Author's Note: Don't get me wrong, I loved the Bitter Suite episode. I spent hours listening to the songs and enjoying them. But I soon realized that as much fun as this jaunt was, it wasn't anywhere near dark enough to express just what both of these characters were going through or even allow them to truly explore what happened between them. With that in mind I sat down to ponder just how I thought it was likely to have been. This story references another short story I wrote called Hade's Promise which is posted at the Royal Academy of Bards website under my name.
As always, please read and review.
* * *
It hurt; it hurt so much she had no idea how she could still be alive. Not when every breath she took was like breathing glass. Not when every beat of her heart sent jagged pulses of pain throughout her entire body. Not when every moment she was still awake made her soul cry out in agony for something that could never be; something killed before it could be more than a dream. How could she survive this? How could she ever stop the pain and begin to heal? How in the name of the Gods could she ever stop her very soul from bleeding?
She'd climbed up to the mountains to vent her grief, wailing and screaming her pain to the peaks and the snow. Seeking to shatter the very rocks with the weight of her grief. But they were mountains and had stood impassive and immovable even in the face of her tears and rage. They would not change their existence because of the pain of a mere mortal. They would endure because they were strong. They were stone and untouchable. If only she had better emulated their example.
But then he'd come, the dark one, whispering words of bitter truth. Reminding her just who was responsible for her rage and grief. Reminding her just what she had lost, not just a son she had never gotten the chance to know, but a lover, a partner, her friend and the trust they'd once shared between them. He whispered dark words in her ears, words of anger and violence and betrayal and yet, despite all that, words laced with truth.
And so she had listened. Listened even when her heart screamed at her to ignore him, even when her soul railed against her human weakness at denying her own heart. And his words opened the abyss inside of her soul, the place of darkness and torment that she hid deep inside herself, keeping it locked a way, keeping it from those around her. And deep in that place, the other stirred to life, drawn by the light above it. It began its own whispering, honeyed, seductively violent words that stirred her heart and quieted her soul. It called to her, told her to step off the ledge, that it would take control, that it would make everything all better.
And she, wanting desperately to believe, needing for it all to just go away, did not give the words a second thought. With a decisive step, she stepped off the ledge and simply disappeared into the abyss. As she fell, she felt the other whisper by her, chuckling softly to itself. And then the darkness embraced her like a long lost friend and she knew no more.
* * *
They lashed her with branches in an effort to purify her. Smothered her with steam trying to help her sweat it out. They even resorted to pleas and spells and chants and nothing helped. She still lay insensible, unmoving and uncaring inside the hut. Her heart still beat, she still drew breath but it was without purpose, done without thought. And it was beginning to slow. She was dying, fading away and nothing her Amazons did could stop that slow agonizing end.
Soon she would be at peace; soon the guilt and rage inside of her would be silent leaving her with a nothingness, an emptiness inside her soul. Feeling nothing had to be better than feeling far too much. Being empty had to be far better than being so torn up inside. Surely being numb was better than this. She needed it to be over. Needed the guilt and sorrow to just disappear.
But it would not go away on it own. No matter how much she pushed at it, no matter how much she raved at the injustice of it all the dark cloud inside her heart remained. It weighed her down, pulled on her soul until she wondered just how in the world it could remain in her body, how it could function with such a dark, heavy weight pressing down upon it.
Her daughter was dead, killed by her own hand and nothing could change the violence or truth of that dark moment. Nothing she said or did could change the fact that it was her very own hand that had placed the poison in that waterskin. And it no longer mattered that there hadn't been enough in it for two, given enough time that mistake would be corrected as well.
She was alone, more alone than when she had been living in Potedia, dreaming of leaving and seeing the world. Her lover, the dark warrior who had come into her life and stolen her heart, become her friend and comrade was gone. The trust between them killed in a single instant of careless optimism. If only she'd listened, if only she'd looked beyond the warrior's knee jerk reaction to the child. If only she'd looked beyond her own rejection of the darker woman's words.
But now it was too late. Solon was dead, taken from both of them before they'd ever gotten a chance to know him. Hope was dead, a dark child twisted by the legacy of her father but her child nonetheless. and both of their deaths could be laid at her feet. There was no penance she could ever do that would absolve her of the truth of what her actions had cost them both. And there was nothing she could do that would ever make the pain of it go away for either of them.
Dimly, as if through a tunnel, she heard shouting, a commotion around the hut as an alarm was raised. Shouting, weapons clashing, a few screams followed by a familiar war cry. Xena had come for her. Come to exact her revenge for the death of her son. She stood slowly, feeling weak from her days of fasting and shuffled to the door, needing to see with her own eyes the warrior in all her violent glory, if only for one last time.
She had wondered if it would come this, if there would be bloodshed between them. Now she knew; even being loved by the Warrior Princess did not protect one from her wrath it seemed. Part of her was terrified of what the warrior might do to her in her grief. She wondered if it would hurt too much, or even if it would hurt enough. The part weighed down by guilt didn't really care all that much so long as it was ended. It was time to pay the piper. This now would be her penance. She stepped through the door into chaos.
* * *
Xena roared into the Amazon village with violence on her mind, vengeance in her heart and the conqueror in full control. She cut a deadly, violent swath through the troops that threw themselves in her path to protect their Queen. With every scream, every cry of agony, every skirmish and every blow she rained down on her enemies, the bloodlust only grew. Foolish Amazons to think they could stand against the likes of her. They had no idea what they truly faced. No idea that there was no shred of sanity left within her. It was gone, all gone. Destroyed by the bard, by her once beloved partner.
Xena snarled in rage as another wave of Amazons swarmed her, hoping to slow her down, stop her, wound her, anything to keep her from rampaging into their village and finding their Queen. Such fools. Such misguided fools. Didn't they know she wasn't worth protecting, wasn't worth dying for? Once she might have done the same as they did now; risking her life for the woman that she had let into her very soul. But that was now gone, gone and washed away in a river of betrayal and death that had left her heart in shards, her soul torn and ravaged. There was nothing left of caring in her heart; nothing left of the tenderness the bard once knew. And she was no longer sure what she grieved for most; the loss of that tenderness or the loss of her son.
With a savage joy, she dispatched the last of the shock troops, not caring where they fell or how badly wounded they were when a new figure stepped in her path. It took a moment for her mind to register this enemy as different, special, once a friend. It was Poni, the weapons master who'd extended the hand of friendship between them only a few months ago. A hard, loyal woman who had earned her friendship and her respect.
“Get out of my way Poni!” Her voice was hoarse, guttural almost feral. And it sent shivers down the spine of the weapons master.
But the shorter woman was stubborn and merely shook her head at the lethal, insane warrior in front of her. “You can't have her Xena. Not like this.”
Xena smiled at the challenge and it was not a pleasant smile. It was like the smile of someone possessed; it was the smile of a killer and it held no warmth whatsoever. It was a smile that promised bloodshed and destruction and death to all who opposed her. And she was a woman who kept her promises. With a harsh cry, she rushed the shorter woman, only to have her sword blocked at the last second by someone else; someone new. She growled low in her throat as she faced off against Ephiny.
The blonde regent shoved at her with everything she had, matching Xena's rage with a rage of her own. “Leave this village Xena. You're not welcome here.”
Xena smiled again, laughing manically as she simply swung her sword again. Ephiny met her again, knowing it was hopeless, knowing she was completely out matched and yet unable to do anything else. There was a whirl of movement, an exchange of blows and a sharp cry from the Amazon. Then, Xena stilled, letting the dust settle slightly as Ephiny stood there before her, white as a sheet and clutching her left arm where Xena had snapped it in two.
Xena stepped forward, fully intending to finish the job when movement at one of the huts caught her eye. She smiled. There, there she was, the traitorous bitch herself. Standing there in the doorway of a nearby hut looking pale and weak. Looking as lost and alone as she felt. Looking as grief stricken and filled with pain as she was. She snarled, pushing the weak thoughts aside. There was no time for this. No time to care, no time for empathy. The Queen had betrayed her, the Queen had caused her pain, the Queen had killed her son. So the Queen would die. She reached down for her whip and waited for her target to get closer.
* * *
Gabrielle never took her eyes off the dark warrior as she slowly made her way through the crowd. She hadn't slept in a very long time, if the circles under her eyes were anything to go by. She didn't look like she'd been eating much either and she looked so wild and feral at that moment, she was amazed the woman wasn't foaming at the mouth. She took it all in with a lover's critical eye and wept at what had happened to her once proud Warrior Princess.
She made her way through the crowd, gently shoving aside the guards and friends that had rallied to protect her from the rampaging menace before her. When some of them made as if to stand their ground and disobey her, it took one look of her own haunted face and they relented. In only a few moments she stood at Ephiny's back.
She reached out to touch the regent, her friend, and asked her silently to step back. Ephiny merely glanced at her and shook her head. Gabrielle nodded firmly. “Enough Ephiny. That's enough.”
Despite her wound, Ephiny stayed right where she was, refusing to back down. “Gabrielle, you can't go with her. She will kill you!”
Xena stood there in silence and did nothing to defend herself against the charge. For that at least Gabrielle was grateful. There would be no false pleasantries here then. She gave Ephiny a sad smile. “I'm dying anyway and we both know it. At least if she kills me, we'll be together.”
Ephiny opened her mouth to protest and Eponin interrupted her, stepping between her lover and their Queen. “She's right Eph; we can't help her. She's dying inside. Maybe Xena will kill her, maybe she won't but its her choice. If this were us, I'd want the chance that Gabrielle's taking.”
That statement gave her pause as the regent considered the weapons masters quiet words. They were both right and they knew it. They couldn't stop Xena an everyone knew that too. Maybe this was the best way; the only way. Reluctantly she nodded and stepped back.
Gabrielle gave her friend a gentle hug before turning to face her lover. She stood there, uncertain, whip in hand, looking ready to burst into violent motion at any moment, watching their exchange in silence. Gabrielle gave the whip a small nod to indicate to the warrior she was ready and then she braced herself for the worst.
With a strangely chagrined look on her face, Xena coiled the whip and with a whistle, called Argo over. Leaping onto the saddle, she looked back at Gabrielle, wordlessly holding out her powerful hand. Surprised at the sudden change, Gabrielle simply reached out, feeling Xena's hand wrap around her own and haul her onto the horse. Without a word Xena turned Argo and kneed her into a gallop away from the village.
Gabrielle held on tightly, certain that these were the last moments of her life and that despite how very much she loved the woman in front of her, she would, in a very short time, become her executioner. She felt tears fill her eyes as she pondered that. Never once did she think it would come to this. That they would be enemies standing on either side of a divide that neither one had the strength or skill to cross.
They might have disagreed in the past from time to time but never had it come to blows; never had it been something so irrevocable between them that they couldn't over come it. She somehow doubted that things would ever be the same between them; she very much doubted they would even get the chance to try and see.
A few moments later, almost a lifetime to the bard, Xena rode Argo up to the mouth of a cave and without a word dismounted. She then walked into the cave. Not given any other choice, Gabrielle merely followed her.
Once inside the gloomy interior, while she was still blinded by the change in light, Gabrielle waited, her body tensed for the blows she was sure would come at any moment. But, as her eyes adjusted she saw that Xena was simply standing there, staring at her in silence. And she continued to stare at her, unmoving, not speaking for several long moments. It unnerved her, even more than the violence and grief she'd seen in the village. Whatever this had started out as, whatever goal Xena had originally had, something had obviously changed.
After several silently tense long moments, Gabrielle herself reached a breaking point. She had come to kill her; Gabrielle knew the truth of that statement. And she had come to this cave, prepared to die at the hands of her lover. She had expected violence from Xena, had expected to be hit and beaten in retaliation for the wrong she'd done to her. But this, this silence was too much. It let her think, it let her feel. Anything was better than that. It was time for this to end.
“Why did you come for me?” Her voice was quiet but there was no mistaking that Xena heard her clearly. Still she remained silent. “You came to kill me didn't you?” A twitch of the cheek but still nothing. Gabrielle barely contained the urge to pull her hair out with frustration and fear. “Why don't you just get it over with then?”
Those pale blue eyes never left hers even as Gabrielle stepped closer, pushing, poking, prodding. Look for an opening, a gap in that emotional armor that she could slip through and break the warrior's control. Anything to stop the silent judgement she felt in that once beloved regard.
The bard stepped closer, her face angry and twisted with hurt. “You sadistic bitch! Just get it over with. Kill me!” The shout echoed in the rocky cavern, the whispers of it battering both of them with accusations.
She had been expecting it, even been hoping for the blow. But when it came, the warrior moved so fast it was almost over before she knew she'd been wounded. The blade she never even saw in Xena's hand parted flesh and muscle and sank into her like a knife through butter. Then they were face to face, pressed against each other in a fatal embrace. All in the blink of an eye.
Part of her chided herself at goading the warrior; even if she'd wanted to die, surely there were better ways to go about accomplishing it. And yet the rest of her was simply glad to be in her arms once more, even if she was dying. Then, the pain swept over her, dashing away all thought and breath. She could only gasp, her eyes never leaving her lover's as she felt her legs give way and she collapsed onto the floor. Then all was black.
* * *
Xena saw the bard's body fall away and something snapped deep inside her bringing with it an emptiness that was painful beyond imagining. The agony was unbearable; it was if her very soul was screaming in denial at her. This was wrong, all wrong. It shouldn't hurt worse. The hurt was supposed to go, to end. She was supposed to be better, numb, uncaring, unfeeling. But staring at the bard's lifeless body, the blood slowly pooling around her, everything just hurt more and more.
She looked down and realized that her hands were shaking. They were covered in her lover's blood and they were shaking. So much so that the knife fell from her suddenly numb fingers. She heard someone begin keening and realized the haunted sound was coming from her. But she couldn't make it stop, couldn't make any of it end.
In the abyss, the Warrior Princess stirred to life, brought to consciousness by the keening sound high above her. She rose from the blackness, the pain growing slowly until she was in absolute agony as she took control once more. She felt the other give way gladly, weakly sliding into the abyss to sleep once more. There was fear in the other, fear and agony unlike anything she had ever felt and it frightened her. She turned her senses outward to see just what had done this to the darkest part of herself.
She took the sight of it all in, the truth slamming into her with all the subtly of a galloping horse. She had done this, she had let this happen. Dead, the bard was dead. Slain by her own wicked hand. The reality of it was too much for even her powerful will. As the truth of it slammed into her, she felt her mind simply shatter before she slid to her knees and began sobbing like a child next to the body of her once beloved friend.
* * *
Gabrielle came to suddenly and found herself not where she expected to be on the banks of the river Styxx, but rather in a strange twilight place full of mist. She heard a throat being cleared forcefully and looked up to see Hades standing over her. She gave a soft mental sigh at the sight of the dark god; this was just not her day.
She gave him a wan smile as he reached down and helped her to her feet. “Hades. We really need to stop meeting like this.”
He snarled at her, his thunderous expression not boding well for this conversation. “You were warned. You gave your oath you would never willingly leave her.”
“But I didn't...”
He cut her off. “But you did. You vowed to never willingly leave her and yet you left her to marry Perdicus. Did you not?”
She nodded. “Yes but...”
Again he didn't let her continue. “You broke your vow. I warned you that you might not be the one to pay the price if you didn't keep your oath.”
The truth hit her with sudden terrifying knowledge. “Xena. Solon.” Her legs went weak and she sank to the ground in despair. “This is all my fault. All of it, its all my fault.”
He started pacing, his face set in furious lines. “So now that the world is crashing down around my ears, I have only one question for you: Why?”
She shrugged, suddenly so unsure of everything. “I thought it was the only thing I could do. I thought she'd stop me.” Tears fell down in silence as she realized just how foolish this all sounded, even to her.
He looked at her incredulous at the selfish admission. “And your oath?”
She shook her head. “I never gave it a thought.”
Furious, he started pacing again. “Mortals are such fools.” He threw his hands in the air and muttered angrily to himself.
Gabrielle gave him a desperate look. “Isn't there any way to fix this?”
“Take it all back? Bring Solon back? Undo what you did?” His voice was almost snide, his face set in a dark sneer at the very idea of it.
She sighed. “When you put it like that, it sounds kind of selfish.”
“To say the least.”
She sat there for several moments, a dark wave of despair washing over her. There was nothing she could do, nothing that could be done to undo what her foolish heart had caused. If she could just go back and do it all over again. If she could just go back and be more honest with herself and with Xena, maybe then none of this would be happening. If she could just....but she couldn't and despite everything she knew that. It was over and all of it could be laid at her feet.
She began sobbing quietly as the guilt pressed down on her once more. This was it then, the end of something that had once brought her so much joy and hope. If only she could somehow give Xena back what she had lost.
Her mind suddenly racing, her tears and grief forgotten, she reached out and grabbed Hades' robe in a desperate grip. “Take me.”
He couldn't hide his surprise at her sudden desperate demand. “What?”
“Take me instead. Don't let Solon pay for the mistake I made.”
He shook his head slowly. “I can't.”
“Please.” Tears began flowing again as she tried to make him see it was the only way.
More forcefully. “I can't. Solon's fate was sealed long ago by a curse before he was ever born; before you ever knew Xena.”
Crestfallen and devastated, she let her hands fall.“So there's nothing I can do.”
“No but there is something I can do.” He reached down to help her to her feet again.
Puzzled she didn't fight him. “But you just said...”
He shook his head, touching her shoulder, trying to calm her. “No, I can't bring Solon back and I can't undo what happened with Hope. But I can do something that will let the two of you find a way past it. I can quiet the demon inside her, the darker part of herself that is now in control. It may be enough for you to reach her heart and remind her she loves you.”
She snorted at the very idea, her tone dry and sarcastic “And what do you expect us to do? Hash this out over tea and cookies?” .
Angered by her flippant tone, he shook her slightly. “Don't you get it, the two of you have to be together, whether in life or in death. I can't allow you to be separated; for any reason. Not even one of your own making.”
Getting annoyed herself, she slapped his hands away. “So you're going to force us to reconcile, force us to somehow forgive each other for the terrible wrong we've done to each other?” And while she knew it was not wise to anger the God of the Underworld, the audacity of what he said angered her beyond belief.
He shook his head, something in him deflating at his admission. “No, I can't force you. Even the Gods can't fight free will. But I can give you a chance, one chance to find your way back to each other. To find a way to forgive each other. If it doesn't work, if you can't find the path back home, you'll both die.” He turned his pleading eyes on her. “Do you accept my terms?”
She snorted again. “Do I really have a choice?” The dark god was silent. “Then I guess you know my answer.” She paused for a moment wonder just what this favor might cost either her or Xena in the future. Only fools made deals with the gods thinking there was no fine print and she was certainly no fool. “Why are you doing this Hades?”
Surprised at her question, he gave her the only only answer he could. “Because I've seen what the world would become without you by her side, helping her, guiding her. It is not a friendly place.” He shuddered for a moment at the thought. “Just remember Gabrielle, you are her light. If you remember nothing else about our little talk, remember that. Without you she is lost. And if she is lost, the world is lost.”
Whatever response she might have made to that harsh remark was lost as he gave her a sudden violent shove. Unable to catch herself, she fell to the ground, into the mist. It covered her, enveloping her in a soft, hazy cocoon. And just when she thought it strange that she had not hit something solid yet, she found herself violently shoved back into her body.
She took a harsh, painful breath, pain ripping through her as Hades violently healed her body and tied her soul back into place. She started coughing, the ragged sound echoing harshly off the stone walls of the cave surrounding them. She sat up, trying to calm the cough and saw Xena kneeling near her, sobbing violently.
“Xena?” She reached out to touch the other woman and watched in disbelief as Xena jerked in shock at the sound of her voice. She looked up at her in complete and utter disbelief before grabbing her in a violent, fierce embrace.
“I killed you, I killed you!” Over and over again, the words were a rant, a mantra. As if somehow she were seeking to drive off an evil spirit or a bad memory.
Gabrielle stroked the other woman's back, soothing her, trying to reach past the hysteria. “Xena,”
Xena refused to listen to her, shaking her head, cutting her off. “No, dead, you can't be dead. Didn't mean to kill you. Only wanted to hurt you, make you hurt like I hurt. Never meant to kill you. Gods I only wanted to make someone hurt as bad inside as I do.” A small semblance of sanity began returning to the warrior's voice as she took control once more.
Fresh tears filled Gabrielle's eyes as she pulled back. “I hurt Xena, by the Gods do I hurt inside.” She reached up to wipe the tears from her lover's face.
Xena stilled her movements, grabbing the bard's hands with her own. She stared at them for a long moment, looking for something. “You killed him, you killed my son.” Her voice was flat, dead. The hollowness of it nearly broke the bard's heart.
She shook her head. Hope was her daughter and it was her fault that Hope had survived to find her way to the centaurs. She would always carry guilt in her heart for the role she had played in this tragedy. But it wasn't her hand that held the knife, or this case the poison that had taken the life of the son neither of them knew. “No Xena, Hope killed Solon.” The part of her that truly believed that was growing.
Puzzled blue eyes met hers. “But you killed Hope.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yes, I killed Hope.”
“Why Gabrielle, why did you let her live? I told you she was evil. I told you she meant us all harm.”
She felt tears fill her eyes. Hadn't she asked herself that a thousand times since all this began? And still there was no answer. In hindsight, the truth of Xena's fears had been perfectly clear, justified. But then, when she'd been little no more than a babe, it hadn't been so clear. Since the day she sent Hope away, there'd been no regrets. There'd been fears and doubts and prayers that somehow she would be more than her birth had foretold but no regrets. Until she'd killed Solon; until Hades told her the truth. Now, now there were plenty of regrets.
But she didn't need that reminder from Xena now; not the tired argument they'd had between them until Gabrielle had faked Hope's death. There was more than enough blame and hurt to go around on this one. She stood, pulling away from Xena, truly angry for the first time in a long time. “How could you ask me that? How, knowing who I am? Knowing how I felt? It was so unfair that you asked me that, so unfair that you just expected me to hand her over to you to be slaughtered. She was my child! My child ! I couldn't kill her. Not like that, not when she was a baby; no matter how she was conceived, no matter who her father was, she was still a part of me. I just couldn't believe that anything there was a part of me could do something so horrible.”
“But you did; you killed Meridian.”
That quiet truth took the wind right out of her sails. “Yes, I did. But I thought I was defending a friend; I thought I was doing the right thing.” She gave the warrior a wan smile. “We were both so blinded by our own convictions that we ignored that both of us were right.”
“For what it's worth Gabrielle, I wanted so much for you to be right. I didn't want her to be evil.” Xena stepped closer, extending the olive branch between them.
Gabrielle nodded, fresh tears stinging her eyes as she felt hope for the first time since the whole mess began. “I never meant for Solon to get hurt. I loved him too.”
The taller woman nodded, unable to speak her throat suddenly tight. “I wish I could have been a mother to him; a real mother to him. I'd give anything for just one chance to do that.”
“I'm sorry you never got that chance.” The bard followed her instincts and wrapped her arms around the taller woman.
A second of hesitation and then Xena's arms did the same. “I'm sorry you never got that chance with Hope. Maybe if you had, she would have been better somehow.”
“I don't know Xena; I don't think we ever will.” She thought for a minute. “Do you still want to kill me?”
Xena shook her head violently. “No. Gods no. I thought I wanted you dead; thought it would make the pain go away.” She pulled away her heart in her throat.
“But it didn't.”
Again that violent head shake. “No, it just got worse. Because all I could think of was that I'd killed the only person who ever understood me. The only person who ever really knew me. I threw it all away and there was no way to get that back.”
Gabrielle reached up to touch her face gently, a sad, knowing smile on her face. “I thought I wanted to be dead. Turns out we were both wrong.”
“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I didn't listen to you about Hope. I'm so sorry Solon paid for my mistake. I wish it'd been me instead.” The heartfelt words poured out of her, needing to be said, needing to be heard. Even if it hurt her more for them having been said.
Xena knew what it cost her lover to admit she'd been wrong about Hope. Knew from experience just how much saying it cost. Something changed inside her, settled back into place as the pain around her heart began to ease. For the first time since she'd walked into the hut to find Solon's lifeless body, she began to feel less; less grief, less hurt, less rage. The healing wasn't over, not by a long shot but it was beginning.
She took a deep breath and shared something with the bard she'd never even admitted out loud before. “Its funny, I spent all of his life wondering what he was like, dreaming about the man he'd grow up to be and telling myself he was safe where he was because no one knew he was my son. I wasted all that time trying to protect him and it didn't work.” She reached out to caress Gabrielle's hair. “And what did I tell you to do when Hope was born? Kill her, destroy her, deny her. She's the daughter of Dahak; nothing good could come from that. I wanted you to repeat my own mistakes. And I was wrong Gabrielle; so very very wrong to ask you to kill her.”
Gabrielle gave her a slight nod in understanding. The warrior's admission had come very dear for both of them. “We were both wrong. And we've both paid for it.”
“So where do we go from here?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe take it slow and see what happens. Maybe one day we can forgive each other and ourselves.”
But that wasn't enough for Xena, taking it one day at a time. Always waiting, always wondering if today was the day they somehow found their way back to the way they had been. Living a pale shadow of the existence they'd once known, too frightened and unsure of each other to fight for more. Always wondering if today was the day when it would no longer be enough for one of them and it broke between them.
That just would not do. Not at all. And so, Xena did the one thing she knew would prove to both of them just how serious she was about making it work. “Marry me.” Her words were soft but steady and her eyes never wavered. In her arms, Gabrielle went still and silent, her face blank and unsure, searching Xena's face.
The bard's mind raced trying to find the right words for the moment, unwilling to injure her lover further with careless words or intentions. But for once her brilliantly poetic mind failed her. All that came out was an astonished “What?” The flash of hurt in those beloved cerulean eyes told her more than any bit of temper could that she had just failed miserably.
Xena pulled away, her arms dropping to her sides as she tried to put some distance between them, trying to close herself back off. “You don't want to.”
The bard reached out, touching Xena's arm, desperate to repair the hurt her brainless mouth had caused. Unwilling to let the taller woman pull back into herself again. “No, Xena its just that I never thought...never dared hope...” she took a deep breath, taking the time to collect her thoughts before she spoke again, before she managed to hurt their still so fragile bond. “With everything that's just happened between us, I never thought we'd be where are now. I had no hope you would ever love me again, let alone want to marry me.”
“But you've thought about it before, before everything went bad?” The hope in her voice was unmistakeable.
Gabrielle stepped closer, touching her gently. “Of course I have. I love you and from the moment we finally admitted how we felt about each other, I was hoping we might get to this point.” She paused, not really willing to revisit what had killed that dream between them.
Xena had no such compunctions. “But then Solon died.”
Despite herself, she flinched. “And I had to kill my own daughter.” But she knew that wasn't the only reason. The truth was, now that she knew the real reason behind the tragedy, she felt soiled by what her selfishness had caused. No longer worthy of the warrior's love. “And things were so messed up, all because I did something so stupid, so wrong and you ended up paying for it.”
“Gabrielle, what are you talking about?”
The bard took a deep breath. “Solon dying was my fault. And not just because Hope killed him.” She was terrified to tell her the truth, terrified what Xena might think of her once she realized just what had caused this terrible hurt between them. But there really wasn't any other way. It had to come out.
“I don't understand.”
“You remember when I was hurt during the Thessalian/Mitoan war?” She chuckled though her tears. “Of course you remember, I died in your arms.”
She ignored the interruption, her mind going back, back to that terrible day when she had been forced to make a hard choice that would affect both their lives so terribly. “I did, I actually died. I even met Hades. He told me some scary stuff, about us, about our future. He even got me to admit how much I loved you.”
Despite the gravity, Xena couldn't help but chuckle at that image. “Bet that took some doing, even then.”
Gabrielle smiled slightly but then sobered as she continued. “It was so scary, I could hear your thoughts so clearly. You were so...hurt inside. All you could think of was making someone else, anyone else hurt as bad as you. You were so focused on me, that I was gone and then you turned that focus on getting me back and it was so very scary. And I knew that you would do it too. So did Hades. The fact that you could do what you threatened scared him, a lot. So much so, that before he sent me back he made me swear an oath that I would never willingly leave you.” Not the truth but close enough to the truth to suffice. She would never tell her that despite the warrior's fire side promise to her, she could and would very easily become lost once more.
A light of understanding. “You broke that promise.”
She nodded jerkily. “Yes, when I married Perdicus.” Her eyes filled with new tears and she was filled with frustration at everything; what she'd done, why she'd done it and the entire terrible situation. “I was such an idiot, so desperate for you to love me I never gave it a thought. And you paid the price of it.”
Xena reached out, taking the shorter woman by the shoulders until, reluctantly, green eyes met fervant blue. “Gabrielle, you listen to me, Solon dying had nothing to do with your promise to Hades. He was killed because of who he was, because of who I am.”
She shook her head. “Would his death have driven us apart if it had been anyone else that killed him?”
“But we're together again. We worked all this out.” She gave Gabrielle a searching look. “Didn't we? Aren't we?” For a moment, she sounded like a young child asking her parents to check for monsters in the closet and under her bed.
She sounded so unsure, so vulnerable that Gabrielle felt even worse for making her doubt the truth even for a moment. “By the Gods yes. I've seen what my life would be without you and I don't ever want to spend another moment like that again.”
“Then marry me.”
Her lip quivered as she tried to simply just give in. But she just couldn't. Not now, not when she was no longer what Xena needed her to be. “I want to, Gods know I want to. But I can't.”
For a moment, the taller woman simply stared at her, her eyes filled with fresh hurt. Then, Gabrielle watched as she simply gathered the shattered pieces of her heart and shoved them back inside. Her eyes shuttered and she pulled herself away, shutting herself down once more. Without a word she turned to leave.
Behind her, Gabrielle frantically tried to stop her. “Wait Xena, wait.”
She threw angry words back at the shorter woman as she stomped from the cave. “You love me but you run off to marry Perdicus. You love me but you won't admit it until I've died. You love me but you won't marry me because my son died.” She whirled around, angry and hurt and fed up with both of their excuses. “When does it end Gabrielle? When do you stop letting someone else dictate how you're going to live your life?”
Gabrielle had to take a step back to keep from colliding with her. “I'm not! I'm just trying to keep you from getting hurt.”
“This is how you protect me? By breaking my heart?” She pounded her chest.
“I never meant to do that.” The words were a whisper in the face of the warrior's rage.
“Gabrielle, I love you! You are everything to me. I can't imagine ever living my life without you by my side.”
“We don't need to be married to do that.”
“But I want the commitment!” That deceleration startled them both. “I want us to stand up in front of our family and friends and make promises to each other so that everyone understands what you are to me and how much you mean to me.” She stepped closer. “ Everyone , Gabrielle.”
“I never knew, never realized.” She snorted as she remembered just why she never realized how the warrior had felt. “How could I when every time I tried to get you to admit how you felt, you lied to protect me. Told me you could never have a family because your enemies would use them against you. You gave me that excuse the first time we met Solon and you told me he was your son.”
“And look how well that worked out! I was wrong Gabrielle. Wrong to deny you and what you felt. Wrong to lie to myself about my own heart. I love you so much and every day we spent apart was agony for me. I had no idea what hurt me worse, the loss of Solon or you. And I am not going to spend the rest of my life with you having you doubt that or your place in my life. I can't do that to you.” Still she didn't looked convinced. “Don't you see? Without you I am nothing, I am lost. I might as well just find somewhere to hold up in and wait for it to end.”
“But I can't be what you need anymore. I can't be your light anymore. I'm just too dark inside for that.” She was frantic.
Giving her a soft smile, Xena reached out and cupped her face in both of her powerful hands. Hands that earlier simply wanted to maim and kill and now only wanted to heal and protect. “Maybe you don't have to be my light this time. Maybe this time I can be your light.”
She wanted to, the Gods knew she did. Everything in her screamed at her to simply let go and just follow her heart. And she wondered just why in the world she was fighting them so much. Was she so unsure of Xena's love? So unsure of her own? Maybe that was their true problem, that they kept trying to protect each other from what they were feeling and in the end they only ended up hurting themselves so much more. Maybe it was time to stop, time to just stop.
And once she stopped thinking about it, once she stopped trying to make sense of it all, it became all so clear. There really was only one answer she could give Xena. The keeper of her soul, the champion of her heart. And so with a glad heart she gave it, freely and willingly. “Gods yes. Yes!”
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