By Trisha Von Doss AKA Xenamour
Note: Please see Part I for Disclaimers
Xena stopped just out of range of their camp site and bent to the stream to fill her water skin. She took a long drink, then poured a generous pool into her hand and splashed it over her chest and shoulders. Unsatisfied, she leaned over, pulled her hair back with her free hand, and dumped the icy liquid over the nape of her neck, causing a bit of steam to rise...the cold temperature of the water meeting her body’s warm surface. She shivered slightly at the sensation, but her skin still felt like it was melting from the inside out.
She dusted a few scattered leaves from the top of a nearby boulder and sat down for a moment, the water skin still in one hand, and leaned forward onto her knees, trying hard to collect her composure and her thoughts. She grinned a little as she remembered the exchange she’d just had with her plucky companion. Teach me to play with fire. But the thought of fire made her think heat...which made those pictures of the Bard’s hot skin entwined with hers begin playing through her head again.Gods.
Xena eyed the trickle of water she’d generously been calling a stream, and briefly considered lying down in it. Nah, she smirked mentally, probably evaporate what's left of the water supply. She squeezed the water skin and sent a steady spurt of the cold stuff over her face instead.
And could have sworn she heard it sizzle as she did.
Looking up, Xena realized it was nearly dark. She shook her head at herself...so much for hunting; at this rate, all I’m gonna catch is a cold. She played with the stopper of the water skin absently as she mused, pulling it off and putting it back on, taking a sip from it now and again in between. Wonder what she’d think if I showed up with blackberries for dinner? Oh yeah...like she isn’t already worried about your sanity...first you dump the prisoner in the dirt, then you break one of your own rules by flirting with her out on the open road. Out of the blue to boot. Well, it hadn’t been exactly out of the blue...the Bard had sorta provoked it. But then Gabrielle didn’t have anyway of knowing that...did she?
Xena briefly entertained the notion that her companion was experiencing this too, on some level, and had been aware of the effects her daydreams were having on the Warrior. The idea of Gabrielle wanting her to feel those things made her light headed momentarily. The giddiness was quickly washed away by a thought that gripped her with fear and threatened to escalate into panic. What if it was more than that...what if Gabrielle was exposed to my inner thoughts and memories the way I was to hers...for 25 years? Oh Gods...no...
She took a deep breath and tried to calm her shaking psyche. Gabrielle would have said something by now, would have told me. Or more likely would have run as fast and as far away as she could, her inner voice told her contemptuously. As much as Xena had shared with her companion, as much as they’d been through together...certain details had been left out...and some parts of her history she’d never told her partner about at all.
Gabrielle had never experienced that kind of darkness...not as its perpetrator anyway. Oh, the Bard had learned how to fight, and even to kill, but she’d only ever done it to protect herself...or others...never for gain or...Xena’s gut lurched...for pleasure. And the idea of Gabrielle being exposed so intimately to Xena’s heinous past, through her own subconscious feelings and memories...made her physically ill.
She dropped the water skin and wrapped her arms around her roiling stomach. Sucking in a lung full of cold air, she purposefully shifted her thoughts to something she knew she could control, concentrating on slowing her heart rate, and got a hold of herself just short of retching up what was left of her lunch.
When she felt somewhat steady again she tried to order her thoughts. Gabrielle had asked her about the entombment, and specifically about what, if anything, she’d been aware of thinking or feeling during that time. But the Bard had denied being aware of anything herself. Then why would she ask? Get over yourself Xena...this is Gabrielle...what doesn’t she ask about? And if she had experienced...that...surely she wouldn’t still be with you...would she?
Would she? Gabrielle had proven her love time and again, standing by the Warrior in spite of her dark past, in spite of her tumultuous present...in spite of Xena, herself, really. She had fought against that love for so long...unable...unwilling to believe it belonged to her...because she knew she could never deserve it.
But when she’d nearly crossed over that first time, she’d been able to hear Gabrielle’s thoughts...and when her soul had briefly ended up coupled with Gabrielle’s in the Bard’s body...she’d understood the kind of pain she had been causing her companion. When had she denied herself the love offered, she had also denied the one offering that love. To someone with an innately giving a nature, like Gabrielle, it had been like a creeping spiritual death.
So Xena had finally...slowly...accepted Gabrielle’s love for her. And Gabrielle had never faltered in that love, despite Xena’s own subconscious attempts to sabotage it, push her away...sure deep down inside that the ugliness of who she had been, still was in part, negated her right to such happiness. And she’d never really believed it would last anyway...Gabrielle would eventually come to her senses...everyone had their limits, right?
Which only bolstered her conviction that Gabrielle couldn’t have been privy, all those years in that icy cave, to the same experience she had. Besides she reasoned, as sensitive as she seemed to be becoming to the Bards feelings...surely she’d have had some inkling of that by now. And recalling the look of surprise on Gabrielle’s face, when she’d stepped in front of her at the campsite earlier, confirmed that thought. She ran a hand through her hair, and expelled a bone deep sigh. Then she pushed those old and ugly secrets back into their black hole and did her best to cover the opening so they’d stay there.
Her stomach growled and she was reminded of her original endeavor. If she was hungry, Gabrielle was probably chewing on saddle leather about now. She snorted a laugh at that image, and set about figuring out how to catch dinner. It was dark, but the moon was full, so if she could find a clearing amongst the trees, meat was still an option.
Picking up the water skin, she replaced the stopper and then slung it over her head and shoulder. She stood slowly and stretched her legs a bit, then bounced on the balls of her feet and swung her arms a few times to warm up her muscles, grown a little stiff from sitting so long in the cold. Pulling the bow, and an arrow from the quiver, from her back, she walked further into the forest and silently disappeared into a different kind of blackness.
Gabrielle stoked the fire for what she was sure was the hundredth time, and sat back on the sleeping fur with a frustrated sigh. Her stomach was finally beginning to relax a bit, soothed by the herb tea she’d been sipping on. She knew it was a little frivolous to be using the herbs for a stomach ache most likely brought on by hunger.
Years traveling with Xena had taught her to be careful with the medicinal supplies...you never knew when you’d be needing them. Well, more accurately, you just assumed you’d always be needing them, and it didn’t do to waste them on something as simple as hunger pangs. But the nausea and cramping had come on her so suddenly, she couldn’t be sure it was just her biting appetite. And it wouldn’t do to get sick just now, with Xena gone, and she left alone with their prisoner.
She glanced briefly at their charge, whose gaze seemed fixated on the fire. Probably cold. And hungry. Me too. Wish we had some of those trail rations left. She had poked around a bit on the periphery of their camp after Xena had left, hoping to find some late seasonal berries or wild onions to snack on and to add to their meal, but had come up empty handed.
Wonder what’s taking Xena so long? Guess the game must be scarce up here. It never even occurred to Gabrielle that finding dinner in the dark might be a problem...so accustomed was she to her companion's hunting proficiency.
She set the remnants of her tea down and, dragging the saddle bags a little closer to the bed rolls, pulled out a fresh scroll and her quill case. Maybe I can distract myself from my stomach for a little while. She rolled her eyes when the organ in question rumbled as if on cue. She unraveled the scroll and set it down on the sleeping fur, then pulled the quill case from its protective cloth cover. The light of the fire danced off of the bits of colored stone and ivory, intricately inlaid in a complex mhendi design, on the outside of the case. She ran her hands over its surface, admiring its beauty, and the workmanship that had, despite the many materials used, left it as smooth to the touch as if the wood had never been broken by the carver’s tools. The case and the quill it housed had been gifts from Xena, purchased at the Bazaar in India...what had it been...nearly two years ago now? Two years give or take twenty-five, she corrected herself derisively.
The ones she’d been using at the time were nothing fancy, but they were in good order. Still, she had fantasized about buying new ones, and had admired several attractive sets, during their travels, in markets along their way. She’d always, somewhat reluctantly, decided against it. When and if they bought things it was because they needed them, not because they wanted them. Xena, ever the sensible one, had never been much for frivolities anyway, and Gabrielle understood... from the Warrior’s point of view, her scrolls and other writing supplies already took up valuable space in the saddle bags, space that could have been used for other, more practical items.
So she’d been more than a little surprised when she’d opened up their saddle bags, one evening after dinner, and pulled this case out of her old cloth cover......
She'd stared at it for a long moment before she'd come out of her daze and realized, peripherally, that she was being watched.
The two blue eyes she'd found sparkling back at her when she'd finally looked up, had been laced with a touch of mischief, and a hint of nervous anticipation.
Waiting for her reaction.
And when she'd managed to approximate her jaws again, she'd given one... sort of...
"Xena...I...when did you...I mean...why?"
An added little twinkle, then a shrug. "Just thought you might like a new set, that's all."
"But...the other one's still good." she'd said, confused.
Her companion had snorted in response to that. "Gabrielle, if you chew that quill down any further, you’ll have to hold it with a pair of tweezers to use it."
"But, I thought you were going to get a new pair of boots before winter set in?Yours are nearly worn through in places, and I know we don’t have the money for both. Besides, how many times have you complained about me shopping for things we don’t really need?"
A pause. A nearly imperceptible flinch.
Then Xena'd looked away, kicked at some nonexistent target in the dirt, her face shifting through a series of subtle expressions, first angry, then serious, then sad.
And Gabrielle had moved without even realizing it... found herself in front of Xena, reaching out and drawing the Warrior's hands into hers, placing soft kisses in her palms, chastising herself mentally for her insensitivity.
"Xena...it's beautiful... I love it...thank you. I'm sorry, I just...it's not my birthday, or solstice...you took me by surprise, that's all."
Intense blue eyes had searched her own...strong hands had drawn her in... ...gentle lips had kissed her with such tenderness...such love.
And then Xena had pulled back again, and regarded her for a long heartbeat before she spoke, a wan smile pulling briefly at the corners of her mouth.
"Gabrielle, I know you better than that by now... I know you like the gift. I'm not upset about that."
Another pause, as Xena struggled to gather reluctant words.
"It's just...I’ve watched you deny yourself this one small treasure, time and again, for my sake. And each time, all I can think of, is how little life with me has offered you."
Xena had glanced away, then nodded at the gift, still resting on the sleeping furs where the Bard had been sitting. "This...this is such a small thing. And the truth is...the truth is, you deserve so much more."
She’d stood there, just staring at Xena, for the longest time; her heart seized up in her chest, waiting for it to start beating again; briefly wondering if it ever would.
And when it finally had, she’d willed her lover’s eyes to her own, wanting her to see...to know without a doubt, as she spoke her thoughts, patiently...purposefully... that they were truths.
"You’re wrong Xena. I’ve denied myself nothing. What I’ve done is chosen only the things I’ve wanted most. And do you know what? I’ve had the very best of everything."
She’d pulled closer then, looked deeper; intent on communicating this in a way that the Warrior’s tortured mind could not contort later.
"Because, no tapestry ever woven could rival the colors of a sunset in your arms. No jewel ever cut, match the passionate depth of sapphire in your eyes, when you lay claim to me. And no quill, no matter how well crafted, can write the words, "I love you," on my heart..."
A loud crackle from the fire startled the Bard back to the present. The tree pitch that had instigated the noise snicked and sizzled at her for several seconds afterward, releasing a smoky sweetness as it burned.
Gabrielle stared back down at the quill case in her hand for a moment before she opened it, marveling at the intensity of those remembered emotions. She removed the quill and held it up in the light, rolling it through her fingers for a moment, noticing the slight variations in its color and symmetry, where repeated use had worn away the ivory surface under the friction of her grip. Holding it still felt familiar, in a detached kind of way. She hadn’t written much all year, too busy running, she told herself. It was partly true anyway.
Before they’d faked their deaths, in an effort to deter the Olympian Gods from their endless attempts to kill Eve, she’d managed to record most of the events following their resurrection... scribing frantically...and at a dead run up to the very last.
In the end it had probably been better that way...she’d just written, hadn’t had time to think about what she was putting down. The end result wasn’t pretty, certainly not her best effort...but then those scrolls hadn’t been written to win any prizes or sit in the Athens Academy Library either. She’d done it for Eve, and in a way for Xena really, just in case their plan had failed, and they had died in earnest...so Eve would have some idea of who her mother had been...and the efforts Xena had gone to keep her safe. But Eve had never seen those scrolls... Octavious had felt it safer for Eve, while she was growing up, not to know what her true heritage was.
I wonder if it would have made any difference? An image of Eve’s face came to her...so full of hatred and anger...when she’d killed Joxer. She had murdered him in cold blood, a satisfied smile on her lips as she’d turned the blade. Eve had known then, who her mother was... And it hadn’t made any difference.
I miss you old friend, she said silently to the stars, knowing that he would hear her. I wish I understood how the innocent child I once held in my arms, sang lullabies to, could be the one who took your life from you...from your family...from us.
She heard the tap of the tear hitting the parchment before she felt it. She brushed her cheek with her hand and saw the trace of liquid shimmering on her fingertips in the fire and moonlight. One tear...it was the first and only one she had ever cried for him. Why? Maybe because she knew he was in Elysia, or Heaven. Or maybe because she’d seen so much death this last year there were too few tears left to cry.
Gabrielle looked again at the quill in her hand. Writing had always been her way of coming to terms with such things...understanding the meaning and reason in what had happened. She’d tried to write since then, more than once. Words sometimes found their way onto the parchment, but they had no connection to her now. She wrote indexes of events... listed the happenings in their lives as she would her requests to the merchants in the market. It was as if the stories she’d written before, the ones so full of hope and insight...had been authored by someone else...a distant relative of who she’d since become. She wasn’t sure why she even tried anymore, except perhaps out of some remote sense of habit. Or maybe it was because doing so felt vaguely comforting, and after all they’d been through, not much else had.
She thought again about the frenetic coupling she and Xena had shared that first night after the entombment. It had been a way of reclaiming one another, of promising one another the future again...but it hadn’t magically erased the distance between them, it had just been a small start toward that end.
Since then, things had been slowly becoming easier, more relaxed. The banter between them had gradually returned, as had some of the other small subtleties of their connection. She’d unconsciously found herself reaching out to touch her friend again, less afraid that Xena would pull away. Having only one horse and a need to make good time had helped. They’d had no choice but to ride together. Falling asleep on Argo’s back, wrapped in Xena’s arms, had made her realize how safe she still felt in her partner’s embrace. But, for the most part, they had continued to avoid talking about anything that had happened, was still happening, to them and between them.
The one exception had been in Athens, after they’d first found Eve.Upset and unable to sleep, Xena had confided in her, tenatively opened up to her again. What was it she had said...
"I feel as if there’s no way home..."
Words that could have just as easily come from her own lips, the Bard realized, because until that very moment...her home...Xena...had seemed so terribly far away. But Xena had finally spoken her pain, her fear...out loud...shared with Gabrielle a part of herself she’d kept locked away for so long...
"I gave away one child once. And this time, I wanted to do right by Eve. But I woke up and my child had been ripped from my arms."
A moments pause...a breath of time...long enough for Gabrielle to remember how that felt, giving up a child...and having one taken from you...
"Xena she’s alive. There’s a chance you can still be in her life."
But specters of Xena’s past, ever haunting the Warrior with blame, clouded her hopes with doubt....
"It’s not gonna be easy. She has my darkness inside of her. She has Callisto’s spirit. Those are tough odds to beat."
And Gabrielle had searched herself, reached down inside and found some remembrance of light...of faith...once so abundant...and given it away...
"You did it"
...tears...Xena had cried...and Gabrielle’s heart had nearly drowned in them...
"I had help."
...and been reborn with them all at once.
"She has us. Xena, she can change. Like mother like daughter. Got to her...talk to her. She will see the truth."
Blue eyes, ringed red and hazed in sadness began to clear a little....
"Ok..." A barely audible whisper.
Then...a glimmer...the light she’d offered up, shinning guardedly back at her through two blue windows...
"You’re right...whatever turned Eve, we can turn her back. Like mother, like daughter."
She never thought she’d be happy to see her lover in pain...to see her cry. But it had been...a gift. Xena had made herself vulnerable, if only briefly, extended a hand to her in a moment of tenuous trust. And, despite the inner demons, the voices in her head and in her heart that had nearly deafened her in protest...she had reached out and taken that hand firmly in her own...again....determined this time, to hold on tight. And that had felt...so good.
She grinned a little as the memory of the exchange she’d had with Xena earlier this evening floated through her head. That, too, had felt good. Odd, and a bit frustrating, out here on the open road, granted, but good, just the same. Gabrielle looked down at the bed rolls she was seated on, one nearly on top of the other, and chuckled, oh yeah...things were definitely getting better.
To be continued....
Feedback and constructive crticism much appreciated: Email me at Xenamour@cs.com
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