Spoilers for "The Abyss" and "The Rheingold" included in this tale.
It took two weeks of travel but finally the trio was on Greek soil again. Gabrielle, looking green, had never felt so happy to be on solid ground. They said their goodbye to Virgil who was heading to Athens to visit Meg.
As Xena and Gabrielle walked down the path headed North, Xena uncharacteristically took the bard’s hand. Not that Gabrielle minded the gesture. It was just an odd sensation for Xena to be so ‘openly affectionate’ with her.
"Where we heading?" Gabrielle asked, giving the hand a light squeeze.
"I’m not sure yet," Xena answered.
"Well wherever it is, I hope we find an inn. I’m getting hungry - no comment warrior," she warned before Xena could through out a smart aleck comment about her appetite.
Xena simply chuckled. Oh yes, the bard knows me well, she considered. Sad thing is perhaps I really don’t know her quite as well. I mean at the cave….
"Can we talk?" Xena asked soberly.
Gabrielle looked to Xena unsure. One moment she was laughing along with her but the next she seemed almost . . .morose.
"Yeah, what’s the matter?" Gabrielle asked genuinely concerned about the change.
"I wanna talk about Hope," Xena began. "Your daughter," she specified.
Gabrielle stopped walking, bringing Xena to a sudden halt, nearly ripping her arm from its socket. "Why? I thought we settled all that," Gabrielle asked.
"I thought so too but lately something’s been bothering you when the subject of family comes up and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. Then when you were feverish in the cave . . . you thought ‘I’ was Hope."
Gabrielle let go of Xena’s hand and the warrior watched as the bard’s arms crossed her chest, almost as if she were guarding herself subconsciously. "What did I say?" Gabrielle asked.
Don’t do it warrior. Don’t cry on her. You’ll make her feel worse and it’s obvious that you’ve hurt her enough over this. Be strong for her sake. Just the facts. "You said you’d never hurt Hope. You said you loved her and that you two had to get away from me - that I would take her away from you."
"Oh Xena," the bard sighed, with regret. They had been over this subject many times in the last few years. She thought they were passed it but apparently not. I’m still hanging on deep in my mind. At some point I have to let it go.
"You know," Xena began, ". . . when I found out about being pregnant with Eve, my first thought was you – how you were going to handle it, how we were going to survive . . . A god gave me a child. Just like the way a god gave you a child . . . I just don’t see how you managed to ‘overlook’ that."
Gabrielle chewed her bottom lip. The words Xena spoke of Hope bothered her but what really struck her was Xena’s interpretation of her ‘acceptance’ of the pregnancy.
Gabrielle’s first reaction when she heard the news was that this baby Xena carried was a mortal child, not that of a god. She ran down the list of ‘who’s who’ and when she ran out of names she assumed that either A) Xena was lying to her or B) it was a man Gabrielle had never met. Neither option was promising nor did it ease her soul. That was the night she found solace in the arms of a barmaid at the back of a tavern.
"I didn’t overlook it," Gabrielle said guiltily unable to meet Xena’s eyes.
Xena cocked her head, trying to read the expression on Gabrielle’s face, which the bard was purposely hiding. "What do you mean Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle sighed. Should you tell her? Should you confess what you did? Would letting her know the truth bring her closer to you or just free you from your guilt? . . . She deserves to know. And if she leaves then . . . then that’s her choice. I won’t stop her. If the pain is too much I’ll let her go - - for her.
Gabrielle swallowed hard before she began to speak, "I have a confession Xena but I need you to let me finish." Gabrielle looked up for a brief moment to see Xena nod before looking back at her feet in shame. "That night, after you said you were pregnant, we were all at the tavern - you, me, Armond, Joxer and Amerrice. All evening long I noticed a barmaid watching me while I was stewing over what I thought you had done. I mean I thought you betrayed me. I didn’t think a god was responsible for what happened to you. Honestly, what were the chances that both of us would have offspring as a result of some ‘higher power’? I thought you lied to me and I was angry - very very angry."
Gabrielle looked up briefly to see if Xena was still listening at that point. Obviously she was because Xena’s bottom lip had begun to quiver. Gabrielle had to look away again. She silently hoped that Xena wouldn’t keep her word and would say something - ANYTHING - to stop her from continuing but Xena didn’t. She remained quiet as promised. And Gabrielle knew she’d have to go on with her confession.
"At one point in the evening the barmaid nodded me back toward the kitchen and - - and I followed her," Gabrielle said beginning to stumble over her words. "I didn’t sleep with her Xena . . . but . . . We . . ."
"I know," Xena whimpered.
Gabrielle’s eyes shot up. "You know? I don’t understand," the bard said thoroughly confused.
"I have a confession too," Xena sighed. "I saw the way she looked at you all evening. I also watched you knocking down the ales pretty good that night. As the night wore on I saw the way you looked at her and when you got up to go the kitchen for some food, I knew."
"You knew?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena nodded. "Yes and I followed you." Xena paused as if to get a hold of her composure before continuing. "I saw you two kissing. Gods, I wanted to tear that woman in half. As I debated about what to do, something happened. You stopped. You told her that you were angry with me but this wasn’t the answer. And if I remember correctly, she was pretty upset with you," Xena grinned bittersweetly. "She said something about spilling the beans to your lover, at least that’s what she said when she thought Amerrice was your lover. When she found out it was me she thought twice and realized her health could be in serious trouble for messin’ with my bondmate."
"You knew this whole time? And you never said a single word?"
"Never," Xena answered.
"Because I knew you would tell me when I needed to know. It wouldn’t be something you would say in anger. It wouldn’t be something you would say to make ‘yourself’ feel better - you would carry that guilt. . . But now, since you think I need to know that you weren’t as accepting of my pregnancy, you felt you owed me the truth . . . I admire that Gabrielle."
"You admire that I almost had an affair?" Gabrielle asked.
"No," Xena corrected. "I admire that you DIDN’T have an affair and that you didn’t feel the need to worry me about it. Because you learned where your heart, and your body, lies. I’m not saying that it didn’t hurt. I’m not saying that a part of it doesn’t hurt even today. But I’m comforted in the fact that it made us stronger - it helped guide you back to me. It helped you realize it’s a life with me that you wanted - that you wanted to be a ‘family’ and you wanted to love this ‘unknown’ child as much as you cared for me, as much as you loved Hope."
"I’m so sorry for cheating on you," Gabrielle answered.
"You didn’t cheat," Xena grinned. "You explored other options for a matter of a few moments. Obviously I was still what you wanted."
"I felt numb," Gabrielle told her. "That night in the kitchen. I just felt numb and I knew that this wasn’t it; this barmaid wasn’t going to solve my problem. I had to make a choice - stand or fall so to speak," Gabrielle grinned. "I knew I had to stand by you. I had to support your efforts with this child who was going to be ‘ours’. Maybe in someway I saw it at my ‘second’ chance at motherhood, which made it easier to deal with in the end.
Hope was a part of my past and as much as I would have loved to build a life with her . . .I know that never would have worked. She had her father’s agenda - that agenda meant more than my blood in her veins. But somewhere deep inside me Xena, I’ll always wonder what could have been if SHE were different. I’ll always wonder if there’s something that WE could have done to MAKE her different. But I also know that she never gave us that option. I realized this when we prepared to go into Dayhok’s temple and she came to me. She said she wanted me in her life. She said if she asked father he would say yes and I could join her. ‘I’ could join ‘her’. She would never have any intention of joining me . . .We turned Eve from her darkness because she wasn’t satisfied with her life. She took the chance that love might be the best path to take. And that’s a path I know Hope would have never taken."
Xena reached out and pulled the bard into her arms, "I’m sorry I had to be the one to battle Hope," she told her. "I never wanted you to have to choose between my love and Hope’s love. I just-."
"Had to be the warrior princess," Gabrielle grinned. "I know. And like you said earlier. I understand. It’s made us stronger. But yeah . . . even today it still hurts someplace inside."
With that the bard’s empty stomach gave a large grumble. Both women chuckled at the noise, both a little grateful for the sound that helped lighten the mood.
"We better get you to an inn fast," Xena said, putting her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder as they started down the path again. Gabrielle’s arm slipped naturally around Xena’s waist.
"There seems to be a great deal of smoke and torchlights from over there," Gabrielle pointed, toward the east.
Xena’s stomach now seemed to join Gabrielle’s in its protest of going too long without being fed. "Looks like I’m not the only one who could use a hot meal," Gabrielle prodded.
Moments later they were walking through a small town with a tiny inn. As they sat down a burly man came over to take their orders - ales and whatever was ready sounded good to the duo. As he briskly brought out their plates, Xena looked at hers for a short moment before digging in. She was nearly finished, nibbling on some bread, when she noticed that Gabrielle had only half of hers gone.
"You gonna finish that?" Xena asked, nodding at the bard’s plate.
Gabrielle grinned at her warrior. Trying to take my food huh warrior? No dice. "All of it," she answered soundly with a nod.
Xena grumbled something about the portion sizes and continued to prod Gabrielle for ‘playing’ with her food.
"I’m savoring it," the bard told her.
Xena tried to stop from rolling her eyes. Savoring it, Xena sighed. What a bardly response? she chuckled silently. She would have retorted but she noticed the man by the door who had been watching them. Who’s this clown? Xena considered.
Xena made some off-hand comment that brought him to the table. When the lock fell on the table her heart stopped. She had to talk to this man and away from Gabrielle. Xena could feel her entire future disappearing before her eyes as she got up to take this Beowulf fellow to the corner of the tavern.
She looked over now and then to see Gabrielle ‘playing’ with the lock. And she realized that this would be the last night she would probably spend with Gabrielle. She prayed that the beds, like most inns, would be tiny with room for only one person. She’d be less likely to wake Gabrielle if she could leave without moving the bed.
When Xena returned to the table Gabrielle could sense Xena’s distress. She offered the rest of her meal to her warrior. Xena said she’d lost her appetite and the fact that Gabrielle was willing to give up her food, which she so adamantly denied moments before, made Xena’s heart hurt all the more. She couldn’t take someone this wonderful and giving on a suicide mission . . . not again.
As they readied themselves for bed Xena could feel Gabrielle’s growing concern and frustrations. She wasn’t shocked when Gabrielle made a remark about keeping secrets. Xena just didn’t feel prepared to tell her but she knew she had to. She’d take down that wall if she had to so the bard would know she had her trust. As she began to consider telling Gabrielle, at least part of the tale, the bard stopped her. She wouldn’t ‘bully’ Xena into hearing the story. Much like Gabrielle’s ‘barmaid adventure’ sometimes it’s okay to keep secrets. When Xena was ready to discuss it she’d be ready to listen. Xena gave her thanks and with that they said goodnight.
An hour had passed and Xena still lay in bed looking at the ceiling. The bard was in a light slumber and Xena knew - this was the last night she would have Gabrielle. The longer she lay there considering her fate the more she wanted to feel her lover one last time. To hold her. To kiss her. To taste her.
Xena walked over to Gabrielle’s bed, watching her sleep. She considered acting on her arousal but she knew that any experience would be tarnished in her eyes. They had made love a few nights prior on the ship and that image replayed in Xena’s mind. That was the memory she wanted to keep of their ‘last time’ - a time when they had the rest of their lives ahead of them, not the end of hers which is what she would be doing at this moment.
So instead of taking her bard, Xena took quill to parchment. She told her as short and sweet as possible that she needs to do this on her own - she needs to face her past without endangering Gabrielle. The bard would go on without her. Gabrielle would have the chance to see their daughter, Eve, and have the relationship she always wanted to have - her ‘second chance at motherhood’. Gabrielle deserved that fate instead of dying in a lost cause. And has Xena closed her letter she made sure to put a kiss imprint on the parchment as well as something she told the bard the last time they made love.
"Remember, my love for you is endless."
With that Xena gathered up her belongs, placed the parchment on her tiny bed, and blew the bard a final kiss goodbye. She walked out . . . and she didn’t look back.
CONTINUED IN PART VIII: SLEEP TO DREAM