There’s Still Love
by Nancy M
The characters in this story are the property of Universal/MCA. No copyright infringement is intended, and I hope I stayed true to the characters as created by TPTB. MANY thanks to Skylark for her usual excellent editorial suggestions.
This story contains no violence or sex, but quite a bit of emotion, and spoilers for the season 5 finale. Events take place between the next-to-last scene of Motherhood, and the last scene.
The rocky slope was treacherous in the deepening gloom. Occasional lightning flashes illuminated the stark boulders and the sleeting rain made the rocks slick. No human had trod here in an eternity, and none would again soon.
Gabrielle stumbled along, following Xena's dark form. The warrior clung to Eve's hand, pulling her along when she faltered, and supporting her when she slipped. The younger woman was terrified and tormented, although Gabrielle no longer was certain what motivated either emotion.
She sensed the massive silence of Mount Olympus looming behind her, silent now, for no immortal still lived there. Gabrielle was unsure exactly what had transpired to bring that about. She remembered (although she tried to forget) stabbing Eve with her sai. Then nothing until she awakened, with a splitting headache, to see Xena strike a mortal blow to Athena. Artemis, her Amazon goddess, lay dead nearby, and Ares sat near her, unwinding the chains of Hephestus from around his body. But neither Xena nor Eve would elaborate. Xena looked away every time Gabrielle asked, and Eve said only that Ares had given up his immortality to heal her from the sai wound. Apparently that was why Xena seemed so ingratiated to him. It nauseated Gabrielle to watch her with him.
Gabrielle slipped on a loose rock and sprawled forward, slicing her knee. She yelped involuntarily, but gritted her teeth when Xena turned to ask if she was all right.
"I'm fine Xena. Don't stop," she said, turning to block the warrior's view of her bloody knee. "Let's get off this mountain."
Xena nodded curtly and turned back downhill as Gabrielle got painfully to her feet.
She felt odd. Her body ached in a peculiar way, and her mind felt as if it had been somewhere else. She had only felt this way one other time in her life, when Eli had awakened them from death. Why she felt this way now was a mystery.
The storm worsened and finally Xena had to call a halt near a rocky outcropping that would shelter them from the worst of the weather.
"Gabrielle, I know there's no dry firewood this side of Tartarus, but see if you can find some branches to help block the wind on this side, will you?" Xena helped Eve settle onto the driest spot behind the rocks. "And maybe you can find some clean runoff so we can fill the water skins."
Gabrielle looked at Xena, trying to remember the time when helping her, obeying her, seemed like the most important thing in the world. Now it was a duty, a chore performed because of her commitment to the Way of Friendship. But a person following a Path didn't question the reasons.
"Sure," she mumbled, and turned away from the shelter into the inky wet blackness.
She picked her way carefully, noting the rocks and landmarks she passed. She wasn't at all sure Xena would look for her should she become lost.
What had happened between us, she wondered. They used to be so easy with each other, laughing as each read the other's mind. They squabbled and made up, rejoiced in each other's words, and sat contentedly in each other's silences.
Now the silences were full of unspoken fears, the words full of double meanings. When had this happened?
Gabrielle had only one answer.
When Xena was pregnant, Gabrielle had defended her. She wanted to believe the unborn child was part of both of them. But something had left them then. Xena’s concern for her child equaled or surpassed her concern for Gabrielle. The bard understood this – she had felt the same about Hope, even warning Xena not to come between them.
As if Xena had heeded that warning.
But no matter.
After Eve was born they had become so caught up in their own survival that there was no time for the two of them. Even when they settled down for a brief time, Xena’s heart was wandering, while Gabrielle tried to make a home.
But no matter.
And now with Eve full grown, Xena struggled for her daughter’s redemption to the exclusion of all else. It was a battle Gabrielle had watched Xena wage in her own heart, and she knew the warrior would not rest or be distracted. So Gabrielle had her duties to perform. She reached a small grove of cedars clinging bravely to the thin rocky soil. She began breaking limbs from the trunks, trying not to be struck by the splinters as the branches snapped. She hated cedars. So prickly and brittle.
She felt the presence a moment before the form materialized.
"Aphrodite?" The goddess lived?
The Goddess of Love took form in the darkness, glowing slightly. She bore an expression of ineffable sadness.
Gabrielle stared in disbelief and joy. "I thought…I thought all the gods were dead!"
"Hi Little One," Aphrodite smiled weakly. " I guess Xena didn’t fill you in on the details. Me either. I thought you were a goner for sure."
"I am so glad to see you! Never thought I’d say that!"
"I thought we were all history, the way Xena was carving things up," the goddess said. "She’s not near here, is she?" Aphrodite looked around nervously.
"No, no. She’s back up the slope a ways, taking care of Eve." Gabrielle put a reassuring hand on the goddess’s arm.
Aphrodite nodded, and put her own hand over Gabrielle’s. "Good. She makes me nervous. I mean, after what she did to you I wouldn’t trust her no matter what she said. Like – ewww – that was so gross."
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment before asking carefully "What do you mean?"
"I mean the way she sliced your head open with her chakram. Like, I know the Furies were in your head, but she whacked you way too hard. Didn’t you see all the blood and…stuff…on it afterwards?" Aphrtodite paused, noticing Gabrielle’s intent look. "No, uh, I guess you wouldn’t have seen that, would you?
Gabrielle just kept looking at her, and shook her head slightly. Xena gave me a mortal blow? Xena? XENA!?
"You were, like, almost dead when she dragged you out. I was sure you were history. I guess you would have been too, except for Ares. That’s when I took you to Olympus." Gabrielle was nodding now. It was beginning to make sense. Not that she could understand any of it, but at least now she knew what had happened. So Ares had given up his immortality to save both of them. A slow rage started to build deep in her gut, but she shoved it back. She couldn’t afford to deal with this right now.
"Aphrodite, were you there? Did you see what happened with Xena and Athena?"
Aphrodite shook her head. "Xena told me to leave, because it might get ugly. As if it wasn’t ugly enough already." Her voice broke and she turned her head.
Gabrielle reached out and touched the goddess’s cheek. Tears had begun to flow.
"Hephestus?" she asked gently.
Aphrodite just nodded.
"Aphrodite, I am so sorry. I know you loved him."
The goddess nodded and sniffled. "We used to fight all the time, but he was so…so…" She broke down, and Gabrielle pulled her into an embrace.
When the sobs finally eased Gabrielle released her. "They’re not all gone, you know. Your family I mean. Ares is alive. He’s mortal, but he’s alive."
"Aphrodite nodded. "I know. I popped in up there when I figured the shooting had stopped. He was tending to Athena’s and Artemis’ bodies." She sobbed again.
"Oh Gabrielle. I feel so alone."
"Shh, shh. You’re not alone. I’ll always be your friend. You can visit any time you want. In fact, I’d really like it if you did."
Aphrodite gave a small smile. "I know sweetie. Thank you. We’ve both lost so much that we loved."
Gabrielle was startled by the goddess’s comment. How could she know that Xena had drifted away?
As if reading her thoughts Aphrodite answered. "Punkin, I’ve watched you this last year. Well, twenty-five years ago, but who’s counting? You’ve lost your joy. You had a light, innocence. And now it’s gone. I only know one thing that does that." She nodded to add certainty. "A broken heart."
"Yeah, well, you know." Gabrielle wasn’t sure she was ready to talk about this until she had dealt with her new-found knowledge. Her rage threatened to surface again.
The thunder and lightning had abated some, but the rain fell heavier now. Gabrielle shivered involuntarily.
"It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it with me now, honey. But you need to talk with her. I know a thing or two about this subject. If you want to stay together, you need to clear the air." She paused. "You do want to stay together, don’t you?"
That was the question. Knowing what she did now put things in a very different perspective. But parting wasn’t really an option. She had committed herself to Xena, to the Path they walked together, and to leave would cost her heart, if not her soul.
"Aphrodite, I just don’t know anymore. I can’t talk to her. She doesn’t seem to notice that anything’s wrong. And from what you said, she risked killing me – did kill me – to save Eve. Is that what I mean to her now?’ Gabrielle was starting to lose control. She paused and took a deep breath. "Look, I just…I’m not ready to talk about this yet."
"I know sweetie. I’ll be here whenever."
Gabrielle gave her friend a sad smile. "I know you will. Thanks. And I’m so sorry about your family."
Aphrodite kissed her cheek and vanished.
Without the occasional lighting Gabrielle worked in almost total darkness. When she had gathered enough limbs she turned back upslope and began picking her way between the boulders. The cedar branches scratched and prickled her bare skin, and she shivered in the icy rain. For a moment she wished she had just asked Aphrodite to whisk her away from all this.
One of the branched slipped from her grasp, falling and scraping against her injured knee. She cursed and wiped the blood away, then hoisted her load and resumed her trek. Her head still ached abominably, and now she knew why.
She tried not to think about what Xena had done, but it kept niggling at her mind, eating at her equilibrium until she felt ready to explode in anger. She tried to kill me!
But she didn’t want to let on. Xena needed her now. Eve needed her. She had a commitment.
Xena looked anxious when Gabrielle finally made her way to the rocky outcropping.
"Gabrielle! There you are! I was starting to worry."
Gabrielle bit back the first sarcastic retort that came to mind. She dumped the branches near the windward side of the shelter. "I had to go a ways downslope to find trees. Sorry."
Xena was quick to appease. "No – not a problem. I was just…worried, is all."
Xena made short work of placing the branches as a windbreak, while Gabrielle collected the water skins. As much as she hated the idea of going back out into the cold wet night, Gabrielle wanted even less to stay here and risk conversation with her partner.
"There was a good runoff stream about halfway to the grove. I’ll be back." Gabrielle turned toward the downwind opening, but Xena caught her arm. Without thinking Gabrielle jerked it away, keeping her back to the warrior.
"Gabrielle. Don’t go out in that again. We don’t need the water tonight. Stay here."
The bard couldn’t bite back her retort this time. "Why? Are you afraid I might get hurt?" she said sarcastically.
"Of course I am." Xena sounded wounded.
"You weren’t very worried about that back at Joxer’s tavern, were you?"
Xena backed up a step. "What do you mean?"
"What do you think I mean?" Gabrielle almost shouted. "You’re not the only one who talks to gods, you know. Maybe if I’d heard what happened from you instead of having to hear it from Aphrodite, I might believe you still care." She paused for composure. "What? Did you think that if you just never brought it up I wouldn’t find out? That you could just pretend it didn’t happen?"
Xena stood in stunned silence. Gabrielle stared at her, daring her to explain. The warrior finally looked away, unable to maintain the younger woman’s glare.
Gabrielle turned back to her task. "I’ll be back in a while," she said and strode into the darkness.
"Gabrielle! I…you don’t …..understand..." Xena stammered after her, but the rain soon drowned the words out.
The mountainside was wetter now, as if it was trying to cleanse itself of the millennia of the gods’ detritus. The water ran in small streams past her feet, and rinsed the last of the bristly cedar twigs from her skin and the blood from her leg
There was no burying her feelings now. She had desperately hoped Xena could give a reason for what she had done. Gabrielle would have accepted almost any excuse, however lame, because she needed to believe, needed to trust, needed to be loved by the woman she had given her life to.
But instead Xena had failed to say anything. By the gods, she hadn’t even said she was sorry!
She found the stream. It had swollen measurably in the few minutes since she had passed by. She started to fill the water skins, but felt an eerie sensation run up her spine. It wasn’t unpleasant.
"Aphrodite?" she asked the night.
The goddess took form
"There you are! Quick, we have to hurry."
"What…what do you mean?"
"This storm, sweetie. There’s a landslide starting near the summit. Things are getting pretty wild up there. Come on! We need to get you to a safe place."
Gabrielle picked up her half-filled skins. "But what about Xena and Eve?"
"What about them? Does it matter to you?"
Gabrielle hesitated. "I won’t leave without knowing they’re safe," she answered, dodging the question.
"Okay, okay, I’ll get them in a minute. Now come ON!"
Aphrodite took Gabrielle’s hand and the bard had a queasy feeling as they dematerialized.
A moment later they stood in the courtyard in front of the smoldering ruin of Joxer’s tavern. Aphrodite gave Gabrielle’s hand a squeeze and vanished.
The rain had stopped here, and the moon shone on a sad scene.
The stable was untouched by the blaze but the tavern proper was a complete loss. Rain had extinguished the flames before they consumed everything, but the roof had caved in and the timbers lay in sodden hissing heaps.
So much for who we were, thought Gabrielle. It was as if what the tavern represented everything they had been, in some previous life. She didn’t remember the blaze. It must have started after Xena struck me. Her anger surged again.
She knew herself well enough to recognize that her anger was only partly caused by the chakram attack. That one act symbolized a year’s worth of their failing relationship.
Ever since Eve.
She wondered how Aphrodite was doing convincing Xena and Eve to leave Olympus. It would be just like the warrior to refuse to go, to refuse to trust the one remaining immortal, their one remaining friend.
It was warmer here than on the airy heights of Olympus, but Gabrielle still felt chilled. She walked to the stable and was greeted by the gentle nickers of Argo II and her as-yet-unnamed bay. Their saddle bags lay safe in the corner of the tack room, and Gabrielle fetched her coat.
The sound of voices brought her to the door.
"Hey! I’m OUTTA here! And you don’t have to thank me!" Aphrodite’s indignation rang clear in the night.
Gabrielle arrived at the door in time to see Xena and Eve dumped unceremoniously in the mud as the sparkle of Aphrodite evaporated in the night. She would have grinned but for her anger.
She waited, unseen, while Xena and Eve recovered their dignity, and then withdrew into the stable. She knew they would have to come into the stable, as it was the only real shelter.
And she knew they would have to talk. She braced herself, trying to suppress the anger that threatened to drown all reason. She had to be open-minded.
Xena entered the stable, not seeing her, and went straight to Argo. Gabrielle waited a few moments, watching and envying the affection the warrior lavished on her horse. Finally the bard stepped forward.
"I see Aphrodite convinced you to leave the mountain."
If Xena was startled, she hid it well. "Yeah, well, she said something about you wouldn’t go without us."
They stood facing each other, looking at their feet, kicking the straw. Gabrielle had her arms crossed, ostensibly to keep warm. She gritted her teeth.
Eve came into the stable and took a look at each of them, then backed out again.
Well, at least she has the sense to stay out of the middle of this, Gabrielle thought.
Finally she spoke.
"Xena, I’m so angry I don’t know where to start. Or maybe I’m hurt, but the two feel pretty much alike right now."
She stared into Xena’s eyes, challenging. She wanted to see what the warrior said with her heart, not just her words.
"Gabrielle, I’m just so sorry this had to happen."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. It was an apology of sorts. Not a very good one, but it was a start. But it wasn’t enough.
"That’s just it, Xena. Did it have to happen? Tell me, honestly, that there was no other way."
Xena looked drained, defeated. She ran her hand through her hair, pushing it back, then squatted down. She picked up a piece of straw and twirled it.
"I don’t know," she said simply. "I’ve seen it in my mind every minute since I did it, over and over. There’s dozen’s of things I could have done, should have done…" Her voice faded away. "I don’t know why I didn’t, why I didn’t try something else, anything else."
She paused, looking down, and gave a harsh chuckle. "Me, the mighty warrior, who can catch arrows in mid-flight, and split spears with my chakram before they reach their target. And I couldn’t even think of a way to save my daughter without killing my best friend." She looked up at Gabrielle. "Pretty sad, huh?"
"Yeah. Pretty sad," Gabrielle answered bitterly, and began to pace.
Xena leaned back until she sat on the ground, her back braced against a post.
"And you know the worst part?" She shook her head. "After I did that, after I threw that damned thing and you fell down all bloody and the Furies flew out of your head - even then – it was Eve I thought about. I didn’t even go to you until I made sure she was alive." Her voice was rough.
"Xena, why are you telling me this?" There was no warmth in the bard’s question.
Xena tossed a pebble away and blinked several times. "I already tried not telling you anything. That didn’t work so well. So let’s try it this way."
They were silent for several moments. Gabrielle paced a few more times, then sat down on a crate opposite Xena, resting her elbows on her knees. Eventually she spoke.
"Xena, I need to believe in you," she pleaded.
A tear broke free and coursed down Xena’s cheek.
"And I so desperately need for you to," she answered.
Again, silence descended.
Again, it was Gabrielle who broke it.
"How did we get here? How did we lose who we were?"
Xena leaned her head back against the post and looked up at the roof. "I don’t know Gabrielle. Once upon a time you were the center of my universe, the best thing in my life."
Gabrielle bit back tears. "’Once upon a time’, like some unreal fairy tale."
Xena felt the woman’s bitterness. "No, not like that. It was real. It was…" She threw the straw away violently. "Damn it! It still is!" She looked at Gabrielle. "You still are the best thing in my life. You still are the center of my universe."
There was silence, and Gabrielle said the unspoken word.
"Yeah. But." Xena sighed and looked away again. "Yeah, but now I have a child. A child I swore I wouldn’t abandon. A child I wanted to love, to watch grow. A child I wanted us to watch grow together, with all the best of both of us."
Gabrielle fiddled with her own blade of straw. "No Xena. She was your child, not ours. I’m not a mother. I don’t even know how to be a mother. I’m Auntie Gabrielle." She stopped as her voice closed over the rest of her words.
Xena waited. She knew Gabrielle needed to finish this thought.
"I’m Auntie Gabrielle. You and Eve are complete without me…."
"No, that’s not true…"
"Yes Xena. It is. Before, you loved me. I was your family. You said it – I was the center of your universe. But there’s only room for one person at the center." She stopped as a sob threatened to convulse her. "And that has to be Eve. I know. When Hope was born, she was the center for me. And, I…I would have tried to kill you too, if I had thought it was the only way to stop you from killing her." She put the back of her hand to her mouth for a moment, then took it away. "Instead I deceived you. And that was worse." She stopped, unable to continue.
Xena watched her struggle, knowing she couldn’t comfort her where Hope was concerned.
Gabrielle’s sobs eased eventually into an irregular breathing and she went on after a little. "But you know what? Through all of that with Hope, and what came after, I never stopped loving you." She gathered herself, taking several deep breaths before continuing.
"And right now I’m having a very hard time believing you still love me." The last words came out in a rush and dissolved into a sob.
"Oh Gabrielle," Xena said softly. "I’ve always loved you. I always will. I just had to stop you."
"That’s not true!" Gabrielle shouted in sudden anger. "Why did you have to do that to me?" The she quieted her tone. "How can you tell me you love me and...be…the way you’ve been to me this past year?"
Xena moved to kneel in front of Gabrielle. She knew now this was less about the chakram than about what had become of them.
"I can’t tell you in words. I can’t explain what I did. I can apologize, if you can accept it." Xena gripped Gabrielle’s hands in her own. The bard started to pull away, but Xena persisted.
"Gabrielle, you are my light. You are what makes me who I am. Yes, I have another role now, another responsibility that comes before anything else, but nothing can ever, ever, take your place in my life or in my heart. You have to believe me." There was a hint of desperation creeping into her voice.
"Gabrielle, without you, I…I can’t go on, can’t be who I am, can’t do what I am meant to do in the world. Please." Her voice started to crack. "Please, believe in me."
Gabrielle wanted to tell her she did, wanted to ease the pain of the woman she still loved in spite of it all. Instead she said quietly, "I believe in you Xena. I just don’t think I believe in us anymore."
Xena squeezed the hands she held in her own and spoke, and regret filled her voice.
They stayed as they were for several moments. Gabrielle wept softly, and Xena finally pulled her to her, cradling her head on her shoulder.
Eventually Gabrielle pulled back and looked at Xena. She shook her head.
"I want it back. I want who we were again. Like nothing had changed."
Xena smoothed Gabrielle’s hair back, then tipped her chin up, as she used to do when she really wanted the bard to hear her.
"I’d give almost anything for that. But we can’t go back. Too much has passed between us. A lot of it my fault. But we can go forward Gabrielle. There’s still love. It’s…different…now. But I still love you. Without condition. Without qualification."
Gabrielle returned the warrior’s gaze, then nodded, wiping her nose. She felt as if she had just run angry rapids in a battered skiff, arriving suddenly in the calm waters below. She could never struggle upstream again, but the river ahead held promise as well as danger, and the water was warm.
"Yes," she said softly. "There’s still love."
They stayed that way for a while, Gabrielle sitting on the crate, and Xena kneeling in front of her, finding comfort in each other’s presence, wondering where love would take them, and if it could ever again be enough.
After a bit they heard hesitant footsteps at the door.
"Mother? Gabrielle? Is it okay?"
The two warriors shared a glance, knowing they both thought the same thing. Eve sounded like a frightened eight-year old, hoping that Mom and Dad had stopped fighting, knowing they had been fighting about her. They stood up together.
The frightened eight-year old had brought a peace offering. She held them out.
"Gabrielle, I saved some of your scrolls from the tavern. I think it’s most of them, really. But some got burned, and there’s blood on some others, and the ink ran on some in the rain and…well…here. I tried to roll ‘em up neat as I could, but they’re still a mess. I’m …sorry."
Gabrielle accepted the offering quietly. The girl, who was in truth older than she herself was, remained an enigma, an unwritten scroll with the best chapters still to come.
But Gabrielle saw something familiar in the blue eyes gazing back at her. Something she loved very much.
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