(for Johnette)

II

The Courtyard

Gabrielle the playwright was stuck with no words to aid her. It had happened before, but only a few times, and in all those times, she had managed to talk her way out of the situation—even if not with the words she had wanted, but with the words that had seemed right for the other person. She had never in her life stumbled down stairs towards a courtyard with her mind completely and utterly blank.

Well, questions—she had a lot of those. Not that she had turned her attention to being unusually drawn to a woman when her few affairs had been with men. More immediate issues were pressing: was the gold satin she was wearing suitable? Rich…looking? She rolled her eyes at herself. She’d heard the Empress speak, her voice cool and low, and it had given her chills before. What would happen now? She ran upstairs again to grab something to cover her arms and chest. Then she shook her head and took it off. What is it that we are going to do, Gabrielle thought—almost whispered—out loud. She was sure the Empress had walked smoothly and softly down the stairs leading out from her own chambers, probably adorned in some new outfit Gabrielle had not yet seen, something even more striking, even more irresistible. Even more silencing. But Gabrielle had nothing but words. They were all she was, and she knew she was one of the lucky few to have made a living from it.

Gabrielle reached the opening of the part of the castle where she was staying. The guards, nodding, unlocked the gate for her. Even they exchanged odd looks when Gabrielle stood, pressing her lips together, shifting her weight from one foot to another, for a good two or three moments, right at the edge of the exit.

“Will my lady be leaving, or…” one of the guards said. Gabrielle was aware of his leering, the dress she had chosen tight around her hips. Did she choose a dress that was too tight around her hips? Oh, gods, she thought, the Empress just wanted to talk. Probably. Or did she? She did. Gabrielle tutted her tongue.

“My lady?” the guard repeated.

Gabrielle smoothed the fabric of her dress and took a deep breath.

“Exiting,” she managed. “Exiting, yes, yes. I am—I will be doing that,” she pointed towards the darkness outside. Xena must already be in the courtyard, waiting for her. She berated herself for immediately thinking that the Empress of Rome—wife to the Emperor of Rome, she reminded herself, resting her face in her hands—would have any other intention than a small stroll to speak of the nuances of Gabrielle’s play. She did seem very taken by it. What in her right mind—

“Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle lifted her head to the sound of the cool, low voice speaking her name. There would be no confusing it once you heard it. Take your hand. Off your face, she instructed herself, and had to try again, twice, to do so. The guards saluted their Empress as Xena stood right in front of Gabrielle, wrapped in a red dress—yes, Gabrielle, you were right, she told herself, even more beautiful, even more irresistible, and probably meant for her husband, she chided herself.

“Are you alright?” Xena asked. The tilt of her head caused her hair, which was down and taking on the curve of her neck and shoulders, to move a bit, and Gabrielle thought that that was very pretty, pretty enough to write about—though this is not our business here, is it, she told herself again, finally groaning when she realized she had to speak, or the situation would look suspicious, or frightening, or anything else that wasn’t true.

“Empress,” Gabrielle eventually whispered. She went with this whisper, even though the intention was to talk. But she figured maybe if she made it look like she had intended to whisper all along, a little bit of nonchalance could make its way to her, considering she had initially assumed the Empress of the entire empire of Rome had invited her—her and no one else—for a secret lovers’ stroll through an unseen courtyard.

“What?” Gabrielle said to herself. Except she said it out loud.

“What?” Xena replied. Gabrielle looked at her and then looked away and then looked right back at her. The stories of her beauty were not exaggerated. Unfortunately. Gabrielle got caught in Xena’s eyes for a moment, and, since she was playwright and not a public speaker, simply said so.

“You have such beautiful eyes,” she whispered. Xena smiled, then laughed when Gabrielle gasped, pressing her hand to her mouth. “I am so sorry!” Gabrielle managed. Tears rose in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m not used to—” she gestured around her, marble and gold everywhere, and then moved her hand forward, as if showcasing Xena for the planet to see why she had spoken so loosely, with such lack of manners.

“Gabrielle,” Xena smiled. She reached out her arm towards the playwright. “Will you take a walk with me?”

Gabrielle had every intention to run back to her chambers.

“Maybe it’d be a better idea if I sat in my room,” Gabrielle muttered, but took Xena’s hand anyway. “You know, where I can’t talk?”

Something happened to her mid-sentence when she pressed her palm to Xena’s. She swallowed the small sound she made upon the touch, but Xena couldn’t hide her own reaction, and she shook, moving her head to the side after a moment, trying to find her composure—what? To her left?

“If you want to return to your room, please—” Xena started, her voice choked.

“No!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “I mean…no?” She tried to lower her voice.

“No?” Xena asked. Beyond her control, her thumb moved back and forth over the smooth skin on Gabrielle’s hand, and she smiled again.

“No, I’d like to stay here,” Gabrielle said.

“So, you’ll take a walk with me?” Xena asked. Gabrielle lowered her eyes to where the two women were holding hands, to where Xena happened to be looking as well. When they looked up at the same time, they caught each other’s gaze, and for a long moment, maybe only a moment, but bearing the emotional length of an hour, they stared at each other, Empress and playwright. They both did the same—took in the view of one another. Blonde curls adorning a childish smile, jet black locks of hair as fierce as the face it was framing, crimson lipstick and kohl, no makeup at all, different lives, different circumstances that had brought them to that moment, but a very real and powerful connection, so strong that Xena’s mouth fell open, and she had to take a few arrested breaths to even talk. Gabrielle was still staring at her eyes, and Xena shook her head, slowly at first and then quickly, making an exhaled breath out to be a laugh, but not letting go of Gabrielle’s hand, which she was still caressing slowly.

Gabrielle nodded.

“Walk?” she managed to say.

Xena nodded as well. She gestured her thank you to the guards, and pulled Gabrielle a little closer to her, eliciting a bated breath from the blonde.

*

As they walked, Xena and Gabrielle, they walked slowly. The farther away they came to be from castle walls and chamber guards, the closer their bodies became, by a strange combination of inertia and an odd, unexplained desire. Gabrielle’s arm was entangled in Xena’s when they reached the courtyard. Having said nothing at all on the short way there, Xena brought them to a seat made of stone, hidden well, she knew, by the trees that surrounded the enclosed space. Even if we were to—Xena didn’t let herself finish the sentence. But even if we were to, she nodded, no one would see us.

“What?” Gabrielle said.

“What?” Xena replied.

“You’re nodding.”

“I am?”

Xena sat down, reaching a long, toned arm towards Gabrielle, inviting her to sit by her side. The seat was narrow. The two women were touching thighs now, as well as their entwined arms, and Gabrielle wondered if she wasn’t right after all, but then it seemed to her none of this was planned, nothing truly set. A peculiar feeling came over both her and Xena, as if this were not even taking place, or if it were, there was something mystical about it, something unusual, and Xena gasped suddenly, looking behind her. Without thinking, Gabrielle rested her hand on Xena’s cheek. She didn’t draw it back in fright. They stayed like that, both barely breathing, for a moment. Then, Xena rested her palm on Gabrielle’s, her eyes fluttering as she turned her face so it rested completely in Gabrielle’s hold, then curling Gabrielle’s palm and lowering it to kiss it.

Gabrielle leaned closer to Xena.

“What is it?” she whispered.

Xena moved backwards. It seemed to her that their touch was almost finding itself. She never in her life had had to try less in order to be completely wrapped by another human’s touch.

“My…husband,” Xena started, and pressed the side of her body closer to Gabrielle as she released her palm, “convenes with…a mystic of sorts,” Xena said, whispering. Gabrielle lowered her kissed palm to rest on Xena’s thigh and not hers, and the Empress cried out softly, sealing the edges of her moan with absolute silence.

“I don’t like her,” Xena said, finally finding the courage to look Gabrielle in the eyes. Once she did, she smiled. “I don’t think her worthy…” Xena swallowed, having a hard time speaking. “I don’t think her worthy of the status she carries with the Emperor.”

Gabrielle nodded. She lowered her head again, curving her body, and Xena, dumbstruck, matched her movements, till their burning hot, flushed pink cheeks were touching, their heavy breaths mixing with one another and with the air around them.

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered. She didn’t move from her position, flush against Gabrielle.

“Empress.”

Xena moved back for a moment. Her body was moving on its own. More than it scared her, than it should have scared her, it was taking over her very rapidly, and since it found a ready partner in Gabrielle’s body, she spared nothing. Xena stroked Gabrielle’s cheek with her hand, running her thumb past Gabrielle’s lips.

“Please,” Xena said, moving back to her position next to Gabrielle, moving her body a little farther back so she could look into the playwright’s eyes. “Call me Xena?”

Gabrielle’s mouths fell open. She nodded, and like Xena, her body seemed to ease itself. She was pressing foreheads with Xena now, the air so constricted around her that she gasped once their skin met.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said. She looked down to where her hands were weaved with Xena’s, resting on a fold of fabric on Xena’s thigh.

“Your play,” Xena said, her voice a whisper. “Do you believe in it?”

Gabrielle turned her head a bit.

“It speaks of undying love, even after death, in other realms and planes,” Xena continued, and with every word, their bodies, both moving without intent at all, came closer and closer. “Do you believe in that?” Xena pulled her face back, gasping when Gabrielle’s lips touched her cheek.

“If you do,” Xena continued, and a stunned Gabrielle thanked her for her continued speech, for otherwise, she feared, they’d be swallowed whole by silence and by whatever else that was happening to them, drawing their minds and bodies to each other in an unstoppable force. “If you do,” Xena repeated, “then you’ve felt it. Right?” Xena asked, her question all passion and hope. “Then you have a love like that,” Xena spoke suddenly, moving her torso and head away from Gabrielle’s. “You must.”

Xena’s look was so intense it almost hurt Gabrielle. She managed to shake her head.

“No,” she whispered.

Xena’s eyes widened, and Gabrielle inhaled sharply, her shaky hand rising to rest on Xena’s face, her mind resounding with just the beauty of Xena’s eyes.

“You must have done,” Xena whispered passionately, her voice weak but full of conviction. “No one can make up something like that.”

Gabrielle chuckled for a moment, and her breath tickled Xena’s skin. She turned her eyes to Gabrielle again.

“I guess one can,” Gabrielle whispered, “and has.”

Xena hung her head again, touching Gabrielle’s cheek with her own, her shoulder with her own. Their fingers were interlocked, arms tangled together, thighs touching beneath the barrier of their dresses. They were both equally confused.

“You imagined it?” Xena asked. She didn’t move. Gabrielle looked up, squeezing Xena’s hand to keep it in place, to keep herself in place.

“I dreamed of it,” Gabrielle answered. “I dreamed of a love so strong, so overpowering, that it would be victorious against all odds,” Gabrielle whispered. Her palm slid to Xena’s wrist, and she lifted Xena’s arm, placing Xena’s palm against her own cheek as she spoke. “I dreamed…of a love so impossible that it would break every barrier, and come along in the most unusual of circumstances,” Gabrielle said. A tear fell down her cheek, and she didn’t know why. Xena wiped it away with her thumb.

“I thought of two lovers sitting just like this,” Gabrielle said, her air running out at the end of her short sentence. “Their bodies moving and touching without them being able to help it.” She noticed Xena was swaying slightly, her eyes closed, as if she were listening to a fairy tale. Gabrielle moved so her mouth would be closer to Xena’s. “They’d sit still and wouldn’t talk,” she continued, gasps adorning the bookends of her breath. “There would be no reason for them to do so. They’d never met each other before—just a glance.” Gabrielle exhaled shakily as Xena tilted her head slightly. “And from there, just from that glance, they were in love,” she barely managed to say. “Ready to do anything for one another, ready to live or die for one another. For love,” Gabrielle said, though she was doubtful Xena could even hear her. “That’s the kind of love I’ve always wanted.”

Xena stopped her swaying. A soft smile rose to her lips.

“And never had?” she asked.

Gabrielle wanted to shrug but couldn’t.

“Gods, your eyes,” she said instead. Xena smiled, but her smile disappeared quickly enough.

“What then?” she asked Gabrielle, who tucked a stray strand of black hair behind Xena’s ear.

“Then what?” Gabrielle whispered.

“They were sitting, just like this, you said,” Xena reminded the storyteller. “Their bodies touching without them even knowing why. Their legs,” she brought her shin behind Gabrielle’s calf. “Their thighs,” she pressed herself as close as she possibly could to the bard. “Their stomachs, their chests,” she turned a bit and lifted one of her hands to move Gabrielle, so they were almost facing each other, and then reached forward, pressing her torso to Gabrielle’s. “Their necks,” Xena said. She lowered her head, so it rested on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “That’s what you said they did. The lovers. And what next?”

Gabrielle closed her eyes. She was focused on being able to breathe, but satin was not a thick fabric, and her skin was almost touching Xena’s where their breasts met. She felt the brunette’s bare arm around her, her long fingers spreading on her back and rising to her neck. She lifted two arms and used her palm to cup Xena’s face. Their noses were touching.

“And what next?” Gabrielle asked. Her breath may as well have been Xena’s breath. Xena swiftly contemplated on how foreign the sensation was, the sensuality of it, the natural pace of it, that maybe they had already been one and had been temporarily parted and had only now found one another, and a moan escaped her lips—she had a hard time staying still.

“Then they kiss,” Gabrielle finally managed an answer. It penetrated Xena’s thought like a sword through her stomach. Her body ached, her legs pressing and pressing without her trying, her mouth open and eyes glazed.

“They do?” she whispered. Now Gabrielle was the one who moved back far enough so they could look each other in the eye. It took her a bit to answer again, and she nodded long before she gave a verbal reply.

“Ye-yes,” she said. She curled her hand in Xena’s hair. “That’s what happens next.”

Xena nodded. She lowered her head again, so it was at an angle under Gabrielle’s, and then leaned forward, making a trail of small kisses on the bard’s neck. Gabrielle cried out, her free hand grabbing the fabric against Xena’s skin.

“Oh,” she managed, shivering. Xena moved upwards, pressing foreheads with Gabrielle again. The blonde was breathing heavily, her hands running softly over Xena’s body.

“If that’s what happens next,” Xena managed to say, “I’m not a good enough storyteller to rewrite yours.”

Gabrielle nodded. With her eyes closed, she brought a shaking hand to trace Xena’s form, then allowed two fingers to rest on her lips.

“No,” Gabrielle whispered. “I like the story how it is,” she said, and slowly, she moved her head, so her lips met Xena’s.

It really was the strangest sensation. Xena and Gabrielle didn’t need to talk about that to know it was true for them both. Something misplaced had been found, it seemed to them as they kissed, something that had been missing forever, Xena thought. Her thirst for human contact was not the source of this kiss, she knew, and suddenly she knew more; odd images of forests and horses and rivers flashed before her eyes, and before she deepened the kiss she pulled back, as if to ask Gabrielle if she had seen the same thing, and Gabrielle nodded.

On a bench made of stone, two lovers moved as if the world were their puppeteer and they were nothing but pawns in a bizarre game. Their excruciating effort to keep quiet worked only partially and fell into pieces once Xena lowered the shoulder strap of Gabrielle’s dress. Xena’s hand suddenly moved to where Gabrielle’s heart was.

“And then what?” she managed to say, her mouth still hot and heady on Gabrielle’s lips. Without receiving an answer, she took Gabrielle by the hand, leading her not back to their chambers, but farther into the courtyard. She guided her, their bodies still entangled, past the many hidden patches of grass and woods that were still the castle’s property, far enough, she prayed, so no one could see them, and she walked more, and more, until she stopped and fell to her knees, taking Gabrielle with her, smoothing her hand down Gabrielle’s back as it arched in her grip.

Xena placed her fingers on her lips, indicating to Gabrielle to be quiet. The playwright nodded, but then shook her head. Now allowed, her hand crept under Xena’s dress and up her stomach to her chest. She moved the Empress of Rome so her black hair spread on the ground, then took off her dress, and wildly kissed her way down—or up—depending on how one would be looking.

Unfortunately,

Someone was.

*

Alti wrapped her arms around Caesar, but he pushed her off his body with contempt.

“Like I said,” Alti said, her voice growling, “my Emperor.”

Caesar crossed his hands, his brows furrowed.

“She never loved you,” Alti continued, trying again to come near Caesar. “Not in the other lifetime, and not in this one.”

“I gave her everything,” he snarled. Alti was more careful in her approach now; she merely rested her hand lightly on Caesar’s shoulder, grinning as she felt his anger rise.

“I gave her everything,” he murmured again in anger, and Alti shook her head, smoothing her hand down Caesar’s body.

“She’s an ungrateful bitch in any reality,” Alti snapped.

Caesar stomped his feet, turning away from the balcony, furiously pacing, until he reached the desk in his chamber. He sat down, retrieving a quill from a locked drawer, and a parchment from beneath a chest that stood, an obedient citizen of Rome, at the edge of the room. Alti wrapped her arms around him as he began to write.

“You have no choice,” she whispered in his ear, careful not to let her bare hands touch his neck.

“It seems that I do not,” he said. Alti kissed him. He didn’t respond but did not resist.

 

Continued in part three: The Beckoning

Back to the Academy