Xena and Gabrielle reminisce about old times as they travel to meet up with Hercules, little knowing how important those stories will become to both of them when an accident leaves Xena with no memory of her soulmate. Not only does Gabrielle have to contend with Xena’s loss of memory during the worst storm for years, but she has to cope with the feelings elicited within her when Xena and Hercules show themselves to be more than just friends. She must remind Xena of all that they are to each other, but time runs out when the two find themselves pulled into a war and slung into a jail cell to rot. Will Xena remember who her friend is before it’s too late?
This is a story depicting Xena and Gabrielle as partners, and there are adult scenes.
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“Rain’s getting worse,” Xena comments as we trudge along, the path deserted and turning muddy.
I agree with her. It isn’t cold - it rarely is in Greece - but the weather has been remarkably unsettled these last few days, and I’m glad we don’t have much further to travel.
Argo isn’t liking the rain either. A big drop lands square on her forehead and drips down into her eyes, making her toss her head about. Xena has taken to walking beside her, holding her reigns to keep her calm. If her coat and mane get too wet she’ll be miserable and uncooperative, and I can’t really say that I’d blame her.
“Let’s take a break,” Xena decides. She nods toward a cluster of drooping trees off to the side of the path, then leads Argo under the hanging leaves.
I follow them, ducking as I go. The pale green leaves on their slender branches almost brush the ground in places, making tents out of the larger trees. Underneath, we’re protected from the rain, and it feels a little warmer out of the breeze.
Xena tucks Argo’s reigns into her saddle so they don’t trail at her feet. “Go find something to eat, Girl.” She pats Argo’s side, and the mare goes off in search of some dry grass to nibble on.
It’s quiet here. We’ve been moving from town to town lately and I don’t feel I’ve had much time alone with Xena, time just to talk. We’re heading for a meeting with Hercules this evening, and even though I know we’re both excited to see our old friend it will mean it’s a while before it’s just the two of us again. There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about first.
“Yep?” She’s looking about her absently, trying to gauge how long the shower is likely to last.
I lean back against the smooth tree trunk, fingering the dark little swirls and knots as I try to look casual, as if this is just another conversation. “Xena... are we going to tell him?”
“Hmm?” It’s a long sound, and she still has her back to me. She fusses about with her armour, looking dissatisfied, then starts to unbuckle her breastplate. “Tell who what?” She shrugs off the brass, shaking off drips of rainwater.
I’ve got her attention now, and she hangs the damp leathers she’s removed over a tree limb to dry off before coming over to me in her brown linen underdress, waiting for me to go on.
“Are we going to tell him about us? About... us.” I reach for her hand, a little shyly, wanting to keep her attention, to tread softly. Xena and Hercules go way back.
The question gets Xena thinking, but she doesn’t seem vexed by the subject, and steps forward into a gentle cuddle, her arms resting lightly around my waist. “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
I tuck my chin up onto her shoulder, grateful that she’s bent down a bit so I can reach. “I know how close you two are. I understand if you want him to know.”
“It’s not about him,” Xena reasons. “It’s about you and me.” She probably hasn’t considered the question before: it’s not the kind of thing she’d ponder. I’m reasonably confident that what I’m hearing from her is genuine: Xena usually tells it how it is, it rarely occurs to her to do otherwise. When I don’t immediately answer - because I’m warmed by her comment - she continues. “Listen, Gabrielle -” She releases me to take my face in her hands, and I blush and smile at the attention and drop my eyes. “It doesn’t matter to me, either way. It matters to you: you decide.”
This is giving me no small measure of responsibility, and I’m privately both flattered and proud. Xena likes to be in control, and this is a big decision to hand over: I find myself none too certain of my own opinion on the matter.
I run my fingertips up and down the length of her bronzed arms as I think, returning to cup her hand at my cheek and press my lips against her palm. She’s right that it’s we two who matter most here. “Perhaps we should keep it between the two of us: for now. I feel that... that it’s private. Some things should be private between two people. Does that make sense?”
Xena gives me the smile that shows she understands me, and is with me. “Uh ha,” she says lightly, beginning to stroke back my hair so that I cuddle up against her again. “Either way, Gabrielle: it doesn’t change you and I.”
She tucks her face next to mine and kisses my cheek, gently teasing me into a looser hold until her dark cherry lips settle on my own. It’s soft and light at first, reassuring, but the two of us quickly fall into the groove we need most and our touches become more demanding. I press my back against the sturdy tree trunk and feel Xena’s body close in on mine, the contact hard and electric. The casual onlooker to our relationship would probably be surprised by how often we manage to do this, to find time and opportunity, out in the open. Not only at night in our bedrolls, but on beaches, under trees, or on soft grassy hillsides. Xena, as she often reminds me, has many skills.
As she kisses me, alternately squeezing me close to her and grazing her hands across the curves of my body, she finds a moment to hold my head against hers and whisper to me that she loves me. She never fails to say the words at some point, whether they be for gentle reassurance, or in joyous, triumphant release, or even - infrequently now - as a lifeline to cling onto when invisible beasts and demons from the old days sat at her shoulder, trying to tear her back to a life of anger and embittered isolation - ‘I love her now!’. Most often, though, it’s said gently, like this.
She unties the cords of my tunic and helps me to undress, knowing that wherever we are I like to be naked with her, I don’t like the tangle of clothes and boots. Xena, on the other hand, rarely undresses, unless of course it’s at night, or we’re in a lake or some such. She keeps her leathers on, although I’m not sure if it’s through habit, preference, or just the convenience of a quick exit if the need arises. I have no objections, either way. I nestle myself against the contrasting textures of soft skin, woven linen, and silky hair, always with her mouth on mine.
“Talk to me, Gabrielle,” she urges in a breathy voice, kissing softly at my neck. “I want to hear about... about the first time.” A grin spreading across her features, she gently sweeps my hair back out of her way. “Tell me...” Our hands clasp together over my heart.
Ah, our first time. It was beautiful to me, the first time Xena and I were together like this, and she knows I like to think about it as much as she does. “You took me for a meal...” My voice almost breaks on the word, so moved am I by the memory of that one simple act which was so alien to Xena. It wasn’t just that we had gone for a meal together: she had actually taken me, although in hindsight it’s difficult to explain the difference. She’d asked me where I wanted to sit, allowed me to order first, made sure I had the drink I wanted. She had been wholly attentive: it was the first time I was on the receiving end of Xena’s absolute focus, and I would defy anyone not to be utterly seduced by it. What Xena wants, Xena gets. She had offered me a sample of food from her plate when I expressed interest in it, holding the morsel out to me so my lips brushed her fingers when I took it: it was quite deliberate on her part, of course, and at the time I was undone by the new touch, besotted.
“The meal...” She prompts now, eagerly awaiting the rest of the story. She kisses down my body, sliding to her knees.
“And then we went for a walk. There was moonlight -” This last word is stolen away in a gasp as her tongue suddenly finds me. The sensation is exquisite and I think I only barely stay on my feet, widening my stance and pressing my bare toes into the soil. The walk had been along a cliff top overlooking a beach. The highlights in her hair had glowed in the moonlight as they do now in the dappled greenish light filtering through the tree leaves, and I caress the soft strands, tousling them and letting them fall through my fingers: it’s the only part of her I can reach, and I guide her head a little closer. “You... you said I was dear to you. You said I was...” My speech is punctuated by dry swallows - I can feel her inside me “... in your heart.” I brace myself against the tree, my head back against its solidity. “You held my hand.” It had been the first time she’d done such a thing - just shyly taken my fingers in hers - and I’d been thrilled by such a simple, gentle gesture, little knowing what else was to come.
I reach down now and find that her hand is coming up for mine. I grasp it, and we hold hands very much as we did that evening on the cliff, except that my grip is tighter now, and my knuckles blanche white. She’s giving me just what I want, and I feel I could melt into the tree, flesh and bone turned to molten lava. The only sensation that keeps me grounded is the tenseness of my thighs as the muscles there work to hold up my weight.
“Go on,” Xena urges smoothly, perhaps just to keep me with her. “Tell me, what else?” She glances up for a grin, and rubs her cheek fondly against my thigh.
It’s getting hard to concentrate on anything but the present. “You took me to our furs.” She’d lain them out side by side, overlapping, and the sight of them had been the thing to make me realise just what she intended. I clutch her hand desperately. “You told me you loved me. You kissed me.” The tension in me is enormous, and I pull up a leg, planting my foot against the trunk of the tree, opening myself to her, encouraging her closer, easing her deeper inside. “You were... so gentle...”
Finally it comes, in a rush of pounding blood, and I can relax and let the waves grip me and wash away, again and again in undulating rhythm, my free hand kneading into her hair and the other clutching her palm to my heart.
Dear Gods, it’s good to have her here.
When my legs loosen Xena is up and catching me, smiling as she fixes her arms comfortably around my waist, and pins me between herself and the tree. “And you,” she tells me as I recover, “were so beautiful. So young and so beautiful.”
She lowers her head to kiss my mouth, and I’m lost again, lost in her world of passion and love, my only anchor the hands I rest on her shoulders. “Xena -”
She eases her thigh between my legs, giving me an exquisite reminder of the pleasure of a few moments ago, and I grant her the deepest kiss possible, craving that most wonderful violation from her. My hands tense on her shoulders and a few final convulsions fly though me, little flutters, echoes of my release, and I cry out into her mouth, utterly undone by her.
Xena just laughs softly, as she usually does when she sees my reaction to her advances, and bundles me up tighter, holding my head to her shoulder. “You’re a good girl.” Her voice is deep and thick and loaded. It’s a tone which tells me in no uncertain terms that I’m hers and am going to stay that way. There’s the tiniest edge of a playful threat there too, a promise of reward for obedience and a warning of the consequences if I dare stray from her. It’s a familiar game, but I don’t dare think of it now or we may never leave this sleepy grove...
She snuggles against me then turns her head to capture my lips again. My mind a bit clearer, thanks to a moment resting my weight on her, I actually taste her lips this time and notice the salt there, the muskiness over ruby flesh that still burns with the heat of our contact. I’m stunned by it, having never tasted before what I know to be my own scent. She must understand my reaction, because she pulls back to watch me. I’m delighted and incredulous that even after all the times we’ve shared like this, there is still more to discover. My eyes must communicate this when I look up to her, because she smiles and grazes her fingertips across my lips. When a finger slips inside my mouth, without my invitation, I again taste myself, and the insistent pulling in my belly starts up anew as if it had never been satiated. “Xena...”
“Hmm?” She knows damn well what I want, but feigns disinterest, her head going down to kiss beautifully at my chest.
“I’m not done,” I beg her, “touch me again, please touch me...”
She grins knowingly. “Just like you weren’t done that first night. I never thought I was gonna get away from you. Didn’t get a damn wink of sleep...” She laughs and touches her nose fondly against mine before sliding her hands along my arms and lifting them above my head, pinning my wrists gently to the tree. I enjoy the stretch, the way it pulls softly at every muscle, but soon let my hands fall to caress her hair as she presses against me for a kiss. A hand trails downwards and onto her breast, squeezing over the material of her shift, wishing that it were gone and I could press against her naked body, anticipating when I’ll be able to do so, perhaps in our next hot tub, or tonight in bed. “You behave yourself,” Xena tells me, and gently lifts my hand away. “You haven’t finished your story.”
I’m frustrated at being parted from her, but I know full well how much she likes me to touch her, and it’ll only be a matter of time: then it’ll be all the sweeter for both of us, and that’s her intention. So I let my hands cover my own chest, playing at modesty, forcing her fingertips to stroke at my wrists instead with only tantalising brushes of the flesh beneath. “I told you I didn’t know very much,” I go on at her request. At the time I had been apologetic about my lack of experience, but it had only seemed to please Xena more and she treated me with even greater tenderness. “You said... you’d teach me all you knew.” I grunt as she slides a hand none too gently down over my belly and through the curls below, rubbing me wonderfully before going inside me. It’s deep and insistent and far more forceful than her tongue and I respond immediately, pushing against her and panting for breath, my muscles pulsing and drawing her ever deeper until I feel the complete satisfaction of having her right at my core, and I’m vocal in making sure she knows it. “Don’t stop -” It’s a desperate pant, because it’s almost over, but Xena takes me quite seriously and goes on giving me pleasure until I sag completely and gently ease her hand away.
She straightens and holds me, occasionally kissing my hair or stroking it back from my sweaty face. “Better?” She asks at length.
I have to swallow before I can speak. “Better.”
“Found myself an attentive student, didn’t I.”
I laugh, releasing the tension, and rub my cheek on her shoulder in an affirmative nod. It’s nice to have time together like this. We hold each other for a while, until I seem able to take my weight again, then I reluctantly pull away from the tree and Xena makes a show of taking my hand to lead me to a log where I can sit. She quickly grabs a blanket to put around me, then sits beside me to straighten the clothes we discarded in such a hurry. As she returns my clothes to me I touch at her face, my hand trailing down to lay against her heart. “Do you want to?”
But she shakes her head. “Nah.” She lifts my hand to her lips and kisses it. “Save it. Later.” A quick peck on my lips gives me all the reassurance I need: it won’t be long.
“We’re meeting Hercules tonight,” I remind her as I dress, “we won’t be alone.”
She’s gone over to check her leathers. Finding them dry but her shift still a little damp, she searches in our bags for a replacement. “Don’t you worry about that.” It’s a promise straight from the Devil - as I’ve said, what Xena wants, Xena gets.
Dressed now, I get up, my legs still a bit shaky. The rain seems to be holding off now, and we need to get going if we’re going to meet our friend before it’s dark. I glance over to the horse, whose rear I can just see off under another tree, but my eyes have to pass Xena, who has pulled off her shift and is turning its replacement other right way around. Her back is to me, and it’s long and lean and beautiful, with her hair hanging down in a gentle curve. I go to her - not entirely of my own volition - and trace a finger down the line of her spine. “I love you. I want to show you.”
Xena chuckles as she turns to enfold me in a bronzed arm. “I love you.” Another kiss, as if we hadn’t shared enough already today. “And don’t worry: you’re not getting away from me that easy.” She takes my hand and places it at her chest, teasing me gently but also reminding me that what she has is mine and her earlier rebuffal was only part of a game. “Don’t think I don’t want you.”
Although her words, along with the brush of her soft curves against my hand, fill me with expectation that I have to force myself to suppress, I’m warmed by the sentiment. “All right.” A final squeeze, then I let go. “I’ll go get Argo.”
“Uh ha.” She lets me go until I’m a few paces away from her, then calls me. “Gabrielle?”
I turn back.
“Be patient.” It’s a cheeky promise and I shoot her back a warning look before heading off toward Argo.
The poor horse has to tolerate both of us on her back for the rest of the journey, as we’re in unspoken agreement to stay close for a while longer. Neither of us say anything for the remainder of the journey - able to communicate all we need with my head resting on her back and her hand patting mine as it lies on her stomach. At one point I do reach down into the saddle bags and find some dried fruit to nibble on, my energy reserves depleted by our little diversion, and Xena glances back and rolls her eyes.
A light wind has gotten up but it seems to be keeping the rain clouds at bay for now, and we stay dry until we arrive in the glade where we arranged to meet Hercules. Once there I jump down and go off scouting while Xena swings down more gracefully and loosens Argo’s tackle. Very soon Hercules comes striding out from between the trees, and I happily go to him for a hug. “Hercules!”
“Hey,” he squeezes me like a great bear. “I was beginning to wonder if you two were ever going to show up!”
He gives me his usual broad grin, and I have to tuck my chin back against his shoulder to avoid his eyes as I reply. “Sorry, we got caught up.”
“Oh yeah?” He releases me gently and turns to Xena. “Any trouble?”
“No no,” Xena insists a little too quickly, her smile a little too eager, and I struggle not to laugh. “Argo just threw a shoe.” I glance at the horse and she looks levelly back at me, not best impressed by this.
“Well, it’s good to see you.” Hercules has to pull his eyes from Xena to glance down at me and give me another little squeeze. “Both of you.”
I humour him, knowing the love he and Xena have for each other, and give him a pat as permission to release me and go to her. I back off a bit, under the pretence of tending to Argo, to allow them a moment. I’m so pleased that Xena has a good friend like him, it’s important after so many years alone that she should feel loved.
Hercules goes to her, looking her up and down and nodding in brotherly approval at her lack of bruises and scrapes: she’s probably more healthy now than she’s ever been, and, thanks to my fondness for food, perhaps a little fleshier too. Out of the corner of my eye I see Xena shake her head in amused despair at herself then move to embrace him, her arms tight around his neck. “It’s good to see you too,” she tells him with no small amount of feeling. “I’ve missed you, Hercules.” I know the trust Hercules placed in Xena when they first met, the risk he took for her. He had faith in her when she had nothing else, and she loves him dearly for that. There are very few people she will embrace as openly and enthusiastically as she does our old friend. It’s good to see her happy.
“There’s a big storm out to the North,” Hercules tells us, his hand on Xena’s shoulder as they come over to us. “We should start out early in the morning if we’re going to miss the worst of it.”
Xena nods. “Sure. Got time to eat before an early night, though, right?” With a grin she goes to fetch the few goodies we picked up on the way. Hercules has caught a rabbit, and as night falls we quickly organise a fire and a comfortable little campsite. We eat well and chat and laugh. Xena talks more freely than in a long time and looks carefree and youthful. I regard her half in wonder, as firelight dances over her and she chats to us, making us laugh, and love her enormously. It’s good to see her able to relax.
Later than is probably advisable for an early start we turn in. It’s turned fairly cold, but I’m warm enough with our furs and blankets close to the fire. Hercules chooses to sleep a little way away over by the perimeter to keep a lookout to the East: he tells us that he’s tough and doesn’t need to be curled by the fire as we do, which earns him a deadly look from Xena and makes me laugh.
I should be tired, after the journey and... the events of the afternoon... but surprisingly I can’t get comfortable and can’t drop off. Maybe my mind is too active. Ground is hard when you lie on it. I mean, sure, a blanket helps a little, cuts down on the damp rising up into your bones, but rocks are still rocks. I fidget around until I can fit my body into the soft muddy bits between the stones and bits of twig.
Predictably, Xena takes no notice of me and looks peaceful. She never seems to suffer as I do. But then, she’s had longer to get used to sleeping outside, I suppose. Looking over to my right I see that she’s sleeping, a blanket pulled up to her shoulders. Lucky her. It’s dark tonight, with hardly any stars up in an inky sky, but the fire still holds some heat and its reddish glow means that I can see a short distance around me, and can clearly see Xena’s slow breathing. Some nights we lie awake and look at the stars together, when there are any. We draw images in them, speculate which one is closest, talk about them, talk about anything. The two of us never manage to spot the same image, no matter how close we position our heads on the fur, no matter if Xena puts her arm around my shoulders to pull me closer to her line of vision, I can never make out what she sees, and vice versa.
Never mind. I’m just glad to be able to see her tonight, I like to be able to open my eyes and know she’s beside me. I’d like it even more if I could just get comfortable! Curse whichever God created rocks. I heave onto my side, pulling away half of Xena’s blanket and making her grunt unconsciously. I tuck my legs up to conserve heat and press my toes against Xena’s calf. She’s always warm all over, it seems, and I’m usually chilled, but maybe that’s because she has the sense to wear her boots in bed and I don’t. It still doesn’t seem right to me to wear your boots to bed, even if that bed is a rug on the ground. Xena hasn’t changed out of her leathers, either - I can see the red ember-glow from the fire flickering over the polished surface. Still conditioned by my years at home on the farm, I always change out of my day clothes and sleep in a shift, a powder blue one I found at a market near Athens. But then, Xena does get up most nights, to prowl around or do drills or think, and I absolutely do not.
I did have the good sense to cover up with my second blanket, so the elements are tolerable, but of course that means I have no pillow, and the rocks under my head are worse than the rocks under my ribs. I squirm and turn back, completely knotting both blankets around me, and rest my head on Xena’s shoulder, which is immeasurably softer than the ground. I feel her give a little sigh and shift a bit: I haven’t disturbed her enough to wake her, just enough for her to automatically move her arm around me and curl her fingers into my hair.
Now that’s better. Now I can sleep. It’s safe at Xena’s side. It’s funny, I think to myself, how I’ve always associated Xena with safety, given her lifestyle - especially at the start, when she came tearing into my village snarling and wielding her sword. I know I felt more comfortable around her than she did with me for a long time: I’m not sure now if that was down to my perceptiveness or just plain foolishness and naiveté. I know I made Xena ill at ease. She didn’t know how to react to people back then, let alone someone as talkative and gushing as I was. I scared her far more than she scared me, that’s for sure, and even when she’d gotten used to me she didn’t know what to make of me. It’s taken a long time for us to get here, where she’ll let me sleep with my arm draped across her and my cold feet kneading into her calves like cats paws.
Back then Xena always gave the impression that she didn’t like to be touched, so I avoided any unnecessary contact in respect of that. But some nights, when we were out on the road together, I’d see her rubbing her arms or petting Argo or brushing her hair when it was already smooth, and figured that sometimes she needed to be touched just like everyone else. I remember one day there was a bad fight and good people had died, despite our best efforts. In the evening Xena had sat by the fire massaging the tension out of her arms, saying nothing but gazing out into the forest, her soothing motion continuing even when her task must have been done. I’d stood behind her for a long time, not knowing how to help, or what one could possibly say to ease the pain of wasted life. In the end I reached to touch her hair, to pull away a stray twig that had landed there. She’d shaken her head, twisting away: ‘not now, Gabrielle, huh?’ But I’d seen her eyes, and all the pain there that was suddenly so unguarded, and she didn’t protest when I tried again, smoothing down her hair and finally putting my arms around her. She would have denied it the next morning, but she held me as tightly as I held her.
I had completely misunderstood her - she never again prickled at my touch - just as almost everyone else misunderstood her. People were afraid of her when they had no cause to be. Xena is no threat to anyone unless they do something to harm another. Or to harm me. I’m never sure what frightens me more: the danger that I have to face out there, or the way Xena reacts to it. Early on she would protect me dutifully but without much emotion. Now when I’m in danger she seems less in control, less confident. She told me once that if anything ever happened to me she thought she might be driven back into being the way she was, to the time we both euphemistically refer to as her ‘past’. I made her promise that no matter what, she’d go on fighting for good. I will not have a reign of terror as my epitaph. Xena did promise me, and indeed has never broken a promise she has made me, but I can’t help but wonder what she would do if anything bad did happen. And that does frighten me.
So much for sleeping. Dark thoughts have crept in - unhelpful, futile thoughts - and I push them away and take a deep breath, concentrating on what we have now and how precious it is. I’m not as comfortable as I thought, like this, and heave up onto my elbow. The blanket is tucked underneath me and is restricting my clumsy movement, and I have to wrench at it to get it free, accidentally nudging Xena in the ribs not once but twice before I get myself sorted. She’s looking away from me, her head turned toward the forest so that if she hears anything she’ll only have to open her eyes to see what’s going on. She’s completely uncovered now, thanks to me, and she snuffles, waking.
Propped up as I am I wait, watching her, ready to apologise profusely. Firelight dances over her hair, highlighting the chestnut brown there. Xena’s hair is sleek and straight when she takes care to wash it, but she’s singularly unconcerned with her appearance, and if she’s fighting or working her hair gets curly and dry and sits around her shoulders like a mane. When she doesn’t stir, I gingerly gather up the blanket and settle it back over her. The smallest sound out in the trees will bring her fully alert, but she pays no attention to my endless fidgeting: she’s grown too used to it. It makes me smile to remember how it used to irritate her, my turning and snoring. She would sit up, exasperated, and exclaim that I was stopping her from getting any sleep at all, and I would just lie and laugh at her. She later told me that I had been brave to laugh, brave to tease her as I did, but by then I had her figured out and knew how far I could push her and how she would respond. Of course, later, after our first time together, there were lots of nights when neither of us got much sleep, but it wasn’t due to my snoring.
I mustn’t think about that: there’s no way I’ll sleep thinking about that.
I settle back with my head on her chest. I lie and listen to her heartbeat, comforted by the familiar rhythm. Once, in Thessaly, I was very sick. I took an arrow, and got to the point where I was aware of nothing except pain and swimming blackness. Then, just at the moment where I was about to let go of even that, I heard her heartbeat. It was hammering and unsteady, and, very distantly, I could hear her crying and screaming at me. When I jerked back into myself, every tiny part of me throbbing and straining for air, she held my face against her chest and I focussed on that sound to the exclusion of all else, knowing that it was right that I could still hear it.
A lot changed after our time in Thessaly. From then on, Xena really saw me. She shared a little of herself, and took what I offered as a child takes a precious ornament it fears to drop. When she would hold me it was as if I were a fragile thing, a newborn pup or kitten, that could be crushed at the slightest pressure or would scamper off at the merest insult.
It’s no good, I can’t sleep thinking about her like this, it’s too much of a distraction. I heave up again and embrace her, both amused and despairing. “I love you.”
“I love you,” she replies lightly, “but I was trying to sleep.”
“Sorry.” I stroke hair back from her face, even though she hasn’t bothered to open her eyes. “How’d you know it was me? I could’ve been... a big hungry bear sitting on you.” I pretend to bat her with a paw.
“Been there, done that: bears weigh more.”
“Or... a Samurai Warrior, ready to strike.”
She finally opens her eyes to smile up at me. I’m sitting half on top of her, and she strokes a hand over my leg. “I know how you smell. And Samurai Warriors don’t smell like that.”
“Oh.” I think this is a compliment, from the sultry smile pulling at her lips. “Sorry I woke you. Didn’t mean to.”
“Hmph.” She shrugs dismissively.
I look down into her face a little longer, and she looks steadily back, blinking occasionally. I let my head drop and kiss her lips, before settling my temple against her shoulder.
“You know you’re squashing my lungs, don’t you,” she says into my hair.
I nod absently, focusing on the little swirls her fingertips are making on my thigh. “Sorry about that, too.”
“Couldn’t you sleep?” This very tenderly.
“Not really tired I guess,” I say honestly, and push myself up again, thinking it unfair to suffocate her in her own bedroll. I sit comfortably beside her, tucking the blanket about me.
“Well neither am I, now,” she scolds me, making me laugh. I smile down at her and we sit in companionable quiet for a bit, until Xena reaches to hold my hand. “Are you cold?” She pulls my fingers against her lips to kiss them.
I shrug. “A little I guess.” It’s night time and the weather isn’t good, so it’s not surprising that it’s a little chilly.
“I could warm you up,” she teases, and releases my hand to reach under my blanket and tickle at my middle.
I’m awfully ticklish and twist away involuntarily, laughing in both delight and horror. “Xena!” I scold her, “Hercules will hear us, stop it!” Even as I hiss at her I’m giggling and play-fighting with her hands. Miraculously she obeys me, and gestures with a finger for me to lean closer. I do so, planting my hands on either side of her head, and she whispers something into my ear. I recoil in shock and arousal and clamp my hand over her mouth. “Xena! What is wrong with you, stop!” This sets her giggling beneath me, and I know full well she only did it for devilment. “He’ll hear us!” I repeat, finding her muffled laughter utterly infectious. “Hush up. You’ll wake him, and then what?”
“I don’t care.” She still grins but her eyes have turned serious. “You’re beautiful to me. I want him to know. I want everyone to know.” She takes hold of me and pulls me down into her arms, holding me close to her where it’s warmer.
I’m surprised by this, but know that Xena doesn’t say things on the spur of the moment that she will later change her mind about, and am enormously proud. “You’re sure? You want to tell him?”
“Uh ha.” She kisses my head and settles again.
“When?” I ask, inexplicably excited. “Tomorrow?”
“If you like.”
I rest my cheek against her chest, gazing out to the dying fire as happy as can be. Xena is proud of us and she wants everyone to know what we share: there could be no greater accolade. I sigh contentedly, finding myself sleepier than I realised, and soon doze off held against her.
When we wake in the morning I see why Hercules was concerned about the storm - it’s noticeably more windy now, and cooler, and Argo is skittish. We grab a quick breakfast then the three of us set off. There’s a cave system that will be warm and dry while the worst of it passes, it’ll be far more comfortable than trying to ride out the wind and rain in a field. We plan to bunk down there for a few days and spend some quality time catching up.
The further we travel, the worse conditions become. We lose our good humour and trudge in single file, sodden and miserable. The wind is the worst part, blowing sand into Argo’s eyes and making her jumpy and difficult to reign in. Xena takes her nose, points her in the direction of the caves, and slaps her hide to send her off. Argo understands her mistress, I know, and goes off at a gallop to find shelter. The gusts are strong and force the three of us to bunch up and hug the edge of a grey cliff as we skirt our way along it. We’re almost there, Hercules tells me, so I keep my head down, following his boots in front of me, and keep going. I feel Xena close behind me, and we walk doggedly, with me dreaming about being someplace warmer. Maybe a tavern, with a plate of steaming meat and some ale, catching up on my scrolls.
“Gabrielle, look out!”
I feel Xena’s steely hands at my shoulders as she drags me down, the unexpected pressure making me lose my balance and stumble to my knees. She pushes me to my stomach before I can even get a glimpse of what’s going on, and I feel her hands tuck protectively over my head. An awful rumbling sound starts up all around, increasing in volume until it seems to crawl into my ears. I imagine that a thousand spiders have descended on us and are scuttling around our bodies, I can feel their stinging movement over my exposed arms and legs. I manage to peek out from behind both Xena’s arms and my own to see that it’s not creatures but rocks, little chippings of grey slate raining down on us. The wind must have disturbed the overhanging cliff and loosened the rubble. I can just make out Hercules up ahead, crouched with his arms shielding his head. Xena must have seen some warning tremor in the cliff and reacted more quickly than either of us.
A larger piece of rock strikes my arm and I yelp and recoil, trying to make myself smaller. I feel Xena hug me closer, her hands pulling my arms in underneath us then covering my head and face, trying to keep the grey dust from my eyes and throat. Blindly I clutch her wrist, hoping she’s okay. I can feel her head by mine, hear her breathing against my ear: she’s shielding my body with her own.
Very quickly the tumble of rocks ceases, the rumbling going quiet. The cliffs are sturdy - thankfully - and it was only a few surface lumps, shifted by the bad weather. Once the noise and pelting has let up, and I’m sure it’s safe, I open my eyes and peer along the dry ground to see Hercules pushing to his feet and dusting gravel from his hair.
“Phew!” Life is never short on adventure, is it?! Just when you think you’re in for a mundane day, you get caught in a rock avalanche. Rolling my eyes at the melodrama, I heave up, Xena’s weight still on me. “Having trouble breathing under here!” I tease her, and shrug her off me. Her hand flops to the ground beside me, and I see blood there. There’s barely a scratch on me: being on top Xena must have taken all those missiles, large and small. I feel suddenly guilty for my lack of gratitude, and get myself up. “Xena? Are you hurt? You’re okay?” I turn my attention to her, ready to dust her off and give her a hand up.
On the ground at my knees, she doesn’t move. Unconscious, she’s sprawled messily on her stomach, her cheek pressed to the gravel, hair splayed around her and grey with dust. Beside her lies a sizable lump of rock that has obviously struck her square on the back of the head, leaving a frightening line of blood working its way behind her ear and down her neck.
“Xena -” Panicked, I paw at her gently, trying to rouse her, trying to get any response at all. I stroke back her thick hair, finding her face waxy and lifeless. Hercules comes over and I look to him desperately, as if he will know exactly what to do. He tries to wake her too but she’ll have none of it, and lies deceptively calm, moving only to breathe, her lips slightly parted and dry from the dust. Blood pounds in my ears with fear and the wind blusters and whips hair and rain into my face.
“The cave is just up ahead!” Hercules shouts to me over the raging of the elements. “We have to go!”
He eases Xena up into his arms, wincing when her arm flops or her head lolls, and picks her up with apparently very little effort. I’ve never seen her this way. Her boots bump against his leg as he walks, but he takes big strides and holds her securely. Xena has carried me once or twice before - out of necessity rather than romance, and certainly not for fun - but even for her it’s an effort. I thank the Gods that Hercules is here: I’d never be able to move her by myself.
The caves aren’t far and it’s immediately quieter and warmer inside, with no rain or wind. Hercules finds a patch of sand and sets Xena down there where it will be soft. Trying to think clearly as Xena would, and not fall into blind panic, I note the trickle of water somewhere further back and am relieved that I’ll have fresh water to bathe her with and give to her when she wakes up. Argo must have gone on to a bigger cave, but if there’s surface water she’ll be all right until we can get to her.
Hercules is crouched by Xena’s side, studying her. “She must’ve taken quite a blow,” he observes gravely. Joining him, I have to agree: I’ve seen Xena take blows to the head in battle before, and she’ll go giddy and stagger, but I’ve never seen her pass out like this. “She probably just needs to sleep it off.” Hercules finds a smile for her and strokes a smudge of dirt from her jaw. “Don’t you?” He’s incredibly tender with her, and I’m glad she has someone else here who loves her as I do.
So I keep myself busy by cleansing Xena’s wounds, cushioning her head and keeping her warm with a blanket, but I don’t want to move her too much and I have no medicine to give her. I talk to her gently, as I remember being told to do as a child for someone who wouldn’t wake, and try to maintain contact, holding her hand or stroking her hair. Hercules stands gazing out of the mouth of the cave, watching the storm set in and most likely berating himself for not having done more to prevent this, but it was an accident and Xena did what she did willingly to protect me.
Finally, after what seems like way too long and just when a cold knot of fear is setting into my belly, Xena stretches a bit and sits up, groggy and pale. “Xena!” I exclaim, scooting back beside her. “Are you all right?” She turns her head in my direction, but is obviously disorientated, frowning deeply, so I put my arm around her and speak more gently. “Xena you knocked your head. Everything’s okay.” There’s a nasty purple bump on the back of her head, and she raises her hand to it. “Don’t touch -” I tenderly hold her hand in mine. “Can you say something? Xena?” I stroke her face, clearing away strands of hair. She looks utterly dazed, probably in pain, and I try to soothe her with my presence and my love. Is she really just concussed, I find myself wondering with a cold shiver, or was the knock so great that there’s been some greater damage? I’ve heard of people like that, with an injury to the brain that never healed, and they live out their lives unable to care for themselves, hardly knowing those around them. Please, the thought fires through me, please not that. Have I gone from having a lover to having a child? “It’s going to be all right, Xena,” I reassure her, “it’s okay.” I look up to Hercules, who has heard me talking and come striding over. “She’s awake -” I tell him pointlessly, and watch him crouch by her.
“Xena? Hey -” His voice is of course louder than mine, and the sound of it seems to startle her out of her daze.
She pulls her eyes up to him, cloudy a moment longer, then breaks into a very welcome grin and puts her arms around him. “Hey.”
“You’re okay?” He wants to know, as my heart eases back down from my throat into my chest, and we share a grin over her shoulder.
“Think so. What happened?” Xena scowls and holds her head.
“Rock slide. You took a bump. Think it’s knocked some sense into you?”
She laughs with him. “Maybe.” Xena scowls then, looking rather dismayed, and struggles up to her feet. She doesn’t look too steady and both Hercules and I go to catch her and tell her to sit back down, but she brushes us off and staggers to the mouth of the cave, only to hunch over and vomit. It’s a consequence of a blow to the head, I know, and will make her feel better. Before I can stand to go to her Hercules is behind her, gently holding her up and gathering back her hair. He treats her like a sister, he’s so kind to her.
Xena never makes a fuss or a scene, just gets on with what has to be done. She’s very rarely ill, and even when she is hurt she often doesn’t mention it, and it’s not until she undresses for bed that I realise she’s been going through the day with cracked ribs or a twisted ankle. Even when we met, and Xena was fairly new to life on the road and as liable to coughs and colds as I was, she didn’t complain. She was used to life at the head of an army, and hadn’t slept on a sheet on the ground since she was a teenager and on the run from Amphipolis. She was smart and wily, of course, and there was never any doubt that she was going to survive come what may, but for a while we were both constantly plagued by running noses and dry throats, until we adapted and toughened up. I remember one evening when Xena had a bad chest infection after having worked all day in the rain, and the coughing wouldn’t let up for long enough to let her sleep. From my bedroll I watched her throw back her blankets, drop down by the fire, and hold her head in her hand, unable to believe that anyone could feel so dire. I’d lain unmoving, uncertain what I should do. After a while, realising that she felt no better sitting than she did lying, she’d gone back to her fur and flopped down onto her stomach, an arm curled around her head. Feeling keenly for her, I asked if she was all right. ‘Don’t...’ she’d rasped between coughs, “don’t fuss. Don’t.” She had her face hidden in her arm and set to coughing violently, but there had been something in her tone, some kind of quiet surrender, that made me believe she was actually saying ‘Please, Gabrielle, fuss over me?’ I’d got up and gone to her impulsively, kneeling by her and taking a cool cloth to press against her temple. What I could see of her face was flushed and hot from the fever and the coughing, her veins standing proud of her skin, sweat beading on her forehead. I sat with her through the worst spasms as she all but coughed her lungs up. By the end of that she was exhausted and had no strength to push me away or even open her eyes. I don’t know at what point she fell asleep, but she let me ease her arm away from her face and bathe it properly, and when that was done all I could think to do was to lay a hand on her head and watch over her as she slept. The next morning, of course, she was up before I was and going about her tasks, and no more was ever said about the night, but I was sure it had earned me just a little more of her trust.
Now, as Xena loses whatever was in her stomach, I’m reminded of the first time I was really sick with her. I’d been trying desperately hard up til then not to show any form of weakness in front of her, for fear that she’d think me a poor travelling companion and send me back home. My stomach had been swirling with yet another bug I’d picked up, and by the end of a day trying to suppress it the urge overcame me and I dropped to my knees over a small stream by our camp. The water was fast moving and clear, and I can clearly recall seeing my reflection in it. I wasn’t a pretty sight. My skin had gone waxy, my hair darkened by sweat and clinging to my neck. Pressure rose up in my throat and I’d let my body strain and rid itself of something currently indigestible. I’ve never had a strong stomach.
That done with, I’d hunkered down and rested my forearms in the damp grass, my muscles having gone trembly and weak from the effort. I hoped beyond hope that Xena wouldn’t notice what I was doing, although that was unlikely considering how much noise I was making. To my dismay I saw dark boots appearing beside me. My Warrior companion had to wait for me to finish up with another bout before she could speak.
‘You eat something bad?’ she’d asked. The leather of her boots, I noticed, was scuffed and worn at the toes, brown cords criss-crossing tightly up her legs to hold the boots securely around her calves.
I’d stifled a cough, and spat, not daring to look up at her. ‘Must have.’ Most likely is was some kind of chill, as it was winter and eternally cold and damp. I wouldn’t consider confessing that I was finding life on the road tougher than I anticipated. ‘I’m fine.’ A warm shiver ran through me and more came: my nonchalance was not convincing.
Xena had shifted her weight, awkward. ‘Done?’
My belly was beginning to ache and my throat burned. ‘No,’ was the only honest answer I could give. I kept my eyes on my own reflection. I would have vastly preferred that Xena just go and leave me to it: I knew I had to prove myself to her, and losing my lunch in a stream wasn’t a smart way to go about it.
‘Well, look, just... take it easy, all right?’ She sounded as though she felt even less comfortable than I did. Blackness was fading in at the edge of my vision and it took me a moment to notice that she’d crouched down next to me. I’d nodded dutifully, making a lame attempt to hold back my lank hair. The feeling of pressure rising up in my throat wouldn’t pass, and my head had begun to pound. I retched a couple more times, but my stomach was dry and it just hurt. I was deeply embarrassed, and turned my head to tell Xena to go - go tend to the fire, go feed Argo, go sharpen her sword - just go. I shouldn’t have moved my head so quick, though, because the world kept spinning even when I was still.
A hand had grasped hold of my tunic and gripped the material hard, straightening me. ‘Hey -’ Xena had stared at me, so intensely that I couldn’t look away.
I’d swallowed. Even then I’d thought of Xena as incredibly beautiful, and she’d never been this close. ‘I just...’ Her eyes seemed to look right into me, and were so intensely blue that the sick feeling entirely went away.
‘Show me your face.’ Business-like, she had held my head in a roughened hand to study me. She dipped the other hand in the stream and wiped it over my face, briskly but not unkindly. ‘Clean you up, huh?’
I’d just nodded dumbly, thinking that anything Xena suggested must be a good idea. She had never really touched me before, or at least, only to drag me out of danger. She’d pulled me by my hair once, and I’d turned to her to storm that such behaviour was just not on with me, but there’d been a certain glimmer in her eyes, a gentle, fond amusement, perhaps even a timid appeal to play, and I hadn’t been able to reproach her in the least.
‘There, you right?’
‘Good.’ She’d gotten up, her job done, filling my vision once again with scraped knees and dark boots.
‘Uh ha.’ And she’d walked off, back to the fire, leaving me sitting gazing after her. In the years that followed she would have helped me up and stayed close by me, comforting and reassuring, but those were early days, and I didn’t underestimate the effort it had taken her.
I’m stirred out of my memories as Xena and Hercules return from the cave entrance. Hercules has an arm about Xena’s middle, but she gives him a bashful smile and waves him off, showing she’s all right.
“I’ll get you a waterskin,” he tells her, and she nods and sits heavily back on the fur.
“I feel like I’ve been clubbed by a centaur,” she complains to me with a wry smile, feeling at her head.
“You took a bit of a bump.” I’m so relieved that she’s okay, it’s difficult not to cry with the release of emotion.
“No kidding.” She gives up on the rubbing and drops her arm to her side, at last looking at me. “You’re a friend of Hercules? What’s your name?”
I laugh at her teasing and stroke her arm. “Xena.”
But Xena looks at me with frightening sobriety: she’s not joking.
“No -” I insist frantically, “it’s me, Gabrielle. It’s me, Xena, it’s...”
She doesn’t know who I am.
Xena doesn’t know who I am.
She gives a soft shrug, her brows drawn into a frown. “Sorry.”
The world draws back until I’m viewing it through a grey tunnel. The sounds in the cave seem muted and my vision is fuzzy. Xena doesn’t remember me? How can she not know who I am? She loves me, she’s my soulmate, in the name of the Gods: how can she not know who I am?
Hercules returns, having heard us, and talks to Xena while my throat is too constricted to speak. She knows him, all right, and is apparently far more comfortable in his company than mine. Hercules insists that Xena try to think, to remember my face, but she has no clue. “Hercules I’m telling you, I don’t know your friend. Maybe we met once before, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve met many of your friends, I’ve only known you since the start of the summer. Before that I...” she looks down sheepishly as if the pain is still fresh. “I wasn’t very sociable.”
Since the start of the summer? “Xena, you’ve known Hercules for years,” I remind her. “You’ve known me for years.”
But to Xena, she’s only just met him, only just started down her path of redemption. She’s lost three or four years somehow, and believes that we have never even met.
Hercules goes on cajoling her, sure that with the right jolt her memory will return as swift and sure as the swing of a sword. I know it’s not going to be that easy. I’m strangely calm, as I sit back and half listen to them. Or perhaps numb is a more accurate description. What do we have if she can’t remember any of our last few years together? Everything that matters to me seems to slide through my hands like sand through parted fingers, and I feel a crushing pain in my stomach worse even than when she was unconscious. Oh, Xena...
She’s soon back up on her feet, her injuries healing with characteristic speed. She is polite to me, and apologetic, but clearly feels more at ease with Hercules and favours his company to mine. It’s a relief when the weather clears enough for us to go out to find a meal: it’s agony being trapped in the cave with someone who doesn’t recognise me. Xena is happy to hunt out her frustrations, and lugs back a dear so big that Hercules and I struggle to suspend the thing over a fire. Apart from the odd awkward smile, Xena avoids me, looking instead to Hercules as if he were a God to her, a saviour. I know the respect she has for him, the gratitude, and it would be sweet to see if I weren’t privately hurting so keenly that she no longer looks at me in that way. Having handed her kill over to Hercules she admits to being weary, and I suggest they go back to the cave so she can rest: I could do with some time alone.
So I half-heartedly gather some berries and other vegetation to accompany the meat, all the time feeling lost and more lonely than ever. Please, I think earnestly, please let her remember me.
I sit heavily on a log with my booty for a while and just think, albeit rather incoherently, and end up repeating my plea like a mantra. Surely, I tell myself, surely she’ll remember soon. She couldn’t forget all that we have, as if it had never existed, could she?
I don’t know how long I sit there. Finally, when I’m numb with cold and the skies start to darken again, I wipe my eyes and head back for the cave. Along the damp path I’m extremely surprised to run into a lad, dishevelled and out of breath, who asks me if I know the whereabouts of Xena. When I admit that I do, the boy, who cannot be more than fourteen or fifteen summers old, tells me that his village is under attack from a neighbouring town, that his kin will be killed and their homes destroyed if no one will protect them: will Xena help?
Usually Xena and I would do all we can to help in a situation like this, but Xena is sick and I’m not sure if she’s up to going into a battle, no matter how straightforward it’s likely to be. Then again, maybe the familiarity of a fight will jog her memory? I reassure the boy that help is on the way, and send him back to his people, warning him to take care. If Xena isn’t up to the task, I’m sure Hercules will go.
I hurry back to the cave with determination, knowing the village is in urgent need. I round the corner of the cave, my cloth bag of berries still clutched in my hand, and the scene my eyes fall upon is so utterly incomprehensible to me that I stop where I am, deflated. I feel as if a cold, giant hand has closed about my chest and is squeezing all the life out of me. Surely my eyes misinterpret what they see? My heart shifts upwards and backwards, starting up an awful cold ache behind my ribcage. I feel sick.
Hercules lies with Xena in a bundle of furs, his arms about her, their bodies entwined. They’re covered by a blanket, but I see their movement, and hear Xena’s soft cries even though her face is hidden, and I know what they’re doing.
I know what they’re doing.
I stagger back, out of sight behind the rough rock wall which I lean heavily against. I am aghast, and drop the berries. How could they? How...? Xena is with me, my heart cries out, Xena loves me! To have been forgotten is bad enough, but to find her making love to another, when neither of us have done any such thing since we admitted our love for each other, is devastating. I never thought she would share herself with anyone but me ever again, I never dreamt this would happen. My world shatters. She’s my partner, I fume silently, she’s supposed to be mine!
I press myself hard against the craggy wall to steady myself, grateful for the sharp rocks digging into my back to keep me focussed. I’m light-headed and unable to think clearly. I take a deep breath and try to be sensible, to be rational, to fight back the burning behind my eyes. She doesn’t know, I tell myself: it isn’t her fault because she doesn’t know. No one ever told Hercules - although I remember with painful clarity our last conversation about the matter - so how could he be expected to know? You have no right to be angry with them, Gabrielle, they didn’t set out to hurt you, Hercules is just trying to comfort a friend. You have no right to be angry just because he’s in there sleeping with the woman that you’ve given your heart to.
Damn! Damn this to Hades!
I want to cry but I force myself to hold it together. There’s the village to think about, this isn’t the time to be selfish. Even though I have my hands clamped over my ears I can hear when they’re done, and only then do I dare look back into the cave. Hercules is buttoning his shirt, Xena is lying in the furs, flushed and contented. It’s nothing, I insist to myself, clamping my teeth into my bottom lip to stop it trembling. It doesn’t mean anything. She loves me.
I stride into the cave, determined to keep my head up. Hercules looks over to me, taking a mug from over the fire, and greets me casually. Xena groggily sits herself up, holding the blanket around her, and smiles politely. Do they not realise how obvious it is what they’ve been doing? I can even smell it in the warm, heavy air.
Hercules asks about my expedition, and I bite my tongue and instead tell him about the lad and his village. I curtly tell him that Xena is too sick to travel and he should go see to it. I just want him to leave. Xena says she’s physically recovered - evidently, I think - and isn’t happy about staying behind, but neither of us pay her any attention. I gather up all the manners I can stomach and wish Hercules well. We’ll meet up with him in a few days, I tell him. I’m like a child, forced by its parents to be polite to a friend who has stolen a favourite toy. I watch him go, and when I turn back to Xena I want to slap her. I am livid.
But I know it’s not her fault, so I bite my tongue, even as I have to watch her go wash herself clean of the scent of him. I’m civil to her: it’s the best I can manage right now. Even through my anger I feel guilty for behaving in such a way, because Xena is lost and alone in a new world, with a woman who claims to be her friend but who is cold and distant toward her. She must be feeling as confused and afraid as I am - more so, probably - and normally I’d be beside her, comforting, reassuring, but right now I can barely look at her, and she has to fend for herself.
The weather worsens again. We’re in for the long run. I do - grudgingly - hope that Hercules has made it to the town all right. A full day comes and goes with Xena and I barely speaking. She isn’t good at conversation at the best of times, and a cracking headache and the loss of several years of her life isn’t helping any. When she does make an attempt to talk I can only bring myself to grunt in reply. With the bad weather closed in around our cave, we can’t even escape each other’s company. Finally, in the evening while I’m broodily minding the supper, she confronts me.
“Gabrielle?” She says the word cautiously, as if she’s not even sure that it’s my name.
“Yes?” I don’t turn to face her. I barely restrain myself from answering with a blunt ‘what?’.
“I don’t understand. I thought we were supposed to be friends.”
I huff. “So did I.”
She presses on. “Hercules said that we’re good friends. Have I done something wrong?”
I turn, as she’s come to stand facing me with her hands spread in innocence. I’m completely livid, more angry and hurt than I can ever remember being. I decide it’s safest to avoid the issue. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Gabrielle, whatever it is, I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry I don’t remember you.”
“It’s not your fault that you don’t remember. So just forget about it, okay?” I snap at her, not meeting her eyes.
Xena never knows when to let it go. “Why are you so angry with me?”
“Angry?” If only she knew. Anger doesn’t even come close. Damn it, if she wants a bloody confrontation I’m going to give it to her. I square up my shoulders and face her. “Xena, I saw you sleeping with him. I saw you.”
Xena looks grave and nods, as if in complete understanding. “We should have been more discreet.”
More discreet?! “Oh, so you think everything would be all right if I just hadn’t seen?” I’m spoiling for a fight now, the atmosphere as stormy inside the cave as it is out. I’m blinded by the rage and fear and hurt of the last few days and would quite happily give her another concussion, given half the chance.
I’ve foxed her, and she gives her head a little shake. “Why is it a problem?” She puzzles over it for a moment, gazing at me, lost. “Do you love him?”
I can’t believe her insensitivity - I can’t believe any of this. “I love you!” I shout at her. “I’m in love with you!” Tears burn down my cheeks as I jab my finger at her. “We’re together, Xena, we always have been, and I come back to find you with him.” I don’t sob, or raise my voice greatly - I never do, really - I just stand and tremble with pain over all this. When she stands gawping at me, I rub at my face, trying to rid myself of the wet stickiness there. “You and I are together, Xena, how can you not know that?” Giving up, I walk away from her. I’m too upset to deal with her grief as well as my own. She wanted to know, and now she does. Good.
I go to sit on a rock by the fire. I want to put some distance between us, but with the weather as it is there’s nowhere to go.
Neither of us say anything for a moment, and I’m happy to let Xena stew in her own juices. Good if she feels guilty, good.
Eventually she comes over, and sits tentatively beside me, as if afraid that I’ll strike her. She really doesn’t know me, does she. She doesn’t even know how to comfort me at this, one of the worst times imaginable. “I’m sorry,” she says - with feeling, to give her credit.
Why would she be sorry? Why would she care about my feelings, she doesn’t know who I am. The thought moves me beyond anger into a far sadder place, and I feel tears coming again. I crumple into myself, hiding my face in my hands, trying not to despair. Xena watches helplessly for a bit, then looks regretful and eases an arm gently around me. “Sorry, okay?” She says far more quietly this time, giving me a soft squeeze. “I’ll try to remember. Don’t cry, huh?”
I just nod pathetically and sniff, my defences crumbling with this one small act of kindness and understanding from her that I probably don’t deserve. We sit in silence, but her arm around me is a comfort, even if she still looks rather bewildered. After a while I’m able to look up at her and smile apology and gratitude.
“Shall I pour the soup?” She offers, wanting to give us both a distraction, and I nod and agree that she should. As she kneels by the fire and dishes out our supper she talks conversationally to me. “What would we usually do, if we were stuck together like this? If it were a usual day, what would we do?”
I’m glad that she’s interested, and cock my head to one side to think, stirring the steaming green liquid she hands me in a wooden dish. “We’d talk.”
“Okay,” she says gamely, sitting back beside me, “let’s talk.”
She shrugs. “About us. How’d we get to know each other? Tell me some of the things you remember.”
I stir the stew a bit more, watching lumps of vegetable bob in the insipid liquid. It might help to tell her, I acquiesce. It might jog her memory. And it would certainly be nice for me to think about, right now. So I let my mind wander back to the safety and comfort of the past. There’s so much material to choose from. I steer away from momentous days, and think about regular, everyday events that let us get to know each other better. I smile at the happy memories, and she sees and watches me with patient interest.
I tell her about travelling together, league after league. Not the adventures, or the excitement, or even the love, but just about walking side by side, day after day. We walked a lot, I tell her, rode a little, and I would chat while she sometimes listened and sometimes didn’t. There had been lots of new people for me to meet, Xena’s friends and her enemies, those who welcomed us and those who feared us. Some days were full of excitement and danger, and I would watch in awe as Xena saved a village, defeated a warlord, outsmarted a God. Most of the time, though, we would just walk. Walk, hunt, make camp. Ride, eat, make camp. I knew how much I could learn from her, and I was content.
Even living outside hadn’t been too bad in during the summer months, and was scarcely more difficult than life on the farm. Xena had always found hunting easy, so even in the colder months food was in fair supply, basic but nutritious. With a little imagination I’d found berries or nuts for snacks, and herbs to make dressings for the ever abundant commodity of fish. Xena would always know at a glance if my offerings were poisonous or edible, so I was able to liven up our meals a little. Xena would shrug and eat whatever was put in front of her, garnished or not, so I figured she must approve.
Winter brought new hardships, though. With fewer people around I began to feel increasingly lonely. It was ironic, I used to think to myself, to spend all your time in another’s company and yet feel so alone. Coupled with the isolation was my consternation at being constantly cold and wet. We’d both gotten over our coughs and colds, but I was miserable with my clothes constantly wet and chilly. One night, I recall clearly, it rained particularly hard and I woke the next morning with damp hair and clothes that smelled musty. Having taken special care to pack my things carefully the day before, I pulled them out of my bag, eager to find a dry cloth for my hair and some replacement clothes, only to find that despite my best efforts the rain had still gotten in, and everything was thoroughly soaked, yet again.
It was just too much. I remember sitting down heavily on my blanket, pushing my hands through my hair then covering my face with them. My head was pounding from days of too little sleep. Through my fingers I could see the red light from the dancing fire, and it brought back an image of the hearth in the kitchen at home. I pictured myself sitting there, with warm feet and a sweet loaf in my lap, listening to my mother’s tuneful humming and trying to keep up with Lila’s animated chatting. And I suddenly felt incredibly homesick.
Icy wind gusted around me and tugged me out of my reverie. I had wanted so much to travel with Xena but I hadn’t reckoned on it being so hard. I pressed my fingers over my eyes as tears squeezed out, wishing I weren’t so alone and so desperately cold.
‘Hey.’ Big brown boots had appeared beside me. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Xena’s tone had been abrupt.
‘Nothing,’ I’d dismissed, wiping at my face and gazing down at the grubby tearstain streaks on my arms. I was as angry as I was upset: at myself, at Xena, at the cursed wind and rain.
There was a long pause, then Xena knelt, her knees on the edge of my blanket. ‘What are you crying for?’ It was the softest tone I had ever heard her use, and if I’d bothered to look up I would have seen the compassion in eyes that could be surprisingly emotive.
But I hadn’t looked up, and so didn’t check my words as I spoke, too frustrated and too hopeless. ‘I tried so hard to keep dry last night, but now everything’s soaked, all over again,’ I blurted, gesticulating with exaggerated chopping movements. ‘I’m trying, Xena, I really am, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do: it’s always wet - I even sleep in the wet - and I’m so cold!’ I rubbed hard at my aching head, pushing back lank hair and wiping disgustingly at a dripping nose, with Xena listening silently to me. ‘I must be... not cut out for this, or something, because I just feel ill all the time, I have one cold after another. Maybe I’d have a chance if the damn rain would stop for just one day, but it just keeps...’
I stopped when Xena got up wordlessly and walked away. I knew I should have bitten my tongue, shouldn’t have gone on at her. As I saw it, she was utterly fed up with me and didn’t want to know anymore. I only had myself to blame, and I was inconsolable.
Damn, I’d begun to cry to myself, damn, damn...
But as I watched, Xena went over to Argo, pulled one of her own blankets from a satchel, and returned to me. ‘You’re packing your things wrong if they’re always wet.’ Her tone was indulgent as she knelt back down and wrapped the thick patterned blanket around my shoulders. ‘Put something waterproof at the top, and put your clothes nearest Argo - her body heat will keep them warm and dry.’
Shocked into silence by Xena’s uncharacteristically gentle behaviour, I had simply pulled the blanket a little more snugly around me. It was dry, and even slightly warm, and it instantly stopped the draughts that had been biting at me. I wiped my face on it and watched Xena leaning forward to pour hot water from a pan on the fire into a mug.
‘I’m not surprised you’re sick if you don’t keep yourself warm,’ she continued. ‘And I know you’re trying hard, Gabrielle.’ She loosened a leather pouch at her belt, inserted her thumb and forefinger to pull out a pinch of crushed herb, and dropped the flakes into the steaming water. ‘Here, drink this. It’ll help your head.’ She handed me the mug.
‘Thanks...’ I’d taken it and cradled it between my hands, feeling the warmth seep into me. All my anger and tearfulness had gone, and all the awe and wonder I felt for Xena returned.
She poured herself a drink the sat down leisurely beside me. ‘The bad weather won’t go on forever. I think you’re doing just fine. I’m glad you’re here.” She smiled warmly at me in my speechlessness, and put an arm around me, squeezing me against her. I was incredulous.
And so from that day on, I tell Xena now, I approached life with new enthusiasm. Xena’s attention and affection was what I craved, and that one act of kindness showed me that my warrior friend did have feelings and did notice that I was around. She taught me how to keep my things dry, and it was surprisingly simple and effective when you knew how. No longer damp and demoralised, I caught fewer colds and felt better. Xena even let me lie in sometimes, or told me to have an afternoon nap: it was always under the pretence of something else, like having forgotten the time or needing to be alone to hunt, but I saw right through that to the thoughtfulness and kindness beneath. It took effort, but I kept talking to her, kept questioning her and trying to claim her attention. Sometimes days would pass with no reward, with Xena lost in her own dark thoughts, but occasionally there would be a smile, or even a laugh, or a request for a certain story to be repeated. At times like that Xena would sit and listen to me intently - as she does now - watching my face and visibly following every word, involving herself totally in what I was saying. I grew bold and even tried joking with her, very mildly, and if I chose my moment right she would accept this with good humour and give as good as she got, making me laugh in return.
“Getting to know you was very special,” I tell her now, quietly, unsure of how she’ll respond.
“And very hard work, by the sound of it,” Xena opines regretfully.
“It was worth it,” I reassure her, and pat her hand. I don’t know if she believes me.
The hours float past, each one indistinguishable from the last. It’s permanently rather dark thanks to the grey sky, and we both sleep intermittently out of boredom. Some indeterminate time later we decide to have another meal, but I’ve lost all track of the passing of the days and I’m not even quite sure if we’ve slept through the night or just part of the day. The rain goes on falling.
Xena mostly sits quietly, pretending to pick at her leathers or a piece of twig but surreptitiously studying me, no doubt willing herself to remember, to find some feature or expression or gesture in me that is familiar. When I catch her eye I smile sympathetically then look away, unable to forget the image of her with Hercules. And so this sad silence grows increasingly common the more time we spend at the centre of this storm.
When I’m exhausted from all the nothingness I sigh and sit myself down heavily on a rock beside her. Xena looks up to me from the pebble she is tossing and presses out an apologetic smile.
“How’s the horse?” She asks at length.
“Okay, I think.” Argo is in an adjacent cave, and every so often when the winds let up I go to check on her and give her water and some greens.
And then there is silence, again. It’s unbearable. “I wish I knew what I could do to make you remember,” I pipe up at last. “I miss you.” I can’t keep it bottled up any more, suspended inside of me.
Gazing approximately at her boots, she nods solemnly. “I know you do.”
Her kindness makes it worse, in a way, because it’s so familiar. I look up to her face. I know she feels for me, and is sharing my pain just as she always would. She tries another smile, a pained expression that’s meant to comfort me. There has to be some way to make her remember. I know the feelings are still there, all those memories hidden somewhere. She’s sitting by me, patient and understanding, and I find myself leaning closer to her, just needing to be with her.
Xena allows me this, my moment of weakness, and when I find my lips settling on hers she returns the kiss, warm and soft as the brush of a baby. She’s infinitely gentle and patient, and stays with me until I draw back, but the kiss is platonic only and goes no further. There’s no passion, and no recognition.
I turn away, both embarrassed and disappointed, and favour looking down at my hands. It was foolish of me to imagine that I could awaken my sleeping princess with a kiss. “Sorry,” I mumble.
Her hand settles on my shoulder, cool fingers brushing my cheek as tenderly as a soft breeze in the spring. “Don’t be sorry, Gabrielle.” She strokes me gently, as if wiping away tears that have not yet fallen. “I’m glad to see I’ve got such good taste.” I look up to her and she gives me another remorseful smile. “I wish I could remember you too.” She squeezes my shoulder consolingly.
I appreciate her kindness, and hope that my smile tells her so. I take in a deep breath and decide to fix a meal, thinking the distraction of physical activity will help, will keep my mind from the sadness and regret. So we cook together in silence, then sit on our furs and eat rice with our fingers. The image brings back another memory, and when I find myself chuckling she looks up and wants to know what’s so funny.
I had been recalling a simple meal we’d eaten in a tavern way back in the early days. Mealtimes had gradually grown more sociable, I tell her, and she listens carefully, ever keen to hear about a time she can’t remember. I tell her that this was around the time when she’d started to occasionally engage in my chatter, or share her food with me. I’d known I still needed to tread carefully, but I was starting to feel able to comment on what she did, to show interest in her actions and plans and motivations. Sometimes I got a response: sometimes I didn’t.
I had sat watching my friend tucking into her food, a hunk of bread in one hand and a chicken leg in the other. ‘Why don’t you ever use a knife and fork?’ I’d asked her boldly.
Xena had put down her food to turn her attention to her ale. ‘Aren’t you full of questions. I’m trying to eat.’
I returned my focus to my own plate, annoyed that I’d obviously chosen my moment poorly. ‘Sorry.’
After a long pause, Xena had commented, ‘Can’t eat bread and chicken with a fork, anyway.’
I never needed much encouragement to make conversation. ‘No,’ I agreed with her, ‘I just meant generally. Not with your bread.’
She humphed. ‘Why would I want to use a knife and fork?’ She took a big bite of crust and chewed it. ‘Hands do just fine.’
Her conversational tone had encouraged me, and I set down my own cutlery, always keen to chat. ‘Well, it’s more elegant. And it keeps your fingers clean.’
‘Isn’t that what you have sleeves for? To wipe your hands?’ She appeared to say this in all seriousness, and searched her chicken bone for any remaining meat.
‘Xena, you don’t have sleeves.’
‘Huh,’ she responded, tipping her head to one side and raising her eyebrows a bit. ‘Fair point.’
‘Anyway, you never know when you might need your table manners. You might have to dine with royalty or something one day, or sit at the table of the Gods, or impress your mother-in-law.’ Xena had laughed at this, shaking her head, no doubt convinced by then that I was always full of fanciful ideas and dreams. ‘I could teach you, if you like.’
‘I know how to hold a knife and fork, Gabrielle: I just chose not to.’ To prove this, she’d called over a server carrying slices of pie and taken one from him, then beckoned to me. ‘Here, gimme that -’ She took my knife and fork, arranged them somewhat laboriously in her hands, and set about cutting up and eating the pie. I watched her, thrilled that she was engaging with me and was willing to play. She did pretty well, too, until the crust proved too hard for the blunt knife and she resorted to gripping her tool in her fist like and wielding it like she was plunging a dagger into a man’s heart. When this caused jam to spurt out of the edges of the pie, she gave up entirely and took up the remaining hunk with her hand, but she’d made her point, and ordered me a slice of pie too as a celebration of her victory.
“Seeing you eat your rice had just reminded me, that’s all,” I tell her now, seeing her wipe stray grains from around her lips.
She seems to have enjoyed the story. “Spunky kid, huh?” She shakes her head somewhat remorsefully. “Back when I had my army no one ever dared to tease me. Sometimes I used to wish someone would.” She averts her eyes to the last of her meal. “Got lonely, sometimes.”
I know that to her those days weren’t so long ago. I put my arm gently around her shoulders. “I was lonely before I met you too, Xena. You don’t have to feel that way anymore: I’m here.”
She laughs a bit, despite herself, I think as a way of forcing back tears, and squeezes me close to her for a moment, pressing her head against mine. “Thanks.”
I just rest with my cheek close to hers, overwhelmed to have this one, happy moment that’s just like old times.
Those few seconds give me strength to carry on even as the weather worsens still and makes it cold and blusteringly windy even in the cave. The rain is coming down in sheets, but we move further back and it doesn’t reach us. More problematic is the swirling of the wind, which seems to be exacerbated by the shape of the cave. The gusting is so strong that it whips my hair into my face and slaps my clothes about me.
“Get down!” Xena orders me, shouting over the howling of the gale. “Keep low!” She grabs for me and we get down on the ground, our knees in the sand.
“It must be a hurricane!” I yell. “Or a tornado or something!”
“Nah,” she calls back, “just a strong wind, seen far worse at sea. It’ll pass, just keep your head down.”
I do duck down, but the wind yanks at my clothes and I feel unsteady. I try to find a root or a rock to cling to, but there’s nothing, it’s too dry in here for vegetation and the rocks are too large to get a good grip on. I instinctively reach for Xena, but as I do so there’s a particularly strong gust and I actually feel myself shifting in the sand. It’s only a hair’s breadth, but it’s enough to frighten me and convince me of the awesome power of the wind. “Xena!”
She grabs me and bundles me down, tucking me underneath her with her arms hugged around me. “I’ve got you!” With her weight on top of me we’re heavy enough to be safe. “It won’t last long,” she insists into my ear, “these winds never do, just hold onto me.”
Grit has blown into her eyes and she’s squinting and blinking, barely able to see. I reach up and tuck her head down into my shoulder, trying to protect her eyes.
We hold still in the deafening, roaring wind, clutching each other, and wait it out. It’s not even excessively cold, just completely paralysing. I feel Xena’s breathing and the heat of her cheek against mine, and try to keep her close.
She’s right, the winds don’t last long, and soon burn themselves out. When the sound of the spattering rain is louder than the drafty whistling, Xena lifts her face from the safety of my neck. I blink, tossing aside ravaged hair, and connect with her eyes. Her irises are bluer than ever in the fading light, her face framed by tangled brown hair. She licks her lips free of sand.
And then she kisses me.
It’s a proper kiss, not like the one before, and warmth floods into me. Her kiss is soft and innocent, but her lips are on mine long enough for me to recall all the glorious feelings she kindles in me. My hand comes up to caress her cheek, and ends up knotted in her hair, trying to hold her close. She indulges me with another little brush, a sweet aftertaste, then raises herself up to look at me.
“You... remember?” I dare to ask.
“No. Just... like you, that’s all.” She searches my face for the answers to her questions. “Like you now, Gabrielle.”
Can it really be happening again? Can she be falling in love with me all over again? Lying on my back, I gaze up at her and brush her face with my fingers. “You like me?”
“Uh ha.” She turns her head to press a kiss into my palm, then is up before I even see her move. “C’mon, get up. Storm’s over.” She grasps hold of me and pulls me up to my feet in a single strong move. Having set me on my feet, her interest is taken by the scene at the cave mouth, and she goes to look out. “Rain’s still pretty bad.”
“Yeah...” I follow her dumbly. We listen to Argo neighing in the distance. “Poor Argo.”
“She’s spooked, huh?”
“Never known a warhorse who can’t handle a little storm. She’s in a big enough cave over there.”
“Yeah, but the two of you have a bond and she gets upset when she can’t see you and the weather’s bad.”
Xena turns up her nose as if she finds this bizarre in the extreme, so I press on.
“She’s frightened by lightening. She’s reassured by your presence. Come on Xena, everyone has an irrational aversion to something: Argo’s no different.”
“What, like a phobia, you mean?” Xena rolls her eyes. “Not me.”
I lean back against the rocky wall, feeling rather smug. “Oh yes you do.”
She turns to glare at me. “Do not.”
“Apple peel,” I tell her confidently. “You don’t like apple peel: won’t touch the stuff. So don’t criticise Argo for her sensitivities.”
Xena returns her attention sulkily to the rain outside. “I’d eat it if I had to.”
She scowls. “Well monkeys don’t eat it, so that’s got to tell you something.”
“Of course monkeys eat apple peel, Xena!” I laugh in despair at her, and when she tells me to shut up, I only laugh more.
I’d been incredulous when I’d first realised Xena’s aversion. We’d been sitting on a log eating our lunch: Xena had a cloth spread out on her lap to collect her breadcrumbs, which I thought was very civilised of her, and was peeling an apple with a broad bladed dagger, which wasn’t so civilised. The tavern incident had taught me that food was not an off-limits topic to have a conversation about, so when I saw her peeling the fruit I’d asked her why.
‘To eat,’ she’d told me simply, not looking up from her task.
‘Most of the goodness is in the peel, you know.’
‘Well I don’t like peel. Never have.’ I’d watched her carefully cut off a long spiral of red skin. ‘Argo and I have a thing going with apples, anyway.’
With that she’d whistled, which brought the big beige mare trotting over to us, picking her way over the items strewn about the campsite. Xena held out the peel on the palm of her hand and Argo took it gingerly with big rubbery lips, munching in self-satisfaction. Xena had smiled and rubbed the mare’s nose, vacuous nostrils flaring under her wrist.
“Will you take her some?” I ask Xena now, as we gaze out into the rain.
“Some apple peel. For Argo. When the rain stops: will you?” Again she turns to look at me as if I’m mad. “Please, Xena, it’ll help her to see you.”
Xena studies me a moment longer, then nods. “All right.” I don’t know if she acquiesces for my sake or her horse’s, but I think it’ll do her good to spend some time with Argo, and I’m glad. She gazes outside for a bit longer, listening to Argo’s distress. “Look, I’ll go to her. Hand me over those apples, will you? I should go to her, right?” Xena looks to me for guidance, for confirmation that this is how I would expect her to behave, and I nod and smile to show her she’s got it just right. I fetch her a few apples and a knife, and watch her head out into the elements.
She’s gone for a while, and I’m glad that she and Argo have found a connection, and are enjoying each other’s company. When Xena returns she’s inevitably drenched. She accepts my praise, drinks the mug of hot tea I give her, then strips off her wet clothes and changes into a shift. I turn my back: we don’t have what we once did and I don’t have any right to watch. She shares that intimacy with Hercules now, not me.
I mustn’t let myself get angry, I berate myself, it’s not helping anyone. It’s not Xena’s fault, she didn’t know. I need to get over it, somehow. I inhale deeply and fetch Xena a blanket.
“Thanks.” She sits by the fire.
“You’re shivering -”
“Yeah.” She gives a mirthless smile and tugs the grey blanket around her shoulders. The fire is only just getting started and isn’t giving out much heat yet. She sits close to it, shaking. “It’s okay,” she tells me when she sees me staring. “Sit down, huh?”
I sit down beside her, not knowing how familiar I should be. I look at her hair longingly, wanting to rub it dry with a cloth but not thinking it appropriate to touch her.
“Tell me another one of your stories,” she urges. “I’m a captive audience. Tell me some more.”
This makes a pleasant change, and I’m cheered a little. “What about?”
She frowns, thinking. “How’d you know you liked me? Sounds like I was a pain in the butt. When did you know how you felt?”
It’s a good question, and I consider before I answer. “I knew for a long time that the way I felt for you wasn’t entirely... platonic. I was in awe of you, I suppose.” I spread my hands. “I wanted to be close to you but I didn’t know how. You were always so stoic, so strong. I knew that my place was beside you, that I’d walk with you for the rest of my life.” She’s looking at me now. “I tried flirting, I tried teasing, I tried hinting - Xena, you wouldn’t buy it.” I laugh, because in hindsight I think Xena was actually well aware of what she was doing to me. “So I thought maybe it wasn’t meant to be, you know.”
She nods slowly. “So what changed?”
“I realised that I’d never be happy unless I was with you.”
“When? When’d you realise that?” She’s understandably keen to know it all.
I look down into my lap, spreading my hands there and studying the hardened skin. “On my wedding night.” It isn’t a happy memory, because of all that came after.
“Wait -” Xena is visibly alarmed by this. “We’re married?!”
I have to laugh at her misunderstanding, and shake my head to put her mind at rest. “No, no, not to you.” His face appears in my mind, and all the laughter goes. “His name was Perdicus.”
“Oh.” She notices the change in my expression, of course. And my use of past tense. “What happened to Perdicus?”
“He was killed.”
Xena nods slowly again, her eyes searching over my face. “I’m sorry.”
I breathe deeply - it was a long time ago, and I’ve done my grieving. “Even that night, when I was with him, I knew I wanted it to be you. When he was gone, I never left your side again.
She nods, introspective, and there’s silence for a long time. “I’m sorry about Hercules, you know. I wouldn’t deliberately hurt you. I’m sorry.”
I know that she’s sorry. I know she’d never set out to hurt me. I pat her leg softly. “It’s okay.”
At length she sighs and shakes her head. “I’m too cold to stay up any longer. Going to bed.” She takes the blanket and goes to the bedrolls, tucking herself in there to shiver quietly. She’s caught a cold.
My thoughts dwell on Hercules, of course, and I feel cold and alone and suddenly weary too. I don’t know if I’m more angry, or hurt, or sad, or just confused. It’s too much to think about. So I half-heartedly pack up our mugs and retire too, lying beside her on my fur but not touching. It’s dark outside but the sickly fire casts enough light to see by, and I lie gazing up at the odd flickering shapes the red light casts on the rocky walls. Argo is quiet - at least she’s okay now.
Beside me, Xena shivers. “Get the feeling we wouldn’t usually be lying here freezing up like this.” I see her look over to me. “You want me to hold you? It’d be warmer. I can hold you, Gabrielle...”
It’s all the encouragement I need, having silently yearned for this for days, and I roll into her arms, tucking myself up tight to her and hugging her fiercely. Her face tucks in against my neck and her skin is icy, her lips taking on a bluish tinge in the orange-red of the firelight. “It’s okay -” I mumble to her impulsively, cupping her head in my hand and leaning down to kiss her forehead. “It’s going to be all right. You’re going to remember, Xena. Everything is going to be okay again.” She shivers violently at first, but the shaking soon subsides with the heat of the blankets and my body against hers. “Don’t be frightened.” Her body is soft and malleable now and I mould her limbs about me, unconsciously shifting into a more intimate embrace. Our fingers find each other and interweave. I drop my head beside hers, ostensibly to go on whispering reassurances, but once our noses touch and my lips brush against hers an old desire takes over that I can’t deny. My lips press against hers and she responds, pulling me closer, welcoming me deeper. She kisses me in this way, very sweetly, several times, cuddling me close to her, then breaks off, turning her head to settle it on the blanket and sleep.
But suddenly I’m angry, unsatiated, resentful. She owes me this. I caress a hand over her cheek and turn her face back to me, bobbing down for a deeper kiss. Xena has always been incredibly sensual, and enormously giving, and accommodates me with a long kiss. When it’s done she reaches up a hand to smooth my hair, and smiles into my face. “That’s lovely, Gabrielle. Get some sleep now Sweetheart, huh? I’ll still hold you.”
“No -” That is not what I want. She moves to take me into a comfortable cuddle but out of devilment I writhe away, refusing to do as she wishes. I want to be in control. My mood is such that I want to be difficult and stubborn. She tries again, playing gently, but I grasp her hands and pitch my strength against hers in this safe arena.
Rising to my challenge, Xena grins and tries to bundle me over, thinking I want a play fight, like two lion cubs toying and batting with their paws. I refuse to do as she wishes, blindingly angry now, and wrestle with her with no thought to whether I’m hurting her. Flushed and daring I start to pull none too gently at her clothes, batting at her hands if they fall in my way. I can see that she’s exhilarated too, snarling and with colour back in her cheeks. Physical exercise of any kind has always made Xena feel good, and she wouldn’t have any qualms about doing this with me even if she really had only known me for a week.
Rage and hurt wash over me and it’s as if I can’t see, can’t reason. I no longer hear what I’m saying. My thoughts course through me and are deafening: how could you, how could you, how could you?!
I clamp her wrists to the fur, hating her, and go down for a kiss that turns into a bite. Xena cries out very softly in response to the pain but otherwise doesn’t object, and I doubt I’d pay any heed if she did. I don’t know how long we fight for. I scream at her, running my hands over her body, cherishing the softness and familiarity of her curves even as I’m dragging my fingernails into her flesh. I’m mindless with pent up rage, and terror at what I find myself capable of. Xena is fully involved with me but doesn’t once hurt me. She bucks softly when I torture her with pain or pleasure, but allows me anything I want. She blocks some of my blows, wrestling with me roughly enough to satisfy my anger and lust, but I’m sure some get through.
“You belong to me,” I sob to her at last, when most of the fury is spent. “I want you to love me! How could you have, Xena, how could you?!” My tears fall onto her naked flesh, weaving glistening trails over her shoulders and breasts. “I love you. I love you.” I drop from exhaustion and snuggle with my cheek against her chest, feeling her strong arms wrap around me and hold me tight. I go on talking, berating and begging, and she goes on holding me and kissing the top of my head and mumbling to me so I’m not overwhelmed by my fear. “Don’t leave me,” I plead finally, swallowing convulsively, my lips trembling and the tears tingling on my cheeks.
Xena’s face almost touches mine, as we lie on our sides, the firelight making her bronze skin glow. She meets my gaze fixedly. “It’s all right, Gabrielle.”
“Hush, go to sleep. Hush now.”
I’m so tired that my sobs quickly turn into yawns. Another kiss on my forehead, and I’m so spent that I sleep right through, in her arms where it’s safe.
I don’t wake until cool morning light bathes my eyes and I have to untangle an arm to throw across them. I automatically rub away the puffiness, blinking at the bright light, which has a fresh yellow hue now that the storm has passed. Maybe we’ll actually see some sun today. I heave up and look down to Xena, only then remembering the night before and seeing what I’ve done to her.
Dear Gods... I’ve scratched her so badly! With her head turned trustingly toward me I can see the three congealing lines of blood on her neck, one of them bleeding a dribble of red down to her shoulder. There’s a small cut on her lip too, and a graze at her forehead. How could I have been so blind? I don’t dare lift back the covers for fear of what I might find. Oh, Xena... I cover my mouth with a hand. “I’m so sorry...” I bravely ease her head to one side, wanting to see if I’ve done anything worse. She opens her eyes lazily and her gaze fixes on me, far more gently than I deserve. “I’m so sorry,” I breathe again, “I’ve hurt you -”
Xena smiles a bit crookedly, and wipes blood from her lip. “Don’t worry. It’s all right.”
“I never meant to hurt you, I...”
“It’s okay, Gabrielle. It’s nothing. Everything’s all right, don’t be upset.” She sits, adjusting the shift so it covers her, and pointedly regards me with a reassuring smile.
I’ve never done anything like this before. “I didn’t mean... Why did you let me?” She could easily have defended herself if she’d chosen to.
Xena shrugs. “I knew you needed to get it out of your system. Forget it.” She puts her arm around me and cuddles me close to her. “It’s over, it doesn’t matter.”
From this day on I claim back into my heart the reason, fundamentally, that I love Xena: that one who has been shown so little mercy in life should be so ready to forgive, and that one who has faced nothing but harshness could be so gentle. I love her, and we will move on whether she remembers or whether she doesn’t.
Finally the storm clears and we decide it’s safe to head out and see if we can give Hercules a hand. We reassure Argo with some apples and set her free in a nearby field: she needs the exercise and freedom after being stuck in the cave. We warn her not to stand still for too long lest she get hoof-rot from the boggy grass, and tell her we’ll come to find her when we’re done. Argo is quite used to this: Xena often lets her roam free for days or weeks at a time, if she has no travelling to do, or is journeying overseas, and horse and owner always seem to know how to find each other again. I think Argo is like Xena and needs her solitude sometimes.
We find the warring villages easily enough, but get a shock when we arrive. For some reason that I cannot now begin to fathom I had assumed that we would be dealing with two small encampments, the townsfolk squabbling over ownership of a field or some such. This is actually a vast underestimation: both towns are large and prosperous and their war is very real. Xena barges in as if she still had an army at her heels, and I don’t have the sense I was born with to stop her. Our fistfight is doomed to failure: I don’t have my staff and Xena is still recovering and without the men she is accustomed to commanding, and we are vastly outnumbered. There is a moment, out on the sandy battleground, just as a rope lasso lands around Xena’s shoulders, that she turns to me with piercingly intent blue eyes. “Run, Gabrielle,” she insists. “Go, now.” But I can’t go, any more than I ever could have left her, and before we can curse ourselves for our stupidity the both of us are slung into jail.
It wouldn’t matter, I muse as I sit here alone in my dark cell, which town we had stumbled into: either one would have assumed that we were allies of the other and reacted in the same way. They apparently have quite a few of their enemies, captured and held as spies or defectors, and don’t seem to know what to do with us all, or at least, don’t have the time to spare to do it. My cell is small, but it hardly matters as I have a shackle around my ankle and can’t move more than a few paces anyway. The floor is stone - although I have a hessian sack to sit on - the walls on three sides are brick, and in front of me is the small iron door which permits me only the view of a brick corridor beyond. I hear the other prisoners, and the guards as they go about their business, but all I see is the teenage guard with an oversized hat who brings me slop to eat and water to drink twice a day. I’m not mistreated, as such - I’m just left to rot.
Xena, thankfully, is in the cell next to mine. I’m sure I’m not supposed to know this, but I’ve discovered a small hole in the brick wall next to me where some plaster has fallen away: it’s not big enough to fit a hand through, but I can see. Whenever the youthful guard comes I lean my shoulder against the hole to hide it.
Xena’s cell is considerably larger than mine, and she too is shackled to a sturdy wooden post, which looks to support the ceiling, at the far end. If I shouted she would hear me, but then so would the guards, and I feel sure we would be moved to distant cells. I try to catch her attention by whispering and tapping, but nothing I can do is loud enough for her but quiet enough for the guards, so I’m not able to let her know that I’m here.
Being able to see her but not communicate with her is both blessing and curse. Xena is wilder and more defiant in nature than I have known her. She hasn’t had the time surviving on her own, the life experience, the chance to develop maturity. She is impatient and stubborn and doesn’t use her head. She fights against the imprisonment with all her will, spitting and cursing at the guards, taking pot shots at them with fists and feet whenever they venture near. It isn’t a wise strategy.
At first Xena just gets a wallop in return for her troubles, and this doesn’t seem to bother her much - a bloody nose never did - but it’s when they stop bringing her food that I see her start to weaken. Sometimes, they bring the food but spit in it, or eat it in front of her, or throw it on the floor and laugh. She jeers back, tied to the post as she is, and doesn’t show that it bothers her. I’d give her my food if I could, or better still tell her to keep her head down and wait for an opportunity - or better still, wait for Hercules - but I can’t make her notice me.
I overhear some guards talking about Hercules. He came, but as it turns out both city leaders are corrupt and make financial gain from the war: they put on a good show for him, thanked him for showing them the error of their ways, then went right back to fighting the moment his back was turned. My heart sinks at the realisation that he isn’t here to rescue us. I assume he would have made his way back to our caves, but it’s quite possible that he stopped along the way to help those he passed who were still struggling through the storm: and why shouldn’t he, he had no reason to think we weren’t safe. Xena and I are alone here.
As the days pass, Xena gets more badly beaten, and I sit nestled against my wall and hurt for her, barely able to watch but compelled not to look away. My young guard, whom I discover is called Gar, has taken a fancy to me and finds excuses to pay me more attention than the others, limiting the time I have to think of a way out of this Hades. He probably wants to rape and toy with his charges as his buddies do, but - luckily for me - lacks the savvy to carry it off. Instead he flirts and leers, and I try to find a balance between smacking his ugly face, which would be satisfying but probably get me hung, and encouraging him, which would be equally dangerous. He carries a bunch of keys on his belt and I’m aware that he may be my one chance to escape, so I don’t rebel too fiercely against his attentions, so long as they are confined to stolen looks and clumsy banter.
The other guards have taken an intense dislike to Xena, and understandably so: she’s the perfect target for their aggression, always having an angry response to their jibes. They take to untying her and dragging her out of the cell for extended periods of time, and I can only sit feeling desperate and terrified, worrying what is being done to her. Every time I’m beside myself with fear that they won’t bring her back, but they always do, with more bruises and blood each time. The beatings and lack of food make her drowsy and she barely knows what she’s saying, slurring to them all manner of insults that she presumably learned from her men: I’ve never heard her use such language before.
I’ve left my food uneaten, I feel too nauseas, crumpled here watching Xena bleeding and drifting in and out of consciousness. She lifts a hand, and brushes it across the shiny wood of the pole at her shoulder. “You’re a good kid,” I hear her say, and a smile breaks across her face even though her bottom lip is swollen. I press closer to my wall, straining to hear, wanting to be with her. “Wish I’d have gotten to know you better,” she goes on, her look growing more serious. “Think I would’ve loved you, just like you said.” She nods to herself, her eyes closing, her fingers stroking over the beam. “Glad you’re here, Gabrielle.”
My heart squeezes in pain and for a moment I really can’t look, I have to press my hands over my eyes. She’s hallucinating, and it isn’t a good sign. We’ve been here so long: how much longer before she’s too badly injured to recover? I love you too, Xena...
I hear the clinking of keys at the door and wipe my eyes hastily with my arm. Gar comes in and notices my untouched gruel. “You gonna eat that, Pretty?”
I shrug, far too preoccupied with thoughts of Xena, even though I have my peephole covered with my arm. Gar stoops down to take the bowl. I may not be able to see next door, but I can hear: the men have come for Xena again. Damn! My insides twist and grip with panic: she won’t last through much more of this! I have to do something! All those times she saved me, and here I am just sitting here!
“Wait -” I pause Gar. “I should eat, you’re right. I should keep strong, for you.” I gesture with a tilt of my head, and he sets the bowl back down, resting on his haunches and gawping at me. “It’s just that I get lonely in here.” It’s now or never. There’s no gain without risk, that’s what Xena always says. I can hear talking and laughing coming from next door, and it spurs me on. “I look forward to seeing you when you come,” I tell Gar, putting on the best smile I can muster. “It makes me feel better, when you’re here.” He’s transfixed, like the gormless boys I remember from Poteidaia, and I lean toward him to touch his face and rest my chin on his shoulder. I have no intention of kissing him - the Gods help me! - but I don’t need to, this is enough to distract him for now, and I manage to fumble for the keys at his belt, find the clip, and... Yes! I close them up in my fist, sighing loudly to cover the sound. “I’ll try to eat now. Thank you.” I reassure him, and wait until he gets the hint and goes, blushing and stunned. Thank the Gods for pathetic lugs.
I ferret out the right key, release myself from my shackle, then get up on my knees to stare through the hole. Disbelieving, I find Xena’s cell empty.
Damn Damn Damn. I have the precious keys and now Xena is gone. Soon Gar will realise that they’re missing and they’ll start a search. If they find them on me I’ll be killed for the treachery, I’m certain, and if I fling them back outside to make it look like they’ve been dropped then I’m no better off than I was in the very beginning. Damn this!
I sit in mixed despair and fury for what feels like an age until I hear an iron door opening, and hunch back against my wall to watch Xena being returned to her cell. She looks worse and worse every time I see her. Her clothes are in filthy tatters and don’t even cover her anymore. Her hair is matted and tangled and sticks to the dried blood around her puffy eyes and lips. She’s dragged in this time, her ankles loose and her bare feet trailing blood across the stone. My heart is tearing inside at this, and I wonder how much more pain either of us can endure.
The two guards drop her, then haul her up against the post, and chain her. She can barely hold her head up, and doesn’t look at them, her eyes bruised and her body slumped. I silently send out my usual mantra: I’m here, Xena, I’m with you, be strong, you’re not alone.
The men kick at her legs, jeering, to rouse her. Finally, defiantly, she pulls her chin from her shoulder and looks at the man in front of her through narrowed eyes. She’ll fight this with every scrap of her being until the very end, I know, that’s how Xena is, and I’m both enormously proud and agonisingly sad.
“Don’t sleep too soundly,” one tells her, “we’ll be back for you once we’ve eaten. I fancy some fun with you.”
Her eyes close against her wishes and her head lolls again. She hasn’t eaten in days and she’s lost so much blood, there’s no energy left in her. “You can go screw your mother in Hades.”
It’s the most vulgar thing I’ve heard from her, but she’s spent and broken by this and who can blame her for letting it out? Her voice is only a mumble, but I hear, and so does the guard. He strikes her in the belly with his boot, furious, and Xena doubles up and freezes as blood pours out of her mouth, thick and foul. She only manages to gasp in a breath when he crouches and grabs her hair, yanking her head back.
“Bitch!” He spits at her. “Take it back!”
She just grins at him. Bloody and breathless and defiant to the end. This last stubborn expression of character will mean her death, I know it.
She spits blood in his face.
“Evil whore -” he seethes, wiping his face. “You just wait.” It’s an evil hiss. “I’m gonna come back and I’m going to kill you. I promise: you won’t see another sunrise. Your sweetheart won’t recognise your bones when I’m done with you. I’ll even take the one thing you save just for him, right?” He jeers and grins at his companion. With that he slams her head back against the wood and I swear I hear a crack. When he releases her she slumps, utterly unconscious, and a line of blood runs from her forehead and drips from the end of her nose.
I recoil and clutch my hands over my face, not wanting to see. Xena! I only just stifle the sob. My soul twists and cries out for her and I’m both frantic and paralysed, agonised and numb. Oh, Xena. This horrible, awful, nightmarish place.
I watch the guards leave then look back to Xena, who’s out cold. Bless her, I’m glad, it’ll spare her some pain.
I draw back into myself, face hidden in my hands, and rage. This is it! I have had it with this place! I can’t stand another moment, I don’t care if we both die, I cannot let us go through any more of this. I leap up to my feet, so desperate and angry that I no longer care about risk or pain or death.
I stride to the bars, find Gar standing at one end of the corridor, and hiss to him. “Gar!” He predictably comes over and leers at me. “I’m bored,” I tell him, both timid and determined. “I can’t wait anymore. I’ll do whatever you want. Go get a guard to replace you, then we’ll find someplace quiet, just you and I. There must be a spare room somewhere in this place, right? I want us to be together.” I reach through and touch his chest, emboldened by terror and haste. It’s now or never, and even if it just means I can lie with Xena and hold her in the last minutes, then I don’t care about the execution that would certainly follow.
He’s stupidly keen, and nods and runs off. I don’t have long. I have to act. I pull out the keys and fumble with them, desperate not to make a noise as I get the big one into the lock and open the door. Hardly bothering to look about me, I dash to Xena’s cell and open that door too.
“Xena!” I whisper urgently, and drop to my knees beside her, getting the smaller key into the lock holding her chains and tugging and twisting until they come free. Without the bonds at her wrists she slumps, and I have to shove a hand against her shoulder to hold her up while I yank away the chains. “Wake up, we have to get moving!” I say insistently as I glance over my shoulder to check the corridor is still empty. “Xena!”
But she’s unconscious and makes no response. This isn’t going to be a quick and easy jailbreak, is it. Damn. Damn my stupid fantasies and childish optimism. I kneel astride her and ease her weight forward into my arms, cradling her head like a baby. “Xena?” I speak gently to her, and try to wipe away blood and grime. “Will you wake up for me?”
But she won’t, and I’m resigned to that now. I can’t carry her like Hercules could, I can’t rouse her with my words: I can’t get her out. I’ll stay here, now, I won’t let go of her. When the guards come I’ll just pull her closer and hope that the same blow finishes us both, hope that it ends quickly. Now that I’ve got her in my arms again I won’t ever let go. I lie her weight against me, tucking her head down against my neck.
“Xena -” This breaks my heart but she’s all that matters now. “If you have to go, if the pain’s too much, it’s all right, I understand, okay?” I whisper into her ear, holding her head to me. “Don’t be afraid. You can go, Xena.” This torture has gone on too long, and I just want her to be at peace. I hold her and love her: these last few moments together are precious, and I don’t think about anything else. The world can do what it likes when this is over. I feel her stir a little, and accommodate it. “I won’t leave you.” I kiss her hair. “You can go.” Tears stream over my face and make her cheeks wet, but we won’t worry about that.
She shifts again, warmed against me, and groans. “Light...”
“Hmm?” I tuck my face closer to hers, cupping her chin gently.
“Light,” she repeats. “Can see it.” Her voice is quiet, and she doesn’t lift her head, but that voice is so familiar to me I’d understand it anywhere.
My heart seizes and I have to suck in a breath to hold back a sob. “Then you should go,” I tell her, cradling her and speaking against her head.
“So bright... So beautiful. My light...”
I don’t even bother to hold in the tears now. “It’s all right, Xena, everything’s all right. Go on. I love you.” I clutch her tight and hope this will be her last, happy memory.
I hear the clank of a door out in the corridor and I start. Dear Gods - they’re coming. Panic rushes through me like ice water. Xena moves in my arms again, surprised and probably scared by the loud sound. Pressed against her, I feel her heart begin to thud and her breathing quicken with the adrenaline.
She’s afraid - of course she’s afraid, after everything that’s happened to her. I go to comfort her again, to insist that nothing else bad is going to happen. But her heart pounds so forcefully against me that I’m silenced - she may be frightened, but more so, she’s alive.
Well to Hades with it, if she has some fight left in her, then so do I. I hiss at her urgently. “Xena?” I can hear footsteps outside.
“Huh?” She pulls up her head a little.
She is alive! Panic stricken, I shake her. “Wake up! We have to get out of here! Come on!” I pat frantically at her, letting go only to catch her again in terror when she lolls. “Please!” I can’t shout, the guards will hear. So I have to force the words out in a croak, my forehead pressed to hers. “I can’t drag you! You have to get up!” I can hear their voices now. My heart is thundering. Oh dear Gods! I slap at her cheeks, cringing as I do so, and see her frowning and straightening. “In the name of all that’s holy, Xena, wake up!” I give her a sharp shake out of pure desperation, and accidentally give her head a wallop against the pole. “I’m sorry!” Gods!
“Aww!” Xena complains scornfully, and raises a hand to rub at her scull. “Gabrielle,” she admonishes me in a scratching voice, “my brains are in there!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I try to soothe and comfort her without daring to touch her lest I do more harm.
Still scowling, she raises her head and looks right at me. Her eyes see right into me and I can’t look away, despite the proximity of the guards. She fixes me with a gaze I’ve not felt on me for so long. “I know you.” She raises a hand to my face. “I remember you.”
“Xena?” Surely, surely this can’t be -
I clutch her so tight I doubt she can breathe. I squeeze her to me, knowing from the arms knitted about my head that she truly does remember who I am. “I love -” I’m utterly breathless, and rub my face against hers, too emotional to speak.
“I do too -” She finds my lips and presses against them.
“I thought...” I’m crying stupidly now. “I thought they’d cracked your skull, they hit you so hard.” I cradle her head, amazed that my fingers find no fracture under that thick hair.
She laughs mirthlessly and rubs at her head. “Nah. Just a bump.” As she leans forward I see I line splitting the wood behind her: I’ll be damned, her head actually cracked the post!
“We gotta go -”
“Can you walk?” If she can’t we’re in trouble.
“Sure. Been doing it since I was two.”
“Oh,” I sympathise, “slow learner, huh?”
“Yeah,” she concedes with a smile. Clinging on to me, she heaves up, and I haul with all my might, and we just about manage to get her on her feet and keep her there.
The guards are in the next corridor, right behind us. I push Xena and make her run, and clutching each other we only just manage to stay on our feet as we stumble down the corridor. For the first time I see the other poor souls in the cells around ours. They look at us in astonishment but none have the strength to call out or take any action. Xena takes the keys from me, unlocks our escape route, then slides the bunch across the stone floor into the nearest cell for the poor devil there to catch.
And we flee. We trip and stumble and clutch at each other, and just run without looking back. I don’t know where we’re going. I’ve no idea how Xena manages to run in her state, but she does, despite being more out of breath than I’d expect from her. We see a shallow river and splash through it, hoping to cover our scent. When we get too tired to run we walk, Xena with her hand at my shoulder. She’s focussed and we don’t speak. Her rags don’t cover her, but we’re alone out here, and with all the dirt and grime and the grease in her hair she looks like a stalking jungle cat. Once our lungs stop heaving we break into a run again: we don’t dare stop, we just don’t dare.
We run all day. I’ve no idea if the guards would follow us this far - I doubt it - but Xena is terrified and we won’t take the risk. We stop every now and again to take a furtive drink from a stream or grab fruit from the trees around us. I don’t know the last time Xena was allowed water or food. As the sun begins to go down I see that she just can’t go any further.
“Xena -” I catch her arm gently. “Let’s stop. We’ve done enough, you need to rest.”
She shakes her head, unable to run but doggedly striding on. “Can’t. They could find us.”
“I don’t think they’ll find us,” I insist, “we’ve been going all day.”
“Too much risk.” She’s breathless, and stumbles and goes down onto her knees so hard it makes me cringe. She gamely tries to get herself up, but when her legs just won’t obey her I think she sees my point.
I come around in front of her and tenderly help her up. “We can’t go any further tonight, Xena. You need to sleep.”
She listens to me at last, and grudgingly nods. I see all that she’s been through, and squeeze her hand reassuringly.
“We need to make sure you’re in one piece. Are you hurt anywhere? Anywhere I can’t see?” I guess not, because she wouldn’t be able to run with broken bones or anything else awful, but I want to be certain. Besides, with these rags there’s very little of her that I can’t see.
She gives an exhausted, slightly amused shrug. “Don’t even know.” She’s so tired that her eyes are closing, her body swaying.
I look around me, and consider the sandy, flat bank of the river we’ve been running beside and already crossed several times. When I look back to her, her eyes are closed and I know she’s past making decisions for herself. I take her hand and lead her to the water, which is still reasonably warm from the sun. I mumble to her quietly, letting her know my intentions, and get her to sit, guiding her down so she can keep her balance, and take off her clothes. The water laps softly around her, less than a hand high, and she sits with eyes closed, barely conscious. I just want to check for myself that she isn’t going to die on me while I sleep. I know that now isn’t the time to fuss, and that no one, least of all Xena, will care how she looks right now, but it’s important to me to do this. I don’t have a sponge, so I use my hands to scoop water over her face and arms. I go on talking to her, reassuring her that everything will be fine, keeping her awake.
“It’s all all right now,” I whisper as I gently wipe blood and grime from her. “It’s just you and me, like you wanted it.” She’s bruised all over - perhaps the worst I’ve seen - but I don’t think there’s anything that won’t heal given time and Xena’s uncanny ability to recover from the worst wounds. “Let’s wash your back, then we can sleep. Sound good? Can you take your weight? Sit up?” I’ve been alternately supporting her head and pressing on her shoulder to keep her upright, but at my request she rouses a little and holds her own. So I reach around her and mumble praise into her ear as I spill water over her back, and Xena just leans into me and holds me, her head against me. I pause to embrace her, and whisper into her hair, private things, about my love and my commitment. She listens silently, and I end our quiet little conversation with a kiss to her cheek.
That done, I tear a scrap of material from my skirt and use it to dry her as best I can, careful not to start any wounds bleeding again. “Can you get up?”
I worry that’s she’s just too exhausted, until she pulls her head up and smiles. “Sure.” We help each other back up the bank, Xena stiff but having regained just about enough energy to function. She goes the few steps to a sturdy tree and braces her hand against it.
“C’mon then.” She points upwards. “Safer up there if we’re gonna sleep. They won’t see us in the dark.”
I obediently go to her, and she pats a thick branch then crouches and interweaves her fingers to make a foothold for me. I won’t argue with her direction, and climb up, letting her give me a shove so I can clamber up onto the branch. Before I can even turn to reach for her she jumps and hauls herself up beside me - the heavens only know how, with her injuries.
I can see why she thinks it’s safer up here: we’re hidden and we have a better vantage point than we would on the ground. She tugs me against her, bracing herself against the trunk. Finally, I can relax a bit. “Xena, I thought I’d lost you.” I’m too exhausted and relieved to cry.
“Shh. I’m here.”
“You remember everything?”
She looks at me, and smiles. “Everything.” We rub noses. “It’s all right, get some sleep.”
It’s not comfortable, and not entirely safe, but Xena holds me steady and I’m so tired that I do drop off. Resting against Xena, I could sleep anywhere: I know I’m safe and I’m home.
I don’t wake until the sun comes up again, and I know we must be truly free, having gone undisturbed throughout the night. I stretch, and, feeling the wide trunk against my shoulder, realise that Xena isn’t here. Fully awake, I look down past my hanging feet and see her wandering about at the base of the tree. I have to smile. She’s been back to the river and bathed properly, and now her hair is wet but clean, and she’s cleansed her wounds and they don’t look so bad. Typical Xena, she’s laundered and rearranged her clothing into a two-piece design so it covers her properly, and she’s eating fruit as if she’s never seen food before. For someone who isn’t usually too enthusiastic about eating, it’s lovely to see.
When I shift myself she hears, looks up to me, and offers up a banana.
I shake my head, smiling at her. “Morning.”
“Did you sleep?”
“Not much. Figure life’s too short. Need a hand?” She stows the banana between her teeth then reaches up casually for me, and when I slip down she grabs me around the waist and steadies me to my feet. Then she gives me my banana.
I eat it ravenously, but without taking my hand from her - just brushing her arm or stomach - I don’t want to lose contact with her ever again. Xena seemingly feels the same, and lingers beside me, picking stones from a handful of berries that she pops into her mouth.
“I’m so glad you remember.” I have to tell her. I don’t want to take my eyes from her.
She gifts me with a smile, then cups my head in a hand and kisses my hair. “Me too.” And she goes back to her fruit. I have to laugh at her.
“I love you, so much.”
“Mmm mmm,” she agrees with a full mouth, and nods enthusiastically to emphasise her point. I visibly despair with her, and she laughs, swallows her fruit, then hugs me and lets her lips settle on mine. It’s been so long, and I don’t rush, loving the closeness.
I hug her tight. “We should go. We should try to get back, to get home.”
“Ah -” This brings an unexpected grin. “Don’t think that’s gonna be a problem. Someone sniffed us out while you were sleeping.” She whistles, grinning wildly. I hear a sound and turn, keeping her close behind me. Hooves?
Xena’s palomino trots over to her mistress and nuzzles against her arm, wanting a pat. I’m thrilled, and we both pet her eagerly, which she pretends not to notice but secretly loves, especially from Xena.
“Argo!” I scratch at her jaw. “How’d you know we were here, huh?”
Xena gives her a loving pat. “I doubt she was ever too far away. Were you, Girl? I missed you.”
I feel like I have my life back. Still touching, we both mount Argo and let her gallop in the direction she sees fit: she knows where she’s going. I cling on around Xena’s waist and just thank whoever is listening for our safety. Of all the madness we’ve endured, it was that final crack on the head which would’ve killed most people but actually brought Xena back to her senses.
It takes almost a full day of riding to get back to familiar territory, although we take it easy and stop off for more fruit and water on the way. Dog tired, we set up camp, start a fire, and spread out the furs that Argo has been carrying all this time. At last: home.
“You’re sure you’re all right?” I ask her, still pained by the cuts and grazes on her face.
“I’m fine. Had far worse.” She squeezes my shoulder as she sits down. “Don’t worry about me.” Reading her expression, I can’t help thinking that once she’s well enough she’ll go back to that hideous place and tear it apart.
As I lie down that night I’m too distracted t sleep. I need to talk it through with her, I won’t be able to let go of it until I do. “Xena?”
“Hmm?” She’s stretched out comfortably on her fur beside me, propped up on an elbow, finishing off some bread left over from supper.
“Back in that jail cell...” It’s not a nice time to think about. “Do you mind talking about it?”
She shrugs mildly. “Nope.”
Good. “Back in the cell... I wanted to ask... Why didn’t you go?”
She scowls as she picks at a chicken leg with her fingers. She’s gotten hungry again now, thanks to the bread, I know what she’s like. “Go? The shackles and iron bars kind’ve got in the way, Gabrielle.” Another light shrug: she doesn’t seem upset, she’s too engrossed in her chicken. “Whole point of a jail, I guess.”
“No, no, I don’t mean that.” Subtlety doesn’t work with Xena. “Why didn’t you leave? When you saw the light? You said you saw a bright light. What pulled you back?” It troubles me that she was afraid to cross over, that she thinks she’ll be judged and condemned to Tartarus for her crimes. I don’t want her to have that weight on her shoulders.
“Light?” She munches on the chicken for a moment, puzzled, then actually starts to laugh - to my consternation - and licks her greasy fingers. “Gabrielle, you think that was the light of the Elysian Fields? You really thought I was about to spend the rest of my days frolicking with flowers in my hair?” She’s clearly greatly amused.
“What was it, then?”
She sets down her bowl and looks at me intently. The humour fades away as she studies my eyes. “You really don’t know, do you? Gabrielle, I was talking about you. The light was you. Don’t you know that by now?”
I gaze at the gentle warmth of her face as the firelight plays over it, and find myself fighting back tears. I’d just assumed she was ready to let go of it all, I didn’t dream she was referring to me. I reach for her hand, and she curls her fingers softly around mine. “But... but you hadn’t remembered me then. You said you didn’t remember until you hit your head on that post...”
“Until you hit my head on the post.”
Does she have to be so pedantic at a time like this? “Until I hit your head.” I watch as she chuckles and takes a sip of her ale. She licks her lips then lifts her eyes to mine again. “If you didn’t remember, why did you say that I was...?”
Xena squeezes my hand to silence me. “Gabrielle, it didn’t matter. I’d gotten to know you. I’d fallen in love with you. All over again.” She chuckles at my incredulity, and brings my hand up to kiss. “Listen: we’re soulmates, you and I. It doesn’t matter what lifetime we’re in. It’s not important. We’re supposed to be together, nothing can stop that.” She leans close to kiss me softly, and I like to watch her dark lips and her long lashes and the way her hair tumbles over her shoulders.
“Soulmates,” I agree, and shift over to be in her arms. We settle down in a cuddle, my head tucked under her chin and resting on her breast. I fiddle with a stray thread on her shift as she strokes my arm to reassure me. “Hercules doesn’t... Hercules still doesn’t know about us.” It’s the last thought that nags at me. It’s been too painful to contemplate for most of this journey, but here in the safety of our camp and her arms I feel I can express it. We’d planned to tell Hercules, but then there’d been the rock slide, and Xena’s memory, and... everything.
Her rhythmic stroking pauses as she thinks about this, then starts up again, firmer and more reassuring this time. “Hercules knows I love you, Gabrielle.” She snuggles her head against mine as I gaze out into the darkness. “I love him, but that’s all it’ll ever be. He knows that.”
“Hmm.” I can only agree with this, of course. When I don’t say anything more, Xena goes on.
“I know that I hurt you. With him.”
I shake my head dutifully. “That’s over, Xena, I know you didn’t remember. It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to you.” She moves to stroking my head thoughtfully. “You said that when you were with Perdicus, you loved him but something felt wrong. You knew something was missing, right?”
I nod. “You were missing.
“Exactly. I loved Hercules - I love Hercules - but not like you. Even then, I knew something was missing in my heart. You were missing.”
I understand, and let the pain go. “It’s okay, Xena,” I say, and mean it this time.
“I want you to know that I didn’t tell him for a reason. Tell him about us - when we’d planned to?”
I push up on my arms, eager to look at her while she’s talking so seriously. She looks pained, and tries to find the right words so as not to hurt me.
“It’s not because I’m not proud. It’s not because of you. But you being my friend puts you in danger every day - imagine how much worse it’d be if people really knew. There’s no need for that. My first priority is keeping you safe.”
I nod. “I understand that, Xena.” I’ve always accepted the risk inherent in travelling with her, but it’s true that there’s no need to double it.
She seems relieved by my response. “Besides, it’s more special if only we know. When I was with people in the past...” A scowl crosses her face and she loses her focus on me. “...I’d flaunt them like a prize. That was their only value to me. When I think of what Borius and I used to do in full sight of all the men -” A tiny shudder goes through her and she closes her eyes tight in an effort to repel it. “Some things should be private.”
I couldn’t agree more with that. “Absolutely,” I tell her gently, and stroke her face, thinking how far she’s come since those days.
“It should be written between the lines.” She struggles for a way to express herself. “It should be subtext. Let people draw their own conclusions.”
“You’re right.” I wait until she smiles at me, satisfied, then bob down for a quick kiss. “Of course, there’s no one around here to read anything into anything.” What we do tonight is our own business.
Her grin returns and her hands settle on my sides. “So...?”
“So... teach me everything you know...”
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