Masterpiece

By Gili Estlin Hirsch

 

Summary: Xena has a fever, and she lets her true wishes known to a caretaking Gabrielle. But will whispered fevered words break the pair? Or will whispered wishes come true?

This is post finale only in the sense that, in terms of the timeline, the Eve/Livia and Solan arcs have already happened. It’s just like Xena never went to Japan and never died. Like a regular alt fic, situated in what would be season 7, pretending the ending never occurred.

Warnings:

Sex: Very non-detailed mentions of sex between two women. Seriously, super implied and very feely rather than literally touchy. Erotic if anything and not even that. Nothing detailed at all.

Violence: None.

A little bit of very harmless hurt and comfort.

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

 


 

Gabrielle didn’t like mornings. That was a known fact. Gabrielle hated mornings, detested them. Her cheery disposition would never make itself known before noon and, unfortunately for Xena, wouldn’t simmer down until late at night, making the Warrior Princess the first front for many “Hey, Xena”s and “I can’t even believe this!”s, sometimes waking to find Gabrielle training in the complete dark—not that she didn’t appreciate the expertise—and effectively making their mornings mutually grouchy.

Success.

These last few days, they had been sleeping in a cave, much to Gabrielle’s delight. No horrible sunlight to be woken up by, and plenty of heat from the fire, the cave walls, and then there was Xena, of course, who had taken to wrapping her arms protectively around Gabrielle since the events of four weeks prior—their incredibly anti-climactic love confession, and then their much more climactic consummation of the confession, and then…well, repeated consummations after that—so all in all, she couldn’t complain, not really, and all of this is just to say that it was barely dawn when Gabrielle awoke, naturally, for no reason at all.

She blinked several times. It was dark pretty much, still night really. She wasn’t in pain, nature was not making a sound calling at her, nothing seemed off. She had been fast asleep and remembered no nightmares. She scanned the environment for any lurking danger and found none, and one look at Xena proved there really was nothing to fear, since Xena, of course, would be the first to—

She returned her gaze to her girlfriend, squinting her eyes. Xena was breathing heavily, with difficulty, intakes of air through her mouth causing odd mumbles and murmurs to sound from her, seemingly without her noticing. She was breathing quickly, too, much too quickly, and she clung to the hides she was curled under, despite the fact she was dripping with sweat; small, fitful movements caused her body to jerk, corresponding with the unintelligible sentences. Gabrielle swallowed with difficulty, propping herself up on one elbow.

“Xena,” she said in a low voice. “Xena?” She rested her hand on the brunette’s face and immediately gasped. “By the gods,” she whispered. “You’re burning up.”

Xena did not wake up from Gabrielle’s gentle hand on her cheek, which was a sign, Gabrielle knew, that something was at least a little bit wrong since Xena was—if one was to understate the fact—a light sleeper, but Gabrielle really tensed when Xena didn’t wake up to the call of her name, either. Or to Gabrielle shaking her, gently and then more violently, trying to draw her into consciousness. The warrior princess moaned when Gabrielle cupped both her cheeks, calling her name loudly again. The brunette’s teeth chattered, and she instinctively sought the heat from Gabrielle, pulling her down so the blonde was holding her, and she was shaking still.

Gabrielle’s face crumpled with concern and her heart skipped a beat. She slid under the hides, supporting Xena’s neck, wiping the sweat off her brow and rocking her absentmindedly.

“Xena,” she whispered into the brunette’s ear. “Xena, wake up, please. Please. Xena. Please,” Gabrielle whispered more pointedly, her worry growing exponentially. She rested her face close to Xena’s, a million horrible scenarios going through her head. She replayed every day in the past two weeks, patted down Xena to check for any wound or infection—but found nothing, not one nick on the taller woman. What was this? Poison? Had Callisto done this? A giant? Najara? Draco? A delinquent warlord who wanted to be The Man Who Killed Xena? She would need to carry Xena to a physician, she knew, in the dead of winter, which meant getting her up and onto Argo—and what if she couldn’t—and she turned to begin preparing a ladder when she heard a faint noise calling at her from near the fire.

“Gabrielle?”

The blonde frantically moved to wrap her arms around Xena, her right hand stroking the brunette’s forehead.

“Hey,” she whispered softly, kissing Xena’s forehead. “Hi.”

“I’m freezing,” Xena whispered, her voice hoarse. She sounded exhausted. Gabrielle touched Xena’s feet; they were ice cold, and she rubbed them, wrapping hides around them before returning to her position next to Xena, running her fingers through Xena’s dark hair, wet with sweat, pushing it away from her face.

“You have a fever, honey,” Gabrielle spoke quietly. “A really bad one.”

Xena groaned. “What? Doh I don’t,” she murmured. She stretched her shoulders down as far as she could, shuddering.

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

“I dob’t habe a fever,” Xena repeated. Her teeth chattered again, and she sneezed several times, coughing fitfully, and then, fatigued from the colossal effort, fell back down onto the bedroll. Gabrielle rested the back of her hand on Xena’s cheek, rubbing Xena’s temple with her thumb. Xena sneezed again, this time right into Gabrielle’s mouth.

Gabrielle, once she shook the germ shock off, smiled with relief. And shock. And then relief again; they had spent their lives fighting slave traders and warlords, their days in battle, exchanging swords. How many times had she been at Xena’s bedside, stopping bleedings and praying to the Gods to help the warrior, who had sustained injuries seen and unseen on her body, and now, Xena had…

“A cold?” Gabrielle smiled—but only a little.

“What?” Xena mumbled. Gabrielle laughed softly.

“I think you have a cold, honey.”

Xena tried with all her might to open her eyes. Gabrielle wiped Xena’s runny nose with one cloth, and her own splattered mouth with another. She shook her head.

“Dhast’s ridiculous,” Xena snorted. “My head hoots,” she added. Gabrielle’s smile stayed rested on her lips at the sound of Xena’s almost childlike voice. “Owwww!” she added, and Gabrielle couldn’t help but chuckle softly.

Xena seemed offended. Her eyes were open now, and they certainly seemed glazed over with fever.

“Dob’t make fun of be!” she said. Her face fell then, and she started to cry. No, not cry—whine. Gabrielle, maybe still in the honeymoon phase, or perhaps just thankful the woman she loved, for once in her life, just had a cold, and not a death threat looming over her, tutted her tongue, reassuring Xena.

“Aww,” she couldn’t help her smile. “It’s gonna be okay. It’s just a cold. You were in the rain all day last week, remember?”

Xena’s eyes betrayed her high temperature. Perhaps there was room for concern after all?

“I was dot.”

Gabrielle continued stroking Xena’s temple.

“Yes, you were,” she said. “And you’ve been exhausted for days. I should have added it up.”

“I dob’t habe a cold and I’ll proobe it to you,” Xena said defiantly. She made a maximal effort to get up and even managed to sit up, before her congestion got to her, causing her to become dizzy and fall right into Gabrielle’s arms.

“Okay,” Gabrielle nodded. “You don’t have a cold.”

Xena closed her eyes again, pleased. She waited a second before burrowing into Gabrielle’s body, all but whimpering with misery.

“Gabrielle?” she said, still trying to maintain her bravado.

“Yes, honey,” Gabrielle said, her thumb still running up and down Xena’s temple.

“I tink I habe a cold.”

 

*

 

Xena had become completely incomprehensible by the time Gabrielle got back from the market. She had picked up ginger, chamomile, honey, onions, and more hides and cloths, among other items, and brought a pail of cold water with her. She was chopping the ginger when she heard Xena speaking unintelligibly.

“No,” Gabrielle heard Xena say. “No!”

Jolted, Gabrielle ran to Xena’s side. Just a cold, maybe, but Xena’s fever was very high, and that was cause for concern, she knew, even if the reason wasn’t a battle wound.

“Hey,” Gabrielle kissed Xena’s cheek, shaking her form. “Hey. Xena.”

Xena shook her head.

“No,” she repeated, squirming under the hides, “Don’t go ‘way,” she managed.

“I’m right here,” Gabrielle whispered in Xena’s ear. The blonde lifted Xena when the latter had a coughing fit, and the brunette rested an aching hand on her head.

“Gabrielle, where are we?”

Xena tried to get up.

“Hey, whoa! No,” Gabrielle pressed down on Xena’s chest, easily bringing her back down to the bedroll. “You’re sick.”

“I don’t get sick!” Xena said, her eyes glazed over and her weak confession tearing at Gabrielle’s heartstrings. She moved Xena’s long hair behind her ear.

“Are you going to be okay?” Xena asked.

Gabrielle shook her head. “What?”

“You said you’re sick,” Xena said. Her blue eyes seemed larger suddenly.

“No, Xena, you’re sick.” Gabrielle tried to hush the brunette.

“Oh,” Xena said. Gabrielle nodded. “Well, am me going to be okay?”

“You is going to be just fine,” Gabrielle smiled, nuzzling Xena’s face, despite her concern regarding Xena’s fever. It wasn’t like Xena to get sick, that was for sure, and she certainly did not have a tendency to spike fevers. Something in Gabrielle was happy, though, and she felt bad for it; it wasn’t just that the cause of Xena’s illness was, well, banal. It was that Xena felt comfortable enough with her to show her this vulnerable side of herself, Gabrielle thought. Everyone reverts back to a five-year-old when they have a cold, she knew, and she’d never seen Xena in any kind of ordinary situation. In their world of constant fury, a simple cold felt like a respite.

Gabrielle rested a cloth drenched with cold water over Xena’s forehead and the brunette gritted her teeth at the touch.

“Alright, this is just to cool you off a little bit,” Gabrielle hummed. She smiled when she realized she had taken on Xena’s caretaker tone, low and soothing, and then even more when she realized it worked: under Gabrielle’s soft murmurs, the warrior princess was being pulled back into a more peaceful sleep. Gabrielle stroked her hair for a bit longer after she fell asleep, thoughtlessly tracing her fingers down Xena’s cheeks and collarbone.

 

*

 

Xena and Gabrielle had already had sex. Okay, Xena and Gabrielle had already…almost…had sex. Xena and Gabrielle had already kissed. A lot. And touched. Places. Gabrielle liked winters about as much as she liked mornings. Add that to a lack of an ability to pin down a word, or an idea, and you got yourself a grumpy, slouchy, sarcastic Gabrielle. So, she was inexperienced with…it. Gods, she couldn’t even say it. It. So? Well, anyone would be considered inexperienced compared to Xena. Gabrielle pulled a face.

“What?” She heard the brunette’s low voice saying from where she was walking. Ahead of her.

“Nothing,” Gabrielle said, making sure to enunciate.

“What are you angry about?” She heard Xena say. The low voice barely reached her.

“Nothing,” Gabrielle said, peppering cheeriness over her voice but failing miserably to sound sincere.

Xena stopped. Gabrielle watched as Argo stopped in time with her, at the same second, but the brunette didn’t turn around. Gabrielle was welcomed to a view of jet-black hair and strong shoulders, but no one to talk to, not really, about what had happened—

“Is this about last night?”

Gabrielle squinted her eyes. Of course, it was about last night.

“It’s not about last nigh—”

“What happened last night was real and sincere and it stays as far as I’m concerned,” Xena said, cutting Gabrielle’s speech off. After a few moments of adjustment, she turned around, and Gabrielle immediately lowered her gaze. She heard Xena sigh and come close to her.

“What,” Xena said, resting her hand on Gabrielle’s face. “Because I didn’t kneel and confess—”

“No!” Gabrielle said, her gaze still lowered. She didn’t move Xena’s hand. She wanted more of Xena’s hand. That’s what this was all about. “I didn’t need you to confess—”

“Gabrielle, I told you what I did in the best way I know—”

“And I’m fine with it.” Gabrielle crossed her arms. She didn’t like unfinished sentences.

“You’re not.”

“I am,” Gabrielle whispered. She shook her head and then dared to look into Xena’s eyes.

“I’m just confused.”

Xena’s eyes softened. Her hand was still on Gabrielle’s face.

“What about?”

Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably. The breath she took, lifting her chest when she spoke, took a lot out of her, she felt already.

“I like…what we do,” Gabrielle said. “I like what we do together.”

Xena cocked her head. She took a step closer to Gabrielle.

“So do I.”

“Stop it,” Gabrielle pulled her shoulder away when Xena came towards her.

“What—”

“I don’t know…if what happened yesterday was…a-a thing that happened, or something you said, or, uh, something you meant—”

“It was something I meant,” Xena interrupted.

“Please,” Gabrielle moved her body closer to Xena again. “This is hard enough for me to say already.”

Xena nodded. Gabrielle saw fear move past her eyes.

“When I’m with you, I feel like…it’s where I should be,” Gabrielle muttered. “Even now, even when it’s confusing and difficult and…and…weird.”

“Why—”

“Xena!” Gabrielle begged. “But yesterday was different. You said—you said—”

“That I love you?”

“Can you stop interrupting?” Gabrielle’s tone changed. “Wow! Just give me a second!”

Xena chuckled, though she didn’t mean to. Gabrielle gasped in shock.

“What, this is funny to you?”

Xena closed her eyes and winced. “No! No. No, you’re just cute.”

“I’m cute?!” Gabrielle’s voice rose.

“Yes!”

“I’m cute? Is that why you told me—”

“What’s wrong with being cute?” Xena interrupted again. “You’re not just cute. You’re—”

“Stop it let me talk!” Gabrielle blurted out all at once, her voice betraying still more confusion than aggravation, but frustration more than anything else.

Xena sighed. She swallowed, and then nodded, stepping closer to Gabrielle, testing her limits. She closed her eyes for a moment, slowly resting her hand on Gabrielle’s waist. Gabrielle looked up at her.

“Give me a second,” she said, and Xena nodded again. She couldn’t bear to see Gabrielle cry, but the blonde’s eyes were filled with unshed tears. I did something to her, Xena thought immediately and then centered herself: just listen, she said to herself, and let out measured air in a lame attempt to slow down her heartbeat.

“Okay,” Xena whispered.

Gabrielle didn’t know what to say. She and Xena had kissed before, more than a friendly kiss, and they’d…touched, but what had happened yesterday was different. They didn’t stop, rather, Xena didn’t stop, and in essence, they had…sex—Gabrielle berated herself for not even being able to say the word in her mind—for the first time. Really. For the first time, period, actually, Gabrielle thought. Usually, they would sit by the fire and give each other massages, and the massages would turn into absentminded touching, and the touching would then turn more heated, and by the time the fire was nothing but embers and slow orange dots in the wind, one thing or another had happened.

But last night was different. Gabrielle was cold and upset, and Xena walked towards her with a look of distinct resolution in her eyes. Gabrielle thought Xena was about to rest a hide around her shoulders, and settle between her legs, her back to Gabrielle, silently asking her to massage her sore muscles. Instead, Xena laid the hide on the ground and rested both her hands on Gabrielle’s hips, easily lowering her to the fur and breathing deeply.

“Gabrielle, I love you,” she had said. And something somewhere in Gabrielle shattered, and in another space, far from the shattering, something else locked into place. Her arms had instinctively moved around Xena then and she pulled her down, as close as she could get to her. Xena had said I love you to her more times than she could count, but this was different, she knew, and when a thought managed to occur to her during their long hours making love, deliberately, intentionally, a far cry from any accidental, casual touch they’d had before, Gabrielle thought: yes. I want this. I love this. “I love you,” she whispered, and Xena’s breath broke in its middle like a bird in flight resting its wings, relieved, and then continued kissing Gabrielle, on her mouth, down her neck, it felt like everywhere; it felt like she was being held and pushed and pulled at the same time and her hands curled and uncurled with great intention—

“You knew what you were doing yesterday,” Gabrielle finally managed to say. Xena looked at her. Now her own blue eyes were filled with tears.

“Yes,” Xena whispered, the “S” resting on her teeth long after she had said it.

“Did you know before? When we would just…” Gabrielle waved her hand. She sighed. Xena shook her head, but said yes again, in the same tone, with the same “S.” She withdrew from Gabrielle suddenly, sighing shakily.

“Hey…what—”

“You think I was taking advantage of you,” Xena said, not asked. Gabrielle’s face contorted in confusion.

“What? Xena, no I don—”

“Because you were there,” Xena said. Her voice went back to its flat home, clenched, but her eyes betrayed any emotion Gabrielle needed to see. “That wasn’t it.”

“I never thought so!” Gabrielle raised her voice. Xena turned around again, about to walk, and Argo lifted her leg. “Wh-hey!” Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s shoulder, turning her around. She kept a firm grip on her. “I never said that! You’d never do that! I was there just as much as you were!”

“What is it then,” Xena said after a slow moment passed. Gabrielle searched for strings or vibrations past her voice, but to no avail—too many years of practice, she thought for a brief moment.

“You said you loved me,” Gabrielle whispered.

“You know I love you,” Xena retorted with a small voice.

“This was different.” Gabrielle shook her head. “This was different, and you know it.”

They heard the sounds of rolling thunders. Xena seemed pale suddenly, and Gabrielle couldn’t decide if it was because of the greying skies or because Xena was suddenly afraid, or unwell, and she moved closer to Xena quickly, placing her other hand on Xena’s other shoulder. What an odd dance, she thought—was she pushing her away? Or pulling her closer?

“Yes,” Gabrielle heard from Xena suddenly.

“What?”

“Yes. It was different.”

Gabrielle stared at Xena for a moment.

“How?” she whispered.

Xena turned quiet. Her lower lip shook for an instance and then stopped. Their hands moved across each other’s bodies in an ebb and flow of stopping and going like an unsure, newborn foal; Gabrielle’s hand on Xena’s cheek, Xena’s hand on Gabrielle’s stomach, her palm open, her breath audible now even with the thunder and lightning. Gabrielle repeated her question, and they repeated their dance until Xena closed her eyes and shook her head.

“I needed to get my nerve up,” she said, her voice still flat.

“For what?” Gabrielle said. Silence again. It started to rain, but they didn’t move. Gabrielle saw Xena suffocating on the sentence in her throat and her first instinct was to rescue her, but she needed to know—

“For what?” she repeated. “For what? Up until then, wasn’t I just…another notch in your belt?”

She’d said it. She could see the hurt in Xena’s eyes, rain dripping over her, makeshift tears forming on her cheeks. Gabrielle didn’t want to. But she had to know. “You never told me what you want.”

Xena spoke quietly, whispering almost. Almost.

“I told you I love you.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“You said yourself you know it was different.”

Gabrielle lowered her head so that the cold rain could fall on her neck. She clenched her fists and kept her hands at her sides, struggling to not tuck wisps of dark hair behind Xena’s ear.

“How?” Gabrielle said again.

Xena shook her head.

“You were never a notch in my belt.”

“What did you need your nerve for?”

“I never did anything you didn’t want me to do,” Xena said, her voice constricted, almost completely blocked. Tortured. “Did I?”

Gabrielle shook her head furiously.

“Did I?” Xena said again, raising her voice.

“No!” Gabrielle raised her own voice higher. “I told you already—”

“Is that what it felt like?” Xena said. Gabrielle could swear she was crying, but rain and tears looked the same. They stood in the downpour. Gabrielle cupped Xena’s cheeks with both her hands. She felt like she was rocking in a tiny boat but going nowhere.

“You have never done anything to me—with me—that I didn’t want you to do,” she said, knowing the fear, this ultimate one Xena had, and stopped everything to murder it swiftly. “Listen to me.” Xena shook her head. “Listen to me!” Gabrielle roared over the thunder, not stopping until Xena’s eyes were on her. “I always wanted whatever was going on. You always asked, and again. After. You have never. Hurt me,” she stressed, and then took in a long breath. “What are you afraid of?”

Xena stood silent. Gabrielle thought she might speak, but she didn’t. So, Gabrielle did.

“Is that what you needed your nerve for?” Gabrielle asked. “Because you wanted more, but you didn’t want to think I didn’t want—”

“I needed my nerve to tell you I love you—”

“You said that—”

“That I love only you,” Xena said.

Gabrielle shook her head slightly. The rain fell and fell. Xena’s mouth was open, but she wasn’t speaking. Or if she was speaking, Gabrielle couldn’t hear it. The thunder was getting louder. Gabrielle’s mind processed information along with the rain, slowly. Only. Only you. She was too shell-shocked to grab Xena when the brunette turned around and continued walking, Argo’s steps matching hers. She saw Xena’s shoulders rise and fall slightly.

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle shouted past the rain. No response. “What do you mean?” she asked again. Xena stopped moving again.

“We won’t make shelter by evening if we keep—”

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle said. She was shouting past the thunder, but also past her own inner voice, and however far enough she could throw her voice so that it landed, like an arrow, close enough to Xena’s ears, or heart, so she would cave.

“What do you mean? Only me?”

It took a few minutes, but the rain stopped. The two women were still standing in place.

“Do you want me to be your lover?” Gabrielle fumed. There was enough distance between her and Xena for her to shout.

No reply.

“Your girlfriend?” Gabrielle spat out angrily. “Your wife?”

Xena’s back tensed, Gabrielle could see, and then it slouched. She could see her breathing far past her leathers and armors within and without, and the minutes ticked by, and there was only silence. But Gabrielle was a reader of the heart—and a merciful one at that.

“The answer is yes,” Gabrielle said, as if in defeat, her voice rising. “To those. If you’re asking me.”

She saw Xena shaking her head for a bit. Then the brunette keeled over, bending at the waist. Gabrielle ran to her, catching her right before her legs buckled under her. She wrapped a shaking arm around a shaking Xena.

“Is this the confession you wanted?” the brunette said. Gabrielle shook her head.

“Yes,” she admitted. Xena buried her head in the nape of Gabrielle’s neck.

“You have your words,” Xena shook.

“I have so much more than that, now,” Gabrielle said, pressing Xena’s body to her. No match to the warrior’s strength, they both fell to their knees and then pressed their foreheads together, their hands weaving.

“I love you,” Xena said, her voice small and her body appearing small, too. “And you’re the only one I’ve ever truly loved, and I want that to never stop,” she managed.

“It won’t,” Gabrielle whispered. They kissed. The rain started falling again.

 

*

 

The night before that, still unable to find proper shelter from the intermittent rain, Gabrielle and Xena had kissed. It wasn’t like before, when they’d set down their bags and swords and sais and wineskins and Xena had taken off Argo’s saddle and they were weary and drained and sometimes injured and they’d sit back to back and somehow they’d find each other’s mouths or hands or, at the most heated of it, thighs, and would then fall asleep holding each other, not even registering what they had done. Or hadn’t done.

The bedroll was neat, and Gabrielle was on it, naked, and Xena was shaking above her, also naked, and the rain had stopped just for them, and they kissed. When Xena bent down her eyes were wide with understanding and want, and confusion, and fear. When her own face was inches away from Gabrielle’s, she shuddered, and on a sharp intake of breath, nuzzled Gabrielle’s cheek, and the blonde turned her head. Their breaths got heavier and heavier, and Xena’s nose and forehead were warm on Gabrielle’s skin, molding into her neck and then turning, rising up.

She had said, Gabrielle, I love you. Not at the end of the day as a sigh and not at the end of a risk. It was clear and cut through the heavy air like a knife; Gabrielle, I love you. The blonde had looked up and Xena had been standing still, their fire still not lit, camp undone, no protection from the rain, no protection from the ever-thinning air; Gabrielle, I love you. Gabrielle opened and closed her mouth, and shook her head, and put down her bag and her scrolls and Xena had watched her the entire time and she was shaking, then, and she shook when she finally found Gabrielle’s mouth hours later.

It felt like time stopped. It felt like it took years. It did take years, but that one kiss, a body in motion colliding into a still one, the rocking was slow and deliberate, frightened, until Gabrielle reached out a hand to hold Xena’s cheek, brush her wayward hair, soft and long, from her shoulders and face. It fell forward, Xena’s hair, the lower down she let herself get, and Gabrielle had no shot. Not at pulling Xena to her, even though she wanted to; not at trying to ease Xena’s grip on the hide, even though she knew the brunette was frightened. She wasn’t strong enough, and Xena’s force showed through every part of her body. Gabrielle took a long glance downward, at Xena’s breasts, at her abdomen, at her strong legs. Gabrielle liked Xena’s shoulders and collarbone. A long time prior she had taken to running her fingers against it when it would jut out past the leather shift and past the metal armor of the soul and of the material when Xena was tired or already asleep.

Then they kissed. After every centimeter of skin touched and touched, their lips met. And Gabrielle thought she was kissing Xena for the first time. Or kissing someone at all for the first time. Her eyes shut, despite her promise to herself to keep them open just to see if Xena did, her face immediately rose, seeking more contact, and when she found it, she felt Xena shaking, all over her body. Gabrielle lowered her hand to play on Xena’s long back. She really was a beautiful woman. A short display of the men and women who fell at her feet passed Gabrielle’s mind. She had her pick, Xena did, she knew, and she knew Xena had feelings for her, but would never press it to be official. It had to come from Xena herself.

And it did. Gabrielle, I love you. In a simple tone. Flat. Xena’s lips were soft and full. Her kiss was timid. When it deepened, it was filled with breath, featherlight. Gabrielle kept thinking Xena might just fly away. Xena thought so, too. It took her body long minutes to adjust to any change in position, in motion. She had dreamed of this for long nights. She was trying to recreate her dream, but in her dream, Gabrielle was still a foreign taste to her, like skies she’d never seen, and she thought, absurd. I’ve seen every horizon. But when Gabrielle moved both her hands down Xena’s waist, she shuddered again, and the boundary between sky and earth was one she’d never seen before.

No lazy touch. Intentional, steaming heat. By the time Xena allowed herself to lower herself from her elbows, which were keeping her up and over Gabrielle’s body, the brunette was in secret tears, and when her stomach touched Gabrielle’s she moaned and Gabrielle moaned and every breath was one breath and a new breath. Xena had never felt that way before, she was thinking, but it was a fleeting thought. Her mind went blank when Gabrielle grew more impatient and drew a line with a scratch down her back. She felt every inch of it form, the redness of it, the burn, and it spurred her, her skittish fingers resting with an open palm over Gabrielle’s abdomen, and moving, as if from a threat, downward. Xena was silent and Gabrielle loud, breathing barely and very fast. Gabrielle’s back arched and Xena found herself arching along with it, around it. Gabrielle pressed on Xena’s lower back and Xena caved finally, breathing loudly once when they made contact like two objects flying together, with the mightiest of forces, but the slowest of motions.

Gods, they were moving slowly, Gabrielle thought. Gods, she had wanted this for so long, she thought, and a gasp, measured and scattered at the same time, left her mouth. How long have I been wanting this? Should I write of this? Will I speak of this? Wasn’t this Xena speaking? She’s the guide here in these naked lands. She knows them best. Gabrielle knows nothing.

Gabrielle knows nothing but she knows where to place her open palm. Where to stretch what finger. What to ask exactly. Steady. Was this not the land that was to be unmeasured? Uncharted? Is this not a land that Xena knows? But for them both, Gabrielle knows when Xena’s hands are moving, too, and Gabrielle clings to them without noticing. That this is as foreign of a land to Xena as it is to her. Do this, do that, she whispered, and then said out loud, “Xena,” she said, and her voice was firm and warm. “Why are you shaking?”

Gabrielle said it more than asked. If anyone should be shaking, it should be Gabrielle—but Xena’s body caved when skin finally got to skin, when it really got to it, when the surface of Gabrielle moved to accommodate her own, bending, stretching, she shook, unknown years of yearning breaking overhead like a merciless current.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” Xena nodded. Her eyes were wide and pleading, her ice blue on Gabrielle’s blue-green, fixated, hypnotized, and Gabrielle didn’t want to say, you did, or, me too, because Xena was touching her, her long, beautiful fingers were tracing a fire path past her body, and she thought of all those hands have done: killed, delivered babies into the world, healed, held the most important of objects, and now they were climbing her body like a rapid fern that locked and held and made her. Rain, tears, precious last drops from a skin. All the same. What a grand difference it is that context makes, and Gabrielle blessed of those the rain.

Their see-saw lullaby started and went and jumped ahead. Faster. Slower. No body was moving on its own, no gaps between their two bodies. They had denied themselves, they both realized when slow touch turned to fervent hunger. With every move of fingers and tongues and points of pleasure and rocking waves of ecstasy that just would not be satiated, they understood just how much they had been withholding. When even skin was too much of a barrier.

Gabrielle watched Xena above her and sent a shaking hand to bring her close—

“Don’t ever go away from me,” she hissed, suddenly terrified, and Xena kissed her.

“Never,” she swore, and they clung to each other in the rain that came back but did nothing to cool off the heat rising. Then there was fear and Xena clawed at Gabrielle as her breath made efforts, considerable efforts, to get back to normal.

“Gabrielle,” she said, and nothing else, but Gabrielle understood the scroll that stood behind the word.

“I’m not going anywhere, no one will hurt me,” she whispered. “I will always be with you.”

Skin was still too much of a barrier. Xena lowered herself to rest beneath Gabrielle, her face sealed and determined.

“Don’t ever leave me,” she whispered from where her lips were already touching lips, and trance-like, she murmured, “Don’t ever leave me, Gabrielle, the good part of me is inside of you.”

Gabrielle arched her back. The sound of the rain drowned her gasps and shouts of pleasure, and the tall grass they were in hid her lifting hips, pushing, impatient.

“A part of me is in you,” Xena said again, eyes closed, fingers frantic to the rhythm. “I can’t live without you.”

The moisture of passion, the sweat from a battlefield, the undone wash. All the same. What a grand difference it is that context makes, and Gabrielle blessed of all those the wetness that seemed to stop around them and then pool between them. Xena pressed a kiss to Gabrielle’s mouth when the blonde cried out, her body rigid for long seconds and then loose, her reward had come—but she deserves no reward, she thought, I just couldn’t wait, I was selfish. Xena licked her finger, and Gabrielle turned them around on the bedroll, and her hands, the hands of a bard, wrote a story, of maddened want and furious thirst all over Xena’s body, her fingers her quill that burned at its tip constantly; by the time the play was over, Xena was curled in her saving arms, protected, crying, and then asleep. Gabrielle’s one arm moved around Xena and rested the other at her neck, nestled between her long black tresses that had turned wet with sweat and love and rain, and with a great confessional. By Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potidaea, Gabrielle signed her name on Xena’s skin. Her creation. She had written, she had decided, her masterpiece.

 

*

 

Weeks later, in the cave, Gabrielle was making chamomile tea, keeping a watchful eye on Xena, who would fall into long attacks of coughs so fitful they made it hard for her to breathe. She was stuffy and mainly exhausted, and however much Gabrielle tried, she could not lower her fever. Xena was murmuring constantly, a clear word far and in between: “no,” “please,” “no, no,” “I can’t.” A lot of “Gabrielle.” One, “no, Gabrielle. No.” “Don’t.” “Please.” Gabrielle thought she heard “stay.” But she wasn’t sure.

Xena had already had one fever fit, her long body thrashing and convulsing beyond control. Gabrielle had made a concoction of onion and honey, and she placed it on Xena’s lips, patiently, gentle, gentle, coaxing the brunette to taste the mixture, to drink water and hot soup. When Xena’s writhing began, Gabrielle placed an open palm on her chest, under the hide, and pressed her forehead to Xena’s.

“Shh,” she cooed, “it’s okay.” Her heart was pounding madly. She had been ruminating about touch. About confessions. About access, and control. It took a lot out of Xena to confess her love, she knew. She wondered if this was Xena’s body’s way of collapsing under the effort of the endeavor. She knew Xena felt undeserving of her. She stroked Xena’s hair through her fever like she would do when they made love and Xena would stop suddenly, withdrawn, fearful she was doing something wrong. She stroked her hair in exactly the same way, the same direction, lifting it from Xena’s face and running a gentle hand past the thick locks. She twirled a strand of hair around her finger. She would stare intently at Xena and did the same when her fever rose and took over her body.

“I’m right here,” Gabrielle said, just like she would do when Xena would retreat from her body, terrified. “I’m here, it’s okay. It’s alright,” she murmured. She wrapped her arms around Xena’s convulsing body. “Xena,” Gabrielle whispered in the brunette’s ear. “Shh, it’s okay. I’ve got you. You’re okay. You’re okay.”

And Xena went back to her chaotic sleep.

Gabrielle was considering carrying Xena to the river. An ice bath of sorts. Her fever wasn’t climbing, Gabrielle didn’t think, but it also did not seem to lower at all, not even for small periods of time. She thought briefly of how natural it felt for her to care for Xena, to care for anyone at all, her knowing hands mixing herbs, preparing remedies. She was calm, her only aim Xena now, to ease her pain and bring her fever down. She was returning to the fire with a poultice when she heard Xena call her name.

“I’m right here,” Gabrielle said. Her voice was low, restful. She wrapped an arm around Xena, lifting her slightly, waiting as she coughed, hushing her—I’ve got you, you’re okay—moving hair from her drenched forehead and placing the poultice against it. She moved her hand to Xena’s cheek. “I’m here,” Gabrielle said again. She kissed Xena’s mouth and forehead. “What is it?”

Xena’s eyes were open, their usual icy blue an odd, hazed, wet, darker ocean color, her sight unfocused, searching, until she found Gabrielle and opened her mouth, as if shocked.

“Gabrielle,” she said. Her voice was disappearing.

“I’m right here,” Gabrielle said again.

Xena shook her head.

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered. “Do you know I killed my brother?” The brunette didn’t cry. Her open eyes wandered the space of the cave again. Gabrielle let out an unstable breath through her nose, moving her other hand to Xena’s temple.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said. She wanted very badly for her voice to not shake or crack. But it did. “Xena, look at me.”

The brunette returned her focus to Gabrielle. She sent a weak hand up, and Gabrielle grabbed it and placed it on her own heart.

“Xena, sweetheart, you didn’t kill your brother,” Gabrielle said, and when she spoke, she sounded as if she were swearing to a court, her voice convicted, desperate. “No, that’s not true, honey,” she said, and kissed Xena’s arm. The brunette shook her head.

“Yes,” she said, and a cough interrupted her hazed ramblings, “he’s just one.”

Gabrielle tucked herself under the hides, wrapping Xena in her arms completely.

“Shh,” Gabrielle tried. “It’s alright.”

“Oh,” Xena sighed, her voice forming the sound of the cry. Her eyes were wet with tears suddenly. “I killed so many people,” she said. Her voice was so low and hoarse and her eyes so wide and Gabrielle felt as though someone had reached into her and was chipping away at her heart. It hurt. “So many women and children. I did so much bad. Oh,” she gasped. “No.”

“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “Stop. Xena. Shh, it’s okay,” she spoke, begging. “You do so much good. You do so much good. I love you so much. Shh,” she pleaded with Xena. The brunette was quiet for a bit, staring at Gabrielle while the blonde stroked her cheek and her temple with repetitive motions, her thumb softly, desperately, trying to erase whatever world Xena was in now.

“I want a baby,” Xena said suddenly. It took Gabrielle a moment to stir from the rhythmic movements of her hands on Xena’s face. She opened her mouth and then closed it. Xena’s gaze was aimed at the arch of the cave on top of them. “I want a baby. I want to be a mother.”

“You are a mother,” Gabrielle nuzzled Xena’s cheek, their tears mixing. It occurred to Gabrielle that she was merely hearing what was always running unseen through Xena’s mind. It was just usually hidden. Now, all of it was running in the open for her to see. “You have a child—two…children.”

“Solan is dead,” Xena said, and her voice was loud, and Gabrielle tried not to recoil. Xena tried to swallow, but it visibly hurt her. Gabrielle fetched water.

“Here,” she said, her head hung low, refusing to meet Xena’s eyes with hers even as she held the brunette. “Easy,” she had to say, and she put her finger in the water and then ran it over Xena’s lips, letting the liquid drip into her mouth. Xena was so hot that the cloth on her forehead was half dry already, and Gabrielle dipped it in water.

“My Gabrielle,” Xena smiled. “I know she carries that.”

Gabrielle winced.

“No,” Xena laughed softly. “No, she mustn’t.”

There was silence for a while then. Gabrielle was next to Xena, but her hands rested at her sides. Xena sniffled before she spoke again, moments later.

“She’s good,” Xena said, turning to Gabrielle, who had found the courage to look at Xena again, to run the back of her hand over the brunette’s burning hot cheek. “Do you know? She’s good,” Xena nodded, her face moving strangely. “She taught me how to be good. I love her,” Xena whispered. “I love her. Does that make me a bad mother? Is Solan angry with me?” Xena turned her head back and forth, almost as if she were trying to get rid of the idea through mere motion. “Is he angry?” Xena whispered again.

“No,” Gabrielle said.

Gabrielle cried silently. She wanted to sob but willed herself not to.

“No,” she managed through shaking lips. “No. Solan is not angry with you.”

“Oh,” Xena’s voice made out a sigh again, and she raised her hand to put her index finger to Gabrielle’s lips. “No. Don’t you cry. I’d never let anyone hurt you. You’ll always be safe,” Xena said, softly, her voice as thin as a thread. She was humming a melody, Gabrielle realized. “One child dead, one I never got to see grow up,” she continued after a moment, and something in Gabrielle finally broke, a sob leaving her lungs despite her insistence. Xena seemed alarmed.

“No!” she raised her voice.

“Shh,” Gabrielle cried. “Everything is alright.”

“No,” Xena said again, asking this time, her long fingers cupping Gabrielle’s cheek. “No, no, don’t cry, my heart,” she said. “My love.” Then she coughed again. “It’s strange.” Xena was quiet for a few more moments and then spoke once more. “I want a child and a home,” she whispered, and then looked at Gabrielle almost mischievously. “It’s a secret,” she said, her tired arm falling to her side. Gabrielle gave her more water.

“Is it?” Gabrielle whispered.

“Yes,” Xena answered, the cave echoing their whispered words. “No one knows.”

Gabrielle nodded. She placed both her arms around Xena, her hands touching her, always touching her.

“What about wandering?” she said. She tried to get closer to Xena. She found reason in letting Xena sweat out more heat, since her own body was hot, as well. “What about fighting?”

“I want to stop,” Xena said, and Gabrielle gasped, before she reminded herself this was feverish talk, nonsense, that Xena had also talked about spiders that day, and fish, but Xena searched for Gabrielle’s attention, her gaze, until she found it. “I want to stop now,” Xena coughed. “I’m tired.”

Gabrielle sobbed on an odd laugh. She made an unfamiliar sound.

“You want to rest?” she allowed herself. Xena nodded, and Gabrielle shook her head, and it made for a strange motion when Gabrielle’s cheek rested against Xena’s.

“Yes,” Xena whispered again. “Yes, rest.”

Gabrielle nodded. She convinced herself that she was speaking to nothing more than delusion, that Xena wouldn’t remember, and so confessed, barely, “me too,” her lips continuing to move wordlessly after.

“I never saw my children grow up,” Xena said. Her smile was so beautiful. Her glistening eyes in the dark broke and folded Gabrielle a thousand times over, shot at her thighs, burned at her back.

“I know,” she replied.

“I want to see one grow up,” Xena said, and hummed again—it was a lullaby, Gabrielle recognized finally, and Xena had been humming it all day. “A child, my child. I’ll protect her. I can. She’ll grow like the reeds and I’ll be there to see. To teach her. She won’t fight. She’ll be just,” Xena said, and in her daydream smiled widely, and Gabrielle kissed her fervently, small kisses all over her face.

“Please,” Gabrielle mouthed, trying not to be heard, and only the very harshest of consonants did sound. “I want to see her grow up too,” Gabrielle said then, out loud, and felt herself courageous and then fleeting again, like the wave to the sure shore.

“Auri, I’ll call her,” Xena murmured. “It means light. My light. It’s always dark. Why aren’t the stars out tonight?” Xena said, adjusting her body slowly, looking up. She was still smiling. “She’ll be a writer,” she said. “Like her mother.”

Gabrielle’s body shattered into pieces, but she was still, her strong arms holding Xena close, shielding her. She took a wet washcloth to Xena’s face and neck again and the brunette sighed, her daydream fading. “Stranger things have happened,” Xena murmured. “Maybe Aphrodite wishes it.”

Gabrielle kissed Xena. She kept her lips on her for a long time, even after Xena closed her eyes.

“She does,” Gabrielle said, her voice clear. She returned to her ginger and honey, a piece of her left there in the bedroll in Xena’s hands and heart.

Gabrielle, I love you. Pieces and pieces of Gabrielle fell and fell.

Gabrielle moved back to Xena’s side. She kneeled down on the cold cave floor and lifted her head, casting her eyes upwards, closing them in deep concentration. A vision of Aphrodite appeared in her mind and Gabrielle bowed to her, offering a silent prayer. “Maybe she does.”

 

*

 

Gabrielle hated mornings, and had the blessing of a curtain and a soft bed, after years of roaming, so the cries from the other room did not entertain her—not three hours after she had fallen asleep—and she grunted, pushing her head under her makeshift pillow, then grunted again when the cries grew louder.

She felt her favorite touch on the back of her neck, followed by a kiss, and then a weight lifting off of the bed.

“I got her,” she heard a low voice whispering. When Gabrielle protested the loss of body heat with a whine, she was rewarded with a kiss, which pleased her well enough. “Go back to sleep,” Xena said. Gabrielle pulled Xena in for another kiss, and then obeyed.

Even two years in, Xena thought it was harder to navigate in the dark inside a house than it was outdoors. She was always thinking a wayward branch was going to come at her; her senses were still as sharp when she turned a corner. No one can know what will happen at night. She was still training, of course, but her soft nightgown was a far cry from her regular leather, and everything felt as strange as it did good, the repetitiveness she was so fearful of now a comfort to her.

In the beginning, she thought softness was not for her. And then, she felt it. She didn’t want to like it, but she fell in love with it. Your skin is thin under your armor, Gabrielle would remind her from time to time, and now there was no armor; there were soft fabrics and soft cheeks, soft kisses and soft laughter.

“Ah!” Xena cried out as she turned to go into the room adjacent to hers and Gabrielle’s—the corner she stubbed her toe on at that moment was not soft. But she had fallen into the pliable and rounded much sooner than she thought she would, than she would ever admit, and only Gabrielle knew to tell her hidden half smiles at the oneness of the couple, at the steadiness of the home, at the sketch of the bodies in the bed, quickly, swiftly, before she thought she could even want it.

Her cry made the wailing child in the crib cry harder, and Xena pouted.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and when she reached the crib, she lifted the blonde toddler, grabbing her blanket as an afterthought, then sat down.

Her daughter stared up at her. Her breath still hiccupped, she reached for her mother, her small arm stretching with maximal effort. Xena lifted her higher and kissed her hand.

“What is it, hmm?” Xena asked. She had a special voice. Auri’s voice. Gabrielle would spend hours listening to Xena tell their daughter stories in that voice, secure, soothing, elastic. Xena had her words.

Auri sneezed.

“Oh, no,” Xena said, scrunching her nose, as she undid the top buttons on her gown, supporting her daughter’s head and leaning back. She was drifting to sleep when Auri turned fussy again, her small head rubbing against Xena’s skin in some kind of protest, and then she sneezed again. “You’d better not be getting a cold.” Xena turned the baby and pressed her to her chest, face to face, and let her head lull to the right so it met Auri’s. “Actually, I take that back,” she said when Auri sneezed again, and she didn’t need to lift her head to know Gabrielle was slowly walking into the room, didn’t jump at the soft hand at her shoulders. “Colds can be life-changing events,” Xena nodded.

Gabrielle kissed her shoulder. The morning rose slowly, and their house became filled with light.

 

 

-The End-

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