Nights of Desire

Installment Two of The Indigo Scrolls

"Lyrical Revelations," Part Two

by Rhiannon Silverflame

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto, and Perdicas are the property of Universal, MCA, and Renaissance Pictures; Erin Chapman and Valerie Jackson are the creation and property, as it were, of the author. The Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, are real people and as such are the legal property of no one; the author sincerely hopes that they do not mind their inclusion here, and intends no disrespect. The concept of The Indigo Scrolls is the property of the author.

SUBTEXT: In the present-day timeline, there is absolutely no subtext whatsoever. Amy and Emily are not, nor have they ever been, romantically involved. In the ancient timeline, likewise, there is absolutely no subtext whatsoever. But that’s because it’s maintext. The author refuses to be shaken from believing that Xena and Gabrielle are anything but romantically involved. So deal with it. If this concept offends or disturbs you, go have a good stiff drink and then read something else (but probably none of the author’s other works).

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Do I consider this uber-Xena fan fiction? Not really. Though it does involve my depictions of Xena and Gabrielle’s modern-day reincarnations, when it all comes down to the basics, this is about Xena and Gabrielle. Please note: The Indigo Scrolls series adheres to the show’s canon through the episode "The Ides of March," but not "Déjà Vu All Over Again." This is part of the four-part Indigo Scrolls story arc entitled "Lyrical Revelations." I don’t know the actual origin of Gabrielle’s story about the Milky Way; I’ve seen several versions of it and can’t pin down what culture it comes from.

CHRONOLOGY: Amy and Emily’s part of the story takes place just after "The Hardest to Learn." Xena and Gabrielle’s part of the story picks up during the events of "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," and continues from then on. Yes, that’s a whole season’s worth of episodes prior to what happened in "The Hardest to Learn," but that was Gabrielle’s side of the story. This is Xena’s side . . . hopefully, it should make sense as you read.

I have spent nights with matches and knives, leaning over ledges only two flights up,

Cutting my heart, burning my soul—nothing left to hold

Nothing left but blood and fire.

You have spent nights thinking of me, missing my arms, but you needed to leave.

Leaving my cuts, leaving my burns, hoping I'd learn.

But blood and fire are too much for these restless arms to hold,

And my nights of desire, they're calling me back to your fold.

And I am calling you, calling you from 10,000 miles away—

Won't you wet my fire with your love, babe?

I am looking for someone who can take as much as I give

And give back as much as I need, you know, and they still have the will to live.

‘Cause I am intense, I am in need, I am in pain, I am in love,

And I feel forsaken, you know, like the things I gave away.

And blood and fire are too much for these restless arms to hold,

And my nights of desire, they're calling me back to your fold.

And I am calling you, calling you from 10,000 miles away—

Won't you wet my fire with your love, babe?

I am intense, I am in need, I am in pain, I am in love

And blood and fire are too much for these restless arms to hold,

And my nights of desire, they're calling me back to your fold.

And I am calling you, calling you from 10,000 miles away—

Won't you wet my fire with your love, babe?

Wet my fire with your love . . .

"Blood and Fire," written by Amy Ray


The hours just before daybreak found the brooding, dark-haired guitarist already sitting out on the front porch, just a few scant hours after returning home from the concert. Ordinarily, the Atlanta native would still be exhausted, but she had too much to think about, and her mind was racing.

She still couldn’t believe it. She was Xena. She, Amy Ray—songwriter, musician, indie record label owner, dedicated activist—was Xena, the mighty Warrior Princess of history and legend.

It made a strange sort of sense, and in a way it was fitting: now, like then, she was fighting to see a better world. The driving passion to do so was part of her nature, an old and familiar part, flavored with a penchant for being unconventional. If there was still a worthy cause to be championed, she was still willing and ready to aid in the fight.

Once a warrior, always a warrior, in some way or another, thought Amy wryly. No matter how I’ve gone about it, I’ve always been out to defeat some kind of evil or other.

This time around, the enemy was the hatred and ignorance of a society grown complacent and jaded—just as destructive and dangerous as the warlords of ancient Greece had been. Here in the 1990’s, a guitar and a song were her weapons of choice, wielded as effectively as sword and chakram, in her capable hands, had once been.

I’ll be damned . . . the pen really is mightier than the sword. She was right.

Thinking about the legacy of her past lifetimes—particularly Xena’s legacy, the one of which she was most aware—was overwhelming, but in a roundabout way, a relief as well. Amy was a very passionate person who carried a burden of emotion that only found release in her music; somehow it felt better, knowing that some of that darkness and turmoil was residual . . . that it originated from some point beyond the three and a half decades she’d spent in this existence.

A timeframe of several millennia had a way of putting angst into perspective.

"You know," Gabrielle had once remarked as they’d crouched, drenched and exhausted, in a muddy cave after a particularly harrowing adventure, "someday we’re going to look back on all this, and it’ll seem more funny than miserable."

. . . Where had that realization come from? The guitarist shook her head in surprise, amazed at the clarity of the remembrance. It was one more in a rapidly lengthening list of memories she’d never before known she possessed. Ever since last night, fragments of ancient knowledge—images, mostly—had begun ascending to the surface of her consciousness. Curiously enough, it never came as a surprise to her when one of them surfaced; they were just . . . there.

They were there, and they were her own. Recalling them was like running into a friend she hadn’t seen since childhood, faded remnants of a remembered likeness triggering recognition despite the years.

And now those fragments were gelling into something more coherent, taking on a recognizable form, one from a past she now knew that she couldn’t forget if she tried. A painful snatch of memory filled Amy’s mind unexpectedly, and she shut her eyes against it. Too many memories—too much destruction and cruelty, too many lost friends, too much bloodshed. Too many times spent gazing into the flames of yet another funeral pyre, a stone’s throw from the carnage of another battlefield now silent.

Too much blood and fire . . . a past she’d put behind her.

"Blood and Fire." A song she no longer performed, or wanted to—it took her back to a place she never wanted to revisit, brought back experiences she never wanted to relive. Too much pain was wrapped up in the stark lyrics.

And now, knowing who she’d been and what she’d done, she understood why.

It was funny what love could do . . . how much it could hurt. "Blood and fire are too much for these restless arms to hold, and my nights of desire are calling me back to your fold. And I am calling you, calling you from ten thousand miles away . . ."

She opened her eyes again as the song echoed in her head, and gazed into the sunlight that had started creeping up the horizon, the colors reminding her of lonely campfires and dark nights, so long ago . . .

* * *

"I can’t believe I just let her go," Xena mumbled, picking up a twig and dejectedly snapping it in two. "I just let her take off, and I didn’t say a word." She tossed the broken twig into the fire, watching as the flames licked up around it.

It was the first night in a good long while that she would be spending without Gabrielle by her side. Her young friend had gone off to try and win admission at the Academy of Bards in Athens, so she could get the sort of training she deserved.

Xena allowed herself a brief, half-hearted smile. She was always teasing Gabrielle about being good at talking—and it was true. Their long hours of travel could be so tedious, but the stories that Gabrielle told made them fly. And she was so good at those stories; Xena had never met anyone who could take the simplest words and wring magic from them as easily as could the bright-eyed young woman who had followed her from Poteidaia.

The warrior told herself that Gabrielle really did deserve this opportunity—she had an amazing talent that by all means should be honed by the best bards in Greece. Really, though, as far as Xena was concerned, the best bard in Greece was a certain Amazon princess with reddish-blonde hair and green eyes. Nobody else could bring a smile so readily to her face and lift the weight of the guilt and pain she carried with her, even for a little while.

Nobody else meant so much to her.

She’d suspected for some time now that she was in love with Gabrielle. Initially, she’d brushed it off as the immense gratification of being in the presence of someone who’d seen some of her worst aspects, but continued to admire her. This guileless, unconditional sort of respect, the loving respect Gabrielle held for her, was different from any the ex-warlord had known.

That explanation didn’t suffice to convince her, though. So then, Xena had figured, it must hae had something to do with the fact that she’d never really had a best friend before. The friends she’d had were few and far between, and she had a habit of, well, losing them.

Lovers, on the other hand—she’d had plenty of those. Relationships of that sort really didn’t require much in the way of emotional intimacy or honesty . . . things that tended to get in the way. More often than not, the real issue had whether or not both parties could gain something from the situation. A far cry from true friendship, to be sure, but a concept with which she had much more experience. It seemed logical to surmise that she was getting the two a bit confused.

But that hadn’t convinced her, either.

Because there was Gabrielle—so open and trusting, always believing in her no matter what. Doubt and suspicion had always played a part in Xena’s relationships with other people—she was always watching for the hidden dagger that she knew would strike the moment she let down her guard. She’d learned to read people, to know when that concealed blade was there. Even when she didn’t suspect it, she never allowed anyone that opening.

But there was Gabrielle—no guile or duplicity about her, just a pure strength of spirit and a seemingly immeasurable capacity for love. And for the first time, Xena had no reservations about letting the bard into parts of her soul that she’d long kept hidden away. Beyond logic or reason, she knew that she had nothing to fear from allowing Gabrielle that kind of closeness.

Any pain that might come of this decision would be for the only reason that made pain worthwhile. It was a risk she was willing to take, because she loved Gabrielle dearly, and there was just no way of getting around that fact.

So she sat here now, alone, and hurting—wanting nothing but the best for the little blonde girl who had somehow made it past all her defenses, agonizing over the space beside her, left empty simply because of her compliance with that desire. If Xena had never before thought of thin air as being tangible, she did now. It felt about as tangible as a gauntleted fist to the jaw.

What have I got to offer her, anyway? thought the warrior miserably. A life on the road, never knowing where our next meal will come from or where we’ll sleep, barely enough money to get by, constant danger around every next bend on the road, all this fighting and hideousness . . . that’s no life for someone like her! Right now she’s safe in a warm bed in Athens, surrounded by civilization and learning how to be the best bard she can be. Someday she’s gonna amaze all of Greece, and get the recognition she deserves . . . the recognition I want her to have.

But that still didn’t ease the ache of wanting to hold the bard in her arms, to brush those soft lips with her own, to give her body over to Gabrielle in the same way she’d already given the young woman her heart—completely, with absolutely no reservations. It still didn’t make her feel any less guilty for sending her best friend away with little more than a casual goodbye.

Probably sheer stupidity on her part. What was there to love about an ex-warlord whose own mother had been ready to run her out of town? And the ridicule they would be likely to receive from more closed-minded types . . . that could get ugly, and Gabrielle would be hurt by it, the last thing Xena wanted. No, Gabrielle would be much better off without her.

Without her. Yeah.

Xena sighed, and banked the fire, and crawled into her bedroll to spend a fitful night.

* * *

"All those stars up there," Xena mused sleepily, gazing upwards through half-lidded eyes. "Just a long wide streak of ‘em across the sky . . . wonder why they’re like that?"

"Well . . ." Gabrielle began, in a sleepy version of the tone Xena knew to interpret as "Stand back—I’m going to do my bardic thing." The warrior offered an indulgent smile into the sky and relaxed in her blankets, prepared to enjoy the story she knew was coming.

"They say that there were once two mortals who loved each other with such strength and purity that they became renowned for their love. In fact, their love was so famed that other mortals began to talk of it with more awe and respect than they spoke of the gods. And so, of course, the gods became jealous—what was something shared by two of these insignificant creatures, compared to their glory? But they feared, all the same, that the glory of Olympus itself would be eclipsed by these two upstarts." Gabrielle paused for breath, turning to catch Xena’s gaze, the eager sparkle of her green eyes evident even in the dim firelight.

"So," she continued, "the gods got together and discussed the matter, and Zeus took it upon himself to punish the two lovers by banishing them to opposite ends of the sky. He thought that by keeping them so far apart, their love would die."

Xena grimaced, the story hitting a little too close to home. The expression quickly disappeared, though, masked with the ease of years of practice.

"He was wrong, though," Gabrielle went on, her voice soft. "The two lovers remained faithful to one another despite the distance, and their love and desire and longing for one another was so real that it took on a physical form. From each end of the sky, a path of pure, radiant light—the essence of their love—began to build, spreading across the heavens. Each path of light was drawn toward the other until the two met, and joined, and formed a bridge. And the two lovers ran into each other’s arms in the center of that bridge of light, overjoyed to be reunited again.

"Zeus was furious, of course, even though he didn’t realize that it wasn’t an act of defiance, just a fortunate accident. He had a thunderbolt in hand and was just about to release it when Aphrodite intervened, and convinced him that a love capable of building a bridge like that was beyond even the gods’ ability to destroy.

"So the bridge still stands today, as evidence of the power of true love."

The young bard snuggled into her bedroll, satisfied with another tale well told. That time at the Academy had paid off, all right, even though she’d decided not to stay there.

Xena chuckled, a little wistfully. "Funny, I just can’t see Aphrodite doing that, but . . ." She trailed off, not wanting to spoil the story’s lingering aftereffects with a cynical comment, and raised an eyebrow when she heard her friend’s yawn. "Well, anyway . . . get some sleep, huh?"

"Right. G’night, Xena."

"Night, Gabrielle."

There was silence for a few minutes, then Xena shifted in her blankets, just a bit. The action wasn’t so much an attempt to get more comfortable as it was a maneuver to get a better view of the young woman drifting off to sleep nearby. The dim glow of the banked fire showed her a profile that was all sweetness and innocence; Gabrielle slept, breathing calmly and evenly, completely unsuspecting of the warrior’s loving gaze.

Such a very little bit of space separated their two bedrolls. Had Xena reached out—had she dared—she would have found herself merely a handspan or so short of being able to caress Gabrielle’s cheek.

Just the distance from her fingertips to just below her wrist, and it might as well have been the breadth of the heavens above her.

Why, Xena asked herself, is life just never fair? A stupid question, that was for sure, but she had to ask it. After all, if she could swim to the Underworld and back for Marcus’s sake, as she’d just done, why couldn’t she bridge the gap between herself and Gabrielle?

It was absurd. She’d loved Marcus, true, but all things considered, they really hadn’t known each other all that well. Not as well as she and Gabrielle knew each other, at any rate. She’d have made that trip for Gabrielle’s sake, ten times over—what she felt for her young companion dwarfed any other love she’d known with an ease that frightened her.

So what was stopping her from closing the distance between them?

Xena knew she couldn’t do it alone. She could make every effort, but unless Gabrielle felt the same as she did, there was no point. Ice-blue eyes gazed up at the Milky Way and darkened almost to violet with a thought. It definitely took two people to build that kind of bridge . . .

And that’s never gonna happen, she concluded grimly as sleep stole her away.

* * *

So much for never making the same stupid mistake twice.

Xena stared off in the direction of Poteidaia, worrying. Barring complications of the worst kind, Gabrielle ought to be home safely by now. They’d been less than a day’s travel from the sleepy farm village when they parted ways, and the bard was really getting to be capable with the staff she’d acquired from the Amazons. It was a safe road to travel on, anyway . . . well, relatively speaking. There really shouldn’t have been anything to slow Gabrielle down on her trip. Not that it mattered—Xena would have worried even if she’d walked her friend all the way to Poteidaia, and left her to cross the village square alone. Even if she was leaving Gabrielle in the safest possible place.

"Leaving" was the key word. Xena didn’t want to let Gabrielle go a second time, not after the young bard had come back to her; her presence was a sense of comfort that the warrior hesitated to let go, but she couldn’t dispute the Amazon princess’s point. Freezing in the middle of a fight the way she’d done was immensely dangerous, not just for Gabrielle herself, but for Xena as well.

And as much as Xena wanted to assure Gabrielle that it had likely been a fluke, that she could easily get over it and learn not to freeze up—as much as she wanted to be the one to guide Gabrielle through that process—she still had no desire to leave her friend in a dangerous situation.

The fire burned through the middle of a log, which collapsed with a soft crunch and sent sparks flying into the darkness, jarring Xena back to the matter of cleaning and sharpening her sword. She raised the blade and swept a distasteful gaze along the length of the steel, still discolored by the bloodstains of the day’s battle.

Cantreus had, maddeningly, rejected all her attempts to persuade him that this particular valley was hardly worth his trouble. So when he sent a band of his thugs—warlords, Xena noted wryly, seemed to have an endless supply of those—after her later on, she’d had no objections to meeting their blades with her own. She hadn’t exactly been surprised when a couple of those sword maneuvers had ended up being lethal, either . . . all in a day’s work, naturally. After all, she was a warrior.

Which wasn’t to say that she’d be able to brush either of those deathblows off easily. She’d be reliving them in her dreams for a while. Given time, they’d blend in with their countless predecessors . . . unless newer and fresher kills usurped the prominent position of her memory first, which was usually the case. Either way, they’d be frequent nighttime visitors.

But what hurt her most was the realization that a warrior with all that on her conscience was nowhere near being worthy of someone like Gabrielle.

The thought hurt like all Tartarus, but Xena pushed it deep down. It joined the seething tangle of all her insecurities, her self-loathing, loneliness, and pain, which she kept inside, tightly lidded beneath her driving concern over what was best for Gabrielle. The emotions raged to get out, though, slashing at the confines of her soul. She’d thought they’d cease, but time only seemed to make them more determined.

Lost in contemplation, the warrior quite forgot—again—what she was doing. Her hands moved mechanically, rubbing a rag down her freshly sharpened sword blade. When her left palm strayed too close to the razor edge of the steel and came away gashed, she never noticed.

The fresh wounds inside drowned everything else out.

* * *

"How are those bandages holding up?" Xena cast a sidelong glance at Gabrielle, who was gamely limping along with the aid of her staff.

"Really well, actually. You’re way better at this healing stuff than me, no matter what Democritus thinks." Green eyes twinkled slyly, and a knowing chuckle rippled between the two women.

Xena squinted down the road. "How does a night at an inn sound to you?"

"Can we manage it?" The bard’s voice was a bit worried.

"Sure. You really brought the house down in that tavern just before we, ah, decided to take the northern route through Thessaly. We can splurge just this once. I have to pick up Argo anyway. Besides," Xena grinned, "the sooner you heal up, the sooner you’ll be able to repeat that performance. The more rest you get, the faster you’ll heal, and a warm bed is much better for that than sleeping on the ground."

Gabrielle reached up and patted her friend’s shoulder, not noticing the flinch elicited by her touch. "If you put it that way, then you’re on."

They reached the inn within another candlemark or so, just after twilight. "I’ll be taking my horse out of the stables in the morning," Xena informed the proprietor over the ale-induced flow of tavern conversation. "But first we’d like some dinner, and a room for the night."

"One bed, or two?" The innkeeper eyed them curiously.

"Just one will be fine," Gabrielle jumped in, before Xena had a chance to say otherwise. "It’ll save us a dinar or two," she added in a whisper, in response to the mildly chastising look the warrior shot her way.

Xena sighed. "Yeah," she concurred. "One’ll be okay, I guess." It would save them a few dinars, after all—Gabrielle had a point. So she handed over the money, and dug into the plate set before her by the serving maid.

They ate in silence, both of them too tired for much conversation. Xena had no doubt that Marmax would hold to his word and make peace with the Thessalians, but smoldering pockets of fighting would exist for a while yet, and take time to stamp out. They were better off being well away from it all before stopping for the night, she’d decided, so they’d been traveling almost nonstop since leaving the temple. Now, finally, they could sleep in peace . . . or Gabrielle could, at any rate.

Xena was still too shaken by her young friend’s brush with death to get much sleep. She’d come closer today to blowing her carefully maintained emotional cover than she cared to think about, carried away as she’d been in her relief. Almost losing Gabrielle had brought all the fears back—Xena honestly didn’t know any more what she’d do without the bard. That sweet, gentle appearance belied a fierce strength that could withstand anything Xena could throw at it. No one else could face up to her as Gabrielle did; no one was better suited, or more willing, to help carry some of her emotional burden. And despite sharing that load with her, Gabrielle’s eyes still sparkled with life! It was infectious—just seeing the gleam in those green eyes made the weight of a few years lift from Xena’s shoulders, and gave her the strength to take a step or two further.

No easy feat, that; it was likely one that a lesser person would never be able to accomplish.

The warrior was still mulling over that by the time they were up in their rented room, settling in for the night. Gabrielle wasted no time in changing into a clean sleeping-tunic, crawling beneath the covers, and drifting off, leaving Xena alone with her thoughts.

It was just as well—Xena didn’t really want her young friend to see just how absurdly nervous the prospect of sharing a bed made her on this particular night. Since that moment in the Thessalian temple, when the bard’s miraculous recovery had brought her back from the edge of total hysteria, her emotional defenses had been shattered. It was getting harder and harder just to suppress the urge to reach out and pull Gabrielle close, to kiss the forehead that pain and worry hadn’t yet marked, to hold the young woman protectively, as if she’d never let go. The way she felt now, Xena was sure that to allow herself that would be to tear down the dam inside her soul, a dam that was now just barely holding back against the building pressure that was her love for Gabrielle. And who could stop a flood, once it was unleashed?

So she remained where she was, in the rough wooden chair beside the window, staring up at the mist-shrouded moon and thinking. "A girl like that shouldn’t be brought into a war zone." Marmax’s accusatory tone still rang in her ears, stinging her with questions of responsibility. Not for the first time, she thought about sending Gabrielle home, away from the constant risk of this life she led. The prospect of being alone was decidedly unappealing, but she could get used to it again, couldn’t she? No big deal . . . she’d been alone with her darkness for so many years. She could do it again . . . right?

Blue eyes surveyed the sleeping bard thoughtfully, suddenly visited by an image of Gabrielle’s face set in familiar, stubborn lines. She’s come back to me three times already, of her own choice, Xena thought wonderingly. She knows the danger that comes with this life, but she chooses to stay with me anyway. I know I could send her home . . . I’ve done it before . . . Memory beckoned, and she answered its call.

"You’re not cut out for this life." The warlord’s voice was grating, her eyes hard as she glared at the youth who stood before her, clad in a soldier’s gear. "Go home—you’re no asset to this army. Being a warrior isn’t for you."

The boy trembled, his lower lip quivering in fearful disappointment. He was trying to hide it, but his face, which had probably never seen a razor, betrayed him. As much as he badly wanted to prove himself by joining Xena’s army, he too knew that he didn’t have what it took. He wasn’t a hardened fighter, just a sensitive farm lad with his father’s sword and a desperate, misguided longing to make something of himself.

He wanted this, though—a chance to prove to his brothers that he was no less of a man than they were, though a bit of a dreamer. Maybe if he could just learn to shut down in the heat of a battle, silence the screaming of his conscience . . .

But Xena would have none of it. "I’m telling you now, Phocles. Go home. That’s an order. You’re lucky I’m giving you this chance," she spat. She paid no attention to his crestfallen reluctance as her men escorted him—none too gently—out of the camp. Watching him trudge away, her expression was cool and unreadable.

That was different! her mind protested. It doesn’t come down to battle tactics and assets this time. If she wants to stay with me, that’s her choice . . . she’d be miserable at home, and I’d despise myself even more for forcing her to go. I’m not a warlord any more . . . and damn it all, I love her. I have to give her the freedom to decide for herself. Even if it means constantly dealing with the hurt of wanting her so much. But there’s one thing I’m going to protect her from, no matter what . . .

Too weary, physically and emotionally, to fight herself any longer, Xena finally gave in and slipped into the bed beside Gabrielle. When dawn came, the sunlight filtering through the window revealed her still awake, lying there in the same position, her eyes fixed firmly on the far wall and filled with bittersweet resignation.

* * *

It’s her choice.

The whispering ring of steel against sharpening stone punctuated the phrase that Xena had been repeating to herself since the ceremony.

It’s her choice.

The phrase she’d been repeating since Gabrielle had said, "The answer is yes, Xena."

It’s her choice.

The only thing preventing her from thinking about what was going on in the bridal chamber while she sat here by the campfire, preparing for tomorrow’s inevitable confrontation with Callisto.

What was I supposed to do? Tie her up and make sure she stayed with me?

"Seeing you happy will make me happy." Deep down, Xena was sure she’d meant those words, but at the moment her pain obscured their truth.

Well, at least I know she’ll be safe now . . . and it won’t torture me so much, having her so close all the time.

Not that it made the thought of losing Gabrielle again, this time for good, any less painful . . . and not that it stopped her from wishing with all of her heart that she were in Perdicas’s place.

* * *

Her nose hurt. That was a standard reaction for a nose, when a staff came down out of nowhere and smacked it. Oh, it had been a fair hit, all right . . . she hadn’t been expecting it. But it was the lingering sensation of Gabrielle’s lips, tingling against her right temple, that really threw her for a loop.

There had to be an unwritten rule about that somewhere, Xena decided. Just when you thought it was safe to let your guard down, something came at you from where you least expected it, and it got you but good. Time had given her the opportunity to fortify her defenses; she’d built walls between her heart and Gabrielle, hating every second of it but feeling like she had no other choice. Then she’d gotten so used to hiding within them—imagine that, the Warrior Princess hiding—that she never noticed when they started to erode. And now Gabrielle, however unwittingly, had broken through those walls with one playful kiss.

Xena rolled over and looked at the young woman, sleeping so calmly next to her, and for the first time began to let herself wonder if there had been more to the gesture than the bard had let on. She’d been close, many times, to asking herself that question—at Perdicas’s funeral pyre, Gabrielle hadn’t shown as much grief as might have been expected of her . . . a curious lack that had left Xena wondering.

What was it she’d said then? That the dead could hear their thoughts? Well, she’d been dead once, and at M’Lila’s prompting, she’d listened and heard Gabrielle’s thoughts.

"I need you." So it wasn’t just her needing the bard—they needed each other. What did Gabrielle need from her, though?

"I would have told her how empty my life was before she came . . ." So she would understand—when the first tentative brush of friendship had been made between them, a void in Xena’s soul had surreptitiously been filled. She hadn’t realized, at first, that anything had been missing, but every time since then that separation had threatened them, the emptiness had threatened to swallow her whole.

"And all the lessons I learned . . ." So she wasn’t the only one learning from their friendship. Each of them gave something to the other, and each took something, and both of them were stronger for it. The curious paradox of friendship; it was . . . mutual.

"And that I love her." So the current of Gabrielle’s emotions did run deep enough for her to put that label on them. There were people who casually threw around the term "love," but the bard wasn’t one of them. When she said it, she meant it. It was just a question of how she meant it . . .

"Xena, I’ll always love you . . ." Always? The warrior was warmed by the commitment that word implied. Even beyond death . . . Xena had a hard time believing in the permanence of anything, but doubting that promise, to her, was sacrilege.

"You know, I always thought of you as my home . . ." Home. That was the key. To her, any place without Gabrielle at her side was a place she could take or leave. Funny, but whenever she imagined the unlikely possibility of settling down to a peaceful life, Gabrielle was the first person she knew she wanted to be there. But even if she spent the rest of her days on the road, she wanted to fall asleep every evening with that soft voice bidding her good night, and wake up to the sight of those green eyes shining at her.

Xena smiled and reached out to stroke the bard’s soft hair with tentative fingers. Surrender had never felt so good. She still couldn’t be sure if Gabrielle loved her in the same way, but this new, aching need to find out had the better of her. While dead, she’d been given a glimpse into the bard’s soul, and as far as she could tell Gabrielle’s feelings seemed to mirror her own.

In this arena, if no other, the warrior could choose her battles, and her decision was made. She was done fighting her own feelings. From here on out, she was going to fight to find the truth of Gabrielle’s feelings for her. If she came away with the victory, she’d have everything she would ever need to make both of them complete.

And if not, well . . . she was used to the way things were.

* * *

"You know, you really need a few pointers on how to pick someone up in a bar."

Who was she kidding, trying to sound so nonchalant? She’d rather have fended off a whole army the other day, without her eyesight, than keep acting like it didn’t affect her in the slightest while Gabrielle flirted with every young man around.

She was losing this battle in a big way, apparently. Here her friend was talking about being lonely and wanting someone to share her romantic side with, leaving her to clean up after all the rejected suitors. After all these weeks of biding her time, working up the courage to come clean with Gabrielle and waiting for just the right moment to do so, this new trend of the bard’s was, to say the least, discouraging.

Well, if that’s what she wants, I’ll stand by her. I don’t like it, but I’ll stand by her, Xena vowed to herself, stretching out on her blankets. Part of her rebelled, not wanting to relive what had happened with Perdicas, not in any way. But the part of her that selflessly honored Gabrielle’s independence won out, just like it always did.

She sighed. "Night, Gabrielle." Her usual nightmares would almost be a welcome relief from running through the labyrinth that her friend’s erratic behavior was creating, so she let herself drift off.

She was dreaming again, but not the agonized, surreal revisitations of past horrors. Tonight, wishful thinking slipped into a subconscious form; the scenes playing out in her mind were the events of the past few days, set in a far more preferable context.

The only difference, really, between her dream and reality was that here, Gabrielle was at her side as her lover, not just her friend. Here, their reunion in that crematory chamber was highlighted by a loving, passionate kiss to accompany the relieved embrace. Just one step beyond the platonic reality, perhaps, but it made all the difference.

Then tonight’s fight at the tavern, but the boy in the red shirt was entirely at fault, not encouraged by any overtures from Gabrielle; there was no embarrassed conversation as they headed out of town in search of a campsite.

By their fire, Xena comforted the shaken bard, admonishing her to get some sleep and not worry about the fiasco.

"It’s okay, sweetheart," she murmured, kissing the top of the blonde head. "I’m right here . . . I’m not gonna let anything happen to you."

A grateful smile beamed up at her. "I know. I love you, Xena." Gabrielle pulled the warrior down for a kiss before setting to work on the fresh parchment beside her. "I just want to work on this new story for a little bit before bed, okay?"

"Okay." Xena favored Gabrielle with a crooked little grin of her own. "Night, Gabrielle . . . I love you too." One more kiss, then she stretched out on her blankets, peaceful and content.

She must have drifted off, because some time later a voice broke through to her hazy consciousness. "Xena . . . hey, Xena?"

Xena smiled inwardly, knowing from the tone of voice what Gabrielle wanted. She played along anyway. "Yeah, Gabrielle?"

"Can you, uh . . . well . . . would you mind if I shared your bedroll tonight and kind of, um . . . sort of snuggled up with you?"

The request didn’t come as a surprise to her at all. "Sure," she mumbled, "plenty of room here." She felt the welcome, familiar warmth as Gabrielle slipped in beside her, and wrapped a protective arm around the bard, holding her close. She loved how comfortable it felt . . . how Gabrielle just fit so perfectly in the curve of her arm, against her body . . . that soul-deep sense of belonging.

May as well enjoy the dream while it lasts, nagged a tiny corner of her mind. You’ll have to wake up to reality in the morning anyway.

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