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Disclaimer: While in my heart and in my imagination, I have made Xena, Gabrielle and all their various cohorts my very own, they do indeed belong to Universal and Renaissance and not to me. To Falcon, should you read this: There are a few, vague similarities in the setting of this story and the setting of a couple of your stories that I’ve read since I first wrote this—purely coincidental.
Time-line: The events of this story take place immediately following Chakram, as Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer (Just a little—it’s okay. Really.) and Amarice are travelling back to Greece.
Spoiler: This story contains little action and no adventure, excluding, perhaps, the spiritual adventures of friendship and love. Mainly I’m just dealing in details and giving voice to subtext. Which brings me to...
Warning: Xena and Gabrielle are in love with each other in this story. While there is no explicit sex, a sexual relationship is implied. If there are those of you (and I know there are) who may be offended by this interpretation of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship...DANGER, DANGER. STAY AWAY. To the rest of you, I hope you enjoy this small offering. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The four weary warriors stood frozen in their tracks. After all the events of the past few days, each of the four had been content to pass the day travelling along the rugged, highland path in relative silence, emotionally drained and happy to be homeward bound. None of them were prepared for the devastating beauty of the lush glacial valley that opened before them as they rounded another of what seemed like an endless succession of bouldered passes.
All that remained of the ancient river of ice that had carved out the canyon was a blue sliver of stream that cascaded down a rocky bed through every shade and hue of green that their eyes could receive. Bright pockets of yellow, purple and red wildflowers dotted the grassy slopes that that rose from the tree-lined waterway to the face of the canyon walls. Adding to the surreal experience of so much color were geysers, which erupted occasionally, spewing skyward steamy blasts that pooled and formed scalding tributaries that emptied into the icy, snow-melt stream. The union of the hot and cold waters produced a lacey mist that hung in the trees and emphasized the soft lushness of the valley in stark contrast to the hard, barren lines of the precipice that walled it.
"It’s so beautiful," Gabrielle broke their collective trance with little more than a whisper.
The Warrior Princess’s blue eyes exposed the slightest hint of a smile as they began to scan the cliffs. "Why don’t you three scare up some food, water and firewood while I find us a spot to make camp?" Not waiting for a reply, Xena bounded down into the valley with renewed energy, playfully leapfrogging a random boulder with an almost childlike glee.
Joxer followed Amarice as she made her way down the slope and into the trees lining the stream. He longed with all his heart to remain with Gabrielle, sharing the moment and the magical beauty before them. But deep in that same heart he knew the moment shared would not hold the same meaning for Gabrielle--Gabrielle, whose sparkling eyes gazed with rapt amusement at the antic warrior as she somersaulted over another boulder before disappearing into the trees.
Alone above the captivating landscape, Gabrielle felt the pain and tension that had wracked her body and soul begin to melt like the snows on the peaks that surrounded her. Xena’s renewed vigor and enthusiasm stirred a part of her that had remained unexplored since their miraculous, if not mind-boggling, resurrection. They had lost and regained each other so many times in the past week—both were overwhelmed emotionally and had remained tentative with one another. Much remained unsaid. A day or two in this geothermal paradise would be just what the healer ordered.
* * * * * *
True to form, Xena found the perfect spot to make camp. She had followed one of the steamy streamlets to its hot spring source at the back of a roomy cave in the canyon wall. The cave was formed by two naturally occurring rooms—a small chamber in which the hot spring surfaced from the depths of the rock and a larger chamber through which the water channeled, providing the ultimate luxury of hot running water to both spaces.
If Xena had outdone herself finding the perfect shelter for the night, then the other three equaled her feat with the feast they procured. The rabbit population here was so prolific that Amarice wasn’t content until she had snared the fattest two in the valley. Joxer chose the quiet solitude of fishing, adding three large trout to the larder, as well as a half dozen duck eggs for breakfast. The products of Gabrielle’s foraging, a collection of savory herbs, wild turnips, carrots, onions and mushrooms, boiled cheerfully on the fire. The aroma of roasting meat and simmering vegetable stew filled the spacious cave like the lively fire’s warmth, surrounding them with a comforting glow.
The combined effect of beauty and bounty was a balm to the foursome. Over dinner, Joxer told stories of the never-ending parade of practical jokes his brothers played at his expense. Afterwards, feeling fat and lazy, each one found a comfortable spot around the fire as Gabrielle fell into her natural role as bard, recounting for the first time the events of the ides, weaving into her own experiences the details they had learned about Caesar’s demise at the hands of the Roman senators. When she got to the part when Xena fell paralyzed, Xena leaned forward and cleared her throat softly.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" she broke in gently.
Gabrielle smiled into those troubled blue eyes, warmed by Xena’s concern. "It’s okay, Xena. I need to tell this—it’s part of who I am now. And besides, we’re still here together. That makes it easier to tell." Reluctantly satisfied, Xena leaned back as the bard continued her story-telling. Gabrielle ended her narrative with their heavenly reunion, sparing her audience the details of their encounters in heaven and hell. Those memories were becoming increasingly harder to recall in sharp detail and had taken on a hazy quality—more like remembering a dream than actual events.
"Great story, Gabrielle." This time it was Joxer who broke the spell of silence cast by the moving recital. His eyes met the bard’s briefly, then returned to studying the fire.
The smile with which Gabrielle accepted the simple tribute betrayed only a hint of uneasiness. She dreaded the inevitable conversation that she knew she must have with Joxer, despite his assurances that her response to his confession of love was unnecessary. I guess there’s no time like the present. Gabrielle shot quick glances at Xena and Amarice, wordlessly dispatching them. Understanding, Xena stood up and stretched.
"I think I’m going to have a bath and turn in." Xena gathered two bedrolls and turned to retire into the other room.
" ’night Xena." Joxer’s eyes never left the fire.
"G’night Joxer. Amarice..." Xena raised an eyebrow at the young Amazon and nodded toward the cave’s entrance. "Don’t you want to make a pass outside before we settle in." It wasn’t a question.
Amarice was, as usual, confounded by Gabrielle’s behavior. She had fully accepted Gabrielle as Amazon Queen and paid her due respect, but still she seldom understood her. Unlike Joxer, Amarice was well aware of the true nature of Gabrielle and Xena’s bond. Why now were Gabrielle and Xena both dismissing her so the Amazon Queen could spend time around the fire with Joxer, while her Warrior Princess goes off to bed alone? Shaking her head, she gathered her weapons and stalked off to secure their encampment from any imaginary dangers.
Joxer was acutely aware that he and Gabrielle were suddenly alone together. He fought an almost overwhelming urge to flee the cave, deciding instead to seize the moment in his predictably floundering way. "Gabrielle, I just wanted to say again, after your story, and everything’s that’s happened, that I’m really glad you didn’t...that you’re not...that you...and Xena...you and Xena are back."
"Thanks, Joxer." Gabrielle paused momentarily, carefully selecting the words that would create the greatest understanding with the least pain. "We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?"
"Yeah, I guess we have." Joxer remembered the first time he’d set eyes on the feisty blonde. "You hardly ever beat me up anymore." They both laughed, then grew silent again.
Gabrielle realized the comment offered her the perfect means for explaining her feelings to her smitten friend. "Your brothers were pretty hard on you when you were kids, weren’t they?"
"Well, I guess they picked on me alot," Joxer admitted.
"But you still loved each other, didn’t you?"
"We’ll always be brothers, nothing can change that." Joxer wasn’t sure where this was leading, but he realized it was not going where he had hoped.
"Joxer, when you told me...what you told me, I didn’t know how to respond. Granted, there was a fight going on, and I was a little distracted with Xena not being herself, but mainly I had never thought about how I really feel about you. You’ve been through so much with Xena and me—you’ve been an incredibly good friend. But you’re more than just a friend." Joxer perked up a little, but allowed Gabrielle to continue without interruption.
"Xena says there’s the family you’re born into and the family you choose. You’re part of my family, Joxer. I love you like the brother I never had. I know that’s not exactly what you want to hear, but it’s the best I can do." Gabrielle couldn’t help but notice as disappointment deflated the hapless warrior wannabe. "If I say so myself, you could do worse for a sister."
Just in time to prove the point, Amarice stomped defiantly back into the cave, full of attitude. "Sorry if I’m interrupting anything, but I finished patrolling for any non-existent menace." If she truly was remorseful, they couldn’t tell by her tone.
Ignoring the uppity Amazon’s sarcasm, Gabrielle rose from her place by the fire. "I was just turning in. Goodnight, Joxer." She shot him a quick, sweet smile and turned to follow Xena’s path to the rear chamber.
"Sweet dreams," Joxer mumbled dejectedly into the fire.
As Amarice stared at the forlorn bumbler, she began to realize what all the subterfuge was about. He’s hung up on Gabrielle! She got rid of us so she could let the poor sap down easy. Silently cursing her own stupidity for not having seen it earlier, she sat down at the fire. "I’ll probably hate myself for asking, but...you want to talk about it?"
"Not really. I’ve ‘talked about it’ with just about everybody, and it hasn’t helped much so far."
"Well, you haven’t talked to me." She was almost entirely successful at not making it sound like a challenge.
"Oh sure, Miss Sensitivity. I’m sure you’d be a big help."
"Look, I just thought you could use a...well, a friend...who might know what you’re going through."
"So who told you? Xena? I guess you two had a good laugh."
"You’re going to make me mad Joxer. Xena didn’t tell me anything, and neither of us would laugh about it. I’m trying to tell you—I know how you feel. You’re gaga over Gabrielle, and she doesn’t feel the same way. Am I right?" Joxer answered with a nod and a shrug. "I’ve been there. It sucks. I know."
"You’ve been there? You’ve been in love with someone who thinks of you as a brother...er, sister?" Joxer was a little intrigued and hopeful for any potential insights Amarice could offer.
"Even worse—someone who thinks of me as a kid." Amarice hadn’t planned to divulge anything too personal. Maybe it was the fact that misery indeed loves company, or maybe she was actually warming to the likeable lummox, but she decided to spill it. "Okay, I’ll rip your throat out with my teeth if you whisper a word of this to anyone..."
Joxer swallowed hard, visualizing the image—he believed she would do it. "Your secret’s safe with me."
"I don’t know if it was the blues eyes, the leather, the way she handles a sword like she was born with it in her hand...." Amarice was momentarily lost in envisioning the Warrior Princess in full battle glory.
"You’ve got a thing for Xena!?"
The volume of Joxer’s reaction snapped the Amazon back to reality. "Would you keep it down? The thing is, I realized it wasn’t going to happen, and nothing I could do would change that." Amarice didn’t know what Gabrielle had or hadn’t told Joxer, so she wasn’t going to get into why she realized it wasn’t going to happen. "Xena doesn’t see me that way. But she does see me as a friend, and I can learn alot from being around her. You’re wasting you time mourning something what never was—be happy with what is. A couple days ago we thought we’d lost them both, and now they’re alive. Seems like pushing our luck to ask for more than that."
Joxer remained reluctant to relinquish hope for more than friendship. "You don’t think that maybe there’s a chance that someday..."
"I wouldn’t hold my breath, Joxer." How can he be so dense? Amarice stifled her impatience and continued. "Besides, it’s not fair to Gabrielle to keep hoping for something she can’t give, and it’s not fair to you either. What if you meet someone who might really fall for you, but you miss out because you’re waiting for someone who never will?"
While Amarice’s advice didn’t make Joxer feel all that much better, it was comforting that her opinions were born in experience surprisingly similar to his own. "You make it sound so easy."
"It’s not easy, Joxer. You just do what you have to do." The two sat silently staring into the waning flames, Amarice with her Amazon honor and duty and Joxer with his hopeless devotion, commiserate in their unrequited passions.
* * * * * *
Gabrielle stood in the natural doorway of the rear room of the cave, amazed and delighted by what she saw. A fire blazed cheerfully in a small nook in the rock wall that was vented by an opening in the cave ceiling. The bedrolls and furs that were spread invitingly in front of the fireplace were strewn with wildflowers. Xena luxuriated neck-deep in hot water and self-satisfaction, soaking in a pool she had created by damming the spring just below its source. "So, did you give him the ol’, ‘I’m flattered, but my heart belongs to someone else’ speech?"
"I decided to go with, ‘I love you like a brother’." Gabrielle wasted little time shedding her clothes and joining Xena in liquid relaxation.
"Ouch, that had to sting. How’d he take it?" Xena positioned herself behind Gabrielle and began to massage her shoulders.
"Mmmmm..." Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned into the powerful fingers as they kneaded the knots and kinks into submission. "I don’t think I want to talk about Joxer anymore tonight."
"What would you like to talk about?" The husky voice was full of music and flirtation.
Gabrielle basked momentarily in the renewed closeness and familiarity. "We could talk about how much I wish I could have seen a certain Warrior Princess picking wildflowers this afternoon."
One of Xena’s many ways to playfully torment Gabrielle was to express a bogus disdain for flowers. "They don’t do much for me, but I knew you’d like them."
Gabrielle decided not to take the bait. "Or, we could talk about how good it was to see said Warrior Princess cavorting like a billy goat in springtime."
"A goat?" Xena wasn’t particularly pleased with the comparison.
"A bunny?" Ever the bard, Gabrielle searched for the perfect image. "No, a goat." She’d gotten it right the first time.
"Well, I guess I was just happy to still be able to cavort." While it was meant to continue the playful banter, the reality of the statement drew them both into quiet reflection. Xena drew a long breath and exhaled slowly as Gabrielle moved around to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with her. "I didn’t have time to really think about it before, but today, running for the pure joy of running...leaping, tumbling, using every muscle just because I could... Gabrielle, I don’t think I’d want to live if I couldn’t get up and take care of myself. Or you." Xena turned and placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle’s temple and another on her shoulder, then closed her eyes and leaned back into the steamy bath.
Gabrielle suppressed the urge to remind the warrior who had been taking care of them lately. Five years at Xena’s side had taught her to cherish these rare moments when the Warrior Princess, nemesis of man and god alike, became simply her soulmate. She knew that expression of deep thoughts and emotions did not come easily for Xena, and she welcomed the chance for them to share this kind of intimacy. "I know my attempt at non-violence must have put a real burden on you. I never really thanked you for letting me work through all that on my own."
"Most people don’t have the courage or the strength to totally embrace a way of living to find out if it’s right for them. Sometimes you can find out more about who you are by finding out who you aren’t." The wisdom of her words masked a lack of confidence that Xena’s reflexes instinctively cautioned her to conceal—a warrior who exposes vulnerability doesn’t live long. Here, alone with the only soul she trusted absolutely, she didn’t have to depend on her reflexes. She knew she could reveal any insecurity without fear. "You are sure about the path you’ve chosen...? I’m back, good as new, you know. You wouldn’t have to fight if you didn’t want to." A part of her had remained troubled over the fact that it was her own utter helplessness that had ultimately triggered Gabrielle’s epiphany. Her recent inability to fight had rendered her further dependant on Gabrielle. It wasn’t a trend she cared to continue.
Gabrielle recognized the uncertainty in Xena’s voice. She knew how excruciating being powerless and vulnerable must have been for the warrior, just as she knew that the next dozen or so bad guys they ran into would pay dearly in compensation. But it was important that Xena understand how she had come to the realization that the Way of Love was not her path. "I had already begun to question whether it was possible to do battle with the kind of evil we‘ve encountered with love alone. Then Nijara shows up, and I have even more doubts, which you ease with reassurances that you’ll do the fighting for both of us. Xena, I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, but I think that relying on you for protection, knowing that I didn’t have to fight, made it take longer to realize that I needed to fight."
The wince that creased the warrior’s chiseled face told Gabrielle her words had stung. "Xena, I’m not blaming you. I know you were doing your best to help me find my way on my own." Xena remained silent, but her expression softened, encouraging Gabrielle to continue.
"By the time we rejoined the Amazons, I was having serious doubts. Ephiny’s death seemed so senseless on one hand, but on the other it seemed so proud and honorable... dying in battle defending her tribe, her way of life, everything she loved. How could I be credible as a leader of warriors without being willing to fight, and die, beside them? I was focusing so much energy on remaining non-violent, while I was fighting an inner battle with the doubts I was having about my chosen path...it seemed so petty compared to losing Ephiny. I wondered if I was dishonoring her memory. It wasn’t until the moment you went down, and I picked up your sword, that I realized that my attempt to follow the Way of Love had left me as paralyzed as Callisto's interference had left you. Seeing you completely defenseless was just the final step on my way back to who I really am."
Gabrielle searched the blue depths of Xena’s eyes for the understanding and assurance she hoped her words had inspired and was rewarded with a soft and easy smile. Xena sat up, locked onto the loving green of her soulmate’s eyes. "I gotta tell you, I kinda missed seeing you in full, butt-kicking mode."
Xena placed her finger on Gabrielle’s lips to hush her and moved in closer, removing her finger and replacing it with a soft kiss—tentative at first, then tender. It was a kiss as long anticipated and meaningful as a first kiss. It was a celebration, a reunion. When they finally drew apart, breathless and a little dizzy, neither could contain a goofy grin. They’d made it all the way back.
"Wow." Gabrielle leaned back against Xena as strong arms pulled her in close. The tranquil beauty of the mountain paradise they’d stumbled into had worked its revitalizing magic on both their souls. For a perfect moment there were no boundaries, no limits, no barriers between them—two souls sharing a connection that transcended time, space and logic. "It feels like we’re the only two people in the world."
"We’re not even the only two people in this cave." Xena felt the sigh as it escaped the bard-warrior she held in her arms, and smiled a secret smile into her blonde hair as she planted a kiss delicately behind an inviting earlobe. "That not withstanding...there’s something I wanted to ask you. You told me once that you wished I had been your first...you know, lover...and well, we all know about my illustrious past...but, I was thinking. We died, right? And came back. So this is a new life now..." Xena drew Gabrielle around to face her, and in the moment that blue again connected with green, the world around them melted and their souls again became one. "Gabrielle, will you be my first, my only, in this life?" It was a question that required no answer.
To be continued...? May it never end!
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