Deliberate Stranger

© Dark Angel.  

darkangelxena@hotmail.com

Disclaimer: This is a short piece of fan fiction based on the characters from Xena; Warrior Princess. Being the rightful property of Universal Studios, it is not my intention to infringe on related copyright laws or to make any profit.

As always I would be left looking totally illiterate without the beta-ering skills of Moon Shadow.

Deliberate Stranger is the third in the series I have affectionately dubbed "The Pay for Play Chronicles". It follows on from As The Candle Burns, and The Price Of Silence. It's pretty essential that you've read both of them first, or what follows is not going to make a great deal of sense. None of these stories are connected to a previous work called The Offering, so don't expect continuity with the events of that story.

Warning: If you had difficulty dealing with the content of either of the above mentioned stories, reading this will put you no more at ease. There isn't any sex in this installment, but there's plenty of talk which could possibly be disturbing if you're not comfortable with anything around S/m or the use of strap on's.


Gabrielle sat on the very edge of the elegantly adorned pallet unable to speak. Both her legs were pressed firmly together at the knees to hide an involuntary shudder racking her limbs. Her compact fingers fidgeted nervously with a loose thread she had discovered at the base of her skirt. Grateful for the immediate distraction it afforded, she continued to twirl the piece of cotton even after it had come free from the fabric. She had no idea how in the name of Hades she had gotten herself into this mess or how she was going to get out of it. Outside and oblivious to the storm occurring at torrential proportions within, sounds of steady rain drummed against the building's roof and shutters and again she was thankful, if only for the moderate cover it afforded the pounding of her heart.

Sitting parallel and at the furthest point of the make shift couch, a young prostitute who Gabrielle had come to know as Arnise also kept her eyes downcast, closely supervising the task of relacing the front of her bodice.

The misunderstanding had left them both speechless. Neither willing or able to move from the frozen positions they maintained.

Arnise chanced a guarded look at the blonde woman an arms reach away, not allowing their striking familiarity to bother her as much as it had the first time. Other than the minor disparity in hair length, a negligible difference in age and slightly darker coloring, Gabrielle could easily have been mistaken for her twin. The young whore knew Xena's attraction to her was due largely to the resemblance she bore to the Potidaean bard. It was why their relationship had started in the first place, why it had continued and why she was sitting in her own work room feeling like she had just been caught stealing extra supper by her mother.

For the bard's part, Gabrielle was well aware of Arnise's every move and her obvious likeness. She was aware too of being studied by the blonde prostitute and had been aware of it, she realized, for most of the last moon.

*****

It had all started out straight-forwardly enough. Really, it was no different from any one of the countless occasions Xena had left her marooned in some unremarkable place while she went off to attend to a just as unremarkable warlord or an unwanted intervention from Ares or one of the other troublesome Gods. Only this time, where Xena had left her was very remarkable and the cause of their separation was nothing so simple as a mortal warlord or fractious deity.

Continual bad weather had caused some of the worst flooding along the Corinthian and Argosian boarders that either woman could recall. Hundreds were dead and thousands more had been left homeless or without supplies. Major evacuations had been necessary from most of the smaller townships.

True to her nature, Xena had volunteered in the joint civilian and military presence that had organized much of the evacuation to Corinth. She had left Gabrielle at the base, billeted at the largest facility available, to help out with organizing medical supplies and attending to the general comfort of the displaced evacuees. The two had seen each other briefly five nights prior when the filthy and exhausted warrior had brought in another group of homeless families. There had been barely enough time for the two to exchange a handful of sentences while the older woman took advantage of a hot meal and bath before they were saying their good-byes again. Xena parted with a sweet kiss on the top of the bard's gold locks, a hearty embrace and a promise she'd be back to collect her before the new moon.

Fresh from her own bath and not ready to return to her room alone, Gabrielle had come back downstairs to the main foyer of the building. Xena had been gone less than a candle mark and the bard found herself missing the warrior immensely. She hadn't known exactly why or what had prompted her to enter the bad smelling, poorly lit area where the business of the whore house transpired. Thinking back, she realized she had expected it to be reasonably deserted what with the state of emergency still in place. She had been hoping to run into anyone of the girls who had befriended her during her time as lodger in hopes that they would help her while away what remained of the evening before she would be forced to return to the emptiness of the room she was yet to share with Xena.

As she descended the large staircase, Gabrielle found herself drawn to a form that displayed a familiar stance and a voice that was as known to her as her own. She told herself it couldn't be who she thought it was - arguing that it was impossible. She remembered feeling scared and excited all at the same time, a little like how she felt when she opened a fresh piece of parchment for the very first time. Her head told her to backtrack up the stairs while her heart urged her to continue. Before she could will herself to listen to the former, her legs were responding to the latter. All the while she was slowly being enveloped in a sense of thrilling dread.

Propelled by some unseen hand, Gabrielle moved past the entrance and into the room's protective shadows. The vision before her became clearer, the unmistakable voice stronger. Her movements became mechanical as she carefully maneuvered amongst the half occupied tables of travelers and scantily dressed girls. Masculine and feminine voices and sensual lute music intermingled as assorted lurid jokes and petty squabbles swirled about her and she still kept moving, seemingly powerless to stop. She found herself sitting down at an unoccupied table no more than a staff length from a beautiful raven haired woman and the familiar young whore.

She had heard the middle-aged proprietor of the establishment shout over in the general direction of two tightly entwined bodies.

"No pay, no play."

But she hadn't been completely sure what the proprietor had meant till she heard the Warrior Princess' reply.

"I'm good for my money." Xena had retorted gruffly before laughing at some unknown joke.

The proprietor seemed less amused by the warrior's humor, growling something about the dark woman taking her business to one of the rooms before people started believing she was running some kind of charitable institution. The warrior stepped clearly into view then and with a playful and courteous nod in agreement, Gabrielle watched her friend grope under the whore's short skirt before hastily ushering her down a narrow hallway and out of sight.

If she was going to be totally honest with herself, Gabrielle knew seeing Xena and Arnise together had been the end of weeks of suspicion, not the beginning.

It had actually all started with the scar. A tiny mark in the shape of an X that Arnise had just above her right breast. Though it was no bigger than the length of her quill nib, from the moment Gabrielle had laid eyes on it, she realized the magnitude of its existence and the implications for the bearer.

Arnise's realization hadn't been quick enough and Gabrielle reflected back on the morning her curiosity had finally gotten the better of her. She'd spent a sleepless night imagining any number of possible reasons for the mark, fantasying names that began with the Greek letter that might account for the shape. But somewhere just before sunrise, she had come to accept there really could be only one reason - one meaning.

Unable to contain her inquisitiveness, she raised the matter over breakfast. But she lost her bravado just as abruptly when the color drained completely from Arnise's face. The proprietor, a motherly figure named Bertha, had slapped Gabrielle soundly on the back as her blonde counterpart hastily excused herself from the raucous laughter of almost all present. Bertha had snickered and said something very obscure about the mark denoting ownership. Gabrielle had already ascertained that for herself but chose to appear politely surprised. The portly shaped woman had gone on to add that a regular customer had paid a phenomenal price to cut Arnise one night during an extended session. But instead of having the mark tended to avoid scaring or keeping it covered, the young woman had added ink to the fresh wound to maintain the outline and dressed to display it.

That was until she and the bard became friends and she'd realized. After that morning, Arnise always appeared wearing garments that covered the mark completely and Gabrielle could almost have forgotten about it.

*****

"I'm sorry, Arnise." Gabrielle said quietly.

"Don't be," The young whore said with equal gentleness. "It's not you who should be apologizing, Gabrielle - It's me."

Gabrielle tilted her head a little, finally braving eye contact with the other woman. Pupils locked and they both felt themselves again sliding back involuntary into a muted trance. Playing for more time, Gabrielle smoothed the ends of her skirt back over her knees and took an even breath.

"I needed to talk to you." She whispered. "You've been avoiding me for days."

"You gave, Bertha, five dinar." Arnise explained. "People don't give Bertha dinar just so they can talk to me."

She suddenly realized she had been fidgeting as much as the bard, twirling the tassels on her bodice incessantly. She'd spent long enough as a whore to be able to cover her emotions with a professional smile, but her temple still pulsed with the realization of just how close she'd come to completely disrobing in front of one of her regular's dearest friends. A friend who was, if she was to believe that customer, still very much a virgin and oblivious to the true nature of the relationship the ex warlord and prostitute shared. Gabrielle was right. She had been avoiding her for days. It was a coward's way, she admitted, but the only way she knew she could remain true to her word.

She'd even chastised the warrior for bringing the girl here, wanting to know what Xena expected her to do if Gabrielle turned out to be less gullible than the older woman thought. Her questions had been met with heated denial. Xena didn't come to the whore to be lectured or, chastised. When she had whipped her unmercifully after, bitten and gouged at her, then penetrating her without thought of readying her, Arnise was reminded just how truly dangerous the dark beauty could be. And how foolish she had been to challenge her.

"I guess that means Xena doesn't pay just to talk either, does she?"

Arnise ordered her thoughts, silently cursing the memory of her last conversation with her customer. Xena had been so convinced that Gabrielle would never discover the warrior paid for sex. If out of some strange burst of illumination, Gabrielle's perception of her broadened to consider it as a possibility - she would never ask. Finally nearing the end of their last session together, Xena had delivered clear instructions. If Gabrielle did ask, answer honestly - but only what was absolutely necessary. The bard's mind didn't deserve to be soiled with the lewd truths of her private needs.

Arnise firmed her jaw and shook her head slowly.

No Xena didn't pay to talk.

Gabrielle nodded. It was an accustomed empathetic gesture she'd longed practiced in her travels. Not just because it put others more at ease but also because it helped when she really didn't know what else to say. Thinking was one thing. Having her suspicions confirmed felt like she'd just been hit by a runaway chariot.

"I knew that." Gabrielle responded without conviction. "...She paid you the last night. She was here, after she had said goodbye to me, wasn't she?"

Her heart threatened to split in two as she watched the prostitute's head lower a little in acknowledgement. She let the additional information sink in along with all the other fragments. It made her feel sick.

"....and before that, how often?"

"Often," Arnise answered softly. Then realising the bard was still waiting for a proper answer. She added, "Every time she's in Corinth."

Gabrielle did the calculations; they'd visited the richly populated city possibly once a month in the last year.

"Well, I suppose that explains the continual disappearance of funds," she offered faintly, knowing it really explained nothing at all. She looked back down at the hands resting in her lap. These were grown woman hands, hands that wanted to touch and be touched back. Xena avoided her advances for a reason and she needed to know why.

"The X stands for Xena, doesn't it?" She remarked braver than she actually felt.

The simple statement - so provocatively accurate, slid under Arnise's own practiced mask of sereneness. The warrior had instructed her to answer only what was necessary, no more. Yet this question like all the questions the bard had put to her, in and outside this room, attached no judgment. Did she not also owe Gabrielle the right to her truth? So her own decisions could be drawn from that truth? In her short life, Arnise had never imagined being faced with this kind of predicament. To be stuck between her loyalty to one client who she was genuinely fond of despite her formality, whose motivations she understood better than any and all of the countless, faceless men she catered to. Certainly her growing relationship with Gabrielle was more along the line of friendship than customer, nonetheless money had been exchanged.

Xena had painted Gabrielle with pin point accuracy right down to one crucial detail. Her unfailing wisdom. Arnise had sensed from her first encounter with the ex-warlord that any woman who chose to travel with her would be no fool. Though Xena had not intended to describe Gabrielle as such when it came to matters of the heart, she couldn't have been more wrong. It was obvious Gabrielle was in love with Xena as she was with her. The bard, who had from both their stories risked her own life as many times as the warrior to defend her, would gladly walk through Tartarus to find Xena. What was blinding Xena to the fact that they could be much more to each other than the older currently allowed?

She sighed quietly, realizing she knew the answer. The only question that truly remained was whether it was her place to tell Gabrielle.

"Yes." She confirmed finally, though the reply was barely audible.

"Why?"

Arnise cleared her throat, recognizing how parched she felt. For all their silence, her vocal cords felt like they had been in active use for hours. She eased herself upward, pulling her own short skirt into place before walking the distance to the table at the center of the room. She poured herself and her guest fruit wine from the pitcher, wordlessly returning to the bed and offering it to her before she continued.

"Why do I have it now?" She asked cautiously. "Or why did I agree to it in the first place?"

"Both, either." Gabrielle stammered, taking a rather large gulp from the cup she been handed.

Arnise continued to study her, waiting patiently as the bard drank.

"Xena gave it to me." Arnise finally said in hushed tones, hoping keeping her voice low would somehow lessen the impact. Instead she was forced to watch as a tear trickled down the sun tanned cheek of her counterpart.

Gabrielle straightened her posture, willing herself not to shatter.

"When?"

Fingers lightly grazed the embossed lines of flesh through her blouse as a flash of memory struck Arnise and she recalled the night that the permanent symbol of Xena's claim was created. She also recalled the warrior had been quite open about Gabrielle accompanying her on that trip and that their time together was about Xena expelling weeks of pent up frustration over the bard.

"Perhaps nine moons ago. When she had, ... when the two of you had come to Corinth after fighting the Horde." Gabrielle nodded, herself remembering Xena's unease around her. There was a beat of silence before Arnise continued to explain.

"She bought me for a night - and we....she....when we were," And swallowing her pride, refusing to appeared ashamed with the admission, she added directly, "It means the bearer is the property of someone." Through half lidded eyes she could see Gabrielle's look of abandon. She'd hadn't wanted to hurt her anymore than Xena's continual presence in this room was meant to hurt her. Yet they both had hurt her, shamefully.

"As to why I have it?" Arnise whispered not sure even if the bard still listened. "I consented, Gabrielle. It's what I do, I provide sexual service for money."

Gabrielle tried to control the feeling of nausea rising up again. The truth of her simple phrases rang through. As much as they denied it, as much as either wanted it not to be, Xena was still chained to her past through her desires.

"And she comes to see you, whenever she...." Gabrielle stopped, suddenly too frightened of her own thoughts to continue.

There was silence again and Arnise realized she had to tell her, had to let Gabrielle know what it was that made the difference to how and what she shared with the warrior.

"She doesn't love me, Gabrielle. Don't believe for a moment that I am foolish enough to think that anyone but you possesses the Warrior Princess' heart."

The bard looked up, eyes full of unshed tears. She hadn't even known if Arnise knew fully who Xena was, had been. But with each passing disclosure she was forced to accept that this woman, no older than herself shared possibly as many of the details of Xena's warlord years as she did. It was not Arnise's fault that she shared something with Xena that Gabrielle wanted but was somehow denied.

Arnise was still, balancing on the fine invisible line of maintaining as much of Xena's confidentiality as she could and not betraying this new friend.

"The first night that Xena came to me, she was.....strung out. Her need was so apparent, so raw - so much so." She halted again, reminding herself that certain things belonged solely between purchase and customer. ".... yet all she could speak about, all the occupied her that night was the realization that she was in love with you, and that some how by taking care of her private needs, she was betraying you." She had meant to somehow lighten Gabrielle's resolve with the knowledge of Xena's love for her. Yet with the words said, she realized there would be no real peace for Gabrielle in them. She was actually confirming her worst fears, telling her that her closest friend, the woman that meant everything to her had been intentionally deceiving her for the Gods only knew how long. She wanted to reach across the empty space that divided them and touch the bare arm that trembled.

"She still hasn't taken you as a lover, has she?" Arnise said, more as a statement than a question. She was growing very tired of the games Xena was obviously playing with this woman's heart and her own.

Gabrielle thought about the question intently, it should have been as simple as either a yes or a no. But it wasn't. Yes, they had finally spoken about their intense feelings for each other, acknowledging that those feelings extended to physical longings. When they were alone Xena had become more demonstrative in her affection for Gabrielle. Now they always laid their bedrolls side by side. Holding each other as they fell asleep and kissing had become a nightly ritual but they had not stepped over the final line into sexual intimacy. Xena had not indicated that she wanted them to.

"No." Gabrielle replied reluctantly.

She shook her head, exhaling from the frustration she was tired of keeping to herself. "I mean we kiss, and we hold each other. One time she touched my breasts and started to.....but she stopped herself. "

Then with unequivocal annoyance she added. "She stopped herself and left me aching so bad I thought I would explode."

Arnise smirked in spite of herself, realizing the bard 's eyes showed the slightest hint of mischief in them. They both seemed to relax a little then and Gabrielle was reminded of the other reason she had felt so utterly betrayed when she had discovered Xena turned to Arnise instead of her. She genuinely liked the young whore and had thought she may have found a new friend.

"She's afraid I won't like it, isn't she?" Gabrielle asked after another lapse into extended silence.

Arnise nodded knowingly. "What Xena pays for is not, shall we say, standard... She needs it a particular way and..." and she found herself hesitating again. "With me, she can be herself, totally herself. She cares for me, I know that - it's why she always asks for me. But she doesn't have to... worry about hurting me. It makes it easy for her to let go. To burn the fire out and concentrate on herself."

"I know I could be what she wanted if she just let me." Gabrielle offered desperate for some kind of anchor, some recognition of her own place in the warrior's life.

"It's just that well, I have never been with anyone. I didn't think much about it when we first started traveling, there was always so much happening, she was extremely distant. I knew her preferences were for women, but I..... Then I realized I was in love with her and kept expecting her to...., so I saved myself."

Unable to pretend any longer, Gabrielle let out a huge unrestrained sob and the full array of emotions generated since the first hint of Xena's deception came spilling out.

How could she have been so foolish?

Arnise scooted up the bed till she had the other woman wrapped in her arms. She cradled her close, allowing the storm of tears to continue until Gabrielle lay relatively silent and exhausted in her protective embrace. They had reclined against the collection of brightly color pillows, slipping easily in an intimacy borne from the whore's disclosure and stark reality of the dark warrior they shared. Arnise lay quietly, occasionally tracing the curves that shaped the bard's prominent biceps, soothing them. It wasn't until Gabrielle looked up at her that she could also see the unquenched need in the bloodshot eyes.

"Do you want to..." Arnise asked, her voice pitched somewhere between curious and compelling. She usually prided herself on being able to anticipate what her customers wanted without them asking. However Gabrielle wasn't the usual kind of customer, she had come seeking answers not a whore's personal services - or had she?

"No." Gabrielle shook her head. She had waited this long for Xena to notice her, she could wait a few more days.

She took a deep breath, expelling it silently and allowing her heart to return to a manageable pace. Then angling her frame to regard her friend with renewed candor.

"But I would like your help with something."

"If I can, Gabrielle," Arnise responded carefully.

"I want you to help me convince Xena, that I can be everything she wants. I want you to teach me how to be her lover."

The prostitute visibly faltered. This really was where she knew if she responded she would cross the line in her agreement with the warrior. Already she had answered too many questions, implied too much where it had not been solicited. "Gabrielle, Xena's preferences are....,"

"Brutal?" Gabrielle finished for her, knowing there was more to the tiny X Arnise wore than had been revealed.

A lump rose up in the other woman's throat.

"Yes," she confirmed.

"I understand that," Gabrielle answered with surprising confidence. "I also understand that she loves me. I want to share everything with her, even the things that maybe, difficult. "

Arnise turned the bard's plea over in her mind, considering the incalculable possibilities and consequences of fulfilling such a request. She sighed inwardly reminding herself that in her line of work she was often asked to perform acts that were not in her nature. On the rare occasions when Xena had inflicted wounds that went beyond what she had paid for, she had compensated her generously. None of what happened between them was personal and she held no grudge. Deep down, there was even a small part of her that had started to respond to her customer's savagery.

Finally she nodded.

"All right, Gabrielle, what do you want me to do?"

Thoughts of sweaty bodies trapped in erotic embraces rushed through the bard's overactive imagination as she allowed herself the first glimmer of hope. Conscious too, though she wasn't entirely sure how, that softly uttered poetry, gentle ministrations performed by tender lovers like those she had read about was not what truly excited Xena. 'I would willingly walk through darkness to be with you.' she mused to herself.

"I need you to tell me what she likes," she said, clearing her throat and suddenly feeling much warmer under the admission. "And how I can go about satisfying her wishes."

This was definitely too far.

"Gabrielle, I can't." Arnise entreated, her voice dropping to a warning timbre. "I've already said too much." She reached down, clasping hold of one of the other woman's hands, attempting to relay the sincerity of her words. "I have to consider the confidence Xena shares with me. I know you and Xena love each other but I just can't break my trust with her."

Both women's mood appeared to visibly deflate as Arnise's clear objection settled over them. Gabrielle sat up, suddenly unable to maintain the physical closeness with the other woman. She glanced back over to the table where the wine pitcher sat, uncertain whether another mug would relieve or increase the nausea that racked her body. Beside the pitcher, the time candle continued to burn down. There wasn't much time left and she was suddenly unconvinced that even though the two had managed to speak about what was troubling them both, Arnise wouldn't simply draw away again.

Arnise also sat up, feeling guilt and trepidation struggle for prominence. Lightly she trailed her finger tips over the bardís slightly sagging shoulder muscles. A silent gesture that spoke of not wishing to break the connection they had managed to establish.

"I can't tell you Gabrielle." She said slowly, the plan evolving as she spoke. "But if you are determined to know this part of Xena, I think I know another way."

 

 The End


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