Shadows of the Soul

Part 14

It was a beautiful night out, a perfectly black sky arching overhead exploding with stars that twinkled at them as they walked down the quiet stone path towards the queen's tower. It was cold, and the wind snapped the black and yellow banners on the walls with a satisfyingly crisp sound. Gabrielle took a deep breath, letting the chill wake her up a bit and chase the wine's vagueness from her thoughts.

Xena was strolling next to her, quiet for once and seemingly without the restless edginess usually present around her. It was late, long past the mid- night, and they'd left the dining hall nearly the last to do so, instead of Xena's customary early retirement. "D'ja have fun?" The queen asked her younger companion casually.

Gabrielle grinned. "Yes." She admitted. "I didn't think telling that story would be like it turned out to be. It was cool." She tipped her head back and gathered in the stars, amazed as always at just how prolific they were. "Isn't that gorgeous?"

Xena studied her slave's face, her own creasing into a smile. She held out her hand, and clasped Gabrielle's as the slave extended it willingly, and they continued to walk unhurriedly on. It was such a nice contrast, the warmth of that grip in the cool of the night, and it matched the warm spot she could almost feel growing inside her. "I liked the story."

Gabrielle eyed her expectantly. "But?"

"But nothing." The queen responded. "What makes you think there was one?"

"Oh, well." The slave murmured. "I mean, you usually don't just.. um... like something and not not like other things."

Xena's eyes flickered to Gabrielle's face and stuck there. "Are you drunk?" She asked, half teasingly, pulling Gabrielle to a halt and cupping her face with her free hand. "I didn't think you had that much, did ja?"

Gabrielle's eyes, soft and loving in the moonlight touched on her like the softest down. "I... don't know." She said. "I feel kinda dizzy." Her fingers stroked the skin on Xena's arm. "But I usually do around you anyway."

"Yeah?" Xena admired the curve of the girls' cheek, which held still a touch of youthful softness.

"Yeah." Gabrielle uttered softly. "It's amazing... I look at you, and I feel like...." She inhaled. "I feel like floating."

The queen regarded her with bemusement. "Floating?" She stepped closer, laying her forearms on Gabrielle's shoulders and lacing her fingers behind the girl's head. "I don't want you floating off. I want you right here, on the ground, with me. Understand?"

Gabrielle laid her cheek along Xena's arm. "I think I do understand." She let her hands rest on the queen's waist and smiled. "I love you."

Xena's eyebrows twitched, and a rakish grin appeared on her face. It took years off her appearance and Gabrielle found it charming in the extreme. The long night of food and wine had made her a little foggy, but her perceptions sharpened as the queen leaned closer and their bodies brushed against each other. It felt warm, and very nice, and Gabrielle closed her eyes as Xena's lips touched hers.

They tasted wonderful. Gabrielle opened her mouth a little, and felt the queen's tongue lightly exploring, entering her and teasing gently as her thumbs traced lightly over Gabrielle's jawline. A gust of wind tangled their hair together, tickling their noses with the touch of pitch smoke from the nearby torches on the wall.

How long they stood there, kissing in the moonlight was hard to say. Gabrielle was aware of the cold wind circling around her, but the chill made no purchase against the heat she could feel stirring between them as their bodies touched, and pressed against each other, bellies molding together tightly enough for them to have to breathe in the same rhythm. 

Xena finally lifted her head back a trifle, her breath warming the skin around Gabrielle's mouth as she gazed lazily at her slave. "Know what?"

Gabrielle's eyes slowly drifted open. "What?"

"I think we'd better keep walking or you're gonna end up on your butt in the dirt while I live up to my very... very.. " Xena kissed her lightly on the lips. "Lusty reputation."

"Oh." Gabrielle's fingers traced a line down the queen's side. "I think that nice, soft bed would be nicer."

"My point." Xena bumped her in the direction of the tower. "C'mon." She draped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and they started moving again. The guards near the wall stared straight ahead as they passed, moving not one muscle as the two lovers walked by. "Know what part of that story I liked the best?." Xena remarked placidly as they reached the tower door, and the guard swept it open for them.

"The part where you save the princess?" Gabrielle inquired.

"Nah." The queen chuckled softly. "The part where those stupid bastards walked right by us on the stairs." She said, as they walked up the wide, circular steps. "I laughed." She added. "I could see the whole thing again, and I laughed my head off."

Gabrielle's nose wrinkled up a little. "I bet those guys wouldn't think it was funny." She said. "They'd feel pretty stupid."

"Exactly why it made me laugh." The queen cheerfully informed her. "What a bunch of morons." She laughed, as they reached the top of the steps and crossed the round, spacious chamber towards her quarters. The two guards outside her door braced and saluted, bowing low before they opened the door for them and stood back. "Thanks." Xena said. "Now get out of here. I don't want anyone hearing the noises my little muskrat here makes when I ravage her. Scoot."

The two guards bolted, clattering down the back steps that lead to the kitchen without so much as a backward glance. 

"Heh." Xena waited until she heard the lower door close, and the heavy scrape and bang of the bolt move into place. She glanced around the circular rotunda, her eyes flicking over the hanging tapestries and the darkened niche in the wall that had once held Gabrielle's meager space.

Then she turned and entered her private domain, shutting the door behind her and throwing it's lock, on the inside. When she finished, she looked up towards the inner entrance, where Gabrielle was waiting for her outlined in warm candlelight.

Soft echoes of sound far off distracted her, and she cocked her head to listen, but her ears only picked up the soft patter of boots and the thud of the lower door shutting. Ah. The queen dismissed the rest of the castle and concentrated on Gabrielle instead.

They walked together through the outer chamber and into the inner. Xena closed the door behind them, glancing around to find the room neatly lit by fresh candles, and a basin of clean water waiting with delicate petals floating in it.  The queen selected one experimentally and examined it, giving Gabrielle an inquiring look. "Did you sneak out of the hall tonight and do this? I must have had more wine than I thought."

Gabrielle walked over and peered at the water, resting her chin on Xena's forearm. "Wasn't me, no." She said. "You think it was Stanislaus?"

Xena snorted. "He's about as romantic as a bucket of loose horse dung. No." She looked around more carefully, spotting a decanter and two crystal glasses near the bed. "Ah hah."

Gabrielle followed her over to it. "What's that?"

The queen removed the top from the decanter and sniffed it. "Ahmmm...." Her voice descended into a rich warble. "Something I dearly love, and very, very seldom indulge in." She picked up a small piece of parchment next to the decanter and unfolded it, chuckling a little as she read the words. "It's from Jellaus, the old horny bastard."

Gabrielle peeked at the parchment. "Sweet nectar for the hawk, and her little mouse." The slave took a step back and put her hands on her hips, looking down at herself and then back at Xena. "You know, I'm really not that small."

Xena folded the bit of writing and tucked it under the tray. "Y'know, I once told him I'd tossed my heart in the dungeon and thrown away the key." She said. "He must be getting a jolly from all this." Her eyes remained on the tray, and her voice had softened. "Damn him."

Gabrielle moved closer and circled the queen's arm with both hands, leaning her head against her shoulder. "I like him."

"You would." Xena's lips twitched. "He likes you almost as much as he likes tweaking me about you." She lifted the bottle and poured a bit of liquid into each of the two glasses. It was a deep amber color, and it picked up the candlelight as she handed Gabrielle one, revealing a hint of mahogany and crimson in it's depths. "Go on, taste it."

Gabrielle cautiously raised the glass to her lips, pausing as the liquor tickled her nose with unfamiliar scents. She took a sip and blinked as the intense flavor that set her tongue tingling almost immediately. "Wow."

Xena watched her, swirling her glass a few times before she took her own sip. Then her eyes closed, as the flavor brought back bittersweet memories and a vision of her brother's face formed inside them. 

The last night she'd seen him alive, they'd shared some of this. Lyceus had discovered a cache of it deep inside the castle bowels, hidden away for at least a generation before the man she'd deposed had ever come to live here.

He'd been so proud of himself, bringing it to her. They'd sat on the floor in front of the fire and drank from the same glass and laughed together about how far two dirt poor innkeeper's brats had come.

He'd grown into a fine warrior. Xena remembered sadly. Just not good enough to survive the treachery of the masses intent on destroying her.

"Xena?"

The queen opened her eyes, taking in the sight of yet another bright point in her life sitting under that same cloud. "Yes?"

"What's in this? It tastes like velvet feels."

Xena let the memories fade, and examined the cup instead. "Beats me." She admitted. "Every time I drink it, I think it's something else. Flowers.Orange. Mushrooms... what do you think it is?" She sat down on the bed and patted the surface next to her. When Gabrielle settled onto it, she wrapped an arm around the girl's waist and waited for the answer.

Gabrielle tasted another sip, mouthing it curiously before she swallowed. After a moment's reflection, she looked up at Xena. "Passion."

Both of the queen's eyebrows lifted sharply.

"No.. um..." The slave blushed slightly. "Not that... I... ahem." She cleared her throat. "What I meant is, whoever made this, put a lot of effort and love into it."

"Ahhh." Xena finished her glass, examining the thin, honey colored residue left on the sides. "So you can taste that, eh?" She replied, in a soft voice. "To me, it just tastes like fruit."

Gabrielle set her glass down and stood, sliding her knee between the queen's and daringly, gently, taking Xena's face in her hands. With slow deliberation, as they stared at each other, Gabrielle leaned forward and touched Xena's lips with her own as she concentrated on the depth of what she felt inside her.

After a moment she pulled back, finding eyes darkened almost to indigo watching her. "Taste it now?"

A seductive twinkle appeared. Xena licked her lips, leaving the tip of her tongue protruding slightly from between her teeth. "Eeeehhh..... getting closer. Do that again." She purred.

Gabrielle complied, inhaling a little as she felt Xena's hands exploring her body, undoing the laces on the dress she was wearing. The kiss became more intense, and suddenly she felt herself lifted slightly as Xena closed her arms around her and the room rotated as the queen laid down on her back pulling Gabrielle on top of her.

They took a brief pause to breathe, and Xena chuckled. "Now I taste it." She cupped Gabrielle's breast teasingly. "Let's see what other flavors I can find."

Gabrielle closed her teeth on the laces keeping the queen's bodice closed and tugged on them, as she wondered what new sensations they'd discover together tonight.

It seemed, at the moment, to be the perfect end to a very nearly perfect day.

**

She lay in the dark, only the dim starlight entering the window keeping the room from total blackness. It was very late, and Xena knew if she lay there for just a while longer she'd start to see the faintest hints of the coming dawn in the sky.

It couldn't come slowly enough for her. Xena exhaled slightly, soaking in the peace and listening to the sound of Gabrielle's breathing nearby. The slave was snuggled up close to her, their naked bodies pressed against each other in the warmth of the bed.

Most of her life she'd been alone, the queen mused. She'd liked it like that. No one to bother her, no one she had to be responsible for... if she wanted to take off her clothes and dance naked on the bed, no one to stare at her like she'd gone crazy... it'd been nice, and relaxed, and very comfortable.

So how come Gabrielle's constant presence had become such a natural part of her life so quickly?  Xena glanced down as she felt the slave stir in her sleep, moving closer and, as the queen's eyebrows lifted, sliding a possessive arm over her and snuggling her head into the hollow of Xena's shoulder.

"Hey." Xena frowned. "Xena the Merciless is NOT a pillow."

Deeply asleep, Gabrielle merely murmured happily, giving Xena a squeeze across the middle before relaxing bonelessly against her.

Xena regarded her with deep perplexity. Then she merely shook her head and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's back, one fingertip tracing the faint line of hairs down the center of her spine. Love, she decided, really did unspeakable things to you.

It made you stupid in some areas. Like personal dignity. Her eyes traced the barely seen outline of Gabrielle's head. And like personal space.

But she also knew that in her life, there had been very few times when she'd really been able to consider herself to be happy, and this was one of those times. Gabrielle was the cause. Being in love was the cause. Xena allowed a smile to cross her face. Being loved in return was amazing.

Maybe she'd go riding with Gabrielle tomorrow. The queen pondered. After she spent some time drilling with her men in the morning. Then maybe she'd take a squad of them, and they'd go out and tour the kingdom, just to remind everyone all over again who the boss was.

A royal tour. Xena liked the idea more and more as she considered it. Make the bastards fawn and scrape and serve her and her men rather than have them sitting fat and happy here in her castle, being fed with her stock, and by her servants.

Yeah.

Maybe she'd find Bregos and his scum lurking out there. Xena's blue eyes twinkled happily. She could hunt them down, and rid the kingdom of that plague while she reestablished her control over the nobles and bolstered her armed forces as she gathered up recruits impressed by the show.

Yeah.

Good strategy. Xena exhaled contentedly. Kick some ass, squash a few nobles, get some presents... all in all, a great way to spend a few fortnights before the really cold weather set in. Winter was always a trial for her being stuck inside most of the time, and having to listen to the plotting whispers that spread in the short day's cloistered boredom.

Gabrielle's thigh slid over hers, triggering a sensual jolt that made her nostrils flare. Xena suspected this winter wouldn't be nearly as boring as the previous ones.

At least for her.

Her thoughts wandered off for a moment, pleasantly preoccupied by the compact, warm body nestled against her, then she pulled them back on track as she considered again what role she wanted Gabrielle to play in her kingdom.

Since Gabrielle's role in Xena's life was already settled. The queen laid her hand flat on her slave's back possessively. This is mine. True in the sense that all her slaves were hers, of course, but also true in the sense that this slave was more to her than any other ever had been.

Xena thought about that for a minute. Then she tilted her head back and looked right up at the bed's canopy, the one odd frivolity she'd allowed in her quarters.

To catch spiders, of course. She hated them falling on her from the ceiling.

Gabrielle was her slave. She had no choice in her life anymore. But what if she did have one? Xena blinked. Would she choose to stay here with Xena, or leave to live her own life, free of the tension and dangers of her court?

Should I give her that choice?

Xena felt the sudden fragility of the happiness she'd discovered so recently. For something she'd never had before, it had become more important to her than she'd expected it to and now that she had it, she had no intention of losing it.

Gabrielle was very young. Young enough not to understand that you shouldn't always do things based on what other people thought, or for some stupid moralistic reason. She might choose freedom just because she thought that's what slaves were supposed to do.

Xena swallowed. She couldn't risk that. So no, she would not give Gabrielle that choice. She would keep her safe, and keep her close and not let anything happen to her. Then they would both be happy. The queen felt her guts relax, and the peace of the night once again intruded on her.

Besides, Gabrielle was happy here. Xena knew it. Happier than she'd been at home, right? Wasn't this plush bed, in a sturdy castle, a better place than some little pallet inside a sheep barn? Wasn't it? Here she was well cared for, had plenty to eat, didn't have to milk lambs in the winter...

Xena had no idea if lambs really needed milking, but it seemed like something Gabrielle might have done. She was convinced the slave had a much better life here, with her. Here she could be somebody.

Here she could live without worrying about starving.

Here she had someone to love her. Xena exhaled softly. Even if that someone was a bloodstained battle ax masquerading as a silken gowned queen. You'll stay with me forever, won't you, Gabrielle?She asked the girl silently. I'll take care of you. Not like I did with Lyceus. I thought he was tough enough to take care of himself, and look what happened to him. That won't happen to you, I promise.

Xena closed her eyes, her decision made. She felt comfortable with it and determined that they would remain together, and happy for a long, long time.

Gabrielle murmured in her sleep and smiled. Xena smiled into the darkness in response. Even if she had to suffer the indignity of being a pillow once in a while.

It wasn't so bad, really.

**

Gabrielle grabbed an apple from the tray in the outer chamber before she trotted out the door and towards the kitchen stairs. Xena was bathing, and she thought she'd take the opportunity to surprise her queen with a tray of breakfast before she had to open her private court.

She was dressed in her black and gold tunic, and she was in very high spirits. Xena had kissed and hugged her when they'd woken up, and told her she loved her. The warm, genuine affection had sent Gabrielle's heart soaring and she'd then been treated to a rough and tumble wrestling that left them both laughing in the middle of the bed.

It had been such fun. Gabrielle reckoned that Xena didn't really have much fun in her life, because she reacted to it with the most amazing grin. It had also been just a little bit scary, because she'd realized somewhere in all that tussling that the queen was a huge deal stronger than she was and she'd wondered just for a moment if Xena would hurt her, not meaning to.

But no, the queen had cradled her gently, winning their wrestling by trapping Gabrielle against the sheets and kissing her half senseless.

Boy, had that felt good. Gabrielle crunched her apple happily as she ambled down the steps. It was crisp and sweet and the flavor seemed unusually wonderful to her. She pondered that, as she reached the bottom of the steps and worked the latch on the door, pushing it open and entering the kitchen.

Unsurprisingly, her arrival was noticed. Gabrielle saw the quick glances, equally quickly averted that came her way, and the air of faint unease that rose as the servants in the kitchen recognized her. With a sigh, she straightened her shoulders and walked over to the cook's station, ignoring the whispers in the background. "Morning."

"Morning, m'lady." The cook replied, keeping her eyes slightly below Gabrielle's chin. Not an easy posture, given the woman was a head taller than her, but somehow she managed. "Does the queen desire to break her fast?"

"Yes, but don't worry about it. I'll get what she needs." Gabrielle replied. "Do you have any goat's cheese?"

The cook glanced furtively at her, then she nodded and turned towards the pantry. "Aye, that I do. Be just a moment."

Gabrielle finished her apple, tucking the core into the refuse barrel before she brushed her hands off and started exploring possibilities for breakfast. Backs were turned as the servants went back to their work, which was more than okay by her. "Let's see..."

There were baskets of fruit nearby, and she gravitated there first, selecting some of the fall apples and pears. She set them aside and retrieved a few muffins, thick with grains and rich with the sweet scent of honey.  A padded crock of eggs, round and precious stood nearby and she selected several, adding them to her tray.

"Them isn't cooked, m'lady." One of the older men, another cook, told her gruffly.

"I know." Gabrielle gave him a smile. "I'll take care of that upstairs."

The man cocked his head at her interestedly. "You cook?"

"Yes."

"She is one of many talents."

Gabrielle turned at the familiar voice, pausing in surprise as she saw Toris standing next to her. He was dressed in relatively good garments, his hair trimmed neatly and his face scrubbed conspicuously well. "Hello." She said, a bit wary given their last discussion. "I haven't seen you around for a while."

Toris nodded his head in acknowledgment. "I was given to Duke Lastay's staff." He said, briefly.

Ah. That explained the clothes. Gabrielle relaxed a bit, and smiled at him. "I'm glad to hear that. I like the Duke."  She turned as the cook approached, bearing a square of cheese wrapped tightly in cloth. "Thanks." She took the cheese from her, then turned back to Toris.

"The Duke speaks well of you, too, Gabrielle." Toris commented. "It seems that you've captured the queen's attention and more, and that has made things better off for all of us."

"Well, I do my best." Gabrielle picked up her tray. Toris stepped neatly back out of her way, and half bowed, indicating the path to the steps with a flourish. He definitely looked better and she found it in her heart to be glad for him. "Thanks."

She walked towards the door and he fell into step next to her, holding the stairway door open as she started up.

"Gabrielle." Toris spoke again, this time in a lower voice. "If I come upstairs later, can we speak?"

She paused and regarded him. "Sure." She replied. "If I'm not doing something for Her Majesty."

He patted her arm, and turned away, heading for the supply table with a brisk step. Gabrielle watched him for a moment, then she turned and started upward, pondering the exchange.

What, she wondered, was Toris up to now?

And more importantly, why did he want to talk to her about it?

With a sigh, she shook her head and focused her thoughts on the task at hand. Toris' explanations would come soon enough and she had eggs to consider first.

 She hoped she remembered how to cook them.

**

Gabrielle tucked her boots under her as she crouched against the wall of the practice yard, her eyes wide as she watched the sparring going on in front of her.

Two dozen of Xena's guards were faced off against each other, to her eyes whacking at random at anything that moved. She knew that wasn't really true, but it was hard to make sense of what was going on in all that chaos.

The men grunted, and yelled, and it all seemed very brutal, reminding her suddenly of the cattle slaughter down the road from Potadeia that went on ever winter.

There just wasn't enough food to keep all of them, her father had explained brusquely. So the old, the ones past bearing age or the ones that were a little sickly, they were taken to a corral downwind of the village and hacked to death. Their bodies were used as food, and their skins for many things even their hooves were boiled down for something.

It was how it was, Gabrielle knew. The animals died so she could live and as a farmer's daughter, she knew better than to be too sentimental about that. But still, she wondered sometimes if the other cattle thought about it, when they saw their fellows being lead off, or missed them.

Anyway. Gabrielle turned her attention back to the grunting men. A motion caught her eye and she spotted the far door opening, allowing Xena to emerge into the practice field.

Oo. All of a sudden, the men in the area picked up the pace and really went at it. Gabrielle watched the queen as she sauntered through the melee, her body clad in her well worn practice tunic, it's snug fabric outlining her body and sending a warm tickling through Gabrielle's guts.

Boy, she looked good. Even in that old thing, because it exposed a lot of her skin, and she had her hair pulled back into a knot and she just looked... Gabrielle was aware she was mentally babbling. She sighed, and put her chin down on her wrists.

Xena's eyes met hers briefly, and she felt her insides heat up again. The queen winked at her, then extended her arm and twirled her sword in a neat figure eight, so fast Gabrielle could barely see the blade moving. She could, on the other hand, really see the queen's muscles moving and she decided Xena's long, lithe frame was a heck of a lot sexier than the guys she was moving past.

Of course, she was probably a little biased. Gabrielle admitted. But really, just watching Xena move was like watching a dance, she was so well balanced and graceful.

"All right." The queen took center stage. "Who's my first victim?"

And she had such charming manners, too. Gabrielle had to muffle a laugh, at the looks of knowing chagrin on the soldiers faces.  They gathered in a loose circle around Xena, their adoration of her obvious and the queen sensed it, a smile appearing on her face as she stood waiting.

"Well?" Xena drawled.

"It's been a while, Mistress." Brendan appeared from the far door, his sword wrapped in it's leather sheath in his gnarled hands. "Give the boys a chance to catch they breaths."

Xena flicked her blade out and slapped him on the rear as he past with the flat. "Too long." She acknowledged. "I'm getting tired of playing with myself... so let's get it on, boys." She took a step, then ducked her body and whirled in a circle, whipping the sword into a tight spiral as she spun before them. "Catch me!"

Gabrielle was entranced. She watched in awe as Xena took on the dozen of them, her body moving with such grace and speed it seemed to blur. The men came after her, but their blades were deflected in a series of flickering motions that left only the whisper of steel in the wind.

"Yeahhhaaa!" Xena let out a yell, her powerful voice punching through the air. "C'mon, you slackers!"

The soldiers redoubled their efforts, but they could barely get a blade in edgewise as Xena stalked the interior of the circle, engaging three or four of them at a time while ducking the attack of three or four others.

Brendan walked over to where Gabrielle was crouched, and dropped down next to her. "She's something, eh?"

Gabrielle could not tear her eyes from that whirling figure. She could almost feel Xena's heart beating, and she could see the deep shine of passion in her eyes as she moved past. "Wow."

"Aye." Brendan agreed softly. "I've seen swordsmasters the world over, I have. But none have ever touched her." He pointed. "See that?"

If it was attached to Xena, Gabrielle considered it seen. She didn't really pay that much attention to anyone else around the queen. "What?"

"See that move? She changes direction in less than a thought. Y'never know where she's coming from."

And wasn't that true? Gabrielle nodded slowly. "It's... beautiful." She whispered, almost able to push aside the true reason behind the beauty the brutal deadliness that rendered that clean, silver blade rust red and gory driven by Xena's inimitable will.

It was a paradox.

Xena leaped into the air, incredibly, tumbling into a somersault as she continued to meet the men's swords and then landing neatly on her feet only to drop to one knee meet the conjoined clash of three blades coming right at her head.

She laughed, and surged upward, throwing the men back.

Gabrielle caught a glimpse of some motion behind the men, and she looked across the yard, spotting the colorful silks of several nobles who were gathered on the far side, watching. She nudged Brendan in the ribs, and pointed a finger at them.

"Aye." The old soldier said. "Time for em to see again what she is. Been too long locked up in that tower, she was."

Gabrielle thought of that lonely figure she'd seen in the early dawn, covered in sweat from a battle waged between the queen, and her own shadows.  She wondered why Xena hadn't come down here, to these men who so obviously worshipped her, who shared her love of this deadly art.

Why had she closed herself off, from even this contact? And why now was she coming back out into the light?

Gabrielle looked up, and found herself looking right into Xena's eyes, as the queen peeked over at her to see if she was watching. She grinned at her, and got a grin in return, and then Xena went back into the fray.

"Hasn't lost a step." Brendan sighed. "Wish that I could say so."  He pushed himself to his feet with a groan, and headed towards the fray with a shake of his head.

**

Xena finished playing with her men, deciding next to do a little set of complex sword drills just to show off.  She liked showing off. It helped, of course, that she really had something to show off with banging yourself in the head or tripping would just be embarrassing. 

Xena never hit herself in the head, or tripped in public if she could help it so she felt comfortable in her circle of admirers as she went through some of the advanced moves she'd invented out of need and a bit of boredom stuck in her tower late at night.

If you had no one to spar against, you had to come up with some other way to keep your skills sharp, didn't you? Besides, she was having fun watching Gabrielle's face as the slave watched her show off, glad the girl was getting to see the other side of her martial prowess, the one that didn't involve dead people and huge quantities of blood on the floor.

It was a skill, a skill she'd worked very hard to acquire, and one she was very proud of.  

Xena danced backwards to a post, which had strips of cloth hanging from it. She detached one and tossed it up in the air, then she whipped her sword up and traced an impossibly small pattern right through the fabric, tightening her wrists and concentrating as hard as she could.

Her blade was only a blur. Then she dropped her arms, releasing one hand off her sword hilt as she twirled the long weapon with the other and caught the fabric as it floated down near to her knees.

She held it up.

It looked like a lace snowflake. Xena waited. After a stunned pause, the circle of men let out wild cheers and hoots. The queen strutted over to the wall and dropped the bit of cloth on Gabrielle's head, where it draped neatly, one corner drifting down over her nose and the holes allowing her green eyes to peek out. "There."

"Wow." Gabrielle blew out, puffing the fabric up a bit. "That was awesome."

"I know." Xena turned and waved her sword at the men. "C'mon, get moving. You damn well need the practice if you can't keep up with one old ex warlord." She watched them sternly until they took up arms again, waiting for the clash of swords to float over the yard before she turned and slid down the wall to crouch next to Gabrielle with her hands clasped on the hilt of her sword.

Gabrielle moved the fabric aside so she had a clear view of her queen. Xena's skin was flushed and covered in sweat, her dark hair was plastered down over her forehead, and still, she looked totally gorgeous to the slave's admittedly biased eyes. "Hey, Xena?"

"Yeeeesss?" The queen drawled, giving her a little grin.

"Can you teach me to do that?"

Xena's dark brows creased. "Do what?" She glanced at her sword hilt. "This?"

Gabrielle nodded. "It was like magic."

The queen stared at her sword for a moment, then looked back at the slave. "No." Her voice took on a gentler tone at the frown on Gabrielle's face. "You don't want to learn this, Gabrielle."

"Yes, I do." Gabrielle objected.

"No." Xena lifted a hand off her hilts and put it on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Listen." She paused. "You pick up one of these, and you become a target."

Gabrielle rubbed her scalp, then looked at the queen. "I already am a target." She replied, softly. "I want to learn how to fight, like they do." She indicated the men.

Xena leaned her sword against her chin. She pondered for a while, her eyes following the moves of the soldiers fighting in front of them. "Gabrielle." She finally turned to the slave. "I'll protect you."

"I know you will." Gabrielle marshaled her arguments. "But I want to know how to protect you."

The queen's dark eyebrows both lifted sharply.

"Well, you never know." The slave's lips twitched into a rueful grin. "Please teach me."

Xena frowned, finding the suggestion intensely unappealing. However, she had to admit that Gabrielle did have a bit of a point, since Xena couldn't be around her *all* the time.

Could she? Hmm. The queen mused. "Not this." Xena folded her hand around the sword hilt. "You're too small, for one thing, and... if you take this up, you need to be able to use it." Her eyes bored through the slave's. "Can you do that, Gabrielle? Stick this up to your elbow in some guy's fat gut and let blood run out down your arm?"

Gabrielle winced.

"Uh huh." Xena snorted. "I'll see if I can think of something else you could try."

Gabrielle sat down cross legged. "Like that?" She pointed at one of the soldiers, who had taken up a spear and was charging a fellow with it.

"I was thinking more along the lines of a stick."

"A stick?"

Xena nodded.

"That doesn't sound very dangerous."

The queen's lips curved up. "Wait and see." She polished her sword blade on the side of her tunic and sheathed it with a soft chuckle. "Wait and see."

**

"Bring dinner to my chambers tonight." Xena pointed her sword playfully at Stanislaus as she passed him in the hallway. "Household packed yet?"

"Packed, Majesty?" The senschal hurried over, with a puzzled look. "Are we going somewhere?"

"I told you before, Stanislaus." Xena frowned at him. "We're going on a royal tour. Before the snow sets in, I'm gonna visit every damn stronghold in the land."

"Told me, M..." Stanislaus took his time to frown in turn. "Your pardon, Mistress. I must have missed that."

"Clean your ears out." The queen advised. "I want a full troop and everything we'll need to travel ready by tomorrow. Move it."

The older man nodded, after a moment's hesitation. "As you wish, Majesty." He murmured. "Will you be heading to the north, or the southway first? There is much to do..." He now appeared worried. "Supplies to order... goodness..."

I did tell him, didn't I? Xena had to question herself suddenly. Oh well. Not like he was going to catch her admitting to being wrong. "Well, get on it." She growled. "Take lots of carts. I'll be bringing back lots of presents."

The seneschal scurried away, heading for the far door out of the tower and almost running through it. Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder and gazed after him, then she shrugged and headed for the steps.

A good day. She decided, as she took the stone stairs two at a time. She'd worked out with the men until far after mid- noon and then she'd visited the stables and wreaked havoc there for a while as she inspected the conditions of her favorite animals.

Why had they been neglected? The stablemen knew without question how much she cared for the beasts. Xena shook her head as she got to the top of the steps and entered the rotunda. Then she stopped. Had she been so absorbed with her solitary pursuits that the men had just gotten used to not having to have things just right? Slowly, she continued walking, letting her eyes run over the tall hanging tapestries as she reached the huge doors to her chambers. She stopped and let her hand rest on the door latch before she worked it. Yeah, maybe she had.

She pushed the door open and entered the inner corridor, closing the door behind her and looking around with fresh eyes.

The space was clean, yes, and spare. Gabrielle had, after all, had charge in here for several days before they'd become involved with each other. But the hall suddenly appeared drab and uninteresting to Xena, and she wondered why she'd always kept herself to these few, small spaces in the castle.

With a slight frown, she opened the outer chamber door and walked inside. She stopped just past the entry and gave the room the same once over, seeing the same bland plain-ness that she'd simply looked past before.The furniture was expensive and well made, the walls well kept, and the carpet immaculate save the odd tiny spatter of blood worked too far into warp and woof to get out.

"You know what?' Xena addressed the room. "This place is damned boring."

With a snort, she dropped her sword on the table and loosened the straps on her practice gear, scratching her collarbone as the itch of dried sweat made itself known. She fully intended on taking a bath and cleaning up, then having a little dinner before she engaged young Gabrielle in a night of rapacious sensual delight.

With a slight yawn, Xena pushed open the door to her bedroom with one shoulder and gazed at the bed and it's surrounds. "Yeah." She shook her head. "Boring. Gotta do something about this place."

Move, maybe, to one of the big suites in the main hall that the nobles all coveted. "Who should I kick out, hm?" She asked herself as she stretched out her shoulders, pausing as the ache of her recent injury arrested the motion. "Damn. Forgot about that." She eased her practice tunic down and turned her back on the mirror, peeking back to examine the spot.

The wound had closed, and now a thin, dark line was all that was left of it, with a pattern of bruises around it that were fading in and around her shoulderblade. Experimentally, she flexed her arm, and felt the tender ache as she pulled against the skin.

The ache annoyed her. However, she acknowledged that it could be a lot worse, and the wound was at least healing now. She'd worked hard all morning, and she supposed she could expect a little soreness as a result. Shrugging the tunic back on she turned and faced the mirror, noting with a wry grin the smudges of mud that dusted her cheekbones, giving her an even more rapscallion look than usual. She reached up and removed one smudge, then ran her fingers through sweat stiffened hair and studied the angular profile thus revealed. The men had enjoyed her presence, she decided. Not because they liked getting their asses kicked.... Well, some of them did, but anyway. Xena laughed silently. They were glad she was there because her presence indicated how important theywere they were her men, she was their queen, and the fact that she spent time with them marked them as special.

Which they were, she nodded at her reflection.Somehow, she'd let that slip over the last few years, and that, more than   anything, was what had given Bregos his advantage when he'd gathered men to him.

Bregos had understood her mystique, and had decided to replicate it. Without her being in the faces of the men he brought in, they gravitated to him as a source of power the same way Xena's men stuck to her.

Bregos.

Where was the little bastard? Xena suspected he'd been taken out of the kingdom to the outlands, to survive if he could and be nursed back into as much health as someone in his condition could hope for.

Which wasn't much, Xena knew.

"I should have killed him." The queen told her image.

"How come you didn't?"

Xena whirled, her instincts flaring before her eyes confirmed what her ears had already told her. She relaxed as Gabrielle entered the room, carrying something in a container. "What?"

"You were talking about Bregos, right?" The slave asked. "You didn't kill him... but everyone expected you to. I heard them behind me."

Xena took a step back, disconcerted at having Gabrielle practically sneak up behind her without the queen realizing. "How long were you out there?" She asked abruptly.

Gabrielle set her burden down and turned, her head cocking slightly to one side. "Out where?"

"The other room."

"I wasn't." The slave replied, in a puzzled tone. "I just came in the big door, walked across the outside room and came inside here, and I heard you talking."

"I d.." Xena stopped, and shook her head. "Never mind. What do you have there?" She pointed at the container.

"Petals." Gabrielle uncovered the dish. It was filled with colorful, very fragrant flower that released a lightly delicious scent into the air. "I thought you'd like them in your bath."

Xena plucked a petal and sniffed it. "Are you insinuating that I stink?"

"Um.. no.."

"Ah... I think you are."

"No, really." Gabrielle stepped closer and put her face against Xena's mud spattered tunic. She inhaled and looked up, her pale lashes fluttering slightly. "No stink."

Xena balanced the petal on the girl's head, and gave her a mollified smile. "All right then, bring the damn things in there and let's see if they work."She untied the straps on her clothing as she walked towards the bathing room.

Gabrielle lifted the bowl and followed her, setting it down and ducking around Xena to lean all the way over and roll the stopper into place before she picked up the first bucket of coolish water and dumped it in. "You don't want this hot?"

Xena leaned on the tub. "You make me hot enough. The water'd be overkill."

Gabrielle stopped in midmotion and looked at her, a flow of crimson tinting her skin with surprising suddenness.

"Now tell me the truth. Were you trying to sneak up on me out there?" Xena ran the tip of her thumb over Gabrielle's heated cheek.

Gabrielle shook her head no.

"Honest?"

"I wasn't." The slave said. "Did I?"

Xena sighed. "Yeah. I can't remember the last time that happened." She admitted. "I don't like it. I depend on being able to know if someone's doing that."A little disturbed, she picked up a second water jug and dumped it in.

"Well." Gabrielle got a third bucket. " You were concentrating... maybe you were just thinking hard. I do that sometimes. I get so interested in a poem, or a bird, or..." Her voice trailed off as Xena stripped out of her tunic and stood before her naked. "Or.. um..."

"I get the point." Xena snorted.

"Yeah.' Gabrielle kept her eyes level and a tiny smirk appeared. "Me too,"

The queen looked at her. "What?"

Green orbs lifted innocently. "Nothing." She stooped for another bucket.

Xena sighed. "Maybe I'm just getting old." She tested the water, which was pleasantly cool to the touch. "Reflexes can't last forever, eh?"The queen picked up the bowl of flowers and dumped them in, watching bemusedly as they swirled in a wild pattern over the surface of the water. "Flowers in my bath, adorable slaves sneaking up on me... my quarters are boring life is just going to Hades, isn't it?"

"Um."

Xena jumped into the tub and sent water and petals everywhere, swamping Gabrielle where she stood and leaving the slave dripping. She reached over and plucked a soggy petal from the girl's nose and grinned. "You're gonna practice sneaking up on me later, and we'll see if I'm losing it. Make sure you take your boots off."

Gabrielle blew the wet hair out of her eyes, and glanced down. "More than my boots."

"Oo. Naked sneaking. Even better." Xena started to scrub her arms, her humor restored. "It'll be a hot time in the queen's boudoir tonight." She flicked a handful of water at Gabrielle, who dodged.

Xena chuckled, leaning back and watching the floating flowers nestle up to her breasts.

She chuckled again.

**

"What do you think, Gabrielle. It's boring in here right?" Xena was flat on her back on the thick bearskin rug, the fire crackling merrily nearby.

Gabrielle half turned away from the fireplace, licking her fingers as she gazed inquiringly at the queen. "Boring?" She asked. "In here? With you here?" An incredulous tone emerged.

Xena's blue eyes twinkled at her, their clear shade muted to indigo in the low light. "Why, Gabrielle. You little sweet talker, you."

"Well." Gabrielle blinked at her. "It's true. If this room was six times the size, you'd still fill it with awesome." She reclined next to the queen and leaned on her elbow, watching Xena's dark lashes flutter as she reacted to the words. "Are you blushing?"

"No." Xena replied automatically.

"I think you are." Gabrielle reached up and touched the queen's cheek. "You're all warm."

"It's the fire."

Gabrielle daringly touched her fingertips to the queen's lips, not really surprised when Xena nibbled at her skin. "I don't think it's really boring in here, but I think you could have a place that was more like you."

"Ah." Xena ran her hand over the girl's bare thigh. "Yeah, maybe." She agreed. "Couple torture racks in the corner, chains hanging from the ceiling, a splash of blood or two on the walls... homey, huh?"

"Tch." Gabrielle decided to push her luck a little. Her apples were baking in the fire, sending a touch of warm cinnamon into the air and she breathed it in as she slowly lowered herself down, resting her head on Xena's belly and gazing up at the queen past the rise of her cleavage. "I think your rooms should have some of those big, colorful tapestries in it... with all those wonderful scenes, the horses, the trees.."

"The battles." Xena teased.

"The birds and flowers." Gabrielle responded. "And lots of pretty landscape."

The queen's lips quirked just slightly. She turned her head on the soft pillow behind her to look at the fire, then she returned her gaze to Gabrielle's face. "Tomorrow, you and I will go on tour of this rat trap, and we'll pick a new place. Then you get to decorate it. How's that?"

Gabrielle blinked a little in surprise. It hardly seemed a decision Xena needed her input on, but she was very pleased to be asked to be a part of it. "Okay." She smiled broadly.

"No ruffles." Xena put a fingertip on her nose.

"Never." Gabrielle shook her head solemnly.

"No lambs gamboling anywhere."

"Not even one?" The slave teased. "Oh, c'mon, Xena. I'll have them paint one in the darkest corner. You won't even notice him."

The queen chuckled softly. "You twisted my arm." She said. "But I get to name him." It felt very strange to be talking like this, sharing this particular decision with someone else the way she was with Gabrielle. Giving her the choice of where they would live.

They.

Us. Xena's thoughts went distant. There had never been an 'us' before. Even with Lyceus, with the closeness she'd had with her younger brother, it hadn't been 'us."

"Xena?"

"Hm?" The queen pushed the thought aside and looked down the length of her body.

"I was talking to Jellaus today, and he told me he could teach me how to be a bard." Gabrielle said. "I'd really like to learn that, too."

Xena remembered the previous night. "I'm not sure how much he could teach you, or how much he wants you to teach him." She remarked, with a smile. "But Jell's a good man. Get what you can from him."

"He likes you."

"Yes, he does." The queen admitted. "One of the very few people on this earth who does, without much reason for it. His father was the minstrel here when I took over."

"Oh." Gabrielle wondered what had happened to him. "Did he take over from him?"

Xena was quiet for a moment. "His father took a shine to Lyceus. They used him to lure Ly into the courtyard the night he was killed." She picked up Gabrielle's hand and held it, lacing her fingers through the girl's. "He killed himself when he found out what happened. I never blamed him, but it didn't matter."

"Oh."

"He was one of the few of the last regime who made the switch." Xena said. "I put Jell's mother on my rolls and made sure she was taken care of until he grew up, and she passed. Good people." She paused. "I didn't deserve them."

Gabrielle could hear the beating of Xena's heart, where her ear was pressed against the queen's belly. Xena's eyes lifted and met hers.

"I don't really deserve you. But there he is, here you are... " Xena's voice was soft and reflective, and now she half shrugged. "I've killed and hurt so many people I guess it really doesn't' matter what happens to me in this life anymore. My boat's going to bump up on Tartartus' shore anyway."

Never had Gabrielle seen someone look quite so alone as Xena did in that moment. "You don't know that for sure." She got out, her voice a little husky. "You have your whole life to live, Xena. You don't know the good you can do."

"People like me don't live long lives, Gabrielle." Xena told her. "If there's good to be done, it's you who'll do it. Not me. I don't do good. I just do what I have to, I do what it takes to keep me on top."

"I don't believe that." Gabrielle said.

"I know." The queen sighed. "Neither does Jellaus. You must be related."

Gabrielle eased up and sat, turning the apples before she laid back down. "Maybe we are, in a way." She said. "We both still listen to our dreams."

Xena let out a brief laugh. "I don't dream." She said. "You hear enough screams, you stop having them after a while." She drew in a breath, and looked around with visible discomfort. "We were supposed to be buck naked and covered in honey by now. What happened?"She complained.

Gabrielle curled her hand and rubbed the queen's belly with her fingertips in wordless comfort. Watching Xena's face, though, she could see the cool facade only come halfheartedly back up and she understood that she'd crawled a little further into the enigma that was Xena the Merciless.

She decided not to push it. "Well." Gabrielle kept her voice light. "I've got some honey, but it's in the apples and they're kinda hot."

"Ahh..." Xena relaxed slightly. "Kinky, but I'm not in to branding this year."She glanced towards the fireplace. "On the other hand, they smell good. Get em."

The slave reluctantly let go of her hand, and sat up to retrieve the goodies. She carefully eased the roasted apples into a wooden bowl and scooted back over to where Xena was reclining, bringing a spoon with her.

"Mm." Xena turned onto her side and drew her knees up, making a little pocket for Gabrielle to sit in as she curled herself around the girl. "What have we here?"

Gabrielle leaned back against her prestigious backrest and separated a spoonful of the apple, offering it to Xena invitingly. "Try it."

The queen leaned forward and took the bite off the spoon. She returned to her position and chewed it thoughtfully. "Huh."

"Well?"

"Awful." Xena pronounced.

Gabrielle gazed down at the bowl in confused dismay. She'd been sure the queen would like the treat, one that her mother had often made her and Lila on long, cold winter nights.

"That's so bad, I'm gonna have to make sure you don't get exposed to it." Xena reached over and snagged the bowl, pulling it toward her. "I'll just have to eat it all myself." She reached for the spoon. "Gimme."

"Oh." Gabrielle chuckled, handing over the implement and watching the queen attack her treat. "You're so funny sometimes."

"Keep it up, and I may give you some." Xena told her around a mouthful. She paused and looked up at Gabrielle, a definitely visible twinkle in her eyes. "Just kidding." She separated a bit of apple and offered it to the girl. "Here."

Gabrielle took it, then wriggled a little closer, resting her elbow on Xena's side as they shared the bowl, stilling their voices and letting the music of the fire steal it's peace over them.

She thought about what Xena had said to her, and she thought about what Xena had told her without words. She wondered if what the queen had said was really true that there had been so much in her life that she'd done that was awful and violent that she was destined to spend her eternity in the searing flames of Tartarus.

Gabrielle didn't believe that. Looking at Xena's profile, there in the firelight, she could see the tarnished nobility in it, and she knew, darn it, she knew inside her that there was something good inside Xena that would come out if only the queen would let it.

The question was, of course, would she? Or would she let her own belief in her badness take away that choice from her?

No. Gabrielle decided. She just needs a little help.

Sticking her thumb into the warm apple, she removed it and dabbed a bit on Xena's nose, startling the queen. "Oo." She leaned over and gently kissed it off, then moved a little lower and gave Xena a kiss on the lips for good measure.

They both laughed, and Xena shook her head before she continued sharing the apple.

Just a little help.

And where, her conscience suddenly prodded her, will you be ending up, Gabrielle?

Gabrielle chewed a mouthful, as Xena's eyes suddenly lifted and met hers, and for the first time she felt something between them. Was it an understanding? She looked into the plainly visible soul gazing back at her and realized what ultimately happened to Xena and where she ended up really mattered to her.

Really.

"Got any extra honey?" Xena purred. "I can think of some other nooks I'd like to drizzle it in."

Really.

Gabrielle pointed at a small jar near the fire, and grinned.

**

It was late. Gabrielle stretched her arms out, savoring the sensual lassitude in her body as she stepped out into the rotunda just to take a little walk and think.She sauntered around the circumference of the big chamber, stopping frequently to look up at the thick hanging tapestries.

What scenes should they have in their new place? Gabrielle paused to study a battle depiction near the wide stairway, it's colors muted to browns and ochres by the fluttering torch light. There should be pictures of nice things, she decided. Seeing the horses all lined up looked very regal, but she knew the next thing that would happen would be that they charged towards each other and people and animals would get hurt and die.

Why celebrate that?

A nice tapestry of Xena's stronghold, surrounded by the pleasant, rich lands and the fertile valley below, she decided, would be better. She sat down on one of the austere, padded benches and looked across at the cubby she'd lived in not that long before.

Her life had changed for the better. There was no doubt in her mind about that now. Gabrielle leaned her head back against the cool stone wall, rubbing her hands up and down her bare arms as her sated body felt a deep contentment.She thought maybe Xena's had changed for the better too, and she wondered what the queen really thought about the two of them.

Them. Gabrielle felt giddily happy about being included in the queen's plans for a move. Not only included, but given the responsibility of picking things out for it. It gave her a sense of belonging to this odd partnership between the two of them, something that went past who she was, and who Xena was, and what their respective status was.

It felt nice.

Gabrielle yawned, then she pulled her knees up and gazed at the tapestries for a minute, gathering herself up to return to the queen's chambers where she'd left Xena finishing up the last of the apples after they'd taken a very long break that had ended up very, very messy.

From someone who had started with so little experience, she was rapidly becoming quite enamored with lovemaking. Gabrielle grinned wryly as she found herself wondering if she could coax the queen into another snuggle. Just the thought.... She closed her eyes.

"Gabrielle."

The male voice brought her head up as she looked sharply to her left to see Toris standing at the top of the wide staircase. "Oh." She remembered his words earlier. "Hi."

He crossed the rotunda and sat down next to her on the bench. "It's late."

Gabrielle nodded. "It is. I was about to go back inside. I think we'll have a busy day tomorrow."

Toris chuckled briefly. "That's true. The Duke has everyone running all over getting his horses ready for the royal tour. Are you going?"

"Yes. Are you?"

"I think so." He said. "Do you know which way we're heading? Or where we're going first?"

Gabrielle reviewed her knowledge. "No." She said. "Xena hasn't said. Why?"

"Just wondering if I need to pack my heavy cloak or wear it." Toris chuckled again. "To the south, it's an easy road and warmer. To the north, the mountains and an early winter."

"Oh, that makes sense." She smiled. "Wish I could tell you guess we'll find out tomorrow."

Toris glanced around and half smiled. "That we will."

There was a little silence, then Gabrielle cleared her throat. "So... um...what did you want to talk to me about?"

Toris pushed his boots out a little, laying his hands on his well fitted leggings. "Things are changing." He said. "I wanted to say I was sorry about putting all that pressure on you before. It wasn't fair."

Ah. Gabrielle gave him a more friendly smile. "It's okay. I... I think you were just doing what you thought was the right thing. So was I."

He slowly nodded his head. "I still think I was doing the right thing."He continued. "I know you think you're in a good place, Gabrielle , but you're wrong. It's just a matter of time until she turns on you and I think you're smart enough to know that."

Gabrielle gazed into her memories, to that distant soul in those blue eyes peering mournfully out at her. "What makes you say that, Toris? You don't know her."

"I do." Toris whispered. "Better than you could ever imagine. Believe me, Gabrielle. It's true. She'll use you for her own pleasure until she's tired of you, and then you'll have nothing."

Was it true? Gabrielle could see that Xena's restless, impatient nature would and could tire of things, and it wasn't as though she had a lot of experience to judge anyway. "Toris?"

"Yes?" He eased closer, encouraged by the pensiveness in her voice.

Gabrielle turned and looked directly into his eyes. "Why do you care? Do you want to sleep with her, and you're jealous, or what?"

It was last thing he'd expected to hear, and his jaw visibly dropped.

"I mean, it's not like you know me, so what's your deal?" Gabrielle asked in honest curiousity. "Even if what you said was true, I'd be an idiot to turn my back on her, so what is it you're expecting from me?"

He stared at her.

"You listen to me." Gabrielle reached out and took hold of his tunic, pulling him closer. "I can't worry about the future, Toris. I can't change it. All I know is that right now, I want to be where I am, and if you try to mess that up I'm going to be really mad at you."

"Gabrielle." Toris exhaled. "I'm trying to save your life."

Gabrielle studied his face intently. "It's my life." She finally responded. "I'll risk it."

Shaking his head, he pulled himself free of her grip and stood up. "Has she beaten you yet, Gabreille? Tied you up? Amused herself by cutting you with her dagger? That's the kind of person she is. Are you?"

Gabrielle got to her feet and circled around him, heading for the queen's door. "Actually, we just finished having some roasted apples, and I think I'm going to see if I can talk her into a pillow fight." She paused at the door and looked back at him. "You're wrong, Toris. You don't know her at all. Not anywhere near how I know her."

She pushed the door open and slipped inside, closing it behind her with a solid finality.

"Blind fool." Toris exhaled, shaking his head sadly and heading for the steps. "Stupid little blind fool."

**

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair as she trotted through the outer chamber and entered the inner, it's air still lightly touched with the tang of cinnamon. Xena was sprawled in her big chair near the fire, her head propped up against her fist and her eyes lost in the flames.

She was dressed in just a plain shift, it's simple lines flattering her tall form, and her hair was unbound and draped over her shoulders.

Xena lifted her head and turned it as Gabrielle approached. "Ah.. there you are. I was going to start sounding the alarms in a minute."

Gabrielle settled on the rug next to the chair. "Why? Do you think I'd run away?"

Xena's face twitched slightly, and she tilted her head to one side. "N.. no." She said. "Thought maybe someone'd stolen you."

"I wouldn't run away." The slave told her.

"You wouldn't." Xena agreed. "It's coming on winter, and you're not stupid. It's warm and you've got three square meals a day here."

Gabrielle rested her head against Xena's knee. She felt Xena's hand touch her head, and the soothing sensation of her fingers lightly rubbing against her scalp soon followed. "Xena?"

"Hm?"

"Even if it was the middle of summer, and you only had hard biscuits to eat I'd stay here." She turned and looked up at the queen. "I want to be with you."

"Yeah?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Being with you makes me really happy." She watched the queen's face. "I really like you."

"Like me?" Xena's eyebrows hiked.

"It's different." Gabrielle circled Xena's leg with one arm and ran her fingers up and down the soft skin. "It's different from loving someone."

"It's being friends." Xena said, softly.

Gabrielle nodded.

"Ah." The queen admitted. "It's.. very different having a friend." She fell silent for a long time, as they watched the flames together. "But I think I like it." The queen finally whispered.

"Me, too."

"Even if your new friend is a homicidal maniac?"

The slave turned and gazed up at her.

"Well, I am." Xena drawled, her lips curling into a sardonic smile.

"You don't always have to be, do you?" Gabrielle asked. "Violence isn't the best way to fix things."

The queen sighed. "It's the fastest." She complained.

Gabrielle simply looked into her eyes.

Xena's expressive face twisted into a wry grimace. "Oh, all right. I'll think about it." She allowed. "Now that I've kicked some ass, and put the plotters in their place." Her fingers slipped lower and traced the outline of Gabrielle's face. "What the Hades. I'll try anything once." A pause. "Even a virgin shepherd. I'm on a roll this year."

Gabrielle's eyes closed as she nuzzled Xena's knee. She stroked the inside of the queen's leg, and heard a low, soft chuckle behind her.

So, it wasn't a big start, but it was a start. Gabrielle eased herself up and turned, sliding between Xena's knees and planting a delicate kiss on the inside of her thigh. She leaned forward as the queen laced her fingers behind her neck and put her arms around Xena's waist as Xena pulled her up to kiss her.

"Hmmm..." The queen breathed into Gabrielle's slightly open lips. "So far the roll is working out pretty damn nicely."

Gabrielle let the urge to be near her take over and she eased her hands under the light shift, feeling the warmth of Xena's skin against her palms as she lightly stroked her. Under that skin, muscles shifted, coiling and bunching as the steel under the velvet showed and Xena stood up, picking her up and cradling her as though she were a child.

Xena's strength was amazing. Gabrielle could feel how easily the queen lifted her, as Xena turned and walked towards the big bed, finding her way unerringly even though they were in the midst of a passionate kiss.

If Xena wanted, Gabrielle knew, she could do all Toris had told her and more to her.

She could. But would she? "X...xena?"

The queen launched them both onto the bed, leaping through the air and landing with her in a tumble of bodies and limbs in the center of the sheets. She rolled Gabrielle over and licked her collarbone, continuing up to nibbled her lips, then look down into her eyes. "Yeeeeesss?"

For a moment, Gabrielle studied the passion filled orbs above her, seductive and ready to take them both into ecstasy. Then she thought she had her answer, at least for now. "Are you a hedonist?"

"Aaaabsoltely." Xena slid her shift over her head and pressed her body down, brushing her bare skin against Gabrielle's. "Want me to teach ya that, too?"

"Uhn." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's back and pulled her closer, wanting to feel her body on every inch of her own. It felt so good she could hardly breathe. She slid her hands upward and stroked Xena's breasts as the queen went belly to belly with her.

"Um?" Xena nibbled her neck.

"Y.. yes."

"Thought that's what you meant. C'mere."

**

Continued in Part 15