Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. I only borrowed them for a little while. No infringement was intended. The rest of the story is mine and I hold the copyright to it. Do not use any part of this story without my written permission. I may be contacted at IQ139@aol.com.
Sex: This story contains scenes of two women making love. <smile> If this offends you, please dont read my story. There are plenty of other wonderful stories out there.
Timeline Reference: This story takes place after the episode "Bitter Suite" and before the episode "One Against The Army".
GUILT, LOVE & FORGIVENESS
Part 1 of 2
by B L Miller
Xena knelt down next to the bard, taking a moment to brush a stray lock of golden hair off the sleeping woman's face. It had been a long night full of tears, hugs, and far more emotions than the warrior was used to dealing with. Their trip through Illusia had begun the healing process but both knew they had a long road ahead of them. Knowing that she couldn't hold off the inevitable much longer, Xena took a deep breath and rose to her feet. "I'd better get started fishing if I'm going to feed that monster you keep inside your belly." she whispered. She remained there for another moment, silently thanking whatever god or gods had made the waters of Illusia with healing properties, removing the evidence of her brutal attack upon the woman she considered her best friend. Even though both would have to live with the memory of what happened, at least there were no physical signs to continually remind them. She set the pot of water on the fire to heat up for tea and headed off to the nearby stream.
Xena was still catching breakfast when Gabrielle awoke. With a large yawn and a languid stretch she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and looked up at the sky. 'Overcast, great. I hate traveling in the rain.' she gave another yawn and got up to make a trip to the bushes before looking for the warrior. On her way she passed Argo, who snorted a good morning to her. "How are you, Argo? Hmm?" she reached up and scratched the mare's nose. It had been surprising to both Xena and Gabrielle to find the horse waiting patiently for them in the woods after their ordeal in Illusia. The warrior searched the area at the time and found only hoofprints in the soft earth. What they didn't find was the bay mare that Xena had taken from the Amazons. They could only assume that the horse had returned to the village on its own just as Argo had searched them out.
Standing knee deep in the stream, Xena cocked her head and listened carefully. Bass, no, Gabrielle didn't care for bass. Perch, ah, that'll do. She lowered her hands until they were just above the surface and waited with infinite patience. A few heartbeats later an unsuspecting perch swam past. "Hiyah!" both hands drove beneath the water and wrapped around the soon to be breakfast. "Oh, a big one, eh?" she laughed when she flung it up behind her to land on the grassy bank. "Well, I guess I don't have to look for any of your brothers or sisters now do I?" she squinted at the bright morning sun bouncing off the water, thinking to herself that it was going to be a great day for traveling. It only took her a few moments to locate a bass for herself before leaving the stream and heading back to the camp.
She found Gabrielle sitting next to the fire, looking down at the cup of tea. "Caught you a perch." she said proudly, holding up the fat bellied breakfast.
"Thanks." the bard said dismissively, not bothering to look up. She set the cup on the ground and cradled her head in her hands.
"I have a Tartarus of a headache." she replied, rubbing the sides of her head. Xena set the fish down next to the fire and sat down behind the bard.
"Here, let me." she said softly, tucking Gabrielle's hair back behind her ears and moving her own fingers to replace the smaller ones on the throbbing temples. "Any idea what caused this?" she queried, headaches a rare occurrence for her companion. "You still have at least ten days before your moonly cycle begins."
"I must have slept wrong or something." the bard replied, leaning into the strong yet gentle fingers. "Ah right there yeah." she groaned softly. A memory flashed through her closed eyes and she shuddered visibly.
"Are you cold?"
"No." she leaned back further until she was resting against the warm leather covering Xena's body. "Well, maybe a little." she lied, snuggling in a bit closer. She stared at the fire, more than a little concerned at the dimness of the normally bright orange flames. Xena's arms wrapped around her and she gratefully accepted the silent comfort. After the lack of physical contact between them for so long the soft warmth and gentle touch was more than welcome.
"Do you want a blanket?" the warrior asked, bringing her hand up to check Gabrielle for a fever. It wasn't a particularly hot day but it certainly wasn't cold by any means. The bard didn't answer, merely resting her hands on the warrior's forearms and holding her close. She looked from the fire to her staff, unable to clearly make out the various markings even at such a short distance. The leaves on the trees also had that fuzzy quality to them. Gabrielle rubbed her eyes but it didn't help. Everything she looked at had a blurry quality to the edges and seemed a bit greyer than normal. She closed her eyes and brought her hands up to cover them. Thinking that it was because of the headache, Xena resumed her gentle rubbing of the bard's temples.
Breakfast was a quiet affair, as was the packing and cleaning up of camp. Xena glanced over at the bard several times but Gabrielle appeared to be lost in her own thoughts. It was obvious that something was bothering her but it was also clear that whatever it was, the bard wasn't ready to share it.
The silence continued once they were on the road. Gabrielle stayed several paces behind Argo, thus out of Xena's line of sight. As such, the warrior was unable to see her constantly looking around, squinting, or rubbing her eyes. All Xena knew was that the normally talkative bard was suddenly quiet. Her mind went over the possible reasons, all of which went back to the mountain of lies and hurtful words they had exchanged prior to their trip to Illusia. It was a subject that she didn't want to talk about for fear that the subject of her brutal physical attack on her best friend would come up. So far neither had spoken of it and Xena did her best not to think of how Gabrielle looked just before they went over the cliff. It was bad enough that the bloodied and battered vision came to her last night in her dreams. Yet still the unusual silence was more than a bit disconcerting. She pulled Argo's reins and dismounted.
"Something wrong?" the bard queried, surprised by the sudden stop.
"No, just thought I'd stretch my legs a little." she replied.
"Oh." came the reply. Gabrielle started walking again, this time making sure she was at least three full paces ahead of Xena. Her headache was back with full force and by that time she was certain that something was terribly wrong with her eyes.
The clear night allowed the moon to cast its gentle light upon the land and the abundance of firewood lent itself to a large fire. It normally meant an evening of Xena tending to her armor while Gabrielle wrote in her scrolls. Yet when the warrior looked up she saw no quill, no ink. At first she thought that the bard was reading, but then Xena looked carefully and realized what it really was. Gabrielle wasn't reading the scroll, she was just looking at it. As if sensing that she was being watched, the bard rolled the parchment up and set it back in her bag. "I'm tired. Good night." she said, immediately burying herself in her bedroll, her back to the warrior.
Xena watched her for a few moments before crossing the distance and kneeling down next to her. "Gabrielle " she put a gentle hand on the bard's shoulder. "Is there something you want to talk about? You've been quiet all day."
"No, I'm fine, Xena. Just a little tired." she patted the strong hand.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." the warrior waited a moment longer before returning to her side of the fire. She picked up her sword and had just resumed her sharpening when she heard the smallest of voices speak to her. "Xena, do you think that there's a reason for everything that happens?"
Sensing that this was the opening to a much more serious conversation, the raven haired woman set her sword and whetstone down. "Sometimes. But sometimes there is no reason, things just happen."
Gabrielle rolled onto her back and found herself staring up at dim stars. "Do you remember when the Furies punished you for not avenging Atrius' death? At first we didn't know what the reason was, we only knew that something was terribly wrong."
"Yeah." she whispered, her focus still on the night sky.
"Gabrielle is something wrong?" the melancholy tone wasn't something she was used to hearing from her best friend.
"Sometimes I think we're punished and we don't know until later why." she took a ragged breath. "I think Hope was a punishment for killing Meridian. Everything that happened after was a punishment because I murdered her." a tear leaked out and she rolled away from the warrior's soft gaze.
"Oh Gabrielle " she crawled the remaining distance and laid her body alongside the bard's, wrapping one arm around the smaller woman's waist. "Meridian's death was an accident. Even the gods know that. You had no way of knowing what was to happen. You were only doing what you thought was right protecting what you thought to be an innocent life. No one can blame or punish you for that."
"Yes." she sniffed. "Yes they can, they are."
"How? How are you being punished now?" all she got in response was another sniffle and the shaking of the smaller body against hers. "Gabrielle, how are you being punished?"
"I can't live with the darkness, Xena. I I just can't." she sobbed.
"You're not making sense. What darkness? Who's punishing you? Gabrielle, what's going on?" upset people were never something that the warrior was any good at dealing with but when it came to the young woman who meant more to her than anyone else in the world, Xena was even more at a loss. Not knowing what else to do, she rolled the crying woman over and pulled her tight against her own body. "Shh it's okay, Gabrielle. Whatever's wrong, we'll find a way to make it better, I promise shh." she wrapped her left arm around the bard's shoulders and gently rubbed her back while using her right hand to softly stroke the golden hair. Sobs eventually gave way to hiccuping sniffles which in turn finally gave way to the deep breathing of sleep. Xena thought about returning to her side of the fire but the idea of disturbing the precious bundle in her arms wasn't something she was willing to do. Instead she laid there, absently caressing Gabrielle's back and trying to figure out what to do to make the bard get past this guilt she seemed trapped in. Once again Xena cursed herself for going after Caesar instead of paying attention to what was going on with Khrafstar and his cult, and more importantly, for trusting that a man of religion would protect Gabrielle, a trust woefully misplaced.
The morning rays of sun decided that the two women curled up on the bedroll was a good place to shine directly on, forcing Xena to stop pretending to be asleep and reluctantly extricate herself from the tangle of arms and legs. She propped herself up on one elbow and for a while was simply content to look down at the peacefully sleeping bard. Eventually other needs made themselves known and she rose to begin her morning routine. A trip to the bushes, adding wood to the fire to heat up water for tea, a short drill with her sword, then off to the stream to catch breakfast. The stream was further away from their campsite than from the place they had chosen the day before, but it still was within earshot. Nonetheless, Xena made a quick check of the perimeter before heading off to catch breakfast.
"Ohhhh." Gabrielle moaned as she rolled over, the pain in her head nothing short of torture. She recalled the story of how Athena was born sprouting from Zeus' skull. At that moment, she believed that even that had to have been less painful than what she was feeling. She forced herself to open her eyes and look around, only to discover that most of her vision was now blurry and what she could see was even darker than the day before. As if someone had pulled a dark veil over her face, Gabrielle could discern shapes and objects, but not details. She gripped the sides of her head and moaned again as the pain took control. She stayed like that for several moments until she heard Argo snort, announcing Xena's impending arrival. Gabrielle slowly sat up and smoothed her hair, doing her best not to look like there was a Centaur dancing around in her head.
"I swear that stream is just stuffed with perch." the warrior said, proudly holding up one even bigger than yesterday's catch. Truth be told, it took her the better part of a candlemark to find it, but she knew that Gabrielle preferred perch over bass.
"Great." the bard replied with a definite lack of enthusiasm, absently picking blades of grass and tossing them at the fire.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
"Hmm? Oh, nothing. Sorry, just daydreaming." she brushed her hands on the edge of the blanket. "So where are we off to today?" she took the fish from the warrior's hand and set them in the frying pan. She reached into her pouch, pulled out a small leather sack, and sprinkled the herbs onto the sizzling food.
"I thought we'd head east, toward Laconia. I've heard they've had some trouble around there lately with raiders." Xena said. She looked into the pot of boiling water and frowned. "Gabrielle, you didn't add the tea leaves?"
"Oh, sorry. I woke up with another headache. I guess I just forgot." she turned her attention back to the two blurs in the frying pan while the warrior added the missing leaves to the water.
"Another headache?" concern clouded Xena's features but the bard only saw a dim, blurry outline of her friend's face as she approached. "Gabrielle, you don't usually get headaches." she felt around but found no bumps, no bruises, nothing to indicate that there had been any recent injury. Xena's eyes closed when she thought about what she knew to be the last time Gabrielle's head had been hit. It was when she brutally dragged her away from the Amazons. But the waters of Illusia had healed all those injuries, hadn't it?
"Xena, I'm fine. It's probably just stress or something." the bard said, gently pushing the strong hands away from her. "Come on, breakfast's ready."
Feeling that there was more to it but not certain if she should push the issue or not, the warrior nodded and sat down to eat her fish. "Smells good." she broke a piece off and put in her mouth. Her eyes widened and she frantically grasped for the waterskin. Gabrielle noticed the movement and looked up quizzically, having not yet tasted her own fish. "What's wrong?"
Xena took several long swallows of water before answering. "What herbs did you use on the fish?"
"Just the usual, why?"
"Why what's " she put a bite in, chewed, then quickly spit it out and reached for the offered waterskin. "Oh gods. I guess I must have used the hot peppers instead."
"Yeah, I guess so." Xena replied, tossing the rest of her uneaten fish on the ground. "Gabrielle, how can you make a mistake like that? The peppers are red. How can you confuse red and green?"
"I, I don't know. I guess I wasn't paying attention." she pulled both sacks out of her pouch and sprinkled the contents of each into her hand. While one was a bit lighter in color than the other, Gabrielle couldn't tell which was which. Looking around the campsite again, she realized that most of the colors were gone, replaced with varying shades of grey and black. She nervously shoved the two sacks back in her pouch and tossed her fish next to Xena's. "I'm sorry about breakfast. Look, if you want I'll go down and catch two more."
"Don't worry about it, Gabrielle. We'll make do with the jerky that's left." there was no anger in her voice, merely concern for her friend. If there was one thing that the bard never made a mistake with, it was cooking. "Gabrielle, are you sure you're all right? Is there more going on with you than just headaches?"
"I'm fine, Xena. I just made a mistake, that's all." she snapped. "I offered to go get two more fish."
"I know you did. Look, why don't we just pack up and get on the road." she smiled, but the smile faded when she saw the lost, faraway look in the bard's green eyes. Unable to stop herself, Xena reached over and brushed her knuckles against Gabrielle's cheek. "We'll stop in the next town and see if we can pick up some herbs to help with these headaches you're having, okay?"
"Yeah, okay." the bard replied, forcing a smile to her lips that neither believed.
Gabrielle fervently hoped there weren't any roots or holes in the road for her to trip over because at the moment her focus was purely on the large shadow that made up Argo and Xena. In fact, all she saw were shadows, like the purple darkness of dusk. With her vision limited, Gabrielle focused on what her hearing told her about the surrounding area. She heard the steady beat of Argo's hooves on the dusty road, the sounds of birds in the trees, the cracking of twigs under foot .
"Xena." she whispered, knowing the warrior's keen hearing would pick it up.
"I heard." the leather clad woman replied, pulling Argo to a stop.
Gabrielle readied her staff but moved closer to Xena, fear evident on her face. She jerked her head around, looking for one of the multitude of shadows to move. She yelped when in fact several shadows moved at once. "Xena! They're coming!"
"I see that." she replied, wondering why the bard seemed so upset by only a half dozen bandits. They appeared to be little more than thugs, and stupid ones at that, the warrior decided when they split up into two groups of three, intent on overpowering the duo. The men were obviously poorly trained and it took only a few well placed kicks from the warrior's boot to send her three attackers running back into the forest.
With nothing more than blurry shadows ahead of her, Gabrielle was next to helpless and she knew it. She swung her staff back and forth in front of her while backing away from the men. Her heart pounded painfully with fear and she never saw one of the men slip away from the other two to circle around behind her. It was only the wild and frantic swinging of her staff that deflected the sword blow aimed at the back of her chest. Instead the blade slid along the length of the wooden weapon and sliced into the back of her hand. Startled, Gabrielle's hand left the staff and a blow from one of the men in front of her knocked it completely to the ground. "Xena!"
"Ayiyiyiyi!" the warrior somersaulted over the bandits to stand in front of her companion. "You boys picked the wrong road to play on today." she taunted, reaching down with her right hand and releasing the chakram. It ricocheted off a nearby tree and imbedded itself into the chest of the man that had gone behind Gabrielle. "Now you two want a taste of what your friend just got?" she asked, twirling her sword menacingly. The remaining bandits looked at each other, then at her and back to each other again. Both men were running for the safety of the woods before their swords hit the ground. Xena turned to retrieve her chakram from the dead man's chest and found herself looking at a very scared bard holding her staff in a defensive position. She sheathed her sword.
"Don't come any closer, I'm warning you!" the bard jabbed at the shadow for emphasis.
"Gabrielle, it's me." the warrior replied, reaching out and grabbing the end of the staff before it could connect with her jaw. She watched as the bard looked around the nearby area, fear and confusion evident on her face.
"Xena? Is it over?"
"It's over." she replied softly. She didn't see any visible injuries on the bard, but the blankness in the green eyes caused the warrior's brow to furrow with concern. She waved her hand in front of Gabrielle's face, her heart pounding when there was no reaction. She did it again and got the same result, confirming her fear.
"Xena?" there was a timid, fearful tone in the bard's voice as her head moved around, trying desperately to identify the different shadows.
"I'm right here." the warrior said as she took a step forward. Gabrielle felt the familiar hand rest against her cheek while the other hand gently took the staff away from her. "You want to tell me what's going on now?"
"I " the bard lowered her head, knowing that there was no way to hide the truth any longer.
"You can't see, can you?"
Tears began to roll down Gabrielle's face as she shook her head. "I'm sorry, I I " she took a step forward and pressed her face against the warm comfort of Xena's chest. She heard the dull thunk as her staff hit the ground before strong arms wrapped around her.
"All right now, all right." the warrior cooed, gently rubbing the bard's back. "Let's go find a safe place to make camp."
With Xena guiding her, Gabrielle made it over to Argo. It was only then that she felt the sticky wetness on her hand. "I think I'm bleeding."
"You sure are." came the reply as the bard listened to the sound of Xena rummaging through the saddlebags. "Not bad, you probably could use a stitch or two but I think that wrapping it tight will take care of it just fine." gentle hands began applying the bandage. "It's related to your headaches, isn't it? That's why you made the mistake with the herbs for breakfast." Gabrielle could only nod. She felt the warrior's hands leave hers. "All done."
"Xena do you think the Furies are involved? That this is a punishment for killing Hope?" she couldn't see the warrior flinch at the name but she knew it happened.
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I suppose it's possible. We'll go to their temple tomorrow and find out what's going on. Right now my concern is getting you off this road. Give me your foot."
"Why?" it wasn't the most pleasant task in the world for her to ride when she could see where she was going but now the idea was downright frightening.
"Because you're riding."
"I can walk. Please Xena, I don't want to ride Argo." there was silence for a moment before she felt the warrior's hand on her arm.
"Okay, we'll walk." the raven haired woman said softly. "But if there's any more trouble I'm putting you up there, agreed?"
"Thanks." she leaned against the warrior, taking comfort in the familiar feel of the armor and muscled body. Once again strong fingers felt her head for any sign of injury and once again found none.
Once the staff was secured within the straps of Argo's saddle, Xena took the reins in one hand and Gabrielle's forearm in the other. "You ready?"
"Wait." she pulled her arm free and rested her hand on the warrior's leather and brass gauntlet instead. "Now I am." they resumed their journey, both lost in their own thoughts and fears.
With her head still pounding and her vision steadily worsening, Gabrielle was forced to sit back and wait while Xena set up their campsite for the night. "I'll try and snare us a couple of rabbits for tonight. I'm sure you're tired of fish by now."
"That's all right, I'm not that hungry." the bard replied, turning her head in the direction of her friend's voice. Xena looked at her, first with concern over the sudden lack of appetite, then with sadness at the lack of light in the normally vibrant green eyes.
"Hey " she said softly, crossing the distance to kneel next to the young woman. "It's gonna be all right." she rubbed her hand up and down Gabrielle's arm reassuringly. "We'll find out what's going on and before you know it, you'll be good as new, I promise."
"Don't, Xena." the bard said sadly. "You can't make that kind of promise." head lowered, a lone tear trickled down her cheek. The warrior reached out with her finger and softly brushed it away.
"We'll find the answer, Gabrielle. I can promise you that." she looked up at the setting sun. "I'd better get a fire going, it'll be dar-I mean, it'll be getting cold soon." she shook her head apologetically. "I-"
"It's all right, Xena. I understand." she leaned into the warm hand resting on her cheek. "Tomorrow we'll go see the Furies and then " she turned her head away. "Then you can take me back to Poteidaia."
Xena closed her eyes as the words cut deep into her heart, as deeply as when the bard announced that she was marrying Perdicus. She took a deep breath. "You don't have to go there."
"What else am I gonna do? I can't go back to the Amazons, not after " she let the unspoken thought trail off. "I just can't go back there. There's nowhere else to go. At least in Poteidaia my family is there to take care of me."
"But I can take care of you." she said, trying not to let the hurt that was on her face show in her voice. "Gabrielle, we're a team. Besides, I don't think your parents would be too thrilled to find me sleeping on their doorstep every night."
"Hey enough of this talk." she said, not wanting to think about that possibility and longer. "I'm going to get some firewood and see about catching us some dinner." she turned one hand so that her knuckles were gently stroking the bard's cheek. "You think you'll be okay until I get back?"
Fear immediately crossed over Gabrielle's face. "You'll stay nearby, won't you?"
"I'll stay within earshot. If you need me, just yell, okay?" she waited for the shaky nod before rising to her feet and setting off to collect the things they'd need for the night.
Normally, Xena could be ten paces away and Gabrielle wouldn't know, but the warrior made sure to step on every twig, mutter loudly about the quality of the firewood, and generally do everything possible to let the bard know that she was nearby. An armload of wood became half an armload, requiring twice as many trips back to their small campsite. Skinning the rabbits wasn't done deep in the woods, but rather just on the edge of the clearing, allowing her to chatter on about how Argo needed new shoes and they both could use a new pair of boots. Even once the rabbits were placed on the spit and cooking over the fire, Xena used the excuse of having to check the cut on the bard's hand as a reason not to sit on the opposite side of the fire. While she felt that Gabrielle was appreciative of the extra efforts, nothing she did could erase the sad look that threatened to become a permanent fixture on the beautiful face.
"You have to turn them over or they'll burn." Gabrielle said softly. Xena looked and quickly followed the bard's advice, resulting in only slightly charring the one side of their dinner.
"Thanks you know how great I cook." the warrior said sarcastically.
"I guess I should have been more insistent on teaching you."
"Gabrielle don't talk like that."
"Why not, Xena? Who's going to cook for you now? I can't cook what I can't see and you're not fond of burnt food." she turned her head until she was facing the fire. "You know what I see?" she swallowed hard. "I can feel the heat, smell the burning wood and the rabbits, but I can't see the fire, Xena. There's, there's not even shadows anymore. I'm looking at it, aren't I?" she reached toward the dancing flames, pulling back only when the heat was too much. "Yeah, it's right there, right in front of my face, and I can't see it." she sniffed and wiped at her eyes, trying to stop the tears from falling. "There's nothing nothing but darkness. Xena?"
"I'm right here." she replied, reaching out to touch the bard's forearm. Gabrielle's hand gripped the larger one and held it there.
"I'm scared. I I don't want to be blind oh gods." the battle for control was lost as tears spilled out of unseeing eyes. Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller frame and pulled Gabrielle close, tucking the younger woman's head under her chin.
"It's all right it's going to be all right." she began rocking. "I've got you and I'm not letting go no matter what shh ."
They stayed like that for long moments until the smell of cooked meat threatening to turn into blackened lumps caused them to separate. Xena leaned forward to deal with dinner, making sure that part of her body stayed in contact with the bard. She set the two plates down on the ground in front of them to cool before reaching for the waterskin. "You thirsty?" she asked while removing the stopper. Seeing the slight nod, she handed the container to Gabrielle, using her hands to wrap the smaller ones around the leather. She watched as the bard felt around the mouth for the stopper, then guided it slowly to her lips.
"Thanks." Gabrielle said, holding the waterskin out in front of her. Xena took it and pushed the small piece of cork into the opening before setting it back down on the ground within easy reach.
"I think it's cooled down. Do you want any help?" she asked as she placed the plate onto the bard's lap and guided her hands down to find the meat.
"No, I'll do it." came the reply. "I guess this is just something else I have to learn." she picked some meat off the bone and brought it to her mouth, hitting her face just below her lower lip. The orange flames flickered and reflected the area where the juice remained on the bard's upper chin. Xena tried hard not to stare, but the actions were so foreign to what she was used to seeing from Gabrielle that she couldn't help herself. She could see the bard's frustration with every movement, every action. Greasy fingers became even more so as Gabrielle tried to find the remaining meat on her plate. Xena tried to help by turning the carcass over but the bard scowled and pushed the plate off her lap and onto the ground. "I'm done." she said angrily, wiping her hands on her skirt.
"I was just trying to help." the warrior said, setting her own plate down.
"I never used to need help trying to eat. I've been doing it since I was in diapers." she wiped the back of her hand across her face, trying to remove the grease but ending up only spreading it around. "Look at me, I'm worse than a kid." she said dejectedly, wrapping the leather of her skirt around her fingers to sop up the remains of her meal. Xena pulled the saddlebag close and fished out the cloth they used to wash with and put it in Gabrielle's hand.
"Here, use this." she said, giving the bard's hand a gentle squeeze before releasing it.
"Xena I don't know if I can handle this." she said while wiping her mouth and fingers.
"Yes you can." the warrior said firmly, putting her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You're strong. No matter what, you always come through. Remember Thessaly?" the bard's head picked up. It was one of many subjects that they never spoke of. Xena swallowed and looked at the fire, wrestling with the feelings that always surfaced when she remembered that fateful day. When she spoke again, her voice was softer, tinged by the pain of the memory. "When they brought you in " she blinked several times and swallowed hard. "There was so much blood, just so much. I I was scared, Gabrielle. I was just so scared." she closed her eyes and felt a gentle hand rest upon her thigh as the bard scooted up against her. "I've seen all kinds of injuries and if it were anyone else I would have given up." she swallowed hard and moved her arm to rest across the young woman's shoulders. "But it wasn't just anyone, it was you. I couldn't give up on you. I told you to fight and you did." she gave a gentle squeeze, pulling Gabrielle close against her. "You fought then and you can fight now." the normally stoic warrior wiped an errant tear from her eye and took a deep breath. "Now enough of this. Let's get some sleep so we can get an early start in the morning."
"Xena?" came the soft, almost scared voice. "Hold me tonight? Please?"
"Gabrielle, I'll hold you any time you want me to. Give me a moment to get the bedrolls ready and I'll be right back, okay?"
Long after the bard had fallen asleep in her arms, Xena laid awake, staring at the night sky. She thought about the madness and persecution she suffered at the hands of the Furies. Try as she might, the warrior couldn't come up a single time that she had heard of them afflicting anyone with blindness. But that had to be answer, didn't it? If a god had done it, like Ares, it would have been immediate, not gradual. She turned her head to look at the sleeping woman. The moonlight shone down, revealing the unflawed features, the upturned nose, the long eyelashes, the delicate ears. Without warning another image superimposed itself over the peaceful face. Gabrielle, hair disheveled, lip split, gashes across her cheeks, and the most disturbing, a large angry red lump on her forehead. Xena shuddered at the sight of the injuries that had been inflicted by her own anger, her own rage. As if sensing something wrong, Gabrielle mewed softly and snuggled closer, her arm flopping across the leather clad body. Xena closed her eyes and when she opened them, the horrifying image was gone, replaced with the natural beauty of the bard in sleep. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle." she whispered, closing her eyes. She placed a gentle kiss on the top of Gabrielle's head and buried her face in the softness of the golden hair, breathing in the scent that was distinctly the bard's and no one else's. Only then did the warrior find the peace that allowed sleep to finally claim her.
Gabrielle's vision was completely gone by morning, replaced with a black purer than any night could ever be. Xena made certain to be next to her when she awoke, not wanting the bard to feel any more fear than the blindness already was giving her. Breakfast was spent sitting cross-legged next to each other, knees touching. Every time Xena shifted and broke the contact, the bard would adjust until she felt the comforting warmth of the warrior's skin against hers again. Trips to the bushes were done as a pair as well, Gabrielle only allowing them to separate long enough for one or the other to take care of business. Xena would never allow anyone else to have that much physical contact with her but when it came to the bard, she found that she didn't mind it at all. In fact, as the morning wore on she realized that she was relishing the gentle touches, even encouraging more contact by laying her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders while they walked. She had tried unsuccessfully to get the bard to ride, even offering to let her ride in front and hold her, but Gabrielle adamantly refused, almost breaking down into tears in her insistence that she didn't want to be up on Argo when she couldn't see.
Xena paused just outside the entrance to the Temple of the Furies, remembering back to the last time she was there, and how she almost killed her own mother. For a moment she expected Ares to show up and announce that this was just another one of his tricks to win her back, yet deep inside she knew he had no part of the dark torment that Gabrielle was going through. "You ready?"
"I have no choice, do I?" the bard replied sadly. "How many steps? I can't remember."
"Eleven. Don't worry, I'll be right beside you." Xena said. "First one is right in front of you, about a hand's width away from your foot." with a firm grip on the bard's arm, she guided them up the stairs and into the temple.
The temple was as it had been before, with a large ornate chair on one end and a granite alter in the center. The priest nodded at them and resumed his polishing of a bruised apple. Xena took the bard's hand and placed it on the edge of the alter. "Stay here." she said before approaching the grey haired man. "Why are the Furies punishing Gabrielle?"
"I have not been told of any punishment for the child of Artemis." he replied.
"Child of Artemis?" the bard asked.
"He means because you're Amazon." Xena explained before turning her attention back to the priest. "Not that I don't trust a man of the cloth but I'd like to hear that from them."
"Then hear it you shall." Alecto said, causing the three mortals to turn in her direction. There was no wind in the temple, yet the red ribbons of silk and satin that made up what little of a dress she wore fluttered about.
"Talk about your bad hair days." the warrior drawled, moving up alongside the bard. Alecto scowled and ran her fingers through her wayward blond hair.
"You certainly are an insolent one, Xena. I should think you'd have more respect for the gods."
"I have no respect for gods who play petty games with the lives of mortals. Why are you punishing Gabrielle?" she positioned herself protectively in front of the blind bard. "You know that Hope was evil, a demon. Surely you can't punish her for protecting the world from that."
"It is up to the Furies to decide who gets punished, Xena." the blond goddess said. "If we can punish with madness and persecution for the murder of a parent, what do you think we do to those that kill their own children?" she smiled with a grin so sinister that her own priest took several steps back. "However." she waved her hand, causing an unseen force to move the warrior away from the bard. "We have no quarrel with you, Gabrielle. You've done nothing to earn our disfavor."
"But Hope? Meridian?"
"As I said, we have no quarrel with you." Alecto turned her attention to the leather clad woman. "You we'll reserve judgment on you for now. We find you " she let her gaze travel up and down the warrior's body. " interesting. We shall wait and see what the Fates have in store."
"Then what about her blindness?" Xena asked angrily, not at all happy with the riddles.
"No god is responsible for the darkness that your friend now lives in." Alecto turned her attention to the priest cowering near the door. "The fruit." she raised one eyebrow and held up a rather squishy excuse for a nectarine. "We need to talk. If you ladies would leave?" it was more of a demand than a question.
"Come on, Gabrielle." she put her hand under the bard's arm. "We'll talk outside."
"Maybe a healer will be able to figure out what's wrong." Xena said as they reached the last step of the temple. "Amphipolis is only a couple of candlemarks away. We'll go there."
"I don't understand." Gabrielle said, more confused than ever. "How can they not punish me? I killed Hope, my own child."
"She was an instrument of evil, not a child." Xena said angrily, the image of Solon's lifeless body filling her mind. Not surprisingly, Gabrielle took a step back, breaking the almost constant physical contact between them.
"Why don't you just take me back to Poteidaia?" the bard said sadly. "You're not obligated to take care of me."
"You listen to me." Xena said, her tone softer than before as she took Gabrielle's face in her hands. "Taking care of you is not an obligation to me and I'm not letting you give up without a fight. Do you understand?" before the bard could respond she pulled her close. "We'll find out what's wrong, I promise." she whispered into the young woman's ear. But even as she spoke the words, Xena had a nagging feeling that she did in fact know exactly what was wrong and who was responsible. What she didn't know was how either of them were going to be able to live with that knowledge if her suspicions were indeed true.
While Gabrielle couldn't see the people looking at them as they walked through the streets of Amphipolis, she could hear them. Without her sight, she found that she paid more attention to the sounds around her, the whispered murmurs, the doors closing with the clear statement of unwelcome. She felt Xena stiffen and knew instinctively that the warrior persona was locked in place. Even though it was Callisto that kidnapped the residents last summer, many obviously felt that it was only because they lived in Xena's home village that they were the target, yet another reason to hate the woman who once risked her life to protect them. "You okay?" she queried.
"We're almost to Mother's." came the terse reply, yet the hand that was holding hers gave a gentle squeeze in silent thanks for the concern.
Cyrene was busily wiping down tables in preparation of the dinner crowd when they arrived. The smile on her face disappeared the instant she saw the blank look on Gabrielle's normally buoyant face and the concerned look on her daughter's. "Xena?"
"Hello Mother." she said as she guided the bard past the long tables until they reached a small round table in the back of the room. Cyrene watched as the raven haired woman maintained her gentle hold on the bard while pulling out a chair, then helped her sit down. "I'll get you something to eat." Xena said gently before turning to her mother. "Is there anything left over from the mid-day meal?"
"Of course. I'll make up two plates." she watched as her daughter's attention shifted back to Gabrielle. "Xena?" she said softly, no need to ask the obvious question.
"Mother, can you stay with her until I get back? I need to get Darius. He is still the healer, isn't he?" she turned to go but was blocked by her mother.
"Xena, he won't come if you ask for him." Cyrene said, stepping past her daughter to lay a comforting hand on the bard's shoulder. "Gabrielle, would you like some stew or perhaps some chicken?"
"Whatever you have is fine, Cyrene, thank you." the bard replied, sadness coating every word. Out of habit she looked up in the general direction of the motherly voice, allowing the innkeeper to see the absence of light in the green eyes.
"You eat first, then I'll bring Darius to look at you. I'm sure he'll know what to do." she motioned with her eyes for Xena to sit down. "I'll be right back with food for both of you." as she passed by her daughter, Cyrene reached out and removed the scabbard and sword, placing them under the bar on her way to the kitchen.
"Xena, what are you going to do if he says there's nothing that can be done?" Gabrielle asked, startling the warrior out of her dark thoughts.
"Then we'll go to another healer who can do something. You can't give up h-" she caught herself, "you can't give up."
"Um hmm..." Darius held the candle close to one eye, then moved it to look at the other one. "And how long have you been having the headaches?"
"Two days." Xena answered for her. The elderly healer shot a nasty look at the warrior. He and the innkeeper were sitting on either side of the small table while Xena stood across from Gabrielle.
"Cyrene, I came because you asked for my help. If you had told me that *she*" he glared at the warrior, "was going to be here, I would have refused."
"Darius, what difference does it make? It's Gabrielle that needs your help. Don't punish her because she's Xena's friend." the innkeeper said, giving the bard's hand a gentle squeeze.
"I don't know how anyone can be that murdering harlot's friend." he snarled. "I lost two brothers because of her-"
"And you kept your life because of her too. Or don't you remember that?" Cyrene interrupted. "I'm Xena's mother yet you turned to me last winter for food when you had none. Darius, please."
The healer sighed, cast another dirty look at Xena, then turned his attention back to the bard. "I just don't understand it. The headaches, the loss of vision...it would make sense except there's no evidence of injury. Child, when was the last time you hit your head?"
"No..." Gabrielle whispered, slowly shaking her head with disbelief. "It can't be. Xena?"
All eyes turned to the warrior, who was unable to cover the stricken look on her face. "She...she hit her head two days ago." she said in a dead voice, slumping into her chair. Even though the bard couldn't see her, Xena found herself unable to look across the table at the woman who meant everything to her. "She was dragged through burning embers, smashed up against wooden poles, rocks, trees..." she swallowed hard. "Even after she lost consciousness."
"That must be it then, although I don't understand why there's no marks." Darius said. "Blows like that...it's a wonder she's alive at all." he patted Gabrielle's hand apologetically. "I'm afraid there's nothing I can do for you, child. Perhaps praying to the gods would help. They're the only ones that can do anything for you now."
"Thank you for trying." Cyrene said as he rose. She stood as well, but kept a firm grip on the bard's hand. Darius nodded to the innkeeper, then headed for the door.
"I...I think I need to lie down for a while." Gabrielle said, her voice cracking. Xena immediately stood up to help, causing her chair to scrape across the floor in the process. "No, that's all right. Cyrene? Can you take me?"
The innkeeper looked from the bard to her daughter. If words were weapons, Cyrene would have sworn that Gabrielle just stabbed Xena with a knife from the crestfallen expression on the warrior's face. "Um...yes, of course." she put her hand under the young woman's arm and helped her to her feet.
Cyrene returned to the main room a candlemark later to find Xena still sitting at the table, the look on her face reminding the innkeeper of how her daughter looked when Lyceus died. "Is she asleep?" the warrior asked, her attention focused on the tabletop.
"Did she say anything?"
"Not much." Cyrene answered, pulling out a chair and sitting down next to her daughter. "She cried mostly. She mumbled but it wasn't understandable. Xena, what happened? How could she have been hurt so badly two days ago and show no marks?"
"She...we fell into the waters of Illusia. It healed all her physical injuries." she let out a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. "I guess it only healed the ones on the outside."
"Who did this to her? Who could have been so cold, so cruel? What kind of monster could possibly have hurt her so much?"
Xena looked up from the table, her face revealing the ugly truth. "I-I did, Mother." she croaked, not bothering to stop the single tears that rolled down her cheeks. "I was the one. I did this to her."
Cyrene set her hands on the table, folding one over the other to keep from wringing them. It was all she could do not to burst out into tears herself at the horrid news. She took a shaky breath and steeled herself. "Xena, of all the people in your life, Gabrielle is the one who stood by you and loved you no matter what. She's forgiven you time and time again and has put her life in danger countless times to be with you. What could that child ever do to deserve this?"
"Nothing there's nothing she could have done to deserve what I put her through." she admitted. "I allowed myself no, I raged, I blamed her for Solon's death. I wanted vengeance. I tried to kill her, Mother. I tried to kill Gabrielle." she put her elbows on the table, laced her fingers together, and rested her forehead against them. "I tried to kill her." she whispered.
"Who's Solon?" Cyrene's words brought Xena's head up and a renewed sadness covered the warrior's features. She lowered her head again, unable to look at her mother when she broke the news.
"It seems like I'm always hurting someone I love." she said sadly. "My son...Solon was my son." she let out a deep breath as another weight came off her shoulders. "I gave birth to him long ago, during my war with the Centaurs. I...Mother, I was young, I guess in many ways I was scared too. His father had died and I knew that if he stayed with me that he'd only end up being a target, or worse." she rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. "I didn't want him to end up like Borias and me. I didn't want him to grow up with all that hate. I...gave him up, left him in the care of the Centaurs. I thought it was best at the time."
"Xena..." Cyrene said, her voice thick with emotion. "You could have brought him here. I would have cared for him, I would have raised my only grandchild."
Xena raised her teary eyes to look at her mother. "I...I didn't think you would. You wanted nothing to do with me. I had shamed you so much by then, how could I have asked you to raise my child?"
"Because I was still your mother. Despite everything, Xena, you're my only daughter." she pulled a lace cloth from inside her bodice and wiped her own tears. "H-how did he...?"
"He was murdered..." she didn't know how much her mother could take, but once the door was opened, the words insisted on coming out. "...by Gabrielle's d-...by a demon child of Dahok, an evil being that used Gabrielle to bear his child."
"I don't understand, Xena. I saw both of you only a few moons ago. How could she have had a child?"
"It's a long story, Mother." the warrior sighed. "And for you to understand, I have to tell you about things that happened to me, things that I did, long ago, things you won't want to hear." Without a word, Cyrene stood up and went over to the bar. Rummaging through the items on a lower shelf, she found what she was looking for, a flat piece of slate with a string attached at two corners and a piece of charcoal. Moments later a sign was hung on the outer door announcing that the tavern and inn were closed for the night. That task done, Cyrene bolted the door, fetched two mugs and a pitcher of port, then returned to the table.
"Tell your story." she urged, pushing one of the mugs in front of Xena.
The warrior took several long swallows of the deep crimson liquid and steadied her gaze on the flickering embers in the fireplace. "The summer after I left Amphipolis...."
The candles scattered throughout the room cast a dim orange glow on the sleeping bard. In the chair next to the bed, Xena maintained her silent watch, polishing her breastplate to pass away the time. The port she had drunk did nothing to ease the pain in her heart. Revealing to her mother some of the worst atrocities she had committed as a warlord had been brutally painful, yet in many ways freeing as well. At times Cyrene was shocked or dismayed, but never did she utter a harsh word and in fact the conversation ended with mother and daughter sharing an awkward yet somewhat comforting embrace. There were questions asked that Xena found extremely painful to answer, but she did her best to be honest and forthright with her mother. There was still one question that the warrior had not asked her mother, one which had been burning in the back of her mind ever since she found out about how Atrius had died. Despite the fact that their heart to heart talk had gone far better than she had expected, Xena was still afraid to know the answer to that question.
A soft moan brought the raven haired woman out of her musings. Gabrielle was dreaming, and from the pained look on the young woman's features, it was an unpleasant dream at that. Xena knelt down next to the bed and took the bard's hand in hers. "Shh...it's all right." she reached up with her free hand to gently caress Gabrielle's forehead. The moans gave way to whimpers.
"Xena...Xena, no...please..." she cried, the pitiful sound causing the lump in the warrior's throat to grow with each word.
"Gabrielle...wake up, it's just a dream. Wake up." she pleaded. Unsure if it was the right thing to do, Xena crawled into bed and wrapped her arms around her precious bundle. Instantly the bard began to calm down, snuggling up close until her face was pressed tightly against the warrior's leather covered cleavage, her nose buried in the valley between the soft breasts. That was how Cyrene found the two of them later, arms and legs tangled together, bodies pressed as tight as lovers.
It was well past sunrise and Xena was certain that she should get up and help her mother with some of the chores, but couldn't bring herself to wake the woman sleeping almost completely on top of her. Instead she remained in bed, gently stroking Gabrielle's back and breathing in the soft scent of the sun-kissed hair. It was far more than she deserved, she knew, but for as long as she could, Xena wasn't going to give up even an instant of her time with the bard.
Eventually the soft, endearing snores gave way as the fog of sleep lifted. Still mostly on top of the warrior, Gabrielle stretched languidly and yawned. For the briefest of moments she thought it was all just a bad dream, she blinked unseeing eyes and reality crashed over her. "It's not a dream."
"No, but by the gods, I wish it were." Xena whispered.
"So do I." she replied sadly, sliding off the warm body and back onto the bed. She felt the bed shift as presumably the tall warrior adjusted to lay on her side.
"Gabrielle..." Xena was close enough that the bard could feel the soft breath against her ear. "I never meant for this to happen, for any of it to happen. If I could-"
"You can't." she interrupted, her voice little more than a resigned sigh. "We can't change the past, right? Isn't that what we learned in Illusia? All we can do is accept it and move on." the words sounded brave enough coming from her mouth, but deep down inside, Gabrielle didn't believe that she would ever be able to live with the constant darkness. "I need to go to the pot." she said, changing the topic.
"I'll help you." she felt Xena move off the bed and take her hand, helping her to a standing position. Even though she trusted the warrior not to let her bump into anything, Gabrielle nonetheless kept one hand out in front of her, feeling about the air for whatever object might be in her way. Together they crossed the room until they reached the chamber pot located discreetly in the corner. Xena released her hand and guided it to the armrest. "Um...do you want to take a bath today?" the warrior asked, trying to be as tactful as possible.
"That would be nice." she responded while pulling her undergarments down. "Where are our saddlebags? No sense washing my body and then putting these smelly things back on."
"On the table."
"There's a table in here? Where?"
"About five paces to the left." Xena looked around the room. "I'll have to move it to bring the tub in, but I'll put it back afterwards. You'll have to get used to where things are in here."
"Why?" she stood, pulling the dark brown underwear up in the process. "Xena, I want you to take me back to Poteidaia. If not today, then tomorrow. You don't have to worry. My family will take care of me, I told you that." she felt about until her hand landed on the warrior's outstretched arm. She sniffed the air as a wonderful aroma filtered into the room. "Smells like Cyrene's making bacon."
"She knows you like it." Xena replied, glad in a way that the bard couldn't see the hurt look that she was certain was on her face. "Gabrielle, you don't have to rush into this. Maybe...maybe it's just some kind of swelling inside that's causing this. In a few days..."
"In a few days I'll be just as blind as I am now, Xena. Face it, I have to." she said with more anger than she intended. She sighed and rubbed her thumb against the warrior's inner wrist. "I'm sorry. This is really hard for me. Giving me false hope isn't going to make it any easier to deal with."
"I'm not trying to do that." Xena said, deliberately ignoring the word that she had come to hate. "I just don't want to see you give up so soon. Gabrielle...I've seen men in my armies that have had really bad head injuries, just like yours, and they've come through just fine." she lied. "You can't give up, not yet."
"We better get out there before all the bacon is gone." she reached up to feel her hair. "How bad is it?"
"Well...it makes Callisto look good." Xena teased, running her long fingers through the golden tresses to smooth it out. "After your bath, I'll braid it if you want."
"You don't have to."
"I want to." she said earnestly. "I always braid your hair after you wash it." she added. "I promise I won't make you look like a snake haired Gorgan." that finally caused the briefest hint of a smile to form on the bard's lips but it was enough to make a broad one on her own face. "That's better. Now come on, let's get out there before Mother comes looking for us."
As promised, once breakfast was out of the way, Xena used her powerful muscles to haul the wooden tub into the room. Gabrielle sat on the bed and waited as the warrior carried bucket after bucket of steaming hot water in. "How big is this tub?" she called out when she heard the nineteenth and twentieth bucketful's being poured in.
"It's normal size." Xena huffed, a bit winded from running back and forth with the buckets so quickly. "You just never realized how much water it really takes to draw a bath." she set the buckets down, careful not to put them where they would be in the bard's way. "You ready?"
"I guess so." she replied, her hands going to the laces of her top. Much to her annoyance, a knot had formed that she couldn't figure out by feel alone. "Xena "
"I'll get it." she crossed the room and knelt down in front of the bard. Long fingers worked quickly and soon the knot was untied. She helped Gabrielle out of the green top before standing back up. "Do you need help with the rest of it?" the bard shook her head and shrugged out of the remainder of her clothing. Xena guided her to the tub and helped her settle in before handing her the soap and washing cloth.
"Uh you're not going to leave, are you?" Gabrielle asked in a 'I don't want to be alone' tone.
"No." she replied, pleased that the bard wanted her to stay. "I've got to polish my armor anyway." truth be told, the brass on her armor was already polished to a brilliant finish and her sword was sharp enough to slice through a tomato without bruising it. "I'll be over here if you need me."
"Okay, well, just in case I need the towel or something." Gabrielle replied, running the soapy cloth up her arm and across her shoulder.
When she was finished washing her body, Xena crossed the room and knelt down next to the wooden tub. "I'll wash your hair if you like." the bard paused momentarily before handing the soap over.
"I can do it myself, you know." despite her words, Gabrielle shifted to allow the warrior better access.
"I know you can." Xena murmured, working a lather up in her hands before running them through the soaked tresses. She took her time, turning the hair washing into a gentle massage. Starting at the front, her strong fingers rubbed in gentle circular motions across the bard's temples, back over delicate ears, continuing until they reached the base of the neck. "How's that feel?" she whispered.
"Mmm, nice." Gabrielle replied, letting her head fall forward. Xena set the soap back in the water and used both hands to massage the bard's shoulders and upper back. The only sounds were the lapping of water against Gabrielle's skin and the occasional groan when warrior fingers hit a particularly stiff muscle. Xena took her time, the washing forgotten completely as her hands slid across the bard's soapy back. Only when the water verged on tepid did Gabrielle reluctantly straighten up. "I'd better rinse off."
"Oh." Xena answered, pulling her hands back. She had become completely engrossed in her task and her fingers felt the loss of the warmth of the bard's skin keenly. She reached for the towel and lightly patted the excess moisture out of Gabrielle's hair before helping her out of the tub.
Once dressed in clean clothes, the bard allowed herself to be led to the bed. Xena picked up the brush and settled in behind the smaller frame, leaning against the wall for support. It only took a gentle tug on Gabrielle's waist to get her to move back until she was settled between the warrior's legs.
With the ease born of moons of practice, Xena carefully brushed the golden strands until all the tangles were gone before beginning the laborious process of weaving thin braids throughout the bard's hair. Even though Gabrielle wouldn't know otherwise, Xena made certain that there were no loose strands, even going back and redoing one side to make certain that it was perfectly symmetrical to the other. Only when she was completely satisfied with the results did she let her hands rest on the bard's shoulders. "All finished."
"How's it look?" Gabrielle asked, her hands going up to feel the perfect braids.
"Beautiful, just like you." Xena replied, giving the shoulders under her hands a gentle squeeze. "I need to go help Mother with some of the chores. Do you want to stay here or go out in the main room?"
"Are there people out there?" she cocked her head to hear, but their room was too far away from the tavern area.
"I'll stay here." Gabrielle said, a note of sadness in her voice.
"You sure? I can put you near the bar and Mother could keep you company."
"No, Cyrene doesn't need to babysit me. I'll be fine here." she scooted forward until she was sitting on the edge of the bed to allow the warrior to get out from behind her. Taking care of her. Gabrielle cringed at the thought of having to depend on Xena to care for her for the rest of her life. It was a burden she just couldn't place on her, no matter what. And she had no doubt that the proud warrior would do exactly that, even if it meant giving up her quest for atonement in order to play nursemaid. "Um, Xena? I still want to leave for Poteidaia tomorrow."
A thousand tiny arrows flew from the bard's mouth with those words, all settling deep in Xena's soul. "I guess if that's what you really want to do."
"I think it's for the best, Xena. Lila and Mother will take care of me."
"I " she lowered her head, swallowed hard, then nodded. "Whatever you want, Gabrielle. I've got to go help Mother now. I'll be back later."
Standing behind the bar, Cyrene watched as Xena approached. Her daughter's face rarely showed emotion, but even from across the room she could see the pain and torment on the bronzed features. "I have to go check on Argo. Can you check on Gabrielle for me from time to time?"
"How long are you going to be gone?"
"A candlemark, maybe longer. I may go to the smith's and get a new set of shoes for Argo. Gabrielle wants me to take her back to Poteidaia tomorrow." Xena looked down at the chipped wooden top of the bar. "I guess I can't blame her." she said in a much lower voice. Years of tending bar had taught Cyrene to pick out the words or tones that indicated the need to talk. Although it seemed unlikely that her wayward daughter would ever share such personal things with her, the previous day's conversation gave her hope and the innkeeper decided to take the chance. She reached under the bar and pulled out a mug, filling it with her best port and setting it in front of the leather clad woman. Xena looked at her mother quizzically before sniffing the dark liquid. "Where you been hiding this stuff?"
"I keep this hidden. There's not enough for everyone." Cyrene replied. "You were saying that Gabrielle wants to leave tomorrow?"
"I can't say I blame her." Xena sighed. "Not after what I did to her." she took a deep swallow and turned sideways, gazing at the fire. "You know, there was a time when she was afraid that I would make her go home." she gave a small snort. "Home " she took another swallow. "Her home is with me, at least it used to be." she upended the mug and drained the contents before setting it down on the counter and looking at her mother. "I guess I'd better go take care of Argo and stock up on supplies." she lightly knocked her knuckles on the counter. "I'll be back later."
Cyrene headed to Gabrielle's room, the words she had heard still repeating themselves in her mind. She had never heard Xena in such pain, not even when Lyceus had died. She thought about talking to Gabrielle, sharing with her what she had heard, but a nagging thought held her back. The young woman that chose to call Xena friend was extremely loyal and also very sensitive to others. If she thought that her leaving would in any way cause Xena to give up on her quest, Cyrene doubted that Gabrielle would go. The innkeeper didn't want to trap the young woman that way, not by making her feel responsible for Xena. No, there had to be another way. She frowned. Her daughter had said that Gabrielle wanted to go back to her home village tomorrow. Cyrene straightened her back and lifted her chin as the answer to that problem came to her. She formulated her plan on her way to the room she had given to the young woman.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle are you in there?" she called after her knock went unanswered.
"Come in, Cyrene." the bard replied, wiping the tears from her face just as the door opened. "I um I was just resting."
"I'm sorry to have disturbed you then, but I was wondering if I could talk to you for a moment." she sat down on the bed next to the bard. "I understand that you want Xena to escort you to Poteidaia tomorrow."
"Yes, I I think it's best to get to my family as soon as possible so we can all get used to this." she fidgeted with the hem of her skirt.
"I don't want to keep you from your family, Gabrielle, but well, you know that Xena doesn't come here unless there's a problem and then she only stays around long enough to fix it and then she moves on. I'm an old woman. There are things around here that need to be repaired, that require a strength that I don't have nor can I afford to pay for it."
"And you're afraid that if I leave that Xena will go as well." Gabrielle finished for her.
"I know I don't have any right to ask you to stay, not after what my daughter did to you "
"How long, Cyrene?" she asked, knowing that she could never refuse a mother's request to spend time with her child, especially the kindly woman that always treated Gabrielle as if she were one of her own children.
"Ten days. If you could give me ten days, I would be eternally grateful." she reached over and took the bard's hand in hers. "Gabrielle, I haven't seen Xena for ten days since before Lyceus died. It's more than just needing the roof fixed. I'm an old woman. I don't have that many summers left. I've already lost one child." she decided not to mention the grandson she never met. "All I have left is Toris and Xena. He tries to visit when he can, but Athens is so very far away. Please, I'm asking you to give me just a few days with her."
There was a momentary silence as the young woman made her decision. "Ten days won't make much difference to me, but if it will help you "
"I could never thank you enough for this, Gabrielle." she said, patting the bard's hand. "I suppose I'd better get to the kitchen and get dinner ready. I'll be sure to put an extra loaf of nutbread aside for you." if things went the way that Cyrene hoped they would, Gabrielle could have a lifetime supply of nutbread.
"Xena, may I speak with you for a moment?" Cyrene asked when the warrior returned two candlemarks later. With an uneasy look, the raven haired woman nodded and followed her mother out into the storage room, the closest thing to a private place in the now busy tavern. "It's been so long since you've been home. You know that you and Toris are all I have."
"Yessss?" she responded, feeling much like a trapped rabbit.
"Well never mind. It's too much to ask." Cyrene said, feigning an apologetic tone.
"Mother, what is it? You know if there's anything I can do ."
"The rains will be coming soon, you know that. Well no, I just can't ask. You have enough to worry about with Gabrielle." she turned away, fussing with the sacks of flour on the shelf. "I can't worry you with something as simple as my leaky roof. I have plenty of buckets." she sighed. "I'll just charge the guests less."
"The roof is leaking? I can fix that."
"No, I can just wait until spring and ask Toris when he arrives. Really, Xena, there's no need to worry. Forget I even mentioned it."
Age-old sibling rivalry reared its ugly head at the same time that guilt did. "Mother, I will fix your roof. I'll take Gabrielle back to Poteidaia tomorrow and then I'll return. You can't wait for him to return and do it. The rains will be here long before that and you depend on the money from the inn. You can't afford to charge less."
"Xena, it's beyond fixing. The whole roof has to be replaced. There won't be enough time to do that before the rains come if you go to Poteidaia and you can't be ripping up the roof when it's pouring out." she hefted one of the sacks of flour and dumped into her daughter's arms. "No, I'll just have to wait for Toris. He'll be able to spend the time to fix it properly when he comes." she gave another sigh.
"You won't have to wait. I'll talk to Gabrielle. I'm sure she'll understand."
"I've already spoken to her, dear. She said she'd wait until you were done with the roof before going back to Poteidaia." she tossed two large jars of molasses on top of the sack in Xena's arms. "You know where to put these. I'll have your uncle Devon deliver the wood tomorrow." she opened the door to the storage room and went back to the main area, smiling to herself at her victory while the warrior stood there, shaking her head slightly with disbelief at how easily her mother had used the same tactics that worked when they were children to get what she wanted.
Xena was on her way back to the room when she heard a loud crash. The door nearly came off its hinges as she flung it open to find Gabrielle curled up on the floor, the table overturned and the pitcher of water turned over. She quickly laid down next to the bard and pulled her close, stroking the sun-kissed hair and making little shushing noises. "I've got you shh it's okay now, I've got you." she repeated over and over to the crying woman.
"I-I can't take this." Gabrielle sobbed. "I can't go through life in this darkness. It's too much, I'm not strong enough." she clung fiercely to Xena, her grip on the warrior's arms almost painful. "I just wanted to get a cup of water. I can't take this."
"Yes you can. Gabrielle, you're the strongest person I know." she reached between them and brushed her thumb across the tears that covered the bard's face. "You've stood up to Titans, fought gods, even challenged me with a pitchfork. You CAN do this, trust me."
"But I could see then." she sniffed, releasing her grip on Xena's bicep. "I'm useless now."
"You are NOT useless, do you hear me? You are a beautiful, intelligent, caring woman who is destined for greatness, with or without your sight." she continued to let her thumb brush back and forth across the bard's cheek. "I know it's hard, Gabrielle, but you can get through this."
"You know?" she scoffed, sitting up and moving back from the warrior's embrace. "I'm the one who won't see another sunset, the glory of flowers in the spring. You lost your sight for a while, but you got it back. All I'll ever see again is black. There's no magical cure for me, Xena. You don't realize all that I've lost. It's not just my sight. I've lost everything these last few moons. My blood innocence, my child, you." the last word carried the most pain.
"You haven't lost me, Gabrielle. I'm right here." she sat up, keeping a slight distance between them. "If there was anything, anything at all that I could do to take back what happened, I would." she drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "Gabrielle, I I never should have taken my rage out on you. No matter what happened, no matter how angry I got, I had no right to be so so violent to you."
"You know " she dropped her hand to her side, the fingers idly twirling in the puddle of water. "I never really feared you. I mean, I've always known that you could snap me like a twig without breaking a sweat, but I've never thought that you'd ever hurt me." she shuddered visibly at the memory of being dragged out of the Amazon village. "Then again, I never thought that I'd be responsible for Solon's death either."
"I'm sorry." Xena said softly. "I-"
"No. My blindness is an accident, right?" she gave a sad smile. "You were willing to lose your sight for me once."
"Lose it *for* you, not because of you. There's a difference." the warrior corrected. She reached for Gabrielle's hand, but pulled back, certain she didn't deserve it. "Please give me a chance to help you now. Stay with me."
"I I can't, Xena." she heard the sad sigh from the warrior and shook her head. "No, it's not that I don't think you deserve it." she turned her head in the direction of her best friend. "I almost cost you your life in China and you forgave me for that. How could I not forgive you for this? That's not the issue."
"Then what is? If you forgive me, then why can't you stay with me?" she absently picked at her laces, working up the courage to ask the question. "Are you are you afraid that I'll hurt you again?"
Gabrielle's first instinct was to say no, to not add to the mountain of guilt she knew Xena was already feeling, but if she learned one thing from the events of the last few moons, it was that no matter how painful the truth was, it was better than having lies festering between them. "I, I suppose that fear will be there, at least for a while anyway." she admitted reluctantly. Xena hung her head with shame. "It's not that." the bard continued, unable to see the look on her friend's face, but knowing that it was there just the same. "I just can't, not like this. Being blind changes everything."
"It doesn't have to. Gabrielle, you could learn to adapt. Perhaps in time-"
"In time I'll still be unable to read a word of poetry, or tell stories, or even write them anymore. I'm only going to end up being a burden to you, Xena. I can't let you give up everything you've worked for because of me. I don't want that."
"What about what I want? Don't I get a say in this?"
"I know you. You want what's best for me, just like I want what's best for you. And no, you don't get a say in this because I know that it's better this way." she rolled over until she was on her knees and stood up. "Would you help me to the bed please? I'm very tired." she said, wanting to end the conversation.
"But it's early. You haven't even eaten dinner yet." Xena replied, rising to her feet.
"I'm tired. Please just help me back to bed." she felt the strong hand grip her lower arm and guide her.
Cyrene was surprised to see Xena sitting at the bar a short while later. "I thought you were going to spend time with Gabrielle?"
"She doesn't want me to." she picked up her port and took a deep swallow, her attention more on the rim of the mug than on her mother. "She's shutting me out, only letting me help her get around and bring her food. When I try to talk to her about staying, she refuses. Just keeps telling me that she's going back to Poteidaia."
"You're not helping her, you know." the innkeeper said, reaching behind the bar for clean mugs and a pitcher of port for one of the patrons. "If she wants to eat, make her come out here to get it." to her daughter's shocked expression she said "Xena, you're just making it harder for her. As long as you run around doing everything for her, she's never going to learn to live with her blindness."
"Mother, it's not that simple."
"Isn't it?" she loaded the mugs and port onto a tray and walked away to tend to her customers.
Xena slipped into the room quietly, not wanting to disturb the bard. "I'm awake." Gabrielle said.
"Oh. I was trying to be quiet."
"I know, but every sound somehow seems louder now. Or at least I notice them more. Guess it's true what they say about other senses becoming stronger when we lose one." her tone was less than enthusiastic. "I need to go to the pot."
Her first impulse was to reach out and take Gabrielle's hand, but Cyrene's words replayed themselves in her mind. "Um it's six paces from the bed, to the left."
"Xena, help me please." the bard said in a completely annoyed tone. The warrior took a deep breath, questioned whether it was the right thing to do, then repeated her statement.
"Six paces, to the left. Gabrielle, you have to learn where everything is." she tried to keep her tone firm, but inside her resolve was crumbling. Xena released a breath she didn't realize she had been holding when she saw a dejected bard put her feet on the floor and stand up.
"Fine, don't bother. I'll find it myself." Gabrielle grumbled. She took one step forward then stopped, her hands feeling around in the air. Her next step was shorter, more apprehensive. "Help me." she asked.
"You can do this." Xena urged, moving closer but not touching, much like a mother helping a child take their first steps. Gabrielle took another step, the fear even more pronounced on her face.
"Help me." she reached out and her hand brushed against the warrior's arm, but when she tried to get a grip, Xena reluctantly pulled out of the way.
"It's okay. There's nothing there to hurt you."
"Xena!" she growled.
"Do it. Only a few more steps."
"Why won't you help me?" the bard said angrily. "You want to see me walk into a wall?"
"Gabrielle..." every fiber of her being wanted to reach forward and guide her friend, but still she held back. "You can do this. Trust me." slowly, carefully, the bard moved forward, certain that at any moment she would smack into a wall or a piece of furniture. "Okay, just a little to your left...there, that's the armrest." with half the mission accomplished, Xena relaxed only a little, knowing full well that the battle to get back to the bed was still to come.
"I suppose you're going to make me do this on my own too?" Gabrielle asked testily.
"Yes. You have to learn where everything is. I'm not trying to be mean to you, I'm trying to help." Xena replied, even though she felt that being mean was exactly what she was doing. After all, it was her fault that Gabrielle couldn't see where she was going.
"This isn't helping me. Making sure I don't walk into the furniture is helping. I can't see. I don't know where anything is. Don't you understand? I can't tell if I'm an arm's length away from something or if it's right in front of my nose." she slowly worked her way back to the bed, stopping when her knees came into contact with the soft side of the feather mattress. Thinking she was in the middle, Gabrielle lifted her knee and rolled onto the bed. However, she was near the end and the movement caused her to fall off, only missing the floor by the grace of the warrior's quick actions. Instead of the cold hard surface, she found herself safely secured in Xena's arms. Scared by the sudden and unexpected movement, Gabrielle clung to the woman whom she had been yelling at only moments before.
"It's okay, I've got you." the raven haired woman said, using her powerful legs to stand up from the kneeling position she had been in. She gently deposited the bard back on the bed and sat down next to her, reaching over to brush a wayward lock of hair off the young woman's forehead. The silence dragged out for a few moments before Gabrielle spoke.
"I remember another time you said that." she said softly.
"The lava pit?"
"Gabrielle " she reached out and took the smaller hand in hers, the action seeming perfectly normal after the constant touching of the last few days. "I want you to know that I'll always be there for you, not just when you're dangling over a river of lava."
"Um I think you'd better get some sleep. You have a busy day tomorrow." the bard said, faking a yawn.
"Oh, yeah. Do you want me to see if Mother ?"
"No, the bed's large enough. No sense bothering her for another room." she squeezed the warrior's callused hands. "Actually, I'd feel better if you stayed here anyway." she admitted.
"Hey " Xena took her free hand and lightly ran her knuckles along the bard's cheek. "I'll be here as long as you want." 'As long as you let me.' she thought to herself.
Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)
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