Angst Alert: Yes, this is based on events that happened in the final episode of this television series and contains huge spoilers. If you haven't had a chance to see the final episode, A Friend in Need, then please give this a miss until you do.
Subtext Alert: There is only
maintext in this story, so be prepared for some scenes dealing with a loving
relationship between two consenting females.
Time Goes By
You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by
And when two lovers woo
They still say I love you
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by
It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by
The forests from Tokyo along the coast to Osaka and the Kii Peninsula were still ablaze, the light breeze fanning the black clouds to a higher elevation before sending them out to sea. The battle was over between Xena and Yodishi, Lord of the Dark Land, but the after effects would be felt for a long time to come. Gabrielle wandered in a daze, hardly seeing the damage. Images of Xena's broken body lying at her feet roused her from her stupor. As she refocused Gabrielle knew she only had minutes to get the warrior's ashes into the Fountain of Strength in order to restore Xena to life.
Her heart still pounded with adrenalin from watching the energizing display of power during the battle. Images of decapitation flashed through her brain and although Gabrielle knew Xena would be the ultimate winner, there was a part of her that feared for their future together. Time was running out.
"Xena?" She scanned the area and at first failed to see where the warrior had gone. Her vision was partially obscured by smoke and ash but Gabrielle knew the tears she'd been holding back since discovering Xena body were the real culprit. Placing the small urn near the fountain, the bard used the sleeves of her now ruined kimono to wipe her face.
Xena settled behind the bard in a blaze of glory, her body transformed into a tower of fire. The blaze continued until suddenly the warrior's form appeared looking none the worse for wear. She watched the bard moving towards the fountain with the grief plainly seen on her face. It had been a trial of strength and endurance for her friend and Xena felt such pride at the woman's accomplishments. It seemed all the years of teaching the young bard the art of self-defence and the ways of the warrior had paid off. Part of her was torn, however, because she remembered how young and innocent Gabrielle had been, long ago when their travels together had just begun. It pained her to think of the journey the bard had made, all because she wanted to follow in her footsteps, making the world a better place. The strength of the young woman had always surprised her. While her own motivations to change the world had been purely selfish and based on nothing other than domination, greed and the lust for power, the bard truly believed that love could triumph over any adversary. Although there had been a number of in-depth discussions on exactly how love could break the cycle of hate, the bard had been proven right; her quest had become Xena's, too. But it was a hard road to travel and each had paid a heavy price. Xena regretted the bard's loss of innocence. She wanted more for the woman than the pain that had been a daily occurrence during their life together. And now here she was, at the end of her personal journey, and she had to give the bard the ultimate pain.
Although she knew what she had to do it would be hard. How could she possibly explain her decision to Gabrielle?
It was plain to see the pride Gabrielle felt as she held the urn reverently. She'd beaten impossible odds in order to get to Mount Fuji and had successfully battled the man who had taken Xena's head in rousing combat. The muscles in her jaw tightened as she thought of the dead man lying at the foot of the mountain. He may have thought himself an honourable warrior but there was no way she would ever consider his defilement of Xena's body to be honourable. Her heart felt clenched in a very large cold fist as she thought of discovering Xena's grisly remains. 'Oh, Xena. I wish you'd told me, not that I'd have let you sacrifice yourself like that. I always thought we'd both go down fighting together. But to die alone, without me...' A teardrop fell from her eye and she tried to concentrate on how it was slowly soaking into the fabric - anything to take her mind off the utter contempt the samurai had held for her friend. A brief question entered her mind as to the origin of her sudden prowess using the chakram and then it was gone. There were more pressing things on her mind: Xena.
Slowly uncapping the urn, Gabrielle released a breath and then prepared to complete the ceremony that would restore Xena by dumping the ashes into the fountain. Mere inches were all that remained before the deed would be done when the strong hand of the warrior stilled her motions.
The warrior sat beside the waters of strength looking into Gabrielle's eyes.
"No, Gabrielle, stop."
"But Xena, I have to drop your ashes into the water before sunset." She glanced quickly at the sky and felt her heart still. There was only a little time left.
"No, Gabrielle. I have to stay dead, I have to."
Gabrielle pulled back in shock. "What? Why do you have to stay dead? The 40,000 souls are free, you told me yourself."
"They are saved from Yodishi, yes. But if I don't pay for their deaths with my own then they are condemned to be tormented forever. I can't let that happen. Don't you see?"
Gabrielle stood up and put her hand to her mouth, understanding that Xena had already made her decision. There would be no discussion between them on this. It always came down to the greater good.
Frustration rose in the bard and she turned away. She wanted to scream, seeing just how calm and settled Xena was about making a decision as drastic as this was. She could feel the warrior move close behind her and tried to control her mounting temper.
"It's not right, Xena." The pain of her decision was evident and Gabrielle's heart was seared by their combined torment. "I don't care about those 40,000 souls. I care about you. You're my whole life Xena, and I won't lose you again! Can't you see? We've been through so much. We've both paid a heavy price every day of our lives. Can't we be happy, don't we deserve to have peace, and can't we just be selfish for once?"
Xena stood up, pulling the bard to her feet.
"It's because of you that I can do
the right thing, Gabrielle. If there is a reason for our travels together, it's
because I had to learn from you
...to learn the good, the right thing to do." She paused, a tear slowly making its way down her cheek. "This is the right thing to do. I can't come back."
"But I love you, Xena." Gabrielle's face was a mask of sorrow as the truth of her feelings for the warrior came out. She thought of all the nights they'd sat together in front of a fire, or walked side-by-side sharing their lives, and never once had she spoken the words she needed to say. Why had she waited so long?
Xena stroked the young woman's cheek softly. "I know." Tears welled up in the bard's eyes and the warrior's heart was breaking. Everyone she had ever loved had been taken from her; everyone she had in her life was destined to suffer pain and anguish, either by proxy or by her own hand. Well, now it would end.
"I have been selfish, Gabrielle. My whole life with you has been something I wanted but never deserved. I don't deserve to be happy and have love in my life, not for all the terrible things I've done. I deserve nothing less than death - eternal death, Gabrielle."
The bard held the urn tightly against her chest, the tears falling freely from her closed eyes.
"But it's not fair, Xena!"
The warrior felt so torn. She would give almost anything to just put the needs of the one before the needs of the many, but she knew in her heart that it would be something that would stand between them forever. After all, hadn't they sacrificed everything in their lives together for the grand notion that the greater good was all that mattered? She couldn't let Gabrielle forget that, not for one moment, even though it would be so easy to just let her drop the ashes into the pond. Her eyes flashed open at the change in the young woman's voice. The rancour dripped from each word and Xena felt her heart twist. 'Don't you become the monster, Gabrielle. I couldn't stand that.'
"Love is helpless in the face of cruelty."
Xena looked at the bard in shock. "What do you mean?" Gabrielle's mouth had twisted into a cruel thin line. "I always thought it could change us, could redeem you, and show the world just how much a difference each of us can make - with love." She spat the last word out as if it were a bitter thing caught in her throat.
Xena placed her hand on the blonde's shoulder. "No. No, Gabrielle. It can, it has."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "If anything, love has shown me that the price we pay for finding it and keeping it isn't worth the bother, not if it means nothing when it should count for everything."
She winced as the warrior's fist clenched around the muscles of her arm. "No! Don't you see? Your love showed me the way, Gabrielle, and allowed me to find the road to redemption. Without it,"
Gabrielle pulled away from the warrior, put her face in her hands and cried. Xena's shoulders relaxed as the bitterness seeped out between the bard's fingers.
"You don't understand, Xena." Gabrielle paused momentarily. 'I love you with all of my heart.' She wiped her face and then continued. "How can I go on without you?"
Xena looked into the sky, her heart heavy as the sun began to set. She pulled the smaller woman into her arms and the two walked over to sit on a nearby log. She gazed at the Water of Strength, hoping that perhaps it would give them both what they needed to do the right thing.
'Oh, I know how you feel, Gabrielle. Believe me.' "You won't be without me, Gabrielle." She kissed the sweet smelling tresses, finally able to voice her true feelings. " I'll always be with you. Always."
The bard clutched the urn and placed her head against the warrior's shoulder. Breathing was almost too much to bear and she wondered if the tightness around her heart would ever ease.
"Oh, Xena," she said in anguish.
They sat quietly and watched as the last fingers of sun drew back from the approaching darkness, and as the light winked out of existence so did the warrior.
A tear slid down the bard's face as her heart was broken into a million pieces.
As day became night and the sky was filled with a million stars the bard knew where her heart had gone; she had loved and would never give her heart to another - Xena would hold it for all time, until they could be together once again.
It was a hard task finding a path down to the foot of Mount Fuji and Gabrielle was surprised she'd made it in one piece. She stood, her fists clenched by her side and screamed to the heavens.
"Why? After everything we've done, all that we've gone through, why can't we just be together?" Her hands cupped the black urn tucked safely in the front of her kimono and she felt such sorrow. The night was silent and even the crickets were in mourning as they held off their serenade.
After finding the remains of the fallen horse, the bard felt along until she had removed everything worth keeping from the saddlebags, and then headed back to Haguchi. Although heartbroken, a steely resolve was building where a soft heart used to be. With one hand on the hilt of the sacred katana and the other resting lightly on Xena's chakram, the lonely bard made her way through silent onlookers and then over to the dock.
Before she had even opened her mouth, a throng had gathered. She flinched at their scrutiny and then remembered the state her clothing was in. An old man stepped forward, bowing deeply, and offered up a bundle of heavy navy blue cloth.
"It would please this old man if the warrior would accept his offering. Although it is a poor gift, one who was a tailor to royalty gives it with humility. I would be most grateful if you would allow me to fashion such unworthy cloth into robes that might, if nothing else, protect you from the harshness of the long journey that awaits you."
Gabrielle blinked as she concentrated
on understanding what the old man was saying. Then, his meaning finally clear,
she bowed in return and followed as he led her away from the dark oily waters
of the Sea of Japan.
As the dawn streaked across the sky, Gabrielle kept looking over her shoulder, expecting to see the warrior going through her morning drills. A painful sigh was released as the truth of Xena's death was born anew.
"I miss you so much, Xena." The ship rocked back and forth in silence.
A sudden slapping of a sail made her jump and she turned back to the railing feeling quite foolish. How many days would go by before she could actually let her guard down and accept that she was alone - now and forever? Sneaking a quick glance toward the tiller assured the bard that although the Captain was indeed attentive to his tasks he hadn't noticed anything untoward in her strange behaviour. The man had been waiting at the dock when she'd returned wearing her new kimono, the tailor following close behind with a bundle of other goods prepared for her journey. Although her offers of money had been politely refused, Gabrielle had secured more supplies than any boat's crew would ever need, even on the return voyage. If nothing else, the Captain and crew would be well fed while in her service. This act alone had been reflected in his eyes as everything had been loaded aboard the ship.
The people of Higuchi had treated her with respect and something akin to reverence but she could also detect a decided relief when it was learned she was headed back to the land from whence she came.
Her chest tightened with the knowledge that while the trip home was something she'd yearned for it was not going to be the same without...
The ship wallowed for a moment and Gabrielle waited for the tell tale sign of a sour belly. However, it wasn't forthcoming, a side effect the warrior would have been pleased with, having taught her a mental focusing game during their sea voyage to Japa.
Gabrielle's lip quivered as she remembered how Xena had kidded her, saying she was such a poor student at the game. Just to prove her wrong, she had practiced long into the succeeding nights and had finally perfected the gentle state of mind needed to find the balance within. She never did tell Xena how she'd been able to master her seasickness. And now she never could. How many times had she wanted to just jostle the woman awake to share her newfound freedom from constantly bruising the inside of her wrist. But watching Xena sleep was a pleasure not to be interrupted or denied. A smile curled at the corner of her mouth, the images of a softly snoring warrior tickling her memory.
Xena was never one to really pay that much attention to the affects her beauty had on those around her but for some reason the idea of snoring bothered her.
'I do not snore, Gabrielle!' she'd grouse indignantly. The bard felt the tell tale burning of more tears and rubbed them away fiercely. Hadn't Xena known that every idiosyncrasy, every small thing that might have seemed annoying were the very things that endeared the woman to her? No, of course not. Xena's strive for personal perfection was totally unrealistic and yet that very imperfection was what made her...perfect.
She snorted loudly and then was momentarily struck with poetic inspiration.
"For as long as there are stars
And the moon continues to shine
Shall my love remain a constant
My heart shall ever be thine."
She tensed suddenly as she felt a hand touch her shoulder.
Her once cold heart began to beat in earnest as the warrior's hand moved up into the prickling hairs at the nape of her neck. She blinked fiercely as her vision doubled and then tripled and then the weight of her sorrow pulled her eyes tightly closed.
Would she be tormented by the image of a ghost forever?
"Cat got your tongue?"
She jumped and then whirled around in surprise.
"Xena? Are you...or am I...have I lost my mind?"
The warrior's grin drew up on one side and Gabrielle felt the intense need to touch the woman's lips with her fingers. 'Only in my dreams.'
And then her chin was lifted and she felt such warmth pressed against her mouth as she was gently kissed. Her hands moved up and she gasped as she could feel the familiar leather and brass.
"You're here? But how can you be? Xena?" 'I thought I'd never see you again. Oh, Xena.'
The warrior pressed her cheek against the top of her friend's head. "I told you I'd never leave you, even in death. I mean to keep that promise."
A million questions entered the bard's head and although they fought to bubble forth, she held them tightly behind her lips. There was no way she was going to ruin whatever psychotic episode she was having by injecting reality into things.
"How long...?" Xena's smile seemed to freeze in response to the question. "I only have until sunset, Gabrielle. As for how long I'll be able to come back to you...that I don't know." She frowned. "It doesn't feel temporary. It feels...it feels like it did in the Underworld when I was fighting Yodishi at the tea house." She plucked at the skin on her arm.
"Can you feel this? Does it feel real to you?"
Gabrielle leaned into the woman's touch and nodded. "Very real."
"Then let's enjoy it while we can." Xena smiled and then wrapped an arm around the bard's shoulders. "How about that new manoeuvre I was showing you last month?"
Gabrielle nodded quickly and wiped her eyes. "All right." 'I'd rather have you hold me, Xena, hold me like you'll never let me go.'
Xena smiled awkwardly but said nothing.
As the day wore on, Gabrielle found a familiar ease to how she was interacting with the ghost of her friend and before the sun had risen to its highest zenith had even forgotten she was virtually alone on the ship. Most of the small crew paid them no attention and since the bard was content to stay at the bow of the ship, her fears of being labelled as a lunatic and chucked overboard slowly disappeared.
Both women had relaxed into their usual routine and as the afternoon progressed their easy banter was fluid and without a false note. Although the warrior was more affectionate and demonstrative with her feelings, the bard chose to revel in it rather than pick it apart and examine things too closely. It was enough that she could actually feel Xena's warmth as she was cradled in the larger woman's embrace as they lay comfortably in her cabin. She wiggled her toes against the coarse blanket and breathed in a lusty mouthful of salt air.
"You know, I never thought I'd say this but I like lying here on this boat with you." Xena chortled and her leathers squeaked as she resettled her tall form against the bulkhead.
"So, after all those years of showing you the pinch you finally got it right." Gabrielle turned her head and looked up at the brunette's strong jaw and features. "No, that never seemed to last for me. I used that focusing technique you taught me only...." 'Only a few nights ago, before...'
Xena's brow furrowed, oblivious to the bard's distress. "I'm crushed." A dark eyebrow rose. "Here I've spent all that time with positioning and technique and you got it through a game I taught you to pass the time?" She shook her head melodramatically.
Gabrielle was too busy trying to hold back the tears to really pay attention to what the warrior was saying. 'Damn tears,' she thought and closed her eyes even tighter. Xena could withstand any source of pain you could conjure up, endure any wound without complaint, but when it came to intense emotions she was totally out of her element. Tears made her very uncomfortable. 'But I can't go on without you, Xena. I can't.'
Popping one eye open, the bard was surprised to look up into the worried eyes of her friend.
The bard sniffled and rolled over onto her side. 'You left me, Xena.'
The bard's thoughts stabbed at her and yet Xena waited patiently, knowing the blonde would tell her what she need to say when she was ready to.
She looked across the cabin and out the portal, watching the gulls dip and turn as the men got rid of the day's refuse. There were only a few hours left before dusk fell. Her belly lurched. If she wanted to help the bard before she had to go...'Maybe I won't be able to come back?'
A total feeling of sadness griped her and her hands tightened around the blonde's shoulder.
"Gabrielle." The young woman's body stiffened and the warrior ran her fingertips up into hay coloured tresses, over the tip of the dragon's head tattoo. Her nostrils fluttered as she remembered holding the young bard while Akemi applied the sharp needles to the woman's skin. While she had never been interested in having a tattoo grace her body, she couldn't deny the somewhat crestfallen feeling that overwhelmed her whenever that image of Gabrielle lying on the floor nude rose up in her mind. 'I would do that for you, Gabrielle. It would be something of you. Sword, chakram and scroll, I think.'
Her thoughts were dashed as the blonde rolled over and fixed her with an angry look. "I should hate you, Xena. I've tried to." A tear rolled down Gabrielle's cheeks, causing the warrior's heart to slow its beat. 'If she only knew the power she holds over me.' Xena forced a smile onto her face.
Pushing herself into a sitting position, Gabrielle glared at the warrior momentarily before covering her face with both hands.
Xena thought about all the ways that question could be answered.
"I've spent so many years hating myself that it's become second nature. When we first began our journey together I never knew you could be so strong. I thought you'd fold early and be on your way." She touched the woman's nose. "And there were days when I wished you would."
A pained expression raced across Gabrielle's face. "But I thought you liked having me there. I never knew..." Her words trailed off and she squeezed her eyes shut again. 'She never wanted me there. How can I tell her my feelings now?'
"That changed somewhere along the way," the warrior said in a voice filled with surprise and delight. "I can't say when exactly, but the excuses for leaving you in one town or another became harder to come up with. I guess you blossomed from an irritation into a beautiful," her voice cracked and then she went on, "into something I couldn't live without. But it was your lessons, Gabrielle, that helped make an intolerable situation a little easier to bear."
Gabrielle captured the warrior's strong calloused hand and held it against her chest. It took a moment but then both eyes settled onto each other and any recriminations the bard had fell away.
Xena pushed her lips out expelling a breath and then settled her lower back against the bunk. Although it was the same question, this one was infinitely harder to answer. Why hadn't she told the woman about her growing feelings? The urge to touch the bard became almost unbearable. How many nights had been spent staring off into space, willing away the passionate thoughts that all but consumed her? She remembered the soft lips pressed against her as the soothing water was transferred from the bard's mouth into her own. She wished she'd been able to show Gabrielle just how much she loved her. But telling her now would only be cruel.
"There was never enough time, Gabrielle. We went from one dangerous situation to another." The words seemed hollow even to her.
Gabrielle pushed some hair out of her eyes and then moved to sit beside the warrior. Xena's hands sat forlornly in her lap.
"Did you think I'd laugh or run away, or..."
The smile painted on the warrior's lips wavered.
Gabrielle blinked as the truth hit her.
"You were afraid to tell me." The stricken look on the warrior's face slapped at her. "Oh, Xena...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that."
'Not out loud, anyway.' Xena sighed and then her fingers found a bit of leather to play with as she faced the truth and tried to formulate exactly what she needed to say.
Gabrielle watched the woman's mouth open and close a few times and mentally kicked herself for causing her such agony.
The shadows began filling the cabin, chasing the fading pink glow of the sunset away.
Gabrielle took Xena's strong hands into her own. "Tell me, please?"
The warrior's eyes closed momentarily and then she spoke in a quiet voice.
"I'd never been in love before. And telling you would have served no purpose. Can't you see?"
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. "You say telling me that you loved me in that way would have served no purpose like it should make perfect sense." She pulled at the woman's hands. "How does that make perfect sense?"
Xena pushed off from her position on the bed and began pacing. "I knew you wanted a family and I can't give you that. All I could give you was a life filled with violence and torment." She turned to face the blonde. "I wanted more for you."
Gabrielle set her jaw. "You were all the family I ever needed, Xena." 'There were things we both should have said. Gods, why didn't I ever show you? And now it's too late.'
Xena stopped dead in her tracks. "It was implied, all right? And it's never too late - I knew how you were feeling. It was obvious every time you looked at me that hero worship had changed into something more." She put her hands on the portal and her head against her arms. "Look, I should have told you. I know that now, but then - well, my own shortcomings were hard enough to deal with."
The bard's mouth hung open as she stood behind the warrior. "You can hear my thoughts. I never thought..." And of course it made perfect sense. Why hadn't she figured that out earlier? And then she blushed thinking of all the things she'd had on her mind earlier. Then unbidden, other thoughts that hadn't quite been on her mind this day fluttered across the backs of her eyes and she blushed harder.
The thoughts hardly registered with the warrior who was far too focused on her torment at that particular moment. Why hadn't she told Gabrielle how she really felt? Now it was far too late...for both of them. But what kind of life could she offer her? Sooner or later every bad thing she'd ever done would revisit them. How long would it be before one or both of them paid the price? Silence had seemed the only option available. She squeezed her eyes tightly and wondered if Ares at least was having a good time with her plight. There she was this big bad warrior, conqueror of hearts from Greece to the Bay of Bengal and she couldn't even tell a young villager from Poteideia that she loved her. 'Pitiful.'
The light was almost gone from the room when Xena finally raised her head and turned to look at the bard. "I wasn't sure how you'd react to a romantic relationship with a broken down ex-warlord. And then when I could have said something you were wrapped up in guilt over Hope and Solon and," she took a breath, "I just always thought we'd have time, Gabrielle."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle reached out a hand to touch the woman's face. Her heart broke as Xena began to shimmer and then she was gone.
With both hands covering her face, the bard stumbled back to the bunk and curled up, her heart breaking as the reality of what they could have had pierced her.
It was a long time before she slept.
The torment the warrior felt was complete before she winked out. It was quite one thing to have told someone you loved them but hadn't been able to consummate such feelings and quite another to have never spoken those feelings and therefore had no chance whatsoever to have had them validated and then acted on. The horror of it all was just too terrible.
Images of the many times they'd told each other how they felt raced through her mind. The depth of the feelings they had for each other was obvious to anyone and yet it had never been discussed.
The pain of love unrealized settled on her shoulders along with the other sins of her past. She wondered what happened to people when they died, now that there was no Underworld and therefore no Elysium Fields? Perhaps she'd find judgment Oriental style?
The fine hairs on the nape of her neck bristled and she adopted a defensive stance. Her fingers went immediately to her side but there was no chakram. A look of confusion crossed her face as her hand closed around air instead of the familiar hilt of her sword. She relaxed somewhat upon noticing that her armour was still firmly in place. At least she could defend herself. After all, when had a lack of weaponry ever make a difference?
A shrouded figure beckoned and Xena walked slowly towards it. As they moved along the hallway, the warrior took in her surroundings and then studied the figure ahead of her. A brief thought of Ming Tien entered her mind and then she wondered if Ares had a hand in things. Then with a shrug of her shoulders, Xena began to relax. She had many enemies, why bother worrying which one would spend eternity tormenting her? Either way she'd find out soon enough.
A large oak door stood closed before them and Xena started to ask what lay beyond when the figure raised a hand and the door opened.
A cold feeling of unease settled across her shoulders and although her instincts were hair trigger, she pushed them down firmly, waiting to see how things would play out first.
The doors led into a large room filled with rows of empty benches. There on the dais, however, was a bench of judgment. An eyebrow rose. So, the final Day of Judgment was upon her? Was she ready?
Xena was surprised to find that despite a few reservations she was.
Images of Gabrielle suddenly appeared around her, making the warrior more than a little uneasy. She could pick out individual scenes of their lives together, interlaced with scenes of horror and betrayal, death and destruction.
Suddenly, at least a dozen torches blossomed with fire and people began to appear in the seats facing the bench. Xena swallowed hard as they turned to look at her. While there seemed to be far more enemies than not, Xena could see there were a few familiar and friendly faces as well.
The hooded figure moved up to the dais and was seated. Then two figures popped out of nowhere beside her. One's face was twisted cruelly, pointing at her with acrimony. The other smiled coldly and led her to the docket. Xena felt a shudder run through her as their faces slowly became more distinct. It was her face they both wore.
At first, no words were spoken as the case began. Scenes from Cirra filled the room and the many lost souls of Haguchi howled and wailed their torment as they commiserated with the victims. Fire and destruction raced from scene to scene and then suddenly M'lila's sweet face appeared as everyone in the courtroom viewed her death. Xena's shoulders drooped as her culpability was pointed out again. "Everyone in your life was destined to live and die a painful death, isn't it true?" demanded the prosecutor. The woman from Gaul reached out her hand and smiled. "I died for you because in my death was your rebirth." Xena's fists pound against the railing. "Yes, I was reborn...as a monster. Look at the pain and suffering that brought! I wish Cortez had never come to our village, or that I'd ever taken up the sword, even that I'd ever been born at all." As M'lila shimmered and then faded away, Ming Tien and his father Ming Tsu appeared in her place. "You profess to feel remorse for the lives you've taken and destroyed. I find it difficult to believe, Xena, since you took such pleasure in tormenting and destroying the life of my young son. It wasn't enough that you bricked the boy up behind a wall, leaving him to feel as if he'd been left to die. No, you had to return years later under the direction of that evil whore and finish the job!" Ming Tien gazed about the crowded room and a hush fell over them. "See what she has done to me? My evil mother sent this woman to hunt me down and kill me! Lao Ma, the sorceress who kept her own beloved husband hanging between worlds just so that she could reap the benefits of his position and respect, she who would show her son nothing but cruelty and the weak ways of a woman!" A roar filled the air and Xena's eyes locked on the Green Dragon. He grinned horribly. "You know you meant nothing to her, Xena. You think she had any more love for you than she would for her own child, a boy she would later condemn to a painful death at your hands?" The warrior's hands gripped the railing and she tried to ignore the man's barbs. A soft breeze ruffled Xena's hair and the scent of Jasmine filled the courtroom. Lao Ma appeared wearing the soft pink robe Xena would forever see her in. She bowed once to the judge and the prosecutor and then faced the jury. "Why am I here? My death was of my own choosing although the manner was taken from me." She gazed lovingly at her son. "His soul was twisted by his father, a man who knew nothing of love and therefore nothing of forgiveness. He is destined to an existence filled with endless torment. Is it your desire Xena, to join my son and his father in such a joyful enterprise?"
Xena frowned. "If I hadn't tried to kill you in a jealous rage then you probably would have dealt only with Borias and our paths would never have crossed. I never would have betrayed the love you offered because of my hatred for Ming Tsu. And chances are, you would have lived a long and prosperous life filling that book with thoughtful insights and good deeds. As it was, you not only lost your life in the most painful of ways but had to pass final judgment on your own son."
Lao Ma smiled an inscrutable smile. "I did not pass judgment on my son. For that you are truly guilty." Xena reeled back as if struck. She had expected to have the woman confirm her culpability in her death and would accept penance for the destruction of her son but all this time she had assumed she was fulfilling the woman's last wishes.
"But," she stammered. The judge brought the gavel down with a crash and the room fell silent.
Raising a crimson sleeve, the judge directed the prosecutor to continue.
Fires rose up before her docket and Xena looked at the anguished face of her mother as she writhed against her bounds. An accusing finger was raised her way and Xena lost her composure and broke down weeping. "Oh, mother! I didn't know. I would have done anything to protect you, you know that." Cyrene shook her head slowly as the flames rose higher and then she was gone. Lyceus pushes through the crowd. "Mother's been silenced by her own guilt, Xena. She feels she's done you a terrible wrong, denying you a haven in which to grow up and a loving parent who would love you unconditionally." He turned and looked at the crowd. "Although a case could be made to show that Xena was responsible for my death, the Fates gave her another chance, showing her that it was my own nature that got me killed. We all have choices and although we have to pay for them I believe my sister has done so, at least three times over." The crowd jostled and hissed their displeasure.
A blonde warrior shoved roughly through the crowd and all eyes burned with intensity as Callisto was recognized.
"Oh yes," she said purring, "of course Xena's paid for her crimes." Callisto smoothed the leathers across her bosom. "Why, she became a veritable vision of goodness and light a few years before she died, now didn't she." The singsong tone of her voice belied the poison seething just below the surface. Many in the crowd gasped with shock as she whirled, her hand stretched out and finger pointing at the woman in the docket.
"And this should balance out the pain and suffering dealt out to the innocent around her? No! Is it fair that she destroyed my family, burned my village to the ground, and ruined my life and then gets a shot at redemption at the end of it?" She walked slowly over to the bench.
"No again." Tilting her head this way and that, it was very easy to see the child she once was. Then she clapped her hands with glee. "In fact, I'm very surprised that she's subjected herself to trial by jury. And all without counsel? My, my...now, where is that irritating little friend of yours, Xena? Not that I blame her for hiding. After all, you pretty much destroyed her life, too, didn't you?" She wiggled her fingers at the crowd. "I might have helped a little in that regard with that weanie of a husband she was married to." She rolled her eyes at the brunette who stood stoic and silent. "You must have lost those winning ways, Xena. If you'd been your usual seductive self, why you would have had the little blonde wrapped around your baby finger and she never would have thought about marrying some idiot warrior wannabe." She tapped her front teeth. "But perhaps she wasn't your type. Not that it would have made any difference. M'lila wasn't your type, was she? You were perfectly willing to use her to your heart's content, convincing her that she'd be more than just a roll in the hay. Tell me Xena, did she throw herself in front of that arrow or did you push her?"
Xena's jaw resembled a block of granite as she fought to remain silent. It didn't matter what Callisto said, whether it was true or not, because the endless suffering that was her life was only a small part of the horror Xena had inflicted on everyone around her.
'Everyone, every single person that has meant anything to me has been marked and destroyed.'
Callisto strode over to the bench. "Someone so intuitive such as yourself," she said, arching this way and that as she tried to peer under the hood, "should be able to see that she's beyond redemption, your honour." She turned and faced the crowd. "How about a verdict now?"
A slightly more beautiful and infinitely calmer mirror image of the Goddess of Chaos appeared before them, suspended in mid air, radiating a perfect white gentle light.
"Were you beyond redemption, Callisto?" The blonde shrank back in horror. "You! I don't know which is worse, convincing this crowd full of losers just how totally, rapturously," she sighed passionately, "and completely this bitch was immersed in evil or," the venom dripped from each word, "having to face the fact that the sweet innocent disgustingly boring other side to me is here to lecture us on how love conquers all," she drawled, spitting in the angel's direction and pacing in front of the judge.
"You can't trust her, judge. She'll say things, many things, any things, just to show you how virtuous and how very worthy of redemption Xena truly is." She ran her fingers through the disordered mass of tangles covering her head. "It's not fair!"
She whirled on the Warrior Princess. "How dare you be the one to save me? After all I've done to destroy you, after all the terrible things you made me do...how could you?" Covering her face in her hands, Callisto wailed painfully for the final battle she'd lost before it had ever been fought. How could she argue against the truth as it floated before her? With just one touch the Warrior Princess had taken all of her pain away and had given her everything she'd ever wanted - true peace and the love of her family.
The angel calmly floated closer and then her visage changed into that of Callisto's mother. With a sobbing wail the Goddess of Chaos murmured, 'mother?' before running into her arms. The angel that wore Callisto's smile nodded towards the judge and Xena knew she had at least one point in her favour.
Borias stood up next. "She is guilty of more than pure violence for its own sake. Xena twisted my heart, finally convincing me that I was in love with her. I left my wife and child for her and what did I get in return? She abandoned our child! Her evil thoughts of conquest and tyranny erased any maternal thoughts a normal woman should have. And it was because of my own blindness to her true self that I risked everything to save her." He glared at the Warrior Princess, his lips curled into a snarl. "I died trying to protect both her and our son." The crowd's angry response left little doubt as to how totally devoid of any compassion they thought Xena was. During his further rant that held her responsible for the destruction of the centaurs it seemed as if the whole weight of the world was settled squarely on Xena's back. Her head dipped lower and lower with each accusation, knowing she had no defence for the black days of her past. Solon appeared silently beside his father and waited until Xena raised her head. "My mother didn't hesitate to make sure I'd be safe and brought up by those who would care for me the moment she realized that life at her side would destroy me. Her actions saved me and I grew up knowing my father as a hero." He looked pointedly over at Borias and the man dropped his gaze. "She taught me how to fight but she also taught me patience and love. Even though she did so under the guise of a friend and not as a loving parent." He walked over to the dock and placed his hand on Xena's. "Even when I had made my own choice to keep my memories and not go on to the Elysium fields, she put her own life at risk to spare me from an eternity in Tartarus."
"I couldn't leave you there, Solon. Even though your meagre collection of memories only had small snippets of my involvement in your life you were still willing to have them rather than live without thoughts of me at all." Her lower lip trembled as her son looked up into her eyes, the love shining fiercely. "I know, mother."
Ephiny elbowed her way up to the front and banged her staff three times on the floor. Solon and his father faded back into the crowd as Caesar opened his mouth and tried to gain the attention of the judge. Then two rather burly women growled his way and he fell silent. He sneered in their direction but sat back down with a huff.
The cloaked figure on the dais gestured for the leader of the Amazon Nation to continue to plead her case.
"Xena has had many dealings with the Amazon Nation. She is guilty of mass murder, attempted murder, brutally attacking our Queen and being responsible for the decimation of our nation to the point where we can never return to our former glory." The judge leaned forward and for a moment Xena thought she could see who it was behind the dark crimson cowl but the shadows prevented it.
The Amazon walked over to where Xena stood and crossed her arms over her chest. "Can you deny these atrocities?" Xena remained silent, knowing she'd been guilty of far worse than she'd ever be accused of.
Suddenly the double doors at the back of the room were pushed open and the crowd growled as Gabrielle made her way to the bench.
"Xena won't defend herself against such accusations. But I will," said the bard above the din.
The warrior closed her eyes and tried
to will the young woman away. What was she doing there anyway? She should have
been asleep on the ship that was slowly making its way toward the China Seas,
bound for home.
Gabrielle pulled in a slow breath and tried not to stare at the warrior. She could feel the anguish rolling off her and knew that Xena was more than a little uncomfortable about having anyone plead her case.
She looked at the judge and waited.
Xena clenched her fists and stared belligerently at the prosecutor, silently urged the woman to do something, say something - anything at all - anything to make Gabrielle just...go away.
'I won't go, Xena. Can't you see that? You're my whole world and I won't let you go, not without a fight.'
Xena's focus shifted from the smug look on the attorneys face onto the bright and eager face of her friend.
'You don't belong here, Gabrielle. There's more at stake than you know.' If they lost then the burden would rest on the bard's shoulders as well - was it something they could both live with?
A silent battle of wills continued between Xena and Gabrielle as they both fought for what they knew was in the best interest of the other.
'You can't save me, no one can.'
Gabrielle leaned forward, one hand covering the larger one as she sought to connect with her friend.
'Don't you understand, Gabrielle, that I've got to pay for the sins of my past? That's what my whole life was about - the search for redemption.'
The bard gripped the woman's hand and then moved closer to the docket.
Xena looked down into the green sorrowful eyes and knew her heart would break if she let things continue.
'You have to go back now, back to the ship, back to sleep, back to finding a life without me.'
'You said you'd never leave me!'
'And I won't. I'll always been with you...in your heart.'
"But I don't want you just in my heart, Xena!" she yelled. "I want you in my life, in my arms! Don't you see? I can't live..." The gavel came crashing down, startling both women.
"Silence!" A booming voice grated through the room and even Caesar meekly took his seat.
"By what right do you defend such a wretched soul?"
Gabrielle released Xena's hand and then walked to the bench. Bowing with respect, she clasped both hands in front of her and then cleared her throat. She winced as negative thoughts bombarded her from the woman behind her. 'I can't listen to you now, Xena. I've made my choice.'
The bard felt a slight easing of tension and with a shock realized it was because she'd silenced the Warrior Princess with her mere thoughts. A blonde eyebrow rose as she thought about the ramifications. 'She can hear me just as I can her.'
"Your honour, I claim the right by virtue of being her soul mate."
The judge nodded and gestured for the woman to go on.
Gabrielle swallowed and then turned to the audience.
"She was once known as the scourge of Greece. Some called her the Destroyer of Nations, and I'm sure far worse. She's killed thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, and has been responsible for creating at least one monster who in turn carried on in the same vein but with a much colder heart."
Swallowing nervously and yet somewhat warming to her subject, Gabrielle studiously avoided looking anywhere near her friend and instead chose to pick out a few familiar faces in the crowd.
"She's helped both Kings and commoners, priests and parishioners, even a god or two, along with trying to right the wrongs of her past." She looked up at the judge. "She's paid for her past, your honour, thrice fold. And she's done such good in her life. I would never have known the joys of friendship, duty and honour if our paths had never crossed." She looked across to her soul mate. 'And I would never have known true love.' "Her life has been the cause of much sorrow, your honour, but she's been responsible for much happiness as well. Cyrene might have lived her life alone, believing her daughter was nothing but a monster. Xena stepped back into her life and let her experience the joys of being a grandmother. My sister's daughter would never have known the touch of a loving mother if it weren't for Xena."
A large indistinct face appeared before them all, and although Gabrielle couldn't make out any features, there was no denying the voice: it belonged to Hope.
"And what about the loving touch of my own mother?" Guilt tugged at the bard's heart. "I loved you, Hope, you know that."
Hope laughed coldly. "Yet it didn't stop you from trying to destroy me. You have a strange way of showing your maternal instincts, Mother." She glared hotly at both women. "You both hunted me as if I was some sort of animal! The only affection I ever knew was this." A pit of fire erupted beneath her and the image of Hope was consumed in a wave of heat and ash. A disembodied voice rose from the black abyss created. "Because you abandoned me when I was a child, the only thing I've ever known is the pure hatred from my father! How dare you consider yourself worthy to defend such a heartless criminal when you're no better yourself!"
Gabrielle turned away from her daughter and clutched the railing. One of the most difficult truths the bard had had to face over the years was her relationship with Hope and her failure as a parent.
"I should have listened to Xena. She knew what you were when you were born. But I couldn't, I didn't want to believe her. And because I put my needs before others her son had to die!"
Xena reached down and covered the woman's hand. "I've forgiven you for all of that, Gabrielle. Now you have to forgive yourself."
The bard pulled at her hair in torment. Perhaps Hope was right? She'd failed as a mother and ultimately failed as a friend. The image of Xena's bloody chakram appeared before her eyes and she shrank back in horror.
'I should have stopped you, Xena. How could I have been so blind? Of course you'd be the one to face Yodishi in the Underworld! Kenji told me only a ghost could kill the Dark Lord.'
Xena closed her eyes in pain, realizing that the woman now believed herself responsible for her decision to die in battle. Breaking off the telepathic bond they shared, Xena stood tall and looked into the crowd. Although a few still continued to hurl insults toward the bard, most of them became quiet, all but shaking in their boots. Pleased at the response, the warrior resettled her gaze on her friend.
"Gabrielle, please. You don't understand. Even if you did know and you tried to stop me I couldn't let you. Harokata, the Ghost Killer, told me that he had the strength to kill Yodishi but that he couldn't because he was only mortal." She reached down and touched the blonde's cheek. "Even in the Underworld he didn't have the strength, Gabrielle. There was no one but me that was capable of doing this job. You can't blame yourself for not reading my mind. Not even the Dark Lord could do that."
"Murderer!" shouted two members from Akemi's household. "It was because of you that Akemi was able to murder her own father in cold blood! She committed the worst crime a child can! She, a worthless good for nothing who had no respect for her station in life! You compounded your crime in the taking of her head! Yours was forfeit!"
Gabrielle placed both hands over her ears as the crowd roared for blood.
"Verdict, give us a verdict!" they shouted.
The gavel was raised and lowered once again, the resounding crash enough to have everyone in the room shaking in fear. All but Xena, who stood tall, facing the judge, her expression set in stone. 'Gabrielle doesn't know what she's doing!'
The judge ignored her silent plea and gathered some papers on the desk.
"Have you anything to say in your defence?" boomed the judge.
Xena glanced quickly at Gabrielle, who stood silently, the tears running freely down her face. 'I've always loved you, Gabrielle.' The bard tried to be brave and smile with encouragement, but she failed miserably. Oh, how the warrior wanted to hold the young woman close and never let her go. If they'd only had more time.
But they didn't and now it was time to pay the price.
"I'm ready to hear my verdict, your
Gabrielle screamed out Xena's name and then fell off the bunk onto the deck of her cabin. Her legs and feet were tangled in the blanket and in her fluster took a moment to remember where she was.
"Where am I?" Then the smell of the ocean and the creak of the ship brought it all back to her. The time she and the warrior had spent enjoying each other's company settled over her warmly. "Oh yeah. Wonder where Xena is?"
There came a tapping on her door and the bard briefly wondered why Xena would knock before getting hold of her imagination. She was a ghost after all.
Jumping to her feet and kicking off the blanket, the bard half-heartedly smoothed the haystack on her head and then opened the door.
The cook stood quietly, hat in hand. "You will eat today, yes?" Gabrielle's mouth hung open as he ushered two men in with a large tray of food. "You did not eat yesterday, warrior. Doing drills all day long is not healthy without nourishment. You will become sick." He gave her a look of admonishment, much like a father would give his wayward daughter.
"But I..." Gabrielle's mouth snapped shut. She'd been having so much fun with Xena that neither one had thought to stop for food. And then there was the court thing with the magistrate. 'But I've been at sea for days. How could I have been anywhere with Xena?' A numbing fear crept up her spine and it was all she could do to push all the men from her cabin with a brief promise that she would eat before collapsing on the bunk.
Placing her head in her hands, the bard slowly rocked back and forth. "She's dead, Gabrielle, dead! She was never here. The sooner you get this through your head..."
And then her eye picked up a glint from the corner. It was Xena's chakram and images of her time with the warrior awaiting judgment flooded back in. It was so real that Gabrielle had to either accept that it had indeed happened or...
"That's it. It's the grief, that's what it is. And who could blame me? Gods, first I have to locate her dismembered body, not to mention fight for her head. Gods, Xena." A tear trickled down to her chin and then fell with an audible plop onto her shaking hands. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to push the rising feelings of hysteria away. "Then I had to climb Mount Fuji-san, fight a samurai in single combat - gods, I hated that smug bastard!" Gabrielle got to her feet and went to the chakram. "I don't know how I did it, but he deserved it." Catching her reflection in the sheen of the warrior's personal weapon made Gabrielle's head dart back in surprise. 'Is that snarling warrior really me?'
"But he took her head," she wailed to the heavens. "Oh, Xena...it's not fair!" Her hand closed around the chakram and then her eyes spotted the small black urn over by her weapons. The sacred katana waited patiently.
Running a fingertip over the outside of the urn, the bard fell to her knees and then began to sob uncontrollably. She didn't realize that she'd fallen asleep on the floor until her senses picked up a stranger's presence in the room. Years of travelling with the Warrior Princess had honed these warrior instincts to a fine point.
Getting to her feet, Gabrielle crouched low, the chakram tight in her fist. A slight movement in the dark corner had her ears pricked. "Who's there?"
There was no answer. And then the figure moved again and Gabrielle released the chakram with a whoosh! It dinged about the cabin several times before heading back toward the bard, who simply held her hand up and caught the thing as if she'd been born to it.
She was still staring with wide eyes when Xena stepped out from the shadows.
"Very good. You're getting better at that all the time. But we'll have to practice every day, just to keep you in shape."
The chakram dropped from stiff fingers and the bard backed away from her friend.
Her dead friend. Her friend that was a ghost and couldn't possibly be there in front of her...she was just a figment of the bard's fevered imagination, and nothing more.
"You can't be here. You're not real."
Placing both hands up in supplication, the warrior stopped her advancement and just stood still.
"It's all right, Gabrielle. It's just me. Remember we spent the day together yesterday?"
The bard shook her head slowly. "No...no, the cook said I'd spent the day doing drills. He was worried because..."
"You hadn't eaten anything. Yes, I forgot about that part of life." She inched a little closer to the bard. "See, I don't have to worry about eating now." 'Or sleeping either. Or feeling the heat of your body against me in your bedroll. Gods, I miss you, Gabrielle.'
"You never eat?" Then Gabrielle slapped herself, hard, hoping the shock would bring her to her senses. "You're not real!" She whirled around and walked quickly to her bed. "That's it. I've snapped, I've gone crazy, I'm having some sort of delusional moment caused by stress, grief and...and...seasickness. Yes! I'm seasick. I never learned how to fix that, not really. I was just fooling myself." She grabbed her belly and began to rock as she sat on the bunk.
"You know, you really can make yourself sick that way. I've seen it before. Usually on the battlefield, of course, but hey, you've sustained a shock to the system. The mind is a very delicate thing, and certainly not something to fool with."
Gabrielle glanced up. "Oh, good. I'm getting health lessons from a woman who lost her head." Hearing the words come out of her mouth only caused the bard more grief and she lay back with a thump, wailing her sorrow against arms crossed firmly over her face.
"Oh, Xena! I need you so much! Why can't you be real?" She cried harder as she was pulled into the warrior's embrace and then settled against the front of Xena's leathers.
"You took your armour off. I usually do that for you." She sniffled.
"Yes, I know. I miss that." She pulled the tray of food closer but the other woman ignored her offerings.
Gabrielle's lower lip trembled and she brought her hand up to touch the warrior's face.
"It isn't so bad being crazy, is it? I mean, if I have to be crazy to see you then that's all right. Because I can't, no I won't live without you, Xena." Relief flooded through her system and she sank back into the warrior's familiar form.
Xena caressed the bard's hair gently, soothing her with soft words of comfort and encouragement. The bard closed her eyes momentarily and then a sea of green captured Xena's gaze.
"It's all true, isn't' it? You're waiting for your verdict."
Xena held the woman closer, her eyes fixed on a point not seen in the physical realm.
Gabrielle noticed it was early afternoon as the ship's bell sounded. Her belly growled ominously and she began to pick at the food on the tray. A few bits of fruit and some smoked meat on skewers later and the bard was pushing the tray away. She burped carefully and patted her stomach. "That feels a bit better. Sure you don't need any of this?" Xena smirked and shook her head. "Nah, you go ahead and eat the rest."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks, but I'll save it for later." Then her forehead furrowed. "I thought you were able to be with me from dawn until dusk, Xena? Or did I imagine that?"
The warrior sighed heavily. "I didn't want to come."
Her eyes squeezed shut as the bard shuddered with each sob. 'Gods, I love you Xena, but how can you continue to hurt me this way?'
Xena released her breath again. "This will be the last time, Gabrielle. I can't come back to see you any more."
The bard clutched at the woman and turned to face her, the food in her belly already starting to turn. "Why? Is it something I've done? I can do better, Xena, I can. Just tell me how..."
And then Xena kissed her. Gabrielle's eyes closed and her hands moved up to feel the long soft hair she'd longed to touch for such a very long time. Both women were somewhat breathless as they broke away from their embrace.
"Wow," said the bard in wonder. Xena's mouth twitched as she thought of something to say. There really wasn't much she could say, except, "I've wanted to do that for a long time."
Gabrielle raised her fingertips to touch the warrior's chin. "Why didn't you?"
Xena was uncharacteristically silent.
Gabrielle leaned up for another kiss. And then another as her actions became bolder. "I want to be with you, Xena."
"I know. I want that too, but I don't think it would be a good idea."
Gabrielle's mouth slowly slid across the warrior's lips and the larger woman couldn't help but moan in response.
"Do you always have to ask that question?" she said between kisses.
"Yes," breathed the blonde, her hands finding purchase at the nape of the warrior's neck. Pulling her down quickly, Gabrielle began moving her hands over Xena's neck and across each shoulder. She could tell by the woman's rapid breathing that regardless of what she had said about leaving, about this being their last time together, that she was on the right track to making her change her mind.
"Gabrielle," said the warrior slowly. "We have to stop." The blonde moved in for another heart-stopping kiss and then nestled the back of her head into the warrior's lap.
"We can stop for awhile if you like, Xena. But I won't stop loving you. And I'll get what I want. Remember, 'what ever Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets'?"
Xena rubbed her jaw. "I did say that, didn't I?" The smile faded away quickly and she squared her shoulders.
"We have to be serious, Gabrielle. Really." The blonde had begun to wrap the warrior's long dark strands around her fingers.
"Are you listening?"
The bard smiled. 'I want more kisses, Warrior Princess. I want to feel your lips against mine, your breath against my skin, and the beat of your heart against my hand.'
Xena closed her eyes and moaned deeply. "Don't do that, please."
'But I want you and I know you want me, too. Deny it, Xena. I dare you.'
A strange look entered the blue of the warrior's eyes and Gabrielle was suddenly afraid. She'd seen that look a few times before. She tried to remember when and where and then the answer came to her: right after battle. 'So, this is battle lust?'
Xena's jaw stuck out a bit and her fingers moved in to the base of the woman's head. Taking hold of the blonde tresses, she gathered a bunch in her fist and then pulled. Gabrielle's eyes fluttered but she refused to break their locked gaze.
'Yes, this is battle lust, bard. Just be thankful you've never seen it full blown.'
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head slightly. "You don't scare me, Warrior Princess. I want all of you; good, bad and dangerous."
It took the warrior a moment to compose herself and then she looked away. How easy it would be to just give into the needs so long denied. But she couldn't, not now, not with oblivion at hand. She briefly wondered if she'd end up in the same place Callisto had. Was there really such a place as Hell? She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
"Now look, Gabrielle, this is important."
The bard smiled sweetly up into the warrior's face. "Everything about you is important, Xena. I wish we'd done this before." Her eyes clouded over. "Before you let yourself be killed." She sat up and glared at the woman. "How could you let yourself be killed like that again? And you never even told me what your plan was - you just made the decision and expected me to live with the consequences! That's not fair, Xena. We're partners!" She settled her breathing for a moment before going on. "You lied to me again, Xena. Do you know how much I hate that?"
Xena pouched her lips out in thought. "Yeah, I know. But you have to understand," her mouth snapped shut as the bard held up her hand.
"Yeah, yeah...I know. You did what you had to, water under the bridge, move on." She huffed. "I'm trying to." Then pushing her hair away from her face, Gabrielle sat a little straighter and kept her hands in her lap.
"All right, I'm listening." The warrior cocked an eyebrow her way. "Really. I'm really listening now." Silence was the warrior's response.
"You said you can't come back. Go on," she prompted.
Xena cleared her throat. "Yes, that's what I said. I see that you've actually listened to me but I doubt you understand." Xena began plaiting her hair and then shoved the thick cord behind her.
"You weren't supposed to be able to follow me into the spirit realm, Gabrielle. I still don't know how you did it, but it doesn't matter. Well, it does, but...never mind." She pushed her bracers up and then began to fiddle with her gauntlets. "Look, you should never have come there."
The bard frowned. "Why?"
"There you go again with that question!" she huffed in frustration. "Can't you do anything I tell you? Ever?"
A tiny smirk played on the bard's lips and Xena relaxed her shoulders a bit. "No, I guess you can't. Never could, why should you start now?"
She took one of the bard's hands. "Do you understand that by defending me you've put your own soul at risk? If we lose..."
Gabrielle released the breath she'd been holding. Somewhat relieved, she smiled at the warrior and silently urged her to continue. 'Huh, and here I thought it was something really horrible.'
Xena dropped the woman's hands roughly. "It is really horrible, Gabrielle! Don't you see? Because we're soul mates and you've voluntarily offered to act in my defence you've put your own soul on the line. What happens to me will be your fate, too!"
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "No, I understood it the first time. You die and end up in Purgatory and that'll be my fate as well. Got it."
Xena's mouth dropped open. How could the bard be taking things so lightly?
"You don't understand, you can't. Not and act this way." Then it was Gabrielle's turn to take the woman's large hands into her own.
"This is how I see it, Xena. I can't live without you - where you go, I'll be at your side. So if it means we're both given the same sentence, then at least we'll be together. Forever."
Xena shook her head slowly. "Oh, if it were only that simple, Gabrielle. No see, it isn't that cut and dried." She moved the bard off her lap and then got to her feet.
"Your problem is you think we'll be together in oblivion." She turned and looked at the bard. "That's it, isn't it?"
Gabrielle got to her feet. "Yes. You mean it isn't?" The undigested bits of food began wending their way back up and the bard swallowed convulsively. "Oh gods...I think I'm going to be sick."
Xena held the woman close, rubbing small circles over the tattoo on her back. "It's okay, Gabrielle. You'll be fine. Just take a few deep breaths."
The bard complied and then rested her full body weight against the warrior. "Explain?"
Xena hugged the woman closer. "If I've been damned to oblivion for crimes I've committed then it follows that you wouldn't go to the same place because that would defeat the whole purpose. So,"
"What have I done?"
The warrior kissed the top of the woman's head. "What you always do - what you think is the right thing. I can't tell you how much I love that."
Gabrielle pushed a few tears away from her eyes. "Yeah?"
Xena pushed the bard's chin a little. "Yeah. You've been a damned good teacher, too."
Gabrielle frowned. "Too good a teacher. I wish I hadn't..."
Xena pressed her fingers against the bard's mouth. "No. No, Gabrielle. Because of you I've been able to accept the redemption I've always sought. Think of this as the penalty phase, that's all."
Gabrielle placed her hands on the woman's waist and eased back from her embrace. "What do you mean, 'penalty phase'?"
Xena moved them back toward the bed. "Well," she said scratching her neck, "as I understand things my death allowed me to be in a state of grace. Akemi told me that I'd been redeemed along with the other trapped souls." She began to pace as the bard sat down and picked at the tray of food.
"So if I was in a state of grace, then it follows that I'm capable of accepting the redemption offered."
"But," broke in the bard between mouthfuls. "I thought Akemi said you were already redeemed?"
"Ah," said the warrior emphasising her point with a large finger. "That's where it gets confusing. See, the way I see it I have to accept the redemption. It's being offered to me but it's up to me whether I think I'm worthy of it or not. And being that I gave up my life with you, my soul mate, for a bunch of strangers...well that was a big point in my favour because I'd learned that selfless sacrifice is more important than just an ordinary sacrifice." She shrugged. "I'm not sure why, though."
The bard had been nodding her head, ideas forming as the warrior talked. "Okay, I think I understand. Maybe you always had redemption offered to you but you didn't realize it because you felt unworthy?" Then a look crossed her face. "Hey, what if you are the only one who can redeem yourself?" She put the food down quickly. "Whoa, that was a bit too deep even for me."
Xena scratched her chin and then made a face. "So, you think I was always worthy of redemption but never knew it? Well, that's just crazy! And if it's true, how come no one ever told me?" She thought back to Najima and gritted her teeth. "I'll bet that Dharma could have told us. Gods, and all this time..."
Gabrielle put her hand up. "Hey, wait a minute. I'm not saying that's how things are, I'm just guessing. Maybe I'm wrong?"
Xena nodded but her eyes were dark in thought. "Yeah, maybe...but I think you're onto something here."
Gabrielle sat quietly and then wondered if the warrior knew she was going through her usual ritual of drills while she was simultaneously conversing with her about the serious task at hand. She was just on the verge of making a smart remark but then Xena glanced her way and she thought better of it.
"So you know you're doing drills. Fine. I was just wondering, oh woman of many skills."
Xena smirked as she dipped and parried and then did a two and a half gainer, landing in front of the portal.
"It helps me concentrate. Say, it's getting to be late afternoon. You wanna take a stroll up on deck? You must be getting a bit bored staying in your cabin all day, huh?"
Gabrielle stretched and lay back down on the bunk. "No, I'm fine," she sighed contentedly, amazed at just how much she'd missed this part of their life together. Stifling a yawn, the bard thought about how nice things were. "All we need is Argo and everything would be just perfect."
Xena turned to face her. "Just perfect, huh? Well, I hate to bring up the task at hand, but I think things are a bit far from being perfect." She waved her hand at the bard. "Verdict, oblivion, apart forever...you know?"
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. "I know, but seeing you like this, Xena, and knowing you feel the same way I do...about us, I mean. It feels so good. I've wanted to reach out and touch you so many times." She shook her head and chortled.
"What's so funny?"
"Heh, well I really thought you'd have gotten my hints earlier but you never did. And so I just thought you weren't interested."
Placing both hands on her hips, Xena walked closer to the bed. "What hints?"
"Well, all those baths we took."
Xena's eyebrows shot up. "Huh. And here I thought you were just a clean freak."
They both laughed.
"Okay, where were we? Oh yeah...verdict. Well, Xena...this is my take on things. If you have to suffer all the levels of hell in order to see heaven, which is my personal view, then perhaps the hell that awaits you is indeed this in-between state you find yourself in - able to see me and interact with me but really unable to fully partake of the joys of a life we could have spent together?"
Xena took a seat on the bed. She wasn't too sure about the things Gabrielle was saying but there really wasn't any alternative. "Okay, go on."
"So, this is the judgment you've set up as punishment. You promised that you'd never leave me so you can't go on to the next level in the cycle of atonement. Because of the promise to never leave me, you've sentenced yourself to a life of oblivion. You're neither dead nor alive. Does that make sense?"
Xena blinked a few times, the whole idea of being ultimately responsible for her own redemption something she'd never contemplated and she wasn't too sure she could even accept it as truth. Would anything or anyone have made her pay in this way? It was too horrible a fate to even consider."
Gabrielle yawned. "I don't think I've been getting enough sleep, Xena. Maybe it's all the fresh sea air?" She shrugged and settled herself in the bunk. "What are you thinking about, Xena?"
The warrior smiled. "Oh, just what you said earlier."
Gabrielle yawned again. "Oh. Well, I don't know, Xena. Although I thought it made sense a few hours ago I'm not so sure now. Maybe we should turn the boat around and find a Japa priest? I'll bet he'd know." She cringed as Kenji's face resurfaced in her mind. Xena had told how both the Ghost Killer and the monk had met their fate at the hands of the Dark Lord. She blinked deeply, suddenly unable to keep her eyes open. Xena patted her arm but was lost to her own thoughts.
If you'd spent all your life looking for peace through redemption and had never found it then it must follow that you don't really want it...or feel you don't deserve it. Hence the belief that she could only find that redemption through death. She tried so many times to just give it up, save the day and just atone through death but it just never worked. Xena rubbed her head in thought. She had given it up totally to Callisto in Hell and surrendered her mortal soul. But was it enough? She didn't know why but it never felt as if the total debt was paid. It isn't one religion that will absolve you. It isn't one power that will judge you. It made perfect sense that peace and redemption would only be found within her own heart. She had to believe she was worth it. She steepled her fingers under her chin, deep in thought. Gabrielle had been the key all along because she offered up selfless love. There was nothing in it for her to gain, quite the opposite. Loving someone who is in direct opposition to what you believe in would be horribly difficult. The words of Lao Ma swam before her eyes. "It's easy to serve someone you love but very difficult to serve or love someone or something you hate." And didn't she represent everything that Gabrielle had spent her life despising? Love couldn't be helpless in the face of cruelty - it just didn't make sense. Wrong could never be right.
And then it all made sense. Although Gabrielle had tried to save her through selfless love the truth was she couldn't because the only person who could save Xena was...Xena.
She tucked the blanket a little tighter around the bard's form. Gabrielle moved slightly in her sleep but didn't awaken. Xena blinked in the darkness, never once believing that she could ever experience the pleasure of sharing a night with the bard again. She wasn't too sure why she hadn't disappeared when dusk had fallen but she was pleased anyway. "Why look a gift horse in the mouth? And I'm no Trojan."
Where do ghosts go when they dream? Xena had no idea that ghosts could even dream but it seemed they did. In one moment she was sitting near the bard, watching as sleep slowly overtook the woman, and the next minute she was back in the courtroom. This time there was no jury, no audience, and no counsellors. The only person in the room was the judge. Xena's curiosity was piqued again as she examined the cloaked figure.
"Are you ready for sentencing?" boomed the voice. This time, however, Xena didn't feel any fear nor did she hesitate in any way.
"Yes, I am."
"And do you feel worthy of receiving this sentence?"
Xena frowned. "Yes."
Her mouth hung open as the figure pushed back the cloak revealing someone wearing her face. In fact, it was her, or rather the person she'd been before Cortese. She didn't know how she knew...she just did.
"You have been found guilty of being worthy. Your sentence is up to you." And with that, the courtroom disappeared and she was back aboard the ship.
She was still sitting against the bulkhead when rays of sunshine began to fill the cabin. Taking only a few moments to resettle her bracers, gauntlets and boots, Xena stood up, shook the night's inactivity from her body, and then kissed the bard's brow.
"Rise and shine, sleepy head."
Gabrielle groaned. "Is it dawn already?"
Xena smiled. "Yeah, has been for hours. I'm going topside to do my drills. You coming?" The bard yawned and then rolled over.
"Gabrielle?" Silence. "C'mon, sleepy head. I said,"
"All right, all right...I'm up. I heard you, I did."
The Captain nodded to his shipmate and sipped a new cup of hot tea. He motioned to another man who promptly went to adjust the sail. His tea finished, the cup was taken away and the Captain was left alone again. Early morning was his favourite time of the day. His morning prayers over, he was left to enjoy the birth of a new day and take pure pleasure in all that life at sea had to offer.
He bowed deeply as the young foreigner came up on deck. He made a mental note to make sure someone looked in on her a little later. Although the cook reported that the tray of food had been all but consumed, he was worried. She spent far too much time alone and some of the ship's crew had mentioned hearing voices coming from her cabin. Had the grief of losing the other foreigner been so great that she had been driven mad? He shuddered. For the sake of he and his crew, he hoped not. Many demons could make their presence felt aboard ship, cursing the inhabitants to a life of misery and doom. He wondered if it was time to say something to the woman?
Xena finished off another set of intricate drills and was in the act of replacing some of her armour when the bard strolled up, the katana neatly tucked into the belt at her waist. "Hi, I'm ready for more drills if you are," said Gabrielle as she felt her knees go weak. She always enjoyed watching the warrior move through her drills but took great pleasure in any sparring matches with the woman. 'She's just perfect.'
If Xena could have blushed she would have.
"No I'm not."
Gabrielle's head popped up. "What?"
"You said I was perfect. I'm anything but that, Gabrielle. However," She replaced her sword in her scabbard. "I am worthy of the love you feel for me." Gabrielle looked at her quizzically.
"I've figured it out, Gabrielle. In order to be redeemed I have to believe I'm worthy of it and then just believe it."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. "That's all? Why couldn't I have thought of it for you?"
Xena smiled, remembering just how many fanciful stories the bard thought up - man originating in the oceans, stars really being planets. She covered a smirk.
"And I'm sure you would have, Gabrielle. But you fell asleep so the job was left to me." She smiled widely as the bard held a hand up. "Yeah, yeah...a woman of many skills." Then Gabrielle leaned in and kissed the warrior right on the mouth. Xena peeked over the woman's head, checking to see who might be watching and then rolled her eyes. No one could see her.
Gabrielle smiled expectantly. "Yeah, so?"
Xena sorted through her equipment and pulled out the black urn. "Well, like I said...I think I've figured it out. If I believe I'm worthy of atonement and am therefore redeemed then it should simply be a case of believing that I am my own judge."
Gabrielle watched the warrior move to the railing with unease. "What are you doing?"
Xena shrugged. "Well, I think in order to come back my ashes have to be...gone...wet...I don't know, maybe a combination of the two." She shrugged her shoulders and made a face. "I know this isn't the Fountain of Strength but maybe that comes from within?"
Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "Oh, I don't know about this, Xena."
"I want you to do it, Gabrielle."
"No Xena, please don't ask me. What if I'm wrong?"
"I trust you with my life. You have to do it, Gabrielle. Pour the ashes."
"But Xena...what if we've got it all wrong? I'll not only have lost you but your remains, too."
The warrior smiled and hugged the bard close. "It'll be okay. Besides, think of it this way: I'll be fishing for eternity." The bard nudged her with an elbow. "That's not funny," she sniffled, but laughed a little anyway.
"I have to believe we've figured it out, Gabrielle. I have to." She stood a little taller. "I am worthy of redemption, my atonement is complete, and I'm worthy of not only giving love but accepting it, too."
She smiled as the bard tickled her neck with her lips. "Yes, you are. I've always loved you, Xena, and if nothing else I'm glad that I've finally been able to tell you."
Xena squeezed her once and then pushed her toward the railing. "Go on." She kissed the woman's head and then stepped back. Closing her eyes and praying silently, Gabrielle gritted her teeth and then tipped the urn over. A light wind picked up some of the ashes and they seemed to dance across the water until finally settling on a wave. The image taking shape almost resembled a circle and Gabrielle leaned over to take a closer look.
"Hey, Xena? Look...does that look like a...hey, it looks like that mendhi you had on your foot." She turned. "Do you see it, Xena?" But the deck was empty but for the Captain who bowed deeply and then settled his eyes back on the horizon.
"Oh, Xena. You'd better be here in the morning or I'll," she wiped a tear away, "I'll find you and never let you go."
The Captain came over a few hours later and placed a heavy shawl around her shoulders.
"You must believe." He bowed again, placing the palms of his hands together. "Who are you?" she asked in a strained voice. He smiled a secret smile. "I am a Shinto priest, warrior. My bloodline is tied to Akemi's and it is with her instructions that I offered my boat and my services as your Captain. She thought you might need guidance but I see that you do not." He hesitated, his eyes all but caressing the weapon at the woman's side. "I would be most honoured if you would allow me to return the sacred katana to the place of my ancestors at the end of the voyage. "
She smiled. "I think Akemi would like that, yes." Then Gabrielle turned away and looked out across the darkening sky. 'Come back to me, Xena.'
Gabrielle's mind was filled with questions and dark thoughts, jealousy and vengeance pulling her this way and that. What part did Akemi play now that her soul was set free? A feeling of panic hit her as she thought of Akemi and Xena together on the spirit plane. She had seduced the warrior once, would Xena be susceptible to it again? Pushing those thoughts away, Gabrielle began the task of emptying her mind of all negativity and centring herself completely. She had to believe their bond was unbreakable. If the past few days had shown her anything, it was that Xena's devotion was just as strong as her own. Finally, with much urging from the Captain, Gabrielle slowly made her way back down to her cabin. Her muscles were very tight and sore from the damp cold air so she snuggled deeply beneath the blankets. Beside her on the bed lay the empty urn and Xena's chakram.
Shivering slightly, Gabrielle awoke in the middle of the night and moved a little in an attempt to find warmth. Sighing contentedly, she murmured sweetly as two strong arms cuddled her close.
"Mmmm, is it dawn already?" She opened one eye but saw the room was still very dark.
"No, not for a few hours yet."
Gabrielle moved a little until she was facing the warrior. "Then how?"
The Warrior Princess smiled in the darkness. "I guess the verdict was in our favour."
The bard sat up and screamed. "Really? Oh thank you, thank you, thank you...what ever gods were listening, thank you!"
And then she was pulled down into a kiss. A few murmurs later, she pulled away. "You don't have your leathers on. How accommodating."
"Well," chortled the warrior, "I thought we might start making up for lost time."
Her mouth was covered with another deep kiss. "You thought right, warrior babe."
Two almond eyes twinkled in the moonlight.
"In a fury of passion, two breaths
of wind unite and become as one, and then disappear into each other. Be well,
warrior and bard." Akemi smiled. "I will see you again on the next plane, Arminestra."
'As Time Goes By', by Herman Hupfeld
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