By Pink Rabbit Productions

Disclaimer: These characters belong to MCA Universal, Renaissance Pictures, et al. Furthermore, there's sex ahead--though frankly, it's of such a benign form, that I can't see where it could possibly be construed as illegal, other than in Iran, however, in the interest of playing by the rules--so, if it's illegal where you are, you're underage, easily offended, or inclined to worship Newt Gingrich, you should just head out now.

Xena awoke abruptly, muscles tense, ears alert for the sound that had disturbed her sleep. She snapped to a half crouch, her movements only slightly less graceful than normal. She still wasn't used to the unfamiliar body. Once again, she cursed Callisto and Ares for the machinations that had trapped her in a madwoman's flesh. Her eyes touched on Gabrielle's blankets, a frown creasing her brow as she realized the bard was missing. Heart pounding with fear--had Callisto found her way out of Tartarus again--she searched the surrounding forest. She let out a soft sigh of relief when she finally spotted the pale glow of Gabrielle's hair. She was sitting on a downed log, a considerable distance from the fire, arms wrapped tightly around her upthrust legs, chin resting on her knees, rocking gently as she stared into the distance. Her narrow shoulders trembled with every harsh breath.

The sight was enough to shatter Xena's heart. As much as it hurt, she accepted that the bard had loved Perdicus. Losing him was tearing her to pieces and seeing Gabrielle in so much pain was doing the same to Xena.

She didn't even know if she should offer the bard a comforting shoulder while wearing the face of her husband's murderer. Afraid she'd only make things worse, she stood paralyzed with indecision as the soft shudders went on. Finally, she couldn't ignore her friend's pain anymore, and she moved forward. Her voice low, as though speaking to a frightened animal, she whispered the younger woman's name. "Gabrielle." And curved a hand to a trembling shoulder.

Tear rimmed eyes lifted to meet Xena's gaze, and the warrior felt the shiver that shook the bard. Startled, Gabrielle started to pull away, only to catch herself mid-gesture and freeze in place.

A barely controlled urge to flee knotted the muscles beneath Xena's hand, and she flinched from the pain in her friend's eyes. "I...I'm sorry," she stammered, believing her proximity had further disturbed the younger woman. That was the last thing she ever wanted to do. "I...I'll go..." She started to turn away.

"No..." Gabrielle breathed almost inaudibly.

Xena froze as warm fingers curved to her palm.


"Okay," she exhaled uncertainly as she pivoted back.

Gabrielle swallowed hard, and struggled to speak for a moment, before settling on the bland apology. "I'm sorry I woke you."

Xena shook her head, and sank down onto log, well aware of the rough bark against the back of her legs. "Don't be," she dismissed, pushing blond hair away from her face as she questioned, "Do you want to talk about it?"

The bard shrugged one shoulder, but maintained her hold on Xena's hand as she stared off into the distance.

"I know you miss Perdicus," Xena began gently, but Gabrielle shook her head.

"Not really," she disagreed. "It's like it wasn't even real...." She paused for a long moment, struggling to collect her thoughts before she spoke again. "Everything's happened so fast.... I keep thinking it's just a nightmare...and hoping...hoping I'll wake up." She looked over at Xena, only to jerk her head back around as she caught sight of the body that now housed her best friend. "It's all so insane," she muttered to herself.

Xena started to curve a hand to Gabrielle's shoulder, but pulled back just before she contacted warm flesh. She dropped her fingers to her own thigh, without Gabrielle noting the gesture. "I'm sorry," she apologized, uncertain whether she was asking forgiveness for the crimes committed by the body she was in, her own failure to protect her friend, or even the events that had brought Callisto into existence.

"It's not your fault," the bard sighed sadly.

"Isn't it?" Xena stared down at her free hand, noting the unfamiliar length and slenderness of another woman's fingers. She closed them into a fist, feeling less strength than she was used to. "My actions brought this failure let it continue...and my guilt brought it back to life." She slowly opened her fingers, studying the lines that crisscrossed Callisto's palm. On the dreamscape, she'd told the madwoman she had to deal with her own crimes, but it wasn't quite the truth. Gabrielle had to deal with them as well. "I'd give my life to undo the damage," she admitted.

"Don't say that," Gabrielle hissed, and tightened her hold on Xena's hand while keeping her eyes straight ahead.

The resolute way she stared into the distance was very nearly Xena's undoing. "You can't even look at me," she whispered, so lost in her own misery that she wasn't aware she'd spoken until the words were already out of her mouth.

Gabrielle shuddered at the softly spoken comment, and her chin came around. "It's not that," she denied, barely forcing the words past the tightness in her throat.

"It's okay...I understand...." Xena murmured. "Seeing this...must..." She took a deep breath, and let it out in an effort to calm her raging emotions. "If you want me to go, I will...I don't want to hurt you...ever...."

Gabrielle tilted her head back, staring briefly up at the stars as though they might help her with what lay ahead. "I know that," she choked. Her expression turned oddly reflective. "I've always known that." She lifted the hand twined with hers, studying the complex array of bone and sinew. That hand had driven a sword through Perdicus, ending the life of the boy she'd grown up with. She ran the pad of her thumb lightly over the ridge of Xena's knuckles. But now, the mind that drove it belonged to her best friend. "That's why..." She shook her head. It was all so confusing. "I should have known..." She outlined the complex path of pale blue chords, and veins that moved across the back of Callisto's--no--Xena's hand. Focusing on that narrow field of view allowed her to ignore the dark eyes watching her so intently, and the darker thoughts flowing through her brain. "You'd never try to ... hurt that...."

Xena frowned, not understanding. "Gabrielle?" she whispered, brushing silky, strawberry blond hair away from the bard's forehead. Dread making her heart pound painfully hard, she voiced the question suddenly gnawing at her. "How did she hurt you?"

The young woman just shook her head.

Xena continued tenderly petting Gabrielle's hair, soothing her the same way she would a frightened child. "Whatever happened? You can tell me about it." Even as she said the words, Xena had to struggle to breathe through the band tightening around her chest. A part of her was terrified of the truth, wanted to run away from it. As long as she didn't know, maybe it wasn't real. No-- she couldn't help Gabrielle that way.

The bard let out a soft whimper, shaking her head and she tightened her hold on Xena's hand. "I should have known you wouldn't....want..." she trailed off. "But, I'd thought...wanted...for so long...." She fell silent again, knowing she wasn't making any sense, and not wanting to reveal anymore than she already had. Finally, she just shook her head. "You wouldn't," she repeated, sounding heartbroken.

Xena tucked her fingers under the bard's chin, bringing her head up until their eyes met. She had to resist the urge to flinch as she saw Callisto's image reflected in the expanded pupils of the bard's eyes. Her voice was soft, but clear, and rich with command as she murmured, "Wouldn't what? What happened, Gabrielle?"

Diamond tears slipped over softly rounded cheeks, and full lips worked silently for a moment.

"Tell me."

"I can't," the bard's voice creaked mid-word.

"Yes, you can...I can't help you, if you won't talk to me."

Gabrielle suddenly let out a half hysterical burst of laughter, and buried her face in her upthrust knees.

"Okay," Xena soothed. "It's okay." She wanted to take Gabrielle in her arms, and undo all the pain Callisto had caused, but knew it wasn't that simple. She slid an arm across the bard's shoulders, absorbing the shudders that wracked her slender frame. "Please, talk to me," she begged.

Silence hung between them for a long time before Gabrielle spoke softly, her voice muffled. "She came to me that night...I thought it was you..."

Xena just held onto the bard tightly, letting her tell it in her own time.

"She wasn't...wearing...anything...and she kissed me...she I'd been...with time...."

"" Xena breathed so softly that the young woman didn't hear her.

"I...didn't know...what she hurt...."

Xena felt hot tears burn her eyes as she hugged Gabrielle close. "I am so sorry," she whispered, her voice rough with emotion. Silently cursing Callisto for hurting the one person who'd never done anything to deserve it, Xena whispered comforting nonsense phrases. Callisto had realized just how much she was in love with Gabrielle and used it against them both, making certain she could never be a part of the bard's life without the spectre of rape lying between them.

"I'd thought wanted...."

"It's not your fault," Xena insisted intently. She carefully lifted the bard's chin, stroking her smooth cheek with a callused thumb.

"" Gabrielle whispered in an anguished voice. "That's the only...reason...I...."

Xena could guess at what was going on in the younger woman's mind and wanted to spare her any further pain. "You don't have to say anymore," she murmured, trying to draw Gabrielle close again.

The bard pulled back, shaking her head. "You don't understand," she rasped. "Even though it hurt...a part of me...enjoyed it...because I thought it was you...What kind of person could like...that...." Disgust and self-doubt threaded through her voice, tearing at both of them.

Xena wanted to hit something, and keep striking until she didn't have to think anymore. How dare Callisto use her body to do this to Gabrielle. Damn her the deepest part of Tartarus. But, she couldn't give way to the rage, not if she was going to help the bard. She smoothed a hand through silky hair as much to calm her own raging emotions as to soothe Gabrielle's pain. She swallowed hard, struggling to find words. It had never occurred to her that Gabrielle had ever thought about them together as anything but friends. She leaned forward until their foreheads just touched. "You are the...finest...person I've ever known. Callisto's actions can't change that...nothing can change that..." Her eyes slid closed as the words were torn from her chest. She felt the faint touch of Gabrielle's fingertips on her cheek.

"You're crying," the bard exhaled.

"I only wanted to protect you, and I couldn't," Xena whispered in a self-lacerating voice. She blinked in shock, a heartbeat later when she tasted the gentlest of kisses. Gabrielle pulled back, as though uncertain the gesture would be welcomed. "It's all right," Xena exhaled, her warm breath washing across the younger woman's face. She slipped her fingers into the baby-fine hair at the nape of Gabrielle's neck, neither pulling her closer, nor pushing her away.

Gabrielle lifted the hand still linked with hers to press her lips to the back, tasting the warmth of Xena's skin. "It wasn't you," she breathed as if to remind them both.

Soft shivers slid down Xena's spine in response to the light caress. She'd wanted the younger woman for so long that she didn't quite know how to deal with this. "Gabrielle," she husked, and used the hand resting on the back of the bard's neck to gently tug her head up. "I don't know...what you...want," she faltered and fell silent, well aware of the green eyes studying her face with desperate intensity. She didn't move--couldn't move when she felt Gabrielle shift, slowly unfolding her legs as she lifted her free hand to Xena's cheek. She closed her eyes, hiding her face in the curve of Xena's throat.

"Say my name," Gabrielle whispered.

Frowning, Xena murmured, "Gabrielle?" She could feel the warmth of the bard's breath on her throat and chest, while delicate fingers outlined the unfamiliar planes of Callisto's features.

"Again," the bard pleaded, while she continued the tactile study of her friend's new visage. There was always a special intonation when her name slid off Xena's lips, and she desperately needed that small bit of comfort and reassurance. During that moment, she could almost forget the recent tragedies that had blown through her life.

"Gabrielle," Xena sighed, her voice low and unconsciously sensual. Despite her best intentions, desire thrummed through her veins with every hard beat of her heart. She spread her fingers, gently massaging warm skin as she drew Gabrielle's head up. Their gazes locked with shattering passion. "Gabrielle," she whispered a final time, then canted her head. The bard's lips were soft and warm, tasting faintly of something sweet and forbidden. She'd wanted this for so long, that it almost had the quality of a dream. She didn't force the kiss, just let Gabrielle lead the way.

The bard pressed closer, her breathing ragged as she parted her lips to make the first tentative foray into Xena's mouth. Kissing hungrily, they lost themselves in each other, exploring the sensitive rises and hollows of smooth flesh.

It was the warrior who finally broke away, pulling back just far enough to take in all of Gabrielle's softly rounded features. Fingers gently cupping the younger woman's jaw, she used her thumb to outline the bard's lower lip. Gabrielle's tongue darted out, tasting battle toughened skin, then she leaned into the caress, letting Xena feel the sharp edge of her teeth.

Xena swallowed hard, startled by the fast-moving thrust of pleasure that sang through her nerve endings in response to that simple bit of contact. She moaned a second later when soft fingers brushed her bare midriff. It took her best efforts to keep a clear head, and resist the urge to take charge of the situation. "Gabrielle," she panted the bard's name. "You do understand where this is going, don't you?" Xena needed to hear the words, make certain there was no misunderstanding. She wouldn't risk hurting her friend anymore than had already been done.

Gabrielle's only answer was to gracefully rise to her feet, then tug the warrior up beside her. One hand still wrapped around Xena's, she silently led the taller woman back to the fire.

Xena could feel her heart slamming painfully hard in her chest as she watched the bard slowly turn. "I understand." Firelight gilding her pale skin and making her hair glow like a blazing torch, Gabrielle quietly questioned. "Do you?"

"What about this?" Xena questioned, gesturing to her newfound form. A gentle hand touched the underside of her chin, and she could feel the bard staring at her as though she could see through to her soul.

Gabrielle caught one of Xena's hands, and lifted it to her chest, where the warrior could feel the steady beat of her pulse. "My heart knows who you are, Xena," she exhaled at last. "That's all that matters." She flowed into the warrior's arms, sliding her hands around the back of her neck. Strong hands curved to Gabrielle's hips as they shared more sweet kisses and fumbling caresses. After several minutes, they sank to the blankets. Trading soft words of endearment between kisses, the lovers continued exploring each other, learning which erogenous zones would bring low groans of pleasure, which caresses would cause shudders of sensation. As time went on, clothing was loosened, then finally, discarded in the quest for more contact.

Sweat and heat making their skin slick, the lovers moved together, each thrust bringing a fresh gasp, or groan. With gentle words and encouragement, Xena taught Gabrielle how to make love to a woman without the darker elements of power and pain that Callisto had inflicted. Lost in erotic stimulation, the bard forgot about the uglier events of the previous months, to give herself over to her lover's tender ministrations. Pleasure ebbed and flowed, before melding into the hot rush of orgasm.

Breathing hard, Gabrielle collapsed into the blankets.

Legs tangled together, bodies pressed breast to breast, they lay together. Xena pushed up on her elbows to stare down at her lover. "I love you," she whispered. Soft hands trailed up her narrow back, searching out, and following, the corded bands of muscle. "I never intended to." Xena gently smoothed pale bangs away from Gabrielle's damp forehead. "I certainly never planned...this..."

Gabrielle's hands stilled against her back. "Are you sorry?" she questioned, half-afraid of the answer.

Xena shook her head, a soft smile curving her lips. "No." She rolled into a sitting position, drawing her lover against her chest, and a blanket around them both. Gabrielle snuggled into the safety of Xena's hold, while the warrior continued talking. "When I met you, I barely knew who I was. I'd been lost in the violence for so long." She shook her head, her expression distant as she remembered the woman she'd been. "I don't think I could have resisted returning to that life, without you." She pressed a light kiss over the soft red hair at Gabrielle's temple. "You give my life meaning."

"I'm sorry I left you," Gabrielle whispered, suddenly understanding what it must have cost Xena to watch her marry Perdicus. "I--I didn't understand."

"I know," Xena soothed.

Gabrielle curled her fingers to the arms wrapped around her midsection, cuddling even closer. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Silence stretched between them for a long moment, before Xena answered. "I didn't want to make the decision for you."

"So instead..." Gabrielle trailed off, thinking of the young man who'd grown up with her, and so briefly been her husband. "So, instead, I rushed into something else," she said sadly. "Poor Perdicus."

Xena pressed another light kiss to her temple. "I am sorry about that."

"It wasn't your doing."

Lost in their thoughts, both lovers fell silent for a long time, each drawing strength and comfort from their closeness. Gabrielle snuggled into the strong arms holding her, and eventually dozed, unaware of the dark eyes that watched her constantly while she slept.

"I love you, Gabrielle," Xena whispered inaudibly.

"Love you too," the bard murmured sleepily, shifting as she woke again. Blue eyes opened, then abruptly widened, and Xena felt the woman in her arms stiffen in surprise. "I..." Gabrielle started to speak, then suddenly fell silent, and relaxed in Xena's hold. "Sorry," she apologized muzzily. "I forgot..."

Xena nodded in understanding, a slight frown creasing her brow. "It's bound to happen for awhile," she sighed knowingly. She wrapped her fingers around Gabrielle's small hand. "Whatever happens," murmured, knowing that Callisto's actions might well hang between them for a long time to come. There were no simple solutions to what her enemy had done, and one night of passion wouldn't erase the damage. "I want you to remember how much I love you, and that I'll always be there for you."

Gabrielle twisted to peer up at her with a look of trepidation. "Real love isn't nearly as simple as it seems like in the tales we bards tell, is it?"

"No." Xena smoothed a hand over silky hair. "It isn't."

"I do love you," the bard repeated earnestly.

"I know." Xena shifted, and scooted down, tugging Gabrielle's head against her shoulder. Blond hair spilled past the jut of her collarbone, blending with darker red locks. Xena sighed softly. It was going to take a lot of getting used to for both of them. "Get some sleep now." It startled her a heartbeat later when Gabrielle reached up to finger several strands of pale, blond hair.

"It doesn't matter," she insisted.

"Yes, it does," Xena disagreed. "But we'll work through it."

They both fell silent then, and within moments both slept.



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