Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Major Spoilers: "Apotheosis," Deliverer/Gabrielle's Hope, The Debt
Extremely Minor Spoilers: ITADITH, ADITL, Destiny/Quest
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Four: No female bodies were gratuitously bared for purely prurient reasons during the production of this fanfic.
Gabrielle meant to be pondering the Amazon situation, as well as how to tell Ephiny about Hope, but instead she found her mind drifting, and somehow she got stuck on her earlier conversation with Anaira. "We're still each her own person," Gabrielle heard in her mental ear, and tears again threatened as the words seemed to mock her. The comparison between her relationship with Xena, and Ephiny's with Anaira, was impossible to resist, and it was not a flattering one. How did they manage to stay so deeply, serenely in love, and yet each retain her own sense of self? Was there some mysterious trick to it, or was it simply impossible because of who Xena was and who Gabrielle was?
Gabrielle was so deep in her contemplation of these unpleasant questions that she didn't even notice another person entering the bathhouse until she felt the disturbance in the water. She opened her eyes to see Anaira, naked, leaning over the tub and lowering an equally naked child onto Ephiny's lap.
"Mimi," Gabrielle said with delight, and the little girl, warm water splashing up her round belly, turned to look at her. "Do you remember me?"
"Mama's friend," the child replied, sticking a thumb in her mouth. Gabrielle was momentarily surprised, and then shook her head ruefully. Apparently Mimi's paternal heritage included the ability to speak more fluently than most children her age.
"That's right," Gabrielle agreed as Anaira climbed into the tub as well. "I hope I can be your friend too."
"Friend," Mimi repeated slowly, blinking bleary eyes and holding her arms out to her mother. Ephiny passed her into Anaira's lap, and she promptly snuggled up and fell asleep.
"The hot bath does it every time," Anaira observed, sharing a fond smile with Ephiny. She glanced over at Gabrielle. "Is everything all right?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I can't remember the last time everything was all right." Remembering her earlier musing, she amended, "Well, yes I can. It was the last time I saw you two. Things seemed so good then." Where did it all go wrong? she thought sarcastically. But the concerned faces of the two women across from her seemed to be wondering the same thing, with sincerity.
"Gabrielle was just relaxing a little," Ephiny said heavily, widening her eyes significantly at Anaira, who shrugged acceptance. But Gabrielle interrupted.
"No, I think I'll relax better after I get this off my chest," she said. "The two of you can probably understand what I've been through better than ... anyone." The others exchanged a glance, and then Ephiny turned back to Gabrielle.
"We're happy to hear whatever you want or need to tell us, Gabrielle. But don't feel that you have to share. It's like I said: I don't want to pry."
"I know. I know." Gabrielle sighed. "But maybe it'll help me. I don't know, maybe I'm afraid that if I talk about it, it'll be true. I've been trying so hard to pretend it didn't really happen." She took a deep breath. "See, it all started when we heard that Caesar was preparing to take the island of Brittania. Xena had a personal grudge against him, and also she was friends with Boadicea, so we went to Brittania with some religious pilgrims we had met along the way. That's where all the trouble started...."
Gabrielle talked for a long time, abandoning bardic tricks and techniques to simply relate the story as it had happened: the boat ride to Brittania, the attentions of Khrafstar, her capture by Caesar, the ceremony, the killing, the baby, the Knights of the Wounded Heart, the panicked flight from Xena, and her final ultimate act of deception. As the tale progressed, her voice became flatter and more emotionless; all the pain and horror of the experience surged up in her gut but she pushed it down, denying it, rejecting it even though she could see the inference of it in the faces of her two Amazon friends.
When she reached the end of that tale, her momentum carried her and, almost afraid to stop, she went on to recount the messenger from the East, the revelations about Xena's past, the travel to the land of Ch'in, her own second act of betrayal, the actions of Xena and of the Green Dragon, and the final destruction of the palace, followed by her and Xena's hasty retreat back to Greece.
When at last she was finished, there was a meditative silence. Gabrielle was almost afraid to look up, for fear of seeing her own recrimination and disgust mirrored on two other faces, but she forced herself to raise her eyes. And to her grateful surprise, the other two women's eyes held nothing but sympathy and forgiveness. She couldn't help briefly imagining the same look on Xena's beloved face, and at that, to her own horror, she burst into tears.
"Oh, Gabrielle," Ephiny said sorrowfully, and scooted around in the tub to put her arms around the bard. "It's good that you told us this. I can't believe you held it in for so long. It must have been so terrible."
"But now that you know, you can't blame Xena for the way she's acting," Gabrielle sobbed quietly, pressing her face against Ephiny's bare, slightly damp shoulder. Ephiny's hand gently stroked her hair.
"Naturally Xena is upset, but she hasn't given up on you, has she? And neither should you," Ephiny counseled.
"Yes, Xena wouldn't stick around if she didn't care about you," Anaira chipped in. "You have to believe that, Gabrielle."
"She probably just feels responsible for me, like some stupid puppy who won't stop following her," Gabrielle sniffled, pulling away from Ephiny. Her crying spell had passed almost as quickly as it hit, and she rubbed at her moist eyes with equally wet hands.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Ephiny chided. "After two and a half years, there's got to be more than just duty keeping you and Xena together. You're not the same person you were when you ran off to follow the big bad Xena into adventure, are you?"
"Well, no," Gabrielle admitted. "I have grown up." Then she scowled again with self-disgust. "Just not enough."
"But you have. And either you or Xena could have broken things up at any point, but neither of you did, right? Because you love each other," Ephiny persisted. Gabrielle sighed.
"I do love Xena. And I suppose she loves me, in a way. But it just doesn't seem to be enough. I've betrayed her, and she can never forgive me."
"No, she can't," said Anaira, making both Gabrielle and Ephiny look at her in surprise. "Not unless you forgive yourself first."
"How? How can I do that?" Gabrielle asked in near-despair. "The things I've done seem so horrible. So unforgiveable."
"Gabrielle, the things that were done to you were just as horrible," Anaira pointed out reasonably. "We all do things we wouldn't normally do, when we're in awful situations that seem hopeless -- and afterward, we regret what we've done. But we have to come to terms with our own actions, and learn to forgive ourselves ... or we end up killing ourselves slowly with remorse and self-hatred."
Gabrielle regarded her in silence for a long moment. "I wish it were that simple," she said at last, very quietly. Anaira laughed, not unkindly.
"I didn't say it was simple. But nevertheless...."
"Yeah." Gabrielle fell silent again. Her head spun with frantically colliding emotions and thoughts.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny said suddenly. Her hand was still on Gabrielle's shoulder, and now she used it to turn Gabrielle slightly to face her. "Is it -- You and Xena have never...." She trailed off uncertainly, but her meaning was clear enough.
"Oh, no," Gabrielle denied, coloring slightly. "We -- I mean -- no, we haven't." Ephiny raised her eyebrows. Anaira looked equally startled.
"I have to admit I'm surprised," Ephiny said somewhat ruefully. "We just assumed, I mean all the Amazons sort of figured...."
"I know," Gabrielle sighed sadly, looking down at her hands, which looked disfigured and strange under the water. "We were moving ... in that direction ... when all this stuff started to happen, and I mean ... it's not that we didn't ... I mean, the desire was there..." She shook her head ruefully. "Who am I kidding? What would someone like Xena see in someone like me?"
"Are we back to that again?" Ephiny demanded peevishly. "Gabrielle, really-"
"No, no, I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, abashed. "I guess it's just hard for me to think about getting ... intimate ... with Xena when right now it seems like we can barely stand to look at each other."
"You should listen to Anaira," Ephiny told her firmly. "It may seem trite, but this thing is never going to resolve itself unless you and Xena talk it out ... and don't think I don't know how hard that will be. But love doesn't come easy. You have to work for it." Her glance at her own lover was enigmatic, but after an instant it cleared and they smiled quietly at each other.
"I know you're right, of course," Gabrielle told her wearily. "It's just so hard to know ... where to start."
"You'll figure it out," Anaira said with confidence. "After all, you're a bard, right? Talking is what you do."
They all laughed. "You're right, of course," Gabrielle agreed. "I can't ever thank you two enough for listening and supporting me. It's such a relief to tell someone." And it was true. Even though nothing had really been resolved between her and Xena, she felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. Slowly, she realized that what she had really been craving was reassurance -- that her actions had not been completely unconscionable; that others who knew her could hear the whole story and not lose their respect or trust in her. She hugged Ephiny again, tightly enough to draw a small "oof" from the Amazon.
"I'm glad we could help," Anaira said. "Now I need to get this little one out of the tub before she turns into one big raisin."
"Yes, and it's probably almost dinnertime," Ephiny added, taking the sleeping child again and holding her while Anaira climbed out of the tub and dried off. "Gabrielle, join us for dinner, and I promise we won't talk any more shop until afterward. I understand some of the younger fighters are planning a little demonstration for the Queen's entertainment."
"Oh, that sounds lovely," Gabrielle said, smiling as the two women struggled to get the wet, drowsy little girl dry and clothed. "I'll be along in just a minute."
"We'll save you a seat," Anaira promised, and then they were gone. Gabrielle was alone again.
Reaching for a sponge and a bit of soap, she cleaned herself with slow absent-minded movements while pondering everything Ephiny and Anaira had said. Was it really possible that Xena still loved her, that by talking things out they could resolve their problems and return to the comfortable companionship they had enjoyed before all this unpleasantness? It seemed almost fantastical, too good to be true.
But after another moment she shook that off, and smiled slightly to herself. Ephiny and Anaira certainly had a way of making one feel like anything was possible. Gabrielle rinsed the soap off her body and climbed out of the tub.
A few minutes later, clothed and mostly dry, she emerged from the bathhouse to find another Amazon standing at parade rest outside the door, sword at her side. "Were you waiting for the bath?" Gabrielle asked, preparing to apologize for taking so long.
"No, my Queen. I'm here to escort you to the mess hall," the Amazon replied, turning and putting out a hand to indicate the way. Gabrielle was taken aback.
"Does Ephiny really think I need a guard everywhere I go?"
"I couldn't say, milady. All I know is my orders are not to let you wander around by yourself."
"Hmm." Gabrielle frowned thoughtfully, but she turned and proceeded toward the dining area -- sensing, somewhat uncomfortably, the vigilant sentinel at her back the entire way.
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