The following is a post-FIN story, the third in an arc preceded by "The Ghost of A Smile" and "A Fly in The Ointment." It would help to have read the others, but is not imperative (especially if you saw the series finale, for which there are mucho spoilers). Names, events and cultural references should be viewed with the same suspension of disbelief as anything else in the Xenaverse. Special thanks to Inga for her always illuminating feedback, and to Cousin Liz for once again enhancing my words so well with her design. -- IQ
SUNS OF THE PASSED
"I told Gabrielle where to look for my old battle gear. To be honest, I'm not sure I wanted her to. I'd buried it for the same reason I did the first time. Didn't seem to make much difference that back then it was outside Poteidaia and I had nothing to live for anyway, or that now these reminders of my past sins lay in Higuchi, where I gave up more than I would ever deserve. Both times I thought I was through with that life. Through, finally, with smelling blood on my hands. Turning corners to find yet another orphaned child or village I'd left bereft.
"Now Gabrielle wears the chakram, maybe soon my sword. Sheíll always have my heart, but wants it beating again. Even if itís pumping and spilling dark blood like before. People used to call me feline, thinking it a blessing I suppose, in my line of work. Yeah, well, it could be a curse too. Imagine having nine lives in some cosmic game where your soul is the cat, and peace a mouse that always gets away."
A week earlier Ö.
Gabrielle strained to see the faint outlines of Higuchi, grateful that the long journey from Greece to Japa had so far been fairly smooth. She could hear the representatives from Higuchi conversing quietly and was glad sheíd decided to accompany them after the official opening of her Village of Dreams. She drew strength from their support for her quest to bring Xena back from the dead. If theyíd forgiven Xena, maybe those 40,000 souls could too.
Xena imagined a myriad of emotions played across her soulmateís face. It couldnít be easy for Gabrielle to return to the scene of her worst nightmare. Yet there she was at the shipís bow, looking forward as always, hope radiating from her as surely as the sun broke through clouds. Xena glanced at the mist-shrouded peaks in the distance, reminded of Greece and so many other places sheíd left her footprints. Sheíd finally risen above all that in death. Yet here she was, about to test Gabrielleís faith in her mortality once again. And she was afraid.
"So beautiful," Gabrielle murmured, sensing her soulmateís presence.
Xena shifted her gaze back to Gabrielle. She smiled, and after a moment responded warmly, "Always."
Gabrielle blushed. She swept her hand across the vista illuminated in the rising sun. "I meant all that." Chuckling, she turned toward the deck. Her eyes narrowed, then grew wide, as she fell back against the rail with a gasp.
"What?" Xena asked, peering behind her, afraid maybe Poseidon had come back to life and was rising up from the waters.
"I Ö I can see you!"
Gabrielle pointed at Xena. "I see you! Youíre blurry, but I can see you."
Xena stretched her arms out in front of her. "Grrrr. I canít tell anything. I look like I always do to myself, when I bother to look anyway."
"Youíre getting even clearer, like when you were a ghost. I havenít seen you like this since Ö since that last sunset in Japa - except in my dreams." Gabrielle walked closer and tentatively touched Xenaís arm. Her hand passed through. "Oh," she murmured softly, stepping back. "Iíd hoped Ö."
"Yeah." Xena reached out anyway to brush at Gabrielleís cheek. "This isnít quite like the last time."
"Do you feel any different?"
Xena frowned thoughtfully. "A little more Ö grounded Ö I guess. More like a person. Less Ö wispy." She looked up at a seagull circling the mast, then scrunched her eyes in concentration. A few moments later she opened them, confirming that she hadnít sprouted wings. "Well," she concluded with a lopsided grin, "looks like I wonít be bugging you anymore as any insects. Seems Iíve also lost my ability to inhabit other creatures."
Gabrielle suddenly noticed how quiet the ship had become. And that all the other passengers were staring in their direction. "Um, Xena, I donít think Iím the only one who can see you."
Xena turned and nonchalantly waved at the others. Dazed, they slowly waved back. "Iím not sure whatís happening," she said to Gabrielle, "but it canít be all bad. Right?"
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "Um, right. Except for one little thing. Youíre naked."
Xena looked down at herself. "Oh, yeah. One of the perks of spirithood. Donít have to worry about the latest in warrior wardrobes." She turned her back to Gabrielle. "Any unsightly wounds left?" she asked over her shoulder.
"No," Gabrielle said, suppressing a shiver at the still vivid image of Xenaís headless, arrow-riddled corpse swinging gently in the rain. She shook her head slightly and smiled thinly. "Itís not injuries to you that Iím concerned about right now. These people may be used to ghosts, but not ones with bodies like yours. Half of `em look ready to pass out."
Xena managed the ghostly version of a blush. "Uh, hold on a sec. Letís see if I can -" She vanished, only to reappear a moment later robed in a red kimono. "Thatís funny," she said, puzzled. "How did Ö where did that come from?"
"Maybe I can be of assistance." It was Oku, the Ghost Killerís son. He came forward and bowed to the two women. "I think it has to do with our nearness to home. Perhaps my father and the other souls are aiding you on your quest -- giving Xena form, as Yodoshi did to create illusions for his purposes. It seems that we may need your assistance again."
Oku gestured for the others to follow him to the front of the ship. They could now see the wharf and structures rebuilt from the fires Gabrielle and Xena had helped put out.
"Thereís usually more activity, even this early in the day. And those samurai werenít standing guard when we left." Okuís compatriots murmured their agreement. "Something is wrong."
"If I have to kill him this time, I will." Gabrielle paced angrily from one side of Okuís main room to the other. She halted in front of the two figures seated on one of the straw mats that covered Okuís floor. "Iíll do whatever it takes to stop him," she declared to Oku. "Whatever it takes," she continued, looking at Xena, "to bring you back."
Oku nodded solemnly. Heíd seen evidence of Gabrielleís compassion during his visit to the village sheíd created to care for, educate and protect those in need. It had surprised him a little. True, his father had said that love was the source of her extraordinary faith and courage. But the young man had been more fascinated with tales of the yellow-haired warrior catapulting above the flames that nearly destroyed Higuchi, fighting like the greatest samurai, scaling mountains to save a friend. Now that he had personally experienced her great humanity, he regretted her dilemma even more.
"Gabrielle, sit with us," he pleaded softly. "You must seek calm, if you are to be at the center of this whirlwind."
Gabrielle glanced down at Xena, certain that a myriad of feelings roiled beneath her soulmateís gently smiling countenance. She took a deep breath and lowered herself to the floor, facing her companions.
Oku placed a cup in front of her and filled it with tea. He wondered if his father had such mixed emotions when he faced a Xena determined to take responsibility for an outcome she never intended.
"Gabrielle, we deeply respect your desire to stop Saburo, but you must not blame yourself for his actions. His own soldiers admitted that Xena defeated them, that he killed her when she was dazed and already reeling from mortal wounds. It was your right to deem him unworthy of an honorable death."
"That doesnít change the fact that my judgement is the source of his bitterness, or that he is now inflicting it on others who played no role in that."
"Gabrielle, he was a willing ally of Yodoshiís evil even before you and Xena arrived. You challenged the respect granted him based on his lineage and prowess as Samurai, yet there were many willing to believe some supernatural foul play at work in his defeat by a strange woman. Those of us who journeyed to your homeland should have dealt with him before we left. He used our absence all these months to establish foothold as a warlord with little opposition. We still have influence to organize resistance before he realizes you returned with us."
Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. "And you think he wonít learn that Iím trying to bring Xena back? He tried to stop me before. Heíll probably be even more determined now."
"Oku?" Xena asked quietly, breaking her silence. "Does Saburo know about the tapestry?"
Oku sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "I cannot say. Few of the deceasedís relatives actually saw it before the monk shipped it to Gabrielle. We thought it merely a beautiful representation of your sacrifice for Higuchi. We did not realize a fortune teller had woven it, or that it might be a clue to restoring you to your body."
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Iím afraid nothing is ever that simple with us. Oku, Iíll gladly accept your help in finding the fortune teller and fighting Saburo. But I canít ignore my duty in all this. Iíve got a lot to think about. If you donít mind, Iíd like to retire now and figure out where to go from here in the morning."
"Of course." Oku rose and bowed to his guests. "Iíll show you to your room. It is small," he added, the corners of his mouth twitching, "but I imagine you will not need much extra space for Xena."
Gabrielle stood fascinated in the middle of what appeared to be a workshop, wondering what stories lay behind the various objects it contained. She walked over to a wall to examine the many swords mounted there - beautifully crafted, impeccably maintained. Perhaps Harukata, or Oku himself, had used some of them to send ghosts to their rest. Another wall bore framed work of dried flowers or images and words exquisitely drawn in ink. Delicate figurines and pottery adorned petite carved tables. She ran her fingers lightly over a few of these items, as well as across the filmy rice paper of the screen that served as her door.
On the surface, it was hard to see how someone like Yodoshi or Saburo could flourish in such beauty. But sheíd witnessed the great physical and spiritual power of these people - power that she knew from personal experience had a double edge. "So small, to handle with such grace what would dwarf most others."
"Youíre not so big yourself, you know."
Startled, Gabrielle whirled to see Xena lounging beside the entryway, smirking. "Oh! So much for you not getting to spend enough time in my thoughts."
Xenaís brow furrowed. "I wasnít in them. In fact, it seems Iíve lost that ability too. You spoke out loud."
"Ah. Something more to get used to. First it was you popping into my head. Now itís having you pop in and out here in the Ö in the Ö."
"Flash?" Xena supplied helpfully.
"Very funny." Gabrielle walked over to sit on the futon Oku had unfolded for her to sleep on. She looked at Xena a long moment. "And not so funny." Letting out a breath, she searched for the words to express what she was feeling. "Five years Iíve kept you alive in my heart. Heard you in my mind. Touched you in my dreams. Weíve been one in every way."
Xena left the doorway and "sat" on one of the carved tables. She crossed her legs, folded her arms on her knees and leaned forward, an ever-so-slight crinkle in her forehead disturbing her otherwise neutral expression.
"I wouldnít have traded that for anything," Gabrielle continued, smiling a little, her eyes full. "Except to have you back as yourself, apart from me, preferably in the body that left to face Saburoís archers."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and leaned forward. "I wasnít prepared to have you like that and you not be alive. Not being able to brush the hair from your eyes or feel your weight on the bed. Fearing you might vanish at any moment. I had that certainty in my dreams, whenever I wanted. I have confidence in that if we bring you back. But this Ö." Her voice caught. "Xena, if we fail -- if youíre somehow stuck like this -- Iím not sure I can Ö."
"Gabrielle." Xena came over and wrapped her arms around her soulmate. "Can you feel this? Can you feel anything?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied softly. "I feel warmth and love. As always." She wiped her eyes. "Iím sorry. Iíll be all right." She gently tried to push Xena away. "Oh," she smiled ruefully, when her hands passed through air. "Forgot I canít control you anymore."
"As if," Xena teased, going back to her table.
They regarded each other in silence, reminding themselves why theyíd gone through almost every hell in the universe to be in a position as uncertain as their current one.
"Xena?" Gabrielle finally asked, looking down. "When you said Iím not so big myself Ö."
Xena frowned. "I was kidding."
"I guess I knew that."
"What else did you think I meant?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Like Oku says, Iíve got quite a mess on my hands. The most important thing to me is getting you back. But Iíve got to deal with Saburo, whether he tries to stop me or not. One wrong decision and Ö."
"Youíll do the right thing."
"Like I did with Saburo?" Gabrielle grimaced. "Xena, I didnít refuse to behead him just to spare his life. I wanted revenge. I wanted him smelling his worthlessness with every long-suffering breath. More than killing you, I despised him for trying to use your noble sacrifice for his own glory." Gabrielle swallowed. "For hanging and carving and serving up the body I loved like it was no better than a slab of venison. All my talk about stopping the cycle of violence and hate. I never had a shred of regret for what I condemned him to, and even now itís only because I created a monster thatís preying on innocent victims."
"Gabrielle, we both know Oku is right, that you didnít ëcreateí Saburo. Donít even try to compare that to what Iíve done. Youíre human. You felt the pain and anger anyone would. But it was because of me -- your love for me, protecting my ëlegendaryí honor. You were with me in spirit when I battled Saburo. Iíll be with you one way or the other when you take him on."
Gabrielle studied Xena thoughtfully. "If we manage to get you restored before I fight him, what will you do?"
"I told you. Iíll be with you."
"Xena, I want you to promise me you wonít interfere or take it upon yourself to be my champion."
Xena grimaced "Gabrielle, I couldnít promise that before. I donít know that Iíve changed enough to keep such a promise if Iím mortal again."
Gabrielle straightened. "I know what has changed," she stated with grim determination. "You arenít the only one who gets to decide anymore when itís time to face a battle alone. I didnít let you do it before, unless you took away my chance. Iím certainly not going to let you now, when I can help it."
Xena leaned back and cocked her head. "Yes, it is up to you whether to try and bring me back - or when," she said coolly. "I canít move that flower over there in my current form, much less wield a sword. Fortunately, I have acquired more patience at hanging around doing nothing." She stood. "Since Iím obviously not needed now, why donít I let you to get some rest." With that, she shimmered out of sight. A moment later she reappeared. "Sorry. Forgot." She strolled toward the entry. "Iíll be out here somewhere. You know how to reach me," she said over her shoulder, passing like air through the rice-paper screen.
A strange hush settled over the room. No footsteps could be heard to signal Xenaís departure, no swishing of leather on leather or even of the silky material of her present attire. No scent of metal or oils. It was as though she hadnít been there at all. Gabrielle stared at the empty doorway, wondering if maybe that was why she hadnít called out to Xena, pleaded with her to come back. Why she didnít feel the guilt she usually did when sheíd upset her soulmate.
Sighing, she got up and prepared for bed. Her nightly ritual settled her emotions a little, even as somewhere in her mind she recognized that it had helped her learn to live without Xena. To collect her thoughts, undress, blow out the light, snuggle beneath her covers, and close her eyes to the darkness -- alone. As she lay on her bed, it hit her how this was not the same as being with Xena in her dreams. This was the day-to-day reality sheíd lived with during her waking hours these last few years. What sheíd made herself become accustomed to. Now all that could change. And for the first time since beginning this quest to bring Xena back, she was afraid.
Except for the sounds of night creatures and cropped leaves brushing against one another, stillness lay over the little garden outside Okuís home. Xena stood at the entrance listening to the wind. She wished she could have breathed in the earthy and floral scents sheíd grown to appreciate when she was with Lao Ma. They might have comforted her, as once again she was feeling a little Ö.
Xena turned to see a figure outlined in the moonlight, seated on a bench in the shadows.
"I did not mean to intrude on your thoughts," Oku said quietly. "I was surprised to see you out here. Is everything all right?"
"Good evening," Xena responded, seeming to glide over to Oku. "Yes, thank you. I just needed a little Ö air." She smiled wryly. "Iím finding that even ghosts could use that every now and then."
Oku chuckled. "You are certainly welcome to whatever I can provide." He watched Xena sit on another bench nearby. "This is where I come when I need that."
"Anything I can help with?"
Oku smiled. "I was wondering the same thing about you."
"You seem to have inherited your fatherís ability to see inside souls," Xena said after a moment. "It was a great honor that he trusted mine. And Gabrielleís." She lowered her eyes. "Iím sorry Harukata had to die like that. He was a good man."
"He was a Ghost Killer. He died honorably, doing what he was meant to do. One cannot ask much more than that."
"No," Xena agreed softly, "one canít." She raised her eyes. "But sometimes a warriorís honor isnít enough. Sometimes maybe itís too much. Sometimes it causes you to miss something else youíre meant to do."
Oku regarded Xena with compassionate understanding. "Yes, my mother said so that first night we tried to convince her my fatherís honor was enough to warm the empty space beside her. When you freed him along with those other souls, he came to comfort her, to ease her into life without him."
"And did he?"
"Not at first. Especially since she feared losing me the same way. Eventually she learned how to go on, but not without keeping him alive however she could. The room Gabrielle is in? It is really my motherís shrine to him. Many people never knew he was an artist. Nearly everything in there was created by the same hands that wielded all those swords."
"Theyíre magnificent. Cared for very well."
"Yes, I do that now, since my motherís death. It was a couple of years ago. She had devoted herself to caring for the dying, helping make their passage free of the anger or loneliness that might cause their souls to wander in restlessness or mischief." Oku grinned. "I suspect it was also her way of putting me out of the ghost killing business."
Xena smiled. "Yes, I think Gabrielle had similar designs. There were just too many bad people destined to meet the end of my sword. Itís good your mother didnít have me to clean up after the last few years."
Oku regarded Xena curiously. "You are not certain about Gabrielleís quest to restore you?" he asked, leaning towards her.
"Iím not certain about a lot of things, Oku," she sighed. "Sheís done wonderful things, like your mother. Sheís had a good life. Without me. During all my time with her, I tried to protect her. I knew that wasnít why she wanted me with her, that she hasnít needed that in some time. But my own needs were too strong, my own damned pride. I canít go back to that." Xena snorted softly. "She wonít let me."
"Ah," Oku nodded. "Saburo. You are afraid for her to fight him. She doesnít want you to interfere. But thereís not much you can do Ö unless Ö"
"Unless she brings me back before it comes to that. Oku, I canít make that promise. I donít know what Iíll be like. Right now, I donít have the past coursing through my veins. If not for my love for her, Iíd be at peace." Xena shook her head. "All that rage when I was mortal, yet I have more turmoil inside now as a ghost." She chuckled humorlessly. "Well, itís out my hands anyway. The best I can do at the moment is sit here trying to figure out what I see in the stars."
"Gabrielle loves you very much," Oku said, standing. "If there were any hands I would trust to do what is right, it is hers. Be at peace, my friend. I will leave you to commune with the heavens." He bowed and walked back inside.
Xena watched him until he was gone. She looked up at the sky and sighed. "Right."
Okuís aunt warmly greeted each of the five guests as she placed steaming bowls before them. They had begun arriving shortly after sunrise. Most had made the journey to Gabrielleís homeland, so felt a particular stake in assisting her on her quest. They exchanged pleasantries in rushed fashion that bordered on impoliteness, in their anxiousness to share their bits of news.
They asked about Xena, of course, hoping to see again this most famous of ghosts. Gabrielle said she was off on a mission of her own, but could sense her soulmateís presence. She knew Xena was giving her space, as usual concerned about overshadowing her. She wished she knew if Xena was still upset with her. Sheíd thought maybe they could have a sensitive chat during her dreams, but hadnít been able to conjure up her suddenly elusive companion. She shook her head, bringing herself back to the present. Their personal problems would have to wait.
Oku tapped his bowl lightly to get everyoneís attention. "I thank you all for moving so quickly to begin obtaining the information we need. Before we begin, perhaps Gabrielle would like to say a few words?"
"You honor me with your presence," Gabrielle began warmly. "Again. Several months ago you helped consecrate my Village of Dreams with your generosity. Now you give me an even greater gift by helping put breath into the half of my soul Iím sure I was not meant to live without. Regardless of how my quest ends, I thank you with all my heart." She smiled and bowed her head to each person. " I am prepared for your reports. If you donít mind, Iíd like to hear any good news first."
A youngish woman cleared her throat. "If I may, I request to speak first. I have met with someone who believes he knows the weaver of the tapestry."
"Yes, yes," everyone else agreed, nodding and clasping their hands in excitement.
"My uncle once studied to be a monk. He did not have the discipline, but he has kept in touch with some he knew then. They told him of a man who lives alone at the base of Mt. Futahara. The man is feared by many because they donít know where he came from. Those who have consulted him say he is a master of many arts. He has predicted rain and foretold events in their lives that came true."
"Yes, I was told of him also," an older woman added. "My neighbor says the man has strange tapestries all about. She says they show visions that have come to him about different people and events. No one knows his name. He calls himself ëThe Seer.í"
"Then we must get to him immediately," warned a white-haired guest. "My son has been taken in by Saburoís nonsense. He believes that criminal wants nothing more than to protect us against enemies. My son has spent much time in Saburoís compound. He came home last night telling of rumors that the yellow-haired warrior had come back to avenge Xenaís death. He bragged how Saburo would not take pity on her this time because of her grief."
"Did he say anything about The Seer?" Oku asked.
"No, but he claims Saburo has informants everywhere. He would not dare attack those of us he suspects of harboring Gabrielle, at least not in our own homes. But anything can happen once we leave out to find The Seer."
"I fear I have more bad news," interjected an expensively dressed man Gabrielle didnít recognize. "Saburo has struck a chord with those who resent honoring a foreigner over one of our own. They say Xena corrupted Akemi into killing her father, that our loved ones were consumed by the fire Xena started because we failed to stop her profane influence when we had the chance. Saburo is saying that Gabrielle wants to perpetuate that influence by building a shrine to Xena. I am no longer sure whom we can trust beyond those who traveled to Gabrielleís village in Greece."
"May I ask, sir, why you risk being here?" Gabrielle asked politely.
"Itís all right," Oku reassured her. "I brought Lord Muroyama into our confidence because his older sister was Akemiís mother. His family still grieves Yodoshiís slaughter of their relatives, and he is one of the few to speak openly against Saburo. Lord Muroyama is in a position to hear the sentiments of powerful people who might overlook Saburoís transgressions if it suits their interests. Many already view him as bringing ëorderí to squabbling factions in the countryside."
The group continued to share news and discuss their options. They finally agreed to focus on three fronts: contacting The Seer, mobilizing forces for any battles wth Saburo, and continuing to gather information on what the warlord knew and was up to. The visitors tried futilely to persuade Gabrielle not to venture out until they had learned more. In the end, they agreed to devise a suitable disguise for her so that she could herself find The Seer as soon as possible.
"Xena certainly could be invaluable to us in her physical form, where Saburo is concerned," the white-haired gentleman commented.
"Xena will not be fighting Saburo," Gabrielle informed him. "I will. Restoring her and stopping him are two separate issues, unless and until Saburo dictates otherwise. Does everyone understand that?"
The guests looked at each other, puzzled that Gabrielle would deprive their resistance force of such a great warrior.
"I am not sure I do," Lord Muroyama finally spoke up. "But I respect your wishes. It would be foolish not to, given that you have already proven you deserve that." He bowed his head to her.
One by one, the others nodded as well.
Gabrielle bowed back. "Thank you."
Oku reached his hand out. His compatriots each put a hand on top of his, as did Gabrielle. "We have our assignments," he said. "Go in peace. And may we be victorious in the days ahead."
"Iím here," Xena answered, shimmering into sight. She watched her soulmate move about the room, packing the few things she would need for her trip.
"You heard everything?"
"Are you okay with it?"
"I guess Iíd better be," Xena answered dryly. Gabrielle paused to look over at her. Xena smiled. "But thanks for asking."
"I did try to be with you last night, in my dreams," Gabrielle offered, returning the smile. "I didnít like how weíd left things. But I couldnít get you to come, now that I have you on the outside again."
"I didnít know that. Iím not sure myself sometimes if Iím coming or going. Maybe now you see that you have a lot more control over that than you thought."
"Yes, it appears so. A little disconcerting for both of us, but weíll manage. Right?"
Someone knocked lightly. "Gabrielle? It is Shiori, daughter of Lord Muroyama. We have come to help with your disguise."
Xena nodded at Gabrielle, then vanished.
"Please, come in."
A finely dressed young woman entered, followed by two other women in modest kimonos. They bowed and began extracting a black wig, clothes and cosmetics from their carry bags.
"People are used to my shopping excursions," Shiori explained as the other women ushered Gabrielle to the futon in preparation for her makeover. "You will be one of my ladies. Oku and my brother will escort our small party. We will also travel to a beautiful area near Mt. Futahara where I sometimes go for Ö meditation." The corners of her mouth turned up. "We doubt anyone will suspect me of anything more serious."
True enough, Shioriís elaborate travel litter drew little attention. Not only that, its opaque curtains provided another layer of protection, as did the four additional men who served as litter bearers in areas where the horses wouldnít be appropriate. Once they reached the center of Higuchi, Shiori halted the party several times and asked various merchants to come over and display their wares. She chatted with them and even bought a few items. She continued this pattern each time they passed through one of the markets that lined the route to their destination. Her brother and Oku remained mounted on their horses, feigning impatience.
As evening fell, the party camped about a dayís ride from Mt. Futahara. They believed that, despite the seeming innocence of their excursion, they were being watched. They didnít want to appear too much in a hurry.
Shiori would sleep in her covered litter, while the others erected small tents. After everyone had eaten and was preparing to retire, Shiori called out to Gabrielle, "Come, Ayemi, I need only your help this evening."
Gabrielle continued moving her things into the tent she shared with one of the other women. The woman nudged her. "Oh, yes, my lady!" Gabrielle called back to Shiori, grinning sheepishly at the other woman. "Right away."
"I hope you are not disappointed with our pace," Shiori said in a low voice to Gabrielle, once the two were inside the litter. "I thought it important to follow my usual habits."
"Yes, I think thatís wise. Thank you." Gabrielle reached over and touched Shioriís arm, afraid at first that sheíd breached some etiquette when the young woman continued staring at Gabrielleís hand.
"It is my pleasure," Shiori said, looking up. "Forgive me if I seem Ö. I am considered free among the women here, but it is only to do things of little consequence. Yes, there are female warriors, but I have not met any quite like you."
"If I may say, you are hard, but also soft. The others fight because it is in their blood. If you fight, I believe it is because you have to. From what I have heard of your first time here, and what my father says you seek now, it is from love."
Gabrielle looked away. "Not always."
"But that is why you returned here, is it not?"
"Yes." Gabrielle sighed. "That is why I came back."
"I envy you such love, such courage to do what is necessary."
"It takes courage, Shiori, for you to help me like this. You must trust your father very much."
"I do," Shiori replied, looking at her hands. "But I am not sure it is from love. At least not for him." She looked up, searching Gabrielleís face for something. "You have seen the world and done important things. I must experience that through someone else. If I have the chance to experience it for myself, even in a small way, I have to take it, do I not? Oh," she exclaimed, lowering her head, "that must sound so selfish to someone like you."
"No. I do what I do because it makes me feel good. Sometimes itís something I need, sometimes itís something that will help others. Iíd hate to see you hurt because of this, but if it will make you feel good about yourself, then Iíd be the last person to tell you not to try."
Shiori leaned back and smiled. "Thank you, Gabrielle. Your reassurance is important to me. Please, do not let me keep you any longer from your rest. I believe tomorrow will be a day we can both feel proud. Perhaps Xena will appear then?"
"Who knows?" Gabrielle chuckled. "Sheís less predictable as a ghost than when her living depended on it. Then again," she added, considering her soulmateís knack for showing up at the right time, "maybe it still does."
It was late afternoon the following day when they reached Shioriís meditation spot, only to find themselves entertaining unwelcome guests. Six riders appeared out of the dense trees surrounding the beautiful waterfall and lush grassy area dotted with wild flowers.
"Ho, there," the leader said. "Is this not the carriage of Lady Shiori?"
"Yes, it is," answered Shioriís brother, maintaining a relaxed position on his horse. "Who inquires?" he asked, knowing full well that these were Saburoís men.
"Merely samurai who wish to ensure the safety of one of Higuchiís most prominent and beautiful young ladies," the man responded with a hint of insolence.
Shiori parted her curtains and looked out. She beckoned to her brother to dismount and assist her to the ground. She bowed to the stranger. "I am the lady of whom you speak so kindly. May I be of help?"
The man bowed slightly. "You are entering a rather remote area. We thought perhaps you could use our protection as you journey further. We have heard rumor that foreign enemies may be about."
"Ah. In fact, we have reached our destination without any problems. I have found this to be a most suitable place for clearing my thoughts. I thank you for your concern. However," she added, indicating her brother, Oku and the litter bearers, "we have taken a few precautions."
"Even a Ghost Killer, I see," the man said, looking pointedly at the mounted Oku.
Shiori laughed lightly. "He is not here professionally." She clapped her hands and called for her servants to join her. As her brother helped the women from the litter, she singled out Gabrielle. "He is courting one of my ladies, Ayemi. This seemed a good opportunity for them to get to know each other better."
Gabrielle bowed her head to the stranger and hoped that the thick black coating on her lashes sufficiently obscured her green eyes. She smiled shyly in Okuís direction before turning away to assist the other women unpack.
The man examined the party with pursed lips. He shifted a little in his saddle.
"Perhaps you and your men would like to join us for our evening meal?" she inquired politely. "There is certainly sufficient room for you to camp as well. I had not planned to stay here more than a day, so you could assure our safety tonight and possibly on our return."
Gabrielle bit her lip. She knew what Shiori was trying to do, but feared the young woman might be a little too ambitious in her attempt at innocence. Hopefully the man wouldnít -
"I accept your invitation," he answered with a relieved smile. "Our vigilance has put great demands upon us. It has been quite awhile since we have had the chance to eat and sleep well. We will try to disturb your meditation as little as possible."
The samurai dismounted and began setting up their own camp on the other side of the waterfall. Shiori instructed her party to prepare for a more elaborate meal than usual. For once she truly appreciated her propensity for insisting on a certain amount of luxury at any cost. Soon, delicious aromas filled the air, a fine dining cloth lay on the ground, and she herself glided about in a lovely gown as though hosting an affair in her home.
As dinner was concluding, Shiori walked over to Gabrielle and Oku, who were seated next to each other. She gestured for them to rise and pointed to one of the tents set up near the trees. They nodded bashfully. As they walked toward the tent, Shiori whispered to another of her ladies to follow the couple. The woman smiled and went to sit outside the tent as chaperone. Shiori then retrieved some musical instruments and began entertaining her guests with songs everyone eventually joined in on.
"Shiori has done well," Oku said quietly, examining the items placed inside the tent.
"Yes, my own clothes will be much better." Gabrielle looked fondly at her travel bag. "And Iíll have Xenaís ashes, just in case."
"Not to mention her soul itself," Xena said, shimmering into sight. "Shhh," she added, as Gabrielleís mouth flew open. "Oku, good to be seen by you again."
Oku smiled broadly. "Yes, Iíve missed you. But somehow I did not think you would prefer star gazing in my garden to missing this."
Gabrielle looked from Oku to Xena. "What are you two up to?"
"Not as much as you should be. Arenít you forgetting something?" Xena teased, pointing to Gabrielleís clothes.
"Oh, yeah. Got a little distracted there."
Oku turned away to let Gabrielle change out of her kimono. "With the horses Shiori left near the road, we should be able to reach Mt. Futahara in about three hours," he said. "That will leave us five hours to return before daybreak."
"Letís hope The Seer isnít an ëearly to bed, early to riseí kinda guy," Gabrielle chuckled. Just as she was pulling on her boots, she heard scratching on the side of the tent. "What theÖ?"
"Iíll check it out," Xena said. She disappeared, flashing back into sight a moment later, smirking. "Seems you and Oku have ëbody doubles.í Let ëem in. See you later," she added, blowing a kiss to Gabrielle, then vanishing again.
Oku raised the side of the tent, allowing two figures to inch their way underneath. One wore a dark outfit like Okuís, the other a replica of Gabrielleís pink gown. With a black wig. And a moustache.
"Lady Shiori instructed us to remain inside here until shortly before the samurai retire, in case any of them are watching us." This came from "Ayemi," who - like "Oku" - was one of the litter bearers. The two men stood with great dignity, despite the circumstances.
"Excellent," Gabrielle said, stifling a giggle. She summoned the most serious expression she could. "She must hold you in great esteem to trust you with this task. I thank you for your assistance." Gabrielle bowed to them, as did Oku. "We will now leave the way you came."
Shiori watched for the chaperoneís signal that the exchange in the tent had been executed. A few songs later, she announced that it was time her party retired. The strangers thanked her again. Once theyíd reached their side of the waterfall, the leader continued to glance every now and then at Shioriís camp. A short time later, two figures emerged from the chaperoned tent. They bowed to each other. The male figure walked off, while the chaperone and the other female figure went inside the tent. The samurai leader pushed off from his tree and lay down on his bedroll. Shiori nodded to herself, releasing the corner of her litter curtain. She could rest now, reassured that so far she had done well.
Xena rode behind Gabrielle on the trip to Mt. Futuhara. Neither had voiced her desire to travel like that together. Each had known the other would want to, and that her own desire to do so would not be denied. Gabrielle didnít feel the long arms around her waist, but the security of Xenaís nearness would do nicely. Xena couldnít enjoy the scent of the golden hair beneath her chin, yet simply remembering how warm it made her feel was comfort enough. They said little, lost in their separate but common thoughts, accustomed now to contemplating them alone, and perhaps a little reluctant to share them prematurely.
"You should stop for rest soon. Weíve been going hard now for nearly two hours."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Would you? If those were my ashes?" She smirked in the silence that followed, imagining Xenaís exasperated sigh tickling her scalp.
Oku slowed his mount. "We should rest soon," he called over his shoulder to Gabrielle. "The horses could probably use it, as well as some water."
"All right," Gabrielle agreed. Over her own shoulder she growled, "Donít say a word. Not everyone is as pig-headed as some other people I know."
One rest stop and a few treacherous miles later, Oku held up his hand. "I believe we need to walk from here. If my information is correct, The Seerís place is up there, beyond those trees."
"I could go take a look," Xena offered, squinting into the darkness as her companions dismounted.
"No!" Gabrielle gentled her voice. "No, Xena, I want to do this together, all right? The whole way. I donít care if you disappear when we get there, but I want to know youíre here beside me."
"All right," Xena agreed softly. She nodded to Oku. "Lead on. Iíll bring up the rear."
Muttered curses soon joined the sound of tumbling rocks, scratches against leather and occasional splats in mud.
Gabrielle glared at the spotlessly robed ghost behind her.
"Look! There. A light." Oku turned to them. "Would you like to go on alone?"
"No?" two voices queried simultaneously. Gabrielle grinned at her soulmate. "I think I can speak for both of us when I say weíd be honored by your company."
Oku bowed deeply. "And I would be most honored to escort you."
"Iíll be right behind," Xena assured them before blinking out.
They soon made out a wooden structure that seemed to grow out from the mountain wall behind it. As they got closer, they realized the light theyíd seen was coming through a doorway. A man sat on the steps in front. He stood. Gabrielle and Oku approached slowly.
"Took you long enough," the man said. He turned toward his home. "Follow me."
The two visitors looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. "Seems okay," they heard in the darkness next to them.
Oku started ahead. A hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Thank you, my friend. Iíll go first from now on." Gabrielle strode to the steps and began to ascend.
"Feisty little thing, huh?"
Oku nodded, smiling. "I can see why you wanted her at your back."
Gabrielle was turning in a circle, gazing around in amazement, when Oku entered what proved to be a cavernous room. The Seer seemed to have disappeared behind one of the numerous tapestries surrounding them. Oku hadnít seen anything quite like them, before the one of Xenaís last battle. The fabric was heavier, the colors richer, the images more severe than he was accustomed to. He could almost hear the cries, smell the blood of one battle scene.
"Oh," Gabrielle exhaled, lightly touching two figures shown standing entwined in a meadow. "I can almost smell the flowers." She closed her eyes. "Feel the love."
"She will choose a rich nobleman instead. He will fill that meadow with the stench of rotting corpses."
They turned to see their host pushing aside one of the tapestries, carrying a tray of tea cups.
"Few of those turn out the way the people imagine." The Seer gestured for them to sit on the cushions around the small table where he placed the tray. "They usually consult me until I see something they like. I am driven to keep weaving, even when they never come back." He waited for his guests to seat themselves. "That is why all these are still here, haunting me," he continued, resignedly waving a hand at the multitude of lives depicted, then seating himself.
"You seemed to expect us. You know why weíre here?"
He snorted. "I am a seer, not a mind reader." He noted with satisfaction their surprised expressions. "Professional humor," he said with the barest of movement around his mouth. "Breaks the ice a little. Is she here?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Is she here?"
"Hmm. It would seem I am a ventriloquist also. Her. The warrior."
"Ummm, wellll," Gabrielle stammered. "I Ö I Ö."
"Sheís here." Xena appeared behind Gabrielle.
"Good. I dislike having to repeat myself. How much time do you have?"
"Time?" Gabrielle repeated.
"Time," the Seer sighed. "It would seem you are in a hurry."
Oku nodded, impressed. "You have divined something of our situation then?"
The Seerís mouth twitched again. "You come mid night, exhausted, covered in dirt and scratches. Wise men such as myself are skilled at discerning the meaning of such inscrutable signs."
"Ah." Oku sheepishly glanced down at himself. "Yes, you have discerned correctly. We do not have much time."
"Then I suggest you get on with your questions."
Gabrielle glanced back at Xena, who knelt down behind her, and took a deep breath. She turned back to The Seer, folded her hands in her lap and leaned forward. "Do you remember the tapestry about us, about Xenaís death?"
"Yes. It is one of the few I have done without meeting the principals. Stories filtered up here, of course, but long after the visions started." He paused and looked at Xena. "Your energy is very strong, warrior. Your passage into the next realm jolted me into beginning the tapestry. And you .Ö"
"I recognized you immediately as the light-haired one whose courageous devotion nearly stopped my heart. It is because of you that my hands kept moving even when it seemed the tapestry should have been complete."
"Why wasnít it?" Xena asked quietly.
The Seer frowned. "I weave what I see, but I cannot always interpret the meaning. It is usually clearer than this - people coming together, parting, dying. Accumulating wealth or victories. Losing them. But with you Ö."
The Seer got up and walked over to a work area piled with material and bolts of thread. He scooped up an armful and held it out in front of him, his face for the first time betraying emotion.
"So many different pieces, such varied patterns - all appearing possible and equally Ö right."
Gabrielle took in a breath. "How did you know? How did you Ö choose?"
"Oh, no," The Seer declared, looking abashed. "I donít choose. Even as difficult as it was in this case, I vowed not to choose. I focused on your energy, your love, on the strongest threads, the whole fabric of your lives." He lay the material down and lowered himself to his seat again. He leaned toward the two women, his face filled with awe.
"Never has so much flashed before my eyes as when I saw your hands together on that urn. So much coming to such a wondrous ending. So much promised to begin anew. My fingers flew in ecstasy until they bled. I heard weeping, at first from joy, then sorrow. Saw tears falling. They rained and rained, until suddenly I realized they were not just mine or yours, but coming from the thousands of souls you freed."
"They Ö wept?" Xena whispered.
The Seer nodded. "I cannot be sure, but I believe they were distraught. Not at your guilt, but their own. And beyond."
"Beyond?" Xena asked, puzzled. "What are you saying?"
The Seer shook his head. "I told you, I am not good at interpreting. I can only say that I believe my feeling about that is important. I saw those tears in the Fountain of Strength, mixed with Xenaís ashes. I saw Xena in the red robe she wears now, as well as in brown battle dress. I saw Gabrielle alone, hurt and angry, then cleansed, with Xena at her side. All that was intermingled somehow."
Oku cleared his throat, discretely breaking the silence that had descended. "Seer, your tapestry suggests that Xena comes back to walk with Gabrielle in the flesh. Is that so?"
"That would be my choice," he answered with heartfelt regard. "As well as what I believe is the truth in my hands."
Gabrielle swallowed. "Do you know how?"
The Seer looked sadly at the hands which a moment ago had represented such hope. "No," he sighed regretfully. "I can only offer the name of someone else who may. Shidoki. She is akin to what your people would call a healer. Show her the tapestry. Tell her what I have said. She may be able to help you put it all together. Ah, and one more thing. It did not seem to have enough energy to include in the tapestry, but I have seen it again since then. A figure with a blade, hidden behind its back."
"Saburo," all three guests surmised in unison.
The Seer gave Oku instructions for locating Shidoki. Xena and Gabrielle used the little time left to examine some of the tapestries more closely. They were stunned to see images they recognized from their own part of the world, as well as other lands far from Japa. The Seer acknowledged that he had traveled extensively and learned his artistry abroad.
"I canít thank you enough for what youíve done," Gabrielle told him, forgoing the traditional bow in favor of a massive hug.
"It is my pleasure," he responded, returning the embrace. "I used to wonder why I returned to Japa. I believe I have my answer. Through you, I can die having felt true love. And from you," he continued, bowing to Xena, "I learned of honor greater than I have ever known. I am aware that people wonder how a strange old hermit can live among all this and not go mad. They think it is probably because of those exercises I do to keep my poor old body from turning to stone." He winked. "You two hold the secret. Go now, and find out how to share it as before."
The Seer watched his visitors wave farewell and blend into the night. Back inside, he reached under his work table and retrieved a roll of purple material. Heíd put it aside nearly five years ago, in hopes that the light-haired figure would some day find her way to his door. "Took long enough," he grumbled again. Still, he hummed to himself, for the first time less afraid to continue the one saga heíd never before allowed himself to finish.
"Day broke just as we reached the outskirts of our camp. We thought ourselves safe. And then we saw him - the samurai leader - standing behind Shioriís litter, watching, waiting for our party to stir. He took a step in our direction."
The conspirators, having convened once again at Okuís home, listened with rapt attention to Gabrielleís tale of the trip to contact The Seer. They knew now that Gabrielle had been successful, could see for themselves that she was alive and well. Still, they leaned towards her, holding their breaths.
"At that moment, we saw Shioriís curtain part. Her face appeared, eyes closed as if still in sleep, and then the rest of her body - poised to step out into the empty space where her stair is usually set. Fearing for her safety, we nearly broke from our cover. We heard her cry out, ëMother, is that you?í She teetered and appeared she would have fallen, except that the samurai rushed over and caught her." Gabrielle paused, smiling wryly at Lord Muroyama. "You can imagine what happened next."
The listeners laughed in relief, no one louder than Lord Muroyama. "I would venture that my lovely, ësleep walkingí daughter charmed the enemy, giving you and Oku time to get inside your tents."
"Not only that, she made him feel grateful for the opportunity to provide safe escort from the evil foreigner who might attack her."
"Wonderfully told, Gabrielle," praised Lord Muroyama, joining the other guests in lightly clapping his hands. "Even my frivolous child appears heroic. Perhaps you should consider trading in your weapons for pen and ink." He frowned when his compliment didnít seem to have the intended effect. "Gabrielle? Please, forgive me. You are a great warrior. I did not mean to suggest that Ö. "
Gabrielle raised her hand. "Thank you, Lord Muroyama. You have not offended me. It is only that I am reminded of choices Iíve lived with long before this day." Her face cleared. "I appreciate your notice of my artistic gifts. Letís hope you get to do so again," she continued, thrusting her fist into the air, "when we defeat Saburo and get Xena back again!"
A collective, "Yes!" met her challenge. Her comrades nodded to each other with excitement, then updated her and Oku on other progress. Efforts to organize resistance were moving along particularly well among the common folk, and had even attracted some surprising allies from the wealthier class. They had no indication so far that Saburo had learned much more about Gabrielleís movements or their plans.
"So far, so good," Gabrielle concluded. "We will keep an eye on Saburo and await his next move. In the meantime, we will see about this healer The Seer recommended - Shidoki."
The guests filed out, leaving Oku and Gabrielle. Xena visually joined them.
"I was pleased to hear the news about the resistance and Saburo." Oku looked at each of the two women, both of whom stood pensively. "And you?"
"As I said before, weíre not used to things being this easy."
Xena snorted. "Yeah, like she said."
"I donít want to waste any more time before seeking out Shidoki," Gabrielle stated to her colleagues, neither of whom looked surprised.
Gabrielle blinked, puzzled. "Oh," she said, remembering sheíd snatched off the wig and washed the make-up from her face as soon as sheíd entered Okuís home the night before. "I donít suppose I could use that disguise this time anyway." She grinned. "Too bad, as I was soooo looking forward to it."
Oku laughed. "Do not worry, I have given some thought to that. It is good we are both small people." He glanced up at Gabrielleís tall soulmate. "And that Xena was thoughtful enough to be her own disguise."
"Is all that flirting necessary?"
Oku chuckled at the overheard comment. "My apologies if we were too skilled at costuming Gabrielle," he whispered into the space behind him. He gracefully dodged some children at play in front of a market stall. "At least we know it is working."
"Hello, Oku." Another in a succession of young women suddenly appeared before them. "You are looking well. As is Ö." She let her voice trail off suggestively, bowing her head and peering up demurely at Gabrielle.
Oku feigned irritation. "Kenji. My uncleís son. He is here for a short visit." He looked pointedly at three giggling young women pretending to examine some cloth. "I would have thought your friends generous enough to share that information with you."
"Oku," Gabrielle reprimanded in her deepest voice. "There is no need to be rude." She bowed deeply. "Especially to another fair flower in this garden you have described much too modestly." She smoothed her mustache and the black strands that showed beneath her exquisitely embroidered cap. "Had I known, I would have visited sooner."
Oku glared, hoping it disguised the twinkle in his eye. "Come," he ordered, taking "Kenjiís" arm. "We do not have time to spend all day on your floral arrangements."
"It was a pleasure meeting you," Gabrielle said to her admirer, trying to bow, as Oku lead her away.
Oku shook his head, continuing to weave his way through the crowd. "Yesterday, Gabrielle, I was courting you. Today you are my competition. You are right. Nothing with you is as it seems."
"Well, being your handsome cousin seems easy enough." Gabrielle patted the impressive sword at her side and the intricately woven vest that topped her flowing pantaloons. "Guess you made sure I had the right stuff."
"That ainít exactly the ëright stuffí they were referring to," a low, bodiless voice muttered.
"Your little groupies were ga-gaing over your, quote, ëromantically thick dark lashes and athletic form.í They couldnít remember when theyíd seen a man with such a cute butt."
"Xena! They did not say that."
"Yep. Heard `em. When I went over to Ö um Ö do surveillance. You know, make sure they werenít Saburoís spies or anything."
Oku shook his head again. "If this is how you two prepare for serious missions, I do not think I would want to be around for your more frivolous ones."
"Oh, I could tell you about a few of those," Gabrielle laughed.
"No time. We are nearing the area where we should find Shidoki. It is very fortunate that this was one of the days she comes into the village. If we are being followed, no one would suspect anything unusual about our movements, with everything out in the open like this."
"Is that it?" Gabrielle pointed to a booth with various teas, herbs and incense displayed in front of a curtained rear. "It looks like the one your friend described."
"Yes, I believe so. How would you like to approach this?"
"Pretend to be shopping. Let Shidoki come out on her own. Gabrielle can flex her arm, like she has some pain there, then go inside for a consultation. Oku, you keep watch outside. Iíll go in too."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yeah, like she says."
A few minutes after putting their plan into action, a middle-aged woman pushed aside the curtain. "Do you seek something in particular?"
Gabrielle bowed. "I am having some stiffness and pain," she answered, flexing her arm. "I was told to consult the healer Shidoki."
The woman squinted at Gabrielle before responding, "I am Shidoki. Come."
Gabrielle trailed the healer to the rear. She was surprised to see a small table, large floor pillows and a cot wedged into the tight enclosure. At Shidokiís direction, she sat on one of the pillows.
Shidoki remained standing, arms folded across her chest. "You do not fool me," she stated evenly. "I cannot heal what you conceal."
"Right to the point," Xena said, shimmering into view. "I like that."
Shidoki didnít bat an eye. She nodded slightly. "As do I." She seated herself in the other chair. "Begin."
Xena moved to the cot and looked expectantly at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle hesitated, uncovered her hair and waited.
"Ah, so it is true. You have returned." Shidoki looked over to Xena, then back at Gabrielle. "For her?"
"Yes. The Seer sent us. He did a tapestry of Xenaís battles with Saburo and Yodoshi. She had the chance to come back. She didnít take it because sheíd learned her death was the only way for the souls she freed to have peace. But the tapestry doesnít end there. It shows the souls pushing Xena away, down, into the arms and world of a blond figure. They walk off together into the sunset."
"Do you have it?"
Gabrielle reached into a large shopping bag and gently pulled out the rolled tapestry. She searched Shidokiís eyes before handing it over. As Shidoki examined it, Gabrielle relayed the conversation with The Seer. Shidoki traced the various images silently at first, except for an occasional "mmm," before asking her clients a series of questions about their lives. Finally she got up and opened a small chest at the foot of her cot. She took out two small cups and a carafe.
"You were expecting tea?" she chuckled at the surprise on her guestsí faces as she poured. "It has its purposes, but there are times something a bit more potent is called for. This will get us started." She shook her head ruefully at the anticipation on Gabrielleís face. "No, the wine is more for me than you. I understand why The Seer refers to me as a ëhealer,í but I fear his confidence was misplaced in sending you to me."
Shidoki warned them that she did not have the formal training in medicines to deal with physical ills, or of the priests who usually treated the mind and spirit. She explained that she came from a long line of people concerned with the well-being of the whole person. They passed on the skills, wisdom and traditions from each generation. She acknowledged that her clients trusted her strong intuition, but that she herself wasnít sure if it was a gift unto itself or the result of her accumulated knowledge.
"I have a double difficulty in your case," she lamented. "You are not from here. I am not sure if our beliefs apply. And even if they do, I - like The Seer - am confused by all the contrasts, the contradictions in just this small piece of your lives. One of you alone would be hard to interpret. Together Ö."
Gabrielle covered Shidokiís hand with her own. "Please, will you try? Xena died honoring your beliefs as well as ours. However different we are alone, it isnít the same as when weíre together. We want to be whole again, in this life. We want those souls to be at peace. If we canít have both, we will go on however we must. But The Seer felt very strongly that both were possible. Weíre here because we trusted his hands." Gabrielle looked at Xena, who nodded. "Weíre willing to trust yours now."
Shidoki placed her free hand on top of Gabrielleís. "This is uncharted territory. You are not afraid?"
Gabrielle swallowed and locked eyes with Xena. "Yes," she replied softly. "I am."
"And you, warrior? Are you also afraid?"
Xena clenched her jaws, but maintained eye contact with her soulmate. "Yes."
Shidoki squeezed Gabrielleís hand and smiled at Xena. "Good. Then I am not afraid to be afraid either."
"How was your session?" Oku inquired when his companion exited from the back of the healerís stall. He tilted his head toward two patrons sorting through Shidokiís herbs.
"Fairly well," Gabrielle replied in her "Kenji" voice. She gestured toward the sling on her left arm. "She said my problem is a bit unusual. She thinks she can help, but needs to see me again." She peered into one of the trays. "In the meantime, I must take some of this," she continued, indicating a tan, root-like specimen, "three times a day, along with some salve she made for me."
The two left Shidokiís stall, Oku directing Gabrielle to stop at a couple of other vendors before heading back home. Gabrielle said little as they walked. Oku found himself in the strange position of having to nudge her into acknowledging some of her admirers.
"Xena?" he eventually whispered.
"Iím here," was the low response.
Respectful of their silence, Oku patiently waited until they were inside to question his friends further. "You look troubled," he said, leading Gabrielle to some large floor cushions. He stared at an empty space nearby, obviously expecting Xena to join them. She did. "Is this another case of things not being so easy?" he asked them.
Gabrielle looked at him fondly, smiling a little. "I see youíre getting the hang of hanging around us."
Oku watched Gabrielle remove her cap and Xena adjust her robe. "I do not mean to pry," he ventured. "I need not know details. I want to know how you are, if I can help."
"Thank you, Oku." Xena bowed her head slightly. "You are indeed your fatherís son." She sighed. "We have no secrets from you. Itís just that weíre not sure what it is we know."
"Shidoki cautioned us that much goes into a successful ritual," Gabrielle added; " - the right people, the right symbols, place. The right state of mind and spirit. The Seer provided clues, but Shidoki wasnít always sure of their meaning or how they should be combined, or in what order. Even if her research leads her to the right conclusions about how to protect the souls Xena freed Ö to give us what we want Ö."
"The results may not be Ö optimum," Xena finished.
"For one of us," Gabrielle added pointedly.
Oku frowned. "Is that not your quest - to restore Xena and preserve her honor?" Oku thought his question simple, yet it hovered unanswered. He noted uneasily that his two friends avoided each otherís eyes. "Gabrielle? Xena? I do not understand."
Gabrielle finally spoke. "Xena buried her old battle gear before she fought Saburoís men. Shidoki thinks it significant that The Seer had a vision with her dressed in it." She turned toward Xena. "She asked if Xena could tell me where to find it."
"You fear that you cannot? That it has been destroyed?"
"No, the question seems to be more what to do with it. Maybe Xena herself is to reclaim what she buried. On the other hand, she was a ghost when she last appeared with it, to destroy Yodoshi. I had her chakram. I used it to strike down Saburo and have carried it ever since." Gabrielle paused. "Xena thinks maybe all that is to be mine now, suggesting that I am to be a complete warrior - not just in skills, but in my heart. Like her."
Oku brightened. "That would be good, would it not? And if it simply means Xena will be restored as she was, that would be good also. Perhaps it is a sign that she should join in fighting Saburo." Once again he did not receive the response he expected. "No?" he asked, perplexed.
"I believe it will be all right," Gabrielle reassured him. "However it turns out."
Xena felt two pairs of eyes boring through her. She sighed and looked at them. "Yeah. However it turns out."
Saburo leered at word of the light-haired she-devil digging up the old battlefield like a dog in search of its favorite bone, unearthing instead some dried up, rusty battle gear -- remains, no doubt, of the skeleton that had rattled his brain for so long. Xena. The time must be near, if the information he had received was true. She would be weak like before, except from death rather than mortal wounds. And the other one. The one whose bitter words tarnished what should have been his glory. She would be vulnerable too, in her joy, not strengthened by the rage she had summoned to defeat him before. Bile rose in his throat. He welcomed it, as usual letting it drown the ignominious remembrance. Of himself, kneeling in the mud at her feet, stalking her up mountainsides, pleading, demanding that she take his head. Of her, refusing. Twice. But no more. His vengeance was near, and it would be doubly sweet.
"Gabrielle, we have reason to believe Saburo knows something of your plans. Our comradeís son says Saburoís men have been in a state of readiness for two days, apparently waiting for something. Saburo struts around proclaiming he will prove himself once and for all the most powerful maker and killer of ghosts who ever lived."
"I appreciate your concern, Lord Muroyama, but our own forces are also ready. Unless something has changed?"
Lord Muroyama sighed. "No, not about whether to fight Saburo. There is some Ö hesitancy Ö about where and when."
Gabrielle nodded. "You mean the ritual to bring Xena back."
"It is not that," he explained. "They accept that this might be what he has been waiting for. But it will be so much more difficult to protect you under the required circumstances. You will be out in the open, yet cut off from us. The rain will make it worse." He looked down. "And there are the superstitions. The waiting has given some people time to think about where all this will take place."
"I see." Gabrielle walked over to the window overlooking Okuís garden and peered up at the storm clouds sheíd wished for so fervently.
Oku came to stand beside her. "We have not had much rain this season. If I wanted to fill my vessels with its sweetness for tomorrow, I would catch it tonight while I could."
Gabrielle turned to him, her eyes shining. "Thank you," she whispered gratefully. "I think I needed to hear that."
Oku gave her an awkward hug. "I am with you, my friend. Even if no one else comes, I believe the odds are in our favor."
"Lord Muroyama, Higuchi owes me nothing," Gabrielle said, leaving the window and picking up her cloak. Oku took hold of her precious travel bag, shouldering it at her smiling consent. "It is I who owe Higuchi for supporting me this far. Now I owe it to myself and Xena to follow Shidokiís instructions. Please relay my great appreciation to everyone and tell them to follow their hearts." She preceded Oku to the door. "Whether I see them or not today, they will be in mine, and I will do my best to honor my duty to them."
Gabrielle and Oku walked through the light mist, fully aware of the eyes that followed them. She hadnít bothered to disguise herself, figuring now that even Saburo had some stake in her arriving at her destination safely.
They halted beside the tent Shidoki had erected in the center of a large clearing. While new dwellings had been built to replace those destroyed in the fire Xena inadvertently started here so long ago, Higuchi had designated this area as a memorial park. The street that lead to it was the same one a grieving Xena had stumbled down, intent on placing her friend Akemiís ashes in the family tomb. Gabrielle pictured the townsfolk attacking Xena for wanting to honor the young woman who had killed her own father. Knocking Xena down and scattering Akemiís ashes. Watching in horror as Xena breathed angry flames that consumed them and left their souls at the mercy of the evil ghost Akemiís father had become.
Gabrielle glanced down at the bag borne by the quietly waiting Oku. Anger, ashes, ghosts. Would it always be so? Could something better emerge without the fire this time? She lifted her face to the sky just as a few wet drops began to fall.
"Gabrielle? Perhaps you should go in?"
She turned to this new, trusted friend - grateful as always for the "family" sheíd acquired over the years. She reached out to take the bag, heavy with remains of the past, filled with potential signs of the future. "Yes, Iím ready." She squeezed his arm. "As Iíll ever be."
"People used to call me feline, thinking it a blessing I suppose, in my line of work. Yeah, well, it could be a curse too. Imagine having nine lives in some cosmic game where your soul is the cat, and peace a mouse that always gets away."
Shidoki listened intently to the warriorís confession. She had asked Xena to come early for the ritual, on the pretext of having her do some meditation. In truth, she had concerns about Xenaís preparedness. Shidoki didnít know how many chances theyíd have to do everything right. There were so many ingredients - ashes, anger, ghosts, rain, sacrifice, forgiveness, love, tears, special water - all dependent upon her clientsí choices. She sensed that this former woman of action hadnít reflected much on what they were about to do. Thankfully, it was bubbling up now. The best she could do was stay quiet and allow it air.
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful. I'm not. I've sensed for a long time that something wasn't quite right. That maybe I could use another chance and was damned lucky to have one. I was too restless. Contentment continued to elude me. I came to admit how much I missed Gabrielle. How much she missed me. Simply seeing the hope and belief on her face was worth trying to come back. But I am so scared. Ha! A ëfraidy cat.í That alone ought to tell me something. Spirits aren't supposed to be so conflicted, yet here I am worrying more than I did as a mortal."
Xena paused, suddenly aware of expressing thoughts she hadnít allowed to surface before. And so many of them, she chuckled to herself. She looked at Shidoki, who merely nodded patiently. Xena sighed. Well, if there was any time for an honest sensitive chat, she figured this was it.
"I'm not sure if it's me I'm more concerned about, or Gabrielle. Maybe it's both of us. Argghhh! It was so much simpler before! Well, at least when I could leave stuff like this to Gabrielle. Who knew my stupid soul would be worth something - I mean, besides her? Whatever doubts we had about the circumstances, I still freed those souls, and somehow felt cleaner than I have since before Cortese. Michael's purification ritual sure didn't do it. I became an archangel to save Gabrielle, saved Callisto instead, and a split second later turned into a worse demon than the Destroyer of Nations. Maybe whoever that was Eli raised from the dead looked like me, but her peace came from being empty of what she really was. I knew precisely who I was in Japa - saw it in the eyes of the one who knew before I did - and believed it would be good enough." Xena paused. "You gettiní all this?"
Shidoki smiled. "I am not familiar with the entire cast of characters, no. But I do believe I understand the essence. It seems that what you fear most is, as usual, yourself."
Xena stared at the healer. "Yeah, maybe," she admitted quietly. "Iím afraid to be myself. Afraid not to. I was a warrior because of my heart - the same heart that loves Gabrielle. If itís beating again, why wouldnít it pump battle lust as before? If it doesnít, who will I be - to myself, to her? I never wanted her to become a warrior like me. She doesnít have the heart for it, which has saved us more times than I can count. Who will she become if she has to act as though she does? Who will protect that gentle nature?" Xena lowered her head. "I am such a coward. As hard as it was to watch her going on without me, I fear it will be harder if she has me back."
"Xena?" Shidoki waited for the warrior to raise her eyes. "These are human concerns. Do you not believe Gabrielle has them also?"
"What are you saying?"
"Who has she been without you? How will she be if you do not come back as before? Or if you do? Who will she become when she fights Saburo? You are worried about your own role. Do you not think she is as concerned about hers?"
Xena blinked. "Of course she is. She always has. Being a good person - a compassionate, inspirational person - thatís her heart. Her concerns about me are an extension of that."
"Yet still she carries your ashes across the world, digs up your warrior past, risks everything you both fear. Why?"
Xena hesitated a moment, before murmuring, "Because she loves me."
"That is all? You are saying that love is the source of her courage, her strength, her belief in herself, in you?"
Xena straightened, her eyes narrowing. "Yes. You got a problem with that?"
Shidoki rose. "I told Gabrielle to come when rain threatened. It will fall soon. I must check on a few more things before she arrives with the rest of what we need. I do not think we should proceed if your doubts are too great. Gabrielleís love alone may not be sufficient. You have much pride and faith in your honor. Decide if you believe it enough to make this work." Shidoki opened the flap to the tent. "I must know your answer before I begin," she said, then left.
"Shidoki?" Gabrielle opened the flap and peered in. Braziers and candles illuminated a cot, a tub of water, a couple of cushions resting on floor mats, and a table layered with scrolls and other items.
"She went to get a few things."
"Hi." Gabrielle smiled at the most important part of the scene she saw. She carefully laid her bag next to the table. "Howíd it go?"
"You mean my meditation?"
Xena snorted. "Piece oí cake."
"Uh huh. I can imagine."
"Everything go all right on your end?"
"Piece oí cake."
"Guess weíre all set then."
Shidoki pushed open the flap. "Ah, Gabrielle. Oku said you had arrived. You have brought the warriorís things?"
Gabrielle nodded, pointing to the bag. Shidoki bent down and took out the urn, sword and armor. "Hmmm," she murmured, wrinkling her nose at the mud-stiffened battle dress. She laid the items on the table. Gabrielle retrieved the chakram from beneath her cloak and handed it to Shidoki, who examined it a moment before adding it to the pile.
The three looked up as rain began to pelt the tent.
"Ready?" Shidoki asked Gabrielle.
"I have thought about your question," Xena responded to Shidoki. "No, my honor is not enough."
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "But I believe my love is. Do it."
Shikoki nodded. She picked up the urn. "Once we immerse Xenaís ashes, we cannot turn back. We need to go as quickly as we can to make sure all of the elements are in place as they should be."
Gabrielle spun in irritation as Oku pushed in the flap. "Not now, Oku! We are beginning the ritual."
"We have a problem. Saburoís men."
"The resistance force didnít come?"
"Yes, but there are hostages. They will be killed if you and Xena do not show yourselves now."
"Hostages?!" Gabrielle suppressed a scream. This couldnít be happening, not again. "No, not again! Shidoki, start without me. Iíll see what they want."
"No!" Shidoki and Xena cried simultaneously.
"I believe you must be the one to immerse Xenaís ashes."
"Gabrielle, please, letís see what the situation is first."
"Shidoki Ö. Xena Ö. This is our best chance! I will not let him take you from me twice!"
Xena went to Gabrielle and gazed deeply into her eyes. "Gabrielle," she began softly, "neither of us will have peace if we allow others to be hurt. If thatís the price, I donít want to come back. Go on. Iíll be with you."
"Oh, Xena Ö." Tears streamed down Gabrielleís face. "I canít do this again."
"Yes you can. Youíre the strongest person I know. Now, toughen up that face." Xena smiled gently. "I donít think Saburo will be swayed by sympathy."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and inhaled a shuddering breath. Her jaws clenched. "Fine," she gritted out, striding over to the table, her eyes now on fire. "Then Iíll need these." She grabbed the sword and chakram, then knocked the tent flap aside. The first faces she saw were those of the resistance force, which had lined up on one side of the clearing. An equal number of Saburaís men stood on the other. They held knives at the throats of Shiori, the servants whoíd accompanied them to Mt. Futuhara, as well as a few other people Gabrielle didnít know.
Lord Muroyama emerged to stand beside Gabrielle. "They are all from my household," he stated tightly.
Chilling laughter preceded the horse that trotted through the rain to the front of the enemy line. "So, you have finally come out from under the healerís skirts," the rider taunted Gabrielle. "And what of your resurrected ëheroí? Does she need more time to put on her battle clothes? Or," he chortled, turning to his men, "perhaps she is afraid we will see that her head is on backwards?" Obligatory chuckles acknowledged the macabre humor.
Gabrielle walked closer to him. "Your quarrel is with me, not with Xena. Certainly not with those innocent people."
"Innocent?" Saburo pronounced the word as though it were foreign. He dismounted and strolled to the hostages. "You mean these ëinnocents?í" he asked, pointing to Shioriís servants. "The ones who aided you in your deceit? I think not." He turned to Shiori, who hung her head. "Or perhaps this one?" he asked, roughly grabbing her chin and pulling her face to his for a kiss.
Lord Muroyama would have rushed Saburo, had not Gabrielle caught his arm and wordlessly warned him back.
"Oh, no, papa, there is no need for indignation." Saburo put his arm around Shiori. "Did your ëinnocentí little flower neglect to mention our relationship?"
Gabrielle heard Lord Muroyama gasp.
"Yes, she gave me a dowry of valuable information." He shoved Shiori away. "Too bad that is all she was good for."
"Enough!" Gabrielle thrust Xenaís sword out, not caring that it was obviously too dull and heavy for her to use effectively. "Youíve shown how good a clown and low-life you can be. Prove once and for all you are a samurai worthy of an honorable death."
Saburoís mouth twisted. He tasted bile. "Where is she?!" he bellowed. "I will give you her head again. Then I will take yours."
"I donít think so," Xena stated calmly into the hush that fell at her appearance. She lifted the folds of her kimono. "As you see, Iím not exactly dressed for the occasion."
Saburoís eyes widened. This was not quite as he had planned. "You Ö you are a ghost."
Xena smiled. "You should know."
Saburo thought about that. "Yes, yes, I should." Braggadocio returned to his voice, as he realized maybe this was turning out better than planned. "Tell them I killed you honorably, that I did not deserve the humiliation she left me with."
"It was a clean kill. I bear no grudge against you for doing what I put myself into a position to happen."
"See?" Saburo proclaimed to the gathering. "She admits it! I am vindicated!"
"Not quite." Gabrielle glanced longingly at Shidokiís tent, then questioningly at her soulmate. Xena nodded. Gabrielle nodded back and turned to Saburo.
"We will overlook the fact that I am the one you should seek for vindication. Thereís still the matter of your crimes against this village. Release the hostages and give yourself over to Higuchiís justice. Perhaps then you can speak of vindication."
"Or?" he sneered.
"Or, I will do it for you."
Saburo laughed evilly. "You think because it is raining and your friend is dead, that it will be the same as before? No. This time I will not underestimate you. And you will not have the motivation that drove you to such extraordinary lengths to save her." He pulled his sword from its sheath.
"You could not begin to know what motivates me," Gabrielle growled, taking her right hand off Xenaís sword and pulling the chakram from beneath her cloak.
"Wait." Xena came between the two combatants.
"Ha! Your ghost comes to plead for you. She knows how lucky you were the first time."
Xena ignored Saburo. "Oku?" she called out, looking at Gabrielle. "Bring it now."
Oku came over and unsheathed his sword. It was slim and lightweight, like the katana Gabrielle had carried before. He presented her the hilt. Gabrielle studied Xena with more than a little surprise.
"Use this instead. Remember, listen not just to whatís behind the sounds, but to what is in your heart." Xena looked up at the now dwindling rain, then into her soulmateís eyes. "Donít worry. I have as many lives as skills. Weíll get another chance." She grinned. "Go now and kick his butt again, before you catch cold."
"Gods, Xena," Gabrielle murmured, her head tilted in awe. "No wonder you make loving you so easy and leaving so hard." She took the sword from Oku. "I wonít be long. Thereíre some old bath crystals Iíve been dying to try out." With that, she turned resolutely to face Saburo.
The opponents crouched and began circling each other.
"When I defeat you, I want your word that it ends here," Gabrielle demanded loudly. "Your men will release the hostages and disperse without further bloodshed."
Saburo laughed derisively. "Such big words from someone with such little hope. When I defeat you, I want your Ö friends Ö to swear they will not resist my efforts to bring prosperity and order to Higuchi."
"Lord Muroyama?" Gabrielle called out, not taking her eyes off Saburo. "Can your people agree to those terms?"
Lord Muroyama regarded his compatriots unwaveringly, silently communicating his absolute faith in their champion. After some murmurs, head shaking and nodding, a consensus emerged. Lord Muroyama turned back to the lone figures moving slowly, cautiously around in the muddied grass. "We do!" he shouted.
"What will it be, Saburo? Surely you do not fear making such a pledge when there is such little hope against you?"
"Yes! I agree!" he snarled, punctuating his decision with a sudden cry and rush.
Gabrielle, warned by his quick intake of breath, spun away from his lunge, bent low and tripped him with her sword. She backed off.
"You think to play with me?" he yelled, enraged, scrambling to his feet. "Fight me!" He lunged again, this time to have his strike deftly parried.
"At least she faced me like a real warrior! Not like some cat and mouse!"
Gabrielleís eyes hardened. She stood her ground, watching him as he circled her. "You, who arenít worthy to speak her name. You dare instruct on how to fight like her?" Bile rose in her throat. "You want me to bare my neck to you, let you skitter away and claim it a fair fight? Like she let you do?" She smiled grimly. "You keep forgetting. I am not Ö. "
Gabrielle paused, an odd expression on her face. Moments later, she turned her back on Saburo, facing Xena instead.
Xena looked puzzled, before her eyes widened in comprehension. "No!" went through her mind, but to her surprise, the words her lips shaped were, "I love you."
Keeping her eyes on her soulmate, Gabrielle knelt, bowing her head slightly. "This is how you want honor?" she asked. "Well, if it was good enough to take this way from Xena, it should be good enough now."
The onlookers stared in disbelief - which quickly became horror on one side of the field and nervous uncertainty on the other.
Saburo froze at first, as if faced with an apparition from some nightmare. He advanced slowly, cautiously, his eyes pinned on the pale, vulnerable patch of flesh that had haunted him so. He positioned his blade and raised it high, then frowned, a distant memory warning that something was not quite right.
"Blood?" Saburo mumbled, rubbing his eyes in confusion, as he watched a long, seeping gash spread across the exposed neck. "When Ö? HowÖ?" He examined his sword, confirmed that it was clean. "No!" he howled in anguish. "Someone beat me to it!" He spun away from Gabrielle, his features maniacally contorted. "Did you think I would not see it in time?" he asked of everyone and no one in particular. "That I am a fool you could trick into claiming a victory that is not mine? Who do you think I am?!"
The onlookers whispered among themselves, perplexed at this strange development. Those closest to the action strained to see what could have caused Saburoís words. They saw nothing more than Gabrielle, unharmed, still kneeling, but regarding Saburo with the same puzzlement as everyone else.
Saburo jogged over to his men. "Tell them!" he ordered. "Tell them who I am!" His men shifted uneasily, some barely hiding their disgust. He ran to the other line of people. "You know me. I killed the foreign invader. I brought order to you, protected you. Tell them who I am!"
Saburo fled the silence that greeted him once again. He didnít seem to notice the now standing Gabrielle as he stopped near the spot where heíd had her at his mercy. "I am Samurai!" he declared to the heavens, banging his fist into his chest. "I deserve the proper respect. I cannot live like this!" He dropped to his knees in front of Gabrielle. "All I want is to die with honor," he begged softly, bowing his head. "Is that too much to ask?"
Gabrielle regarded the man whose opportunistic stroke had severed her physical connection to the life she cherished above all others. The man who even now may have struck a fatal blow to her chance for reconnecting anytime soon. The man sheíd disdained too much to kill five years ago, but was resigned to killing moments before.
"Iím sorry," she said gently. "I no longer have the anger to deny you an honorable death, nor to kill you for the pain youíve caused. Itís not up to me to answer for your neighbors. I know only that it is too much to ask of me."
"I will do it." Lord Muroyamaís quick survey of the resistance forces and Saburoís men was met with grim nods. He walked up to Gabrielle. "It is the right thing for us to do," he reassured her quietly. She nodded.
Oku joined them. "I will ensure that his soul goes in peace."
Lord Muroyama took Gabrielleís sword from her and used the tip to raise Saburoís still bowed head. "Tell your men to release the hostages. Obtain their pledge to disband."
Saburo looked up at Lord Muroyama gratefully. He turned to his men. "Release the hostages." His men complied. "Pledge, on your honor as samurai, that you will disband and devote your services to the good of Higuchi." The men bowed their assent.
"To the honor of Lord Saburo!" one of the samurai shouted. "To the honor of Lord Saburo!" his comrades repeated.
Lord Muroyama saw the first genuinely benign smile that he had ever witnessed on Saburoís face. "Are you ready?"
Saburo nodded and bowed his head again.
Gabrielle turned away to focus on the red-draped form beside her. The proud blue eyes that smiled down at her said all she wanted to hear.
"In the name of the people of Higuchi," Lord Muroyama pronounced, raising the sword, "I hearby send the Samurai Saburo to an honorable death." His strike was clean, Oku sent one more soul to rest, and the heavens wept once more.
"What is it?"
"Shhh." Xenaís head was tilted up, her eyes closed. "Yes," she murmured after a short while, and then, a few moments later, "Thank you."
"Later. Right now weíve got some unfinished business to take care of." Xena grinned mischievously. "Something to do with you getting warm and seeing if some old bath crystals still have any bubble left in `em."
"I donít sense her anymore," Gabrielle said anxiously, continuing to peer into the tub sheíd hunched over for what seemed like hours. "Is that good or bad?"
Shidokiís hands clenched behind her back. "It has not been that long," she said as calmly as she could, given that no one in her family had actually performed this ritual. "The disappearance of her ghostly ëpresenceí may simply mean her spirit is returning to its physical Ö remnants."
Gabrielle resisted the urge to swish her hand in the water, not sure if that might speed or inhibit the transfer process. Sheíd pictured a little something different happening once theyíd mixed Xenaís ashes in with the water theyíd collected from the Fountain of Strength and the dayís rain. Maybe "instant Xena" rising up, or big patches of foam floating together to form Xenaís body. But so far the white flecks drifted aimlessly, as they had when sheíd first immersed them.
"Gabrielle, it is late. We have all had a stressful day. Perhaps rest will help, and we will see results in the morning."
"Maybe weíre missing something?" Gabrielle tried to sound calm, sensitive to how hard Shidoki had worked at getting everything right. Yes, she was tired, but there was no way she was taking her eyes off that tub.
Shidoki shook her head, not in exasperation, but in admiration for the young womanís determination. "What does your heart tell you? Is there something that might ease her passage?"
"Nothing comes to mind," Gabrielle sighed. "I just know what would ease mine."
Shidoki smiled. "Try it. It will probably make me feel better also."
Gabrielle smiled back. "Iíd want to help her, let her know Iím here for her." She knelt down next to the tub, resting her arm and chin on the edge. She trailed her fingers in the water. "Iíd want to get as close as I could." She closed her eyes. "Picture her healthy and happy. Tell her how much I love her."
"Mmmm. Thatís good," Shidoki murmured from the cot sheíd finally decided would be more comfortable than standing watch over the indefatigable Gabrielle.
Gabrielle chuckled. "I see youíre here too."
Shidoki frowned. "Here? Of course I am Ö." Her eyes opened. "You mean in the tub?"
"No, here in my dream. Itís working. Iím starting to see her again."
Slowly the healer lifted herself from the cot and walked up behind Gabrielle. Very lightly, she placed her hand on Gabrielleís shoulder. "You are not dreaming," she stated quietly.
Gabrielle looked harder at the faint outlines, emerging like invisible ink from its liquid surface. A blurry face and torso. Arms. Legs. A mass of dark swirls around the head.
Gabrielle swallowed. "Are you sure?" she breathed, as a mouth, nose and eyelids appeared.
Shidoki had no words for what she was experiencing. Professional habit made her check for the right number of fingers, toes and other expected body parts, as she would for any newborn babe, but the awe she felt was even greater. Mesmerized, she steadied herself on Gabrielleís shoulder as they watched the body solidify. Finally it rested in the tub, apparently complete.
Gabrielle reached out her hand, then paused to look up at Shidoki. Shidoki nodded. Gabrielle touched the face. Xenaís face. It was cold, but it was flesh.
"Oh!" Gabrielle pulled her hand back, continuing to gaze upon this miracle she was a little afraid to touch again. Suddenly something occurred to her. "Sheís not breathing!"
"No need to panic." Shidoki patted Gabrielleís shoulder. "That often happens when we come into the world. We have to -"
"Yes," Gabrielle said, brightening considerably. "I know what to do."
Gabrielle leaned over and gently pressed one hand over Xenaís heart, using the other to tilt Xenaís chin up. "Come on, sleepy head. Time to rise and shine." She then pressed her lips to Xenaís and breathed into her partnerís mouth as though their lives depended on it.
Gabrielle felt a flutter under the hand sheíd placed over Xenaís heart. She sat back a little and saw the dark lashes flutter as well. Slowly, ever so slowly, blue eyes revealed themselves. Gabrielle put her arm under Xenaís head. "Hi there," she whispered. "Welcome back."
Xena blinked. Her lips opened and closed. Her fingers twitched. A slight frown creased her brow. Then her eyes tracked to Gabrielle. A smile gradually blossomed on her face and remained even as her eyes closed again.
Gabrielle shared her happy news with those who, despite the late hour, had kept vigil outside Shidokiís tent. By now, most of them were aware that the ritual had nearly been aborted, that somehow Saburoís honorable execution had brought new hope. Gabrielle thanked them all again for the roles theyíd played and promised they would meet Xena in the flesh as soon as she had recovered sufficiently. Most, exhausted, went home, except for Oku and Lord Muroyama, who would help transport Xena to Okuís home.
As she started back inside the tent, Gabrielle caught sight of a slight figure lurking in the shadows. She had an idea who it was. "Shiori?" she called quietly.
"No, do not look upon me. I Ö I wanted merely to offer my words of apology, as insignificant as they are. I know there is nothing that can erase my shame."
"Shiori, please come into the light."
"No! I do not want my father to see me. I cannot face him. I cannot face any of them again."
"Then I will come to you." Gabrielle walked up beside the broken young woman.
"I am so sorry," Shiori sobbed. "You treated me kindly, only to have me stab you in the back. I, who thought myself so smart, am such a fool."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked gently. "Did you love him?"
"Oh, Gabrielle, what do I know of love? I saw danger and excitement, the power to take me from a life of impotence. We would meet secretly at the waterfall, each of us thrilled to be enjoying forbidden fruit. He made a big thing of his honor and always treated me well. Until you returned. He became obsessed with proving himself better than you, blamed you for his having to take and fight for the respect he believed rightfully his."
"Your father trusted you. I trusted you. I canít believe that meant nothing."
"Oh, yes, it did." Shiori looked up beseechingly. "I was so proud to be asked to do something important. And then I realized it was because they thought so little of me. ëNo one will suspect Shiori of anything important.í I thought to show both my father and Saburo that I was a woman of substance. It was not until I met you that I recognized you were not the woman Saburo said."
"Why didnít you turn us in to Saburoís men that day?"
"They did not know of my relationship with him, and he did not know of my assignment. He said you came back for vengeance. When I told him you were here for love, I thought everyone would be satisfied. He would not have to fight you. You could be left in peace to do what you needed for Xena. My father could keep talking about standing up to Saburo. Instead, Saburo became enraged. ëNo one does all that for love,í he said. I told him what I had overheard about the ritual. He said that only proved you were bringing Xena back to challenge him together." Shiori glanced away. "By the time I realized he was beyond reason, it was too late."
Gabrielle leaned against a tree nearby. "I donít know what to say," she sighed wearily. "I met a young woman - kind, intelligent, talented. I admired how she handled tricky situations. I appreciated her courage and assistance. I then discover that her ignorance of her gifts causes her to barter them away, nearly at the cost of innocent lives."
"I know that now. But it does not relieve me of my guilt."
"If you know that, if you truly respect your gifts, it could mean a better future."
Shiori came up beside Gabrielle. "Do you really believe that?"
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "I told you before that Iím not perfect. Neither is Xena. We try to learn from our mistakes, to love each other in spite of them. Xena would not be lying in there, flesh and blood, if I thought it wouldnít make any difference." Gabrielle pushed away from the tree. "Nowís a good time to start. Your father thinks he has lost a daughter. Help him find the one who will make him proud."
"Oh, thank you, Gabrielle. You have given me the courage to try." Shiori bowed. "I will never forget you, yellow-haired warrior of love."
"Shiori?" Gabrielle said as the young woman walked away.
"For what itís worth, you make one heck of a sidekick."
The first rays of sunshine glinted off the mounted swords and softly dusted Harukataís pottery and figurines. Any other time, Gabrielle would have been caught up in such a poetic scene. Instead, her eyes remained glued to the long figure outlined under the covers. Xena had lain quietly since being carried to Okuís home late the previous evening. Gabrielle didnít worry too much. Except for its paleness and lethargy, Xenaís body seemed as robust as it had ever been. Now, in the natural light of day, it radiated vitality.
Gabrielle stretched and swiveled her torso from side to side, still sitting on the cushion sheíd pushed against the wall and fallen asleep on. Sheíd surprised herself doing that. Sheíd managed to squeeze another futon up against Xenaís, imagining her first move would be to snuggle up as near to Xena as she could. But no, sheíd preferred a little distance, so she could see all of Xena at once, maybe to reassure herself that she did indeed have her whole soulmate. She rose, approached where Xena lay and eased down to sit beside her. Xena stirred a little.
Gabrielle lifted a handful of dark hair, feeling its texture, holding it up so the light could reveal the red tones she knew should be there. She smoothed the bangs that had a tendency to grow too fast, and the arched eyebrows that sometimes got a bit fuzzy, noting that they were neatly trimmed.
"Hmmm. Letís see about the fingernails." She reached under the cover and took hold of a long-fingered hand. Never had the blue veins looked so beautiful. Gabrielle turned the palm up and pressed her thumb to the wrist, closing her eyes and concentrating on the small, steady throb. "Oh, yeah, fingernails," she chuckled to herself, remembering. "Yep, short and sweet. Good. That means I can assume the toenails donít need clipping either." Gently, she reinserted the hand back under the cover. She straddled Xenaís hips to better resume her inspection of the beloved face.
Xena wasnít sure, but it felt like an insect was walking across her lashes. Moving lightly to brush its wings against her nose, her cheekbones and lips. "A little dry," she heard, "but still soft as rose petals. Hmmm. Wonder ifÖ." Xena grinned, feeling puffs of air tickle the hollow of her throat, recognizing now the nose that hovered there inhaling deeply. "Oh, yes," the voice continued, catching a little. "Itís you all right." Another deep inhale. "Smells even better than a rose." Xena opened her eyes.
Gabrielle pulled back a little, startled by a sound emanating from Xenaís chest. She leaned her ear closer.
Her name. It sounded like her name.
Stronger this time.
Her head popped up, nearly taking Xenaís chin with it. "Youíre awake! Youíre talking!"
Xena gazed at her soulmate. So much to say, but not yet the words or energy to express it. So she simply smiled, content now just to look.
Gabrielle frowned. "But Iím not through yet," she complained.
Xena frowned. Maybe her ears werenít up to snuff yet.
"Thereís so much more," Gabrielle explained, indicating Xenaís body as though the warrior had interrupted an exploration of some new stretch of land or an unknown lake. "I mean, Iíve been here before, but Iíd forgotten how it felt, the scents and sounds." Gabrielle paused, thinking. "No, not forgotten exactly. Maybe couldnít recall how wonderful it was, how intoxicating. I could spend forever just getting reacquainted. You know?" she enthused, her face brimming with anticipation, until she noticed Xena hadnít responded.
"Oh," she said, red-faced, sheepishly rolling off Xena to sit cross-legged on the other futon. "Gods. Here I am talking like your body is your Ö chakram Ö or something, not connected to you. I guess Iím not used to thinking of the two of you together - I mean, you and your body." She hesitated. "Kind of weird in a way. Youíve been so much to me lately - a spirit, emotions, thoughts. But the physical Ö the physical was not something I dwelled on much." She reached out her hand, then shyly drew it back. "Gods. This is soÖ. I donít know Ö."
"íSíall right," Xena murmured. It took more effort than she cared for, but she was able to pull her hand from beneath the cover and extend it to Gabrielle, who took it gratefully. Xena studied the joined hands and rubbed her thumb softly across her partnerís smooth skin. She tugged weakly. Gabrielle scooted close, supporting Xenaís hand as it brought Gabrielleís to her lips. Felt a gentle kiss. Watched Xena close her eyes, bring the hand to her nose and inhale deeply. "I feel the same way," Xena assured her.
Gabrielle brushed at the dark bangs. "How do feel otherwise?"
"Could use some liquids. Understand my lipsíre ëa little dry.í"
Gabrielle blushed. "Arghhh! You were supposed to be asleep," she scolded, moving away to pour some water.
"I have many -"
"Shut up and drink." Gabrielle lifted Xenaís head to the cup.
"Thanks." Xena sank back into her pillow, sighing. "Sorry. Didnít feel nearly this weak those other times. Hope it doesnít last much longer."
"You havenít been dead this long before," Gabrielle reminded her, lifting Xenaís shoulders so she could slide in propped up behind her. She rested her chin on the dark head lying against her chest. "It hasnít even been a day yet." Gabrielle stroked a smoothly muscled arm. "I hadnít thought much about how different you might be, until I saw how perfect you turned out."
Xena chuckled. "Perfect, eh? Whereís pen and parchment when I need it?"
Gabrielle lightly slapped the smoothly muscled arm. "I mean physically. No ribs poking out, not even a gray hair. All signs of wounds gone too. Iím glad these are still here," she said, touching the tiny, nearly invisible lines at the corners of Xenaís eyes and mouth. "Helps to have some evidence this is really the body that laughed with me, cried with me."
"Yeah," Xena acknowledged, patting the hand on her arm. "Some miracle, huh?"
"Oh, yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "Want to talk about it a little? Are you too tired?"
Xena frowned pensively. "No -- weak, but not really tired." She shifted to get more comfortable. "I donít remember much after you put the ashes in the tub." She tilted her head up, grinning. "Was it, like, ëpoof!í -- and there I was?"
Gabrielle laughed. "In your dreams. Mine too, for that matter." She gazed off into the distance. "I was worried at first. Your ashes just drifted for what seemed like hours. Shidoki said it wasnít that long, but it sure felt like it." She felt a gentle squeeze to her hand. "I finally stuck my hand in, like maybe I could give you energy. Feel yours. I saw a faint outline. Thought I was dreaming. But Shidoki saw it too. You gradually got more solid, more defined. And then there you were."
"Awesome," Xena breathed after a moment.
"Then I realized you werenít breathing."
"But you knew just what to do," Xena added softly.
"Yeah. Your eyes opened. You recognized me. The most glorious smile lit your face. I knew everything would be okay." Gabrielle exhaled a deep breath. "It was only later that I thought about how wrong it couldíve turned out."
"Yeah, turned out just right. Whoídíve thought?"
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed, kissing Xenaís forehead. "It did."
"No, the way it happened. It wasnít the first rain that we needed, but that second one."
"You knew that?"
"Not until after Saburoís death. Thatís when the voices came to me. Akemiís. Harukataís, some others."
"Thatís what you were listening to? Before we went back to finish the ritual?"
"Yeah. They said Shidoki was correct to choose that place, that it was the start of so much anger, death, guilt, evil. They said forgiveness would cleanse that, through their tears."
"The souls forgave you then?"
"No, theyíd already forgiven me. They asked for mine."
"They asked your forgiveness? The same souls who needed your death to avenge them so they could have peace?"
"Yeah. Not for the staying dead part. Theyíd been surprised about that. It was for the ones whoíd acted so rashly, attacking me like a vengeful mob. All because I wanted to honor my friendís ashes. They said those people shared responsibility for what happened afterwards."
"Interesting." Gabrielle hesitated, then asked, "And what about Akemi?"
"Iíd already forgiven her."
"You know what I mean. For telling you that had to stay dead. Shidoki said sheíd heard of that, but that it wasnít like some big, long-standing rule." Silence. "Xena? I forgave Akemi too. Iím just curious, all right?"
"I know." Xena sighed. "She wasnít sure. She reminded me that she was under Yodoshiís influence at the time, that maybe heíd put that in her head, thinking to keep me in the realm where he figured he could defeat me." She paused. "She admitted that a part of her wanted me to stay there too." At Gabrielleís intake of breath, Xena hastily added, "But not just so we could be together. She really believed I would finally have peace."
"Not realizing that I wouldnít let you."
Xena smiled up at her soulmate. "Not realizing Iíd have such a devil of a time letting you go. So she and the rest said how grateful they were for what Iíd done and asked if I could forgive them for what they put us through."
"Yeah. They knew I couldnít have done it without you."
"Oh," Gabrielle said. "I hadnít thought of it quite like that."
"They did," Xena said wryly. "In order for their tears to work, both of us had to come out cleaner than we were before."
"Huh. Shidoki didnít say anything about that."
"She didnít know. Thatís why she was afraid to stop the first time. She thought it was all about me, but it wasnít. Well, not entirely."
"Xena!" Gabrielle said impatiently, rapping her soulmate on the head. "Stop being so cryptic. I feel like Iím talking to The Seer."
"Hey, whoís telling this?" Xena laughed. "Iíve listened to your stories all these years, waiting for the good parts - the action, the bottom line. I canít do much action right now, so youíll have to live with this."
"Youíre welcome. Now, as I was saying, it was about a lot of souls - the ones I freed, Akemi, Saburo, the villagers whoíd gotten caught up in Saburoís bitterness. Me, of course. And you."
Gabrielle thought about this. "Because I condemned Saburo to a dishonorable life."
"They saw this as another chance for both of us. They were more concerned about the anger you felt for him. They hoped someone as compassionate as you wouldnít have to carry that."
Gabrielle twisted a ringlet of Xenaís hair in her fingers. "Itís not like that would be anything new."
Xena looked up again. "They could see into your heart, Gabrielle. They knew this wasnít the same as those other times." Xena dropped her eyes. "It wasnít ëpureí rage, but more Ö contempt."
Gabrielle raised Xenaís chin, so she could see her eyes again. "Their words, or yours?"
"Both, I guess," Xena acknowledged with a sigh. "I know it when I see it, Gabrielle. It doesnít hurt any less in you than me. It hurts more, in fact."
"I was surprised you didnít try to stop me from fighting Saburo," Gabrielle reflected. "I know I told you not to, but I was surprised you listened. There was even a moment in the tent when I thought maybe thatís why your battle stuff was so important. I almost wanted to bring you back then, to have you physically there when I fought him."
Xena chuckled. "You were surprised? There we were with those damned ashes, except this time I couldíve helped save you if I came back. What do I do? Stop you again. I couldnít believe it myself."
Gabrielle moved from behind Xena, stretching out and propping herself on an elbow beside her soulmate. "So why did you? Stop me? I thought for awhile there that you were resigned to things as they were, maybe caught up in that honor thing again - you know, the greater good above all else."
"No, turns out thatís not the test I had to pass - to be ëcleaner,í anyway. I had to learn something else."
"How to get to the punch line perhaps?" Gabrielle inquired sarcastically, drumming her fingers on the bed.
"Ha ha. No. Humility."
Gabrielleís hand flew to her mouth. "Humility? You? Bwahahahaha! Oh, this is too good. Please, go on."
"I can find a more appreciative audience, you know," Xena retorted, glaring. "Oku would be happy to hear this, and properly respectful."
"Okay, okay. But I think you need more practice laughing at yourself, if youíre gonna get this humility thing down."
"Moving on Ö." Xena ignored the poke at her pride. "Oku and I had a little chat about honor and how it sometimes made you miss other important things. It was after I couldnít promise I wouldnít interfere."
"Ah, I wondered what you twoíd been up to."
"Yeah, I was a little upset that I wouldnít be able to play the same role in your life. Afraid you wouldnít want the old me or a new me either."
"Oh, Xena, I had the same doubts about -"
"Shidoki pointed out that you probably had the same doubts about yourself. It finally dawned on me, instead of reassuring myself, I needed to think about you - about how to reassure you that Iíd love you no matter whoíd you become without me, or who youíd be if I came back. She said you seemed to have enough love to get past your doubts, to make the ritual worth trying. She asked me if the pride and faith I have in my honor would be enough."
Gabrielle put her fingers to Xenaís lips. "So thatís what that was about. You said, ëNo, but I have enough love.í"
"Yeah," Xena admitted shyly, taking hold of Gabrielleís hand. "See, you didnít just teach me about doing the right thing. Watching you, being with you, having you believe in me - it taught me about the power of love." Xena drifted back to another time and place. "Remember in Caesarís prison, when you told me to rest? I felt so peaceful and free - free of being the one to worry about everything, save everybody. I just Ö relaxed Ö into your love. I felt like thatís all I really needed." She glanced over at her soulmate. "You know?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I felt the same thing with you, when we were under the influence of hell. I knew you were supposed to be the newly crowned Devil Princess, but when you called me to dance with you, I let all my fears go. I relaxed into you, knowing everything would be okay."
"Yeah? No doubts?"
"About you? Nah."
"Right," Xena chuckled. "Anyway, that same calmness washed over me before you faced Saburo. I didnít feel the usual impulse to take things into my own hands. I trusted - really trusted - that whatever you did would be all right."
"Till you saw me go for the chakram."
"It wasnít the right weapon for the situation. Not for you."
"When I turned my back on Saburo, I saw ënoí on your face, but you said, ëI love you,í instead. If heíd struck me then, I wouldnít have felt it, I was so stunned."
Xena absentmindedly stroked Gabrielleís palm. "I was a bit stunned myself," she acknowledged quietly. "I kinda hoped you were gonna use my patented behind-the-back thrust move," she joked, attempting to mask her real concern. But her eyes betrayed the unvoiced question anyway.
"Was I ready to sacrifice myself? Like you did?" Gabrielle looked inward, reconsidering that pivotal moment. "There was a time I risked the chance that someone would do good. When I tried to balance your fear that it might turn out bad. Somewhere along the line - probably after Hope - we seemed to switch places. Deep down, I think I knew Saburo had become twisted from wanting honor too much, rather than valuing it too little. When he challenged me to fight like you, I saw red at first. I pictured him killing you. And you, standing there, either unable or unwilling to stop him. Then it hit me, by putting my life in his hands like you did, I could also be more myself again." Gabrielle shook her head at the irony of it all. "No, it wasnít for the same reason. I took the risk of doing it my way, trusting that his own shame would stop him."
"And if heíd killed you?"
Gabrielle locked eyes with Xena. "That wouldíve been all right too."
Xena was silent a moment. "My worst nightmare is of watching you die," she said softly. "Especially because of me. When you turned your back on Saburo to face me, I thought of all the nightmares youíve lived through, all the nightmares Iíve left you to face alone. It didnít occur to me that, as a ghost, I couldnít do much about Saburo anyway. All I wanted was for you to know the same unconditional love youíve always given me."
"No doubts? Even if I didnít mind dying to be with you?"
"You were right. Itís time I accepted Iím not the only one who gets to choose. You deserve faith greater than my own fears. Iíve always believed in you, Gabrielle; I didnít know I could show it the way you do. Funny, Lucifer and I had this conversation about how itís the spirit, not the flesh, that the power comes from. I donít believe I really felt it until that moment I said ëyesí to you instead of ëno.í"
"Your love cleansed me, Xena. Of self-doubt, of my anger toward Saburo. All those times youíve rushed in to save me, I never felt more secure than I did then." Gabrielle leaned in to kiss her partner. "Thank you."
Xena peered up at Gabrielle, a hint of pride in her lopsided grin. "Youíre welcome. And thank you. Evidently the souls took that as a sign Iíd achieved my new level of humility. Higuchiís giving Saburo his honorable death was an unexpected bonus. Once all that was accomplished, the souls wept the tears we needed to use in bringing me back."
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked cautiously. "You said the souls were also surprised about your having to stay dead. Did they say anything else about that? Something you think I might not want to hear?"
Xena sighed, her expression resembling that of someone whoíd thought herself home free, but shouldíve known better. "Yeah. Seems there was a moment between the souls feeling their initial joy and suddenly hearing me say why I couldnít let you bring me back. They started to warn me that I'd already saved them by killing Yodoshi."
"So why didnít they?" Gabrielle probed gently.
Xena swallowed. "They sensed I was doing what I really wanted." She heard Gabrielleís breath catch. "Like Akemi, they felt my relief at allowing what I thought was supposed to happen. But as the sun was setting, they saw my face as I faded from you. Saw that it reflected the same loss yours did. But it was too late. Afterwards, they figured I would be better off without the pain of knowing I didn't have to stay dead for them."
"I see." Gabrielle took a couple of deep breaths. She thought carefully about her next words. "Xena, Iíd be lying if I said I didn't wish they'd sensed something else in those precious moments - grief, rather than relief, at leaving your old life, me, behind. You already know what my choice was."
Xenaís eyes closed. "Yes," she whispered, "and you were right about that too. I shouldíve listened to you. My final moment of clinging to the past cost five years of our future together."
Gabrielle looked at the larger hand that still clung for dear life to hers. She patted it with her other hand. "Xena, being ërightí doesnít always bring the satisfaction advertised. I believed it wasnít right for you to stay dead. I also knew you had this picture in your head where ëthe final, the good, the right thing to doí meant dying on some battlefield or another." She squeezed Xenaís hand. "For me, Japa was no better or worse than any other place for you to do that. But if, for even one brief moment, you found the peace you needed, then I canít help but see the good in it too. And maybe, just maybe, experiencing what it means will finally free you to move on to a picture that leaves you standing next to me, facing the sunset together, alive."
"Gods, Gabrielle," Xena said, tears breaking through her closed lids. "How did I ever deserve you?"
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Thatís a whole `nother issue. One I trust you wonít have to die again to resolve."
"No. Iíve got the right picture now." Xena opened her eyes and smiled gratefully at the woman she vowed never again to let a moment of doubt drive away. "Youíre stuck with my sorry hide until the cows come home."
The two lay silent for awhile, simply being with each other.
"Quite a story," Gabrielle eventually concluded. "Will you become a bard now, having been so sensitive chatty and all?"
Xena laughed. "This didnít exactly cleanse me of my dark side."
"Oh? How do you know? Did you whack someone when I blinked and you were lying here helpless as a kitten?"
"Letís just say itís a good thing Saburo only imagined blood on your pretty little neck, `cause, even as I was standing there being lovingly humble, I was imagining all the ways I could haunt his butt until he fell on his sword and saw blood for real."
"Xena!" Gabrielle admonished, sitting up. "Hush! You want those souls to take all this back somehow?"
"Hey, Iím just being honest." Xena looked over at Gabrielle. "Are you a little Ö disappointed? That Iím the same olí me? Well, maybe with a tad less egoism."
"That again? Xena, Xena, Xena." Gabrielle shook her head. "I accepted way back in Morpheusí dream motel that you need your dark side. Much sexier, by the way, than that washed-out version we got when Eli brought you back," she teased, winking playfully. "As you fail to recall, we also saw I had my own little dark side. Maybe neither of us is happy itís grown over the years," she added soberly, "but it has come in handy sometimes. No, itís the ëmy darkness is bigger and better than yoursí part -- shielding me like Iím still an innocent kid, thinking youíre the greatest evil ever to walk the earth -- that drove me nuts. Long as we can keep that humility thing up to speed, Iím happy as a clam."
"Anytime." Gabrielle frowned, then hopped off the futon. She rummaged around in a bag, finally holding up Xenaís leathers. "Think that means youíll be needing these again? I canít figure out now why else I had to dig them up."
Xena considered this a moment. "You know, I believe the ghosts dressed me in that kimono as a hint that my role wasnít to be a physical one - at least on this particular mission. Iím still a warrior - in the flesh, so to speak - but I donít feel my old battle dress suits me anymore."
"Oh, I donít know," Gabrielle said, fondly stroking the leather corset sheíd leaned against all those times riding behind Xena. "This outfit was mighty impressive."
Xena smiled, but her eyes were serious. "Yeah, that was important once - looking imposing, self-sufficient. I donít need that so much," she said, "seeing as how I have a partner."
Gabrielle bit her lip, her eyes filling. "Ah," she replied softly. "That would make a difference."
"Yeah, it does."
Gabrielle fingered the chakram still looped at the waist of the clothes she hadnít bothered to take off the night before. "While weíre at it, I donít seem to need this weapon anymore. It reassured me I was a worthy enough warrior to carry it, but I have a partner for that now. It goes better with her eyes anyway."
Xena gazed fondly at Gabrielle, then at the chakram. "You know, that upgraded version is really a couple of weapons in one. Sometimes working together, sometimes coming from different directions. Two equal parts of a whole." Her lopsided grin joined twinkling eyes. "Seems a shame to waste it on one person. Maybe we can share. Teach it new tricks so nobodyíll know which of us to pick on first."
Gabrielle nodded, smiling back, approving the silent understanding that passed between the partners.
Xena cleared her throat. "Maybe Iíll leave my old outfit here with Oku." She grinned mischievously. "Maybe he can use it to start that shrine Saburo talked about."
Gabrielleís eyes sparkled. "Iíve got an even better idea. Weíll give it to Eve for the Village library. She can create a Xena museum, like the one Joxer had. Every hour somebody can read from one of my scrolls. We can have skits to -"
"Oh, come on. Itíll be fun. Think of all your fans whoíd --"
"Okay. Eve can hang it in the library with the tapestries. Howís that?"
"Fine," Xena relented. "Actually, I do think it was a way of telling me to forget about burying the past. Accept it as a part of us and move on."
"Speaking of which, you seem a lot stronger now. Howíre you feeling? Can I get you something?"
"I was wondering when youíd ask."
"Oh, Xena, Iím so sorry." Gabrielle put the leathers down and came back to sit beside Xena. "What do you need?"
Xena regarded the ceiling as though in deep contemplation. "You know, I was so concerned about blood coursing through my veins again -- whether thereíd be battle lust in it -- I didnít really consider some of lifeís other basic necessities. Then I woke up to all these reminders - on my lips, my hands, my neck, my Ö." She cleared her throat. "Someone feasting and not inviting me to the table. I got this craving in my gut. It was torture." Xena silently vowed to exact revenge on the perpetrator. She reached up and pulled Gabrielleís face down until they were nose to nose. "I opened my eyes and saw Ö you."
"Oh!" Gabrielleís breath caught at the yearning reflected in the bottomless blue depths before her. "H-h-hungry?"
Once again The Seerís hands bled from too many hours working on the one tapestry he actually cared about. Once again heíd thought it finished, only to be hit with more visions - Xena as a frail woman in Indian garments, protected by Gabrielle as a male warrior. Xena as a dainty woman in strange garments, protected by Gabrielle as a female warrior. Xena and Gabrielle dressed as themselves, but not in their present time. Dressed strangely in another time -- Gabrielle more as herself, but Xena as some weird man, then a woman more like herself. It seemed to go on and on like that, different in detail, but the same two souls.
"All right all ready. I get the point," he'd finally muttered to himself, giving up. He rolled the tapestry back to the beginning, where the original one had left off. The warrior was dressed in black pants and top, a slim sword sheathed on her back. Gabrielle wore a blue battle dress and carried scrolls. Each had an odd, tear-shaped instrument at her waist. The two were on a boat, "the land of the rising sun" at their backs. He liked this image of them. He thought it was all right if he chose that one to send them, since they would discover the rest in due time.
He sat back, folding his hands with a contented sigh. A life of journeying had brought these soulmates to the farthest lands, to the very edges of the earth. They had passed through much. Much had passed through and between them. He wished them many more suns on their travels, in their lives. "Thank you, my friends," he said, bowing his head in their honor, "for bringing the sun to mine."
Pass: Come to or toward, then go beyond; move past, on, forward, ahead; proceed, surpass. Take place. Go or get through a barrier or test; complete successfully; allow to go through or over a barrier or obstacle. Leave unconsidered; go by without paying attention to; disregard or ignore. Give up oneís chance to bid or play. Go away or depart; slip by, as time; come to an end. Undergo transition or conversion from one condition, form, quality, or characteristic to another. Serve as a barely acceptable substitute. Be transferred from one to another, as by inheritance; hand over or deliver; transfer to a teammate. Thrust or lunge in fencing. Sanction or approve; express or pronounce, as a judgment. Pass away. Come to pass.
And so it goesÖ. #