(or what happened between the episodes)

by Texbard

For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"


1.16 -- The Strongest Power

(post "Mortal Beloved")

Marcus: Don't give up on love."X: "You heard those thoughts, too?"Marcus: "Yes."X: "It's just that I found out how much you meant to me one moment, and you were gone the next. It hurt too much, I guess. I started wondering if it was ever worth it to care that much."Marcus: "Oh, but it is. One thing that I've learned, is that love is the strongest power in the universe.-Mortal Beloved


It would have been so easy. Marcus could have kept that helmet and stayed here. It would have taken away all the complications. He could have had a second chance to get it right. We could have had a life together. Maybe Gabrielle would have a chance to go live a normal life. Maybe if he were here, I could put Gabrielle in the proper place.

Who am I kidding? I couldn't even make love with Marcus. It felt so good to be held, and I wanted to believe being with him would put everything right. I wanted to believe I could love him--that I could let go of things I have no right to feel.

We came so close, but she was right there, across the campsite from us, and apparently even though he was temporarily alive, Marcus could still read my thoughts. Talk about embarrassing. I don't know how many times I apologized, but he said it was okay. So he held me and I finally fell asleep in his arms. And it was nice for one night to just sleep without keeping watch. It was nice to not have to be strong for just those few hours.

But before I fell asleep, he had a long talk with me. All the feelings I've been having--he heard them. And he told me again not to give up on love. He said he had no way to know what the future holds, but the love I have, he believes it's pure. He told me a love like that is worth the patience and the heartache.

And isn't that just damned strange? Me having anything inside that is pure. I'm going to have to think about that for a while. I'd like to think I can just love without wanting anything in return, but I don't think I could do it forever. Sometimes I think it's already out of my hands. The kid has my heart. Whether I have hers almost doesn't matter.

I still don't think any good can come of these feelings. Or even of what Gabrielle is feeling. A part of me thought it might be best for her if I drowned at the bottom of that lake. I know she loves me as a friend. Maybe even like a sister. And being with me, I think will only result in heartbreak for her, eventually.

The look in her eyes when she handed over my chakram--I hate seeing that look, and knowing if things went badly, it would cause her pain. Every day of our lives, almost, we face life-threatening danger. The odds aren't in our favor.

"Xena?" Her voice startles me, and I look across the fire from my bedroll.

"Yeah?" We are back in the same clearing we spent the night with Marcus. I'm feeling a number of things, and being here isn't helping. But we were on the road a long time today and this was convenient when the sun started to set, so here we are.

"I'm sorry you had to say goodbye to him again." She rolls to her side and curls her arm under her head. The fire makes her eyes look gold, rather than green, and I find myself lost in them for a moment.

"He's where he should be, in the Elysian Fields." I try to sound nonchalant. "It's for the best, Gabrielle. If none of this had happened, he would have spent eternity in Tartarus. Everything happens precisely as it should."

"Maybe so, but it still doesn't keep it from hurting." She sits up and gathers up her bedroll, and before I can protest, she is on my side of the fire next to me. Not that I have the heart to protest. I'm still feeling out of sorts, and having her near eases that, somehow.

"I'll be fine." I reach across and touch her face, and she closes her eyes. "But thanks for caring."

She takes my hand and holds onto it, her thumb brushing the back of it. Those eyes open and I have to look away, up toward the sky. I know there is too much for her to see in mine. "That's what friends are for." Her voice washes over me like a soothing cool rain on a hot day. "I wish I could make it better."

"You waited for me. That's more than enough." I roll my head to the side and look at her. She is completely surprised.

"Of course I waited for you. Xena, what did you think I would do? I was terrified I'd never see you again." She scoots closer, and next thing I know, her head is on my shoulder. "I think . . . if you hadn't surfaced when you did, I was about ready to dive in after you."

"I'm glad you didn't do that." I close an arm around her and kiss the top of her head. I am certain much more of this is going to kill me, but at the same time, holding her is starting to put parts of my world right. Then again, it's sending other parts completely off kilter.

"Well, I would have." I feel her shaking and come to understand once more that I can't keep thinking of her as a kid much longer.

"One thing kept me going on that last long swim to the surface." I sift her hair through my fingers and slowly, she quits shaking. "You wanna know what that was?"

"Your love for Marcus?" Her hand rests flat against my stomach and she's making little circles there. Yeah, this is going to kill me. Or make me stronger. Isn't that how that saying goes?

"No. It was the hope that my best friend would be sitting on that beach when I broke the surface." She grows very still and then she starts to shake again. "Gabrielle?"

She sniffles, and I realize she's crying. I hate that. I never know what to do when she cries. "I'm sorry," her voice quivers and my heart aches. Even alive I seem to keep causing her pain.

"No. I'm sorry." I hug her tightly and rub her back until she calms down. "I didn't mean to scare you, Gabrielle. I had to go. We did some good, you and I."

"We did?" She sits up partway and looks at me, and this time I'm able to hold her gaze.

"You're my friend, and that's important. But we're a team, you and I. You helped fool Atyminius into thinking that bride was at home in her bed. We couldn't have done it without you." This earns me a genuine smile, and I can't help but smile back.

"You really think of us as a team?" Her voice is full of wonder.

"Absolutely." And even as I say it, I understand that we are. I have a best friend, and that is something I never thought I'd have again. To have a best friend I can always count on is a bonus. I pull her back down until her head is resting against my shoulder again.

"You don't know how good that makes me feel." She sighs contentedly and starts making those distracting circles against my stomach. "It's nice not to be useless anymore."

"We've been through this." I sigh, looking up at the stars, wishing I knew what to say. She's the bard. I always seem to be winging it. "You have never been useless to me."

"Okay. I'll accept that." She laughs lightly, and her breath tickles my skin. "It's nice to not have to run behind trees anymore. I like being able to help."

"Well, rest assured, there've been more times now than I can count when I was plenty glad to have you at my side." And that's more of an understatement than she can possibly understand.

She's quiet for so long, I assume she's fallen asleep. I close my eyes and try to join her. "What was it like down there?"

"Where?" Guess she's not asleep after all.

"The other side. You saw the Fields." She sits partway up again.

"Saw Tartarus too. Trust me, you don't want to go there." I shiver. I know I'll be going there someday. "I'm glad to be back among the living."

"But how did you get there without being dead?"

I roll to my side and rest my head against my hand. Obviously we aren't sleeping just yet. "Charon rowed me across the Styx."

"You met Charon?" Her eyes grow wide. "Did you have a coin for him?"

"You don't need a coin unless you're dead." I chuckle. "He's a funny little man. He reminded me a little bit of Iolaus."

"Iolaus?" She laughs. "How so?"

"I don't know. He just did. Something about his voice and the way he moved."

"Hmm. How strange." She laughs again. "Marcus is in the Fields, though. That's a good thing."

"Yes, very good." She reaches out and touches my face, the same way I touched hers earlier.

"You know, Xena, you've done more good than he had a chance to." I close my eyes as she strokes my cheek, then my hair.

Damn if she hasn't gotten very good at reading my thoughts. "He did a special favor for Hades, Gabrielle."

"So did you." Her voice grows insistent. "What were the Fields like, Xena?"

"It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen." Her eyes soften and she smiles, encouraging me to keep talking, so I do. "Waterfalls and flowers and birds singing everywhere. Everyone is happy and has everything they could want. There's no pain there."

"You'll see them again someday." She leans closer and I feel her breath against my skin. Then she kisses my cheek.

"Gabrielle. I don't think . . ." As I turn my head, her lips brush across mine. I'm certain it was an accident and she was going for my cheek again. She smiles in embarrassment as she pulls back.

"Don't say it." She presses a finger against my lips. They are already tingling and she's not making it any better. "After what you did for him, Hades owes you, Xena. If he doesn't send you to the Fields, he's going to have to answer to me when I get there."

"That should put the fear of the gods in him." I pull her head down and kiss it again, and tuck it under my chin, and lay back, wrapping both arms around her. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." She snuggles up against me. Maybe we are finally going to sleep. Or at least she is. "I love you, Xena."

"Love you too." I can tell my friend I love her, can't I? After a while, I realize she's asleep. Me, I'm going to stay awake a while longer. This moment is too sweet to waste.


NEXT in the BTL Series - post "The Royal Couple of Thieves"

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