A/N: Xena-uber set in the plantation era of the United States, let's say around 1860. I don't claim any of this is historically accurate, I know the dialogue isn't. Prompt-fic, 'Wings'. Gabrielle is Gabrielle (reincarnated as the series was so fond of), and Alexander is Xena (another reincarnation).
WARNING: Slavery, violence, implied rape, character death and suicide. Tread carefully.
She remembered having wings once.
Or, at least she thought she did. She didn't really know where the thought came from, or why she felt so certain it was the truth. But sometimes, when the wind blew against her just right, she could swear she had wings on her back stretching to catch the breezes. She could remember the feeling of soaring in the sky, clouds dampening her skin, sun warming her back as she gazed at the land sprawling in rolling green waves below her.
Often she woke up from dreams where she'd been flying, the feeling of the wind in her hair still so fresh that the feeling of earth beneath her feet confused her utterly. But then her master would crack his whip against her scarred back and her reality would snap back into place brutally, reminding her of who she really was.
A no one. A nothing. A slave, only living because her master had pitied the sickly child he'd begotten on her mother. Pitied her enough not to have her killed, but not enough to truly care for her. She was only alive at his pleasure and she knew it.
Thankfully he didn't personally take his pleasure of her, even he drew a line somewhere, but she was passed between all his friends and guests. An amusement to while away the small hours of the night. Meant to lay there and receive their heated attentions. Meant to praise them as they grunted and strained above her or behind her, always inside her. There were some more fond of her than others, those who would seek her in broad daylight, some who would force her where other eyes couldn't see, some who would whisper promises they never intended to keep.
She was thankful hope had died in her long ago else she might have believed the fools. But she had no hope and so she didn't believe. She was resigned to her life, accepted it, embraced it even for she knew it could be worse. At least she'd never been with child. She'd watched as time and again as her master had bred his slaves and barely waited long enough for the infant to be birthed before it was ripped from its mother, never allowed to know her touch or her love. She felt herself lucky to be spared that pain. She couldn't imagine experiencing for herself the grief she witnessed in her fellow slaves, mothers with no children to nurse. Couldn't imagine growing a whole other being within her, nurturing it, loving it, protecting it, only to have it taken away from her without ever getting to hold it. Never getting to see its face, or kiss its cheek, or hold its tiny hand. Just the thought of it made her want to weep, but she knew better than to give in to that impulse. Weeping always drew attention and never the kind one would want.
So she began her day, as she began every day, with the crack of the whip in her ears, the sun not yet risen on the horizon, and vague memories of wings at her back.
As one of the few mulattoes on this plantation she was granted the privilege of light housework and attending the family. Never the lady of the house, she couldn't bear to look upon the fruit of her husband's loins, but the children were often left in her care when she wasn't scrubbing or cooking. Today wasn't one of the days the children were her responsibility, they were away with their mother for an extended stay with family upstate, and so she was left to scrub every inch of the house with lye until the whole building was spotless.
She started with the dusting, to get all the dirt onto the floors before she cleaned them. But her mind was not entirely on her task, still wrapped in her dream of soaring through the clouds, and she was startled when her master burst in slamming the door into the wall and frightening her into dropping the fragile trinket in her hand and shattering it upon the floor. He screamed at her in a rage, raining heavy fists down on her in a series of blows until she cowered on the floor her face pressed into the wood grain and glass shards muttering her apologies. He dragged her up by her hair, pulling hard enough to rip strands from her scalp, and yanking her out of the room, down the stairs, and to the whipping post out front.
She'd been whipped before, the act itself no longer held any terror for her for it was only pain, but the wildness of her master's anger did inspire that terror. She had never seen him so out of control, he had certainly never treated her this way before, but there was so much wrath in his actions now that she feared what he might do.
He had her lashed to the post, her arms stretched all the way around it with her face and chest pressed into it. He tore open the back of her dress himself, not waiting for his steward to perform that service. Then he brought out the most brutal whip he owned, a braided thick and heavy thing with a metal claw at the end meant to tear flesh from bone. She'd once seen it wrap around a man's head gouge out his eye and remove half his scalp, the sight of it had made her sick. And now her master, her father if either of them were being honest, was going to use it on her.
She quaked where she stood but she made no protest. Speaking to him would only incite his rage further, he'd made it clear to her when she was still very small that she was never to address him directly or with any familiarity. She merely prepared herself by letting her shoulders slack, biting into the post to muffle her screams and prevent biting off her tongue, and squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
The first lash was a bolt of fire seared across her back from shoulder to opposite hip making her jerk. The second was straight down the middle. The third, fourth, fifth came so fast she couldn't tell which was which. The sixth bit a little into her neck. The seventh tore her dress to catch her ribs. The eighth sliced into her buttock. The ninth made her vision go red. The tenth made her vision go white as she slumped heavily against the post, her throat raw from screaming, her back cut to ribbons and spilling her blood upon the heated ground.
She expected another lash, the beatings when her master was in this mood could often last for hours, but another didn't come. She opened her eyes to see a young white man staring into her face, looking for all the world as if he were searching her soul with his sky blue eyes, and gently undoing her bonds. She fell into those eyes, so like the sky in her dreams, and felt an instant connection with this white man. A connection she couldn't name but which held her rooted to the spot as though she were an ancient tree staring openly into his face and speechless, unable to put words to the feelings suddenly rising in her. Feelings that felt an awful lot like devotion and love and, god forbid, hope. But then he blinked and the connection was lost...no, not lost, dimmed but still there, still tugging at her soul.
She slumped to the ground on her knees, unable to support her weight. The pain from her fresh wounds had left her weak, but it was her immediate rapport with the man that left her shaking. She pressed her cheek into the dirt, breathing in the steadying scent of soil and the unmistakable odor of blood. Her heart thundered in her chest and her hands trembled. Never before had she felt so much, never before had she looked into the face of a man and wanted him the way she wanted this blue-eyed man, never before had she been so bitter to be who she was and know she could never have him.
"That's enough, Richard," the blue-eyed man said, placing himself between slave and master.
"This is my plantation, boy, and that's my slave," her master replied with steel in his voice, "I'll decide when it's enough."
"She can't stand man!" her advocate responded, "Your lesson has been driven home. Beating her further would serve no purpose."
"You have no right to-"
"Perhaps not," the young man interrupted, "But my father owns half of this land, and he does not look kindly upon those who abuse their slaves without cause."
"Without cause? You presume to know my reasons for disciplining my property?" her master's voice shook with barely controlled rage, "The lazy slattern broken a priceless family heirloom out of carelessness. I'll make sure she never makes that mistake again! I'll show you and your father what a real man looks like! How a real man handles his slaves!" He moved towards her with his whip raised.
"You'll do no such thing," the young man caught her master's hand at the wrist and prevented him cracking the whip down, "Not while I am here."
"You won't be here forever," her master sneered as he ripped his hand out of the young man's grip and tossed the whip aside.
"I believe you just gave me the perfect reason to extend my visit," the young man responded in a soft voice.
Her master made a rude noise and began to storm away, "Clean yourself up, Gabrielle," he spat, "You're to serve dinner in two hours."
"Yes, Master," Gabrielle answered in a strained whisper.
The young man whirled and knelt beside her, "Gabrielle, is it? Let me help you." His hands were gentle as he helped to lift her off the ground.
As soon as she was on her feet she stepped unsteadily away from him. She stared at the ground as she said, "You should not help me, sir, it will win you no favor here."
If he was surprised at how learned she sounded he didn't show it, "I am not here to garner favor from that prick. I am here to learn how this plantation is run and report back to my father. So far I don't believe he'll be pleased with what I've seen. Now, where should I take you to get you treated?"
Instead of making a reply she stepped wobbily in the direction of the hut where one of the slave's child-minders could help to treat her, not intending to ignore him but intent on easing the fire of her back.
He said nothing as she missed a step, merely slid his arm beneath hers and allowed her to lean on him and direct them both to where she needed to be. Out of nowhere he said, "I would buy you from him."
She glanced at him startled, afraid to make eye contact for fear of falling into that heart-stopping connection, and replied, "He would not sell."
The answer, to her, seemed simple, "I am his."
"But surely he has other slaves he could-"
"You misunderstand, sir" she did look up into his eyes then, "I am his. He is my sire, though neither of us wishes it to be true. He will not sell me. He keeps all his bastards close."
"You're his child and he would do this to you?" those sky-blue eyes raked her form and seemed to change color to reflect storm clouds. The man's jaw tensed, pulsing as he worked to restrain his sudden temper, "He is more despicable than I thought. My father will be most displeased."
She shook her head and stumbled the rest of the way to the hut. She was about to stagger through the door when the young man said, "Gabrielle, I will make things better for you here."
She squeezed her eyes shut, quelling that dangerous burst of hope blooming in her chest, "I do not believe you, sir."
"Alexander," the young man said, "My name is Alexander. Why don't you believe me?"
"Because it is something I have heard before from more powerful men than you," she looked tiredly up into his eyes, "and have been disappointed."
He looked deeply into her eyes again, the way he did when he'd released her bonds, "I make the promise to you anyway. You do not have to believe me."
Then he did something no white man had ever done on this plantation. He gently took Gabrielle's hand in his own, laid the softest of kisses upon the back, and left.
When, a week later, Alexander was still on the plantation and still preventing her master from laying his hands upon her Gabrielle began to think he had spoken true to her. Not only had Alexander always appeared just as it seemed her master had caught her alone, but he'd taken to talking to her.
He spoke of many things. Of his home, his family, his father, his hopes for when he became a landowner. He spoke to her of literature, science, math...subjects she was fascinated by but forbidden to learn. That she'd been taught to read, to speak as the master's full children spoke, was already a violation of common law forbidding slaves from receiving any learning. But Alexander didn't seem to care. He showed her newspapers, showed her what it was like in the north, read news stories with her and talked about politics. He taught her sums, differences, division, multiplication, Aristotle, Galileo, Shakespeare. He spoke to her of love. And she again felt that dangerous feeling, the one that made her chest light and her heart squeeze at the same time.
Yet, somehow, when he kissed her she was surprised. Not that he'd done it but that he did it so carefully, as though afraid she might break if he pressed too far. Deep down she'd still believed he was just like all the other men that had been with her before; that he would take what he wanted of her and leave, but he didn't. He kissed her tenderly and didn't push for more. He spoke to her of all things and listened when she responded. He treated her as a white man would treat his white lady, and Gabrielle knew it was wrong and dangerous but she wanted this. She wanted him. She couldn't help it. She began to love him.
But worst of all, he taught her to hope.
She told him of her dreams soon after her back had healed. She told him how she dreamed of flying. How sometimes when she woke she could still feel the chill of the air and the softness of her feathered wings. How the clouds were wet and somehow fluffy. How that high up the sun warmed every part of her. How the ground looked from so far above. How thrilling it was to be up so high and moving so fast. How it felt to never have her feet touch the ground.
He'd looked at her with such amazement and wonder she thought he might burst. He'd not told her her dreams were foolish, as her master had. All he'd said was "I hope one day to fly with you."
She couldn't stop herself from kissing him.
And she didn't stop when kissing turned to so much more.
They'd made love countless times. He treated her as no man had before. He told her, more than once, that to him she was his wife and he would never take another. He'd said he loved her, over and over, his sky-blue eyes looking into hers as she ran her hands through his thick black locks and they rocked to their peaks together.
It was when they were in bed like this, he inside of her moving gently for her pleasure, that she loved him best. When they were both stripped of their roles and could just be a man and a woman, colorless, classless, in love.
It was early one morning when her master kicked down Alexander's bedroom door to find them laying together naked in the bed.
He'd been incoherent in his rage. Spewing such hatred it nearly burned her ears. He'd torn her from the bed, not even allowing her the sheet for modesty, and dragged her out of the house and down to the whipping post once more.
Naked and trembling she was tied once more to the post, her master delivering another savage beating as he called her every slur he could think of.
Alexander, sheet clutched around his waist, tried to stop her master. Tried to reason with him. To plead mercy on Gabrielle's behalf. But her master would not listen. And, in fact, Alexander's words only served to infuriate her master further and his hits landed hard and ripped more flesh from her back.
Finally, unable to watch the wretched spectacle any longer, Alexander challenged her master to a duel. Pistols in one hour.
The master accepted, sending a hateful sneer at the lovers before stomping away to prepare.
Alexander once more freed Gabrielle from the post and aided her to the healer's hut.
"You must not do this, Alexander," Gabrielle begged him, "Please, just leave."
"No," Alexander said, "I've made the challenge and I will see it through. I'll not be thought a coward."
"Better a living coward than a dead hero," Gabrielle said angrily.
"No, love," Alexander said gently whispering into her ear, "If I win I can take you from here and we can live however we wish to."
Gabrielle smiled shakily, "It is a good dream."
"Rest, love," Alexander kissed her temple, her cheek, her lips, and left.
She heard the gunfire.
She flinched at every blast.
When everything was silent the fear crept up on her again.
She heard the crunch of boots approaching the hut.
"Your man is dead," her master stated coldly, "Get dressed. You'll be serving refreshments to my guests."
Alexander...dead. Her world tilted on its axis. Her love was gone. She heard only the pulsing of her heart. He'd taught her to hope and now he was dead and her hope with him. Her vision seemed to tunnel into blackness. She had allowed herself to love him, dared to believe in him and his promises, and now he'd been taken from her. Their dreams of a life together ground beneath her master's boot. Her heart clenched painfully in her chest, her breathing came in short uncontrolled gasps, her hands shook violently.
She didn't remember walking to the main house. She didn't remember taking the stairs up and up and up. Didn't remember opening the door to the loft in the attic. Didn't remember throwing open the shutters and climbing onto the sill. She didn't remember leaping.
But she did remember the feeling of wind through her hair. She remembered the feeling of Alexander's hand in her own. She remembered the sun on her back. And for a moment she had wings.
A/N: Depressing! Gabrielle's memories of flight come from the brief time she spent as an angel after she and Xena had been crucified in Rome, Season 5 Episode 1. Thoughts?