Copyright Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Palaemon, Vidalis and Hippocrates belong to Renaissance/Studios USA. Thank you for allowing me to write fanfiction with them in it. No copyright infringement is intended. The author is not getting paid for writing this. I borrowed the lyrics to Xena's lullaby for Gabrielle from Mick Hucknall (Simply Red: Stars. 1991).
Maintext: Quite early in this story, it will become clear that this is about two women falling in love with each other. Better yet, they find ways to do something about it. If this is not your piece of cake, I won't be offended. If you're not of age in your country, you have to come back when you are.
A big thank you goes out to my beta readers Jen, Curiositee, Evie, EM, Kel, Betty and Helen who pulled through with me. Thank you so much for your time and patience and the occasional chocolate passed over to my muse!
The Rift: This story starts at the morning after the 3rd Season episode "One Against an Army" and both Xena and Gabrielle deal with what happened during The Rift episodes. It would be useful to be familiar with them to understand what is going on in this story.
Dedication: This story is dedicated to my beta reader Evie who died at the hands of a drunk driver long before her time. You are so very sorely missed.
When Gabrielle got up that morning her mind didn't have to tell her what had happened the day before. Her body did. Loudly.
Xena was up already, on a search for her mare, Argo, whom she had sent away the previous day, and had already packed their stuff. Yet as if sensing that Gabrielle was waking up, the Warrior Princess made sure she was the first thing Gabrielle saw when she opened her eyes. The wounded bard regarded her silently for a while, drinking in the sight of black hair and blue eyes, and the scent of leather and sweat that was so Xena. She then tried to pull herself up, and that was a mistake.
"Easy, easy... the warrior said, holding the spout of a water skin to her mouth, and she swallowed the water thirstily as if it came straight from the Elysian fields.
"I checked your wound already, Xena said, touching Gabrielle's left shoulder, where a poisoned arrow had pierced it the day before. "The antidote is working nicely, Gabrielle. You're still a little feverish, that's why I waited until morning to get going. How is your ankle doing?
The ankle, Gabrielle thought, mentally slapping her forehead, but then tried out the sprained ligament in question that she had so successfully twisted, trying Xena's flip without the staff to help her. The pain was still there, but it was dull and no comparison to the piercing ache in her shoulder. "Better, I think... she rasped, coughing a little. Just my luck the arrow grazed my lung, she commented wryly to herself.
"Good. Are you dizzy, do you feel sick?
"No... Gabrielle said, after sitting up and checking herself. Actually, compared with how she felt yesterday, this was quite good.
"Good. We need to get you to Thessaly and to a healer. I'm still worried about this wound. Xena said. "You can go ahead and sit on Argo.
"Lots 'n lots of breaks, Xena? she asked and the warrior nodded, so Gabrielle agreed on mounting the horse after they had both had a small breakfast and Xena numbed the pain with a mix of herbs given in water.
The destruction that the Persians meant for their land was painfully visible until they turned off the main road to Athens to take a different route to get to Thessaly. Three hundred mounted warriors had been crossing villages, fields, meadows regardless and wounded the earth without a second thought. An eerie silence followed wherever they turned. Where there had been vivid vegetation and wildlife, buzzing villages and fertile land, all there was left was only a barren strap of torn land, stripped of every life whatsoever. Gabrielle's heart hurt seeing this and silently, she was praying that Xena had been able to hold them up long enough to make sure the Athens army got assembled and ready to defend their city. By now, the fighting should be in full force. The thought of that laid over them like a black cloud. They were too tired to talk much, anyway, Gabrielle in a constant daze either because of the pain or because of the medication, and Xena being her own very quiet, stoic self, lost in her own thoughts.
Still, Gabrielle knew that things between them had changed. Things had been said in that armory the day before that would stay in her memory forever. Xena's refusal to let her die and willingness to leave the Persian army be; getting her into safety rather than giving the Athens army a chance to get ready for battle, had touched her in places that had been left raw by incidents of their recent past. It was enough to think about for a whole lifetime, much less a day of slipping in and out of a drug and pain induced daze.
She had gotten better about riding a horse, yet her stomach turned more than once at the mare's rolling gait and left her exhausted after riding just a couple of hours. They had to stop frequently and give her a chance to regain some semblance of strength before they were able to resume traveling. Yet both women knew that the worst was over, since the poison had largely been taken care of by the antidote Xena had snatched from one of the Persian warriors.
"Hard to believe I usually walk. Gabrielle said by way of an excuse when they had finally stopped for their last break of the day and to set up camp for the night. She watched Xena pull a blanket from the saddlebags and spreading it out on the ground.
The dark haired warrior looked up and into her partner's eyes. "Hard to believe you're still alive, she said, then closed her eyes and shook her head as if to shake the image from her mind. Then she stepped close to the honey colored horse and raised her hands invitingly. "You coming down?
"Love to, Gabrielle nodded tiredly. She disentangled her left leg from the saddle horn and slid down the horse's side right into Xena's arms.
"I got you, the warrior said, slinging one arm around the bard's midsection to support her. Slowly, they walked over to the blanket and Xena helped Gabrielle sit down. "Do you think you're ok sitting here? I need to get a fire started and set up camp.
Gabrielle bit her lip and thought for a moment, then said: "If you don't mind, would you hand me my latest scroll and a quill?
Xena's eyes lingered a little longer on her friend's face than they usually would've done. "Sure, she finally said. Not long after, the warrior returned with the required items, plus a waterskin and some herbs she mixed in a cup and gave to Gabrielle. The bard swallowed the medicine and tried not to make a face at the bitter taste. She knew it would do her good and ease the pain of her infected arrow wound. Leaning back slowly against the conveniently placed rock that Xena had spread the blanket in front of, Gabrielle tried to find a position that wouldn't make her shoulder hurt too much.
I feel like one raw piece of flesh, she mused wryly. Not only did I manage to sprain my ankle trying this stupid flip without the help of my staff, I also volunteered as a target for an arrow. Just because I wanted to help some soldier to be able to look his son in the face when he came back home. And then it turned out he was a spy for the other side anyway and it was all for nothing. Gabrielle sighed. She knew those thoughts were in vain. What happened had happened.
She watched the dark haired warrior dig a small hole and line it with stones to build a fire pit. Her moves weren't as fluid as they usually were. Rather, they seemed slightly ragged as if she were in pain herself. Gabrielle quietly reflected on this. She probably is. That was a really hard fight back there.
To the death. That's what they had thought. Right now, every new moment that she was able to breathe and move, to think and talk, felt like an unexpected gift. The young woman turned her face towards the slowly setting sun and closed her eyes. Every moment so precious. She took a deep breath to inhale the scent of nature around her, the images of raped land still before her eyes. The familiar sounds of Xena untacking Argo and brushing her down, of trees whispering in the gentle breeze. She inhaled all that quietly for some time before she opened her eyes again to slowly reach for the scroll and then opening it.
Xena had gone fishing, the top line read. The lone warrior Gabrielle awoke with a jerk as five barbarians broke into camp.
With a small shake of her head and a tired smile, Gabrielle closed the scroll again. This seems to be so long ago... Xena must have given me the wrong scroll. For a moment, she thought about that. She hadn't started a new scroll since... since... the memory took her breath away for a second. I haven't started a new scroll since we sailed to Britannia. Remembering, her soul still cried out.
"Are you ok? a warm voice trickled down her right ear. Gabrielle turned her head to face the warrior who had quietly taken a seat beside her.
"Yeah... she said, regarding the lines of exhaustion the last days had put even onto Xena's face. "Just thinking... remembering... not good. She turned her head to watch the now happily crackling fire that bore a pot with something bubbling in it. It was still hard to talk about it. She heard Xena inhale deeply, probably immersed in her own thoughts.
"Xena, she ventured, "did you mean it yesterday when you said that even in death, you would never leave me?
Another deep breath, followed by the warrior's hand on Gabrielle's arm. When the bard looked up, she was immediately captured by blue eyes that held a warm tinge. "With all my heart, Xena said, holding her gaze. "I love you, Gabrielle.
A tiny, tiny smile crept up Gabrielle's face and a warm rush went up her back. She'd meant it. She had actually really meant it. And all those dark memories had to take a step back behind this feeling that warmed her heart. Has it all been worth it, then? Was there no easier way around it? She'd never know. Her hand curled around Xena's biceps and she leaned against the warrior's warm arm. Xena pressed her hand and seemed to enjoy the body contact.
They sat there, idly watching the fire for a long while, just immersed in their thoughts and taking comfort in each other's presence. Their life had been in such a tumble lately, such an up-and-down that it was hard now to go back to the routine that they had developed in two years of traveling together. But they both needed to heal and although they had been the cause for most of each other's pain they had realized they could only stand through this together or not at all. Gabrielle felt that the previous day had started something new between them. A new kind of trust that went far beyond everything they had shared before. They had gone to Tartarus and back. Yet they still loved each other, maybe even more so than they had before.
A small coughing fit shook her suddenly. "Gabrielle... Xena put an arm around her shoulders and held her gently.
"It's alright... Gabrielle rasped, then drew a tentative breath. "At least it doesn't hurt as much anymore. She met Xena's worried smile. "And the bleeding seems to have stopped.
Xena put a hand on her forehead, then used it to push a stray forelock out of Gabrielle's face. "You're not as hot as before. That's a good sign. A worried crease showed on her forehead. "I just wish we were in Thessaly already.
"Why do they have something to eat there? was Gabrielle's tired attempt at a joke.
Xena got a tired nod for an answer.
"Good. Very good. You're getting better. Another worried smile, this time a touch more cheerful. "I'll check the broth. She got up to look into the pot and give the insides a little stir, then used the spoon to taste test it. It seemed to be just right. The warrior went to their gear for a bowl and another spoon, filled it and brought it to Gabrielle along with some bread and cheese.
The bard accepted the meal and balanced the bowl on one upraised knee while sniffing at its contents.
"You can eat it, Xena teasingly assured her. "I may not be the best of cooks but I actually know how to cook a broth for someone who's sick and needs it.
Gabrielle gave her a look. "Well, you know what they say. I just survived a poisoned arrow, this can't be much worse.
Xena grinned and gave her a tender nudge in the ribs. "You are getting better. She then studiously applied herself to the task of cutting down a chunk of bread, covering it with bits of cheese and offering it to the hungrily spooning Gabrielle.
"This is actually quite good, Gabrielle smiled between spoonfuls. "I didn't know you had it in you. Maybe you should cook more often.
Now it was on Xena to give her a look. "Don't push it, Gabrielle! They both smiled at each other, then Xena got up again. "I need to get some more water and firewood. I'll be right back, ok?
"Ok. You're going to eat then, too?
There was a slight hesitation, then Xena answered slowly: "Always looking out for me, aren't you?
That look on Gabrielle's face, as they repeated words they had said just a mere day ago in the face of almost certain death, when they were convinced they'd only see each other again on the other side, moved Xena deeply. And for once, she let it show on her face. "I'll hurry, she promised to the still pale bard who was her best friend and family all at once. And she did hurry.
Still, when she got back to camp, Gabrielle had dozed off. With a gentle smile, Xena took the bowl out of her hands and tried to make her more comfortable by tucking a fur around her shoulders to give her head support. After applying herself to pouring the remaining broth into a bowl for herself, she started a new pot of water for some tea and added firewood. She resumed her place beside her friend, adjusting the fur again and then set herself to the task of emptying her bowl. She hadn't realized she was so hungry, so after the broth a huge chunk of bread and a piece of dried meat followed.
She got up again to rinse their bowls, filling two cups with a handful of selected herbs and pouring the hot water over it. She left them to steam while unstrapping their bedrolls, shaking them out and spreading them on the ground. After adding their bolsters and sleeping furs, she looked at the arrangement again. Actually, they're not close enough. Should she really go ahead and let her feelings decide? What the Tartarus. She's still sick. It's better when I'm close to her so I can check on her right away if something's wrong. She let that reason go around in her head for a while, trying to ignore the fact that she knew better. Alright, Xena, 'fess up. You want her close, don't you? That thing yesterday was way too close to losing her. Way, way too close. She sighed and tiredly rubbed her face. Finally, she adjusted their sleeping arrangement so that they would lay side by side, with Gabrielle closer to the fire. Satisfied, she took both cups back to her friend.
Gabrielle sleepily opened her eyes just when Xena had found a comfortable position beside her. "I'm awake, I'm awake... Her voice sounded as sleepy as she looked. "Did you eat? she asked, accepting the cup from her warrior friend.
"Yes, mom. Xena answered. "Ate, washed up, stacked our stuff away and spread our bedrolls. Can I have some dessert now?
Gabrielle regarded the warrior with a questioning gaze. "Dessert? Don't I wish... How about... And she put her cup on top of the rock for later access and slowly wrapped her good right arm around the astounded woman for a hug.
Xena had actually brought some berries and nuts she had found for dessert to surprise her friend. However, this kind of dessert surely agreed with her, too. Xena softened under the bard's caress, inhaling the scent of Gabrielle's hair with a satisfaction she had not anticipated at all, and answering her gentle hug with one of her own. They held each other like that as long as they could without it looking too suspicious to themselves, then slowly disentangled and reluctantly parted with tiny, embarrassed smiles. Gabrielle held the gaze of her blue-eyed friend a little longer. "Thank you, she said, not wanting to lose touch.
"For what? Absentmindedly, Xena raised her right hand to stroke Gabrielle's hair out of her face and behind her left ear.
"For my life. Thank you for taking such good care of me. I'm sorry I'm such a burden to you.
"You're not a burden to me,” Xena saidwith emphasis. "Don't you ever think that. I need you.”
"And I need you.” Gabrielle said, slowly, then broke eye contact to look for her cup again. Xena helped her retrieve it and Gabrielle tried to determine which herbs Xena had used for her tea. "Hmm... mint leaves. Lemongrass. Fennel. Chamomile. And... what's that, Xena?” She lifted a questioning gaze.
"It'll help you sleep and dull the pain.” Xena explained, still engaged in noticing how the firelight caught in Gabrielle's like colored hair. She shook her head a little. "And speaking of dessert – there's something I found on my way to the spring.” She reached behind her for the small bag filled with nuts and berries and offered it to the delighted bard. "Help yourself.”
As Xena had intended, Gabrielle's face lit up at the prospect of dessert. She regarded the bag, and started rummaging trough it until she found a berry that fit her taste. "This is really good, she smiled when the first ripe berry exploded on her tongue and filled her mouth with its delicious juice. She reached into the bag again and retrieved another berry, holding it up between two fingers. "Don't you want some?
And Xena surprised them both by gently taking the berry out of Gabrielle's fingers with her teeth. "Thanks, she managed, actually glad about the fact that it was dark by now so Gabrielle couldn't see her blushing. When she mustered looking up into Gabrielle's face again, she saw a delighted smile there that was worth a thousand times the embarrassment she had risked. "You liked that, hmm?
Gabrielle nodded. "It's good to see you happy, she said seriously. "And if this does the trick, she dug out a nut this time to offer to the warrior, "I'll be more than happy to please you. And she watched Xena close her lips around the nut and take it neatly out of her hand. This is silly, Xena thought. And dangerous. And stupid. And... and... I like it, she grudgingly admitted to herself, already peering for the next offering.
"Can you snatch them out of the air, too? Gabrielle teased.
"Gabrielle. You know I have...
"...many skills, yeah. I know. The grinning bard actually juggled a nut between two hands before tossing it high into the air and watching Xena catching it neatly in her mouth. "Very impressive, she praised and her eyes met a flash of white teeth.
"Now it's your turn, Xena ordered and took the bag out of Gabrielle's hands. "Lean back and enjoy.
Gabrielle regarded her with a smile but did as ordered and settled back, her head pillowed by the fur Xena had put there earlier. She opened her mouth as she watched Xena's hand approach with a berry which the warrior placed neatly on her tongue.
"You know, Xena... Gabrielle managed around a mouthful, "...it actually tastes better this way.
Xena chuckled. "I believe you. Well, you deserve to be spoiled, so enjoy it as long as it lasts.
Gabrielle let those words run around in her head while she crunched two nuts at once. "I deserve it? I don't know, Xena. For what? For spraining my ankle? For being stupid enough to not listen to you again and let somebody skewer me with an arrow?
Xena, who had leaned against the rock with her left arm, propping up her head in her hand while idly feeding herself and the bard with nuts and fruit, regarded her thoughtfully. "Nooo... she pronounced, lowering her voice. "For pulling through although you were heavily wounded. For reminding me of what is really important and what I had to do. And for still being alive when I had the antidote so I could help you. She let her friend pick a nut with her teeth from between two fingers. "You were very, very brave, Gabrielle. Quit torturing yourself like that.
This was met with a heavy sigh, but Gabrielle couldn't deny the soothing effect the words of the warrior had on her. Her words, and the herbs in the tea that slowly kicked in. "'m getting sleepy, Xena, she mumbled, swallowing the last berry. "Let's go to bed and look at the stars.
Xena smiled quietly to herself. See if you still can, she thought. She helped Gabrielle over to her bedroll and tugged at the remaining boot, since she had sliced the other one open with her chakram the day before to attend to Gabrielle's sprain. You still owe me a pair of boots, Xena anticipated the bard's words.
"You still owe me a pair of boots, Xena. Don't you forget it, the mumbled, yet predictable comment came from a bard covered in furs up to her nose.
"I know, Xena said, slowly easing out of her leathers until she wore only her shift, which she exchanged for a new one out of their gear. It was bad enough she didn't have a chance to take a bath yet, not with her friend wounded and unprotected, enduring the sweaty and restraining leather was just out of the question tonight. And the area seemed quiet enough to allow that kind of luxury. The warrior slid down under her covers, then peeked out and gave Gabrielle a little stub on the nose. "I'll get you the best pair of boots we can find in the whole entire market in Thessaly, I promise.
"Good. Gabrielle seemed to be satisfied. The herbs did their part, Xena beside her, quite alive at that, the crackling, warming fire and a cloudless night sky that had an astounding likeness to a huge black silken cloth embroidered with shimmering jewels, all had a very soothing effect on the young woman. When she glanced sideways, she caught Xena looking at her in quiet affection. Gabrielle met the look and let it warm her all the way through, until she knew it mirrored her own. Carefully, she rolled sideways a little, trying not to hurt her shoulder even more, and reached out for Xena's face. Her hand lingered on her cheek, then slowly traced a path from her ear to her jaw. The movement reminded her of something and shocked, she remembered herself doing the exact same thing, back in Ch'in. With Xena in a stock, looking at her with this expression of... of...
It hadn't been hatred. It had been utter disappointment and ultimately, contempt at this betrayal. Topped by a quiet giving in to the situation, the giving up of all hope that Gabrielle had never, ever seen before in the face of the Warrior Princess. An expression so tortured, it had told Gabrielle that death was now regarded as a welcome parting from this world where friends, soulmates, turned into traitors.
Gabrielle's face must have betrayed her thoughts. Before she could retract her hand, Xena had captured her wrist and made a point of keeping eye contact. She turned the young woman's hand so she was able to place a small kiss onto its palm. And when Gabrielle didn't react, another, longer one until the silently pained expression slowly eased out of her face and made room for utter sadness and regret. That was the moment when the Warrior Princess' heart decided to let all pretense go, and so she slid under Gabrielle's covers, gathering the smaller woman close and holding her until the silent sobbing slowed.
So much pain was left between them, so much separation and so much regret. Xena could forgive Gabrielle as often as she needed; she had already told her that. But as long as Gabrielle didn't forgive herself, until she dared to step forward and out of her guilt, she couldn't move towards healing. Xena had her own ways of dealing with her regrets, her defense mechanisms put firmly in place, and she did as much as she could bear at one time. But Gabrielle... her feelings were so much more on the surface, so much more real to her...
"Xena... she finally heard her friend, muffled by the fabric of her now thoroughly drenched shift.
"I'm here, the warrior assured her, stroking her fair hair soothingly.
"I... I... Sobs were making it hard for Gabrielle to speak. "I'm so sorry, Xena. Another sob. "I'm so sorry I hurt you. I'm so sorry I didn't listen to you. I'm...
"Sshh... Xena started to rock her gently. "It's alright, Gabrielle. All of this is in the past. All I want is to be with you right now. You're my best friend. You are my family. I love you, Gabrielle.
Another sob shook the bard and her good arm clenched and unclenched convulsively around Xena's middle. Finally, she looked up and into Xena's face, just inches above her own. "R... really? Her green eyes were upon Xena's in anxious expectation.
"With all my heart and with all my soul, Xena soothed. And then a quick decision was made. Something deep inside Xena's innermost core decided that this was the right moment to renew a promise once made: That she wouldn't leave Gabrielle alone, no matter what.
She ducked her head and her lips met Gabrielle's in a vow to stay at her side. And Gabrielle stretched herself into the kiss as if Xena delivered Food of the Gods, tangling a desperate hand in dark hair and pressing herself against the woman she so loved yet felt she so didn't deserve.
The kiss lasted much longer than Xena had anticipated. When they parted for the first time, she let herself drown in Gabrielle's emerald eyes, then met her lips again when Gabrielle rose up for another, deeper kiss. Their lips lingered, then explored, hands caressing each other's face, and hair, in a desperate attempt at stilling a hunger they had not even known existed. Yet real enough it seemed, elemental like the need for air and water.
Soothed, Gabrielle loosened her death grip on the Warrior Princess after what seemed to be a very, very long time, yet still tried to find a position that agreed with her shoulder and at the same time gave her access to as much body contact as was possible with Xena.
Xena watched her curiously, smiling, very much aware of the wriggling body so close to her own. When Gabrielle had found a spot that agreed with her, her green eyes met Xena's blue ones again. "Thank you, she said, her voice still quivering. Holding Xena's gaze for a long time, Gabrielle finally closed her eyes with a small sigh, giving in to the feelings of exhaustion her sickness, the traveling, the tears, and last but not least, the herbs had caused, and let herself be carried over into Morpheus' arms. And on her way there, she was escorted by a low, vibrating voice, carrying an ancient tune that she had heard a thousand times, yet for the first time she registered the meaning of the words:
You know I'd do most anything you want.
Every day, I try to give you everything you need.
I'll always be there for you.
I don't believe in many things, but in you I do.
She was in a dark place. Completely dark.
No voices. No sound whatsoever.
The dark thickness around her seemed to be breathable.
She took a lungful and choked, coughed. But it was everywhere. No way to escape it.
Xena knew when to stay calm to keep her strength up.
She listened. Her keen hearing was only met with deafening silence.
And she couldn't feel... anything. It was as if she was suspended in midflight, without knowing when she would land.
She tried to touch her face, to find out if she, herself, was real. She was.
In... out. In... out.
She set a rhythm aimed to slow her racing heartbeat when...
thundering hoofbeats invaded her consciousness. It wasn't just hearing, it was feeling, with every single fiber of her body. Her body thrummed in beat with the sensation, her ears threatened to explode from the sound - she was the beat. Hard shells of horn beating upon the earth...
and then a violent jolt and she felt herself dragged, her feet bound to an unseen steed. The sensation was painful, no way to escape, as her feet were tied. The woman cried out in frustration as she realized she couldn't do anything to get free. It didn't hurt, it was just humiliating . Her hands flailed about, trying to get a grasp on... nothing, as there was nothing besides the all-encompassing thunderous hoofbeats. She used her strength to try and touch her ankles, to untie them, but there was nothing. A long wail escaped her throat...
and she could feel it. The grassy soil, beating against her skin, slashing, biting, grinding.
She raised her arms to protect her head, but there was nothing she could do, the dragging so fierce. A sob escaped her. To feel so... helpless to a beating. She couldn't even see her tormentor, no target to concentrate on but her own pain. No plan to engage against her attacker. She felt that she would lose consciousness soon, and then...
suddenly, her surroundings became visible. At an incredible speed, she was dragged behind a large horse whose rider she couldn't make out for she couldn't hold her head still long enough. Blue sky, green grass and the sound of waves breaking on a rocky shore. They came closer and closer and closer to that sound, when the rider took a turn to the right, while Xena kept going straight, her bounds gone. She was flung into nothingness, above her the sky, a long drop under her, and she felt her heart stop in horror.
She managed to raise her eyes to the magnificent rider on her great horse, catching a glimpse of long, dark hair, before she felt herself falling...
* * *
"I hate you!!!"
Xena woke with a start. Her heart racing, she looked around, but still, and again, only darkness greeted her. It took her a moment to realize that she had left the site of her dream. She was able to distinguish sounds, and she could also feel solid earth under her - earth she was close enough to clutch and kiss.
She forced herself to slow down her labored breathing, and listened for anything unusual. But there wasn't anything, just the familiar sounds of wildlife around her, and Argo's reassuring form nearby, watching over them. Heavy rainclouds had moved in, and cast an almost impenetrable darkness around them. The only source of light was the nearly dead fire they had left burning to warm them and keep away wildlife.
Xena slumped back onto her bedroll, turning a little to see if Gabrielle's sleep had been disturbed. But the bard was resting comfortably on her side, her arm wrapped around what consisted of most of Xena's sleeping furs, a peaceful expression on her face.
Xena smiled, and moved her hand to push a stray lock out of the young woman's face, when somehow, she remembered, as her dream came into focus again. This is where she had a bad blow, the warrior remembered, touching Gabrielle's cheek. And a really bad gash right here. She moved up to the young woman's forehead. Not to mention the rest of her body. A dark wave of anguish rolled through the restless warrior, the feeling of being dragged against her will fresh in her mind.
On its way, it swept up every rational thought that was in her and left her in a state of panic. Her eyes widened in shock, Xena indeed clutched to the earth now, trying to ride out this wave of unbelievable panic that overwhelmed her.
She turned her head, to fasten her eyes onto the face of that little bard, the woman she had hurt so badly, to tie her to the earth, and to a speck of hope. The haunting image of the battered bard would always be with her, always. Oh gods, Gabrielle, sorry doesn't cover it. And never, ever will.
But Xena knew she had lost against the panic when she felt disconnected from everything around her, her knees weak, her heartbeat racing and cold sweat breaking out of every pore on her body. She tried to keep it in check, taking deep breaths, but she knew she had lost when after several minutes of scorching panic, she felt the familiar sensation of an upset stomach, and she pulled herself up, and managed to put a few paces between herself and the bard before the nausea overwhelmed her and made her relieve herself.
The warrior trembled with exhaustion, both mentally and physically, and finally, she gave in to the tears. She had been weakened considerably by her battle with the Persians, one that she could hardly remember, and the impending loss of Gabrielle had shattered her composure much more than she had thought. This dream had made it nonexistent.
Xena's body shook under her sobs, her tears, and nose, running freely. To think, that Gabrielle had come to her, to her, to ask her forgiveness. A new series of sobs made Xena hold on to the roots of the tree she was crouching in front of, and she started rocking back and forth unconsciously. The irony of that. And the truth.
Her arms remembered the feel of the lithe woman in them, and her body reminded her of the joy she had felt when they had kissed. And it hadn't been the kiss Xena had planned it to be, one of gentle assurance, one of a promise. There had been more to it, and she knew it.
Right now, it was hard to decide what scared her more: the prospect of losing Gabrielle or the prospect of them becoming something else than best friends and family. If they did, how was she to prevent herself from inflicting more pain on Gabrielle, from hurting her as she had before?
She wasn't someone prone to panic attacks, although she had lived through them earlier in her life. But something about this thought had opened an age-old wound and with opening it, had brought up all the fears and trepidations that were connected with it.
To be open to feel. And to be open to be hurt. Again.
It took the dark woman a while to slowly gather herself up again. Maybe because she didn't really want to. It had been a long time since she had allowed herself to feel, to feel so deeply that it actually affected her. How she had wiped away any feelings on the straight way to her heart. How she had held up a picture of herself as being strong and knowing it all. And now look at me... she added wryly. THIS is what I am.
The sobs slowly subsided, leaving the warrior drained and hollow. She pulled herself up, her limbs pure lead, and slowly made her way over to the still glowing firepit and the waterskin she had left there with Argo's saddle.
Xena drenched her hurting throat, splashing some of the water into her face and cleaning it. She proceeded to stir the fire a little, until it flared up with flying sparks, consuming the branch she had added to it and providing her a place to rest her eyes.
The mare, as if feeling that her mistress was in distress, had idly grazed her way up to the dark haired woman's side, now standing behind her, letting her head hang low.
"Is it all worth it?" Xena asked her honeycolored friend, her voice almost inaudible. Argo swiveled her ears in the direction of her mistress' voice and snorted. "To open up, and to dare trusting someone, and then have... have to find out that they, too, are able to betray you?" Xena's eyes searched the soulful one's of the animal beside her. "Is it?" But there was no answer from her friend other than a trusting eye. "Or maybe I should've stayed like I was and waited until finally someone was better than me and just die in battle... as it should be..."
But while she was still speaking, she knew the truth. She knew her truth. Gabrielle and her, they had been through Tartarus and back. They had hated each other, but still, they had pulled through. How likely is it that will happen again? she asked herself wryly. How likely is it it'll get worse? And if the end of all this is that we know we are... connected somehow... that we could even be... One eyebrow rose at the thought and she managed a tired chuckle, not even wanting to think the word "lovers. Yeah, right. She shook her head and tried to think of something else, but couldn't really.
Sighing, she turned, and leaned against the horse's forelegs. Argo lowered her head, familiar with the procedure, to have her ears scratched, which she loved. The warrior was happy to comply. Argo gave her a point to hold onto amidst the still rolling waves of slight panic that weren't overwhelming anymore, yet frightening enough to look for some kind of anchor. And Argo happily provided a warm and furry one. "You're a good friend, Argo. Xena whispered, suddenly hugging the horse's head fiercely to her chest, which Argo ended by pulling free and shaking her mane in protest. Xena smiled, and waited for the mare to calm down and lower her head for more scratching. She thought of Gabrielle again, of her fine hair under her caressing hands, and a warm feeling spread through her body. Not of wanting, of conquering, but of belonging. If I can't trust myself in this, she resolved, maybe I can trust Gabrielle.
That thought helped to soothe her, and after a long while of staring into the fire, cuddling the horse and sipping on a wineskin she had dug out of their saddlebags, Xena managed to shake off the anguish, and now she felt tired, and just wanted to go to sleep ...beside Gabrielle, she admitted to herself with a wry smile. She checked the fire again for safety and, satisfied, proceeded to lie down beside the woman she wanted to be close to.
Gabrielle still clutched Xena's sleeping furs to herself, and Xena debated with herself for a short moment if she should take them from her or not. She decided on doing it, partly because she really was cold, and partly because somehow, something inside of her hoped, like a little girl, that Gabrielle would wake up, and she wouldn't be alone anymore. She tugged at the fur gently, and was rewarded with Gabrielle making a mewling noise, and opening one green eye to gaze at her sleepily. "Whaisit? she mumbled, her expression confused at the interruption.
Xena almost regretted her selfishness. Gabrielle really needed her sleep. "I need my furs back, she whispered. "Go back to sleep. She pulled out the furs from under Gabrielle's grip and wrapped herself into them, settling down on her side. When she met the eyes of her friend again, they were more alert. "Are you ok? the bard asked gently. "You don't look so good.
"I'm better now, Xena assured her. "Don't worry.
"Was it something I said?
"No, no. You're fine. Xena covered the younger woman's hand with her own. "Just go back to sleep. I'm sorry I woke you.
Unexpectedly, Gabrielle pulled Xena's hand close to her, scooting a little closer and clutching her arm against her warm chest. "I'm not, she said, letting her other hand travel idly up and down Xena's upper arm. "It makes me feel protected all over again.
Me, too. Xena's eyes drank in the sight of her friend, memorizing the gentle expression in her eyes, and felt how that expression covered her pain with a healing layer. Worth it? Oh, yes. All over again. For this feeling, all over again. With a glint in her eyes, Xena caught the traveling hand and, wrapping her own arm around Gabrielle's fur covered midsection, helped it slide up until it was wrapped around her neck. "That, too? she asked, light teasing in her voice, referring to their shared closeness.
"Hmm, yeah... Gabrielle sighed contentedly. "Even more. She smiled at Xena. "I love you."
The words slid down Xena's hearing like an ointment meant to go directly to her heart.
"I love you, too, she whispered, voice thick with emotion.
Probing eyes searched her face, but found nothing but dedication there, much like the expression Xena had worn back in the armory. Gabrielle nodded lightly, and kept watching Xena's expressive face, until the warrior closed her eyes, content to feel the bard close to her.
You saw me. And I hurt you. Like I do with everybody. And still you are here. And telling me you love me. Gabrielle. There is nothing I wouldn't do for you. Nothing.
For Gabrielle, waking up in the morning meant taking in all kind of impressions one by one. Her eyes still closed, she basked in the warmth of the fur wrapped around her, smelling faintly like leather and warrior. Her face was bathed in wonderfully warm sun rays, telling her that it must be mid-morning. Her ears strained for any sound that would tell her that Xena was present. When they came up with nothing, Gabrielle allowed her eyes to open.
An empty camp greeted her. The camp fire was crackling away, bearing a pot with a bubbly liquid. Water, most likely. Another sweep revealed Argo grazing nearby, all tacked up. That indicated that Xena planned on leaving camp soon.
Xena's absence didn't worry Gabrielle. Even absent, her protective presence hung over the camp and shielded the bard from worries about outside influences. She would never leave me unprotected. The thought produced a smile on Gabrielle's face.
Never? a small voice in the back of her mind commented ironically.
Oh, shut up, the bard thought back at it. Not if she can help it. Besides, I should be able to think for myself every now and then.
Another morning habit, cleverly disguised as drowsiness, was to take mental inventory on her state. Gabrielle wiggled her toes. Working, she checked. Next were her ankles. The sprained ligament still hurt, but the bandage supported it nicely. Knees and legs appeared to be working properly. I'm hungry, the inventory brought up next. What else is new? Preparing for the pain, Gabrielle carefully rolled first her healthy, then her injured shoulder. It hurt. Plain as that. Xena's poultice had helped extracting harmful substances, at the same time numbing the area and encouraging healing. Still, the punctured muscles complained with pain over their ruptured state. Gabrielle sighed.
The sound of footsteps distracted her from her musings, and she lifted her head to see Xena come into camp, appearing between some shielding shrubbery. She was clad in a fresh shift that clung to her wet body in a most enticing way, with her long locks trailing a dark path along her back. Gabrielle raised both eyebrows at the resulting flutter in her stomach. Hello? she thought, surprised. What's that?
The warrior looked magnificent, she admitted to herself. Tall, strong and incredibly beautiful, with her breasts and hips clearly outlined by the thin fabric. Gabrielle caught her eyes resting on said places, and she resisted the urge to lick her lips. Must be the herbs Xena is giving me, she mused. Why else should I feel so hot all of a sudden?
"Good morning, sleepyhead." Xena's good-natured greeting woke her out of her musings. "Slept well?"
Gabrielle's first attempt at a reply was swallowed by an undignified croak that made her blush.
Xena came closer, rubbing her hair with a dry linen, and smiled at the younger woman. "What did you say?"
"Just great..." Getting a closer look at the warrior didn't help at all. Seen from down on her bedroll, Xena's legs appeared to be endless, honed muscles playing under tanned skin... All the bard's senses kicked into a higher gear, and she blurted, "What in Tartarus is in the tea you keep giving me?"
Xena was beside her in an instant, checking her temperature with a cool hand on a hot forehead. "You're hot, but not feverish," she commented. "Can you sit up?"
All my joints have turned into jelly, thank you very much. "I think so."
Assisted by the warrior, Gabrielle sat up slowly. "Ouch..." she commented. "My muscles feel so sore. It's like I trained flips all night."
"It's the residue from the poison," Xena explained, running a look over her injured friend. "How are your shoulder and ankle?"
"My ankle likes the bandage you put on it. And my shoulder feels as if it was run through by a poisoned arrow..."
Against her will, Xena had to chuckle at the woebegone expression on her partner's face. She pulled her closer, brushing a hand over her fair hair. "There, there," she said. "Should I kiss it to make it all better?" It was meant to cheer up her companion, but as soon as the words were out, she felt Gabrielle stiffen and retreat from her embrace. The ensuing look of scrutiny made her rack her brain for anything she could have done or said that warranted this reaction.
"You did yesterday, didn't you?" Gabrielle said, her eyes narrowing.
"Oh." Somehow, that was all the brilliant discourse Xena managed at that particular moment. Well, nothing like the truth. "Yes."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed, several emotions playing across her face in rapid succession. Xena watched her with fascination, not sure what to expect.
"Did I like it?"
Xena was close to laughing out loud. This situation accumulated a quality of the absurd with an astonishing speed. "As far as I can tell, yes, I would say you liked it." Remembering, a smile played on her lips. "A lot," she added.
Did it mean anything to you?! Gabrielle's mind shouted, while she stored away that information. Her memories were fuzzy past the point that Xena had administered her medicine, but an emotional memory residue was still present. Of being comforted and loved. Of being held and sung to. Of a moment where all pain had had to step aside to make space for the utter feeling of belonging, of being in the right place at the perfect time. Of two hearts beating as one.
"Don't you remember?"
Gabrielle raised her eyes to the worried face of her companion. Knowing Xena, she worried most likely about the fact that she may have taken advantage of her friend, of having read the signs wrong, of having betrayed her trust. "I'm beginning to," she said. "Everything's fuzzy past the point you gave me those herbs."
Xena chuckled self-consciously. Now she thinks I drugged her to take advantage of her? "No wonder you want to know what's in that tea." She raised an eyebrow. "It's purely medicinal - cleans the blood, helps you sleep, dulls the pain."
Enhances your beauty in my eyes. "Makes me susceptible to the advances of certain Warrior Princesses?" Gabrielle finished the warrior's thought, but she smiled while she was saying it. "If that's one of the side effects I certainly hope I'm the only one you're administering it to. One of the bard's hands found Xena's, covering it.
Xena's heart did a flip, ending up in her throat, where it kept beating double-time, rendering the warrior speechless for a moment.
Gabrielle watched her jaw drop. Didn't expect that, did you? For that matter, did I?
She felt that something elemental was happening here. It was as if rivers decided to find a new bed to run in, never to look back. How many times had the bard proclaimed her love for the warrior? Ten times? A hundred? And how often had it been in moments of extreme pain, when that proclamation was used as a last desperate resort to reach out to a warrior so detached, only her shell was walking beside the bard, essentially a stranger to her?
If they became more than best friends, family, would it be in an attempt to save something that was long gone? Or was it a path that had been obscured from their eyes so far and was only now detectable for them? Now that they had been cleansed and burnished by the fire of pain, leaving only their essence, naked to the world and to each other.
For one, breathtaking moment, Gabrielle saw both herself and the woman sitting before her with her inner eye, glowing from the inside out, their souls connected by a band so strong, breaking it would break either one of them, as well. She gasped, knowing a revelation when she saw one.
"I'm fine. The bard's eyes refocused on the dark woman's face. "I'm fine.
"Are you sure? Xena's brow furrowed as it only did when she was worried about Gabrielle's welfare.
"Yes. Sure. The bard smiled up at Xena from under her long bangs and watched the worried expression wash away. "Something occurred to me.
"What is it?
"There's only one way to find out.
"Find out what?
"If me... enjoying that kiss... had anything to do with the tea or not.
Xena blushed. "Oh, yeah?
Gabrielle enjoyed seeing the warrior flustered. "Seeing that I hurt again, I deduct the tea has done its work last night, and I will need a new dose this morning, right?
Xena mumbled something unintelligible about residue in the bloodstream.
"Still, it's as out of my system as it can get right now, isn't it?
Xena lifted a hand, then dropped it and just nodded.
"That means, if I kissed you now, we'd find out almost certainly if I would really enjoy that or not?
The warrior blanched. "I guess so, she said, weakly. She felt herself spun into the bard's reasoning like a hapless fly into a spider's web. Somehow, this situation reminded her of her early teenage years. Do I look good enough? What if she doesn't like me? I'll make a fool of myself...
"Are you nervous? Incredulity and amusement laced the bard's worried question.
Try mortal fear. "Just a minor case of performance anxiety, nothing major, the warrior appeased.
Gabrielle chuckled. "You got us into this, you know.
"I couldn't predict you wouldn't remember anything this morning. Xena mock pouted. "Besides, you were so worried last night... The cerulean eyes unfocused in memory. "I wanted to show you that I was there for you. It just... got out of hand a bit...
"It did? Gabrielle's curious face was suddenly very close.
"Yeah... Xena's train of thought got lost in clear green orbs.
"Was it anything like this? Gabrielle closed her eyes, leaning forward and letting her lips brush against the warrior's. The touch produced a pleasant shiver.
Xena smiled at her lovingly, cupping the bard's face with one hand. "Actually... the hand made its way sensuously to the back of Gabrielle's head, digging into the fair hair. "It evolved into something like this...
Again, soft lips met, then Xena's parted for the tip of her tongue, asking the bard for entrance. Gabrielle invited her in, her senses awash in a tide of sensations. The touch conjured up images of a greater intimacy, of sweating bodies sliding against each other. Gabrielle felt Xena's touch all the way to her groin, and with a whimper, she pressed her body against the warrior's, clinging to the damp shift on her back with one hand.
Panting, they parted, Xena grinning wildly. I looked good enough, she likes me, and I didn't make a fool of myself, she dismissed her earlier adolescent worries. "Are you ok? she addressed the slightly rumpled looking younger woman.
"Well, it wasn't the tea, Gabrielle deadpanned.
"No. The bard grinned up at her friend. "I guess I need to do some soul searching now.
"Over the kiss.
"Ah. Gabrielle looked just adorable in Xena's eyes as she sat there with that dreamy smile on her face. About time I did something right. "Can I... hold you while you do the soul searching or would that distract you? Her body ached for contact.
"You don't plan on influencing the thinking party, do you?
"Wouldn't dream of it. Xena produced a most innocent look complete with batting lashes and made the bard laugh.
"Actually... Gabrielle's nose twitched. "No offense, but I think I should take a bath first.
Xena laughed. "Alright. We can do that.
Xena met an inquiring gaze. "Well, you have to get to the stream somehow, don't you?
As it turned out, the way to the stream was quite rocky and required Gabrielle to be carried by Xena. They collected the necessary utensils, then Xena helped Gabrielle into her arms, both their eyes shiny, hearts racing.
Xena's heart was still on overdrive, and the feeling of warm, living bard in her arms felt entirely too good as she set out through the bushes she had come through earlier, climbing the rocky surface, before the small path dropped down again and gave them free sight of a small stream, pooling at that particular bend, into what looked very much like a large tub.
"It's not very warm, though, the warrior warned, but was careful to set the bard down at a point near to where the water was shallow and thus warmed by the sun.
Gabrielle sighed. "I don't care, as long as it's water... She spared a loving smile for the warrior before she started to untie her belt and dropped her skirt. She tugged at the laces of her top next, but then realized that she would need help to get out of it. The knot, holding the laces in place, was caked with blood and sweat. To open it in her condition was almost impossible. Besides, the garment was ruined anyway. And there was no way she could raise her arms to pull it over her head. Her shoulder wound would break open for sure.
"Xena... she asked tentatively, very aware of the warrior, hovering not far away.
"Hmm? the lazy answer came.
"I might need your knife... did you bring one with you by any chance?
"Sure did... Xena drawled, coming closer and eyeing the bard curiously. "What do you need it for?
Gabrielle pulled at the front of her top for an explanation. "I can't get out without tearing my shoulder.
"Ah... Xena reached into her cleavage and pulled out her breast dagger. "Let me help you... Her hand, including the dagger, was already on her way to Gabrielle's chest, when she caught Gabrielle's startled look. "Maybe not? she said, shrugging, a dancing devil in her eyes, and handed the dagger to her very uncomfortable looking friend, who took it with a relieved sigh. Xena went back to her spot behind her to sit down, her eyes never leaving the shapely back of her companion, who obviously succeeded in her struggle with dagger and top. Xena saw her pushing it off her right shoulder and then carefully sliding it off the other. Then the bard paused, obviously thinking. The warrior waited.
"Xena... the expected reaction came.
"Don't you have... anything else to do than sit there and... umm... watch me?
Xena's brows knitted at that question. They had shared many a bathtub or stream, with no problem whatsoever. So far. Now if this was foreshadowing the problems they'd have when things... changed between them, she didn't like it. But maybe all this took was a little time.
"Like - why don't you go fishing or something? Gabrielle suggested, trying to give her voice a cheerful note.
"You wanna get rid of me? Xena actually sounded a little insulted. "I thought I'd stay here and help you wash your hair. Besides, I have to make sure you're safe. You're not exactly in any shape to defend yourself, you know?
Gabrielle checked all the points Xena had raised in her head and they all came out as being valid ones. She sighed. "Ok... but she didn't sound convinced, and Xena noticed that.
"Do you want me to turn around? she offered.
Gabrielle blushed and just wanted to be swallowed by the earth. Right here and now. Why, oh why did this heighten her sense of modesty of all things? Things that had been perfectly normal to her now took on a new quality, and she had to get used to that, first. "Xena, I... But when she turned around, she saw that Xena was already sitting with her back to her. As quickly as was possible with her injuries, Gabrielle stripped off her undergarments and limped into the water.
Her teeth were chattering, but she threw herself bravely into the cold water and noticed with relief how good it felt that it carried her weight. "Oh gods, Xena, this feels wonderful!" she exclaimed, turning to her partner, who was watching her from the rock that Gabrielle had sat on only moments ago, grinning.
"What's so funny?
"Just enjoying the sight... the warrior said, pointing her to the fact that the water was very clear and easily to look through.
Gabrielle spared a look down, blushing slightly. "You're so bad, she chided.
"What am I always telling you? Xena laughed. "Do you want me to come in and wash your hair now?
Gabrielle felt her blush deepen. "You're going to get wet all over again, she warned, only to turn crimson when she caught the second meaning of what she had just said.
Xena's eyebrows did a little dance. "You want me to?
Gabrielle chose that moment to sink beneath the surface in embarrassment.
Xena chuckled and hopped off the rock. She wandered over to the pile of Gabrielle's fresh clothes and grabbed the soap before she launched herself into a lazy flip and landed safely on top of one of the large rocks that were scattered throughout the stream. Sitting down on it, she playfully dangled her feet in the water.
"Come on over! she called to the bard, who had appeared again and was kicking the water mere feet away from her.
The cold water had apparently helped her cool down a bit, and she had decided not to be embarrassed by anything Xena said anymore - well, at least she would try very hard not to.
"You truly are a woman of many skills, Xena, I'll give you that, she called out while she slowly worked her way over to the rock. When she looked up into the dark woman's face, a very pleased-with-herself grin was showing there. "And you can be so full of yourself, too... Gabrielle said, slapping the warrior's right knee, before she comfortably wrapped her arms around Xena's calves on either side of her and stretched her neck to give Xena access to her long hair. She heard the warrior wetting her hands in the stream and rubbing the soap to work up a lather between them, then felt her strong fingers applying it to her scalp. Gabrielle just leaned back and relaxed under her partner's capable fingers. Xena gave great massages...
The warrior watched Gabrielle with a smile. She carefully worked the lather into Gabrielle's fine, soft hair, enjoying the feeling and the closeness they shared.
Her thoughts went back to this morning, when whatever had made her panic last night was washed away by the sight and feel of Gabrielle wrapped in her arms. Xena had greeted the sun with an utter feeling of relief at the fact that they were still alive, but also with a triumphant grin, as the first rays of a newly awakened hope had broken their way through to the warrior's pained soul. There had been no way she could've held still, and so she had blessed Gabrielle's brow with a fleeting kiss before getting up and expressing her joy with a run through the still dewy grass... checking the perimeter in the interim, or so she was telling herself.
She had returned to the campsite not much later, starting a pot of water, and caring for Argo, getting her ready to travel as soon as Gabrielle woke up. Then, the urge to finally take a bath had been too great to ignore, and she had done just that, after making sure that their surroundings were still peaceful.
And now she was sitting here, with Gabrielle close to her, and every breath seemed to be a precious gift not to be wasted. Xena turned her face to the sun and let her rays tickle her skin. For the first time in a long while, Xena allowed herself to open up just a little to the sensations around her just to enjoy them, rather than for practical matters.
"Xena... Gabrielle's voice shook her out of her daydreaming, but not unpleasantly so.
"Hmm...? Xena practically purred back, playfully teasing Gabrielle's sides with her toes.
"He he... Gabrielle giggled, getting her revenge by reaching up and tickling Xena under her right knee.
"Yikes! Xena exclaimed. "What is it you want? I'll tell you everything, just stop tickling!
"Tell me everything, huh? Gabrielle turned around to look into her companion's face. "Hmm... let me think...
Xena's gaze was fastened to Gabrielle's twinkling eyes and mischievous smile, when her peripheral vision warned her that something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Xena's head snapped up, scanning the stream again. Yes, she had been right. "Gabrielle, get out of the water, she said, in a no-nonsense tone.
"But... why... what is it, Xena?
Xena nodded in the direction behind her. "There's blood in the water, Gabrielle. Let's get out of here.
...continued in Part 2
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