Note: This story takes place between the episodes When In Rome... and Forget Me Not, and contains spoiler information from both episodes. It also follows my first story 'A Moment Of Truth'.
"Well, I did it again." Xena's tone was dejected as she stroked the brush through Argo's mane. "I got so caught up in what I was doing that I didn't even stop to think about what it was doing to her." With a deep sigh, Xena moved around to stroke Argo's nose with gentle fingers. "You'd think I would have learned my lesson by now."
Argo whinnied softly in response.
"Sorry about the boat ride, by the way. You know it wasn't safe for me to leave you in Syria. We'll be home soon."
Whinnying louder this time, Argo stamped her foot meaningfully.
"All right! I promise, all the apples you can eat when we get there."
With a loud snort, the mare turned to make due with a meal of hay stalks. Hearing her own stomach grumble, Xena turned to exit the cargo hold, giving her friend a gentle pat as she left. Grimacing slightly as she started up the steep stairway, Xena let a hand fall to the sharp ache in her side. As she reached the top of the stairs, squinting in the sunlight, she caught sight of Gabrielle sitting on a convenient barrel with a plate in her lap. Even from this distance, Xena noticed a decidedly greenish tint to her friend's skin. As she approached, concern crossed her face.
Without looking up, Gabrielle thrust her left hand out toward Xena, palm up. "You wanna do the honors?"
Letting a grin touch her lips, Xena grabbed the offered wrist and quickly jabbed the pressure point. Gabrielle flinched slightly but took a deep breath as some of the color began to return to her cheeks. Swallowing, she glanced up at Xena, with light smile. "I just can't bring myself to do it . . . not after . . ."
"Entertaining your little squid friends." Xena offered helpfully. In response to which Gabrielle emitted a low groan and shot an evil glance up toward Xena.
"You're gonna pay for that." She promised darkly. Xena's smile grew broader as Gabrielle glanced down again at her plate, trying to convince herself that the cheese sitting on it wasn't actually dangerous. "How's Argo?" Gabrielle asked, looking up, giving up on the plate again.
Chuckling, Xena turned to lean against the side of the ship. "A good healthy bribe of apples once we get home, and I'm sure she'll forgive me."
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle took hold of the piece of cheese purposefully. "Well, here goes." Gabrielle took an experimental bite, chewing slowly. As she swallowed, her eyes darted around nervously, as if anticipating the worst. When it didn't immediately come, she took a larger bite and seemed to relax as she chewed. Just then, the ship crested a wave and lurched. Gabrielle's eyes grew wide, the cheese fell from her hand, and she turned to throw half her body over the side.
With a quick movement, Xena snatched the cheese out of the air before it could hit the deck and leaned against the rail with a sigh. Grimacing slightly at the heaving sounds, Xena muttered under her breath. "And, there it goes . . ." With a sigh she took a large bite of the cheese.
A few moments later, Gabrielle sat limply on the barrel, any thoughts of a meal totally abandoned. With a compassionate, if slightly amused, look Xena took Gabrielle's wrist in her hand once again and jabbed the pressure point. As color once again began to creep into her face, Xena tugged lightly on her arm.
"Come on, you should get below and try and get some sleep." Gabrielle sighed, noncommitally, and pulled on Xena's arm for support as she stood. Unable to help it, Xena grimaced in pain. Gabrielle's head shot up to Xena's face immediately.
"You're hurt." Her own discomfort forgotten, Gabrielle moved her fingers lightly along Xena's side, quickly assessing that the injury was to her ribs. Xena started to protest that she was all right, but one glance at the determined look on her friend's face told her that it was hopeless. "You got this in the Colosseum. Why didn't you say something?" Xena looked away, somewhat abashedly. "You know something?" Gabrielle stated finally. "For someone who is such a great healer, you are one lousy patient."
Rolling her eyes, Xena pulled her arm away from Gabrielle's grasp. "It's not that big a deal."
Clenching her jaw, Gabrielle muttered a few, obviously unflattering, remarks under her breath and began to purposefully push Xena toward the stairs.
"What do you think you're doing?" Xena' voice was low and slightly menacing as a quick glance around informed her that her friend's anxiousness to get her downstairs had not gone unnoticed. "Gabrielle." Xena drew the word out, and the implied threat with it. She most certainly did not want a group of lonely sailors to have any idea that she was injured. As they got closer to the stairs, Gabrielle still pressing meaningfully against her back, Xena noted that the looks they were receiving ranged from confusion, to leering smiles.
"Got something pressing to attend to Xena?" One of the sailors shouted out, earning a good deal raucous laughter from his shipmates. Xena shot the unfortunate man a look of pure ice, as he stopped laughing abruptly and suddenly found a spot on the deck that required his immediate attention.
"And what if she does?" Gabrielle's voice was low and challenging as she shot the remark toward the leering sailors. Xena froze in her tracks, feeling Gabrielle run into her back. Her mind barely registered the pain of the added pressure on her ribs as she turned around with an incredulous look in her eyes. In response, Gabrielle smirked up at her and shot up an eyebrow of her own. With a slightly harder push, Gabrielle succeeded in getting the, rather thoroughly stunned, Warrior Princess moving once again. Xena bit back a comment that she promised herself would be saved for the very near future and continued to walk toward the stairway, unconsciously quickening her step.
As the reached the narrow doorway, Xena felt the pressure of Gabrielle's hands leave her back. Turning, she saw Gabrielle facing toward the gawking sailors with her hands on her hips.
"And we all know that Xena doesn't like to have her business disturbed." The meaning of Gabrielle's tone and statement was unmistakable. Swallowing Xena realized she felt a roving heat seep into her cheeks. Not able to remember the last time she had blushed, Xena turned back and fled down the stairway, hearing the hoots and rude comments from the sailors. As she reached the base of the narrow stairway, she noted that Gabrielle had closed the door that separated the deck from the stairway and was walking slowly down the stairs.
She had an incredibly smug look on her face.
For a moment, all Xena could do was stare. And for her part, Gabrielle somehow managed not to laugh at the totally shocked expression on Xena's face.
"What in the gods' names was that about?!" Xena hissed finally.
"Well, I actually thought that was pretty obvious." Gabrielle's amused expression was doing absolutely nothing to brighten Xena's mood.
"Do you know what they think we're doing?" Xena kept her voice low, casting occasional glances in the direction of the stairway.
"Well, if you mean specifically . . . not really. But in a general sense . . ."
Not able to contain her laughter anymore, Gabrielle put her hands up in a conciliatory gesture. "What's important here is what they don't know we're doing."
Xena's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"Xena . . . your ribs." Gabrielle gestured toward Xena's abdomen meaningfully. "I didn't want to take the chance that someone would come down here while I'm bandaging you up. You don't really want this whole ship to know you're hurt, do you? We needed some privacy, so . . ."
Xena sighed in defeat. "All right! All right! You win. But you know what they're all going to think now."
"So?" Gabrielle's tone was matter-of-fact. Pausing for a moment at the look on Xena's face, Gabrielle's expression turned to worry. "Does that bother you?" She asked quietly.
"Of course not." Xena's voice reassured her friend quickly. "You just . . . caught me by surprise, that's all." Her lips quirked slightly. "Next time you intend to sully my reputation, just give me some kind of a warning, okay?"
"Sully?!" Both Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up. "Oh, I don't think so. If anything it's my image that'll be the worse for wear. Ravished by the savage warlord . . ." Gabrielle exclaimed melodramatically.
"Oh no, Xena, that's no good." Xena's expression mirrored her bewilderment. "Don't say it like that." Gabrielle explained with a slightly wicked gleam in her eye. "They'll get the wrong idea. Try more of a moan."
Xena's mouth hung open.
"Like this," Gabrielle supplied helpfully, taking a breath for dramatic purposes. "Oh, gods . . . Xena." She drew out the name with a, slightly louder than necessary, throaty, sensual moan.
Xena's mouth was still open.
"Come on." Gabrielle urged with a conspiratory whisper. "As long as we're 'sullying' my reputation, you might as well do a good job."
Xena finally managed to close her mouth.
For a long moment, she could only stare at her friend, who stood returning her gaze with a mischievous glint in her eyes. Xena bit back the urge to ask who this person was, and what she had done with Gabrielle. As she tried to bring her thoughts back into some modicum of control, she noted the slightly challenging glint in her friend's gaze.
"Well, at least I'm not the one embarrassed this time." Gabrielle didn't even attempt to keep the humor out of her voice.
Xena's eyes narrowed. "That wasn't my fault!" She asserted in a low tone.
"You didn't have to come back so fast." Hands on her hips, the mischievous smile still played on her lips.
Xena was slowly gaining back her momentarily shattered control. "Well, it's not my fault you can't control yourself."
Gabrielle's eyes widened and her mouth opened slightly, before she caught herself and closed it, adding a slight clenching of her jaw. "Yeah, well I guess you'll have to teach me about control. Because, if I didn't know any better, I'd say that if I hadn't stopped you, you'd still be running."
Xena looked away guiltily and made a mental note to quit underestimating her friend. She couldn't get over the idea that this was a whole, new Gabrielle. And this one was most definitely giving as good as she got. As that thought went through Xena's mind, so did a random set of other thoughts concerning giving and getting and Xena felt her blush threatening to return. She suddenly realized that she felt like an awkward teenager with raging hormones.
She looked up to find a smile tugging on Gabrielle's lips and fought back the urge to blush even harder. "Why don't you go sit down and I'll get some bandages?" Gabrielle's voice was soft and quiet. Despite herself, Xena found a silly grin on her face as she moved over to sit gingerly on one of the hammocks.
She found herself watching Gabrielle closely as she rummaged though their packs looking for the supplies she needed. Unobserved, she let her eyes slip over Gabrielle's body. Ever since that embarrassing night in the cave, she had found a new sense of openness between the two of them. They knew and accepted a certain mutual attraction now that each had always fought hard to hide from the other. She knew Gabrielle well enough to know that the teasing was a way of getting both of them more comfortable with the idea.
As Gabrielle moved toward the hammock, loaded down with supplies, she looked critically at Xena for a moment.
"Did you forget something?" Gabrielle's voice sounded amused as she gestured meaningfully at Xena's armor.
Xena looked down and smiled a bit sheepishly as she began reached up to unhook her breastplate. Grimacing slightly at the movement, Xena felt Gabrielle's hands on hers, stilling them.
"I'll get it." Gabrielle offered softly. Xena felt herself relax, a little more than perhaps she should have, as she felt deft fingers remove her armor. After setting it down on a nearby trunk, Gabrielle moved back to run her fingers gingerly over the leather tunic. They both knew what was coming next and Xena saw a slight flush on Gabrielle's face as their eyes met.
Wordlessly, Xena leaned forward allowing Gabrielle access to the ties to the tunic. As they loosened, she leaned back and couldn't resist looking into Gabrielle's eyes as her friend slowly drew the straps down over her shoulders and pushed the leather down to her waist. All thoughts of teasing were forgotten as they watched each other closely. Slowly, Gabrielle tore her eyes away and let her fingers trail lightly over Xena's ribs.
"Does it hurt?" Xena could hear the nervousness in Gabrielle's voice and thought to herself that of all the things she was feeling at that moment, pain certainly wasn't one of them.
"Not really," she said out loud. With gentle fingers, she put her hand over her friend's and showed her which ribs had been hurt.
"That's going to leave a nasty bruise." Gabrielle spoke after a quick examination of the area. "But I don't think they're broken." Xena nodded her agreement, sorry to feel Gabrielle's fingers leave her skin. When they returned, it was to coat the area with a light oil that would minimize the bruising. Xena simply closed her eyes at the sensation. She tried to put her mind on anything except sitting here, topless, while her best friend worked oil into her skin with warm, gentle fingers. She didn't have much success.
Finishing with the oil, Gabrielle reached for a large bandage and began wrapping it tightly around Xena's torso. As she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around Xena as she put the bandage into place, Xena felt each casual touch and brushing of Gabrielle's skin against hers as if it were a jolt of current through her body. As Gabrielle finished with the bandage, securing it before slowly bringing the tunic back up, Xena realized ruefully that not all consequences of their little chat in the cave were necessarily positive ones. And with that her eyes quickly searched the room for a bucket of cold water to dunk her head into.
As she felt the straps being replaced on her shoulders, Xena once again couldn't help a glance into Gabrielle's face. Feeling her eyes wander down and glance over soft lips, she watched with fascination as Gabrielle nervously licked her lips before taking a deep breath and stepping back from the hammock purposefully.
They both groaned softly.
"Ho . . . How's that?" Gabrielle's voice broke as she tried to regain some of her composure.
Xena could only manage a smile and a nod.
Xena intentionally did not watch Gabrielle as she moved to put the rest of the bandages and oil away. She closed her eyes and willed herself to gain control over her body and the situation.
"Xena, what are we doing?" Gabrielle's voice came softly to her across the room. She saw that Gabrielle was facing away from her, fiddling with one of Argo's saddlebags.
Taking a deep breath, Xena could think of no other response than the truth. "I have absolutely no idea."
She saw Gabrielle's shoulders slump slightly, knowing that her friend had hoped she'd be able to come up with a simple solution to what neither was entirely certain was actually a problem.
Silence stretched between them until it became uncomfortable for both.
"What are you thinking about?" Gabrielle turned and began walking back toward Xena, her eyes searching Xena's face.
Xena took a deep breath and had to fight back a laugh. How could she possibly explain what she was thinking? A jumbled mess of questions paraded through her mind. What were they doing? Were they moving toward something, or running away? Taking a deep breath and swallowing reflexively, she tried to think of a coherent answer.
"I guess I'm thinking that . . . well that things are different than they used to be." Gabrielle snickered at the understatement.
"Is that a good thing?" Gabrielle's voice sounded almost shy.
"I don't think I'd call it bad." Xena answered with a slightly wicked gleam in her eye.
When Gabrielle met her gaze again, it was with a very serious face. "Neither would I, but then I don't think either of us are prepared to say it's an entirely good thing, either."
Closing her eyes, Xena sighed her agreement.
"What would you say to a compromise?" Xena's eyes opened at the words, mirroring her confusion.
"What kind of compromise?" She felt a nervous lump in her throat.
"Well . . ." Gabrielle began slowly. "We're not where we used to be . . . but then we're not ready to take any more steps, either . . . so maybe we can find someplace in between?"
"Any idea where that is?" Xena asked gently.
Taking a deep breath for courage, Gabrielle took a few steps forward until she was standing next to the hammock, her knees brushing lightly against Xena's. "How about here?" And with that she reached forward and put her hands on Xena's shoulders, pulling her forward until her head rested against Gabrielle's chest. Soft arms circled Xena's back and she felt herself pulled into a light embrace.
Unconsciously, Xena's body stiffened at the contact, she felt Gabrielle's arm loosen their hold, but not release it entirely. She could hear Gabrielle's heart beating loudly in her chest, and she could feel the fear in that rhythm. Somehow, the knowledge of Gabrielle's fear served to ease Xena's own. Knowing that Gabrielle was just as scared, just as uncertain as she was made her feel more sure of herself. Tentatively, she reached her arms around Gabrielle's waist and she felt her body begin to relax.
Gradually, she felt Gabrielle's heart slow its fierce rhythm and felt the smaller body relax against her own. She didn't know how long she sat there, merely holding on, letting their bodies communicate without gestures or words. Two hearts calmed and found a peace together, beating almost as one. Two souls moved a step closer to healing and forgiveness.
Finally, Xena felt a soft sigh from the body next to hers, and with that Gabrielle pulled away. Looking down at Xena, soft green eyes were unreadable in the dim light. Her hands lingered for just a moment on Xena's shoulders before pulling away entirely. Xena watched quietly as Gabrielle moved over to another hammock and arranged a few pillows before lying down.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle's voice was just above a whisper as she lay, her head cradled in a pillow, her eyes watching Xena intently.
"Yeah," Xena's voice was low and quiet. "Are you?"
She heard another sigh from her friend. "Yeah, I'm . . . I think I'm just tired."
Xena's brow furrowed as she felt sure that something else was bothering Gabrielle. "Get some sleep." She said finally, not knowing what else to say.
With that Gabrielle rolled over, cradling her head in her arm. Xena merely watched for a moment, still feeling the remnants of the softness and warmth of their embrace. New questions began to form in her mind. What would Gabrielle expect from her if they were to become lovers? Part of her mind began to supply several erotic suggestions, but she pushed those ideas away. Gabrielle wouldn't just want her body, she'd need her soul as well. With a sigh, Xena realized that even she didn't have a firm grasp on the workings of her soul, how could she give it to another? Looking back over the past months, Xena could now clearly see how many times she'd hurt her friend without thinking. She'd put Gabrielle up on a pedestal to be her shining example of goodness and light.
And then she'd watched her fall, and done nothing to help.
Somehow, she'd forgotten that there was a fragile young person behind those soft eyes and innocent face. She'd never even taken the time to consider what Gabrielle was feeling, how much she was hurting. And Gabrielle hid it so well. She hid it to protect Xena.
In her heart, Xena knew she didn't deserve the kind of love that Gabrielle had for her. But she gave it nonetheless. As she sat there in silence and watched her friend sleep, the reality began to sink in on her. Love. Gabrielle loved her. Why? She'd seen the monster that lurked beneath the surface. She'd been the victim of that monster. And yet she was here. Xena found she had no more excuses left. Gabrielle had seen the worst she had to offer, and she loved her anyway.
That wasn't a starry-eyed child, or an innocent, idealistic young girl laying so close, and yet so far away. That was a woman, one who'd seen the darkness that the world had to offer, had felt it, had even tasted it, and yet still somehow managed to look into a dark soul and see light within it. That was a woman who loved Xena, and needed her, not as a protector or a mentor, but as a friend and maybe as a lover.
As she watched, Gabrielle began to move restlessly in her sleep. Xena's brow furrowed in concern as she unconsciously began to move closer. Gabrielle's head whipped from side to side and she began to mumble. Xena could make out the words "no" and "please" and then she heard a word that made her heart freeze in fear, "Ares."
Xena watched silently as the nightmare continued, she saw the pain and anguish mar Gabrielle's features as she struggled with the dream. Moving closer still, as if drawn to a flame, Xena hovered over the hammock.
Suddenly, Gabrielle opened her eyes with a start. Xena knew she was still dreaming.
"I'm here." She replied softly, careful not to touch her friend and wake her.
"I know you hate me, but no more than I hate myself." It came out as a heartbroken plea. Xena leaned closer, still careful not to touch. "I came here thinking it was because of my reverence for life. But it wasn't." Xena felt a cold chill pass through her as she realized that Gabrielle's nightmare had taken her back to Ming T'ien's dungeon. "I asked Ares to bring me here so I could hurt you . . . I meant to hurt you . . . because I was hurting so much. And now a brutal tyrant is still in power and my best friend's going to be executed, and all because I was jealous." Her works were self-mocking and bitter. "I couldn't stand that you loved her . . . more than you loved me." With that Gabrielle's sorrow filled eyes closed and she surrendered once again to her nightmare.
"Oh, Gabrielle." Xena's voice was small and heartbroken. "I didn't love her more. I've never loved anyone more than I love you. You reached a place in my heart that even she never could. I just never thought . . ." Xena moved back toward her hammock wearily. "I never thought."
Xena slowly let her mind drift back over that night that the message came that sent her to back to Chin, back to finish what she'd started so long ago. In her mind's eye now, she tried to step out of herself, to see what Gabrielle saw. How could she so easily have forgotten how much Gabrielle needed her? She remembered her own guilt, taking Gabrielle to Britannia, failing her. With closed eyes and heavy heart, Xena could now see clearly how she had tried to hide from that guilt, to push Gabrielle away, telling herself it was for her own good.
And now Gabrielle was tormented by dreams that told her what her heart did not want to believe, that she could hurt someone just to see their pain. It was a truth Xena had always hoped to hide from her friend, and in the end, it was what Xena, herself, had driven her to.
Tears fell freely now. Not knowing what else to do, Xena let her mind detach and examine the problem. Gabrielle needed to know the truth. She needed to unlock the secrets that her mind was hiding from her. Xena could think of only one way to help her. If the answer was in her memory, then that's where she was going to have to look for it.
Xena felt her heart constrict within her chest as she realized that Gabrielle had to make a journey from which she might never return, a journey into the darkness of her own mind. If that darkness was too much for her to bear, then Xena would disappear from Gabrielle's life along with it. She wouldn't risk making the same mistakes again.
She believed in her heart that Gabrielle was strong enough, that she was not one to run from anything, even herself. And yet there was the fear, a horrible, aching fear that felt like a wound in her soul. But she owed it to Gabrielle to believe in her, in her strength and her love. Looking inside herself, Xena found the courage to risk losing the one person that she had ever truly loved, more than herself, more than life.
But as she watched her best friend toss restlessly in her sleep, and fought the urge to lie down beside her, to take Gabrielle within her arms and ease her pain, Xena realized that if she came back, she could never again let her go.