Genyo growled, slamming his fist against his saddle in rage. "Why have we not taken this village?!"
"Your simple storm technique might have worked against a defenceless village, Lord Genyo, but this village is apparently not as defenceless as you thought." His general, a well-built man in his early twenties, dressed in the armour of a samurai, stated calmly, seated on a horse beside him.
Genyo's dark eyes shot towards him, filled with anger. "Are you insulting me, Haru? Cause if you are..."
"I am not," Haru cut him short. "But you are leading your father's men, and it is him I serve. Therefore it is my job to inform you that this battle is not working in your favour."
Genyo tossed up a hand in frustration. "What do you suggest then?"
Haru settled back in his saddle, judging the battle calculatingly. "The village is mounting a strong defence with the little they have."
"Because of that woman," his commander spoke from between clenched teeth.
"It is said she is the woman who fought at Huguchi. If this is true..."
"It is not true!" Genyo snapped. "That warrior died at Huguchi. You know this."
Haru shrugged lightly. "What I know is of no importance." He turned to face the daimyo's son. "Important is what your men believe."
Genyo huffed out an angry breath.
"Also," his general continued, "when the wounded came back to camp, they talked of another. Another foreigner, who carried a weapon never encountered before. It flies and cuts through all, as if possessed." Haru faced forward again. "Some have expressed fear of returning to battle."
"Fear?!" Genyo spat out. "Weak fools." A tense pause in which he drummed his fingers on the knee. "Fine... Pull them back."
His general inclined his head a fraction. "A wise decision, my lord."
"We're not giving up, you idiot," his commander shot back. "We need to regroup for a second attack." He twitched as another man fell screaming from the walls. "Since this approach clearly isn't working."
Xena stood in the temple's door opening, her hands clenching around the doorpost, her eyes fixed on the small altar in the centre. The dimmed daylight reflected dully off the blade lying in the centre, exactly as it had before.
The warrior carefully took a step forward, the sound of her bare feet on the pavement barely audible even to her ears.
There was a whispering in the air, hushed voices, too soft for her to make out the words that were being spoken. She wasn't interested in hearing them though. She took another step forward, and another, until she was standing in front of the altar, looking down at the scarred weapon she'd held for so long.
"Xena! Xena! Xena!"
Deep baritones chanted her name. Xena tried to block them out, ignoring her worries and fears and reaching for the sword hilt. Her fingers touched it and as they did the hushed voices cleared with an incredible vehemence.
"Take the village!"
She forced her fingers to fold around the hilt, lifting it from the stone it was lying on, the action clearly costing her quite a bit of effort.
"Xena stop!" Lao Ma's desperate plea. "What are you doing?"
Xena pressed her eyes shut, trying as best she could to keep going, to push the memories down and just hold the damn sword. She swallowed, trying to calm her shattered nerves. This village needed her to fight. Gabrielle needed her to fight.
She forced herself to open her eyes. Her gaze fell on the blade she was holding, to see her own eyes reflected back to her. But only for a moment, then the blue eyes turned to a deep brown.
"Hello, Xena," Callisto's taunting voice drifted up, all around her.
Xena gasped in shock, then her old nemesis's eyes disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared. The warrior swallowed, exhaling shakily, raising her eyes from the weapon she was holding.
She staggered back at the vision of the woman in front of her, comfortably sitting on the altar. Callisto giggled in delight, swinging her feet back and forth, her heals drumming against the stone rhythmically, sending hollow thuds through the room.
Xena watched her anxiously, her posture defensive. "Are... Are you a ghost?"
"A ghost?" the blonde laughed. "Ow, no no no, dear Xena. If only it were that simple." She hopped from her seat, landed on the floor and then prowled over to the warrior. "I..." she circled Xena, then leaned closer and whispered in her ear. "...am the voice of your conscience." She slapped the stunned woman on the butt, then skipped off cheerfully.
Xena watched her in shocked silence. "B..." she ran a hand through her hair, exhaling. "Why you?"
Callisto turned, leaning her hands on top of the altar she was now standing behind. "Because of my charming persona and stunning visage?" She hazarded, with a toothy smile. "I don't know, precious. It's your brain."
"I..." Xena considered everything for a moment, then shook her head. "Just go away. I'm busy," she said then, tightening her hold on her sword and heading for the exit.
"Ah yes, off to kill a few more puny, insignificant soldiers, right?" Callisto called after her. "Never mind me, my dear. Do go, and kill all those you can get your bloody little hands on."
Xena paused in her steps.
"Ow, Xena, Xena..." The blonde hopped back onto the altar, pulling up a knee and resting her chin on top. "Don't tell me you're having second thoughts? After all you are defending the poor and innocent people of this little village, aren't you?" The sarcasm was dripping from her voice.
"I am," Xena told her.
"Of course you are," the blonde drawled. "You're just gonna slaughter those soldiers out there out of the goodness of your heart, aren't ya?"
Xena gritted her teeth, half turning to face the other woman. "Shut up."
Callisto giggled. "Ow, yeah, that's gonna work."
"I don't have time for you," the warrior snapped at her, then briskly turned, intent on striding out.
But she only found Callisto leaning casually in the doorway, her good mood seeming to have vanished completely. "That's just the problem, isn't it?" The blonde took a step forward, menacingly, her eyes alight now with anger. "You don't have 'time' for me. No time to listen to your conscience." Another step, and Xena had to force herself to stand her ground, her instincts telling her to back away from that hateful gaze. "Do you remember, Xena? Do you remember the last time you had no time to listen?" Another step and those brown eyes bore into her now, only inches away. "Do you remember Cirra?"
The chaos of a burning village. A woman's pained scream. A child, fearfully crying out for its mother.
Xena closed her eyes tightly, shaking her head, trying to get rid of the visions.
"Do you remember how you made me, Xena?" Callisto roared. "How you slaughtered everyone I loved?"
"And how you relished every moment of it." Another deep voice joined in, and Xena's eyes shot open to see Caesar standing on her other side. As she watched, he lifted a hand and stroked her cheek.
"You'll be dead in thirty seconds. But know this: you won't be the last. Tell Hades to prepare himself. A new Xena is born tonight with a new purpose in life... Death."
"Can you still feel the power of it, Xena? The power of that rage? That bloodlust?" His fingers trailed down her cheek. "Do you remember how, in your search to fulfil your destiny, you ended the dreams of so many others?"
The warrior drew in a breath to answer him, then gasped as a hand wrapped around her throat with sudden savageness.
Cyane's pained croak. "Why?" She felt herself smirk. "Alti offered me a better deal."
"You gave me incredible power, Xena." Alti said, her deep eyes peering into Xena's. "All those I killed, I killed because you gave me the power to do so."
"No," Xena croaked, then firmer. "No!" She elbowed the shamaness's hand away, then grabbed onto her sword hilt with both hands, pointing it at the woman's throat. "I'm not responsible for what you did!"
Callisto chuckled behind her. "If that's what you want to believe, dear."
Xena spun around, facing her, raising her weapon, ready to strike. The blonde smirked. "Ow, what you're gonna do? Kill me? Again?" A giggle.
"You can't shut out your conscience," Caesar said as he stepped up to her left.
"Not anymore," Alti joined in, on her right. "You may have thought you knew peace..."
"...but that was just an illusion," Callisto finished, pushing the tip of Xena's sword aside with a fingertip.
Blue eyes shot around anxiously, trying to keep all of her assailants in sight. "I... I just wanna help these people..." she managed somehow. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"Ow, we're not doing anything," Caesar stated cheerfully.
"This is your own doing," Alti confirmed.
"Because a part of you could never forget, Xena." Callisto closed in on her, the sound of her nail sliding over the sword's metal rasping softly though the temple. "A part of you could never forget about Chin..."
"I want the dead."
Borias's frown as he looked up. "The dead?"
"Yeah, these ones and the ones back on the battlefield." A smirk. "I'm gonna put them to work."
"We're going to need a lot of wood. When I'm done here-- there'll be a line of crucified bodies leading from Corinth-- to the Caspian Sea. And I will crucify them all!"
"I did all I could."
Her mother's bloodshot eyes, turning to her with an unreadable expression. "Oh, yes... you did all you could. You raised the army. You talked him into fighting. These... These may as well be wounds from your sword!" A hard slap against her face, that stung more than any of the wounds she'd suffered in battle.
The blade clattered onto the stone floor. It was covered in blood. Xena gazed it at, then lifted her hands, which were shaking uncontrollably, to see that they too were smeared in red.
"This is the blunt reality of who you are, Xena." Callisto grabbed onto one of her hands and lifted it up higher, right in front of her face. "This is who you are."
Caesar's voice whispered into her ear. "Conqueror."
"Destroyer of Nations," Alti added
"Murderer," Callisto finished in a purr.
With a cry of pain, Xena fell to her knees, her skin scraping over the harsh stones.
"Everybody clear?" Gabrielle glanced to her left, then to her right, receiving nods all around. "Excellent." The bard gave them all a reassuring smile. "Bastards won't know what hit 'em."
Some nervous chuckles drifted up.
"Get to your positions. We gotta make sure we're ready for them when they've regrouped." Gabrielle watched them all disperse, then looked to her right as Himiko stepped up beside her.
"Are you sure this will work?" the girl asked, timidly.
Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder. "You know I can't guarantee anything. But I am sure it's our best shot."
Himiko nodded in understanding. "We're fortunate you have come. Without you, or the Kami, we would have never stood our ground this long." A pause. "I am just... worried. If something goes wrong... My family..."
Gabrielle smiled compassionately. "Your grandfather?"
"Yes," the girl confirmed. "And..."
Gabrielle looked up to see a small child running closer as fast as she could, an middle-aged woman just slipping around a corner a little way behind, in pursuit of the toddler.
"Iyo!" Himiko swooped up the child before she could crash into her legs. "I thought I told you to stay put?"
"Put here, with the mama," Iyo told her, wrapping a tiny arm around the girl's neck, while sticking her thumb in her mouth. "No go no more."
Himiko released a breath, unable not to be enamoured by her child's clingy behaviour. "Sweetie, you can't stay here right now." She pushed a lock of hair away, then kissed the exposed forehead tenderly. "It's dangerous. Mama has to help this lady here keep us safe."
"Lady?" Iyo's brows puckered, then she peeked past her mother to the woman behind her. "Lady!" she pointed a finger at the bard, who smirked in response. "Look, mama. Isse lady!"
Himiko repressed a grin. "Very good, sweetheart." She turned a little, bringing the child a little closer to her new object of fascination. "This is Gabrielle. She's a friend of Xena's. You remember Xena?"
"Yes," Iyo nodded fearsely. "Safe Saban. Sena good. "
"You're a fine judge of character," Gabrielle smiled, reaching out a hand towards the tot. "Hello there."
"Lo," Iyo studied the bard with interest. "You's Abby?"
Gabrielle smirked. "Really special girls call me that, yes."
Iyo giggled. "Abby funny."
A second woman, in purple robes and with her hair in a tight knot at the back of her neck, now ran up to the scene, very much out of breath. "Himiko, I'm sorry. I took my eyes off her for a second and she was gone."
The girl produced a smile. "That's okay, Nene. She's a handful, I know." She gently stroked the dark locks absently. "How's grandfather?"
"I gave him something to sleep," Nene managed, a hand against her back for support. "The attack... It was too much for him. I..." the woman dropped her eyes. "I worry about his heart."
Himiko bit her lip. "I feared as much."
"You's got funny hair," Iyo warbled, tugging on one of the blonde's locks.
"Yeah?" Gabrielle reached out and tweaked the girl's nose. "Look who's talking."
Iyo giggled some more, delighted with the attention.
The bard smiled, and was just about to say something else, when her ears picked up screams on the other side of the wall. "Look out!" She hastily covered the child and Himiko's body with her own, her eyes focused attentively on the wall as another flood of arrows soared in.
"Pwetty!" The toddler behind her chortled in delight. "Mama, look! Pwetty lights!"
An arrow thudded into the ground just beside them. Gabrielle hastily stepped on the flame, extinguishing it. "I think we just ran out of time for chit chat." She glanced behind her. "You should get your daughter inside."
Himiko nodded, then lifted the tot off her shoulder and handed her back to Nene. "Take her back, please."
"Mama!" the child looked extremely insulted.
"Iyo, please, don't complain, okay?"
The toddler pouted.
"Don't even try that, it won't work." Her mother pointed a finger at her. "Now you be good."
Iyo released a grave breath. "Good no good."
Himiko's lips quirked at this. She leaned forward, pressing a kiss on the girl's forehead, then she looked up at her friend. "Go. Keep her safe."
Nene bent her head, then hastily turned and sped off, back towards the shelter of their home.
Gabrielle had already made her way over to the palisade, mounting the stairs to peek out. "They're launching the second attack." She murmured, then she glanced to her right, to see the man next to her looking back questioningly. "Wait till they're right up to the gates, OK? We wanna make sure they don't have time to respond."
The man nodded, tightening the hold on his weapon.
"Just wait for my mark." Gabrielle instructed, watching Genyo's troops storm closer, this time in ordered lines. The blonde smirked. "Too easy..." Gabrielle watched them run closer, and closer until they were right below. "Now!"
Several men stood and tossed down the nets they'd been holding. The ordered lines of men formed an easy prey, several getting caught in a single net.
"Pull!" Gabrielle yelled, and her order was immediately obeyed. Below several shocked screams drifted up as men were suddenly lifted from the ground, closed in with several of their mates between the ropes.
Another line of men and women advanced, with pointed wooden sticks. They took aim, and then let their weapons fly with a powerful, straight toss, most hitting their targets with deadly precision.
Cries sounded from below as panic broke out among the ranks. "It's working!" Himiko called enthusiastically, helping several others tie the rope holding up one of the nets to a pole.
"Hold your horses...." Gabrielle mumbled, glancing down to see a lieutenant and several veterans push their way through the turmoil, raising up the ladders they brought. She lifted a hand and waved Himiko closer, the girl hastily obeying and dropping to a knee next to her. "Do you remember what I told you? About the wine?"
The girl nodded. "You want me to...?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle confirmed, judging the situation below. "You take care of that one on the right, I'll look after the other three."
Himiko blinked at here. "All three?? By yourself?"
The blonde smirked. "Not exactly," she said, judging the distance to the dangling net nearby. "I'll be right back."
She straightened and hopped onto the elevated ledge, before tossing herself forward. For a moment there was only air around her, then her hands wrapped around the ropes of the well crafted net and she used her momentum to send the ball of tied up men swinging. It moved forward, and then backward again, picking up speed and widening its arch.
Another swing and she spotted her first victim, a man about halfway up his ladder, who was watching her latest movements with wide eyes. She smirked, using her weight to steer the net into his direction. When the soldier realised she was on a collision course he hastily started scrambling up the ladder, hoping to reach the top in time.
Gabrielle grinned wickedly, then let go of her hold, soaring up just in front of the net. Her one hand found a hold on his left shoulder and a moment later her right hand touched his other shoulder as she cartwheeled over him. The pressure bearing down on him slowed the soldier just long enough and as Gabrielle used him to push off again and flip towards the second net dangling several meters away, the first ball of men impacted harshly with his body, sending him flying off. He crashed into the wall face first.
Gabrielle grabbed onto the rope holding the second net up, while balancing on top of the fishinggear. As she glanced down she found several pairs of stunned eyes goggling at her, peeking back past limbs protruding from the wad of bodies. She smirked back triumphantly, as she moved the second net into motion as well, gaining speed to take care of her next two victims.
A cry sounded from her left and Gabrielle spared a look for the man she'd left to Himiko. As ordered, the girl had poured alcohol over the wooden ladder and then set it on fire. The soldier was now writhing on the ground below, trying to put out the flames that had managed to take hold of his sleeve.
Unfortunately, the third burden, who appeared to be a samurai by his garb, had had a moment to devise a strategy, and, knowing there was no way to avoid her, he let go of his hold on the ladder as she swung close, grabbing onto the bottom of the net.
Gabrielle cursed under her breath, thinking fast and deciding to take care of the last solder in a slightly less subtle, but more effective way.
She took the chakram from her belt and flung it forward. It soared forward and sliced through his neck, then reversed course and neatly cut the ladder in two on the way back.
Meanwhile, the samurai had managed to clamber up the side of the net and now reached the top, unsheathing his katana while he found his balance on the moving surface. Gabrielle ducked under a stab and, placing her feet under the ropes for balance, pulled her sai from her boots.
Her attacker was far from impressed though and pushed his weapon forward again. The blonde brought a sai up to fend off his attack, only to find the metal neatly severed in two, the weapon's resistance buying her just enough to lean back and avoid the sharp tip from touching skin.
The chakram soared back, having fulfilled its job, and Gabrielle plucked the weapon out of mid air without much thought. Her attacker went for her again and she jumped aside to avoid the weapon this time, slipping past him to the other side and putting some distance between them.
She nearly lost her footing as a hand wrapped itself around her ankle, a man tied up in the net trying to help his lieutenant out by attempting to hold her down. Gabrielle quickly flipped the sai she still had around, then knelt and stabbed the sharp edge into the man's arm, the blade sinking deep into his flesh. He cried out in pain, immediately withdrawing his hand.
A shifting of air reminded the bard of her other assailant and she lifted the chakram just in time to deflect another strike of his katana. Deciding offence was the best defence, she swung her weapon forward, creating a deep gash in her attackers leg, sending him staggering back. Before Gabrielle could take advantage of the opening she'd created, the lieutenant had grabbed onto the rope holding up the large net and used his momentum to spin him around pushing his body forward as he circled back towards her, his feet impacting with her back.
Her foot got caught in the ropes and she fell back, ending up dangling by one foot off the swinging contraption, her nose right up against a bare, mud-stained footsole. She winced, her nose crinkling in dismay at the foul smell.
"You have been a worthy adversary." A voice sounded above her and she hastily flipped around, to see the samurai towering over her. He tightened his hold on his sword, raising it up. "It has been an honor battling you."
With all his strength he pushed his blade down, cutting deep through skin. The skin of one of his own men, since Gabrielle had pulled herself aside just in time. With a hard tug she managed to pull her foot free and then push herself up, her feet impacting with her attacker and sending him flying back. "Well, I've got good news for ya then..." she told him as she landed on top of the net once more. "Cause it ain't over yet."
The samurai got back to his feet, balancing carefully as he got a good hold on his weapon. "It will be soon."
Gabrielle took hold of the chakram and split it, taking one half in each hand. "I'm sure it will be."
He came at her again, but she was ready this time and deflected his blows with ease. She moved her weapons in a blurry of motion, anticipating his every move. Having two weapons in stead of one put her at an advantage and at the third parry she blocked his lunge with one half of the chakram while she nicked him on the arm with the other, then at the fifth she managed to dig the sharp edge into his chin.
The samurai hissed in pain, but soon recovered and swung his katana towards her. Not realising where his weapon would head if Gabrielle ducked to avoid the blade, which she did.
With a soft hiss the katana sliced through the rope holding up the net. Before her attacker realised what was happening the net was falling down, sending him and his companions crashing to the ground.
Realising his error just in time, Gabrielle pushed herself off at the last moment, jumping back towards the palisade with a frantic leap. Somehow her fingers found a hold on the edge, but only barely and she felt herself slipping.
But before she could fall hands grabbed onto her wrists and dragged her up and behind the safety of the walls. Gabrielle leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes for a moment.
"Are you OK?" Himiko asked in concern. "He nearly killed you."
"Nah," Gabrielle swallowed, breathing hard. "Piece of cake."
Himiko shot her a disbelieving look. "You and the Kami are much alike, I believe."
Gabrielle chuckled softly, then frowned. "Talking of..." her eyes flicked around. "Is she back yet?"
Himiko shook her head.
"It isn't that far, this temple, is it?"
"No," the girl confirmed. "It's right there." She pointed to her left, to the outline of a building, hidden partially from sight by the soft fog, a residue from the storm that had passed for the time being.
Gabrielle looked in the indicated direction, cocking her head just a bit. "She should have been back by now." She slowly got to her feet, darting a glance over the wall. The net had crashed down and rolled on a few metres, impacting with several other soldiers on its way. The remaining attackers were now few and most were injured in some way. As she watched the movements below she spotted the warrior she'd battled emerging from the chaos of men and ropes, limping slightly. A boy came running over with a horse in tow and the samurai pulled himself onto the stead, then made the animal half turn to face the walls.
Their eyes met for a long moment, then he raised his voice. "A wise man knows when a fight is lost," he called out, over the battlefield, sheathing his katana in the scabbard attached to his back. "But I think we will meet again soon."
Gabrielle studied him for a moment longer, then she nodded softly. The samurai bowed his head, then spun his horse around and raced off, back towards where Genyo was standing, watching the fighting from afar.
Himiko looked from the receding form of the fighter to Gabrielle, who was standing quietly by her side. "What did he mean by that? Is he giving up?"
The blonde nodded quietly. "For now." She watched him for another moment, then she felt a... pang of something, which made her head shoot towards the temple's outline. "I have to go." She got to her feet, ignoring the risk of being shot by one of the soldiers who were still attacking the village. "Something's wrong."
Himiko glanced up at her, then looked down at the battle scene hesitantly. "Go," she said then, squaring her shoulders a bit to muster some courage and appear self-assured. "Go find her."
Gabrielle glanced at her, managing a quick encouraging smile, before hastily running off, down the steps and towards the temple in the distance.
"How pathetic," Caesar spat in disgust.
"The mighty warrior on her knees," Alti added with a smirk.
"Poor little Xena," Callisto drawled, mock-sympathetically, kneeling down beside her. "Did the bad little voices in your head make you cry?"
The warrior curled up in an even tighter ball, shutting her eyes tightly, trying to ignore them all.
Callisto giggled. "Ow yes, that's smart. Just pretend we aren't here." she ran a hand through the dark locks. "You're good at that, after all, aren't ya? Pretending."
"Pretending you have redeemed yourself," Alti spoke up behind her.
"Pretending you are forgiven," Caesar taunted.
"But deep down you know better." Callisto's touch trailed down her cheek, the nail digging harshly into her skin. "Deep down you know the suffering you caused can not be undone. The havoc you reeked, the lives you took, the souls you darkened. Deep down you know that all the good deeds you did were in vain. Because you can never shrug off your guilt." The blonde leaned closer, whispering in her ear. "You know that, don't you Xena?"
Xena covered her ears with her hands.
"You know that," the voice hissed on, just as strong as before. "Don't you?" Another moment, then an even more vicious hiss. "Don't you?"
"Yes!" Xena yelled back, her whole body shivering uncontrollably now. "I know!"
Calllisto chortled in delight.
Caesar joined in with a smirk. "You didn't think we'd let you forget, did you?"
"How could you have ever thought you had redeemed yourself?" Alti's voice drifted over. "That you deserved peace?"
"Your death meant nothing." Callisto purred. "Your grand sacrifice meant nothing."
A sob shook her body, her last resistance failing her as the words fell upon her like vicious blows. Tears slid down her cheeks, painting lines through the dirt clinging to her skin, before they lost their hold and fell to the ground, impacting with the stone tiles. In reality that sound was almost undetectable, but to Xena it was loud, like drums beating, reminding her of that last battle, in the woods outside Higuchi. The chaos of it. The shifting of arrows. The screaming as men drop to the ground lifelessly around her.
A touch against her shoulder and in a wild reflex she smacked the hand away, crawling back and placing distance between her and whichever of her tormentors was reaching out to her now.
For a moment, she just sat with her back pressed against the altar, staring ahead of her with wide, frightened, unseeing eyes.
Xena blinked, the gentle voice drawing her from her frantic state. Her tormentors were all still present, standing in a semi-circle, looking at her menacingly. But in front of them now stood another person, who caught her eyes and held them, drawing her attention away from the visions of her past. The warrior sucked in a shaky breath, just staring back into those green eyes, searching.
"Xena?" Gabrielle carefully took a step closer, completely confused, not knowing what was happening with her friend. "What's going on?" She knelt down in front of the warrior, then reached out again, slowly this time.
Xena closed her eyes as the gentle fingers caressed her cheek, helplessly leaning into the touch.
"Hey?" Gabrielle said softly, concern clearly audible in her voice. "What's wrong?"
The warrior wanted to respond, but she was unable to, the relief at the comforting words silencing the noises so profound it clenched at her throat, cutting off her ability to speak. So in stead she just reached out and pulled the bard closer, hugging her mindlessly as another sob shook her body.
Not sure how to respond to this very uncharacteristic behaviour, Gabrielle decided to just hold on, gently rubbing her back. "Hey? Hey, come on, talk to me."
"Yes, talk to her, Xena," Callisto's voice hissed, but it was further away now, softer. "Tell her about the innocents you killed."
The warrior buried her face tighter into the bard's shoulder. "It hurts..." she managed to croak somehow.
"It hurts?" the blonde gently stroked her hair. "Were you wounded? Did... Did someone attack you?"
"No, no," Xena corrected hastily. "Voices."
A frantic nod. "In my head. They're... they're h...here to remind me." A sniffle. "Of what I did."
"What you...?" Gabrielle started in non-understanding, but then she realised what Xena was referring to. "Your conscience...."
Another nod as the arms folded around her tightened just slightly.
This place... it numbs, Gabrielle remembered Akemi saying. To make being here pleasant, it numbs the hurt.
"Oh, gods..." she breathed then, understanding now what was going on with her friend. Her conscience, having been repressed for so long, was rearing its head again, guilt built up over the past months forcing its way through all at once.
"I... I thought I was happy." Xena pained voice croaked. "But it was all a lie. All a lie."
For a moment Gabrielle didn't know what to say. But, as always, this state lasted only briefly, and she quickly cupped the warrior's head in her hands, gently forcing her to look up and meet her eyes. "It wasn't a lie," she told her then, her voice as firm as she could manage under the circumstances. "It wasn't." She gently stroked the other woman's cheek. "You were redeemed, Xena. And you deserved it."
The warrior shook her head. "I killed s... so many."
There was no denying that, and Gabrielle knew it. She could mention all the people Xena had rescued, but redemption wasn't about withdrawing the ones saved from the wronged. So Gabrielle decided to not respond to the statement, simply leaning her forehead against Xena's. "I love you."
"She's avoiding the subject," Callisto's voice whispered. "But she knows it is true."
The warrior sniffled. "You shouldn't."
Gabrielle frowned, then pulled back a little to look at her friend. "What?" she asked, disbelieving.
"I... I hurt people," Xena said softly, refusing to look up. "I hurt you." A moment, in which Xena sucked in a shaky breath. "You should go."
Gabrielle stared at her disbelievingly for a moment, then snorted softly. "Don't be absurd."
"I'm not," the warrior argued, releasing her hold on the bard, dropping her hands and backing away a bit. "I... I never told you anything that happened in my past before we were confronted with it, 'cause... 'cause I knew, in my heart, that if you knew the whole truth, you wouldn't want to be with me."
"You're wrong," Gabrielle countered firmly.
Blue eyes lifted and searched hers for a long moment. Xena sucked in a breath then, squaring her shoulders, seeming to prepare herself. "After I lost the Ring in the Norseland, I sailed west."
The bard closed her eyes. "Xena, don't..."
"There was an island, called Eire," the warrior continued, ignoring her. "Simple villages. No big treasures or tools of power. Just... Just people trying to make a living. But I was...." Xena had to pause a moment, to swallow back the lump that was forming in her throat. "I was furious about losing the Ring to Grinhilda and... And I slaughtered an entire villages for two pieces of bread and a sack of wine."
Gabrielle looked up again, seeing the pain in the contours of her friend's face. In reflex she reached out to her, to comfort her, but Xena shook away her touch.
"On the road to the next town, I..." a tear slid down the warrior's cheek now, and she didn't even make an effort to wipe it away. "I spiked a guy to a tree just for asking directions. His wife was standing nearby and she..."
"Xena, stop it," Gabrielle tried again. "It doesn't matter."
The warrior's gaze focused on her, the blue eyes alight now with thousands emotions at once. "I tied her to a tree opposite her husband so she could watch him decay while she starved." Xena said, clearly straining herself to keep her voice steady.
Gabrielle flinched almost imperceptibly at the words, but Xena noticed it nevertheless. She'd hit her mark, she realised. Gabrielle would see now. Would understand.
"She is appalled by what you've done," Callisto's voice breathed into her ear. "She will leave you. As she would have done before, had you admitted to your sins. You were living a lie, Xena. Your friendship was nothing but a lie."
She dropped her head, unable to look at the bard as the truth of Callisto's words echoed in her head. The one thing she'd valued most in her life was fake, had been based on nothing but deceit and make belief.
Gabrielle still hadn't moved though, hadn't left the room. Whether from shock or disbelief, Xena didn't know, but she decided the lie would end here. Gabrielle would know all and draw her conclusions. And be better off for it.
Xena forced herself to continued her tale. "I hooked up with Borias again and we returned to the mainland. To make a point, I let the villagers of the first town we conquered dig a huge hole in the town square, then cover the bottom with branches. Then I tossed in all the young men and I..." She had to stop and she swallowed, closing her eyes. "I can still feel the heat of fire. I can still hear them scream. I can still..."
She stopped her summary then, as lips captured hers, gently but purposefully.
The simple, loving gesture was the last thing she'd expected. Before she could even try to comprehend what had just happened, Gabrielle was pulling back again and she found herself forced to look into those green eyes.
And those eyes said more in one glance than a thousand words ever could. They spoke of sympathy, of compassion. Of forgiveness. Of loyalty, a friendship unbreakable by even the strongest force. Of a love, depthless, in spite of the many scars they both suffered through the years gone by.
There was an angry whisper in the distance, which she vaguely realised was Callisto's voice. But the words were nothing but a blur now, and as she reached out and touched Gabrielle's cheek, and the bard smiled in return and covered her hand with her own, the voices faded altogether.
"Are you done trying to scare me off?" Gabrielle asked softly.
Xena felt a small smile tugging at her lips. "Yeah."
"Good." The blonde smiled in return, turning her head a fraction and gently kissing the warrior's palm. "Now, let me clean you up." She wiped at Xena's tearstained cheeks, dirt sticking to her fingers. "You look horrible."
A short laugh escaped the warrior at the words, the first real laugh since she'd awoken in the temple this morning.
It felt good.
Xena shot the blonde an insulted look. "I am so not an...ah!!"
Gabrielle smirked knowingly. "It's your own stupid fault, Xena. You should have cleaned these out before."
"I was a bit busy, in case you hadn't noticed."
"You just told me you got the scrapes before you snatched the kid and were hunted down by an army. You had time then."
"It's just..." The warrior scowled. "...complicated."
"Uhuh," Gabrielle patted the calf just below the knee she'd just cleaned. "Sure."
Xena growled something incoherent, making the bard laugh.
Gabrielle continued cleaning the other knee in silence. Xena watched her calmly for a moment, then spoke up. "So... What do you think?"
The bard glanced up at her, then returned her attention to the wound, continuing her work pensively. "I think this is a really complex situation you got us into."
Xena managed a wry smile. "Sorry."
Gabrielle chuckled softly in response. "Don't be." She looked up with a smirk. "I love complex."
The warrior smiled back. "You do, huh?"
"You betcha," Gabrielle confirmed cheerfully, dipping the dirtied rag in the bowl she'd found and filled with rainwater, cleaning it out. A pause, in which she sobered a little. "You uhm... You're sure it was Himiko? Who brought you back?"
"Pretty much." Xena leaned her head back against the wood of the altar. "She was the only one present when I... ya know, woke up."
"Hmm," the bard murmured pensively, ripping open the sleeve of her friend's kimono to reveal the gash in her arm.
"Not the sorta person you'd expect, huh?" Xena murmured, watching the bard through half closed eyelids.
"No," her friend shook her head. "Akemi said only a great power could bring you back. Himiko doesn't really look that powerful."
"I know," Xena confirmed. "I... I have been thinking a lot about this. About who it was that brought me back. And why."
Gabrielle dabbed at the dried blood on the warrior's upper arm carefully. "And?"
"And I don't know," Xena admitted. "I considered Himiko could be pretending to be less than she is, but I doubt that. Then I thought maybe it was the Kami, but that didn't make much sense either. If they wanted my help to aid Himiko, they could have just asked, right? And why would they take me away from the souls I have to redeem?"
Gabrielle kept her eyes firmly on the wound. "Maybe... Maybe they thought you were more useful alive. Maybe they're giving you a second chance."
Xena closed her eyes, releasing a tired breath. "I didn't ask for a second chance."
Gabrielle peeked up, a hurt expression in her eyes as she studied the warrior's profile. "Maybe I did," she whispered, more to herself then to Xena.
Brows frowned, then blue eyes opened and gazed down at her, questioningly. Gabrielle found herself caught in the gaze, unable to divert her eyes. And she winced internally, realising she'd just blown her charade. She couldn't look into those eyes much longer before she'd...
A knock sounded on the door and Gabrielle quickly turned toward it, relieved at the distraction. "Come in!"
The door edged open just a bit and Himiko peeked her head through, tentatively at first, then fully as she saw both of the temple's occupants appeared to be all right. She walked up to the two sitting figures, then bent her head. "Kami. Gabrielle."
"Hi," the blonde managed a smile back, then stood. "Sit down for a moment. I uhm..." she reached for the bowl standing at her feet. "I gotta get some clean water. Be right back." She excused herself, then hastily headed for the door.
"Gabr..." Xena started to call after her, but the bard had already disappeared. The warrior released a breath with a shake of her head.
Himiko rearranged her robes, then sat down beside her. "Is your friend all right?"
Xena stared at the door. "I'm not sure," she finally murmured, before returning her attention to the girl. "I uhm... I'm sorry I bailed on ya just now. With the fighting. I was just..."
"...hurting," Himiko finished softly.
The warrior gazed into the brown eyes, that held so much depth, in spite of their youth. Then she smiled, just slightly. "You're quite amazing, ya know that?"
"M...? I... Bu... I am not," Himiko finally managed to blurt out.
"You are," Xena countered. "You...." A pause to consider her words. "You stayed... pure. Unjaded. In spite of everything that happened to you."
The girl blinked at her for a moment. "I just stayed me, because... I didn't know how to be anyone else." She shook her head softly. "That's not amazing."
The door opened with a soft croak, Gabrielle stepping inside again, carefully balancing the bowl now filled with clean water. Xena lifted her eyes at the sounds and their gazes met, but only for a moment, until the bard diverted her eyes again, clearly uncomfortable.
Xena released a soft breath, tinted with sadness. "Trust me," she told the girl sitting in front of her. "It is."
An uncomfortable silence followed, in which Gabrielle crossed the room and knelt down next to the warrior, Xena studied her fumbling hands and Himiko looked from one to the other, not quite sure what she had walked in on.
The blonde picked up the now rinsed cloth and continued to clean some last splatters of blood off the slash in Xena's arm. "This'll need stitching," she said.
"Yeah." The warrior agreed.
Silence again. Himiko wrung her hands together, feeling very out of place. "I uhm..." she cleared her throat, feeling uncomfortable breaking the dense silence. "I came to tell you the battle has ended. Genyo withdrew."
Two pairs of eyes lifted and met hers, warily. "Withdrew?" Gabrielle asked. "Just like that?"
Xena frowned. "He doesn't seem like the type who can take a blow to his ego and still think straight."
"Oh, it was not Genyo himself who gave the order," Himiko hastily clarified. "It was his lieutenant, Haru." she glanced at Gabrielle. "The samurai you defeated."
The warrior's eyes turned to her friend's profile. "You forgot to mention you battled a samurai."
Gabrielle shrugged a little. "It wasn't a big deal," she murmured as she returned her attention to Xena's wound.
"It was incredible!" Himiko objected, her eyes lighting up in enthusiasm. "Haru is known throughout the region for his great skill in battle. No other clan has ever been able to defeat him before. And now a warrior fighting for our village takes him out." The girl smiled broadly. "This is a great day for my people. Never before have we stood up for our rights, because we thought fighting for what we believed in would only get us killed. We felt insignificant. But now..." she looked from one to the other, honest devotion in her eyes. "You have made it possible for us to believe that maybe it is time for us to stop living in fear. That justice may not only be reserved for those with power. I thank you both for that gift, from the bottom of my heart."
Gabrielle produced a warm smile in return. "You're welcome."
"I don't think we're done here yet though," Xena added. "This Haru guy might have enough sense to settle for a standstill, but Genyo is still in charge of the army. And I doubt he'll leave it at this."
Himiko inclined her head at this. "I do not believe he will either," she agreed. "I have asked the men to rebuilt the fortifications in case he returns for a second assault."
"We'll need to do more than just rebuilt defences," Gabrielle stated. "Genyo didn't expect any resistance before. We've lost the element of surprise now."
The warrior beside her nodded in agreement. "We'll have to make a move of our own this time." She drummed her fingertips on her knee absently. "We'll need to know what they're up to. I could..."
"I'll go," Gabrielle cut her off before she could offer to go out and spy on Genyo's activities.
Xena shot her a look. "Gabrielle..."
"You're wounded," the bard stated. "In more ways than one. You need to rest." She rose to her feet, dusting off her formerly white tunic, which was now smudged with dirt and a few bloodsplatters. "I'll be right back."
She wanted to move away then, but a touch against her hand stopped her. She looked down, as fingers wrapped themselves around her palm, and met the warrior's questioning eyes.
It was Xena's silent way of communicating. Of asking her if she'd done something wrong. What was going on. Gabrielle bit her lip, feeling herself want to give in to the pull her friend had on her. "Not now," she whispered, more a plea than an order.
A pause, as Xena considered her request. "Later?" she asked finally, in a soft voice.
Gabrielle released a breath, then nodded, before turning away and heading for the door, Xena's fingers sliding over her skin until she'd moved too far away and contact was lost.
The warrior watched her exit the room pensively. "What's going on with you, Gabrielle?" she asked her now absent friend in a murmur.
"Kami?" Himiko's questioning voice drifted up.
Xena glanced at her, then produced an apologetic smile. "Sorry, just uhm... thinking out loud."
The girl nodded. "I understand." She spoke the next words tentatively, feeling the Kami might want to talk, but not wishing to cross a line and anger her. "You seem concerned."
A half nod from the warrior.
"About your friend?"
Xena managed a half smile. "You do like to pry, don't ya?"
"I didn't m..." Himiko hastily bent her head. "I'm sorry, Kami." She started to get up. "I'll go and..."
"No," Xena reached out and laid a hand on the girl's arm, stopping her motions. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I...." She paused, then released a breath. "Gabrielle and I.... We've been through a lot together." She felt Himiko relax as the girl slowly sat back down to listen, so she removed her hand from the girl's arm. "Something's bugging her, I can see it. But she won't talk to me about it. And the last time we stopped speaking bad stuff happened. I guess I'm just... worried."
"I don't think you have any reason to be," the girl said, in an attempt to easy her worries. "Your friend cares about you greatly."
A full smile at this. "I know. I care about her a lot too. She's..." A breath. "She's my reason for living."
"That is an odd statement to make."
Xena looked up at the words, frowning just a little. "What do you mean?"
Himiko folded her hands quietly, considering her words for a moment before speaking. "You say she is why you wished to live, yet... you died."
Xena opened her mouth to counter what the girl was implying, but she found her words dying before they could cross her lips.
Was that it? Was it about her dying? Still? But Gabrielle had said.... She said everything was okay. That she understood.
Had she lied?
Her pondering was roughly interrupted by a bang on the door. "Himiko! Are you there?"
"Yes, Razan," the girl rose to her feet as the door opened and a young man, a little older than Himiko herself was, entered the temple. When his eyes fell on Xena he hastily bent his head in a sign of respect. "Kami."
"Yeah, yeah," the warrior muttered, absently.
The young man turned back to Himiko. "Nene sent me. Your grandfather has awoken. He asks for you." Razan dropped his head. "He's dying."
"What were you thinking!" Genyo snapped, his eyes ablaze.
Haru stood calmly in the centre of his commander's room, his hands folded behind his back. "I was thinking it would be unwise to let an entire army perish for no good cause."
"I have a good cause!" his lord countered furiously. "I want to kill women!"
"An admirable goal, for sure," the lieutenant stated flatly. "But even well thought-out motives like yours need a suitable force to back them up."
"Suitable force?" Genyo tossed up his hands. "Man, we're talking about Onaka!" He held his thumb and indexfinger just millimetres apart. "Tiny village. Worthless, puny fishermen. Remember?"
"These 'puny fishermen' just killed half of your fighters."
Genyo puffed out an angry breath. "Luck."
"Perhaps," Haru squared his shoulders a little. "Or perhaps they have found some powerful allies."
"Powerful! Ha!" Genyo held up his index and middlefinger. "Two foreign women. That's it."
Haru closed his eyes for a moment, clearly searching for the strength to keep calm. Finally, he opened his eyes again, meeting his lord's gaze. "Lord Genyo, I have served you and your father since I was born and I will continue to do so until I die..."
His commander felt a victorious grin tugging at his lips. "I'm glad you're finally starting to s...."
"... but you are an idiot."
Genyo's eyes widened in outrage. "Excuse me?!"
"You. Are. An. Idiot," Haru repeated, clearly pronouncing every word. "You have observed the battle, you have seen me fight one of these 'foreign women', as you so condescendingly refer to them, and you have seen me lose."
"Oh, and your incompetence is my fault, now is it?"
"I have never lost a battle before," Haru stated calmly. "And today, as always, I fought to the best of my capabilities. Yet it was not enough." He took on a pensive look for a moment. "If her friend is indeed the warrior of Higuchi, it would be unwise to confront their combined force in battle. Even our entire army may not suffice."
"The woman of Higuchi is dead!" Genyo spat back. "She walked into battle with hardly any armour on and she got sliced to bits." An indignant puff of air. "Some warrior."
"It is said she killed many men in that battle."
"Good for her," Genyo narrowed his eyes. "But in the end she died. Died. As in, is very much not alive right now." He tossed up a hand. "What do you think? That she just... rose from the dead. Poof! Just like that?"
His lieutenant considered the question for a moment. "Well, perhaps..."
With a loud echo Genyo slammed both his flat hands on his desk. "There is no 'perhaps'! No 'maybe'! This is a time of reason, Haru. Warriors do not rise from the dead. Single female warriors do not vanquish entire armies. And, most importantly, tiny fishing villages do NOT withstand the power of the Hojo tribe." He leaned forward menacingly. "Prepare the army. The entire army. We march on Onaka tomorrow."
Haru stood, meeting his commander's eyes. For a moment it looked like he would speak up, argue further. But finally he bent his head. "It will be done, my Lord." He stated, before turning and striding out of the room.
A moment, then Matsuo opened his eyes, the action clearly costing him some effort. Slowly he turned his head, until he was looking up at his grandchild. He smiled. "You came."
"Of course I came," Himiko said softly. "You asked for me."
Matsuo's dark eyes gazed into Himiko's, doubtfully it seemed, silence descending on them both for a long moment. It wasn't an uncomfortable silence, but it wasn't pleasant either. It was one filled with uncertainties, unasked questions and lingering emotions. They could be felt, almost, like a thick fog drifting around.
Xena watched the pair from her position in the shadows of the doorway. She didn't care for the older man much, not since she heard about what had happened to Himiko, and how he'd dealt with it. Her eyes narrowed a little, as she watched the man's profile. No... She didn't care much for him at all.
The older man finally diverted his gaze, drawing in a heavy breath. "Do you hate me?" he asked, his words a mere whisper.
"Hate you?" The girl frowned, not understanding at all. "Why would I hate you? You haven't done anything."
Matsuo managed a wry smile. "Exactly. I did... nothing." He glanced up again, his eyes regretfully. "Nothing to help you, when you were in pain. I..."
A dry cough forced his way up, and the older man grabbed for his heart, trying to still his frantically heaving chest. Himiko hastily reached for his shoulders, doing her best to keep his aching body still. Another few coughs, then Matsuo settled down again. Tiredly he let himself sink back into his pillow, keeping his eyes closed until he had composed himself. When he opened them again, there were tears in his eyes. From the coughing, Himiko assumed.
"I thought I was being strong," her grandfather spoke, drawing the words out. "But the truth is... I was afraid."
"Afraid?" the girl blinked. "You?"
A small nod at this.
"Afraid of what?"
Matsuo managed a half smile. "You."
Himiko's eyes widened. "Me?" she blurted, shocked. "You... You were afraid of me?"
"I was afraid of...." A raspy breath. "Of your courage." He carefully lifted his hand, laying it against her cheek. "My son, your father.... He had such courage. And he died because of it. And your mother..." he gently stroked her skin with his thumb. "I promised my son on his dying breath that I would protect his daughter. And when I found out what Genyo had done...." He paused a moment, clearly strengthening himself. "I... I couldn't handle that I had failed. That I failed my family again. And I...."
A hand touched his, Himiko's finger intertwining with his own. "I understand," she spoke softly. "It's okay."
Matsuo's frail fingers closed in around hers, squeezing gently. "Forgive me."
Himiko managed a small smile. "I never blamed you." She swallowed away the lump in her throat. "I thought I did, once, but... I didn't. Ever."
Xena felt the tear that sidled down her cheek when it had nearly reached her chin. She hastily wiped it away, sniffling back another.
It wasn't the scene itself. It wasn't Matsuo dying. It was....
It was the similarities that had become so painstakingly obvious all of a sudden. She didn't like Matsuo much and she understood why now. Because he reminded her too much of herself. He had ignored Himiko's pain, after the rape, like she had ignored Gabrielle's, when Dahak had...
She lifted a hand and pinched the bridge of her nose, taking a moment to calm herself, force back the tears. This wasn't the time. This was so not the time.
"Thank you," Matsuo smiled now, placidly almost. "Now, I will only have to ask your father's forgiveness." He suppressed another cough, only barely. "I think, I will get to that soon."
Himiko sniffled, laying her second hand on top of her grandfather's as well. She noticed his fingers were cold. "Grandfather, please," she begged.
The older man lifted his free hand, calmingly. "There is... Something I need to give you." Carefully, he half turned, reaching under his pillow. He pulled an item from under the soft surface, then held it out to his granddaughter.
Himiko reached out for it hesitantly, her fingers pausing just a moment before touching the leather hilt. It was a tanto, a dagger, with a hilt made of simple red wood, only the mark of her village carved into it. She gently let her fingers trace the marking.
"It belonged to your father when he ruled," Matsuo spoke up. "And to me when I did. Now, it is yours."
Himiko's head shot up. "To me? You mean, I..."
"How you use it is up to you," Matsuo continued, ignoring the girl's sputtering. "Your father decided to use it to fight, and he died. I decided not to use it at all, and my soul died. You will have to decide about the form of your reign. Soon I fear."
The girl stared at the blade for another moment, then she shook her head determinedly, holding the weapon out, intending to hand it back to her grandfather. "I won't take it. It's not my time."
"It is," Matsuo countered, refusing to take the blade from her. "I am weak. I can't lead our people anymore. Only you can."
Himiko kept on shaking her head. "I can't."
"You can," her grandfather gently touched her fingers, folding them around the hilt of the blade. "We all have a destiny, Himiko. Something we were meant to do. And before we do that, we cannot find peace." His eyes gazed into hers calmly. "I have come to the end of my journey. I have done all I can. Now it's time I allowed you to fulfil your destiny."
The girl gazed at him, tears forming in her eyes. "But I..."
She stopped speaking then as footsteps sounded and she looked up to see Xena kneeling down beside her. The warrior reached out and laid two fingers against the older man's neck, checking his pulse, then she pinned down one of his eyelids with a thumb and looked at his pupil. "I think you'd better save the drama, old man."
Himiko blinked, looking from Xena to her grandfather. "Kami?"
"He ain't dead yet." A pause, then she turned her head to look at the girl beside her. "Is there a healer in the village? Someone who knows herbs?"
"Yes," Himiko nodded. "Nene is our healer. But she said..."
"Get her over here. I need to see her."
Himiko, blinked, then glanced at her grandfather insecurely. "But what if...?"
"Don't worry. While I'm here, he won't die," Xena assured her, before turning back and meeting Matsuo's gaze, her eyes hardening a little. "I won't let him."
With a soft thud, Haru let the door close behind him. He walked through the room, to the window that looked out over the lands he fought for, and beyond that, to the lands he would soon fight against. His face was set, unmoving, as he gazed at the dot in the distance, which was the small fishing village Onaka.
He had not changed his clothes since they had returned to Hojo, and his light-blue kimono was still muddy and bloodstained. He had only taken the time to removed his breastplate and as he turned from the window and sagged down on his bed, he started to unclip the piece of armour on his left shoulder. Sand drifted down from the bit as he did so, dropping on the blankets around him. Haru glanced down at it, seeing that some grains were painted red in the blood of one of his victims. Then he tugged the shoulderbit loose completely, tossing it across the room with more anger than he wished to express. The armourpiece hit the opposite wall, followed by the soft pattering of sand as the grains hit the wall and floor.
With a sigh Haru dropped his head, lifting his hands and pressing the palms against his face. He stayed like that for a moment in silence, until...
"I don't understand you."
Haru's head shot up at the voice and turned immediately towards where the sound was coming from, to see a figure crouching down in the windowsill, watching him calmly. His lips curled up in a faint smile as he studied the warrior he had fought moments before. "I do not believe I understand you either."
Gabrielle inclined her head in acknowledgement, then pushed off from the windowsill and hopped into the room, soundlessly. Haru's eyes stayed glued on her, intrigued. "You could have walked away without me noticing you. Yet you chose to speak up." He cocked his head slightly. "Why? Why place yourself in danger by exposing yourself?"
The blonde found a spot in the shadows, with her back against the wall. "Because we are standing on the brink of war. And I don't believe either of us wants to enter into it."
Haru folded his hands quietly, nodding a bit. "You might be right, warrior," he admitted. "But what I want, is of no consequence."
"No consequence?" Gabrielle frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I am samurai. I must obey my lord."
"Must obey?" The woman studied him intently. "Does he.... Does he have some sort of hold on you? Is he blackmailing you, or...?"
Her companion shook his head. "You are not from here. You do not know our ways."
"Then explain 'em to me." Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Cause I have serious problems understanding why an honourable man would fight for a cause which I'm sure he knows is unjust and how he can drag an army of men down with him doing it."
The samurai released a breath, closing his eyes for a moment, clearly considering her request. Finally he looked up again. "A samurai is bound to his master through loyalty. A samurai will serve the same family his entire lifetime. If he does otherwise, he loses honour."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "That's stupid."
"No, it is not." Haru stated calmly. "My country is one of war, warrior. That is how it has been for many years. If a samurai would not have to abide by any code, it would result in chaos. No man would trust another, every relation would be one of suspicion." He diverted his eyes, as he started to remove the second shoulder piece. "I do not agree with my lord. I have not agreed with him on several occasions."
The blonde tossed up a hand. "So, tell him that."
"The only way to let him know of my disagreeing without losing honour, is to commit suicide." Haru removed the bit of armour and set it down on the bed beside him. "And I have considered that option many times."
Green eyes studied him from the shadows. "But...?"
He started on the strap secured around his right leg. "Genyo was born when I was ten years old and my father was a samurai in his father's army. Both our fathers were away constantly, because of endless wars they fought to gain and hold land. The daimyo left me to take care of his son." He pulled another piece of armour from his leg, shaking some of the sand that had gotten stuck in the bamboo loose. "He was a good boy, Genyo. Playful, enthusiastic. But when he was only six, the daimyo sent him off to a special tutor and when my Lord returned.... He was a changed man. Pumped full of thoughts of battle and war and hatred." Haru glanced up, meeting the eyes watching him. "I have tried since then to see the boy I cared for."
"And do you? Do you see him?"
Haru shook his head. "No. But that does not mean I should stop trying."
Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "I understand." She took a step towards him, coming out of the shadows. Just like the samurai, she too hadn't changed and was still wearing her tattered tunic, stained in crimson red. "But look at us, Haru." She glanced down at her own body, then up at his. "Look at the blood."
Haru's dark eyes lifted slowly. "I see it."
"It doesn't have to be like this. We can put an end to this. Peacefully."
The samurai managed a small, sad smile. "I wish it were so."
"It is so," Gabrielle tried again. "If we..."
"No," Haru cut her short, gently but firmly. "We both live by Bushido. The way of the warrior. I know which path I must follow. And you know yours." He managed a half smile as he saw the blonde was about to protest. "I know you do not understand. But this is how it is."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, considering, then she inclined her head in acceptance. "Very well." She turned away from him, back towards the window. "I will see you tomorrow, then."
Haru's eyes followed her as she hopped onto the windowsill in a fluent motion, without making a single sound. "What is your name?"
The woman shot a look over her shoulder. "You want to know my name?"
She seemed to consider for a moment, but then spoke up. "Gabrielle."
The samurai bent his head a trifle. "You have great honour, Gabrielle. If tomorrow we meet, and faith would have it that I take your life, know I will have not wished it to be so."
The blonde managed a small smile. "I know," she said, before facing forward again. "Good luck, Haru." And with that she pushed off, disappearing into the darkness.
"This is no use."
Xena glanced up for a moment, then cast her eyes back down again. "Maybe not." She pushed the blanket down a little, exposing the older man's back.
"I am an old man, Kami." Matsuo spoke up, lying his forehead on his folded arms, staring at his pillow. "I have lived a long tiring life. I wish for it to end."
"Too bad. Your granddaughter needs you to live." Xena laid a hand at the base of his neck. "Now lay still." She picked up a thin needle from a pile between her thumb and forefinger. "You don't want me to poke a hole in your lung, now do ya?"
Matsuo closed his eyes, obeying her. "I do not get what you wish to accomplish."
The needle hovered over his bare shoulderblade, then stopped over a specific point, piercing the skin there. "Several things." Xena answered, picking up a second needle. "I wanna keep Himiko from hurting. She's lost more than enough." The second tip pierced the skin at the base of the older man's neck. "I wanna keep you from making a mistake by leaving her in her time of need and regretting that for the rest of your eternity." A third touched his other shoulder. "And I'm doing this for myself."
"Yourself?" Matsuo tried to look up, but a hand laid itself on his head and pushed him back down again, squashing his forehead against his arms. He winced. "Why yourself?"
Xena slid a finger over his skin, until she found another spot. "Because I made a mistake once." A wry smile. "I made many. But one I regret most of all. I'm seeking redemption."
"By helping my granddaughter?"
Xena nodded. "Yes. She..." She swallowed, closing her eyes for a moment. "Her situation is similar to someone else's. A friend. And she needed my help, back then, but I ignored her pain."
"And you think your friend will forgive you? If you help Himiko? " Matsuo inquired curiously.
A shake of the dark head, as the women pinned another needle into skin. "She's already forgiven me."
Matsuo frowned, unseen by the warrior. "Then why...?"
"Because redemption isn't about someone else forgiving you. It's about..." Xena paused suddenly, realising what it was she was about to say. What saying it meant. "It's about forgiving yourself," she finished then, softly.
Silence fell and lasted. Xena shook her head a little, trying to break away from her thoughts and focus again on the task at hand. She picked up another needle, continuing the treatment. Matsuo gazed pensively at his pillow.
Himiko looked down at the child seated on her lap. She had picked up her daughter and settled down under a tree near the entrance to the temple, to watch the stars that were now starting to appear one by one as the sky darkened. The ground was still damp, from the surplus of rain that had fallen, but Himiko found that the chill drifting around her cleared her mind.
"Mama, yous quiet."
Himiko smiled, gently stroking her daughter's hair. "I'm just thinking, sweetie."
The girl hugged her child a little closer, laying her cheek on the tiny head. "About.... About how nice it is here, right now. Just you and me and the stars."
"Stas pwetty," Iyo stated seriously.
"Yes, they are." Himiko released a breath slowly, watching the small cloud that formed and drifted off into the coolness of the air. "I wish it could stay like this. I wish it could be just you and me and that the rest didn't matter. I wish we could just... just walk away from here, together, and hide somewhere."
"Hide?" Iyo peered up at her mother at the word. "Hide a seek?"
Himiko managed a small, wry smile. "It probably turn into that, wouldn't it?"
"Hide a seek fun," the toddler said, wiggling off her mother's lap. "We go plays!"
The smile grew into a full one. "You want to play, do you?"
The girl laughed. "Very well then." She rose to her feet calmly. "No hide and seek though. It's too dark."
"'kay." Iyo nodded seriously, then slapped a hand at her mother's leg, before spinning round and tottering off as fast as she could. "We plays tag. Yous it!"
Himiko smirked, shaking her head. "That's not fair, you know?" She called after her daughter.
Iyo just giggled delightedly in response. Her mother rolled her eyes, but then set in pursuit.
Gabrielle stopped as she heard the laughter up ahead, peering through the darkness to see Iyo running in circles around a tree, her mother following close behind. The bard stood, hiding in the shadows and watching the two as they played. After a while Himiko decided she had enough of going in circles and she reached forward, catching her child around the waist and then letting herself fall back. She ended up lying in the long wet grass, laughing with a giggling toddler sprawled over her. Iyo squirmed around, ending up nose to nose with her mother. Himiko wrapped her arms around the child then, rubbing noses lovingly, making Iyo giggle even louder.
The scene brought a smile to Gabrielle's face and the blonde allowed the sound of happy laughter to push away the thoughts of the grim situation for just a moment. Allowed for a moment to believe that things would work out. Himiko clearly adored her daughter. And the power of a love that great could overcome...
Gabrielle's eyes widened just a trifle at the thought. A love that great could overcome any obstacle. Even death.
The bard gazed pensively at the two figures outlined by the soft moonlight. A smile started tugging at the corner's of her mouth, and she leaned her head against the bark of the tree she'd been hiding behind, gazing up at the clear sky. "That's it, isn't it?" She asked in a whisper, to no one in particular. "That's the powerful force that brought Xena back. It was love."
The stars twinkled back at her.
"Is somebody out there?"
Gabrielle broke from her thoughts, to see Himiko sitting up now, peering into the darkness in alarm, unable to see her. "It's me." She spoke up.
"Gabrielle," the girl spoke, clearly relieved that it was a friend and not a foe hiding in the shadows. "You have returned." She rose to her feet, lifting her daughter up with her. "Did you find anything?"
The blonde smiled warmly. "Answers."
Himiko returned the smile. "Those are good to find."
"Abby!" Tiny hands reached out for her enthusiastically. "Yous durty!"
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Well, it's nice to see you too."
"All muddy," Iyo said, pointing at one of the marks on the women's tunic. "Good!"
"Oh no," Himiko wagged a finger at the girl. "Don't you get any bright ideas. Mud is not good." She bent down, placing the toddler on the ground. "And I'm sure Gabrielle would feel better in some clean clothes, and she'd be very happy if you went and got her some."
The toddler looked doubtful at this, turning her head to peer up at the blonde woman. "You wan clothes?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I'd like that."
Iyo raised a dark eyebrow, disbelievingly. "No mud?"
"No mud." The bard managed, biting her lip to keep the smirk off her face.
Iyo sighed, clearly not understanding what anyone would want clean clothes for, but she did turn around and toddle off.
Gabrielle laughed softly as she watched the child go. "She's quite a character."
"Yes, she is." Himiko watched her child go with warm affection, then she turned towards the bard. "The Kami is with my grandfather." She pointed towards a building in the distance, marked by a large lantern, spreading a deep red colour. "He is very ill, but she claims she can help him."
Gabrielle turned to her. "If anyone can, it's Xena," she said, reassuringly. "I uhm..." she glanced at the house, then motioned her hand towards the town square. "I don't wanna disturb her, while she's doing the healing thing, so... I'll just go and see if I can find some people to come with me and make some preparations. The road from Hojo to here leads through a forest partways. That'll make for a good place to set our trap."
Himiko looked at her doubtfully for a moment as the bard started off, then she gathered her courage. "Gabrielle?"
The bard half turned. "Yeah?"
"I..." Himiko fumbled with the edge of her tunic. "I was hoping, maybe... Well, maybe you could..."
A blonde eyebrow raised questioningly.
The girl released a breath, then reached behind her, pulling a dagger from her belt and holding it out towards the other woman. "My grandfather gave me this."
Gabrielle glanced at the weapon, turning around fully now and taking the few steps back to stand before the girl.
"It is... an heirloom of sorts. Giving to the one who is the leader of the village." Himiko explained in a soft voice.
Gabrielle glanced up, then back down at the dagger, taking it from Himiko's hands and studying it quietly. "You got promoted, huh?"
"Unfortunately," the girl murmured with a sigh. "The thing is, I don't know how to fight with this weapon. Or any other for that matter. And tomorrow, when the battle starts, I have to..."
"You don't have to." Gabrielle interrupted her. "You don't have to fight. Xena and I can...."
"I am their leader now." Himiko waved her hand at the dagger. "And I set them on this path, by reclaiming my daughter, by starting this war. I asked them to fight for our freedom." Brown eyes searched green. "How can I stand back now?"
Gabrielle released a breath, dropping her head. "You can't."
"Exactly." Himiko squared her shoulders, just a little, as she took the dagger from the bard's hands. "I want you to teach me to fight."
The blonde glanced up again, pensively, clearly considering her request. Then she nodded. "All right," she agreed, "but not with that." She indicated the dagger.
Himiko blinked at her. "But... But we have no other weapons." Her eyes followed the bard as she moved away, coming to a standstill under the tree and glancing up. "What...?"
Gabrielle hopped up, grabbing onto a branch and easily lifting herself up. "You go and send some men down the road and tell 'm to dig a hole. Meet me back here in a moment."
A fresh breeze blew in as Xena opened the door and stepped outside. She'd finished the acupuncture session with Matsuo and the older man was vast asleep now. She wasn't sure if it would work, of course, but the man had some sort of heart problem and she'd learned from her tutor in Chin, who had taught her acupuncture, after some subtle... encouragement, to use these specific points.
Xena folded her hands behind her back, gazing up at the sky. The clouds had receded almost completely now and the stars could be clearly seen. Tomorrow, it seemed, would be a good day.
The silence was suddenly broken by a thud echoing through the small streets. Followed by another, and another. Xena frowned, and increased her pace, heading towards the sound.
Soon the cause of commotion came into view, and Xena stopped, taking in the scene. At the base of the stairs to the temple four torches stood, placed on the corners of an imaginary square. In that square, Himiko was listening intently to Gabrielle, then nodded, changing her stance just a little and lifting the wooden stick she was holding, blocking a weak attack by the bard.
The warrior smiled, just a little. It had been a while since she'd seen the bard fighting with a staff, but she still held the weapon confidently, caressing the wood a little with her fingers as she again explained something to the patient Himiko. Xena watched the torch light reflect off her golden hair as she shifted her weight and swung her staff towards the girl again, Himiko blocking easily, then blocking again and thereby defending herself against one of Gabrielle's dangerous combination moves. They'd clearly been practising for some time already, to have made that much progress.
Gabrielle's eyes shot up, immediately drawn down the road, to see a tall figure outlined by the moonlight. Xena's eyes had turned to the toddler, who had scrambled to her feet, and was now heading for her, but then they lifted again and their gazes met.
There was such tension between them and Gabrielle had to force herself to produce a small smile. Xena smiled back, a warm, reassuring gesture. And for a moment Gabrielle let herself believe that nothing was wrong and she could just let herself drown in the currents of emotions, could just...
"Ouch!" She lifted a hand and rubbed her shoulder, then glanced up at the victoriously grinning Himiko. She narrowed her eyes. "That was cheating."
"You said I had to hit you with the staff," Himiko reminded her. "I did. I won."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the girl, clearly more humoured by her sudden cheekiness than upset. "Fine, fine. You won. I guess I will have to admit..."
With a sudden hop she flipped herself over her opponent, landing solidly and then, almost carelessly, flicked her staff against the girl's back. Himiko stumbled forward then tripped and fell, landing flat on her face in the grass. She quickly turned in an attempt to scramble up, but before she could a staff was pressing against her neck. "...defeat." Gabrielle finished smugly.
Himiko bent her head, chuckling a little. "I believe I have much more to learn."
"True," Gabrielle removed her staff, then extended her hand down, which the girl grabbed hold of. "But you can't expect to learn everything in one day."
Himiko nodded, as she dusted her clothes off. When she straightened again she watched Xena step up to them, a cheerfully chattering Iyo seated on her shoulder.
"And the Abby go bam bam, and mama go bam bam," the child waved enthusiastically at the air with her balled fists.
"Really?" Xena smirked up at the child, then halted in front of the other two women. "Bam bam, huh?"
"Yes," Iyo nodded enthusiastically. "Mama good!"
The warrior chuckled softly. "I don't doubt that."
Himiko held her hands out for her daughter. Xena lifted the child off her shoulder and handed her over, giving the toddler's hair a playful ruffle. "How's grandfather?" The girl asked, as she tried to keep hold of her restless burden.
"Better, I think."
"Wonderful," Himiko beamed a smile at her. "Thank you, Kami."
"Least I could do," Xena shot her a smile, then her eyes flicked past the Japanese, to watch Gabrielle moving around restlessly, busying herself with retrieving Himiko's fallen staff and wiping every single grain of sand off the wooden surface. The warrior dropped her head and sucked in a breath, strengthening herself. "Leave us for a moment?" She murmured, not looking up.
The girl nodded, understanding in her eyes. She patted her daughter on the back. "It is time for bed for you, I believe."
Iyo's face immediately scrunched up in horror. "Bed no good!"
"I know, honey." Himiko stated as she headed back down the road and towards her house. "But as your mother it is my task to make sure your life is quiet and boring and full of much sleep."
Her daughter blinked at her with wide brown eyes for a long moment, then she released a aggrieved sigh, laying her head against her mother's shoulder in surrender.
Gabrielle could feel the eyes on her back, studying her. The silence around them was tense and it made her nervous. She desperately wanted it to be broken. "She uhm, she's good, Himiko," she spoke up, wincing at the sound of her own voice. She cleared her throat. "With some more training, she could be... really good."
The bard bit her lip. It was coming out wrong. Everything was coming out wrong. She was gonna blow it. Blow her cover.
See, there it was. That tone in her voice, low and warning, yet warm at the same time. Gabrielle firmly kept her back turned to her friend, pressing her eyes shut and trying to calm her breathing. Xena couldn't know. She couldn't tell her. It would break the warrior's heart. And Gabrielle had sworn all those years ago that she would never, ever be responsible for that again. Never. Not th...
A hand touched her shoulder, a thumb gently stroking a bit of exposed skin at the base of her neck. Tears welled up in her eyes instantly.
"Don't," she choked and with a jerk she pulled away, hastily taking a few steps forward, until she was standing beside the tree Himiko and her daughter had been sitting under moments before. "Not now."
She could hear the soft rustle of fabric as Xena carefully took a step closer to her. "We need to have that talk."
"No," Gabrielle shook her head feverishly. "No, we don't. There's... There's nothing to talk about."
Another step. "Isn't there?" And another, bringing the warrior right up behind her.
"No." Gabrielle swallowed, focusing on keeping her voice steady. "Of... Of course not. I mean, you're fine. I'm fine. Everything's just... fine."
Arms slid around her waist then and pulled her close, before Gabrielle had the chance to escape again. For a moment, the bard's muscles tensed up, as if intending to break the hold, but Xena just hugged her a little tighter in response. Gabrielle felt her resolve fail her and she let herself lean back against the warrior.
They had hugged many times of course, in the period in which Xena was a ghost, but this time... It was different. It was... real. Gabrielle tried, but couldn't keep a tear from sliding down her cheek.
Soft lips pressed a kiss against her temple. "If everything's fine..." Xena leaned her head against the bard's. "...then why are you crying?"
Gabrielle sniffled, pressing her eyes shut tight. "I can't tell you."
The warrior's fingers traced calming patterns on her stomach. "Why not?"
"Because I..." The blonde sucked in a breath, the air rasping against her tight throat. "Because it'll make you cry too. And I don't...." She swallowed. "I don't wanna make you cry anymore."
A silence followed, then suddenly Gabrielle's eyes shot open as she felt a drop slide from Xena's cheek to hers. "Too late," her friend whispered softly, hoarsely.
The bard dropped her head a little, biting her lip. "I'm sorry."
"No," hands touched her waist and turned her around. A moment, then fingers lifted her chin, making her look up into teary blue eyes. "Don't you be sorry." Xena stroked back a lock of blond hair. "Don't you dare be sorry."
"I tried," Gabrielle managed around the lump rapidly forming in her throat. "I tried so hard, but.... But I missed you."
The warrior's lips tensed in wary sympathy.
"I missed.... I missed going into a tavern with you," the bard continued, somehow managing to keep eye contact. "Talking, without people looking up at me like I was insane. I missed arguing about silly things like a jar you broke, or a dented fryingpan." A teary laugh, then Gabrielle bent her head again, looking at the grass gently blowing beneath their feet. "I missed the sound of you sharpening your sword by the fire. Tracing patterns in the sky." She glanced up, hesitantly lifting a hand and touching Xena's face. "I missed watching you sleep."
Xena released a breath, gently running her hands through the blond hair. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"How could I?" The bard replied in a whisper. "You... You did everything right. You saved the souls, rescued Akemi, redeemed yourself. And you kept your word. You stayed with me, even in death." Gabrielle's fingers slid over soft skin. "You were happy. Was I supposed to take that away from you? Just because... I needed you more?"
Xena released a breath, leaning her head forward, against the bard's. "You mean everything to me."
Gabrielle smiled, just a little. "I know. I never doubted that." She closed her eyes, inhaling the scents around her. The cool night air, the faint scent of the nearby tree, mixed with a good dose of Xena. "You did what you had to do. If you'd stayed with me, you would have denied all that you are. All that we fought for all these years."
A silence fell after those words, in which Xena gazed pensively ahead of herself. "They need me back." She finally said, in a soft voice. "The souls. I can feel them. Calling me."
Gabrielle sniffled, nodding her head a little. "Akemi said... you have to be back tomorrow night. Before the sun rises."
Silence, again, then Xena's voice: "Ask me to stay and I will."
Gabrielle leaned back a little, gazing up at the dark head. "Would you? Would you condemn thousands of souls, for me?"
"In a heartbeat," was the immediate reply.
Green eyes held the warrior's for a moment more, then Gabrielle let her head fall forward against the warrior's shoulder. "You know I can't let you do that."
Arms wrapped around her in response. "Oh yeah, staying right here with you is such a sacrifice."
Gabrielle chuckled. "You know what I mean."
Xena rested her chin on top of the blonde head, murmuring a yes.
"You have to follow you way, Xena. I know that." She rubbed the warrior's side absently. "Just promise me one thing?"
"Sure," Xena closed her eyes. "What?"
"Take me with you."
Blue eyes popped open again. "B..." She blinked. "You mean...?"
"Yes." Gabrielle's voice was calm and confident.
Xena released a breath, then pulled back a little, so the bard was facing her. "You're asking me if I'm okay with you committing suicide for me."
A firm nod.
"I'm not." Blue eyes hardened just a fraction. "Gabrielle, you have so much to live for."
"Like what?" The bard deadpanned, gently but firmly. "Xena, I'm fifty years old." A small smile. "I'm living in an era I was never meant to see. My mother, my father, our friends.... They're all dead. And the few that are still alive.... I have missed so much of their life. I missed them ageing, getting married, having children. 25 years have struck a crevice between me and them that can never be breached." Gabrielle reached up, stroking a lock of dark hair off the warrior's forehead. "But that was okay. Because I had you."
Xena's hand covered hers, squeezing gently.
"But without you," she continued. "What's the point?"
The warrior shook her head. "Your life doesn't revolve around me."
Gabrielle laughed softly. "Doesn't it?"
Blue eyes caught green ones, and they spent a moment studying each other, facing off in a battle of wills. Finally Xena dropped her head. "I don't wanna fight you about this. Not now."
"Me neither," Gabrielle agreed. A pause. "Fight about it tomorrow then?"
A wry chuckle. "Sure."
Twinkling blue eyes looked up, then Xena gave a light tug at the hand she still held. She led the bard a few steps until they came to the base of the tree, where she settled down against the bark before patting the ground in front of her. Gabrielle obediently sat down as well, leaning back against the warrior's sturdy frame. She closed her eyes as arms slipped around her. "We've got a lot to do before tomorrow. Shouldn't we get moving?"
"You uncomfortable?" was the murmured response
Gabrielle snorted softly. "No, but..."
"Then be quiet."
The bard shook her head a little, a smile spreading across her lips. "Okay."
There was only the sound of the wind toying with the leaves above them then, as they both sat silently, just enjoying each other's presence. Gabrielle traced circles on the warrior's arm absentmindedly as she let herself drift away in the perfectness of the moment.
"It's a tree."
The bard blinked open her eyes. "Hmm?"
"There," the warrior lifted a finger, pointing up at the sky. "See those stars there? In two lines? That's the trunk. And that little cloud on top of it are the leaves."
Gabrielle followed the warrior's hand as she indicated the pattern. It took a moment, but then the pictures came to her again. "That's not a tree."
"It's a bird."
"A bird?" Xena raised an eyebrow sharply. "You think my tree is a bird?" A snort. "That's one damn big bird then."
The bard poked her friend in the stomach. "Don't mock me cause you can't tell a tree from a bird, warrior princess." She tilted her head back, meeting twinkling blue eyes. "It's one of those birds we saw in Africa. You know, the ones with the long legs?"
"The ones that couldn't fly, you mean? You seeing flightless birds in the sky now, Gabrielle?"
"Hardiharhar," the bard shot her a look, then faced forward again and pointed up. "Look, those lines are its legs and your little cloud is its body. And up there is his neck and that's the head."
Xena studied the pattern pensively for a long silent moment. "I was wondering why my tree had a head," she finally murmured dryly.
Gabrielle held out a moment, then she started laughing. Xena smirked, tickling the bard in the side playfully, making the other woman laugh even louder as she grabbed for the offending hand. The warrior laughed as well.
After a moment they both settled down, Gabrielle still chuckling weakly. "Gods, that felt good."
"Sure did," Xena agreed, laying her head against the bards and exhaling. "Happy anniversary, Gabrielle."
There was a long pause, then the bard cursed under her breath. "Oh damn it. We missed another one, didn't we?"
The warrior grinned. "Yup."
A groan. "28 years in a row. Incredible."
Xena chuckled, hugging her friend a little tighter. "At least we're here now, at the end of the day. Together."
Gabrielle tilted her head back again, looking up at the warrior's profile, outlined by the glow of the nearby torches. "Yeah, we are."
Blue eyes, gone pale in the weak light, shifted and met hers, warm and loving. They kept gazing at each other for a moment, then Xena leaned closer, gently placing a kiss on her lips.
Some moments later they broke off again, both smiling. Xena lifted their entwined hands, pressing a kiss on top of the bard's knuckles. "Thanks for coming to save me." A pause. "Again."
Gabrielle chuckled just a little, happily snuggling closer. "Always."
Silence fell again, closing around them like a warm blanket. Gabrielle shut her eyes, listening to the sounds of the night. A small animal rummaging through the foliage, the crackling of the flames of the torches standing nearby, the soft rustling of the wind through the leaves above. And Xena's heartbeat, drumming softly against her ear. The soft rasp as she breathed in and out.
It was like poetry, she decided. Like music. It healed aches inside of her she had learned to live with, and now that they were gone suddenly she felt... light. Peaceful. Like, finally, everything was just the way it should be.
She'd saved Xena, and Xena had saved her. Her smile grew just a fraction. It was remarkable how, in 31 years, so little had changed.
Continued in part IV
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