Disclaimers: Character’s not mine. No profit intended. Stay away if illegal or underage. Subtext friendly, and all the rest of the norm applies. "Old hat, dear." WARNING: This is not a happy story. I’m serious here. Many thanks to those friends who were brave enough to give this a pre-read. You’re comments were invaluable.

All comments (yeah, even the bad) to Pallas3@yahoo.com

 

Beyond and Forever

by Pallas
Pallas3@yahoo.com

Diary Entry ...

"I have to tell her. I can’t avoid it forever. I know she’s already suspecting, but from her face I can see that she’s too afraid to ask. Please forgive me, but I’m just too frightened to tell her. She loves me, and I’m absolutely terrified of losing that. Just knowing she’s here is about all the comfort I have right now, and I’m clinging to her love with all my strength, praying it will sustain me later. It’s not right! I need to be with her, helping her, doing what I’ve always done — loving her. It’s going to change too soon, and there is nothing I can do to alter that. I fear what will be left behind, and how can I help her then? It isn’t — "

"Ungh," the bard mumbled, compressing a hand against her side, her quill dropped and forgotten. She held her breath as the pain racked her body.

A warmth touched her shoulder, and with a concentrate effort she composed herself and looked into the shadowed face of the warrior. No words were needed to speak the concern coming from the taller woman.

"I’m okay," Gabrielle said, aware that the words faltered with the pain still attacking her body. "It’s just cramps. You know ... that time and all."

"It’s been ‘that time’ for quite some time now, Gabrielle," Xena said kneeling, her hand falling casually across the bard’s thigh. "Tell me."

Gabrielle heard the unveiled fear and hesitation in those two words. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it in wordless silence, her mind unable to unleash her heart’s secret agony.

Her verdant eyes captured the ice blue ones, and she reached out, caressing her beloved’s face. ‘Soon,’ her look and touch said. ‘Very soon.’

Xena seized her hand and brought it tenderly to her lips. The bard closed her eyes, clinging to the love in the warrior’s touch. Opening her eyes she smiled gently at the woman who was her reason and soul. It was clear that if she dwelt on what lay ahead she’d never be able to smile again. Somehow, the ice blue eyes reflected this understanding, and she knew that Xena realized the silence was easier than hearing the truth. Easier for them both. She gave the warrior’s hand a squeeze.

"I’m ... it’ll be okay, Xena. Trust me."

"I always have."

"Yes, you have. Why?" For some reason Gabrielle needed to know.

"Because you believed in me," Xena replied, her eyes losing focus, and the bard watched her swallow hard. "You were the only one who ever did."

Gabrielle nodded slowly, and was about to speak again when she felt the building pressure in her side, giving advance warning of burgeoning pain. She braced herself, and with a courageous effort released the warrior’s hand.

"Go on," she said, hoping her shallow breathing wasn’t too noticeable. "Let me have my writing time, okay?"

Xena’s head shook in refusal, and she opened her mouth to speak, but then in a quick, passionate move she jumped to her feet and fled. Gabrielle watched her go, her hand pressed tightly to her throbbing side. The lump in her throat hurt almost more than the pain which tore through her body. When it finally subsided, she picked up her quill and tried to continue.

"Why is this happening to me? It wasn’t supposed to be this way! I feel so angry, so betrayed. Betrayed by my own body, and gods, I feel like I’m betraying her. She just told me that I’m the only one who believed in her, and that she ‘s always trusted me. That makes me feel just great when I know that I’m — Oh, how am I going to show her that she doesn’t need me anymore?"

Gabrielle looked up from her writing, her sad eyes watching the gently swaying trees. "How’m I going to teach her to let me go?" she asked out loud, unaware of the tall silent warrior leaning against a tree behind her. With a swipe at her eyes, Xena turned and stalked off into the thick woods.

"It’s going to get harder, and it won’t be much longer before I’ll be too sick to travel. It’s already hard keeping up with Xena, and not letting her know. Thank the gods we haven’t had to fight anyone in the past few weeks. It’s funny, but I used to bet myself how long we could go before a fight. Lately the gaps seem to be getting longer and longer. Maybe Xena just doesn’t feel like fighting, or maybe she’s avoiding things for my sake.

Gods, I love her. How am I ever going to leave her? What happens beyond this, I wonder? Will I be able to see her? Hear her thoughts? Will she ever know how much she means to me? Will she know that nothing has changed between us except the physical plane? I’m so scared..."

The bard chewed on the tip of the quill and stared at that one word. In fact the fear was more poignant and bitter than the ache in her side, and each grew worse with the relentless march of time. It was the fear that made her heart flip in her chest when she found herself watching Xena with longing and remorse. She knew that she had to tell her partner, but the question that plagued her wasn’t when, but how.

She heard the crunch of the warrior’s boots, and from the heavy footfall she could tell that her partner was angry. Gabrielle shook her head sadly, knowing it was a sense of helplessness and loss of control that fed the warrior’s anger, but there was no way for her to quell those feelings. No way to save her love pain.

An armful of wood was dropped with an exaggerated crash near the fire pit. A piece must have landed on the warrior’s foot because Xena yelped in pain, and in a rough lunge she picked up the offensive wood and threw it with all her might against a nearby tree. A plagued cry spilled from her as the log splintered into tiny fragments.

"Damn, Ares!" Xena yelled, kicking at the rest of the wood, scattering it across the ground like confused ants. "Damn Zeus and all the rest of the gods, too! Damn everything." The warrior stood there, both hands clenched at her side and her shoulders tense and ready to strike out.

Without a word, Gabrielle lay her writing aside, and climbed to her feet. She enveloped the warrior in her arms, wanting to take the burden from her love, but knowing that she could only bring comfort.

For a long second Xena didn’t move, and Gabrielle feared that perhaps it was too late to reach her, but then the strong arms she’d come to depend on closed around her, and she was crushed against the warrior. The intensity of the embrace was filled with confusion and anguish. All Gabrielle wanted to feel was love, but the fear and pain overrode her senses until her own soul echoed only grief.

The bard couldn’t remember when Xena began crying, but her heart sensed the shift long before she heard the tormented tones. With shaking hands that soothed more like a mother than a lover, she stroked the warrior’s dark hair.

At the touch, Xena’s arms tightened, and her body began to collapse. Gabrielle felt all of her love’s weight tugging her to the ground, and in her own weakened state she fell to her knees in sync with her partner. At that second, the world ceased it’s relentless turning.

As Xena’s head rested on Gabrielle’s shoulder, the first sobs escaped her love. In a moment of total, overwhelming helplessness, the bard held her warrior as the strongest woman she’d ever known broke.

Gabrielle let Xena cry.

There was nothing she could do to stop it, and she silently wondered why she couldn’t find her own release through tears. Tears weren’t an option for her. Tears were weakness, and it was Xena that she needed to be strong for now. She’d be the one left behind.

"It’ll be okay, my love," she said soothingly. "You’ll see."

Fingers dug painfully into her back, but Gabrielle relished the feeling.

"Cry, Xena, let it out. Let it go." She took a breath. "Let me go, my love."

"I won’t!" Xena sobbed against her shoulder, and the bard fought for strength. "I can’t."

"Xena ..." Gabrielle tried to speak, but it was just too painful. Closing her eyes, she just pulled the warrior closer.

An eternity could have passed in those moments. When the bard finally looked, the daylight had fled, and they were deeply entangled in the night’s dark web. Xena’s arms had never loosened around her, and despite the discomfort, Gabrielle wished never to move. Enclosed in those strong, capable arms she could feel no pain, and now more than ever she needed the warrior’s strength to continue on this most difficult of journeys. Would Xena be able to give her all that she needed now? Gabrielle feared that she might be asking more from her love than she was capable of giving.

"Xena," she whispered, her voice sounding very loud against the warrior’s shoulder. "I think we need to talk."

"Never did like those words," the warrior replied, slowly releasing her hold and sitting back.

The cold night air hit her like a fist. Something in her wanted to lie to Xena. She needed to maintain the physical contact and sense of normality for as long as possible, but that was wrong. It was time they both got used to the cold and separation.

For the first time in her life words deserted her, and she was left staring at Xena in impotent silence. Oh, but her heart was crying so many things that Gabrielle had to put her palm against her chest to calm the anxious pounding. Closing her eyes she allowed her hand to wander to her side, her fingers feeling for the small lump that had become both her relentless adversary and constant companion.

Looking up she found Xena silently watching her. The moonlight was glinting off her features, bathing her in a glow that was almost spectral. Without a word, she leaned forward and grasped the warrior’s hand, pulling it towards her side. She pushed Xena’s fingers over the mass, watching with a sinking heart as the warrior’s face fell in confirmation.

"Why didn’t you tell me?"

"I dunno. I guess I just wanted, or needed everything to go on like normal for as long as possible," she said, her eyes closed in guilt. "Besides, there wasn’t anything you could do."

"I could’ve tried. There are things that can be done now."

The bard ran a finger down Xena’s face, feeling the wetness bathing her fingertips. "Oh, my love. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to worry you."

"But you’ll let me lose you? Damn it, Gabrielle. Of all the stupid, thoughtless, unbelievable ..."

"I didn’t have a choice, Xena! My grandmother had it. My aunt had it. I have it. There is no cure, and I couldn’t face that and you at the same time." She ran a shaky hand through her hair. "I just wanted you to love me."

"Like I’d stop?!"

"Like you’d leave me," Gabrielle whispered, looking away, grateful for the darkness which hid her fears and self reproaches from the warrior. "I’m so scared, Xena. So, frightened, and it hurts so badly." She reached out and covered her love’s hand, her eyes searching Xena’s face with desperation.

"So ... what do we do now?" Xena asked in a quiet voice, while looking away.

The bard bit at her lip, feeling another gripping pain rising in her chest. She had seen the look on Xena’s face. It was painfully obvious that she needed, or wanted, to be spared from the grisly facts for as long as possible.

Drawing a pained breath she tried to fight her way through the attack but it wasn’t working. She just wasn’t strong enough to keep pretending. A muffled cry escaped her lips, and she thrust her hand against her side.

"No, more, please!" she cried, rolling into a fetal position, trying anything to stem the savage agony.

In a second Xena was on her feet, scooping the bard into her arms. Gabrielle collapsed against the warrior with a weak sigh as her partner settled them on the bed roll. Xena held her through the pain, her arms tight and strong. Periodically she would feel Xena’s lips against her forehead, and that sensation became her point of focus in the pain. She slowly turned her head and leaned forward until she’d captured the warrior’s lips with her own. It was nothing but a light touch, but it was enough. Just feeling Xena’s lips against her own was enough to overpower the sickness, and gradually the pain retreated to its dark corner to wait for its next crushing attack.

"I’m here, Gabrielle," the warrior said, gently rocking her in the darkness.

"Xena ..."

"Ssshhh, just rest now." Her fingers brushed against Gabrielle’s face. "Gods, your skin is like ice. I’ll start a fire and then we’ll get some hot soup into you. You’ll feel better then. I know you will. Soup will help. And tea. You have to have some tea," she said, moving the bard to the ground and climbing to her feet, excited to have something to do.

"Yeah, that sounds good," Gabrielle replied, not having the heart to tell Xena that she no longer felt like eating, or that for the past few days she’d thrown up almost everything she’d eaten. Her body was rejecting all nourishment now.

A roaring fire blazed, and Gabrielle sat enticed by the flames while Xena busied herself with throwing together a soup. Gabrielle’s eyes fixed on the warrior’s strong back, and despite all the love she felt for Xena, she found herself intensely jealous of her partner’s health. That thought bothered her, and trying to shake it out of her mind she picked up her quill, determined to give voice for her fears, dreams and feelings not yet spoken to Xena.

"Well, now you know. You’re right, where do we go from here? All of our certainties are gone now. Our dream is gone. What I’ve been concealing from you is in the open, and I can’t put it back in the darkness again. I know that I’m running a huge risk here. Will you leave me now? Will my sickness and approaching death make you run? I promise , Xena ... I won’t blame you if you do. I know it isn’t because you don’t love me, only that you can’t stand to watch it happen. I confess that I half wonder if it wouldn’t be better if you did go. I’m not sure if I can look into your face everyday and gradually know it might be the last look, and know you are thinking the same thing. Why would you stay with me and go through all that? Leave me now while you can still remember me alive and happy. No, don’t do that. I want you by my side. I need you!"

She looked up from her writing, ashamed of her cowardice. Deep inside she knew it would be better if she sent Xena away, but that wasn’t possible. She needed Xena by her side. Right or wrong they shared a bond. Life or death they would be together. Looking back at her diary she had to explain this to Xena.

"Why did it turn out like this? How could the fates work so cruelly against us? We had it all, Xena. More than most people, and for that I am grateful. I’ve known a love that is beyond my understanding, and it won’t end because I do. It is ceaseless and united despite our frail bodies. At another time ... in another place ... we will find each other again. I believe in that like I believe in nothing else. I have to. It’s the only thing that comforts me, but can I make you understand in time?"

"Here you go. It’s not much, but at least it’s hot and it’s nourishing." Xena sat next to her and held a cup to her lips, trying to pour the hot liquid into her mouth. "Got to keep your strength up. Now, drink."

"Hey," Gabrielle said, pushing the cup away. "I’m not a complete invalid, yet. I can still hold a cup!"

"Oh, right. Sorry," Xena said, pulling back, her face dejected and her eyes hurting.

"Wait. I’m sorry. You were only trying ... I just want ... C’mere." The bard held her arms open, and slowly the warrior settled back against her. She reached and took the soup from her beloved’s hand. "Share with me," she said, holding the cup to her partner’s mouth.

"I always thought it would be me, you know," Xena said taking a swallow of the hot soup. "To go first, I mean."

"The law of probability’s a bitch," Gabrielle joked, taking a small, tentative sip of the soothing liquid.

"I won’t let you go alone," the warrior said with a quiet conviction that made Gabrielle freeze in fear. She looked off into the darkness for a long minute, her thoughts conflicting sharply with her emotions.

"How’m I supposed to respond to that, Xena? What should I say?"

She felt the warrior shrug against her. "You don’t need to respond."

"I want so much for you. Do you have any idea of all that I want for you? I’m sorry, my love, but those dreams don’t include a pointless death."

"And do you know my only dream is you, Gabrielle?"

The bard leaned forward and gently kissed the warrior’s head. "I know. But I’ll hear no more talk about you following me into death. Do you hear me?"

Only silence answered her, and that was like having her heart ripped out. She knew Xena had made up her mind. Tears brimmed her eyes and a stinging lump rose in her throat. As the tears rolled silently down her face she slowly stroked the warrior’s dark hair. It amazed her that she couldn’t find the tears for herself, but she only had to think of Xena’s death and they’d flow without hesitation.

Nothing was right anymore. Without her permission her life had been changed, and no amount of skill could change it back. The hopelessness that she battled daily took hold of her soul, and she felt worn out, desperate for release.

"I’m so tired," she said into Xena’s hair, but when the warrior started to move the bard held her tight. "Don’t move yet, please." At her request, her love relaxed back against her.

"Gabrielle, I’m frightened ..." It came out in a barely audible whisper.

"I know, dear. I know what you’re feeling." She swallowed hard. "It is going to be hard, but I’ll help you through it. Like always, I’ll stand by you, Xena. Always."

"I don’t know if I can accept this."

Words were useless now, so the bard wrapped her arms tighter around Xena in response. A desperate need to protect her partner from the pain made her angry in her impotence. Her heart was being ripped apart at the thought of leaving her warrior, yet she knew that Xena would be the one suffering more. Gabrielle had to find someway to give comfort, strength, love and hope to Xena. She had to continue the fight, even if it meant fighting alone. But Gabrielle didn’t know where to begin, so she contented herself with laying her cheek against Xena’s dark head, and breathing in her scent. The words would come in time.

An almost impassable silence settled between them as both women fought with the reality of not knowing what to say to the other. Gabrielle could feel the warrior’s jaw clench and release, and to quiet her love’s tempestuous spirit, she began humming softly. To her surprise Xena began humming too, and Gabrielle realized the warrior was trying to reach out to her as well.

"Do you want to go home?" Xena finally asked, her voice tight and controlled.

"I am home," the bard replied. "You’ve always been my home. You always will be."

"But your parents, and Lila. Um ... don’t you want to be with them when ..." the warrior’s voice trailed off.

Gabrielle didn’t know how to verbalize that the last thing she wanted to see was Xena. She knew that as her vision faded into the beckoning darkness that she needed to take a part of the warrior’s soul with her. Otherwise she’d be making the journey alone, and she and Xena always traveled togther.

"I want you to take care of me," she said softly, and then recognized the gauntlet of her request. With her heart in her throat, she fought for the words to undo the damage. "I mean, unless you think that it’s something you can’t ... Or if you don’t want ... um ... Do you think I should go home?"

Her heart stopped while she waited for the answer. Here she was, standing on the verge of an abyss that was about to devour her, and all she wanted was to live one more day in the embrace of love. Losing the heart of the one person who had become her life and sole source of happiness was more terrifying than throwing herself head first into the arms of death.

When the warrior didn’t answer, Gabrielle’s spirit broke under the strain, and she hated herself for not finding the courage to force an answer. Maybe Xena just needed time. Gabrielle could only hope her body would give them that luxury.

"I’m sleepy," Gabrielle said, needing some time alone to collect herself. With an effort that left her winded, she disentangled herself from Xena and climbed to her feet. The warrior watched in silence, her face tight in the firelight but her eyes sad and resigned.

Gabrielle stood with her arms at her side and stared back, a thousand unspoken truths passed between them. Finally the bard nodded and turned away. Her hand was clenched tighter than her heart, and she stared into the dark forest with envy, wishing she had the courage to just walk away and spare Xena all of this.

With her spirit in turmoil, she froze when she heard Xena stand. Her body and soul craved the warrior’s touch, but as the footsteps disappeared into the night, Gabrielle knew a battle was raging inside her best friend and love. Would Xena have the strength to win this fight with herself, or would the demons of her tortured spirit would finally succeed in engulfing all she knew? Gabrielle turned slowly and looked into the dark woods which had swallowed the warrior. She might never see the same Xena emerge, and if the warrior lost this fight, their rapidly disintegrating lives would be forever split.

She lacked the strength to follow. The weakness she’d fought all day, finally won out over her will, and she was left frail and drained. The bard struggled to get herself ready for bed, each effort leaving her feeling so tired she could barely hold her head up.

Sitting before the firelight her fingers again searched out her fatal flaw. It had become a sick routine with her, and each time her fingers danced across her skin she hoped and prayed that maybe the mass would be gone this time. Just like every time before, her hand recoiled, as if burned, when it brushed against the silently invading enemy. Her hand returned slowly and explored the defect like a lover, her mind again trying to grasp the ultimate meaning. Somehow all she could think of was leaving Xena alone and hurting. Beyond that was a mystery that had yet to be revealed to her.

Scowling at her self pity and regret, she removed her hand and quickly pulled her night shirt over her head. She tossed another log onto the dying fire, and settled on the bed roll to watch the dancing flames and patiently await her love’s return.

Her Amazon staff was close, and with an ironic chuckle Gabrielle hefted the sturdy wood to her lap. She gingerly touched the ancient carved designs recalling with bittersweet memories what each etching meant to her tribe. Clenching the staff in her hand she thought about going to the village to die. It would be appropriate and expected. She could give the rite of caste to Ephiny, and maybe find some peace with herself. Shaking her head, she lay the staff aside and reclaimed her quill and diary.

"Boy, I’m sure writing a lot lately. I think it’s so she’ll know my thoughts and feelings completely and without question. I’ve told her so many times that I love her that I’m sure it must sound comical now. I know I never tire of hearing it from her, but then again she’s always been more reserved in voicing her feelings. But it’s enough to know that she loves me. It’s made me happy.

I’m sorry that I hurt her by not confessing everything sooner. I really did want to spare her the pain before it couldn’t be avoided, but I also think I wanted to just live like I always had; a normal healthy person. If I’d told anyone about the pains then I’d have been sequestered away like a priceless object, everyone watching and waiting for me to breathe my last. That’s not how I want to end everything. I was right, cause in the past few months since the pains first began I’ve been able to help so many. I’ve been able to be with her, enjoying a freedom that I wouldn’t have had if she’d known. What’s wrong with that?

I’m afraid she’s not going to come back. No, I know she’ll come back, but what part of her will face me? I’ve met so many different sides of her that it’s like collecting snowflakes. Everyone is different and they often disappear very quickly. Gods, I want the innocent Xena to come back. I think that’s the side I love most. It’s her most vulnerable and she doesn’t show it to anyone but me. I cherish that. I need her acceptance and understanding now more than ever, but if she comes back the stubborn old warrior, then I know we’ll both be losing ourselves. If she thinks by ignoring this it will all go away, then I’ll never be able to help her with everything before — before I go.

How long do I have, I wonder? I know once my aunt stopped eating things went quickly. I was young and mama kept me away, but I knew. Will I be missed? Will the world even know I was here? Will Xena always love me?"

The bard stifled a yawn and decided she couldn’t wait any longer. Xena would come back when she was ready. Life ... or death wouldn’t wait on her, and Gabrielle knew she needed to sleep. She wrapped up her parchment, her fingers lovingly tracing the leather binding Xena had made for her. Swallowing hard she prayed that she’d see the same loving eyes which had given her that gift the following morning.

"Please come back, Xena. I need you more than you’ll know. Don’t slip away from me yet. Please," she begged the stars overhead before her weakened body drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

Xena hadn’t gone far. Something wouldn’t let her, and with only the moonlight guiding her shattered spirit, she made her way to a small secluded lake near the camp. With an angry sneer she eyed the lake, her heart filling with bitter rancor. The lake took on a sinister look as she remembered her plan to take Gabrielle swimming here the next day. A nice, relaxing-do-nothing day, which the warrior hoped would revitalize her young love.

"That’ll never happen again," she said, climbing onto a large boulder and watching the shimmering moon dance across the still waters. "All our plans ... our dreams ... our future ... It’s going with her."

Her stomach was twisting and turning on her like a sheet in the wind and she hated it. She hated feeling helpless. She hated feeling like she’d been betrayed. She wanted to hate Gabrielle for getting sick, but how could she? How could she hate what she loved most?

She clenched up her hand and slammed it against the side of the rock. A rage was rolling through her, and she wanted to scream against the agony. It just wasn’t possible. Gabrielle couldn’t be dying.

"It should be me! I can’t live without her. I won’t."

The yawning gates of Hades opened before her, and she knew what her fate would be, but at that moment, an eternity of torture was more palatable than living one day without Gabrielle. Xena wondered when it became such an easy decision. How had Gabrielle managed to entwine her heart so tightly with hers? It didn’t seem possible that either one could live apart. Would death be the ultimate separation, or just a pause in a love everlasting? Which choice would honor Gabrielle and her love more?

With trembling clarity, Xena knew that she had to go back. There was no question. Her place was at Gabrielle’s side, no matter how hard it was going to be. She was going to have to sit and watch her life light go out, and there was nothing she could do about it. Gabrielle would not be going into the darkness, but she’d be leaving the warrior totally engulfed in it, shadowed and alone.

With brimming eyes, she looked overhead at the stars. They suddenly didn’t look as bright or beautiful as they did when she watched them with Gabrielle. Everything around her was dimmer in her grief. A thoughtless haze settled over her, and she stared blankly at the peaceful lake, which did nothing to quiet her tortured soul.

From somewhere in the night an owl hooted, bringing the warrior out of her silent ruminations. She blinked and looked around her. The moon had set long ago, and with a shiver, Xena knew that she’d been out there too long. She couldn’t leave Gabrielle alone that long again. What if —

Not finishing the thought she got to her feet, and with slow heavy steps made her way back to the camp. The fire had settled into glowing embers which guided the warrior back, through the dark woods, to her temple.

Entering the camp Xena stopped and just stood silently, her eyes fastened on Gabrielle’s sleeping form. Her face looked so peaceful that the warrior felt tears spring to her eyes at the injustice. Everything in her wanted to run over and just gather the bard into her arms and protect her from everything. She’d fight death if she had to; anything to keep Gabrielle safe.

"Ah, Gabrielle ..." she whispered, crossing the camp and settling down next to her partner. "You’re going to have to help me though this. I’ve never been as strong as you."

She lay a protective arm across the bard’s body and pulled her closer.

Gabrielle opened her eyes with the first rays of light. Despite the familiar ache in her side, she felt better than she had in awhile. Maybe it was because everything was out in the open now, or maybe — the bard shifted, feeling the warm weight of the warrior against her. She smiled. Maybe it was because Xena had come back. Gabrielle didn’t know exactly what it meant, but she was here and that was all that mattered.

She pulled the warrior’s arm tighter around her and snuggled closer. Xena shifted and easily accommodated the bard’s movements.

"Hey," Xena whispered against her ear.

"Hey, yourself," Gabrielle replied, feeling good with their familiar morning routine.

"How ya feeling?" Xena voice was concerned.

Gabrielle brought one of Xena’s hands up to her lips. "Better now," she said giving the fingertips a light kiss. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"For coming back. I know it’s not something ... well, I don’t want to do this without you."

"I’ll always be there for you, Gabrielle. It just wasn’t ... isn’t something I want to accept. Losing you, I mean. I don’t think I can ... But I’m here. For whatever you need, I’m here."

A rueful smile touched the bard’s face as she weighed her most secret request. "Xena? Can I ask you to do something for me?"

The warrior raised herself up on an elbow. "Anything. You know that."

"Will you take me somewhere, I dunno, memorable?"

"Memorable?"

"A place that we can find peace with ourselves, and share the remaining time ... together."

"Sure, Gabrielle. If that’s what you really want." There was no tone in the voice.

The bard pulled herself away and sat up. She looked down at Xena’s pained face, and ran the back of her hand against the warrior’s tanned cheek.

"Don’t be brave, Xena. Cry if you want. Yell if you feel like it, but please don’t keep it inside until I become a stranger to you. I couldn’t bear that."

"I know. I’ll try." Xena closed her eyes. "I love you, you know? More than anything. More than my own life. You are my life. My heart beats because of you. My breath sustains me because I can share it with you. All my strength comes from you. You are my hero and my whole reason. How can I give all that up? How can I lose you?"

"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle said. "All this time you’ve been holding out on me. You’re a poet!" She smiled, leaning forward and capturing the warrior’s lips in a sweet kiss, luxuriating when she felt Xena’s arms close around her. She pulled back. "That’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever told me."

"Haven’t I told you enough how I feel? I’m sorry. I thought you knew." Strong hands pushed reddish blonde hair out off her face, and then traced the contours of the bard’s face.

"Knowing and hearing are two different things, love." She tilted her head up to the exploring fingers before looking directly at the warrior with deadly seriousness. "Xena, your life will go on without me. You may not like it. I don’t like it. But it will. Over time it’ll get easier, until you — "

"Don’t you dare say I’ll forget you!" Xena’s voice was raised in alarm.

"No, never that. We are fated, beyond this life, to always find each other. I was going to say that you would join me. I’ll wait."

Xena nodded seriously. "I’ll hurry."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but could feel the pain building in her side, threatening to explode and shred her remaining dignity and spirit. She drew in her breath and pushed hard against her side. She knew she’d clenched her jaw when Xena’s fingers traced over her chin, and without a word the warrior pulled her into a tight embrace.

"Let it go, Gabrielle. Feel only me. There is no pain now. Only me. Give me your pain."

She clung to the warrior as if her life depended on it, and at that moment it did. Xena’s hands traced idle patterns on her back, drawing her attention away from the pain. It hurt so badly that she almost screamed against the warrior’s shoulder. The pain was getting worse, and she knew her body was getting weaker. She couldn’t struggle for much longer, and that frightened her so much she tightened her hold on Xena, her anchor and her life.

"Anywhere you want to go, Gabrielle. I’ll take you," Xena said, after Gabrielle let her body relax. The bard heard the resignation in her voice, and it was almost enough to kill her.

"Take me someplace that we’d both love. A place we’d be happy." She knew she was asking her love to take her to a beautiful place that would soon be tainted with death and sorrow. It didn’t seem fair, but she didn’t have the courage to deny herself these last few peaceful moments with Xena.

"I know a place," the warrior said after a long silence. "I was going to take you there anyway. — And it’s close."

Gabrielle nodded her approval.

"There’s this rustic little cabin that someone built and abandoned. I could fix it up, and we’ll pretend — " her voice trailed off.

"We’ll pretend," the bard agreed, pulling back. "We’ll pretend."

Xena wouldn’t let Gabrielle move as she packed up their haphazard camp. Using her famous stubborn streak, she’d finally forced a cup of tea into the bard, and she’d even snuck a few pain herbs into the mix. She smiled contentedly when she caught Gabrielle’s eyes drooping as she leaned against a tree.

The bard looked so tired and worn that Xena wondered why she hadn’t noticed before. Shaking her head, she knew it was because she chose not to notice. The questions that brought up were too painful, and it was easier to just look away and slow their pace.

"You ready?" she asked, standing over the dozing young woman, her fingers trailing through the reddish-blond hair she loved so much.

"Um, yeah. All ready," Gabrielle yawned. "You spiked my tea, didn’t you?"

"Is the pain gone?"

"Not the point."

"It is the point. I’m taking care of you, Gabrielle, and I’ll do what it takes to make you feel better."

Gabrielle’s verdant eyes flashed at her. "Now you listen to me, warrior, I will not live out this time in some herb induced haze, you got that? I’ll handle the pain, but I can’t handle missing one moment with you."

Xena stared at her with her mouth open. Gabrielle reached up and closed it.

"Glad that we got that understood," the bard said, picking up her staff and smiling in triumph. "Which direction?"

Xena walked over and took her by the arm, her face equally smug. "You’re riding with me, missy. And there will be no debate on that." The warrior climbed into the saddle and held her hand out to Gabrielle. "I don’t care if you think you can walk or not, I’m not going to miss the opportunity of being with you. You got that?"

Gabrielle shrugged and gave Xena her hand. "I can live with that. Walking is highly overrated."

It was a glorious feeling, been held protectively in front of Xena as they slowly picked their way through the dense forest. A strange calm had settled over them, and neither woman felt like breaking the peace with unnecessary words. Just knowing that their hearts were beating togther was enough.

Gabrielle didn’t recognize where they were going, but it didn’t matter. As she leaned back against the warrior she realized that all that mattered was being right here, right now. The future may be gone, but she wasn’t going to let one second of the present slip away.

They traveled most of the day, climbing higher into the mountains. The air grew cold against her face, but the bard relished the feeling, especially when Xena pulled her closer. Ever step the horse took seemed to bring her closer to a peaceful existence, and deep in her heart she knew Xena was taking her to the right place.

"It won’t be much longer now," Xena said, when Gabrielle shifted against her. "Can you hold out, or do you want to rest?"

"I’m fine," the bard replied, hiding the fact that the herbs had worn off and her body was beginning to shake against the relentless pain. "Let’s just keep going." She closed her eyes and tried to rest, her mind straining to focus on anything but the growing stabs in her side. Xena must have felt her tension for the warrior picked up the pace, and Gabrielle was again grateful that Xena was with her.

Sometime around sunset Xena stopped their progress. Gabrielle didn’t feel them stop, but opened her eyes against the warrior’s gentle shaking.

"We’re here," Xena said, against her ear.

"Oh, Xena ... it’s beautiful. Really," she said, her eyes taking in the breathtaking panorama surrounding her as Xena helped her off the horse.

The setting sun was sending a plethora of sparkles across the most majestic mountain lake she’d ever seen. Great trees dotted the shores, and they swayed softly in the breeze that rippled the water’s surface. An absolute silence hung in the air that gave the lake scene a feeling of surreal peacefulness. Gabrielle nodded her head, and reached for the warrior’s hand in gratitude.

"Do you like it?" Xena asked, stepping closer.

"I love it. It’s perfect ... thank you."

Xena looked around. "I think the cabin is just over there. You feel like walking ... or would you rather just rest here?"

Gabrielle hooked her arm through the warrior’s. "Lead on," she said with a sweep of her other arm and a teasing smile, the pain forgotten in the adventure.

The cabin was in better shape than either of them expected. The walls were sturdy, and the roof was well thatched. With an amused eye, Gabrielle watched the warrior sizing up the few areas that needed a bit of tweaking to keep them safe and dry, realizing that she was also appraising how to make them more comfortable. Her eyes settled on an old bed frame leaning up against a wall and missing its mattress. It seemed that they both recognized this at the same time, and a silent message passed between them.

"I’ll take care of it," Xena said, her hand giving the bard’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, before she went to check out the river rock fireplace. "This needs cleaning first or we’ll smoke ourselves out."

Gabrielle came up behind her and gently touched her back. "Xena?"

The warrior looked up from the fireplace.

"It’s perfect, but I’m ... tired. Can we do the cleaning and fixing tomorrow? Let’s just sleep outside tonight."

Xena stood up. "Oh damn, I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I wasn’t thinking. Of course, you’re tired. How stupid of me. Thoughtless." Her face fell in self-reproach.

"Hey, it’s okay. I just feel like ... listen, it’s almost dark. Will you sleep with me ... outside ... one last time ...? Like nothing was wrong, and today is just another day?" Her voice betrayed the depth of her feelings and she had to turn away, knowing the longing was plain on her face. "Will you do that?"

With a silent step the warrior came up behind her and gently turned her around. Without a word she lowered her head and captured the bard’s lips. The kiss was devoid of their normal passion, but so filled with understanding, companionship and love that Gabrielle couldn’t remember a more tender moment. She slid her hands around Xena’s neck and entwined her fingers in the warrior’s dark hair. She never wanted to break the contact, and if her body saw fit to end it all in that moment, she knew she could go happily. Xena’s gentle touch echoed her feeling, and Gabrielle knew that with the kiss, Xena was pledging her soul’s loyalty and love in a manner that was uniquely her. Whatever, Gabrielle knew Xena would be with her to the end and beyond.

Finally pulling back, Xena ran the back of her hand down the bard’s cheek. "Anything you want, Gabrielle, name it and it’s yours."

"Gee, now you tell me," Gabrielle joked, her fingers playfully tracing the design on Xena’s armor. "I could’ve had the world!"

"You still can." Xena’s voice was so serious, that Gabrielle knew there was no joke.

The bard leaned into her partner, her head resting against Xena’s shoulder, and her hand laying protectively over the warrior’s heart. "I already do."

She felt Xena shift under her and the warrior’s breath stop in her chest. Gabrielle had no words to say, and all she could do was encircle her love and hold her tight. Finally Xena released her, and ran a hand down her hair. "Okay, enough of this. Let’s get that camp made and some food into you."

"Yeah, sure," the bard replied. She looked up hopefully. "Xena, can we watch the stars together? Like we always do?"

"That’s the only way I want to watch them." She put a hand on the bard’s lower back and propelled her toward the door.

Gabrielle stopped and looked back. "Thanks for bringing me here. I knew you’d find the perfect place for me to — well, it’s right. I can feel that."

Gabrielle sat with her diary at the rough little table and watched as Xena fussed over the fire. She smiled and returned to her writing.

"We’ve been so busy the past few days that I haven’t had any time to write. Xena wouldn’t let me do hardly anything to help fix this place up, but I managed to find little things to keep myself busy. I keep telling her that I’m not dead yet! She doesn’t find this amusing, and I really should stop joking, but what else am I going to do?

But the cabin looks great. I don’t know how she did it, but yesterday she rode up with this fantastic goose down mattress. I’ve never felt anything so soft, and we luxuriated in it for hours. After so many nights on the hard ground this was an indulgence I needed. Not that I wouldn’t sleep on hot coals if it meant sleeping next to her, but a soft bed is so much nicer.

Whatever she’s putting in that tea is helping a lot with the pains. I’m always tired, and at times I feel as if I can hardly pick up my hand, but the sharp pains have been reduced to a constant dull ache. Either that means the herbs are working, or I can’t really feel the pain anymore. Whatever, things seem much better without that knife in my side every few minutes. The herbs make my head rather fuzzy, but I know Xena will just sneak them in if I make a fuss, so to keep peace I’ll just take them. It makes her happy that she’s doing something to help. I just hope that she doesn’t think — well, that’ll happen soon enough, I suppose.

Xena. I can’t believe how great things have been with her. The inevitable is hanging off there in the abyss of our understanding, and we both try very hard to not think about it, but at times I know it’s all we concentrate on. I’m going to die. Wow, my end summed up in four stupid little words, but a thousand words couldn’t begin to capture all that I feel. I know I’m feeling guilty about leaving her, angry for having to, scared of the unknown, and greedy for more time. I’ve got to stop asking why and start accepting. If I don’t, then how can I possibly make her accept and move on afterwards?

She hasn’t spoken of her own death since the night I told her, but I know it’s still there, buried inside her. She won’t worry me again, but she hasn’t forgotten. Why does part of me want to let her follow me? It’s wrong! Totally! But we’d be together, right? No, I can’t do that to her. She has too much life in her, and too many dreams to fulfill. I’ve got to find someway to make her understand this. It is not her time, yet. I can wait for her. We can both wait.

So, that leaves the problem of changing that stubborn mind of hers —"

"Gabrielle, it’s time for some more herbs," Xena said from nearby.

"Um, I’m okay." She didn’t look up from her diary.

"You’re only okay because I’m keeping the herbs in you." The warrior’s voice sounded tired and drawn. "Now, do you think you can keep some soup down? If so, I’ll put them in there."

The bard shrugged, still slightly upset that she’d been unable to hide her inability to retain food anymore. "Probably not," she said, with quiet certainty.

"How are you going to keep your strength up if you don’t eat?"

Gabrielle raised her head at the heartfelt plea. Xena’s face was pained, but Gabrielle suddenly couldn’t feel any pity for the warrior. An anger was building in her, and she tried in vain to control the brewing storm. "First of all, I’m not hungry anymore. Second, it just comes right back up, so what’s the point?" It sounded much harsher than she’d intended, and she knew it when she saw the hurt look in Xena’s eyes.

"You’re wasting away, Gabrielle. I think that table weighs more than you do now."

"Thank you! I know! Don’t you think I know? I know! I know! I know!" she screamed, passing her arm across the table and sweeping her diary, ink pot and quills onto the floor. In some part of her she needed to prove something, so she flipped the table before fleeing out the door.

"Gabrielle ... wait ..." Xena called after her, but the bard couldn’t stop.

Out of instinct she made her way to the edge of the lake. The spot had become a point of quiet reflection for her, but today it only reflected her hostility. With a huff she sat on the trunk of a fallen tree. She drew in a deep breath and tried to release her anger. It didn’t work. The serenity of the lake and mountains was lost on her confusion, realizations and despair.

Everything was happening too fast. Time was speeding by her and she knew her life line was growing shorter and shorter. Accepting her fate wasn’t that easy. Her light was about to go out, she knew it. She hated it.

" ... Gabrielle?" The warrior’s tentative voice was a short distance away.

"I ... I need to be alone, please."

"Are you okay?"

Gabrielle’s head turned sharply. "No, I’m not. I’m going to die, Xena. Dead. Gone. Forgotten. Dead."

"Um ..."

"Yeah, ‘um’ about sums it up. Damn it all! I’m so worried about what’s going to happen to you that I’ve forgotten to think about what’s happening to me! I know, but I’ve gotten really good at displacement. Don’t think about it in terms of you, Gabrielle ... only Xena. She’s all that matters. Think of her!" She balled her hands into fists, and fought to control herself.

"I don’t — "

"Listen, Xena, I’m sorry. This," she pounded a fist against her chest, "it’s not directed at you. I’m just ... I’m going to die, Xena."

She felt her lower lips beginning to quiver, and her face clenched up as the first tears for herself came to the surface. Deep inside, a primal urge to scream was building, and without thought she began rocking in the ancient pattern of grief. A tragic moan escaped as she leaned her head back against this unbearable, yet different pain.

Through blurred vision she stared at Xena, who looked like she wasn’t sure if she should comfort her or leave her alone, and for the life of her, Gabrielle didn’t know which she wanted. She couldn’t think about what Xena was feeling now, and shaking her head she lowered her face to her hands and cried. The tears were for what would never be, and that was so painful, the bard longed for it all to end. Tears didn’t seem enough now, but it was all she had.

When the tears wouldn’t come anymore, she lifted her head. Xena had left, and Gabrielle knew the warrior understood that moment couldn’t be shared. The moments of sharing were over. The knot that bound them together was slipping, and soon it would unravel completely. One life would end. The other would go on. Together no more.

Xena said nothing when Gabrielle returned to the cabin. There were no words that could be said, but as Gabrielle climbed weakly into the bed, the warrior sat next to her. They didn’t touch or even look at each other, Xena just let her partner know she was there. Nothing else mattered.

As darkness descended on the cabin Xena roused herself from the silent lamentations to do her nightly duties. The warrior could see that something crucial had been lost in her beloved that day, but she wouldn’t allow herself to accept the full ramifications of that realization. It was easier to pretend that all was fine.

The following morning, it was painfully clear that things would never be fine again.

In the pre-dawn light, a dark shadow hung over Gabrielle. So, Xena let her sleep, praying more rest would dispel the cloud. She sat watching the silent morning rays creep across the covers and onto her beloved’s ravaged face. When Gabrielle didn’t move with the light, Xena’s heart seized in her chest.

With her hand shaking and heart pounding out of control she shook the bard.

"C’mon, Gabrielle ... love ... wake up." The shaking got harder, and her body began to tremble. "Not yet. Oh, please not yet." With her hand faltering, she felt for a pulse.

She almost cried in relief when she found a weak, but steady rhythm. The warrior smoothed back the reddish-blond halo of hair and leaned down to kiss the feverish forehead. She continued her shaking until she finally succeeded, and Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes.

The bard smiled weakly, and then her face froze as she reached frantically for the bucket by the bed. A great volume of liquid poured from her, and then her poor, decimated body was racked with dry heaves. Xena patiently held the bucket, her trembling hands stroking her love’s tangled hair.

When Gabrielle finally lay back against the bed, all the color and vitality was gone from her face. She opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it and looked away. Unable to find her own voice, Xena knew she had to escape before she lost it right there. With a hard swallow she picked up the bucket and walked outside.

As she poured the contents of the bucket over the railing, her world ended with a crash that reverberated through every inch of her body. A river of crimson blood, Gabrielle’s life blood, poured from the bucket, and the warrior could only stare in knowing disbelief. Her hand released the bucket, and she sank to the ground with a thud. It hurt to breathe, and her vision flickered dangerously. A relentless ache built in her chest until she was silently sobbing into her hands.

"Oh, please ... don’t take her," she whispered to the morning sun. "Don’t take my light."

Then somewhere in her tormented, grief-stricken mind she remembered Gabrielle. Composing herself with a strength she didn’t know she still had, she managed to steady her body and mind for what she needed to do. She prepared herself to return to Gabrielle’s side, knowing full well that she didn’t have the heart to face death. She’d cheated him so many times in the past, she knew he’d be ruthless this time. He was here ... watching ... waiting ... She could feel him. But Gabrielle needed her, and when she didn’t, then death could have them both.

Closing her eyes she willed herself to be strong. Weakness would only frighten

Gabrielle. With a step that faltered slightly she entered the room again.

"Hey," Gabrielle said, with a hoarse voice that almost sent Xena back outside again.

"Hey yourself."

"It’s time, isn’t it?" Gabrielle stated quietly, and Xena was shamed by the young woman’s courage.

"No, it’s just a bad day," she tried to lie. " You’ll feel better tomorrow. You’ll see."

With great difficulty, Gabrielle pulled herself into a sitting position. "Time to quit pretending, love."

Xena looked away, tears blurring her vision.

"Stay with me now, Xena. I have to try and ... well, before it gets worse. I mean," she sighed, her face looked so tired. "Get me something to write on? "

"Why?"

"Please. Just get it for me." The bard’s face tightened up in pain. "I have to write something important, and then I need to talk with you." She was gasping for breath, and Xena nodded impotently before she went about finding the necessary things.

"Thanks," Gabrielle said, arranging the parchment on the board Xena had provided. The quill shook in her hand, and Xena fought the urge to reach out and steady it. The bard smiled at her. "Wait outside, love. This will only take a moment, and then ... then we’ll spend the time together."

Against her better judgement the warrior did as she was bade. She left the door open in case Gabrielle needed her, but she had no choice but to honor her partner’s last wishes. She stared unseeingly at the shining lake, the peacefulness of the moment lost in her grief and anguish.

"Xena?" Gabrielle called softly. "I’m done."

The warrior entered the room and felt her body begin to tremble at the frail stranger who greeted her. All that was left of Gabrielle was reflected in the green eyes that still had to power to possess her completely.

The bard held up a parchment wrapped with a red ribbon. "Here, take this."

Trying desperately to control her shaking hands the warrior collected the parchment, and sank onto the bed next to her life and soul.

"Read it immediately after I’m gone," Gabrielle said, her voice commanding in its weakness. "Promise me."

Unable to speak Xena was forced to nod her head.

"Good." She held out another paper. "Give this to Ephiny. It’s the rite of caste. The Amazons are hers." She touched her diary. "This is yours now. Read it when you need to feel close to me. I’ll always be with you, but this will help you remember that."

"Gabrielle ... " Xena cried, her voice breaking painfully, and her eyes filling with tears. "There are so many things I need to say ..."

"Ssshhh," Gabrielle soothed. "It’ll be okay. I’m not leaving you, only going ahead."

"Oh, please ... no ... not yet." Xena lowered her head into the bards lap, her arms tightening around her frail waist. She felt Gabrielle’s hand rhythmically stroke her bent head.

"We loved, Xena. It’s the best that can be said about us, dear. It will never be forgotten. We will never forget. Believe in that. I do."

Xena let herself cry until she realized that she didn’t feel Gabrielle’s touch any longer. Sitting up, she knew the second she looked. She brought her trembling hands to her face, unwilling to accept the truth. She reached out, her fingers touching her beloved’s face, knowing that what she treasured most was no longer there.

The pain was too much. She opened her mouth to scream, but only agonizing silence escaped. Her grief was so overwhelming that she needed to drown herself in it. Leaning forward she gathered her partner’s lifeless body into her arms, and sitting there rocked back and forth, buried in her sorrow.

Time ceased. Memory faded away. Day held no meaning. Life was a burden. Gabrielle needed her. She needed Gabrielle. All she possessed was her conviction of purpose, and that would give her enough strength to finish her last few tasks. Her emptiness was all consuming.

She sat with Gabrielle for the whole day. She never moved, and her eyes never left the peaceful form of her beloved. It was only after it became so dark, and she couldn’t see any longer, did she finally move to light a candle. As she carried it back to the table, a crunch under her boot drew her attention to the ground.

Gabrielle’s last message to her, like their dreams, lay crushed and forgotten under her boot. Xena contemplated it with almost primal understanding before she bent and lifted it.

The quill strokes were so weak that Xena could barely make them out. Her fingers ran over the ink with reverence as she sat to read.

"My beloved — I pray this will tell you all that I wish and dream for you ... for us.

How do I show you hope

when sorrow combats your heart

and you believe your life is falling apart?

How do I express my feelings in mere words

when a single touch spoke volumes,

but has been forsaken to the silence most solemn?

How do I make you remember

that you made me feel happy, beloved and treasured,

and my love for you can never be measured?

How do I make you understand

your strength is my guide, your heart is my home

and your soul is but a beacon of what is to come?

My physical pain is gone, my love,

but if you are consumed by inconsolable sorrow,

then how can I show you there is a tomorrow?

So, please tell me how to reach you?

Please tell me how to say the right thing to chase the pain away?

Tell me how to say there is hope beyond today?

Do I tell you that when the darkness falls,

and you feel lost and alone,

to know, you won’t be on your own?

Do I tell you not to let anger be your guide?

And not to be ashamed to cry?

That today is not good-bye?

Or do I just tell you I’ll always love you?

In truth, there are so many things to say,

so little time to speak,

less to cherish,

but an eternity to love.

We are one soul eternally entwined.

Dear, rush not to me in anguished endeavor.

For I am yours, and you are mine.

Beyond and Forever.

 

Xena carefully folded up the parchment, the stiff paper crinkling in her trembling hands. Leaning forward she blew out the candle, the powerful embrace of the darkness closing around her with suffocating presence . The light was gone.

 

The End

 

 

Comments to Pallas3@yahoo.com (but don’t ask for a sequel. If Xena lives or dies is to be decided by you. I cannot answer that question. But if the story touched you, then I’d love to hear.)

Beyond and Forever, Copyright September 1998, Pallas

 


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