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Xena drew the hood of her cape closer around her face and braced herself against the force of the wind that had suddenly turned bitter cold. Even Argo shuddered at the icy blast, lowering her head and straining forward as the wind swirled dust into her eyes and throat.
"Come on, girl," Xena shouted to the horse above the noise of the storm. A powerful gust of wind suddenly hit them and Xena heard a sharp crack just above their heads. Argo stumbled backwards as a large branch crashed down inches from where they stood. Xena held the reins tighter and caught hold of Gabrielle's hunched form, trying to keep her on the skittish horse.
"Easy, girl. Easy."
With one smooth, flowing move, she caught the saddle horn in her left hand and swung her leg up easily over Argo's back. With her right arm, she grasped Gabrielle tightly around the waist and pulled her cape around them both, gingerly leading the horse around the fallen limb.
She could hear the thunder getting closer and before long, sharp, stinging drops of rain began to pelt them relentlessly. Xena raised a caped arm above Gabrielle's head to shield her from the assault and pressed Argo on.
It was long after dark when they came to the outskirts of the town. The rain had abated somewhat and the streets were muddy and deserted. Xena prayed to any and all gods that she would remember where the house was located. It had been years since she'd been in Berea. Although the area had changed a great deal, a few of the street corners began to look familiar and it wasn't long before she pulled Argo up in front of one particularly shabby establishment. The wind and the dark made it difficult to see the inscription on the sign above the lintel, but she eventually made out the name: Theophocles of Berea - Fine Metals. At once she began to pound on the door, all the while keeping an anxious eye on Gabrielle.
"Theo! Portia! Please open up," she shouted.
Finally, the shutter on the second floor window above the shop entrance opened a crack.
"Who's there? What do you want?" An elderly man leaned cautiously out just enough to get a glimpse of the strangers below.
"Theo, is that you?"
"Who is it?" he demanded again.
Xena took a few steps back and pushed the hood of her cape away from her face.
"It's Xena. From Amphipolis. Do you recognize me? I know it's been a long time."
He squinted into the darkness. Then suddenly, there was a streak of lightning overhead and, for a brief instant, Xena's face was illuminated by the flash.
"Xena? By the gods, girl, is that you? I believe it is. Hold on. I'll be right down." The shutter slammed shut.
Xena rushed over to Argo and gently lifted Gabrielle off the horse.
"It's all right. We're here. Everything is going to be all right," Xena whispered into her ear, holding her steady with a strong arm as the smaller woman leaned her weight against her.
The door flew open and two pairs of apprehensive eyes stared out into the darkness.
"By the gods," the old man, Theo, exclaimed, at the disarrayed appearance of the two women.
"My friend is very ill. I didn't know where else to go."
"Come in, girl. Come in," the old woman, Portia, said as she opened the door and stepped to one side. "Let's take her up those stairs," she nodded with her head toward a set of well-worn steps. "There's an empty room at the top on the left. You can put her in there."
Xena took a few steps inside then looked back suddenly. "My horse..."
"Never mind about that," Theo replied. "I've got a nice, dry stall, a nice, warm blanket and some oats out back. You just take care of the girl."
"Thank you. Thank you, both."
Xena sat in the chair next to Gabrielle's bed and watched intently as her breath came in short, shallow bursts. The storm had passed and the morning sun was already sending streams of light through the slats in the shutters. Portia came into the room and handed her a mug of hot cider.
"Xena," she said, putting a frail hand on her shoulder, "you've been up all night. You're exhausted. And how long has it been since you had something eat? Too long, I imagine. I have some left-over stew heating on the fire. Come and have some. The girl's sleeping now. She just needs some rest, and so do you."
"I suppose you're right," she replied hoarsely, laying her hand over the old woman's. "But I hate to leave her. She's been so ill. The fever needs to break, but nothing I've done, nothing I've given her seems to help. I don't know what else to do."
Theo had been standing quietly in the doorway. "There's a physician on the next street. Let me send for him."
"All right," Xena conceded.
"Good," Portia said as she pulled Xena to her feet and led her into the kitchen.
Xena sat at the plain, wooden table and watched the old woman ladle the thick, meaty stew into a large clay bowl. How often, as a child, had she watched a similar scene, only then it might have been cherry zouka, or sweet cakes or sugared dates.
"As I remember, Xenzi, this use to be one of your favorites," Portia said with a wink.
Xena smiled to herself. Xenzi. She hadn't thought of that nickname for years. It belonged to another life. Portia and Theo belonged to that other life, too. Xena couldn't remember a time when she hadn't known them. They'd been neighbors to Xena's family long before she came into the picture. And from the very first, they both had made a special place in their hearts for the little blacked-haired girl who lived next door. Portia, widowed as a young woman, had moved in with Theo, her bachelor brother, to keep house and to have someone to provide for her. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement and had lasted longer than many other relationships Xena had known. She looked at Portia fondly. She'd been as nurturing and loving to Xena as her own mother, and Theo had always made time for a young girl whose father had left long before.
"There. This should put a little color back into your cheeks." Portia set the bowl in front of Xena and unexpectedly took her face in both hands. "I have often wondered what this face looked like now. If your eyes were still so blue. If your smile still as radiant."
Xena pulled back slightly. "It's been so long. I'm not that same girl. I'm afraid my face will be a disappointment to you."
"No, Xenzi, never a disappointment," she said as she took a seat next to Theo. "It's just that we've heard - stories. I told Theo that they couldn't be true."
Xena lowered eyes. "I don't know exactly what you heard, but I imagine the stories were true, more or less. After Cortese's attack on our village, I - I lost my way." She looked up. "But I'm finding it again. Gabrielle's been a big part of that. Every day I find my way a little bit more with her help."
Theo smiled. "Then she's a friend to value and keep close."
"Yes, she is," Xena said softly.
"Do you see your mother often?" Portia asked.
"No, not as often as I'd like. But she's well. The inn does good business and she's been able to build a life there. How about you two? How is life in Berea?"
"Oh, as good as can be expected," Portia replied. " We manage. Theo never was really able to build up his clientele again after we left Amphipolis, but we seem to get by on what he sells at the marketplace. He's a good brother and a fine craftsman," she reached over and put her hand on Theo's arm, "but he never had much of a head for business." Theo shrugged and Portia smiled. "He still thinks that someday he'll create that one masterpiece that will put an end to our financial worries and gain him the reputation he would like as an artist." She put the back of her hand up to one side of her mouth and whispered to Xena, "I know that will never happen, but I don't dare tell him that."
Xena could tell that this was a old tune which had been played often enough between them. She looked around the kitchen. There was a certain beauty to its plainness, much like what she saw in the two old faces looking back at her from across the table. And without doubt, they both had made a comfortable, if humble, home. But Xena couldn't help but wonder what might have been if Cortese hadn't destroyed the life that they all had known and cherished. It was a futile thought and she shook her head against it. What hadn't changed was the love and kindness she felt from them, and for that she was thankful.
"Now, it's time for you to get some rest," Portia said as she again took Xena's hands and guided her to a cot in the corner of the back room.
"I'm not really...", she began, but Portia ignored her protests and pushed her gently down on the bed.
"Don't worry," she said as she unfolded a blanket and laid it over Xena, "I'll keep a close eye on Gabrielle and wake you if there's any change."
For one of the few times in her life, Xena did not have the strength or motivation to resist. Within moments, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When she opened her eyes, the light in the room had shifted directions. She jumped out of bed and ran into Gabrielle's room. Portia and Theo met her at the door while the doctor, an older man with a full, gray beard, leaned over Gabrielle, his ear to her back, instructing her to take several deep breaths. Even from where she stood, Xena could hear the rasping sounds that came from Gabrielle as she tried to fulfill his request.
"Hmmm. All right, young lady, you can lie back now," he said as Gabrielle settled weakly back against the pillow. The doctor rubbed his beard for a moment and motioned for the others to step into the hallway.
"It's her lungs, isn't it?" Xena asked anxiously as soon as they were outside the room. "They're filled with fluid. She can hardly breath. I've seen this before - on the battlefield. If a soldier gets a massive wound to the chest, sometimes blood can seep into his lungs. If something isn't done immediately, he'll drown in his own blood. I know how to treat this. It's done by making a small hole into the lung and sucking the fluid out with a hollow reed."
"Yes, I've heard of that treatment," the doctor replied, "and perhaps is works on stout soldiers who are hardened by a warrior's life. But our young friend is not a warrior and this illness has left her very weak. I don't want to put her through any more trauma than is necessary. I recommend a warm mustard poultice and plenty of rest. Time will tell. If she has the will, she'll pull through."
"If she has the will?" Xena said, feeling a certain anger begin to rise up inside of her. "Of course she has the will."
"Yes, well, time will tell. I'll check back tomorrow to see how things are going."
Theo and Portia led the doctor down the steps while Xena went back into Gabrielle's room. She had propped herself up and was staring out the window.
"Look," Gabrielle said weakly, taking Xena's hand and turning her gaze out the window to a vine on the wall across the courtyard. "I've been watching those leaves on and off all day. Every now and then, they'll catch the sunshine and sparkle just like stars, until the wind plucks them off and carries them away."
Xena followed Gabrielle's gaze until she, too, saw the vine. The leaves were the most brilliant silver color, glinting and shining in the sun. The contrast against the old, dark stone of the wall was breathtaking.
"They're beautiful," Xena said, looking back at Gabrielle. She hadn't realized just how pale and thin Gabrielle had gotten and it gave her a slight start. She laid a cool hand on Gabrielle's hot cheek.
"Are you hungry? How about some soup? It will make you feel better."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, I just want to sit here and watch the leaves."
"There's plenty of time for that." Xena reached over and closed the shutters. "What you really need now is rest. Here, let me make you a bit more comfortable." She eased Gabrielle back down on the bed and pulled the blanket up around her shoulders.
"But I've got to see the leaves. I need to know when there's just one left."
"Why do you need to know that?" Xena asked softly, stroking her forehead.
"Because when it goes, I'm going, too."
"What do you mean? Going where?"
"Don't you see," Gabrielle said, struggling to sit up, "when the last leaf lets go of the vine, then I'll be able to let go, too. I don't want to hold on any longer. It's just too hard."
Xena felt a knot begin to form in her stomach. "What's too hard? What are you saying, Gabrielle?"
"It's too hard to see everyone I love die. I don't want to be the last one left. I can't do it. When the last leaf goes, I'm going, too."
"Gabrielle, you're sick. You're not going anywhere. You're going to stay right here and get better." Xena took her face in her hand. "Promise me."
"Why should I?" Xena could hear the anger in Gabrielle's voice as she pulled away from Xena's hand. "So I can watch everyone I love die? Perdicus died in my arms. In my arms, Xena. Do you know what that's like? And what if that happens to you? I couldn't bear it."
"It won't happen to me."
"Can you promise me that?" Gabrielle demanded. "Can you make that promise and know without a shadow of a doubt that you can keep it?"
"Well, no," Xena began, "but I...".
"Then I can't promise, either. Please Xena, try to understand."
"No, Gabrielle, I don't understand," Xena said, standing up and pacing back and forth beside the bed. "How many times have you told me how important it is to keep going, no matter what happens. I'm sorry, but I just can't believe that you mean what you're saying now." She sat back down on the bed, her voice becoming softer. "Listen, I know exactly what it's like to lose someone you love. It's the hardest thing in the world. Life is hard, in case you haven't noticed. But you can't just give up. What about me? Don't you know how much I need you?"
Gabrielle only closed her eyes and sank back on the pillow, effectively ending the conversation. Xena sat beside her and watched until her shallow breathing was slow and steady. It's just the fever talking, she said to herself, trying to shake off Gabrielle's words and the sense of dread which had suddenly stabbed her heart. She leaned her head against the wall in frustration, giving the plaster one good punch with her clenched fist.
At that moment, Portia stepped into the room and looked at Xena carefully.
"Here's the poultice the doctor recommended. Why don't you loosen her blouse and we'll put this on her chest. I think it will ease her breathing."
Xena brushed away the tear that had fallen on her cheek and nodded to the old woman. Carefully pulling back the blanket, she untied Gabrielle's top, slipping it gently down off her shoulders. Portia laid a clean cloth over Gabrielle's chest, placed the steaming, pungent mixture on the cloth and covered it all with a piece of soft cotton, tucking it in around her sides.
Laying a finger to her lips, Portia motioned toward the door with her head. Xena gave Gabrielle one last, heartbroken look and walked silently out of the room.
The next morning, Xena was up with the sun, standing in the courtyard. Only a handful of the silver leaves remained on the vine, hanging on tenuously. She looked at the leaves scattered across the smooth stone walkway. They were wilted and discolored and many had already started to decay. Even if she could somehow figure out a way to put the leaves back on, they would never look the same. She kicked the ground with her boot and stared at the vine. How long until even these few leaves would wither and fall? She was so lost in her thoughts, she didn't hear the soft footsteps behind her.
"How's the girl?" Theo asked quietly.
"Oh," Xena replied, startled, "I haven't been up to see her yet. I was just looking at this vine. Not many leaves left."
"No, not many," he repeated as he bent down and picked an old leaf off the ground. "This plant has always been a mystery to me. I've studied it many times over the years. The leaves are unlike anything else I've ever seen. So intricately designed and such an incredible color. And yet, the moment they fall from the vine," he handed the dried, shriveled leaf to Xena, "they turn into this. Quite fascinating, really." He gave Xena a quizzical look. "I don't imagine you're out here to do a botanical study of the vine, though, are you?"
"No," Xena answered. She threw the leaf down and looked up at Gabrielle's window.
"What's wrong, Xena?" he asked kindly.
"Gabrielle has this crazy idea," she shook her head, "it's just a crazy idea, but she thinks that when the last leaf dies, she'll - she'll die, too." Her voice caught on the last few words. "I don't believe it, but what can I do? It's as if she's lost her will to live, and I don't know how to help her find it. I'm afraid, Theo. When the last leaf goes, she may very well go with it. I don't know if I can bear that."
"Hmmm," the old man said slowly, looking up at the vine, "well, it's not gone yet. Don't lose hope."
All that day, Xena shuttled between Gabrielle's room and the kitchen, making poultices and bringing her hot soup, which she refused to touch. With every trip, she stole an anxious glance at the vine across the courtyard. At mid-morning one leaf fell. Just after noon, another. And with each falling leaf, Gabrielle got weaker, her eyes becoming more and more vacant. The doctor made his promised visit, but merely shook his head after he had examined her.
"There's nothing more I can do. It's all up to her now."
When the doctor left, Xena stood alone outside of Gabrielle's room, fingering her chakram with a mixture of anger and despair. If only this enemy had a face, a body, she could defeat it with one quick flick of her wrist. As it was, she was helpless. It was a feeling with which Xena was becoming increasingly more familiar and she didn't like it. The need to be in control had always been the motivating force in her life. And yet, little by little, circumstances had conspired to wrest that control from her hands. Suddenly, an inconceivable thought struck her. What if, perhaps, even from the beginning, that sense of control was really a lie, a fabrication she had created to maintain the hardness, the resolve she needed to live life as a warrior. A feeling of inadequacy began to wash over her and for the second time in her life, she did the only thing she could think to do. She knelt on the cold stone floor of the narrow hallway and lowered her head.
"Please, if anyone's there, don't let Gabrielle die. Don't let her give up. Help her to see that life isn't all pain and loss. That there's so much joy and love, too, and that it far outweighs all the rest. Please help her to know that - that I love her, and if that counts for anything...", but all that would come after that were tears.
That night, Xena kept a vigil in the chair by Gabrielle's bed. Not long after midnight, the wind changed directions, and a fierce, frigid blast began to blow out of the north. She could hear the sleet and ice pummeling the shutters, faintly at first, but then with more violent force, and in her heart she knew that all hope was lost. In the morning the vine would be completely bare.
The dawn broke to a steel gray sky. Xena, nodding in the chair, woke to find Gabrielle's hand on her arm.
"Open it, Xena. I have to see."
"Not yet. There's still time for that. Let me fix you some porridge first, then we'll see what's out the window."
"No! I have to see now. Open the shutters."
Xena got up slowly and walked to the window. For a long time she stood with her hand resting on the wooden frame, unwilling to face what she knew she would find.
She pulled back the shutters and looked at Gabrielle. As Gabrielle stared out the window, a small, surprised gasp escaped her lips. Xena leaned out over the sill and looked at the vine. There, incredibly, impossibly, was one solitary leaf, swaying back and forth in the wind. Suddenly, a shaft of sunlight shot through the clouds and the leaf exploded into a translucent flash of silver. At that same moment, Xena felt her heart explode as well and she turned back to Gabrielle. The change to her face was almost instantaneous. Life was coming back into her eyes and a smile began to form on her lips. She held out her arms toward Xena, and in two quick steps, Xena was in them.
"It's all right. Everything's going to be all right, isn't it?" she asked softly into Gabrielle's ear.
"Yes," Gabrielle replied as she laid her head on Xena's shoulder.
They sat like that for a long time until Gabrielle leaned back and looked at her friend.
"I'm hungry. What was that you said about porridge?"
Xena smiled and kissed her on the cheek.
"Coming right up."
She practically skipped to the kitchen. When she got there, it was empty, dark and cold. Xena thought it odd that Portia wasn't up yet, with a fire going, but she merely shrugged to herself and stacked the wood inside the stone fireplace, carefully lighting the tinder. Within minutes, a roaring fire was bringing warmth and a cheery glow to the room. But in the distance, down one of the hallways, she heard the sound of low voices. Not long after that, Portia walked into the kitchen followed by the doctor. Xena could tell that she'd been crying.
"What's wrong?" Xena looked at Portia and then to the doctor. "If you're here to see Gabrielle, she's much better..."
"It's Theo," Portia said, her voice strained. "He took ill sometime last night. I heard him calling my name and when I went into his room I found him shivering in bed. It all happened so fast..." Portia suddenly sank down at the kitchen table and began to sob. Xena looked at the doctor in alarm. He shook his head.
"I'm sorry. He's gone. A few minutes ago. There was nothing I could do. It was his heart, it just gave out." He walked over to Portia and laid his hand on her shoulder. "I'll come back in a little while and help you with the body."
He gave a long sigh, then turned and walked out of the kitchen.
Xena put her arm around Portia, not knowing what to say, but hoping that some comfort could be found in her touch.
When Xena brought the porridge in to Gabrielle, she had already decided to keep the news from her, at least until some of her strength returned. As the day wore on, Gabrielle became more and more her old self again. The color was returning to her cheeks and the life to her eyes. It wasn't until later that afternoon, while Gabrielle slept, that Xena made her way down to the courtyard, to the vine which had played such a strangely integral part in Gabrielle's illness and recovery. Surprisingly, as she looked up, the leaf was still there, still as brilliantly silver, still swaying in the wind. At that moment, a bird landed on the branch just below the leaf and began to peck at it with his beak. Without warning, the leaf fell from the vine and hit the courtyard with a sharp clink. Xena walked over and picked it up. It was hard in her hand. As she looked at it, everything suddenly became clear. The leaf was made of pure silver, crafted as delicately, as intricately as the real thing; every vein, every nuance perfectly formed. Wrapped around the stem was a thin cord which the bird, with its pecking, had loosened. She looked at the ground by the base of the vine. Only then did she see the two slight indentations about a foot and a half from the wall. Sometime during the night's storm, Theo had come to the courtyard with his ladder and his shining masterpiece and tied it to the barren vine.
She began to weep for the dear old man who, in her childhood, had given her so much, and now had given her so much more.
At length, Xena went into Gabrielle's room. She was sitting up in bed and smiled when she saw her. Xena sat down beside her and took both hands in her own, looking intently into her eyes.
"Theo died this morning."
"Oh, no. How did it happen?"
"He...," Xena took a deep breath, "it was his heart. It just had nothing more to give. But he left you a gift." She took the silver leaf from her belt and handed it to Gabrielle. She studied the shiny object in her hand and then looked back at Xena, puzzled.
"It's beautiful, but I don't understand."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand and gently closed her fingers around it.
"I guess he knew how much it would mean to you."
"Oh," Gabrielle said softly.
They shared a long, deep look as tears of grief, love, sorrow, and hope filled their eyes. Between them, still held tightly, was the silver leaf.
Note: For those who may not recognize this story, it's based on "The Last Leaf" by O. Henry, to whom I give credit and thanks for the inspiration.