Brunhilda sat in the forest on an overturned tree, softly weeping, her body slumped forward as she wiped away the tears. She was trying not to make too much noise.
It was midnight, but the light of a full moon sliced through the trees, illuminating the landscape and glinting off of the Valkyrie's armor and her tears.
She looked up at the sound of the throaty purr. She knew that it was Xena, and she was fairly certain she was in no danger from the Warrior Princess. There was only concern in her voice.
"Are you OK?" asked Xena.
Brunhilda looked away, trying to hide her tears.
"I don't want you to see me like this."
"Brunhilda, there was a time I was proud of the fact that I hadn't cried since I was a child. Gabrielle taught me to cry again. And I'm so glad she did."
Brunhilda sighed. She looked at Xena with eyes full of heartache. Xena came and sat next to her.
"I've been spying on the two of you," said Brunhilda. "I should stop it."
"Yes. You should."
"It's been so hard to stay away from her. In my ethereal form I would remain near the two of you, and I could feel the deep love you both have for each other. She is so amazing, Xena."
"I know. But you have to let her go, Brunhilda. This is no way for you to live your life. I know I don't deserve her love, but I have it. It's mine. And I couldn't give it away if I wanted to."
"I'm not asking you to give it away."
"Maybe you could travel with us for awhile, Brunhilda."
She shook her head.
"I can't be that close to her without wanting her, Xena. It would only cause problems."
"So you're just going to watch us from afar?"
"No." She stood up. "I'll leave if you want me to."
Xena stood up and asked, "So, no more spying?"
"I honestly don't know if I can promise that," she said, and impulsively leaned in and took a whiff of Xena. Xena stepped back, looking a little annoyed.
"Sorry," said Brunhilda. "I can smell her on you."
Xena said, "Brunhilda, I want you to stay where you are until morning. Will you promise me that?"
"Sure, but why?"
"Just trust me."
Xena left, and Brunhilda cried herself to sleep. In the morning she felt the approach of a wonderful, lovely young woman. Just listening to her footfalls made her shiver with pleasure. She looked in the direction of Gabrielle, and saw her making her way through the forest, smiling as she came. Brunhilda realized she was smiling in response.
"Hi," said Gabrielle. And still there was that amazing smile. Gabrielle was carrying a couple bearskins, and she put them down at her feet.
"Hi," said Brunhilda, and she couldn't prevent herself from throwing her arms around Gabrielle. Gabrielle returned the hug, and Brunhilda didn't want to let go because she'd soon have to hear that Gabby could only stay for a few minutes and she needed to get back to Xena who was the love of her life and her soulmate. She closed her eyes and kept her arms around Gabrielle and snuggled her face into that beautiful hair and soft skin, and tried to pretend for a moment that Gabrielle belonged to her.
"Nice to see you again," said Gabrielle, and though there was nothing unfriendly about the words, there was nothing romantic about them either. Her disappointing tone made Brunhilda let go of Gabrielle.
"Thank you," said Brunhilda.
"I'm glad you were able to return to flesh and blood."
"I couldn't stay in that other form forever."
"Thank you for what you did for me. For us."
"I'd do anything for you, Gabrielle."
The words seemed to make Gabrielle uncomfortable.
"I'm here to spend a few days with you, Brunhilda, if that's alright."
"Xena thought it would be a good idea."
"Why? I don't want your pity, Gabrielle. What does Xena think this is going to accomplish?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Do you not want me here?"
"I just don't think it's a good idea," said Brunhilda. "I can't be this close to you without wanting you, Gabrielle. I don't know if I can control myself. I'm not willing to put myself through that."
"I trust you."
"Don't. Don't trust me, Gabrielle. I don't trust myself."
Gabby sat down on the tree, close to where Brunhilda had been sitting.
"Well then I'm going to be pretty lonely, because Xena is going to be hunting for a few days. If I'm not with you I'll be all alone. I'll probably starve to death."
"Are you sure Xena won't be spying on us?"
"I'm sure. I thought of that, but Xena promised. No spying."
"You and I think alike, Gabrielle."
"Yes, we do," she said, and patted the tree next to her. Brunhilda sat down and smiled in spite of herself.
"What will we do?"
"A little hunting and fishing would be a good idea," said Gabrielle.
"Bring any hunting gear?"
"Just my bare hands."
Brunhilda took one of Gabrielle's hands in both of hers. She stroked the palm and the lovely, tapered fingers. Gabrielle didn't stop her.
"Don't worry," said Brunhilda. "I can catch a fish with my bare hands just as well as Xena. I know where the salmon are running."
"Salmon! Great! You catch and I'll cook."
Not too long after that they found themselves sitting around the campfire, their bellies full of salmon, Gabrielle with fish scales all over her hands and arms. They weren't sitting close to each other, and Brunhilda started wishing that Gabrielle would come right over and lay her head on her shoulder. Gabrielle caught her staring, and smiled.
"Thanks for the meal," said Gabby.
"But I stink."
"Maybe a little."
Gabrielle stood and wiped her hands.
"I need to get cleaned up."
"There's always the river."
"I know a better place. Come on."
She took Brunhilda by the hand. She led her through the woods and into a cavern. There were some natural hot springs, and a beautiful crystal clear stream running nearby. Gabrielle dipped her hand into one of the naturally formed pools, and grimaced.
"Too hot," she said. "Give me your helmet."
She used the helmet to scoop some of the colder water from the stream, and cool down the little pool. She gave Brunhilda back her helmet, and started taking off her top. She didn't even turn away from Brunhilda as her breasts popped out.
Brunhilda was a little surprised, and nervous. She didn't know if this was a good sign or not.
"Should I leave?"
"Of course not. Brunhilda, I told you, I trust you. Take off your armor. Do you need help?"
Brunhilda said she didn't, and took off her armor as Gabrielle slipped out of her skirt. She turned her back on Brunhilda and stepped into the pool, and Brunhilda couldn't take her eyes off that cute little butt. Gabrielle turned and offered an inviting hand to the naked but reluctant Brunhilda.
"Come on in, Brunhilda. I've never bathed with anyone but Xena, before. Ever. Don't turn me down."
Brunhilda stepped into the pool, and Gabrielle turned her back on the Valkyrie.
"Xena always soaps my neck."
"We don't have any soap."
"Do the best you can."
Brunhilda started washing Gabrielle's neck and cleaning her ears, and asked, "Why are we doing this?"
"I told you. I trust you."
Brunhilda leaned forward and started kissing Gabrielle's neck. She nibbled her earlobe.
"Stop it, Brunhilda."
"Then you'll have to leave."
"You're torturing me, Gabrielle."
"Why do you trust me when you know I can't be trusted?"
Gabrielle floated away from Brunhilda, and turned to face her.
"We can stay in this pool as long as you want or we can leave right now. Up to you."
"I'll just stay over here, then."
"Come here, I have to wash your neck."
Brunhilda got her neck washed, and couldn't stop thinking, What is she doing? Why is she doing this to me?
But she managed to get through the experience, and even received a little neckrub from Gabrielle before they left the pool.
They dried off, and spent the rest of the day hiking. When it came time to turn in, Gabrielle spread one of the bearskins on the ground. She began to take off her clothes again, and Brunhilda took off her armor. She started to protest when she saw that Gabrielle expected them to both sleep together between the two bearskins, both of them naked. Bearskin to bearskin and bare skin to bare skin. But, as they snuggled closer together and Gabrielle put one arm across Brunhilda's waist and moved her head closer to Brunhilda's neck and her knees closer to Brunhilda's thighs, Brunhilda just kept telling herself You can do this. Just relax and enjoy it. If you start kissing her she'll back away. Just relax.
She hugged Gabrielle a little bit tighter, and thought I have her in my arms. This is real. She's really here. I just wish I could do something about it. Couldn't I just wait until she falls asleep, and?
Brunhilda sighed. It's so hard to be a good person, sometimes. And what's even worse, around Gabrielle she couldn't help but be good. She began to have some idea of what it was like to be Xena. But it's so hard to be Xena if you don't have a Gabrielle.
The next day was spent in pretty much the same way as the first. After getting cleaned up and dried off, the two of them were taking it easy by the campfire, and Gabrielle caught Brunhilda staring at her. She shook her head in wonder, and smiled.
"When I was a young girl," said Gabrielle, "if anyone had ever told me that so many men and women would be falling in love with me, I never could've believed it. Back in Poteidaia I was never anything special. At least they didn't think so. I was invisible."
"You were like a beautiful, exotic wild animal. They didn't know how to appreciate you."
"Xena was the wild animal. Not me."
"And you tamed her."
"No, I didn't. You keep saying that. I never changed Xena. She changed herself. I was just there to help. And it makes me sad sometimes to think how many people have fallen in love with me and how few have fallen in love with her. In the past few years it's been just me, really. And Ares, and he's no bargain."
"She may not have the quantity, but she has the quality."
"Do you want someone else to fall in love with Xena?"
"No, I guess not. It's just that, so many people admire her and even worship her for her skills. But if they really knew her like I do, if she really let them know her, they'd love her as much as I do."
"Gabrielle, loving Xena requires an awful lot of forgiveness. I don't think just anyone would be able to do it."
"Well, maybe not."
"I don't think Xena needs the love of anyone but you. There was a time when she thought she didn't need love at all. You were a revelation to her. No one who's ever met you can be unaffected by you, Gabrielle."
And then Gabrielle surprised Brunhilda by doing something she had wanted the day before. She came over and sat next to Brunhilda and put her head on her shoulder.
"I just love her so much," said Gabby. "I wish everyone could find out for themselves how wonderful she is."
Brunhilda put one arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. She thought, I don't know what you two are trying to teach me. I'm just glad you're here next to me, Gabrielle. Maybe you can never love me, but I'm going to enjoy your closeness for as long as you're here. As long as you'll let me. Anything you agree to, Gabrielle, couldn't possibly be wrong.
That night, Gabby started laying out the bearskins and taking off her clothes. Brunhilda took off her armor and got under the bearskin. Gabrielle pulled back the skin and knelt in front of her. She said that she had something to tell her.
"What?" she asked, sitting up.
"I wasn't going to do this, but Xena said that it's OK. She doesn't mind."
"Doesn't mind what?"
"This. Us. It's OK if we?if we're?together. If we're intimate."
Brunhilda averted her gaze. For the first time in a few days, she felt her eyes tearing up, again.
"I don't believe you. That doesn't sound like Xena."
"I was surprised, too. We didn't part on good terms because of it. But I think it's OK. Xena and I have been through a lot more than this, and we're still together."
"Gabrielle, don't lie to me, please. I can't stand it."
"Look at me."
Brunhilda turned to her, and Gabrielle reached out and softly held the Valkyrie's chin. She leaned forward and kissed her on the lips, and Brunhilda shuddered and felt the arousal she'd been fighting for two days. She looked away again.
"No, I'm not. That would be cruel. I could never be so cruel to someone who's helped us both. This is real. I'm real."
She put her arms around Brunhilda and started kissing her neck.
"Stop it," Brunhilda said, but not very forcefully. She very gently pushed Gabrielle away from her and looked into her eyes. Her voice was shaking.
"Gabrielle, please just get out of here. Go back to Xena right now before I change my mind."
"Is this because you think Xena will hurt you? I won't let her hurt you."
"This is because I love you, Gabrielle, and you can't love me back. You love Xena so much there's no room in your heart for anyone else. And I don't believe you two can just act like this never happened."
Gabrielle stood up.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause you pain. I'll leave if that's what you want," she said, and started getting dressed.
Brunhilda was still weeping. Gabrielle kneeled in front of her and told her it wasn't too late to change her mind.
Brunhilda wiped away tears and said, "Sometimes I wish I'd never met you. You know there was a time when I could've done this, but you've changed me. You've changed everything, and you can't change it back."
They hugged, and Brunhilda asked, "Is this the big lesson I was supposed to learn?"
"There's no lesson, Brunhilda. Please don't ever believe that my offer wasn't real."
They hugged again, and Brunhilda apologized for the times when she spied on Gabrielle and Xena, and promised to never do it again. Gabrielle told her she could keep the bearskins, and left.
The simulation of Gabrielle traveled a few miles into the woods and found Xena, Aphrodite, and the original Gabrielle waiting for her in a clearing.
"Well?" asked Aphrodite.
"She said no," said the simulation.
"I thought she would," said Xena. "No more spying on us?"
"No more spying."
"I swear," said Aphrodite, "I will never understand Valkyries."
"I want to live," said the simulation. Aphrodite looked surprised.
"What?" asked the goddess.
"If I had free will I would never have come back here. I don't want to be wiped out of existence. It's not fair. I've done everything that's been asked of me. I want life. I've tasted it and I want more. I love being Gabrielle."
The goddess and the Warrior Princess looked to the original Gabrielle for some idea of what to do. Gabby said, "Look, if you want me to pronounce a death sentence on someone who looks exactly like me, I'm not going to do it. Give her what she wants!"
Aphrodite sighed. She wiggled a few fingers, and subtly altered the features of the simulacrum. Then she gestured, and the woman vanished.
"Where is she now?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, I didn't send her to the caves, if that's what you're wondering."
"Where did you send her?"
"She's in Athens. I gave her a few extra talents, so she can support herself. I gave her a beautiful singing voice. No one's ever gonna think she's you."
"Very funny. What's her new name?"
"Gabrielle, same as before. There can be two Gabrielles."
"There can never be enough," said Xena.
"Are we all done here? Does this make us even for the golden apple thing?"
"Why are you even bothering to keep score?" asked Xena. "Sure, we're even. Whatever."
Aphrodite shimmered and was gone. Gabrielle shivered a little.
"I still think that was cruel," said Gabby.
"Maybe. But it would be more cruel to make the offer and not be prepared to follow through."
"How would you like someone offering something like that, in your name? What if she said yes?"
"Then she'd be the second luckiest woman on the face of the earth."
"I still don't like it. I thought you were through being jealous."
"It wasn't jealousy. I was worried about her. You should've seen her. If you'd spent two days with her yourself it would've just made her crazier. This way, at least we could offer her what she wanted, and the rest of her life she'll know that she could've had it, but she was decent enough to turn it down. It helps to have something like that; to know that you've been through the fire and it made you stronger. More tears have been shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers, you know. Sometimes you've just got to come face to face with temptation to realize that."
Gabrielle entered an embrace with Xena, and kissed her. Xena smiled.
"What was that for?" asked Xena.
"Just for being so sweet and worrying so much about someone you hardly know. I'm so lucky I found you, Xena. I don't know if I tell you that often enough."
"Probably don't have time between being crucified and dragged behind my horse."
"Shut up and kiss me."