DISCLAIMER: Xena Warrior Princess and its characters are the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Dear gentle readers, the title of our story is, not surprisingly, the root for the English words infamy and infamous. In ancient Rome it was a legal term as well and sometimes applied to those engaged in disreputable occupations (such as gladiators) and others not recognized as Roman citizens. That being said, this is a good time to remind you that Baby is not a classics scholar, just an idiot writing a story and who thought said story would sound better with a fancy Latin title.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To bluevermeer[at]gmail.com

By Vivian Darkbloom



Tea and sympathy

Xena does not like being someone's target. She is not accustomed to it, really. As Caesar's wife, everyone seemed focused on killing her husband; her role, much relished and performed with the skill and impeccable timing of a master thespian, was that of saving him at the last moment. As Caesar's widow, however, she is a tantalizing target: The symbolic last remnant of his Empire and a thrilling challenge for any assassin worth his or her salt.

It is at Brutus's instigation, however, that full body searches for incriminating, Egyptian-themed tattoos—these vague details a source of amusement to the soldiers—were instigated throughout the camp in Garouna. Initially, Xena had proposed the mere checking of hands, but Brutus insisted that every soldier be stripped bare and every inch of skin, every orifice meticulously examined with thorough impropriety by the scrupulous, long-suffering Ping, who once again privately bemoaned the day that his mistress Lao Ma gave him to a beautiful Greek warrior-queen.

"Why Brutus," Xena had archly marveled after he'd read the order to the scowling troops. "I didn't know you cared."

He offered his most withering look. "I don't. I just know that if whoever it is who's trying to kill you succeeds, I will be next." Before dramatically exiting into his cottage, he had added, snarling at the morose Ping: "And I want it done all in one day."

The day of the examinations are no joy for Gabrielle either, who is appointed Ping's guard and reluctant assistant ("pass the castor oil, please") during the lengthy procedures and who, the night prior, had undergone a meticulous inspection by the Empress herself that revealed no mysterious tattoos but the happy fact that she could climax more than once during the same act. No such pleasant outcome occurs for the parade of soldiers who enter and exit the tent, bearing for the healer's careful consideration scarred bodies prone to aches, pains, arousals, and flatulence—in other words, typical bodies. Not unlike Ping, she observes them all dispassionately, for none of them possess even a fraction of the sheer magnificence, the fine power, the startling beauty of Xena's body.

But, she realizes, she has grown rather biased in the matter.

After the last man is clothed and gone, Ping boils a handful of tea leaves in a battered copper kettle. When the healer sits a blue bowl of tea in front of Gabrielle, she sniffs suspiciously; it would be just like him to ply her with some supposedly healthful elixir that tasted of horse piss. Despite Xena's great trust of him, Ping's quiet, surreptitious interest in her health—her body—provokes a sense of unease within her. At times his remedies seem almost as horrible the ailments or wounds that precipitate treatment; a poultice he made for her aching shoulder, for example, reeked of an old man's feet. Thus several minutes of steaming consideration pass before she risks touching her lips to the bowl. But when she does the tea, the color of rainwater, delicately sweetens her tongue while the warmth emanating from the small, pretty ceramic bowl fills her hands. The simple act of enjoying tea becomes, in the moment, the most powerful reminder yet of the fact that she is no longer a slave. Doing nothing is the very definition of freedom. There is no place she needs to be, there is no task that, on the threat of death, she must perform. She is merely a soldier—beholden to the state, but less so. And along with a soldier's duties she has those quiet, unstructured moments of nothingness. Like now. She sips the tea.

But what of a lover's duty, a lover's devotion? Her fingers undulate of their own accord, reenacting memories of the night before: How Xena's hands glided along her body, almost touching but not quite, the heat of those imagined journeys inciting Gabrielle to her most passionate surrender yet.

Then the tea goes the wrong way down her throat and she coughs and hiccups violently while Ping looks on, concerned.

"You don't like the tea?" he asks, smiling politely.

Gabrielle clears her throat. "I like it very much. I'm just—preoccupied." Xena had been rather pleased last night with Gabrielle's multiorgasmic display: "I didn't know you could do that!" she had exclaimed, as if Gabrielle had shot an arrow through a pomegranate on a mule's twitching ass at twenty paces. That she has so little control over her thoughts and her body lately is unnerving and, she admits, dismaying. Her focus has always been clear, the intent of her body beveled toward the edge of survival. And now? The slow warmth of vulnerability seeps into her, as surely as the warmth from the teacup leeches into her skin. To compensate she has spent more time in the practice yards, challenging anyone with a sword and a masochistic streak. She cannot afford to lose the skills and the drive acquired from so many years in the ring.

Because if I did, what would I be then?

Ping's contented sigh intrudes upon her brooding.

She gives him a questioning glance.

"Forgive me. It is pleasant to be gazing upon a young woman's lovely face and not a hairy scrotum."

Not unlike Xena, Ping also has a wry manner that catches her unaware at time. "So I am better looking than a scrotum." Gabrielle raises the cup in a mock toast. "Thank you for the compliment."

The healer chuckles. "You are most welcome." Then he studies her in his usual intense, professional manner, and her shoulders stiffen with dread: Now what? "I mean no offense. Surely you have been complimented on your looks before."

She shrugs. "Not really." Even in her existence before slavery, she had never really thought herself beautiful. Boys always liked her sister more, Perdicus the exception to this because he was, as her father insinuated, not too bright as a result of a childhood incident where he was struck in the head with a runaway wagon wheel. Among the Amazons she fared no better, for they wooed one another with physical prowess, with derring-do: Who could climb a tree the fastest, who was the most skilled swordswoman, who could catch an arrow with the most poise. As a youth, Gabrielle only possessed poise lounging in the grass while making up epic sagas about brave warriors and only ran faster than anyone when summoned to dinner. She looks at her hands: scarred knuckles, knotty fingers, rough palms. If they could see me now. I might have a harem. Not that she has ever wanted that—particularly now; keeping up with one lover, particularly one like Xena, is challenge enough.

"Sadly, the Empress is not skilled in the art of paying verbal tribute to her companions," Ping offers by way of comfort.

"Or her healers either?"

He snorts. "Well, there's that. But upon meeting my mistress Lao Ma, Xena told her that she resembled a common garden snake."

This confirms the obvious: that Xena always likes to make an impression—even a dubious one. "I don't need compliments."

"Ah!" Ping exclaims softly.

Something about his gentle emphasis irritates her. She knows he does not believe her.

The healer and the gladiator look at one another. Ping purses his lips, but kindly leaves the unasked question hanging by a thread of silence: So what do you need?

Brutal elegance

"No more spies."

Bulbous clouds, like colorless, dismal boughs of fruit, hang low enough that they are visible through the reticule of Brutus's window. Disappointed at the results of the Ping's examinations, he tightly curls the healer's hasty report in his hands.

Xena, however, sips wine, and echoes satisfactorily. "No more spies."

"Doesn't this trouble you in the least?"

"The whole matter's troubled me from the start. For the moment I'm giving myself permission to feel relieved." She places the wine cup on the table but will not, of course, admit to him the depths of her unease. "But there's nothing more to do. What else would you suggest? Body searches, tent searches, we've even gone over the ship—we've found no further evidence, and the two people who can tell us who or why are dead."

"'Who'? 'Why'?" Incredulous, Brutus sneers. "We know who—Cleopatra. And we know why—you abandoned her like a common tart."

Did you? You did. And you didn't care. She'd been on the deck of ship, sailing away from Alexandria, when she realized she hadn't even said farewell to Cleopatra. The yoke of guilt tightens and she coughs up a harsh, barking laugh. "She wasn't as mad about me as you might think. She cared more for the troops that I had initially promised her, for the protection of her regime, that were instead requisitioned for this mission."

He hums in accord. "Regardless, I hope you've learned that you should be more careful." Feeling confident of his ability to wound, he sprawls casually in his seat. "Your current bed-warmer is a lot more dangerous—you should let her down gently when you move on. Unlike Cleopatra, she could snap your neck like a twig."

A proposed ending to this affair—even an imaginary conclusion—troubles Xena more than she cares to admit. She takes a moment to compose herself by knocking back the dregs of the wine, smiles lasciviously at him, and rises. "My dear Brutus, that's part of the excitement."

It's only after Xena leaves that he allows himself to smile. Unbeknownst to her, he understands that excitement quite well and, in fact, has nurtured a strange affection in his breast for this intriguing creature. He never misses an opportunity to watch the gladiator every day in the practice yard.

Gabrielle knows this. While it's not uncommon for her everyday maneuvers to draw a crowd, here he stands out. In Alexandria, many curious citizens of all classes and castes came to watch the Little Gladiator go through her drills and defeat every reluctant challenger in mock battles with wooden swords. Here in Garouna, however, the meager group of onlookers usually consist of a couple fishwives, children who come and go at leisure, a goat, and Marcus Junius Brutus. Much in the way it unnerved her to feel Cleopatra's eyes upon her with such remorseless consistency, Gabrielle finds that this unwanted attention provokes her into fiercer fighting: One afternoon while sparring with Gnaeus, she sends the hapless, hulking Praetorian flying across the yard.

Guiltily, she jogs over to where Gnaeus lay sprawled in the mud. He hesitates before grabbing the arm she offers. "Don't you ever get tired of winning?" he cries.

"I'm sorry, Gnaeus." She adds, lamely, "You are getting better. You almost caught me with that parry-and-thrust—"

"Oh, stop it. Don't mollycoddle me." Clutching his lower back, he winces.

She frowns guiltily. "Perhaps you should let Ping mollycoddle you."

"Gods damn this fucking life. I should've stayed on the farm." Gnaeus wobbles away while shouting for the healer.

No other sparring partners step forward, so Gabrielle sets about tidying the area—stacking wooden swords, corralling maces, medicine balls, chains, spare bits of armor. Despite hearing Brutus's lethargic trudge through the mud, she nearly jumps at the sound of his strong voice at her shoulder: "I don't understand it."

It's the first time he's deigned to speak with her. Flicking at the splintered edge of a wooden sword with her thumbnail, she warily engages him. "Understand what?"

"I've been told you're a freewoman. A very intelligent, well-read freewoman. You could go anywhere now, even back to your homeland. Why do you remain here?" He pauses, taking careful aim at her soft spot. "Surely if Xena is truly fond of you, she would release you from your duties."

"I'd rather be at her side than not."

"Would I but find a lover—or even a wife—possessing such loyalty, I would be a happy man."

He already has a wife—doesn't he? she wonders. "I'm not as extraordinary as you think."

"Oh, but I think you are. Xena was never known for picking romantic partners from the rank and file. No plebes, no slaves. Even former slaves. Well, maybe if she were desperate. But you see, you're unique." Brutus pauses; a mere twitch of the lips alters his expression from smirking to almost apologetic—just as a shift in the placement of clouds against a blue sky can indicate impending storm or a passing threat. "I see I am making you uncomfortable." Brutus offers a half-bow of pardon.

"It's fine." Finally she comprehends why Manthius tried to strangle him.

"I saw you in the ring."

Of course you did, she wants to say. Who didn't?

"You were quite impressive. Quick and efficient, almost—elegant. Brutal elegance, that's what you have. It's very—compelling. I've grown curious about you, why you're here. But I understand now your motivations now: love and loyalty. It's not surprising. Very admirable, in fact. Now Xena—well, I've the faintest idea why she does what she does. You'll pardon me again I hope, this time for speaking frankly. But I've known her much longer than you. She's always had a mercenary mind."

It would be easy to stab him with a sword. Who would miss him? His troops would easily fall under Xena's command—she was that respected. It was all easy. Too easy. Make every kill count if you can. Make it mean something. It's about your survival and nothing else. Another one of Iolaus's many precepts, so many of them bound up like sacred scrolls within the library of her mind. She can lend them but never lose them. So she refrains from bodily injury and puts on her best mask. "Putting aside such speculation, she is here helping you. If Rome is fated to stay in the grip of tyrants under the fever of an empire, it will be through no fault of her own."

Her rallying speech prompts a smirk. "You forget too quickly that she is still considered by many the Empress—the surviving face of the Empire. In a way, she's still part of the problem, as they say. Do you really think she believes in the restoration of the Republic?"

Gabrielle hesitates. "I think she believes in an equal and fair form of government beneficial to all. In the transition of power after Ptolemy and before Cleopatra, Alexandria thrived. She enacted just laws. I witnessed no abuses of her power during that time." She pauses uneasily. Even as she says it all, she wonders if it is really true. Xena is impatient and imperious and—what else? She did not know. Thus far, Gabrielle has never seen the Empress at her worst, only glimpses of blackness—the chill of her eyes as her hand lashed around Pothinus's throat, the inhuman cry of triumph as she drove a dagger into Basileos's neck. What is she capable of? And what does it matter—do you really think you are any better?

"All hail Xena, advocate of the people's republic." Again Brutus's expression registers faints changes of emotion in an incrementally, sardonically minute scale. "And what of you?"

She blinks. "What?"

"What do you think?"

How many times in the past five years of her life has anyone, other than Xena, asked her opinion on anything? Amid the resentment the alien sensation of flattery emerges. She hesitates. "What concerns Rome—does not concern me."

"Really? Truly?" Mock incredulousness. "You have no beliefs? A woman as intelligent as you?"

Gabrielle demurs. "I wouldn't go that far. I hope that Rome can achieve an open and just society for all."

Brutus grins; the effect is jarring. "Then we are on the same side after all."

Knowing that he is convinced he has won something, she watches him walk away. By the time she is done clearing the yard, the sun bows down through the trees and she makes her way through the darkening village toward Xena's cottage.

Apollonian and Dionysian

One evening many years ago, Xena's mother had a bad day at the inn: Too many stupid customers, too many fights, too many months of monotonous hard work, and perhaps the beginning of her change of life, prompted her to uncork a very fine bottle of wine and consume most of it, unmixed. Deeply in her cups and in the presence of her bewildered children, Cyrene of Amphipolis blathered resentments at length: Her abandonment by not only her husband but also her vagabond eldest son, the vulgarities of the idiots she had to serve day in and day out, and the unnaturalness of a daughter who would rather use swords to decapitate flowers than smell them, and who also surreptitiously gawked at buxom maidens.

Lyceus, her beloved youngest, was, of course, immune from her inebriated invective. But among the more interesting—if not acutely embarrassing—morsels of information that young Xena digested that evening was Cyrene's belief in her daughter's destiny: How, the night of Xena's conception, the God of War came to her in an erotic vision and spoke—among other things—of how she would give birth to one of the greatest warriors in the world. When, nine months later, she gave birth to a daughter, she thought it all "a bunch of phooey." And when Lyceus was born, she naturally thought her golden-haired boy would be the great warrior. But Lyceus always seemed more content to daydream while tooting a pan flute and Xena soon began twirling a sword with the ease of a Persian prince. Cyrene realized she was wrong.

"So." In closing, Cyrene had slammed down her wine cup. "This destiny thing, Xena, could be really good or—not. It could be really, really really bad. Because you're so—headstrong and impatient and easily distracted by bosoms—Zeus, I hope you grow out of that, it's wrong, and you don't see Lyceus doing shit like that—"

She passed out.

Xena had shot her amused brother an outraged look. He didn't need to look at bosoms because he divided his free time from the inn with at least three different girls in at least three different haylofts.

Now, some eleven years later and while sitting in the simple comfort of her billet, Xena once again broods upon destiny. Caesar was not the first to mark her so. This unsettling mantle has plagued her enough so that she has long sought the easiest route toward quelling her ambition: Marriage. Seduction. It has worked well thus far. Hasn't it? With Caesar gone, her foothold in the Empire rested upon the delicate cradle of his bones. But despite the tributes, he will soon be forgotten. His memory will be consigned to statues and scrolls on history of the Empire. She sighs. If she had heeded her mother's warning, however ridiculous it had seemed at the time, and had proceeded through the world with more caution and less impulse, would her brother still be alive? Would she have met Caesar and married him? Would she be in this place, sipping wine, staring at the fire, and awaiting the arrival of someone who intoxicates her in so many ways, unlike any lover or companion she has ever had before?

Xena's absorption in her thoughts is so great that when the doorjamb twitches she momentarily forgets the impending arrival of the gladiator and anticipates an assassin. With a leap and a spin she sends a dagger across the room as a perfectly timed warning shot that thunks into the doorframe as the door opens and reveals Gabrielle.

The gladiator stares at the dagger for a long minute, her hand at cautious rest upon her sword hilt. "Am I that late?"

Her gentle humor, couched in low, soft tones, gives Xena the chance to draw a deep, restorative breath. "No."

"Oh." Still, Gabrielle hesitates. "Shall I leave?" she offers.

"No." Xena pinches the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right."

"No, it's not all right. I'm thinking too much, and that's never good—despite what you may believe, my thoughtful little friend."

Gabrielle closes the door and leans against it. "You've a lot on your mind these days. It's unavoidable, I think."

"Yes, but—" Xena crosses the room, the loosening of her robe signaling an unmistakable intent. "I'm more a woman of action rather than thought."

Gabrielle smiles. "Dionysian rather than Apollonian."

"Precisely." She frames Gabrielle's face with her hands and her kiss lingers, a continuation of an apology, as Gabrielle's hands plunge into her robe and slide warmly over her bare hips.

"And," Gabrielle casts another look at the dagger in the frame, "you have very strange ideas of foreplay." She breathes a nervous laugh into Xena's ear.

Xena laughs too. They can laugh together: She likes this. She cannot remember laughing, ever, in front of or with her husband. She has discovered that she likes many things about Gabrielle; every day offers a pleasing new aspect. She likes that Gabrielle will patiently listen to Pullo recite a story about a certain battle at Parnassus, one that she has no doubt heard countless times before. She likes that Gabrielle will help an old woman lead a cart to market, or be dragged and bossed around by children who want the attention of the most unusual soldier they've ever seen. She likes that Gabrielle comes in from the practice yard smelling of the outdoor world, mud and blood and the sea, stirring in her a primal, long-dormant desire to surrender to someone worthy, someone formidable—and that it is also someone who is so exquisite and so gentle increases the intensity of her desire while confounding and defying each and every expectation. She doesn't flinch, freeze, or fight back when Gabrielle spins them around, pushes her against the door and kisses her hard—impatiently cresting the barrier of her soft mouth—she knows the rhythms of Xena's demands and is more than ready to meet them. Her hands and mouth are everywhere, pulling off Xena's robe with force while her own cloak falls to the floor, teasing and taking until Xena, naked and shivering against the rough cold door, surrenders and climaxes against her hand.

It happens all over again in front of the fire, on a pile of furs and blankets. Gabrielle is clearly in a mood to dominate, something that Xena understands very well, but she is also driven by the need to prove herself a lover skilled beyond her years. Regardless, Xena is happy to reap the benefits of Gabrielle's characteristic devotion to applying and expanding upon her frenetic acquisition of knowledge. In the glow of the fire, so like the sun but contained in a world of stone and soot, she catches a glimpse of herself briefly reflected in the mirror of Gabrielle's iris, etched in miniature and floating in a mosaic of colors, just another element in the composition of the gladiator's existence. Slowly, Gabrielle's mouth traverses the length and breadth of her body, deliberately teasing and sucking too long at her breasts until Xena grabs a fistful of thick blonde hair, pries Gabrielle away from her long-anticipated prize, and kisses her roughly—a urgent signal to move on. But the defiant haze in Gabrielle's eyes indicates she's going to do what she damn well pleases, and will languidly take her time in reaching that sweet point of destination residing between Xena's legs. It's a decision that keeps Xena bucking and rolling in furious anticipation until Gabrielle takes her, sucking her off gently, then dallying with playful, slow strokes that thrum and reverberate as a deep chord plucked from a lute and echoing through the amphitheater of her body. Gabrielle alternates these techniques with maddening skill, eventually settling into relentless rhythm that finally sends Xena into bliss, pulsing and cresting into great waves of release.

In the afterglow her heart hammers viciously, her thighs are sticky with the damp remnant of orgasm, and Gabrielle lies moored between her legs, her strong shoulders spanning Xena's waist. This time Xena's fingers winnow like a breath through the wild white gold of the gladiator's hair, and in her exhaustion she knows that no words can capture the delicate tenor of the fleet thoughts running through her mind.

Gabrielle, however, mistrusts the silence and gazes up at her. Once again, she slips from one persona to another, from assured fighter and passionate lover to an awkward young woman craving assurance. "Was that okay?" she asks timidly.

Xena blinks at the scarred ceiling. Why were they always asking one another these questions? she wonders. Were they both that fragile, or is it that they are both so dangerous, even at the most vulnerable of moments? She has to ruin it all with her damn solicitousness, her tenderness—and being so damn good at that. Zeus alive—is it possible that she could get even better?

But doesn't she deserve, at least, some honesty from you?

"It's better than okay," Xena quietly confesses. "It's so fucking good that I want to stay in this godsforsaken room with you on this godsforsaken island for the rest of my life."

Her admission comes too late; Gabrielle's snores lightly batter against her thigh.

Greece and gruel

Cool air from the outside world rolls against Gabrielle's bare back. It's a gentle wake-up call, a luxury she has rarely experienced in her life. The fire roars on and she spends several long minutes waking into the curling flames, watching the dance of vermillion, gold, black, and blue. When, finally, she rolls over, Xena—hair still loose, robe still open, beauty still excruciatingly perfect—wastes no time in straddling her waist. The only things different is that the Empress, like a beguiling server, holds aloft a plate of food perched upon elegant fingertips.

"Thought you were going to sleep forever," Xena says.

Gabrielle rests her hands on those strong, supple thighs. "Sorry."

"Stop saying that all the time. Look, are you hungry? I've got something I want you to try. Pullo just brought them by while you were sleeping—"

"Pullo?" Alarmed, Gabrielle attempts to sit up, but settles for propping herself upon her elbows. "He saw me naked again?"

"I hate to tell you this, but Pullo has probably seen more women naked than, well, me. You didn't even merit a second glance with him. Besides, he's screwing the best cook in town—that widow, what's-her-face. He brought me these wonderful dumplings and—this is really a fucking miracle of the gods in this place—some decent wine." Xena plucks a dumpling off the tray and, like a seductive Tantalus, dangles the delicacy in front of Gabrielle's mouth. "Have one."

She wonders if she's dreaming: Being fed and pampered by the most beautiful woman in the world. Her teeth pierce the soft pastry, her palate overwhelmed by spices and flavors in such subtle competition and complementation with one another she cannot identify any one ingredient.

"What do you think?"

She thinks the savory dumplings are all the more delicious for the sweet lingering aftertaste of Xena's thumb brushing her lips and tongue. "I think—I'm really beginning to enjoy Corfu. And—" On an epicurean overload, Gabrielle stumbles over words; her engorged senses burst the barriers of her nominally stoic demeanor. She cannot contain it any more.

Xena laughs encouragingly. "Yes?"

"I think, I am very happy. And—I think—I love you."

Aside from a flash of surprise, Xena's expression holds inscrutable as she murmurs one syllable: "Ah!"

Gabrielle recognizes the meaning of this utterance; it's a verbal stonewall of condescension, of feigned pleasure and astonishment. She recalls its placating affect upon the exuberant boy-king Ptolemy XIII as he showed Xena around his palace and proudly pointed out every glittering bauble, every ostentatious statue, every golden, baroque bit of décor. The Empress had ah'ed her way through every nook of that palace.

As Xena rises, Gabrielle presses the heels of both hands against her eyes to suppress the threat of tears. She has ruined everything. The first rules of being a slave remain so deeply inculcated within her that her mind runs through them again with blind obedience: Never say what you really think or feel. Even when they ask you. Even when they're nice to you. Even when they take you to bed. Was it really so bad to settle for this half-measure: affection, friendship, sex, all of it tallying up into a soupcon of love?

When her hands fall from her face, she sees that Xena stands above her, regarding her thoughtfully. "Lie on your belly," she commands.

At the suspicious look on the gladiator's face, Xena raises an amused eyebrow. "It's not what you think." She holds a vial of liquid. "Ping mixed this up for me. It's for your back."

"Does it magically remove scars?" Gabrielle asks sarcastically. Why, why did I say that to you?

"No, but I know those scars on your back are itchy—Ping didn't tell me. It's the way you're always rolling and twitching your shoulders. It's because the skin is dry and tight. And yes, the oil will help fade them. So stop sulking and turn over."

Gabrielle doesn't stop sulking but reluctantly turns over and, to her complete annoyance, finds herself aroused again as Xena straddles her ass. Her fingers claw into the animal fur beneath her. The cork pops off the vial, followed by the seductive susurration of skin against skin as Xena warms the oil in her hands. Despite this she is unprepared for Xena's touch, for the deep, dizzying shock of heat that seeps through old wounds that she thought were healed over and permeates her very bones. With abandon she moans and arches into this, a climax without direct stimulus.

"Damn." Even the jaded Xena is impressed. "I'll have to ask Ping what he puts in this stuff." Then she works steadily and quietly, from the muscled shoulders down to the delicious dip in the small of Gabrielle's back. Limp and sated, Gabrielle closes her eyes, seeking asylum from her raging emotions in sleep, when Xena starts talking again.

"On my fourteenth birthday my mother announced to me that she had betrothed me to a neighbor's son. It wasn't the gift I was expecting—there was a hunting knife one of the local peddlers had that I was rather keen on. But I went along with the betrothal just to shut my mother up. We were constantly fighting back then. I knew I wasn't the daughter she really wanted, and who knows, I might have actually drifted into marrying Maphias if Cortese hadn't shown up in Amphipolis a few years later."

The name Cortese briefly troubles the increasingly pacific calm of Gabrielle's mind, sinking like a stone to the bottom where, surrounded by the silt of other memories, it is ignored.

"But that happened and—everything changed." Xena pauses. "My brother died. That was my fault. I should have sent him away—he wasn't meant for fighting. I was arrogant and foolish. Thinking everything would go the way I wanted—if I worked hard enough, fought hard enough, I could protect him, the town—I could have it all, I could have everything. But against fate, it seemed all my ambitions meant nothing. So I became accustomed to feeling what I had initially felt about my betrothal—nothing. It was a way of never being disappointed." Her thumb sets an elegant, smooth course along Gabrielle's spine. "When I met Caesar, I never thought in a million years he would want to marry me. I thought that if I played my cards right, I would be his mistress, and he would grant me the satrapy of Greece. That's all I wanted. But," she gently rubs Gabrielle's neck, "when you expect gruel and someone offers you a banquet, you don't say no—no matter how ill-prepared you may be for the riches before you." Xena turns wry. "Not that I mean to compare Greece to gruel, but—" Here her voice deepens into tenderness. "—you do understand what I mean? I hope you do."

Gabrielle opens her eyes and once again alights on the fire, seemingly constant as the flame at Delphi, but knowing that even when it dies, it does not cease to exist; it is easily reignited. With patience comes perpetuity.

Part 18

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