A STATE OF GRACE
A post-finale Xena tale
Pairing: Gabrielle/Xena (Classic)
Rating: This part M(15+) , building up to Good God, Avert your eyes! ( NC-18 ).
Summary: Set a year-and-a-half post- FIN . Gabrielle, the warrior, has made her way back from Egypt to see Sappho perform in Thebes . Xena's ghost is at her heels. But this will not be a ghost story...
A/N: Here be Chapter 1, parts I-VII. This is a WIP. I've been writing/posting since September 09, and the story is on-going – don't worry, I brought snacks. And cake, there must always be cake. If you can't wait for site updates, chapters are attached with gum to the wall of http://syrensoul-red.livejournal.com .
Disclaimer: If I had owned Xena, there would've have been more maintext and/or nudity. But I don't, so them's the breaks. Other things I don't own include a sense of moral responsibility, solid-gold shoes and the musicians whose words I occasionally pilfer for preface. Italics denote thoughts or lines snatched from episodes.
Spoliers: In particular, Many Happy Returns and A Friend in Need I & II , but this is post- FIN so everything is up for grabs.
POV: Perving over Gabby's shoulder.
Dedicated to Sr_m_Grammatica and Cindy .
~ Open to concrit and grateful for feedback: email@example.com. ~
“I know a cold as cold as it gets,
I know a darkness that's darker than coal;
A wind that blows as cold as it gets,
Blew out the light of my soul…”
-- “Cold as it Gets”, Patty Griffin
Gabrielle shook out her bed roll. With a grimace, she watched debris fly from it, unsure if it was merely dirt or also fleas and lice. The forest she had been camping in for the past few weeks was in parts incredibly wet and in parts desert dry. She fought off fungus and infestation as often as bands of entrenched marauders. The men were pains in her ass, but the bugs were truly vile.
“Rot and infestation were much funnier when you were getting them too,” Gabrielle announced to the soaring treetops. She knew that, somewhere nearby, Xena was listening and chuckling in her black-humoured way.
Birds cooed in the trees and mist rose to curl around her calves as she broke camp. She kicked dirt over the embers of her fire and tied her bed roll to the side of her horse. Eris, a daughter of Argo, had taken long months of searching to find when she had returned from Egypt , but it had been worth it.
I think we should go south, to the Land of the Pharaohs. I hear they need a girl with a Chakram...
In Egypt , Gabrielle had seen wondrous things and fought hard to protect them; perfected the art of being a lone warrior, picked up where her partner had left off. The land had been harsh and the people foreign, but it had suited her, hardened her when she'd needed it most, when she'd craved the abrasiveness of sand on her skin, to slough new scars until they seemed old.
I just wanted you to know everything I know…
Now she was headed for Thebes . Sappho was due to perform, and Gabrielle had sworn she would one day see the poet on stage.
She heard the birds suddenly panic and flurry away. Xena's voice still played in her ears as she listened to what was behind the sounds. Not many men, just a few big and clumsy enough to break the peace of the morning. Gabrielle maintained nonchalance, hid her sneer - a gesture she had learned, adopted; embraced.
She checked Eris' saddle was taut and whispered in the mare's ear, reminding her to stay nearby in case she was needed, then sent her trotting away from the path with a slap to her hide. Gabrielle kneeled to tug the laces of her boots, willing the men to take advantage of her unguarded back as she loosened her sais, felt the Chakram tap against one hip, noted the comforting press of her katana against the other.
They roared as they rushed her. She no longer understood that; the impulse to announce yourself like a wild animal. She'd learned quickly that surprise could be her ultimate weapon and that releasing her fury prematurely would only diminish her strength in battle. She had killed the first man before she'd even straightened, her sai buried three-prongs deep in his chest. It wrenched free as she stabbed the second man with the other and his roar sputtered off into silence. He took her sai with him as he fell; she plunged the first into the side of the third man's neck and left it there, spinning low onto one knee, her hands free and waiting.
The fourth man hesitated. His sword stroke faltered and he ground to a halt just beyond Gabrielle's reach. She stayed motionless, poised to strike like the thick-headed adders that made the sands of Egypt so treacherous. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, measured the situation: her deceptively small body, the bloodied forms of his friends around her. He snarled, and tossed his sword from hand to hand. Gabrielle lowered her head, her gaze on her feet as her ears strained to judge his breath.
“Who are you, little girl?” He growled, juggling his sword.
Gabrielle didn't answer. Her short hair ruffled in the breeze.
“I said who are you?”
Slowly, Gabrielle raised her head and stared him in the eye. She shrugged. “Depends on what you do next.”
The man snorted, a billow of steam clouded his face like a minotaur. “And what does that mean?”
She unhooked the Chakram from her belt. Staring at its twisted metal, she smiled coldly. “If you take a swing at me, I'm the warrior who killed you. But if you walk away... I'm just another woman in a forest.”
Her answer was deliberately abstruse. He sifted her words for a name and found nothing. Frustrated, he snarled, raised his weapon and did something foolish.
Gabrielle's hand tingled as the katana whined a single note into the still air. A sword fell at the height of its arc and clattered to the ground with a fleshy thud. The man stared with disbelief as his shoulder bloomed red, a bouquet where his arm used to be. He offered it to her, swayed, and collapsed at her feet.
Gabrielle breathed clouds of white into the cold morning. She relaxed her grip and plucked the Chakram from the dirt with one hand. She wiped its dusty edge on her skirt before she hooked it onto her belt. Sometimes the sight of it was enough to make a man back away; sometimes the stories of it had been untold for too long. She preferred not to use the weapon, it didn't feel like hers. But it was shiny enough to distract the slow-witted while she reached for her blade. Gabrielle guided the alloy into its oiled sheath and angled it comfortably against her hip. She stared down the trail and into the distance. After a long moment, she looked down at the body.
Blood had slowed from a gush to a trickle; it oozed, and then it stopped. She crouched down to his ear.
“My name is Gabrielle.”
He hadn't heard her. With two fingers, she closed his lifeless eyes.
Her boots had blood on them. She rubbed them with dirt until crimson turned rusty then pushed herself to her feet. She retrieved her sais from corpses and tinkling metal announced the return of Eris. The mare butted the warrior with her head and huffed warm air into her face. Gabrielle rubbed the horse's long nose absently and compulsively checked the straps around her belly before she stepped into a stirrup and swung her body into the saddle. She clicked her tongue and snapped the reins and they trotted off down the trail.
~ I ~
Gabrielle hummed to the rhythm of Eris' hooves. A throaty chuckle sounded in her ears and she cut herself short, cleared her throat uncomfortably.
“Oh. There you are.” She cleared her throat again, shifted in the saddle. “I was humming... something.” She squared her shoulders and pushed her voice into her diaphragm. “Something I heard in Egypt . It was… a war song. Strong and noble; something to warm the blood.”
The chuckle came again, ended in a snort and Gabrielle turned to glare at the empty space at the rump of her horse.
“It's not... I mean, the tune is similar... to Joxer's song... But it couldn't be more different.”
The snort was clearer this time, and her glare darkened.
“If you have something to say, Xena, do me the courtesy of saying it to my face.” Gabrielle waited, hoped the space behind her would shimmer and ghostly arms would circle her waist. But the air stayed empty. “No deal, huh? Then how about you keep your opinions to yourself.”
Gabrielle dug her heels into Eris' flank, urged the horse to outrun the ghost at their heels. Sappho would perform soon. They had places to be.
Trees blurred and Gabrielle let the horse have her head. Her eyes slid shut and then she jerked awake again. Birds twittered, Eris' hooves click-clacked on the hard dirt and Gabrielle felt a sudden urge to roar at the perfect simplicity of it all, to run howling and spitting into the forest, her katana swinging a bloody swathe through the undergrowth. She shrugged it off. It was not an unfamiliar feeling.
The birds kept singing. Eris walked on.
Gabrielle knew Xena would be within earshot, but didn't feel like talking. Her transition from noisy sidekick to stoic warrior had been slow but sure, and was now complete. Somewhere over the past year and a half, talking to the place Xena used to be had grown too much like talking to herself - a level of crazy she was not yet ready to embrace.
“Hey.” The pressure of Xena's arm slipped around Gabrielle's waist; her throaty growl pulled her back to reality, crawled into her ears and danced in her hair. Gabrielle closed her eyes and a smile touched her lip; one hand dropped the reins to rest on Xena's. It was a solid barrier, but not like skin. It was not warm, just something inexplicable beneath her palm.
Gabrielle leaned back in the saddle to press against the familiar body. “I haven't seen you in days.”
“You know I've been nearby,” Xena chided, and squeezed her gently. “I was trying to give you some space. You've been in one of your moods.”
“Excuse me?” Gabrielle tried to turn a glare on Xena, but the taller woman's hold wouldn't allow it.
“Eyes on the road, Gabrielle. You don't want to stumble into anything.”
Gabrielle could hear the smirk in Xena's voice. She swung her elbow at the warrior, satisfied when she grunted in pain. “You deserved that.”
Xena chuckled ruefully. “Yes, I did.” As she rubbed her abused ribs, the back of her hand grazed an allegretto tune along Gabrielle's delicate bones and a shiver danced up her spine, captured her breath and whisked it away.
“You're in a good mood today,” Gabrielle said finally, her voice hoarse. Xena's arm tightened around her waist.
“Well one of us has to be. It's nearly your birthday.”
“I know. That's why I'm going to Thebes .”
Xena squeezed her again. “We'll finally see Sappho perform, in the flesh.”
“Well, one of us will,” she replied, more darkly than she'd intended.
Xena's body, a rigid bow, stiffened and bent, her string plucked and tested. “Hey there, none of that. I may not be as solid as I was, but I'll be there, you know I will. Nothing could stop me.”
I'll always be with you Gabrielle. Always.
Gabrielle sighed. “I know.” Her fingertip traced an abstract pattern on the saddle. “Maybe I am in a bad mood.”
“You have every right to be,” Xena said earnestly. “I know this isn't getting any easier.”
“No, it's not.”
Silence descended. Trees slipped by, the path stretched on under Eris' hooves and her gentle rocking soothed the tension between them. Gabrielle leaned back into Xena's embrace; her mind wandered aimlessly along brighter pathways and she relaxed into the familiarity of the moment. With her eyes on the road, she could almost forget Xena was a shadow of her former self; the living memory of a body long dead. Xena leaned forward, kissed the top of her head and Gabrielle's eyes slid shut. She smiled at the bitter-sweetness of it.
“We'll be there soon, Gabrielle.”
She knew Xena meant Thebes , but a part of her heard something else, the part of her that still, after all this time, held hope she could anchor Xena to this world.
“We'll get there.”
~ II ~
Gabrielle jolted awake as the broad plane of Eris' back tilted and lurched, an earthquake of horseflesh and leather. Hooves scooped air as the beast strained for leaves high above her head. The tree was heavy with foliage - the stunt was entirely unnecessary.
“You know, I've always admired your stubborn optimism,” Gabrielle said dryly, “but we really don't have time for this.”
Eris was smart enough to know horses were not meant to understand the language of humans. Her tongue waved valiantly in the air; they teetered, wobbled, and finally thudded back to solid ground. Gabrielle's thighs quivered with the exertion of not falling off, her arms crossed firmly over her chest.
“You're not funny, you know.”
The mare whinnied and tossed coarse hair into her rider's mouth. An eloquent retort for a horse. Gabrielle sighed and took up the reins, and her heel got them moving.
The forest ended in a sudden, painful flare of greenery. Gabrielle shielded her eyes against the pregnant girth of the sun. It sagged towards the horizon, set fire to fields tamed by tool and toil. A thin line of smoke in the distance hinted at civilisation. She tugged Eris to a halt at the tree line and they straddled two vastly different worlds.
Gabrielle was grimy and dusty and would trade her left boot and the leg in it for a warm bath. But in a village you were just as likely to get dirty as clean: pickpockets and thieves, bored locals looking for a fight – Gabrielle sniffed her armpit, wondered if another night in the forest would really be so bad.
She smelled like her horse. And not the front end.
Eris bent her neck to lip at the grass and Gabrielle exhaled; a long, weary sigh that stretched her jaw. She closed her eyes and rolled her neck, vertebrae crunched and popped in her ears and she rubbed the skin at the base of her skull until it was tight enough to burn. Then she flopped back in the saddle and raised the stirrups with the tips of her boots. Metal jangled on metal, steel caps on red-leather toes swung in the breeze.
Eris harrumphed and glanced back at her, a question in her dark eyes: Are we going, or is this position designed to annoy me?
Gabrielle made a face and Eris dismissed her for greener pastures.
She had to decide what they would do next, and yet she made no movement, frozen in the space between the woods and the world. Her life had become a string of vignettes set against a larger tale of indecision, of choices reluctantly made. And this was just a village.
But of course, it wasn't. It was bigger than borders and fences, buildings and baths. It had little to do with the possibility of trouble, of petty thugs she could swat down like flies. It was about people. Unavoidable interaction with people who thrived on polite conversation, who talked just to move the air around them. People who led a simple existence and could not imagine the things she'd seen, or done to stay alive. Civilised people.
In Egypt , if your mouth was open long enough something was likely to fly into it. Sand and bugs kept people quiet and direct and it had suited Gabrielle. And away from larger towns, there was a tendency not to ask questions. There were a lot of reasons to live in dry heat and desolation, but choice was not usually one of them. Nobody had a past – you left it in the dunes.
Egypt was a million miles away.
Gabrielle scrubbed her face with callouses and grit. In her old life, long before Egypt , she had revelled in the opportunity to visit a village. Any village. After the monotonous plod of tree, tree, lake, tree, band of thieves, tree, tree - the hustle and bustle was a relief. She had craved the mindless interaction, the chance to share pleasantries and tell stories and pretend her life was more stable, more ordinary than it was.
Now, each town reminded her she was foreign, distant, and alone.
In her old life, she could pretend. She'd had that luxury. She didn't know it at the time, how wide the gulf was between what she was, and Xena. Not in the beginning, maybe not even at the end. But she knew now. The burden of responsibility lay squarely on her, and she had bent and buckled under the weight of it.
My reflexes are those of a warrior, I'm afraid my judgment's not.
A conversation in a canoe, so long ago. She couldn't have grasped at the time how right she was. Now she barely remembered what it was like to live on more than instinct. If not for the tenacity of the ghost at her heels, she would've forgotten altogether.
Gabrielle realised they had crossed the field and were at the edge of the village. Eris strained her nose at the scent of hay and horses. Gabrielle shook her head ruefully - the decision had been made for her. Time was an inexorable tide that dragged or drowned, but never waited.
A faint buzz of familiarity crept across Gabrielle's skin like an itch. She had been here before, with Xena. A village in the valley at the base of the hill she would trek over to reach Thebes , with it's scraggy cliffs and roaring ocean. And that was the place where she and Xena had once flown off together into the sunset. The hill seemed to bear down on her, her lungs crushed by its gravity.
People appeared one by one, rocks in the river she flowed down, its banks flanked by buildings that grew ever closer, tighter, blocking out the last crimson chunk of light. Gabrielle nodded curtly at those who greeted her, their eyes curious and as tongues primed lips for conversation, she looked away. A lanky teenager surveyed his world with discontent and she caught his eye and asked him where she could stable her horse. He grunted and pointed to a building further up the street. She moved on, grateful for the spurious choler of youth.
Gabrielle dismounted beside a large stable that smelled of dry hay and warm animals. She fished a full pouch from her saddlebag and led Eris inside. A man emerged from an empty stall and wiped his hands on his pants, his shoulders bare and thick with muscle. She nodded at him.
“How much to house my horse for tonight and tomorrow?”
Eris snuffed as the man sized them up, and lipped Gabrielle's skirt - a warning not to spoil a good thing by haggling. Gabrielle ignored her. Some habits died hard.
“Eight for the stall and four for the hay,” the man replied. “It'll be extra if you want her cleaned and brushed.”
Gabrielle snorted. “For that price, I'm guessing you tuck them in at night.” She rubbed absently at her horse's nose. “Eris here,” she twisted her body to reveal the weapon on her hip, “she's used to rougher housing than that.” She crossed her arms and smiled at him. “I'll give you five for the stall and two for the hay, and you'll throw in the grooming for free.”
The man stared at her, stared at her weapons, cleared his throat. “Lady, those prices would put me out of business.”
She raised an eyebrow, shrugged, the smile locked on her face.
The stablemaster sighed and rubbed the back of his neck with a plate-sized hand. “Six for the stall, three for the hay. Your horse will be well-cared for and we'll have a deal.”
It was a good price. Gabrielle reached out and his rough palm engulfed the metal and leather on her forearm. She opened a pouch full of dinars and coloured stones and felt a spark of regret for haggling, but it passed. Each gem had been reluctantly accepted but lovingly given in Egypt , where their worth was measured in sentiment. Here in Greece , their value was significantly higher.
“I'll be by in the morning to check on her,” Gabrielle said. She hesitated, then fished out another dinar. “Get her some apples, if you can. It's been a long trip.”
Eris whickered happily and the man nodded, stared at the pile in his palm. Gabrielle hoisted her laden bags over one shoulder and went to find a place of her own.
There were two inns in the town, and Gabrielle had stayed in the roughest with Xena. The warrior had always been adamant the worst places were where you'd find the best food, a view Gabrielle did not necessarily share. It was hard to enjoy a good meal when you spent most of your time fishing people out of it. That left her with a smaller establishment called the Ardent Scroll. From the outside it seemed clean and quiet and a large fire traced patterns of red and gold on clear glass. She took a deep breath and ventured in.
The dining room buzzed and droned, clacked and jingled; the air thickened her lungs with conversation, scented oils and food. Her entrance caused a lull, but the sound rose again and it was a good sign. A burly man nodded at her from behind the bar and Gabrielle wove her way through the crowd.
“I need a room, a good meal, and the hottest bath you can manage.”
He snickered, and flourished at the packed hall. “Sorry love, but we're full. Sappho's playing over in Thebes . Every inn from here to Tartarus is full.”
Gabrielle sighed, suddenly weary. “I don't want a room in Tartarus,” she said. “I've been there. The food is awful.” She plunked her pouch on the bar and made sure it rattled with the audible weight of currency. “I want a room here.”
The man's eyes widened. “Let me just check...” He looked down for a second and ran his thick finger over a list of words. Gabrielle looked down. It was an upside down menu. “Look at that – you're in luck! One room spare.”
Her smile didn't touch her eyes. “Isn't that lucky.”
The man leaned forward conspiratorially. “It's one of our special guest rooms.”
“We keep them reserved for very... important people.”
“Of course you do.”
The innkeeper straightened up. “It's not cheap, but it looks like you can afford it, so...” He cleared his throat and gestured frantically for one of the servers. “I'll get someone to bring up your bags, and we'll organise that bath for you.”
“And food.” Gabrielle looked around. “I'd rather eat alone tonight.”
“Of course. Melan will show you the way.”
Gabrielle turned and relinquished her bags to a hefty teenage boy who seemed grateful for the change of pace. She followed him down a hallway, across a well-lit landing, up a flight of stairs and into a dimly lit corridor which led to nowhere. Gabrielle looked confused as the youth smiled at her and carefully laid her bags on the ground.
“Umm... Is this my room? Because I was expecting something... with a door.”
The boy reached up and pulled a rope, and a panel in the roof opened to reveal a sturdy ladder. “Up here.”
“Of course. I knew that.”
Through the roof was a smaller hallway where sconces burned warmly with sweet-scented flames. Two doorways were set opposite each other at the end of the space. Melan opened one and stood aside.
The room was deceptively large, with a thick but faded rug on the floor and furnishings that may once have been opulent before the innkeeper procured them.
“Wow,” she said simply. “This is... nicer, than I'm used to.”
She walked passed him and heard him exhale into a low whistle.
She turned and glared at him, arm muscles clenched.
“I mean that thing on your back,” he rushed to clarify, and pink crawled across his cheeks. “What is it?”
She touched her shoulder and her fingertips traced the lines and ridges of her one-time protector. She cleared her throat uncomfortably and muscles bunched in her jaw. “It's nothing you need to worry about.”
The boy ducked his head, nodded once and walked quickly past her. She followed him around a large dining table and through a doorway into a bedroom with an oversized bed and a window that overlooked the village. Melan placed her bags on a wide bench against the sill and opened a third door on the far wall. Inside was a large tub, and she almost danced at the sight of it. “We'll bring up water for you. My sister is preparing food now. We'll be up as soon as the dinner rush is over.”
“Thank you, Melan.”
Between the unexpected warmth in her voice and use of his name, the youth was caught off-guard. To her wry amusement, he gave a lop-sided smile and was far less graceful as Gabrielle ushered him out the door than when he'd entered. She closed it behind him and turned to lean against the warm wood, relief in silence.
There she stood until her back protested and reminded her there were cosier places to rest. She removed her weapons and placed them on a chair, and then in the bedroom she debated getting changed. She eyed her bags and scrunched her nose as she considered the nightshift, buried alongside Xena's breastplate and memories of an old existence. Instead, she took a running leap at the bed and swam around in soft sheets, her arms and legs flung wide as she sunk into the depths of the mattress.
“You look comfy,” a familiar voice commented.
A languid smile caressed her lips and Gabrielle opened one eye to a pair of boots and a muscled thigh. “So do you.”
Xena was stretched out, her back against the foot of the bed, one leg bent at the knee. She held her sword in one hand and a whetstone in the other and as Gabrielle closed her eyes again, the familiar scrape of sharpening filled her ears. Her smile faded.
“Do you really have to do that now?”
“I really don't have to do it at all,” Xena replied. “Not a lot of call for a sharp sword these days.” The tip of the blade scratched loudly against her temple. “Yup. Livin' the quiet life. Besides, it's a ghost sword. Goes right through the bad guys without even a tickle.”
“Then why do it?” she asked, one arm thrown across her eyes.
“Because it annoys you.”
Gabrielle clutched at the bed behind her, grasped plumpness and threw her pillow blindly at Xena. There was no thump. She was disappointed.
“You missed me.” Stone scraped against blade.
“Give me back my pillow,” Gabrielle grumbled.
“Xena, give me back my pillow.”
“No. It takes a lot of effort to move stuff. Come and get it.”
Gabrielle huffed and pushed herself up with her elbows. “Xena…”
The pillow crashed down on her head. “There ya go.”
Gabrielle glared at her, and Xena snorted.
“What was that about too much effort?” Gabrielle asked gruffly, and stuffed the pillow behind her neck.
“It was worth it.” Xena went back to sharpening her sword. Gabrielle sighed and rolled over. Her body knew Xena watched over her. She closed her eyes.
~ III ~
A knock roused Gabrielle from fitful dozing. Groggy, she sat up and rubbed her face. The knock came again.
“Who is it?”
“It's Melan. And Sara. We've brought water for your bath, and some food.”
Gabrielle swung her legs to the floor and pushed herself upright. “I'm coming.” She picked up her sheathed katana as she crossed the main room and stood to one side when she opened the door. Melan's broad smile was far too close, as though his nose had been pressed against the wood. Behind him stood a female look-alike, who at least knew how to keep a respectful distance. Gabrielle stepped back and they passed with trays of food. The girl moved in to the bath room while Melan tried to strike a nonchalant pose against the table and stumbled.
Gabrielle nodded at him, nodded again, put her weapon on a chair and stood in uncomfortable silence until she could bear it no longer and went to check on his sister. Sara had pulled back a curtain to reveal a simple but clever pulley system behind the tub. As she heaved, a bucket appeared and Gabrielle moved quickly to grab it while the girl tied off the rope.
“Thanks,” she said, and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Melan is meant to be helping, but he seems to be busy tonight. You know, looking stupid for you.”
Gabrielle chuckled and tipped her cargo of steaming water into the tub.
“I'm here, Sara.” Gabrielle moved aside as Melan took the bucket from her, his cheeks pink. “Let me take that, Gabrielle. It's my job.”
“Yes, it is,” Sara said pointedly, with the exasperation of one used to her brother's shortcomings. She turned to Gabrielle. “This'll take a few minutes. There was plenty of meat left over from dinner, and a little gravy. It should still be warm.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle let herself be dismissed. She made short work of the meat to the hushed sound of squabbling and the squeak of the pulley in the other room. When the twins reappeared, Gabrielle was eying a large platter of fruit and pastries.
“The tub's full,” Sara told her, as she dragged Melan towards the door. “I put some oil in, and the water's pretty hot so there's a bucket of cold in there for you. Just put it in the corner when you're done – I'll collect it when I come by to empty the bath in the morning.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle moved to the door as Sara pushed her brother through and locked it behind them. She wedged a chair under the handle for good measure and turned to the food. Her first victim was a grape, bitten slowly and carefully. It was sweet and her eyes rolled to the ceiling in pleasure around a handful more. Cheese and bread and a square of pastry drenched with honey followed and then she was at the tub, adding a little cool water as she inhaled steam.
She didn't need armour here. Boots, chain mail, gauntlets and arm bands were peeled away and dropped to the floor. The leather scraps of skirt and top she folded and placed carefully on a chair. And then she stretched and stepped into the tub, and lowered herself with a sigh into the first hot bath she'd had in far too long.
Candles flickered and steam rose to fill her lungs with warmth and the spice of oil. She stretched out her legs, leaned back and closed her eyes. Ripples licked her skin. Heat worked its way into her muscles and leeched the dirt from her pores. Her mind wandered aimlessly in the dimness, bumping into things. She relaxed.
Gabrielle felt eyes on her body and smiled into the empty room.
Xena's ghostly voice chuckled in response, and then the feeling was gone. She was alone.
Gabrielle lifted her hand from the water and reached for the soap. Lather formed on her arms, shoulders, breasts as she slid the bar across her skin and her throat vibrated with the hum of nothing in particular. The dirt and grime of the road was replaced by skin painted gold by the sun, so much darker than in her youth, and broken here and there by pink reminders of battles fought and hard roads taken.
She missed having someone to wash her hair and back. Now she did it herself without lingering.
Gabrielle inhaled, closed her eyes and sank beneath the water. The world became muffled, distorted, a warm womb of liquids. Her blood thumped slowly in her ears and the water lapped from outside; trying to get in, trying to get out, trying to return to a state of grace, a time when things were simple.
She burst to the surface with a gasp.
Water caressed her face, her shoulders and she wiped it from her eyes, sweet oil stuck like a balm to her lips. She rested her head back against the edge of the bath, her elbows supported her weight and her fingertips touched the viscous surface of the water. She closed her eyes.
Gabrielle had a sense she was dreaming. She was riding a horse that wasn't quite Eris, not quite Argo and Xena was mounted behind her - solid and gloriously alive. Gabrielle tilted her head as lips nuzzled her ear, the edge of her jaw, slid lightly down her throat to her shoulder. A moan purred through her chest and when the warrior chuckled, her breath danced like fingers across Gabrielle's breasts.
Teeth nipped the edge of her collarbone and Gabrielle reached back and slid her fingers into black silk, pulled Xena closer as she searched for the line between pleasure and pain in the pressure of her teeth. Xena's mouth was Greek oil and it set her on fire. The drag and caress of lips and tongue to the back of her neck rocked her body, shook and shivered her into the warmth of leather, into the vibration of her name in Xena's mouth. She turned her head to taste it, but Xena's fingers dug into her hip, hindered her, and then the deep contralto whispered into her ear and she struggled to hear the dark things, the pleasurable things Xena wanted from her.
‘The Fountain of Strength…'
“No.” Gabrielle's cry was guttural, torn from her throat with the afterburn of bile. Saltwater stung her eyes when she closed them and her fists pulled handfuls of Xena's hair to keep her on the horse, to trap her in the moment, to stop her from falling away. But the horse was gone, and there were rocks beneath her and she was on her knees with liquid in her mouth, crawling in the dirt, crawling towards Xena broken and bloody, clods in her beautiful hair...
The Fountain of Strength… Get water…
As Gabrielle leaned over her, the fabric of her shirt glided across the silk of Xena's kimono. Their breasts grazed, stomach against stomach and she moved her face closer, her mouth warm and wet, and struggled to take it slowly, carefully, not to lose sight of her real purpose. Their lips touched and parted, the tip of Xena's tongue snaked out to taste hers.
A kiss of life.
Or just a kiss?
Xena slid her tongue across Gabrielle's teeth, caressed her way into her mouth, sensual and shocking. Gabrielle held her face and when the warrior moaned, she collapsed; her body sunk into curves and flesh and warmth. Fingers reached for the sash of Gabrielle's shirt, grazed her ribs as it loosened and fell away. Xena's hands were no longer bloody; clean and strong as they slid around Gabrielle's waist and she arched like a bowstring plucked for pleasure, tight and taut in Xena's grasp. Her knees held firmly to Xena's hips and she pushed her body forward, rode her inexorably slowly, and her friction burned a moan from the warrior's mouth.
Palms made a languid ascent from her stomach to her ribs and over her breasts; each one cupped, held, their weight tested and when Xena's thumbs ran over her nipples, Gabrielle lost all sense of time and balance. Her body slumped forward, hands in the dirt beside Xena's head, her mouth open and full of need, craving the touch and taste of the woman beneath her. Blonde wove with black, breath tangled and the whisper of Xena's touch grew firmer against her thigh, moved higher, reached for the part of her that ached more than any other...
Liquid in her mouth. Gabrielle coughed, choked, tried desperately to expel the water from her lungs. She turned and hung her shoulders over the edge of the bath. Her body heaved with the need for oxygen pulled into her lungs like fire, spluttered back out like a gutted flame. As air filled her chest, the pain turned from need to want, to not there, to save me and she pressed her wet knuckle between her teeth and bit down hard. It didn't stop the tide, the wave of grief that rose inside her and she moaned, keened from deep in her belly, the sound of an animal brought down in the woods, of a woman more alone than she had been just an hour ago.
Pieces of her heart clattered in her rib cage, their sharp edges crashed painfully together, shattered and fractured and tumbled into her veins, through her body, tore holes in her arms and legs, her stomach and left the taste of blood in her mouth.
On and on it went until she could do it no longer and her body sank exhausted into the bath.
How could you let yourself be killed?
Her jaw ached. Her knuckle slowly bled. The water was tepid and her skin had pruned. She needed to get out. Gabrielle stood and a waterfall chased the salt away. She stepped from the tub and reached for a towel and rubbed vigorously at her skin until it was red and raw. Then she wrapped up her hair and blew out the candles.
In the bedroom, she dug in her bag for her shift and ignored the leather and metal buried within. She crawled into bed and burrowed deep beneath the blankets.
Outside the room, Xena slid to the ground and cried.
“And in the dark, I can hear your heartbeat
I try to find the sound,
But then it stopped, and I was in the darkness -
So darkness I became.”
-- “Cosmic Love”, Florence and the Machine
~ IV ~
The black and orange beast of morning slunk stealthily across the fields and into the village. It crept through doors and windows to prey upon the unsuspecting, the vulnerable. Gabrielle was mauled in her sleep, dragged from her bed before she was properly awake, chewed up and spit out in the bath room.
She scooped handfuls of freezing water onto her face and rinsed her mouth to purge the night before. Stiff and tired, she dressed herself against the world. Twisted and woven red leather protected her breasts and thighs, metal armbands on her biceps, leather-and-metal gauntlets, a belt of chainmail over her skirt, boots that laced to her knees. She slipped her sais into boot hooks, her katana on her left hip, Chakram on the right and her armour was almost complete.
Gabrielle tightened the criss-cross of leather on her back and rolled her shoulders, set her jaw and stared: stared at the wall, at each fine grain of wood, at the spaces between; minuscule and diminutive, essential in their lack of substance. She exhaled and her breath changed the wall, replaced pieces of it with her – she became the wood, the building, the village. She was a stitch in the fabric of the world, the weft of its weave and she bundled the cloth around herself like a blanket. She was dressed.
The hallway was dim when the door clicked closed behind her. She walked to its end and there was the ladder, folded like an origami soldier over the trapdoor, rigid and unmovable. She pushed at it, pulled it. Her fingers scratched at the wooden edge until one nail tore and bled into the crack but it would not open. She was trapped.
Suddenly she couldn't breathe and the animal inside her rose up, snarled and gnashed its teeth, threw its head back and howled. Behind her, another door clicked and footsteps tattooed down the passageway. The tread was light but without hesitation and she waited, muscles coiled. When the enemy was close enough to strike, Gabrielle drew her katana and turned in one violently fluid movement. A flurry of fabric and dark hair skidded before her; stumbled, tripped and tumbled into her and Gabrielle threw aside the sword to fight gravity.
She grunted as she was crushed between body and floor, the air expelled from her lungs and her elbows scraped by wood. An unarmed woman. I nearly killed an unarmed woman... But then her chest was wet and sticky and it moved across her skin and her clothes and had she been wrong? Had she made a terrible mistake? She felt no pain. If she moved on to the next life, would it be without Xena?
A muffled voice and then hands were on her ribs, her breasts and they grabbed and groped and took liberties and tugged the tether of her consciousness with a snap. “Hey hey hey – watch what you're grabbing!” Gabrielle slapped at the stranger and shoved her backward, away, and then her body bowed as she pushed against the floor with her hands and sprang to her feet, crouched and ready.
The woman raised empty palms. “Sorry, I wasn't… I didn't, I just – you had a sword, and then I…” She faltered, searched, reached out and offered up a small pot, chipped and blackened.
Gabrielle touched the sticky wetness on her chest. It was dark, much darker than blood. “Oh son of a -- ” Ink. She wiped at the mess and when it clung to the leather she growled at the stranger. “You know, this is my only outfit.”
“Really? You only have one outfit? That's... unusual.”
Unusual. A single black dome quivered on Gabrielle's cheek, mocked the corner of her eye and she swiped at it, broke it apart. The smell, the itch as it trickled down her face was filled with grass and fire and the low timbre of Xena's chuckle while she told stories of villains and heroes. The hallway faded; Gabrielle fingerpainted the memory across her lips.
Fragmented between worlds, her thumb rubbed the stained whorls of her fingers until the echo receded, replaced by a tale of nonsense, a question of clothing. It tugged the corner of Gabrielle's mouth. “You know, I've never thought about it before. But I guess it is a little strange, to only have one outfit.”
She had raised a weapon at the stranger on the floor; she was out of context, foreign. And yet the woman seemed at ease, her stained wrists rested over her knees, one idle finger pointed at Gabrielle's chest; “I could get that out for you,” she said. “I have a secret solution. It'll get ink out of anything.” The stranger gestured to herself. “I've had a lot of practice.”
Gabrielle took in the brunette with dark eyes that made her strangely uncomfortable. Her toga bore a mosaic of ink-stained fingerprints and streaks. Her skin was browned but smooth; not a warrior, not a farmer – someone who could afford to spend time in the sun, who worked hard at doing nothing and made sure to keep her skin supple with oil. Frivolous perhaps, but not a threat.
Gabrielle still had reservations. She guessed the woman was an artisan, but something about her was unsettling. On the other hand, she was down an escape route and an outfit and she had little else to lose. Gabrielle shrugged and offered a hand to help her up. “I guess I'm at your mercy.”
A surprisingly strong grip caught her forearm and dark eyes flashed despite the dimness. “Not yet.” She hauled herself up. “But I'm hopeful. We'll see how this goes.”
The comment unbalanced Gabrielle. They were too close, but when Gabrielle leaned back, the woman leaned in.
“Forgive my manners,” she said. “I'm Sappho. And you are?”
~ V ~
The hand on her arm was used to create beautiful things, delicate things. She'd thrown her down in a hallway. Had the animal inside damaged her? This thing of wonder?
“Excuse me? Hello? You do have a name, don't you?”
“No.” Gabrielle was bewildered by her own response. “I mean yes - I'm sorry. It's just... I'm a little... surprised. I'm Gabrielle.”
“Beautiful.” The poet's smile glinted like a blade and Gabrielle was disarmed.
“Thank you. It's not the most common name --”
“No, I mean you. You're beautiful.”
The words fell on Gabrielle's skin and she didn't know what to do with them, so she stared at twisted leather until they seeped away.
“Have I embarrassed you?”
“No,” Gabrielle said, though she meant yes. “It's just... I can't believe it's really you.”
“It's me,” Sappho said, with the patient amusement of someone who had heard it before. “And it's you. We're here, together, in the hallway. It's nice, isn't it? We should talk about this; have a discussion – talk about us. The two of us. Together.” She was too close again, in Gabrielle's breath; she stole her oxygen, created a vacuum between them and Gabrielle struggled against the pressure. Sappho's eyes were on her lips and when she spoke it was slowly, lowly: “How do you feel about famous artisans?”
The pressure released, popped and crackled in her ears and a cool wind swept through her mind, cleared the haze. Gabrielle untangled her arm and stepped back. She quirked an eyebrow and green eyes pierced the dark stare. “That's your line? The line you use to get all the girls? Wow. Has it ever worked?”
When Sappho laughed it was rich and warm and alive, a wave of mirth that crashed from her curved throat. “More often than you'd think,” she said, without a hint of remorse.
“Well, not this time.” Gabrielle scratched her shoulder. The ink pulled at her skin as it dried. “Sappho... as much fun as this is...”
“Right - we should get you cleaned up.” Sappho swivelled lightly and hooked her arm around Gabrielle's. “Let me show you to my room. I think you'll like it.” She pulled her down the corridor. “We can relax, get to know each other better – maybe have something to eat. And I, will get to work on your breasts.” Sappho stopped with her hand on the door and smirked at Gabrielle. “Now that was a line I'm proud of.”
Sappho's room was the wreckage of creation, the ash from which words rose to be crafted into breathless things; taught to soar, to ride the wind, to dive and tumble and pull up at the last moment, their wings spread victorious across the stage. Gabrielle's fingers twitched with the restless need to touch, to fondle every scrap and quill, to rub them against the thick calluses on her hands until her history was edited, revised, re-written.
“Don't mind the mess,” Sappho emerged from the bedroom with a bowl and cloth, “it's always like this before I perform. I'm never satisfied until it's over.” She handed the bowl to Gabrielle. “Hold this, would you? I'll have to get you something else to wear.”
Gabrielle lifted the cloth and sniffed the liquid. She coughed as it burned her throat and tears filled her eyes. “Gods, what is this? It smells awful.”
“I told you, it's a secret recipe. Here...” Sappho held out a scrap of robe, green and soft and barely there.
Gabrielle stared at it, glared at it and punctuated the look with a raised eyebrow. “What am I meant to do with that?”
“Put it on,” Sappho said.
“Where? My arm?”
“If you want. But I need your skirt.”
Muscle danced across her jawbone. Gabrielle snatched the robe and slid it over her shoulders. It caressed her hips and barely reached the top of her thighs. “Is this a joke?”
“Not at all,” the poet replied. “But it is unintentionally entertaining.”
So it was a game, one without defined rules or quantifiable odds. Gabrielle freed chainmail squares, rolled them around her weapons and set them on the table with a heavy thunk. She loosened the bands of her skirt and tied the robe tightly around her waist. To bend was to reveal, so Gabrielle jutted her hip until the skirt fell and then scooped it into the air with her boot. She caught it on one hooked finger and it swung between them. The poet reached out slowly, her gaze unfathomable.
Round one to the woman with nimble feet.
“I'll put this on to soak while we deal with your top,” Sappho said, and left the room.
Gabrielle stood alone and wondered for a moment how she'd gotten there, skirtless with a stranger - a stranger whose name she had known, though everything else had been a misconception - but her brain had surrendered, stepped back, raised exasperated hands: Don't ask me, you're on your own.
“Okay. You'll need to open the robe.”
Gabrielle blinked. Round two?
“It's easier this way,” Sappho said. “I need your body to keep the leather firm as I scrub.”
Her eyebrow arched into blonde hair, a cocked arrow of disbelief aimed squarely at the poet's head. She weighed her options. If she killed Sappho, people would notice – eventually, after the corpse had begun to rot and her performances lost their lustre. Laughter bubbled in her mind, an hysterical edge tinged with Xena. Her other choice was to leave in her underwear. She was not yet prepared to do that. Gabrielle slid the robe from her shoulders and gathered it around her waist.
After Japa but before Egypt , Gabrielle had gotten thin. Then, in the Land of the Pharaohs, she had become ropey. Lean muscle defined her shoulders, chest and stomach more clearly than it had before. Golden skin was marred by clots of black ink, darker than bruises, clumsy and artless compared to the lines on her back. Sappho stilled, transfixed by the offering of leather and flesh.
“This is not an indefinite invitation,” Gabrielle muttered.
The statue came to life. White-knuckled hands twisted cloth over the bowl; water dripped an allegretto tune between them and acrid odour scratched at Gabrielle's eyes and throat. When Sappho slowly reached out, Gabrielle flinched. The cloth paused, hovered over her shoulder, close enough for steam to lick her skin.
“Sorry.” Gabrielle didn't know why she'd said it. If this was a game, she had lost. She raised her eyes to Sappho, searched her face with a hardness that dared her to make a joke, to laugh triumphantly. But the poet did not - there was a question on her lips, a look of uncertainty that rose from the depths of muddy darkness.
Neither of them spoke, but time moved forward and then so did Sappho's hand; a hesitant brush that painted wet lines over Gabrielle's shoulder, across her collar bone and down to the rise of her breast. Gabrielle looked away with pursed lips and hollowed cheeks and bit at the tender flesh of her mouth. Molars pierced the skin and she tasted metal.
The ceiling was dirty - years of smoke had tainted it ash-grey. Somebody had tried to clean it; wide, bubbled strokes of futility touched the wash here and there. Gabrielle concentrated on that as the cloth traced the curve of her top. A drop of liquid fell, ran across her breast and left a damp trail to follow; a stuttering stream that meandered along the leather and seeped out onto her ribs. A shiver crept up her spine.
“Is it cold?”
Gabrielle shook her head, cleared her throat to break the coarseness of her voice. “No, it's fine.” She fixed her eyes on the wooden beam at the join of ceiling and wall, concentrated on its grain and hue, its gentle slope, the uneven plane of its edge. Nimble hands worked at leather and her skin; they rubbed and smoothed and made the water dance in the bowl. Sappho's breath was calm but uneven – Gabrielle heard it catch as the woman navigated her body.
Curved fingers rested their knuckles in her cleavage as fingernails scraped along her breast to the edge of a nipple. It hardened in defence and Gabrielle set her jaw, sharpened a warning on the blade of her tongue. But there was a curtain between them, long waves of brown that masked Sappho's face and begged to be tucked behind her ear. Instead Gabrielle made fists, tightened the knots of muscle in her arms, bit harder on her cheek.
Gabrielle's peripheral vision caught the aura of red fabric and darker tint of leather and she was surprised. There was truth to Sappho's words - the mixture worked. The leather would need oil, but could be salvaged.
Sappho's fingers, curled in her top, pulled it precariously lower, slid closer to her nipple. Gabrielle could no longer see the spot of ink she worked on. “I think that part is clean now, Sappho.”
“Just a little more…”
Gabrielle pulled the robe up and over her shoulders and barricaded it against the woman's hands. The poet paused, wavered and then dropped the cloth into the murky bowl.
“Okay, we're done.” Sappho wiped her hand on her toga. “Let me get rid of this and check on your skirt.”
Alone again. Gabrielle tightened the belt around her waist and silk rubbed against her hands. Moisture stained the robe a darker green; it stuck to her breasts and the base of her throat and she twisted uncomfortably inside it, pulled it aside for air. She looked to the ceiling for guidance but it remained suspended in silence and dirt.
“Worked like a charm,” Sappho said, her hands full of red leather and crimson fabric, not a spot of ink to be seen. “I'll hang it on the balcony. In this weather, it should dry in no time.”
“Good.” Gabrielle swallowed, cleared her throat. “That's good to know. Thank you.”
Sappho stepped away from the balcony and her lips curved slowly. “Any time.” She stepped forward. “Any time you want to pull a sword on me and have it end like this...” She was too close again, and Gabrielle wondered how she'd crossed the space so quickly. “Well, that's thanks enough.”
Sappho's knuckles brushed Gabrielle's cheekbone, fingers traced the line of her jaw, the pad of a thumb stroked the corner of her open mouth. Her face got bigger, Gabrielle's vision swam with it, the poet's eyes sucked her into their muddy depths, swallowed her and Gabrielle didn't understand what had happened until breath whispered across her lips.
She threw herself backward, landed heavily against the table and her hand clutched instinctively for her weapons. Chain mail unfolded in her palm, dropped its contents to the floor with a jingle and a clang. The Chakram rolled unsteadily on its edge; Sappho put out one sandaled foot and metal tolled like a bell beneath it. Gabrielle bent down to grab the circle but the poet got there first; she raised it and her fingernails whistled against its razor edge.
Muscles coiled in a body barely restrained, Gabrielle's fingers shook when she reached out. “Give that to me.”
“I know this weapon...”
“Sappho...” The low growl of a beast. “Give it to me.”
Sappho turned the Chakram this way and that, studied its curves. “I've seen this before... It belongs to Xena.” She caught the animal with her inscrutable gaze. “Where did you get this?”
Gabrielle looked down, breathed stiltedly through her nose and around the ache in her chest.
“Why do you have Xena's weapon?” Sappho's voice was flat, cold. “Gabrielle...” The poet faltered. “Gabrielle... I wrote a poem for you.”
Dragon claws dug into her shoulders, scrambled beneath her skin and into her mouth. They scratched against her clenched teeth; the beast roared and she struggled to swallow its ferocity.
“I remember now,” Sappho continued. “Xena was quite persistent that I write it. And now I see why.”
“Give me... The Chakram.”
“I remember Xena telling me you were a bard... You don't look like a bard.”
“People change.” Movement, rapid and blurred as skin struck across the distance and tore the weapon from Sappho's hand. Gabrielle crushed it to her chest and her beast roared with savage triumph. The Chakram was wet; its metal had tasted blood. It drooled crimson into her palm. She stared at it, rubbed it with her fingers, her senses shrouded in thick wool. “I was a lot of things once...”
When Gabrielle looked up, the poet had her hand pressed to her mouth, her pink tongue at the base of her fingers. Gabrielle had presumed the blood was her own. She reached out, captured a wrist and folded clean parchment against the wound. “I'm sorry,” she said quietly. “I didn't mean to hurt you.”
Sappho's blood soaked quickly into the fibrous scrap. The gash was thin and shallow and wouldn't take long to heal.
“Gabrielle... Where's Xena?”
Her fingers froze. She crumpled the stained parchment in her fist and dropped it on the table. “Xena's dead.”
“I have to go.” She picked up her chain mail and sword. “Keep the skirt,” she said flatly.
And she left.
Gabrielle stormed into her room, and Xena was there.
Of course she was there.
She was everywhere.
“Xena…” Gabrielle walked to where the ghost sat. A pyramid of woodchips had grown big and bulbous, a stick reduced in her hand. Gabrielle swept the mess from the table. When it touched the air, it fizzled out like stardust.
“Best toothpick ever,” Xena said, twig tucked into her front incisor, smirk wide and eyebrow dangerously raised.
The warrior flicked the stick away and it sparked like a comet, burned in the atmosphere and was gone. Her boots swung onto the table top, crossed at the ankle. “Love the robe,” she said dryly.
Green eyes flared into blue and Gabrielle tore at the fragile garment until into came apart in her hands. She threw it aside. “Not now.”
The dark eyebrow curved higher, an impossible angle; blue eyes burned the hottest part of fire. “Do you want me to go?”
Muscle clenched along her teeth and Gabrielle stared into space, hand crushed against her hip. She exhaled and turned. “Yes. I need you to go.”
Xena nodded curtly and closed her eyes. Slowly, she disappeared.
“And I know I make you cry,
I know sometimes you wanna die,
But do you really feel alive without me?”
-- “Accidental Babies”, Damien Rice
~ VI ~
The air smelled of hay and chaff, and now and then the sweet tang of apples. Xena stretched against hard wood and Eris whickered quietly, shuffled her hooves.
“Steady, girl.” The flat of her hand rubbed against a warm flank and something in Xena's chest knitted together, began to heal in spite of her wounded mood. She laughed harshly into the space between them, cut it short with her teeth and hmmed in her throat just to feel the rumble.
Somewhere out there, something was happening to Gabrielle and she couldn't touch it. She was a fighter, a physical person, someone who shaped her world with her hands, who believed in the malleable nature of things, in their physical presence.
Of all the things death had taken from Xena, this was the hardest.
As a ghost, she had a sort of... omnipotence that could have benefitted her as a living, breathing warrior. She heard things, saw things even when she wasn't there in the moment; knew things that perhaps she shouldn't know, but could do nothing about.
Unless Gabrielle let her.
And even then, how do you gain comfort from a ghost?
She wasn't the sort of person to lament, but as a ghost she could do little else.
Xena kicked the stall and wood cracked beneath the flat of her boot. Eris whinnied loudly, horses around them danced uneasily and she heard the heavy footfalls of the stable master. He opened the gate and stared in, large hands prepared to wrangle man or beast, but there was nothing there. Just a ghost; insubstantial, invisible to his eyes; invisible to all but Gabrielle.
Xena watched him stroke Eris' forelock and down to her nose. He was a good man; strong and steadfast, built for calming horses. She had been similarly built, once upon a time. Now her presence frightened them with its uncertainty.
The stable master drifted away and they were alone again, horse and she, with a feeling that weighed on her chest like an anvil. Just the three of them, taking up space.
Gabrielle didn't know... a lot of things about her. But she didn't know Xena still existed, as a ghost, when she couldn't see her. Xena had never told her. There were so many things about the way she was now that hurt Gabrielle; this was not another thing Xena needed to inflict. Of all the times they had talked about... this, Xena had never answered that question: Where do you go when you're not here?
Where could she go without Gabrielle?
It had happened a long time ago - long before she had become a ghost, Gabrielle had made it so Xena couldn't exist without her. Now, as before, when they weren't together, Xena became a shadow, a whisper of her former self. Without Gabrielle, she barely existed. It was Gabrielle who brought her to life.
Xena reached between her breasts and pulled out a blade. She searched the ground beside her until a small log appeared. Holding them both firmly in her hands, she began to whittle. Whittling was the thing she did when her mind was too busy for warrior stances, or when the space was too small. It calmed her. When Xena whittled, she created things, things more useful than anger could create. And right now, a well of anger rose within her.
Meeting Sappho was something she and Gabrielle had been meant to do together. And she was supposed to be alive when it happened. With her alive, Sappho would never have gotten within a breath of Gabrielle, would never have dared touch her with expectant hands. Xena would've killed her first.
But now there was something between them, growing between her and Gabrielle, filling the space where her heart used to beat. After so many years spent bridging the gap, so many years Gabrielle had spent binding herself so close to Xena that they breathed with the same two lungs, Gabrielle had drifted away from her. Or, perhaps she had been pushed. There were many things Xena had yet to figure out, was yet to understand about their new relationship; one of existence in subsistence.
The wood in her hands was becoming something new, something alive. No longer required to make or wield weapons, or build fires or spend her energy waging war against the world, Xena had been able to return to a craft she had not practiced in decades. She turned the wood gently with her rough hands and gave it eyes, the bridge of a nose, two perfectly curved lips, an elegant neck. Gabrielle, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. She stroked a warm, wooden cheek with the pad of her thumb and smiled, and when her eyes burned she swiped at them viciously with her forearm.
She placed the carving of Gabrielle on the ground, and after a moment, it flared into nothing.
Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the bed and used the last of her oil to restore vivid colour to her top. As she worked, she hummed – nothing in particular and slightly off-key. When deep red and olive tones shone with oil, she murmured her satisfaction. She left the top to dry, corked the empty bottle and wiped her hands on the oily rag. Now, for a skirt...
Gabrielle trawled absently through her saddle bags and a pile of makeshift bandages and rags grew beside her. She found twine and needles, and eyed the lot with disdain. She wasn't keen on sewing, and what she had didn't exactly offer her a modicum of style.
Gabrielle sighed. There was another possibility that she was carefully ignoring and didn't know if she was ready to consider. However, her options were growing thin. She reached for the saddle bag where she kept Xena's things.
Inside, the worn metal of a breast plate drew Gabrielle like a magnet, her fingertips trapped against its twists and whorls. She pried herself away with shaky arms and pushed herself deeper, until strips of leather slipped through her hand. She pulled the skirt free and placed it on top of the bag, and then stepped away.
Gabrielle scratched her head. She shuffled her bare feet and scratched the back of her calf with one bare toe. She shuffled again. Suddenly hungry, she padded away to check for leftovers from last night's meal.
There weren't any.
Gabrielle lifted the tray just to be sure, and found one solemn grape hiding on the table. She chewed it slowly and with relish. She returned the tray to the exact spot she had lifted it from, turned it this way and that to make sure it was perfectly square with the edge of the table. Then she stood back to inspect it from a distance, made sure the angle was just right. It was.
A flutter of wings caught the corner of her eye. Gabrielle wandered over to the window and watched as two birds swooped close to the ground, twisted around each other and pulled up at the last moment, a cloud of dust exploding in their wake.
“Quite a show.”
Gabrielle nodded and a smile played at her lip.
“Though, if you're gonna stand half-naked in front of a window like that, you might wanna charge a fee.”
Gabrielle dropped to her knees, the back of her head against the window frame, eyes wide and cheeks crimson. Xena snorted laughter and tossed a grape into her mouth. “Very stealthy,” she remarked, a glint in her eye.
Gabrielle glared at her, and crawled across the floor until she could reach the blanket Xena held on one curled finger. “What are you doing back here?”
Xena tried not to look hurt as Gabrielle wrapped the blanket around her bare torso, but failed.
“I'm sorry, that was... Thank you.” Gabrielle stood, reached out her free hand and cupped Xena's jaw, and stroked the corner of her mouth with her thumb. “Thank you.”
Xena nodded, pulled her face from Gabrielle's reach and slid from her spot on the table. The grapes she had been eating disappeared as she moved away. “I wanted to...” Xena floundered, shrugged, walked to the window and leaned her elbows on the sill.
Gabrielle clutched the blanket tightly to her chest with one hand. She walked to stand beside Xena, leaned on the sill next to her, pressed her shoulder firmly against the ghost. Together, they watched the birds dance.
“I'm sorry, Gabrielle.”
It twirled into the silence between them, and, like everything Xena did now, eventually disappeared.
Crowds gathered and dispersed in the market below them and the day started to heat up. The birds took a final dive and flew away. Gabrielle scratched her nose with a blanketed hand.
“I know, Xena.” She laid her head on Xena's shoulder and felt a strong arm wrap around her bare ribs to squeeze her closer.
Xena absorbed the warmth of the sun and Gabrielle's body and felt alive.
“I need to go to the market,” the blonde said absently. “We're running low on supplies.”
“Yeah, I could really use some new boots. Maybe some metal polish. A length of rope...” Xena nudged her playfully.
“Okay, I need supplies. And while I'm out, I'll see if I can find you a better sense of humour.”
“You love my sense of humour,” Xena dismissed, and manoeuvred her legs to block Gabrielle when she tried to leave the window.
“No. Xena… You're not funny.”
“Oh, I am,” she disagreed, her grip firm on Gabrielle's wrist as she poked bare ribs. “I make you laugh.”
Gabrielle slapped at her hand and slipped away, and Xena turned in the window frame, chuckling. She crossed her legs at the ankle and rested her elbows on the sill while Gabrielle folded the blanket and placed it on the bed. Xena watched her test the dryness of her top, and cleared her throat to broach a sensitive subject. “My skirt will be too big for you,” she said quietly. “But a couple of stitches should fix it.”
Gabrielle paused, and then pulled on her top as though Xena hadn't spoken. She straightened the straps across her back and hooked the leather between her breasts. “I'm not going to touch your skirt, Xena. It was a bad idea.”
The ghost started to argue, but stopped and nodded curtly. “So you're going to market in your breeches then?”
“Of course not. I'm going naked from the waist down.”
“Probably get some great deals that way.”
“That's the plan.” The wickedness of her smile forced Xena to look away. “Actually, my skirt should be dry by now. I'll have to go get it.”
Xena dug at the windowsill with a fingernail. “Right.”
“Right?” Gabrielle pulled the ties of her top until they looked even. “Why are you so surly today?” she asked, distracted.
“I'm not surly .”
Gabrielle glanced at her. “Uh huh. I can see that.” She nodded at Xena's fidgeting hand. “If you break that sill, you're fixing it. I don't care how difficult it is for you.”
Xena glanced at the damaged wood and crossed her arms firmly over her chest. “Pretty energetic for a poet, don't ya think? I mean, she's got a show in two days. Shouldn't she be off, writing quietly, or polishing her quill or something?”
Gabrielle knotted the ties on her top, half an ear on Xena. “Are you talking about Sappho?”
“I just don't think it's appropriate, you know?” Xena continued. “I mean, she's the Tenth Muse. She should take that role seriously. She shouldn't be spending her time, you know...” The warrior trailed off.
“What? Hitting on me?” Gabrielle asked, hands full of Sappho's robe as she tried to fashion it into a skirt. She posed, silk tied on one hip. “Can you blame her?”
Xena scowled. Fabric unfurled and the robe slid to the floor. Gabrielle picked up the silk and walked out of the room.
“I just think her time could be better spent, is all.”
“Xena, I can't hear you. You're mumbling.”
“I'm not mumbling,” the warrior grumbled.
“What? Xena, speak up.”
“Tenth Muse of lewd behaviour,” she muttered.
“Xena...” Gabrielle re-entered the room, robe balled in her hand. “Xena, I couldn't hear you. What did you say about Sappho?”
Gabrielle eyed her suspiciously, as the former warrior princess used her nail to commit acts of violence on the windowsill.
“Xena...” Gabrielle's voice was soft, close; she'd crossed the room silently to lean next to her.
Xena shifted her weight uncomfortably. “You're getting good at sneaking up on people.”
“I learned from the best.” Gabrielle reached out and moved Xena's hair from her eyes. “You know, there's no reason for you to be jealous.”
Xena scoffed and slid to her feet. “Jealous? Me?” She tried to move around Gabrielle, but the smaller woman wouldn't let her. “What do I have to be jealous of? Sappho?” She snorted loudly. “Gabrielle, you've lost your mind.”
“Well... I'm talking to a dead woman, so...” Gabrielle shrugged. “That's possible.”
Xena glared. She desperately wanted to move away from Gabrielle, to stand in her own space, to pace the room and breathe her own air. She crossed her arms, built a barrier between them. “I'm not jealous. I have no right – reason, to be jealous.”
Gabrielle's face softened, sunlight danced in the green of her eyes. She shook her head, then nodded to herself. “You're jealous. Xena...” She sighed. “It's not necessary, but it's nice to know you feel that way. And, you do have a right...”
“No.” Xena cut her short and squeezed her shoulder earnestly. “No, Gabrielle, I have no right. I gave up that right a long time ago. I gave it up...” She searched for words that could explain the way she felt without hurting Gabrielle, but she knew they didn't exist. “I gave it up when I... left you...”
Gabrielle's sob was startling, her grief raw and shocking and Xena felt it like a fist, tasted salt and tested her teeth with her tongue. Surely, surely there would be blood…
She reached through the turmoil for the brown sand of Gabrielle's skin; needed to touch her, to hold her, to know Gabrielle still existed somewhere beyond this terrible, terrible thing she had done to her: Firstly by dying, and secondly, by staying around.
Xena was a ghost, and she didn't know why, and she didn't know how, but that didn't mean she had to spend her time haunting Gabrielle. Her death did not give her the right to stop Gabrielle from living. Xena knew that, and when the white-gold curtain of Gabrielle's hair shifted, Xena saw it – the thing this small, strong woman always tried to hide: A tide of bitterness beneath the anguish; anger barely suppressed. It was there in Gabrielle, and it nearly sent Xena to her knees.
All of my praying, all of my hiding and protecting and in the end, I was the cause of this darkness in her...
Xena told herself this was it, that she would touch Gabrielle one last time and fade away, but she knew it was a lie. She would keep on coming back. She couldn't help it. Something had denied her the right to move on, and though she had tried to stay invisible, she couldn't bear it. She just wasn't strong enough to watch Gabrielle without talking, or laughing, or crying, or raging, or touching, or all the things they could be doing if she was still alive. And right now, she could only watch as Gabrielle trembled, fought and struggled to keep herself together.
Suddenly, her soulmate laughed, a bittersweet sound in the shell of Xena's ear. She watched pink lips slide across white teeth and was drawn in; Xena lived for the words in that mouth; she would let her body burn just to hear them.
“Xena, I will never love anyone but you.”
And burn they did. Xena felt caught fire, her body scorched by their beauty and everything else fell away. And she knew it was wrong, to feel so alive when her soulmate talked about living for a dead woman, but she couldn't help it. For just a moment, Xena let herself revel. For just a moment, she felt truly alive...
But she wasn't. She was just a ghost.
“No, Xena. I know what you're going to say because we've said it before. But I am going to find a way to bring you back, and nothing will change that.” Gabrielle fixed her with a stare and Xena drowned in depths of briny green. “And as long as I have that hope, you have nothing to worry about. Not from me. Not ever.”
Gabrielle was resolute, and Xena knew that not even the most powerful army could change her mind. And she hadn't had the will to lead an army for a very long time. So instead she shrugged, and she smiled, and mimed waving her white flag of surrender. “Truce?”
The smaller woman shook her head. “I'll consider it. But right now I have things to do, and you're getting in the way.”
Xena reached out, wrapped her arms around a ropey body and rested her chin on blonde hair. She breathed in herbs and sandlewood oil and the musky bite of leather. It smelled like home. “Am I still in the way?”
“Yes. You big oaf.”
Xena laughed and her body shook against Gabrielle's skin, absorbed her warmth. “Yeah – I am that.” Reluctantly, she let Gabrielle go. “Alright, you go get your skirt. But if Sappho gives you any trouble, you call for me.”
Gabrielle wiped a wet cheek and looked at Xena. “And what will you do about it? Move her clothes around and wail? Haunt her to death?”
“I was thinking of hitting her with a table, but whatever works.” Xena smiled and let herself be pushed backwards. She reached out and touched Gabrielle's cheek, and was gone.
“If you could only see the beast you've made of me,
I held it in but now it seems you've set it running free;
Screaming in the dark, I howl when we're apart,
Drag my teeth across your chest to taste your beating heart.”
-- “Howl”, Florence and the Machine
~ VII ~
And just like that, I am alone again.
Gabrielle laughed bitterly at her own thought. In truth, she was alone even when Xena was with her. How do you keep the company of a ghost? It was like trapping sunshine in a jar: When night fell, you realised it was never really there. It was empty.
Gabrielle tugged at a fistful of hair and breathed deeply. Tears and forced humour had left grit in their wake and it was a sensation she was becoming resigned to. She stared at the ceiling and realised she had done a lot of that recently, and she missed the open sky, and the stars, and the situations and questions they posed that had nothing to do with her, because she was too small and insignificant to have an effect on them.
She missed being insignificant.
But then, Gabrielle knew she hadn't been insignificant for a very long time. You don't join up with Xena and just go along for the ride; you had to accept that the decisions you made could change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. When Gabrielle had first followed Xena from Potidaea , she'd had no idea what she was getting herself into. It wasn't until much later that she had accepted, and then embraced, the consequences of their life together.
But she had not expected they would end up paying for mistakes Xena had made a lifetime ago. She had not expected they would keep paying, even in death. And she could never have guessed that, after all the good they had done together, Xena's life – and hers – would be defined in the end by a single, senseless act of vengeance.
It was just too cruel and unusual for her mind to comprehend.
Gabrielle understood that there were consequences to every action, and when it came to Xena, the stakes were high.
Like when forty thousand people had died in a town called Higuchi.
But for her life to end the way it did...
Gabrielle could feel the tide as it rose inside her and she tried to hold it back, but she knew there was little she could do. This week had already taken its toll on her and she couldn't hold out forever.
Sometimes the darkness came in a flood and sometimes it fell like a desert. When it was dry, sobs and heaves would perforate her heart and lungs. She would fade into nothingness, a dusty vessel with a cracked base.
Today, she would be a ruptured dam; full of dirty water and pulverising waves, monstrous and deadly to everything in her way. Darkness would hammer a path from her chest to the ocean and drown all that lay between with an inexorable tide of anguish.
Once her thoughts turned to Higuchi, all Gabrielle could do was clutch desperately to herself and hope she made it through alive.
Gabrielle felt it first as a trickle, then as a bitter lake of anger. She had managed to live her entire life without rage, but on the day she had realised that Xena had died, everything had changed. Now she harboured a bitterness within.
She was so angry, angrier than she had ever thought a person could be. She was angry at Akemi for using Xena the way she had, and angry at the people of Higuchi for doing what they had done; she was angry at herself for not stopping Xena; she was angry at whatever Gods had put them on this path, bound them together so tightly, only to tear them apart, but not really apart at all; but mostly, she was angry at Xena.
She was so angry at Xena.
Gabrielle writhed in anger, twisted and convulsed and was ripped apart by it. It consumed her. She didn't know how she could be so angry at a piece of herself, at someone who was as much a part of her as an arm, or a heart; the mate to her soul. How could you love someone so deeply, and hate them at the same time?
But she did – it hurt to admit it – but at times like this, she hated Xena. She tried not to, tried to keep the feeling away, to snuff it out but it burned in her, surfaced with a white-hot rage that she was powerless against.
How could you leave me?
How could you lie to me like that? Say you would come back to me, knowing you couldn't?
How could you let yourself be killed?
At these times she hated Xena, and there was nothing she could do about it. Except hate herself for feeling it.
That was the legacy of vengeance.
Blood would have blood, anger would have anger, violence would have violence. It was a cycle she and Xena had fought their whole lives against, and she could not bear knowing Xena had died for it. Died, not to prevent vengeance, but as an act of it.
There could be no grace in vengeance.
After a lifetime spent atoning for sins of the past, Gabrielle could not accept that Xena's death would be wasted like that. It was too paltry, too pithy a concept; the idea that her death could heal more than her fight for the Greater Good ever had.
Nothing good could come from Xena's death.
Nothing good could come from her wandering the world as a ghost.
Nothing good could come from a life torn apart, a soul torn asunder, an act that left Gabrielle floundering, flailing, drowning in darkness, unsure of how she could go on with this ghost, living a half-life, mired in grief and loss and anger; unable to move on while Xena remained, and yet unwilling to move on without her.
How could she ever go on without her?
Gabrielle felt her head begin to pound with the beat of a fractured heart; a heart that called desperately for its missing half, that tore its way through the cage of her body. She fell to her knees and clawed at the ground, scraped the skin from her fingers, hoped that the letting of blood might cleanse her, might wash away her bitterness and rage.
How could Xena do this to me?
Their life was meant to be lived together. This life. All of the times they had seen their future meant nothing in the face of what Gabrielle felt. It meant nothing. Because Xena was not meant to die. She knew it, she felt it in her bones, in her marrow, in the thread that bound them together.
How could she let herself be killed?
Gabrielle wasn't even there when it had happened. Xena had sent her away on a fake mission, knowing she was going out there to let herself be killed. And then, she had let Gabrielle think she could rescue her body, her head - Gods, her head - from that camp, and then burn her, and take her ashes to Mount Fujisan , and all the while Xena had known she wouldn't be revived. No. No, Xena had agreed to stay dead, even though it meant leaving Gabrielle on her own, to finish a journey they had started together. She'd left her to live a life in which they were never meant to be apart.
How could Xena do this to me?
Beneath it all, Gabrielle howled: a sound beyond fury, beyond pain, beyond sorrow; a sound harder than rage, more potent than anger. She cried for the animal within, the person without; lost and alone, left with nothing but the memory of what had been and a feeble embodiment of what was.
Far away from herself, beyond the war of darkness, Gabrielle's body was lifted, cradled in a warm lap, surrounded by arms that held her tightly, rocked her though she clawed at them, begged to be let go, to be allowed to tear out her wounded heart and place it in someone else's chest, back where it belonged. Two arms held her, rocked her like a child, rubbed her back and whispered delicate things, nonsensical things into her ear.
Words fell on her skin like rain, like frost, like innocence lost and Gabrielle let herself be rocked, a boat in a storm, a boat far from shore but somehow safe, as the voice told her it was okay, that she was allowed to be angry, she was allowed to feel rage, she was not alone and somehow, it would be okay.
It would be okay.
Wrapped in a cocoon of warmth, where everything seemed so far away, Gabrielle reached out and curled her finger into a tendril of dark hair. It seemed familiar somehow, and as the world became clearer to her, Gabrielle recognised the woman that held her, and the fragile moment shattered.
Suddenly, Gabrielle pulled herself away.
“Sappho? How did you get in here?”
Exhausted by her battle with darkness, beaten and bloodied, it was indignant rage that finally gave Gabrielle the strength to rise.
Anger still burned through every fibre of her being, but now it had been given leave to burst from her skin and incinerate the woman before her; this stranger who had dared to enter her private grief, who had had the audacity to touch her wounds without permission.
Gabrielle poured herself into the fire until she radiated fury and then she turned it against the poet.
She shrunk from Gabrielle. The warrior raised her hand and felt the beautiful bite of its slap across her cheek. She bent her knees, bounced on the balls of her feet, prepared herself for battle.
Muddied brown eyes welled with unshed tears though the mouth beneath them hardened, firmed itself into a line of warning.
Her name; a memory. A person. A reason. As suddenly as it had appeared, Gabrielle's anger was gone. Her mouth formed an O of regret.
“Gods. Sappho... I...”
The poet held up her hands, shook her head. “No. No, I shouldn't have done that. I heard you through the door and I thought someone was hurting you.” She knelt for a moment and retrieved a scrap of red fabric from the floor. “I came to return your skirt. I'll go now.”
“Wait...” Gabrielle was suddenly terrified to be alone and didn't know what she would do if Sappho left the room. “Please, stay. Have some tea... I don't have any tea. I'll get some from downstairs.”
Sappho turned to her and smiled. She shook her head. “I have tea. I also have wine - Frankly, I could use something a little stronger.” The poet scratched her lip, touched her own cheek with the back of her hand and closed her eyes. Gabrielle wondered if she would tell her to go to hell. “Stay put. I'll only be a second.”
The blonde hesitated, wondered if the poet would come back. She nodded and tried to force a smile. “Wine sounds good. I'll... Put some clothes on.”
“If you must,” Sappho said quickly, but it seemed automatic, without levity.
Gabrielle tried to smile, rolled her eyes, but again the action felt forced.
She watched Sappho close the door behind her and took a deep breath.
She wasn't prepared to tell this story.
Perhaps it was time.
To Be Continued in Chapter 2...
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