“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”
? Alan Moore, Watchmen
Gabrielle sat on the cot and read the note again. She felt the walls of the room closing in on her. The words swam before her eyes, but she had already memorized them.
"Gabrielle, I've gone to take care of some unfinished business. This mission is so dangerous, I'm afraid I won't survive and I can't ask you to die with me once again. Whatever happens-- know that my love for you is endless. - Xena."
Twenty-five years had passed since they went to Gaul. Since they went to Rome and had a child together--Callisto's child--Gabrielle tried to shrug off the taint of that memory, but it always lingered. She'd followed Xena from Greece into Rome's world. Tiberius's world.
And now Xena had abandoned her to travel north.
I can't ask you to die with me once again.
“Am I supposed to live?” Gabrielle asked. The room did not answer her.
The inn where they'd stopped just for the night--as the world was becoming more crowded, more civilized, it was harder to sleep outside. Even in the tribal lands, far away from Rome, far away from the desert where she'd killed--
Gabrielle clenched her fists. She was careful not to crease the parchment. Not Xena's last words. Not the last touch of Xena's lips. She spread out the parchment and read the words again.
Five years with Xena. Twenty-five years after that.
Her whole life was gone. Her sister--with Sarah now, a whole lifetime lived without Gabrielle.
Eve, finding her way.
Gabrielle could go to the Amazons. She was their queen. But Ephiny was gone. That wound, still fresh and new, burning her eyes, clenching her throat, when all she felt for Xena was a dull ache.
Xena was her whole life.
I'm afraid I won't survive.
Gabrielle balled her fists. She wasn't Xena's.
She rolled up the parchment and stuck it into her bag. Xena had left their money. Enough coins to throw across the room and dent the wall in dozens of places. To scream and cry.
Gabrielle went downstairs.
It was midday, and the drunks were quiet--some asleep--and the owner was washing mugs. Glass from Rome, ceramics from the East. Wooden chalices from the local area, which was still wild and tribal.
She was in Trento, on the Via Claudia Augusta road, just past the Reschen Pass. Not quite Rome, not quite Gaul. It was as good as a place as any to stay while she was deciding between north or south. West to the ocean, east to the steppes. Winter or summer. Death or life.
“Hi,” the owner said. “Need a drink?”
She slung her pack onto the barstool. “Need a bard?”
He grinned boldly. “Aye, we do. You speak Gallic?”
“Gallic, Latin, Greek, Aquitanian. If you pour me a drink, I'll teach you what I know of Chinese.”
He winked, then went to the tap of a great wooden barrel and poured out yellow liquid into a ceramic glass, painted with orchids.
“That's not ale,” she said.
“Trento's finest wine. You know, there was a bard, a generation ago, who told legendary stories of Xena and Hercules and the Amazons. Some people think that the Amazons are all dead. That they're lost to Homer's antiquity.”
She drank the wine, which tasted of gravel and mountains rocked by thawing springs. “But?” she asked.
“But not the ones in Moesia,” he said, using the Latin word.
“The Amazons of the Balkans,” she said.
He nodded eagerly.
You're my whole life, Xena .
She began. “The greatest of them was Cyane…”
She got the job at the inn, which came with all the food she could eat, and all the romantic entanglements of men and women she could never want, but no home. So she found a place in the woods, outside the walls of Trento, where the mountains rose, and made her own home. Thatch at first, and then brick, slowly, like a kiln, to box her in and burn her alive.
There was no word from Xena.
She asked travelers for stories, but only the South held any meaning. Tiberias across the Reschen Pass. War and peace.
Britannia they would speak of, but Germans and Russians they would not, and the stories from the Far East were too fantastical to believe.
She thought often of crossing the Black Sea and making peace with Rome's enemies. But she had barely survived, last time, and she had been with Xena.
When spring came, the whole world was filled with bad stories, from Athens to Amphipolis, from the Atlantis Sea to the South China Sea. Trento felt like the center of the world. The eye of the storm.
Everything was spinning all around her, but she was still.
She was telling stories in a tavern. She was a girl in a village, again.
She joked and laughed and when Roman soldiers came through, some of them too young for beards, too eager for heroics. She touched their faces and cried. The town's whores and the towns maidens piled children onto her lap and bribed her with candy and sweet kisses on her throat and she went home alone.
At the height of summer, stories of Xena came from the four winds. She ignored most of them, except for the ones that mentioned the warrior Beowolf, Xena fighting at his side, or sometimes in opposition to him, taming or succumbing or conquering the beast Grendel, far to the north, where there was nothing but snow.
She bought a scroll from a Dane telling the story of Brynhildr, a maiden surrounded by flames, and imagined herself surrounded by the walls of Trento, waiting for a kiss to awaken her.
In early fall, it snowed in Trento, and covered the mountains, and closed the roads, but they had wine and honey and roasted deer and tamed rabbit and olives and salted fish and tea and sugar. She wore a leather cloak lined with wolf fur and never practiced with blade or staff outside of her home.
Women did not do such things. Alone, often by lantern-light, there was no one to laugh at her when she tried a flip or a high kick.
There was no one to hold her underneath the stars on the coldest nights, no blonde horse to nuzzle her hair, no more emissaries from distant lands to accuse Xena of the foulest murders.
Gabrielle told stories of Xena, the lone warrior, and let herself be lost to history.
Gabrielle's turned to meet luminous eyes right before she smelled sulfur and peach blossoms.
Aphrodite winked and gave a little wave from a table at the back seat of a tavern. She was alone--no Ares--but men quickly joined her.
Gabrielle made a face and launched into the story of Deirdre, of tragic love, wondering if Aphrodite would love it or hate it. Maybe a little of both.
When she was done and her pockets filled with coin, when the soldiers were drunk in their cups and the wives were home, she strolled with Aphrodite into the village square.
“What are you doing here?” Gabrielle asked.
“What do you think? I want you to come back to Greece.”
“What's in Greece?”
“I am,” Aphrodite said, giving her an exasperated smile.
“He hasn't come to see you, yet?” Aphrodite asked.
“I figure he's off with Xena, razing villages.” Gabrielle scowled.
“We don't know where Xena is,” Aphrodite said. “But we talk about you often. Big brother wants you back with the Amazons. With Artemis gone--they need you, chica.”
“Are you his agent, then?”
Aphrodite exhaled forcefully. “I came to see my old friend. My dear friend.”
“You're right. I'm sorry, Aphrodite. It's been hard, without Xena.”
Aphrodite turned and took Gabrielle's cheeks and squeezed them, forcing Gabrielle into a chipmunk face. “Let me be your purpose, Gabs. Love. Bring love to Greece. Instead of wasting it on this--” Aphrodite looked around. “--way station.”
“I'll think about it.”
When Aphrodite leaned in to kiss her, Gabrielle bowed her head. Aphrodite's lips landed on her forehead, against her hairline. Just where Xena liked to kiss her.
Gabrielle shut her eyes.
The scent of roses wafted past, and then faded. When Gabrielle opened her eyes again, she was alone.
A year, almost to the day, of her last kiss, sealed in parchment, Xena strolled into Trento, leading a golden horse and wearing a steel helmet and raven epaulets on her shoulders.
Xena returns from her journey.
Xena did not linger in the doorway of the brick cottage, but came and knelt at Gabrielle's feet, beside the chair Gabrielle was sitting in. Beside the writing desk with its smell of leather and ink.
“Gabrielle,” Xena said.
Gabrielle relished the bitter taste of old memories in that name, not dust, but licorice. She felt so glad that Xena was alive she wanted to sink to the ground weeping, her heart in her throat. She used all of her strength to sit upright, to meet Xena's gaze.
If Xena touched her she might die.
But Xena did touch her, cupping her face in her smooth palms, as cold as Germany, and looking into her eyes with an icy-blue gaze. Gabrielle didn't die, or freeze. Her chest didn't burst.
Her eyes filled with tears.
“You're here,” Xena said, brushing one away.
Gabrielle didn't move.
“I didn't know where to look, so I came back to the start.” Xena measured her breath. “You never left.”
Gabrielle hated the betraying tears that left a burning paths on her cheeks. She tried to kill them, but they were hot and alive, broken and raw and needy.
“Please,” Gabrielle said, arching to move her face away from Xena's touch.
“Anything.” The word was instantaneous from Xena's lips, so pleading and gentle that it sent earthquakes through Gabrielle, a tremendous shaking, fragmenting her heart into pieces, leaving her dizzy.
She gathered herself and said, “Anything. How about, ‘Don't leave.'”
Every croon of her own name hurt, crushing the parts of her that refused happiness. Like Xena's fists, coming down on the ice that sealed them for a quarter century.
“What if I had died?” Gabrielle asked.
“Then I would die with you,” Xena said.
The first story Gabrielle had told, in her banishment at Trento, was of Cyane the Great. And Xena walking into eternity to join her beloved.
“I love you, Xena.” Gabrielle used those words as weapons. They were ineffectual blows. Xena's gaze never wavered. Her eyes showed only regret.
Gabrielle inhaled deeply and covered her face, willing rage instead of sobs. She breathed again, heavy and deep, and again, and found Eli's teaching. The control of letting go.
Yet it was with a plaintive whine that she asked, “Why can't you let the past just be the past?”
“People are living with my terrible mistakes. In the present.” Xena said. “I can't just--”
“I'm living with your terrible mistakes!”
Xena's expression crumbled with grief. She looked away.
“Stay with me,” Gabrielle said, her voice softening.
“I don't deserve to stay with you.”
“I don't care.” Gabrielle shook her head from side to side. “I don't care.”
Gabrielle nudged Xena back with her knee, and then got up from the chair. Outside her open window, it was twilight. Xena smelled of mud and horse. She must have come straight for Gabrielle.
She must not have wasted a single second.
“Undress,” Gabrielle said.
Xena undressed in silence. Sword and scabbard went by the door. Armor was placed gently on top of Gabrielle's desk. Leathers went over the back of the chair. Underwear, Xena began to put into her bag, but was stopped by Gabrielle's gesture. She draped it over the chair instead.
She watched Gabrielle, neither abashed or defiant. Naked, but safe. Armorless, but loved.
Gabrielle went to her bowl and wet a rag, then spread soap over it, then wet it again. The water turned frothy. She went to Xena, and starting with her right shoulder, ran the rag down her skin.
“Where you really fighting Grendel?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena's eyes widened, but she didn't move, as Gabrielle stroked the rag over her chest.
“So you already know. Yes. I went north to the sea, and I made up for my sins.”
“And was there a great battle?”
Xena half-smiled. “Several.” She gestured to her thigh, where a pink wound was still fresh. Black stitches crossed it.
“And were you forgiven?” Gabrielle lifted Xena's left arm and washed underneath it.
“By an old lover?”
Xena, who had been merely still, became rigid. “Gabrielle, the people I used for power… There was no love involved.”
Except Lao Ma .
“I'm powerless before you,” Xena said.
Gabrielle smiled. She knelt, scrubbing at a trail of dirt on Xena's hip. They both fell silent as Gabrielle finished cleaning Xena, and then took her hand and walked her to the bed, goose down and feathers and sturdy timbers.
“Undress me,” Gabrielle said.
Xena bit her lip in concentration as she untied Gabrielle's bodice. She kept her gaze down as she lifted away Gabrielle's skirt.
For once, Xena, I'd like to be Roman noble and you be the slave.
Xena looked past Gabrielle's naked body to the soapy basin. “Do you want me to wash you?”
Gabrielle turned off her lanterns and blew out her candles. Then she turned and looked Xena in the eye for the first time. “No. I just want you to hold me. Xena.” Her voice broke on the name.
Xena drew Gabrielle to the bed, where Xena sat against the headboard and brought her into her arms. Gabrielle faced away from Xena, possessed by her strength, comforted by the nose that pressed her shoulder. The breath that ran down her arm.
Gabrielle said, “Everything hurts.”
Gabrielle knew the truth of those words. Xena hurt too. For the same reasons. Their separations were painful. The price they paid for their love was too high.
Darkness crept into the room. Gabrielle twisted under the weight in her chest, the lingering rage that raced across her skin.
She stewed as long as she could, until finally Xena coaxed her around, and pressed Gabrielle's head to her heart. Gabrielle closed her eyes. She wrapped herself around Xena, taking responsibility for her half of their embrace.
Gabrielle slept through roosters, but the heat of the morning sun woke her. She was still sprawled on top of Xena, so she pressed a kiss to Xena's collarbone.
“Good morning,” Xena purred.
“Good morning.” Gabrielle lifted her face. Smiling.
Xena's sleepy blue gaze belied the intensity of the kiss she pressed against Gabrielle's mouth.
Gabrielle relented, letting the kiss linger. Finally, she had to break it to disentangle herself from Xena's arms and look around warily.
“No bandits here,” Xena drawled.
“Did you dispatch them during the night?”
“Just because I showed up, doesn't mean trouble follows.”
“When has that ever been true?” Gabrielle said as she turned to her wardrobe, where Xena had tossed her dress last night.
A cool hand on her arm stopped her.
Gabrielle lost her breath. Xena had stolen out of bed, silent as a cat. Xena could have gone anywhere in the world, but she'd come back to Gabrielle. Back home. As if it were her life's mission.
“You really did come back for me,” Gabrielle said. She turned and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, and felt Xena's hug in return.
Xena said, “You're my whole life, Gabrielle. When I go off--what I do is not living. If I had a choice, this is how I would spend my time. With you.”
“So spend your time with me,” Gabrielle said.
“Where will we go?”
“Nowhere. We'll stay in Trento. I'm barding. You'll train the children, in case war comes. From Rome or the frontier.”
“Domestic life?” Xena asked, arching her eyebrows.
“Who would you be, if your village hadn't been attacked?”
“I don't know,” Xena said.
“Let's find out.”
“As long as we don't enter a parallel universe where you've been enslaved,” Xena said.
“What?” Gabrielle asked.
“What?” Xena said.
Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head.
“I do have one request,” Xena said. Her hands slid over Gabrielle's ass.
“Yes, impudent one?”
“Can we start our ‘normal life' tomorrow? And spend today under the covers?”
“I have no objection,” Gabrielle said
Xena scooped Gabrielle into her arms and stumbled toward the bed.
“Xena! You're going to throw out your back.”
“I know we slept 25 years, but I'm not that old,” Xena said.
She dumped Gabrielle on the blankets, earning a grunt, and then covered her, lithe and agile, yet utterly pliant as Gabrielle threaded fingers through her hair and brought her down for a searing kiss.
“Well, you haven't gone soft,” Xena said, when their lips parted.
“Only parts of me. Come and find out.”
They dined that night at the tavern, where Gabrielle took a break from telling stories, and Xena took a break from being found by mysterious foreign emissaries. Sated, they strolled back to Gabrielle's cottage in the woods.
The city gates dwindling behind them stayed open at night, and the lanterns lit. It was a peaceful evening. Gabrielle and Xena settled into a bench in Gabrielle's courtyard. Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena's shoulders. Xena's hand settled on her thigh.
It was all familiar, and with practiced motions they looked up toward the twinkling stars.
“We've been through many lives together,” Gabrielle said. “Or so I hear.”
“Yup,” Xena said.
“How do you think we met in the past?”
“Oh, let's see. I was a pirate, of course,” Xena said.
“Why can't I be a pirate?”
“You can be a pirate too,” Xena said.
“But you have to be a maiden.” Gabrielle pondered.
“Fine. You're the bard, you tell the story.”
Gabrielle whispered into Xena's ear.
They laughed and talked long into the night, as the heavens watched.
* * *
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