Xena had always loved the maritime life, and had crossed most of the charted seas as a passenger or a pirate at one time or another, but after Vercinix’s rescue and the sorry spectacle of Crassus’ death she decided that no sea-voyage could ever be as satisfying as the one away from Rome.
The farther they got out from under Caesar’s shadow, the cleaner the air seemed to become. She could almost make herself believe that the petty politicking and blood-soaked treachery of the Empire was a physical thing, like a miasma, that could be left behind when they returned to familiar shores. That they could mange not to carry it with them.
It was a fool’s fantasy, of course. Gabrielle had been silent ever since Crassus’ Imperial ring had sunk to rest with Poseidon’s hoard of dead men’s treasure at the bottom of the sea. Even with that physical reminder gone, Gabrielle would carry what she had done to Crassus for the rest of her life.
For the first hour or so Xena had stayed nearby, sensing the terrible pain just beneath Gabrielle’s grave calm. But as the sun sank in the sky and Gabrielle did nothing but stand at the ship’s rail, staring moodily at the waves as though they held the answers she needed, Xena allowed herself to be drawn into the work of hoisting sails and securing jibs. Gabrielle would talk about what had happened when she was ready, and pushing her now could only cause further damage. She would need this time to mourn Crassus, in her own way — or to mourn some part of herself that she’d lost when she chose to deny a condemned man the hope she’d promised him.
Some time later, Xena wiped the sweat out of her eyes and looked back to find Gabrielle gone. “Yer friend went below,” one of the men told her. “She told the Cap’n she’d come back up when it’s time for yer payment, and til then not to disturb her.”
The two of them shared a tiny cabin, which was dank and damp as such things went but was also the only hope of getting any privacy on a ship this size. Xena spent the rest of the afternoon and evening turning her hand to whatever was needed, and when the sun set and the men had been handed their rations of stew and grog and stale hardtack, she retreated to the aft deck where a lone grizzled Moor named Alfonse manned the wheel. “‘S almost time,” he greeted her. “You should get a front-row seat.”
Xena smiled and patted his shoulder. “You go. I’ve heard it before. Don’t worry, I’ll keep us on course.”
Alfonse hesitated, reluctant to abandon his duty as helmsman, but then someone hung a lantern from a spar of the mainmast and Gabrielle emerged from below, somber in the flickering light, her hair shining gold as though she’d stolen the last gleam of the fading sun. Alfonse muttered a dire prediction of what would happen if Xena let them drift, and hurried to join his shipmates as they settled on casks and coils of rope in a semi-circle before the mast.
Chartering passage on a ship was always easy for Xena and Gabrielle, even with most of their dinars gone to bribe Roman guards and officers. Xena had the strength and knowledge to match any two or three ordinary sailors, and Gabrielle carried with her a currency that was more valuable than silver and good in every port.
“I sing of Theseus, hero of Athens!” she cried in a voice that silenced the sailors’ chatter and seemed to make the creaking ropes and crashing waves stand to attention. “A prince among youths, cunning and bold, who challenged the dread Minotaur in its lair!”
The lantern hanging from the mast swung in long arcs with the motion of the ship, throwing crazed shadows back along the deck. With only her voice, Gabrielle transformed them easily into a tyrant’s army; a band of chained and weeping Athenian youths; the walls of the labyrinth, closing in even as they shifted. Her audience was caught from the first word. When she lowed and bellowed like an enraged bull, the sailors cowered; when she swooned like Ariadne weak with fear for Theseus, they cried out in protest. Once, she pawed at the deck with one foot, made Minotaur horns with both hands at her temples and charged the crowd. A mean, scarred, one-eyed sailor known as the Cut-throat of Corinth yelped and leaped aside, to a general uproar of laughter.
Xena, watching from behind the huge lashed wheel, safely in the shadows, smiled too. She’d been working side by side with these men all day, and while they were worth their weight in salt she knew that there wasn’t one among them who didn’t have a convict’s brand or a knifing in a back alley somewhere in his past. Yet as they watched Gabrielle wield her staff like a sword, fencing with shadows, the hungry, hard-bitten look went out of them. The story swept them up, away from their lives of sun and salt and backbreaking work. Awe and wonder, a sort of innocence, returned to these men who had probably never laid much claim to innocence to begin with — but whatever was still in them, laying dormant after all these years, flowered and bloomed in the space of an hour, kindled by the light reflected from Gabrielle.
When Theseus forgot to change his black sails for white ones to signal his victory, causing his father to throw himself from the sea-cliffs to his death, the sailors wept. Gabrielle stayed dead for nearly a minute, letting them blubber to their hearts’ content, remembering their own fathers; then she stood and bowed, cheeks flushed, eyes shining. The audience mobbed her at once, whooping and hollering, shouting over each other to ask if she knew this or that tale from their home islands or the inland farming villages where their families still lived.
Xena watched the hubbub until Alfonse came back, dreamy and distracted, to take his place at the helm. Then she crossed to the hatch that led to the galley and dropped down as silently as she could. What Gabrielle needed most just now was to feel herself again, and if Xena could give her nothing else, she could give her this.
A decade of surviving the warrior’s life had taught Xena never to pass up an opportunity for sleep, so she was dozing in the berth that took up most of their cabin when she was woken by a familiar footstep overhead. She sat up as the ladder in the passage creaked, and the door to the cabin opened and shut again. The only light was a glimmer of silver where the moon shone through gaps in the weathered planking of the deck, but Xena heard Gabrielle’s breathing, as familiar to her as her own, and the clack as Gabrielle leaned her staff in a corner.
It was sometime past midnight, she was sure of that. “They finally let you go, huh?”
Gabrielle stretched, yawned, and leaned back against the closed door. “They wanted Xena stories, but I put them off for tonight with some of the Trojan War stuff. I don’t think that’ll work again tomorrow, though. Which would you rather me tell them, the Bacchae or the Persian army at Tripolis?”
“The Bacchae,” Xena said at once. “Tripolis, that was —“ she stopped, not wanting to touch an open wound, then wondered who she was protecting, herself or Gabrielle. “I don’t think that’s as noble and heroic a story as you make it out to be.”
Gabrielle said nothing, at first. There was a hammock on the other side of the room, strung up by well-meaning sailors who thought their two passengers might object to sharing a berth, and Xena worried that Gabrielle would climb into it and turn away, take herself out of reach. That was always a bad sign.
Instead Gabrielle unlaced her boots and settled beside Xena on the bunk, resting her head on Xena’s shoulder as though they were around their own campfire a hundred miles from anyone else. “You’re wrong,” she said. “It’s extremely noble and heroic. You single-handedly defeated the Persian cavalry and saved all of Athens from utter annihilation. A lot of this crew is Athenian originally, they’ll love that, believe me.”
Xena settled an arm around Gabrielle, fingertips grazing the bare skin between her bodice and skirt, and at the contact the cold dread that had coiled about Xena’s heart like a serpent began to relax. “Oh, I believe you. I just don’t like to think about how close I came to losing you, that’s all.”
“I’ll tell the Bacchae story, then. It’s a crowd-pleaser anyway.”
“You’re the crowd-pleaser. I was watching their faces — you gave them an hour of childhood back. Something away from the misery and drudgery of their day-to-day lives.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “That’s why people need stories. They get us outside of our own lives, our own heads. They broaden the world.”
“I’ve seen many a bard perform in my time, and let me tell you, very few of them could have made a pack of wicked pirates weep like newborn babes,” Xena said wryly. “If you ever worry that you’ve lost your compassion, just ask those men. It takes a big heart to make others feel so deeply.”
There it was; the sore spot. Gabrielle went very still, and Xena waited, hardly breathing. There was taking space and time to mourn, and then there was burying a hurt to let it fester and emerge later in some more monstrous form. She had to know which way Gabrielle would go.
Quietly, so that even pressed together as they were Xena barely heard, she said, “I’m not sure a big heart is such a good thing to have, anymore. It only makes a bigger target.”
Xena rested her chin on the top of Gabrielle’s head, enfolding her as much as was possible in the cramped space. “I’ve been thinking about Illusia,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it all day. Since what you said this afternoon — that you’d done something you never thought you’d be capable of.” With the slightest brush of her fingertips, she touched the spot just under Gabrielle’s ribs where her illusory sword had slain Gabrielle’s ghost. “I remember how that feels, doing something so alien to your nature. It… changes you.”
Gabrielle rested her hand over Xena’s. “Have you changed?”
“Gods, yes.” Xena turned to face her, though in the gloom all she could see was the dim pale outline of her familiar features and the warm shadow of her hair. “Before that mess, I never would have imagined I could raise a sword against you. I never gave it a thought.”
“You were grieving, and consumed with hatred. We both were. It was like — a madness. You weren’t in control of yourself.”
“When the Furies drove me mad, I never hurt you. Other people, yes — but not you.” Xena lifted a hand to Gabrielle’s face, brushed back her hair and grazed her cheek. “Now, I have to consider that it’s a possibility. And considering it possible made me realize that I’d rather lose my hands before I turn them against you like that again. I’d rather lose my life. But here I am, hurting your spirit nearly every day, as badly as I could hurt your body with a sword —“
“Don’t,” Gabrielle snapped, her voice rough with pain, and as she brushed Xena’s hand away from her face, moonlight caught and glinted on the tears gathering in her eyes. “Don’t keep saying that, Xena —“
“But it’s true. I love you more dearly than all the world, Gabrielle, but my love is a selfish thing, can’t you see that? All it does it put you in harm’s way. Some days I think that if I really loved you, I’d just —“
“Leave me behind, in a peaceful village somewhere,” Gabrielle finished, and the depths of bitter anguish in her voice pierced Xena’s heart more cruelly than an arrow. ”Don’t you know there’s nothing you could do that would hurt me more?”
“But there is,” Xena said softly. “Look what my personal war with Caesar has done to you — twice, now. I keep seeking vengeance and justice for past betrayals, but the only one who ever seems to get hurt is you.”
Gabrielle raised her head to look Xena in the eye. Her face was damp with tears, but the certainty in her voice was unshakeable. “Your personal war with Caesar is foolish, petty, and cruel,” she said, “but it’s over. This wasn’t about getting revenge on Caesar, it was about rescuing Vercinix — a good man, who would have been executed for the crime of defending his family. You had the chance to kill Caesar and ruin the plan, and you didn’t.”
“And Crassus —“
“Crassus ordered those women and children crucified.” Gabrielle wrapped both arms around her middle and shivered a little, like she might be sick, for reasons other than the rise and fall of the sea. “That’s true, and it would have been true no matter what I did. Vercinix’s pain was real. Every Roman solider that Vercinix ever killed in battle had a family, and their pain was real. Caesar is still out there, sending his armies to conquer provinces and raze villages, and some of the people in those villages will watch their loved ones be crucified, and the survivors will want vengeance —“
“Gabrielle,” Xena said softly. She’d never heard Gabrielle talk like this before, with such black despair, and it frightened her.
“It’s not you that wounds my spirit, Xena, It’s this world — all the pain and suffering, the treachery, the hate. I’ve seen more of it since I’ve traveled with you, but you didn’t make it this way. You’ve only taught me that it exists. And if I had stayed in Potidaea and never touched a staff, the world would still be the way it is.”
“It would be worse,” Xena said. “You’ve helped so many people in the last three years, Gabrielle, never doubt that.”
“So have you. I look at you sometimes and I see all the things about the world that wound me — the violence, the betrayal — and I see how they’re a part of you, and how you overcome them, over and over again. How you never give them power over your heart.” She reached out and touched the back of Xena’s hand where it rested on the berth between them. “I love you, Xena.”
Xena took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and raised it to her lips, pressing a kiss to the place where she’d worn Crassus’ ring. “Before today, the last time you said that to me was in Chin,” she murmured. “It always comes from a place of such pain.”
“That’s when I need to say it most. The world hurts, but you — Xena, having you is what helps me heal.”
A moment passed before Xena trusted herself to speak. She opened her arms and Gabrielle came to her, as easily and instinctively as breathing, and rested her head on Xena’s chest, over her heart. “I don’t claim to understand it,” Xena said into her hair, “and the gods know I don’t deserve it, but you have me. You’ll have me until the end of time.”
“I know,” Gabrielle said, and at least the despair was gone from her voice. Now there was only bone-deep exhaustion, and grief — but, Xena thought, the kind of grief that was clean, that cleared the way for the soul to mend. Like the burning of disinfectant in a physical wound, it was a necessary pain.
Xena could feel from the change in Gabrielle’s breathing and the way her shoulders started to slacken that her grief and racing thoughts were at war with her body’s exhaustion; and if there was one thing Xena knew how to do, it was tip the scales of a battle. She pressed a brief kiss to the top of Gabrielle’s head and disentangled herself, ignoring Gabrielle’s muttered protests. “So much for the end of time. That wasn’t even five minutes.”
Xena smirked. “I meant what I said, but I promised the Captain I’d join the third watch shift and you need sleep. You’ll have to be well-rested to do my adventures justice tomorrow.”
“Mmmph.” Gabrielle showed her disdain by stretching out on the bed, stealing Xena’s blankets and turning her back, but then ruined the performance by saying “Goodnight, Xena,” soft and sleepy, exactly as she did every night as she drifted off, whether it was camped under the open stars of Greece or on the hard stone floor of a dungeon cell.
“Goodnight, Gabrielle,” Xena replied, as she always did, and as she always would, every night until the stars went out. She waited a few minutes, until she was sure from her breathing that Gabrielle was safely asleep, then turned and headed for the deck, to watch for peril in the night and to steer them safely home.