During the episode, “When Fates Collide,” Xena, Empress of Rome, and Gabrielle, a notable playwright, collide as well. Considering the cast and crew of the show admitted a kiss (or more?) between the two characters had already been written and had to be taken out of the script, it’s easy to give room for a story of true love to develop between the two. Worry not—in my version, Xena and Gabrielle’s confessed love carries on across all timelines.

Sex: There is erotic, non-detailed, but certainly clear, sex between two women in this story. Repeatedly. Honestly, if you don’t like to read about lady love, I do not know why you are here. The scenes are nondescript but are very erotic and emotional by nature.

Warning: There are descriptions of violence in this fic, mental as well as physical, by the hands of Alti and Caesar towards Xena and Gabrielle. This makes way for an epic hurt/comfort story line, the kind we all know and love—to emerge. It is particularly strong in this story.

And it all starts with

One glance

Of true love.

This piece is for Johnette—not only is this story inspired by her prompt to expand on the original “When Fates Collide” story, it is dedicated to her as well, as it was pushed into existence partly due to her beautifully composed words.


Of Love and Her

By Gili Estlin Hirsch

(for Johnette)

I

The Balcony

 

If it pleases the Empress.

Xena ran her hands through her soft dark hair. She had been picking out pins to let it fall from its forced updo and it just had, landing on her sculpted shoulders, bringing with it an immediate sense of relief.

The day was done. If it pleased the Emperor, it was done. And it was, or so Caesar’s dismissive hand gesture had said, so Xena had retired to her chambers and before doing anything had undone her hair and now it was down and resting on her soft skin, rising and falling with the ebb and flow of her breath. She tangled her hands in it, massaging her head. She hadn’t realized it had gotten so long. Time went by faster than she felt, only in the sense that she had wanted it slower. And time was filled with nothingness, riches meant to tuck significance into a void that seemed to remain silent, a numbness that was at all moved only by literal touch—when she let down her hair, when she massaged her neck, when she undid her gowns, alone, asking her maidens to leave for the evening, often asking more than once, so she could touch her own skin to feel that she is alive. She scanned the room around her. If it pleases the Empress.

The most highly regarded performers outdid themselves before her every night, for her alone, and she would smile and nod, shake hands and kiss foreheads, and when asked if pleased she would say, yes, of course. Thank you, she would say, for honoring us with your presence, from the bottom of our hearts, and her smile would be sincere. Not for the fact that it pleased the Empress, but rather for the human contact of it. People had come to mean everything to her now, their short touch seemingly narrowing to be the only real contact she had with anything at all.

She braided her hair loosely to the side. That evening, music was played before them. It must have been stunning, and Xena said it was, but it served mainly as a means for her to sink into a trance surrounded by a non-pulsating, stagnant kind of nothingness, and she jerked awake of her blank-screen daydream right in time to applaud and bow. Thank you, she said, for your presence, on behalf of Rome. She saw a little girl, the daughter of a diplomat or a member of the court, she was sure, smile. That did please the Empress. That was about it.

She stretched her body on the sheets, soft against her skin, and nodded to no one. Then she turned on her side and slept or didn’t sleep. It didn’t seem to matter.

*

Xena had told Caesar she’d be late for the play, perhaps even miss it, tonight, but he had berated her—this was the finest playwright in all of Greece, he had said, and she had smiled. Of course, she had said.

She took her horse out. Her strong body rushing the animal, she rode as fast as she could, almost expecting to reach the end of the world, and the edge of the kingdom was the edge of her lifted spirits. Something was missing, something was wrong, something was off, a small voice whispered within her, but it ran and passed her easily—beloved by the citizens of her city and provided with all she could ever want, what right did she have to complain? When she returned to the gates of the castle, she was welcomed with cheers and cries of love and admiration. Who would not want that? Who would say no? She smiled at the standing crowds. I’m undeserving of this, she said to them in her heart. I cannot feel it when you touch me, she said in her heart to Caesar when he took her hand. But Rome saw only her graceful figure and lithe form, tall and slender. And kind.

She would heal the wounded and touch the poor, and was beautiful and young and healthy. She entered her chambers. Again. Something is missing, something is off, something is wrong. Like a whisper in a wind, she lowered her head again, standing still as her maidens bathed and dressed her, her body rigid, held steady, so as not to fall, so as not to move. Or be moved. Strong as she was, it seemed to her she could fall for the slightest of motions. She felt a strange shaking in her stomach and gasped. Then it was time to head downstairs.

*

Wing seats adorned in gold, the seats underneath her upholstered with the utmost care in burgundy red, Xena’s hand gripped the handrail in front of her with reverence, unaware of the sheer force she was using. Her eyes were wide, mouth slack, and her body found itself at the edge of its seat, on its own seemingly trying to come near the stage as much as possible; come near the notion of the play, that love is true and sweet and kind, that it exists, that is it worth dying for. Caesar was busy with matters of state or whatnot, not at all overwhelmed by the play, and Xena felt her heart beat heavily in her chest, her corset restricting her motions. She turned red, and bit her lip, rising to her feet at the end of the final act.

Then they introduced her—Gabrielle. The playwright. Xena stopped clapping her hands. She thought she might be dizzy but wasn’t sure. She wondered about the distance between her and the stage. Light, delicate blonde curls covered the playwright’s head, golden combs weaved in it. Her eyes were a dreamy blue-green, and she nodded softly as she gripped the flowers she received. Softly. Xena moved closer, as close as her confined box seat allowed her to. Everything Gabrielle did seemed soft, her small smile and generous bows. Xena saw her bite her lip and hang her head, and her own breath hitched in her throat. Something in Xena pulsated quietly under the surface—under the fabric of her gown and the makeup on her face. She was shocked, if you could call it that, but had no idea why; only that she couldn’t take her eyes off of this Gabrielle, and already in Xena’s mind a million scenarios swirled and played, as they always did, of who Gabrielle was exactly and where she came from, what her favorite quill was, her favorite papyrus, how she would sit at the table near her window and write. What love she must have had in order to write like that.

When Gabrielle gestured towards her, the Empress of Rome knew how to do one thing—she gestured back, her eyelids heavy with joy and desire. Xena’s long arm stretched in Gabrielle’s direction, and she so wildly was engaged and moved and shocked, that she forgot to silently thank whomever it was she prayed to each night before she went to sleep to feel these feelings now that she was actually feeling them.

Gabrielle bowed once more, on stage, and a strange feeling went through Xena. She watched her, and wondered if she had ever dreamed of her, or even met her before. She seemed familiar—the outline of her small body, her red lips, her curious gaze, playful and happy. Xena’s hands fell to her sides and she squinted her eyes, trying desperately to see more of Gabrielle, rejoicing more than she should, more than she was allowed to, that she would get to meet her soon. She heard an announcement confirming this—a gathering will be held in the courtyard—and it ended, as it always did with the sentence, “If it pleases the Empress.” And Xena nodded expectantly, a tear rolling down her cheek, her breathing labored.

“Yes,” she whispered, and her enthused nodding made for the answer. She didn’t see Gabrielle following her with her gaze, her brows furrowed once she saw tears on Xena’s face. Xena stumbled a little upon exiting the booth, her hands shaking. It was a chilly night.

*

Xena was frantically making her way across the crowd of people that poured out of the theater. Of course, she had to stop and curtsy and bless each one of them, smile benevolent, she was the Empress of Rome after all and beloved like no other leader—much more than her husband, say. She was adored to the point that people groveled before her, and she never let them; she’d use her strong arms to lift them up, placing her hands on their cheeks and smiling.

That’s what happened right when Gabrielle approached her. Xena was lifting a woman from a bowing position, laughing softly as she bent down to be of equal height to her.

“That’s rare to see,” Gabrielle said once the woman had left. Xena spun around, completely unprepared for the encounter. Her heart beat faster, and her breath turned audible, chest rising and falling, the necklace placed delicately upon it almost swaying with the force. Gabrielle coughed, having to try to keep her gaze away from the necklace and the chest and the milky skin. She sipped on her wine and looked up.

“Gabrielle,” Xena came to her senses. A little. “I don’t—I’m not above anyone,” she clarified. “There is no…bowing to me.” She pressed her hand to her heart, her shawl falling off her shoulders, and bowed a little herself, or curtsied, or an odd, confused combination of the two, towards the playwright. The blonde giggled, hanging her head.

“Your play,” Xena started, moving her hands oddly to grab her shawl, “was absolutely stunning. To see love like that.” She sighed. “It must be…it must be so wonderful.”

Gabrielle bowed her head again, peeking up. Xena was still struggling between her shawl and between emoting powerfully, explaining that it takes great courage to speak of love, but to write of love is even more courageous, and how happy and pleased she was that Gabrielle was willing to grace Rome with her beautiful play.

“If it please—” Gabrielle tried.

“Yes!” Xena called out, and then lowered her voice. “I mean, yes, yes. Pleases—I love it. I loved it.”

The brunette’s long, strong arms made a last effort at the shawl. Gabrielle, without thinking much, grabbed the fabric from behind Xena, wrapping it around her. Her hands touched Xena’s wrists and both women took a sharp breath in, maybe for different reasons. Or maybe not. Gabrielle was terrified when she realized what she had done.

“My Empress,” she bent at her knee, her gaze stuck to the ground. “I’m—I’m so sorry. I don’t know what…I was thinking. Please,” she bowed again, “forgive me. It was—”

Gabrielle suddenly felt Xena’s hand on her chin, and at the unexpected touch, chills rocked her body. It was hard for Xena to ignore the swell of her chest, her whispered breath, but she turned Gabrielle’s face upwards, lingering when she had to take her hand away, sliding her fingers up to Gabrielle’s cheeks before she pulled back.

“Thank you,” Xena said. She had meant it to be a clear sentence, reassuring, but it came out a whisper, tortured. She gazed at Gabrielle’s eyes again and opened her mouth a bit. Then a silence—too comfortable a silence—settled between them, and Xena thought she could see the stars in Gabrielle’s eyes, and Gabrielle’s breath matched Xena’s now, the locket adorning her own neck rising and falling and rising and falling until she managed, somehow, to say,

“I’m so glad you liked it,” or something of that sort.

“I’d always dreamt of a love like that,” Xena said quietly, and Gabrielle knew not to ask further. Their eyes stayed locked for long moments, when they spoke and when they didn’t, of love or of writing, until the Emperor himself placed his hand around Xena’s waist, and for whatever reason, she wanted to swat his hand away. Gabrielle was the first to look away, curtsying, and Caesar gave what sounded like insincere compliments, which made Xena angry, and before she went with him, she painfully noticed the sinking feeling in her gut for having to let go of her conversation with Gabrielle.

Caesar was speaking to her of Chin but Xena turned her head once more, searching the crowd for Gabrielle. She found her, biting her lip again, and bowed her head as much as she could from her position near Caesar. Gabrielle raised her glass towards her. Her hands were shaking.

*

After Xena patted Caesar’s hand, and told him it has been a long day, and he had left, she was on her own in her chambers once more. Her mind reeled with lines from the play and images of Gabrielle raising her glass. It did when she braided her hair again, when she washed her face, when she lay down on the satin sheets. Something went through her, and she let it. Her long fingers ran over her body, and she closed her eyes, imagining her hands weren’t hers at all. Her breath became thick and wanton and her back arched, slowly, safely.

She had long fingers, like a harpist, she was always told. She’d move them always, out of either anxiety or just the desire to move, during conversations of state or conversations of love, not that she had very many of the latter, and now her harpist fingers were playing her body up to her mind, to feel what she felt, like a swing was beneath her with every wave of breaths. Blonde hair and bitten lips, and love, and courage.

Xena sat up in her bed. Had she ever loved anyone? She believed in love, she knew that much. She believed in love like she believed in trees, or in horses. Not a sky height type love. A very real, solid belief. As if it had ever stood in front of her and showed itself, silvery bright, honest and merciful—except it didn’t. But her mind was busy, heavy almost, with golden curls and shouts of admirations and flowers, anyway. Maybe love was more than this. Celestial, maybe it really was of goddesses and stars. Maybe it was transcendental, the love of the poets and dreamers. She sat up even straighter in her bed suddenly, her hair dancing when she moved her head towards the balcony, which stood open, letting in a breeze. The wind played on her face, and she smiled, grabbing a short satin cover and tying it above her chest loosely, wandering towards the balcony, wondering about love.

Xena approached the balcony, and at first glance caught Gabrielle, the playwright, standing outside her room’s balcony, directly across from her. Xena’s first instinct was to simply hide. She still relied heavily on her merciless training since childhood, a personal student of the finest teachers, brought in to level with her skill when she excelled, again and again, in all areas of battle. And so, she hid, flattening her body against the wall of the balcony that was concealed from view, and the wind wrapped a curtain around her. She breathed heavily a few times, and only then dared look to her right, turning herself as slowly and as quietly as she could, so she could take in the sight of Gabrielle.

She seemed to be just looking to the distance, Gabrielle did. Her hair was down, curled and soft. Soft-looking, at least. Xena breathed through her mouth. Soft-looking, her hair seemed so soft. And her skin seemed so soft, and her mouth, so soft—she caught herself at the edge of a thought and turned back so that her back was to the balcony wall. For some reason, she smiled, taking in heavy breaths, her hands clutching the sheet that covered fairly minimal parts of her body. She had no reason to, but she almost giggled, lowering her head. She looked back; Gabrielle was still there. When Gabrielle placed her pale arms on the railing of the balcony, the milky skin of her neck and chest stood out more. Xena exhaled again. No giggling this time. She made her writing motion with her hand, and she understood, at least partially, that she was doing that because she wanted to touch. Gabrielle’s eyes were set in the distance, and Xena smiled again when she saw her smile softly, and found herself wondering what reason exactly she had to smile, who or what was far away in that direction, waiting for her to rejoice with, to welcome back with open arms.

Xena took in a deep breath. The reel of thoughts that told her she wanted to be the one to embrace Gabrielle, she ignored. As a Head of State, one must learn to ignore many sensations, though this one, she’d admit, was difficult. Whenever Gabrielle smiled, she smiled, and it occurred to her that she would like for that to keep on happening always. In the meantime, however, with every drop of courage in her, she turned again, appearing, ghost-like, from within the folds of the curtains.

It took a second for Gabrielle to notice her, but when she did, she gasped, straightening the satin that covered her own body. Xena was stunning. Gabrielle was upset at herself for thinking in a loop. It would happen to her when she would be writing, too, but never like this. It was difficult for her, truly a struggle, to tear her eyes off of the Empress’ collarbone, jutting out, sharp, her beautiful cheeks tan and well defined, her black hair cascading to her waist. All begging to be touched. Dammit, Gabrielle thought, I could write sonnets about her already. This is bad. This is very bad, she thought, but only curtsied, and was about to turn and leave when Xena smiled at her, the left part of her face curling into a mischievous grin. She couldn’t help but smile back, lowering her head.

“My Empress,” she mouthed, and Xena made a to do of a particularly unnecessarily complicated bow, causing Gabrielle to giggle. Xena’s hand was on the knot that kept her cover in place. She wanted to say so many things, but they were buildings apart; that translated into so many levels of being for her, that she felt unwilling to bear it any longer. This was her home. Her city. Emboldened, she stepped forward till she reached the end of the balcony. She gestured downwards, towards a small courtyard between the buildings. Gabrielle’s eyes followed Xena’s long hand to see: it was just a gazebo and a few trees surrounding it, a small space—too small, not small enough—and she lifted her gaze again, trying to ascertain that Xena, the Empress of Rome, was truly suggesting they would leave their chambers each and meet downstairs. Once she had said it in her head, though, something bothered Gabrielle, though she didn’t know why; she didn’t feel inferior to the woman standing across from her, her head raised and breast rising and falling again with heavy breaths. She didn’t feel that she would be obeying an order if she indeed got dressed and went downstairs. Something else, infinitesimal or very large, happened the very second she noticed Xena on the balcony. Something beating and gone, fleeting, untouchable, but she knew it, she wrote of it, though she had never felt it herself. Fluttering over her uneven breath, she smiled, and when she did, Xena smiled too, like a game between the two women. The Empress looked at the courtyard once more. Images and images and remnants of more images made themselves known before Gabrielle, at an inopportune time, she felt, and they stayed there, insistent—not of the kind that thought, what would she like to say? The kind that thought—that knot seems simple enough to undo. What if I were to undo it? And even though Gabrielle shook her head, those thoughts wouldn’t leave her alone, and she was beginning to suspect art imitates life in the most inconvenient and unsuitable situations—she had written about that too—when Xena grew impatient, looking for an agreement, or a denial, from the playwright.

Gabrielle looked up to the sky, and then back at Xena, and smiled. She bowed her head shyly, though she didn’t feel shy. Then she nodded, gazing at the meeting place Xena suggested. The Empress smiled, disappearing into her chambers, ostensibly to change so she could meet Gabrielle downstairs. And Gabrielle thought, not now, and begged her body to stop shaking, her eyes to stop watering, her breaths to stop coming in violently strong, her legs to stop faltering, their meeting place to stop pulsating. It was no grand revelation to her—sex, love, she had written so much about both. But not now, she begged the gods or whomever could hear, not now and not with the Empress of blasted Rome. She panicked as she slipped into a silken dress, wondering whether or not to tie her hair up.

Please, she asked no one. This is not the time. This is not the right person, not the right moment. She always believed in true love. She had to, since she wrote about it, but to her it would be that it would come to her in the form of a humble man holding flowers outside the window where her writing desk stood, not in the form of the Empress of Rome, a ruler known for her incredible kindness and humility.

For her generosity.

For her sincerity, overwhelming, brand new.

For her breathtaking beauty.

Gabrielle left her hair down. She took a deep breath, and began walking downstairs, holding on to the fabric of her dress so it wouldn’t get in her way.

Continued in part two: The Courtyard

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