Gabrielle cowered under her blanket, the rain falling in sheets. If Xena were here, we'd probably be out of the rain, the bard thought. She was always so good at finding shelter, no matter how impossible it seemed. And hunting. She always managed to catch something to eat, no matter what.
Who am I trying to fool? I don't miss her hunting, or her skills at finding shelter or anything. I miss her. I want Xena. I just want Xena. But she doesn't want me...
The bard hunched over further, shivering. Without a fire there was no way to get warm. And the blanket just soaked up the rain, instead of repelling it. Had she been in the forest, she could have woven a quick cover of slick leaves. But she was in the open, huddled on a hillside, sitting in mud and soaked to the skin.
Gods, don't let me get sick. Not now. Not when I need to keep moving, keep searching for her. Everywhere I go, I hear that either Xena has been there or is expected. Everyone is talking about her. Because of the deaths.
So many deaths. All our friends. Her brother. Joxer. Autolycus. Hercules and Iolaus. Can't think about the deaths. Can't think about them.
Gabrielle searched her mind frantically for something else to occupy her mind. But there seemed to be nothing but grief. Grief for those who were gone and grief for having lost the woman she loved. A moan broke from deep within her and suddenly she was wracked with throat-tearing sobs. The pain of her loss was so great, she had nothing left with which to fight it.
I drove her away. Sometimes I wish I had died from the heart-bruise. Why did I live? And why did Xena cure me and still leave me? It's not fair. It's not fair to lose everyone in the world and go on living with a feeling heart. Oh gods, I wish I were dead.
"Halloooo!" came a woman's shout.
Gabrielle peeked out from her blanket and saw a woman struggling up the hillside, her feet barely finding purchase in the muck. Awkwardly, she scrambled toward Gabrielle, wearing a shawl over her head and mud-splattered peasant clothes.
Quickly, Gabrielle blew her nose and wiped away her tears. "Hello?" said Gabrielle, warily. She hated being so exposed but there was nothing else she could have done. Sunset had caught her at an awkward location.
"I'm sorry about this, but I'm so lost," said the woman, breathlessly stopping in front of the bard. "I'm looking for the road north."
"Over that hill, turn at the twisted olive tree and follow the horsetrail. You'll see the road, you can't miss it," said Gabrielle, keeping her face hidden. She wasn't in the mood to answer a lot of awkward questions about why she was crying alone on a hillside.
"Thank you so much," said the woman, hesitating.
"Well... I'm a little scared. I've never been off on my own before and it's so dark, I'm afraid I'll miss the trail or something. Would you mind terribly if I stayed with you until first light?"
Gabrielle looked closer at the woman. She was very pretty, with hair that, when not matted with rain, was probably a vibrant shade of red. Maybe this is just what I need, thought Gabrielle. Someone to take my mind off of my own troubles. "Sure," she said. "We'll sit this storm out together. Sorry there's no shelter."
"Yeah, we're both going to catch our death out here." She sat down next to Gabrielle and smiled. "You know... I passed a small lean-to down the hill a-ways. Not far at all, really. Do you think it would be okay if we slept there? Just for the night?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Let's go."
The two women set off down the hill in search of shelter.
"Autolycus?" said Xena, her voice deadened by the news from yet another scroll. "And there was more you said?"
They were sheltering in a small shack. Hariklea had just returned from a run to the nearest village, something she liked to do every time they neared an inhabited spot. She had explained that, as a messenger, gathering news was part of her job and old habits were hard to break.
"Not on a scroll. This one was word of mouth. It had come through quite a complex series of messengers, so I can't verify it. But according to the person I spoke to..."
"Yes? Out with it, Hariklea," said Xena. I don't want to know, she thought. Why do I insist on torturing myself? I really don't want to know...
"Well, someone had been to the north country and they heard from someone who had been on a journey who'd heard from--"
"I don't need to know the trail of messengers. Just tell me the news."
"A child of the Scandians was murdered in her sleep."
"What?" asked Xena, astonished.
"Like I said, it could be the wrong information. But that's what I heard."
Xena hid her face in her hands. Instantly, Hariklea put her arms around the warrior, holding her. Xena sat still, her thoughts and feelings hidden. The walls she had been building inside her shuddered, as if they would break. Quickly, she shored them up internally, making them as strong and tall as they needed to be for her survival. She clamped down on the spike of pain that tried to break through. I'll save it for another time, she thought. Anger tried to take it's place and again, she fought it back. I need to concentrate; have to be clear-headed to do what I need to do.
When she felt she was in control again, Xena looked up at Hariklea, who still held her close. "Were there any others?" she asked.
"I'm not going to tell you anything else I hear. It's too hard for you, my darling."
"No," said Xena, pulling away. "I have to know. I have to know everything you learn."
"Don't you understand?" said Hariklea, her eyes downcast. "It tears my heart to see you hurting like this. If I could trade myself for your loved ones, I would! I swear I would!"
"I know," said Xena. "Its obvious how much you care about me. You've shown it in so many ways."
Hariklea looked up into impossibly blue eyes. "And do you care? About me?" she asked.
"Yes. I do. It's difficult not to respond to how much you love me." She paused, leaning just a hair's breath closer to the messenger. "How much you desire me..."
Hariklea breathed in sharply.
"But I need to know. Tell me the last of your news."
"What do you mean?" said Hariklea, nonplused. Her eyes were clouded with passion, her lips parted in anticipation.
"You haven't told me everything. I can tell. You can't lie to me, Hariklea. I can see through you."
Hariklea started. "You cannot!"
"I can. Now talk."
The messenger hesitated then sighed, sadly. "I may as well, I guess. There's nothing I can deny you. It's Gabrielle."
"What about Gabrielle?" Xena asked harshly.
"She's... she's dead."
"Is there nothing we can do for her?" asked the traveler.
"No. She's fought hard. But her strength is near gone. I'll continue to spoon the water into her mouth, keeping her alive, but there's naught else to be done. It's up to her to make the decision as to when she wants to stop fighting," said the healer from the neighboring village. He looked at Widgie sadly, regret plain on his features. "She was the best there ever was," he muttered.
"Well, I guess I'll be off then," said the traveler, sadly.
"Be sure to pass on that message if you see the warrior and the bard. They should have been here long ago. I fear something has happened to Jorgos. And if that's the case, then I hope Widgie does cross over. I don't know that she'd find life worth living without him.
His name penetrated her trance. Jorgos. She had felt it before. A hundred winters or a hundred moments, she couldn't tell which. Time had no meaning in the trance. But the name Jorgos did. It was the center of all things. Jorgos was life itself. If he was gone, then life wasn't worth clinging to. It was time to decide if the fight should continue.
"Gabrielle... Are you certain? Who told you?"
"There was a man who had been living with the centaurs. He told me. Gave me this." Hariklea pulled a scroll out of her pouch and handed it to Xena.
Slowly, her hands shaking, Xena untied the ribbon and opened the scroll. There, in Gabrielle's firm hand, was the story of Callisto. Xena stared at the words, though she couldn't read them through the swimming moisture in her eyes. Tenderly, she touched the ink with a fingertip, caressing the parchment as if it was the bard's soft cheek.
"The man -- from the centaurs -- well, he said the Amazons found her. She had left the territory," said Hariklea, softly.
"Why? Why did she leave?" asked Xena, her voice sounding foreign and strangled to her ear.
"She was looking for you," whispered Hariklea.
Xena dropped the scroll and stood, trying to walk away, but her knees folded. She remained where she had fallen, on her knees, her hands grasping the dirt floor, breathing hard, like a runner who had just finished a marathon on the last of her reserves. Hariklea rushed to her side, pulling her into her arms, rocking her gently.
"Please, my darling. Let it all out. Don't hold it in any longer. You can't survive if you do. And when you've wept for her here, we'll go to the Amazons and see if it's true. We won't take some stranger's word. Maybe she gave him the scroll or something. We'll find out."
Xena didn't speak. She held onto Hariklea and buried her face in the blonde woman's chest. I won't believe it, I can't believe, it can't be true, she thought. I would know. Somewhere in my heart I would know if her spirit left this world. But... I lost my connection to her when Alcimede stole her heart. How can I feel her leaving when the Gabrielle I love doesn't exist anymore?
But the scroll... she'd never give away a scroll, or lose it. She guards them with her life...
"C'mon, please," said Hariklea, stroking the long dark hair. "You don't have to hide your pain from me. I love you, Xena. I want to share your burdens. I want to be a part of your life."
"You aren't Gabrielle. You'll never be Gabrielle," said Xena, harshly.
Hariklea trembled slightly, her face showing her hurt. "No. No, I'm not Gabrielle," she said. "But I am Hariklea. And that's someone who loves you to the depths of her soul. I wish that was enough."
Xena looked up at Hariklea. There was nothing but love, longing, and desire in the blonde woman's face. Anger bubbled up inside the warrior. It isn't fair. How could Gabrielle be dead? And this woman -- she's trying to take her place, thought Xena. Why is she tormenting me? Offering to take Gabrielle's place -- in my life, heart, and bed. I don't want her in my life. Nor in my heart. But I am filled with rage and if I don't let it out it will consume all the good that Gabrielle has ever done.
The warrior's eyes shifted from raw pain to hard-edged ice. "You'll have to do." Her face twisted with cruelty, Xena kissed Hariklea brutally on parted lips. The messenger moaned deep in her throat, willingly letting herself be lowered to the smooth dirt floor. Xena slid on top of her, the warrior's hands strong and forceful.
Hariklea squirmed, her hips already moving, her own hands eagerly caressing and exploring.
Xena carelessly removed Hariklea's blouse, the warm flesh beneath begging for the feel of her hands, lips and teeth. The warrior wasn't gentle. She didn't care about anything but satisfying the lust and anger in her heart. She nipped the skin of one breast and Hariklea groaned with pleasure. She raked her nails down one bare thigh and the messenger throatily begged for more. Xena lifted Hariklea's hips off the ground and slapped her buttocks with stinging force.
"Yes!" Hariklea cried. "Do whatever you want to me. I like it all."
Xena smiled a slow, cold smile. "As you wish, Hariklea."
The redhead approached the shack cautiously. She could hear the occasional low sounds of human voices. She listened for a moment but couldn't distinguish what was being said. Quietly, she opened the door.
"C'mon, let's go in!"
"Wait!" said the redhead, trying to hold back her shorter companion, but the other woman pushed past, wanting to get out of the rain. The sight that greeted her eyes stopped her instantly. On the floor of the lean-to were two women. One was naked, moaning guttural assent as the other lifted her hips toward an open mouth. The woman on top, dressed in leather, was savage and cruel, seeming not to care if she hurt her lover as she thrust a fist deep inside her. But despite her brutality, the leather-clad warrior's face was clearly suffused with raw passion.
"Xena...?" said Gabrielle softly.
Xena hadn't realized the intruders were there, so thick was her desire to finish what she had begun. But the sound of Gabrielle's voice cut through the fog of the warrior's lust. "Gabrielle?" Xena turned to see horrified green eyes in a face that was crackling with shocked pain. Gabrielle. Alive. Emotional. Xena leapt off Hariklea and threw herself toward the bard.
"No! I...! Don't...!" said Gabrielle, her outstretched hands a barrier as she backed into a corner, her face showing a thousand emotions from raging jealousy to intense pain.
"Uh oh. This doesn't look good," mumbled the redhead.
"Xena! The redhead -- that's her! That's Alcimede!" screamed Hariklea, scrambling to her feet, pointing at Gabrielle's companion.
"Gabrielle -- please! It isn't-- what?" Xena momentarily switched her attention from the bard to the redhead.
"Kill her, Xena! Kill her! Kill her!" shouted Hariklea.
The redhead's eyes opened wide in panic and she fumbled at the door of the shack.
"No, Xena! That's Marika! Don't hurt her!" shouted Gabrielle as Xena's attention was torn between Marika and Hariklea. Gabrielle quickly put herself between the redhead and the warrior.
Xena could barely focus, so many confusing thoughts were crowding in on her. Gabrielle is alive! her heart shouted, dimming her awareness of everything and everyone. The warrior fought her emotions, trying desperately to regain some sense of control; knowing that lives were at stake and it was up to her to save everyone. She knew she couldn't celebrate the appearance of Gabrielle. Not now. Save it for later, she thought. Save that joy for a time when we can both share it. And save the pain of what Gabrielle is seeing for then, too.
"She's lying!" screamed Hariklea, backing away from the group at the door. "Please, Xena, get her before she kills us all!"
Xena turned back to Hariklea -- and pushing everything else aside -- found her focus; knowing what had to be done. "It's no use, Hariklea. I've known the truth for awhile now." Slowly she advanced on the nude messenger. Without breaking her concentration, she said, "You'd better leave, Marika. You, too, Gabrielle."
Marika finally wrestled the door open and ran into the night. Gabrielle remained where she stood, the door banging shut once again. "What's going on, Xena? Who is this woman? And why were you... and she..."
Xena stepped on Hariklea's discarded leather skirt and used her foot to flip it into her hands. Slowly she twisted it, knotting one end. She smiled dangerously, her pupils pinpoints in a sea of ice. "This is Hariklea, Gabrielle. But most people know her as Alcimede, The Assassin."
"What?" said Hariklea, shocked. "What are you talking about?"
"Dying your hair was clever. The descriptions of Alcimede were vague because so much time had passed, but no one forgot your flaming red hair. So you changed into a blonde and tried to insinuate yourself into my life. It might have worked, too, if you hadn't decided that one of 'Hariklea's' characteristics was talking too much. You were trying to imitate Gabrielle, weren't you?"
"I don't understand..." said Gabrielle, her tortured gaze flicking between the two women.
"You talked too much, Alcimede," said Xena, standing just outside of arms reach, while the blonde stood still, her back to a corner, eyes glued to the warrior. "And you had no fear at all of The Assassin. At first I thought you were either very brave or very foolish. But I saw something in your eyes. You weren't afraid because you *knew* she'd never hurt you. Because you are Alcimede."
"No! It was because I love you!" said Hariklea, desperately.
"And why did you come to my blankets in the night? You do your touch while your victim sleeps. You put a spell over them. Make them incapable of waking while you're there. I couldn't figure out how to beat that. No matter what I tried, your spell always succeeded. My dreams. They tried to warn me. Tried to tell me you were near. So I laid a trap. You're wearing the evidence now."
Xena pointed toward Hariklea's bare hip. Several small, purplish stains could clearly be seen.
"Put the boarberries in my blankets. Gabrielle and I have run into them before. It takes forever for the stains to fade."
The blonde's eyes pulsed with fear. "That's it? That's your evidence? You're a fool, Xena. You let the real Alcimede escape because I slept on some berries?" Hariklea hesitated then spoke sincerely. "Yes, I would crawl into your blankets while you slept. I told you. I love you. I wanted to be near you."
"Who *is* this woman?" asked Gabrielle, her voice ragged.
"The Amazon-killer, Gabrielle. A murderer of the highest order," said Xena.
"By the gods..." whispered Gabrielle, readying her staff.
"And don't worry, Alcimede, I didn't accept the stains as the final evidence. No, instead I listened to you talk. I listened to your reports of all the deaths and I began to wonder how it was possible that you were always running into messengers meant for me. Some of the people you told me about -- their deaths -- there was no reason for anyone to contact me. I knew them, but no one should have known it. Not unless they had researched every aspect of my life. And yet you always knew exactly who had died."
"Maybe they wanted you to help. You're a big hero now."
"But the clincher was when you told me about Ilsa. What you didn't know -- couldn't know -- is that I met Ilsa as a young woman through the magic of a god. I know she never died as a child. I know she will grow up, marry and have a child of her own. You lied to me, Alcimede. And if you lied about her, maybe you lied about the others."
The blonde laughed, all pretense discarded with a shrug of her shoulders. "Don't you wish, Xena. Yes, I lied about the Scandian brat. She was too far away. But the rest were real. I killed them all. Except for Gabrielle, of course. Though I had planned to do her tonight. Nice how both of you are here now. Makes it more convenient."
Alcimede, no longer playing the role of Hariklea, was a predator now. Her muscles ready, her eyes feral and frightening.
She leapt toward Xena, hand extended. The warrior sidestepped and whipped the leather skirt at her, careful to stay out of range. Xena knew that all it would take was a touch and she would lose. She had to keep her distance, remain far away from the blonde.
"So tell me, Xena, if you knew who I was -- why did give me such a delicious fucking?" asked Alcimede, dodging a blow from the leather skirt, her green eyes glowing. Gabrielle blanched.
"I remembered what I'd heard about you," said Xena, cracking the skirt against the other woman's unprotected hip to keep the distance between them. "That you could only be killed during an orgasm."
Alcimede laughed. "Oh that! Yes, brilliant, wasn't it? I started that rumor. Made a lot of people want me. Pays to advertise, y'know? But so sorry, it's not true. Nothing can kill me. Hera has seen to that. I am her happy little secret. And she made it so I cannot die!"
Xena knew she needed a real weapon. She maneuvered Alcimede until they neared her scabbard. Quickly, she withdrew her sword, grinning. "Let's test that theory, shall we?" she said. "You're still aroused. I can smell it. And I'm calling your bluff." Xena cackled, twirling her sword, her eyes wide and turbulent.
Alcimede stopped dodging and stood still. "Go ahead, my darling. Do what you want. I think you already know I like it rough. Remember? You can do anything to me. C'mon, baby, put it in me."
Without hesitation, Xena thrust her sword into Alcimede's heart. The Assassin simply laughed. "Oh, poor, poor Warrior Princess. Don't you just hate to be proven wrong? C'mon, lover. Face it. You and I are going to be together for a long, long time."
"I thought you wanted me dead," said Xena, covering her shock. Alcimede had been telling the truth. Nothing could kill her. The warrior looked back at Gabrielle, whose face had drained of color. Xena knew that she had to think and fast. How do I protect Gabrielle? How do I kill someone gifted by Hera?
"I don't want you dead, Xena. I never did. Want to hear the ultimate irony? I really *am* in love with you, my darling. Honest and truly. And I intend to keep you by my side for eternity. Hera will give you immortality, too. And together we can rule Greece. We'll be unstoppable."
"And Gabrielle?" asked Xena, a plan forming. Will it work? Can it work? There's nothing else. We're lost without it.
"Oh, she's dead," said Alcimede. "Or will be in a moment or two. She's played her role. I really had meant to kill her tonight, and I do so hate to renege on a promise to myself."
Gabrielle turned to open the door of the shack, struggling with the bolt as had Marika before her.
"No, Gabrielle!" said Xena. "Stay here!"
"Stay with me. You know you can't hide from her. She'll find you wherever you go. Stay with me. We'll die together," said Xena.
"I told you, my darling. I'm not going to kill *you*," said Alcimede, peevishly. "Aren't you listening?"
"I am," said Xena. She walked over to Alcimede and withdrew her sword from the woman's body, tossing the weapon aside. No wound remained, the flesh whole and untouched. "But I don't plan to let you live."
"Oh really?" said Alcimede, laughing. "And how are you going to accomplish that, lover?"
Xena was standing in front of her, only a pace apart. The warrior was in range for the touch and knew it.
"Xena..." moaned Gabrielle.
Xena hit Alcimede's pressure points. The Assassin frowned, unharmed. "My adorable Warrior Princess, please. Stop fighting me. It hurts to see you try so hard to get rid of me. You know I love you. You know I'll let you do anything you want. If you must touch me, do it with passion, not anger."
The warrior hesitated, then sighed in defeat. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I've tried everything I know how to do. Perhaps she's right. Perhaps passion is the only course left to me." Xena placed her hand on Alcimede's bare breast, stroking it gently.
Gabrielle stared, her breaking heart in her eyes. "She's already gotten to you, hasn't she, Xena? She's put her touch on you. Fight it, Xena!"
Alcimede moaned, pressing her breast into Xena's hand. She reached down and ran a finger up the inside of the warrior's thigh, delighting in the flash of fear she spotted in ice blue eyes, though it was quickly hidden. The Assassin threw back her head, leaning in toward Xena, grabbing the warrior's free hand and placing it between her own legs. "Do me, lover. Now. In front of her. Let's make her watch." Xena pulled the hand away but continued to caress Alcimede's breast.
The Assassin opened her eyes and smiled knowingly, then glanced at Gabrielle, her delight in the waves of pain pouring from the bard, evident. "I haven't touched her with anything but passion, Little Queen. Xena is doing this all on her own. You're history, young thing. You turned from her one too many times. Why, she barely mourned the end of your love. Within a day or two she'd turned to me. Needing my desire; my violence; my passion. You saw us. Xena is mine, now."
Xena didn't speak. She continued to run her hand along Alcimede's bare body. She cupped the woman's left breast then let her hand drift just below it, covering the place where Alcimede's victims had been bruised. "This is what you do, isn't it? You put your hand here. Over the heart. And you drain the emotions of your victims. Right here. Everything flowing into you."
"Yes, lover. That's what I do."
"Gabrielle," said Xena. "Come over here. I don't want to see you suffer. Let Alcimede do it to you now. Fast."
"What?" whispered Gabrielle, appalled.
"Please. I'll hold you. You can die in my arms. Please, Gabrielle. I can't take the waiting."
"Do you trust me, Gabrielle?" asked Xena, intently, beckoning.
Slowly, Gabrielle walked to the warrior's side. "Yes," she said, her voice cracking.
"Good. Now hold me."
Moving almost without a will of her own, Gabrielle approached Xena. The warrior gathered the bard to her body, her touch tender; warm; loving.
Alcimede began to reach toward Gabrielle but stopped, a look of surprise on her face. Confused, she glanced down.
Xena's hand was still over Alcimede's heart. But the moment Gabrielle had come into her arms, the warrior's hand had begun to warm. The two companions swayed slightly on their feet, the room spinning. Although her hand quickly grew to feel as if it were aflame, Xena didn't remove it.
Alcimede screamed. Unable to move, she stood in place, her chest burning, her heart blazing. Her eyes rolled back in her head, her skin began to shrivel, her hair thinning, turning white. She fell to the ground, but still, Xena kept her hand in place, dropping to her knees with the falling assassin, Gabrielle securely in her arms.
Suddenly, Alcimede's body burst into flame. Quickly, Xena pulled back. Gabrielle hid her face in Xena's shoulder to keep from seeing the inferno that once had been The Immortal Assassin.
"Gods..." the bard whispered.
Xena was silent, holding Gabrielle, stroking her hair. The warrior rested her chin on the bard's head, pain in her eyes as she looked at the price evil had to pay when confronted with a love that was pure.
For long moments they clung to each other, not daring to let go. Then Gabrielle felt the miracle of Xena's lips on hers. It had been so long... so horribly, terribly, tortuously long. Eagerly, both women tasted the triumph of their love in a kiss that was demanding, voracious and consuming. And the events of the recent past seemed to melt away in the giving of one full heart to another.
"Oh, Gabrielle..." Xena said in her throaty whisper. "I thought I'd lost you. I thought you were gone."
"And I thought you hated me," said Gabrielle, touching, holding, kissing, devouring.
"I could never hate you. I love you, Gabrielle, to the depths of my soul."
Xena's lips seared the bard's flesh wherever they fell and Gabrielle closed her eyes, an almost pained expression on her face because the feeling was too intense; too joyful. "I love you, Xena. You're the miracle in my life."
We won! thought Gabrielle. We've done it. Alcimede is gone and we have each other without fear of her touch. I could live forever in this embrace. We're whole again. Xena is mine again. She's mine and belongs only to me...
A quick flash of Xena holding a naked Alcimede tore across Gabrielle's memory.
Stop it! she told herself. Xena was just trying to defeat that monster. That's the past; over and done. The present and the future is this. Feeling her warm hands on my skin. Touching her soft cheeks with my fingers. Being in her arms and knowing the joy of her lips on mine; the same lips that kissed Alcimede... Stop it!
Gabrielle placed her hands on Xena's shoulders and broke off the kiss; needing some distance. The images continued. They took over her mind. Alcimede's nude body writhing with desire at Xena's touch. Xena, holding The Assassin's hips, bringing them toward her open mouth... her fist inside her... the warrior's face suffused with passion... enjoying it... enjoying it... enjoying it...
"Gabrielle, please," said Xena, trying to draw her back into an embrace.
"Xena... I can't..."
"Please, Gabrielle, I need you." Xena buried her head in Gabrielle's chest, her strong arms pulling the bard forward.
"No--" said Gabrielle, pushing against her. 'Enjoying it...'
Xena let her go, frowning. "What's wrong? We did it! We killed her. She can't hurt you anymore. It's all over."
The bard glanced at the spot where Alcimede had died. There was nothing left of the woman but a blackened spot in the dirt. And a memory in the mind of a bard.
"Don't look at that," said Xena, her expression concerned as she noticed the direction of Gabrielle's gaze. The warrior placed her hands on the bard's face, turning her from the sight. Radiant blue eyes stared into green. "We're okay, now. We're fine. It's all over. We'll deal with everything later, but for now, we have each other and that's all we need."
"Yes..." murmured Gabrielle. Then earnestly she added, "It was so horrible being without you. I didn't know when I'd ever see you again."
"Ssssh," said Xena, gathering the bard to her body and holding her close. "It's okay, now. Everything is okay," she whispered.
Gabrielle allowed herself to be eased by the familiar, loving feel of Xena's arms. The warrior's hold was a safe haven from any problems that could possibly beset them. The smell of her skin, the touch of her hair on Gabrielle's cheek, the taste of her lips as she stole another quick kiss -- these were things that the bard had missed more than she could ever say.
Think about that instead of the other, Gabrielle told herself. Think about being with Xena and being safe. Think about what we should do next. Widgie. "We have to get to Widgie's, Xena."
"What? Where did that come from?"
"I didn't have a chance to tell you. Jorgos... he came to the Amazons and..."
"He did? What was Jorgos doing at the Amazons?" asked Xena.
"Widgie is in trouble. I think Alcimede got to her. She saw her own death in a vision and sent Jorgos to find us. It seems that somehow, we hold the cure."
"Nonsense. I've been with Alcimede for some time now. There is no cure."
Gabrielle looked away from the warrior's eyes. Why was Xena lying to her? she wondered. It was obvious that the warrior knew the cure -- she'd healed Gabrielle, after all. Lies, deceit, betrayal... what was next? "Jorgos died getting us the message."
"Jorgos is dead?" Xena asked, sorrow instantly taking over her features.
"Yes. Please, we have to go to Widgie's."
"Of course. As soon as the storm dies down we'll leave. We'll stay here tonight."
Gabrielle watched as Xena put her sorrow for Jorgos aside. The bard understood the need. Too many deaths, she thought. A change swept over the warrior's features and Gabrielle felt a jolt deep inside, recognizing a look she'd seen so many times in the past. A look reserved only for her.
"I've been missing you so much, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice thick with passion.
Passion. Lust. Xena's face flushed, her eyes glittering with desire as she pulled Alcimede's naked hips toward her mouth...
"I don't..." said Gabrielle, finding her own desires vanish with the memory.
"Mmm?" murmured the warrior, nibbling on the bard's ear.
"When I walked in, you and Alcimede were... that is--"
"Oh please, Gabrielle! You heard me. I thought it was the only way to kill her. Forget that. It's unimportant."
"Unimportant? Not to me, it isn't," said Gabrielle, pulling away. She looked at the warrior's flushed face and this time, knew it was she who had caused the reaction. As it always was. With one glaring exception...
"Well it is," said Xena, irritably. "What would you have had me do? I thought it was the only way. Alcimede had to die, Gabrielle. Surely you'll agree with that!"
Though she hated the thought that taking a life was the only option, in Alcimede's case it was probably true. The Assassin had been immortal, amoral and gifted by a vengeful goddess. What else could Xena have done? "I understand why you killed her. I do. But while you were... with her..." Gabrielle paused, unsure how to broach the subject. "Well... I thought I saw something. Something in your eyes."
"You saw rage and hatred. After what she'd done to us? How could there have been anything else?" asked the warrior, rising; turning away from the bard. Xena walked over to the darkened spot and began clearing away the evidence of The Assassin's death. Carefully, she gathered the black remains in the discarded leather skirt.
"Yes, but I saw something else, too," said Gabrielle. Tell me the truth! she silently begged. I need to know! "I thought I saw... desire."
Xena laughed shortly; a bitter, angry sound. "She was a demon. The only desire in me was to see her dead." Again, the warrior hid her expression from Gabrielle.
"Look at me."
Xena continued to sweep the charred dirt onto the leather skirt. "In a bit. I'm busy."
"Leave that. Look at me."
The warrior put the last of the sooty remains on the skirt and gathered up the bundle. She glanced at Gabrielle, her eyes now hooded and neutral, then pulled on the door to the hut, struggling with the bolt until it opened. She tossed the bundle outside into the howling wind and slashing rain, then closed the door again. "Let's get some sleep. We have a long way to go to get to Widgie's."
"No, we need to talk about this first."
"We can talk later." Xena grabbed her blankets and spread them out. She lay down and looked expectantly at Gabrielle. "C'mere. It's been forever since we've made love. I've been dreaming of this."
Gabrielle hesitated, grabbed her own blankets and set them apart from the warrior. "You're right. We should get some sleep. Goodnight, Xena," she said and wrapped herself in the fur, her back to her lover.
Gabrielle could feel Xena's eyes on her, long after the worst of the storm had blown itself out.
They were up before dawn, packing quickly and setting off for the long trip north. For the next two days, Gabrielle tried repeatedly to get Xena to talk about Alcimede but the warrior flatly refused to be drawn out. Soon, the silences between them stretched as Gabrielle, sullen and reproachful, became obsessed with the images in her head. She decided to punish Xena by not talking at all, but the warrior seemed not to care.
On the fourth day, the bard had had her fill.
"Spar with me," Gabrielle said. They were the first words she had spoken that day.
Xena looked at her, surprised. "What?"
"Spar with me. I'd like to practice with my staff."
"Now?" asked Xena.
"Argo is tired. Let her rest. Spar with me."
Xena glanced at her faithful mare and nodded. She reined her to a halt, helped Gabrielle down then hopped off herself. They had been riding for most of the trip, pushing the horse to her limits in an attempt to get to Widgie's as fast as possible. The warrior looked critically at her mount. Argo's sides heaved, her breathing heavy, her coat streaked with sweat. "Good call, Gabrielle. You're learning. I had already planned to stop up there, by those two tall trees," said Xena, pointing fifty paces ahead.
"Here," said Gabrielle, tossing Xena a large stick that would double as a practice staff. Her own weapon was in her hands and ready.
"All right," said Xena slowly, looking amused.
Before Xena was through inspecting the branch, Gabrielle struck, aiming for the warrior's legs. Even without being ready, Xena blocked the blow easily. Gabrielle didn't hesitate. She struck again and again, using every new move she had learned from the Amazons. But Xena was able to counter it all, a quizzical half-smile on her face.
"You've really improved," said Xena, swatting aside another attempt. "Been practicing, haven't you?"
Gabrielle didn't speak. Her concentration was focused on making it through Xena's defenses and connecting with her flesh. She needed to hit the warrior. To do damage.
Xena came within inches of missing a block and the resultant thud of the staff was enough to break Xena's meager weapon. "Very good," she said, tossing aside the pieces. Gabrielle took one more swipe, but Xena caught the staff in her hand, her eyes narrowed. "Game's over, Gabrielle."
"No!" said the bard, wrestling her weapon free and trying again.
Xena leapt out of the way. "What's gotten into you?" she asked.
"How could you have *liked* it?" screamed Gabrielle, charging her opponent.
Xena sidestepped easily. "Liked *what*?" she asked, confused.
"How could you? How could you have done that? With *her*?" Again the bard charged, her anger clouding her judgment.
Xena waited until the last moment, slipped aside and grabbed Gabrielle's staff as she passed. The bard fell in a heap on the ground. "I don't know what you're talking about but this has gone far enough," said Xena.
"I'm talking about you and Alcimede!" said the bard, angrily.
"For Zeus' sake, will you stop with that? It's over, Gabrielle. Let it go already!"
"I won't. Not until you talk to me." Gabrielle got to her feet and stared icily at the warrior. "I'm going to keep at you until you do. You got it? Day and night. I'm not letting you get away with your silent treatment this time. You're going to tell me everything about that day. Every thought you had. Every feeling, every move. Every last detail. I have to know, Xena!"
"I wanted to kill her. That's it," said Xena, her voice controlled.
"I'm not stupid! I saw you, Xena! I saw you. Ripping off her clothes. Biting her, slapping her, moaning and touching and rubbing yourself against her. You were cruel and passionate and you were so turned on you reeked of desire. Don't tell me you were only thinking about killing her! You were *enjoying* it. I know you, Xena. I know how you look when you make love."
"*Love* had nothing to do with what you saw," said Xena, turning away. "And I am *not* going to talk about this."
"Yes you are!" said Gabrielle, punching Xena on the back of the warrior's shoulder. Xena stood still for a moment then took Argo's reins and began to walk. Gabrielle ran in front of her, forcing the warrior to look at her. "I know you're not about to 'volunteer' anything, so I'm going to dig and keep after you until you do," said the bard. "Damn you, Xena! Talk to me! No matter what you tell me it's better than silence!"
"Oh really?" said Xena, stopping in the middle of the trail. She let Argo's reins fall, turning her attention fully on Gabrielle. "How prepared are you to hear this 'truth' you're so sure of? Are you ready to hear that I *did* enjoy it? Are you ready to hear that I thought you were dead so I willingly turned to another for solace, regardless of how empty it would be? Are you ready to hear that your indifference toward me while you were under her spell was enough to make me never again want love in my life? That maybe I would've preferred death to hearing about your fate? That even with that I resented you so horribly I wasn't sure I wanted you back? That in order to defeat Alcimede I'd had to harden my own heart to such a degree that I can no longer access anything but pain and rage and darkness? Should I stop -- or do you want to know what else you *might* hear?"
Gabrielle blinked her eyes several times, appalled by Xena's words. "Is that true? All that you said -- are you telling me the truth?" she asked, sharply.
"Which ones do you want to be true, Gabrielle? Huh? What would make you 'happy?'" Xena yanked Argo's reins and began walking again, leaving the bard behind.
Gabrielle shook off her horror and jogged to catch up. "I want what's real, Xena." She took a deep breath and tried to find a way to calm her rage. "Let's take this one at a time. First of all. Did you enjoy it?"
A muscle twitched at the side of Xena's jaw. "You are a fool to ask me that, Gabrielle."
"So you did?"
"Yes," said Xena, tightly.
"Gods..." whispered Gabrielle. Even though she had been warned, she had never expected Xena to admit it. The bard had been positive she would hear reassurances and see a melting of the barrier between them. That when faced with this question, Xena couldn't possibly have admitted to finding any joy in making love to another woman -- especially a woman who had single-handedly destroyed almost every friend and loved one they had. "Tell me about it," said Gabrielle, deciding that she must surely be a masochist. "Tell me what you felt."
Xena slowly turned her head. "Are you insane?"
"I have to understand."
The warrior stared at Gabrielle for long moments. Then she smiled; it was the same smile she used in battle and the bard felt a shiver crawl up her back. "Fine," purred Xena. "You want to know every detail? Then listen closely, but don't complain to me if you don't like it. I didn't know Hariklea was Alcimede at first. It took me awhile to figure it out. And all that time she treated me like I was the most desirable, admirable, special human being alive. Like you used to."
"Used to?" asked Gabrielle, in a small voice.
"She did things for me. Took care of me. Cooked and cleaned and made me comfortable."
"I always do that stuff. Why was it special when she did it?"
"You *used* to do that stuff. Before you were a queen. You used to do a lot of things. You used to make love to me, too, but that stopped. You used to respect my judgment, but when I tried to help with Tyldus I was told not to speak because I was just a soldier."
"I apologized for that. And I don't see how you can count the things I said and did while under the spell. That's not fair."
"Isn't it? Seems more than fair to me. After all, without your emotions I was getting what you really thought of me -- without your 'love' coloring your responses."
"But I--" Could that be true? wondered Gabrielle. Is it possible that underneath it all, I no longer respected her like I used to? When I became a queen, I found things in me I'd never known I had. I was good. I was strong and smart and fair and everyone liked me -- not because I was with Xena -- but for *me*. I've lived in her shadow for so long that I forgot what I could do on my own.
Quickly, Gabrielle pushed away these thoughts, realizing that she would never get an answer to her question if she let the focus drift from Xena to herself.
"That doesn't answer my question. Why did you enjoy it?"
"You really want to do this?"
"All right. Because I needed to be touched. Because she adored me. Because she was sensual and submissive and didn't fear my darkness. Rather, she accepted it. Accepted me. As I am -- not some idealized version of what I should be." Xena paused, taking a deep breath. "And because I hated her and wanted her dead and imagined the killing a hundred times and there is a part of me that finds sexual satisfaction in that. It's not something I'm proud of. I've fought it for a long time. I used to seduce my enemies as a means of conquering them. I slept with a lot of men, Gabrielle, who I later killed. In the darkness... sex and death get tied to each other. And it thrills me. To touch and excite, knowing I own their lives..."
Both women were silent for several steps, the only sound was that of Argo snorting and flicking her tail. Gabrielle was too overwhelmed to speak. She was repelled and at the same time, she acknowledged that she had suspected this all along. When Xena had been consumed by the darkness because of her head injury, she had tried to seduce the bard using both sensuality and cruelty in equal measure. She had used her body as a weapon; had used her passion to hurt and humiliate. "Go on," whispered Gabrielle.
"When we were in the hut, she told me you were dead. And I believed her."
"Why? She lied about Ilsa, why would you believe anything she said?"
"She gave me one of your scrolls as proof. I thought you would never have let it out of your sight if you were alive."
"She must have stolen it, when she came in the night. You said that's what she did, right? Visited us while we slept?"
"Yeah, I figured that out later, after it was all over." Xena's eyes filled with emotion. "You don't understand how it was, Gabrielle. I kept hearing about all our friends -- watching as they were put to rest. I *knew* she wasn't lying about most of them -- I had the proof of my own eyes! And you were such an obvious target. She wanted me, and in her mind, the only thing keeping her from her goal was you. Why wouldn't she kill you? In fact, I'm surprised she waited as long as she did. I suppose she liked the idea of taking me from you while you were still alive."
"And that's what happened," said Gabrielle, her voice breaking. "You left me and fell into her arms."
"No! No, that's not true. I pretended to be attracted because by then I suspected that Hariklea was really Alcimede. But nothing happened. I couldn't. Not knowing you were out there somewhere."
"So it wasn't until she told you I was dead that you..."
"She gave me the scroll and I fell apart. So filled with shock, grief and anger. I wanted to hurt her." Xena paused, sighing loudly. "I don't know why I believed her." Another pause, then the warrior glanced at her companion. "Maybe it was because, to me, you had already died when you'd stopped loving me."
"I didn't want to stop loving you. She stole my heart!" said Gabrielle, rage and panic and desperation all mixing in her voice.
"I know. Like she had stolen mine earlier. But I hadn't realized Thor would come to you and heal you as he had me. I thought you were gone forever. After learning about Alcimede, I realized there was no cure. And without a cure, I knew I'd never see you again. You were lost to me."
"Thor? I thought you healed me," said Gabrielle, latching onto the only thing in Xena's speech that seemed safe.
Xena looked at her, puzzled. "What are talking about?"
"I fell asleep, and woke in the middle of the night, able to feel again. I had this strange sense that you had been there and when I asked the guards, they told me that you had. I thought you had found the cure, healed me and left me anyway. No longer in love with me. That hurt like Tartarus, Xena. I thought you didn't care about me anymore."
"I did come to you in the night. But I didn't do anything. I just kissed you and touched your... bruise..." Xena stopped, her eyes meeting the bard's.
"How did you know how to kill Alcimede?" asked Gabrielle, urgently, knowing they were close to an answer and finding the mystery more palatable than the pain she was feeling from Xena's words.
"I didn't. I had run out of things to do and I thought the only thing that might possibly defeat her was love. Thor once told me that love is always the answer. That love is my strength. Real love. Not her kind, not the kind I was giving her when you arrived -- there was no love in that act. It was hatred disguised as desire. As I said -- I wanted to hurt her; torture her. But she enjoyed it. And that made me angry which only heightened it for her. If you hadn't walked in, I don't know what I would have done. My enjoyment ended when I realized I couldn't hurt her -- couldn't make her fear me."
"So when you asked me to come to you, to die quickly," said Gabrielle, swallowing down her own dread of the answer, "You didn't really know if it would work. I might have died. And you would have stood by and watched it happen."
"You might have died, yes. But you would surely have died otherwise, and at least that way, I could hold you and love you and support you at the end." Xena turned roughly to Gabrielle, her eyes tormented. "I had no weapons! Nothing I did stopped her!" She withdrew her sword and held it with both hands in front of her. "You saw how it was -- she *laughed* when I put my sword through her heart!" The warrior growled and hurled the blade at a tree. It stuck thwanging in the wood, buried several inches.
The bard watched as Xena got herself under control again. The warrior walked to the tree and stroked her weapon, sadly. Almost as if she was forgiving it for letting her down for the first time. Bracing her foot against the tree she withdrew the blade and sheathed it, her eyes downcast. In calmer tones, she said, "I didn't want her to hunt you down. She would've made you suffer so. She hated the fact that I loved you and not her. And I thought her hatred and jealousy combined with our love and her own feelings for me, well, those are all strong emotions. The strongest emotions there are. I thought it might overload her. In fact, I figured she'd either grow unstoppably strong or would die on the spot. We were lucky."
For several minutes they walked in silence, both lost in their own thoughts.
"I touched you in the night, and it countered the spell..." said Xena, her voice far away. Then she looked at Gabrielle, a spark of excitement in her eyes. "That has to be it. The cure. But why didn't it work before? Why then?"
"Because I had stopped letting you touch me," whispered Gabrielle.
Instantly, the spark disappeared and was replaced by anguish. "Yes. You had. You didn't want me near you. You were too busy being the queen."
"Does it bother you that I succeeded? As queen?" asked Gabrielle, grateful that she had found a way to ask this question. It had disturbed her for quite some time and she was ready to hear the truth. "Did you expect me to fail, thinking that your 'sidekick' could never handle the responsibility of an entire nation?"
"All I've ever wanted is to watch you grow," said Xena after a long pause. Her voice was tender, her eyes clouded. "To watch you blossom into your own potential. When you first came to me you were brash and talkative and frightened and... unformed. There was so much of the child left in you, some may have wondered why I had ever taken you on. But I saw something extraordinary in you, Gabrielle. So much potential. You were eager to learn and worked so hard, I knew you could do anything if you tried."
Gabrielle waited for her to finish, but Xena grew silent. She appeared to be wrestling with her own feelings; trying to find the right words to convey how she felt. The bard gave her the time to think. She knew that eventually, she would continue and maybe there would be some answers.
Surprisingly, Xena gathered Gabrielle in her arms and held her close. "I was so proud of you, when you became the queen. So proud of how well you did the job. 'That's *my* Gabrielle,' I wanted to shout," whispered Xena in the bard's ear. Her voice held a pride and love so deep Gabrielle could find no words to answer. Then Xena pulled away, the pain returning. "But gradually, I realized you weren't my Gabrielle anymore. You belonged to them. And I was in the way. I had no place there. No place with you."
"You were Captain of the Guard..." said Gabrielle, knowing it hadn't been enough, but feeling bereft now that Xena had once again withdrawn.
Xena snorted in disgust. "Just a soldier, remember?"
The bard was silent, wondering what the real problem was.
"Yeah, well, anyway, I hated it," continued Xena. "I hated leading an army again. I hated all that Amazon crap that you have to go through with those women. Infighting among tribes. Political double talk. Masks and dancing and people everywhere. Never alone. Never just you and me and the sky. And you looked like you were loving every moment of it. I'm talking about before the heart-spell. You weren't without emotions the whole time, Gabrielle. For a lot of it, you were fine and I was... I hated it. I hated that you had found success in a place I was desperate to escape. And I hated that you didn't seem to realize any of this. Usually, you're so good at seeing into me. But there, you had so much else going on that you didn't even bother to look. You never even noticed how lonely I was..."
"Why didn't you just say something?"
"Because I was trying to find the Amazon-killer. Because you didn't listen to me when I did speak..." Xena took a deep breath. "Because you wouldn't even let me touch you."
"That was later. When I was under the heart-spell! I couldn't help it! " said Gabrielle, again, tired of being blamed for something that had been beyond her control.
"Yeah? That's funny, isn't it? When I was under the heart-spell, I don't remember leaving you behind because I didn't care anymore. I don't remember treating you like some vague acquaintance, throwing you out of my blankets, cringing at your touch."
"No, you didn't talk at all. You ignored me completely," said Gabrielle, her eyes snapping. "I couldn't help it. This is so unfair of you."
"You love to talk about being fair. Well, when I was empty, I thought it was better to remain silent than tell you I didn't love you anymore. To me, that was being fair. You, on the other hand, pushed me away with both hands, like you couldn't stand being around me."
Gabrielle was furious. "Do you think I couldn't tell that you didn't love me? Do you think I'm so blind that I didn't know? Of course I knew! And it wasn't like you were all that concerned with satisfying *my* need to hold you. True, you didn't run away from my touch, but you didn't respond, either. That hurts just as much, you know."
"Oh really? Is the mighty Amazon Queen upset because she couldn't turn me on?" said Xena, with a sneer.
"We're back to that, are we?" said Gabrielle. "My being Queen. So was all that stuff you just said about wanting to watch me grow a bunch of lies? Just trying to make me feel better? You really *don't* want me to change. You want me to be your lap dog forever. Your little side-kick. 'Oh she cooked for me and cleaned for me and treated me special!'" said Gabrielle, imitating Xena's earlier statements about Alcimede.
"Shut up," said Xena, dangerously. "You don't want to push me too far."
"Yeah, that's it. Get all threatening on me. Your favorite response to anything that hits too close to home. Come on, Xena. You complained about me not respecting you. Well, tell me the truth. Do you have *any* respect for *me*?"
"I think we can ride Argo again. Let's go," said Xena, putting her foot in the stirrup.
Gabrielle grabbed her and pulled her roughly away from the horse. Xena's hands instantly reacted defensively and she had to stop herself before she struck Gabrielle. The bard didn't back down, standing her ground. "You coward! Finish this, damn it!"
Xena's eyes turned to ice and the muscle in her jaw twitched uncontrollably. Then a smile, cruel and savage, claimed her features. "I didn't realize that you no longer cared about getting to Widgie's. I suppose it's okay to let her die as long as you get to talk."
Gabrielle's face filled with disgust. "That was low, Xena. And it just goes to prove that you'll do anything to keep from talking about your real feelings."
"You don't want to *hear* my real feelings!" shouted Xena. "You've *never* wanted the truth from me! You believe what you want to believe -- whatever fits with your romantic ideals. The storyteller who prefers fiction to fact!"
"That's not true!" said Gabrielle, astonished.
"Isn't it? Do you think I couldn't see the revulsion on your face just now when I told you about Alcimede? About enjoying sex with my victims? You've never wanted to see my darkness -- you don't believe in it! You make me out to be this noble warrior who found the path, well I'm still looking, damn you! I still fight. I still kill. I still delight in it! And just because I'm killing the 'bad guys' instead of the innocent, don't fool yourself. Murder is murder and I enjoy it, Gabrielle. I do it because it feels damn good."
"But you had such remorse when you killed the villagers..."
"Of course I did. Because I loved it. Watching them crawl screaming away from me while I hacked them to pieces. Thinking of what they did to Ilsa's parents and knowing that if they hadn't, we'd never have had Ilsa in the first place! I was *glad* they'd killed them and that made me feel like the lowest scum in Tartarus. I deserve to be tortured slowly and sent to the fire pits, Gabrielle. Because even as I thanked those cowardly men in my heart, I killed them in cold blood and loved it."
"So... your sorrow afterwards... it was all a lie?" asked Gabrielle, feeling sick.
"Oh no, that was real. Because I've grown a conscience. I don't want to be the way I am. I know that there's a better way. I know that your way is the only path. But I lose sight of it so easily..." Xena hid her face from Gabrielle, leaning against Argo's neck, her shoulders hunched. In a small voice, she said, "Sometimes I wish I'd never learned the difference between right and wrong. It was so much easier before."
"But you do know," said Gabrielle. "And your remorse over these feelings is part of the journey, Xena." She reached out her hand and touched her gently on the shoulder, but the warrior pulled away as if she had been burned.
"Don't touch me. Don't get anywhere near me. Haven't you figured it out by now? You should've stayed with your Amazons, Gabrielle. I'll only destroy you, like I've destroyed everything in my life. *That's* what bothered me when you were queen. The fact that I knew you could do it and that you *should* be doing it and that *I have no place in your life!* Go back to them, Gabrielle. Stay who you are and keep far away from me. I deserved Alcimede. We're the same, she and I. And that's the only kind of person who should ever be with me."
With a suddenness that Gabrielle hadn't expected, Xena leapt onto Argo and with a "Hyah!" took off at a gallop, leaving the bard standing alone on the trail.
:::Are you ready to hear that I *did* enjoy it?:::
No, Xena, I guess I wasn't. But now that you've told me, I think I can accept it. I really do. It wasn't because you loved me any less. That's what's important, right? This wasn't about me. Not in that way. It was because this was part of your struggle; part of what made you a warlord and part of what keeps you from going back to it. I understand that now. It's... hard. To separate it. To not feel betrayed. So hard. But I must. It's not fair of me to blame you for something that's a part of you. Especially since you thought I was gone. Not a betrayal. Just something inside you. I can live with that. I can.
:::Are you ready to hear that I thought you were dead so I willingly turned to another for solace, regardless of how empty it would be?:::
I'll try to understand this, Xena. I mean, I understand needing closeness. Alcimede did her best to play my role when she pretended to be Hariklea. And because you honestly thought I was dead, you didn't think it could have hurt me to turn to another. I guess I shouldn't blame you. I don't know what I would've done, but I shouldn't blame you for needing something to fight the pain. Needing someone to hold. Damn, this still hurts, though. I just wish it hadn't happened, that's all. I wish you hadn't needed anyone else. I wish you had honored what we had... for a little longer. At least until you knew for sure that I was truly gone. Oh, Xena, I'm so confused. I want to forgive you. I do. And I will. I promise. I just need a little more time, okay?
::: Are you ready to hear that your indifference toward me while you were under her spell was enough to make me never again want love in my life?:::
This is torture, Xena. To hear you say this... it rips my heart in two. These words, more than any others, keep repeating in my mind. And every time I hear them, I weep. I don't want to steal your love. I don't want to be the thing that causes you to give up on love forever. Please, use what we had together to understand and embrace love in all its many forms. Alcimede is the thief of hearts, not me. Please don't give up on love... Even if it's not with me, please don't turn away from it forever. I couldn't bear the thought of that.
::: That maybe I would've preferred death to hearing about your fate?:::
This one I understand. All too well. When I thought you were gone forever... when I thought you had given me the cure then left me... I wanted to die, too, Xena. I did. And now, as I walk this lonely trail, without you, I think I want it again. Death would be so much easier than this solitary life. I was wrong, Xena. Wrong to push you. Wrong to make you talk about things that are too difficult for you to face, let alone face with me. I need you, Xena. With all your faults, with your weakness, with your darkness -- no matter how deep -- I need you. There are so many things we need to talk about. So many. Nothing will ever be the same, I fear. But if I had you here, I'd do anything to make it okay again. Anything.
::: That even with that I resented you so horribly I wasn't sure I wanted you back?:::
And then I hear you say this and I wonder if it'll ever be right again. How could you have said this to me? How could you feel this way? How can we heal if the damage is so deep that you don't want me in your life? Oh, Xena, how will we survive this? Where are you, Xena? Why aren't you here with me, saying these words aloud instead of in my mind? Why aren't you here to hold me and tell me it'll be okay? How could you have left me all alone, without your strength and your love? How can I survive this without you?
:::That in order to defeat Alcimede I'd had to harden my own heart to such a degree that I can no longer access anything but pain and rage and darkness?:::
You're wrong, Xena. Remember what Widgie told you? That you have as much light in you as dark. It's the balance that counts. Remember Ilsa? Remember how it felt to hold her? To carry her in your coat? To sing to her at night? To play games with her and kiss her soft hair and giggle at her silly expressions and sleep with her nestled against you in your blankets? There was no darkness in you then, Xena. That was your light. And I could give you a thousand examples of things you've said and done with me that proves you are filled with light. You just have to find it again. I can help you. If you'll let me. We just have to be together and I can find it for you again...
:::You've never wanted to see my darkness -- you don't believe in it!:::
Once, Widgie forced me to look at it. She made me watch as you slipped further and further away. She was trying to tell me this, I think. That I had to believe in your darkness in order to help you overcome it. And I thought I did. But I suppose, in a way, I never truly have. There is so much good in you, that it was easy to overlook the bad. To make excuses for it. I won't do that again, Xena. I promise.
:::You make me out to be this noble warrior who found the path, well I'm still looking, damn you!:::
Perhaps it's because you make it look so easy, Xena. Most of the time you're right. You're so good at being good. So good at making the tough choices. You hide your struggles, even from me. Maybe, from now on, you should let me see them. Let me know when you're having trouble. I can't read your mind. And I can't see what you won't show.
:::I still fight. I still kill. I still delight in it! And just because I'm killing the 'bad guys' instead of the innocent, don't fool yourself. Murder is murder and I enjoy it, Gabrielle. I do it because it feels damn good.:::
Oh, Xena... how can I understand this? How do I put myself in your boots, see the world through your eyes when you say things like this? And yet, I know you're telling me the truth. And the evidence has been there all along. I just didn't want to see it. I didn't want to understand how this could be so. I need to think about this, Xena. I need to understand it in order to understand you. I promise I will try. But I need you to help me; to explain it to me -- what do you feel? What makes it feel 'damn good?' What need does it fill in you? And how do we fulfill this need together, without taking lives?
Do you hear me, Xena? I want to help you. I want to understand you. I want to be with you. Forever. You're the other half of my soul and I'm in tatters without you.
Gabrielle had been walking for days. Alone. She carried her small pack and her staff. There had only been one sign of Xena since the warrior had galloped off after their fight, and the bard had found it almost immediately. A small cairn at the side of the trail had caught Gabrielle's eye and when she had inspected it, she had noticed a slip of parchment with her name on it and the words, 'Go back to the Amazons' written in Xena's bold hand. Under the rocks were her belongings from Argo's saddlebags, several days worth of food and a full bag of dinars.
It 's so like Xena, she thought. To worry about the practicalities of leaving me by myself, without thinking that it isn't dinars I need. It's her. That's what I need more than blankets or money or food or any material possession. I need my warrior.
Gabrielle had spent the first day in a cloud of rage. Screaming witty comebacks to every word Xena had said; thinking up things she should've said at the time.
The second day, she had slipped into a deep depression. She hadn't cared about anything anymore. She had wakened and had walked but her steps had dragged, her pace slow and shuffling. She didn't remember anything from that day -- not a landmark or a crossing. She had no idea how she had made it as far as she had, as no detail of the journey remained in her mind.
The third day, she had slept. Every time she had awakened, she had seen her lonely camp and rather than face it, she had closed her eyes again and had slept.
The fourth day, she did the same.
The fifth day, she would've preferred to do it again, but had realized that she needed to get moving. There had been Widgie to consider. The truth, in those rare instances when she would admit it to herself, had been that she no longer cared who lived or died. So many deaths, what was one more? But her mind had needed something to latch onto, and Widgie had become her target. Going to the Amazons was out of the question. Xena wouldn't be there. But Widgie... it was very likely that Xena had galloped off to help the healer. And if Gabrielle kept moving, it was possible for her to catch the warrior before she left. So the bard had packed her small carry-all, had picked up her staff and had walked again.
Soon, one day had blended into the next. And her mind had flickered between rage, regret and apathy. It was only now that she was able to listen in her mind to the things Xena had said and really hear them for the first time. She realized that she had been so concerned with her own arguments and her own hurt that she hadn't really heard the warrior the first time. But now, she had all the time in the world to examine what had been said and try to deal with their implications.
:::You don't want to *hear* my real feelings!:::
Yes I do... Maybe I didn't before, but now, I truly do...
The Inn was still and lifeless. No travelers sat on the large wooden porch out front. No horses snorted in the stables. Xena dismounted and looked around for someone to care for Argo, but no one came forward. The warrior grabbed the mare's reins and walked her to the stable, removing the saddle and setting her up with food and water. When Argo was cared for, Xena returned to the Inn and walked through the front door, afraid of what she would find within.
Hushed voices could be heard from the common room. Xena silently made her way there and saw a small group of people milling about, speaking in whispers. At the head of the room was a casket.
"No..." said Xena. Quickly, she turned to a woman who stood near the entrance. "Who...?"
"'Tis our Widgie. Passed to the other side, she has. It's for the best. She lingered for so long, we wondered what was keeping her here with us. But she finally let go, she did. It's for the best. She's at peace now."
"It's not for the best," said Xena, with a growl. She charged through the crowd to the oversized casket and looked inside. Widgie, her face waxy and pale, lay within.
They came at Gabrielle without warning. Seven men, all armed and many looking vaguely familiar to the bard.
"Well look who it is," said the leader. "Where's your warrior friend, eh? Where's Xena?"
It was the highwaymen they had met on the way to the Amazons, realized Gabrielle. With two new recruits. Dangerous recruits, she thought, noticing the eyes of the two unfamiliar faces. "You're awfully far north. What's the matter, lose your way?" she asked. She turned and shouted toward the bushes at the side of the road. "Xena! You might want to come out here! We have company!"
Several of the men looked at each other and at the bushes, waiting nervously. The youngest began backing away. One of the new men, barrel-chested and rippled with muscle, placed a rough hand on the boy's shoulder and shoved him back in place with an inarticulate growl.
"Hold your ground, lad!" said the leader, with a calming gesture toward the new recruit. "She's bluffing. Ain't we been watching her for some time now? There's nobody with her."
"Oh, you fell for that?" said Gabrielle. "The oldest trick in the book. We heard you way back by the olive grove, so Xena took cover to draw you out."
Again, most of the men glanced nervously at the surrounding brush, waiting expectantly. The two new men didn't waver or appear to care. The big one inched forward with his friend, almost as large as he, on his heels.
"Yeah?" said the leader, smiling. "Then why ain't she here? We're drawn out, right? Why ain't she screaming that yell of hers and running at us?"
"Because she wants to give you the chance to run away first," said Gabrielle, knowing her bluff was about to be called. When she and Xena had first run into this group, they had been unorganized and sloppy. The bard could tell this was no longer the case. What had once been missing in their eyes was now there in force. The killing lust. Gabrielle knew that offering her possessions wouldn't save her from this band of murderers. Only her spilled blood would be her release. Not if I can help it, she thought.
"Uh huh. Any of you lads buying this?" asked the leader. The others shook their heads. The second recruit licked his lips, his eyes raking the slim body of the bard. Gabrielle shivered, then drew herself to her full height, her decision made.
"Pity," said Gabrielle as she turned on her heel and ran as fast as she could toward the trees. Instinct made her swerve and she watched as a knife sailed past her. "Too close," she mumbled to herself, desperate to reach cover -- and a possible hiding place. Then she heard the pounding feet and hard breathing of pursuers and knew that she wouldn't make it. Knowing that there was little choice left, she spun unexpectedly and slashed with her staff, taking down two men. Instantly, she was surrounded.
Going for their most vulnerable member, she struck the boy with her staff, while ducking the leader's thrust. The boy went down but the others crowded in, slashing at the bard. She parried the blows skillfully but recognized that they had learned to coordinate their attack since the last time they'd met. It was only a matter of time, she realized.
The two newcomers had hung back, waiting until the rest of the gang had been rebuffed by the bard's skill with the staff. When the others were catching their breath, ready to regroup, the two men began to circle. Smiling, the leader waved off the rest of the band, watching intently as the pair toyed with the small woman.
Gabrielle slashed for all she was worth. There are just two of them, she thought. And I can use their size against them. I learned several new moves from the Amazons. I can use them now. And how many times have I seen Xena go up against superior numbers and leave piles of bodies in her wake? I won't be frightened. I won't back down. All I need is a chance to get away. To put some distance between us. I can hide in the forest until they give up. I'm small, I can fit in places they can't go. If I can get a head start, I've won.
The big man slashed at the bard and she parried, but he was ready for that and thrust again, the blade raking across her thigh. Knowing she wasn't going to get a second chance, she ignored the pain and used an arcing move Ephiny had taught her to knock the sword from his hand. Instantly, he replaced it with a knife from his belt. Gabrielle hit him solidly on the side of his head, but he just smiled, seemingly unaffected by the blow.
Just then, the second recruit slashed at her with his sword. The bard parried the blow, getting several hits on the second man who, frustrated, dropped his sword and waited for the next strike. When it came he grabbed the staff and snatched it from Gabrielle's hands.
Momentarily disconcerted, the bard tried to plan her next move. She saw the fist, but didn't duck in time. The strength of the blow knocked her backward into the waiting hands of the first man. Gabrielle felt his knife sink into her back and she stifled a scream as she tried to twist away, breaking off the hilt in the process.
"That was my best blade, bitch!" the big man shouted, throwing his weight behind a punch to her kidney. The bard fell to the ground, pain taking over every sensation.
Gabrielle had only enough consciousness left to see one of the men raise his sword high, aiming for her neck. The last thing she heard as darkness overcame her was the incongruous sound of a horse's neigh.
"Get out! All of you!" shouted Xena, hovering over the casket. The villagers milled about uncertainly. "I said *get out*!" she screamed, drawing her sword. As one, they ran from the crazed warrior. "That's better," she muttered, resheathing her sword in the now empty room.
"Ah, Widgie, what did you have to go and die for, huh?" she murmured to the healer's still form. "You couldn't have hung on a little longer? I was coming. You knew I'd come. It just took me awhile, that's all. I didn't get the message in time, y'know? I would've come sooner, but I didn't get the message."
Carefully, Xena withdrew her breast dagger and cut open Widgie's tentlike dress.
"Now you're thinking I'm crazy again, huh? Don't worry, I know what I'm doing. I'm pretty sure I have this whole thing figured out."
The bruise was a bright purple against the pale, white skin. Gently, Xena laid her hand on it and closed her eyes.
"C'mon, this has got to work. Help me, Widgie. You have to want to return. I know you can hear me. Do your part." Xena's face was a mask of concentration, her eyes squeezed shut, her brows drawn together, her teeth gritted. She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax, consciously willing the tension to leave her face and body. While she waited, she continued to speak to the oracle. "You know, I never thought about using it on the dead, but it still should work. He promised me, y'know? He told me when he healed me that these hands shouldn't bear the burden of his revenge. Well, the way I see it, you're lying here because of me. Because of what I did in that village. And that's not right, Widgie. You shouldn't have to be dead because of that."
Standing still as a statue, she waited for the heat.
"C'mon, Thor! Your magic is in my hands -- I know it is! I felt it! When I touched Gabrielle and again when I touched Alcimede -- I felt your heat. I am your Chosen -- heal her through my hands!"
Her fingers began to warm.
A soft muzzle nudged her awake. Gabrielle opened foggy eyes. She blinked to clear the fuzzy picture and slowly focused on the sight of a large white horse, standing among the unconscious highwaymen.
"Pegasus..." she whispered, then passed out again.
"That's it, Widgie, c'mon! You can do it!" said Xena, her eyes blazing with hope.
Slowly, the oracle's face lost its pallor. Xena watched as Widgie's skin plumped, her muscles twitched and her lids fluttered open.
"Warrior...?" she croaked.
"Yes, Widgie. It's me, Xena. The Bold One."
"Aye..." Widgie murmured, her eyes taking in the coffin where she lay. "Were I dead then?"
"Aye," said Xena, smiling. No confusion, no panic, just a question asked as if it were the most normal of events. The warrior removed her hand and closed the oracle's dress.
"Jorgos? Where be Jorgos?" Struggling to sit up, Widgie grasped the edges of the coffin, but was still too weak. Xena leaned down and with an almost Herculean effort, helped pull the healer to a sitting position.
Widgie glanced around the empty room and her look of expectation disappeared suddenly and completely. "Jorgos. He be deaded, methinks."
Xena nodded. "I'm sorry. How...?"
"Jorgos wouldn'a missed m'resurrection, t'ain't so? T'so..."
Widgie glanced up at Xena, her eyes filling with tears. Without another word, she reached out her large arms and pulled the warrior to her, burying her head in Xena's chest. Sadly, Xena wrapped the oracle in her arms and held her close, stroking her with the very hands that had brought her back to life; letting her weep against a heart that was also alone.
Part 5 -(End)
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