Part 2

The two women rode the remainder of the distance to Athens in silence. Xena kept looking over at Ephiny, but all the spirit and vitality was gone from the Amazon. The warrior wanted to be angry at her, and for a few heartbeats after Ephiny exposed her feelings for Gabrielle, Xena had a hard time controlling herself. 'I was that close to hurting her again,' she thought. 'What does that mean?'

The fact that she was willing to hurt someone whom she cared about over a rush of jealousy had stunned her. In fact it made her heart sick. 'What's going on with you, warrior? Do you have any idea what you're thinking? Do you have any idea how bad it could all turn out? You could lose Gabrielle forever ... think about that.’

Everything that was rational about her told her that expanding her relationship with Gabrielle would be wrong. 'It doesn't matter what I feel ... or think I’m feeling. It would be totally wrong to do that to her. As much as I love her, I can't just watch her become an extension of me ... She deserves to see the world at her feet ... all her dreams realized ... her life fulfilled.' Xena felt so weak.

As they passed through the gates of Athens just ahead of the approaching darkness, Xena looked again at Ephiny. The Amazon gave her a weak smile, and Xena sorely regretted what she'd done to her earlier. ‘What we did to each other...’ Xena thought, knowing that no matter what happened, each time they looked at each other they would know they were once rivals.

The warrior started at the thought. ‘Rivals? I’d better get a handle on what’s going on inside. I am not ... Gabrielle is not ... We’re not going down that path,’ she told herself with as much conviction as she could muster.

Taking a deep breath of the city air, Xena let all her senses soak in the surroundings. Somewhere in this teeming mass of civilization was someone that she needed like she needed few things. The warrior knew that she'd expend her last ounce of strength in finding Gabrielle. A nervous energy infused her limbs, and she forced herself to concentrate. 'It won't do any good to just start wandering the streets,' she thought, turning to the Amazon.

"Ephiny, it's too late to start looking for Gabrielle. Why don't we find an inn, and we'll get a fresh start tomorrow?"

The Amazon nodded. "Finding a room with the festival in town might be hard, though."

True to her prediction, the two were turned down at several over booked inns before they found a small place on the other side of town. The innkeeper only had one room, so they were forced to share.

'Okay, this will be as hard on you as it is on her,' Xena thought, catching the dejected look on Ephiny's face. They were both quite anxious to be out of each other's company for a few hours. 'But that can't be helped, so just put up with it.'

They ate a silent dinner downstairs, and Xena left to stable and care for the horses, while Ephiny went up to the room. When the warrior entered the room, she found the Amazon Regent sitting by the open window staring blankly into the deserted street. Xena couldn't even guess at her thoughts. Sighing, Xena realized that the schism between them was too wide, and she was too tired to try and reach her tonight.

'Tomorrow,' Xena thought, undressing to her linen shift. She chose her side of the bed, and slipped under the covers. Ephiny watched her silently from her seat. She’d opened her mouth once or twice to speak, but closed it in wordless silence.

"Night, Ephiny," Xena said, the words echoing through the tomb like room.

"Xena, if ... well .... Can I ask you to do one more thing?" Ephiny's voice was so weak that Xena felt another weight fall on her shoulders, but she didn't have the heart to refuse.

"Sure," she said quietly.

"When we find Gabrielle, you ... I mean ... don't tell her about me, okay?"

"I wouldn't, Ephiny. I promise." 'Yeah, like what would I really say?'

The Amazon breathed in relief. "Thanks. I don't think I could bear to see the look in her eyes."

Xena pulled herself up onto an elbow. "Eph, she's your friend. Trust in her, okay?"

"How? I... I can't even trust in myself anymore."

The warrior let out a deep sigh. "You know that's not true."

Ephiny gave her a weak smile. "I sure don't feel ... I don't know. I just feel shredded."

Xena lay back, and looked at the ceiling. 'And I don't?' she thought.

"Promise me something else, Xena?" Ephiny asked.

"If I can," she said.

"Please be careful with Gabrielle. Her heart isn't, well, ... I'm afraid you might break it forever."

Xena couldn’t trust her voice, and she felt a small tear slide down the side of her face.

Ephiny slipped into bed, and both women lay there lost in their thoughts until sleep overtook them.

 

Xena was almost done dressing when Ephiny awoke. Xena smiled and tossed a pillow at her.

"Morning," she said, determined to regain some semblance of the friendship the two had shared prior to yesterday. 'I didn't know having friends could be so damn much work,' she thought. 'I gotta believe it’s worth it ... or else why would I be so concerned over them both?' she mused, letting her thoughts run to Gabrielle.

She wouldn't allow herself to think that Gabrielle wasn't in Athens. 'She's here and I’m going to find her, or...' her thoughts trailed off, since the 'or's' and 'if's' weren’t something that she could quite grasp right now. Xena looked down at her friend, seeing pain and self reproach in the Amazon's eyes. 'Gabrielle comes later. Right now I've got major damage repair to do.' She gave the Amazon a genuine smile and sat on the side of the bed.

"Did you sleep well?"

Ephiny yawned and looked away. "As well as can be expected, I guess."

"Listen, Eph ..." she began, not exactly knowing what to say. "About yesterday ... well... why don't we .... gods, Eph! Let's just forget it, okay?" She looked at the Amazon who was trying not to smile.

"Is the great Xena trying to apologize? .... And doing a really lame job, too," she said chuckling.

"No ... well, yeah. I'm sorry, Eph. I treated you badly."

"You had every right to, Xena. I'm the one who needs to apologize. I had no right ..." The Amazon's eyes looked up, and she smiled. "I shouldn't have let you know ..."

'Please don't let me hear that you love Gabrielle again. I don't think I could handle that,’ Xena thought, feeling the covers bunch under her hand.

"Let's not dwell on it, okay?" Xena said, as clearly as she could manage with the thoughts and feelings rushing through her.

"Yeah, that’d be best. I guess I just feel a little embarrassed."

Xena hit her with the pillow. "You embarrassed? I didn't think it was possible."

Ephiny grabbed the pillow and smiled. "I think we both had our moments yesterday. But today . . . Friends again?"

"Friends," Xena said, and she felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from her. "C'mon. I'm anxious to get started."

Ephiny threw back the covers and sat up. She immediately went about pulling her unruly blonde hair into a pony tail. "Can we get some breakfast? I'm starved."

Xena shook her head and smiled. "How about we grab something on the way to the Academy? I think that's the most likely place to start looking for her."

Her friend stood, and went to the basin by the wall, and splashed water over her face. Xena watched all this, acutely aware that no matter what truce she and Ephiny had, it didn't change the fact that Ephiny now figured into the equation as more than just a concerned friend. 'But at least she's still a friend. Anything else can be worked on with time...'

The warrior stood, and grabbed for her neatly organized weapons. "I'll meet you downstairs, okay?" she said and walked by Ephiny, but felt herself stopped by the Amazon's hand on her arm. Xena turned around, surprised to see that the haunted look had returned to her friend's gaze.

"Xena, before we go any further, I want you to know that I won't do anything to interfere, okay?"

"Like what?"

"Only, I promise to stay out of the whole thing... I won’t tell Gabrielle how I feel. I promise you that."

Xena took a step back, her face blank and unreadable. "I can't lie. What happened between us yesterday ... I really don't know what to make of it."

Ephiny looked ashen.

"I don't know if I should feel concerned ... alarmed ... jealous ...angry ... or what?" Xena said, with dismay.

"Sorry. Can't help you there."

"How would you feel if you found out one of your best friends wanted your other best friend for a... well you know what I mean?" Xena said, in exaggerated denial.

Ephiny grimaced. "I know you probably don't believe me, but I only want Gabrielle to be happy."

"Lucky for Gabrielle. But what if there is no happiness to be found by any of us?"

"I can't tell you what to do, Xena. I can't tell Gabrielle what to do. I can only stand by and watch."

"And hope for the best outcome?" Xena said, with a bite she hadn't intended.

"And hope that we can all find something we can live with," Ephiny replied, letting the slight go by unanswered.

"I'll meet you downstairs when you're ready," the warrior said, and left the room.

"Damn her," Xena said, navigating her way down the steep and narrow stairs. "I know she's right. Gabrielle does deserve happiness."

'But with me? — I can't believe that's possible. Eventually I'd hurt her beyond forgiveness, and she'd hate me for it. I wouldn't be able to give her all that she needs ... I'd consume her until I'd snuffed out her flame of existence ... She'd become nothing more than what I've made her. — I can't do that to her! — But can I love her enough to let her go? Will my strength serve me when I need it most, or will I give into my desperate need for her?'

Sometime around dawn Xena had realized with a painful ache that she did have very intense feelings for the bard. 'Those weren't just mean words I threw at Ephiny yesterday about craving her ... I do!’ the warrior thought, feeling her stomach twisting dangerously with anxiety.

 

 

 

Instead of sitting in the stuffy tavern below the inn, Xena made her way outside. The street was crowded, but the warrior didn't notice. The war she was waging against her reasons and emotions occupied all her attention. Finding a small bench outside the door she sat, her head spinning from pro to con and back again in an endless volley of do's and don'ts.

'Okay... Am I sure that what I’m feeling is really a physical desire, and not just a physical loss? Could it be the fear of never seeing her again that is making me feel this way?' One side of her asked.

'Don't be an idiot! I guess I’ve known for a long time that I've desired her. I remember how my heart races when she brushes against me? Or those times I've actually started stuttering in mid sentence when I lost myself in those emerald eyes? Or the way just hearing her speak my name makes me feel like a part of her?' The other side of her countered, and Xena nodded her head in agreement.

'Fine, so I've had some feelings of desire ... That's normal. I do spend twenty four hours a day with her! I see every aspect of her life. I’m only human! Why shouldn't I desire someone that's with me that often? But I’ve got to think past all that. We share so much! I could hopelessly screw up everything by bringing to life what I’m thinking! We share ups, downs, disappointments, joys ... everything, and it’s all unconditional love. What happens when that changes, and expectations are placed upon it? Nothing can remain unchanged forever!' The first side shot back, and Xena found herself agreeing as well.

Thank you! Life grows in decision and declines in indecision. Make the decision to love all of her... we’ve been heading in this direction since we met. What if she’s the one? That one person that my soul has been searching for? What if I turn around too late, and she’s gone forever? What’ll I do if I lose her? I’ve known that there is something more going on between us. Gods, we could even lose the awkwardness that we feel when we touch, and the same thoughts are going through both our heads. What do I have to lose by giving it a shot?!'

'Excuse me?! What do I have to lose? I could lose it all! I could slowly watch the love that radiates from her eyes burn slower and slower until it goes out, and with it goes my soul.'

"Enough!" Xena said out loud grasping her head to stop the merry-go-round that was making her sick. "I'll try another way to the answer."

All of her life she had been battling destiny. Never content to accept what the fates handed her, and so consumed with the desperate need to write her own future, that damn anyone who got in her way. That tempestuous spirit had lead her down dark roads, but none of the roads of her past were as dangerous as the road she stood on now.

Love was something that the warrior had willingly forsaken long ago. She recognized the treacherous risk involved in giving your heart to someone, and she was determined to never allow herself to be hurt again. She’d also managed to convince herself that no one could ever love her. How could they when she couldn’t love herself?

Without knowing how it happened, that slip of a girl who followed her for no logical reason, had pulled her out of her embattled darkness, and stood her naked in the blinding light. As much as she tried to shield herself from the glare, Gabrielle kept pulling her hands away until Xena had no choice but to allow the warm light of love wash over her. The second it touched her face, the warrior knew she couldn’t live without it. But just taking love wasn’t as satisfying as giving it back, and without thinking of the consequences, Xena had handed her heart to Gabrielle in total confidence.

‘Gods, help me! What did I do? Was I handing her everything ... only I didn’t know it? When I looked into her eyes did I silently tell her that if I got the chance to hold her I’d never let go? Without knowing why, did I put our hearts together, and know without speaking they belonged together?’

The warrior drew in a pained breath, her heart beating a slow cadence like an executioner’s drum. Closing her eyes, she knew that she’d lead Gabrielle to this. Blindly. Ruthlessly. Mercilessly.

I needed her so badly that I couldn’t let her go. I hated her when she left to marry that boy. I rejoiced silently when he was killed. I held her closer than ever after that. She never had a chance ... I was addicted to the love she gave me. — Gods how I hate myself! I couldn’t let her go ... couldn’t face being alone ... So when I saw what was happening between us ... I let it!’ Xena bit at her lip. ‘I’ve ruined both our lives ... I’ve stolen her future.’

"I’ll give it back to you, Gabrielle. Whatever it takes ... I won’t hurt you again."

"C’mon! You can’t still be thinking about her?" A deep masculine voice took form nearby and Xena was on her feet in an instant. "I never figured out what you saw in her. — But good riddance, huh?"

"Ares!" she said, as the leather clad god appeared next to her. "What's it gonna take for you to get the message? Leave me alone!"

Ares stood next to her, and she could smell the intoxicating scent of him. A mixture of warm leather, and battlefield dust. Nothing was more exciting than the smell of battle, the rich aroma of sweat, fear, dirt, and blood swirled into an irresistible fragrance. The war god wore the scent like some women wore jasmine or rose, and to Xena’s chagrin, it was a heady smell that made her pulse quicken from the sensual memories.

"So, blondie bolted, huh?" Ares asked, playing with a wisp of her hair. "Did she find another stupid farm boy?" He allowed the strands to fall through his fingers. "Or was it the fairer sex that got her?" Xena couldn't miss the smirk hiding under his manicured mustache.

"What do you want, Ares?" she said, yanking her hair from his grasp.

"Do I need a reason to stop in and see you? You're still my favorite, you know."

"Aw, you're getting me right here! " she said, patting her butt. "I'm in no mood to play with you. Get lost, okay?"

Ares came up and captured her face between his hands. "Watch what you say, Xena. Hurting me will only hurt you." His hands felt so warm against her face. Xena felt a familiar shiver pass through her body, as his touch awakened long buried memories.

Xena brought her arms up between his, and snapped his hands from her face. Ares laughed.

"Don't ever touch me again, Ares," she warned.

"Or what?" Ares seductively said, sliding up against her.

Xena closed her eyes against the feelings that ran through her. She couldn't stop herself from remembering how perfectly their bodies and wills had once fit together — how carnal they’d always been with each other. Xena licked her lips, as a wave of desire flowed between them. Looking at Ares, she could tell that he knew exactly what she was feeling. 'Stop it, Xena. Get control of yourself... But it feels so good,' she thought.

'You want me to touch you. I can feel it," Ares whispered in her ear, his warm breath sending a shiver down her spine.

Xena forced herself to take a step back. 'He's your past. You don't want to go back to that,' she thought, taking a deep breath and trying to compose herself.

"I know why you're here. You think I'm weak and you can manipulate me."

Ares laughed. "I don't need you weak to manipulate you, Xena. You let me do that whenever I want."

"But you always lose in the end, you bastard."

Ares shrugged. "But one time I'll win. Call it the law of probability."

Xena snorted in disgust and turned to walk away from him. The war god caught up to her in one long stride, and captured her hand in his.

"Seriously though, ... this little temper tantrum of your pet's could be for the best. Have you thought of that?"

"Get out of here."

"I've told you before .... she's holding you back." Ares intertwined their fingers, and focused all of his attention on her hand in his. "Don't you want to see what destiny has in store for you, Xena?" His dark eyes locked onto hers.

Xena pulled her hand away. "I already know," she replied surlily.

"You don't mean the babbling bard, do you?" Ares said, in mock surprise. "By my sword, Xena ... not her."

"I've never heard you whine before, Ares. It kinda makes me pity you a bit more."

"Dump blondie and come join with me, Xena. — The world could be ours for the taking! Rule warfare with me forever! —That's your destiny! Not some stupid little girl who likes being kind and gentle to everything. Her kind must be ruled or destroyed."

"Do you ever stop and listen to yourself? I’m over my Electra complex, thanks."

"Cute, Xena. — But you know I speak the truth. You belong with me."

"I belong to no one. — I make my own choices ... and I don't choose you."

Ares sneered at her. "Fine... go find your little pet. You know what the Amazon said is true, and it will destroy you."

"Ah, shut up."

"Okay, no prob. But just remember what I said. The annoying bard will be your ultimate undoing if you see it through. Don't say I didn't warn you."

"If I don't see you again... I won't have to remind you," Xena shot back.

Ares stood close to her again, his hands sliding lightly, and seductively up her arm, leaving a trail of tingling goose bumps in its wake. "Don't hate me, Xena. I'm your only true friend."

"Yeah, and your friendship makes my heart ache," she said, looking at him with the coldest stare she could muster, despite the heat that was flowing between them. "So, please be my enemy, for friendship’s sake."

Ares backed up. "Fine — but remember I warned you. When your little pet mortally wounds you, I'll be here waiting for you."

"Don't bother."

The war god took a step back and laughing, blew her a kiss before disappearing.

'Damn him! All I need now is that serpent slithering around me. But, gods, I felt things for him that I haven't felt in years.' Thinking about it made her feel dirty and slightly guilty. 'Guilty over what?' she thought, touching her arm where she could still feel the faintest remnants on his touch. 'I’m one messed up warrior. If I was riding into battle today, I would die because I can't get me head on straight. I’ve got to make up my mind!'

Seeing Ares always made her confront a part of her that she wanted so badly to forget. 'But can I ever forget how it felt riding into a fight... the excitement, the fear, the exhilaration!' The memories and feelings washed over her, and she tilted her head back and let them fill her with their seductive and comforting presence. 'Battle was always something I could count on. No matter who I was riding against, it always made sense. Kill or be killed. Conquer or die! It was so black and white.' Xena brought herself back to reality. 'Not like this grayness that I exist in now. Never knowing right from wrong, or the million of different rights and wrongs in between. Put a sword in my hand, and I know what to do ... Put love in my heart, and I feel like a babbling idiot! Well, this idiot has got to make a choice — cause I’m seriously in love — but seriously confused ... and seriously afraid.’

Sighing, she turned around toward the inn, and couldn't hide her surprise when she saw Ephiny standing only a short distance from her. The Amazon had undoubtedly seen her with Ares. Xena was unsure if she’d overhead anything, but from the cryptic look on the Regent’s face, the warrior guessed that she had heard much of what had been said. The warrior stood straighter, and walked over.

Ephiny placed a hand on her hip, and tilted her head, a sly smile playing at her lips. 'She's challenging me to tell her,' Xena thought. 'And what should I say: hi, I've got the hots for the god of war?'

"Have you decided what you want for breakfast?" Xena settled on instead.

"Today, I think that the Favorite Warrior of the War God gets to choose." Ephiny said, with gentle laughter in her voice.

Xena shot her a look, but realizing that she was joking with her, smiled in response. She swept by Ephiny, not looking behind to see if the Amazon was following. 'I'll just put that whole scene out of my memory,’ she thought, boring her way deeper into the heart of Athens.

They stopped in a square to buy some fresh sweet bread, and fruit from a peddler's stand. Sitting by the fountain, they quickly ate the warm bread.

Wiping the crumbs from her hands, Ephiny looked at Xena. "So, are all your adventures like this?"

Xena popped a grape in her mouth. "What do you mean?"

"Does Ares usually follow you around like a faithful dog?"

Xena laughed. "Yeah, he drops in and out from time to time."

"Is he always so ..." Ephiny waved her hand in the air, her eyes shifting as she searched for the right word. "Is he always so ... sexual?" she asked, looking directly at her.

Xena felt her heart rate jump up a notch, and she consciously willed it down again. Whatever the situation, she did not need either Ephiny or Gabrielle to know about the memories that she just let run through her head.

Xena shrugged. "I don't know. I don't pay much attention to him."

The Amazon raised her eyebrow, and grinned boldly. 'She knows,' Xena thought simply. 'Great. Just what I didn't need her to know.'

But to her credit, the Amazon Regent maintained her diplomacy, and didn't say anything, for which Xena was eternally grateful.

"So you willing to chuck the whole Amazon bit, and head out on the road?" Xena asked, her voice tight, and her face desperate to shift the conversation away from Ares.

Ephiny laughed. "Not on your life! But you know, being with you makes running an Amazon nation seem boring."

Xena grabbed the last piece of bread before the Amazon, and smiled wickedly. "This has been a good day. You wouldn't want to be here on a bad day."

"If this is a good day ... I gotta hear about your idea of a bad day," Ephiny said, standing.

Xena rolled her eyes and shrugged. "C'mon," she said. "Let's get going."

 

 

 

They made their way across the city toward the Academy. Their journey was silent, as both women were intent on the quest at hand. Neither woman would admit to the possibility that they wouldn't find Gabrielle. That just wasn't an option to be considered.

Xena hadn't remembered Athens being this large, and it took them far longer than she'd anticipated in reaching the Academy. Xena looked at the ancient oak tree standing outside the entrance, majestic but sad in its solitude. 'Plato wouldn't even recognize this place anymore,' she mused, knowing from Gabrielle that the Academy had once been far out in the Athenian countryside.

'Okay, Xena... You're starting to remember things from the bard's constant chattering. Next you'll be blurting out some reference to a play or poem,' she thought, afraid to add how desperately she craved that constant chattering. 'Anything to let me know I’m alive and ... that... there’s hope.'

The grounds of the Academy were packed with people of all kinds. Shopkeepers had set up stalls to hawk their wares, and wandering peddlers harassed anyone passing by in a desperate attempt to sell anything that might make a dinar. It was a melee of capitalism that made the two women duck and dodge as they made their way to the amphitheater.

The annual bard festival had become an international event. Poets, singers, and playwrights came from all corners of the known world to participate. All were vying for five coveted positions as the best storytellers of the known world. The judges were reaching the finalist stage, and Xena could sense the tension as they entered the marble courtyard.

Groups of people gathered around different storytellers. Some were rewarded with shouts of approval while others found themselves slowly telling their tales to smaller and smaller groups. 'Please let her be sitting on that marble telling some story, please!'

Xena looked over at Ephiny. Her face had become more animated as they drew near the Academy. Xena's heart tightened at the thought of seeing Ephiny and Gabrielle together. 'What a mess I’ve gotten myself into. One friend in love with me, the other friend in love with the first friend, and I’m caught in the center... gods I'm trapped in the middle of a Greek play!' Xena laughed, which earned her a quizzical look from Ephiny.

"Wanna share?" the Amazon asked, a mirthful smile on her face.

Xena waved her hand in dismissal. "It’s nothing. I only realized how much Gabrielle has rubbed off on me. I'm actually seeing drama in our little predicament."

The Amazon nodded her head, oblivious to the warrior's private joke.

"Don't worry about it, Eph. Let's just find Gabrielle. Then I'll know how my Greek drama ends."

Looking around the crowds of people, Xena suggested that they split up to cover more ground. Heading off in different directions, they both began stopping random people and giving them a description of Gabrielle. No one remembered seeing her. Xena felt her spirits drop after each negative response. ‘Please be here, Gabrielle!’ She kept repeating to herself.

About an hour into their interrogation, Xena stopped an old woman peddling shriveled, fly covered bits of meat that made Xena avert her eyes. She gave the toothless hag a description of Gabrielle, half thinking she was wasting her time with her. To her great surprise the woman's face brightened.

"I remember someone like that, dearie. She was here yesterday."

"Are you sure?" Xena fought off the urge to lift the woman into the air to drive home her meaning.

The woman waved her hand. "Oh yeah. I remember watching her awhile. She was real intent like. Watched them bards with a real glow in her eye. I half 'spected her to jump on up there and spill out some story."

Xena tried to conceal her excitement, half fearing that it wasn't true. "Yeah, that sounds like her. Did you see which way she went?"

Ephiny joined them. She quickly assessed the situation, and Xena sensed her leaning closer in anticipation.

"Dearie, I only sell food. Don't watch where they go after they buy."

Xena's stomach turned thinking that Gabrielle might have bought anything from this hag.

"Then how can you be so sure it was our friend you saw, old woman?" Ephiny asked.

"I can't, but I watched her real good for a few clicks. She caught my old eyes 'cause she reminded me of my dead daughter." She touched her thumb to her lips in reverence of the departed. "She had the same look of sadness and joy in her sweet face."

"Have you seen her today?" Xena asked.

"Naw. Listen. I need to make dinars. You gonna buy anything? I got some real good food here." She looked to Ephiny. "Looks like you could use some meat on your bones, dearie." She looked at Xena. "Dearie, I thinks you could pass."

Ephiny broke out laughing, and Xena shot the Amazon a look which shut her up.

"Thanks, but I think we'll both pass, old woman," Ephiny said, her voice breaking again with more laughter.

"If you see our friend and come find us, there'll be some dinars in it for you," Xena said, walking away.

Ephiny joined her. "Sorry, Xena. I couldn't help myself."

"Glad you found it amusing."

"Well, at least we know she was here. That's something," Ephiny said, composing herself.

"And I'll bet that she'll be back today. All we have to do is wait."

Ephiny shrugged. "Are you sure you can stand being here all day surrounded by bards?" she teased, knowing Xena's love of the arts.

"I don't plan on being around them." She tossed her head toward a bench on the other side of the courtyard, relatively empty, and offering a good view of the rest of the yard. "I'll wait over there."

"That seems a waste of both our talents. I'll cover the shop area."

Xena nodded. "If we don't find her by dark, meet back at the inn and we'll start again tomorrow." She gave Ephiny a weak smile and walked toward the bench.

 

 

 

Gabrielle awoke on her second day in Athens, her heart heavy with despair. 'Stop this, Gabrielle,' she told herself. 'This is my life now. I chose it, now make the best of it.' Unfortunately it was easier said than done. Nothing was going as she thought it would.

The morning chores Gordius' sister assigned her were nearly impossible. She hadn't realized how much work a house and children were. The children got into everything, and were constantly dirty. She didn't know how mothers dealt with it day in and day out. She decided that it was probably different when it was your own child, but as it stood, she was glad when the brats — 'no, children,' she reminded herself, went off for their morning lessons.

After that Gabrielle found herself pounding the dust out of ancient, tattered rugs, scrubbing cooking pots, cleaning the chicken coop, doing laundry and chopping firewood. 'I’m not a boarder,' she thought, 'I’m a slave.'

Gordius' sister was not the kind, gentle woman that the bard first took her to be. She was a ruthless warlord in the way she ran her house, and Gabrielle found herself pressed into service with very little choice. In a way she welcomed the hard work. 'Admit it, Gabrielle. It's the only thing that takes your mind off Xena.' Physical exertion became the only respite she allowed herself from her mental regrets and penitence that were tearing at her being.

After completing all her chores on the previous day, Gabrielle had remembered feeling less tired after battle. She knew she wasn't cut out to be a housewife. 'This is what my life would have been like with Perdicius!' she thought after every disgusting, revolting chore. In some perverse way she found herself grateful to Callisto for sparing her from the constant drudgery. 'By now, Xena, I would have probably had a child or two and long forgotten how exciting life was with you,' she thought with infinite sadness.

It wasn't just the housework that caused Gabrielle despair, but the situation she had gotten herself into. Strangely, it was the first time she had been forced to deal with the consequences alone.

Gordius had come over the previous night for dinner. He had been very nice at the beginning, but after several cups of strong wine, he had begun leering at her. His sister was oblivious to her brother's condition, and snapped at Gabrielle when she tried to remove the wine jug. She ordered Gabrielle to clear the dinner plates, and when Gabrielle leaned over to remove Gordius' plate, he had reached a hand out and roughly grabbed her breast. Gabrielle had stood up slowly, her face tight with anger and her hand clenched and ready to strike. Gordius must have sensed her murderous mood, for he stood, quickly excused himself and left.

Gabrielle had gone to bed that night in a state of complete despair. Everything she knew told her that she’d made a colossal mistake. 'I was stupid to think I could make it on my own,' she told herself. "With Xena I was always safe, and protected, but here it’s open season, and I’m the game.'

"Well, too late for that!" she chastised herself.

She decided she couldn't stay in that house any longer. Where she would go, she wasn't sure, but she had to leave. Absently, she wondered if there was any chance of finding Xena. With painful perception, she realized that even if she did find her friend, Xena would probably walk away from her without a word. The bard knew she'd only be getting what she deserved. 'There's no way I could stand there and watch her go,' Gabrielle thought with a weighty sadness that was smothering her with guilt and sorrow.

Without the possibility of reclaiming what she most wanted, Gabrielle considered the other possibilities. The way she saw it she had three options. One, she could go home to Potiediea, but she quickly threw that idea out. 'Admit it, I'd rather tie a rock around my neck and jump into a deep lake.' Two, she could start walking around Athens looking for work, — but 'what am I really qualified to do? Maybe I could stand on the street corner with a sign 'Have Quill, Will Travel,' hoping to find someone who values my one and only bankable skill.’ Or three, she could go to the Amazons. — It wasn’t a difficult decision at this point.

‘I should have gone there in the firs place. Ephiny could have helped me,' she thought, remembering that next to Xena, Ephiny was her closest friend. There was nothing she couldn't tell Ephiny. 'Dear Ephiny,' Gabrielle thought, finding her spirits rising for the first time in days. 'She won't judge me, or tell me that I was wrong.' Gabrielle realized that she was desperate for someone to tell her that what she was feeling was normal and right. She needed acceptance and understanding.

With that decision made, Gabrielle stopped her chores, and started cleaning herself up. She was determined to enjoy her last day in Athens, and that didn't include doing menial labor all day. She was leaving this place. 'I'm leaving this wretched place, and I’m going shopping! That always helps.'

She opened her money pouch and counted her life savings. 'Ten dinars. I can have fun with that! she thought. 'But only if I am very careful and drive a hard bargain!'

For the second time in two days she packed her few belongings and started out of the house. She passed her landlady at the kitchen table feeding one of her endless lines of children. 'This woman doesn't give birth,' Gabrielle mused, 'she has a litter.'

"Where ya going, girl?" the woman demanded.

"Home! You gorgon breeding, daughter of a Bacchae. I'm going home!"

"Drop that tone, girl! Did ya chop the firewood yet? Don't think of leaving till that's done."

'Yes, I did!" Gabrielle said, laughing when she thought of the woman finding that in a fit of uncontrollable anger, she had used the axe to turn the woman's kindling shed into firewood itself. She hadn't meant to do it, but it felt so good to release some of the rage she had for herself ... for Xena ... and for what she'd allowed to happen to her life.

Gabrielle walked out the door, and slammed it with all the strength she could muster.

Standing in the street, Gabrielle breathed a huge sigh of relief. 'I was wrong to think I could just start from scratch,' she thought, looking down the street. ‘I may not be able to return to Xena, but I can’t just ignore my past. I’m an Amazon Queen, and denying that would be like forgetting to breathe. Go home to my tribe and friend! I’ve got to start to make a new life!’

Besides Xena, Ephiny was the only other person whom she completely and utterly trusted and loved. Ephiny would be there for her. 'Who knows, in time maybe Xena would come to the village and, well... ' The bard couldn't finish the thought.

Gabrielle knew that Xena was going to haunt her for a very long time. The knowledge that she hadn't the courage to tell her how she felt, would be her single biggest regret. 'I can't change that now, and anyway, Xena probably hates me!’ She stopped as the pain of her words crushed at her heart. ‘She probably saw me gone, and just rode off in the opposite direction. — She’s probably hundreds of leagues from Athens by now cursing herself for being so trusting to such a cowardly friend,’ she thought, absently touching her lips remembering where she’d kissed Xena, and realizing how much she needed that feeling again, but knowing it would never be.

Gabrielle tried to turn her thoughts to the Amazons. With Ephiny helping her rule, she would try and rebuild the Amazons into a great nation rivaling the myths of long ago.

"Of course, I'll have to outlaw warfare ... and capital punishment ... and euthanizing animals ... and... Oh, the possibilities are endless," she said, her steps picking up speed and purpose.

'Xena,' she thought. 'If I saw you now, — would I beg your forgiveness and continue our journey to whatever conclusion that may be, — or do I really belong with the Amazons?’ She knew she was just trying to convince herself that she did have a future with the Amazons despite her heart telling her differently.

Without realizing it she had arrived at the shops just outside the Academy. She was torn between shopping and listening. There had been a particularly good poet yesterday, and she really wanted to hear his tales again, but then her eyes spied a stand with exotic wares and 'well, he'll probably be there later,' she thought, making a beeline for the shops.

There was so much to choose from at the market, that the bard's eyes ran eagerly from stand to stand. She saw rich silks from Asia, fine baskets from Africa, delicious wines from Italy and exotic fruits from across the seas. There was jewelry to tempt even the most pretentious of customers, and Gabrielle found the skins of animals she hadn't known existed.

"If I had a thousand dinars, I would still not be able to buy all that I want," she said out loud, smelling a musky perfume from a turban-clad tradesman.

"It doesn't cost that much, my dear. Make me an offer." Gabrielle thanked the man but moved on, ignoring his calls of excellent prices.

Everywhere she looked, she found treasures that Xena would have loved. At one stand she found a beautiful mother of pearl hair comb that would have sparkled in the warrior's dark hair. True, it was white which was completely against Xena's self imposed dark dress code, but Gabrielle would have loved to see it adorn her beloved's hair. "Did I just use the word beloved?" she whispered, dropping the comb and moving away. Forcing the thought out of her head, she continued to shop.

At one stand she purchased a pair of arm bracers as a gift for Ephiny. They were inlaid with lapis lazul and bronze. Gabrielle knew blue was her friend's favorite color, and holding them she knew that they would look beautiful against the Amazon's tanned and well-formed arms. 'And the stones will bring out the color in her eyes,’ Gabrielle thought, remembering with fondness the sunlight dancing in her friend's mirthful gaze. The merchant had wanted eight dinars, but Gabrielle had talked him down to three. 'I could have gotten them for two,' she thought smugly, 'but the man must have a family to feed.'

Turning the corner she saw a stand selling weaponry, and more from habit than interest she found herself drawn to look over his samples. She entered the stand and ran her hand over a table of fine swords. None had the beauty or presence of Xena's sword, and absently she found herself remembering Xena's nightly sharpening ritual with a sudden hurt that threatened to overrun the walls she'd built.

Forcing herself, and her memories away from the swords, she wandered about the tent. At the back she saw a staff leaning casually against the wall.

"How much for the staff?"

The merchant sensed her interest and perked up. "Oh, you have a good eye, little lady. That is a fine weapon." He picked up the staff and ran his hand appreciatively down the piece. "It was crafted from the hardest oak in Britain. Look at the craftsmanship and artistry." He offered her the staff.

It felt good to hold a staff in her hand again. Gabrielle hadn't realized how she'd missed it’s familiarity and comfort. "It's a musty old piece of wood," she affected in her best bored bargaining voice. "Look. Half the design is worn off. I'd really be taking it more out of pity than purpose. I'll give you two dinars."

"Two dinars?" the man scoffed. "You must be some madwoman if you can't see how priceless it is. I couldn't let it go for less than ten dinars."

"Ten dinars?" Gabrielle countered, feeling the rush of the game taking hold of her. "You must take me for a madwoman if you think I'll pay that. Three dinars."

"Five dinars. But first, take it out into the street and feel its balance. It's perfect."

Gabrielle nodded, and turned to test the weapon, letting it balance in her experienced hand. She froze when she saw Ephiny standing there with a huge smile on her face.

"Whatsa matter, my Queen, did you lose your Amazon staff?" Ephiny said, launching herself into Gabrielle's arms.

Gabrielle dropped the staff and clung to her. "Ephiny! — It's good to see you!"

"Funny finding you in Athens," the Amazon said, pulling back.

Ephiny looked at her inquisitively, and Gabrielle fidgeted with her bag nervously.

"Yeah... um... well, I'm just treating myself to a visit to town. You know... shopping and stuff ..."

Ephiny tilted her head and stared at her with a whimsical expression. Gabrielle knew the Amazon could see right through her. 'How do I tell her?' she thought.

"I see, " the Amazon said, grabbing her arm. "C'mon let's get out of here and have a talk."

Gabrielle nodded, and followed her out of the tent, the staff forgotten. Pausing briefly on the street, Ephiny gave her a large smile, and lead her away from the crowded Academy and competition arena.

After a few blocks the Amazon escorted her into a relatively quiet tavern. They took a seat at a far table, and Ephiny gave the one patron an evil look that warned him to leave them alone. For a second the Amazon had reminded her of Xena's protective behavior, but Gabrielle shook the thought out of her head.

Ephiny sat opposite her, and after she ordered two ciders, just sat and stared at her. The Amazon had the strangest look of longing on her face. Gabrielle was trying to find some way to tell her all that had happened and she didn't notice.

 

 

 

Ephiny had never been so glad to see anything as she was when she spotted that shock of blonde hair going into the weapon tent. She had sprinted to the tent on Hermes' wings, and quietly stood behind Gabrielle as she haggled for that horrible old staff.

When she had turned, Ephiny had watched shock, surprise, fear and finally relief wash over Gabrielle's face. Despite what she had told herself, she couldn't stop herself from hugging her. Maybe she had held the embrace too long, but Ephiny's arms hurt from the emptiness they now felt being separated from what she wanted so badly.

Sitting here in the tavern she didn't really know how to proceed. The Amazon code of honor by which she had pledged to live her life seemed so far removed from what she was thinking and feeling, that she was loathe to even call herself an Amazon. 'Don’t shame yourself, Ephiny,' she thought, taking a deep swallow of her cider and forced herself to begin.

"So what are you really doing in Athens?"

"I could ask you the same question, Eph." Gabrielle's tone was wary, and Ephiny knew that the bard had no idea that a certain dysfunctional warrior had followed her to Athens like a camel to water.

"You might say I'm on a quest, so to speak," she replied in an equally wary tone. 'But is my quest for love or friendship?'

"Strange..., you haven't asked me where ... where Xena is," Gabrielle said, looking into her cup. It was painfully obviously that she was afraid.

Ephiny fidgeted nervously with her left arm bracer, and willfully forced both her arms to lay still on the table and she stared pointedly at Gabrielle. "That's because I know exactly where Xena is. — Seems you were today's mystery guest."

Gabrielle's hand seized her arm with an intensity and force the Amazon didn't know the bard possessed. "Xena's here? In Athens? With you?"

'Let me die,' she thought, when she saw the expression on Gabrielle's face. "Yes, Yes and Yes, to answer your questions." Despite her resolve she couldn't keep the surliness from her voice.

"She came looking for me," Gabrielle said, her voice filling with pride — but before it carried much weight, it was replaced with total guilt. "She must hate me."

Ephiny battled against herself. 'Do it, Ephiny! Tell her that Xena hates her! Watch her heart break from the warrior's iron hold. She'll survive. She's stronger than she knows. Tell her to come home with you, where she belongs.' But looking at Gabrielle, did she really want to win her like that? 'Lying to her will only bring pain and misery, and I’ll never be able to look at myself again if I do that to her.’

"How could you, Gabrielle? You ran like a thief in the night, and you stole something from Xena that you may not be able to give back."

"Great! Just what I needed from you, Ephiny. I turn to you when ... gods, Eph ... I’m hurting so badly right now. Be my friend — don’t judge me!"

"Be your friend!" the Amazon cried, pushing her glass away. "If I’m your friend, then why didn’t you come to me?"

"I thought about it ... I wanted to, really. But coming to you ... to the Amazons... you couldn’t help me with ..." Her voice trailed off. "I thought I needed to be alone."

Ephiny pinched at the corner of her eyes, her head was throbbing worse than her heart. She could see the pain carved into every muscle of the bard, and she longed to just hold her and comfort her. ‘But if I do that ... I’ll never let her go.’ Looking up into the guarded green eyes, the Amazon swallowed hard.

"Well, you’ve been alone. How do you like it?" she said, her voice sharp and biting, and the Regent realized that it was hard, harder than she thought, to control the tempestuous storm that was brewing inside her.

"I hate it!" Gabrielle practically snarled, making Ephiny start at the raw anger and pain revealed. "I hate myself so much! I’m a coward, Ephiny. Me, the Queen of the Amazons! There’s a laugh! ... I did just like you said. I ran away — again. How can I ever go back ... face her ... face myself? Tell me that?"

"I know that you’ve hurt her. Deeply."

"I know," Gabrielle whispered. "Don’t you think I know that?"

"Why Gabrielle? Why didn’t you just tell her what you’re feeling?"

"How do you know what I’m feeling?" the bard spat out, closing her eyes and clenching her hand.

"Quit denying it. I know you’ve admitted it to yourself. — Why else would you run?" The Amazon’s voice was rough with emotions, but it was taking ever ounce of her will and strength no to jump up and run out the door. "Just say it out loud."

"Is it that obvious?" Gabrielle innocently asked. "How could you know when even I didn’t?"

‘You’re joking, right? C’mon, half of Thessaly knows by just looking at you two.’

"Why didn’t you just tell her?" she replied, unable to meet the bard’s gaze.

"And watch her turn away from me? I’m wrong ... I shouldn’t feel this way. I know that."

"Does it feel wrong?"

"Feel?! ... It’s the only thing I can fell! I can’t imagine ever feeling anything else. I love her." Gabrielle’s green eyes, locked onto hers, and slowly a grin spread across the bard’s face. "Gods, that’s the first time I’ve ever said it out loud like that."

A lump lodged in the Amazon’s throat, and the pressure in her chest was almost unbearable. She bit at her lip, and willed the pain away. ‘Get up and leave. I don’t have to put myself through this. Or tell her what I’m feeling. It couldn’t be any worse than sitting here and giving her to Xena with both hands...’

"How long have you felt this way?" she asked, unable to bring herself to speak her feelings.

Gabrielle smiled, and the Amazon found herself bathing in its pure radiance, but she was acutely and painfully aware that the smile was on account of someone else.

"I dunno. Always, I guess. But I kept pushing it away, but suddenly I just couldn’t avoid it. She was in my dreams ... in my every thought ... and ever time she touched me, or was near me I thought I’d go out of my skin. But it’s more than just that. She makes me ... me. — Do you understand?"

The Amazon clenched her hand with a strength that made her arm tremble. "Yes, I do," she said. ‘More than you will ever know,’ she added silently.

"Then why in Tartarus can’t I find the words to tell her how I feel?" the bard asked, with angry regret.

‘How can I give her an answer, when I can’t answer that myself?’ the Amazon thought, shaking her head sadly.

"What am I going to do, Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked, dropping her face into her hands, and the Regent lifted her hand off the table, and was about to bring it down on the blond head when she regained control of herself, and lowered her hand.

"I can’t answer that, my Queen," she said, wanting desperately to distance herself before she screamed from the agony that reached to ever inch of her being.

"Why did she come here ... to Athens ... after me? She’s got to hate me. I’ve destroyed everything between us," Gabrielle said, looking up, her green eyes swimming in tears. "Tell me the truth, does she hate me?"

The Amazon Regent blinked, and stared at her in stunned disbelief ...

‘This is too good.’ The bard looked as innocent as a spring lamb ready for slaughter. ‘Thank you, Artemis. You are giving her to me, aren’t you?’ She could almost see the knife in her hand, and she knew with one well chosen phrase she would forever ruin Gabrielle and Xena.

She looked again at Gabrielle, her mind frenzied in the search for the right words. Seeing the tears rolling down the her sweet face and the trust that the bard’s eyes were putting in her, she felt her words die on her lips. ‘Nooooo!’ Ephiny could feel her heart and soul screaming from her self sacrifice.

"Xena doesn’t hate you, Gabrielle," she found herself saying, her voice emotionless.

"Then what does she feel for me?"

The Amazon looked away, her fingernails raking painfully up her leg under the table.

"I’m your friend, damn it! Help me!" Her voice grew weak. "Please."

"Gabrielle, I want to give you the answers you’d like to hear ... but how can you ask me? Especially when I ... doesn’t matter. You’ve got to face Xena ... and your feelings by yourself."

"But what if she — what if she ... um ..."

"What if she denies your love?" The Amazon finished the sentence that the bard couldn’t.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened and she bit at her lip, a snatch of her teeth visible. She looked at Ephiny and nodded slowly. A tear welled up in the bard’s eye, and the Amazon watched it slide ever so gently down her cheek. Ephiny had to clench her hand from reaching out to capture something from Gabrielle before she was gone forever.

"I can’t lose her," Gabrielle hoarsely whispered.

"If you love her with all your heart ..." she stopped, turning her head to cough in a desperate attempt to clear the impassable lump that burned in her throat. "If you love her, your courage will set you free." She’d never felt so weak and useless in her whole life.

"If she says no... Then I hope the underworld swallows me because I can't live anymore. I won't..."

Anger rose from Ephiny's stomach. "If Xena doesn't admit her own feelings to you, Gabrielle, you will survive! You will learn to love again."

"But what will I do without her?"

"You were strong enough to leave her a few days ago. You can do it again!"

Gabrielle laughed ruefully. "Yeah, I was a big success at my new life. Practically sold into slavery, and then I was almost a drunkard's desert last night. Yeah, I'm really strong enough to make it on my own!"

"You are the strongest person I know! I... I..." Ephiny dug her fingernails into her leg. "I admire your courage." 'Coward!' she called herself.

"My courage so far has been to bury my feelings — and then run away to avoid them."

"Do you have the courage to find your own happiness?" Ephiny felt as if she'd been hit in the stomach. 'How can I ask Gabrielle to do that when I can't?'

"I can't do it, Eph. I can't face Xena. I've decided that ... um ... I want to come home with you to the Amazons."

Ephiny's face rose, and a smile began to play at her lip. She could feel her heart lighten, and her soul begin to fly. Gabrielle's hand was only a short distance from hers, and she moved to take it. 'You will be happy there. I know it. Maybe not at first, but... ' She let herself start to imagine happiness.

My heart is dead without Xena. I will never love anyone but her ... she’s my other half, and until she comes to me ... I will never love again."

Ephiny's hand remained where it was as her world came crashing down around her. Her face contorted, and she could no longer hold back the flood of emotions that now ruptured through her dam of self control in unstoppable waves. She dropped her face into her hands and cried.

She felt Gabrielle's warm touch on her shoulder, but she couldn't bear to look at her. Gabrielle encircled her with her arms, and pulled her close. Ephiny laid her face against the bard’s shoulder, and cried harder than she had ever cried before. The growing pain, that had been filling her since she first saw Xena without Gabrielle, broke and Ephiny felt herself clinging to Gabrielle with a force that made her hurt all over again.

Gabrielle stroked her hair, and she could feel the bard place her cheek against her head. "What is it, dearest Ephiny?" she asked, softly into her hair.

Ephiny pulled away and turned her back to Gabrielle, and wiping roughly at her eyes. "It's nothing. I think I’m .... I'm just tired . . . Sorry... Probably all this talk ... and everything."

Leave me alone!’ her heart cried out. ‘Go away. I don’t want you to see me like this. Why can’t I just look you in the face and say it? What’s so wrong with loving you? Am I that bad that you’d ... that you’d always be comparing me to her!’ Her chest constricted, and she winced against the pain, determined not to lose it again in front of Gabrielle. ‘Get this over with. Either tell her what you’ve longed to ... or send her to Xena.’

"Ephiny ..." Gabrielle said softly, her hand resting on her back. "You know you are my truest friend. You are more than I deserve."

Taking a deep breath, the Amazon Regent straightened herself up. "Gabrielle, I have to tell you something," she said, unable to look at her, but unable to deny it any longer. "I know this is probably lousy timing, but — "

Over her shoulder, the bard handed her something wrapped in colorful cloth. Ephiny took it with trembling hands, and pulling back the cloth found two beautiful bracers.

"I got these for you," Gabrielle said, leaning over her shoulder. "I don’t know how to repay you. Only you would sit her and listen to my emotions pour out without a price ... Thank you." She ran a hand down her hair. "And no matter what happens between Xena and me, I will be forever grateful that I can call you my friend."

Ephiny fingered the colored stones and closed her eyes. The emptiness that consumed her was cavernous, and it was hers to bear all alone. She looked around the room briefly trying to collect her thoughts, before turning back to Gabrielle and forcing a smile. She only hoped that she didn't look as miserable as she felt.

"Thanks for the gift," she said with a weak, toneless voice.

Ephiny felt destroyed. She had lost Gabrielle ... ‘But then she was never mine to begin with ... she’s always been hers!’ The Amazon wanted to hate Xena, but it wasn't her fault. ‘Gabrielle just never saw me as anything but a friend.’

For a brief, but painful second, the Regent had the almost uncontrollable need to destroy Gabrielle. It seemed the only way to help the anguish that made it hard for her to breathe. ‘That is not only gutless, but mean. I’m ashamed I even thought it. I knew I’d never stand a chance ... I chose to be their friend, and that meant doing this to myself. Accept what’s come to pass. See this through to the end ... and be happy for her ... or them. Or gods, let me escape. I can’t do this. I need to get out of here — away from her, before I completely embarrass myself and lose them both ... forever.’

"Do you like them?" Gabrielle asked, coming to sit on the other side of the bench next to her. "I thought of you when I saw them."

Ephiny shut her eyes, and forced herself to see the bard through to the end. She nodded slowly.

"Now what do you have to tell me?" Gabrielle said, and placing a hand lightly on her arm.

"Gabrielle, you are my friend. Someone I care about ..." The words caught in her throat, and she took a deep breath. "You can’t run away any more. Next thing you know, you’ll be running your whole life. I don’t want that to happen to you."

"Let me come home with you. We can rule the tribe together ... things’ll be ... um ... I’m sure I’ll be okay. Not right away, but ... I don’t know ... someday, maybe."

"You’ll always have a home with me — and the Amazons. You know that. But going there now, with all this unresolved. You’ll regret it your whole life. You’ll never know what might have been," she said, looking up into Gabrielle’s clear, sweet eyes.

"How can I face her, Ephiny?"

 

"Because you love her."

Gabrielle’s face contracted quickly, and the Amazon watched her fight for control.

"I just wish I knew she felt the same. If she rejects me ... I don’t know if I can live."

Ephiny reached out and lifted Gabrielle’s chin, before pushing a hunk of blonde hair off her forehead.

"You listen to me, my Amazon Queen. You don’t have a choice. Neither does Xena. She’s hurting as much as you are."

"Really?" Gabrielle asked in a child-like voice.

"Yeah, really. She has an idea what’s going on ... as thick skulled as she is." That got a weak smile from the bard. "Trust in her, Gabrielle. She doesn’t want to hurt you."

"But does she love me?"

"You’ve got to find out, don’t you?"

Gabrielle nodded, her eyes closed and a look of surreal peacefulness settling over her face. She looked up. "You wouldn’t want to come with me and help?"

Ephiny raised an eyebrow and gave the bard a half grin. "Be brave. Go find your future. I’ll wait for you, if you want." ‘Forever if I have to. Know that, please.’

"Thanks, Eph. I’m sorry. I should have come to you."

"It’s okay," Ephiny said, taking off her old bracer, and reverently slipping her new ones onto her forearm. "Thank you for these. I’ll treasure them." She looked sadly at the bard. "I’ll never find anything to replace them," she said, knowing she wasn’t talking about the gift.

At dusk Xena gave up waiting for Gabrielle to show at the Academy. With her heart heavy and her steps slow, she made her way back to the inn. She had been so sure that Gabrielle would show today, and Xena knew she couldn't hurt any more than she did right now.

Standing outside the inn with her hand on the door, Xena debated going inside. She didn't feel like facing Ephiny right now, and yet she couldn't face the fact that she had no idea where else to look for Gabrielle.

She half considered walking through every street in Athens calling her name at the top of her lungs. 'Let them call me a madwoman. It’s exactly how I feel.' Gabrielle was her reason and rhyme, and if that meant going insane from fear and worry, she would gladly suffer it — if it would bring her Gabrielle.

Realizing the futility of the exercise Xena sighed, and opened the door. Seeing Gabrielle sitting comfortably by the fire made Xena close her eyes for fear that she was beginning to imagine things, which meat she was well on the road to madness. When she opened them, the bard was standing, and the green eyes locked onto hers, an intensity flowing between them that made the palms of the warrior’s hands sweat, and her heart to beat faster in her chest.

Xena fought to control her emotions while her eyes ran over Gabrielle in relief. She couldn't miss the scratches on her legs and arms, and she had the desire to inspect each one. 'Gods, Xena,' she thought, 'You're furious with her. Remember that! She left you without a word ...' She felt her jaw set, and her eyes narrow.

Glancing around the empty room, the warrior compelled herself into battle — not knowing how she would emerge from this, the toughest fight of her life.

Holding herself tall, she walked over to the fire, and took a seat in the chair opposite Gabrielle's. Pulling her sword out of its scabbard and laying it on the hearth, she leaned back more comfortably in the chair and crossed her legs. Gabrielle had remained standing, and Xena knew that the bard's eyes had never left her. Resting an elbow on the arm of the chair, Xena brought a trembling hand up to her mouth, and rested her chin on her palm. 'Remain in control,’ she cautioned herself.

"Do you want to tell me why?" she opened, her voice tighter than she meant.

"I'm sorry, Xena, for leaving the way I did," Gabrielle said, with a controlled calmness that surprised Xena. "It was wrong, and ... I'll ... um ... understand if you never forgive me."

'Forgive her?' Xena was having a hard time keeping from hugging her in relief and anger and . . . 'But I've already forgiven her.' She fought the urge to just blurt this information out. 'Take it slow,' she said to herself, trying desperately to figure out how to proceed.

"I take it that Ephiny found you?" Xena didn't know why that bothered her.

"She brought me here a little while ago," the bard said, with a trill that told Xena something had happened between them. ‘I can’t think of that now.’

Gabrielle sat, and pulled her chair closer. The bard’s hand reached out, and landed casually on her knee. The touch burned so deeply that Xena felt her breath flutter in her pounding chest, and her head began spinning. She closed her eyes, and swallowed hard as a wave of longing swept through her. Gabrielle’s hand didn’t move, but Xena’s whole body began tingling, and she felt a light sweat break out on her forehead. She gripped the arm of the chair with all her strength, the rough wood edges cutting deeply into her palms. ‘Feel that, warrior. Pain can also come with such bliss!’

Gabrielle leaned back, her hand gone, and a cold emptiness left in its place.

"I’ve been waiting for you," the bard said.

"Are you all right, Gabrielle?" she said, concern filling both her face and words.

Gabrielle snorted, almost in disgust. "Yeah, physically, I'm fine." She lowered her eyes. "Mentally, I'm a total basket case."

Xena uncrossed her legs and leaned forward so that only a hand's width separated them. "Why didn't you come to me?" she demanded, her voice betraying the pain that was eating up her soul.

"Why didn't you see that I needed you?" Gabrielle said, her eyes accusing her.

"Oh, I don't notice that you're ... what? .... And that's supposed to be your excuse for running into the darkness without a word?" she spat back, not knowing why she was so defensive.

"I was hurting! I needed you, and you weren't there!"

Xena held up her hand. "This is getting us nowhere. I'm sorry that I didn't notice you were upset."

"That's just it! You did notice. You knew, Xena!"

"Knew what?"

"That I'm in ..." the bard's voice trailed off, her words unspoken but understood. "I'm sorry I left like that, Xena. It was wrong," she said, and glanced away.

Xena blinked several times, her mind a complete blank. She was teetering on the edge of a cliff, the mere strength of the wind holding her in position over the precipice, but she could feel a gentle pressure from behind, urging her toward the void. Below her lay a calm surface of water that could at any second turn into a vicious Charybdis and devour her whole being. Maintaining her footing on solid ground was becoming difficult.

Looking at Gabrielle across from her, Xena could no longer play guessing games with herself. This woman wasn't just her life. She was her soul.

Gabrielle lifted her hand slightly and Xena held her breath, craving her touch on her skin, and yet fighting off an urge to move her chair back. Gabrielle let it fall back into her lap.

"Aren't you going to say anything? — At least I deserve a lecture or something," the bard said with a weak laugh that was more like a choke.

Xena swallowed hard. "Did you think of me at all before you ran away?"

Gabrielle roughly pushed her chair back, and stood up. "Thought of you? Gods, did I think of anything else!" She gave the warrior the same intense look she'd felt earlier, and again Xena was captured in her bewitched gaze. "I think I wanted to hurt you."

Xena felt as if she'd been slapped. "Well, you did," she said quietly, allowing her pain to escape in her words.

"Did I? How?" she snapped. "Tell me how the little tag along could hurt the great warrior princess?"

"I don't want to fight with you, Gabrielle," she said, rubbing at her brow.

"I'm sorry, Xena. This is very hard for me. — I just don't know where to begin."

'Hard on you, my little bard? I can barely breathe,' she thought.

"Why don't you start at the beginning?"

"The beginning? About how I felt compelled, beyond my control, to leave all that I knew and follow you? That beginning?" Gabrielle began, her voice teeming with emotion. "Sneaking out in the dead of night, abandoning my family, my fiancee, my village, all because I knew. Do you understand? I knew I had to be with you." She looked directly at her, and Xena knew Gabrielle had needed to say this for a long time.

"You don't think I knew that? All I ever questioned was why? Why would you want to hang around with me? I've done nothing but hurt you, Gabrielle." The warrior clenched her teeth and fought for strength, knowing she was losing control of the situation and heading down a path that may not be best.

Gabrielle sat and took her hand. The bard's smaller hand felt so warm, and a delicious shiver ran up her spin as the bard locked their fingers. Xena found herself concentrating on the intertwined fingers, finding a symbolism in their joining that made her heart ache. Gabrielle lifted her hand to her lips, and Xena’s stomach spun out of control as the bard gently kissed the back of her hand. The touch of her lips ... so soft and gentle, yet so passionate ... Xena found her fingers aching to reach out and touch those lips. With her hand still held against the bard’s lips, Gabrielle looked up, and Xena couldn’t tear her eyes away.

"We’ve hurt each other, Xena," Gabrielle said, her breath spreading across the skin of her hand like the embrace of a summer breeze. The bard’s thumb gently caressed her skin, and Xena found herself tightening her hold on the smaller hand. With another light kiss, Gabrielle lowered their hands and slowly released her hold.

"But as for why I stay with you ..." Gabrielle said, giving the warrior a half smile that made her hand clench. "The reasons don’t matter anymore. I’ve never regretted my decision ... even when I though we hated each other."

Xena felt herself pitched forward more precariously over the edge of the cliff. She opened her mouth to speak, but Gabrielle put a finger against her lips to silence her.

"I've got to finish this ... Or I'll never say it." She took in a deep breath. "Something in me has changed, Xena. I'm not the same girl who was content to just walk in your shadow."

"I never looked at you like ...."

"I don't want to walk in your shadow, because I want to walk beside you."

Xena felt the ground give out from under her, and she plunged into a vicious whirlpool. Her heart was pounding, and her skin felt flushed. She looked at Gabrielle sitting there, her face guileless and open. 'She's waiting for me to say something. What am I going to say ... What is the right thing to do?! I know what I want, but what is best for her?'

"Gabrielle, you are everything to me. You'll never be in my shadow. You never have been!"

"That's not what I mean, Xena ... and you know it! I don't ever want to be without you again. You are my life ... you are ... my love... you are my soul."

Xena pushed her chair back and stood up. She threw both hands onto the mantle of the fireplace and gritted her teeth. She felt like a caged animal with human reasoning. 'Do I grab her and let her know what primal feelings I have ... Or do I set her free?'

Turning her head she allowed her eyes to rove hungrily up the bard's muscular body, and then slowly take in her innocent face. Xena’s face softened as she saw only pure love staring back at her. ‘Look at that face that you love above all others ... it still holds the courage to dream, and a burning wish to see all those dreams fulfilled. Those priceless emerald eyes that I wish I could live in ... they still hold a wonder for the world, and a passion to make things better. That cherished smile that can stop my most violent moods and make me simper like a kitten. It should be given to someone not destined to run forever. How can I take everything away from her? I can’t give her the world ... I can’t even make peace with myself! I can’t do that to her!’

"Aren't you going to say anything, Xena?" she asked, standing and gently touching her arm. "Please don't shut me out. Not now. I need you."

Xena kept her eyes focused on the fire. "Gabrielle ...." she began, her voice breaking. "I can't do that to you. I can't allow you to throw your life away on me."

Gabrielle's hand slowly pulled her away from the fire until she was facing her. Xena closed her eyes, afraid of opening them and betraying her soul.

"Let me make that decision. I love you no matter what. Haven't you gotten that yet?"

'Great Zeus, please help me! Should I take the chance at happiness that you've given me, or should I do what is right for Gabrielle. — How do I know that I'm not right for her... that all of this isn't my destiny? — But how do I know that she isn't meant to be something else, someone else...' She took a deep breath, and focused on the open face before her. 'Make a decision!' she commanded herself.

"And I love you. — I don't know what I'd do without you," she said slowly, stumbling desperately in a vain attempt to find the right words. "I've grown so dependant on you that I don't know if I could live without you, Gabrielle. You are as much a part of my life as ... as ... um ... Argo."

Gabrielle took a step back, her face tight. "Are you comparing me to your horse?"

"No... course not! You know what I mean."

"That what, I'm a tool of your trade? Maybe someone to get the firewood and entertain you during long rides?"

Xena held up her hand. "Gabrielle, you're taking this all wrong." 'What did I say?' Xena thought, watching Gabrielle fire up. "I meant to say ..."

"I don't think I am," Gabrielle interrupted, biting her lower lip in frustration. "I lay my soul out here to you — in the open — I give you my heart — not knowing what you'll say. — And you compare me to your damn horse," she practically snarled this last part and Xena lifted her chin.

"What do you want me to say?"

"How about that you love me like I love you?"

"And how exactly is that?" Xena said through clenched teeth, her mind spinning. ‘I don’t want to fight with you. Don’t make me, please!’

"What didn't you understand?" Gabrielle held her hands up in exasperation and shook her head, and Xena could see tears forming in her eyes. Xena started to speak, but Gabrielle said, "Forget it. — Maybe this will make it clearer to you."

Before Xena knew what had happened Gabrielle threw her arms around the warrior’s neck and pulled her face down to her mouth. The warrior’s eyes opened in surprise for a brief second before a rush of desire lay siege to her reason. She didn’t fight it. She couldn’t fight it. As their lips met, the world ceased to exist. There was only the swelling ecstasy that threatened to surmount anything Xena had ever experienced before. She felt Gabrielle’s hands sink into her hair, and she heard herself moan against the bard’s mouth. Just as her arms were about to reach out and pull Gabrielle to her, the kiss was broken as quickly as it was begun. As the bard moved away, Xena felt her soul being torn from her body.

In that brief second, she'd felt completely one with Gabrielle.

"How about now? Any clearer for you?" Gabrielle reached up and wiped at her teary eyes, while a dangerous smile crossed her lips.

Xena blinked again and again, her mind spinning and unable to form a coherent thought. Her knees were weak and she sank into the chair with a thud. "That was incredible," she breathed at last, looking up at Gabrielle.

"Did you like it?" Gabrielle asked, sitting opposite her, and Xena could tell from the way she pulled at her fingers that despite her courageous demonstration she was frightened.

Xena narrowed her eyes. "By the gods, I ... didn’t know it ... you ... it ... could be like that," she stuttered, not sure what she really wanted to say.

The bard chuckled. "Me either, I think."

"Surely, none of the boys you've known ... or Perdicius ever kissed you like that, did they?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know. I think ... it’s ... Xena ... it’s always been you loving me," she breathed, her eyes lowered. "And Perdicius... he was a mistake. I know now that I should have stayed with you. Perdicius wasn't my other half." Gabrielle gave her a shy look that made Xena’s heart skip a beat.

The warrior forced herself to look away. "Then why did you marry him? Do you know how hard that was for me?" Her voice was angry and raw.

Gabrielle smiled, and Xena knew she should have held her tongue. "How would I know that, oh reticent warrior?" she said, crossing her legs and leaning back in confidence. "But since you feel talkative tonight, why don’t you tell me."

"If I’d still been the warlord I was ... he wouldn’t have made it to the church alive. I was so angry at him for loving you ... and so hurt by you wanting to love him back. I had no idea why — only that I did!" Xena pounded her fist against the arm of the chair. "Do you know how hard it was for me to stand by and helplessly watch my whole world being destroyed by a man who wasn’t strong enough to make you happy!?!" she said, her voice faltering so much that she had to quit speaking.

‘Gods, Xena. Let the poor boy rest in peace. He doesn’t need to hear this!’ she thought, looking up at Gabrielle. The bard’s face was composed, but Xena could see a light dancing dangerously in her eyes. "That’s how I felt, Gabrielle," she said with a glare.

"I did love him, you know." Gabrielle’s voice was so matter of fact that Xena felt as if it was said just for her benefit. ‘Why does she want to hurt me so much?’ she thought, feeling a rough anger rising against her will.

"I know. But it was that intellectual love you attach to all the men you've known. What I'm afraid you've attached to me." 'Oh damn! Why’d I have to go and say that?!'

Gabrielle pushed her chair back from Xena. "What's that supposed to mean?" she said hotly.

The warrior bit her tongue, and remained quiet.

"You don’t just drop something like that, and then go silent ... What do you mean by intellectual love?

"Gabrielle..." Her voice trailed off as she stood and stared into the fire — her hand absently tracing her still tingling lips. "A kiss is one thing, but how do you know that you really — you know ... want me in the whole sense?" 'A kiss would be about all I need,' she thought, briefly before pushing it out of her mind.

"Do you have a point?" Gabrielle said, standing next to her, and Xena could see the hurt and anger in her eyes.

'I have to know,' she thought, 'and if hurting her with the truth is what she needs, then so be it.' Xena hated herself for what she was going to say next.

"C'mon, Gabrielle. You've really — to my knowledge — only slept with Perdicius. That makes you really no more than a virgin." She swallowed hard as she watched shocked anger flood across the bard's face. She closed her eyes, fighting every instinct to take her into her arms.

"Oh, that is brilliant coming from — what Xena? What should we call all your tasteless affairs? Would the "Whore of Babylon" be out of line?"

Xena's eyes snapped open. "That was uncalled for! — You know I lived a very different life than I do now."

"And it seems most of it was on your back!"

Xena took a step so that she towered over Gabrielle. "Isn't that where you want me now?" she said, with a deep seductive trill that made the bard color.

Gabrielle looked flustered. "Well... um... At least I wouldn't be using you!"

"I was using them! Don't forget that," she hissed at her.

"Oh really? Let's just add up a few of your known lovers," she taunted. "I realize there are probably enough to fill a legion... or maybe two."

"I took my pleasure when and where I wanted it. I have no shame."

"That's obvious!" she said with a cynical laugh. "But correct me, didn't Caesar use you? And Borias? And Ares? And Marcus? And...."

"That's enough, Gabrielle. What's your point?"

"My point is that I want you to quit treating me like a child. I can make my own decisions, with my eyes wide open."

"I should let you," she said in angry disbelief. "Even though I know it could hurt you?"

"Believe it or not, you don't always know what is best for everyone." Her eyes flamed and Xena found herself responding in kind.

"Is that so?!! I know you so well that I can pick the next bungling idiot you'll fall for a mile away. Don't you ever get sick of those weak crybabies?" she scoffed. "You know, I could probably have given you up to someone that I knew you respected, but you go and choose — " Xena stopped herself.

"Finish it, Xena," Gabrielle demanded, her voice sharp and biting.

Xena stared directly at her. Gabrielle knew exactly what she'd meant.

"And you think that watching you lusting after that dork Ulysses or watching Ares lust after you was ... is ... easy for me?"

"Oh please! Ulysses wasn't great — but you can hardly compare him to the big stupid farmer you married."

Gabrielle's hand whipped through the air and across Xena's cheek. "Don't you ever speak of him like that again! Especially after what happened to him because of you!"

Xena squared her jaw, but refused to touch her stinging cheek. "Oh, no! I've carried that burden too long, Gabrielle. You just admitted that Perdicius was just a substitute for me, so you are as much responsible for his death as I am."

"Oh that's cold, Xena! I loved him!"

"So you've said, but obviously not enough to send him safely on his way. What were you trying to do by marrying him? Make me jealous?"

"Did I?"

Xena ignored her and continued, "Did you even think what your life would be like with him? How long would it have been before you ran off again to escape the prison you'd built for yourself?"

Gabrielle sank into the chair and looked away from her.

Xena towered over Gabrielle who had folded under her attack, and took a deep breath. "And how long before you run from me again?" she whispered into her ear.

Xena straightened up, and looking down at the bard knew she'd gone too far. Gabrielle had dropped her shoulders, and it was as if all that she was had collapsed under the warrior's barrage.

"Oh, you're too much, Xena!" Gabrielle cried, looking up at her with tear rimmed eyes. "I've tried for so long to tell myself that you aren't as cold on the inside as you are on the outside, but I guess I'm wrong." The tears were pouring down the bard's cheeks. "You might as well be dead for all that you allow yourself to feel."

Looking down, Xena reached a hand out to wipe a tear off the bard’s cheek. Gabrielle roughly pulled her face away from the warrior’s touch, and Xena dropped her hand, consciously aware of the stinging lump in her own throat. She couldn't start crying — not yet.

"I do feel things, Gabrielle. I feel enough to only want to see you happy."

"What I have with you makes me happy, Xena."

"And what I have with you also. — Do you really want to complicate it and risk losing it all?" Xena turned away, afraid of betraying everything in her face.

"I don't buy that. By loving you I might risk losing you?" Gabrielle stood and put a hand on her shoulders, turning her ever so gently that the warrior couldn't resist.

Xena looked at her friend, but seeing her anxious face, all thoughts flew from her mind. Tearing her gaze away she forced herself to look over Gabrielle's shoulder and concentrate on the far wall.

"Gabrielle, the love part isn't it. No one can take away what we feel for each other. — We ... just ... we aren't right for each other!" 'There I said it!' Xena thought, in triumph and utter sadness.

The bard moved closer to her, and Xena felt as if something in the pit of her stomach was pulling them closer against her will. As the bard moved next to her, the warrior closed her eyes, her body pulsating with a rhythm that made her burn with desire. Gabrielle was so close she could feel the bard’s breath against her shoulder, and the mere touch of it against her skin made her heart pound so loud that she knew Gabrielle must be able to hear it . ‘Pull back!’ she ordered herself with her last ounce of rational thought. ‘End this now!’ But her body had quit responding to her will.

Gabrielle’s touch settled lightly on her upper arm, and a deep, exciting chill passed through her body. As the bard’s hand moved slowly up her arm and across her shoulder, Xena’s breath began coming in quick gasps. One of Gabrielle’s hands buried itself in her hair, and the sensation of the dancing fingers against the nape of her neck was enough to melt her. The bard’s other hand was caressing her face, and when Gabrielle’s fingers lingered on her lips, Xena drew in a deep breath, a sensuous tremor cascading through her body. Without her control, Xena felt her head tilt back as Gabrielle’s fingers began exploring the area under her jaw. ‘Please don’t let her see how fast my pulse is racing,’ she thought, and her heart stopped beating when she felt the soft touch of the bard’s lips against her collar bone. The light tingle of Gabrielle’s tongue against her skin made her body quake dangerously. It was then that she noticed her own hands had settled on Gabrielle’s waist, and her fingers were digging into the flesh with an intensity that terrified her.

"Xena?" Gabrielle said, in a deep and husky voice that she’d never heard before.

The warrior slammed back into her body, and closing her eyes, fought for the will to force herself to take a large step backwards from the bard. When doing so she backed into a chair and almost fell. Gabrielle's face was taught with disbelief. Regaining control of herself, she locked eyes with the bard.

"This is what will ruin it, Gabrielle!" she said motioning between them.

Gabrielle held her hands up to her mouth in disbelief. "By the immortals, you're a prude, aren't you?"

"I am not!"

"You have no problem loving me in your mind. You can't do it with your body! — I ... I don't believe this."

"You are so wrong." Xena's voice became quiet. 'If we start this — we won't be able to control it. I can't condemn you to my life. Please understand!'

"Then prove it, Xena!"

"I won't do that to you, Gabrielle. I won't allow you to throw away your life on me."

"Don't worry, Xena. I'll respect you in the morning." Gabrielle's voice was so full of sarcasm that Xena knew she was covering up a deeper pain.

"What if I'm right?! What if we end up hating each other?" She looked at her. "I can't live with the fact that I'd taken everything from you."

"I may not be experienced — but even I can see what you're trying to hide from me. You want me — I can see it. Gods, I can feel it." Her voice had a hard edge to it.

"I'm not hiding anything," she said lamely, knowing the bard didn't believe it anymore than she did.

"I never thought I'd call you a coward," Gabrielle said.

Xena's mind was spinning. Before she knew how it happened, she’d reached out and grabbed Gabrielle by the back of her head. She felt the fine blonde hair knot around her fingers as she dragged the bard to her with a fury that she’d only felt in battle. With a villainous smile crossing her face, she roughly crushed Gabrielle’s lips against her mouth. The kiss was violent and savage. Her arms pinned the bard’s body to her’s with all her strength, and she felt her fingers ripping into the bard’s shoulders, as her other hand roughly clutched at Gabrielle’s hair. The warrior let her teeth tear ruthlessly across the smooth, innocent flesh of the bard’s lips, and Gabrielle squirmed under her, as Xena tasted blood dance across her tongue. In a moment of fear she released her hold, and the bard pulled back in alarm.

"Don’t you ever call me a coward," she said looking away in guilt, her heart breaking at the look of fright that had settled across Gabrielle’s face. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said silently, wishing against everything that she hadn’t been forced to do that.

Gabrielle lifted a hand to her lip, and Xena cringed as she saw the crimson blood smear the bard’s skin. The green eyes had never left her, but she’d taken a step away.

"You are a coward," Gabrielle cried. "You’re afraid to love me ... despite what you feel." She looked down at her blood stained hand, shoving it like a badge of shame at Xena. "Does this prove anything — other than your own fears?"

At that moment, Xena knew with perfect clarity that she had to save Gabrielle from her, ‘or gods, I will take her, and it will destroy her...’

"If I wanted you, Gabrielle ... I would have taken you. Whether you wanted it or not," Xena taunted, her voice so cold it frightened even her.

"Gee, is that supposed to ..." the bard’s voice trailed off.

Xena opened her mouth, but Gabrielle shook her head, as a look of total fury transformed her face into something nearly unrecognizable. Grabbing for the thing closest to her, she slammed a chair to the ground. With powerful blows she kicked furiously at it, finally sending it clattering across the floor and into the wall. Xena watched motionless and silent. Gabrielle clenched both hands by her side, and throwing her head back screamed at the top of her lungs. The sound was so pained, so animalistic in its tenor, that Xena felt each tone slam into her heart like an iron fist. Gabrielle looked at her, the green eyes hostile and the bard’s fists held at chest level. For a brief second Xena thought she would charge, but Gabrielle sank to the hearth like a rag doll, and lowering her head to her knees sobbed.

The innkeeper came out of the back to investigate the commotion. He pointed at the chair and was about to open his mouth, but Xena narrowed her eyes, and he remained silent. Giving a nervous look around the empty room he retreated.

The warrior silently watched Gabrielle as she cried. She held a trembling hand out to touch the bard’s bent head, but couldn’t force herself to bring it down. She’d never felt so impotent in her life.

Finally Gabrielle sat up. Her eyes were swollen and red, but to Xena she’d never looked more beautiful, or vulnerable. The bard looked at her and smiled in embarrassment. Xena forced herself to look away before she went and ruined Gabrielle’s life by saying or doing something she couldn’t take back.

"I’m sorry, Xena. That was pretty childish."

Xena took in a deep breath, and remained silent. She couldn’t trust her voice.

"I shouldn’t have asked ... or expected you to be something you’re not."

Xena looked at the fire, and bit her lip.

"I’ll go," Gabrielle said, standing up. "You made that ... pretty clear."

The warrior sank into the chair.

"Aren’t you going ... going to ... Damn it, Xena! Say something!"

The warrior looked up at the bard, and opened her mouth, but no words would come. She shut it in tortured silence and looked away.

Gabrielle took in a deep breath. "Fine. Be that way. Doesn’t matter anymore," she said in resignation. "But in case you’re interested ... I’m going home with Ephiny," she said, and Xena felt as if she’d reach in and pulled her still beating heart from her chest.

Xena closed her eyes against the pain. She felt like she was sinking, and she didn’t have the strength to claw for solid ground. A strange darkness was beckoning to her, and it was taking all she had not to fall into that black void.

"I’m sorry, Xena. — I wish I could just go back a few days and make different decisions. I wish I could just ignore or pretend away all I feel for you — but I can’t. I just wish that you would ... well, there’s nothing left to argue about anymore."

"Gabrielle ..." she heard herself whisper like an expulsion of air.

The bard sat opposite her, and reach out to life her chin so Xena looked into her eyes. The warrior tried to look away, but she couldn’t stop herself from taking her last few looks at Gabrielle, her bard, her friend, her love. She knew what she was doing was right. Gabrielle deserved this chance, but she never knew how much it would hurt letting her go.

"I’ll always love you, Xena ... but I — " the bard’s voice faltered dangerously, and Xena felt her stomach tighten. "I have to let you go. For your sake and for mine."

Gabrielle stood up and collected her bag. Xena stood also, her eyes stinging from the tears that were building. The bard raised a hand to stroke her cheek, and Xena seized it, holding it hard against her face. Without knowing how, she gathered Gabrielle in her arms, and held her tightly against her. The warrior clung to the bard as if her life depended on it, and for an agonizing second she knew it did. Gabrielle broke the embrace and stood back.

"I’ll always regret what couldn’t be, Xena, but I’ll never regret you."

With that said, Gabrielle touched her face again, and silently walked to the door. Xena heard her pause, and she could feel the bard’s eyes on her back, but she didn’t turn.

‘Just walk away, Gabrielle,’ Xena thought. ‘Don’t turn around — don’t look back.’

Gabrielle quietly opened the door and closed it behind her.

"I’m letting you go," Xena said, as she heard the door click back into place.

Her heart broke completely, and she sank slowly to the floor. Her emptiness was all consuming. Burying her face in her hands, she wept with such complete abandonment, that all she was fell away in the torrent of tears. She was stripped of her soul and her being. As the darkness closed around her, the last thought that ran through her mind was ‘Gabrielle...

Gabrielle was gone. It was said so simply, but it meant so much, and with her went all that was Xena.

 

 

 

In the corner of the room, Ares appeared in total silence. He folded his arms over his chest and allowed a sinister smile of triumph to spread across his face. Tilting his head to the side he contemplated the weeping warrior.

‘Come to me, Xena," he whispered softly. "I will give you release for your pain. You are mine once again."

With that, he disappeared, images of Xena by his side for all eternity dancing in his head. Victory was at hand.

 

 

The End

Copyright May 1998 Pallas


Return to The Bard's Corner

The warrior silently watched Gabrielle as she cried. She held a trembling hand out to touch the bard’s bent head, but couldn’t force herself to bring it down. She’d never felt so impotent in her life.

Finally Gabrielle sat up. Her eyes were swollen and red, but to Xena she’d never looked more beautiful, or vulnerable. The bard looked at her and smiled in embarrassment. Xena forced herself to look away before she went and ruined Gabrielle’s life by saying or doing something she couldn’t take back.

"I’m sorry, Xena. That was pretty childish."

Xena took in a deep breath, and remained silent. She couldn’t trust her voice.

"I shouldn’t have asked ... or expected you to be something you’re not."

Xena looked at the fire, and bit her lip.

"I’ll go," Gabrielle said, standing up. "You made that ... pretty clear."

The warrior sank into the chair.

"Aren’t you going ... going to ... Damn it, Xena! Say something!"

The warrior looked up at the bard, and opened her mouth, but no words would come. She shut it in tortured silence and looked away.

Gabrielle took in a deep breath. "Fine. Be that way. Doesn’t matter anymore," she said in resignation. "But in case you’re interested ... I’m going home with Ephiny," she said, and Xena felt as if she’d reach in and pulled her still beating heart from her chest.

Xena closed her eyes against the pain. She felt like she was sinking, and she didn’t have the strength to claw for solid ground. A strange darkness was beckoning to her, and it was taking all she had not to fall into that black void.

"I’m sorry, Xena. — I wish I could just go back a few days and make different decisions. I wish I could just ignore or pretend away all I feel for you — but I can’t. I just wish that you would ... well, there’s nothing left to argue about anymore."

"Gabrielle ..." she heard herself whisper like an expulsion of air.

The bard sat opposite her, and reach out to life her chin so Xena looked into her eyes. The warrior tried to look away, but she couldn’t stop herself from taking her last few looks at Gabrielle, her bard, her friend, her love. She knew what she was doing was right. Gabrielle deserved this chance, but she never knew how much it would hurt letting her go.

"I’ll always love you, Xena ... but I — " the bard’s voice faltered dangerously, and Xena felt her stomach tighten. "I have to let you go. For your sake and for mine."

Gabrielle stood up and collected her bag. Xena stood also, her eyes stinging from the tears that were building. The bard raised a hand to stroke her cheek, and Xena seized it, holding it hard against her face. Without knowing how, she gathered Gabrielle in her arms, and held her tightly against her. The warrior clung to the bard as if her life depended on it, and for an agonizing second she knew it did. Gabrielle broke the embrace and stood back.

"I’ll always regret what couldn’t be, Xena, but I’ll never regret you."

With that said, Gabrielle touched her face again, and silently walked to the door. Xena heard her pause, and she could feel the bard’s eyes on her back, but she didn’t turn.

‘Just walk away, Gabrielle,’ Xena thought. ‘Don’t turn around — don’t look back.’

Gabrielle quietly opened the door and closed it behind her.

"I’m letting you go," Xena said, as she heard the door click back into place.

Her heart broke completely, and she sank slowly to the floor. Her emptiness was all consuming. Burying her face in her hands, she wept with such complete abandonment, that all she was fell away in the torrent of tears. She was stripped of her soul and her being. As the darkness closed around her, the last thought that ran through her mind was ‘Gabrielle...

Gabrielle was gone. It was said so simply, but it meant so much, and with her went all that was Xena.

 

 

 

In the corner of the room, Ares appeared in total silence. He folded his arms over his chest and allowed a sinister smile of triumph to spread across his face. Tilting his head to the side he contemplated the weeping warrior.

‘Come to me, Xena," he whispered softly. "I will give you release for your pain. You are mine once again."

With that, he disappeared, images of Xena by his side for all eternity dancing in his head. Victory was at hand.

 

 

The End

Copyright May 1998 Pallas


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