Vineyard by the Sea
Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Background: This story builds on characters introduced and events that occurred in Mediations and Natural Causes. It is strongly recommended that Mediations and Natural Causes be read prior to proceeding with Vineyard by the Sea.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her extensive edits/comments and to Tana for her faithful encouragement and beta review.
Comments: Comments always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
Gabrielle worked pruning vines. She focused on her task, trying to separate herself from the tangible sensation, the pull to return to Xena. Each day since Xena's arrival there had been some contact, however minor, between them. Xena would come to her, Karin and Tobias with a cool water skin or to work beside them in the vineyard taking a break from her own tasks of reinforcing and painting the vineyard buildings. As the days passed Gabrielle began to feel the familiar, gentle reassurance of Xena's presence. She had to consciously withhold herself from Xena, to deny her need for the warrior. The dormant bond had reasserted itself as she had come closer to forgiveness. In the process she was left to question her own pride.
"Why?" Karin's voice cut through her thoughts.
Gabrielle glanced over to the widow and then returned to her work. She spoke quietly. "I don't owe you any explanations."
Karin decided not to argue. "I've changed Xena's bandages and fed her some soup. I left her sleeping. Will you look in on her later?"
"I planned on sleeping in the tack room until she's better."
Karin lost all patience. "That's right, you don't owe her a thing. Xena is working for me. I'll take care of her." The widow abruptly left the bard.
Gabrielle watched Karin retreat. It was obvious the widow did not think well of her. Gabrielle tried not to care. She had taken residence in the vineyard because it promised a minimal infringement on her privacy. Were it not for Xena's arrival, no one would have known her identity. Until this day the complications inherent in Xena’s presence were manageable. Karin had respectfully limited her inquiries. Gabrielle felt a change. Karin’s ignorance of the truth was not enough to prevent her from interfering. Gabrielle would not allow herself to be directed. The widow's persistence was no match against the bard's will.
Two candlemarks passed. A tremor overtook Gabrielle. The bard looked about her. There was no ready cause. She secured her pruning knife in her belt and ran to the sea cabin. She burst through the front door. She found Xena lying on the floor shuddering in pain.
"Damn it, Xena! What do you think you're doing?"
The warrior tried to raise herself up without success. "You don't want me here."
Gabrielle took the warrior’s arm around her shoulder. "Shut up! Come on, let's get you back into bed."
Xena caught Gabrielle's gaze. The bard's admonition took her back to a more comfortable time between them, a time when words needn't be carefully chosen and chastisements carried an air of love. Steadying Xena, Gabrielle lifted the warrior to her feet and then onto the bed. Having gently shifted Xena back against the bed board, Gabrielle's concern went to the warrior's bandages.
"Let me take a look." A careful examination revealed little further damage. "Now lie still or I'll drug you." Gabrielle got up from the bed.
Xena flinched upon hearing the bard's threat. She quelled her emotions, following the bard with her eyes, reminding herself whose presence she was in. The solace of knowing she was safe stirred her gratitude and remorse. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle knew the apology went further than the immediate moment. "I know."
"Healing takes time." Xena solicited a reason to be hopeful.
"Yes, it does." Gabrielle hovered by the cabin entrance. "You gonna be all right if I leave you alone?"
Xena didn't want to answer the question.
Gabrielle could see Xena's tumult. Unlike her, the warrior was too weak to keep a false facade. "Karin will be by later."
Xena spent two days in convalescence with Karin as her primary caregiver. Gabrielle came by the second evening with a bowl of berries. They exchanged only a few words before the bard left for the stable to sleep. Xena noted hesitancy in the bard. Gabrielle seemed to vacillate between staying and leaving. In spite of the fact that no one was closer to the bard, Xena had difficulty deciphering her soulmate. She knew she shouldn't be surprised by Gabrielle's complexity. She had watch Gabrielle strive to find peace in a world that challenged her in more ways that any one human being, so young, should have to endure. It was apparent that though her struggle was hard fought, it was far from over.
Aric had brought Xena's saddlebags to her the day before. They lay beside her on the bed. Within one lay the satchel with Gabrielle's scrolls. Xena had cast her eyes upon the saddlebag as Gabrielle had visited. She had debated whether to return the scrolls to the bard, leaving the remaining two unread. She chose not to, wanting to believe that there was a reason why she had them, knowing that she would go to them if only to have access to the intimate glimpse of her beloved that they offered. Xena retrieved the satchel from her saddlebag. She removed the scrolls and arranged them beside her. Gabrielle's words had the power to soothe as well as to magnify her loneliness. Xena's longing for the bard ruled. She picked one of the two unread scrolls, broke the seal, and began to read, hoping there was mercy awaiting her.
My love -
I'm not sure how to begin. I fear…I've always feared that to speak of Hope would cause more harm than good. I don't want to hurt you any more than I already have.
Hope was my daughter. She was a part of me. As a baby and later as a young girl I couldn't deny her. I needed to believe in her. I needed to believe that the cold brutality of Dahak's rape of me could have a reason beyond evil.
I fought you. I lied to you. My misplaced love led Hope to Solan. I've tried to convince myself that my decisions were justified. I've tried to convince myself that no one, not even you, has the right to come between a mother and her child, that a mother's love cannot be condemned, no matter the consequences. I was so terribly wrong and ultimately, it was I that came between a mother and her child. You and Solan paid the awful price for my mistake.
When you became pregnant with Eve I was confused. How could you have been so sure of Eve's goodness when she was not naturally conceived? You told me you felt the goodness in your unborn child and I wanted to believe you. I wanted to believe that once again you were right. And you were. The grace of Eli's god had touched you, and Eve was born innocent.
I wanted nothing more than to raise Eve along side you. You had every reason to keep me from her. I will be forever grateful that you trusted me with her life.
I realized today that even if we hadn't lost twenty-five years to sleep, I still would not have been with Eve as she grew up. By the Fates I've been destined not to have the privilege of raising a child. Still, I have taken comfort in knowing that together we have helped the children that have crossed our path.
These past moons I've enjoyed spending my time with the village girls…telling them stories, teaching them lessons, playing with them, being their Queen. I wonder what they would think of me if they knew my truth.
Your forgiveness made what redemption I've known possible. I have never thanked you. I thank you now with a humbled and indebted heart.
Xena leaned back and closed her eyes. Her tears fell without shame. The world was unjust. That Gabrielle sought her own redemption as a consequence for believing in Hope, as she grasped for goodness in a whirlwind of evil, proved this to be so. It didn't matter, it never mattered, how much Xena wished to keep Gabrielle safe, to protect her as her Champion. The world was more powerful than Xena. Xena could only stand up to its brutality and hope to lessen the odds against them, moderate the inevitable pain. She could not accept Gabrielle's gratitude for what she deemed was ultimately her own failure.
Xena stood by the cabin window looking out to the sea. Her wounds had healed well enough to allow her to walk with minimal pain. She welcomed the opportunity to get out of bed. By her own estimation she expected to be back to work within a few more days.
"Maybe tomorrow we can go for a walk."
Xena turned to find Gabrielle standing at the open cabin threshold. She desperately wanted to accept the overture. "I might need to borrow your staff."
"How are you feeling?" A gentle concern revealed itself upon Gabrielle's countenance.
"Better. Doesn't burn as much."
"Is there anything you need?"
"No, thank you. Aric brought my things from the stable."
Gabrielle looked down collecting her thoughts. "I felt that you were in trouble the morning you got hurt. She returned her gaze to the warrior. "The feeling wasn't as strong as it used to be so I wasn't sure. I checked the stable. Nobody had seen you. Then it was gone and I thought that either you were all right or you…"
"I don't ever want to will you away again." Xena took a step forward. "When Eve and I searched for you and I couldn't sense you…I was afraid I’d lost you forever."
"You hurt me." It was a quiet statement.
"I tried to keep you away…I know I broke my promise never to…" Xena felt the mounting weight of her mistakes. "I don't know which promise…I've stopped counting how many promises I've broken."
"I'll be by after breakfast for that walk." Gabrielle turned to leave.
"Let's get you well."
Xena persisted. "You would think I'd learn by now that I can't protect you."
The hint of a smile played at the corners of the bard’s mouth. "There's something to be said about the fact that you haven't stopped trying."
"I love you." Xena did not mask the underlying need her words carried.
"And for me that makes all the difference in the world. Don't forget that." Gabrielle turned to leave. "I'll be by in the morning. I'll show you where I found the berries."
Xena smiled despite the pain.
It was another four days before Xena declared herself healed and over Karin's protests got back to work. She and Gabrielle discreetly returned to their original sleeping quarters. Xena moved her things back to the stable, cueing Gabrielle to return to the cabin. Although they were able to spend time together with less discomfort, much of the time was shared in silence.
Standing at the side of the stable Karin shouted up to the warrior working on the roof repairs. "Xena, have you seen Hali?"
Xena shook her head. "No Karin, I haven't." She stood up straight and scanned the vineyard. She could see Gabrielle and Tobias pruning the vines. Xena called out. "Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle looked up. Xena waved her forward. The bard put down her work and jogged through the planted rows. She knew something had to be wrong for Xena to call for her. She looked for some sign of disturbance. There were none to be seen. She observed Xena make her way down the stable roof.
Xena and Karin turned to her as she approached. "What is it?"
"Hali is missing. Have you seen her?"
"No, I haven't."
"It's not like her to be gone for so long." Karin's growing concern was evident.
Xena offered. "We could take the horses and cover more ground that way."
Wordlessly Gabrielle made her way past the two to the stable. Xena’s eyes followed Gabrielle then she placed a reassuring hand on Karin's arm. "We'll find her." Xena could not help but note the change in her role. Gabrielle was now the silent one and she was left to speak for them.
Gabrielle led her stallion out of the stable. Xena followed with Argo. The bard hoisted herself into the saddle and waited for Xena to do the same. "I think the cliff caves are our best bet."
"Okay, I'll follow you."
They cantered to the sea and then slowed to a walk, taking a narrow path that lead to a stone shelf. A cliff to their left jutted up creating a cool shadow. To their right the wall of stone fell straight down to the ocean floor. Gabrielle and Xena periodically called Hali's name. It was hard to hear over the sound of the waves crashing against the stone.
"Wait!" Xena held Argo still. "There. Do you hear it?"
Gabrielle concentrated. She heard a whimper. She scanned in the direction of the sound and waited patiently. Again, she heard the whimper. She dismounted, jogging toward the cliff edge, a good fifty paces ahead. Xena slipped off Argo and followed, silently agreeing with the route Gabrielle had taken.
Gabrielle heard Hali's cry and quickened her pace. At the edge she jumped from rock to rock, peering down until Hali's fragile form came into sight. The girl was lodged down an irregular opening in the rock wall. Without hesitation Gabrielle steadied her body over the opening, using her hands to support herself. Finding footholds she began her climb down. "Hali. You're going to be all right. I'm coming to get you." Halfway down Gabrielle paused. "Are you hurt?"
"Can you climb up?"
The space narrowed, leaving Gabrielle little room to maneuver. She continued until she was forced into a squat. Shifting, she extended her arm toward the little girl. "Give me your hand."
Hali reached out. The distance was too great. "I can't. It's too far."
The smell of sea life surrounded Gabrielle. The stones were slick. She looked up.
Xena hovered over the opening. "Can you reach her?"
"No. It's too narrow. I need something to pull her up with."
"Okay. I'll be right back." Xena whistled, calling Argo to her. She removed her whip and returned to the opening. "Gabrielle. Catch." She dropped the whip.
Gabrielle raised her arms up, catching the whip with both her hands. She untied the end and dropped it toward the child. "Hali. Take the end of the whip and tie it around your waist. I'll pull you up." She watched as Hali did as she was told. "Make a strong knot. Tie it twice and let me know when you're ready."
"I did it, Gabrielle."
"Good girl." Gabrielle stood up and pressed her boots solidly against the stone trying to give them purchase. She wrapped her end of the whip around her wrist and then took hold with her other hand.
"Okay. Start trying to climb up."
Gabrielle pulled with her might, dislodging the child and lifting her toward the surface. Hali moved her feet and reached with her hands against the stone in an attempt to support herself. Together they made good progress. As Hali neared her, Gabrielle bent down and took hold of the girl's arm with her hand. "Got you!" The sensation of Hali's cold arm brought a sigh of relief. Hali scurried until she was completely in Gabrielle's embrace. It was only then that the child began to cry. Gabrielle consoled tenderly. "It's okay. Shush. You're going to be all right." Gabrielle pulled Hali from her. "Let me take a look at you." The girl had a few scrapes and bruises, nothing more serious. "Your mother is going to be happy to see you."
Gabrielle heard Xena call out. "How is she?"
"Good." Gabrielle responded. She returned her attention to Hali. "This is what we're going to do. I'm going to climb up a ways and then I'm going to pull you up. Then I'm going to throw Xena the end of the whip and she'll pull you up the rest of the way. I'll be behind you to make sure you're all right. You need to help as much as you can by finding places to put your feet. What do you say? Can you do it?"
Hali looked up to where Xena waited. "It's a long way."
"We can make it if we work together."
"You won't let me fall?"
"No, Hali. I promise I won't let you fall."
The child nodded. "Okay."
Gabrielle offered Hali a rare smile. "That's a good girl." Without thought, Hali reached out and touched Gabrielle's cheek. Gabrielle's eyes held the child's. A bit of happiness broke free from her internal prison. Gabrielle felt it and with it came a tear. She blinked to keep her tears at bay, returning her thoughts to the task at hand. She offered another smile to the child as she double-checked the knot that held the whip in place. "Here I go." With relative ease Gabrielle climbed up until she was only a couple body lengths from Xena's waiting presence. She found two sturdy strongholds for her feet and looked back down to the trusting child. "Hali, come on up."
Hali began her ascent. She could feel the strong, steady hold of the leather whip around her waist. Her progress was slow as she chose her hand and feet placements with care. Gabrielle took her into a complete embrace the moment she was within reach. She heard the bard's gentle whisper at her ear. "Good girl." Hali wrapped her arms around the bard feeling safe in spite of their precarious standing.
Gabrielle looked up. "Here you go." She tossed her end of the whip to Xena who caught it with ease.
Xena braced herself. "Are you ready?"
Hali looked at Gabrielle then looked down. Gabrielle could see the child's fear. "Now that Xena has you there are no safer hands you can be in."
"How do you know?"
"I know." Gabrielle looked up to the warrior. "She's all yours."
With that, Xena took a firm grip of the whip. "Come on, Hali." With easy strokes the warrior pulled the child up to the surface as Gabrielle followed, making sure she was always in reach of Hali.
With her two hands on Hali's waist Xena lifted the child up and free, placing her down on the ground. "Don't move." She returned to the edge, offering Gabrielle her arm. For a moment Gabrielle hesitated. Xena felt the hesitation; her heart broke anew. Xena silently begged Gabrielle to take hold, to allow her this one gesture of assistance.
Slowly, Gabrielle clasped Xena's arm with her own, immediately feeling the strength behind it lift her up and out to the sun. Gabrielle stood in front of Xena, their arms still clasped. Xena's other hand reached up to Gabrielle's cheek. Xena hadn't touched Gabrielle with such intimacy since her same hand had slashed across Gabrielle's face. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle diverted her eyes to Hali, "How about you?"
"Mama's going to be mad."
"I don't know about that. I think she's going to be happy to see that you're all right."
"We better get you home." Xena reluctantly released Gabrielle's arm, went to one knee and gave Hali an examination with her healer's eyes and hands. "Not much worse for wear." She turned to Gabrielle. "You're bleeding."
Gabrielle looked to her upper arm. She had a cut half its length. "Doesn't hurt. I'll take care of it. Why don't you two go along?"
"Karin must be worried sick."
Xena knew she had no right to try to overrule Gabrielle. "Come on, Hali. You get to ride Argo." She lifted the girl onto Argo's saddle before seating herself behind the child. She wrapped an arm around Hali's waist. Xena shifted her gaze to Gabrielle. There was so much she wanted to say to the bard. More so, she wanted to take Gabrielle into her arms and never let her go.
Karin saw Argo in the distance. She took comfort in the ease of Xena's approach although she could not see the warrior in detail. She began to walk down the path at a steady pace. In the distance, she saw Gabrielle on her stallion making her way toward the sea cabin. Karin wondered if the seekers had separated to expand their search. Her hope that Hali had been found now trembled with a new surge of doubt. She kept walking toward the golden mare. She smiled when she saw her daughter safely ensconced in Xena's embrace. She whispered a prayer of thanksgiving to no god in particular.
Hali saw her mother in the distance. Xena felt the girls quaking body steady. Hali's fear of punishment was overpowered by her sheer confidence in her mother's love. Involuntarily she sighed, "Momma."
Xena reined in Argo and dismounted. She reached up for Hali. "Come on." Hali fell into her arms.
For a moment Hali could understand why Gabrielle said that there was no safer place, but she knew Gabrielle was wrong. The safest place was waiting for her down the path. Hali ran to her mother. Karin went to a knee as Hali flung herself to her awaiting arms.
Xena watched the scene with satisfaction. She stroked Argo. "We did good today, didn't we girl?" Argo nudged her nose against her mistress in agreement. Xena turned toward the sea. She could see Gabrielle's distant figure dismounting Gavan. "For a minute there Argo, it was almost like…" Her emotion rose and the loss of her most precious gift took her deep into grief. "Damn."
"Xena!" Karin and Hali walked to her, hand in hand. "Xena. Thank you."
"You’re welcome. Gabrielle did the hard part."
"Hali said Gabrielle got hurt."
"Just a cut on her arm. She went to take care of it."
"Come to supper tonight. I promise you a fine meal."
"That's not necessary."
"Please. Allow me to give you this one thing."
"Good." Karin turned to her daughter. "Come on, Hali. Let's go invite Gabrielle."
Xena's reaction was immediate. "Karin. Maybe it's best if I don't…"
"No, Xena. I don't believe it is."
Xena refrained from further argument as Karin led Hali to the sea. A thought came to the warrior. She called to them. "Gabrielle likes nut bread."
My love -
Sometimes it seems as if our life together has been one endless struggle. My illness and your search for a cure not withstanding, I can't help but allow my heart and mind to rest on the joy you've given me.
Happiness has come with the simplest gestures. When you wake early and bring me tea. When you teach me something new about nature. When we spar, enjoying each other's strength. When we swim together and end up playing like children. When you take my hand as we walk. There is no end to my delight.
Our lovemaking has been a special joy. I remember our first time. You were so gentle with me. You guided me with more concern for my pleasure and well being than your own. I wanted you in every way but because of my shyness and inexperience I needed your patience. Without asking you gave me time to grow comfortable with my own body and you offered me your body without hesitation.
You were honest with me about your past. I knew that you had your share of conquests. I never felt as if I was one of them. I have always felt your respect for me. I suspect that it is because of your past experiences that you have always waited for me to grant you, by word or touch, permission to take me completely.
In spite of your reassurance I feared I could never satisfy you, that soon enough I would bore you. With time my confidence grew and I accepted that your desire for me equaled mine for you.
I always believed in fidelity and that I had your promise meant everything to me.
Especially now when I haven't the strength to express my love for you or to respond to your love for me with the fervor I still dearly feel.
I have been reticent with my words, though I hope not with my touch. Know that nothing in my life has honored me more than being the woman to whom you chose to bestow your passion.
The last of the five scrolls read, Xena carefully rolled it closed and placed it in the satchel. She then placed the satchel in her saddlebag and tied the saddlebag shut. Xena walked out of the stable and looked out past the vineyard toward the sea cabin. She inventoried what Gabrielle had bequeathed her in the five scrolls. A gentle farewell. Her rights. Reassurance that she had lived her life, her Way, as it was meant to be lived. She delved back to their most painful hour and offered a balm that placed them on equal redemptive footing. And finally, she celebrated their joy and passion.
It was this final scroll that pierced the veil. Xena could no longer deny how deeply she had injured the bard. She knew Gabrielle never judged her act as one of infidelity. What Xena did not completely comprehend, until reading the scroll, was how her seemingly easy dismissal of the importance of her act with Bedros crushed the value Gabrielle placed upon their intimate life. It was true they didn't speak of their lovemaking. If there was one plane in their relationship where the energetic, nervous, chatty girl of Poteidaia was nowhere to be found, it was in their bed. Xena learned quickly that the bard had few words in lovemaking. Gabrielle would whisper or cry Xena's name, she would encourage with a simple, "please", she would use the same phrase, "make me yours," to grant permission or make a request. No matter how passionate or fragile the bard felt, words were never a part of Gabrielle's sexual expression. The bard gifted her touch, her body, her open heart. Xena learned to look for Gabrielle's smile, the light in her eyes, or the intense desire that radiated from her countenance. The only means Xena had to break the tension was with gentle humor, presented always in the comfort of a reassuring embrace. That Gabrielle had come to share moments of humor before and after their intimacy was an early triumph. The few times Xena had unwittingly teased the bard resulted in Gabrielle's painful regression back to an insecure shell, leaving Xena to tenderly coax her out from her defense and back into their world.
Xena was left with a choice she did not welcome. To give Gabrielle's intimate concerns full recognition meant facing a truth she had by will pressed down below the surface of her consciousness. She realized there was no real choice. She would inevitably share that truth with Gabrielle. Xena feared the consequence of seeing the truth reflected back in the bard's eyes. It seemed easier to have the bard's anger than her sympathy, the former an outcome of Xena's strength, the latter of her vulnerability.
Xena entered through the kitchen. She had bathed and donned a clean blue tunic that fell mid-way down her thigh. "Smells good." She walked over to two loaves of cooling nut bread.
"She is stubborn, isn't she?"
Xena mentally kicked herself. She should have known better than to hope.
"But I can be shameless. She couldn't say no to Hali."
The two women exchanged smiles.
Karin paused from cooking. "Xena. I know it's none of my business…"
"In your years together…There must have been a time when you've seen a sadness in Gabrielle equal to how she is now feeling."
"What can hurt her so?"
Xena resigned herself to the truth. "Me."
"And she was able to forgive you?"
Given Gabrielle's explanation that whatever Xena had done was to save her life, it was difficult for Karin to understand their breach. "Why is it different this time?"
Xena looked down at her hands.
A fear rose within Karin. "You haven't given up, have you?"
Xena raised her gaze. "No. I haven't."
"Don't." Karin stirred the stew. "Not for your sake Xena, but for hers."
"Are you sure I'm not doing more harm than good?"
"Gabrielle smiled when I told her I was making nut bread. It’s the first time I've seen her smile… really smile."
The dinner went well. Focus remained on Hali and Aric. Karin sat Xena at the head of the table with Hali adjacent and Gabrielle on the other side of the girl. Aric sat across from his sister while Karin sat across from the warrior.
With mugs of tea poured, Karin placed a loaf of nut bread resting on a cutting board in front of Gabrielle.
"Will you do the honors?"
Gabrielle lifted a knife and proceeded to cut the small loaf into five equal parts. She placed a portion on her plate then lifted the cutting board to Hali who reached up and took a handful of the desert.
"What do you say, Hali?" Karin prompted.
Hali looked at her mother, then back to Gabrielle. "Thank you."
Aric reached up, took his portion, and spoke his thanks. Xena waited until Gabrielle met her gaze. During the course of the evening they had yet to exchange a direct word. The warrior's heart was bleeding and there was no salve, no stitch to close the wound. She wanted to say once again that she was sorry. Instead, she echoed the children's words.
"It's good!" Hali exclaimed. "Try it, Gabrielle."
"I will honey." Gabrielle offered the last of the bread to its maker. She then set the board down and broke a piece of the bread off and placed it into her mouth. It was good, very good. She closed her eyes enjoying the small explosion of spice, nuts and berries upon her tongue. A smile came to her. She opened her eyes to Karin. "It's wonderful."
Karin chuckled. "Well, all the better that I made two loaves."
Aric spoke up. "Gabrielle. Tell us a story."
Gabrielle turned toward Xena, her expression severe.
Aric continued. "My friend Peter told me that you're a bard."
Karin felt the rising tension. "Aric, how would Peter know that Gabrielle is a bard?"
"Momma, don't you know that Xena and Gabrielle are famous. Peter said…"
"Aric. Gabrielle may not want to tell a story. She's our guest and doesn't need to earn her meal."
"Sorry. It's just that it would be so fine to hear a story."
Gabrielle's confusion kept her silent. Her initial anger at having her identity exposed to the children had been unfairly directed.
Xena had remained still, all too aware of Gabrielle's unspoken accusation. She would not defend herself, her true transgressions were far worse than anything intimated.
Gabrielle felt a need to make amends. "It's all right, Aric. Tell me, what kind of story would you like to hear?"
The boy looked to the warrior and then to the bard. "How about when you and Xena met?"
'Out of the mouth of babes,' Karin thought as she looked to her son in wonder.
Gabrielle was stunned by the personal nature of the boy's request. She looked over to Xena. She could see the warrior struggling to maintain her composure.
Xena stood up just as Gabrielle was going to speak her name. "It's late and I still need to tend to Argo."
Aric protested. "But, you'll miss the story."
"That's okay, Aric. I was there and it's one day in my life I'm never going to forget."
"I guess." His voice trailed off in disappointment.
"Karin. Thank you for the meal. It's the best I've had in a long time."
"You're welcome. Xena, you know you have a place at my table anytime you want."
"I'll remember that." Xena caught the gaze of an attentive Gabrielle. "Good night."
The bard responded warmly, "Good night."
Xena turned and walked out of the home into the late summer night. She could hear Aric renew his request for the story followed by Gabrielle's voice as she began to tell the tale of how a girl from Poteidaia first met the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle finished the story with Hali resting comfortably on her lap and Aric sitting cross-legged in front of the fireplace. Karin had quietly cleared the table and washed the dishes finally sitting on a tall back chair beside her son.
Throughout her storytelling Gabrielle could feel Xena nearby. A glance out the front window revealed a still shadow standing on the porch, motionless but for the occasional flight of long strands of hair taken up by the breeze. As Gabrielle accepted compliments from the children and Karin, she heard the creak of footsteps against the dry porch wood. The warrior had left her silent vigil.
The bard stood outside leaning against the hitch rail. It was late. The sky was clear; a brilliant display of stars greeted her. She traced familiar patterns; smiling at those Xena first introduced her to. It seemed a lifetime ago that she was the girl from Poteidaia in her story. So much had changed. The awe she felt for the warrior had been tempered. Xena's humanity, her capacity to bruise and bleed both physically and emotionally had slowly been revealed to her. The bard's love for the warrior deepened with each revelation. Though the revelations were often accompanied by pain, at times brutal pain, she knew that the truth brought them closer together. As the years passed, their friendship became one of equals.
The woman resting in the tack room was imperfect. That was not only how it was, it was how Gabrielle needed it to be. Their love was one of acceptance. Accepting Xena's darkness had been Gabrielle's most difficult challenge. Having once been a victim of Xena's rage, Gabrielle knew that Xena's darkness defined the warrior in equal balance with the goodness of her heart.
Gabrielle's latest wound was, ironically, not caused by Xena's darkness but by her goodness. She knew Xena's choice to find Eve without her was motivated by her fear that the bard was still too vulnerable.
Xena's unilateral decision making broke a promise to include Gabrielle in decisions that affected their life. They had forgiven each other so much in the past. Given its motivation, the broken promise was far from unforgivable. It was the consequence of the decision that still seared through her. The deceit and the backhanded strike had nearly killed her soul. That the exchange on the ridge was necessary to keep her, Eve and the two young Amazon warriors alive was sufficient justification. Had she only known.
The second consequence was more difficult to reconcile. Again, the irony did not escape her. It was harder for Gabrielle to accept Xena's sacrifice of her body. She knew there had been no betrayal of their joining. She tried to imagine what Xena had felt while allowing Bedros to take her. She could hold the thought for no more than a moment. It was too painful to consider. As much as Xena claimed that it was a use of her body no different than a fight, Gabrielle knew it to be different.
From the day of their first intimacy, no other woman or man had ever known their bodies. Her malevolent rape by Dahak was a supernatural violation. And it was now that memory of Dahak that moved her closer to Xena. Gabrielle had erred. She had trusted Khrafstar and paid a terrible price. Gabrielle needed to accept that in this instance it was Xena who had erred. Xena excelled in manipulating others to reach her desired end. She was confident that she would be able to manipulate Bedros without bedding him. By Xena's own admission it had not been in her plan. She had miscalculated.
Gabrielle recalled her words to Xena. Their friendship was her greatest possession. That she loved Xena, would always love Xena, was a fact. Given what they had survived in the past, this challenge did not have the power to change their truth.
Gabrielle felt her yearning for the warrior break out from the place within her heart where she had exiled her love. Gabrielle was ready to forgive. She knew it was for the girl from Poteidaia to reach out and take the warrior's hand. But she feared she had forgotten how.
Recalling their first years together, she remembered the small gestures that slowly broke through the warrior’s stoic façade. She took comfort in the memories of a light touch of her hand on Xena's arm, the offer of a mug of tea by the fire, or the stitching of a wound. These small gestures of consideration, gratitude or care brought them closer.
And now, without her conscious awareness, those small gestures had begun to be exchanged. Xena's guarded considerations had slowly nicked away at Gabrielle's protestations. Xena's patience, Gabrielle smiled reframing it to stubbornness, or was it tenacity, had once again made their mark upon her.
Gabrielle looked to the stars. She wanted the warrior beside her, arguing her own unique interpretations of the heavenly patterns.
Gabrielle looked again to the stable. She felt a tug towards the woman within the structure. She also felt something else, something that she could not give voice to. It was a dark and lonely argument against renewal. Gabrielle pushed it down with a curse, staying it with her will.
Gabrielle felt the weight of the small bundle in her hand. Apologies, forgiveness, understanding -- conveyed through small gestures. From the day Xena arrived at the vineyard it was she who had made the effort. Xena alone took responsibility to lessen the distance between them. This time had been so different from their beginning. In the beginning, the warrior provided for and protected her. In turn, it was the girl from Poteidaia's task to break through to the warrior's lonely refuge and offer friendship.
Gabrielle glanced back to the porch, to the space the warrior occupied while she covertly listened to the storytelling. Had Xena felt the same profound longing she had felt? Gabrielle was certain the warrior had. Xena had long confessed the pleasure and comfort she enjoyed in hearing the bard's voice. The countless evenings in taverns and inns spent with the bard telling her stories and the warrior strategically sitting in the back -- watching, listening, encouraging, protecting.
The girl from Poteidaia knew what had to be done. What more could she ask of the warrior? Xena had explained her actions, apologized for her mistake, taken responsibility for the consequences, and given her the time and space to heal, bearing the pain and disappointment of Gabrielle's distance without complaint. Gabrielle took her first step toward the stable.
Xena sat on the bed of hay outside of Argo's stall. Her arms rested upon one raised knee. Her mind returned to the vivid images the bard had described. It had been years since she had heard Gabrielle tell the story of their meeting.
The stable door opened. She could sense the bard. A tinge of apprehension rose up in her body. Gabrielle entered. The lamplight helped her deduce Xena's resting place. She made her way to the warrior with no intention to think through what she was going to say or do, fearful that if she did she would be left mute.
The bard knelt down beside the warrior. She held back her shyness, determined to break through the maddening impasse that had come to define every interaction she had with her beloved.
"Karin gave me this." She unwrapped the cloth bundle in her hand, within it the second loaf of nut bread.
"I thought you might like some for breakfast." She raised her eyes to meet Xena's.
Xena's gaze had followed the bard's. She smiled, as the gift was unwrapped, noting the bard's trembling hands. She looked up. "Thank you." Gabrielle’s nervous expression eased as she mirrored Xena's smile.
Gabrielle split the loaf in half and wrapped a portion of it in a scarf she retrieved from her belt. "Here you go." She handed the small bundle to the warrior who, as she took possession of it, allowed her fingers to glide over Gabrielle's hand.
The sensation of Xena's touch encouraged Gabrielle. "We did good today."
"Yes, we did."
"It felt good."
"For me too."
Gabrielle nodded and got to her feet. "It's been a long day. I better call it a night."
Xena watched the bard take her leave. She called out Gabrielle's name just as the bard reached the door. Gabrielle turned back to her.
"I…Julian told me about the black satchel. I read the scrolls." Xena studied Gabrielle closely. "I'd like to talk to you about some of the things you wrote. Maybe another day?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Another day."
From the west slope Gabrielle watched as Xena swam to shore. The cove waters reflected the fiery reds and yellows of sunset. Gabrielle marveled at the warrior's ability to return to the sea so soon after her injury. Naked, Xena walked to where she had left her towel, tunic and sandals. She dried herself, dressed and ascended the cliff path. Reaching the summit, she was pleasantly surprised to see Gabrielle approach.
The bard casually greeted her, "Hey."
"Good night for a swim."
"See any jellyfish?"
"Not this time." Xena offered a smile. "Don't want to either…Walk you back to the cabin."
Gabrielle stood silent. Xena construed the silence as a refusal. Once again she denied the accompanying pain and tried to gracefully go on her way. "I should go…"
Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hand, arresting the warrior's progress. The gesture left Xena disconcerted. She paused, waiting for Gabrielle.
"Xena, I want to come back to you, but I'm not sure how to begin."
Xena gave Gabrielle's hand a gentle squeeze. "I think you just did."
"I miss you."
Xena took a step closer to the bard.
"In one of the scrolls you wrote about my passion. You were right to believe that I want you as much as you want me. When I'm with you, I don't just give you my body. I try to give you the best of me…. You once told me that I brought out the best in you. Gabrielle, you bring out the best in me…the good I have in my heart and soul. What I did doesn't make what we've shared in the past any less beautiful."
Gabrielle released Xena's hand. She took a step toward the cliff side. She watched the sun touch the horizon. "It's hard…"
"Can you forgive me?"
Gabrielle turned to her partner. Hearing Xena's simple, unqualified request for forgiveness shifted Gabrielle from the shadow of insignificance into the light of worthiness. Without a word, Gabrielle took Xena into a complete embrace. Xena enfolded Gabrielle with her arms.
Xena was acutely aware that to earn Gabrielle's trust anew she could not rely on charm or persuasion or deceit. She was left to reveal and accept the underlying truth. Every moment without Gabrielle had felt wrong, ill fitting. The steady flow of life had been stymied; it was fragmented, profoundly incomplete. In her arms she held the one person that was necessary to make all that was wrong, right.
Gabrielle took a step back. She looked up to Xena with what was once a familiar smile. "Hi."
"Hi." Xena reflected the smile.
"Walk me back?" Gabrielle took hold of Xena's hand.
They walked together in silence. A sense of peace grew within and between them.
Upon reaching the back entrance, Xena reached out and gently tugged on Gabrielle's tunic. "Do you think you might want to do some staff practice in the morning?"
"It's been a while."
Xena grinned. "I'll give you a half-candlemark to get the cobwebs out before going full force."
Gabrielle was tempted. "That should be enough time. I'll come by the stable."
"Good." Xena gave Gabrielle's tunic one final teasing tug. "See you in the morning, then."
Xena stepped back with an ever-growing, infectious smile. "No problem there!"
Gabrielle muttered to herself. "A giddy warrior. I'm in trouble."
From the porch Karin heard the sounds of wood against wood emanating from the back of the stable. She walked briskly following the sounds. What she found halted her advance. Fearfully, Karin shouted. "What do you two think you're doing?"
The two friends stopped their sparing. Xena looked over to the widow. "Something wrong?"
"Are you trying to kill Gabrielle?" The accusation was harsh.
Gabrielle came to the warrior's defense. "Karin, it's all right. We're just practicing."
"You call that practicing?"
"Sure. Xena hasn't even broken a sweat." Gabrielle paused and looked back at her partner. "You know I really hate you for that."
Karin could see Gabrielle was only now catching her breath. "And how about you?"
"Well, I'm out of practice and compared to Xena it always takes a little bit more out of me."
Karin's gaze went from Gabrielle to Xena and back. The widow calmed. "So, everything is all right?"
Xena could not help but playfully taunt. "Karin, do you want a lesson?"
"No, Xena, I don't. I’d rather keep my head on my shoulders."
"Suit yourself." Xena swept Karin's drama aside.
Karin was not appeased. "Gabrielle, Tobias could use your help in the shed."
"I'll be right there."
"Very well then." Karin turned and walked back toward the house, looking over her shoulder every dozen steps.
Gabrielle glanced over to Xena. "What's got into her?"
"Maybe she thought we finally decided to work our problems out with a little hand to hand combat."
"I wish it could be that easy." Gabrielle momentarily returned her gaze to the widow.
Xena winced at the bard's comment.
"Thanks for the workout. Can we do it again tomorrow?"
"Gabrielle." Xena's tone weighed heavy.
"Xena." Unaware of the sting she caused, Gabrielle sheepishly offered the warrior her regard, unintentionally easing the tension.
The warrior understood the bard had meant no harm and relaxed. "Let me know if you need help with the crates."
She watched Gabrielle until the bard turned the corner out of sight. Xena found it was easier to be patient now that they were renewing their routines.
Leaning against the stable, enjoying the shade offered, Xena worked at mending one of her leather gauntlets.
Karin approached. "Gabrielle is usually back by now."
Xena looked up. Her eyes measured the sun's position against the western sky. Gabrielle had taken Gavan for a ride. "She's all right."
Karin would not be mollified. "How do you know?"
"You seem very sure of yourself."
"No. I'm sure of Gabrielle."
"I hope you’re more sure this time."
Xena put the gauntlet down, fixing her eyes upon the widow. "What did Gabrielle tell you?"
"Nothing. I'm just guessing." Karin would not be intimidated. "Is your pride worth her life?"
"Karin, I think you've said enough."
"Xena. I'm worried about Gabrielle. She's only now coming out of her shell. I would hate to have something happen to her to drive her back in."
"Fine, I'll go find her." Xena got to her feet. "But when she starts yelling at me for being a mother hen I'm sending her after you."
"Won't be any worse than the grief I get from Aric and Hali."
Mounted on Argo, Xena followed Gabrielle's trail beyond the vineyard to a wooded grove. Within the grove she spied a clearing. A gentle stream flowed from the hills. The fresh waters would ultimately feed the ocean. Gavan grazed nearby. Gabrielle lay against a tree, seemingly asleep.
Xena dismounted and stealthily approached, kneeling beside the bard. She brushed a few wisps of Gabrielle's hair from the bard's brow. Her voice was a concerned whisper. "Hey."
Gabrielle could feel Xena's sweet touch. She opened her eyes to the warrior. "Xena."
"Hi there." Xena's voice rose from deep within her throat.
"I must have fallen asleep."
Xena cupped Gabrielle's cheek with her hand.
Gabrielle could see that Xena was troubled. "I'm fine." Her words had no effect upon the warrior. She impressed. "Really." Gabrielle traveled back to a time not that long ago when Xena's fear of losing her to her illness had been constant, shading their most intimate encounters. It had been a bittersweet truth that reflected the depth of the warrior's love.
Gabrielle leaned forward; reaching out, she placed her hand upon the back of Xena's neck, guiding the warrior to her. Gabrielle kissed Xena tenderly. Xena yielded. The sensation moved Gabrielle to tears. She broke free from the kiss and embraced the warrior completely. She could feel Xena's hold upon her intensify. They remained in each other's arms. There was no urgency, only a gentle mutual surrender.
Gabrielle felt Xena breathe in deeply and release a sigh. "Karin was worried about you."
The bard leaned back. "Didn't you tell her I was all right? That you would have known?"
"She didn't believe me."
"Why should she?"
Gabrielle studied the warrior. The widow had said something to hurt Xena. "Because you are my love."
"She has no reason to believe that's still true." Xena disguised her own fear.
"Then I'll have to straighten her out."
"If you insist." Xena offered the bard a wistful smile.
"I do." Gabrielle returned to Xena's embrace. She did not want the moment to end. Her disappointment was tangible. "So, we should get back."
"I think so." Xena reluctantly concurred.
Gabrielle entered the stable. The tack room was dark. An oil lamp hung high on a beam that cut across the front of the hayloft. She knew where to reach her objective. She climbed up a ladder set against the far wall of the stable. Upon reaching the loft she spied Xena lying comfortably on a blanket. Gabrielle quipped. "Not in the mood for a bed?"
Gabrielle hesitated. "Would you rather be alone?"
"Not always." Gabrielle smiled.
"What did Karin say?"
"She apologized for giving you a hard time."
"Maybe next time she'll listen to me."
"There may not be a next time," Gabrielle stated simply.
Xena’s renewed hope was immediately shaken. "Meaning?"
"Won't be long before we begin to harvest."
"Have you decided where you want to go?"
Gabrielle offered Xena a shy smile. "I thought we would decide together."
Xena was pleased. "I haven't really thought that far ahead."
"Why don't you? And then we can talk."
"Sounds like a plan."
"Xena?" Gabrielle hesitated.
"Gabrielle." Xena smiled in an attempt to ease the bard’s uncertainty.
"I don't much feel like walking back to the cabin tonight. I was wondering if you would mind sharing the loft."
"C'mere." Xena motioned in invitation.
Gabrielle took her place, lying down beside the warrior, resting her head on Xena's shoulder. She relished the blending of the sweet smell of hay with Xena's musk scent.
The warrior kissed the bard's forehead. "Still tired?"
Xena gave Gabrielle an embrace meant to reassure. "I have your scrolls. I didn't know if you would want them back."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart. "They were meant for you."
"There were some things that you wrote… I realized that I expected you to accept Eve without question."
"Eli's god gave her to you."
"No. You accepted the fact that my pregnancy was good before we learned how I conceived her."
"There was no Dahak."
"We didn't know that at the time."
"And you believed me."
Gabrielle looked up from her resting place. "Yes."
Xena felt Gabrielle’s unequivocal trust. She valued that trust more than life itself. "Thank you."
"I'm sorry I couldn't have done the same for you."
"I know." Gabrielle's countenance saddened. She lay her head back down.
"Gabrielle, you don’t need redemption. You never have."
Gabrielle remained silent.
Xena soothed with another kiss above the bard's brow. She decided to change the subject. "By the way, I think that was quite a trick you did, giving me Amazon rights."
"Oh, you got that."
"With Karis as Queen I don't think you really need a formal declaration. I figured it couldn't hurt."
"Yes, your Majesty." Xena chuckled. They fell into a comfortable silence. Xena closed her eyes and counted her blessings. "You know I'm not one to dwell much on my life. But, I do think about yours. I don't think I tell you often enough how proud I am of you."
Gabrielle's fist closed, tightening around Xena's sleep shirt. Xena wanted to say more, but it was obvious to her that Gabrielle had slipped into a quiet mood that was better left undisturbed. With time they allowed sleep to overtake them.
"Good morning." Xena caught Gabrielle's eye.
Though her sleep had been fitful, Gabrielle felt refreshed. "Yes, it is." She raised herself up on her elbow. "You're still the best pillow in Greece." Impulsively, she threw herself upon Xena's body with a thump.
Gabrielle reclaimed her right to Xena by stealing a kiss. Xena responded willingly. Their kiss deepened, her rising passion gave Gabrielle the confidence to continue. Xena allowed herself to be led. She felt the sensation of Gabrielle's hand on her wrist, pressing her arm down. The pressure was not great but it was enough to trigger a flash of memory. Xena fought the sensation, involuntarily resisting Gabrielle's playful exuberance. A second flash of memory cut across Xena's mind, her heartbeat quickened as she was consumed by a dark confusion. She jerked her head aside. Gabrielle took advantage of the exposure and gave the warrior a teasing bite on the neck.
Xena's attempt at self-control failed. Her instinctive reflex caused her to throw Gabrielle aside. She entered a defensive posture. Tremulous, she sat up and positioned her body against a hay bale, protecting her back.
Gabrielle physically recovered. Her warrior-trained reflexes caused her to immediately find her assailant's position. Harnessing her own confused emotions took more effort. Her mind and heart were fearfully set upon Xena. The warrior's eyes cast no light. They were dull, opaque. Calling her partner's name, Gabrielle tried to direct Xena's awareness back to the present moment. Xena kept her gaze averted.
Gabrielle raised herself to one knee, maintaining a silent stance, allowing the warrior time to regain her composure. The bard was well aware that she was in a precarious position. Though unintentional, Xena could hurt her. She decided to try to break the standstill. Gabrielle approached with care. "Love." She knelt beside the emotionally wounded woman. "What is it?"
Gabrielle watched as Xena nervously wrapped a hand around her own wrist, twisting her wrist back and forth in half circles as she did. Gabrielle placed her hand lightly on Xena's arm. Xena stilled anew. Her eyes fixed on Gabrielle and held. Gabrielle felt Xena's searing pain through their connection. She searched their recent history for a cause. She stopped on one fact, a fact she now had reason to doubt. She didn't want to accept that Xena lied. If she did, she was left to see through the lie to a horrendous truth, a truth Xena had successfully cloaked from her. In that instance, Gabrielle understood the truth of what Xena had endured in Bedros' hands.
"Did he hurt you?"
Xena did not answer. She cast her eyes down.
"Xena, what did he do to you?" Gabrielle's voice was but a hush.
Xena combed her hands through her hair. And then she steeled. Gabrielle could see the change. The shift was eerie.
"I was going to play him, but instead he played me. He knew I wasn't going to give him an excuse to kill Eve. He drugged me and shackled my wrists and ankles. I couldn't stop him from…" Xena swallowed. "He didn't get much out of it. I don't know what he expected. Maybe he wanted me to fight him instead of just giving in. Maybe he thought he broke me down to nothing and that made him lose interest." Xena faced Gabrielle squarely. "Then he let me loose. It was the last thing he did."
"He raped you."
"I've done worse things by choice."
Gabrielle gently repeated. "Xena, he raped you."
Xena did not flinch, but Gabrielle could see the warrior’s jaw muscles flex under her skin. Gabrielle kept her place, refusing to allow Xena a second opportunity to suppress the truth. Xena's rage broke free.
"Yes, damn it! He raped me!"
As quickly as Xena's anger came, it disappeared. She leaned back, closing her eyes. The taste of her defeat was acrid, her confession to Gabrielle, excruciating.
"I'm so sorry." Gabrielle attempted to reach through Xena's darkness.
"So am I." Xena choked. She kept her eyes sealed. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She hadn't the wherewithal to sweep them aside.
Xena felt the warmth of Gabrielle's touch as the bard tenderly cradled her. Her resistance lessened. The longer she stayed in Gabrielle's arms, the more she needed Gabrielle's comfort.
Gabrielle could feel Xena relax within her embrace. She was torn by the knowledge that Xena had not willingly given herself to Bedros. Gabrielle tightened her hold. She was where she belonged.
Knowing the truth revived Gabrielle's remorse. She had found her way back to Xena by coming to terms with her own self-recrimination of having failed the warrior. The same accusations had now broken free and dominated her thoughts. Karin's words resonated. 'She must have great faith in you…. to believe that you would understand.' But Gabrielle had not understood. Xena's faith in her had been misplaced, the price for her error, -- rape. Gabrielle should have understood. She reproved all justifications she offered in her defense. She should have followed. She may have been able to stop Bedros. She didn't even try. She asked herself how she could profess to love Xena and have allowed their connection to be sundered without a fight. The consequence of her failure rested in her hands.
With effort, Gabrielle set aside her current train of self-reproach. Xena needed her care. Nothing else mattered. She did not know how long she held Xena. Time was meaningless to her. She heard Karin calling their names. Gabrielle whispered into Xena's ear, "I'll be right back, love." Reluctantly, she released the warrior and climbed down the side ladder. She met Karin as the widow entered the stable.
"It's about time you show yourself!"
"Keep your voice down."
"Why?" Karin was in an indignant mood.
"Because I've asked you to."
"Are you and Xena having a good time up there?" Karin jerked her head up, indicating the loft.
Gabrielle grabbed Karin by the arm and pulled her out of the stable. "Listen. I'm not going to explain except to say that Xena is having a hard time right now. She doesn't need your badgering."
"There is work to do."
"It can wait a few candlemarks."
"So much for your promise."
"Karin, I keep my promises. What you don't seem to understand is that my promise to Xena comes first." Gabrielle emphasized to ensure there was no misunderstanding. "Xena comes first. If you don't like it then we will both be on our way. It's your choice."
Karin was taken aback by Gabrielle's sternness. "I see."
"Yes, I do. My husband called me his private wildcat because of my quick temper whenever I thought someone was doing him wrong."
Gabrielle confirmed. "Then that's something we have in common."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"We both need time and space."
"All right. I'll tell Tobias and the children to stay out of the stable."
"Thank you." Gabrielle released a sigh. "Karin."
The widow offered Gabrielle her full regard.
"Did Xena do something to get you angry at her?"
Karin tried to deflect the inquiry. "Why do you ask?"
"You've been hard on her these past few days."
Karin was thoughtful. "In your story…. I believe you were a very different person when you first met Xena."
"We've known each other for over six years. I was bound to change."
"Doesn't seem to me it's all been for the better."
"What makes you think that?"
"You are so serious, Gabrielle."
"It's a serious world. I don't need to tell you that. What you haven't seen is how happy being with Xena makes me."
"And I was barely alive without her."
"And it's better now?"
"Yes." Gabrielle took a breath. " Don't expect to understand what Xena and I share. We are both private people."
"But your scrolls?"
"They don't tell the whole story. At least not the public scrolls." Gabrielle glanced toward the stable entrance. "I need to get back to Xena."
Gabrielle stepped away, leaving the widow to consider what she had learned. She climbed back up to the loft.
Xena waited, her eyes were fixed on the bard. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle stood in front of the warrior. "For what?"
"That it happened. That I didn't tell you. That it's gotten in-between us."
Gabrielle went down to her knees. "I'm here for you. Just tell me what to do."
"I feel…" Xena looked down.
Gabrielle's own past had left the brand of shame she could now see in Xena. She spoke slowly, making sure Xena heard every word, making sure every word had an opportunity to mark the warrior with its meaning. "You are beautiful. I love you, Xena."
Xena returned her gaze to Gabrielle. It carried fierce intensity. "Don't ever let me out of your sight again."
"Don't worry. You're stuck with me." Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's thigh. "Xena?" Gabrielle waited until she felt the tug of their connection. "You could have opened yourself to our bond…you didn't want me to feel what you were feeling, did you?"
"It wasn't that I didn't want you. I wanted to…"
"I think there was still a part of you holding back." Gabrielle shook her head slightly. "That jellyfish almost killed you, but I think it did both of us a favor by weakening your defenses."
"Did you settle Karin down?" Xena allowed the slightest trace of a smile as she chose to change the subject.
"She's fine. I told her we needed some time. We can make up the work later today."
Xena got to her feet in an uninterrupted motion. "I need some fresh air."
Gabrielle’s gaze followed Xena. She could see the warrior's radiating energy. "How about a ride to the stream?"
The warrior extended her hand to the bard in invitation. "Let's go."
Gabrielle sat on the cabin window ledge looking out into the night, listening to the waters crash against the cliffs. Her optimism renewed. In the passing days she and Xena had entered into a routine of riding to the stream after finishing their workday. Gabrielle took care not to ask Xena by word or deed for more than the warrior was capable of giving. She knew that Xena was only beginning to allow herself to feel the full impact of Bedros' violation. It was difficult for Gabrielle to be apart from Xena. It was equally difficult for her to be with Xena. When apart, Gabrielle longed for Xena's touch. When she was with Xena, she longed to carry her touch beyond chaste affection. She wanted to make love to Xena. Their sexual intimacy had the power to temper Gabrielle's sorrow. Gabrielle wanted to both give and receive a balm from Xena.
For three days Xena's day ended in the same way, watching Gabrielle's solitary figure walking to the sea cabin. Gabrielle had not expressed a desire to sleep in the stable loft or in the tack room. Xena knew Gabrielle was waiting to be asked. Xena's unexpected reaction to Gabrielle's affection had made the warrior wary.
They spent their evenings by the stream. Xena slowly trusted herself to Gabrielle's touch. The bard's tenderness soothed the warrior’s worst fears of returning to the memory of Bedros' coarse touch, of smelling his pungent body, of hearing his taunts. Gabrielle held Xena in her arms as they spoke of simple things. Gabrielle would quiet, inviting silence, allowing Xena’s own thoughts to drift where they might.
On this evening they took leave of the stream hand-in-hand, leading the horses. As they left the clearing and entered the wooded grove Xena was struck by a vivid memory. She released Gabrielle’s hand as the memory unfolded in her mind. Under Bedros' tent, Bedros had a dozen men stand as a shield around Eve. Their orders were clear. Before raising a weapon against Xena they were to take Eve’s life. Xena knew she could stop some of the men. She doubted she could stop all of them before one of their daggers mortally wounded her daughter.
Bedros had offered Xena ale, not accepting no as a response. Xena suspected that it was drugged. Her taste confirmed her suspicions. She fought the drug’s dulling effect upon her senses for as long as she could. Eve left the tent unaware that her mother had been compromised. Eve took with her Xena’s bright sharp gaze confidently fixed upon her with an unspoken promise that all would be well.
Xena soon lost consciousness. She awoke lying upon Bedros' bed, iron shackles on her wrist and ankles. Chains secured her to four poles. Her naked body was postured spread-eagle. Bedros stood to her side. He was no fool. Xena’s reputation was sufficient to cause him to take precautions. He had waited for her to awaken. There was no amusement in his assault if his victim did not have the presence of mind to know what he was doing to her. She would know what he was doing to her. She would remember everything, but she would not be completely alert as it was done.
Xena tested the shackles. She was not herself enough to break them or to pull them from their anchors. She felt Bedros on top of her. She shut down ever nerve in her body. She willed to nothing her ability to feel the slightest sensation; a discipline that served her well when injured would lessen the injury she was about to experience.
Xena took responsibility for what led her to that place and time. It was her burden to carry. Her heart closed to a deeper level, still deeper than what she had managed on the north ridge. On the north ridge, facing Gabrielle, no matter what she had done to close herself off, she could not deny the reflection of Gabrielle’s love for her. Imprisoned and completely helpless to defend herself, Xena would not allow the spirit of Gabrielle into the tent. Gabrielle would not be touched by the ugliness and brutality. Xena was alone because she had to be.
Xena felt Gabrielle take her hand, breaking the memory's hold upon her. She turned to see Gabrielle’s concerned countenance. Gabrielle had felt Xena’s distress through their bond. The bard had entered the tent in spite of Xena’s best intentions.
They continued to walk in silence. Walking with Gabrielle, Xena felt she was no longer alone. Not being alone was not enough. It was less than what she possessed before Bedros. If it was less for her, she knew it was less for Gabrielle, and that was unacceptable.
"Hey." Xena stood outside the cabin.
"Hi." Gabrielle was surprised to see the warrior. It had only been a candlemark since they parted. She looked up to the sky. "Full moon. Going for a swim?"
Xena approached. She stood beside the bard. "I missed you." Xena reached out and cupped Gabrielle's cheek with her hand.
Gabrielle leaned into Xena's touch, closing her eyes for a moment. Her eyes opened to Xena's timorous form. Gabrielle was determined to restore Xena's confidence. "Would you like to spend the night?"
"I want you." Xena spoke in a low whisper.
Gabrielle covered Xena's hand with her own. "I'm yours." She placed her hand on Xena's waist and gently tried to pull the warrior closer.
Xena did not allow herself to be moved. "Gabrielle."
Gabrielle felt a renewed confusion with what she experienced as rejection. She said nothing.
"Love, let me lead this time."
Gabrielle heard Xena's request as the deep felt plea that it was. She nodded in response.
Xena studied the bard. The woman before her had nothing, absolutely nothing, in common with Bedros. She impressed that fact upon her heart. It was her heart that subdued the lingering questions in her mind, relegating all doubt to a quiet, safe corner in her deepest consciousness. Xena leaned down and lifted Gabrielle up from the window ledge into her arms. There was only one thing Xena knew. She knew that she wanted the gentlest lovemaking that Gabrielle was capable of. She trusted that Gabrielle would understand and give her what she needed to heal.
Xena laid Gabrielle on the bed. She offered the bard gentle kisses as she removed her own clothes and easily helped Gabrielle undress. Gabrielle accepted Xena's gradual, careful pace, holding down all desire to experience Xena more passionately. Xena's exploration took her down Gabrielle's neck to the sensitive flesh at the base of Gabrielle's shoulder. She nipped the skin, biting down with her teeth, garnering a moan from the bard. Xena glided her hand from Gabrielle's shoulder down the bard’s arm until it rested palm to palm with Gabrielle's hand. She closed her fingers and pressed down. It was a minor exertion of strength, a minimal claim of control. She released Gabrielle's hand and continued her exploration by placing her hand on Gabrielle's side as she laid her body over the bard, careful that she did not weigh too heavily against her lover. Xena continued taking Gabrielle's lips with her own, allowing a slight aggressiveness to surface as she bit the bard's lips, claiming her right to them. She felt Gabrielle's hands against her back, their gentle press sufficient to reassure.
Xena continued to take the bard, stroking her body intimately. The bard opened herself up completely to the warrior. Xena's patient touch provoked Gabrielle to an unbearable, unsatisfied arousal. Her hand grasped the blanket that lay underneath her. Had it been Xena's hand Gabrielle's force might have very well broken a bone. Gabrielle wanted Xena to take her over the edge, but Xena’s measured stroke eased just as the bard neared climax. Gabrielle would have cried out, she would have begged had this been a different time, a different place. Each time Xena's pace lessened Gabrielle would find herself gazing into the warrior's eyes. It had been moons since they had known each other with such intimacy. Gabrielle could see the distance between them contract. The walls behind Xena's eyes crumbled one by one. And as they did, they crumbled within Gabrielle. She needed Xena as much as, if not more than, Xena needed her. Still, she held to her silence. Her breathing quickened, her heart beat hard, threatening to explode. Xena took Gabrielle into a full, deep kiss as her hand stroked the bard with renewed pace. Gabrielle's arms involuntarily engaged Xena in a vise-like grip. Gabrielle climaxed, surrendering all control Shuddering waves of release traveled throughout her body. She began to cry. As she did, she renewed her hold on Xena, burrowing her head in the crook of Xena's neck. She felt Xena match the strength of her embrace. Then the warrior turned their bodies until Gabrielle rested on top of her. Gabrielle's tears continued to fall freely. She could feel Xena's occasional kiss upon her cheek.
Xena waited for Gabrielle's tears to subside and her breathing to calm. She took a deep breath, releasing a sigh. She whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "I'm home."
Unable to speak, Gabrielle nodded.
"I love you, my bard."
Gabrielle shifted her body so that her ear rested against Xena's heart. "Am I too heavy?"
"No, you're fine."
She reached and took Xena's hand, placing a kiss upon its palm. "Are you okay?"
Xena did not have the words to express how she felt. She had left the darkness, crossed over a chasm to the light. Her journey was not over but she was confident that she was well on her way and that upon reaching her destination she would not be alone. "Thank you."
Gabrielle looked up. She was going to protest, having given Xena nothing, only taken, but she realized that in Xena's eyes that was not true. "I love you."
"I'm yours, you know."
Gabrielle understood Xena was using her own words to grant permission.
"Are you sure?"
Xena traced Gabrielle's lips with her fingertips. "Yes."
Gabrielle took Xena's finger into her mouth and bit down. The warrior smiled. It was now Gabrielle's pleasure to pleasure Xena. She claimed Xena with less patience than Xena had bestowed upon her, taking care to avoid any sensation of restraint and limiting her teasing. As Xena had done, as much as possible Gabrielle maintained eye contact. The warrior voiced Gabrielle's name over and over again, as if confirming whose touch she was experiencing. Gabrielle could feel Xena near climax.
"I'm here, love."
Xena's eyes closed. She heard Gabrielle's simple assurance. Tears fell down her cheeks as she focused her complete being on Gabrielle's words.
"You're safe. Let go, love."
"Gabrielle!" Xena cried as she reached complete release.
"I've got you." The bard took Xena in a loose embrace allowing the warrior free movement yet conveying her abiding presence.
As her body calmed, Xena turned to her side. Gabrielle followed the movement so they faced each other. She kissed Xena's forehead followed by the warrior's tearstained cheeks. Gabrielle felt Xena take her by the waist. She allowed herself to be turned, her back to Xena, and then guided into Xena's hold. They lay together in silence. Gabrielle fought sleep until she was assured that Xena had entered into an easy dream state. Only then did she surrender to the night.
At the end of the following workday, Gabrielle offered to help Xena carry her belongings to the cabin. Xena paused before the bard. A heartbeat passed between them. Her response was a smile. Hand-in-hand they entered the stable. Hand-in-hand, a saddlebag over each of their shoulders, they walked together toward the sea.
The renewed bond between them permeated the atmosphere. Evenings were spent either at the stream or at the cove. Nights provided an opportunity to intimately rediscover one another. They worked beside Karin and Tobias. The harvest went well. Their effort exceeded Karin's expectations. It would be only a matter of days before they bid farewell to the vineyard.
Tobias shared winemaking tips with Xena while they worked in the shed. Gabrielle, Aric and Hali sat outside on the house porch. The bard was entertaining the children with a story. She paused, her ear catching the sound of approaching horses. Gabrielle got to her feet and cast her eyes toward the road. She did not like what she saw. She directed the children. "Aric. Hali. Get in the house."
Aric protested. "Why?"
Gabrielle called to Karin. The widow came to the door. "Raiders." Gabrielle cursed having left her sais at the cabin. She looked over to Xena. The warrior was unarmed as well. She turned back to Karin. "We don't have our weapons."
Gabrielle entered the house. She trailed Karin to a storage room in the back. Karin went to her knees in front a large wooden chest. Opening it revealed a sword. She took it in hand and offered it to Gabrielle. "My husband's."
"I'll take good care of it."
Gabrielle ran through the house and down the porch steps. She spied Xena leaving the stable, staff in hand. In one synchronized motion they exchanged sword and staff. Five horsemen reached the courtyard. The leader, a burly man, reared his horse in front of Xena. "You don't look like no widow."
"I'm a friend of hers. What can I do for you?"
"Word is that the vineyards around these parts have had a good harvest."
"We're not complaining. What business is it of yours?"
"I figure the wine will sell well at market. Me and my men are offering to take it off your hands."
"You got coin to pay for it?"
"No...No…No. Doesn't work that way. We take and you be grateful you're still breathing."
"That's not much of a bargain. You got two choices. Either you go on your way in one piece or you stay and meet the end of my sword. What will it be?"
The raider unsheathed his sword. "This is my answer." He swung his sword at Xena’s head. She easily deflected the blow. Gabrielle stepped up. With one quick stroke she unhorsed a rider triggering an all out fight. Gabrielle went for the third rider, taking him down as well. Xena grabbed the leader by the waist and dragged him to the ground. The last two riders dismounted, finding no advantage on horseback.
It had been moons since Xena had been in a fight. She was in a playful mood and toyed with the relatively inept raiders. Their fighting skills were crude. She figured a good lesson would keep them away from a return visit. Her goal was not to kill; there was no sport in it. She drew blood, bruised, and knocked two of them unconscious. One of the men Gabrielle had engaged had had enough and retreated to his horse. The second gave all indication of doing the same. Xena fought the last of her three, her back to Gabrielle. Instead of taking his horse's reins, the second raider Gabrielle had fought pulled a dagger from his belt and with a flick of his wrist threw it toward Xena.
Gabrielle called out. "Xena! Dagger!"
Xena turned and caught the weapon. She watched as Gabrielle slammed the offending raider with her staff. Satisfied that the bard had the raider well in hand Xena returned to the leader. "One last chance before I kill you."
Xena's skill had not been lost upon the man. Watching her catch the dagger had left him dumbfounded. He lowered his blade and scurried to his mount.
Gabrielle was matching each of the raider's strokes with her staff. He was far larger than she. His strokes drove the bard back. She tripped over one of the fallen men. Upon hitting the ground she lost all patience. She took her staff and thrust it upwards against the raider's throat. His windpipe crushed, he backed away struggling for breath. The leader came to him and threw him on his horse before mounting his own and riding away.
Xena smiled in satisfaction. It had been a good fight. She walked over to Gabrielle and offered the bard her arm. "It's good to know you're watching my back."
Gabrielle froze. Her face paled. She did not take Xena's offered arm, getting to her feet independently. She turned and walked away.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called after the bard. Perplexed, she held her place. She needed to secure the two raiders lying unconscious at her feet.
Xena dismounted and patted Argo in the rump, sending the mare to graze. Gabrielle sat by the stream, leaning against a large boulder. The warrior wordlessly settled herself beside the bard. She waited patiently.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle kept her gaze upon the waters.
"It's all right. You had a long day."
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "I should have had more faith in you. I let you down."
"Gabrielle, what are we talking about?"
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "I should have known there was a reason for what you did. I should have followed you instead of running away. I may have been able to stop Bedros from hurting you."
In one moment of insight Xena understood Gabrielle's torment. "You can't mean to tell me that you blame yourself for what he did?"
"It's what I didn't do."
"You did exactly what I expected you to do. It's what I wanted you to do. I wanted you safe."
"That doesn't make it right."
"I saw what I did to you." Xena recalled the devastating memory. "You didn't hate me. A part of me wished you did. All I saw in your eyes was your question. What had you done to deserve my hitting you? There could never be a just reason." Xena felt Gabrielle remain painfully distant from her. She paused and considered. "I don't think this is about you losing faith in me. I think it has to do with you losing faith in yourself.”
Gabrielle did not answer. Xena felt her suspicion affirmed. She spoke with confidence. “I think what you’re feeling has to do with the girl from Poteidaia doubting whether she belongs with the Warrior Princess."
"Maybe I don't." Gabrielle conceded.
"You know there are times I don't think of myself as the Warrior Princess. Sometimes when I'm with you the past slips away."
"Xena." Gabrielle understood how rarely Xena allowed herself to break away from her past.
"Tell me, have I changed since we've met?"
Gabrielle's answer was genuine. "Yes."
"The Warrior Princess and all the darkness that comes with her will always be a part of me just like the girl from Poteidaia will always be a part of you. Six years ago our lives crossed paths. We were meant to be together. I fought that truth because I didn't feel I deserved you. Then the day came when I had one of two choices to make. I could accept you in my life completely or walk away. I tried to leave you. Remember?"
"I came back to you knowing I would never willingly leave you again. Solan's death tested us both but we got through our pain. Bedros is an insignificant gnat by comparison. Gabrielle, don't forget it was my decision to find Eve by myself that started this nightmare. I'm the one who willed an end to our connection. Believe me, I know how terrible that felt. And as bad as it was for me, I know it was worse for you because you didn't know why I did it. It's one thing to blame yourself for your mistakes. I won't let you take the blame for mine, too." Xena waited in silence. Gabrielle had difficulty maintaining eye contact. She turned her gaze back to the stream. Xena took Gabrielle's hand. "Don't let him win."
Gabrielle's eyes dropped to their clasped hands. "I should let Karis know that I'm…we're all right."
"I asked Eve to send a messenger to the Nation." Gabrielle cocked her head in an unspoken question. Xena continued. "Only to say that we found you and that you and I were trying to work things out."
"You were optimistic." Gabrielle smiled, "Or was it that you had faith in your many skills?"
"I have faith in us."
"Bedros took a lot from both of us."
Xena assured. "Nothing that we can't give back to each other."
"I never stopped loving you."
"And I know you made your choice thinking of me. Xena, I don't want to be the reason why you get hurt."
Xena offered an expanded perspective. "I couldn't tell Eve. I don't ever want her to know."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand in response.
"I didn't have to kill Bedros," Xena admitted.
Gabrielle studied the warrior. Xena had indeed changed. But, so too had she. "Is it wrong for me to be thankful that you did?"
"Vengeance… I still have it in me."
"You're not the only one," Gabrielle confessed.
Morally, Xena could not equate herself with Gabrielle. "You didn't kill Gurkhan when you had the chance."
"I wasn't alone at the time. Anyway, Gurkhan. Bedros. Some people would say sending them to their death was an act of justice.
Xena was rueful. "It's an imperfect world."
"I don't ever want to completely leave the girl from Poteidaia behind."
"Neither do I. I fell in love with her. I've watched her grow into the beautiful woman that I have the privilege of sharing my life with."
"You know, I'm proud to say that I fell in love with the Warrior Princess."
"And that will always be one of the greatest mysteries in my life."
"Xena, there are some promises I can live without. But, there are promises I need you to keep."
Xena waited silently. She had not expected Gabrielle to place conditions so clearly at her feet.
"I want you to keep the first promise I asked of you. I don't ever want you to turn into a monster if something happens to me."
"And…" Gabrielle hesitated.
Xena encouraged. "It's all right to ask."
"I need your promise to me." The bard faltered.
Xena understood the unspoken. She welcomed the opportunity to vow her fidelity. "I'm yours Gabrielle. Only yours. I promise."
"Promise me you'll always be careful. I know that doesn't mean you won't get hurt. But please remember that if I'm not with you, wherever I am, I'm waiting for you."
"Gabrielle, you are always with me."
Gabrielle felt Xena had an equal right to solicit her promise. She needed Xena to understand the right was hers. "Is there anything you want to ask of me?"
Xena gently declined. "No. I can't ask anything of you."
"Gabrielle. All I want is that you be safe and well and happy. I trust that as long as you keep that in your mind, whatever decisions you make, we will both be okay."
"I know you will."
A comfortable silence slipped between them. Gabrielle allowed her eyes to linger on Xena. She wondered how Xena would have dealt with Bedros' violation had they not spent this time at the vineyard. "This has been a good place for us."
"Yes, it has."
"Can you be happy living quietly?"
"Instead of an Amazon village?" Xena smiled, "Oh, yeah."
Xena allowed herself the dream. It did not seem outside their reach. "It would be a good life for both of us."
Gabrielle looked up to the cloudless sky. "Do you think we could sleep down on the beach tonight…you, me and the stars?"
The warrior took comfort in the familiar, simple joy Gabrielle offered. "I'd like that."
Gabrielle leaned over to Xena and gave her a tender kiss.
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