Author: Acid (email@example.com)
Notes: Xena: WP fan fiction, X/G Alt, AU based on The Reckoning (ep. 6).
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my beta reader, Sinick, for agreeing to look at the story in an entirely different fandom and style from what I usually write in.
Summary: People never refer to Xena by her given name when Gabrielle mentions her in passing, only 'The Chosen' – εκλεκτο?! – in the rare villages she visits in search of food or supplies.
Alpha and Omega
People never refer to Xena by her given name when Gabrielle mentions her in passing, only 'The Chosen' – εκλεκτο?! – in the rare villages she visits in search of food or supplies. She enters each village at dawn, watching their men carefully for signs of anger or sullenness, scanning the streets lest knots of loiterers gather to ambush with pitchforks and scythes. For all her watchfulness, she always worries about someone noticing – or worse, recognizing – the inconspicuous figure following her in the shadows, with her sword unsheathed and her dagger drawn beneath the concealing folds of her cloak. Gabrielle doesn't have to ask whose Chosen Xena is. It's obvious.
"Don't believe in Gods, Gabrielle," Xena mutters in her ear once during such a trip. "Gods don't exist. They are mortals, filled with the arrogance of power." Then Gabrielle wonders why, if Ares isn't a God, the wars and the local raids still go on without an end in sight. The thought of a world without the control of a deity who sometimes listens to sacrifices and prayers is more terrifying to Gabrielle than the thought of Ares himself, more terrifying than the thought of Xena being Ares' Chosen.
Xena is an ugly creature, a great big brute of a woman with a man's jaw and her coal-black hair always hanging loose, unbraided, down her back, and her fish eyes, an indifferent watery-blue on her gaunt face. They lack compassion, like the last patch of water amid winter's ice lacks warmth. Even bloodshot after sleepless nights they seem colourless and dull.
Her hands are large and square, a sailor's hands, with broken off fingernails and surprisingly nimble fingers. Hands that are hard with the calluses of daggers and swords, and that can snatch a flying arrow by its shaft out of mid-air. A woman shouldn't have such rough, coarse hands or such muscled forearms, like a stablehand or a smith. Gabrielle tries Xena's brace on one day and it slips off her arm like a man's ring would have slipped off her finger. It's large enough to fit around Gabrielle's neck, if she only had the strength to open the copper rings wide enough. But then again, Gabrielle always was a skinny little runt: nothing special. Back home Gabrielle's little sister Lila was the pretty one, and the lucky one: she got married last spring. Gabrielle sometimes wished she was married too, but Perdicus had never returned from Troy and she didn't have any other suitors. Ever since Perdicus left to fight the war she always was too strange, too mouthy, too thin, or too short for the rest of Potidaea.
Xena's no runt. She stands at least two heads taller than Gabrielle and towers over most men. Those who aren't scared by her height or her collection of weapons are soon terrified by her dagger-sharp glare. Terrifying: that's exactly the way she looked when she rescued Gabrielle. Gabrielle used to want to become an Amazon, but now she knows that the Amazons are an old wives' tale. Xena, however, is real; she is the closest thing to an Amazon that Gabrielle ever saw, as she told Xena once. Xena just glared and her hands clenched into heavy fists, like Father's did just before he was about to strike something or someone. Gabrielle cringed, but the blow never came.
She shouldn't have been so afraid of Xena in the beginning. Xena let her come along, far away from the monotony of her village, and now Gabrielle can see new places like she always wanted. They've travelled together for half a moon and Xena haven't laid a finger on her yet. Only the way she acted and spoke sometimes reminded Gabrielle of her father: all that rage at the world stewing deep inside and just waiting to explode at the wrong moment. Gabrielle watches people enough to know: once she watched her father from underneath her eyelashes during the long winter months when the storms kept them all cooped up inside for weeks, and now she watches Xena, sneaking discreet sideways glances in her direction all day, when she thinks Xena isn't watching her.
Gabrielle has never seen another woman with so many scars. Xena has a mesh of them lining her back and shoulders, a webbing of old wounds over her arms and thighs. There is one on her skull, disguised by her long hair and another on the back of her neck. If her skin wasn't so dark, the marks would stand out more, but they blend into the general muddy tan of her skin.
Xena's eyebrows are dark and wicked-sharp as she arches them, and her mouth is always in a thin line, making her cheekbones that much sharper and her square jaw even heavier than it actually is. Xena's face is guarded, always blank and sometimes sardonic; she reveals nothing of her emotions. She must've hacked them off one day in a fit of frustration, just as she did with the uneven fringe hanging over her eyes.
Xena must be old, but there isn't a wrinkle on her dark face or a trace of silver in her thick black hair, but her eyes – oh, her eyes – at times Gabrielle thinks that they should belong to a grizzled old soldier with a body crippled by forgotten wars, the kind of veteran whose startling whispers and cries sound either too mad or too prophetic for comfort.
Like an old veteran, Xena doesn't name her horse. She says that horses die all too easily in battles and she would've run out of names by Solstice if she gave a name to each one. This particular horse has been with them for awhile, a skittish palomino that could use some spare food, if there were ever any food to spare. It's no secret that all three of them could use some extra food. The last year has been lean and it will be months until this season's crops. Still, whenever she gets the opportunity, Gabrielle gives it a treat that she buys from the villagers: a sour green apple – dried up and wrinkled and brown in the middle after being kept in the shed all winter long.
During the day Gabrielle has plenty of things to do, like walking or carrying the water bag, or seeking out different markers on the side of the road in case she ever has to find her way through these parts alone in the future. But in the evenings, after she finishes her small share of assigned chores, she simply wanders restlessly by the campfire until it's too late or too freezing or sometimes both.
"You don't know what you want, do you?" Xena snaps at her once when Gabrielle thinks that she fell asleep long ago.
"I do," Gabrielle protests. "I do!" And she tiptoes away from the creeping shadows and closer to Xena's side of the campfire. She glances at her cautiously, but Xena simply shrugs: "Leave or stay. It makes no difference to me."
Gabrielle stays. She crouches between the fire and Xena's bedroll and studies her face like she studies all the new sights they come across, intent and careful, memorizing every detail so that years from now they will still be fresh in her mind. She shivers and arranges her hair around her shoulders: a poor protection from the weather. But her blue shirt of homespun cloth is too thin to resist the wind.
"Get in." Xena sighs at last and shifts the blankets. Her chakram rolls off her bedroll and comes to rest at Gabrielle's feet. Gabrielle picks up the weapon and runs a finger over its edge. She doesn't even feel it at first but the red drops well up nonetheless on her fingertip. How stupid. How many times did Xena tell her to be careful with it? Too late. She licks her finger and frowns at the taste of her own blood.
The night is cold, and she always feels as though someone is watching her from amid the shadow and the silence that lurks beneath the forest's gnarled branches. So she sheds her heavy skirt and gets under the sheepskin blanket and snuggles happily next to the warm body just like she used to do with Lila when they were young: safe under the covers, a sure protection from the wicked hydra hiding just beneath the bed.
Xena watches her with the usual harshness to her features, and something else: perhaps curiosity, perhaps amusement flickering just in the corner of her eyes. "Why did you follow me?"
"You protected me." Gabrielle tells her the accepted answer: Xena did protect her, from her father and from the raiders. "And you need protecting too," she adds before she has time to change her mind, suddenly feeling the need to be honest and daring. "From yourself." She reaches out, fingers not quite touching Xena's jaw where a jagged, thin scar runs from Xena's ear to her chin. Instead Gabrielle smoothes stray hairs away from Xena's mouth.
Xena just grunts and flinches away from Gabrielle's hand. "I don't need protection," she says with a bitter chuckle not quite spilling from her lips. "Just a good night's sleep."
Oh, but she hasn't slept peacefully for over a week and probably won't sleep peacefully for many nights to come. Gabrielle's never known anyone to have quite so many nightmares. She can only guess at the horrors these nightmares might hold. Only when Xena is asleep has Gabrielle ever heard her mutter a name of a God, any God, and it's always just one name, no titles, and certainly no reverence that must always be shown in a chant or a prayer. Xena has never shown any reverence at all. She says his name exactly in a way she'd say anyone else's name, just like she mutters 'Gabrielle' at times, terse and clipped, leaving her defences bared for one brief moment and then always pulling away roughly on the last syllable.
Gabrielle leaves her hand on Xena's shoulder, her fingertips stroking in circles at the base of her neck. She hopes that it'll be enough to calm her down – the same thing worked before on Xena's horse – and at times Xena herself is too much like a skittish colt uneasy with human touch. "How was it," Gabrielle asks, keeping her voice low and even, "to be a God's Chosen?"
Xena keeps silent but she doesn't throw Gabrielle's hand off her shoulder and that must mean Gabrielle is doing something right. By the time Gabrielle convinces herself that she won't get an answer at all, the sound of Xena's voice ringing in her ears startles her.
"Intoxicating. Addicting," Xena says and stares, empty-eyed, into the wide expanse of the purple sky above them. "Weakening," she adds in a mere whisper.
"Why?" Gabrielle asks, raising her head from the comfortable place in the crook of Xena's arm, because it's something she doesn't understand, she doesn't see it at all. "You had all that power, more than any mortal could hope to have."
Xena's eyes narrow and focus on Gabrielle with a resolute and brutal stare. Never before has Gabrielle realised that the lack of emotion can burn just as much as pure rage. And yet Gabrielle knows that the glare which Xena reserves for herself – aims at her reflection whenever she sees it – is even more empty and brutal. "I gave up everything I had for an illusion of power. At least a common whore gets something for her trouble, and that's exactly what I am."
No! She isn't! Xena is much too strong and too proud to ever lie back and take it. No man should ever own her, not even a God. Especially not a God. Sometimes Gabrielle thinks that no creature in the world should be cursed with the fate of being owned by a deity, because the Gods' greed to own and conquer surpasses all human wants, and ruins a human soul beyond recognition.
Xena might be only a monster or a murderer to the rest of the world, but right now with her body taut next to Gabrielle it's so easy to think of Xena as any human being, certainly not the beast that the villagers keep describing in their far-fetched fables.
But there is always a wild beast hiding beneath Xena's composed features and Gabrielle never forgets that little separates Xena from the beasts created by the Gods with one purpose: to stalk their prey and to hunt and kill. She always gets this feeling in Xena's presence, a godlike and primal sensation: a force that is ancient and true and terrifying in its intensity, that had brought many a grown man to his knees, before the battle – no, the hunt – was over and Xena murdered them one by one.
Gabrielle should feel repulsed or outraged, but right now she only wants to protect Xena. She wants to keep her safe even if it means shielding her from the Gods, from the angry villagers, and most of all from herself. And it's a foolish idea, because what can a girl like Gabrielle do besides chattering everyone's ears off? She is weak and she cannot stop the outraged mobs, any more than she can stop the endless brutality of Xena's ruthless conscience.
No. Gabrielle will fret about it later all she wants, but not now. Not when Xena's hands, long-fingered with perpetually roughened knuckles, lift and awkwardly slide to rest on Gabrielle's left shoulder and her waist. Gabrielle takes a deep breath to calm herself and Xena's hand still remains on her stomach just above her hip, a warm and heavy weight separated only by the thin layer of cloth. From somewhere a frantic thought crosses her mind: if Xena decides to bring her other hand down as well and slides it around Gabrielle's waist, her thumbs and index fingers could probably circle and meet easily, so thin her waist must seem now with her abdomen this tense and all that air trapped inside her lungs.
But it's the sensation of Xena's fingers skimming over her bare skin just over the collar of her shirt that sends shivers down Gabrielle's spine and makes her forget all about thinking. Breathing comes naturally then, in shaky and rapid gasps, and it must be the unexpected warmth of Xena's fingertips or the unexpected caution in hers every move, or the tenderness where Gabrielle expected harshness, or all of it at once, that stirs up an unfamiliar craving inside Gabrielle: a new urge, warm and wild and intense as a forest fire blazing out of control.
At first Xena's touch is painfully, brilliantly tentative, in the same way that Xena always touches fragile things when she doesn't want to break them. Seconds pass and it remains there still, ghosting over the edges of her senses, and abruptly Gabrielle realises she cannot stand the aching weight of that tenderness any more, and so she presses her mouth against Xena's and tries not to think of what it might mean. Her whole world explodes and comes tumbling down, yet Gabrielle holds on and finds her way through that confusion, with her fingertips sliding over worn dark leathers and bare skin, finding her way by touch, by pure instinct, by looking into Xena's eyes and seeing herself reflected in them.
Xena arches under her touch and she is warm and wet and that wetness clings to Gabrielle's hand and leaves the cut on her index finger stinging but she cannot stop for a second because Xena is right there, trembling at her fingertips, coming undone in front of her eyes, and helplessly holding onto her, and it's nothing short of a miracle, a precious and pure and wondrous moment that makes one's life worth living; it gives a new purpose to Gabrielle's existence, makes her important, and makes her worthy of being in this world.
Xena's fingers soon turn nearly cruel in their fervent, uncontrolled grip. She throws her head back with a deep, harsh cry, and the cords of her neck stretch so tight that it hurts to look at them. But Gabrielle can't help it. She stares at Xena's face suddenly transforming from a crude, lifeless mask into a real, human face, alive with sensation, emotion and unspoken desire. Gabrielle looks into her wide-opened eyes and for the first time ever she notices a spark of vibrant blue in them, something that isn't dead or dried up and weathered, and the image is so vivid in its untamed, expressive beauty, that at that moment Gabrielle finally believes that one day, long ago, just like anyone else in the world, Xena too was just a human being with a dream of her own.
When Gabrielle was a little girl, her mother used to tell to her a story about soulmates. Mother stopped telling it when Gabrielle turned six and they moved onto the other, more common childhood themes – the kind that didn't leave her mother in tears afterwards – but Gabrielle still remembers this particular tale. It was about people being created as two-headed and eight-limbed creatures in the beginning and then sliced in two by the angry Gods and restlessly wandering the earth to find their missing half since then. Gabrielle understands the urge to become one creature now better than ever. It's awkward and confusing and cautious and it's all about fumbling under the covers in the dark and not at all how she thought it would be, but now that she knows how it feels, she can't stop herself from wanting yet she doesn't dare to ask for it because Xena is finally at peace, stretched completely still underneath Gabrielle with her breathing calm and even and only her dark, long eyelashes twitching now and then.
Though a thousand nights may pass after this night, Gabrielle thinks, this is how I will always remember her: the Chosen of War, at peace. At last.
Things have slowly been getting better. Gabrielle doesn't want to hurry that progression, doesn't even acknowledge it most of the time for fear of jinxing it. Xena named her horse Argo last week and Gabrielle has tried writing again. She wrote down the whole alphabet on a scrap of parchment just to see if she still remembered it right. She hasn't done that in years: alpha, beta, gamma . . . Afterwards she wrote down Xena's name on the same parchment, using the collection of broken up, awkward symbols as a reference. The next morning Gabrielle noticed that the sheet had her own name as well but Xena never acknowledged touching her parchment or her makeshift quill. Side by side their names looked a bit like the signatures on some sort of treaty.
Gabrielle thinks that Xena may as well be her alpha and omega these days. She is always there when Gabrielle wakes up and always there when she falls asleep: a looming, shadowy, silent presence, a now familiar cloaked stranger with her weapons drawn and her eyes compulsively searching for potential dangers in the dark.
Perhaps it was a treaty, a vague but important contract, because Xena sleeps best with her head on Gabrielle's shoulder, and in the morning they wake with their hair all tangled together and their arms and legs tingling and numb but still around each other, clinging desperately for warmth and for company: for completeness. Xena speaks more, and not just instructions in concise, clipped phrases, and Gabrielle is getting used to spending her nights on the hard, uneven ground and cooking over the campfire. She is content. One might even say that Gabrielle is happy. She isn't sure how long her newfound happiness will last – until the next winter comes or until the next villager clutches a dagger behind his back, or until Xena's concentration won't be enough to restrain her silent rage, to stop her fists before they hit something, a tree, a person, Gabrielle – but for now Gabrielle is content. She spends her days daydreaming and laughing at every small, insignificant thing, she spends her mornings untangling Xena's wild mane from hers and pulling Xena's hair back into a braid, and she spends her evenings discovering how it feels to belong to someone; and it's nothing like she expected it to be, and everything she never thought she'd want in life.
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