Illusions I Recall - by Stacia Seaman

Disclaimer: I'm only borrowing them. I promise to take good care of them and to return them to RenPic and, MCA, and whoever else actually owns them.

Sex and Alternative Content Warning: They're together. Definitely. Nothing too graphic, though.

Timeline: This story takes place after the events of Fallen Angel; however, in my world, the pregnancy arc never happened.

Author's note will appear in the final segment.

* * * * *

She thinks of me as a little girl. She's trying, I'll give her credit for that. Her perception of me is changing, bit by bit, day by day. She'll admit that I'm a capable fighter. She knows that I can defend myself and, if necessary, even defend her.

I wonder what goes on in that mind of hers. She knows that I've come to terms with the loss of my blood innocence. It's been a long journey, filled with pain, regret, and misunderstanding, culminating in our death and resurrection. I've accepted that I can, and probably will, kill again in defense of myself or others, but Xena still struggles with my decision and does everything in her power to keep me out of danger.

She offers words of understanding and comfort when I wake from night terrors, visions of blood and horror. She holds me, strokes my hair, caresses my forehead, until I drift gently back to sleep on a wave of pure sensuality, yet she only rarely allows herself to touch me simply because I am homesick or lonely.

I know that she understands physical longing. She is a sensual creature, a sexual creature. Naïve as I was, I understood that right away. I know that she's had several lovers, though she doesn't like to talk about them. I thought, at first, that her hesitation was due to my lack of experience. After all, I was a simple farm girl, and she was a sophisticated warlord. How could I understand such passions? But even after my marriage to Perdicas, she still avoided the topic.

I understand her early reluctance. I was consumed by her beauty, by the guilt and sorrow that haunted her clear blue eyes. I would have gone anywhere, done whatever she asked of me, to keep traveling with her. She must have known that; I could see her battling her darker instincts, the ones that would once have led her to exploit such innocent adoration. I caught her watching me, once, during those first months. I was dozing by the fire while she sharpened her sword. She was looking at me so gently, so tenderly, yet with a burning intensity. I closed my eyes before she realized I was awake.

I've often wondered what she was feeling that night. Was it the fierce protectiveness of a mother guarding her child? the amazement of a doomed warrior rejoicing at a second chance at life? the passion of a lover watching her partner sleep? I don't know.

In the years that have passed since that night, I've seen the different faces of Xena. I've seen the mother, the Destroyer of Nations, and the lover, but I've not seen that look again. All this time, I've watched her carefully, quietly, but that intense gaze appears only in my memories, burning straight into my heart.

Sometimes I find myself thinking about what would have happened if I hadn't closed my eyes that night, if I had approached her. Would she have allowed my touch? Would I have been ravished by the Warrior Princess, or would she have taken possession of my body slowly and gently? Would she have simply tucked me back into my bedroll and told me to go to sleep?

I should know the answers to these questions. We've been together for five years, and sometimes I think that I know Xena better than myself. The truth is that I have no idea how she would have reacted then, and, more importantly, I have no idea how she would react now.

I've been asking myself this question with increasing frequency since Eli brought Xena and me back from the dead. Our relationship has changed in a very subtle, but fundamental, way. We've as much as confessed our love for one another, and we've promised that we will always be together. I know that my path is with Xena. My heart and soul are bound to hers, and I ache to share the physical expression of my love with her. Why can't she see that?

* * * * * *

She has changed so much in the past years. No longer the round-faced young farm girl from Poteidaia, but a strong, capable woman, Gabrielle has literally been through hell, yet she is still as kind and pure as she was the day I first saw her.

I remember how she was during those first few months of travel – full of tales of adventure and romance. You'd have thought her traveling companion was a dashing young prince instead of a jaded former warlord. She brought light into my world with her words and her smile. The fears and demons that haunted my nights faded before the trust and adoration reflected in her eyes.

At first, it was all I could do not to push her away. Memories of my tryst with Hercules were still fresh in my mind, and as much as I had tried to convince myself that I had acted out of love, I knew it wasn't true. Hercules did act out of love, if not for the person I was, then for the person he knew I could be. What we had shared had been, for me, an expression of gratitude and a blind need to prove to myself that I was worthy of loving and being loved.

I realized, once we had defeated Darphus, that I needed to get away from Hercules. I didn't share his confidence that I had changed my path, and I knew that I needed to find the way on my own. Those first days alone were among the darkest of my life. I could not even look at myself; I saw a monster who cared only for power and revenge, bringing death and destruction to anyone who dared stand in her way.

That's when I met Gabrielle. She was so young and innocent, untouched by the horror of war. Even though she had heard the stories of who I was and what I had done, she believed in me, based only on what she had seen and what she felt. I promised myself that I would always protect her from everyone and everything, but mostly from myself.

At night I would watch her as she slept by the fire. I wondered if she had any idea of the power that she had over me -- Xena, the warlord, Destroyer of Nations--brought to my knees over a young farm girl. There were times when I wanted to give myself up to her adoration and trust, and I had to remind myself that she was innocent of the physical expressions of love. Knowing that she would have given up that innocence to me without hesitation made me love her even more.

I have taken so much from her. Gabrielle has lost her blood innocence, her daughter, her husband...all because of me. The girl who slept soundly through swordfights now cries out in the night, terrified by the visions she sees in her dreams. During those times I go to her and give back to her some of the love and comfort she's given me since the day we met. Yet, as much as I long to hold her and sing her to sleep before the nightmares begin, I cannot. She deserves more, and I deserve nothing.

I will always love Gabrielle. She is my balance. She is my light. Someday she will find someone who will waken the passions inside her. I only wish it could be me.

* * * * * *

The glowing embers provided the only light when Xena awoke from a restless sleep. Hearing a strangled sob, she quickly walked over to where Gabrielle lay. As the bard continued to whimper, Xena smoothed the hair back from her sweaty forehead. Gabrielle's breathing evened and slowed.

Dawn was near. Xena stirred the fire back to life and began to heat some water for tea. She returned to her bedroll, intending to pack it up for the day's journey, when she looked over at her companion. Gabrielle was sleeping soundly, her expression serene. Her blonde hair glowed in the light of the fire.

Xena arranged her blankets next to the bard's and lay down so that she could watch Gabrielle. She reached out and gently caressed the sleeping woman's cheek, then stroked her hair. Her clear blue eyes filled with tears and she whispered, "You are the best thing in my life." Moving closer, she placed a kiss on Gabrielle's forehead, and, hearing no change in the bard's breathing, tenderly kissed her lips. As she rose and began her morning routine, Xena didn't notice the green eyes that watched her move about the camp.

The warrior was pouring hot water into two cups when she felt a small, strong hand on her shoulder. "Did I wake you last night?"

"Not really. I couldn't sleep."

Gabrielle took her tea and sat beside Xena, then asked, "Any particular reason?"

Silence. Then a barely audible sigh and a quick shake of a dark head.

The two women sat by the fire, sipping their tea, each lost in her own thoughts.

Quietly, almost hesitantly, Gabrielle asked, "When do you think we'll reach Greece?"

"In another week or so," Xena said, not lifting her gaze from the fire. "Somewhere you want to go?"

"No, not really."

"The Amazons, Poteidaia…"

"I said no."

Xena's head jerked up in surprise.

The bard's green eyes were brimming with tears, which she angrily wiped away.

"What is it, Gabrielle? Please tell me."

"It's just that..what if they…" her voice trailed off into silence. She wrapped her arms around herself as if trying to get warm.

She felt Xena's strong arms enveloped her, pulling her close. The warrior's warm, spicy scent was soothing, almost intoxicating.

"I don't know how to describe it. I…." She leaned further into Xena's embrace, turning slightly so that her head lay on the warrior's strong shoulder. "What happens when we get back to Greece?"

"I don't know." A hint of frustration was apparent in the warrior's voice. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"It's just…." The bard took a deep breath and pulled back but did not look at Xena. "I'm not sure I can go back to the way things were, before."

* * * * *

Xena stiffened and moved closer to the fire, busying herself with stirring the embers. She'd wondered when this would happen; she knew that she was responsible not only for getting Gabrielle killed, but also for dragging her friend with her into an eternity in hell. Only Eli's intervention had spared the younger woman, and, for some unfathomable reason, Xena herself, from that fate. It was good that Gabrielle had finally realized the consequences of her continued association with the warrior; maybe now she would leave and live a happy, normal life.

"I see," she said evenly, unable to look at the blonde.

The bard absently tugged a loose bit of lacing on her boot. "A lot of things have changed since…well, since Ephiny died," she began. "And I'm not sure yet what it all means for me--for us." She shifted uneasily.

"Go on." Xena's voice was calm, betraying none of her emotions.

"I was trying so hard to follow Eli, to walk the path of love, and I never stopped to ask myself - why was I doing this? was this really my Way? It seemed right, but at the same time…"

"At the same time?" Xena prompted gently.

"At the same time it wasn't. I told myself that I was devoting myself to a life of peace and non-violence, but at the same time I was traveling with a warrior--with you," she turned to face Xena, "and I wasn't going to leave. Every time I saw someone attack you…"

Once again, tears filled Gabrielle's eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Xena resisted the urge to wipe them away, knowing that the bard needed to finish voicing her thought without interruption or distraction.

In a low voice, full of emotion, Gabrielle continued, "I would watch them attack you, knowing that I wasn't going to help, I wasn't going to defend myself or anyone else, not as long as I followed the Way I'd chosen. When I stopped to think about it, I knew it wasn't fair to you," she turned her teary green eyes to the warrior, "but I told myself that it didn’t matter, that you understood."

Not breaking eye contact, Xena nodded. "I did understand, and I accepted your decision."

Gabrielle found confirmation of these words in the warrior's crystal blue eyes. She nodded slightly and then, looking down at her hands, she said, "I saw what you were going through. I know you were questioning the path you were on, the path I walked with you. You thought it was your fault that I had strayed so far from my Way. And then we ran into Najara…"

Xena closed her eyes at the memory of their second encounter with the fanatical woman.

"I wanted so much to believe that she had changed, like you changed." She looked up at the warrior. "I was angry with you for not giving her a chance, and I said things that I knew would hurt you. I knew you were destined to follow the Way of the warrior, but I couldn't understand how we could follow such different paths and still be together."

Hearing the warrior's sharp intake of breath, Gabrielle took Xena's hands in her own. "And then you told me that you would always be there for me." Her eyes glowed as she remembered their conversation. "You told me that if I ever found myself in a situation with no alternative to violence, you would fight for me." With a harsh laugh, she released Xena's hands. "I realized then that you were more certain of my Way than I was."

"What?" came the warrior's shocked response.

"It suddenly seemed so obvious to me that you blamed yourself for everything bad that's happened to me, and—"

"And you thought I wanted you to follow this path so that *I* would feel better?" Xena's eyes betrayed her hurt feelings.

"No," Gabrielle said gently. "Not at all. You thought that by helping me follow my Way, you'd be able to protect me, to spare me the pain that comes from fighting. Or killing."

The bard fell silent, allowing Xena time to absorb her words. Minutes passed, and still the warrior said nothing.

Gabrielle placed a reassuring hand on Xena's shoulder, then gestured at the empty cup beside her. Xena nodded, and the bard moved closer to the fire to retrieve the heated waterskin.

* * * * *

Xena sipped her tea slowly, glad of something to do while she composed her thoughts. What the younger woman had said was true. Xena had hoped that Gabrielle would find peace on her new path, and she had been determined to help the bard in any way she could. She'd even toyed with the idea of joining Gabrielle on that journey. The Way of love was not for her, though. She was destined to follow the Way of the warrior, and it always sent a chill down her spine when she realized that she had been following her true path even while performing the most evil actions imaginable.

The warrior looked over at her companion, who was making a half-hearted effort to find some breakfast in their saddlebags. She smiled at the bard's attempt to restore some normalcy to their morning.

Gabrielle returned to her spot by the fire, carrying two apples and some bread. Xena nodded her thanks and took the smaller apple. She lifted it to her mouth, hesitated, then said, "Things have changed for us since..." She shuddered, feeling a sudden chill despite her proximity to the fire. "I thought it started in the prison courtyard, when you…" She let her voice trail off, unsure of the best way to finish her thought.

"When I killed those guards." Gabrielle's voice was strong and clear, with no hint of regret.

"Yes. Then." Xena looked quickly at the bard, then returned her gaze to the fire. "But you said that the changes began with Ephiny's death. What did you mean by that?"

"When Ephiny died, I started thinking about my life. Really thinking about the things I'd done, the things I was doing. And when Pompey attacked us, I was standing in the middle of the battle, watching the Amazon fighters – my Amazon sisters – risk their lives to save the tribe. And I wasn't willing to fight beside them." She paused, turning her apple over and over in her hands.

"But deep down, I knew that if I had to, if things got really bad, if anything happened to you," she angled her face toward Xena, without making eye contact, "I knew that nothing could keep me from joining that battle, not even Eli's teachings. Later that night, I remembered something you said in India. You said that a warrior couldn't take the time to ask questions in the heat of battle. You had to know that you would be able to act, without hesitation, because that was your Way."

Xena held her breath, listening to the words that tumbled out of Gabrielle's mouth, unable to believe what she was hearing.

"And when I saw you in that courtyard," her voice broke and she began to cry, "without your sword, you weren't moving, you weren't fighting, and I knew," her shoulders shook as she sobbed, "I knew that I had to protect you. When I picked up that sword and started fighting those men, I knew that I had found my Way."

Xena remained silent, her features expressionless except for her eyes, which brimmed with tears. She reached over to Gabrielle and, gently removing the apple from the bard's hands, pulled her close, wrapping her arms around the younger woman's back and resting her cheek on silky blonde hair.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and hugged the warrior's waist tightly, gaining comfort from Xena's warmth, her scent, the feel of her heartbeat. She wanted nothing more than to stay right where she was, but she knew that she had not yet said all she needed to say. She reluctantly loosened her grip on Xena and sat back slightly.

The warrior returned her gaze to the fire in an attempt to calm the wild storm of her emotions. She fought the tears that threatened to spill onto her cheeks. How could she have betrayed that love and trust? Her selfish need to be with Gabrielle had nearly condemned the bard to an eternity in hell. Her heart ached at the thought of life without the younger woman, but she knew that Gabrielle needed to get away now--before Xena had another chance to hurt her, as she inevitably would.

A shadow of sorrow flitted across Xena's face. The muscles in the warrior's jaw clenched as she tried to hold back the tears through sheer force of will.

"It's not what you think." Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's cheek and gently but firmly turned the warrior's face toward hers. Xena jerked her head away. A lone tear traced a path down her cheek before she wiped it away roughly with the back of her hand.

"Yeah? and what would that be?"

"That I should leave you and go to Poteidaia, or to the Academy, or to study with Eli."

"You should think about it. You'd be safe there. You could have a normal life. If you stay with me, you'll just get hurt again." Or killed. The words hung, unspoken.

"Aren't you listening to me, Xena?" Gabrielle's eyes filled again, this time with tears of frustration. "I don't want to be taken care of. I'm not a little farm girl anymore, and I'm not going to let other people fight my battles for me."

"Gabrielle," the warrior said slowly, "have you thought about what this means, where this could lead?"

"Yes," the bard whispered. "I'll have to fight. I might even have to kill. But I'll be with you, and that's where I belong."

* * * * *

Thanks to Faithful for hours of online editing and brainstorming, and for sending me her Xena tapes in times of need.

The title for this piece is taken from "Both Sides Now," written by Joni Mitchell, recorded by Joan Collins, and listened to by my family on countless roadtrips through the American Southwest.

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