My thanks to Advocate, Mary Morgan, Cath, Dojo, and all of the concerned denizens of the Tavern Wall.
Mail is always appreciated and answered. Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
Winter’s Thaw by Kamouraskan
Cold. So Cold.
Can’t breathe, feel like my lungs weigh a ton.
Coughing up crap and nearly choking,
I’m covered in sweat...damn.
Pneumonia. Gotta be.
Can’t. Be. Sick. Mother can’t be sick.
Oh boy. If I could get up...
Nope. That ain’t gonna happen.
So very cold.
Gabrielle and even Eve are holding me, but I’m still shivering...can’t control it. I remember Gab helping Eve breastfeed, everything seems to work whether I’m conscious or not. Gabrielle is saying we’re safe, that I need sleep... that I should rest....that everything’s fine, and I drift away somewhere...
Is this real? So peaceful... snow falling. I’m working, I think. I‘m holding a sledge hammer and swinging it with painstaking precision. I can feel it so heavy and cold, but it’s like an extension of my arm. I raise it up and prepare to strike another blow, and I look down to make sure that the spike is still in place and as I connect I see Gabrielle’s palm outstretched against the cross and she screams...
Now I really can’t breathe. I’m gasping for air like I’ve run to Marathon.
And I’m alone.
Try not to panic. But the icy fear spreads. Gabrielle, and Eve. Where are they?
I can only see vague images, but there’s a fire blazing away, so she must be close. I gotta get up...
Sweet relief. Gabrielle is here. Such comfort in that. I’m still breathing in shallow, grunting pants, but I try to rise, and she pushes me back onto the skins like a disobedient puppy, ordering me; “Xena! Get back to the bedrolls!”
She drops to her knees and places her hand on my forehead. How can I still be amazed at how soothing just her touch can be? But the shaking doesn’t stop and I chatter through my teeth. “Bit ...” breathe, “...of a fever?”
She rolls her eyes, and I’m glad that I almost made her laugh. She tries to be stern but fails. “You managed to get us through a blizzard to find this cave somehow, but it took all your reserves. Now I’m better so you’re going to have lie here and let me look after you and our... after Eve. Got that?”
I can only nod. Can’t breathe. Shaking so hard. I know I want to hold my daughter, but I don’t want her to catch this too.
As always, Gabrielle knows what I’m thinking and brings her over with some hesitation. I notice her reluctance as she lays my daughter beside me. Eve gives a gasp of contentment, and I make a face. I think she smiles back at me, but everything’s still fuzzy.
Gabrielle is talking to me. “The two of us are okay, but I know she needs her mother. And if she was going to catch what you have, it’s too late now. I’ve boiled or melted all the snow I can, so I’m hoping that if we keep you both bathed, we can prevent her from getting sick. Is that right?”
Even in my fever, I can see how these decisions are weighing on her. I’ve got to help her. She’s trying to be strong for me, again, but I can sense how tired she is.
“I didn’t know if the sickness could be spread by nursing, but there wasn’t much of a choice...” She tries not to let it sound like a question. How long has she been nursing both of us? Gabrielle, why do I always end up putting so much weight on your shoulders?
She hands me the water skin and waits until I drink, but I’m shaking so much, I lose half of it.
“Sleep, now,” she tells me, and there is that calming touch. I close my eyes.
There is a half memory of a caress, and the smell of liniment. Damp cloths gently, lovingly wiping my skin of the sweat. A child cries, and there is a laugh and then a murmur that calms her. Am I talking out loud? Is this real?
How long I rest, I have no idea. A long time, I think. I’m not sure I’m awake, until I open my eyes. Gabrielle is again holding me close. We’re both nude, and I can feel every wonderful curve of her against my sweat slicked body. Eve is still snuggled against my chest, breathing evenly, thank the Fates. Gabrielle has tried to keep me warm by pulling the skins right over our heads, just leaving room enough to breathe. Which I am still fighting to do.
I bury my nose in my daughter’s scalp, trying to find that wonderful baby scent, but there is nothing. I’m too blocked all over, I guess. Her tiny mouth moves to find my nipple and I shiver, but in a different way.
Gabrielle moves...oh, so deliciously, but I force that thought from my mind.
“Xena?” Meaning am I awake? I can hear her fatigue and I wonder how long it’s been. She can’t have completely recovered from her own illness.
I struggle to speak, but my voice seems to come from far away. “Gabrielle? Maybe... you would be better...better if...if you both left... until, I was... over this....”
All that gets is a reproachful snort.
She is so soft, so caring. My daughter nursing...If I was well, this moment would be perfect.
That’s when I remember. Like a hammer, the memory strikes me. Oh, God’s! Gabrielle in a cold delirium, thinking that Eve was Hope. And her smile while she slept, crooning to her. As if it were her dream come true.
The heat in my brain comes to boil, and I fall helpless, into an abyss.
To nightmares; that I am chasing Gabrielle, crashing through woods, unstoppable, that I am relentlessly hunting her as she is trying to protect a child. Is it Hope, or Eve? The hallucinations blur together.
I’m screaming at Gabrielle “She is not a child!” and her pained filled face is the only constant as now we are in front of the funeral pyres, now I’m taking pleasure in deliberately twisting the knife in her heart “Don’t...his name...”
I will not dream this. “Morpheus, you bastard! Take this away!” My memories are still worse than my nightmares...
My horror-filled struggling shakes me back to half-consciousness, but I strike out at something. Oh God’s, Gabrielle!
I think I hit her.
She was putting cold cloths on my forehead! I feel the guilt like another vice around my chest.
“It’s all right, Xena, it’s all right,” she soothes, “you didn’t hurt me.”
As I fall again, I’m thinking; what did I ever do to deserve this woman?
Soothing. More scent of the liniment, warming me, almost as much as the soft caresses that massage it into my skin. Both are healing me, and I can feel a small strength being rekindled.
Again, I struggle to the surface, and this time my mind is almost clear. I don’t know how long has passed, but I slowly realize that Gabrielle is talking to herself, or is it to Eve? She is tucked behind me, her head lightly resting on my shoulder, her hands clenching and unclenching in the hollow of my back. She is so absorbed in her thoughts that she believes that I’m still asleep.
“...and I know that you heard me the other night, Xena. I remember what I did, I remember singing to Eve, thinking that she was Hope...I’m so sorry...”
How can she apologize to me? I should speak.
And say what?
“I know, that you never saw Hope as a child, my child, Xena, but she called me... and I think, I think she really did think of me as, as her mother... and I wanted to believe that she, I wanted...”
Her ragged sigh almost breaks my damned selfish heart and I feel her tears splash and burn my skin.
“I thought that this could be our second chance, for both of us. I tried to tell you how I felt, that I dreamed I was giving birth to Eve as well...”
And I ignored her, made a joke or something, because that’s what I do to her....
“I think that...maybe you think I should be happy being Aunty Gabrielle, like Uncle Joxer...”
Damn Damn Damn me! How could I make her think this, how could I let this go on for so long?
“But I want to give her something....In case anything happens to us...Because, I know that if something happens to you, that we’ll be together... and she’ll be alone. So if the worst should happen...” her voice became firmer, “I want Eve to be able to be raised by the Amazons.” She lifted her head, and her tone became even stronger. “I’m going to ask you, even though I know how you feel about them and I know what you would say, but there’s no one better... because she needs to be raised where she can be safe, where she will be protected and loved and respected as ...” I hear her voice crack... “As your daughter should be.” She is quiet for a moment, and I struggle to hold back the cough that is rising in my throat.
“We could arrange that Cyrene be named her guardian, so that she’d know her Grandmother, and your mother would have some say in her upbringing, and she’d still be able to choose a life outside the village if she wanted...” Gabrielle moves to gaze down at our child, and she reaches over me to gently, no lovingly, brush at her dark wisps of hair. “But to do that... I’d have to adopt her. It could be just on paper,” The confidence is gone and her voice falters, “it wouldn’t have to mean anything more...” I heard her nearly give way again, “But it’s a way that I could protect her, even if it, even if I’m not really...”
It’s hard getting my voice to work. I have only the space between the little breaths to get the words out.
“I meant....what I said...to Ares.” My voice startles her. She’s trying to fight down her embarrassment at being overheard, when she realizes what I’ve said. “Xena...?”
I take a deep breath. “You are...the father...”
I turn slightly on to my back. It takes all my strength but I can now see her tear streaked face. I give her my best Look. Because this is important, I have to say this now, or I will let another day, and then a moon pass, and she might never know.
“You.” I raise my finger. “You are why... Callisto and I...were redeemed.” I have to stop. Rest for a moment, but just a moment. “I only have...Eve...because of ...you. No words... on a parchment...could ever change that....or make it...more ...”
Her eyes close and more of her tears fall. I know I may be crying as well.
She cups her hands, covering her mouth, and then drops them below her chin as if she is praying, to ask with a half smile, “This isn’t the fever talking, is it?”
A crooked grin forms on my lips, and I taste the salt of my own tears. “Gabrielle, I always ...counted on...knew...you would...be there...when...” I rest and start again. I’ve got to get this right. I’m so lousy at this.
“Even against Zeus.... I knew, I trusted....You would...be there...with me....I depended... if not...I wouldn’t ...have survived...” One more rest. “Taking care of me... worrying about...my pain, when yours...” The way I say this it’s almost a question. Why? Why is she here? Comforting me, worrying about how I feel, when her own demons are a match for my own now?
She looks at me, that sweet guileless look that I so seldom see now, but it is as candid as when I first saw it, when I first met that little girl so many seasons ago. And she says simply, as if it explained everything I had done to her, everything she had been through for me, for us;
“Xena? Because I love you.”
Saying I love her isn’t enough, though I must have in a way. She sees it in my brimming eyes and she leans over that small gap, with our child between us and kisses me, so softly. And before I need to breathe, she lifts her lips. The words pour naturally from my heart with the freedom I’ve always wanted. “You ...are my soul...and this.” I slide Eve towards her slightly, “...this...is... your child...”
Her face breaks into small fragments and she clutches at me, but, damn it! It sets off a coughing jag that I can’t control. When it finally passes, she looks so guilty. To hold her properly, I have to move, but with my chest loaded like iron I can only slightly shift my shoulders.
“Xena, that nearly killed you, just now...”
I smile and between coughs, manage. “No...gave me...reason to...live...”
She shakes her head, but she carefully lifts Eve and places her at our feet. But her mother’s instincts are so ingrained that even while doing that I see her checking Eve’s bottom. Then with that strength that should not surprise me but does, hauls me up by my shoulder so that we are now facing each other, our eyes inches apart, our breasts almost touching, and I am very aware of their proximity. Our child is brought up again to nestle between us. Small, perfect blue eyes look up, clearly peeved at being disturbed. I take a finger and touch her nose and her eyes cross slightly, but she follows it as I bring it to Gabrielle’s face.
“Mommy...” I instruct my daughter. “Mommy Gabrielle. Mommy.”
She stares solemnly at my soulmate, as if taking in this information, and then her eyes waver, and roll up like a drunk’s, and she is asleep again. Another tear rolls down from Gabrielle’s eyes and I lean over and capture it. The moment is so intimate, it seems only right when she traps my leg with hers under the covers.
I stretch and flex my toes against Gabrielle’s, and even that small movement brings a rush of pleasure that causes my breathing to falter.
“Xena...” but her eyes close in delight, and I know with a flush of exhilaration that she wishes as much as I do, that I could continue.
I touch her nose with mine and whisper. “I told you... that a child...would change....everything....”
She has to smile at that. “I could live with this kind of change,” she whispers back.
“For how....long...?” I rasp.
“You know.” It wasn’t a question, and maybe another time I would have left it there. But I need to say it. Need to say the word for all the words I hadn’t said before. She deserves so much more...But I can give her this one word, this one promise.
I touch her lips with mine again, and answer.
Now, there is that full smile, but one that shifts and grows tender at the small snort from the sleeping Eve. She reaches to me and wipes my tears and almost laughing, says, “I can live with that, too.”