Title: Like a Tree

Author’s Notes:

This piece takes place around Season 3, before the Hope arc, and assumes Gabrielle and Xena are a couple, following a love proclamation to Xena from Gabrielle, and a slow adaptation of Xena into couplehood bliss, despite her initial struggle. Right in the midst of their love story, following a normal encounter with warlords, Xena and Gabrielle are faced with their worst nightmare. This story explores both Xena’s and Gabrielle’s reactions to this horrific act.

WARNING: This story, for one, depicts a sex scene between two women. It’s not at all explicit, but it is erotic in nature, suggested for mature readers. More importantly, it deals with an extremely difficult and—in my mind, crucially important—topic: rape. Rape is discussed in depth in this story, with absolutely *NO* graphic descriptions of it, it’s important to say, but with a great deal of exploration of the various impacts it has on the victim and those close to them.

In the age of #metoo, and with the understanding that I myself needed to explore my own experience, I tried with great sensitivity to introduce Xena and Gabrielle’s love story—after Xena finally settles into the notion of her being deserving of happiness—to what to me is the worst fate and most horrible act a person could experience.

This story is meant to be respectful, explorative, sensitive, considerate, and loving. It is not violent or graphic in any way, shape, or form. It reviews the aftermath of the act between a loving couple, using the show’s established introduction of Gabrielle and Xena’s characters. It contains a great deal of care, hope, and devotion, as well as helplessness, sorrow, disbelief, and grief—the true sorrowful process of incidents such as these.

This story does directly depict a huge amount of emotional pain and focuses quite a bit on Xena’s shocked reaction, based on her character as it was presented on the show. It is by no means intended to be exploitative, hurtful, inaccurate or upsetting.



 

Return to the Academy

 

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



Xena was getting frantic—only a little, since she knew that, at the end of it, it’ll all work out, and she can trust Gabrielle to fend off whatever, however, because she really was a fierce warrior, and then she realized she was trying more frantically to calm herself down. They’d split up in the woods, she and Gabrielle, to tackle opposing forces, stop them in their tracks, each on the way to enslave a nearby village on opposite ends of the road. Xena said resolutely they had to make a choice, but Gabrielle insisted. You couldn’t reason with her, especially not since their first real kiss—their first intended one, that came with romantic love declarations and mouths and fingers and tongues. Xena found she was more protective of Gabrielle now, as well. At any rate, Argo was acting strangely: she kept drawing Xena nearer to an area in the woods Gabrielle wouldn’t be in, as the fighting took place a good four or five miles away. But Xena knew to listen to Argo, and she knew also to listen to her mind, which was mounting more and more with a sensation of some sort of an impending doom—something she couldn’t name but took over her like water pressure—and the more she searched for Gabrielle, the more tense she became.

Xena cried out Gabrielle’s name. It had a different sound to it than it did a month ago, too. It was gentler around the edges. Maybe more desperate. Maybe more practiced, as she fell into the glorious habit of repeating it every night, in whispers, in cries, in pleading and begging. So simple, was their beginning. It had been a day like any other day, and Gabrielle was like Gabrielle always was, and suddenly when Xena turned and looked at her—I have feelings for you, I’m in love with you, she said. Simple. Then, she drew Xena in for a kiss, and the moment their lips touched, it seemed to have been a deal signed for good. They took time to advance; and when they did, their bodies started finding rhythms of their own, together. Gabrielle knocked down any attempt of Xena’s to put a stop to their rolling affair by pleading guilty of her previous crimes, her feeling undeserving of new love. Gabrielle would just say, “I love you—do you love me?” And she’d smile her pretty smile and there’d be no denying her, no strokes of the lash or spirits screaming at Xena when they made their way into one another, slowly at first, then faster. What Gabrielle wanted, Gabrielle got. Xena found herself now at the point of no return. Gabrielle was her partner—they were a couple—and she had found joy and was loved by the person who was to her the symbol of beauty and goodness—all the things she thought would never happen. And after an initial struggle, she was settling into it nicely.

Xena found herself spiraling out of control like some love-struck teen. She hated it, but even she couldn’t stop the blush to her face, her half smile, when they set camp, when she saw Gabrielle undressed, or dressed, or really just Gabrielle at all. All the days were new days. She’d ride Argo with Gabrielle’s arm around her, and suddenly the wind and the skies and her skin turned precious. Worth protecting. And her protective instincts grew by huge measures, as well. Not that it was anything she didn’t know before—that she loved Gabrielle and wanted her to be hers—but now that it came to be, so much more was at stake. She thought that when she relented and let Argo lead her wherever she wanted, off the path they had both taken, nearly an hour away, and then wore a mixed expression of puzzled and frenetic when the mare stopped suddenly. It struck her that twilight was approaching and that they had parted ways at high noon; and she became nauseated, her heart pounding much more quickly than it should have been, and she had her hand ready at the sword.

But in a few moments, she knew why Argo had brought her to this place. Battles move, people run. She saw footprints in the soil—Gabrielle’s, and several men’s—and had a hard time swallowing and her breathing was audible now.

Gabrielle.”

She said it, not screamed it, since she knew. She knew Gabrielle was close. And she knew Gabrielle was wounded. She knew the sight of Gabrielle’s blood. The few leaves on the ground were soaked in it.

Gabrielle!”

She tried again. No reply. Xena’s steps were cautious and careful, a warrior’s steps, leaving barely a sound as they rose from the ground. This must be at the very least a trap, she thought, squinting her eyes, looking up at the trees. But the forest was quiet, and no one was advancing towards her. When she circled a patch of woods that had a small clearing behind it, she tried again.

Gabrielle.”

Maybe Gabrielle ran back, she thought, and Xena should go back to the road where they had parted ways in the first place, and then regretted ever parting ways with Gabrielle in the first place, too. It was the only way to save both villages, which they did, but at a cost, she was sure. Just not what cost. Her gut told her it was a heavy one. Xena had a gash on her arm and a bruised cheekbone, plus her knee hurt her. She thought it might be dislocated. She felt with her tongue the roof of her mouth; it stung. Gabrielle had asked her repeatedly to stop taking on guilt for everything that happened. That she was a warrior too, that she learned from the best, and when she said it her voice was low and eyes sparkling, and for whatever reason, Xena nodded, maybe just to win her reward of Gabrielle inside of her, or the arch of her back where Xena would place a long arm—or maybe because she knew Gabrielle was right. Not about the warrior thing, about the thing where you sometimes have to let something go, even if you love it very much, so it can learn its lessons and return to you fuller, more whole.

Xena took in a deep breath. An oddly shaped tree was in her way, and she rested her hand on it—maybe asking for guidance. And that she did find—in the form of a small whimper, one that sounded like a small sigh, or the frustrated noise a dog made, smaller than the scampering of rodents; but it was enough. She followed the sound, only to discover Gabrielle sitting with her back and head supported completely by the tree, her eyes open, knees drawn to her chest.

Gabrielle!” Xena’s eyes were maddened. She shouted as she stumbled round the tree. “Thank the gods, Gabrielle,” she managed, and then rushed to the blonde’s side as fast as she possibly could, stroking Gabrielle’s hair and face and kissing her hand with her eyes so wide they seemed unreal, and without noticing anything at first, or noticing and ignoring, wrapping her arms around her and swaying back and forth. “Gabrielle,” she said again, and then again. Xena’s body was shaking violently, her open, quivering mouth pressed to the top of Gabrielle’s head as she gently rocked her body, with Gabrielle moving along with her limp limbed. She rested her cheek on Gabrielle’s head, her body and mouth shaking as she murmured, “Oh, Gabrielle,” again, and again. “Gabrielle,” as if it were a magic word; well, it was her magic word. She pressed the blonde to her as hard as she could, stroking her hair, and knew then immediately something was wrong, and also, in truth, exactly what it was, and let a tear roll down her cheek. She felt like someone had opened her heart and stabbed it but refused to admit the reasonable conclusion—couldn’t—though repeating Gabrielle’s name didn’t stop her from shaking and more tears from rolling down her cheeks.

Xena became furious and terrified at the same time. She knew that feeling from before, furious and terrified, except it had gotten sharper since Gabrielle kissed her for the first time, and kept on getting sharper and sharper with every kiss and breath and moan and smile. Especially the terrified part.

Gabrielle,” Xena whispered again. She frantically stroked Gabrielle’s hair, kissed her hands, her face. “Oh,” she managed, before she started sobbing. No response from Gabrielle, and Xena checked her pulse. It was thready, and very slow.

There were no bodies, no men to be seen, around her. Xena glanced at the footsteps again and saw a battle, a dragging, a dent in the ground, signs of struggle, and she was filled with a sense of dread. And knowledge, knowledge she decided to bury deep down inside her in the millisecond of thinking time she had, because it couldn’t be, and it will never, ever be, and that’s that. It couldn’t—

Gabrielle, completely still, but awake, didn’t hug Xena back, or move at all. She had a deep cut on her thigh and a pretty serious gash across her forehead, a very deep one that went from the side of her head to about the end of her forehead, and it dyed her face with blood, and was still bleeding, so Gabrielle was crying tears of blood, and still she didn’t move. Her eyes looked tired, and she was covered in cold sweat and was freezing to the touch, Xena thought, busy shoving truths deep into herself. Gabrielle was cold and sweaty and completely grey, blood trickling down her face, and motionless—not rigid—simply paralyzed, like a thrown toy, or unmade clay.

The truth caught up with Xena and her wide eyes and quivering mouth and she wanted to vomit and a wave of splitting pain washed over her. Gabrielle looked at Xena. Straight into her eyes. Her expression was completely sealed, filled with wounds, her lips oddly cut—torn, really, bitten raw—her forehead dripping blood onto her face. Xena looked at her legs. They were bruised and marred by fingernail marks, scratched raw. In any other situation, Xena would have long ago sprung into the appropriate action, but still for whatever reason now she couldn’t even let the thought go through her mind, couldn’t move her hands from Gabrielle, and she still whispered, “No,” resolutely. As if, if she had said it, it would become untrue.

Her shaking became violent; she covered Gabrielle with her body, swaying hysterically, her eyes open. This can’t be. She moaned or yelled in distress, again and again, and wrapped up Gabrielle and surveyed her surroundings as her cries intensified—as if asking for help.

Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle’s burning hot forehead where the gash ended and ran the back of her hand down Gabrielle’s balmy face. She smiled at her like she always did, trying to coax a smile back, and failing.

Gabrielle,” Xena said. “Hey.” The smile on her face turned frozen and then her head shook, with her smile still on it. “No. No, right?” Her long fingers were stroking Gabrielle’s cheeks, and she was crying. “Right?”

Gabrielle looked even more grey, and was shaking too, and Xena for the first time saw the pieces of clothing that were missing from Gabrielle’s hands thrown a few feet away. She cupped Gabrielle’s face with her long fingers. It had been long enough, and she knew the answer, and still, she said:

Gabrielle, what did they do to you?”

Her voice was louder and more tortured than she’d meant it to be. Gabrielle didn’t seem to care. She blinked slowly, cocking her head at Xena, who ran her hand down Gabrielle’s body. With very little effort Xena managed to get Gabrielle to stretch her legs forward, away from her chest, and the small piece of cloth Gabrielle was holding fell from her hands, but the blonde did nothing. Her skirt was torn and bloodstained, and Xena ran her hand again and again and again down her body, and again and again and again Gabrielle’s expression stayed exactly the same. Gabrielle’s body was cold, Xena thought again—for whatever reason it was what scared her the most, and she knew Gabrielle was losing body heat, fast, with her burning hot head and feet. Xena still couldn’t process the notion. Not even enough to put a hide around Gabrielle or give her water.

No,” Xena said again. Gabrielle smiled at her. It was the saddest sight she had ever witnessed; Gabrielle’s pale face, covered with sweat and blood, lips torn, forehead bleeding, lower lip shaking, insisting on reassuring her. Xena couldn’t breathe. She thought she might die. An unrelenting rage rose in her, something feral and visceral, but also at the same time pain, horrible pain, and Gabrielle said, barely, “I think they lured me over here.”

Xena’s hand was shaking as she stroked the blonde’s hair, moving wayward pieces of it from her sweaty face.

I’m sorry,” Gabrielle said. A single tear fell down her cheek. But her expression stayed the same. Still. Xena took a breath in and didn’t exhale.

What?” she said, and then again, “what?” And she looked at Gabrielle apologizing in earnest for the most horrific thing in the world, which had happened to her, and her mind ran in circles as to what that meant, or how can someone be so good that they’d apologize over such a thing, or that she should say something like, it’s not your fault, you’ve done nothing wrong. But Xena found no voice, so she mouthed the one word she’d been repeating, “no.” She cried it and yelled it furiously. In her mind, suddenly, Gabrielle was warm and Xena, calmly, did say all those things, soothing an only shaken Gabrielle; the men ran off before anything really bad happened, Xena would smile, and Gabrielle was only resting when Xena found her. Just resting.

But then reality hit back. It fell upon Xena like a wave, like a blow to the stomach.

No. No. No!” Xena screamed. As loud as she could, unable to control herself, and her cry echoed throughout the woods. She knew deep down she had caused this situation, and had no stoicism in her or one-liners and strategies. They were all gone. Her Gabrielle. Her one gift and only joy. The one true love she’d ever known; the one who taught her how to love. Filled with such kindness and light. With love. She had Xena’s heart beating in her chest, and so Xena clutched her hands to her own empty chest and cried out, screaming in despair, losing control of her muscles and falling to the ground. She said no again, in separate sentences, to go with her hiccupped breath. Her face crumpled. She touched the ground where Gabrielle was sitting. It was soaked in blood.

No!” she said again. She was sobbing now truly, howling, her hands running over surfaces that they should or shouldn’t have been on for the sake of some kind of explanation: the trunk of the tree, the soil on the ground, the fabric of Gabrielle’s skirt—blood, all blood. She said no like a mantra, or the opposite of a mantra, in her mind. And as she kept saying, “no,” she cried harder, and braced Gabrielle’s thigh with her left hand and inched her hand up with the right one, and it didn’t take her long to feel blood trickle over her fingers—more of it the further up she went. She called upon Hera and Athena and Ares and Zeus himself, the one God of the Israelites, Krishna. Anyone she could think of—offering herself as a bargaining chip. Take me instead. Rape me instead. This is like a sword to the stomach, she kept thinking, since she knew what a sword to the stomach felt like. Just that this was worse.

No. No.”

Xena’s fingers were covered in blood now. She was on her hands and knees near where Gabrielle was sitting. The neighboring villages, those that were spared, heard, in equal distances, a cry from the woods, a bloodcurdling scream, which they each attributed to something or other, each in their own imagination: a jackal ripping a deer apart, a strange kind of bird with or without a message. No one imagined a woman covered in dirt and blood, her face and arms lowered, elbows on the ground, fists clenched, letting out cry after cry, dragging her fingers across the red-brown soil; and behind her a smaller woman, half-naked, bleeding where she never should have bled, with the remnants of a smile of her face, lowering her eyes to Xena, blinking absentmindedly.

Xena was angrier than she had ever been before—and that was no mean feat. She knew the group of men Gabrielle had been fighting, and couldn’t get the thought of her begging and screaming in pain, maybe calling out Xena’s name, out of her mind. She felt her blood boil, destroyer of nations, how the mighty warrior princess could not even save the one thing she loved the most from the cruelest fate, and then she thought of exactly how she’d find and torture and execute anyone who did this, maybe even herself, and her tears dried, and jaw clenched, and muscles burned, and she thought, my Gabrielle. And then she looked back. Gabrielle was in the same position. Her gash was still bleeding. And then the name echoed in her mind, Gabrielle. Gabrielle, and she remembered nights and days of mercy and compassion and pleasure, the kind of compassion only Gabrielle could show, the kind she had shown her by forgiving all her misdeeds and giving her a chance at happiness; and Xena felt a fool to let her rage take priority over Gabrielle. Something snapped in her and her face, still wet with tears, turned so she could see Gabrielle, almost a last look to make sure that the most horrific of all scenarios did in fact take place—that Xena could have let it happen—and Gabrielle was there, eyes dry, caked blood on her cheek, torn cloth at her feet.

Xena ran to Argo, and upon her run, faltered, twice, falling. That had never happened before. She searched their saddle bag frantically until she eventually just undid the knot that kept it in place and, with shaking hands, hoisted it over her shoulder, yanking hides and blankets from beneath Argo’s saddle, all the while trying to remind herself to stop crying.

And failing. She rushed back to the tree.

Oh, Gabrielle,” Xena managed. Her face was contorted in concern and fear and sadness and cries, but Gabrielle’s face seemed calm. Almost curious. Xena’s fingers were shaking hard, and she commanded them to keep still. This is a situation that requires very tender care, she reminded herself, this is a situation where quiet is needed and steadiness, where Gabrielle is the one and only priority; but that helped her fingers and body none, and she shook with rage and guilt and sorrow while she was going about her sadly over practiced routine for cases such as this.

Except this was Gabrielle.

Except this was Gabrielle, she pleaded with some God or another, her mind flashing back to the sight of Gabrielle below her, near the campfire, smiling smugly and burying her nose in Xena’s thigh. Except this was Gabrielle, she whispered in her mind hurriedly as she slowly reached for the blonde, catching her gaze in a question that wasn’t answered, then wrapping a hide around her, lifting her up to cradle her in her arms. Gabrielle didn’t seem to mind that, either. Maybe more for her own benefit than Gabrielle’s, Xena leaned against the tree, Gabrielle in her arms, her torso and head cradled by Xena’s strong hands. Gabrielle waited a bit, and then rested her body on Xena’s chest, and Xena did her best to hide her hyperventilation and fury and helplessness and guilt, swaying back and forth, holding Gabrielle’s face to the nape of her neck, looking down at her as you would on a wounded child, and methodically running her fingers through Gabrielle’s bloodstained hair, hushing the blonde insistently—although Gabrielle was making no sound at all.

*

Xena tried very hard not to break eye contact with Gabrielle while her hands, operating as if on their own, tried to patch wounds and sew cuts as best she could. Gabrielle tried to swallow, and Xena reached for the water pouch, her head to her chest, dark hair covering her entire face. Aptly enough, between falling and clawing at the ground, her warrior’s braid was becoming undone.

Here you go,” Xena whispered. Gabrielle wanted to lift her head but couldn’t. Xena cried again, then berated herself again for crying.

It’s alright,” Xena whispered. Earlier, she had noticed a particularly bloody patch of hair on Gabrielle’s head. She was fairly certain she had gotten a blow to the head. She was thankful for her healing practice when it kicked into place, or at least partially. She’d have to clean Gabrielle, examine her, bandage her wounds, and then—

Xena tightened her grip on Gabrielle, and poured water into her own palm, bringing it to Gabrielle’s mouth. She did this a few times, traipsing her fingers over Gabrielle’s lips when she did, assessing which movements would startle the bard or cause her a flashback and which wouldn’t. She had learned not to grab her by the arm or touch her stomach. She smiled at the blonde.

More?”

I’m so thirsty,” Gabrielle pleaded.

Xena maneuvered the blonde’s small body so Gabrielle was sitting up on her lap. She let her head rest back on Xena’s shoulder and then pushed it forward, putting the pouch to Gabrielle’s lips.

Slowly,” Xena whispered. Gabrielle managed a few sips before her head fell back. Xena took the opportunity to check the blood on Gabrielle’s head. There was bump there. Something blunt had struck her, making her pass out.

Gabrielle pushed back. She didn’t want to be upright. She liked it better before. Xena moved her hands swiftly, her eyes fixed on something that wasn’t Gabrielle. She returned the blonde to her previous position.

There you are. That’s alright,” Xena repeated. She must have said that hundreds of times by now. There you are. It’s alright. It’s okay. Look, she would say, and wrap her strong arms around the blanket Gabrielle was tucked into.

I’ve got you now. I got you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Gabrielle liked that. She stopped shaking when Xena said it. When she had the strength to, she would ask Xena to do it again. She said, “Xena,” in a hoarse voice, and Xena would scan her face to reach her eyes, and then cradle her in her arms again, spreading her palm on Gabrielle’s back.

There you are, sweetheart. I got ya,” Xena would say, her voice barely above a whisper. “I got you now.” The fact Xena had been holding Gabrielle up, hands keeping her in a cradled position, for hours, didn’t even register in the brunette’s mind, or her muscles.

Xena carefully checked Gabrielle for a concussion. There wasn’t one—Gabrielle was coherent, and her eyes followed Xena’s fingers perfectly. But Xena wished so badly she didn’t know that the violent blow Gabrielle endured was how those men got Gabrielle to where she couldn’t resist. Xena wanted to cry but didn’t. Nothing but Gabrielle mattered to her now, nothing else. Especially not her emotions.

There you are. I’ve got you, sweetheart.”

Xena.”

Gabrielle—it’s over,” Xena summoned the courage to say, not knowing how Gabrielle would react. She had no intention of letting Gabrielle out of her grip. But Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief, and Xena did too, pressing her lips to Gabrielle’s forehead.

It’s over now. I’ve got you. No one’s gonna hurt you. I got you, sweetheart.”

Gabrielle liked the pet names and she liked the swaying and she liked Xena’s strong and unrelenting arms. She was happy she got to tell her how she felt—and have her feelings reciprocated, no less—before this happened. That they’d made love, and more than that, before this happened. Otherwise it would have been tainted, it occurred to her, like she was now.

Without saying a word, Xena was prompted to whisper, “I’m sorry.”

Gabrielle reached out a hand and followed the curve of Xena’s lips, shaking her head.

Xena wanted to say a lot of things. That she’s sorry, so sorry, that this was all her fault. That it was on her to say no to Gabrielle when the blonde wanted to part ways, since she was the more experienced fighter. She wanted to say she’ll kill every man who ever laid his hands on Gabrielle, a torturous death, and she knew torture.

But she kept quiet.

What good or relevant were her apologies here? This was not about her. She said it twice, and that, she knew, was enough. Gabrielle would be further bothered if she felt Xena got hurt in any way, including taking on guilt, so she kept to hushed reassurances at any touch and held Gabrielle in her arms without ever letting her touch the ground; when she sewed the sutures on Gabrielle’s forehead, cleaned the cuts on her legs. She kept Gabrielle completely covered at all times. And after sutures and salves and water pouches there was something that had to be done. Gabrielle knew it. Xena knew it, too, but wouldn’t dare bring it up, terrified of any fall or change in Gabrielle’s barely steady consciousness and mood.

We should get it over with,” Gabrielle said suddenly, and Xena turned her head to the side, unsuccessfully suffocating a sob. “I won’t move!” Gabrielle promised, and the childlike innocence in her voice, sing-songy, almost asking for permission, as if she were saying, “I won’t touch it!” was another in a series of exclamations from Gabrielle that made Xena feel her chest open and her heart cut again, searing pain overtaking her. But she smiled at Gabrielle instead, black hair framing her face, the kind of smile that was reserved only for her, Gabrielle’s smile, a mixture of awe and love, and Xena kept it on her face through her own tears and screams.

Okay,” she said, and nodded, despite her brain telling her to shake her head. No, I can’t do that to you, she wanted to say. But all that mattered was Gabrielle. So she said, “Not here—I’m going to carry you,” and steadied her grip on Gabrielle. “On Argo, until we find water, and a place to sleep.”

Xena breathed heavily when distress showed on Gabrielle’s face.

Shh, no. No. No, nothing is happening you don’t want. It’s okay,” she stroked Gabrielle’s hair again, swaying her again, humming to her until she was still.

Gabrielle inhaled sharply.

I’ll carry you like this then,” Xena said, making sure to speak quietly, and pressed where her one hand was on Gabrielle’s back and the other under her knees. “We’ll walk.” Gabrielle nodded.

I have to put everything back on Argo,” Xena said a moment later, when Gabrielle huddled closer to her beneath the hide. She made out to lower Gabrielle to the ground for a moment, huddling more hides around her; the blonde had a look of horror on her face, and she began moving in Xena’s grip, clawing at her back.

Shh, no,” Xena said, frightened, “No, no. No, I’m not going anywhere,” she said. Gabrielle clung to her and she pulled her closer in turn, tucked into her hide, and Xena moved her hand from Gabrielle’s knees to press her more strongly to her chest. Her black hair kept falling forward as she looked down at Gabrielle. Her head throbbed with pain and she had stopped trying to hide the sobs and tears that left her mouth, one in particular when she realized, later than Gabrielle, that everything is different now, that something terrible is still waiting, that the plans they had have been crushed and broken, that they’d have to make different plans, better plans. She did realize and was happy for it, sooner than Gabrielle, that her touch wasn’t rejected, as she’d seen in other cases; that Gabrielle trusted her enough, and that the closer Xena held her, the closer it seemed Gabrielle’s cuts from within and without were mending.

*

When Gabrielle confessed her love for Xena, it was very unromantic, considering she was a bard. She had been acting strange all day, stopping occasionally with a thoughtful look on her face. Xena was getting tired of it. Not that they were going anywhere in particular—an unusual occurrence, but the one that led to the confession—but Xena’s long gait and hurried steps kept having to come to a stop, and Argo followed suit, which irked Xena.

Which happened often when she was traveling with Gabrielle.

Xena—” Gabrielle would start, lifting her staff.

Yes?”

Gabrielle would wait a bit. “Hmm,” she said. Had Xena been a bard or shared the same process Gabrielle did when expressing emotions, she would know Gabrielle wanted to say something important, was desperate to say it, and all she was looking for were the absolute perfect words. But Xena wasn’t and didn’t. What Xena knew was that Gabrielle had something to say that was for some reason being delayed. And delaying them.

Every time Xena stopped because Gabrielle said something, Gabrielle’s body bumped into hers, and her breath stopped, and her long fingers twitched, goosebumps covering her body momentarily. She was used to it and was well-aware of both her feelings for Gabrielle, and her body’s increasing reaction to her touch; it started with an odd breath years ago, and by now it was a twisted knot inside her, almost making her keel. If anything, Xena was a proud and strong-willed woman, and she was proud of that, and proud of her pride, and unbelievably good at repressing emotion—she had to be. After all the horrors she’d seen and committed, she had to develop a mechanism to deal and keep going. She just didn’t know she’d have to activate the same mechanism for love.

The truth was, Xena fell in love with Gabrielle pretty fast. Her feelings were powerful and cemented and became stronger every day. She felt it first when the blonde was acting out a story. “That’s cute,” she had thought then, and was almost startled and tried to think about when the last time exactly she thought something was “cute.” She couldn’t recall. When her feelings intensified, she thought that made sense. Xena was a thinking woman, and reasoned that Gabrielle was stunningly beautiful and had a kind heart and a sweet soul, and was unique and innocent and strong, and a long list of other praises, one seemingly added every day, and that it made sense to be in love with her. She used increasingly complicated logic to explain to herself the nature of their relationship. She saw the people they’d encounter fall for her easily; that didn’t surprise her either.

Under no circumstances, though, did Xena begin to imagine this kind of affair ever coming to fruition. She was…what? A reformed murderer? Whereas Gabrielle had never spilled blood in her life. She was pretty, Xena was—she knew it from a young age, under unpleasant circumstances, gazes from old men and attention she did not wish for—but that’s all she had to offer, that and her strength and good intent, and besides, Gabrielle was far more beautiful. And so much more.

That, she did give a lot of thought to. In recent weeks she’d walk a bit behind Gabrielle, slowing Argo down purposefully while Gabrielle was babbling about one thing or another, and allow herself longing glances at the blonde’s hair, her form. She’d imagine her blue-green eyes at night. Imagine all kinds of things, touches, confessions, but they all stayed in her mind. She’d made confessions of love to Gabrielle constantly—platonic love, though in earnest, they flowed easily into a non-platonic vein, and Gabrielle’s lack of response made for another reason why they would never be together. Compartmentalizing this, saying, “I love you,” was in her mind the act of a friend, a part of Xena’s steadiness and reliability. Her protective nature and kind soul came with her grounded and stoic personality, and when it wasn’t her personality, it was simply a show. She thought it a shame, sometimes, that Gabrielle, the bard, did not know she had such a wonderful actor at her disposal, who was so good at her craft, she could hide instincts—foreseeing them, reasoning with them, canceling them out, and continuing onward.

Inside herself she was a romantic. She knew so because she’d felt it a few times. Just a few. But enough. For all her conquests in all realms, she was completely inexperienced when it came to relationships, but did find herself wanting to pick flowers for Gabrielle, or stroke her hair, or anything loving beyond the point where they were now—was that not romance? And she dealt with the mounting visions of her and Gabrielle kissing, then undressing, then touching, then making love, then settling down, all with a sealed expression and head held high. A Warrior’s Romance. But sometimes she’d want to dance with her or hold her hand. Sometimes became every day. Thank goodness she was so well practiced at silencing her thoughts.

By now, Gabrielle had stopped in her tracks over twenty times, and Xena felt her breath stop over twenty times, and her body tickle and the apex of her thighs moisten over the smallest of touches over twenty times; and every time, not a line in her face showed a difference or desire or even a swift breath or a fluttering of the eyes. She opened the practicality drawer in her heart far wider than it needed to be and responded accordingly. She wanted this day to be a day of rest, but between Gabrielle’s small interferences, they were making stupidly slow pace, and could really only set up camp for the night by the time they’d reached their intended spot, one of Xena’s favorites, clear of woods and near a deep lake, surrounded by caves. Strategic heaven. Even if no fight was going on.

Ostensibly.

Xena was sharpening the sticks for the fire when she heard suddenly, sheepishly, from behind her:

Xena…” and raised her eyebrow, waiting for another question without an ending. She continued her task and answered with a low, “Yes?”

Gabrielle came closer to her—Xena could feel it—Gabrielle’s job now was to spread bed rolls and cook, not ask questions, anyway, and Xena would have pointed that out if not for the fact that this time, Gabrielle finally managed to ask her question.

Are we a couple?”

The dead night’s silence fell on where they had set camp. Nothing that would qualify for slapstick comedy happened other than that one of the sticks was pressed down on by Xena with such force that it bounced from her grip and flew somewhere, probably nearby in the grass. Her back was to Gabrielle, she was so thankful her back was to Gabrielle; it gave her far more time to keep her tone even, her movements under control. But still, not a woman of many words, all she managed was,

Wh-what?”

Are we a couple?” Gabrielle repeated. She was holding a scroll in her hand, though Xena didn’t see that. It looked as though she needed the answer to continue writing a story. For all intents and purposes, she really kind of did. But Xena was quiet, so Gabrielle took a wide step closer to her, placing her hand on Xena’s back, and Xena thanked all the gods and all the humans she could that Gabrielle couldn’t see her ice-blue eyes frenetically scan the environment around them for an escape route—when what she really wanted to do was to lean back into the warm hand on her back. The problem with silences such as these was that, in a friendly relationship, they had to end, and Xena’s lame tactic was to ask again,

What?”

Translated to combat strategy, she’d have been long dead.

Can you turn around?” Gabrielle said. Her voice was so clear. Xena had her face towards the lake. Gabrielle’s voice sounded softer even, calmer and more soothing.

Yeah. Yep. Yeah,” Xena nodded, frantically searching for some kind of up-her-sleeve trick, and failing, and then finally turning around to face Gabrielle, who was lit from behind by the setting sun, making her if possible even prettier, even more inviting, and when Gabrielle saw Xena’s face, her brows furrowed.

Are you okay?”

Yes,” Xena answered too fast. She scratched her nose. Gabrielle gave her a quizzical look, but relented, motioning with the scroll and her hands as she did when she was passionate about saying or asking something—which was a lot of the time—when she asked, again,

Are we a couple? You and me?” Since Xena failed to answer the first two times, she decided to make matters easier for the brunette.

I love you so much,” Gabrielle said, and Xena exhaled; she knew the answer to this one.

I love you too, Gabrielle. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to m—”

See, you say that,” Gabrielle interrupted her—as she did a lot of the time—tapping in the air with her quill. “But I’ve been trying to figure out what that means for, like, weeks now. You already have changed your ways, so that wasn’t me doing that. And I basically write your story, so it can’t be that I provide you with any grand service. Is it just my company? That I’m nice? It’s the nicest thing that ever happened to you that you have a friend?”

Xena was quiet. Her mouth opened, and then closed. Gabrielle was an expert in the speaking department, and Xena placed her bets on her own continued silence—that it would lead to more talking on Gabrielle’s side.

She was right.

But we’re not just friends, are we? We said that, too. We said we were like family. But I have a sister,” she dipped her voice. “And I feel nothing for her like I do for you.”

Yes?” Xena managed

Yeah! No. It’s different. Really different. Well, I like Lilla and all, but you—you’re amazing! And every time I see you, I get excited, in a weird kind of butterfly way, what philosophers spoke of as love, I think, and I don’t want to be away from you, ever, and I worry about you and we have a home together, even.” She gestured around them to Argo and the lake and the caves. “…of sorts.” All said with sweet simplicity and no fear. Xena could only be jealous of such freedom, but the thought that Gabrielle felt romantic feelings for her, after years of Xena hiding her intense feelings towards the blonde, was so overwhelming, that her mind turned blank.

Gabrielle only gave Xena a short opportunity to get a word in edgewise, but Xena was shaking, and grinding her teeth so fiercely, clenching her body so horribly powerfully, that she wasn’t completely sure a bone or a tendon wouldn’t snap out of place. Is this happening this is happening what is happening. Control was gone and so was Xena. Gabrielle was still talking, she realized. Her eyes settled right above Gabrielle’s head.

“…and what did the philosophers speak of when they did of love? Romantic love? I mean, again, I have a sister, but the things I find myself thinking about doing with you, well,” she laughed, and then stopped laughing immediately. “Well, that’d be very wrong to do with a sister.”

Xena’s mouth fell open, her breath constricted. Yes—that would be very wrong to do with her sister, if she had one, years of intensifying images of Gabrielle moving and spreading and arching, images that were now so close together they were all Xena thought of; and another desire to be only with Gabrielle, together alone. She had no interest in anyone else in a way she never felt before, and accepted her fate. Gabrielle wouldn’t walk a path like that with her, she was sure, and kept her mouth shut to maintain their friendship at least—to be flooded with hitched breaths and flashes of exposed skin forever. Not sisterly types of ideas, those were.

It was so shocking to Xena now that Gabrielle was speaking, that her mind at first did not register it. Of course, she also knew—very well—what she wanted to do with Gabrielle. To Gabrielle. What Gabrielle did to her, a hypnotizing kind of arousal she—an experienced lover—had never felt before. How is this possible this is not happening it couldn’t possibly there are no such things as happy endings. But for a second, Xena saw Gabrielle naked and arching her back in her mind’s eye, and she moaned. Out loud. And Gabrielle raised her eyebrow at her, smiling. She wondered how long Gabrielle was thinking of this. The same amount of time? Less? Did it only start today? This isn’t happening it can’t happen I couldn’t be this luck——Xena suddenly remembered she was in the middle of a conversation.

An important one.

Gabrielle,” Xena said. She cleared her throat. “You are I aren’t a couple.” Xena felt like someone punched her in the face, but she had no intention of playing any games with Gabrielle. She very quickly came to understand her love for Gabrielle was rare in its purity. She kept it close to her heart.

At any rate, Gabrielle’s stance dropped. She seemed disappointed at Xena’s reply. I’m torturing myself, Xena thought. My only love—

Oh,” she said. “We’re not.”

No—”

Because you don’t feel those things,” Gabrielle nodded.

What? No!” Xena cried out. She would not stand for that. Her mind was reeling. This isn’t happening. Her answer was louder than she had intended, and surprised Gabrielle. For whatever reason, her one-liners were far from her. She was babbling, struggling for the right words.

What? So, you do?”

What?”

Feel those things? For me?”

Xena closed her eyes.

Yes,” Xena whispered, trying to control herself. Even if it’s an option, it’s not one that you deserve, Xena, she reminded herself. But a series of images flashed in her mind, and she added, softly, almost seductively, “and other things.”

Gabrielle shifted her weight to her right side, smiling again.

What other things?” And Xena thought, nice one. Idiot. Now you have to compose a love song. I’m not lying to Gabrielle, she told herself. Not to Gabrielle.

That I…want…” she could barely say it. “That I want you,” she managed, and Gabrielle grinned. “That we could… that the way I feel towards you, is more…I love you—it’s a kind of… in the same sense—”

That a betrothed couple would feel towards each other,” Gabrielle gave her a smug smile.

Xena’s mouth fell open.

No, no,” she said, and that’s all she said, instead of, “no, no, because no betrothed couple has ever felt for anyone what I feel for you, I love you, I need you, I ache for you,” all of those were left unsaid.

Wait. No?” Gabrielle squinted her eyes.

What?”

No? Not the way a betrothed couple would feel towards each other?”

Yes!” Xena said, and then, “With love, yes, but—no, no, because—then, that means that, they’ve… been.”

“…what?”

Xena placed a hand on her forehead.

To be betrothed you have to be together, if it’s a love marriage, with no—with no—issues? Issues, in the middle, you have to—couples—and I love you so much, but there has been so much—”

What?” Gabrielle said quietly.

What?”

You love me? Like that?”

Xena froze in place. It took her a full minute to nod.

Yes. Gabrielle. Yes. I do. Very much.”

So, we are.” Gabrielle placed her quill to her lips.

Wait, what?”

A couple.”

No.”

But you said—”

Courage is needed in all sorts of situations, in all kinds of ways, oftentimes not at war at all, Xena’s mother had told her once. But she still took a defensive stance when she said,

We’re not a couple, Gabrielle, but I’d like for us to be.”

Xena’s eyes were closed. She didn’t open them until she felt a peck on her lips from Gabrielle, to which she gasped, visibly weak in the knees, to Gabrielle’s delight.

That’s great!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Me too.”

Gabrielle moved forward to kiss Xena again, and the brunette stopped her. Gabrielle noticed now Xena was shaking. She felt Xena take her hand. Her fingers were warm, and Gabrielle could feel in them the motion of her breath—too fast.

Gabrielle,” she said, and Gabrielle found herself, for the millionth time, transfixed by Xena’s eyes, and how they seem to emit light, and so she missed the first part of her sentence, and caught, “…no new, simple, young love. It’s heavier than that. It’s deeper.”

Gabrielle shook her head. She dropped her scroll and quill, and it was her turn to say,

What?”

Xena had to make a painful confession again. She’d rather be suffering a painful wound.

Gabrielle, I don’t love you like a newly betrothed couple loves each other. I love you…more…than that. Like you’re a part of me. Like you have my entire heart.” Xena took their combined hands and placed them on her chest. Gabrielle suddenly looked older, questions removed from her expression, only resolution left.

Like I’m your family,” Gabrielle said. They were moving closer, but as if by inertia, not choice. “Like no one else in the world has ever loved anything the way you love me,” Gabrielle said. Xena nodded.

Yes,” she said.

And you think your feelings are unreciprocated.”

They are,” Xena whispered. But then—

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, as if sizing Xena up. A breeze interrupted her long hair framing her face.

And what did you think I had in mind?”

Xena’s eyes went wide. She was silent for a moment, and her ability to masquerade was getting weaker by the second—not even the best of actors—

Gabrielle, you’re innocent,” Xena whispered. “You’re filled with light and love and kindness. I’m not—on your level.”

Level?” Gabrielle repeated. After that her body did move on purpose. Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena’s waist, and try as she might, the warrior couldn’t keep her gasp at bay, and then cast her eyes downward. Gabrielle pushed her hand closer to the brunette and Xena gasped again, and then she moved her hand upwards, wrapping it around Xena’s ribcage, and the brunette pressed against it.

Like clay,” Gabrielle whispered, and then added, “Do you think you are not also filled with light, and love, and kindness?”

Xena didn’t know what to say, but she did move her weight closer to Gabrielle’s hand, as much as she could. Her head was still hung to her chest, gaze cast downward, but passion was overtaking her—had a philosopher been there, they’d say that passion for war and passion for love are similar in power, even if not in nature. Then she said,

No. I don’t.” Gabrielle seemed angry. “And I wouldn’t want you to waste something so pure on someone so undeser—”

Wait. You think this is a crush?” Gabrielle chuckled. Her nostrils were flaring.

Xena raised her head and heart immediately, together.

Is it?”

No,” she whispered. “You think you’re good at hiding your feelings?”

Xena’s mouth fell open.

I never meant to—” she tried.

But you forget how well I know you,” Gabrielle laughed.

That’s not that—” Xena said, and then stopped. She didn’t have anything to say.

I spoke of love,” Gabrielle said. Xena thought she saw a tear rolling down her cheek. “Not infatuation. We travel everywhere together. We seek each other’s advice. We protect each other to the death. We love each other like couples do.” Gabrielle swallowed hard. “Do we not? Love. The strongest force on earth.”

We do,” Xena nodded. “I do.”

Then why is my question surprising? Why is the answer no?”

Xena didn’t have to think. Something was happening on its own. She found her mind settled, lulled by Gabrielle’s speech. It didn’t feel as heavy a place to be in as usual.

Well, I am—not nearly as pure as you—”

And there’s a rule I wasn’t aware of, that in a couple, one of the two cannot have a difficult past?”

Struck down well, Xena thought. She could talk in more exact details of her deeds, but the answer would be the same. Then, she summoned up the courage to say, whispering at first, louder and more hoarsely as she continued,

There is another difference.”

The physicality. Of it.” When Gabrielle said that, it was already dark. Xena did not see what her hands were doing.

Yes.”

Of which you are very experienced.”

Xena thought back, mainly with disgust, to the things she had done. She didn’t want disgust when thinking of Gabrielle, so she tucked her thoughts away—and there was one thing she had no experience at all in—but she said,

Yes.”

And is there a rule that, in a couple, one cannot be more physically experienced?”

Xena shook her head. She wanted to say something, and almost decided on what to say, when she felt Gabrielle’s hand leave her side, which she resented, and pull it to rest on her chest. Xena couldn’t see—it was pitch dark by now—when Gabrielle led her hand over her clavicle, down her sternum. Down to her breast. Gabrielle was naked, Xena realized. She was so dizzy.

Then why are we not?”

Xena’s knees nearly buckled under her. She closed the distance between her and Gabrielle as fast as she could, her hand too frozen to roam on its own. So, Gabrielle returned to guide it, past her breasts, down to her stomach, then her bare thigh, and up again to her hip, and Xena’s mouth stayed open, and Gabrielle couldn’t tell she was shaking her head, but could feel the warmth from her hand and her breath intensify with every small movement.

What?” Xena whispered.

She lifted her head, defiantly letting the long fingers of her other hand join Gabrielle’s initiated exploration, running them in separate directions and then the same, dipping for a moment a soft touch near or inside Gabrielle and returning to her place, spreading her palms on Gabrielle’s chest, and the blonde answered, constricted breath and all,

A couple.”

Xena searched for Gabrielle’s face with her right hand while the blonde undid Xena’s leather suit—no objections—and the brunette stepped out of it, finally letting one body meet another without a barrier, thinking that barriers are foolish between them, that they should never, ever be allowed, and then found Gabrielle’s cheek and lowered her head and kissed the blonde and her head spun and an unintended moan left both of them at the same time, and they both pressed harder against each other at the same time, and Xena said,

Then my initial answer was wrong,” and her voice sounded tortured already, and Gabrielle was pleased because she had so much more planned. Xena giggled, or made a sound close to giggling, a sound Gabrielle had never heard. She bit Xena’s lower lip and wrapped an arm around her, on the small of her back, lowering her to the ground, and Xena’s breath was fast and warm and Gabrielle’s skin soft and moving, constantly moving, and words turned very hard to remember, so Gabrielle shook her head for a moment, and said,

What?”

Xena slid a spread palm from Gabrielle’s hip to her inner thigh, eliciting a bated breath, and rolled them around so she was on top of the blonde, and they kissed, taking short breaks to kiss each other’s neck or face, and Gabrielle thought, this is the slowest conversation I’ve ever had, and Xena thought she was a fool thinking a woman like Gabrielle would set out on a path so direct without a plan, and smiled, and said,

Then we are.”

And she kissed Gabrielle again, and again, and again, until there was no air but air for pleasure as her kisses lowered as if on their own, and Gabrielle was breathing so hard Xena’s head moved quite drastically with the rhythm, and when she found herself at the apex of Gabrielle’s thighs, grinned, resting her mouth there softly and hearing a fist pound the ground around them,

We are what?”

Gabrielle managed before her entire body moved to most optimally meet one specific point, and was crying out when she was suddenly bereft of the touch, and turned angry, and then heard,

Then we are a couple.”

And immediately got her wanted hot touch back, and she smiled in the dark, and bit down on her lip, and protested when Xena’s mouth moved to her inner thigh, twice, and saw enough to reach down and gather jet black hair into a ponytail with her shaking hands, and said,

Okay. I’ll write it down,” before her back arched when she drew a bated breath, so sharp it hurt her throat.

*

When Xena had to do something horrible, she did it fast. She was the kind of person who performed unwanted tasks first, saving the best for last. She had already been in situations where she needed to murder, or maim, or take a serious blow to the stomach or face in a fight, plenty of times when she had to be beaten, or beat others, and even in her daily life washing her clothes and wringing them out—she hated wringing them out because the water was cold—she did all those first. If she could help it. Five seconds was her maximum waiting time before executing a verdict, no matter how terrible it was. The nightmares and daydreams and pounded guilt that came later, came slowly. At their own pace. But the action had to be fast.

Here she was, though, in a cave, in a clearing near a river, sitting close to a fire she made with one hand, the other constantly embracing Gabrielle, and stalling. Xena never stalled. She had a good chance to simply place Gabrielle on Argo and ride to this clearing—she and Gabrielle came back here often and acted silly or very serious—since she managed to have Gabrielle drink a tincture she had that left her deeply asleep, almost unconscious. She was asleep still, cradled in her hide in Xena’s arms as if it could provide some kind of barrier for her—and Xena had regretted she had ever wished them all gone. But Gabrielle said no before, so they walked here, Gabrielle in Xena’s arms; and until she could get Argo close enough to tie the saddle bag with all its contents to her, she carried it herself, too, since Gabrielle was afraid before. And she knew what she had to do. And Gabrielle knew what had to be done. Two horrible things. Too horrible to think of, but then, they were all she could think of at all.

At least she’s done them before, she tried to soothe herself. Then she realized that just made things worse. At least it was nothing she hadn’t seen before, she tried, and her lower lip quivered—it would make it so much harder to do. Her various masters, those who taught her kravmaga, martial arts, swordplay, pressure points, herbs and healing, gymnastics, all of those, though of very different disciplines, had all said one thing. They said that one day she would have to use her knowledge to better someone she knew by hurting them. She tucked that in the back of her mind whenever told. She thought it unnecessary when she came to even care. How would she ever want to better someone by hurting them so deeply? Her thirst for war and blood all but eroded the saying. It returned to her now hitting like a whip and she gladly took the blow.

When they’d reached this cave, Gabrielle was completely out. For the first time in what seemed like days, Xena lowered her from her grip, tucking her in a pile of hides, hidden. She left a letter just in case, though there was no way Gabrielle would wake up, and then she ran as fast as she could to gather the supplies she knew she needed. Blankets, more salves, more herbs. More clothes. More hides. More thread. More needles. More herbs, more herbs, more herbs. One in particular. She hated its name. As if there were anything royal about it at all, if it had to be used, when it had to be. They all sounded so pleasing. Angelica. Primrose. Pennyroyal. Tansy. Juniper. It sounded cute. She saw what they did. Firsthand, many times. There was nothing at all cute or pleasing about it. She left the alchemist’s tent before he finished his explanation, having coaxed him—coaxed meaning pinched—to sell her the herbs, and gathering more for the side effects, and three more for a safer fate, and she had to place her hand on her mouth all the time, and she was dizzy and furiously hot. But she ran as fast as she could back to the cave, checking on Gabrielle, who was still asleep, and wordlessly just gathered her back to her arms, resting Gabrielle’s head at the nape of her neck. And waited.

*

Xena liked Gabrielle’s small strokes of her hands and back, her kisses to her forehead, the feeling of her head resting on Xena’s back when they rode Argo. Couple things, these were couple things, she reminded herself. Things that couples do. She took a note from Gabrielle to start doing them herself, because she wanted to so badly. They’d ordered food at an inn once and she had poured Gabrielle a drink and gave it to her and kissed her hand. Gabrielle giggled for a whole half hour, and the blush that rose to Xena’s face could still be seen the next day.

It was quickly that they became the kind of couple who saw no one around them. Their fighting instincts still intact—sharper, actually, better as a team—they took time to kiss in the moonlight and tell each other stories, and every day, Xena would declare her lack of worthiness, and every day, Gabrielle would say, without turning around—do you love me? I love you. And there’d be no dispute. Sweet charming gestures were plentiful, especially when Xena became more comfortable, making it a habit to place her head over Gabrielle’s shoulder, nuzzling her neck, when they were just talking; or better yet, hurt a very specific part of the body of anyone who dared touch her, shrugging her innocence when Gabrielle berated her later.

All well and good, sweet and charming, baths together and lovestruck dizziness. There was a slowing of pace that they had gotten used to, a difference in gazes. Their days were busy, unbearable as it was to say it, fighting for justice, but the small spaces in between were devoted to a touch that turned, fairly quickly, from exploratory, to secure, to downright taunting. No one could beat Xena when the night (or day) shone upon their flushed bodies. Gabrielle was not only a powerful and quick learner, but also far more imaginative than Xena could have dreamed of, finding new ways to pleasure or tease Xena. But Xena had time and experience. And patience. She’d drive Gabrielle crazy every day, her steady hands always in control. If they played a game, which they often did, Gabrielle would always lose. Her punishment would always be something horribly pleasant.

They went back to their clearing one day after a fight and swam in the warm river and like magnets were drawn to each other and kissed and wrapped their limbs around one another and it seemed as though with every passing second their kisses got more passionate, touch more desperate, so by the time they made their way to a patch of grass near shore they were frantic, arching into one another again and again, searching desperately—desperately—for one another. Xena kissed Gabrielle’s neck, Gabrielle bit down on Xena’s shoulder. Xena scratched down Gabrielle’s back, and Gabrielle straddled Xena. She kissed her face and shoulders and chest and moved downward and downward with one intent, a fairly clear one, that she has been waiting for since that day when she asked Xena if they were a couple and reasoned her way into a ‘yes’—there would always be something in the way, though. An urgent errand or a disturbance from the woods or something to make Gabrielle stop in her tracks, her stomach hovering above Xena’s lower belly, her fingers at the ready.

It took Gabrielle all but two tries to realize this was a pattern and that something was the matter. She went in her mind with the painful theory that this was an act Xena did not like because it had been used against her in a violent way; that made her angry, but also excited, since she knew she could correct the experience. She relented other times, letting her fingers speak and love for her; Xena told her she’d make a good painter or harp player, and a great “hhngiijrgijg,” she had said, and Gabrielle’s deft fingers really were a thing of magic. Naturally gifted. But today she planned something different, something maybe difficult, but necessary, at least the cause of it, and braced herself for a terrible story or a stinging rejection.

She received none.

She never thought Xena to be the giggling type—she hardly even laughed—before their whirlwind romance began, but Gabrielle soon found she was quite prone to it, not only in ticklish spots but almost simply due to small pleasures, of which she simply had none before she found Gabrielle, the blonde understood one day, suddenly, not since her brother died, and her heart pinched. She devoted herself from thereon to giving Xena all the small and big pleasures she deserved. She also was, as was Xena, moved by some maddened, magnetic force, the way their touches drew sharp breaths, nearly unbearable pleasure, nothing even the experienced warrior had felt before. It was past even them, they knew. Something magical. That was the truth. When they’d emerged from the water, Xena was all flushed skin and giggles; her touch was unbelievably skilled and accurate, Gabrielle found, and there were times she would, with a prowling intent, only half a smile adorning her face, almost hunt Gabrielle. This time, though, she was loose and laughing; her shoulder hit a twig and she mumbled, “ow!” between giggles, never—this seemed to be a rule of thumb—breaking contact with Gabrielle.

They’d reached their campsite—outside, it was, as it had been a nice day—and continued their very changing exploration of one another: soft and hard, light and filled with curiosity, and Gabrielle lowered herself fairly quickly to where she wanted to be, and with every lowering of her own body, Xena’s grew quieter, until she was hovering right above where she’d wanted to, or a little over, and Xena’s eyes were darting across the field, ostensibly to find an excuse to be loosened from the grip.

Why?” Gabrielle asked before Xena had a chance to say anything or be loosened of any grip.

What?” Xena said. Her breath was heavier than Gabrielle’s.

Why do you never let me….” she blushed, which was—well, unnecessary, considering the position they were in, but words are one thing and actions, another. “Do you never let me, do this?” She lowered her mouth, only dipping her tongue into Xena for a second, jolting her, frantic, to amplify her question.

This?”

Xena didn’t answer. The smile was gone from her face, but remnants of it still lingered on it, and her hand was stroking Gabrielle’s face, so Gabrielle knew it couldn’t be that bad. Xena really was an outstandingly beautiful woman, Gabrielle thought. She thought it often. She thought Xena thought the same of her because Xena would make a habit of telling her so every single time their bodies touched. And Gabrielle knew she was a pretty girl, with pretty eyes and a pretty face, that many women would be envious of her form, of her lips, of her cheekbones and nose. But Xena.

She was different.

Not the kind of beauty you see every day, Gabrielle knew. Or every century. Different and fascinating. Long-limbed and tall, she was slender and athletic, her body almost massaged by repeated battles, her jawline so strong it seemed like a painting sometimes, cheekbones sharp, her hair dark, a perfect contrast to her skin. And her eyes. God, her eyes, there was no name for their color, or how they seemed to emanate light—Gabrielle didn’t know that was possible—or their almost see-through quality, or icy beauty. Gabrielle would need to look at them as often as she could. She developed a habit of asking Xena to open them when they were intertwined in any way, embrace or more; soon enough Xena learned on her own, and fought her own pleasures to keep her eyes open for Gabrielle, to keep her lips parted for Gabrielle, her strikingly gorgeous face in her line of view at all times. Because Gabrielle wanted her to. Already their lovemaking was not only intense and getting more intense, but cumulative, as if they could not get enough of each other. Xena drank from Gabrielle like she was water and Xena was a wanderer in the desert. It was the longest relationship she’d ever had, Xena thought. They didn’t need to bother with promises or decisions. They simply were so in love, more and more so every day, that they were, it seemed, turning into one heart, fusing into one another by body and by soul, and their burning was out of control, and they let it be, let themselves become consumed, so desperate were they, so very much in love.

And now Xena was on her back, under Gabrielle, both naked, not smiling but not frowning. She wasn’t much of a talker—that didn’t really change, so Gabrielle took the lead again.

Is it—are you afraid?”

Xena searched the sky with her gaze.

I guess.”

Someone…did something to you, doing this?”

Xena shook her head. She smiled despite herself at Gabrielle’s intense worry, running long fingers over her face where she was positioned right below her.

No.”

No? You always—” Gabrielle didn’t like it when she didn’t have the perfect words to say. “You always…avoid. It.”

I guess I do,” Xena said. Her voice was low so that it became hoarse. Gabrielle loved that. Her rounded and clear accent, her “all rights,” and “very wells.”

Why?” Gabrielle asked. Xena seemed much less serious than the subject required, in Gabrielle’s opinion. She traced Gabrielle’s lips with her fingers, and then stretched on the grass, smiling again.

I’ve never done it before,” Xena said. Gabrielle was so shocked, she let out a gasp despite her attempts to stop it. Xena—the conqueror—the queen—there was something she’d never done? Not even in her wild days, the wildest, the least calculated one? She asked Xena that last question.

No,” Xena answered simply. Gabrielle was confused. She didn’t…she never did it, and during all these years, so, surely it would not be of Gabrielle’s place to do it to her, and she inched up, giving up understandably. Stopping her with words, Xena said,

I think it’s the most intimate thing you can do.”

Gabrielle’s mind flashed back to the first time they were together, and how intimate it was indeed, and every time since—every touch, every motion, and giving up control, complete control, letting another, even a lover, hold the center of their mind right where it was the farthest away from the center of yours.

It is,” Gabrielle answered in a whisper. She sounded surprised.

I had one thing to keep,” Xena explained. Her finger was making a little wave in Gabrielle’s hair. “So, I kept it. I got to. Somehow it worked.”

So never…” Gabrielle tried to clarify.

No.”

Not Borias, not…Ares…”

No.”

Gabrielle nodded. She smiled and placed both her hands on the grass near them, in an intention to lift herself so she could sit by Xena. She was stopped again, more strongly this time, by what for Xena was very little force and for her quite a bit.

I wanted, when it happened, for it to be someone special,” Xena locked eyes with Gabrielle, and smiled. “Someone I chose.”

Gabrielle nodded.

Someone I could trust with my life. I’ve been with people who could and tried to stab me during lovemaking. And this—this is my…” she pursed her lip, using one hand to ease Gabrielle back to where she was before she rose. “Virginity,” she chuckled, and Gabrielle blushed. “I suppose.”

Gabrielle seemed puzzled but nodded. That Xena managed to keep this act undone for all her experiences was a marvel. But why was she holding her down, then. Unless—

And I had to think about it,” Xena shrugged, playing with a wayward hair on Gabrielle’s forehead.

Of course,” Gabrielle said, breathing heavily.

And I did,” Xena said. It was then that she caught Gabrielle’s gaze in a look she’d never forget: lustful, begging. Pleading. Xena was always the leading one, the strong one, she won the game, she set the pace. But here, Gabrielle knew suddenly, Xena was opening Gabrielle’s fist, and placing something very precious in it: her very specific, very guarded, very private, kind of control.

And I choose you.”

The wind was strong and whipped Gabrielle’s hair in her face and Xena’s too. Gabrielle was serious, face concentrated, like she did when she was practicing; Xena seemed more amused.

Are you—”

Yes,” Xena said. She turned serious then, too. “I want it to be you. To only ever be you.”

Gabrielle felt dizzy and spun, but her insistent mind would not relent. What if she did it wrong? What if she wasn’t enough? What if Xena didn’t like it, or want it? Or wish for it again? She looked down. Xena was staring at her with narrowed eyes. The request had turned into a plea and then command. It was getting cold. Gabrielle got up.

Let’s go in the cave,” she said softly.

Xena shook her head, hanging it to her chest. “Oh,” she said, understanding from Gabrielle’s reply that the answer to her vulnerable request was no. Rejected and dismayed, she followed Gabrielle slowly, too sad to think of firewood and food, wrapping a cloth around her body.

Gabrielle spread a bedroll on the ground as soon as they entered the cave. One. The sun would set in a few hours. Gabrielle let the wrapped cloth around her own body fall, then undid the knot on the one on Xena’s body, looking her up and down admiringly, purposefully. Xena seemed dejected, but before she could say anything at all—she had a complete change of subject planned, baring your soul and being rejected was not the type of thing that would encourage Xena to engage in further exploration—Gabrielle caught her gaze.

Lie down,” she said. Not in her usual voice. It wasn’t a question, but not a command, either. It was, from what Xena could tell, a fact. Gabrielle didn’t repeat her words or need to. Xena took careful steps towards the bedroll.

I don’t—” she tried. Gabrielle bowed her head, and Xena knew to be quiet. Gabrielle waited with truly outstanding patience for Xena to lie down on the bedroll. Xena felt exposed. She didn’t like it. She was about to protest when Gabrielle sat very close to her, not on top of her, but close enough to reach all of her, and grazed the back of her hand on Xena’s cheek.

I’m very honored,” Gabrielle said. Her voice was husky. Xena had never heard it that way. She liked it. Her legs moved against one another.

I’d—” she started, but Gabrielle kissed her. It wasn’t a kiss like any they’d shared before, though there were many wonderful ones. Xena looked up; there was a root emerging from the wall of the cave right above her. She grabbed it, since she didn’t have the best control of her limbs when Gabrielle was near her.

This kiss was slow, and deliberate; it was lazy and languished, tuned and filled with heavy, heady air. Xena was already writhing, and Gabrielle seemed both pleased and unmoved, though her position sitting beside the bedroll wouldn’t allow Xena to see if she had been affected. Gabrielle licked Xena’s lips, and bit her tongue and mouth a little, and breathed into her, and Xena was already pulling slightly on that root, for the first time allowing—wanting—for Gabrielle to be the one in complete control. When they parted lips, Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena’s shoulder.

Gabrielle—” Xena tried. Gabrielle smiled. She put her index finger to Xena’s mouth.

When was the last time you gave up control?” She lowered herself again, kissing Xena’s neck, using her teeth. It all seemed calculated.

Wha—what?”

You’re always in control. When was the last time you gave it up?” Gabrielle clarified. Her mouth and tongue were everywhere at once. Xena’s vision blurred and floated back into focus. She slowly lost control, or care, over what she was doing, when Gabrielle’s tongue touched her breasts, when her hands scratched down her back, she was dizzy, spun, she saw shapes and sounds, purples and golds. Hands and tongues tangling and moving and Xena’s body massaged to move and made to respond to Gabrielle, like clay, all stress gone, moisture dripping down Xena’s thigh like a small waterfall already. Gabrielle kissed her up and down, and up, wherever a patch a skin was available; she played with her hair, which was drying slowly, and pressed down on the small of her back, moving upward, following Xena’s jawline with her thumb. She covered her face with kisses; long ones when their mouths met, short ones when Gabrielle happened to be placed elsewhere on her body, and Xena started feeling odder and higher and less patient—that took effort—and wetter and more frustrated than she ever had. She protested once; Gabrielle’s look was enough to keep her quiet. It must have been an hour of small waves and gasps in Xena’s breath. Then Gabrielle pulled her touch away and Xena opened her eyes, breathing heavily. She said, “no,” without controlling it at all. Gabrielle smiled. She still had some shyness in her smile usually, from her days in Poteidaia, a farmer’s daughter, a regular family’s daughter. But at this moment she was…sly, almost, moving effortlessly between Xena’s legs.

You sure about this?” Gabrielle asked. “Can I do this? Do I have your consent?”

Xena looked at Gabrielle oddly. She seemed confused, as if she had just woken up.

Ye—yes. Yes. Yeah, yes,” she tried, not completely sure if she was actually making sounds. She wasn’t too keen on the lack of current touch from Gabrielle, but when she felt Gabrielle’s mouth on her, all of her spirits and regrets, and thoughts and colors and dreams, and past and present and time, collapsed over her with a huge force, and she intended to let out a moan but it was a cry, over the greatest pleasure she had felt, and she would have thought very reasonably—well, I am very glad I saved this moment till now! But she wasn’t thinking—or even activating her body willingly—at all. She murmured on her own and moved on her own when Gabrielle moved in, outside, below her, seemingly an expert now, and it didn’t take that long for the root of that tree to be pulled and pulled, and when the murmurs and motions and touches and wetness became so sharp, so pleasurable, that they became completely unbearable, Xena gasped loudly—so much so that Gabrielle was almost tempted to leave her task, but then giggled. The sound of her giggle was arrested by Xena’s warm flesh, hitting it, wetting Gabrielle’s chin further, tickling Xena. Xena pulled her body upwards when she didn’t know what else to do a few seconds later, seemingly to get away from the intensity of the touch, and a suddenly very calm Gabrielle held her down. Xena shook her head, frantically scanning the space around them without really seeing anything at all, fighting, always fighting. Gabrielle didn’t care and didn’t stop; she knew it’d be like this at the end of it, that she’d fight the climax. She had done before, the first time they had made love in earnest—love, not sex—but this must have been much more serious, as the back of Xena’s hand went to cover her mouth, and her eyes, wide with shock, searched for something. They found Gabrielle’s.

Gabrielle would encourage her verbally, but her mouth was otherwise preoccupied, so she simply smiled with her eyes, nodding. Was it good? Was she doing it right? Xena seemed shell-shocked, rocked to pieces by pleasure, and her moans completed the response; yes, it seemed she was doing it exactly right, and it did cross Xena’s mind she may well faint after this, knowing the strength of her muscles and what they could or could not stand since Gabrielle was an unbelievable lover, but this—this pleasure was different, deeper, stronger, harder, more thorough, than anything she’d felt. Gabrielle must have written it in her mind a long time ago. It surrounded her and drowned her, pulling her down and at her, up. Xena surrendered after a beautifully fought battle, minutes later. An opponent would have bowed, and indeed, Gabrielle smiled and closed her eyes, moving her mouth. Xena’s increasing screams were really making Gabrielle thankful they were nowhere near anywhere residential. Xena stopped for a second and then let something invisible wash over her body—you could almost see it in how she clenched her legs and then abs and then chest, the way she arched her back so hard she was almost folded in half, it seemed—and gave Gabrielle a good workout staying in place while moving—until she screamed, a sound neither of them would ever forget, and the root in her hand was torn from the wall of the cave, whatever tree it was attached to ostensibly now bereft, her body soaked in sweat and her breath strained, barely manageable, and Gabrielle leaned back and sat on her ankles, her hand on Xena’s stomach. She seemed curious, Gabrielle did, and licked her mouth, wiping it on her hand, and then tasting her hand, and giggling. Xena was in what looked like shock or a state of such surprise that she was completely arrested of movement. Her blue eyes scanned and scanned and scanned Gabrielle’s face, her lips parted, as if looking for an answer, and Gabrielle simply shrugged. Xena knew better than to try to speak. Gabrielle lowered herself so she was flush against the brunette and when Xena’s limbs seemed too heavy or confused to respond, she lifted Xena’s sweaty arm and buried herself underneath it, turning so she was on her side, and rested her head on Xena’s chest.

Glad ya waited?” Gabrielle regaled. Xena blinked—barely. She managed a breath. They stayed like that for a few hours.

*

Gabrielle was asleep in the corner of the cave, hidden with the utmost care in a pile of hides, close enough so Xena could hear her if she even moved, at a good distance from the fire, and Xena sat, her legs crossed, brows furrowed, with her back to her.

There were two things that needed to be done. She remembered happening upon a town where a rape had taken place and the young girl was returned and had to be taken care of. Her mother was hysterical. Xena had taken it upon herself to calm her down and speak to her, practically, with an even, low voice, the one she reserved for people in distress—reserved for every single person but Gabrielle, who had slowly but surely coaxed out of her higher tones, and curious questions, and painful memories. But with this girl’s mother, she was Xena, Warrior Princess. She had explained to her: there were two things that needed to be done.

They’d injured her, Xena had said. She had tried to choose her words carefully. Xena had been as nauseated that day as she was today. The girl couldn’t have been more than 15. That she had been returned at all alive was a miracle. The mother shook her head.

They’d injured her, Xena had repeated to the girl’s mother, saying she would need to apply a poultice. The mother didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand.

Between her legs.

That was the term she had used then.

They’d injured her between her legs and Xena would need to apply a poultice there, since there would be bruising. It was a rape by many men. Like this one, Xena thought, and she nearly vomited. Again.

She wondered for a second, for the umpteenth time, exactly how many men did this to Gabrielle, and how, and was then so sorry she had almost a sixth sense when it came to others, a seventh maybe when it came to Gabrielle, and she somehow knew it was probably the worst it could have been. Not that anything would have been good, but she knew in her heart that Gabrielle, her Gabrielle—so gentle—so good—why her?—was torn apart, ripped to pieces, by not one, or two, or four men, and not in any sort of order, even within that disgusting chaos. And the thought sent a jolt of pain through her that her strong body had already, in this short time, gotten used to.

She assumed, or hoped, that Gabrielle was unconscious when the worst of it happened, considering the hit to her head that left her tangled blonde hair knotted with blood—the one wound Xena had yet to tend to. She tried to calculate the times: how long was Gabrielle out? And how long were they apart? But she failed. It didn’t matter, she answered herself, Xena was the one who had let this happen. Besides, Xena knew, the body remembers. Better than the mind, the body remembers, and it reminds the soul and replies the mind in turn whenever it wishes to, unprompted, and that that, in itself, is a life sentence. She thought of it and her legs ached from when they were broken years prior. The body remembers, and Gabrielle was fully aware of what had happened to her, and that would be something to deal with. After a small oath that she’d be by Gabrielle’s side no matter what, for the time being and for the millionth time that day she shook the thought from her head as much as she could, buried the guilt from her mind—just enough to keep on functioning. Just for Gabrielle.

For Gabrielle, she whispered resolutely, and turned back to stare at the sleeping blonde. I’d do anything for you, she’d told Gabrielle several times. Purposefully not many times. She wanted it to be a special sentence, even if it were perpetually true. But she was never hesitant to say it when Gabrielle turned to her in fear or in sorrow, when she cried or was frightened for whatever reason. Xena would stroke her soft hair and kiss her head and hush her, tell it’ll be alright, and when Gabrielle asked if it would be, really, Xena would say, of course it will. I’d do anything for you, Gabrielle. And she had meant it. And now look at the damage she had caused.

She dragged her knuckles across a rock in the cave as hard as she could, wounding her skin, and then repressed her guilt again.

Back in the town that time, the mother of the girl had seemed puzzled still, so Xena had let it be. She had said it, that this would be needed. It’d sink in. It always did. Then she had added that there was one more thing.

We must prevent a pregnancy,” she’d said to the woman. “If one is to at all occur.”

The woman still seemed confused. Xena knew she understood what was being said but couldn’t find the strength or the will to respond.

In the cave by the fire, she suddenly understood the feeling all too well.

There are herbs, special herbs, that prevent the body from becoming pregnant. And the woman had asked her, shall I make us all tea, then? And Xena had wiped away her tear before it even had had a chance to gather in her ice-blue eyes. She’d thought then, what a thing to have to grasp one sudden day, for the mother, for the girl. It had crossed her mind that in all her days and adventures she had managed to avoid rape—since she was so strong—and was thankful, but also bewildered, shocked and horrified, at the face of such an understanding. So, she had simply repeated her sentence. There are herbs that prevent the body from becoming pregnant. I have them, she had told the woman. Your daughter needs them. I will give them to her, but they will make her sick.

The woman had thought for a long while. Then she had said, for the first time, something of reason.

But there will be no baby.”

Xena nodded. The woman had placed her arms on Xena’s shoulders.

The herbs will make her sick? That’s all right. I can take care of my own little girl. But I will not care for a baby born of this…evil,” she had said, contempt on her face. It turned into fury a second later. “I’ll kill it myself.”

And Xena couldn’t have said that she didn’t understand or wouldn’t have done the same.

There will be no baby,” the woman repeated, pleading.

Xena nodded again.

You promise.”

Xena nodded again.

To be safe, I’ll mix them all in the right proportions. But the side effects are—”

Do it,” the woman had said. “Whatever it takes.”

She hung her head close to her chest. The woman nodded.

Xena was led then to the girl’s room. Sotiria. Fitting. Xena had changed her assessment. The girl must have been 13, not 15. Xena had kept her face sealed. To her horror, the child was awake. She had long, blonde—almost white—hair, down to her waist, and freckles on her nose, and very vivid green eyes. She had been beaten half to death.

She flinched in her bed, the girl, as much as she could. Her mother hushed her. This woman is here to help.

She’s dressed like a warrior, the child had said. Xena looked at the ceiling. Her mind and soul and insides were completely empty. They had to be.

She’s a warrior for good,” the woman had said. Xena kept still.

Sotiria,” Xena had said to the girl, forcing herself to look her in the eyes. “There a few things I need to do, to make you feel better.”

Please don’t touch me,” the girl had begged. Xena had choked her feelings down when they came at her at a wave then. She was a master at it.

It’s all right,” she had said, her special reassuring tone, saved for those in dire distress. “I won’t hurt you. I’ll mend your wounds.” And she did. The girl had scratches and cuts and nail marks all over her; Xena had seen many cases like this, but few with a child so young, with what seemed like so many men—

She silenced herself. She made her heart beat normally. She didn’t let out a word. She had bandaged the girl with great care, applying salves softly where they needed to be, gaining the child’s trust through actions, soft gazes. Then she turned to her mother.

Now this,” Xena held the newly wrapped compress in her hand. The woman shook her head. She was unable to tell the child what would happen, what needed to happen. It infuriated Xena, but only on the level where she found the men later and gave them a brief lesson in physics—her way.

You can call me Tiri,” the girl said suddenly. Children, Xena had learned, can often sense better than their parents when something is needed.

Tiri,” Xena said. “That’s pretty. I like that.”

Like a tree,” the girl said, and Xena had smiled, despite herself.

Tiri, listen—those men—they hurt you in all sorts of places,” Xena explained. She kept her eyes on the girl’s face, but found that it took enormous effort from her, almost a physical strain.

The girl nodded.

I need to look…where they hurt you, in the place… where you can’t see. Where they shouldn’t have the most.” Xena found herself nodding. For whatever reason, the girl nodded with her. Of her own accord, the girl lowered the blanket on top of her, and her mother ran into the kitchen.

Do you promise it’ll hurt less?” the girl said. She had been in pain, Xena suddenly understood, terrible pain, all this terrible time.

Yes,” Xena said, her voice full, ecstatic she had had an answer that was sure and complete for any question relating to this. “Yes, yes, it’ll hurt less, and soon enough it won’t hurt at all,” she said. She stroked the girl’s hair. She wasn’t sure why.

Alright,” the girl said. Her long legs were straight on the bed.

When Xena had to do something horrible, she did it fast. She was the kind of person who performed unwanted tasks first, saving the best for last. She folded the girl’s leg, looked where she needed to. She placed the bandage where it belonged. The girl breathed a sigh of relief.

That’s it,” Xena said. She finished with it as quickly as she could. Later on, she sat with the girl’s parents.

You’ll have to do this every day,” Xena had said. She emptied her satchel of the herbs she had, enough for what the family would need. The girl’s mother cried, and her father yelled.

You’re mad,” he seethed. “To…to touch her again…there? Where it was the worst?”

It’s the only way to ease her pain,” Xena said in her low voice. She’d exchanged words with the girl’s father during that incident. She forgot what words now, in the cave. Only that the mother eventually marked silence, raising her hand. She took the herbs and bandages and asked for detailed instructions on how to use them, which Xena gave her, with a flat voice. She had kissed Xena on the forehead, and Xena had cried without crying.

Take care of her,” she had said to the family. And ran. She leaned her head on Argo then after and her breaths came out strange, strangled, and she thought of trees, the legend of Sotiria, and what names mean or don’t, or if they do then what, and then she mounted Argo and rode away, and she felt the cool wind dry her single tear.

She never did go back to see what the herbs she left did to Tiri. Tiri like a tree. She never came back, and never saw Tiri again. She’d be 17 now. And who knows where, or if.

That’s just how it went.

*

Xena was sitting at the cave still, and the herbs were dispersed in front of her, as if she had her own small dispensary. Two things that had to be done, two things. Which was worse? Both to hurt the one thing she loved most in the world, to fix a damage she let happen—she hated herself so hard and with such passion that it seemed to be keeping the fire lit. Xena did wish she didn’t know what each herb meant—but she did. Wish she didn’t have a ready poultice, bandages, salves, that she knew how to use—but she did. Not that she didn’t want to help Gabrielle. Just that she wished none of this would have happened at all. If she were more watchful, it wouldn’t have.

She looked back. Gabrielle was asleep. Every time guilt rose in her she shoved it down, but it was getting more and more difficult; she had to, for Tiri, for the slave girls she rescued, for the men she killed, she had to, and now for Gabrielle. With one exception—her own trial, once Gabrielle is well, will follow. The thought comforted her, and she lowered her gaze.

She looked back again. The poultice in her hand was ready. She was gentle and the tincture strong. She could do this now. Untuck Gabrielle from the hides, assess the damage, apply the bandage, be done with it. Gabrielle wouldn’t feel a thing. More than she was terrified of what she would see there, Xena only wanted to ease Gabrielle’s pain. In the meantime, she continued offering herself to the Fates or anyone she could think of, just to switch places. It should be possible. She had dealings with the gods, and she hoped they would listen, but in the meantime, she seriously considered administering the poultice while Gabrielle was still asleep—and that way, Gabrielle would feel no pain. Or at least not the one of being seen, seeing the horror on Xena’s face, which she knew she wouldn’t be able to hide.

Xena cried. And then again. That’s another form of rape, she knew. Gabrielle had to be awake for everything, from now on. From now on, she had to feel every little thing that her body and mind would send her way—it’s her one chance to heal, Xena knew, and after pleading again with any name she could think of, she wiped away her tears and went towards where Gabrielle was resting, poultice in hand.

Xena hovered above Gabrielle. Some of the color was back in her cheeks. A thought passed in her mind about how nothing good ever lasts for her, and she berated herself for thinking of herself at such a moment. Blonde hair, and the prettiest nose she’d ever seen. She’d told Gabrielle once that kids made fun of her for her own nose. Gabrielle retorted by traipsing her hand down the slope of it and kissing its tip.

Well, I like it just fine how it is,” she had said. Time. She had to do this. Time. Water pressure. In her mind the pain and screaming and men and leaving Gabrielle and one more time, one more time to collect it all—

She kneeled near the fire, bringing her body as close as she could to Gabrielle’s. She rested one hand on Gabrielle’s forehead, and stroked her face. She was almost lying down when she whispered the blonde’s name, a little louder this time, expecting a jerk reaction, a screaming awakening when she said Gabrielle’s name, but the blonde just opened her eyes slowly.

They looked so deep. Xena gave up control over tearing up as soon as she saw them, trading it in for a different kind of control—the one she needed to keep on functioning. She had nothing to hide from Gabrielle, anyway. All pretenses had been long gone.

Gabrielle,” she whispered. Gabrielle looked at her, and she saw—saw Gabrielle remember what had happened to her. For a second, after waking up, she was just her Gabrielle again. But then her eyes turned cloudy and downcast. She reached out from under the hides.

Xena,” she whispered. She had enough power in her now to lift herself up, and Xena wrapped an arm around her, kissing her neck.

Hey,” Xena smiled through her tears. “Hi.”

Hi,” Gabrielle answered. Throughout this whole time there was a remnant of a smile on her lips. Xena thought it strange but knew not to question reactions when it came to situations like these.

Will you hold me again?” Gabrielle said quietly. “I’m scared—”

Xena hurriedly pulled Gabrielle to her lap, kissing her forehead.

Here you are.” She tightened her hold on the blonde.

Gabrielle’s tense muscles seemed calmer in Xena’s grip. “I got ya,” she reminded the blonde. “I’m not going anywhere at all.”

Gabrielle buried her head in the hides. “You can’t hold me like this forever.”

Xena turned serious, her tears stopping. She covered Gabrielle’s cheek with one hand, turning it towards her. “Yes, I can,” she said, and Gabrielle knew her tone; it was one of absolute resolution, of a promise that will never be broken. “And I will.”

Gabrielle rose into awareness of her surroundings slowly, but surely. She glanced at the collection of herbs and medicine, at the fire, at Xena’s tortured face.

Oh,” Gabrielle said. She stroked Xena’s face with the back of her hand, and Xena placed the poultice on the hide to kiss Gabrielle’s knuckles. “You’ve been crying,” Gabrielle said. Everything was backwards.

You fell asleep without me,” Xena managed, bringing her face closer to Gabrielle’s. “You know I don’t like that.”

Gabrielle was cradled in Xena’s embrace and their faces were touching, cheek to cheek. Xena blessed every leaning in, every hug and nuzzle from her girlfriend. She knew others would behave differently. Gabrielle kissed Xena on the cheek, then the mouth.

Do it,” she said suddenly. Her voice was even. It didn’t change. Xena gasped, and then let out a sob.

You don’t need to explain that you have to.”

Xena allowed herself the luxury of pressing Gabrielle into a tight embrace before doing anything at all. She ran her thumb across Gabrielle’s back and cheek, sniffling.

I’m trying to put my war face on,” she whispered in Gabrielle’s ear.

There is no more war here,” Gabrielle said, lifting the poultice, and handing it to Xena. Her legs ached, but she moved the hides, and Xena helped her. “Just mending damages. And besides,” Gabrielle added, locked in Xena’s embrace. “I took away your war face. Remember? I won the staring contest.”

Xena chuckled, and tears ran down her cheeks. She shouldn’t be comforting me, Xena thought, this is madness. Her hand was shaking. Gabrielle’s legs were bare now.

Do it. Please. I just—I just want to get it over with.” She placed a hand on Xena’s face. “It hurts.”

It hurts? You’re hurting?” Xena said, panicked. “I have herbs for the pain.”

Then after,” Gabrielle whispered. “Please.”

Xena nodded. She changed her sitting position. Afterwards, when she would excuse herself to throw up outside, she’d remember the one thing that soothed Gabrielle: how her hand ran up and down Gabrielle’s leg, strongly, so she could feel it, feel her, more than she felt anything else. Gabrielle was direct, her tone even and quiet. She gave a number of men and a description that suited what Xena forced herself to see and would later on try to pretend she never did—unsuccessfully. Xena nodded. Everything turned fuzzy. It was so surreal—she had been placed in this position before. But under such different circumstances. She could practically feel herself disassociating, and let it happen, for Gabrielle’s benefit. And hers. She used a sponge and water. Whenever Gabrielle showed any sign of discomfort, Xena kissed her thigh. She stopped once when Gabrielle inhaled sharply, and Gabrielle commanded her to keep going. So, she did, but made sure Gabrielle was aware she was there more strongly than whatever those savages left behind for her to deal with. Xena looked away as much as she could, her gaze glued to Gabrielle’s, even when the blonde winced; she smiled at her, not glancing between her legs unless she absolutely had to, instead mouthing that she loved Gabrielle and that she’s got her and that it’s almost over. Almost done. Gabrielle let her say it, even though she knew nothing was close to being done. She just wanted to hear Xena’s voice.

Gabrielle cried out. Xena, willingly, separated her body from her mind. She found herself humming somehow, and Gabrielle’s muscles calmed again, so she continued. She’d never in her life worked so efficiently and quickly. She reached for the clothes she picked up at the market. The underwear fit well and the skirt she chose fit well also. Loose, so it wouldn’t push on anything. She lowered Gabrielle’s leg after about ten minutes, lifting her to wash her skin with water, and placed a shirt on her. She was focused on her work, but more so on Gabrielle; the blonde winced and clenched but withstood a procedure a thousand warlords would die during. Xena told her so between idle words and stories, and then—suddenly—it was done. Xena grabbed Gabrielle under her knees and back, and Gabrielle let her head drop to the nape of Xena’s neck, to rest. She didn’t cry. Xena wrapped her back in the hide.

Water,” Xena said. “Here.” Gabrielle drank on her own.

Is it better?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Every day, right?”

It’ll get better quicker,” Xena promised. “Are you still hurting?”

Gabrielle nodded. Xena lifted Gabrielle with ease to where the herb mixtures were. There was one ready. She placed a compress with a mix of herbs on it on Gabrielle’s forehead, and had her swallow another draught, to ease her pain and help her sleep.

There you go,” Xena said as she traced Gabrielle’s lips with her long fingers. “It’ll work fast.” She lifted Gabrielle closer, and the closer she lifted her, the closer Gabrielle wanted to be lifted.

We have one more—”

Not now, you have to rest,” Xena said. She looked Gabrielle up and down. “A true warrior.”

Gabrielle’s smile widened a bit. The herb mixture was working—her eyes were closing. But as they were, her body jerked. Xena did her best to calm herself. Gabrielle’s nails scratched her shoulder, and she let them. She tutted her tongue and said I love you and it’s all right dozens of times until Gabrielle’s body was still. Xena then carried her back to the pile of hides, stoking the fire.

Xena,” Gabrielle whispered. “You don’t like it when I go to sleep without you.”

Xena dropped whatever it was she was doing. She spread a bedroll right near the hides and lay down next to Gabrielle, burrowing so she could be as close to her as possible. The blonde turned, reaching for Xena’s hand, which she happily found. Xena let her find a position that would allow her legs to be parted and her torso to be on top of Xena so she could play with her hair and cradle her neck like she liked. It took her a bit, but she found it.

Gabrielle,” Xena said. Gabrielle was half asleep. “I’m not going anywhere, ever,” she said. Gabrielle nodded. “I’m always going to be right here,” she said. She wrapped a long arm around where Gabrielle was positioned on top of her and unwittingly closed her eyes. Only for a moment, she thought, and fell asleep, never leaving Gabrielle’s hand.