Author: Gili Estlin Hirsch

Title: A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

This story is certainly not ordinary fiction, so please read the disclaimers first. It’s not a story for everyone—not a cute rom-com with our beloved couple—but it is unusual in its depth, and certainly worth taking a look at and becoming invested in.

SYNOPSIS: Alt; There is no Callisto. The story takes place during Season Two. Gabrielle is married to Perdicus and has settled down in Potidaea. Xena, refusing to see her or admit she is hurt by and angry at her matrimony, embarks on a debaucherous, hedonistic binge, unable to stop her violent behavior from taking the forefront. In a short period of time, Xena neglects all responsibilities, including her promise for kindness and all that is good, which leaves her, mentally and physically, at rock bottom. When she finally encounters Gabrielle again, the two must admit the truth that, as it turns out, they have both been hiding.

DISCLAIMER AND TRIGGER WARNINGS: This story explores some pretty dark themes, including rape, suicide, alcohol abuse, extreme violence, and prostitution. It does not do so in a very detailed way most of the time, but those subjects are in it. There are multiple explicit sex scenes between two women in this story, and it explores sex in general in many ways—some more detailed and others less. To be clear: there are NO graphic depictions of rape of any kind, nor does a rape occur, but it is mentioned, and I do believe you always deserve a heads up about that. The suicide is not depicted in a graphic manner either.

There is a lot of sex in this story and a great deal of hurt and comfort, following a depiction of emotional and physical violence and abuse, part of which Xena engages in, and part of which she is a victim of.

This is not an “easy read,” a family friendly, or a short and fun fan fiction. It’s meant to go into the depths of Xena’s character as it was presented on the show during Season Two, and explore what it was in her that was so dark and that scared her so—what it was that Gabrielle stopped and prevented. The darkness that is found is dark indeed and the story therefore deals with many ADULT themes.

The quotes in the beginning of each chapter, as well as the title, are by poet John Keats.



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



See Chapter One for overall synopsis and disclaimer.



IX, Part II: The Turn of the Screw

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

 

Xena was asleep. Finally. Asleep almost before Gabrielle rose from between her legs, before her fingers untangled from their grip of Gabrielle’s hair. Her eyelids closed despite herself; she wanted to stay awake, to again experience their mixing tongues and hands and be Gabrielle’s fellow walker in this unknown territory. She wouldn’t admit to being exhausted when Gabrielle questioned her over and over again regarding her admitted, well, virginity, and stated that they were on even playing grounds there, and that Gabrielle was now ahead. “Not even Borias?” Gabrielle asked, her mouth on Xena’s thigh, and Xena shook her head—it was enough for her to see Gabrielle giggling, burying a smile in Xena’s healing skin, and she didn’t need, or want, to compose an answer. The truth was that she remembered sex mostly in nightmares, and that Gabrielle was healing her every unstitched wound, from before, too, from years ago, with her soft touch. Resting a mending tongue at the roof of her mouth, where many had penetrated when she was not willing, did not know, and thought to use sex as a weapon. It made her sick. Gabrielle felt it.

You okay?”

Xena nodded. She was shaking a little.

Everything was violence in the world I lived in before—and after,” she said, faltering, but Gabrielle just got up, took the blanket from the other bed in the room, wrapped it around both of them, and curled into Xena. “It was a thing I had,” Xena said. “Then it became the only thing I had left.”

Gabrielle shook her head.

Xena—”

No.” Xena shook her head. Gabrielle needed to know this—needed to, if she was going to understand the depth of her love, of her physical language of love, and her mind.

I think I have a switch that flips without you,” she said, hushed. “Before I knew you, and after—”

I left you,” Gabrielle completed the sentence.

I left you, I was going to say,” Xena continued, nodding. “It was like love wasn’t…like it didn’t exist. Not even in the ideas of the grand poets, mmm?” She tucked a stray wisp of blonde hair behind Gabrielle’s ear. “It was a currency, or a means to control, or to…act.”

Act as a commander?”

Act as a commander, act as a leader, act as a murderer. I don’t know.” A tear rolled down Xena’s cheek and she smiled, and laughed, embarrassed, and Gabrielle rested her hand on Xena’s unwounded shoulder.

Murder is a man’s world,” Xena said quietly. Her eyes became cloudy and distant. “I had to give them something. I just somehow managed to hold on to this.”

Gabrielle bit on her lip before all this. “You owe me nothing,” she had said to Xena. She repeated it right before Xena made it clear that what she wanted was for Gabrielle to be responsible for this particular first. “One of many we’ll have together,” Gabrielle said, but she had whispered it, and Xena didn’t hear. But she did repeat it.

I owe you nothing, but you have all of me,” Xena said quietly.

That doesn’t mean—” Gabrielle started. “It can be at any time. The pace is yours, the decision is only yours.” Gabrielle turned quiet. Xena knew what Gabrielle was about to ask, and so Gabrielle’s question and Xena’s reply came at the same time:

Did someone ever make you do this? Violently?” Gabrielle asked, and Xena, hanging her head, said,

They almost did, but no. No. I told the truth. I’ve never done this before.”

And what was almost a funny game—Not even Borias? Not even Ares?—turned suddenly into a very severe understanding on Gabrielle’s part.

Because they took other things instead,” Gabrielle breathed.

Because I let them have other things instead,” Xena countered. Gabrielle was crying. She cupped Xena’s face with her two small hands.

Because they took them. They took them. And that’s not your fault. No matter what you were doing at the time.”

Xena nuzzled her nose against Gabrielle. It turned wet with her warm tears.

I’m alright with what happened. More alright with every touch of your hands,” Xena said. She stressed the word “your,” raising her and Gabrielle’s interlocked fingers.

What does that mean?” Gabrielle whispered.

It means I want you to,” Xena said quietly. “It means I’m…asking you to.” And she didn’t have to say anything else, nothing about how much it took out of her just to say that. An emboldened Gabrielle kissed Xena deeply. Demandingly.

Then she lowered herself down Xena’s body with small kisses.

Xena never knew what it was like to be tasted or touched without agenda, only with love. When Gabrielle’s tongue was on her, with her limited motions, she signaled yes or no with the clench of a fist, harder, slower, up, down. It took her a bit to surrender. Flashes of too many women who looked just like Gabrielle flew through her mind and it made Gabrielle’s descent onto her body hitched. But with soft motions, slowly, her body relaxed, and Gabrielle hastened away every nightmarish story behind every scar she had. And she responded, a little bit more with each motion; no questions were asked, only smooth touches from Gabrielle’s hands and mouth, and Xena’s own hands, her long fingers, setting the pace. The storm inside of her Xena wouldn’t dare describe; when she was young, or younger, she’d imagine herself stranded in the snow or stranded in the sun, and then rescued. She was a romantic, deep down—not even so deep, Gabrielle knew, and had been learning—and wanted to be saved, too. Gabrielle gave her every single part of her body when she realized the magnitude of what she was doing, and not only by her own body’s reaction to it. Deciding to ignore exhaustion and worry and hold back nothing at all, she ran gentle scratches up and down Xena’s body, knowing by heart already where the bad cuts were, and Xena was rescued from the desert and from the storm, her heartbeat rising and rising in her ears, eyes shut and muscles clenched until, every few minutes, Gabrielle would coax her body loose, and with loving strokes slow down the pace.

Her body jerked in places out of control, and it scared her at first. She opened her eyes and her sight was blurry, and that scared her too.

It’s alright,” Gabrielle said. Her voice was muffled, but the more important thing was that she knew exactly when to say it. “I’m right here,” she said. “Nothing is going to happen to you.” Then the blonde raised her head, kissing Xena’s thigh, and swore:

Ever.”

And Xena closed her eyes lightly and began again what was to her a strange climb on a strange mountain, where she was being pulled up and pushed forward, every nerve of her body lighting up with immense, unmeasurable pleasure, and when she thought it was the end of it she’d look and they’d be miles ahead, and Gabrielle’s fingers dug into her skin, and she was making noises, and at first she tried not to make them, and with an easy adjustment of Gabrielle’s body she didn’t care anymore if she made them or not, and then her body turned rushed and heavy at the same time, like levitating metal, and she felt herself crash and spill in all kinds of directions, her aching body aching no longer, her fingers clenched into a fist and Gabrielle clasped her hand onto it, letting their hands hold one another as Xena cried out and shook and shook and shook. Gabrielle stayed where she was but managed a sigh of relief—this reconciliation between Xena and herself touched Gabrielle, too, not that she could explain it. As if it jumped out of Xena’s body and then onto her, and she wrapped her arms around Xena’s legs and swayed them back and forth, her burning cheek pressed against Xena’s thigh.

Xena and Gabrielle learned very quickly how to be intertwined. Maybe because they had been waiting, the both of them, for so long. But they didn’t need much practice. Xena arched her aching back, breaths drawn shallow, when Gabrielle twisted her face sideways a bit, her arms encircling Xena’s thighs so that they framed her face. She had only ever focused like that when she was writing something to someone in particular; her penmanship was terrible, and she’d have to use all her focus and coordination to make the calligraphy look pretty enough. Here, too, Gabrielle explored and moved with the utmost focus. Her fingers inside Xena, she used her other hand to support the brunette, so as not to press on any wounds, lifting her weight easily up and then back down.

It was all so gentle, words unspoken, unwritten. When Xena brought her hand to her mouth to keep from screaming the loudest, at the crest of the hours Gabrielle spent between her legs, Gabrielle’s mouth was still on her, but she brought Xena’s body gently down and let the brunette bite down on her fingers—to keep quiet, or just to feel Xena’s tongue more, again, she couldn’t get enough. And by then her exhaustion had gotten the better of her.

Gabrielle tasted her own fingers, and Xena blushed. Gabrielle hummed absentmindedly, waiting for Xena to find a position where she’d be comfortable enough to sleep with Gabrielle in her arms.

C’mere,” Xena said, her voice a whisper, and Gabrielle did, burrowing under Xena’s arm. They were lying face to face, Xena’s hair still a little wet at its edges, and the bed was small, but that didn’t matter; they took up the space of one person, their limbs tangled together, and Gabrielle moved her hair and rested her hand on Xena’s face, her lips and cheeks flushed red.

Go to sleep now,” Gabrielle said, smiling. Xena was still shocked at the sensation she felt, at the experiences that had happened in the past days, and more than anything at the sensation of Gabrielle in her arms. She had waited for it for so long, that at a certain point, she started imagining that it could never match the expectations of what she had fantasized.

But it did. Gabrielle was soft and clean, and then Xena felt like she couldn’t breathe, and then she was wrapped here in this blanket, her wounds somehow not mattering, her lips not shaking anymore. Wherever she touched, there was Gabrielle. Wherever she could feel, there was Gabrielle. Her mind pushed her to tell herself she didn’t deserve it, but she so badly did not want to move that she pushed aside even that. A huge feat.

Xena was closing her eyes slowly, fighting off sleep with all of her might.

You can go to sleep now,” Gabrielle whispered.

I don’t want to,” Xena managed to answer.

Why?” Gabrielle kissed her forehead. “Hmm?”

I want it to stay like this forever.”

It will.” Gabrielle nodded, smoothing Xena’s hair.

No,” Xena said.

Yes.” Gabrielle nodded again. She kept being drawn further into Xena’s body, even though there was no more seeming space to cover. She was so equipped with answers to anything. She had been thinking of them for months, how she would be leaving with Xena, her one true love, and how she would let Perdicus down easy, if she could, and if not—it’d be a shame, but she had a family in Potidaea, Perdicus not being a member of it, and other than that she wouldn’t be coming back, just let her pack some things.

No,” Xena said somehow. It sounded like her voice was too heavy for her to carry.

Yes.” Gabrielle smiled. It wasn’t like Xena was putting up much of a fight. Besides, she was ready to reply and swear each time Xena said she didn’t deserve this or was too horrible for that, that she loved her and there would be no more arguing. “Go to sleep,” Gabrielle said. “You need rest.”

And she meant it, she did—it’s just that they couldn’t stay apart. Not even when Xena fell asleep with her hands clasped around Gabrielle. The blonde barely loosened one arm from under Xena. Not that she was uncomfortable—or unsatisfied—she just had to play with Xena’s hair. All the small fantasies she had to catch up on. She felt like she had to do everything at once, and so did Xena; she refused to break contact with Gabrielle’s skin, even at this level of exhaustion, when her body was forcing her to sleep, and she could barely speak, the ghost of a smile playing on her face, her eyes closed only when her spread palm was touching Gabrielle’s skin.

Gabrielle watched Xena sleep. She had the she’s-so-beautiful whirlwind of thoughts playing in her head. Then she became concerned, not that it was enough to stop her gentle play with the very ends of Xena’s hair. She had said countless times, “I’m leaving with you, Xena,” and, “I’m done here, Xena,” and they had made love—made love like you make a pot out of clay or a horseshoe out of metal, and it covered them like a material almost, and bound them closer and closer together until it left them breathing one breath, beating one heart. But she never heard a “yes,” or an “okay,” or a plan.

Gabrielle knew what she was going to do. She’d always known where her heart lay, and now that it was back in her chest, she wasn’t letting it leave. She’d be riding off with Xena, soon. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day. After she would tell Perdicus that she was leaving with Xena, they’d have to find a place to stay, not too far, so they could visit with Lila and the baby, but not too close, either, since she knew an obscure location would be best to hide the warrior princess, for some who knew she was in the area would not hesitate to attack. Gabrielle had a town in mind, or she thought she did. It had lovely homes and the stream that ran right outside the very gates of Potidaea led right to it. All they’d really need is a bed and some food. Gabrielle had been careful with money long before she met Perdicus, and so was Xena. It wouldn’t be a problem. They’d stay there until Xena could get better, and gain weight. And muscle. And train. And be able to stand on her feet without falling.

She chuckled without realizing, and it woke Xena up. It hadn’t even been an hour since the brunette had drifted off to sleep.

Shh,” Gabrielle pleaded. Xena grimaced, and Gabrielle pressed a hand to her forehead. “What’s going on?”

Ah,” Xena barely managed. “My back.”

Gabrielle stacked a few pillows at the head of the bed and lay down on them on her back. Then she lifted Xena so she was straight in her arms, elevated and supported by Gabrielle’s warm body.

Better?”

Xena nodded.

Mmmm?”

Yes,” Xena said. She took hold of Gabrielle’s idle hand. “Thank you,” she said.

Gabrielle smiled, and then laughed.

For what?”

For…being my first,” Xena said. Her smile was irresistibly infectious, and Gabrielle smiled back, lowering Xena’s head down to her shoulder. Xena stretched her limbs as far as she could. It eased her pain a great deal. Gabrielle ran her thumb over Xena’s now somewhat crooked nose.

Ah, don’t,” Xena said, sullen.

It gives you character,” Gabrielle said. She would have sworn she had meant to laugh, but Xena’s fingers tangled in hers, and the world shifted again with one small move. More and more infinitesimal distances and closer and closer and closer. So much time, so much lost time to catch up on.

Anyway,” Gabrielle said with a small cough. “Thank you for being my first.”

Xena smiled. “What, your first good one?”

Gabrielle moved her hands back up the sides of Xena’s body so that they rested on Xena’s chest. We should change this bandage, she thought. She moved her hands to Xena’s shoulders.

No, my first…well, yes, good, amazing, but just first.”

There was a small silence. Gabrielle recognized it. Xena wasn’t asleep; she was thinking of something or planning something or realizing something.

Your first?”

Gabrielle blushed. “Why?” She turned somber suddenly, afraid. Xena could feel her head hang to her chest. “Did it get in the way? Could you tell—”

Xena kissed Gabrielle’s arm.

What? No!” she replied, making very sure her voice was not leaving any room for doubt. “No, by the gods, no.” Xena smiled. “You’re amazing,” she whispered, and put more of her weight on Gabrielle. She couldn’t turn her head to look at Gabrielle’s face, but a silent request was enough. Gabrielle leaned forward and then turned around, and Xena opened her mouth and touched her soft lips with a languishing hunger, the kind of hunger Xena could feel Gabrielle feeling where their bodies met, where Xena was leaning back, resting, between Gabrielle’s open legs.

Gabrielle’s hips thrust against Xena, uncontrollably, but softly, and she brought her arms forward to Xena’s breasts. She lifted the brunette up with one arm, and her other hand crept down Xena’s leg, then traced up the inside of her bare thigh, to the unmistakable wetness she was looking for. Slowly, she let her fingers roam. Everything was so new and wet and hot, and she let her fingers play some kind of melody, her arms protectively embracing Xena.

Gabrielle…” Xena tried.

Tell me to stop,” Gabrielle begged. She kissed and then gently bit Xena’s neck. “Tell me you’re tired and that this is too much.”

No,” Xena said, biting her lip. “Don’t stop.” She shook her head. Then she turned it to the side, where it met Gabrielle’s arms.

I won’t,” Gabrielle said. “But I should.”

No,” Xena said when Gabrielle slipped into her. The blonde helped her lift herself so that she could reach even deeper. “No, don’t stop.” Xena found in herself some strength to lift her arms, placing them backwards, around Gabrielle, and the blonde took that as a sign to go harder. One of her hands was playing with Xena’s breasts and she giggled when a shift in the angle of her motion came so hard upon Xena that she sat up, hoisting her leg over Gabrielle.

I am being an irresponsible healer,” she said, supporting Xena’s weight with her arms. The brunette used the offered hand to move against Gabrielle, her lower body ebbing and flowing in desperate motions.

Maybe,” Xena managed, biting Gabrielle’s jaw. “But a very responsible lover.” Now that they were face to face, the blanket peeled down both their bodies. Gabrielle brought her knees closed, which lifted Xena enough so that her breasts were in Gabrielle’s mouth. She gasped, straightening her arm on Gabrielle’s shoulder, and lowered her head.

Let me see,” she said quietly, resting her forehead on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

The words seemed to have a stupefying effect over Gabrielle. She just focused harder, pushed harder, moved harder, already so well-versed in Xena’s body, knowing where she had to stop her touch, what would sting. Xena traced Gabrielle’s lips with her fingers and then with her tongue.

Please,” Xena cried, cocking her head.

Oh.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I can’t say no to that.”

Then don’t.” Xena lifted her head. Her entire weight was in Gabrielle’s arms now. Why should she wait, she tried to decide, and then, could she even?

Gabrielle reached behind her. She brought the pillows to the other end of the bed and moved Xena carefully until she was lying on them, Gabrielle’s body lowering itself between her legs again.

More? You want more?” Gabrielle asked. Her voice was taunting. “More?” Xena nodded. More and more and more and more. Xena let out a moan.

There isn’t enough time in the world for all the things I want to do to you,” Gabrielle said. Xena smiled at this beast she had unleashed.

It’s a good thing I’m not going anywhere,” Xena said—the first indication that she agreed to Gabrielle’s plan and would ride off with her to a close-by town to heal, a speech Gabrielle had given her five or six times.

I hope you’re keeping some kind of record,” Gabrielle exhaled, and Xena blindly searched for her hair again, to make out a messy ponytail. She was so tired. This felt so good.

This feels so good,” she said. And Gabrielle sent her tongue, along with both her arms, up.

Say that again,” she whispered.

This feels so good,” Xena said.

No,” she said, and moved her tongue in circles, knowing in advance to place an arm over Xena’s mouth to muffle her cries. “The other thing.”

Xena leaned back. She lifted Gabrielle’s chin slowly, then her body, until the blonde was leaning on only her hands, the distance between their bodies more than she wished it to be by what seemed to be miles.

I’m not going anywhere,” Xena said, and a tear rolled down her cheek, and Gabrielle moved, nuzzling Xena’s body, kissing every patch of skin she could find, until she reached Xena’s face, and kissed her, again and again and again, letting the exhaustion spread over her body, too, and tucking herself into the small spaces left between her body and Xena’s.

This is my favorite thing,” Gabrielle declared. “I want to do that all day long, every day, I’ve decided.” She nodded. Xena laughed.

If you want me dead.” Xena laughed again. Then laughing hurt, and then Gabrielle turned to get up.

What? No, no—” Xena said. She sounded truly frightened. Gabrielle berated herself.

Gods!” Gabrielle sent a hand to Xena’s cheek, moving back to kiss her forehead. “No. I’m sorry. I just thought I’d bring you a nightgown. Well, you and me both. Considering the physician will be here in…like, an hour.”

Gabrielle rose from the bed, and, once Xena had managed to look away from her naked body, her eyes darted across the room. She remembered there was another bed that Gabrielle was going to have to move into, to pretend. And then pretend more, come up with some elaborate lie about what and where so as to avoid persecution here—not that that was at all guaranteed—she had heard Perdicus’s tone before he left. It felt like years ago, certainly dozens of cliffs and edges ago—and she blinked.

Gabrielle returned, dressed in a linen nightgown. She leaned down to embrace Xena and lifted her up. Gabrielle knew it hurt Xena to lift her arms, so she chose a robe. She ran her fingers further than they should have been whenever she touched Xena, who was holding on to Gabrielle, resting her head on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

An idea she couldn’t name floated in her mind.

So…I take it you never did anything like that with Perdicus?”

Xena exhaled with laughter at Gabrielle’s expression when she kissed her chin.

Gods. I never did anything with Perdicus.”

Xena nodded. Her hands were too tired to stroke Gabrielle’s hair, so she kissed the top of her head.

Well, nothing except…” Xena said. Gabrielle was quiet for a moment. She was listening to Xena’s heartbeat. This was a good position to hear it.

Huh? Except nothing,” Gabrielle said absentmindedly. Xena scrunched her nose.

Except, you know—”

I really don’t.” Gabrielle tried to maneuver Xena in her arms, except Xena pushed them both straight up.

Except your wedding night, Gabrielle.”

Except my wedding night when I ran to Lila’s house and hid under the bed?”

There was a quietness then that fell on the room, and Gabrielle could almost feel restricted, cautioned joy rising in Xena.

You and Perdicus never…”

Gabrielle tilted her head, nuzzling Xena’s shoulder. “You’re turning shy on me? Now? What are you talking about?”

Xena held on tighter to Gabrielle when a wave of dizziness hit her.

Hey, whoa,” Gabrielle placed an arm on Xena’s chest, pushing her down so she could lie down, but she refused. “What are you doing?” Her voice sounded like she was getting a cold.

Gabrielle,” Xena said, in her Xena-is-saying-something-important voice. “You never slept with Perdicus?”

Gabrielle shook her head.

What? No!” she insisted. “Wait. Are we talking about the same thing? I did sleep with him in the same be—”

INTERCOURSE,” Xena said loudly. “Intercourse. You never—”

Shh!” Gabrielle admonished. “As much as I enjoy hearing you yell that word, no!” Gabrielle stopped her. “No. How could I? My heart belonged to another.”

Xena kissed her cheek. She felt humbled. But she had to make sure, and so—

Are you sure?” Xena said. “Are you positive?”

Gabrielle gave Xena a confounded, perplexed look of disgust. “Uhm, pretty sure,” she chirped. “I think I’d remember. I went to pretty great lengths to avoid it,” Gabrielle said.

Xena wanted to get up and dance. She opened her mouth, and then closed it. Then she did it again.

What?” Gabrielle asked.

Xena shook her head. Maybe this knowledge won’t even be needed. It’d devastate Gabrielle to know that she was spending time—trapped, really—based on a technicality.

What?!” she repeated when Xena couldn’t hold back her smile.

Nothing.” Xena laughed.

There’s never a nothing with you!” Gabrielle scanned Xena’s face. “What?”

Nothing,” Xena said. “Nothing, nothing.” She grazed Gabrielle’s cheek with her bruised knuckles, kissing her cheeks and forehead, and attempting a hug, which Gabrielle ended up supporting. “I’m silly, I’m silly,” Xena said. She closed her eyes on a cry. “I’m happy I got to have you first,” she said.

Gabrielle stretched her arms out in front of her so she could look at Xena.

What is it with you?”

Nothing,” Xena said again, laughing. “We’re riding out of here tomorrow, right? We better get some sleep, then, before we do that.” She managed, burying herself in Gabrielle’s arms.

*

Perdicus walked the remainder of the hallway with the only piece of knowledge he needed to complete his plan. He smiled—and wouldn’t admit his smile scared him. He’d wait for the physician in the foyer, he decided. The giggling from the guest room died down.

*

When Xena opened her eyes, it was after a very lengthy interior dialogue about how she could and would wake up despite the demanding ache and sore muscles all over her body. She didn’t feel rested, or warm, and soon enough realized not only that the muffled sounds and rising voices were heading towards the room she was staying in, but that Gabrielle wasn’t in her arms. When she opened her eyes and surveyed the room, Gabrielle was nowhere to be found. Xena admitted to a quiet alarm when the door to the room opened and Perdicus, escorted by an older man—ostensibly the physician—walked into the room.

A swift rerun of last night’s events rushed past her eyes, and she smiled, bewildered, then gazed at Perdicus. He was talking, introducing the physician, but she only caught small fragments of his words, the ends of them; she mainly wanted to know where Gabrielle was, since she remembered falling asleep with her in her arms not an hour ago.

I have to say, I have heard of your exploits,” the physician—Xena missed his name—said, as he sat near the bed. Xena was relieved she was wearing a robe, and when she remembered the key detail Gabrielle shared with her last night, between the many other things she shared—that her marriage to Perdicus had never been consummated, and was therefore null and void—she smiled, to the surprise of the physician, who was speaking of the severity of her weight loss.

Perdicus stood in the doorway the entire visit, which made Xena uncomfortable.

All of these,” the physician said, indicating Xena’s cuts and bruises. “Massive weight loss, bleeding from the chest, arms, and legs—” He drew the blanket over the bed. “In the space of two moon cycles?”

Xena didn’t answer. She hung her head to her chest. When the physician’s hand reached her lower abdomen, she grabbed his wrist. Not even close to her full strength, she could still halt this if she wanted to.

Of course, we want to perform a complete examination,” the physician said.

Interesting, considering you paid no mind to my dislocated shoulder, but couldn’t wait to see the cuts on my thigh,” Xena barked back. She stared at Perdicus. Something felt wrong.

Sorry, I’m…I’m sorry,” she said, though she didn’t mean it. Not at all. “The pain has been keeping me awake.”

The physician nodded. He ran his hand over Xena’s shoulder, sure she would cry out, but she just kept studying the room.

It is,” the physician said. “Dislocated.”

You can pop it back into place,” Xena said through her teeth. “I couldn’t get the right angle.” Panic was rising in her.

Are you looking for Gabrielle?” asked Perdicus, suddenly, from the doorway.

Yes!” Xena said. The physician told her that, on the count of three, he’d apply tension to the area and see if the bone would return to place. Xena said nothing to him. Instead, while he was counting, she continued her conversation with Perdicus, not even flinching when the physician got to three and shifted her back, using the wall, to move the dislocated bone back to place.

She’s at our sleeping chambers,” Perdicus said, smiling. “It’s still early.”

Sleeping chambers? She spent the night he—” Xena hissed in pain when the physician peeled off the bandage on her chest with too much interest. “She spent the night here.” Xena waited until the physician made a fresh compress and dressed the wound. “In the other bed,” she said, pointedly. The blanket they had shared really was folded on the other bed.

Until you fell asleep, yes,” Perdicus said.

Xena narrowed her eyes.

Does she have a fever?” he asked.

A low-grade one,” the physician answered. He went about removing and re-dressing the bandages up and down Xena’s arms.

Gabrielle is in your sleeping chambers?” Xena blinked.

Yes,” Perdicus said. His tone changed; it turned soft. “She’s a bit…upset.”

Upset?” Xena turned frightened. “I should go see her,” she said, waving the physician off.

No,” Perdicus said with a smile. He asked the physician for a moment with Xena. The older man left the room.

Perdicus, if Gabrielle is upset, I want to see her.”

Perdicus nodded. He sat on the bed across from the one Xena was lying in.

Xena…I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” Perdicus said.

I can walk on my own,” Xena said—hoped—but Perdicus interrupted her.

That’s not why,” he said. “Look—I want you to know I am not passing judgement.” Perdicus’s voice turned empathetic, supportive almost. “This has been a terrible time for you.”

What?” Xena raised the blanket to cover herself again. “What—”

An innkeeper from Polygyros came by earlier this morning,” Perdicus said quietly. “She was looking for you and ran into Gabrielle.”

Horror raced through Xena’s blood.

What—”

You had a tab,” Perdicus said. He shook his head. “Of course—of course, we took care of that.”

Xena was silent.

Gabrielle was on her way to fetch you breakfast,” Perdicus said. “She wanted to do it before the physician arrived, but we ran into the woman. Astrea?” Xena knew the name. And the woman. “Xena…” Perdicus rubbed his hands together.

No…”

She told us, Gabrielle first, and then Gabrielle told me, about the…incident…you were involved in? At the tavern a few hours west of here? A girl named Alba was murdered?”

What?” Xena shook her head. The rest of her body shook, too. “No, no. She—she killed herself.”

That’s not what Astrea had to say,” Perdicus said. His voice was soft. Xena held the blanket to her chest.

What—what did she have to say?” Xena asked. Her voice sounded like a whimper.

Well…” Perdicus sighed. “She said you frequented that particular establishment, and that you were with the girl the night of her death. Right before she came crashing out the window.”

Xena shook her head.

No, there’s—there’s an explanation to all of that.”

Oh? You weren’t there?” Perdicus looked up. A few empty, frightening beats passed in silence.

No, I was—”

But not with her?”

No, I was,” Xena said. “But—”

Gabrielle waved the woman off. You know Gabrielle would never believe anything bad about you. But she had…” Perdicus retrieved something from his satchel. “This.” It was one of Xena’s arm bands. “She told Gabrielle the rest of your armor was there to pick up if she wanted it, so long as the tab was settled. Which we did—don’t worry.”

No.” Xena breathed heavily. “I need to talk to her.” Xena made out to rise from the bed, but Perdicus stopped her.

Xena…” He spoke mournfully, his hands in his lap. “Xena, we both know Gabrielle hasn’t been the same since you came here. Or were…brought here, rather. Seeing you the way she did was very traumatic for her,” he said. “Or at least that’s what she told me. She did everything to take care of you, abandoned everything she was doing—of course she would. She would always be loyal to you. But with this, with what has happened….”

That was in the past,” Xena insisted. Her voice got louder, and her ability to stand on her own lessened. Perdicus held Xena’s arm. She wanted to swat it away but didn’t.

Xena, Gabrielle told me about this…plan,” he said quietly. “To ride off together. That she even came up with it, that she—she offered it to you.” Xena’s wild eyes scanned Perdicus. “But she—I think she had a change of heart. Once she’d heard the details of what you did.”

No,” Xena tried. “She already—”

Here.” Perdicus handed Xena a scroll. She sat down, shaking. It was in Gabrielle’s handwriting.

“…the Warrior Princess is not what I dreamt of at all, her ways

Vicious and harsh;

She knows not how to love, but only

Herself, and to the rest

Lies, so as to do

Whatever pleases her…”

Xena scanned the papyrus. It had patches that were wet. With tears?

Soon I’d come to find that

Who I thought I knew and loved

Was not her at all,

And her many crimes were

The truth of it all, not

Her heart, as I

Had imagined—”

Xena let out a sob. She couldn’t control it.

I need to speak to her.”

Xena,” Perdicus said. “Xena, she asked me…she asked me to tell you that she doesn’t want to see you.”

Xena returned her eyes to the scroll.

The lies she tells in turn

Create the veil of magic

That the sunshine had to break.

That daylight spoke to me

Parting with sorrow

That her dark hair and pale skin

I do not wish to see—”

Xena was breathing through her mouth. Her vision became blurry again, and then more, and more. Perdicus sat by her, gently resting his hand on her arm.

We both know this is for the best. Right?” Perdicus started. “This thing with the girl, is it the first thing like that that’s happened? The only thing? I mean—this is Gabrielle’s home. She loves it here. She has a niece here now, and her own household to run, her own library, and a hospice to manage at that—”

She was the one who—” Xena tried.

Xena, it is difficult to resist your spell. You know that. Look—that’s what happened with that girl, isn’t it?” Perdicus waited, but then repeated himself. “Isn’t it? Look—even if all of this never happened, none of this, and she would have kept on riding with you, what would have happened to her? Or what would have happened to her…if something had happened to you?”

Wha—” Xena managed. She furiously resisted the tears in her eyes.

Astrea mentioned something about that girl, that her companion died,” Perdicus said. A shaking, terrified Xena missed the hiccup in his story. “I understand…that you love Gabrielle as more than a friend. And I do believe she reciprocates that love, but…is that all we need to be with someone? Love? What about trust, and stability, and…Gabrielle wants children, you know that.” Perdicus almost chuckled. “You can’t give her that. You can only really promise her one sure thing—yourself—and even that is set in doubt. Isn’t it? Isn’t it, after what you fell into during these past months?”

That will never happen again,” Xena said. She shook her head for longer than she spoke. Her thin skin, the one that Gabrielle found so thin, was ever thinning.

You say that now.” Perdicus smiled. “I’m sure you said that three moon cycles ago. She has her sister here, and a home, and all she could ever want. She’s safe and protected. She has a family who loves her. She has her books and pens. And Xena,” Perdicus convincingly lowered his head again. “Whatever it is you have planned—” he pointed at the scroll in Xena’s arms. “She doesn’t want it anymore. She doesn’t…want…you.”

Xena’s face crumpled. Her gaze jumped between the scroll and Perdicus and the bed and herself. She opened her mouth and closed it and shook her head.

I want to talk to her,” Xena said. It sounded like a desperate plea.

I know,” Perdicus said. “I can’t…I can’t break her will.”

No,” Xena said suddenly. She looked at the scroll and rose, barely.

Xena, what—” Perticus said, smiling when Xena didn’t look.

No, this is her handwriting, it can’t be a—no. We can’t break her will. That’s what I did last time. She doesn’t deserve that, right? Right?” Xena stared at Perdicus, her breath heaving. He nodded and shrugged, as if to partake in her sorrow. Xena moved using the walls for support; she found clothes, whatever they were, in the closet.

Xena,” Perdicus said as he rubbed his hands together. “You don’t have to go now, you’re not completely—”

Break her will, is what I did,” Xena continued, nodding to herself. “This whole time.” She wasn’t seeing very well, but that didn’t matter. The new bandages were new, those the physician got to, and the rest—

Where—did I come here with anything?”

Conveniently enough, her saddlebags and Argo were right outside.

But do consider waiting,” Perdicus said. By the end of it, he had dropped his comforting voice, and was speaking normally.

No,” Xena said. She hit the walls again and again in her desperate attempt to leave, tears and dizziness blocking her vision. “No, break her will—that was exactly it,” she whispered. Perdicus stood up. “Please,” Xena turned to Perdicus. She couldn’t see him, just an outline of him. “Get my boots, please, and walk me to Argo. I’m sorry for the tab—I will repay you.”

No, no.” Perdicus patted her back. “Would it really make you feel better? To leave now?”

Please,” Xena said.

Perdicus left the room. He banished his remorse—more than he thought he would feel—and turned to where he had already kept all of Xena’s belongings. In the room, Xena found the desk, and on it, a piece of parchment, and a pen. She tucked the scroll Perdicus had handed her, Gabrielle’s regret, in a pocket or a fold—she couldn’t make out what she was wearing—and on the bit of the parchment left one message, for Gabrielle. She tore it and shoved the note under the pillow they had shared—under the pillow she had thought they shared—last night. Perdicus returned to the room.

Here,” he said. His voice turned somber. Xena was shaking violently, unable to stand or sit or do anything. He couldn’t think of anything to say. Slowly in his mind he wanted to admit to his lies. But, how could he? And what would it mean? It was all too far by the time Xena managed, somehow, to put on her boots. She began walking outside.

Wait,” Perdicus called after her. Xena turned, leaning on the wall. He wanted to confess, to ask for forgiveness. He saw the edges of the results of his cruelty.

What?” Xena said. Tears she had no intention of shedding were rolling down her cheeks. He was silent for longer. It became clearer to him what he had done with every rocking of Xena’s body. But he said,

Your boots.” And he was shaking too. “They’re untied. I’ll—I’ll take you to Argo,” he managed. Xena nodded. Perdicus tied Xena’s boots and let her place her weight on him on their way out. This wasn’t him. Was it? They passed Lila’s home. Gabrielle must have been in the living room. Xena couldn’t see well. Her steps were broken. The pail of water, the wounds, the bath—it all came flashing right by his eyes, again, and again, I won’t lose respect—but was this respect? He swallowed hard against his guilt. It’ll ease upon Xena’s leaving, he told himself. It’ll ease upon her leaving.

Perdicus helped Xena mount Argo.

It’ll ease upon Xena’s leaving. The guilt. This is what he had to do. Just so Gabrielle will eventually see—

Tell her—” Xena said, and then shook her head. With a gentle touch of her heel, she urged Argo to canter away. Perdicus watched her for a few long minutes, until she disappeared behind a building.



To be concluded in part 10.