"I didn't even have time to think things through! You not only concealed the truth from me before my death, but waited until it was too late to find another option!"
Akemi bowed her head in a motion of shame. "I have waited for this."
"For your anger. You are right... I did wait until it was too late, because there was no other option to find. Your love for her is so strong that I feared it. I feared that you would choose her over us."
"Don't you mean you feared I would choose Gabrielle over you?"
"That is true also. I have loved you for so long and waited for you to return, knowing you would rescue me. Then when I saw you with Gabrielle, I lost faith, not only in the love you once felt for me, but in your conviction to save us all from Yodoshi."
"Akemi, I have always carried love for you, even though you shattered my heart so many years ago. But I am not in love with you; I am in love with Gabrielle."
"But you are now separate from Gabrielle, and will remain that way. Do you not wish her to find a companion that would protect and care for her in the same manner that you did?" She tentatively reached out to touch Xena's face. "And you are still so beautiful. Is your anger eternal? Is it so great you do not think it possible that one day you might forgive me and, perhaps, learn to love me again."
"She's my soulmate."
"Yes, and she is there and you are here. That will not change. I do not expect your love for her to fade and she will never stop loving you either, but is the heart so small that it only has room for one love?"
"My heart in not small; it is full. In our next life, she and I will be together again. Until then, her love is enough to sustain me."
It was a busy night for Gabrielle. She checked on the women in the healer's hut; there were no deaths. She silently thanked whatever god was listening, even though she remained unsure whether they could hear her or not. She convened the council and after much debate they decided to turn the slavers over to the authorities. Tyro repeatedly called for their deaths, but Gabrielle remained firm that since they had taken to lives, their lives would be spared. Instead, the weapons master would choose a group of women to transport the prisoners as soon as the weather cleared.
At some point in the middle of the night, Gabrielle managed to return to her hut. Inside she found a fire burning. There was a plate of food warming on the hearth. As she crossed the room to eat, Janae emerged from the back room. "Did you do this?"
"Thank you. I'm so tired I wouldn't have eaten until morning."
"I know." She looked over her shoulder and then back again. "I have a bath drawn if you'd like to bathe before you eat. The plate will stay warm longer than the water."
"You drew me a bath? How did you know when I would be here?"
"I posted Kara outside the council hut. She reported to me as soon as the members began to leave."
Gabrielle had to laugh in spite of herself. "That's pretty clever. But how did you know I wouldn't be angry at you for entering my hut without permission?"
Shrugging, Janae replied, "I was betting that if you were too tired to get something to eat and too tired to draw a bath, you'd be too tired to be angry at me for doing it for you."
"It was a good bet."
"I'm glad you're not angry. How does your arm feel?"
"Well, it hurts, but the dressing has held up well. You did a good job."
"You've been in and out of the rain all night. Come get in the bath and I'll replace the dressing after you eat."
The queen was too tired to argue. She rose and walked into the bathing room. There were candles spread around the tub, giving the room a warm glow. The romantic setting gave Gabrielle pause. As if reading her thoughts, Janae explained, "I thought the candles would be relaxing."
"You're right; they're lovely. Thank you for preparing this for me." She had hoped the younger woman would take that as her hint to leave.
"You're welcome. Now let me help you."
Turning to face her caregiver, Gabrielle insisted, "No, that's okay. Really. I can do this."
"You think I didn't notice your bruises? You took care of me when I was battered; please, let me do the same."
Glancing over her shoulder, Gabrielle asked suspiciously, "This isn't river water, is it?"
Janae chuckled. "Of course it is, but it's warm river water. I don't think you need an ice bath." With that she began untying the halter strings beneath her shoulder blades. "I think you need something to relax your muscles." It was a whisper in her ear and it caused goose bumps to race across her skin. "Am I right, Teacher?"
Gabrielle's mouth was suddenly very dry. Her pulse was pounding at her neck by the time the top strings were untied. Janae held on to one of the strings and lifted it away. Then she moved to the clasps in the back of the skirt. Gabrielle wanted to stop her, knew that she should... It had just been so long since someone had been there to take care of her.
By the time she reasoned that out, her skirt was on the floor. Trembling hands traced the outline of the dragon on her back. "I know this makes you sad, but it is so incredibly beautiful." Tender lips kissed the head of the dragon, then made a trail from one shoulder to the next. "Just like the woman who wears it."
Gabrielle began to tighten and flow in places she was sure had long forgotten how to react to another living human. She searched for the words that had always come so easily to her and none came. Another whisper in her ear made her stomach quiver, "Now let's get you in the bath."
A knock at the door woke Gabrielle. She tried to stir, but found herself wrapped in two muscular arms. There was a warm body snuggled against her back and legs matching the curve of her own. "Good morning, Sleepyhead." It was a sweet sound against the back of her neck.
"I'm going to kill whoever is at that door... " Her eyes still heavy with sleep, she rolled over to nuzzle into a broad shoulder. "Good morning to you, too." She kissed the shoulder briefly and worked her way up the neck until she reached Xena's lips. It was a chaste, sleepy kiss. As she pulled away she opened her eyes. But the eyes before her were not the dazzling blue of Xena's, they were a rich dark brown. She gasped.
An awkward space hung between them until Janae spoke the truth. "You were thinking of Xena."
"I'm sorry. I was. I haven't woken up in anyone's arms in over two years. And the last arms that held me were Xena's."
"I understand. I really do. It's okay."
The knock on the door was followed by Cyane's voice. "Gabrielle? Are you okay?"
"Oh, Gods!" she whispered to Janae. "Stay here." She leapt from the bed to find that she was totally naked. She turned back to look at Janae, who was studying her appreciatively. "Just a minute!" she called. She grabbed her robe from the foot of the bed and exited to the main room.
"Are you okay?" Cyane asked.
"Sure; why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, it's almost midday and you never sleep this late anymore."
"Midday! Really? I guess I was more exhausted than I realized." She absently ran her fingers through her hair while she tried to gain her bearings. "Is something wrong?"
"No, there's nothing wrong, except we can't find Janae."
"You can't find Janae?" Okay, play stupid until you can think of something else. "Who was looking for her?"
"Tyro. There's a break in the weather, so she loaded those slavers up first thing to take them to the authorities. She wanted to invite Janae to go along, but couldn't find her." She waited for Gabrielle to speak, but she didn't. "You wouldn't, by any chance, know where she is, would you?"
"I'm right here," Janae revealed as she emerged from the back of the hut. She was fully clothed. "I drew a bath for Gabrielle last night, but fell asleep before she arrived back from her council meeting. Instead of waking me, she covered me with a blanket and let me sleep."
"Oh... that was nice of you," she said coyly to her friend.
"Well it would've been pretty cruel to wake me from a dead sleep to send me out into the rain so I could go back to sleep in my own hut."
"That's true... " Cyane was clearly not buying this story. "But just so you know, Tyro was not quiet about looking for Janae. The women have been betting all morning that she was in here."
Gabrielle looked over to Janae, who shrugged. "Well, they were right. It just wasn't for the reason they're all hoping."
"Okay... Well, now that I know you're okay, you can go back to sleep, or whatever."
"Cyane... " There was a clear warning in Gabrielle's growl.
"I'm leaving! I'm leaving!" And with that she fled out the door.
Gabrielle waited for the door to shut before slumping into a chair. "Well, that's just great... "
Janae was silent behind her for so long that she turned around to see what she was doing. There were tears running down her face. Gabrielle was suddenly tired again. "What's wrong, Janae?"
"You're ashamed the women would think you could be interested in me?"
"No! I just didn't want either one of us to be at the center of the village gossip." She crossed the room and took Janae's face in her hands, gently wiping her tears. "Janae, any woman would be lucky to have you; you're the ideal Amazon and on top of that you're kind and considerate and attentive."
"You mean any woman but you."
The blonde turned away from the warrior and moved back to the chair. "I've had the love of my life, Janae."
"What, your heart only had enough love in it for Xena? I don't believe that."
"No, of course not; but Xena was my soulmate. When you find the person you're going to spend eternity with... "
"Would you have wanted her to be alone?"
"You mean if it had been me who died?"
"No; I would have hoped that she found someone to spend the rest of her life with, someone to love and take care of her."
"And if she did, would that make you doubt the love you shared?"
"Nothing could make me doubt the love we share."
"You talk about her as if she's still here."
"She is still here, in my heart."
"She should always be in your heart, Gabrielle. But it wasn't her arms that you slept to peacefully in last night."
That truth hung in the air, heavy and painful. "About last night... "
"Nothing happened. You fell asleep in the bath, so I laid a towel out, climbed in, lifted you out of the water, and carried you to bed. I placed you on the towel and dried your beautiful body off. I started to leave, but you grasped my hand in yours. Even in your sleep, you knew you didn't want to be alone. So I took off my clothes, dried off, and climbed in bed. As soon as I was beside you, I could tell you were resting easier. You snuggled into my arms and let out the sweetest sigh I've ever heard."
Gabrielle was blushing. She started to say something, but Janae cut her off. "I know that Xena was your soulmate. And I know that no one could ever replace her. But I don't want to replace her; I'm not a substitute. I'm a woman and I'm in love with you." She crossed the room, grabbed Gabrielle by the hands, and pulled her up into her arms. "And what I really want is for you to make room in your life and your heart for me." With that, she delivered a kiss that was passionate and urgent.
Gabrielle was still breathless as Janae walked out the door.
With the prisoners gone and most of the repairs finished, there wasn't much to do, so Gabrielle left the village to walk in the forest. She walked for most of the evening and into the night, although her path never took her far from the village. When the moon was high she sat by the river and called to her soulmate. Soon a warm breeze wrapped around her like a blanket. "Hello, my love."
"Hello to you, too. Why do you have stitches on the back of your arm?"
Gabrielle smiled. "That was quick."
"Like I wasn't going to notice... What did I miss?"
"Yesterday. They've had a scout camp on the edge of our lands for days so they must have been planning the attack for a while now."
"Why didn't you just run them off before they could get settled?"
"Because they were camped beyond our border and I couldn't be sure what their motives were. We handled it."
"Was anyone hurt?"
"Nothing serious; they were slavers. They wanted the women in one piece."
"I'm glad no one was hurt. And I'm especially glad that you're okay." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and kissed her on the top of her head. Almost immediately, her bard was sobbing. "Tell me what's wrong."
"I know, Sweetheart."
Gabrielle's emotions swung to anger as she stepped away from the safe feeling that enveloped her. She could see Xena, transparent and yet breathtaking, surrounded by moonlight. "Do you? Do you really know you're dead?"
"Of course I do, Gabrielle."
"I'm not sure you do. You were off saving complete strangers from Yodoshi while I was fighting for your head."
"This again?" Xena retorted.
"What else is there? It's the last thing we had. Your decision is the last thing we had!"
They stood silently, listening to the churning of the river for a long time. Finally Xena broke the silence. "I spoke to Harukata. He says that you will never know happiness unless I let you go."
Tears were streaming down Gabrielle's face unchecked. She knew it was the truth. "What else did he say?"
"He said that we would never lose the love that we share, that we will both carry it with us always."
"And what do you think?"
"I think that every time I visit you, I make you sad. And every time I don't visit you, I make you sad. I think you deserve more."
"So you're leaving me?"
"Just for this lifetime. I'll be waiting for you in the next one."
"How will I know you?"
"That's the easy part. I'll be the one who loves you without condition and without limits."
Gabrielle wiped her tears as she turned to face her soulmate for the last time. "Will you be with Akemi?"
"No. Where I'm going, the love we shared will follow. I don't need to have another to be complete. I am already complete, because you made me that way."
Gabrielle hung her head, ashamed of her own need.
"Look at me... " When she looked up, it was her Xena. She was breathtaking and radiant. "I want you to live your life and love again with my blessing. I want you to fall in love and get married and have children and grandchildren. I want you to grow old and die in your sleep, lying in the arms of someone you love."
Taking her in her arms for one last time, she kissed her. It was long and tender and bittersweet, and when they parted she wiped Gabrielle's tears and said, "I'll be waiting for you, so don't be afraid when your time comes. Until then, there's an amazing young warrior back in your village who, I'm willing to bet, would very much like the chance to win your heart."
Gabrielle was shocked. "How did you know?"
Xena smiled that devastating smile of hers. "I know us warrior types; we're a sucker for a beautiful girl."
"I love you, Xena. I'll always love you."
Moonlight began to filter through as Xena faded into the night, whispering, "I'll love you forever."
By the time Gabrielle made her way back to the camp it was the middle of the night. Janae was sitting on the steps to her hut. "Listen, about what you said earlier... "
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I was... "
"Shhhhh; why don't you come inside. We have some things to talk about."
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