The Rest is Silence
Disclaimer: I own nothing here. The characters arent mine-except for the doggie (and his dialogue is very limited.)
Subtext: Theres nothing to suggest Xena and Gab are LIKE THAT. Then again, theres nothing to suggest that Xena and Gab are NOT LIKE THAT.
No real violence, no blood, not guts, no gore.
Short of writing a story with all Ares and no Gab, theres nothing I can do to express my deepest thanks to my Shipper pals:
~Serendipity~, who read about 178 different versions of this story. Im eternally grateful that she didnt turn violent on me after proclaiming the story "done" and sang its praises-only for me to turn around and say "hmmm its still missing something. I think Im gonna go back, scrap the whole thing and start again." And many thanks for all her work in coming up with a synopsis. I hate writing those things
And a great big, platonic "NOT LIKE THAT" smooch to LadyKate-Ares PR rep here on earth. Much to ~Sers~ annoyance, LK and RoxyWP convinced me to rewrite the story yet again. After many painful months of rewrites and new versions and rewrites of new versions, I was desperate for a title. In a burst of inspiration, LK suggested this one-which is a term coined by the Bard of all Bards-William Shakespeare.
Love it? Think it sucks eggs? All comments and criticisms gratefully received at Sais2Cool516@AOL.com. Thanks!
(This story takes place during the jail cell scene in Ides of March.)
Not a bitter cold that slices its way through you like a razor sharp knife. This is different. The air is damp, frigid and still as death. The kind of cold that creeps its way into your bones, rattling around like a lonely spirit in a forgotten tomb until it settles in and grips you like a fist, reducing all that you are to nothing more than a shell for its painful, deadly clutch. When it tires of toying with its captive it releases its hold, lulling you into a sleep never to awaken from again.
I open my eyes slowly, still hazy on where I am and how I have gotten here. But the smell-gods above! A stench invades my nostrils. A stable full of rotting horse carcasses smells only slightly better than this place.
I feel nothing below my waist. Not even my stubborn determination can will my legs to move. I am completely defenseless, possibly the worst torture of all for a warrior.
And yet all of that is meaningless. I can only focus on one thing at the moment because its all that really matters to me. My head lolls to the left. "Gabrielle?"
I feel gentle, warm fingers cup my chin to cautiously turn my head.
I feel a slight tug at the corners of my mouth revealing a small smile of relief. "Oh." It is the weakest of exclamations, but in my mind Im doing cartwheels and black flips. Gabrielle is here with me. My whole world. The rest doesnt matter.
She cradles me across her lap, the warmth of her body shutting out the cold. I feel her body shift as she leans down and presses her lips to my forehead. She has always had the gift to express herself in eloquent prose and poetry. But this gesture speaks more than a thousand words ever could. I know just what she is trying to convey. Comfort. Protection.
I cant help it. I can feel self-condemnation gathering its forces against me. I have always been the strong one, the guardian, standing fast and ever vigilant between Gabrielle and those that would dare to harm her. This is wrong. All wrong. Im supposed to be the protector. Xena and Gabrielle. The Defender and the Defended. Arent those the roles we both settled comfortably into long ago? Didnt Gabrielle always expect that from me before? Didnt I promise her that?
"Stand back, Gabrielle!"
"Xena dont you think youre being a bit-."
"No!" I seized her by her shoulder and forced her behind me. She stumbled from my rough and unexpected shove. My left hand shot out to steady her while the sword in my right never wavered. "Its a wolf."
Gabrielle pulled away from me with a muttered curse. "Its not a wolf. Its a dog."
She stepped out from behind me and my gaze slid between the hungry, vicious eyes of the beast and her, staring down with a mournful gaze. She dropped into a crouch.
"Quiet, Xena." She held perfectly still, the embodiment of tranquillity and compassion as the animal danced skittishly around her, snapping and snarling.
Let him move one step towards Gabrielle and Ill-.
"He looks frightened," came her voice softly. "And hungry. Out here all alone, who could blame him for trying to protect himself? Xena, I think we still have some food in one of the saddlebags. Would you-?"
"Forget it. Im not moving until he does."
"Why do you always do that?"
It was later. After feeding the mongrel, he had followed after us at a safe distance for hours until I had chased him off with a yell and an angry slash of my sword.
She shook her head in annoyance and took three steps then stopped abruptly, turning on me. "Why do you always feel like you have to protect me even when theres no reason?"
"No reason? He was about to tear you apart."
"Im not just talking about the dog, Xena. I dont need you to stand between me and the entire world."
My lip curled derisively. "Yeah? Well maybe you havent gotten a good look at the world lately." The moment the accusation escaped my lips I wished I could take it back. But there it was. Of all the stupid, thoughtless
"I know how to take care of myself. And believe it or not, Warrior Princess, I can take care of you too. Or was that someone else that saved you from being stoned to death by your own village all those years ago?
I gaze up at Gabrielle and notice the tears welling in her green eyes. A single teardrop streaks down across her cheek.
What can I do? What am I capable of doing in this condition to help her? My actions have always spoken louder than my words.
"Youre crying? Dont cry " My attempt is feeble, but it is the best I can do.
She smiles faintly, understanding my sense of obligation to always be her champion. "I wont. Rest."
I want to say so much more but I dont have the strength. Despite myself, I cant help receding, falling away from her. But her smile reassures me and my guilt is assuaged enough that I can shut my eyes for a moment without it weighing too heavily on my conscience. "Okay "
"Sometimes I just feel like "
Her voice trailed off as if she was grasping for the emotion. But this was Gabrielle. Her feelings were always close to surface. She could draw them out as easily as I yanked fish from the water. She was struggling to find the words. Words that wouldnt hurt me. I could feel my defenses begin to rise.
"Sometimes you what?"
My eyes fell to her lips pressed together thoughtfully and she turned slightly away from me, careful not to provoke a confrontation. "Sometimes I feel like you protect me because you feel you owe me something."
I gazed at her steadily, refusing to let her see that she had struck a raw and painful nerve. I didnt like where this conversation was likely to drift and crossed my arms, hoping that brevity would discourage her from taking this any further.
"I dont want to see you get hurt."
"But where does it stop, Xena? Are you going to take on the whole world just because " she shook her head, as if shaking off old hurts and resentments that she wasnt willing to confront either. "When does it end? How much is enough?"
"I just think maybe youd be better off with Eli."
It was a half-hearted suggestion at best. It had become a routine for us. Whether it followed the natural flow of our conversation or not, I managed to work it in almost daily. I needed to prove to Gabrielle and especially to myself that I was willing to let her go if it meant her safety and happiness. And yet secretly, I always hoped that she would choose me instead.
"Thats just it, Xena. You think. I can do that all on my own." She paused a moment and then her hand reached out to stroke my shoulder, soothing the tension from it. "Were together. Thats enough for me. Why isnt it for you?"
I squeeze my eyes shut against the memory of Gabrielle snatching up my fallen sword from the dirt, bent on protecting me by any means necessary. Because of me, she had to take a human life again. And again and again. With every life she took my soul wrenched a little tighter in agony. I was helpless to do anything but lay there, pleading feebly as Gabrielle sacrificed everything she believed in, her Way, everything she was for me. It is a torment more hideous than anything Tartarus holds in store for me.
I accept the guilt. Ill bear all of it willingly. Ive failed her. I told myself that I was doing everything I possibly could to protect her. But I realize now that I havent done nearly enough.
I can barely look at her. "I made you leave the Way of Love That was my fault."
"I had a choice. To do nothing or save my friend. I chose the Way of Friendship." Her voice is so quiet and I listen carefully for a hint of regret or remorse. But I can detect nothing in it but conviction.
I wonder if this is her way of absolving me of guilt, allowing me to live my last moments with a clear conscience. Its so compassionate and selfless that my heart threatens to break from the love and gratitude I feel towards her.
And yet, even Gabrielles absolution is not enough to wash away all of my guilt. There is still too much Im sorry for, but my ego has always prevented me from letting her know that.
"Havent you ever heard of free will, Xena?"
Settling back comfortably against Argos saddle, I grinned and wiggled my toes, thawing them before the dancing flames of the fire. "Heard of it? I invented it."
"But you act like youre the only one that has the right to exercise it. For the rest of us, free will is what you decide it should be. Gabrielle leaves home to travel with the Warrior Princes and phfft! Thats the last decision Gabrielle ever makes all on her own."
Unceremoniously, she dropped an armload of firewood in a pile at my feet.
"You have to stack the wood."
A pointed glare from blazing green eyes. "Dont I always?"
Oh gods, I thought with an inward groan. Shes going off on one of her rants again. Shes trying to draw me in and I know the harder I resist, the worse shell get. I dont want to, but I know I have to ask. "So whats your point?"
"How come I always have to collect the firewood?"
Smugly, I tucked my hands behind my head and gazed up at her, a hint of mischief in my eyes. "Call it a lesson in humility."
"Oh, Im plenty humble," Gabrielle sang in a mockingly sweet voice. "You, on the other hand, could use a lesson or two."
With that, she dove on me, digging her fingers into my ribcage. Okay, I was ticklish. It certainly didnt lend dignity to the reputation of the Warrior Princess, so I never admitted that to anyone before her. Gabrielle had laughed and told me how cute she thought it was. I had growled at that but she told me it was nice to see I was human after all. At the time, I thought she could be trusted with my secret. And now here she was, using my own weaknesses against me.
I tried fending her off but suddenly she seemed to have grown six arms and everytime I batted one hand away, another appeared to take its place. I was laughing so hard that tears were beginning to roll down my face and I had trouble catching my breath.
"Gabrielle! Stop! Oh gods!" Somehow, I managed to get out from under her and roll away. I lay there flat on my back on the cold ground with my eyes squeezed shut, clutching at my aching sides until the belly laughs subsided and my breathing turned back to a semblance of normality. I rolled over and saw her buried under my blanket, her head resting upon the saddle.
She yawned in an exaggerated fashion and snuggled in deeper. "Good night, Xena."
The realization slowly sunk in that I had been played, and Gabrielle rolled over to face me, her eyes gleaming tantalizingly. The grudging acknowledgment of her victory was there in the flush rising from neck to my cheeks. She was challenging me, daring me to retaliate. Well, she had thrown down the gauntlet. Far be it from me not to oblige.
I leaped to my feet and charged at her. Gabrielles hand shot out from under the blanket and she thrust it at me, wiggling her fingers in a tickling gesture. I couldnt help it. I stopped short and burst out laughing.
"The saddle! Thats all you wanted all along!"
She nodded, her body wracking from the giggles she could no longer suppress. "I know how to play you like a lyre, Xena!"
Its odd how its the small, insignificant things that take on larger proportions in your mind. The day had been too full of tension and resentment and sniping. No reason for it, really. Just the normal occurrence of two people spending so much time together that they cant help but to inevitably work on one anothers nerves. It wasnt enough to create a canyon between us that couldnt be traversed, but a small gully had been dug. The laughter had served as a bridge. Those few moments of rough horseplay and our laughter were probably the most intimate I had ever shared with Gabrielle.
My head snapped to the left and my body instantly tensed into battle mode when I felt a presence on the perimeter of the camp . Instinctively, I forced my laughs back down my throat, deep into my belly. Listening, not daring to move a muscle until my senses could confirm or deny that there was something out there. A twig snapped.
"That damned dog again!" I grabbed for my sword.
"Xena!" Gabrielle jumped out from under the blankets and planted herself in front of me, her hands on my shoulders in a placating gesture. "Just leave him! Hes not doing us any harm."
"What is it with you and that mutt?"
Something in my tone made her step back and she shook her head. "Nothing! Hes just would it hurt anything if we tossed him the bones from our dinner?"
"Then well never get rid of him."
"Is that such a horrible thing, Xena?" She raised her head to look at me and I saw her eyes narrow in defiance.
Suddenly I realized this was no longer about the dog. I spun away from her.
Gabrielle could usually read my moods like a book. But some hidden, nasty thing had crept up between us and she mistook my turning away for a retreat. Over my shoulder I heard the sounds of her rattling around with the frying pan.
Resolutely, I turned back to her. "Dont, Gabrielle."
She flinched, grimly recognizing the road we were on, as shocked and saddened as I was that we had never really left it behind. We could stray off of it, but never too far, always doomed to walk a path beside it.
"Its only a dog, Xena." A soft murmur, a gentle challenge.
She walked the few dozen yards across the clearing, towards the trees where two glowing, hungry eyes waited apprehensively. She threw the bones at the edge of the clearing and stood motionlessly, patiently waiting for the mongrel to take those few cautious steps out from his shelter.
Never taking his wary eyes from Gabrielle and afraid to get too close, the dog stretched his neck as far as he could, gracefully plucking a bone from the ground. He paused a moment, as if assessing her. And finally, reassured by what he saw, he bent his head and dropped the bone to the ground, rewarding her by eating it right there rather than carrying it to safety.
With a snarl, I charged across the clearing, brandishing my sword over my head. "Get lost, you damned mangy mutt!" He took off quicker than a blur, leaving the bone behind.
I chased him far into the trees, driving him off, though I doubted it would be for good. By the time I had returned to the camp, Gabrielle was deep under her blanket, deliberately arranging herself so that she was turned on her side, away from me.
I should have said something. But instead I lay awake all night, every so often glancing over at her, hoping to see more than the back of her head and the top of her shoulders peaking out from under the covers. Once I saw that, I would take it as a cue that all was forgotten.
It has taken a long time for me to admit to myself the role that I played in the rift that grew between us. Ive never admitted that to Gabrielle, assuming hoping she would sense that I have accepted my share of the blame. That time wasnt something weve ever really talked about. The memories and hurt are still painfully close to the surface.
Our relationship has never been the same since then. In a way, it has become stronger, more meaningful than it was before. The bond we share now is more spiritual, unshakable and eternal. But it would never be as carefree as it once was. Little things like finding a stray dog in the woods take on a whole new meaning, sparking old resentments and there were times we just couldnt help digging a trench around ourselves.
And yet even now in the face of death, Gabrielle remains steadfast despite all the old wounds. What have I done to earn that kind of faith and loyalty? There are no words, nothing that can ever come close to expressing how sorry I am for everything Ive done. Our time together is drawing to a close and there are only a few moments left to try. But even if I still had a lifetime left it still wouldnt be enough.
I look up into her eyes mournfully, imploring forgiveness. "Im sorry for all the times I didnt treat you right."
Her voice is so tender and reassuring that my heart races a little from the sheer joy in brings me. "Xena youve brought out the best in me. Before I met you no one saw me for who I was. I felt invisible. But you saw all the things I could be. You saved me, Xena."
Finally, just as dawn was beginning to break I saw her shift her position in her sleep. When she rolled onto her belly and flung her right arm out towards my bedroll, I knew things were all right between us again. Forgiveness was still easily won from her. But where before she could offer it up freely, I saw that it cost her something now.
She needed time alone to reconcile within herself that she was no longer angry with me, and I made sure I was away, deep into the forest, when Gabrielle awoke the next morning.
I hunted in a wide circle around the camp, threading my way in and out of the thick underbrush. After I was done, I sat and waited patiently until I smelled the rekindled campfire out where I lingered in the woods. I took that as a signal that Gabrielle had eased herself into the normal morning routine, getting the fire ready in preparation for whatever I may have caught for breakfast.
My approach back towards the camp was almost sheepish. Gabrielle had heard me coming-I certainly made enough noise to warn her-and she barely turned her head to acknowledge my return. She sat on a log poking at the glowing embers with a stick I had used the evening before to reach an unreachable itch on my back.
"Morning." Dejectedly, she tossed the stick into the flames and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees with a sigh.
I came around and stood on the opposite side of the campfire, apprehensively glancing across at her, unsure of what to say or do, hoping that she would give me some kind of opening. Words have always been Gabrielles domain, and this was one of those times that I was perfectly willing to let her take the lead. Ive never been sure if she made me wait or that it really took her as long as it did to notice me staring down at her. It seemed ages before she glanced up at me for a brief moment.
"You didnt sleep last night."
"No I-uh after what happened " I wiped a hand across my mouth, stalling-feeling almost as if I was on a search and destroy mission for the right words. "About last night I wasnt very-. Well, I mean you were just trying to-I should have "
She looked up at me expectantly and I could feel the mental tug of a rope between her hands and my lips, trying to pull the words from me. Gabrielle had given me so many gifts over the years. She had taught me compassion, tenderness, patience, how to love freely and unselfishly. But the greatest gift of all that she offered had been one that eluded me and probably always would.
I turned towards the trees and stuck two fingers between my teeth, letting out a high, piercing whistle that cut through the early morning stillness like a hatchet. I remained absolutely still, watching the shadow move deep in the trees, circling the perimeter of the camp. Finally, the shadow emerged into the sunlight, one hesitant step at a time. It took several moments for the dog to come completely out into the open of the clearing-and even then he still remained on the edges of it. I could see the tactics at play in his mind. There was still enough ground between him and me for him to make a quick getaway should I decide to charge at him again.
The dogs ears pricked forward in curiosity and his head cocked to one side as he watched Gabrielle rise and slowly cross the clearing. She stopped and turned back to me, her mouth gaping open in shock. "Xena-how did you-?"
I smiled faintly and shrugged with uncharacteristic shyness. "I figured he wouldnt stray too far from you. He was easy to track but I had a Tartarus of a time getting him to take food from me. Took even longer to get him to follow me back to camp. I guess he finally realized that, like it or not, I come along as part of the package."
Finding the dog had been my way of apologizing, hoping that my actions would speak louder than anything I could say to express my remorse. Words had never come easily for me. Oh, the biting, coarse language I used in a fight was easy. I could summon that up easily because it all centered around emotions I was all too comfortable and familiar with, anger, hatred, the desire the intimidate my opponent. Gabrielle had tried for so long to get me to draw the words from deeper within myself, from that place that I kept under almost constant lock and key. I always believed she thought I had a poets soul and that it was her job to unchain it. And even though I constantly berated myself for it, it was a part of myself I just couldnt let free.
Time is running out. I can sense it. There is still so much I want to say to her. Im not quite sure what it is. My emotions are disordered, a jumbled and chaotic mess dancing tantalizingly just out of my grasp. If I could just grasp onto one it would be a beginning
"I wish, umm "
Gabrielle reached out, laying her fingers on my cheek. Warm, gentle and loving. "What?"
"Sometimes I just wish " At a loss, I drew my legs up to my chest, hugging them tightly.
Gabrielle, sitting cross-legged beside me on my bedroll nodded patiently, trying to coax the words from me. "Sometimes you just wish what?"
Suddenly, I was very intent on picking at the frayed end of my gauntlet. The dog had turned and run off for good that morning as we started our steep climb down a rise that looked over Amazon territory. We had camped beside a lake with good fishing, telling one another that if we waited long enough, he just might come back. But even if we didnt admit it to one another, we both knew he wouldnt. Perhaps that was for the best. He would only miss us later on when-.
"Xena?" Gabrielle reached out to touch my hand. "What is it? Tell me."
How? How could I tell her that lately I had been feeling this impending sense of doom? It had been there for months now, but laying in wait, skulking in the shadows, without a face, without a name. But lately, I had sensed it slithering up until I could feel its coils tightening around us.
How could I tell her that with so little time left and so much Ive left unsaid between us, I was desperate to unleash that inner poet she believed in? A thousand things I wished I had said to her and a thousand things more that I wished I could take back. They were all there brimming on the surface. And yet the words still eluded me.
Gabrielles fingers brushed over the back of my hand. "Tell me, Xena."
Her gentle prod made me realize that I had been holding my breath. I exhaled loudly, feeling myself sink a little deeper.
I shook my head and forced a lightness into my tone that I didnt feel. "Nothing-never mind. Hey, I thought you were going to show me how good youve gotten with this new fishing technique of yours."
" I wish I had read your scrolls just once "
Her smile is full of warmth and most important of all, understanding. "You would have liked them."
I understand now. Its not the words that elude me. They have always been there. But to put any feeling aside from anger to words has always frightened me. The thought of exposing my emotions, of awkwardly hanging them out for all the world to see scares me to death. In this way, Gabrielle has always been brave one. I could have learned this from her if only I had let her try.
But Gabrielle is smart. She probably knows this already. Surely she resigned herself to this a long time ago, that many most things remain unspoken with me. After all, Im a warrior and a warrior cant afford the luxury of wearing their heart on their sleeve the same way a bard can. Isnt that part of the Way?
It is the cowards way but Ill never admit that to myself. The closest I can come is to smile up her and know that my smile betrays the guilt and sadness I feel at having failed this final test. But in my smile I know she sees love as well. And without love as its source, there would be no guilt or sadness. I take solace in that and-I believe-she does as well.
Gabrielle reaches out to stroke my cheek with the back of her hand.
Sensation threatens to overpower me. The cold, biting wind slicing through my flesh like a thousand knives. The splintery, uneven feel of the cross against my frozen, naked back. The ropes binding my arms. I can already feel the burns from their tightening.
I shut my eyes to block it all out, focusing only on summoning whatever little strength remains within me to meet my death with the courage and dignity that a warrior should.
Even with my eyes closed, I can feel your gaze intently upon me. Even now, despite this and everything that has gone on before, there is still that intense, indescribable connection between us. I open my eyes and twist my head to the right. Your gaze locks with mine and I understand. You are trying to shut out the horror by focusing only on me. Even at my most vulnerable, you look to me for the strength and courage needed to stand this.
And suddenly our roles are reversed again, back to their natural order.
The wind, the cold, the pain. Even death itself. All of them are circling, threatening to overtake me. I know I can keep them at bay only so long. Time is running short and I cant waste my words. I am no longer important. I have to be strong. For you.
More than anything, you deserve to know just how empty and meaningless my life was before you came along. That I have never regretted a single day we have spent together. How grateful I am that you have shown me so much joy and goodness in the world. Perhaps then you can meet your fate unafraid, because then youll know that your life has not been spent in vain. That is probably the greatest expression of love I could ever show you.
"Gabrielle you were the best thing in my life."
You smile serenely, peacefully coming to terms with your fate because you know that despite everything that has gone on before, and whatever else our future may hold in store, it has brought the two of us together.
"I love you, Xena."
Ive said enough.