The ship Ulysses had commandeered to take them back from Ithaca was the best one in his considerable fleet, crewed by a hand-picked half-dozen of his own loyal men, and liberally provisioned. “She has everything you could possibly want,” he’d told them proudly on the dock. He turned his disconcertingly charming smile on Gabrielle and added, “I’ve also had the hold stocked with every cure for seasickness that I know. One of them is bound to work.”
“Thank you,” Gabrielle said fervently. “That was very kind of you.”
“May your voyage home be more pleasant than mine was,” he said drily, and with any luck that was how his people would choose to remember him — not as the man who had thrown his heart at Xena’s feet and tried to abandon them, but as the noble king, with his loyal, long-suffering wife at his side, waving his dear friends goodbye. That was how Gabrielle would remember him, anyway, and how she would write about him, for whatever that was worth.
His wish, though, proved fruitless. The weather on the way back was, if anything, worse than the voyage to Ithaca had been. When Xena still cruelly refused to knock her unconscious, Gabrielle drank a flask full of some brine-tasting potion the first mate gave her, piled all their furs into a nest in a corner of the captain’s cabin and crawled into it, intending to suffer and die in peace.
Whatever was in Ulysses’ brew did help with the worst of the nausea, but it made her mouth taste like burnt seaweed and her head feel like it was stuffed full of cotton. She must have dozed for a while, because she blinked and saw that Xena was sitting next to her in the dim glow of a single hooded lantern. She was pretty sure that last time she checked Xena had been on deck, leaning daringly into the storm winds and shouting nonsense commands about jibs and topsails, cursing Poseidon’s name like a born pirate captain.
“What is it?” Gabrielle asked, or tried to; the noise she actually made was closer to an inquisitive croak.
Xena raised an eyebrow. “The men say that those seasickness cures can be pretty rough on the constitution. How do you feel?”
“Fantastic,” Gabrielle mumbled. In truth her head ached abominably, but it was still better than hanging over the side losing her breakfast in a howling gale, so she wasn’t about to complain. “How’s th’ weather?”
“Poseidon’s a sore loser. Sinking us wouldn’t even do him any good now, but that won’t stop him from trying. It’s all right, we’ve got a seasoned crew and this is a sound ship. We’ll be back to the mainland by noon tomorrow no matter what that overgrown merman throws at us.”
“Good. Wake me then.”
Gabrielle tried to shove her head back under the furs and pass out again, but Xena said, “Gabrielle,” in a soft, uncertain voice that caught at Gabrielle’s heart like a hook and dragged her into wakefulness. She felt just like a fish being hooked into the open air, too — pale, a little slimy, panicky and unprepared.
Xena looked her over carefully and sighed in clear disapproval. “You’re dehydrated,” she informed Gabrielle. “You’ve got to drink something other than that medicine.”
“I’m fine,” Gabrielle said, with what she felt to be considerable valor. “Xena, what’s wrong?”
Xena crossed the room to a lashed-down cask and returned with a full waterskin, then fussed with the furs until Gabrielle slapped her hands away. “Xena. It’s Ulysses, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Xena said shortly. “I just keep thinking — what if you’re right?”
“You know, all your scrolls about star-crossed lovers, all your —“ Xena waved an impatient hand in the air, whisking aside the entire canon of romantic literature and poetry as if it were a cobweb. “Your soulmate stuff.”
“‘Soulmate stuff’,” Gabrielle said slowly. “You think Ulysses is your soulmate? The one person the gods placed on earth for you?”
“Ulysses thought so. How are you supposed to know? He’s the first man I’ve — felt anything for in a very long time, and when he first asked me to stay — isn’t there some way to tell?” More quietly, tucking the furs in around Gabrielle’s legs, she said, “How do I know I haven’t just made a terrible mistake?”
Gabrielle considered, taking a cautious sip of water. At least it didn’t anger her stomach any further. “Well,” she said at last, “you don’t. Not right away, at least.”
Xena snorted. “That’s not a very poetic answer.”
“Oh, like you’d know. You wouldn’t know a poem if you cut in half with your chakram. You couldn’t tell a ballad from a funeral dirge if it was your own funeral.”
A faint smile tugged at the curve of Xena’s lips. It would probably have been invisible to the untrained eye, but to Gabrielle it was as clear, and as welcome, as the North Star is to a lost mariner scanning the heavens. “You’re probably right,” Xena said. “Enlighten me then, O wise poet.”
“Your soulmate is the person who completes you, who helps you grow into everything the gods intended for you to be,” Gabrielle said. “Do you feel like you would have been — complete, as Ulysses’ queen?”
Xena sat quietly, one hand still resting on the furs over Gabrielle’s knee, and gazed into the middle distance. Gabrielle could see it too: Xena ascending the dais of that ancient, drafty throne room clad in sumptuous royal purple, war paint drawn fiercely over her cheeks, brass gleaming at her throat and wrists, her dark hair surmounted by a golden crown. Xena sparring with her husband in the royal courtyard, in front of adoring crowds of palace servants; Xena with a jeweled sword and a magnificent horse, thundering through the green forests of Ithaca, drawn on by the baying of hounds… only to draw up short at the edge of a cliff, sending a scattering of pebbles down into the jealous, raging sea. There was no open road in that life, no camping under the stars miles from any village or town, no new sights or places. Not much variety, after a while, on an island, even one that was its own kingdom.
“If Penelope really had been dead, and I’d chosen to stay,” Xena said quietly, “would you have stayed, too?”
“Of course,” Gabrielle heard herself say without a thought. She blinked, and added another thread to the weave of the tale: Ithaca’s Royal Bard, scribbling furiously in her chambers, composing tales to honor the King and Queen that she would then recite at feasts, before pretentious noblemen and strange, wild ambassadors from foreign lands. Crying rhapsodies from the battlements as the King and Queen sailed out together to chase off another band of filthy, marauding pirates. Perhaps even occasionally riding at the Queen’s right hand during a hunt, so as to better experience the swift flight and sudden triumph she sought to immortalize. And then, late at night, when the moonlight poured in at the casement like a second, gentler sea, there would come a rap at the door. A servant with a note requesting that Gabrielle go at once to the Queen’s chambers and tell her a tale to help her drift off to sleep, a story of the old days when they’d been free…
“But that’s only a fantasy,” Xena sighed, and Gabrielle had been so caught up in the vision that she had to shake herself back to reality, to the lurch and groan of the ship, the waves roaring in fury outside, and Xena’s face in the gloom, somehow grim and soft at once.
“Well, Penelope’s alive, anyway,” Gabrielle said. Her face felt hot and her head was starting to spin worse than usual; another side effect of the seasickness cure, no doubt. Couldn’t Ulysses have warned her that it would turn her tongue-tied, too?
“And if he had come with us…” Xena mused.
That at least Gabrielle had no trouble imagining; the long days of walking, collecting firewood, hauling water, bickering over frying pans and sandal-straps, at last laying down exhausted on Xena’s bedroll to find patterns in the stars, when they weren’t using it as a tent to keep off the rain.
Although, now that she thought of it, Xena’s bedroll wasn’t big enough to fit three people, at least not comfortably. And Argo certainly couldn’t carry three, which meant if Ulysses were with them permanently, he would need his own horse. And since Gabrielle could hardly keep up on foot with a pair of riders, especially riders as skilled as Xena and Ulysses, she’d need a horse too, or else maybe they’d just —
— leave her behind —
“Hey,” Xena said suddenly. Her hand brushed Gabrielle’s cheek, turning her face more into the lantern-light. “You’re awfully pale. Is that stuff wearing off?”
“Must be,” Gabrielle murmured, fighting a head-to-toe shudder as the ship gave a particularly vicious lunge and her stomach twisted in knots trying to keep up with it. “I think maybe — some fresh air —“
She threw off the furs and tried to stand, but the floor slipped out from under her and she toppled forward into Xena, who caught her effortlessly and held her as she waited for her legs to stop feeling as weak and spindly as a newborn fawn’s. “Easy,” Xena murmured, and with one arm around her shoulders half-carried her up onto the deck and hung her over the nearest railing, then stood sheltering her from the worst of the wind. Gabrielle was dimly aware of Xena’s hand on her back, almost hot compared to the frigid lash of the rain, tracing slow circles until Gabrielle’s internal organs stopped trying to escape.
The world spun and dropped away. For a moment Gabrielle thought Poseidon had managed to sink them at last; then she felt the hard edge of Xena’s breastplate digging into her side and realized Xena had picked her up like a half-drowned cat and was carrying her back below.
“Bet you wouldn’t have to do this with Ulysses,” she grumbled, turning her face into the furs as Xena set her down, so generally and thoroughly miserable that it was too much work to try to separate one kind of misery from another.
“Don’t worry. I know how you feel,” Xena said dryly (and cryptically, since she had definitely never been seasick before in her life, you could tell that just from looking at her perfect statuesque gorgeous body and her perfect composed stupid face). “Gabrielle,” she said, and as much as Gabrielle wanted to burrow into the furs and go back to her original plan of peacefully drifting off to the Elysian Fields, that softness in Xena’s voice couldn’t possibly be ignored.
There was that elusive smile again — like Polaris, not the brightest light in the heavens but the truest, the most sure. The light that guides the way. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I promise that my life will never change so much that there’s no place for you in it.”
“As long as it changes so we spend less of it on boats.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Xena’s hand came to rest in her hair, slowly carding through the sea-soaked tangles with the same infinite care and patience that she used in brushing out Argo’s mane — which, Gabrielle thought muzzily, should probably have made her feel more insulted and less cherished. Then she felt the soft brush of Xena’s lips against her forehead, and stopped thinking much of anything at all.
Despite the wild wind howling like a gorgon overhead and the waves like ravenous Bacchae trying to smash through the hull to devour her, Gabrielle had almost managed to drift off to sleep when Xena said, “If your soulmate completes you, then you’d feel incomplete without them, right?”
“That’s the idea,” Gabrielle mumbled.
“Well, then,” Xena said, her voice like a chord struck on a lyre by two notes: one high and light, the other low and grieving. “I guess Ulysses was wrong after all.”
Before Gabrielle could ask what she meant, the dark riptide had her and she sank down into dreamless sleep.