This is a short companion piece to "When Xena Was Not Quite Herself." Though it is not exactly a "sequel," it does make reference to early fifth season events that take place after some of those mentioned in the previous story. My thanks to Cousin Liz for her design.
One more wink. Just one more little wink and maybe I'll consider opening my eyes.
I grit my teeth, squeezing my eyes together even tighter. It usually doesn't work, but a girl can hope.
Guess not. Sighing, I crack open an eye, followed momentarily by the other one. I lever myself up on an elbow, stunned by what I see. "It's still dark!" I gasp. I swivel my head. "The fire is burning almost like we left it." I stare down at my companion, confusion preventing any further observations.
Xena is on her back, arms crossed above her protruding stomach. "I can't sleep."
I widen my eyes and cock my head in a silent, "And?"
She mumbles something as her head rolls slightly away from me.
She brushes something off her face and clears her throat. "I thought÷. Nothing. Sorry I woke you up. Go back to sleep." She pulls her furs up, pushes them back down, sighs, and lies still.
I sit up. "Xena, forgive me if I'm a little slow here, but if you recall, I had quite an exhausting day. Let's see÷." I raise a hand and count off one finger at a time. "Breakfast with bandits. Lunch with some temple warriors who mistook us for the appetizer. An afternoon nap for you, during which I fought off assassins trying to sneak up on us. Then, a late dinner because I helped that family the bandits decided were easier prey than us." I look down at my partner. "So, if you wake me up ten minutes after I finally start to get a little rest, I really don't want to hear it was for 'nothing.'"
"I thought you said something."
"I was probably snoring."
"Fine." Xena tries to turn over, with not much success. "I thought maybe you couldn't sleep too and might ÷ and might want ÷some company."
I regard my Warrior Princess with a mixture of compassion and vexation. I knew she couldn't help it. The pregnancy was turning her inside out - except that the outside couldnŪt see it. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. This might be the one experience we wouldn't survive.
I lie back down, bracing myself on an elbow, facing Xena. "Well, now that you mention it, I was getting tired of being tired. I suppose that made me a little÷ restless. Was there anything in particular you thought I might need to share with you?"
Xena turns toward me and grins. "Well, now that you mention it, this might be a good time to talk about your mood swings."
I nearly choke. "Mood swings? *My* mood swings?"
"Uh huh," Xena nods enthusiastically. "I didn't want to say anything until you were ready." She smiles at me fondly. "I know how sensitive you can be ÷especially now."
"Yeah, you know, having to take on so much more responsibility. Sometimes you can be so cold and ferocious, it gives me the chills." She grabs my free hand quickly. "Oh, don't get me wrong. I fully understand that. I mean, we've faced some pretty tough adversaries lately. It's just that, well, the next minute, you're all teary-eyed and want to cuddle. I try to be there for you, but then you get cold again, like you don't want me bothering you. Like tonight."
I swallow, not sure if a snort, a groan or a growl was about to come out. "Xena? Hold that thought, OK? I'm going to stoke the fire. I'll be right back." Xena nods, but keeps hold of my hand. "Um, Xena? I'll need that hand too."
She glances at our clasped hands. "Oh. Yeah," she grins sheepishly. "Sorry."
I stretch my tired body and walk slowly over to our fire. I add a few nearby twigs, using the time to calm my warring emotions. As far as Xena and everybody else was concerned, she is the same relentlessly focused, take-no-prisoners Warrior Princess as usual, her formidable will made even more so because the gods were suicidal enough to put her childŪs life at stake. Only I had the privilege of experiencing the turmoil underneath that maternity armor Ů some of it the normal anxieties of any woman in her condition, some of it because she was Xena, with so little peace to enjoy what any other woman might. Oh, sheŪd get through it like always. Neither of us could afford to doubt that. The question was, would I?
Fighting off sundry attackers was wearing enough, but these sensitive chats? I've always thought of myself as a "people" person, always ready to tend to others' needs -- Xena's especially. That's still the image I carry of myself, but lately I just didnŪt feel like it sometimes. At least in the past, I got appreciation for it. Now when I'm like that, I have to pretend it's Xena instead. I shake my head, feeling a wry grin soften my face. Oh, well, nobody said motherhood would be easy.
I walk back over to Xena and resume my previous position, including sliding my hand back into hers. "I do appreciate your bringing this to my attention, Xena. Is there anything else I probably needed to discuss?"
She squeezes my hand. "No, not at the moment. But if it'll make you sleep better, you're welcome to snuggle up a little closer. I want you to know that you're just as lovable when you're all grumpy and ÷ sweaty ÷ as you were before."
"Tank you," I manage to grit out, hoping a sweet enough smile hides my clenched teeth. I snuggle closer, slithering my arm under Xena's neck, and lay my cheek against her head. "How's this? Think this'll help me sleep better?"
Xena relaxes into her furs and smiles appreciatively. "Yes. Much better."
One more wink. Just one more wink, and she'll consider opening her eyes.
She grits her teeth, squeezing her eyes together even tighter. She knows it probably won't work, but, being Xena, she has to try anyway.
She sighs and cracks open an eye, followed momentarily by the other one. As usual, they are quite expressive. ("Hades!" they say. "The sun is shining, nearly overhead. No way Gabrielle'll let me sleep now. Unless ÷.") Then I hear, "Ohhhhh."
I'm fixing a late breakfast, a little concerned that we need to keep moving, but my eyes are still on her. She might really be sick this time. "Xena? Xena, are you OK?"
She groans again. "Yeah, pretty much. Just give me a minute and I'll be fine. Don't stop on my account." She makes a feeble attempt to move, then lies still.
I continue to watch her, first with sympathy, then suspicion. "Yes, you rest until you feel better. I've made a little something for you to eat that should help. I'll join you as soon as I check out those men I saw when I went to fill our water skins."
Xena sits up. "Men? What men?" She reaches for her armor, which she keeps nearby just in case. "Did they look like temple warriors? Bandits? Mercenaries?" Practiced fingers are fastening straps and pulling on bracers. "How close were they?" She hefts herself to her feet. "Gabrielle? Don't just sit there! Say something! Move!"
I ladle out some of the soup I'd been stirring and bring it to my lips. "Ummm, perfect." I glance casually over at my partner. "Xena, I told you I'd take care of it. They looked like merchants. We could use a few more provisions."
Xena stands looking at me, confusion warring with her need to see some action now that sheŪs up.
"I must say, though, for a pregnant woman, you sure can move when you want to."
"How do you feel about all this? I mean, *really* feel?"
We're on horseback, having just dispatched another group of assailants -- members of some cult even Xena hadn't heard of. Apparently they too feared the "twilight of the gods" Xena's child was supposed to herald.
I purse my lips, stroking the mane of the horse I've secretly nicknamed "Xena." Keeping my senses tuned to our surroundings, I look over at the recently all too human Xena. "This? Exactly which 'this' am I concerned about?"
"You know. Having to protect ÷the baby ÷ and all."
"Xena, we've discussed this already. It was my choice to learn to fight. It was my choice to use those skills to defend you when Callisto broke your back with your chakram. Why would I do any less for your child?"
I smile at her warmly. "Our child," I repeat softly, savoring the words. "Yes. Which makes my reason even stronger."
Xena shifts uncomfortably. "Boy, is Argo getting wider, or what?" We share a laugh. "You know what I mean, Gabrielle. Before ÷you weren't hurting and killing people on such a regular basis. It's not the same as when you were just helping me out."
Interesting. The baby's "ours," but I was "just helping out" with the fighting. Don't go there, Gabrielle. Not with her mood swings. "So, Xena, how do you think I feel? I mean, assuming you have some thoughts about what I'm not expressing."
Xena wrinkles her brow in concentration. "Well, now that you mention it, I do think you have some insecurities about this, maybe even some latent resentment."
"Oh? I do? And why do you think that is?"
"Well, you can't be yourself anymore. You're being a good soldier about this, like usual. But I know you miss writing and being, you know, open to everything. You have to be suspicious of almost everybody we meet. You whip those sais out as fast as you used to be with words." Xena smirks good-naturedly. "You haven't lost yourself in one field of daises since ÷ since I can't remember when."
I reign "Xena" to a halt, grateful I can at least master the equine version so easily. I shift in my saddle as though uncomfortable. "Guess I'm not as accustomed to all this 'helping out' as I used to be. What say we rest awhile? I'll be able to concentrate better on these feelings of insecurity and resentment I've apparently been having."
Xena sighs in relief. "Sure. Probably'll do ÷the baby ÷ some good to get a reprieve from all this jolting." Xena slowly swings "the baby's" aching frame off Argo. "That spot over there looks nice and cushy," she murmurs, adding when she realizes she's spoken out loud, "and, um, it should give us a pretty good defensive position if there's trouble."
I smirk, continuing to unpack a few things without commenting. I walk over and hand the already semi-reclining Xena some fruit and one of our furs. I motion for her to put the fur beneath her. "I feel better when I know the baby's comfortable," I say before she can voice her usual protestations about accepting such luxuries. I seat myself cross-legged in front of her. "Now, I believe we were lamenting my lust for blood and loss of floral appreciation, not to mention pining away for my quills."
Xena regards me closely with a raised eyebrow, suspicious that maybe she's being humored. "You know, we don't have to talk about this if you don't want to. You know how I am about sensitive chats. I just thought maybe you had something you wanted to get off your chest. Call it 'mother wit' or whatever, but I seem to have more of it since the baby."
I use every one of my finely honed muscles to keep my eyes from rolling up. "Yes," I agree, "you do seem to be full of it." I take a large, satisfying bite out of the apple in my hand. "Gwan. Fish hut u er sayin."
Xena eyes me again. The contented smile she sees on my face encourages her to plunge ahead. "Well, like I was saying, I think your new situation is bringing some old feelings to a head."
"Yeah, remember that time you were possessed by Takata? I think there was a part of you inside that enjoyed knocking me silly."
I pause in my attack on the apple. "Oh, Xena, you have got to be kidding," I laugh, suddenly feeling a need to inspect my apple for any hidden worms.
"I'm not saying you wanted to. But maybe you sort of ÷ went with it, since there wasn't much you could do anyway."
"Xena, I did not want to kill you. I got over that in Illusia."
"I know, I know. But you can't deny there've been times -- especially lately -- that you'd like to whap me upside the head."
I continue my inspection of the apple. Some of those suckers could burrow really deep. "What? Whap you? For ordering me around? Putting words in my mouth? It's possible, I suppose. Or maybe you had ÷ um ÷ you think I had something else in mind?"
"Well, when you signed on with me, I was supposed to be the muscle, the brains. You were the heart. With me now at three-quarter speed, you're more of the brawn, and it's ÷well, it's hardened your heart."
"And the brains?"
Xena smiles. "We share that."
I spend a moment trying to picture myself as a Herculean, two-headed monster with a hole in its chest, exhaling in relief when I realize nothing like that had occurred to me and that I love Xena enough not to go Takata on her again for putting such an image in my mind. I hope fervently that, like her body, her imagination will return to normal size, once the baby is born.
"So," I say, deciding to turn my attention to some grapes, "anything else still sitting on my chest?"
Xena starts picking the skin off her fruit. "That time we were with Aiden in his make-believe paradise? I think ÷ I think you were afraid that maybe we shouldn't be together anymore. That no matter how peaceful everything was around you, you would still have this place inside that was dark. That hurt you ÷ that could and did hurt other people."
I stop chewing and am now listening intently. "You think so?"
"Well, I'm only guessing. I ÷ I overheard you talking to him. You were in a lot of pain. About Hope. About ÷ me." Xena looks down at the juice running through her fingers. "I wish ÷ I wish I'd had more mother wit back then," she adds quietly with a sad smile.
"Xena?" I wait for her to look up. "What could you have done differently?"
"What? Me? I thought we were supposed to be talking about you."
"Uh huh. And a wonderful job youŪve done helping me get things off my chest. Sounds to me like maybe you have a few things sitting on yours too."
Xena tosses her fruit down and starts wiping her hands furiously in the grass. "See? I try to be sensitive, get you to open up, and what's the thanks I get? You throw it back in my face." She eases herself up and starts collecting our things. "Come on. You should be rested enough now." Turning away to hide the tear thatŪs trickling down her cheek, she growls, "And don't cry. You know how helpless that makes me feel. You're the warrior now. Act like one."
I watch my partner in amazement, not bothering to wipe away the berry juice on my chin. I think I understand why Xena prefers fighting to talking. And then I realize something else. I, Gabrielle, do not. As hard as it was, as infuriating as it could be when Xena was on the other end, talking was what I preferred. And listening. Like I did with Eli, when I could've chosen otherwise. When it really mattered, even in that life or death situation. And now, with Xena, whom I see needs my heart, my ear, my words maybe more than she needs my sais.
I stand and stretch my arms to the sky. I'm still myself! New body, new hair, new clothes, new weapons, new responsibilities, but still myself! I look over at the woman sullenly climbing aboard Argo with uncharacteristic ungainliness, whose raging hormones have driven me closer to the brink than her raging darkness. And I smile -- this time for real. I mount my own horse easily, not flaunting what an accomplished rider I've become. Bending over my steed's head, I whisper in its ear, "Let's go, 'Xena.' We've got a few more battles ahead with your namesake."
All I have to do this time is open my eyes. I'm already curled around her, my head resting on her chest, understanding how she worries that I might have trouble sleeping otherwise.
"Yes, Xena?" I yawn.
"I'm sorry, were you asleep already?"
Yes, about two seconds after we said good night. "Mmmm, just drifting deeply. Why, you having trouble falling asleep?"
"No, just thinking." She brushes the top of my head.
"Oh? `Bout what?"
"Things." She sighs that sigh that means heavy "things."
I snuggle even closer. I can't see her eyes, but I've found that her heart is pretty expressive too. It's beating faster than usual. "Will I feel better if you tell me about these 'things?'"
I feel a low rumbling in her chest. She's chuckling.
"It's OK, Gabrielle. We don't have to pretend it's you who needs to feel better. I know now it's me."
Hmmm. Now I do want to study her face. I pull away a little and stroke her cheek, so she knows I think it's important to see her better. "What are you saying?"
She shifts a little and is silent a moment, looking up at the sky. She bites her lip. I smile. She's so cute when she does that. I wait for the heavy words I know are on the way.
"It seems all I've been thinking about is me. I say it's the baby, but I don't think that's true."
I feel her tension. She looks at me tentatively, as though what she's revealing will come as an unwelcome surprise. I smile noncommittally, then place a hand on her stomach and begin rubbing in gentle circles. She smiles back and lays her hand over mine. Now we're both rubbing. She relaxes and resumes looking at the sky.
"When it hit me that I was pregnant, it's like my brain was sucked into my belly." She chuckles again, a good sign. "I was so afraid -- before I even knew about the gods wanting to ÷ hurt the baby. I mean, I was happy too, that I'd been given another chance I never expected. It was like I was young again, only this time I let myself dream what it could be like -- me, the child, having her or him in my life." She squeezes the hand on her stomach. "In our life. It was because of you that I could dream about being a mother again, that it didn't end with me giving my child away to someone ÷ better."
We're silent awhile. I'm not sure if she can go on alone. I rest my head on her chest again, but keep my soothing hand where it is. "But that scared you too?"
She takes in a deep breath. It stirs my hair on the way out.
"Big time. Huge responsibility. I don't think I'd ever felt anything like it, until you. Except you could run if you had to. Or talk back if you couldn't." Her chest rumbles again. "You learned so much on your own. I tried to resist some of it, but you grew up anyhow -- sometimes because of me, sometimes despite me -- in your own way. You're your own person now. A beautiful butterfly with wings as strong as any steel, who can go anywhere she wants."
She presses down gently on my hand, knowing why it has stopped rubbing her stomach - her way of telling me to keep my mouth shut.
"And you chose to stay with me, and for that I am eternally blessed. But this baby ÷" she nudges my hand into motion again, "this baby needs me -- all of me -- to have a chance. The bigger she gets, the more I feel like the mother I never was, less like the warrior I've tried so hard to become." A pregnant pause. "Gabrielle, I've always been the protector, until you. You taught me to care about another human being, then gave me faith that I could share that responsibility with someone else. You."
Her heart has steadied, and now mine is the one fluttering. I wonder if it's because I'm holding my breath.
"Do you think I could have ever made it through my dream this far without you? I lie awake sometimes with visions of you fighting out in front like I used to do, putting your life in danger, choosing violence because it's the quickest way to make sure we'll be safe. And I let you. I've accepted that it's the price we pay for sharing my dream. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't believe you thought it was worth it too."
I lift my head. "May I speak now?"
She nods, smiling. "Make it brief."
"I do, Xena. I think it's worth every bloody, beautiful moment."
She blinks at me, her eyes shining. I use my free hand to capture a tear that escapes her weakened defenses.
She swallows. "But÷I ÷ I still÷."
"You still worry about it."
"Yeah. Sometimes. My emotions are all over the place. I worry that you'll ÷ that you'll think less of me. Or that you'll feel I think less of you. Then I put so much on you anyway and wonder if you'll grow to hate me -- my moodiness, my single-mindedness, my being like my mother one minute and like Ares the next, the way I have to prove a pregnant woman can do mid-air split kicks, then turn around and doze off in my milk like a baby. Oh, and when I --"
"I get the picture. I'm *in* the picture, remember?"
We share a chuckle.
"You don't -- you know, kind of resent it sometimes?"
"You mean, like, when you keep me awake with your chattering after a long day kicking butt? Or the way you drift off to gods know where when you should be paying attention to your breakfast or to the way your horse is moving beneath you? Oh, or when you--"
"I get the picture. I *am* the picture, remember?"
"Right. Well, anyway, yes, there are times I'm less enthusiastic about that picture, but that's only natural. I have to do a lot of things I don't like, feel about people the way I don't like. Sure, all this can be ÷ tiring. I get impatient and cranky even when my heart wants to be more sympathetic. Then I realize it's times like this that I feel like myself again, when I realize you still need what I like most about myself -- my heart. When our hearts are next to each other, like they are now."
Xena takes my hand off the baby and kisses my fingers. "I love you so much," she says softly, allowing another tear to escape.
"I know," I say, burrowing further into her. "Don't worry, we're almost at the end of this part of the journey. Soon you'll be back to 200 percent. We'll have this wonderful child to nurture and new adventures to embark on. Between us, thereŪll be so much we can teach her. You know, Xena, I've had a couple of ideas in mind about that÷. Xena?"
I am so wrapped up in my visions of child-rearing, that I failed to notice my companion's not so quiet snoring. Wow, I really do still have the old Gab in me. I smile at the prospect of talking myself to sleep.
"Mmmmmm." I stretched without opening my eyes. Funny, I didn't feel the sun on my face. Must be under a tree.
My eyes opened to darkness and Xena's face hovering in irritation above me. "You rang?"
"I can't go to sleep with all that muttering."
"What? What muttering?"
"You. Muttering. Me. Trying to sleep."
When we're out on the road, one night pretty much looks like the previous or the next. I had a feeling, though, that we were still in the most recent one.
"Xena? What did we do today?"
She was still hovering over me, her expression pretty much the same as a minute ago. "Why are you asking me? You were there. Very there. All over there."
Xena lowered herself back down. "Bandits. Temple warriors. Assassins. Bandits again."
Ah. Thought so. All those sensitive chats hadnŪt actually happened. Yet. "I was dreaming. MustŪve been talking in my sleep."
"Yeah, well, seemed to be a lot going on in that dream of yours. Fighting, laughing, grumbling ÷ cuddling. Thought maybe you could use some company."
"So maybe I'd sleep more restfully?"
"Yeah, something like that."
Heh. Guess I still had the gift of prophecy too. I sat up and stretched my arms to the sky, probably grinning like Joxer in heat.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing?"
I thought about my dream. "Oh, just enjoying ÷ myself." I ignored Xena's cryptic look and lay back down, snuggling close to my soulmate, slipping my arm under her neck and laying my cheek against her head. "How's this? Think this'll help me sleep better?"
Xena relaxed into her furs. "Yeah. Much."