(for Johnette)

III

The Beckoning

After they had made a play out of the storybook Gabrielle insisted to so slowly tell, Xena’s skin was covered in goosebumps, and she couldn’t stop touching Gabrielle, an issue she had never had before. She would always need time away from her lovers, a long time, but this time, her body longed for Gabrielle’s so much that she, the taller one, had tucked herself between Gabrielle’s arms, one long lazy arm reaching around the blonde to caress her hair.

They kissed. Again. Every time, it seemed to Xena that she was kissing for the first time. Gabrielle smiled softly, her mouth going to Xena’s neck.

“Hi,” Gabrielle whispered. Xena looked into Gabrielle’s eyes. She was having a hard time speaking, even her moans had been constricted when Gabrielle was inside her, somehow an absolute expert on exactly what she needed. Xena stared at Gabrielle’s fair skin. She sits and writes a lot, she thought, and smiled. “What?” Gabrielle smiled back.

“I can just picture you,” Xena said. Her eyes closed, and Gabrielle kissed them open.

“I’ve never seen eyes like yours,” Gabrielle said, “I want to keep looking.” Gabrielle had begged the same of her when they were truly inside one another—please, open your eyes, I want to see—and Xena had bitten down on her lip hard enough to draw blood just to please Gabrielle, and opened her eyes. Whatever Gabrielle wanted….

“Picture me what?” Gabrielle interrupted. Xena was trying to get used to her deeply scanning stare.

“Sitting at your desk,” Xena said. “Writing your plays.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Ah,” she said, nodding. After a beat, she leaned in to kiss Xena again, and said, “Would you like to know a secret?”

Xena giggled, and then gasped—since when did she…but she left it to be—yes, she said, the secret was more interesting. Every few moments, Gabrielle would lose herself in Xena’s eyes. This was one of those moments.

“Gabrielle?” Xena whispered. Gabrielle looked down. “Tell me the secret.”

Gabrielle bit her lip. “Actually…No,” she grinned. Xena laughed softly.

“No?”

“Nah,” Gabrielle shook her head, her eyes beaming still. “No. It’s only a secret for very good girls, and I know for a fact you are very ba—”

Before she could finish her sentence, Gabrielle squealed as she was being tickled by the Empress of Rome herself. Xena mercilessly attacked Gabrielle’s soft body.

“Tell me!”

“No!” Gabrielle laughed. Xena tried to hush the sound of birds around, the wind, her own breathing. She wanted to hear only Gabrielle’s laughter, to commit it to memory. She knew to save, Xena did, for rainy days. She knew when something was just absolutely—

“Priceless,” she breathed, the smile leaving her face. Gabrielle was still laughing but had calmed down.

“What?”

Xena wrapped both her arms around Gabrielle. She let her left hand rest on the blonde’s cheek, nuzzling into her, and then pressed their bodies together, exhaling when the sensation was too good to bear. She bent down to kiss Gabrielle, her lips and then her neck, and Gabrielle moaned quietly, hushed, like a lullaby for Xena alone. Then Xena spoke, her mouth still on Gabrielle’s skin.

“Tell me your secret,” she said, looking upwards with puppy dog eyes. Gabrielle exhaled, as if on a laugh, but her back also arched onto where Xena’s hand was resting, with no intent. “Tell me,” Xena said, and her tongue lingered on Gabrielle’s stomach. “Tell me, or I’ll stay right here,” Xena lowered her head, eliciting a cry from Gabrielle, and then returning to where she was. “Always,” Xena finished her sentence. She was lapping at Gabrielle, and the blonde stroked her long black hair.

“Alright,” Gabrielle breathed. There was a long silence after. Xena’s tongue knew magics, Gabrielle thought, surely it did, but Xena stopped slowly, resting her chin on the wet spot she had left on Gabrielle’s chest.

“Tell me,” Xena said, blowing on Gabrielle’s wet skin, and Gabrielle moaned again, “tell me the secret.” Xena returned to her place, her hands cradling Gabrielle’s body, Xena resting her cheek against where Gabrielle’s heart beat.

Gabrielle nodded. She let her weight be carried by Xena, and then stroked Xena’s face over and over again, slowly, patiently.

“What?” Xena whispered. “Is it naughty?”

Gabrielle didn’t smile. She shook her head. Xena turned serious too. “What is it?” she repeated.

“I don’t write at my desk,” Gabrielle said. Xena gasped, feigning surprise, but Gabrielle was still somber.

“I have another secret,” she said, and Xena’s hands started moving, as if on cue.

“Tell me,” Xena whispered. She hoped Gabrielle had heard her.

“I have been writing about love my entire life,” Gabrielle said, still stroking Xena’s face, still being carried by her, between her. “But I’ve never felt a connection to what I said. I believe in it, I mean, true love, the kind you would die for,” she whispered, and Xena kissed Gabrielle’s hand and said,

“The kind you would live for.”

Gabrielle nodded. She took a deep breath.

“In all these years,” Gabrielle said, “I only knew I thought it true. But now,” Gabrielle continued, her hand resting, cupping Xena’s cheek. “I think…I think I feel it too.”

Xena closed her eyes. She felt waves hitting her gently when Gabrielle’s hand lowered. She let them. A soft smile on her face, she turned so her forehead was buried in Gabrielle’s skin a moment later.

*

Gabrielle was smiling. She’d glimpse Xena’s face from time to time: it was serene, no longer beset with the concern she saw in it constantly. Xena was quiet, running her hand up and down Gabrielle’s thigh. When Gabrielle looked down again, she saw Xena tearing up.

“Hey,” Gabrielle said, concerned, raising her body a bit. Xena clung to her, and Gabrielle wiped away her one tear, sitting up so she could look Xena in the eye. “What is it?” Gabrielle said softly.

Xena pursed her lips. All she wanted was this, what was now, forever, to stay still. But she knew she’d have to go back—and soon, too—to be Empress, the wife of, her duties before her, her king in her chambers, in her bed, in her. Matters of State. The delegation from Chin, she thought, and almost turned to move—she should be getting ready for them, and in any other case, Xena would be delighted to have an excuse to leave whomever she was making love with alone and head to her chambers and be by herself. But this was different. It had been from the beginning. Xena heard Gabrielle ask her what the matter was again. Xena closed her eyes and sighed, blindly searching for Gabrielle’s hand.

“What is this?” Xena whispered. Gabrielle shook her head. Gods, she was beautiful, her hair cascading down her shoulders, her soft features so attuned to Xena, so compassionate, so merciful. Xena never saw much mercy or compassion. Not a conqueress like her. She felt guilty for a moment.

“I’m not sure?” Gabrielle said. She rested her hand on Xena’s cheek again.

“Gabrielle,” Xena started, “I am not…”

“Stop,” Gabrielle smiled. “I know your duties and your status. And I’m—I’m sorr—”

“No!” Xena stopped her. She rested her own hand on Gabrielle’s. “I was going to say I don’t…I don’t think I deserve…this, whatever it is,” Xena stopped, gesturing to the woods they were in and the sky above them, adorned with stars like an ocean filled with crashing boats each carrying a freight of light. “I fight,” Xena whispered. “Rome is ruled by an iron fist—even if it doesn’t seem…that way,” she said. She wanted to speak of Caesar, of her life with him, of what she had done that she was not proud of. Now especially, at the radiant, milky confessional that was Gabrielle’s hips, Xena wanted to release her sins.

But she left the rest unsaid.

“You don’t love him,” Gabrielle whispered softly.

“What is love to do with marriage?” Xena whispered. Gabrielle looked in her eyes, smiling.

“I won’t hear that,” she said, and Xena contemplated repenting at the temple of Gabrielle’s thighs. “Not from you,” Gabrielle shook her head, and Xena leaned forward. “Not after what just happened.”

Xena smiled, and then her smile disappeared. What a dead end, just like all her dead ends, but this one a flower, real and true, heart beating and all.

“My past is not very…” Xena looked away for a moment. She may have done it so as to feel Gabrielle coaxing her back to their small nest of joined limbs and touching skin. It worked. When she saw Gabrielle again, she smiled, again, as if every moment were the very first moment.

“No, I do not love him at all,” Xena said. A peaceful smile rested on her face. Gabrielle tilted her head, and Xena smiled and touched her tongue to her teeth when Gabrielle’s blonde locks bounced in place even after she was finished moving—the force, she thought, of inertia, really is quite powerful. “I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anyone. At all.”

Gabrielle kissed Xena. Softly. Barely, but Xena’s entire body pulled after the kiss, into her haven, her eyes resting closed.

“And you never answered my question,” Xena whispered from her position near Gabrielle’s mouth. “You write of love you never had?”

Gabrielle rested her forehead against Xena’s.

“I did.”

Xena nodded.

“But now,” Gabrielle stopped, breathing heavily. Xena breathed heavily too, their chests heaving together, touching at the rise of their swell. “What should have been the other way around, me writing of love, I think love wrote me—”

Boom.

Xena shuddered at the loud clanging sound she heard. She whipped her head back, trying to cover herself. Her breaths of passion turned to ones of distress, and without thinking of it, she quickly moved her body in front of Gabrielle’s, trying to block her from sight, from any danger. She looked up, unable to rise to meet the eyes of the horse that stood before her, his saddle and harness lined with the fabrics of the Roman Army.

“Xena,” Alti said. Xena shook her head. Gabrielle finished getting dressed as hurriedly as she could, and Xena moved one hand behind her to press Gabrielle flush to her back.

“And the playwright,” Alti smiled. Xena’s fist clenched. She rose to her feet, not caring what parts of her body were seen and not seen. Alti cackled quietly, shaking her head. “I mean, I have to hand it to you. You just do not have failure in your dictionary, do you?”

“No,” Xena coughed. She lowered her head and then turned it, releasing her grip of Gabrielle.

“Go—” Xena tried.

“No,” Alti said. Gabrielle was suddenly on her knees, and Xena turned to her, panicked, running her hand through the blonde’s hair. “You’re going to have to edit your dictionary. My gods,” Alti said, her grating voice vicious, “you really are soulmates. That…is…revolting.” She turned her face downward, staring at her hand. “Anyway, none of it matters now.”

Xena’s mouth was slightly ajar. In the back of her mind, she let herself rest and click—of course Gabrielle was her soulmate, and of course life would be cursed without her—and what of Caesar, she wanted to ask….

“He’s the one who did this,” Alti answered Xena without her asking, smiling. “It’s…a labor of love.”

Xena, shocked, turned to Alti, and then to Gabrielle again, who was staring dead ahead. Xena ran her hand down her cheeks, trying to pull her from her odd hypnosis. After a few foiled attempts, she turned back to Alti.

“Let her go,” Xena said. “I’ll come with you. I’ll confess everything.”

Alti snorted with laughter. “How noble!” She mocked Xena. “And that you think your unfaithfulness is the cause of all this. Truly, an inspiration. And I do have to say, no matter how many times I try to separate you two, you always end up finding each other again,” Alti said. “It’s obnoxious.”

Xena placed her arm around Gabrielle, shaking her.

“Gabrielle,” she begged, pressing her forehead to Gabrielle’s again. “Please.”

Alti jumped from her horse and onto the ground. Xena barely made it to a standing position before Alti’s hands were on her neck. She fought in the beginning, using her legs and core to push through. But then she saw images flashing before her eyes, the same she had seen when Gabrielle was entangled in her: a forest, a lake, and then more—herself, dressed differently, with Gabrielle, in a warrior’s outfit. Xena was running out of breath. And then, suddenly, in front of her eyes Gabrielle was being crucified in the snow, by her side, her lips blue, and when everything began to fade to black, she could hear herself saying, “I love—”

Xena fell on her back. She looked up at Alti, amazed.

“What—what is this?”

“It’s what you think. Clever girl. Something always felt off here, didn’t it? Always felt…” Alti was suddenly behind her. “Wrong? Like it didn’t fit?”

Xena’s was having a hard time catching her breath.

“We all lived this before?” she asked, infuriated, insulted, in love.

“In a way,” Alti shrugged. Xena rose to her knees.

“What way?” Xena hissed. Alti cackled again, crossing her arms. Her coat, made of a thick hide, was concealing most of her body, turning her into a form, a shape in the darkness, and Xena felt confused suddenly, as if she didn’t know where she was.

“What difference does it make?” Xena heard Alti say. Her hands were in shackles suddenly. She looked at Gabrielle: she was bound as well, but still catatonic.

“What are you doing?” Xena cried. She stared at Gabrielle, and then back at Alti. Something was wrong, something was off. Like a whisper in a wind. She was right. She had been right all along. Xena looked at Gabrielle one more time, her eyes filled with tears. She had known something was wrong. This whole time. And still she had dragged Gabrielle, Gabrielle the innocent, the sweet—the loving, the loved—Gabrielle with the kind eyes, down with her. And now she was and wasn’t, kneeling, wavering still. And where was she going. And why didn’t she say I love you back before it all had collapsed. For a moment, Xena considered screaming and folding in the middle—it hurt, so bad, but one more look at Gabrielle, one more swift memory of the trace of her gentle fingers over Xena’s used and torn skin, and with a forceful cry, Xena broke the shackles off her hands, and lunged at a laughing Alti.

“Wanna play, Empress?” Alti laughed. Xena went to raise her arm at Alti, but the Shamaness was somehow already miles away. Xena looked to either side. Even if she tried, she couldn’t reach Alti fast enough, or at all. “You’re right!” Alti yelled. “That’s not fair,” she said, and with that, was whispering in Xena’s ear. “Or fun.”

Xena made a feeble attempt to punch Alti, which had seemingly no effect on her. Alti laughed, then slapped Xena with the back of her hand, pushing her several feet back. She felt the blood dripping down her face.

“Let Gabrielle go! Whatever this is,” Xena said again. Alti laughed. She approached a motionless Gabrielle, her hand going towards her neck. “No!” Xena cried. She pounced on Alti full-force, moving her away from Gabrielle. Alti punched Xena repeatedly and kicked her. At one point, it seemed as if Xena would become one with the ground, her wounds weighing her down, but she kept coming back, counting her broken ribs in the back of her mind, her cracked cheekbone, just so long as Alti stayed away from Gabrielle.

“Fix what you did to her,” Xena said, her face now marred with blood. She was limping. “You can take me straight to Caesar,” Xena breathed. “Tell him exactly what you saw.”

Alti tutted her tongue, pretending to think. She kicked Xena in her already broken rib, sending her reeling to her knees, and then kicked her again, and gravity was just too strong; Xena fell on the ground, the newly-cut grass usually her favorite scent, now her captor.

“That would be no fun,” Alti answered, smiling. “No, no. I’m taking her,” she pointed at Gabrielle. “My little pet.” Xena watched with blurring eyes as Alti approached Gabrielle, laughing, and placed her hands on her neck. With a final stretch to remain conscious, Xena saw Gabrielle breathe in amazement, ostensibly seeing what Xena herself had seen. The blonde looked Xena in the eyes, mouthing something. “So very pure,” Xena heard Alti’s raspy voice scrape across the edge of her pulsating pain. Gabrielle shouted her name. Xena managed to see Gabrielle being dragged, feet tied to Alti’s horse, when she opened her eyes for a second, using all of her will power, every bit of her training, years of battle and precision and learning.

She tried to say something but did not know what. She reached her hand towards where Gabrielle was and then it fell, lifeless, on the ground. She didn’t hear the horse galloping, or the screaming that followed. Asleep in a bed of blood-painted newly-cut grass, Xena heard nothing. Nothing at all.

Continued in part four: The Shift

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