by Maderlin Bidmead
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Autolycus, Eve and the horsies belong to MCA/Universal Pictures. Just the little story is mine
Love/Sex: Two women in love, but nothing graphic. The following chapters will also contain an m/f relationship. This is not the main part of the fic, but it is essential to the plot. F/F loving will prevail.
Angst: Yep....Good God Yes!
Timeline: This is an alternative to the events following 'Looking Death in the Eye'
Comments: All feedback gratefully received: firstname.lastname@example.org
Staring sullenly into the depths of her mug, her eyes didn't see the pale, snowy-white milk. In her mind all was red; blood seeming to seep into everything. Long fingered hands closed convulsively on the cup between them, squeezing so hard that the metal bowed and would have splintered had it been wood. Once the sight of blood spilled in the heat of battle had filled her senses and fired her spirit. Now, the lingering memories of the past few days sickened her.
Three days ago she had hoped that she could reclaim some part of Gabrielle. Sure, Mesella was a totally different person but she was certain that sometimes, when the blond looked at her, her eyes softened in… recognition? Affection? Love… no, that would have been too much to even consider. All of her hopes had come crumbling down around her shoulders, falling into an abyss of desolation, as she watched the smaller warrior slaughter the enemy.
Tears slid down her face, unnoticed, as she sat in a secluded part of the royal gardens nursing her drink. So deeply consumed by her thoughts was she that she failed to notice the shower of pink hearts that materialised before her. Xena didn't even blink when a soft hand turned her face and began to wipe away the tears that clung like tiny crystals to her cheeks. So weary was she in both body and soul that she just allowed her body to fall into the other woman, head resting on a bare shoulder and let her body be wracked with silent sobs. All the while the goddess rubbed soothing circles over the linen covered back and made quiet shushing sounds.
Long minutes passed with the women giving and receiving comfort before the shuddering sobs died down. Stillness filled the clearing as the dark haired woman straightened up and pulled away from her friend, reaching up to wipe away the last remnants of her sorrow. Turning eyes that now looked dazzlingly blue against the redness caused by her tears, she met Aphrodite's gaze with a watery smile.
"We seem to be doing this a lot." It was meant to be light but instead sounded strained.
"Yeah, but I don't mind, babe." The usually frothy blond was totally sincere.
"I do…" The warrior's voice was so soft that mortal ears would have missed it.
"What's the matter? I haven't seen you since you came back yesterday and now I find you sitting all alone in tears. What gives? Gab… I mean Mesella came back al…" the goddess didn't get the chance to finish her though as the heavily pregnant woman surged to her feet with the speed of a striking cobra.
"That's the problem!" The acid dripping from her words caused brown eyes to widen in shock. "I don't mean that I'm sorry she's still alive. I'm not sure what I mean! She just isn't her, at first I thought that she was still in there somewhere but after this, she just isn't."
"Xena, please come and sit down, tell me what happened while you were out saving the empire." The blond gently patted the ground beside her. Letting out a sad sigh the tall woman curled up on the ground, refusing to meet the other woman's eyes, as she began to speak in a defeated monotone.
"When we all rode out I was excited, I was about to go into battle beside my bard," her voice cracked on the last two words. "I was wrong about that, about a lot of things actually…
There had been a sober air to the procession that left the palace in stark contrast to their enthusiasm of earlier in the day. This really was a well disciplined group with a definite score to settle. Trying not to let her own personal vendetta against the men, who had, in their own way, taken her lover from her, Xena studied the small warrior at the head of the troops. It was something she had been doing with increasing regularity over the course of days since she had recognised the other woman.
Watching the captain of the guard was fascinating. Although she wore a uniform similar to that of her men here were some marked differences. Her carapace was of a much lighter material and would probably only supply limited protection from a blow. Her helmet was likewise more for decoration than protection. It was quite obvious to the watching blue eyes that the younger woman still liked to fight with as little restriction from clothes as was possible. The straps of her leather kilt barely hit her thigh and slid tantalisingly over skin, more than one causing Xena to loose her train of thought. It was the colour of her attire that confused the watching warrior the most, the white armour almost screamed out like a beacon to any who may be watching for their approach. On some level, perhaps that was the point, but the brunette couldn't help but wonder if t was some attempt to feel in some way innocent even as she sat as a warrior.
Minutes flowed into hours as they finally reached their destination. The watching rebels, easily spotted by Warrior Princess and Guard Captain as they endeavoured to hide away in the trees, had no idea that rather than launching an ambush, they were about to receive one. With an almost imperceptible hand motion Mesella told her men to ready themselves. To watching eyes it seemed as though they marched through the clearing in blissful ignorance. Again Xena found the training of the Royal Guard remarkable as she saw the relaxed posses of the men, waiting for the moment of truth.
Almost as though thinking it had made it happen the rebels launched themselves from the trees like a mass of hornets, screaming and buzzing around the mounted soldiers. Even ready for this, many men were dragged from their horses as bodies flew at them from the higher vantage of the trees. Time seemed to stop then, for a handful of heartbeats; fighter and foe locked eye to eye, before all Hades broke lose in a blur of sound and fury.
Xena found herself locked in combat with three young men, each wielding a brutal looking blade. Even pregnant as she was the men were no match for the still seated warrior who dispatched them in short order. She had fought this way many times while pregnant with Eve and found this little challenge. Once finished with her own opponents she began to throw herself into the fray, aiding those men who were flagging or facing too many rebels. For long minutes her mind was totally consumed by the fight when a sudden gleeful whoop filled the air and drew her attention. Spinning in the direction of the shout Xena almost lost her head to a passing blade, only shifting at the last moment. As sawn tendrils of jet hair drifted to the ground she watched the terrible spectacle unravel before her eyes.
There, surrounded by the bodies of ten or more of the enemy was Mesella. Not Gabrielle. Very certainly not Gabrielle. A smile of triumphant ecstasy was plastered across her blood smeared face. He helmet long discarded, hair dyed crimson and plastered to her head she fought. Xena had not seen her thrown from her horse and realised that the smaller woman had dismounted only be able to feel the blood of her enemies flow across her skin. She moved with fluid grace, tackling man after man, hacking and slashing with lethal precision. Hands filled with hair, skin and bone as they finished what her sword had begun.
Xena felt her stomach churn as she saw the look of pure malevolent joy etched on features that she had once described as eternally innocent. Quickly wheeling her horse around she hurried for the cover of the trees, all but unnoticed by the seething mass that all seemed focused on the red and white clad angel of death. Sliding bonelessly to the ground the brunette emptied the contents of her stomach onto the needle strewn ground, retching and crying so heavily that she wondered how she would rejoin the army for their proud ride home. They had won, there was no doubt. Composing herself, she soon heard silence fill the forest and staunchly remounted and rode into the glade once more.
"When I rejoined them she was sitting on her horse, helmet hanging from her belt. It looked comical there, the only white spot left on her body." Aphrodite had watched as the story had unfolded and seen the warrior's face become more and more ashen. "Gabrielle is gone!"
"Xena, I know it might seem that way but I think you're wrong. You've seen how she moves, how she treats her men… how she treats the children. I've seen bits of Gabrielle shine through and so have you." She chose her next words carefully, "She is a warrior now, not simply playing in your shadows. She leads these men and has to show them that she is their better, not their equal. You'd have done the same. Maybe she is darker now. Maybe she needs your help to lead her back to the light as she helped you?" Stroking the dark silk on the bowed head as she stood, Aphrodite departed in a shimmer of sparks, her parting words the only thing left in the air. "Watch her again, babe. Look with new eyes."
Looking down at the dark head nestled at her shoulder, Mesella felt like she could almost let herself relax. Almost. Carefully sliding her arm from beneath Lepida, she eased slowly out of the bed. As silent as the darkness outside the window, she slipped into her tunic and britches, strapping her short sword around her waist she was ready to leave. On light, stocking covered feet she padded back o the bed and gazed down at her bed-mate. Almost as though she could sense the scrutiny, the youthful face turned in her direction.
Letting out a gusty sigh, she studied the relaxed features. She wished that she could love this woman; wished that she could return the feeling that she felt from her with every touch. Lepida knew that she didn't feel the same and neither had ever voiced their feelings for fear of breaking the fragile thing that they held between them. Lepida gave her so much, held her and healed her after battle when her soul felt almost torn asunder. The part of her that revelled in the heat of battle was quickly quashed in the aftermath by the side of her that was sickened. The side of her that made her want to cry and scream at the atrocities that she had committed. With nobody but this gently youth could she let that side be released.
She thought of what she gave back and it wasn't enough. It could never be enough. She brought her presents, baubles that signified nothing; food that left a bitter taste. The one thing that she could give Lepida would take time but it would happen. One day she would give her the freedom to leave this place and live the life she chose. Holding that thought in her mind she placed a soft kiss on the sleeper's forehead and left the room, locking the door safely behind her. Pulling on the boots that she had clasped firmly in her hands the blonde strode purposefully down the corridor.
As purposeful footfalls receded Lepida turned towards the window and opened pain filled blue eyes. She stared out into the darkness as she wept for the woman who was never to be hers.
It was almost like a physical caress, the feeling of the eyes watching her. She had become used to the constant scrutiny, almost missed it when it was absent (as it had been for the last few days since returning from battle), yet there was something different. Casting her eyes quickly around the practice arena there was no sign of the brooding warrior. She had never hidden her observation before, always within sight as she watched; maybe, Mesella thought, my imagination is getting away from me.
"Vinicus, today we are going to work on a little something I like to call finesse… but for you I think we'll call it coordination and concentration." She didn't need to turn around to know that the boy was scratching his head in consternation.
Turning, she had to repress a smirk as she saw him struggling with the intricate buckles on the padded armour. As she approached him, batting his fumbling hands out of the way, and fixed his gear she contemplated the man before her. Young Vinicus held such promise. He was a powerhouse, all muscle and sinew. He wasn't stupid either, much as his usual demeanour seemed to challenge that, he just needed to be shown rather than told, information. Stepping back she saw that he had been studying her hands as she threaded buckles and tied laces, good.
"Vinicus, do you enjoy running messages like a pigeon?" He shook his head vigorously, unsure of this woman who so often chastised him. "Vinicus, you can speak to me here, it will actually help. You are going to be my apprentice… on to you I am going to pass on my skills."
"m… m… Me?" Voice rising several octaves above normal the youth could barely believe his ears.
"Yes you! I see a lot of raw talent in you Vinicus. I think you just need the right guidance. Even though I have caught you sleeping on the job before I don't think that you're a lazy young man… But I could be wrong?"
"No, Captain, you're right! I really do want to do well."
"Good." She tamped down a smile. "I expect you to practice at every opportunity. We will meet here each morning before dawn and spar. Now assume the first position." He moved into a very rough approximation of the formation pose that all soldier cadets were taught on the first day. This is going to take a while! Mesella set about moving his arms and legs into the right positions.
Watching from the window, hidden in shadow, Xena observed the pair on the practice field. She was taking Aphrodite's advice and trying to see, once again, the pieces of Gabrielle hidden in Mesella. The young Captain had been absent from the palace for two days after returning from the battle and when she had returned she seemed much as she had before. Where was the remorse, the sorrow? Granted she had not been close enough since o look into her eyes, but she was certain that these emotions were absent.
Even with her acute hearing she couldn't quite make out what the pair were saying to one another but Mesella's tone was patient and jovial. She moved with the youth and almost seemed to be attempting to give him a measure of her own confidence. Few other soldiers of her calibre would give their time and attention to such a bumbling young man. As she saw him fall down for the third time while attempting a relatively simple move, she could almost imagine that it was a very young Joxer down on the field. Mesella showed infinite patient to the young man, helping him up and repeating the move over and over. Not once did she raise her voice or lose her temper.
Maybe something was still there. Arranging herself more comfortably in her hiding place she settled in to watch the whole show, finding herself smiling at something other than Eve for the first time in days. Maybe there was hope.
Another window, a different day, a similar view. Sitting on a couch, drawn close to the window, Xena gazed out into the garden and watched Mesella scamper around the garden after Claudius and Eve. She was obviously pretending to be some mythical beast chasing the heroes. She let out a burst of laughter as she saw Eve bean the warrior with a well placed blow from her tiny wooden sword. Dramatically the blonde plopped down onto the floor in an exaggerated swoon and mimed the beast's death throes. The movement and craftily opened eye after her death took Xena's mind back to a time when she, the bard and a very young Tara had played a similar game in a deserted clearing, late one night.
Smiling dreamily at being able to see the bard so clearly today, in the antics below, the brunette rested her head on the padded ledge and allowed herself to totally relaxed. So deep in her revelry was she that she was startled by the calloused hand that covered hers, where it had been absently rubbing circles on her rounded belly. Forcing herself to relax, nowing that this was Ares, she turned her head to see his puzzled smile.
"Now, I've never been able to sneak up on you before! What're you looking at that's got you so far away?" involuntarily her eyes fell back to the garden and the new game that had started up, his gaze followed hers. "Ah, the kids… Or should I be worried about that warrior?" His tone was light, but looking into his eyes she could see a hint of… something.
"You have nothing to worry about." Even as she said it and pulled his face close to hers for a kiss, she felt her eyes travel back to the blonde and wasn't so sure herself.
TBC in Chapter 12
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