In the two days since they’d left the last village behind them with mendhi decorating their bodies, they hadn’t run into so much as a single person.
Between their encounter with Alti and all the revelations that had led up to it, Xena thought it was probably just as well. Give her a good fight to work out the stress and clear her mind and she was good, but since India didn’t seem to have a surplus of those in these parts, she’d resigned herself to being stuck with space and silence instead. Add in the uncomfortably close warmth that had been swelling around them from the ground up since early that morning, and things were just peachy. She was either five minutes or one major irritation away from giving in and tying up her hair for once.
Gabrielle, of course, no longer had a need to do anything at all with her hair anymore.
She’d been wearing her newly short hair almost more defiantly than proudly, as if she were daring Xena to make a comment about it or link it to her visions. It wasn’t that it didn’t suit Gabrielle - it did, almost stunningly so, once Xena got past the surprise of it every time she looked at her. It was just that there was already so little left of the innocent girl who had followed her from Poteidaia, and it was impossible for Xena not to think that Gabrielle had willfully cast aside what was left of her to rush toward what Gabrielle knew was both their deaths. What Xena didn’t understand was why.
Maybe some Indian god was listening to Xena’s thoughts and mistaking them for prayers, but they finally stumbled across a water source - a deep, still lake that promised to be cool out of the shallows - not fifteen minutes later. Next to her, Gabrielle gave a sigh of relief.
“Agreed,” Xena said. “You wanna stop for the day?”
Gabrielle looked up at her in surprise. “Are you sure? You usually don’t like stopping when there’s so much light left in the day.”
Xena shrugged. “It’s your spiritual quest, not mine. If you’re okay stopping now, so am I.”
“I think it’s safe to say it’s both of our spiritual quests at this point,” muttered Gabrielle, and the air between them threatened to become tense once again. Xena studiously didn’t reply, and Gabrielle let it go.
“I think I’ll jump in and cool off. Join me?”
Tempting, and an olive branch. Gods knew she needed it, and not just because she’d surreptitiously taken a whiff of her armpit earlier and recoiled.
“Why don’t you head in first?” Xena suggested, gesturing to a grove a some distance off the road that would provide them some cover. “I’ll set us up for the night and be right behind you.”
“You don’t need me?”
And at that, Xena smiled genuinely. “I always need you,” she said, pleased to see Gabrielle’s answering smile. She relieved Gabrielle of her bag and nodded her head in the direction of the lake. “Go on, why dontcha.”
With one last look at Xena that held just a little too much skepticism for comfort, Gabrielle went. Xena turned and sighed, and briefly wished for Argo, who was safely running free in Greece but had always been the sort of listener Xena could count on. Namely, she didn’t talk back, and she definitely wouldn’t have asked Xena why she needed to set up for the night right now with three hours of daylight left.
It didn’t take her long, but apparently it was still long enough for Gabrielle to already have decided to leave the water. Xena pushed down the surge of frustration - she’d told her she was coming, and she’d meant it - but opened her mouth to call out some teasing question about whether the local wildlife were biting.
The sound abruptly died in her mouth when she got close enough that the full sight of Gabrielle hit her all at once.
She was apparently lost enough in her thoughts that she somehow hadn’t noticed Xena’s approach. Standing with her arms crossed, water sliding down her skin, she was completely unselfconscious in her nudity. It was an everyday sight, one that Xena never failed to appreciate - but at the same time, Xena couldn’t remember the last time that everyday sight had knocked her breathless like a physical punch in the gut.
Despite the muscled arms and toned stomach Gabrielle had been displaying daily since she’d developed them, there was usually still something so soft about her. If Xena still had had two brain cells to rub together at the moment, she might have considered that it had something to do with the smallness of Gabrielle’s body and how perfectly it fit against the height and breadth of Xena’s.
And if she were being honest, she also might have admitted that it had something to do with her long, soft, blonde hair.
But now, Gabrielle’s fingers running through the short, wet locks to push them back? The play of her arm muscles and the ripple of her abdomen as her body responded to even such a small, careless motion?
That same hand that had punched Xena’s stomach now reached in and twisted her guts in a firm grip.
Get a hold of yourself, she commanded herself firmly. It’s Gabrielle. It’s not like you’ve never seen her naked before. It’s not even like you haven’t thoroughly debauched her while naked yourself.
Her brain didn’t care, instead making her aware of sudden craving to see Gabrielle in armbands and nothing else. Xena had an idea of the way that the muscles would casually strain against leather or metal with her every movement. Not leather like her own, she revised in her mind - too armorlike, Gabrielle would never go for it. Something more ornamental, maybe, like what she’d seen grace the delicate arms of delicate queens who didn’t know how to wear them. On Gabrielle’s arms, they would be an accent to the power they encircled, a point of contrast. Bronze or silver, shining in the sun. A complement to the burnished gold of Gabrielle’s wet, slicked-back hair, and yet not enough to detract from the firm perfection of her breasts or the continuous curve of her body, strong and soft all at once, into waist, hips, thighs...
Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to get lost in her very pleasant daydream. Gabrielle had finally noticed her.
It was a pity the way her self-consciousness came roaring back with a vengeance Xena hadn’t seen since their very earliest days on the road together, when Xena had initially mistaken latent attraction for village girl modesty and unintentionally left Gabrielle to figure out her newly adult body and its newly adult desires on her own. Xena had never craved Gabrielle as anything other than she was at any given time, but that self-consciousness looked wrong when Gabrielle was wearing it on that body, compact and powerful and every inch a woman.
But Xena was already in motion, and had every intention of taking care of that.
“What?” Gabrielle asked nervously as Xena silently approached, her hands drifting to her short hair. “It’s this, isn’t it? You don’t like it. It’s fine, just say it.”
Xena laughed, low and disbelieving and half out of her mind with want. “Gabrielle, we’ve been together long enough for you to know when my body’s telling you I don’t like something.”
Gabrielle’s eyes brightened with a sudden hope at the truth of her words as they tracked Xena stalking nearer still. “You do like it?” she tried, and evidently found confirmation of that fact in Xena’s face. “I just mean - I know it was this big symbolic thing for you, and - “
“Gabrielle,” Xena chastised her patiently, having come immediately before her, hands spanning slippery flesh, mouth hovering over mouth. “You’re ruining the mood.”
Obligingly, Gabrielle silenced herself just before Xena bent down and kissed her; and in those final moments, Xena was glad to see the first hint of her familiar confident grin tugging at her lips. She actually seemed to take it as a challenge, which Xena didn’t mind at all. A challenged Gabrielle was usually an inspired Gabrielle, and Xena had never been above actively challenging Gabrielle during their lovemaking either, so long as Gabrielle was willing and enthusiastic.
For now, it was enough to see the mischievous light come back to her eyes and sink into the way every part of her body knew every part of Xena’s, no matter if Xena was still fully clothed. The lake water that hadn’t already sluiced off Gabrielle’s body was dampening Xena’s clothes, and Xena took a minute to appreciate the contrast of Gabrielle’s bare skin against her covered body, as if she were the virgin or the exotic gift to be unwrapped by Gabrielle’s experienced hands. Still, it was good to feel Gabrielle’s hands tugging at her clothing with intention, and better still to hear the teasing demand in her voice.
“This needs to come off.”
Xena complied, or tried to; and eventually, Gabrielle ducked under her raised arm to find the ties herself.
“How have you been managing to dress yourself all these years?” she asked as it finally came loose, and she helped the deep blue material over Xena’s head.
“Hey, you’re the one that picked it out,” Xena pointed out.
Gabrielle hummed in agreement, and came back around to face Xena as the material fell away from her torso and left her bare for Gabrielle’s eyes. “I do like it,” she admitted easily, and her hands came up to Xena’s breasts, palms rasping over her stiff nipples. “I like these more, though.”
“Good to know I still please,” Xena said with a smirk, and Gabrielle reached up to draw her down again for a kiss. Her hands were small but efficient, and made quick work of the rest of Xena’s outfit, until there was a shimmering puddle of royal blue on the ground behind them and they pressed together, bare skin to bare skin.
And when Xena’s attempt to draw Gabrielle down and lay her out to get at all of her at once was immediately foiled by Gabrielle neatly hooking her legs around Xena’s waist to flip their positions, all Xena could do was stare up into her beloved, impish face and think was, yes, yes, this. The late afternoon sun had lit Gabrielle up from behind magnificently, highlighting all her lines and planes and edges in brilliant gold as she undulated sensuously atop Xena’s body. Xena had never believed in what Gabrielle would describe as ‘magic’, but she couldn’t help the way the word spilled into her mind and through her body like quicksilver at the sight of her.
“You’re staring,” she told Xena.
“You’re beautiful,” Xena replied simply, reaching out to trace all those shining places, feeling how real and how smooth they were under her fingers. Xena was watching raptly, and didn’t miss the way it made Gabrielle shiver.
“You’re a sweet-talker,” she said.
Xena snorted. “Gabrielle, have you met me?”
Gabrielle smiled, not agreeing or disagreeing as she prompted Xena to part and bend her legs, then sliding backwards into the space created for her as her hands roved up, then down, the length of Xena’s body. “You’re talking too much.”
Xena was willing to let her have that one without argument, especially when her hand found its way between Xena’s legs and she immediately slid in, two, then three, fingers deep.
“Not wasting time, are you?” Xena asked breathlessly.
It was a weak question: she’d known she was more than ready, and so had Gabrielle before she’d even touched her. She’d proved it too, setting a driving rhythm that was rough in just the way she knew Xena liked, her other hand planted proprietarily in the middle of Xena’s sternum. That was new, and in the building haze of pleasure structuring Xena’s entire world, it felt as if Gabrielle were given enough time and patience, she could sink clean through Xena’s breastbone hand-first and grasp her heart.
Indulgently, Gabrielle peered down at her. “Are you complaining?”
“Uh,” Xena said, arching as Gabrielle’s knowing fingers curled to hit an extremely sensitive spot. “Nah.”
“Good to know I still please,” Gabrielle teased, just before Xena was past a point where she could appreciate it.
Mindlessly, Xena’s hands roved anywhere they could reach, shoulders, arms, breasts, all so beautiful, so perfect in her hands. “C’mere,” she prompted on a moan, blindly trying to encourage Gabrielle up her body so that Xena could reach lower, but Gabrielle, the godsdamned tease, moved further out of reach.
“Later,” she promised. “This one isn’t about me.”
Her words were punctuated with a twist of her fingers that made Xena cry out; and thoughtlessly, she gasped out, “Yes it is. ”
That made Gabrielle stop - and worse, think - which was absolutely the last thing Xena had intended. She groaned before she could help it, but Gabrielle ignored it, curiosity lighting her face.
“It is?” she asked.
Xena was well past a point where she could have intelligently put together the words required to explain anything to Gabrielle, let alone that; and she only stared up at her, helplessly wanting.
Gabrielle seemed to understand that at least, and while the curiosity didn’t fade from her face, it didn’t matter because she started moving again inside her, slow and wet. Xena could have wept in relief as Gabrielle’s thumb pressed intentionally against her clit, and her mind blanked except for one word.
“Gabri - Gabrielle - “
Maybe it was the unguarded desperation in her voice - Xena didn’t know, didn’t care - but this time when her hands reached for her, just to hold, Gabrielle shifted and allowed it, still looking down at her like she was trying to figure her out.
“Did you need me like this?” she asked softly, and Xena heard it through the orgasm rushing up to meet her. “You have me - you have me, Xena - “
And that was it. It broke over Xena like a wave, unstoppable and more powerful than it had looked coming at her when it pulled her under and kept her there without mercy. Vaguely, she was aware of her own voice crying out and her arms tightening around Gabrielle. She thought she felt Gabrielle’s lips at her neck, her voice in her ear. All she knew when it was over was that she was shaking and so, so alive.
With one arm tight around Gabrielle, she slid the other between them to finally, clumsily, get her fingers where Gabrielle was warm and slick. Gabrielle didn’t seem to mind the lack of finesse, only gasped out a strangled “Xena,” her heavy breaths hot and close and deliciously intimate against Xena’s neck, her body tightening and shuddering hard against Xena’s within seconds.
At some point a breeze had started up over the lake, just enough to take the uncomfortably close damp of the air with it; and with the shade having shifted enough for the sun to soak into their skin, it was inevitable that they both ended up dozing for a while. Xena eventually regained enough of her mental faculties for a stray concern about sunburn to manifest itself in her mind, and she marshalled just enough strength to nudge a mildly protesting Gabrielle further into the shade, taking the opportunity to drape herself over her body while she was at it.
“Wow,” Gabrielle eventually mumbled. “So you wanna tell me what all that was about?”
Xena wasn’t quite all the way with her yet. “Hmm?” she mumbled back, and nuzzled instinctively into her neck.
“‘Yes, it is about you’?” Gabrielle quoted back at her.
Oh. Xena blushed. Unfortunately, her position didn’t give her any cover when Gabrielle was watching her as closely as she was, and her light amused laughter made Xena scowl a little.
“Don’t get like that,” Gabrielle chided her. “I’m not making fun of you, and I’m definitely not complaining. All I know is we’ve been sort of fighting for two days, and the next thing I know, you’re right there and in a mood.”
“I was not in a mood.”
“You were definitely in a mood,” Gabrielle said, but softened it by kissing the top of her head. “And it’s not really like you to suddenly get in a mood two whole days after something happens, and since we haven’t seen anyone or done anything else since we left that last village, I’m just wondering. It wasn’t that, was it?”
Xena kept quiet, stubbornly hoping that Gabrielle would let her float back to sleep if she didn’t answer.
“You don’t usually go all stupid when you see me naked, at least not without a good reason, so that can’t be it. Did you find something when you were making camp that overcame you with lust?”
Against her will, Xena cracked open an eye and made a face. “No.”
“Did you remember something that overcame you with lust?”
“No. And stop saying that.”
“Were you overcome by the beautiful scenery?”
Even Gabrielle sounded like she knew that one was a stretch. “Gabrielle,” Xena said.
“Were… you overcome by something about me?”
Frankly, Xena couldn’t understand why they were having this conversation when Gabrielle had already figured it out before Xena had even lost her clothes. She sighed aggrievedly, immediately knowing it for the mistake it was as Gabrielle honed in on it.
“You were! Was it my breasts?”
Xena smirked, unable to help herself. “Well, I’ve always had a fondness for them,” she said, dropping a kiss on the nearest one, licking a broad swipe close enough to the nipple that Gabrielle was momentarily distracted.
“That’s a no,” she decided when she spoke again, but her voice was a little breathier than it had been. “Um - was it my legs?”
“I like them too,” Xena said, grinning privately as she slid her hands down to prove it. She could see where this might go - there was a long, long list of Gabrielle’s attributes, and she was extremely fond of all of them.
But Gabrielle slapped her hands away this time, lightly, but enough that Xena pouted.
“Unbelievable,” Gabrielle muttered, but she was smiling. “Focus, Xena.”
“Oh, I am.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Was it my arms? Don’t touch - yet,” she amended at Xena’s look that promised she could follow that order better than Gabrielle would actually like.
“All of those things,” Xena admitted.
“But what?” Gabrielle prompted, her fingers tender on Xena’s face. “What was different? The only thing new is…”
Again, Xena was silent; but she could see the change behind Gabrielle’s eyes that told her that she was rapidly putting it together again.
“My hair? It was my hair?”
Xena was prepared for several things in the wake of that realization, including an affectionate, if exasperated, wallop to any of her body parts within reach. What she wasn’t prepared for was Gabrielle’s unbridled, belly-deep laughter.
“I thought you weren’t laughing at me,” Xena muttered, resignedly laying her ear back over Gabrielle’s chest and listening to her get it all out.
“Oh, Xena. I’m not,” she reassured her once she stopped. “Honestly, I’m relieved. I thought you hated it.”
“What? I said I liked it.” At Gabrielle’s look, Xena’s brow furrowed. “Didn’t I?”
“You ruffled my hair like I was your kid sister and then didn’t talk to me for two days. Not exactly the greatest indication that you still wanted me.”
“Gabrielle, I’d still want you it you shaved your head completely and wore a sack,” Xena told her, and frowned. It was a troubling enough thought for Gabrielle to voice that she raised herself up on one arm to see her face clearly. She wasn’t assured by the skeptical look she found there. “You weren’t actually worried about that, were you?”
“Well, yeah,” Gabrielle said as if it were obvious. “I know I look different now. And you were definitely reacting to something.”
Xena debated whether or not to come out with the truth, when she’d just spent several blissful minutes not worrying about anything, and Gabrielle apparently hadn’t thought about what had actually been troubling Xena since she’d cut her hair.
Of course, Gabrielle caught it. “What?” she asked, reaching up to trace one of Xena’s eyebrows.
“It’s not the way you look. I love the way you look. Clearly,” Xena said, looking between them at their position.
Gabrielle smiled, but then grew serious again. “Then what?”
Xena sighed, and resigned herself to it, already hating the inevitable ruin of this patch of peace and intimacy they’d just reestablished. “The vision.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle was quiet, and seemed to reflect on that a moment. “Guess I should have figured that out, huh.”
Quietly Xena admitted, “Thought you had.”
In the ensuing silence, Xena laid back down next to her to give her space to think, which Gabrielle immediately erased by settling into her arms, her hand taking Xena’s to play with her fingers apologetically. They were both hot tempered and had learned early on, long before their friendship had developed into anything more, to give each other space to discover the thing they actually wanted to say. It was always worth it when they managed it, no matter how alternately nervewracking or infuriating the wait; but Xena had no complaints about it in her current position. She closed her eyes and waited, enjoying the absentminded press of Gabrielle’s lips to the fleshy curve of her breast.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been taking your fear of this vision seriously,” Gabrielle said at length.
Well, it was a start. “You’ve seen it now,” Xena said. “So what do you think?”
“I think Alti is a witch with powers neither of us understands - no, not even you, Xena,” Gabrielle said, correctly sensing when Xena was about to protest. “I think it’s entirely possible that she might have the power to make things up. And I think she’s figured out exactly what makes you terrified and malleable.”
There was some truth to that. The image of Gabrielle next to her on the cross flashed through her mind once more. I love you, Xena. She closed her eyes again briefly, unsurprised to find Gabrielle’s looking back understandingly when she reopened them.
“Anything else?” Xena asked to shift her attention, feeling uncomfortably vulnerable.
Gabrielle gave her a look, but allowed it. “I think it’s still something I don’t really want to think about,” she confessed. “I don’t like the idea that some force out there has written in stone what our end is going to be. And if I’m really going to live my life, I can’t believe it.”
“But you’ll believe that we have many lives ahead of us, and that we’re destined to find each other in all of them, because it was shown to us,” Xena pointed out gently. “What’s so different about that?”
“Isn’t it comforting to you that our souls will always be together? That we’re a constant, no matter what?” Gabrielle asked, and idly flipped her hand so that their palms slid together.
“It’s comforting to me knowing that I will do whatever it takes to find you, no matter what,” Xena countered. “Some god making it that way doesn’t have anything to do with what comforts me.”
There was more to it that Xena didn’t particularly feel like going into right now - like the idea that they might have already lived multiple lives together; that if this actually was the step up from their last life, how much blacker must her soul have been before; and that if their karmas were linked, it wasn’t fair at all that she’d eternally be pulling Gabrielle down with her. Shakti would be a warrior, and Gabrielle seemed to be okay with that idea, but Xena reserved the right to struggle with it. Especially when by comparison, Arminestra would be called something as startling as “Mother of Peace”.
“I guess you have a point,” Gabrielle said quietly. “Will it bother you if it comforts me, though?”
Xena smiled. Her incorrigible romantic Gabrielle, the same as ever. “No. Have at it.”
“But you know it’s mutual, right? Wherever we go, we go together.”
“I know.” Xena kissed her lingeringly, and it was as good as any vow.
“So all this,” she continued, running her free hand through Gabrielle’s still-damp hair, making it spiky and unkempt so that Gabrielle wrinkled her nose, “was you refusing to believe it - right after you’d seen it for yourself?”
Gabrielle sighed. “A little. I guess - it felt more like something that just needed to happen for myself. Like I hadn’t realized until somebody showed it to me. Does that make sense?”
Xena considered it thoughtfully, but her initial reaction was still the same. “No,” she said honestly.
“Really?” Gabrielle asked, surprised. “I would have thought you would have understood - seeing something and knowing that in some way it was for you. It’s how I felt the first time I saw you.”
And that was also her Gabrielle. Maybe it wasn’t a way of relating to the world that Xena understood, but she thanked the gods every day that Gabrielle did.
“Maybe it wasn’t the best immediate reaction I could have had,” Gabrielle admitted, “but I still stand by my earlier sentiment. If I’m going to live my life - if I’m going to live my life with you - I can’t do it assuming that we’re going to die every day. I won’t. If I do, whoever or whatever is trying to do this to us - they win.” Gabrielle reached up again, and this time ran a hand through Xena’s bangs, rearranging them over her eyes. “Can you understand that?”
“I do understand it,” Xena said. “I just don’t know if I can get there completely myself.”
“Can you try, for me? I don’t want you to be mourning us when it’s not even certain we’ll die any time soon. I’m so happy when I’m with you, Xena. I want you to be happy when you’re with me.”
In part response, part deflection, Xena took her own turn in flipping them, making Gabrielle squeal when she abruptly found herself on her back.
“Did it feel like I was mourning anything earlier?” Xena asked, letting her voice go low and sultry as she leaned over her.
It was a move that would have made Gabrielle go wide-eyed and dry-mouthed three years ago. Now, it only made her reach up and tweak a nipple in retaliation, Xena’s indignant yelp prompting a smirk.
“No, but I get the feeling something might have been overriding it,” she said dryly. “Was it really the hair?”
She sounded like she couldn’t quite believe it might actually be that simple, and Xena grinned. “Yup. All slicked back and sexy. Really does something for you.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
Gabrielle’s voice was already gratifying husky, and Xena hummed, considering the picture spread out beneath her. She caught Gabrielle’s wrists and let their fingers intertwine, palm to palm, as she encouraged them over her head. The movement made Gabrielle’s breasts resettle for display, and accommodatingly, her hands stayed put when Xena’s fingers disengaged hers to trail down her arms and linger teasingly over her biceps. Under her touch, the muscles jumped lightly, and when she looked, Gabrielle’s eyes had darkened to a definitive green.
She was so arrestingly beautiful in just an unexpected enough way that Xena couldn’t help the question that slipped out.
“Have you ever thought about wearing armbands?”
Gabrielle looked a little startled, and with some embarrassment, Xena remembered that she’d asked a question that Xena had never answered, and now honestly couldn’t recall.
Fortunately, Gabrielle didn’t seem to mind. “Armbands? Really?” she asked curiously.
Xena nodded maybe a little too fervently, and Gabrielle laughed.
“Sure,” she said. “However you want me. I’m all yours.”