce a twinge. “Well, what do you know? I guess a day spent in bed can heal anything.” She chuckled, shaking her head and walking towards the bathing room. “Too bad I didn’t think of that before the fight.”
Gabrielle watched her go, mesmerized by the smooth power rippling under Xena’s sun dappled skin. The wound on her shoulder was closed, only a dark line of stitches marking where it had been. There was no swelling, and no redness, and soon even that dark line would be gone, leaving behind only the memory of the horror that had, in a way, brought them together.
Then she remembered the other scar, and trotted after the queen, questions already tickling her tongue. Her world was changing yet again, only this time she found herself a part of the change and liking it.