Standard Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, as well as anyone else that may look or sound even remotely familiar all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. All others are my creation. No copyright infringements were intended. Please do not alter, modify, or mess with except with the express permission of the author. Merci beaucoup.
Summary: An exploration of the immediate impact of Xena's death and resurrection upon both herself and Gabrielle following the events in the second season episode The Quest.
Violence Disclaimer: None to speak of, except in passing.
Subtext Disclaimer: This story is rated ALT as it contains two women who may like each other more than platonically if they can overcome their angst enough to examine their feelings in the midst of everything else they’re dealing with. If that notion gives you the willies, please read elsewhere, but let me warn you that you’re probably missing out if you do.
Timeline Reference: This story takes places during the second season, between The Quest and A Necessary Evil.
Author's Notes: While I don't make any actual reference to it, and while this story stands all on its own, the events in my other story Storms of War are taken into account when depicting my own personal interpretation of the development of Gabrielle and Xena's relationship up to this point of the second season. This is a short story approximately 46 pages in length.
Acknowledgements and Thanks: I’d like to offer my profuse thanks to Xenalicious and Brigit M. Morgan for their unstinting generosity of time, effort and self, and for their infinite patience in reading update after update of this story. Their feedback and encouragement were invaluable and I couldn’t have done it without them. Much thanks also goes to AngelRad, Extra and Kamouraskan for their timely comments and editorial suggestions. And finally, an apology to McJohn—I can’t promise it won’t happen again, but I hope you’ll forgive me anyway.
All constructive and positive comments are welcome at email@example.com. Thank you for taking the time to read this story.
© copyright 2003
“I sent scouts ahead to ready things for our return, so you should already have everything you need in there,” Ephiny murmured as she took the steps up to the Queen’s quarters along side Gabrielle, their footsteps echoing hollowly against the seasoned wood. “Guards are already stationed nearby in case anything else comes up. Most of Velasca's supporters have suddenly 'disappeared', but they might be back. We'll be watchful in case they try something.”
She watched Xena give a ghost of a nod in approval. The warrior appeared none the worse for wear considering her miraculous return from the other side. The tickle of whispers, like the rising fog against her bare skin, had brushed the edges of her hearing, and for Xena’s sake, if not Gabrielle’s, she was grateful for the falling darkness that hid her sister amazons’ barely veiled expressions of awe and fearful respect.
“Thank you.” Gabrielle reached out to the curly-haired woman, taking her into a tight embrace. “Thank you,” she said again, fervently, “for everything.”
Ephiny peered at Xena from over Gabrielle’s shoulder, rather surprised by the amused look she was getting. Glad that their efforts had come to such a fortunate end, she returned the hug and then gently patted the bard on the back, touched by the younger woman’s deep and obvious gratitude. Gabrielle had barely stirred from Xena’s side from the moment those blue eyes had opened. Ephiny had watched their interaction as unobtrusively as she could manage, relieved to see the life return to the bard’s face after days of looking wan and lost. No doubt the tentativeness she sensed between them was simply a side effect of the circumstances.
“You’re welcome,” Ephiny replied when she was released from Gabrielle’s enthusiastic hug, only to find herself caught up in a pair of stronger arms, enveloped by darkness and leather. She stiffened in surprise, caught off-guard by Xena’s display of emotion.
“You have my thanks as well.”
The gruff words were all the more affecting for their unexpectedness and Ephiny slipped her arms awkwardly around the taller woman, marvelling at the sensation of being not so much engulfed as sheltered, protected. “You’re welcome,” Ephiny said again as the other woman released her. She glanced between them, shrewdly discerning the marks of fatigue on them both. “Get some rest. We can talk more tomorrow.” She lifted a hand in farewell and turned her weary steps towards her own hut, shaking her head in some measure of disbelief at how impossible the events of the last couple days had been.
She was happy for her friend; the look Xena and Gabrielle had shared in the cavern had made the entire effort worthwhile. While Ephiny could never begrudge Gabrielle her happiness, she also couldn’t deny the twinge of bittersweet envy at the bard’s good fortune. Ephiny tilted her head back and regarded the soft spill of stars visible through the opening in the treetops, letting out a long, soft sigh. Can you hear me, Phantes? Their tumultuous love had been brief but deep, and her lonely heart ached yet. I still miss you, you know.
A sentry called out to her, bringing Ephiny back from well-worn memories to give the watchword in response. She drew herself up as she passed, quickening her step to avoid being taken in conversation.
Solitude restored, her thoughts gathered to her again, crowding close and demanding her attention, whether she wanted them or not. Truest of these was the knowledge that, while some loves were gone, others yet remained; if Gabrielle had had her miracles, Ephiny had been given her own as well. The thought of her curly-haired son was a source of brilliant warmth and pride that brought a tender smile to her face and eased the lingering ache of loss despite Xenon’s absence.
No, she didn’t begrudge Gabrielle anything, not when Xena had touched both their lives so significantly. At the thought, Ephiny glanced back briefly at the Queen’s hut, noticing the weak candlelight filtering through the shuttered windows. There was no question this would affect them; her only concern now was how.
And that… Ephiny let out a sigh. Only the gods can know…
* * *
Gabrielle watched Ephiny leave and then turned her attention back to her friend. The bard still felt as though she couldn’t breathe every time she looked at her. On their return to the village she had found herself frequently reaching out to touch the warrior to make sure she was really, truly, with her. Strangest of all was that Xena didn’t seem to mind.
She followed Xena to the doorway, coming to a halt as the warrior paused at the threshold, blue eyes probing the softly lit interior. “Do you hear something?” Gabrielle asked quietly from behind her shoulder, taking a firmer grip on her staff.
Xena shook her head and stepped into the room, leaving Gabrielle to stare after her in curious concern. Familiar with the feel of Xena’s silences, the bard could sense a difference now in the air of distracted introspection surrounding the warrior. Well, why wouldn’t she feel that way? Coming back from the dead was liable to rattle anyone, and add to that the unexpected side effects of having shared a body with others…
Almost as startling as Xena’s spirit inhabiting her was the sudden welling layers of emotion, strong and deep, that, like a waterfall, had spilled into her being to mix and churn until Gabrielle had possessed only a vague sense of where Xena began and her own emotions left off. With Velasca still a threat there had been no time to dwell on the revelations of such forced intimacy, but afterwards…
The bard took a steadying breath. Okay, so maybe Xena’s not the only one feeling rattled right now.
She shook her head, closed the door behind her and followed Xena into the room, still not entirely convinced that the woman exploring the chamber, removing her weapons, and fingering the tray of food, was real. It was so in keeping with Xena’s nature that, after everything, Gabrielle found the normalcy of routine enough to raise the hairs on her arms. Especially given that barely a week ago, resisting Nicklio’s help, she had washed and prepared Xena’s cold, pale corpse with her own hands.
Her grip tightened convulsively on the wood of her staff, the horrifying sensation of stiff, clammy flesh and frigid mountain water rooted in her skin.
Caught between the sharp edges of memory and the implausibility of reality, Gabrielle felt a sliver of hysterical mistrust worm its way into her gut. “Am I dreaming this?” she asked suddenly in a tight voice, one fist pressing hard against her midsection.
The softly lit interior accentuated the shape of Xena’s face and darkened her eyes as they lifted to meet her own, blurring the edges in shadow and lending a gentle surrealism to her perceptions. Her own tiredness and the soft darkness were enough to make Gabrielle wonder and she stopped by the table with its collection of quills and parchment, her heart beginning to pound as she leaned her staff against the wall.
“It almost seems like a dream, doesn’t it?” Xena mused as she unhooked her breastplate and lowered it to the floor next to the bed.
It was hardly the reassuring answer Gabrielle had hoped for. “You’re… you’re not a dream, are you?” The tremor in the bard’s voice betrayed her, cracking her open inside and allowing her fear to surface. “If you are, then that means I’m going mad, right? Just some wishful thinking that’s gotten out of hand or something? Ephiny—not to mention the council—is not going to be happy having an insane Queen. I mean, there’s the hunt for Velasca’s supporters to worry about, and those other treaties to amend… How am I supposed to run things like that…” She trailed off, watching the warrior glide silently towards her, gentle amusement shaping those expressive lips. “I’m babbling, aren’t I?”
“I’ve heard the insane do that.”
“Is that right?” The fingers of Xena’s left hand lifted to hesitantly touch her hair, her brow, to gently stroke her cheek. “Then you’ve probably been nuts since the moment I met you.”
Gabrielle’s breath faltered; the yearning for contact so intense it was overwhelming. She shut her eyes on the tears that threatened even as she reached out to place her shaking fingers, feather-light, against Xena’s waist.
The warrior stood close enough that Gabrielle could feel her, feel the warmth coming off her skin. She could smell her leathers, the dust and perspiration of a long walk back to the village.
“Does this feel real to you?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle leaned into the knuckles brushing along her cheek; the thumb wiping away the tear escaping from beneath tightly closed lids. “It would still feel real if I were crazy, wouldn’t it?”
“Look at me,” Xena urged her, the warrior’s voice broadening to contain the quiet note of command the bard was accustomed to hearing.
Almost reluctantly, Gabrielle opened her eyes. She felt foolish and afraid and tentative for wanting reassurance so badly she ached with tension for it.
But it came then, as Xena reached to take one of her hands and gently placed it against a solid chest where the bard could feel the rhythmic beat of the warrior’s heart beneath the skin. “Does this feel real to you?” she asked again.
Wordlessly, Gabrielle nodded, her hand trembling beneath the other woman’s palm.
“It’s not a dream,” Xena whispered. “I’m alive. I told you I’d always be here.”
They were words from the dreamscape, and Gabrielle couldn't help but think of what had followed after, in the cavern. What they had shared. She wasn’t sure she was ready to face that yet, to acknowledge having her soul laid bare to the core at the moment of their joining. It was enough they should be here, she told herself, to be together like this.
“C’mere,” she heard and, tugged forward, Gabrielle dropped her forehead against Xena’s chest while long arms encircled her to bring her in closer. Xena’s chin came to rest atop her head and she could feel a sub-vocal hum vibrate the skin where they touched. She wanted to laugh, cry, dance around the room, but happily settled for the warm reality holding her, her ear pressed against a steady heartbeat as she turned her head to listen. She waited for each soft thud, anticipating the next; no longer taking for granted the predictability of one muffled beat following another. No, never again, she told herself, finding the sound of each measured breath reassuring in a way words could never be. It eased her, making welcome space between her and the memories still haunting her.
After a time Gabrielle finally opened her eyes and regarded the tanned skin and dusty leather beneath her cheek. Still here. She gave a relieved sigh and tilted her head enough to look up. This close, she could see the circles under Xena’s eyes and the other small signs revealing the warrior’s tired state. “You look dead on your feet—” She immediately bit her lip, horrified by her thoughtlessness.
Xena chuckled, hardly offended by the bard’s inadvertently macabre humour. “Running around the afterlife and fighting power-hungry amazons without a body takes it out of ya.”
“You’re telling me.” Gabrielle released her reluctantly and stepped back, shaking her head in amazement. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible. How in Tartarus did you do it?”
Xena grimaced slightly at the mention of Tartarus, and she distracted herself by trying to focus her thoughts on pulling off her bracers and armbands; her fingers, still somewhat stiff and unresponsive yet, were making the task frustratingly difficult. “Some mysteries aren’t quite as mysterious in the underworld,” she answered at last. “I managed to confirm some rumours I’d heard once about ambrosia. It seemed the best chance I had.”
Finally, the accoutrements joined her breastplate on the floor in a series of dull yet satisfying clinks. Xena sat down on the edge of the bed to remove her knee armour and boots, watching Gabrielle as the younger woman slowly crossed the room toward where the food had been lain out for them both. A familiar frown of concentration began to grow and, though she knew the look well, Xena, feeling drained and achy, was content to wait Gabrielle out.
“Then…” The bard picked up a piece of fruit, examined it absently, and put it down again. “Then if you knew you had a chance, why didn’t you come to me first? Why didn’t you tell me what you planned?”
There wasn’t any anger to the question, but Xena could hear the undercurrent of disappointment and hurt Gabrielle tried to hide. “I wanted to, at first.”
“At first? Then why—”
“I could hear you.” She examined her bare toes as she thought of how to explain, wiggling them a little and vaguely enjoying the fact that she even had toes again to wiggle. Finally she looked up. “All your grief, Gabrielle… all your pain… It ran so deep.” She hurried on, seeing the tightening around the bard’s eyes. “Especially that first night you spent alone after you left Nicklio’s.” Gabrielle’s eyes closed and Xena saw the faint shudder before Gabrielle hugged her arms to herself.
Concerned, Xena rose to her feet and walked barefoot across the wood floor
to the bard’s side. “You were already hurting so much…”
She reached out and placed her hands gently on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I
decided that I couldn’t say anything. Not then. How much worse would
it have been to offer you false hope? My time and energy were limited, so I did
the next best thing.”
“ Autolycus,” Gabrielle murmured in understanding.
“Exactly. Who better to help me steal my own body than the King of Thieves?” She could feel the other woman begin to relax a little under her hands. “I just wish I could have told you sooner.”
“Me, too.” The bard let out a heavy breath and then locked eyes with her, the green of her gaze like the restful promise of summer fields to Xena’s weary senses. “I don’t think there was a moment I didn’t think of you.”
“I know.” Xena’s expression softened in the candlelight, her blue eyes dark and deep with conflicting emotions. “I know.”
Assailed by memories, Gabrielle looked back at her, recalling as-
A cherished voice called her name, once, twice. It was too impossible to be believed until she had opened her eyes and there Xena stood, large as life.
“It’s me,” the warrior said, a half smile shaping her mouth, “I’m not dead.”
The sob had almost choked the breath from her and only the look of warning from Xena had prevented her from throwing herself into the other woman’s arms.
“At least—not completely,” Xena had amended.
“Why? Why did you leave? There’s so many things I want to say to you,” she remembered getting out, desperate to grab the chance offered in this undreamt of opportunity.
And gently, a tender smile on her face, Xena had stopped her before she could begin, saying merely, “Gabrielle, you don’t have to say a word.”
No, she didn’t have to say a thing… because Xena already knew. “Iolaus was right, then; you could…” A wince. “…hear my thoughts?” The confirmation was both a source of embarrassed alarm and awkward relief.
Xena nodded slowly, her half smile slowly disappearing as she watched flashes of thought blur across her friend’s face in rapid succession, each one becoming more alarming than the last. “Gabrielle… Gabrielle.” She gripped the bard’s shoulders again. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
The bard attempted to back away, but Xena held fast. “It’s okay,” she said again, trying to banish the wild-eyed look of horrified mortification from Gabrielle’s eyes. It struck her then just how unbalanced the situation was, the kind of mental and emotional advantage she had enjoyed in having unedited access to the other woman’s thoughts whenever any of them had touched on her. It had given Xena a window into the bard, showing her a grief and sorrow in such unremitting degrees that she was humbled to her core to know it was because of her. So much loneliness and fear, an uncertainty about the future, and a retrospection of so many of the moments they had shared, even some Xena herself had forgotten.
The near constant stream of chatter, both aloud to Argo and internally when the bard’s voice wore out, had been a comfort to Xena, a source of strength in her soul-draining efforts to win her way back. So she had kept a vigilant ear on Gabrielle, listening with a bittersweet yearning, drinking in each word, each thought—no matter how dark, surprising, or awkward—as if it were life-sustaining water.
Gabrielle’s cheek beneath her fingers was blushed with heat and Xena hardly had to guess the reason why. The bard’s conversation with Iolaus had been far more telling than Xena had expected, and hearing Gabrielle confess her love… Truly, it was the unexpected revelation, as much as the need to reassure and comfort, which had given her the courage to kiss the bard in the dreamscape, and likely the reason for the hint of colour darkening Gabrielle’s fair skin now. Xena applied gentle upward pressure to make Gabrielle meet her eyes. “You kept me going, you know.”
Gabrielle wanted to look away, but the warrior’s hand beneath her chin wouldn’t let her. “Not well enough,” she muttered.
The words took Xena by surprise and she let Gabrielle go when the other woman stepped away from her. “What?”
Gabrielle turned around abruptly, harried breath coming between clenched teeth, the change in her demeanour taking Xena by surprise. “I didn’t keep you going; you still died. I tried to get you to Nicklio, but I didn’t know the way,” Gabrielle said, her words spilling out faster and faster. “You were so feverish. I couldn’t make sense of anything you were saying. And then the snow in the mountains… I needed a litter for you, and Argo kept foundering in the snow and, even helping her, I couldn’t pull it fast enough—”
“I tried so hard, Xena, but you…” The bard threw her hands toward the warrior, anger and grief-stricken guilt vying for dominance. “…you just gave up and left me.”
The sudden accusation, stark and true, stung like a knife-wound, and Xena caught herself backing away from the rawness of her friend’s emotion. They looked at one another across this distance between them and she could easily read the questions in the green eyes, the silent pleading to know, above all else, why.
“Gabrielle, I never gave up on you,” Xena whispered. Expectant silence followed and Xena drew away towards the shuttered window where she could look out into the night. How could she give voice to the words, the reasons? How could she tell Gabrielle—the only person who had never given up on her—that the one she had truly given up on was herself?
Xena sensed movement and from the corner of her eye she could see Gabrielle edge closer, but the distance still yawned between them. “No matter what you may have heard, there’s no way you can know who I was. You can’t even begin to imagine.”
The odd segue confused Gabrielle even as it stirred emotional wraiths she realised could not belong to her. Tendrils of residual feelings, like a fine mist, shrouded her heart in some long remembered pain and shame not her own, but which she saw echoed in the regret etched across Xena’s face. “What happened then?” the bard asked quietly. “I felt something—a lot of things—earlier, but there wasn’t enough time…”
Xena sucked in a frightened breath, wondering just what Gabrielle might have been privy to while they had fought together, body and soul, against Velasca. I don’t want to do this. They were both too tired to go into this now, but Xena forced herself to press on regardless; after everything Gabrielle had been through the past several days an explanation was owed. “Riding through Cirra… all I could see were the burning homes, the people running from my army, the bodies of those we cut down.” She moved to the bed and sat down slowly, her forearms coming to rest on her bare knees. “Everywhere I looked a memory waited for me. I went there wanting to know why—why I did what I did, but all I found were more questions. And then, I found you gone…” Her jaw clenched; a subconscious effort to forestall the bleak remembrance.
Gabrielle drew closer and knelt down in front of the warrior, close enough to hear a whisper. “I didn’t even have a chance to shout. Dropping my staff was the only way I could let you know something had happened.”
“You had the right idea.” Xena nodded and then looked into the room’s shadows, reluctantly seeing the details unfold again. “The last thing I remember is meeting up with you on the trail… fighting… and then…”
Gabrielle watched the warrior struggle with the effort of recall and reached out to touch her friend’s hand, wanting to alleviate the frustration. The scarred warmth of a hand passed across her skin as Xena distractedly slid their fingers together. “A little girl was in the path of a log trap. Do you remember? You pushed her out of the way in time to save her life. It hit you though.” The memory of Xena, badly hurt, made her chest feel tight again. “You were bleeding…” Gabrielle whispered hoarsely, “Your ears were bleeding…”
The memory, pain-laden and grim, came back to Xena with cutting clarity, bringing with it flashes of moments, of—glancing back, tensing in resigned acceptance. Breath smashed from her body as the log strikes her in the back, knocking her from her feet. Moving too fast to brace herself, hitting the tree, a stunning explosion of pain…
Xena let out a shaky breath and rested her head in one hand, subconsciously tightening her grip on Gabrielle’s hand. Gods, it had hurt. Xena rubbed her fingers along her temple, remembering the shock-induced faraway feeling of wrongness in herself, of being injured inside to a frightening and confusing extreme. “I remember now. The girl... the Gaelic cross she wore…” With the questions that had driven her to revisit Cirra’s ruins so much on her mind beforehand—along with the unflagging need to understand how she had gone so far astray since Cortese—was it any wonder the necklace had triggered a reaction in her dazed and wounded state? “What else? What else did I say?” Xena pressed, wondering what other memories she had given breath to while fevered and wit-wandering.
“You begged me to take you to Mount Nestos and except for Nicklio’s name it was the last thing you said that really made any sense.” Gabrielle shook her head, her brow crinkling with the effort to remember. Her voice softened as she drifted into thought, her own state of fatigue making it easier to see the moments, burned as they were into her memory with brands of harrowing fear and anxiety. “Dinars. You had a conversation with Caesar. You kept calling for someone named M’lila and weeping. Sometimes you mumbled. Other times you cursed and shouted—loudly enough that I thought I’d have to gag you to hide us from bandits.
“It was hardest when you cried,” Gabrielle confessed in a near whisper, the faint squeeze of contact between their hands a welcome consolation. “I tried to comfort you or hold you or talk to you, and sometimes it worked, but sometimes it was as if you existed in some other place and couldn’t hear me. As if you were lost and all alone.” She shut her eyes against tears. Helplessness and exhausted despair had nearly swamped her at the time and only Xena’s dire condition had kept her going. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry?” Xena saw the liquid glisten of the bard’s too-bright eyes and leaned forward. “You tried to save my life. What in the gods’ name are you sorry for?”
“If I had gone with you into Cirra; if I’d been good enough to fight them off in the first place instead of being captured; if I had only been strong enough to get you to help sooner--”
“You can’t play ‘what ifs’ against the Fates,” the warrior argued gently. “You’ll lose every time. What happened…” She shook her head. “Gabrielle, what happened was not your fault. Maybe it wasn’t even mine. All I can tell you is that… I seemed to relive one of the darkest moments of my life, the moment that set me apart from ever being just a mercenary pirate or powerful warlord. I met Caesar, sided with him, only to have him betray me for his precious ‘destiny’. He crucified me and had his men break my legs.” The memory stood out in fierce relief along the lines of her jaw.
Gabrielle’s widened eyes dropped to her friend’s legs where the presence of scars, faint and silvery with age, took on new weight and meaning. “By the gods…” Like from a dream barely remembered, the bard felt an echo of hurt and betrayal grow and light a fire of despairing rage that turned upon it all, feeding on itself to a fiery emptiness and leaving only one desire in its passing. “The bastard,” Gabrielle said between tightly clenched teeth. “I’ll kill him.”
“What?” Xena blurted, taken aback by the harsh intensity of Gabrielle’s words.
A mixture of pain and anger twisted the bard’s expression, and her breath soughed through bared teeth.
“Hey…” Disturbed by her response, the warrior clasped Gabrielle by the arms and searched the younger woman’s face. “Stop this.” The uncharacteristic expression of nearly violent fury in the normally open and compassionate eyes frightened her. “Stop it!”
Gabrielle’s hands seized Xena’s forearms, her grip a match for the forcefulness of her voice. “He hurt you.”
“It was a long time ago,” Xena replied, just as vehemently.
The bard shut her eyes tightly and shook her head, feeling the rage that wanted to consume her. “You’ve carried the burden of it with you… every single day since then. He hurt you, badly. You can’t deny that you still long for the day you can give it back to him!”
Xena stared at her, shaken by the comment. It was true, but she had never told-- “How could you know that?” She watched Gabrielle open her eyes, their depths a deep and murky green that clouded any hint of her thoughts. The bard’s thumb, stained with ink, stroking at a smear of dirt on her skin. “How?”
As quickly as it had come forth, the unfamiliar fury receded, leaving Gabrielle feeling spent but in possession of a greater understanding—of many things. “Having you here, inside of me… Xena, it was as if my body were almost too small to contain us both. What I said outside the temple about it being warm and friendly was true, but what I didn’t know how to say at the time was how deeply…” She shook her head, concentrating to find the right words. “No…how fully I felt you. As if I suddenly stood beneath a warm waterfall of emotion, I could feel the ebb and flow of you in me, through me… I’ve always known you have a strong will, but to feel it, as well…” Gabrielle shook her head again, this time in wonder. “The face you show the world is so stark and controlled, but underneath it all you feel everything so much, don’t you? I’ve always suspected, but to feel it for myself…”
As the bard spoke, Xena could recall the moment more clearly herself; Gabrielle’s split second of surprise followed immediately by a wordless, yet all-encompassing welcome as their souls met, tangled and merged. There had been no need to ask for control; Gabrielle had relinquished herself freely and, in some part of Xena’s mind, she had been astonished by the bard’s unwavering trust. Even in the midst of their battle with the Amazon, she had been aware of how Gabrielle cradled her spirit with a gentle strength, giving all of herself when they could both sense how quickly the fight was sapping Xena’s energy. She had felt Gabrielle’s fierceness, her unbending stubborn determination to save her—to save the both of them—and been amazed by it. And through their connection she had felt more… So much more…
“You have a beautiful soul,” she heard Gabrielle say.
The kindness hurt, and Xena looked at her as if Gabrielle had just slapped her across the face. “How can you say that?”
Bitterness stained the words, but Gabrielle could hear the need, the desire to be convinced otherwise. “I can say it because it’s true. You were in here with me.” She laid Xena’s hand against her own chest and once again felt the thrill of solid contact and the healthful warmth of a living being. “More than anyone else, I can say I know you best, and I know this is true… there is so much that’s good in you.”
Mutely, Xena hung her head, finding it hard to believe. She broke contact with the bard, denying it from herself even as the warmth of Gabrielle’s skin lingered on her palm.
“Xena, whatever happened in your past, it left its mark on you. But beneath all the darkness, all the deeds you’ve come to regret, there’s always been the heart of who you are, buried and wounded, but intact.” Gabrielle hesitated for a moment and then slid her hand up the warm column of the warrior’s neck, feeling the ragged pulse beat in passing until her hand cupped the side of Xena’s face. “I know we were in the middle of a fight, but being surround by you like that, feeling you the way I did… gods…” She breathed, a small smile turning up the corners of her mouth. “You have a radiant spirit, Xena. It’s strong and noble and passionate and loving… It was like being covered in warm sunshine on the most perfect summer’s day I can remember. How could someone terrible feel so good to me?” Gabrielle asked with quiet sincerity.
“You’re blinded by your feelings,” Xena replied tightly.
Tired of kneeling, Gabrielle rose from her spot on the floor and took a seat next to her friend on the bed, angling to face her. “Am I? Then tell me, since I know you trust your instincts; how did I feel to you?” She watched the warrior’s throat move as she swallowed, saw the blue eyes dip, and then, in slowness, like sunrise unfurling from the horizon, she saw Xena’s expression become open and vulnerable. Gabrielle felt her heart contract powerfully at the sight of it.
“How you felt to me?” Xena repeated slowly and fell quiet until the emotions themselves, buoyed on the rising silence, found a voice. “You felt like the sea at sunset, reflective and ever-changing with so many hidden depths. Like a hearth-fire after chores on a frigid winter’s night. Joining with you felt like… coming home after a long journey, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever felt so… safe, so… cared for,” she confided quietly, her eyes and Gabrielle’s holding tight to one another, aware that both of them knew what she left still unspoken. “The feel of you was clean and free, unburdened by darkness,” Xena continued. “Your goodness, it shines from you, Gabrielle, like a flame in the night. Your goodness, your innocence… the memory of feeling that in you reminds me of what I had once.”
“Sometimes I wonder which of us is the real bard,” Gabrielle said with a smile, touched by the images the warrior invoked. “Don’t you think the good in me would recognise the same in you?”
Xena looked away. Could she rely on that? She wanted to, but she wouldn’t let herself off so easily, knowing as she did where she had come from, what she had done. “Are you sure you’re not just seeing what you want to see?”
The sigh had the force of exasperation behind it, and she stiffened when Gabrielle surged to her feet and began pacing the rough woven rug covering the hardwood floor. “Don’t treat me like a child, Xena!”
Gabrielle swiped her hand through Xena’s words, knocking them aside. “After everything we’ve been through, after what we’ve experienced together, especially in the last couple days, how can you say that to me? What I want to see?” Angry colour blossomed in a face otherwise blanched by powerful emotion. “You and I, we were part of one another in a way most people only dream of knowing with someone they care about. Why can’t you believe me? Or trust what I felt in you?”
Gabrielle regarded her steadily, angrily, imploringly, and Xena could feel a charge building in the air; a frightening, thrilling tension as she sensed the other woman’s nerve gathering to ask something she knew herself unready to answer yet.
“You asked me earlier why I gave up,” Xena said instead, attempting to forestall her, to bring the conversation back to its earlier track.
Gabrielle came to an abrupt pause in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips. “Yes,” she said shortly, clearly waiting for more.
“In the fever of my dreams I remembered, for the first time in a long time, how things began. I’d been angry and reckless in my youth, manipulated and lied to, and less and less trusting after Lyceus’ death until Caesar’s betrayal proved to be my breaking point. The world paid for it, and so did all the innocents who were caught in the path of my bitterness and rage.”
The truth was sour in her mouth and Xena rested her hands upon the edge of the thick woollen blanket beneath her in an attempt prop herself upright. “Reliving those memories, seeing the things I did again, knowing what would come after and not be able to stop it…” The dark head shook slowly from side to side, an expression of infinite sadness hollowing her eyes. “Gabrielle, I gave up because I couldn’t see how I could ever possibly make amends. I can’t bring those lives back. I can’t put things right. Ever. How could I ever possibly tip the scales back into balance after all I’ve done?” Her voice had become a shadow of itself, its smooth rich tone thin and rough with strain.
“I gave up out of shame and guilt and-and… I was just so damn tired! Of hurting. Of hurting everyone else.” She scrubbed her face with both hands, wiping away any signs of moisture from her eyes before Gabrielle could see it. “I couldn’t see that living would make any difference. The world was better off without me in it… Better to be dead than risk giving in to Ares again and inflicting gods know what on people who’ve never done anything to deserve it.” Xena lowered her head and rubbed the heel of one hand against her eyes again, trying to fight off the grainy heaviness that begged her to stretch out on the bed. Death isn’t restful. Whoever said it was, lied. After a moment’s silence, she added quietly, “Knowing what I’ve done… I just can’t see myself the way you do.”
Gabrielle pressed a hand against the ache in her chest, feeling Xena’s pain as if it were her own. “But you came back.” She held out the words like an offering, like a ward against the past, a hope for the future.
The dark head nodded, stirring the long strands of hair and hiding the angular features in shadow.
“Why?” Gabrielle pressed.
“Because… I was wrong.” It was a strong admission, and not one many had heard from the lips of the Warrior Princess. “I understand now… the very person I was will help me become who I need—want—to be.”
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. “Who better to fight evil than one who was evil herself?”
Xena jerked in surprise at hearing M’Lila’s words unwittingly repeated. “Yeah,” she said at last. “But that wasn’t the only reason I came back.” Gabrielle looked at her questioningly, and the warrior slowly stood and approached. For a long moment Xena let her eyes take in the sight of the other woman, watching how the candlelight teased out the red-gold highlights in her hair and added depth and colour to her eyes. Shadows sat lightly across her form, and for a disorienting moment Xena could see the illusion of greater age and maturity accentuate the curves of her face and body. Time appeared a feeble and toothless element Gabrielle would weather well; she’d be strong and beautiful for years to come. The pleasure in that thought made her smile softly.
“I know there’s so much I have to make up for, but it wasn’t my first reason,” Xena murmured as she regarded Gabrielle’s upturned face and reached out to cup her cheek. “I came back… because you asked me to.” The younger woman’s expression softened and Xena stood mesmerized by the radiant glow of her shy smile. It felt so good to give Gabrielle this happiness, to see the pain lift from her eyes. It felt so good to do something right for a change.
Gabrielle let out a quiet sound and stepped into her, and Xena rested her cheek against the bard’s temple letting out a breath of her own when the smaller woman wrapped her arms tightly around her, making Xena’s ribs creak in protest. They pressed into each other; the need, the desire for the connection they had shared in the cavern echoing between them, mirroring their bodies’ subconscious efforts to regain that closeness again.
The bard’s hands found the ties that secured the back of her battle-dress, tangling with the leather laces out of a sudden desperate need, and Xena responded, rubbing her cheek against Gabrielle’s temple, her brow. She breathed in the scent of the bard’s hair as her arms circled Gabrielle’s body, and she slid one broad hand into warm, thick strands of hair.
“Xena…” Gabrielle clutched the warrior closer, feeling the warm leather press against the skin of her bare midriff and loving its presence; the smoothness of its pattern and the itch of the rougher edges. It was real. All this was real, like the lips, warm and soft, brushing her ear, dragging lightly against her temple, and Gabrielle trembled, her eyes snapping shut as a flash of bright, silver-tinged sensation lanced through her. She exhaled warmly against Xena’s collarbone and she rested her forehead against the strong body before leaning her head back, seeking the familiar blue eyes.
She gazed upwards, through the veil of dark hair falling between them and looked back and forth between Xena’s eyes, taken by the look of tenderness; by something she remembered feeling when they had shared one body. She knew what the look meant now. In the rare moments the warrior had allowed this expression to peek through in recent months, Gabrielle wondered now how she could ever have mistaken it for anything else. The knowing was startling. It stole breath. Made her feel delicately hollowed out inside, creating an open space in her soul, left tentatively waiting—wanting—to be filled again. The lack was a remembered ache in her chest, born in the moment the fight with Velasca had ended and Xena’s presence within her, marked by a final surge of warm emotion, had faded. As she had hastened back down the vine and into the corridor where Autolycus and the Amazons awaited her, she had wondered if that final soulful caress would be the last she would ever know. But Xena had returned. For her.
Gabrielle shook her head, blinking. Overcome.
The thrum of intensity between them was a palpable weight, making Xena feel as though the air was being pressed from her body. The maelstrom of feeling was too much. She felt she might drown in it, and gladly, in spite of herself. Still, she eased her hands away and rested them on her hips, allowing the charged moment to pass them by as she released a deep, theatrical sigh. “You’re speechless? I should’ve died and come back before now; I’d’ve had peace and quiet that much sooner.” Xena grinned, removing any possible sting.
Gabrielle startled by the change in mood, could only stare at her for a moment before smacking her arm and adding an airy laugh to Xena’s chuckle. “You’re awful.”
“Haven’t I been trying to tell you that…?”
“Not to mention incorrigible.”
Xena’s left eyebrow lifted. “Incorrigible? You’re lucky I’m mostly reformed; I’ve killed people for less than that.”
The bard’s nose crinkled as she smiled, wholly unafraid. “A bit sensitive, were you? Poor Xena.”
Dark brows lowered menacingly. “Gab-ri-elle…”
The bard took a step back. “Who knew? You probably coo at small animals and smell the flowers when my back is turned…” She could see it coming even as the words tumbled out of her mouth but she made no move to evade Xena as the warrior bored down on her. “You adore small children! You write poetry when I’m asleep! Aaah!” She was grabbed and tossed over one strong shoulder, making the bard giggle uncontrollably. “Xena!” Gabrielle yelped. “You’re not up for this yet!”
“…teach you…” the warrior was muttering, spinning around to the tune of Gabrielle’s laughing protests.
“Put me down!” Gabrielle said, breathlessly. “Xena!” The warrior bounced and Gabrielle oomphed! as the breath was jostled out of her on the heels of more laughter. Another bounce and suddenly she exhaled hard. “Xena.” She laid her hand against the warrior’s back, all humour gone.
“Hang on,” Xena replied brusquely, bringing them quickly over to the bed where she lowered a grimacing Gabrielle to its surface, the mattress ropes creaking when she knelt next to the other woman lying cross-wise on the blanket. “What is it?”
“My leg.” Gabrielle’s hand hovered over the doe-soft leather of her Queen’s regalia where the material covered her upper thigh.
Moving closer, Xena’s hands were already in motion at the bard’s waist even as Gabrielle nodded her permission. The leather skirt was parted and a neat set of bandages drawn back, leaving the younger woman partially exposed. Xena drew a hissing breath in through her teeth as her eyes fell upon the bruised and angry remains of a knife wound marring Gabrielle’s outer thigh; the narrow cut—perhaps two fingers across—had closed, but still looked slightly swollen and sore. Fortunately, their antics hadn’t torn it open again. “You brought me all the way to Mount Nestos injured with this? And then to the Amazons?” Gods knew she had been stabbed enough times during her days as a fighter to know how painful and incapacitating such wounds could be. How could I not have noticed? In the time she might have heard about it, there had never been even the smallest complaint. And when she might have felt it for herself, both she and Gabrielle had been too distracted by the fight with Velasca to notice.
Gabrielle shook her head. “Given the alternative? Nothing was going to stop me.”
The warrior sighed, well acquainted with Gabrielle’s stubborn streak. The wound was healing, slowly but steadily, and appeared to have been treated recently, suggesting that the bard had gone more than a few days without proper care. Considering the circumstances and the extraordinary efforts undertaken on her behalf, Xena couldn’t bring herself to criticise Gabrielle for not seeing to herself first and foremost, but she still didn’t like it. With effort, she pursed her lips and merely gave the wound her detailed attention.
Xena glanced up. “For what?”
“For not telling me I was stupid or careless.”
“Well, I can’t fault your focus,” Xena allowed as she replaced the bandage and drew the skirt closed again. “If you let it rest and heal, you should have full mobility back in three or four weeks. I want to be back on the road as soon as we can, though.”
A few weeks. For Gabrielle, thoughts of the future hadn’t even progressed beyond getting some sleep, much more a tomorrow that included Xena. A thread of panic tied itself to the thought, pulling after it the memory of her decision from earlier in the day, the responsibility she had taken upon herself. Oh no… Xena would never want to stay… would she? “Xena…”
Her friend had risen off the bed, reaching behind herself with practiced ease to loosen the ties of her leathers and pull the protective gear over her head. “Hmm?” Gabrielle heard from the depths of the outfit before Xena’s head re-emerged, dark hair spilling flyaway and unfettered around her face. One hand pushed the mass of hair carelessly back from tired eyes and Gabrielle watched unabashedly as Xena exchanged her current shift for a clean one from their packs resting on the floor near the desk. The bard couldn’t find it in herself to look away, to deny herself the heart-deep pleasure of seeing all the subtle—and not so subtle—lines of beauty and strength Xena possessed. Was it any wonder that even the Gods were tempted by her?
The prompt woke the bard from her reverie; making her aware she was both staring and drifting in spite of herself.
“You were saying something?” Xena asked as she laid herself down on the bed, patting Gabrielle’s uninjured thigh to encourage her to move over.
“Yeah.” She shifted around so she could lay her head on the other pillow next to Xena’s. Gabrielle took a breath, attempting to steady her anxiety. “Do you remember earlier this morning?”
“Which ‘this morning’? Nearly being toasted in a pyre this morning? Manhandling Autolycus into stealing my corpse this morning? Or appearing to you from the dead this morning?” Xena asked, tucking one arm behind her head and closing her eyes. “You’re gonna have to be more specific. I’ve been busy.”
“Oh, right. I meant the ‘hey, Xena, they made me Queen,’ part of this morning.” Gabrielle tried not to wince, or notice how quiet it seemed, how loud her breathing was to her own ears. Will she be angry? A year ago, they had walked away from their last encounter with the Amazons to find Gabrielle elevated to a royal station. That had been bad enough, it seemed. How much more exasperating would Xena find extracting her from being Queen of the Amazon nation? How do I get myself into these things? And… what if I don’t want to be extracted? Steeling herself, she peeked to her left wondering how ferocious the scowl would be. The look she found waiting for her took her very much off guard.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Xena replied, trying to hold onto the smile, sad though it was. “You’ve finally found your place. The Amazons will be good for you--”
“What?” A look of confusion overtook Gabrielle’s pensive expression. “No, that’s not what I meant.”
Xena passed a hand over her eyes, wishing she wasn’t so tired. Oh, gods, I forgot. But it was coming back to her quickly enough. “You said you had to find your own life and I understand. You’re… you’ve got that here now. You’re their Queen.”
“Yes, but…” Gabrielle shook her head, trying to collect her thoughts into something resembling coherency. “But you were dead, what else was I to do? I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go on doing what we’ve been doing—not without you. And now… you’re back.”
Xena felt as though she had swallowed a stone. “I thought… you said…” She didn’t want to say it, didn’t want to utter it aloud. But Gabrielle only lay there, staring at her. “…you said…you needed me…” Xena had felt it, she was sure of it. What she felt when she and Gabrielle were joined; it couldn’t have been her imagination. Even now, even as she could feel the imprint of Gabrielle’s spirit on her own fading, distressingly enough, to a mere memory, she could still sense the core of a joyfulness that had enveloped her, much as Gabrielle had embraced her but a short time ago. How could she have so badly misunderstood?
“I did. I do—the world needs you.”
The world? Wasn’t she listening? “I see,” Xena replied stiffly, distraught by just how much the bard’s words hurt. “In that case, me an’ Argo will leave tomorrow. There’s a spot nearby I can rest up before I go and clean out those slave-traders we ran into before all this happened. Thanks for your help—” The room felt too small, too close. All this emotional openness was winding her in knots, and she had to get out. She sat up and would have swung her legs off the bed if Gabrielle hadn’t chosen that moment to reach out a restraining hand.
“Stop this.” The bard’s no-nonsense tone took them both by surprise. “Listen,” Gabrielle tried again, gentler this time. “You don’t understand. You’re back. Without you, I figured here would do for home as well as any other place. As many times as I might have imagined it, I never thought you’d actually find a way to return. But, impossibly enough, you did. And now…” She let a small smile lift one corner of her lips. “Now I’m just trying to figure out a way to tell them I’ll be leaving with you when you go. With you back, I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anyplace else.”
The bard paused, waiting for a response. As the silence lengthened, Gabrielle’s heart rate began to climb as her smile faded. “I mean,” she added tentatively, “if you still want me along…?” She could feel herself trembling, but whether from fear of being left behind or simply the cold of over-tiredness, she couldn’t tell.
At these words, the posture of the woman beside her perceptibly eased, the dark head bowing for a moment before lifting to turn pale blue eyes toward to her, their expression both solemn and wry. “I probably wouldn’t get far before I found you following me anyway, huh?”
The corner of Gabrielle’s lips turned tremulously upwards. “Probably not.”
“Well, then…” Xena smiled at her.
Emboldened by the smile, Gabrielle said, loftily, “Or else I’d have my Amazons track you down, drag you back and stick you in a holding cell until I could convince you that you needed me. For my cooking, if nothing else.”
One shapely eyebrow arched itself. “Uh huh. Do you have something against the Amazons that you want me kicking their butts and tying them up with their own beads?”
“Tsk, Xena. What do you say we skip embarrassing the Nation and you just take me with you?”
“Mmph.” Xena sniffed and rubbed at her nose. “I dunno now. All that sounded kinda fun.”
“Warriors…” Gabrielle snorted, but then turned serious. “Does this mean you want me along?”
In response, Xena reached for her, clasping their hands together, her strong fingers enveloping Gabrielle’s hands in a firm, yet gentle grip. In a fleeting moment of awareness, she wondered at herself, that reaching out like this could seem so easy for once. So natural. And so unlike her normal need for emotional and physical space. “Yeah,” she said at last, “friends have been hard to come by, or keep, in my experience. I’d… really like to have you with me.”
Gabrielle’s expression of tentative hopefulness give way to a slow, joyous smile.
She felt Gabrielle’s finger tips brush lightly along the edge of her jaw. “Always,” the bard whispered before slipping into Xena’s arms.
You’re too much a part of me now to want to let you go, the warrior thought as she hugged Gabrielle even closer against herself. The hurtful misunderstanding and her own uncharacteristic vulnerability only illustrated to Xena just how tired they both really were. It’s over now. That’s all that matters. Things could finally begin returning to normal.
In the space of quiet that fell, it became all too easy for Xena to close her eyes, lean her head against her friend’s and sink into a state of warm, contented drowsiness. In the absence of any further pressing concerns, the full force of her exhaustion settled through her, making it too hard to ignore any longer. And loath as she was to move, however, falling asleep sitting upright was an invitation for a kind of stiffness she’d had more than enough of lately. “Hey.”
“Think we’re done with this sensitive chat for one night?”
“Mhmm,” the bard sighed.
She could feel Gabrielle going limp and heavy against her. “C’mon. Let’s get some rest.” She rubbed Gabrielle’s back, hoping for a livelier response this time.
Gabrielle stirred herself and yawned hugely in agreement, belatedly covering her mouth as she forced herself to roll off the bed and get to her feet. “Okay. Lemme get changed.” She padded to her belongings and quickly stripped off her boots, but the metal clasps on her Queen’s regalia proved tougher than she expected. The catch on the right shoulder was just beyond the comfortable reach of her fingers. “Damn it.”
“Problem?” Xena softly drawled from her spot on the bed.
How Xena contrived to make the bed look even more enticing than it already was, Gabrielle would never know. “Can’t get this off,” the bard muttered. “Help me?”
Gabrielle returned to the bedside and presented the stubborn interconnecting metal links running from her shoulder to the upper-arm band. Deft fingers traced the design on the armband in curiosity before moving to deal with the clasp, and Gabrielle repressed the urge to brush back the wisps of hair falling over Xena’s eyes as she worked. Instead, she blinked owlishly as she watched Xena’s face and the dark, candlelight-touched eyes, enjoying the fleeting touch of the warrior’s hands on her skin.
“Much better than that shapeless thing they had you in the first time we were here.” The clasp came free and Xena gave the now loose piece a flick of her fingers. “There ya go.”
Disappointed to have it over so quickly, Gabrielle lingered a moment longer. “The Queen’s outfits are gorgeous, but they’re Tartarus to get in and out of. Do you know it took two other people to get me into this get-up this morning?”
Glancing at the feathers and other decorations adorning her friend’s body, Xena could well appreciate the effort. She shrugged, though. “Ceremony is important to them. I’d never wear anything this frou-frouey myself.”
“It’d get in the way of fighting, right? I can see trying to fight off some bandits and getting a mouthful of beads or blinded by feathers.”
Xena put her hands behind her head again, chuckling at the image, but then shook her head. “Nah, I just meant it’s way too overdone for me. I’d go for something simpler. Maybe in something in black or a dark reddish-brown. One piece. Not as many loose, metal bits. All that jingly stuff would get on my nerves.”
Gabrielle’s brows lifted, charmed by the thought of Xena in Amazon garb. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay on here with me? You could be my royal fashion advisor as well as my champion. ”
A snort arose from the bed. “Xena: Warrior Couturier? I don’t think so.”
“C’mon,” Gabrielle cajoled as she turned her back to remove the ceremonial top and delicate necklace of finely wrought metal feathers. Both were tossed on the worktable next to the armbands and bracers. “You’d be set for life,” she added over her bare shoulder. “You could start new trends in between beating up challengers for the mask and kicking trespassers around. Teach young warriors how to accessorise with a sword.”
“Colour-coordinated chobos? Riiiight.” Xena’s eyes followed the spill of candlelight down Gabrielle’s back, seeing the subtle ripple of smooth skin and muscle as the other woman moved. It brought to mind their fight with Velasca and the hundred tiny adjustments she had needed to make in her fighting style to accommodate the differences in their physicality. Where she was long, sinewy and springy, she had found Gabrielle to be compact and more powerfully built than she expected, especially across the lower back and thighs. The point of balance had been so much different, too-- lower, but very steady. All that walking and staff-work paid off. Gabrielle bent to retrieve her shift from their packs and Xena left off her technical appreciation for one of a more artistic nature.
Gabrielle pulled the shift over her head, and then lifted a hand to free her hair from the collar. The very mundane activity of watching the bard ready herself for bed made Xena smile, making her realise how very glad she was to be here to see it. These things, these small and precious things, which had made up the innumerable moments of their life together, had been lost to her, little things she had never suspected she’d ever miss until they were gone. Until she was gone.
Even in the short span of days after her death, Xena had found herself missing Gabrielle. She missed watching her friend take pleasure in each moment; she had never known anyone who could savour so completely something as simple and annoying as a rain shower before. A bird’s nest, a particularly well-cooked meal, the perfect turn of phrase for a story… I have loved watching you enjoy your life. It had made her more aware of the world, beyond its dangers, beyond what she needed to take from it in order to survive. I didn’t think I could be happy again, she told Gabrielle silently as the other woman retrieved the candle from the worktable and proceeded to blow the other lights out.
Darkness fell in stages through the Queen’s quarters until only a single flame, carried by Gabrielle herself—a fitting metaphor, Xena felt—lit the room in a soft, orange glow. The bard settled the light carefully on the small table on her side of the bed and turned to find that Xena had pulled down the covers for her.
“Thanks,” Gabrielle murmured as she slipped under the blankets. She leaned over and blew the candle out and the two of them were covered in deep, velvety darkness, unbroken and complete. It was so dark it made her feel closed in upon, and she took a deep breath, reassuring herself she wasn’t being smothered. Gabrielle wiggled a little, drawn into the mattress’ embrace and feeling comfortable for the first time in what must have been weeks. “Mm, this is bliss.”
“Mmhmm,” Xena replied, her voice blurring with sleepiness.
The taller woman shifted, as well, and a sudden thought occurred to Gabrielle. “Are you going to have enough room? Maybe I should have asked Ephiny to have another bed brought in?”
“Nah. My feet aren’t hanging over the bottom. S’good enough
“ I’m not crowding you?” Gabrielle rolled on her side facing Xena, concerned for the other woman’s comfort.
“Rest now,” Xena mumbled, clumsily patting the bard’s arm, evidently halfway towards doing just that herself.
The warrior took a deep breath, released a tight yawn and fell quiet, leaving Gabrielle to stare at her darkened outline, her eyes stinging with sudden happy tears. I can’t believe you’re here.
Gabrielle shifted again, pulling the covers up further, but despite the bed’s warmth and softness, sleep stubbornly eluded her. Her thoughts continued to spin too quickly to let her find the quiet peace of Morpheus’ realm. The excitement and amazement of the day’s events were still too fresh, her happiness too quick in her veins to do anything more than lay awake and contemplate her companion.
Though she couldn’t see Xena, she could feel her presence next to her, hear the slow, even breathing and feel the spread of body heat beneath the blankets. The temptation to reach out and touch her was great. But you’ve already been through so much. I don’t want to keep you awake any longer; you looked so worn out…“What was it like?” Gabrielle asked on an almost inaudible breath. “What was it like for you, I wonder? Who did you see? Did you see the same things I did?” She remembered lush green fields and vibrant blue skies, and an unremitting sense of serenity. “I hope you did.”
Gabrielle started in surprise, as much from the fact Xena was awake as the answer she was given. “What… what happened to you?”
For the longest time there was only silence.
“Tartarus,” Xena replied in a low, flat tone, devoid of emotion.
“Oh, Xena…” Words wouldn’t come, not with the realisation of what that single word entailed. Tartarus, the lowest level of Hades’ sovereign realm, was a shadow world of suffering and pain, and to even think of it, to know that Xena had been not only denied the peaceful fields of Elysia, but even the possible mercy offered in Acherusian Lake, was enough to make her breath catch in despair. Gabrielle stretched out her hand beneath the blankets and laid it upon Xena’s arm in the hopes of offering some kind of consolation, and felt the corded muscle bunch with tension.
“I’m not even sure really what happened. It was so confusing. I followed the crowd to the shores of the Styx and gave my fare to Charon.” Xena paused. “I meant to thank you for that.”
“Of course.” As short as they always seemed to be on money, she’d have hocked her every last possession if necessary. There was no way Gabrielle had been willing to risk leaving Xena to wander the desolate shores in misery until Charon chose to show mercy and allow her to cross some hundred years or so later. “And… then?”
“I don’t remember much from the crossing. Not until my time came to stand before Hades,” Xena’s voice turned hard. “I remember that. He sat all arrogant and sure on his throne and laughed at me. ‘This judgement should be quick, eh, Xena?’ he said.” The darkness of the room folded heavily over the words with hopeless finality.
Gabrielle’s mouth gaped open in indignation, before she was able to splutter a response. “He said that? Even after you helped restore the Underworld last year?!”
Xena released a wisp of empty laughter. “Gods have notoriously short and fickle memories. I think he was so excited to have me there, he couldn’t wait to send me to Tartarus just to see the reception I’d get. And let me tell you, reliving every single moment of every decision you’ve ever regretted, every wrong you’ve ever done is… horrific in a way words can’t ever describe.”
Gabrielle edged closer, concerned by the tremor in her friend’s voice. “Didn’t the good you’ve done in the past year and a half mean anything to him?”
A long sigh disturbed the quiet. “Before he sent me away, he said something, I think. Something like… ‘nothing but waste’. Still, if there was any sentiment there, that was the end of it. His guards led me away down a side tunnel, overpowered me and ripped off my armour. I was crucified again.” Xena stopped to breathe, a quick and shallow breath, and when she continued her voice was low and muffled. “I heard the voices of those living and dead who I’d touched in some way. So loud. All them… it was so loud. So many… I knew, but I… I didn’t know… there were so many. I’ve caused… so much… pain.”
Xena’s words, strained and hitched, made Gabrielle’s heart clench in sympathy. Silently, she slid her hand up Xena’s arm and to her face. With gentle care, Gabrielle pushed the damp tendrils of hair away from the Xena’s temples, wiping away the moisture with her fingertips. The warrior turned her head away, resisting comfort even as she struggled to contain her emotions. It ached Gabrielle’s heart to see her so, to have Xena deliberately deny herself any kind of solace, as if the warrior considered herself unworthy of it. If Gabrielle let her, she knew Xena would be stoic to the end.
But I won’t, not this time. “Hey…” she murmured.
The warrior resisted briefly as Gabrielle gathered Xena into her arms, but like a mother to her child, she crooned softly, brushing her lips against a troubled brow and held her tightly until Xena finally succumbed. Exhausted and heart-sore, Xena at last gave in and pressed her head into Gabrielle’s shoulder. Large hands buried themselves in her shift, gripping so tightly the stitches protested the strain and Gabrielle felt her skin grow damp where the warrior’s face lay against her.
After struggling on so long alone, Xena bent at last beneath the weight of her memories and leaned into the other woman, trusting her like she hadn’t trusted anyone but Lyceus since the days of her childhood.
In this deep, full darkness, Gabrielle felt Xena give herself into her care. It was a moment she’d remember for the rest of her life, the moment she truly saw Xena for the very real, very frail human being she was. This was Xena, she realised; a woman who bravely tried to live up to the stories Gabrielle wove with an artist’s eye and an idealist’s vision. Hadn’t she felt it for herself if even for the brief time they were joined? Fear, doubt, regret… Beset by every bleak wind a soul could feel, Xena had at last stumbled and torn free of the armour that had hidden this frail self away from the rest of the world for so very long. Holding Xena in her arms, Gabrielle was both humbled and strengthened by Xena’s vulnerability. With great care and tenderness, she held her shaking friend close against her, conscious of needing to be the strong one now. “Tell me,” she whispered against the crown of dark hair. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Gabrielle held steady, giving Xena an anchor to cling to as the warrior’s breath stuttered and her body fought the tremors of emotion. “About what?”
“A few… good deeds don’t mean a-a thing compared to everything else I’ve… done wrong.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is,” Xena insisted bleakly through clenched teeth, swallowing audibly in the darkness. “Why else… why else did he send me to Tartarus? I’ll never make it right.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Don’t I? I tried and I didn’t make the cut.”
“You can’t give up.” She could feel Xena thinking about it, could feel the furrowed brow where it rested against her skin.
“I’m so tired,” Xena said at last.
“You said it yourself; running around the afterlife takes it out of you,” Gabrielle said quietly, running her fingers comfortingly through Xena’s disordered hair. “When you’ve had a few days to rest up and recover, you’ll feel differently.”
A sigh warmed Gabrielle’s skin, but otherwise, a noncommittal silence was her only answer.
“Xena…” The bard released a long breath of her own. “Somewhere out there, the gods have some cosmic scale they judge us by, some way of taking the measure of a soul and the heart that guided it in life. Even though you were sent to Tartarus this time, is there anything that says you can’t be judged differently the next time? What if you kept trying? Maybe you can’t bring anyone else back and maybe you can’t make amends, but what if you continue to fight? Fight evil, fight injustice? To protect those who would otherwise fall victim to the kind of person you used to be? Xena, you can make a difference—and you do—to them… to me… and ultimately yourself.”
Xena was very still in her arms. “Do you really believe that?”
To Gabrielle’s ears, Xena sounded so young, so unsure of herself. “I believe in you with all my heart,” Gabrielle told her, brushing her lips lightly against Xena’s overly warm brow. “I know you can do this.”
“I guess… I guess it might have been too much to ask that Hades would think I’m reformed already.”
Gabrielle cupped the warrior’s warm, damp cheek, wanting to find the middle ground between allowing Xena to mourn her judgement and appealing to her friend’s pragmatic, no-nonsense nature. “Xena, only you can really determine that. It’s not only a matter of how reformed you are, but maybe more about how you can bring the scales of your life back into balance. Do good in the world because it’s the right thing to do and everything else will follow. Hades will only the weigh the result. I think it’s just a matter of time, and you have that now.”
“It’ll be so hard,” Xena whispered, feeling the burden of her sins like a physical weight across her shoulders. “I’ve done so much.”
Tears gathered in Gabrielle’s eyes, hearing the resignation and the slow gathering of resolve. “I know,” she acknowledged. It did no good to protest otherwise; Xena knew the truth of it better than she did, but perhaps she could make the truth a little easier to bear. “You won’t be alone. I’ll be with you.”
“It’s dangerous,” the warrior replied after a long silence.
Even in this moment of pain and sorrow, Gabrielle knew joy. The long arm of distance and aloofness holding her away had been lowered. This was no longer a refusal, but merely a warning instead. “I know.”
“I don’t want to see you hurt.”
Gabrielle smiled, feeling her own eyes prickle with tears. “I know that, too, but I’ll be with you anyway. There’s no place else I’d rather be.”
Xena let the power of the softly spoken words wash through her, feeling them loosen the knot of cold fear gripping her heart. Gabrielle’s calm certainty combined with the slow and gentle rhythm of her fingers through Xena’s hair was a soothing balm, and in the aftermath of her release, she could feel herself drifting in quiet tranquility, anchored through Gabrielle’s voice and the rise and fall of her body beneath Xena’s cheek as she breathed.
She felt hollow and empty. Drained. It was a good feeling, a necessary feeling. It was a kind of spiritual cleansing she had not been afforded in her journey to the other side. No; had Hades’ judgement withstood her efforts to escape, spiritual cleansing would have been the farthest dream possible. But now… She wiped the remaining tears from her cheeks, saying, “I won’t go back. I don’t ever want to go back.”
“I know. I have a feeling that no matter what it is you have to face, you’ll find a way to make it turn out right.”
In the quiet that settled around them, she felt Gabrielle wrap herself around her and, little by little, they shifted—a movement of an arm here, stretching out more fully there—until it seemed the most natural thing in the world for Xena to lay against her and slip one leg between Gabrielle’s to make them both more comfortable. With her head already pillowed on the bard’s chest, she blurrily took stock of their tangled embrace, how the opiate of tears and tiredness had reduced her to a boneless, shapeless mass that seemed to fit against Gabrielle just right… just…so.
It felt so different being cradled and held like this. Such a haven hadn’t existed for her in many, many years. Had it been so long since the last time she felt cared for and comforted? A memory surfaced of another time she had relinquished control, and with it she felt the ghostly touch of her mentor, Lao Ma, and remembered a time when she had known the serenity of giving herself into the hands of another, trusting someone else to be strong when she needed it. There had been no one since then, not even Borias, no one, until now.
Xena nuzzled her cheek against Gabrielle’s shift and blinked sleepily, lulled by Gabrielle’s slowly deepening breathing; a sure sign the bard would shortly be asleep. I should move. She waited an expectant moment for her body to get the message, but nothing happened. Or maybe not. Gabrielle didn’t seem to mind. In fact, the bard’s fingers, loosely twined in her hair, were making her tingle where they stroked in slow random circles against her scalp.
Persuaded thusly, Xena abandoned her concern and draped her arm across the other woman’s belly. Gabrielle’s hold on her loosened slightly and Xena turned her head, noting that the bard’s eyes had fallen shut and her breathing was slow and even. Tenderly, she pulled the covers up around them and was almost fully asleep herself by the time her head came to rest once more against Gabrielle.
* * *
The damp cloth, faded from long use, still has more colour than the body of her friend. Through the blurry haze of constant tears, she wipes the last remaining vestiges of life from Xena’s skin; the rust brown runnels of blood within the delicate curves of her ears and the traces of dirt and perspiration that speak of a once active existence.
So cold. Touching Xena chills her hands. Nicklio had offered to do it, but she had vehemently declined, not wanting a stranger’s hands to be the last that touched her, that laid her to rest. He had wished her well as he retreated from the room and left the cabin, the better to give her space and privacy for such a personal task as this.
She lingers over Xena, afraid to be finished, afraid of the meaning of being finished. Xena’s hand cradled in her own is heavy and stiff, and Gabrielle feels so tentative as she delivers this intimate touch. Gently, she replaces it at Xena’s side, moving to the rest of her body… arms, shoulders, torso… She doesn’t notice how her own face tightens in pain as she washes her friend, or how the force of her tears hitches her breath and makes her shudder. Leaving the rag clenched in one hand, she hesitantly puts the other hand between Xena’s breasts, feeling the creeping unreality of waxy flesh beneath her palm. She weeps harder, desperately wishing for warmth, for a heartbeat, for the rush of colour beneath the snowy-white skin. There is nothing beyond the shriek of the mountain wind against the cabin walls and the moan of grief straining between bared teeth in fractured counterpoint.
Her hand, vibrant against such a morbid canvas, curls into a fist, knuckles turning bloodless with tension. She presses the rag against her face, overcome, a muffled animal sound of agony expelled from her by the expanding force of her heartache. It is not enough to give her respite.
Her fist pounds repeatedly against Xena’s chest--but lightly, slowly, tenderly, as if afraid to so rudely disturb her friend’s rest with this unseemly outpouring of emotion. She feels so lost and alone. Angry at being abandoned. But, more than these, so much more than these… she misses Xena terribly.
Something in herself is gone, something vital and beautiful. Her shoulders tremble as she sobs silently into the cloth, thinking of how much she would give just to see Xena smile one more time, to tell her things she had never found the words for until this moment.
The tears eventually abate and like an automaton she continues her work; her breathing still ragged, her nose and eyes swollen and red. From their—her—packs, she retrieves Xena’s armour and a fresh shift, adding them to the shiny boots and leathers she has already cleaned, oiled and set aside by the fire. She already knows that dressing Xena will be difficult, but she is determined to do it alone…
Gabrielle moaned softly in her sleep, perspiration and tears mingling at her temples. She shoved the blanket away from her, like the memories, not wanting to remember, to see it happen all again…
“Are you sure you want to do this, Gabrielle?” asks Nicklio as he prepares the cover.
“I’m sure,” she answers. She is leaning over the side of the coffin, her fingers carefully arranging Xena’s hair just so across the pillow and around the pale shoulders. They are outside and she is bundled against the cold. Argo, hitched to the sledge that will drag Xena’s sarcophagus, stands patiently waiting, her golden head bowed.
She is loath to let this moment pass. This is the last time she’ll ever be able to look upon this face, this cold and lovely face. Death has sharpened the warrior’s already angular features, subtly altering the fit of skin over bone. With the backs of her fingers, she gently strokes Xena’s face as if in an attempt to smooth the sharpness and give back the softness to the edges that her friend had struggled so hard to wear down after a life lived in harsh violence.
“Gabrielle,” Nicklio murmurs.
She isn’t ready to let go. It is far too soon to be the end. She slides her hand into Xena’s larger one and lifts her hollowed eyes heavenward, praying for another chance. When no answer is given, she lowers her gaze, her eyes drinking in the details of the anaemic morning light against the copper swirls of armour, the burnished glow of the worn, yet well-cared for leather, and the long, long lashes that lay their sable shadow across Xena’s cheeks.
Xena, she thinks, I know you can hear me… wherever you are. I know you always told me to be strong. I can’t be. Not now. You can’t leave me. I know it’s not your time. I can feel it in my heart. I feel this emptiness that I’ve never known before, and it scares me. Xena, above all, just remember your destiny. Remember it and fight. Just… fight to come back. This world needs you… She bows her head, her fingers gripping tighter. I need you.
She waits then, hoping, wondering if somehow…but no; there is no answer. No sign. There is only the sound of the birds and the silvery chime of metal when Argo shakes her withers and the chakram and scabbard attached to the saddle rings rasp lightly together. She was foolish to hope she might be heard. She rises to her feet, bracing herself on the edges of the coffin, and lowers herself enough to press her lips to the corner of Xena’s mouth. She lingers for but a moment and then pushes herself away, unable to bear it any longer.
“All right,” she tells him in a hoarse voice, turning away. Behind her, she can hear his grunt of effort as he manoeuvres the heavy lid into place. She intends not to watch; the thought of Xena, who always loved the outdoors, shut in a box… is horribly wrong and upsetting. But she looks in spite of herself, unable to miss one last sight of her. Shadow slides across Xena’s body as Nicklio brings the lid into place, preparing to lower it once and for all.
She throws out a hand. “Wait!”
“What is it?” he asks, startled, nearly fumbling the lid in the process.
“Wait,” she says again. Heart pounding, she rushes to her saddlebags for the smaller pouch kept within. She finds what she is looking for and hurries back to Xena’s side to reach down and press a pair of dinars into the warrior’s half-closed palm. “Safe journey,” she whispers, her voice catching as the tears begin again. Sniffling, she quickly steps back, wrapping her arms around herself as the lid is lowered and the sarcophagus closed…
“No!” Gabrielle jerked upright, her hand outstretched as she awakened to disorienting darkness. Dark…night… I’m in a bed… the hut… Amazons, I’m with the Amazons… That meant… She reached out beside her on the bed where her fingers searched, but found nothing.
The bed was empty.
Panic struck her like a blow to the chest and she ran her hands frantically back and forth across the blanket feeling for warmth, but the material beneath her fingers was traitorously cool. No sign of an imprint on the pillow. Whimpering to herself, she leapt from the bed and checked around its sides, looking for armour, weapons—something. But it was like Xena had never been here. As if she had never been here at all. Had she only imagined it? Wildly, Gabrielle looked around herself, seeing no proof she had ever been anything but alone tonight. Oh, gods, she was going mad.
Gabrielle pressed a trembling hand to her mouth, her wide eyes blind and awash in tears. It’d been a dream. Autolycus and Velasca, the ambrosia, Xena’s return… only a dream. Strength drained from her, and her knees buckled and tumbled her to the floor, leaving her sobbing in deep, gasping breaths, faint with the realisation and heartbroken to discover the truth. She crawled on hands and knees the short distance to the foot of the bed and collapsed against it, curling in upon herself, rocking as she wept. “No… oh, no… please, no…”
She never heard the door swing open, or the light, quick steps across the hardwood floor. Nor did she notice the arms come around her or the tickle of warm lips against her ear. “It’s okay. I’m here now. Everything’s all right…shh… I’m here… you’re okay… shh…”
The voice more than the words brought Gabrielle back to herself. She lifted her head and through a shimmer of tears saw concerned blue eyes looking back at her, their depths reflecting the light of a single candle set on a nearby table. She gasped and threw her arms around Xena’s neck. “Where were you?” she sobbed. “I woke and I thought—oh gods—I thought it wasn’t real. I couldn’t find you. I couldn’t… I…”
“Shh,” Xena murmured, gathering the other woman to her and lifting Gabrielle in her arms. As tired as she was, there was strength enough left for this. “It’s okay. I’m here.” With her burden cradled carefully in her arms, Xena nudged the door shut with her foot and then brought them over to the bed where she settled them both together more comfortably. The tenor of Gabrielle’s weeping changed from agony to relief and Xena tucked the blonde head beneath her chin, stroking her hair. “I woke up a little while ago unable to sleep,” she said. “So I took a walk thinking it’d help me clear my head and tire me out again. I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I should have been here… I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Gabrielle nodded, more than willing to accept the apology. “I’m not crazy.”
Xena shook her head. “No more than usual.”
The bard breathed a laugh through her tears and smacked Xena’s breastplate lightly once, then again, and finally resting it there, looking at her hand in what Xena could only call a gravely thoughtful manner. “Don’t leave me again,” Gabrielle whispered, her eyes remaining on her hand where it chased the soft and flickering glow of candlelight across the interweaving design with deliberate intensity.
“I told you I’d always be with you. I meant that.”
Gabrielle wiped at her eyes. She was so tired of crying. “I won’t always have a choice, will I?”
Dark brows contracted. “What?”
“You say you’ll always be with me, but I won’t get to choose how, or for how long. You—here with me like this, or there, from the other side. I won’t get to choose.”
“No,” Xena answered slowly with painful honesty. “But, then, few do. You know that.” The words were a gentle reminder of hard truths she would rather have not uttered, especially not in this moment. “Gab—”
“It hurts. It hurts so much to lose you. I don’t ever want to do that again, but I know I will.” It was a bleak and haunting thought. Someday, sometime, an end would come—for one or the other of them so long as they followed this path. For Xena there was no choice, and for Gabrielle… despite her fears, she wouldn’t consider any other. “I can’t lose you again.”
Response after response died on Xena’s lips as she searched for something—anything—that might reassure her. The truth was a raw grief. “I don’t know what to say.”
Defeat and disappointment were heavy shadows the candlelight could not erase from Gabrielle’s face. “Just… be careful. Please?”
The word was a whispered plea that ached Xena’s heart. “Always,” she murmured. She kissed Gabrielle’s hair and felt the strands, damp with perspiration, against her lips. There were things to live for now, things that went even beyond the need for redemption.
“I thought I knew…” Gabrielle murmured. “When you were hit by that dart and we thought you were dead. I thought I knew then… what it would be to lose you.”
“Gabrielle… don’t do this to yourself.”
“I thought I knew,” the bard continued, as if Xena hadn’t spoken. “But I didn’t. Not really. I had the mission to focus on and the villagers to help and Salmoneus to keep from running off. I thought I knew. But this time… you were really gone, you were… you died…” She stumbled over the word and licked her dry lips. “And there was a difference.”
Xena was curious, in spite of herself. “What difference?”
Gabrielle shook her head, staring at the border of darkness that surrounded them where the shadows overran the pool of light spilled by the candle. “There was this emptiness, this… void… where you should have been. The sunlight seemed thinner. The colours flatter. Even the air around me felt strange. It couldn’t fill the space… where you belonged.” She shivered and drew in a deeper breath. “And that’s when I realised everything else was fine; it was only me that was broken.”
A lump formed in Xena’s throat and she laid her hand over the bard’s where it continued to trace the pattern of her armour. “Oh, Gabrielle…” She shook her head, the candlelight shimmering off the tears rising in her eyes.
“I missed you, Xena. I didn’t think I could miss anyone that much.”
To Xena’s ears, the words were a murmured echo of her own soul’s realisation, reminding her anew of her own struggle with the loss she had felt, that deep and cutting loss. “I missed you, too.” Her eyes overflowed, allowing a single tear to streak down her face.
The opalescent drop, a shining pearl in the half-light, was wiped away by Gabrielle’s hesitant fingers. Xena lowered her head, leaning into Gabrielle’s touch as her fingers retraced its path back along her cheek, very carefully wiping away the wetness.
Her fingertips caressed the edge of Xena’s lips, brushed along her cheek and thumbed back the fine, dark hair at her temple, the bard’s eyes drinking in each feature as if they had never been seen before this moment. “Why can’t I believe this is anything more than a dream? Why can’t I let myself believe it’s real?”
“Because,” Xena began, her voice husky, “to let yourself believe means you could lose me again. But you won’t. I told you.”
“That you’ll always be with me.” Gabrielle eyes, luminous and deep in the soft light, stayed locked with those of the warrior, her voice eerily calm now.
“How?” she demanded quietly. “How can you—how could anyone—make that kind of promise? Across all boundaries? Despite all obstacles? How could it even be possible?”
“It’s possible… because I love you.”
Gabrielle’s breath caught, and a tremor—a subterranean shiver beneath the skin, so brief, so quiet—yet struck them both to the bedrock of their being. Her brow furrowed as if in pain while she gripped Xena’s wrist tightly, and Xena, so very still, was almost breathless with the magnitude of her own words as they stared at one another.
The warrior felt Gabrielle shift in her arms, felt the warmth of a hand cupping the side of her face, a thumb placed just so to stroke her ear. Dream-like in the flickering wash of light, Gabrielle lifted her head, her eyes lowered with her lips barely parted and, quite without thought, Xena felt herself drawn forward, guided by the hand laid tenderly along her face.
“I know,” Gabrielle whispered. “I felt it.”
Xena stopped breathing when warm lips pressed against hers, all rational thought, and all possible resistance evaporating beneath the bard’s chaste and tender kiss.
Gabrielle released her and just as quickly returned, pressing more solidly against her mouth, a beckoning touch that drew her in. Xena gave herself to it, finding a kernel of recognition in the euphoric feeling the contact evoked within her when she felt the feather-light brush of Gabrielle’s tongue against her upper lip. A needful sound was born in her throat and shared with Gabrielle, who took it into herself and answered it with one of her own as they lost themselves in an ever-deepening kiss.
She breathed her in, tasted her, and to Xena, the contact—their very closeness—brought back the fading memory she had clung to, restoring a gauzy likeness of it to the limits allowed by such transient and imperfect things as flesh and blood. Yet it was heady and intoxicating; a faint and shadowy reclaiming of an elusive sensation she hadn’t expected to ever feel again this side of life.
No stranger to the physical act of love, she was yet moved beyond measure and memory by the depth of emotion the contact inspired. Xena returned the kiss with a cautiously restrained fervour and slid her arms completely around Gabrielle, trying to tame the soul-deep need to get even closer. She held the smaller woman tight against her body as they explored each, blindly feeling for something achingly close, yet still out of reach, searching for the truth of one another in this sensual intermingling of senses.
Parting was a reluctant necessity, but she did so finally, feeling the quickness of her heated breath over her moist and sensitised lips.
A pair of dazed and astounded green eyes looked back at her across the slight distance between them, Gabrielle’s breath quick and light against Xena’s skin. She wondered if her own expression mirrored the same look of amazement. “Gabrielle?”
“That’s as close as we’ll get to knowing that again, isn’t it? That’s as close as we’ll ever come to being part of each other…” Wistfulness tinged the bard’s words.
“No, it isn’t,” Xena replied without thinking, only seconds after considering what, exactly, she was implying by that. By the look in Gabrielle’s eyes, she sensed Gabrielle had already discerned the deeper meaning of her answer.
“…Oh…” Gabrielle saw how the subtle lines of intensity touched Xena’s face, the taut slope of her neck and shoulders. The blue of her eyes was a glistening indigo, rippled by the emotions stirring beneath their surface. Xena had felt it, too, she could see it in the way her gaze touched her, the way it held it as if she were something fragile and so infinitely precious. She loves me. It was an extraordinary thought, one far too large for her grasp in its entirety yet. But there was love, and everything else could lead from that, couldn’t it? Anxious trepidation mingled with her sense of overwhelming wonder at how this would all fit.
There was so much to think about, but none of her thoughts would still themselves long enough for Gabrielle to grasp anything more than the happiness that banished the last of her tears and took up residence in an expanding ball of warmth in the centre of her chest. “If anyone had told me this morning that this was how my day would end, I would have ordered Ephiny to have them sobered up in the river.”
Xena snorted, making Gabrielle giggle, and leading to sniggering in fits and starts, the emotional overload of their experience transmuting itself into laughter, a giddy release of mirth filling the room after the deeply intense exchange. It was inane and silly and not even all that funny, but the ring of their laughter loosened the press of emotions making it hard to breathe, leaving Gabrielle contentedly tired and finally feeling a measure of peace. She smiled at Xena, happy to see it returned as their giggles finally tapered off.
Gabrielle sighed and allowed herself to relax in the cradle of Xena’s arms, cherishing the closeness and the comfort of Xena’s embrace as she leaned her head against Xena’s shoulder. “I’m so tired; I think I’d even find Joxer funny right now,” she said, rubbing at her reddened eyes and yawning.
Xena groaned. “Perish the thought,” she insisted just as she was overcome by a jaw-cracking yawn of her own.
“You’re tired, too.” Gabrielle watched her friend sniff and blink, the yawn having made her eyes water.
“You know what I think? I think we should sleep in tomorrow,” Gabrielle declared. Lazily, she lifted the chakram from its hook and set it aside on the night table. She then reached around to find the clasps to Xena’s armour, unhooked the sword scabbard followed by the metal braces on one side to loosen it and then pulled it free from the unresisting warrior.
“Is that right?” Xena asked, smiling, as she reached for her knee armour only to have her hand slapped away. She stuck a knuckle in her mouth. “Ow.”
“Yes, and leave that alone.” Gabrielle dumped the breastplate by the side of the bed and started on the leg armour, breezily unhooking the clasps with comfortable familiarity even in the dark. “I think we should sleep in and then have someone bring hot water here so we can get cleaned up.”
Xena watched her with growing amusement, content to allow Gabrielle to deal with the particulars of undressing her. It was sweet, really, and it seemed to make Gabrielle happy, though she couldn’t help but notice the way Gabrielle kept her eyes averted from her face. “I can wash in the river.”
“You could, but you’re not, and neither am I, especially when there’s hot water to be had,” she told Xena lightly, the corners of her mouth curling upwards.
“I’m not?” The warrior leaned back on her hands, bracing herself while Gabrielle shifted position to pull her boots off.
“Whuff, you need to air these out. No, you’re not. You can’t sit there and possibly think you can convince me you’re not stiff and achy. Hot water will help and you know it.”
“You’re a very bossy Queen, you know that?”
“If it gets the job done…” The boots and knee guards joined the breastplate on the floor.
“Yeah, but you catch more bees with honey than vinegar.”
The bard paused, her brow puckering with incredulity. “Are you actually offering me strategic advice on how to handle you?”
“You don’t want it?”
“You don’t think after a year and a half that I already know how to do that?”
Xena’s dark brows twitched between confusion and amused suspicion. “You only think you do.”
“Oh, I most certainly do.” Gabrielle’s hands went for the bracers still adorning Xena’s forearms. “After a hot leisurely bath, we could see about a late breakfast with Ephiny and—”
“Wait. Just how do you think you handle me?”
“Tsk, Xena, keep up here. We can have a meal with Ephiny and I’ll let her know my intentions. Maybe we can work out some kind of arrangement. I really think she’d make a great queen, don’t you?”
“Sure. And you do not handle me.”
Gabrielle tugged off first one, then the other bracer and tossed them on the floor. “You’re right; you’re completely unhandleable. Now give me your arm.”
She lifted her right hand and rested it on Gabrielle’s shoulder while the bard worked on the upper armband. “If you’re making up words, then I know you’re bluffing.”
“You figured me out. Other arm. If you were only out for a walk, why did you bother putting all this on again?”
So ordered, Xena switched arms, draping her left hand behind Gabrielle’s neck and drawing her closer in consequence. “With Velasca’s people still out there, I didn’t want to risk being caught unprepared if they showed up.” At last the bard met her eyes, but only for a moment before flickering away. Was she ashamed, Xena wondered? No, it’s not that. She watched more closely, noting that Gabrielle didn’t avoid touching her or flinch at being touched herself. There wasn’t any obvious fear. No flushing that might indicate regret or discomfort. So then… Xena tilted her head a little, trying to catch her eye again. Like a startled bird, Gabrielle’s eyes touched her and then flew away, back to the safety of her hands where they worked at the fastening of Xena’s armband. She’s shy of me, she realised.
It was unexpected given the advent of their kiss. Or perhaps not; she had no way of really knowing what Gabrielle might have felt during that timeless moment. At last, the other armband was loosened and Xena leaned back on one hand and lowered her other arm enough for the piece to be pulled off. It was tossed to the side where it met its fate at the foot of the bed with the rest of her equipment.
Only one thing remained and Xena leaned back, watching as Gabrielle straddled her thigh in order to get closer.
“Sit up for me,” Gabrielle instructed, gesturing her forward with one hand.
Obligingly, the warrior straightened; putting her in much closer proximity to the other woman, close enough to feel the warmth of her. Was it wrong to crave her touch again? Or to want to reclaim that unexpectedly fulfilling and stirring sense of connection, as ephemeral as it might be? Given Gabrielle’s seeming discomfort, she wasn’t sure if she should.
Gabrielle leaned into her as she reached around for the ties causing Xena to automatically lift her hands as if to rest them on Gabrielle’s waist, but stopped herself and settled them by her sides again instead. Working in such close proximity, Xena had little choice but to rest her chin on Gabrielle’s shoulder, and through that slight contact, she could feel the small shift and flex of the muscles beneath her chin. She breathed in, taking in the scent of soap from the pale linen shift, the warm smell of the bard’s skin and hair, a dissipating note of lingering fears and nightmares that eddied amongst the subtler essence of what she knew as ‘Gabrielle.’ “Are you afraid?” she asked suddenly.
Gabrielle paused, shrugged. “A little.”
“Look at me.”
Slowly, Gabrielle leaned back, her hands coming to rest on Xena’s shoulders, reluctantly meeting her gaze at last.
“What is it?” Xena asked.
What, indeed? Gabrielle stared back at her, all the while feeling this unsettling and exciting tingle across the surface of her skin, a charged current of energy that made her feel like every time their eyes touched she might be singed. “I’m scared,” she whispered. One large hand hesitantly stroked her back; a comforting weight that still warred with the ancillary sensations it conjured.
“Of what?” Xena’s brows were pinched with concern.
“Everything inside is so… so… large and…confusing… and strong.” She let out a huff of frustration. “I don’t know what to do with it or how to explain it. Here I am, a bard, and I can’t figure out how to say what I feel.”
“You. Me…” She waved her hand futilely. “This.”
Xena gazed at her for a long quiet moment, weighing what she wanted to say. “Are you afraid of me?”
“No!” Gabrielle answered immediately. “No.” That at least was easy to answer.
Xena’s concern, coupled with her need to touch the bard, overcame her reticence. She gently took Gabrielle’s hands in hers, stroking the back of one with her thumb. “Afraid of this?”
Gabrielle squeezed the hands holding hers, comforted by Xena’s touch and struck again by the warrior’s apparent ease in doing so. How much had changed in a single day! “No.” She smiled as she stared down at their clasped hands. “Not at all.”
“Of… this?” Xena leaned the remaining distance between them and brushed a light kiss against Gabrielle’s mouth.
With her eyes still closed, Gabrielle ran her tongue across her lower lip, tasting the remnants it. It thrilled her and unsettled her, but was she afraid? Gods, no. She proceeded to prove so—to the both of them—by reciprocating in like kind, part of her mind noting the unimaginably soft suppleness of Xena’s lips as their mouths relaxed and merged into one another. It was addictive, this feeling. She felt Xena yield to her curiosity, inviting her to lead even as she felt the sense of power coiled patiently beneath the surface. She had seen that power manifested in so many different ways; after having experienced it to a certain extent from within, she wondered diffidently now what it might be like to be loved by Xena.
Finally Gabrielle pulled back. “No. It’s not that.” True, it flustered her. It made her bones resonate and her breath come short, but whatever fears she might harbour didn’t seem to come from the contact itself.
“Afraid of your feelings?”
“No. Yes. I dunno.” Gabrielle bowed her head, looking away. “I feel…so much. Almost too much.”
“Like when we were…together… inside you?” Xena asked quietly. “Like you’re overwhelmed by it all and you might be swept over the edge and lost if you let go?”
“Yeah,” the bard answered, relieved and a little surprised that Xena seemed to understand so well.
“You can let go,” the warrior said in a near whisper. “I promise I won’t let you fall.” Whatever else may have happened, may yet happen, between them, she wanted Gabrielle to at least be safe in the knowledge of her trust.
Gabrielle touched her fingers against the edge of an angular jaw, following it up across the cheek to Xena’s temple. She smiled, but it held the ghost of something stronger and deeper, something that seemed to pain her even as it made her eyes gentle in their regard of the other woman. “But what if I want to?”
They gazed at one another until Gabrielle slid into Xena’s arms, and Xena held her close, barely daring to breathe lest she disturb the moment and wake to find it was all some wretched dream or glorious nightmare. She blinked and searched the darkness above them, seeking the answers to how this all could have come to pass. Did she deserve it? Gods knew she didn’t, and she was terrified of what might lie ahead of them. Somehow… somehow she always managed to hurt the ones closest to her. Mother, Borias, Lao Ma, Solan… They had known her warped and broken love, and suffered for it. Could she do that to Gabrielle and not destroy them both? She shook her head and spilled the tears filling her eyes. “Gabrielle…” Was it a protest she meant to voice? A warning? Or was it a plea?
“What if I already have?”
It frightened Xena, like little else ever had. “You shouldn’t.” But she held Gabrielle tighter, not wanting her to leave.
“You know it’s too late.”
Xena sighed, knowing she was right and knowing that it was futile to try to avoid it. “I know.”
Gabrielle felt the shiver that went through the warrior, the sigh of acceptance and resignation for whatever was to come. “Is it really so terrible?” she asked in a small voice.
She sounded so stricken, so sad. Xena cursed herself and her insensitivity. “No…” How could she give shape to her fears and misgivings? The life she was destined to lead would be filled with unimaginable hardship and pain; she didn’t doubt that for a minute. Even after all this time, she still at times wondered if she were wrong to keep Gabrielle by her side instead of sending her away to safety and a more normal life. After so many years living a soldier’s life, she was under no illusions of living to a twilight age. Was it fair—or kind—to subject Gabrielle to the same fate? She deserves more, Xena told herself. She deserves better. Better than this. Better than me. But, oh, how her heart begged otherwise, traitorous and unworthy as it was. The persistent village girl had touched something in her, rekindling the light of Xena’s humanity with the brightness of her own, and then set her on her proper path, illuminating the way until, finally, she could begin to find her own way again.
Who could have foreseen the ties that would bind them, the friendship they would share? Gabrielle had become a dear companion, a steadfast comrade, but now… could she afford to let them discover what else they might become?
But there was no denying the echoes of their joining. In that overwhelming moment of connection so much between them had changed, the barriers had been ripped away from them in a moment beyond their control to reveal the true nature of things. Though brief—and them threatened by danger—there was no way to avoid the knowledge their forced union had given them, knowledge they could never unknow. There was no going back. You know it’s too late, Gabrielle had said. But, if she were honest, Xena knew it had been too late long before the fight in the cavern. “No, it’s not terrible at all.” Her smile in the wavering light was bittersweet, but Xena pushed aside her misgivings in favour of what happiness they might find, accepting whatever might come and hoping Gabrielle would never regret the decisions that had led them here.
They sat there, closely entwined, until their eyes grew heavy and the night air through the shutters chilled them beyond even what the comfortable warmth of their embrace could ward. Xena nudged her carefully. “Time to rest.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle mumbled and watched as Xena reached back to loosen the laces on her battle dress and draw the garment over her head. It joined the disordered collection of leather and metal already littering the floor next to the bed. Her hand was taken and she allowed Xena to draw her docilely beneath the covers again, but this time to be enveloped in the warrior’s arms, an implicit protection against the haunting dreams. With her cheek against Xena’s breast she could easily discern the subtle swell of her breathing. As tired as she was, her mind persisted in its whirl of thoughts and emotions, pondering Xena’s comments, the events of the day, seeking and sorting and examining it all for more than the obvious. She would never sleep at this rate, she realised, sighing.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle answered. “I was just wondering…”
She hesitated in her musings. After everything, they were both too tired to delve into things further. “Never mind.”
“If you don’t ask, you’ll never sleep, and you think loud enough I’ll never get any sleep either.”
“I do not!”
“What were you wondering?”
“I was wondering… what it was like…”
“Well, I was just thinking… I was wondering what it was like being inside Autolycus.” Xena had spent so much more time with him. Had he learned things about Xena that she hadn’t? What had he felt? What had she shared with him? She almost hoped that Xena would decline to answer; she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know.
“He’s a good man,” Xena replied after a moment’s reflection. “He’s charming and bold and brash and egotistically proud, but underneath it all, he’s very caring and honest. There’s pain in him, and I think he still mourns his brother, but there’s other things there, too, that I couldn’t get a read on. He’s very reserved in some respects. He’s clever and quick-witted, but he uses it to shield himself from others. He’s a friend and I owe him a great debt.”
Gabrielle’s hand clenched the blanket tighter throughout this recitation. “Sounds like you two shared a lot.” Her comment came out more sharply than she intended, and she quickly added, “It must have been amazing.”
“It couldn’t have been any more awkward than if I’d walked in on him while he was buck-naked. I felt like neither of us knew where to look. Don’t even get me started on the topic of cooperatively answering the call of nature.”
Gabrielle laughed in spite of herself. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“So…” She traced a random path with her fingertip across the covers. The need to know was eating at her, yet the embarrassment over her jealousy made her hesitant. “Was it… did it feel the same with him… as it did with me?”
Elation! Thank you, Gabrielle offered silently to whichever deities might be listening.
“It was nothing alike,” Xena was saying. “For one thing, he’s got a moustache. If I’d been stuck with him for any longer, I’d’ve made him shave the damn thing off; it itched like Hades.”
“Um…” Gabrielle rubbed a finger beneath her nose, smothering a grin. “Yeah, I noticed that myself.”
Xena coughed, caught the bard’s eye and then smiled; a cat that had eaten the canary and been into the cream. Her smile was momentarily roguish, but it tempered then, softening. “It wasn’t the same at all. With him, it was cramped and uneasy. With you, I felt…” She struggled to find the right words.
“With you, I felt more myself than I think I do alone,” Gabrielle supplied.
The warrior nodded. “It wasn’t a struggle with you. I fit. I felt…like I was a part of you.”
She felt silly for having envied Autolycus, maybe even a little ashamed. “You are,” Gabrielle whispered. “I always want you to be.”
“I don’t deserve you, Gabrielle.”
“Don’t say that.”
“There’s so little I can offer—”
“That’s not true.”
“It is tr—”
Gabrielle pressed her fingers against Xena’s lips, stilling the words. “Don’t. I know better and so do you. You know my feelings just like I know yours. It’s only fear that makes us second-guess ourselves and I don’t want to be afraid any more.” She closed her eyes, gathering her thoughts before opening them again and giving the other woman a small, frank smile. “I wanted you back, Xena, for me, because I need you. I couldn’t bear losing you like that, and now, after everything… and knowing…what we have… Things are so different, yet they’ll still be the same as before, won’t they? Except now…” She dropped her head against Xena’s chest, her voice muffled against the dark shift. “…your death made it clear: I know I love you.”
Xena stopped breathing for a long moment, paralyzed by the words, by the joyfully chaotic pound of her heart in her chest.
“I don’t know what will happen, or how it’ll change things, even if it will change anything. But I want… I’d like… to be with you.” The words lodged themselves tightly in her throat making Gabrielle’s voice thick and husky. “Do you think—not right now—but later… that maybe you and I…” She tried to lift her gaze to meet Xena’s, only to have it slide away to watch the restless movement of the candlelight against the wall. “… that we might…”
The question, reluctant to be released, was yet visible in the bard’s
eyes, and Xena leaned across the tiny gulf that separated them to touch her lips
warmly against Gabrielle’s in a small, soft kiss. A sigh escaped between
them, a quiet sign of relieved acceptance. Time would leave space for the words,
for more, but for now Gabrielle was nodding slowly, swallowing her fears, and
Xena, moved by the desire barely expressed, touched her forehead against the bard’s,
her broad hand feeling the cheek beneath her palm curve
into a smile.
“Shh,” Xena said. “No more. Rest now. We can talk on the road.” She stroked Gabrielle’s cheek once and then pulled the covers up over them. “I’ll be here if you need me,” she added, suiting action to words as she draped an arm around Gabrielle’s body.
Gabrielle nodded and closed her eyes; savouring the balm those words conveyed as she let her exhaustion claim her. “I think maybe I’ll be able to sleep now.”
“The candle, here—”
Gabrielle made to get out of bed, but Xena pulled her back under the covers. “Don’t move.” She reached down by the side of the bed and, with a flick of her wrist, cast the chakram across the room. It hit the wall with a solid ka-chunk! extinguishing the flame with its passing.
True darkness fell thick and heavy, quieting everything, until…
“I have many skills.”
A giggle. “It’s good to be the Queen.”
A hurumph. “Go to sleep.”
Silence finally descended on the Queen’s chambers. Xena sighed and relaxed into the mattress, revelling in the sensation of being close. Lightly, she traced Gabrielle’s hip, her arm, the curve of her shoulder, still finding herself feeling tentative about taking such liberties, but sensing it wasn’t unwelcome in the soft mew of contentment Gabrielle made.
Sleep cast its hold over her at last, and in the few moments of awareness she had left Xena held Gabrielle closer to her and basked in the unfettered joy of it, knowing now—better than before—the value of savouring the moments offered. Unlike most anyone else, she had been granted the gift of a second chance; it wasn’t something she intended to take for granted ever again.
Gabrielle stirred once, murmured in her sleep, and drew Xena’s arm more snugly around her, and Xena smiled to herself as she settled her head comfortably on the pillow. There was so much to think about, but not now, no—she yawned—for now there was Gabrielle and the familiar, welcome pull of Morpheus’ realm. She closed her eyes, certain in her knowledge that now there would be other days, other times to contemplate such things, and in the tranquil lull between wakefulness and dreaming lay the discovery that, for the first time in a long time, she genuinely looked forward to tomorrow.
* * *
Ephiny stared at Gabrielle, Xena, and then at the platform where her sisters were arranging its ceremonial trappings, all of them waiting the moment their Queen would take her rightful place.
It wouldn’t be the one they were anticipating it seemed.
“You want me to be the… I mean… And you're sure about this?” Ephiny glanced back and forth between them, almost unable to believe what she was hearing. They both still looked a little tired, but they seemed more settled, more at ease. The comfortable air of partnership was back, but changed somehow. It wasn’t something she could put her finger on immediately; Xena still loomed and glared dourly, Gabrielle still spoke softly and grinned irrepressibly… What on Olympus was it?
At her question, Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder and she watched the silent interplay between their eyes, a lifted brow from one followed by the impish grin of the other before Gabrielle turned back to her, her hands now clasped behind her back.
“Positive. It’s for the best if you think about it.”
While she spoke, Ephiny’s eyes flitted from one woman to the other knowing something was different, but not quite being able to see the proof that would confirm the feeling in her gut. “Okaaay,” she said at last. Seeing Gabrielle happy and Xena alive and whole next to her would have to be enough for the moment. The mystery could wait until after the ceremony and during the banquet. Then she’d get Gabrielle away from Xena on some official pretext and see if she couldn’t figure out what was going on. The feast was supposed to have been a celebration of Gabrielle’s investiture, but she couldn’t see cancelling it under the circumstances; Amazons enjoyed a party whatever the reason.
But me? Queen? It wasn’t an offer she had expected. Whatever she might have thought of Gabrielle’s peaceful ways, she didn’t doubt that whatever the younger woman might have lacked in knowledge of the Amazon ways, she would surely have made up for in her innate understanding of human nature. But, were she honest, a part of Ephiny relished the opportunity, thinking of the changes she might make, the direction she could lead her people in. It was tempting.
“Now that I’m thinking about it, I can’t imagine how we’d ever keep Xena occupied anyway. Let’s get on with it before you change your mind.” She ignored Xena’s mild look of amusement, raising her arms to call her people’s attention to her. “Amazons! Your attention, please!”
She waited for the crowds of women to gather closer and quiet down, rows upon rows of faces, young and old, raised towards her. “Queen Gabrielle?”
The young woman stepped forward, her champion at her back. “I’ve been among you long enough to learn that tradition is a keystone of the Amazon culture. With Velasca gone, the tradition of governance is broken, but I know, by the rite of caste given me by Terreis, I’m the next successor in line to Melosa.”
Ephiny watched her take gentle control of the crowd, her clear voice modulated to carry to the farthest listener.
“There’s more to being Queen than having the rite of caste, more to ruling a proud nation than the source of the blood that runs through one’s veins. It takes a leader who can balance the discipline of the mind with the wisdom of the heart. It takes vision and faith. It takes the kind of woman who can command people and inspire them to greatness by the example she herself sets for them.” Gabrielle signalled to the mask bearers, taking the intricately carved and feathered emblem of the Amazon Queen in her hands and held it out to Ephiny, encouraging her to take it. “This belongs to you. Melosa would want you to have it.”
It reminded Ephiny of the offer Gabrielle had made to Velasca, holding out the mask and the knife, not realising it had been a test until Gabrielle had pulled the mask away, depriving Velasca of power after the woman had chosen the knife—and violence—first. But now both hands where holding the mask out to her, no test, no trials. Trust Gabrielle to make this kind of sacrifice, abandoning power and choosing the selfless route instead, which simply reinforced Ephiny’s belief that this woman, so unusual in her approach to dealing with challenges in life, would make a good ruler. Could she strive to do any less for their people? “I’ll take it on one condition. I only hold it while you’re gone. By Amazon law, you’re still the Queen.”
“Queen Gabrielle,” Gabrielle said, savouring the title thoughtfully. Suddenly she leaned back, saying in an undertone to Xena, “Hmm. Does an Amazon Queen beat a Warrior Princess?”
“Do you really wanna find out?” Xena asked in turn.
Ephiny grinned at their banter, noting the warrior’s fond expression.
“All right. Just don’t expect me to show up at any parades or anything,” Gabrielle announced.
Ephiny managed to maintain a dry expression. “Amazons don’t have parades.”
“That was a joke.”
“I know.” She grinned as she turned to the crowd and raised the mask up high for all to see. The amazons cheered and let loose an excited and happy cry that filled the air and made Ephiny glad of her decision.
A scream topped it all, striking a sharp and angry note that cut through the celebratory air. A shiver of dread chased up Ephiny’s spine and she spun around to see a broken figure limping towards them at the edge of the crowd. Bloody and wounded, the figure raised its head and a familiar pair of eyes burned with a fevered rage.
“By the Gods!”
(or the beginning of A Necessary Evil)
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