Title: Archway

Summary: Shortly after Xena’s death, a cynical and mourning Gabrielle comes to the understanding that even the most horrible stories can come true. Stagnant, she tries to find purpose in a life without Xena.

Sex: None.

Violence: Extremely mild. There are descriptions of injuries.

Spoilers: This story takes place post-finale, so the biggest spoiler of all is exposed, naturally.

Disclaimer: The characters Xena and Gabrielle were originally imagined by the creators of the television show, Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena: Warrior Princess™ is the copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Use of this material, including the likeness of its characters and any material pertaining to Xena: Warrior Princess, is for personal use and entertainment only, and not for personal gain. There is no intent to infringe upon copyright or trademark. The creators of this project are not affiliated with, and do not represent any of the actors, companies, or organizations associated with Xena: Warrior Princess. All other original characters and stories in this series are copyright © Gili Estlin Hirsch 2019.

Contact: gilihirschwrites@gmail.com and https://xenarevival.wordpress.com





Gabrielle was in the hold of the ship, and the urn was in her hand, and her other hand was holding onto a rope. And the rope felt scratchy. She thought about that a lot. The rope was scratchy. It was poking tiny holes in her skin as it came undone, and her hand was bound around it so tightly, that her knuckles turned white, and it dug more and more into her skin, and then she turned her hand twice so that the rope would push harder, and her knuckles would turn more white, and she pressed and pressed and pressed. Like a little execution for her hand. She was missing the gallows.

Xena’s dead” was a thing. Xena’s dead was a thing that she’s heard before. Xena got dead all the time. And Gabrielle would find her and breathe into her mouth or bring water out of her lungs or cast magic into her or around her and she’d be back. But now Xena was resting, all of her, in the palm of her hand, lovely and fine like a butterfly, and she made it a promise to keep the urn upright at all times, with the ebb and flow of the water, the creaking of the ship. Her knuckles were still bound in her little hand noose when she thought,

I should write.”

Gabrielle thought that a lot. It was usually an exclamation point kind of thought. “I should write!” when a moment happened, when Xena did something extraordinary again, when the gods themselves fell at her feet, when she battled an army on her own. Gabrielle tugged harder at the rope she was holding. This “I should write” was a different “I should write;” the ending, she thought, I should write the ending, and then she saw Xena’s headless body hanged before her and she folded at her middle and vomited and didn’t care and sat back upright and shook her head fast-fast-fast-fast, as if she could throw the sight off of her if only the centrifugal force of her mind would be enough. When she was a kid she’d stand and spin for hours and then shake her head like that, and the buzz from the loss of balance was intoxicating and sweet and she would giggle and fall to the grass.

Her hand was turning blueish. It was an interesting color.

If she was going to write, she was going to need her hands, she thought. She’d have to put the urn away and she’d have to pardon her hand from its sentence, death by hanging. She’d have to open a fresh scroll and smell new ink and set in letters what had just happened. There was so much in that thought that she hated. She didn’t want a new scroll or new ink or a pardon or to seal in writing the fate of the warrior princess. When she was younger she studied under any storyteller she could find and they’d all tell her: stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, like an archway, like a bridge, and if you’re a good storyteller, the listener won’t look to the sides to see the view or up to see the structure but just walk with you until the slope ended.

Because you promised them.

She tugged at the rope harder. Her hand hurt a lot. A tear rolled down her cheek. Nothing that didn’t happen before. A heartfelt and extremely commendable speech on the deck of the ship, she thought, and she thought it with contempt, the image of Xena that joined her, the sealed look on her face.

Xena’s dead.

There’s no air in Gabrielle’s lungs to save her now. There’s no air in Gabrielle’s lungs at all, she thought. She held a breath for a bit and her nostrils flared. And then she pulled at the rope again. It was attached to a chest that was anchored to the wooden structure of the ship, but she was so strong that it budged a little, and she thought that maybe she could move it, and with her breath still held and her hand still entangled she pulled as hard as she could at the rope and when it finally moved let out a howl that sounded across the ship, presumably across the ocean, and it almost made out the word, “no,” but it didn’t, and she pulled and pulled and her cries of pain seemed like they couldn’t get louder—but they did—and turned from hurt to sorrow to unbound, undiluted, unbelievable fury—and then suddenly she felt blood rushing to her numb hand again as it landed on the ground with a thud—

She had torn the rope.

*

The ship docked at Aegina. Every move Gabrielle made caused her pain. It was cold, and she was shaking but her one hand, the one that held the urn, wasn’t. It was still and dry and steady and cradled like an odd creature that needed to be kept warm constantly. Her throat was sore, and hand marked. She stood and stood. Then she started walking. She told Xena she’d go to the south, but she didn’t want to go to the south. She’d have to put down the urn to go to the south and she didn’t want to put down the urn. So, she walked. And she passed a bridge, and she looked to the sides of it, and it seemed so tall and steep and certain and welcoming, and her hand was still returning to its natural color. She walked past a tavern and a marketplace and then a row of homes—nicely built, the port town was doing well—and then into woods, and kept walking, and she thought, maybe I could reach the end of the earth, and then she thought, that wouldn’t be fair, I promised to do that with someone, and she held her breath again and clenched her fist. And she was sorry she didn’t have a rope.

Her legs were buckling under her dozens of hours later. She was in the woods but close to the sea, but had no idea where she was, because she didn’t care, and if she had wanted to know, she would know, and she had invented a game and was concentrated on playing it anyway, so directions served no purpose at this point. She’d clench her fist and dig her nails into her skin, the game was, and hold her breath, and see what came first—blood from her hand or her body’s wretched response to force her to breathe. Whatever the outcome, she’d just start all over again. She didn’t like that her body made her breathe. That was against the greater good, she thought. The greater good means you have the will to choose, and Gabrielle wanted to choose to not breathe, but her body wouldn’t let her, and she thought about that, and about the rope, and wished she had taken some rope with her—it would have been easy to do—because she knew enough ways to beat her body in this game and draw blood and stop breath faster and with no wait needed. But then she thought that would be an act against the greater good, as well. That’d be cheating. Gabrielle didn’t cheat, she went the whole way, no rounded corners, no shortcuts. There are no shortcuts in life, Xena told her once when she was attempting swordplay and nicked her arm. No way to avoid the cut if you want to swing the sword—not really—but then Xena’s eyes turned concerned, the way they always did when something happened to Gabrielle, their icy reflection changed and the corner of her mouth rose, and she bandaged the wound more than was necessary, and ordered Gabrielle to stop with her training, and at that time Gabrielle stomped her foot and sat down with an angry sigh, and now when she was walking she knew what she would have seen if she had looked at Xena’s face—

A scratch to the arm or a lava pit, the expression was the same: this shockingly naive understanding that something could ever have happened to something so whole. One would think the Destroyer of Nations would be used to seeing innocence split and slain, but for reasons unbeknownst to her then—when her hair was long and arms untrained still in swordplay and hand-to-hand combat—when it came to Gabrielle, Xena was insistent that nothing could ever happen, murderous in her protectiveness, and if someone had dared to defy her, the game of revenge was open and by all means fair, as far as she was concerned.

But Gabrielle didn’t know all those things then. She learned them later, simply a side effect of the arduous, heavenly study of your partner as you watch them every day, every line, every frown, each expression and parting of the mouth of downcast gaze, each heavily drawn breath, and what each meant, and then later, how to draw the breaths—the intended ones—and the gaze and the parting of the mouth. And she learned more, after—how to cause the back to arch and the head to rest, the muscles to rest, to move, she learned like a master how, without words, to push apart thighs and raise pink heat to cheeks, how to change the expression of pretense of normalcy to the pain behind it, and then to no pain at all. Her mouth learned, her eyes learned. Her hands learned. Her hands.

There were only small marks left from her game on her hand. She resented that. She clenched her fist again, to keep the mark, but then stopped, understanding it would never stay there for good—not unless she made it stay there—and it angered her, it angered her that her body wouldn’t let her simply mark what she had wanted to mark, and stop what she had wanted to stop, and then she was angry that the chest in the hold of the ship wasn’t heavier, and then angrier when she thought of the ship even sailing, and angrier at the wind that pushed its sails, and her stride was becoming faster and louder and heavier and she did or did not notice, and her breath audible, and then she was running or walking very fast, and then she yelled. She didn’t know what to yell, so she cried out in frustration since that angered her even more, and her mouth pursed in anger when she thought of burning Xena’s body, and angrier even when she thought of Yodoshi, surprised even—then thankful—that the body that refused to let her stop breathing allowed her such rage, small marks on a wall, each she knocked down with burning wrath; the tattoo on her back, the silky feeling of the robe she was dressed in, the fountain.

The fountain.

She must have been walking past the rise and fall of a moon at least twice, but she stopped then, and her small body was trembling with ferocious, fervent fury, whole and complete, and she allowed herself finally to whisper in herself, to herself, why, that she was betrayed, that she should have been worth more than forty-thousand, or forty-million, souls. That she should have been worth more than that after the journeys and the cuts and the parting of the thighs and of the mouth and the arch of the back and the archway of the story.

And she set the urn down.

And sat.

*

Gabrielle’s hair grew fast. Her parents were always commenting on it, how different it was from Lila’s dark wavy locks, beautiful yellow, like corn and the sun, but untamed, wild, and her mother had to cut it every few weeks to keep it from bothering Gabrielle.

Now it was late summer, and her hair was down to her shoulders. Almost. A different location—her old home in Potidaea; a different set of clothes—a faded green dress with sleeves down to the elbows and tied over it a white apron with frilled edges; but the same Gabrielle. The same urn. And the same fury.

When she finally had to go someplace she went to the place she first called home, like a stray cat. She said nothing to her sister and her second husband, or to her niece. She was kind to them and her sweet smile adorned her face always. They wouldn’t know it stopped at its edges, her eyes still burning with a kind of wrath of a gathering storm. And life rolled as they did, and her niece was engaged now, and she reacted the way a good storyteller knew how, with the right lines and greetings and hugs, and her muscles were always clenched and she spoke in her sleep, if she slept, and made jokes of it and then threw punches against the branches of trees or—even better—walls of stone.

The evening was slowly rising, or falling, upon the house. It occurred to Gabrielle that, ever since she had put the urn down, it sat with equal distance to her always when she sat like this, which was every day. She told her sister she was ruminating on the events of the day, and stroked her lined face and kissed her cheek, and when she knew no one was looking she got up slowly, gathering the urn, and started walking.

There were woods near the house. Quite a big land of woods. What does one do when a fire devours a blanket, say? Pour water on it, and if the water did not stop it, and it devours a home —gather people to aid in ending the flames, and if the people could not control it, what would one do when a fire consumes a whole forest? She’s given this quite a bit of thought. Could she find happiness in her life. Was there any happiness left in her at all. What was life if not the life she had lived and loved. And is it needed, particularly, to keep on living, to let your body stop you from holding your breath or wounding your palm, if the choice you had to make for life was the second choice.

Gabrielle was in the woods now, and it was dark, and she could make out sounds and shapes, but not anything clear—how apt, she thought. And she released her sai from where it was tucked under the cut of her dress. It pressed against her heart when she laid it there in the morning, and she found that fitting, so she decided to let it press at her heart again, just from a different angle. And she was examining its blade when she heard a terrified scream, and then her name—and then again—and it passed through her mind very briefly that it surprised her that the fire had not consumed enough so that she’d still come running when called in distress.

The sounds were from the house—from the entryway—Lila, grey hair tucked under her ear, was holding onto a figure covered in cloth that was stained with blood and mud, and Gabrielle’s hearing went fuzzy. She saw her sister say her name and thought, I should really go see what this is. But instead she dropped her sai on the ground and ran to where she stood a moment before in the forest. The urn was on the ground. The same distance from her it always was. Like trickling water on flames, her whole body turned. She opened the container and flipped it.

It was empty.

*

It took Gabrielle a few tries, but she eventually managed to run back to the house, where Lila stood. But she couldn’t walk any further when she’d reached three or four steps from the entryway.

Gabrielle, come here,” her sister ordered, the learned order of a mother, and Gabrielle stood in place. Wouldn’t it be funny, she thought, if her breath constricted her now, when she was trying to breathe.

No,” Gabrielle mouthed. She was going to say it, but she mouthed it instead.

Gabrielle, come here now!” her sister yelled. And Gabrielle’s heel moved forward, and she faltered to the ground and shook her head again fast-fast-fast and clenched her fist—but the cloth and the figure and her sister were still there. So, she walked forward. Lila’s mouth was agape, and Gabrielle was moving in an opposite direction to her blood flow; slowly, steadily. She got down on her knees. She knew how tall Xena was. She’d studied it. The robe on her was filled with blood that was her own. She knew what it looked like. Her trembling hands moved the fabric off of Xena’s face; she found nothing unfamiliar there, though Lila gasped in horror. Cuts and scratches and blood, some trickling down Xena’s nose, some from her mouth, a gash on her forehead and a wound on her neck that was bleeding profusely. She’d studied all of those.

Gabrielle,” Lila said, panicked, but Gabrielle kept moving slowly; she moved more of the burlap that was wrapped around Xena and thought that she saw nothing there she did not see before. Deep cuts and bruises, a broken leg—by the shape of it—the hollow of an arrow to one shin. She let her finger trail up from there to Xena’s stomach, where her leather suit was drenched in blood, and then to her beaten arms and neck, and she let the blood there wash over her fingers and her face was sealed, and she thought she heard Lila say her name again, and again, but she moved her hand to Xena’s face finally, and ran a hand on her bleeding lips, and down the curve of her nose, and then she felt struck by a force like that chest in the hold of the ship, but without pulling a rope;

A wave.

That’s what it would take to burn out such a fire.

Gabrielle, get her inside!”

All of Gabrielle’s numb muscles of the inside and the outside jolted to life with one blow of an odd kind of invisible electricity. Her breath became audible as her jaw dropped, and a second later, when her instincts returned to their lost place from two years ago, she shook the fabric off Xena and rested one hand below her knees and one below her back, cradling the back of her neck, and was about to lift her, and Xena’s eyes opened for a moment.

And when they did, all of Gabrielle’s studies and archways and storytelling and running, and ropes and ships and fists and sais, and fire, all her fire, landed on her with a blow at the same time and turned off completely, and she cried out, “Xena!” and her voice was feral and Lila was startled, and Gabrielle lifted Xena up and Xena’s dark hair dangled down from her grip and Gabrielle looked at it and thought nothing at all except of bandages and salves, and carried Xena into the house.

*

Clear the table,” she barked at Lila. “Now.”

Lila simply moved whatever rested on the wooden table with one motion of her arm, and Gabrielle placed Xena there. Bandages. Water. There’s essence of calendula. Honey. Blankets. She ordered—not asked—for all these things, and Lila nodded and ran, returning occasionally with one or two of the items. When she brought in the blankets, Gabrielle’s hands moved as if on their own, but her gaze was fixated on Xena’s eyes.

Good,” Gabrielle said when she lifted Xena’s head to rest on a folded blanket to support it. “Lift your head,” she said. “Good girl.”

Xena wasn’t unconscious. She tried to lick her lips, and Gabrielle dipped her hand in the clean water and traipsed it over Xena’s mouth.

No, no,” she said quietly when Xena tried to move. “You have to stay just like this. Okay?”

Xena attempted a nod; her eyes were barely open. But they were. And it was enough for the unearthly blue to shine out of them when Gabrielle looked.

Good,” Gabrielle smiled. She smiled with her eyes, and she chuckled, a strange combination of relief and frantic worry. She lowered herself over Xena’s body, wrapped it in blankets wherever her hands weren’t patching a wound. She had a clean wet bandage in her hand and she scanned Xena’s face, unsure where to start. She chose her neck, as it was bleeding the most. She looked it over. Sword. But it missed any arteries, by some dumb luck, or, as she knew Xena, strategy. She cleaned the wound and her fingers kept watch over Xena’s pulse point, and Gabrielle felt it whenever Xena breathed. And with every breath she felt little flames of fire leave her, one by one.

Xena tried to lift her head.

No,” Gabrielle said. She held Xena’s head in her hands. “Shh.” Gabrielle cleaned wounds and the floor was covered in pieces of cloth drenched in blood.

Gabrielle,” Xena managed.

Hi,” Gabrielle said. She tilted Xena’s head back to stop the bleeding from her nose.

Gabrielle—”

Shh,” Gabrielle said. She looked down and saw Xena was trying to lift her arm. She held her hand, weaving their fingers together, and Xena nodded, and without being told she knew what Xena wanted, and she gently brought Xena’s arm to rest on her own shoulder, and lowered herself and buried her face in Xena’s neck, creating a strange, broken, beaten embrace between them.

It’s going to be alright,” Gabrielle whispered. Her mouth was right by Xena’s ear. Her left hand was still pressing down on Xena’s neck when she said it, and she felt Xena attempt a nod again, and moved her hand to rest on Xena’s forehead. Gabrielle tried to lift herself up slowly to place a fresh bandage on Xena’s neck, but Xena used the little force she had to keep Gabrielle in place. Gabrielle felt hot tears—not her own—dampening her cheeks.

Whatever it is you want to say,” Gabrielle whispered, stroking Xena’s face wherever there was an unbloodied space. “I’m not going anywhere. And neither are you.”

*

Gabrielle rested her back against the cold wall—it felt nice. It’s been getting warmer, and Xena’s body was warm where it was placed on her—Xena’s neck cradled in her lap, asleep, finally. They’ve been like this for over a day. It took Gabrielle hours to clean the blood from Xena’s body, and then she turned to apply salves and ointments where she needed to, and then she stitched the bigger cuts, and applied salves on those, and bandaged Xena’s leg, and managed to get her to drink some water before she placed honey, then water, on her chapped lips.

Xena kept trying to move, and Gabrielle fairly quickly learned how to keep her in place; she’d lower herself over her body again, promising she wasn’t going away. After all the herbs and tinctures and bandages and blankets were used, spread and knocked over across the kitchen, and Xena’s entire body was bandaged and cleaned, Lila leaned against a doorframe and watched her sister bend down to lift Xena again. It impressed her she did so with such little effort. She didn’t know, didn’t see, didn’t study every day, Gabrielle’s gained strength, her tactical knowledge, her intense concentration.

When Gabrielle placed Xena on her childhood bed, the brunette resisted in whatever way her nearly paralyzed body allowed her—she let out a sigh and clenched her fist, trying to move. Gabrielle rested a hand on Xena’s forehead while she reached for a blanket, looking away.

Just for a second,” she said, and Xena let out a sound that sounded like a whimper, and Gabrielle realized suddenly all of her anger and fury and fire turned, or had been replaced, or were, in the first place, longing and aching and a shattered heart. She rushed to Xena’s side as soon as the brunette made a sound.

What?” Gabrielle whispered. Xena tried to talk again. Tears rolled down her cheeks when she couldn’t, but her fingers grabbed Gabrielle’s wrists. They left little nail marks there, and Gabrielle shook her head at that, and opened her palm, which was free of any marks, and thanked someone without saying a word, and then got closer to Xena.

What?” she repeated, and Xena just shook her head, her tired eyes begging for something. Gabrielle grabbed some blankets and wrapped them around Xena. She couldn’t tell what Xena wanted when the taller woman writhed in her arms, and then again, without being told, she suddenly realized what she could do—she shed her dress and washed her hands and face, wrapped a blanket around herself, and then slid carefully to sit on the edge of the bed, facing forward, where Xena’s head rested. She moved herself forward a little, and, supporting Xena’s neck and back with strong arms, pulled the brunette to rest in her lap; Xena immediately settled, drawing in a deep breath, and when Gabrielle adjusted her body, Xena’s hand dug into her thigh.

No,” Xena said.

She rested her hand on Xena’s.

Just getting comfortable,” Gabrielle said, and when she finally found a spot where she was both comfortable enough to sleep and convinced no pressure was being applied on any of Xena’s wounds, she exhaled, and let her hand stay over Xena’s hand, and Xena for the first time released her clenched muscles, and the full weight of Xena’s torso and head rested on Gabrielle.

Sleep now,” Gabrielle told her, and remembered the time she had said that last, and shook her head—but not fast-fast-fast—and stroked Xena’s forehead again and again until they both fell asleep.

*

Gabrielle felt a strange tickle on her arm—she opened her eyes quickly, her hand still on Xena’s forehead, and looked down. It was just Xena’s finger. Xena could lift her head now, and her arms, and her index finger touched Gabrielle’s arm when Xena was grabbing it. Four days of bandage changing, coaxing Xena to eat and drink, applying salves on her wounds, replacing the sheet she slept in, and every time Gabrielle had to rise from the bed— “No” —and every time— “Just for a second” —and then Xena would go back to sleep.

Now she was blinking at Gabrielle. There was some color in her cheeks—not very much of it—and her bruises had darkened, cuts slowly mended. Xena’s hair was splayed in Gabrielle’s lap, and Gabrielle played with it. Xena seemed pleased in her current position but tried to move back when she wanted to stare into Gabrielle’s eyes.

Mmm?” Gabrielle murmured. Xena’s hand was searching for something. “What?”

Where’s your hand?” Xena said. Her voice was hoarse.

Right here,” Gabrielle whispered. She lowered Xena’s arm to her side and locked both their hands together, fingers weaved. She felt Xena’s body calm down.

Okay,” Xena said. Gabrielle chuckled and rested her head back again.

How do you feel?” Gabrielle said. She wanted to move a strand of hair from Xena’s face but kept her hand where it was.

Xena raised an eyebrow. Wrapped in a white sheet and a grey blanket, she looked almost angelic, letting her body rest completely. Gabrielle tried to think back to when she saw Xena rest her body even a little. She couldn’t think of a time.

Don’t say peachy,” Gabrielle warned. Xena stretched a little. She tightened her grip on Gabrielle, then turned her head so her face was buried in Gabrielle’s lap.

Scared?” Xena said or asked. Gabrielle couldn’t help what ended up being a cough of concern and an immediate jolt, releasing her hand from Xena’s and cupping the brunette’s face. She had to twist her body to look at Xena right side up.

What? Why? What’s happening?”

Xena blinked, and when she did, tears rolled down her cheeks—not of despair or pain the way they had before, but as an odd answer to Gabrielle’s question.

Not anything that will move me away from your arms.

Xena swallowed.

You want water?” Xena shook her head, and Gabrielle moved to get out of bed. Xena’s grip kept her where she was, one of her arms wrapped around Gabrielle’s hips, the other resting along her leg, Xena’s hand touching her thigh.

She’d certainly gained back a good amount of strength.

Not before I talk,” Xena said. Gabrielle stared at her face for a moment, then relented, moving her hand back to Xena’s forehead.

Why are you scared?” Gabrielle said. And her voice was so soft and so filled with concern that Xena tried to move even closer to her, and she turned Xena’s chin away from where it was nestled with a finger under her chin. Xena tried to start a few times, but only managed to breathe out. She started,

I—”

But that was the most she could say, and Gabrielle saw her face crumple, and without noticing mirrored the exact expression, sliding out of bed quickly, kneeling next to it and pulling Xena closer.

You’re crying? Don’t cry,” Gabrielle said, and a slew of memories—promises she had made to Xena when asked the same—made her face tickle.

You should be very angry with me,” Xena managed to say. Gabrielle knew they weren’t the words she had wanted to use. But sometimes, she knew—a true bard—the words will compel you.

Oh, I was,” Gabrielle said. She got up to sit on the bed, and Xena was strong enough already to sit up, and so only Xena’s hands, palms spread, rested on Gabrielle’s cheeks.

I never meant to leave you,” Xena said. Gabrielle nodded.

I should have trusted that you’d find a way to come back to me,” Gabrielle said. Her voice broke at the end of the sentence.

I didn’t mean to break my promise,” Xena said. Her voice sounded like a plea; Gabrielle moved closer to her in infinitesimal distances, without realizing, or even meaning to.

You didn’t.”

You don’t mean less to me than those—” Xena shook her head, “I was going to tell you something. Right in the morning, if we stayed in camp.” Xena was crying now, her lower lip quivering, and Gabrielle was struck with an odd sensation of lack of familiarity. She never wrote this. She never studied this, never knew Xena’s hands seeking her closer desperately, her cries intensifying when Gabrielle drew her into her arms. No one showed her this archway, she had never walked this bridge. But her hands were apt and prepared, one supporting Xena’s back, one wiping tears away from the brunette’s face.

Gabrielle, I’m sorry.”

Gabrielle pushed Xena back a bit—enough to look at her so her eyes would focus—

Xena? You were killed.”

I tried to come back to you as soon as I could—” Xena tried. Gabrielle’s brows furrowed.

Shh,” she managed. “Xena—”

Will you forgive me?” Xena said. She sounded like a little girl. Her body already seemed much more tired than when Gabrielle first sat next to her on the bed, when she was searching for Gabrielle’s fingers, and Gabrielle moved a hand to the nape of her neck, tightening her grip.

Is that what you’re scared of?” Gabrielle said. Only Xena could have heard it, her voice was so low. She felt Xena nod.

Oh,” Gabrielle managed. “I don’t—”

I chose something over you.” Xena pulled back, resting her forehead against Gabrielle’s. “I swore to you I’d never do that,” she whispered, and her face was marked with bruises and with tears, and she was about to say she was sorry again when Gabrielle felt something shift, as if a heartbeat was skipped in some faraway place, or the sky changed its mind very quickly. She took in Xena’s sight—beaten, exhausted, and understood suddenly that she had reached the end of the bridge, had walked through the archway—since she was no student of Xena’s tears as she was of her clenched jaw and gritted teeth, when one finally made way for the other, she understood. She understood that murderous rage in protection, that change in the ice of Xena’s eyes if anyone even dared near Gabrielle. How could someone hurt something so precious to her, something, to her—so pure?

Gabrielle cupped Xena’s face, careful not to press on any bruises, and leaned in to kiss her. She had meant for it to be a peck on the lips, maybe, but her former classes of the arching of the backs returned to her, except, this time, it was into her that Xena’s back arched, and Xena rested her hand on Gabrielle’s heart, and then moved it to pull her closer, and Gabrielle’s breath caught in her throat and she leaned in, trying to be mindful of injuries, losing the ability to, and all the air that was was the air between their mouths, and all the touch that was was their hands on each other, still at first, then moving, and they only parted when Xena inhaled sharply, her body still torn—torn in its flesh, torn in its choice between pain and the greatest peace she’d ever known.

Gabrielle’s cheek was hot when Xena pressed her own cheek against it.

Is that what you wanted to tell me that morning?” Gabrielle said. Her voice was shaking.

Yes,” Xena whispered, lowering her face so her lips landed on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

Are you still scared?” Gabrielle asked, unaware—and not caring—that her body was pressed against Xena’s infinitely harder and closer than she would have liked to as a healer.

Yes,” Xena murmured. She let her hands fall on the bed, and Gabrielle’s hands followed.

What if I told you I forgive you?” Gabrielle said. She lifted her hand and placed it so her thumb rested against Xena’s jaw, and then pushed the brunette back and lowered her own face —it was the one way she could think of to manage to break the touch so she could look at Xena’s eyes.

No,” Xena shook her head. It occurred to Gabrielle that if you’re a good enough storyteller, you’ll never know when your next story begins.

What if I told you we don’t have to go anywhere anymore?” Gabrielle said, her voice still heavy, “That we can settle down?”

Xena leaned back into their embrace. She forced her arm to rest on Gabrielle’s cheek, and Gabrielle’s hand supported hers right away. Gabrielle moved back on the bed, keeping her embrace with Xena.

That we can rest now? Together?”

Xena nodded.

You and me? Would you still be scared?”

No,” Xena said. She had stopped crying. “I wouldn’t.”

Gabrielle smiled. She lowered Xena back down onto the bed, leaning over her to kiss her cheek.

You have to sleep more,” she whispered in Xena’s ear, and the brunette shook her head. Gabrielle resumed her place at the top of the bed, raising Xena’s midriff so her head rested in Gabrielle’s lap. “Like this?”

Yes,” Xena said. Her body was heavy, but she remembered her original task—to find Gabrielle’s hand—and they sat like that for a few moments. Gabrielle felt a buzzing in her body but was pleased to stay like this while Xena rested. She figured the brunette was asleep when her own eyes closed.

What if I told you that I love you,” Xena said suddenly. Her voice was clear, her eyes still closed. “In love with you? That I have been since I saw you for the first time?”

Gabrielle let her eyes close, and stroked Xena’s forehead again, repeating their newfound routine, walking past their first, new archway.

I’d tell you you are a very bad student of literature.” Gabrielle placed another hand on Xena’s forehead. “Go to sleep.”