Part V

"Well... It's uhm... different." Gabrielle lifted up a bit of shoulder protection, made of strands of bamboo, tightly woven together. The bard glanced over her shoulder, to see Xena closing the door to the temple behind her. "I don't think this will do much in the way of protection though."

"It won't," Xena confirmed, walking up to her. "But it won't pull you down like metal armour either." She picked up a bit of shin protection, tossing it up in the air a bit. "This weighs next to nothing. You'll be a lot quicker."

Gabrielle fingered a bit of the light blue kimono she'd been given. "True." She conceded. "But most of Genyo's men will be wearing this too, right? They'll be quick."

"Yes, but you're a better fighter." Xena stated matter-of-factly, as she checked the armour for error. "No matter how quick they are, they won't be able to touch you."

Green eyes peeked up at her companion, then Gabrielle glanced back down, unable to hide a small, proud smile as she straightened the fabric of her new outfit. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," was the response, then Gabrielle felt a hand touching her shoulder, turning her to face the warrior. "Now..." Xena smiled slyly as she reached for the belt holding the kimono her friend was wearing shut, gently tugging it loose. "Let's get you dressed up."

Himiko let her kimono slide of her shoulders, down to the ground. She reached for the blue fabric lying nearby, tossing her father's kimono over her shoulders. She'd shortened it with her dagger, and it reached down to her knees down. She half turned, pulling the wide sleeve up over her arm.

Gabrielle's other hand found its way through the soft fabric of her kimono, which Xena held open for her. Xena proceeded to wrap the fabric around her, ending up with both her arms around her friend's body. Gently she pressed a kiss against the bare skin of the blonde's neck. Gabrielle smiled in response, leaning back against the warrior's sturdy form.

Himiko lowered the armour over her head, letting its weight rest on her shoulders. The armour was lighter than she'd imagined. She took a moment to resettle the armour in such a way that it was most comfortable, then she reached for the small straps on either side, securing them.

Gabrielle made sure the shoulder piece was firmly attached, while Xena knelt before her, settling the shin protectors into place. The bard continued to check her armour, adjusting a few straps here and there.

Himiko drew in a deep breath, feeling the armour gently shift as her chest moved to accept the inflow of air. She tugged at a bit of her kimono, straightening the fabric under the armour. She glanced down at herself, then up, at the dagger she'd left balancing on top of the chest. She walked over to it, stopping in front of the weapon, gazing down at it.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," Xena wrung her hands together nervously, as she stared down at the worn sword lying on the altar. The metal glinted dully in the moonlight. "I have to get over this."

Gabrielle stepped up to her, in full armour now. "You don't have to fight."

The warrior glanced down at the blond beside her, raising a meaningful eyebrow.

"You don't," Gabrielle insisted. "You can stay back and organise the attack or something." A pause. "I'd feel better if you did. I wouldn't have to worry so much."

Xena lifted a hand and laid it against her friend's cheek, clearly touched by the concern. "I'm a warrior, Gabrielle. I was once and I am now. I can't pretend to be otherwise, just because I'm afraid."

The bard leaned into her touch. "I know." A breath. "Had to try though."

Xena chuckled softly. "My stubbornness prevails once more." She affectionately ruffled the blond locks, then faced forward again. "Okay..." she swallowed, clenching her hands to fists, to keep them from shaking. "Here goes."

Himiko looked down at the dagger, balanced on the tips of her fingers. She looked down at it doubtfully, insecure about what to do.

Should she take it into battle? The use of the dagger would reflect her reign, or so her grandfather had said. And her reign would start with war. So should she take it? Should she take it with her and kill?

Himiko lifted a hand, letting her fingers caress the blade. The metal was cold to her touch. She imagined it would always be cold.

Xena clenched her teeth, as her fingertips touched upon cold metal.

"Raising an army again, Xena?" Callisto placed her hands on the altar, leaning down until her smug face was in the warrior's line of sight. "I thought you knew better by now."

The warrior closed her eyes, folding her fingers around the hilt of her sword, slowly lifting it from the altar's surface.

"I mean, the similarities are striking, are they not?" Callisto voice sounded in her ear. Xena could almost feel the warmth of her breathing. "Small village, bad odds... So why are you at this again, hmm? You so effectively managed to kill off your brother the last time, so this seemed a nice occasion to take care of that pesky Japanese girl maybe?" A giggle. "Or your sweet Gabrielle even? Do you want her to die Xena? Do you?"

The warrior drew in a sharp breath, forcing herself to open her eyes again.

Callisto's dark eyes bore into hers. "But you go ahead, precious. You go ahead and take that sword. Rush into your little battle and kill them. Kill them all." A dark grin. "You remember how, don't you? How to raise this sword up and drive it through skin and bones?" Callisto leaned closer, until her face was only inches from the warriors. "I sure remember how it felt when you drove it through my stomach."

Xena felt her hands shaking. It was so tempting to just let go. To let go of the swordhilt and run away. But before she could give into that temptation, warm arms wrapped around her, and she felt Gabrielle pillow her head against the small of her back. The comforting touch brought a smile to her face, and she found the strength to look up again.

Callisto's dark eyes met hers, not with contempt or anger this time, but with a calm knowledge. "I am your conscience. I'll never go away. You can't deny my truth." She circled the altar, stepping up right to the warrior. "I know your thoughts, Xena. All your selfish little thoughts." She leaned closer, whispering. "What about those souls, Xena? What about those souls you condemned?"

Himiko's hands closed over the hilt of the dagger. With a quiet determination, she placed the dagger in its sheath, then attached the sheet to her belt.

Xena straightened, her sword now held firmly in both her hands. She felt arms slowly unwind from around her waist as Gabrielle stepped up next to her. The bard kept a hand against her back though, gently rubbing the skin there. "Are you okay?" she inquired softly.

Xena glanced down at her friend, managing smile. "Yeah." Then she looked back up at the weapon she was holding. She quietly studied the worn metal, her bright blue eyes reflected back at her. Vaguely, she heard the sound of feet rushing closer. "It's time."

Gabrielle nodded, hearing it as well.

Xena considered her situation for a moment, then she half turned and placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Can you go and get the cart ready. I just... I'll just get our things together and meet you in a sec."

Blonde brows furrowed just a little, picking up on the hesitation in her friend's voice. "Sure." Gabrielle answered, after a few moment, in which she'd decided not to press her friend right now. Xena was probably nervous about handling a sword again, needed some time to prepare. "I'll get everything ready." She gently patted the warrior's side. "Take your time."

Xena smiled, leaning closer and pressing a kiss against the bard's head. "I won't need long."

Gabrielle smiled back, then turned away and headed for the door, pulling it open just before an exhausted scout could knock on the door. "Gabrielle. Kami." He managed between breaths. "The army... It..."

"Yeah yeah..." Gabrielle waved him back. "It's huge and it's coming for us." She grabbed onto his shoulder, steering him around. "Notify Himiko."

The young man blinked. "B..."

"Go on." She gave him a gentle shove in the right direction. "And tell someone to ring the alarm." Gabrielle turned, grabbing onto the doorhandle. She flashed a wicked little grin at the warrior, then pulled the door shut behind her.

Xena chuckled, shaking her head a little. "See," she spoke out loud to the empty air. "That's why I love her." A breath. "One of the many reasons why." She glanced out the window, up at the grey sky, which was slowly brightening. "But you know that, don't you?" She walked closer, leaning her hands on the windowsill. "I have to believe you know that, Akemi. I have to know you..." Xena paused a moment, swallowing. "I have to know you understand why."

Xena ran her fingers over the rough stone uncomfortably. "I've thought about this. About what I'm supposed to do. And... And my conscience is telling me I have to go back to you and atone for my crimes. And I would, but..." The warrior bit her lip. "She is the one good thing in my life. And she has given up so much for me. Her safety, her blood innocence, her child... She did all that for me and I just... I just keep hurting her." She shook her head a little. "I can't do that anymore. I won't." Hands tightened on the windowsill. "You, the souls. They're my responsibility. And... And I'll do anything I can to keep you from suffering. Anything. Whatever is mine to give, I'll give it." Quiet blue eyes raised to the sky again. "But I can't give you my soul. Because it's hers." Xena closed her eyes, drawing in a shaky breath. "I hope you understand.

Gabrielle stood silently, outside, her back pressed against the wall. She closed her eyes, her lip quivering as she listened to the words Xena was saying. As she let the meaning of those words sink in. "I'm sorry," she heard Xena's voice whisper to the skies. A tear slowly found it's way down her cheek.

Heads turned as Himiko walked into the clearing, her armour rustling as she moved. Curious eyes followed her and she could hear some surprised whispers drifting up. Himiko squared her shoulders, trying to emanate confidence, in spite of the fact that she felt horribly nervous and self-conscious. She forced herself to keep her head held high as she let her gaze track past familiar faces. She saw several emotions there, ranging from excitement, to determination, to utter fear.

As she passed the first few villagers, they bent their heads respectfully. Himiko acknowledged them with a small nod, continuing on, until she reached Razan, a friend of hers since birth. The young man managed a smile, though he couldn't hide his nervousness from Himiko's perceptive eyes. "I uhm," he started, waving a hand at her outfit. "I didn't know you had armour made."

"I didn't," she replied honestly. "It belonged to my father."

Both Razan's eyebrows lifted. "Your father?" He considered this a moment, then leaned a bit closer, dropping his voice. "Do you think it is wise then, to wear this? I mean, when your father wore this he..." A pause as he chose his words. "...lost."

"Today he will win," Himiko stated firmly, before letting her eyes drift from Razan's face to those surrounding her. "We all will."

"But there are so many," a woman's voice spoke up from the crowd, hesitantly. "Genyo has so many men. And... And even if we do defeat him today, he will return. Or one of the other warlords will."

"I know," Himiko admitted. "But I am done sitting around waiting for them to come and take away everything we've worked for. Everyone we care about."

"You mean your daughter," one of the older men said, taking a step forward. "This all started because you provoked Genyo. If you would have just accepted..."

He staggered back as a fist impacted with his face. He lifted a hand to his painful cheek, then raised his eyes in shock.

"My daughter is afraid." Himiko looked at him, her eyes blazing, her breathing slightly ragid. "Afraid her father will come and take her away again. She has nightmares and I promised to make them stop." She knew people were staring at her, shocked by her sudden uncharacteristic bout of violence, but she forced herself to continue. "I am scared, I won't deny that. I don't want to die." A breath. "But if I have to die, than I can think of no better place than this one, right here. For the freedom of my daughter, and our village." She let her eyes pass over the crowd, meeting doubt-filled faces. "I know it doesn't look good, but... But we have traps, and the element of surprise. We have the Kami fighting for us, and her friend. We've never been this close to succeeding before. We can't stop now."

A silence fell, in which everyone looked at Himiko, and then at each other, no one sure what to say next. The silence was broken by the rattling of wheels, and moments later a horse's head appeared around the bend of the road.

"The Kami is here," a woman behind her said.

Himiko nodded, watching as a cart rolled closer, Xena seated on the front, steering the animal in the right direction.

"We'd better go help out then," a villager spoke up, squaring his shoulders. "There is much to do before the battle starts."

Agreeing murmurs rose up around him, and the villagers started to move towards the cart. Himiko watched them, the beginning of a proud smile tugging at her lips.

Xena pulled the horse to a halt, then hopped off the cart and onto the ground beside the horse. She walked over to the animal, affectionately running a hand over his strong neck. Meanwhile, several of the villagers had found their way over, and they greeted her with respectful bows. The warrior smiled back, then motioned towards the back of the cart, where Gabrielle was lifting up a bundle of staffs and simple bows. "Spread those around, would ya?"

"Yes, Kami," more bowing, after which the men and women continued on, taking the weapons Gabrielle held out to them.

"Kami," Himiko stepped up to her, inclining her head as well. "I see that you uhm..." she darted a glance towards the hilt she could see protruding over the warrior's left shoulder. "...found what you were looking for in the temple."

"Yup," Xena confirmed easily, reaching out and tugging on a strap of Himiko's armour. "I see you found yourself a new outfit."

The girl dropped her gaze self-consciously. "It was not my intention. I just..."

"It looks good on you," Xena interrupted her, smiling as the girl looked up at her doubtfully. "Really."

Himiko managed to smile back, embarrassed now. "Th... Thank you."

Xena patted her shoulder in a friendly gesture, then she darted a glance at Gabrielle, who was still helping the villagers unload the wagon. "Did you uhm..." She steered Himiko away from the cart a little. "Did you find a way yet for me to..."

"I'm sorry," Himiko shook her head. "Nothing yet."

Xena exhaled, a hint of sadness in her eyes now. "Oh...."

"I talked to our kannushi, our priest," Himiko hastily added. "I'm sure he will find something, if there's something to be found."

"Yeah," Xena forced a smile. "There's still time, right? Nothing to worry about."

"Until dawn tomorrow." The girl dropped her eyes. "I wish I could bring you better news. So this wouldn't have to trouble you during the battle."

The warrior shrugged carelessly, or so it seemed. "It's okay."

"You are very strong, Kami, but not even you bare a conflict of conscience and heart without suffering in some way."

Xena gazed at the girl in front of her for a moment, several words to deny the statement drifting up, but none of those wanted to be spoken. "I know what I have to do," she said, finally. "It's just that..." She shot a look skyward. "They're good people. They count on me too, and... And I just don't wanna let anybody down." A wry smile. "I want this story to have a happy ending, ya know? I wanna save the town, get the girl and help the souls."

Himiko nodded her head in understanding, then impulsively reached for Xena's arm, gently squeezing it. "You will have your happy ending, Kami. I'm sure of it."

"Hey, Xena?"

The warrior looked up to see Gabrielle waving at her to come closer. She abandonned her activities and went back to the cart, where Gabrielle was handing the last of a series of small jars to one of the villagers. "You called?"

"Are you sure this is enough?" The bard motioned her head towards the five remaining larger jars in the back of the cart.

"It'll do," Xena nodded, then reached out and grabbed hold of her friend's waist, easily lifting her off the wagon and onto the ground. Gabrielle took advantage of the opportunity to wrap her arms around the warrior and give her a quick hug.

Xena smiled, running a hand through the blond locks. "Hmm... What did I do to deserve that?"

Gabrielle glanced up, her eyes studying the warrior's face for a long moment. "All sorts of things," she finally said, in a voice filled with several emotions.

A dark eyebrow raised at her. "Are you okay?" Xena asked, a little concerned by her partner's odd behaviour.

"Yeah," Gabrielle confirmed quickly. "Things are just... clearer today."

A second eyebrow.

Gabrielle mustered a smile as she wrapped an arm around the warrior, steering her towards the others. "It's..." A pause. "My whole life I've been searching for my way. To find a peace, a quietness within myself. And I kept changing, to see if I could fit, you know?"

Xena nodded.

"But... I've been thinking a lot, these past days. About things Himiko said." She diverted her eyes. "Things you said. And I think I get it now."

"Do you?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle laid her head against the warrior's shoulder. "There is no peace for us here."

There was a silence, then Xena stopped and turned to face her. "What do you mean?"

"Peace is..." A pause. "Peace is for those who don't know. Who don't know that at every moment of every day, somewhere in the world someone is dying. Someone needs help." A small smile. "I know these things. Like you do. And because we know, we'll spend the bigger part of our life out here." The bard lifted a hand and indicated her surroundings. "On some battlefield, somewhere. Fighting the good fight. And that's good because... I belong here, with you, in battle. I didn't want to accept that before, that... That fighting, killing, is what I am meant to do. But it is. And I realize that now."

Xena studied her. "We can change," she tried. "If you want to, I can..."

Gabrielle hastily shook her head. "I don't want to." She reached out, touching her friends cheek tenderly. "And you can't." A smile. "We are who we are, Xena. We can't change that. We'd just feel miserable if we tried."

Xena considered this silently. "I guess," she finally agreed, wrapping an arm around the bard's shoulder as they continued walking. Another pause. "You know, these are deep thoughts for an early morning."

Gabrielle chuckled, happily snuggling closer. "Didn't get any sleep. You know how I get."

Xena snorted. "Yeah." A smile. "Yeah, I do."

Haru pushed his horse forward, the stallion passing into an easy trot, running past the lines of spearmen and swordfighters, to finally slow down as he met up with the cavalry, who'd formed a protective colon around his lord.

"Any troubles?" Genyo inquired, comfortably sitting back in his saddle, seeming quite relaxed.

"No," the samurai informed him, his eyes roaming the area restlessly. "Nothing as of yet."

"Told you," Genyo smirked.

"The scout we sent this morning said the village was almost deserted, my lord." Haru's fingers stroked the leather reigns he was holding pensively. "They are clearly not making a stand there. Perhaps..."

"Perhaps they chickened out," the new daimyo said. "Perhaps that last fight knocked some sense into them and they realised running was their best option."

"No." Haru shook his head. "They have a skilled warrior, a Kami and nothing to lose. They have never run before, and they will not run now." He stared ahead of himself pensively, then cocked his head a little. "The scouts we sent to secure the road. Have they returned yet?"

"No," Genyo shrugged his shoulders negligently. "But that means nothing. They probably found nothing to report about. I'm sure they're just up ahead, resting from all this hard work." He added, sarcastically. "Catching their breath..."

"Can't... breathe...!"

"That's sorta the point." Xena smirked, tightening her hold on the neck of the scout she'd pushed up against a tree. "How close are they?"

Dark eyes narrowed a fraction, looking back at her in defiance. "Do you think I'd betray my lord by..."

A flicker of steel and within a fraction of a moment, the scout felt cold metal pressing into his neck. He could barely repress a wimper.

"You know, I don't mind killing you." Xena stated, conversationally. "Thousands have died by my hand. So, what's one more puny little soul, right?" Frightened eyes stared back at her. She could feel the scout swallow. "I could find out by myself how far they are. How many soldiers there are. But what'd be the fun in that, hmm?" She shot him a pleasant smile. "If I'd done that, we wouldn't have met, for starters, cause I would have just killed you on sight." He was shivering uncontrollably now. "So... Now that you are here and we have met, dear..." A pause. "What's your name?"

"Toshiro," the scout choked instantly.

"Dear Toshiro," Xena continued amiably. "And I'm asking you this simple question in return for your life, which is a pretty damn good deal if you ask me, I'm sure you're not gonna bore me with petty statements of loyalty to your Lord, now are ya?"

"W..." The scout attempted to speak, but his vocal cords were not cooperating. "B..."

"Cause your Lord aint here." Xena added pleasantly, leaning a bit closer. "But I am. And I've got a sword."

There was a vicious shifting of air and then the crack of wood as Xena burried her sword in the tree trunk. Toshiro's eyes darted to his left, to see his own eyes reflected in dull metal, only inches away. "So..." A deep voice burred into his ear. "About that army of yours..."

"A mile, two at most!" The scout blurted, before she could finish. "There's just over a hundred men. Haru is cautious because we found your village deserted. The uhm... The..." He searched for more information. "Ow, the Daimyo is protected by his best cavalry. He favours his right hand He... he's wearing green socks. And his shoes are...Mwwwmww!"

"I'm gonna have to cut your off here, before we get to his underwear, okay?" Xena smiled pleasantly, as she covered his mouth with her hand to end the flow of words.


Her fist impacted with his skull and very effectively knocked him unconscious. Xena let go of her hold, allowing the scout to slide down the bark of the tree and slump onto the ground. She dusted her hands off. "All right. One more mile. Is everything ready?"

Himiko stepped forward, from the circle that had gathered around to watch the spectacle. "Everything is in place, Kami. All we have to do is move into our positions before Genyo can see us."

"Okay," Xena resheathed her sword behind her back. "Let's do this then."

Nods all around, then the crowd dispersed, villagers splitting up into seperate groups.

Xena drew in a breath, then slowly released it before she turned around. Gabrielle was waiting, quietly leaning against another tree, a few metres away. "You know something?"

The bard tilted her head. "What?"

"You were right about that talking to people before hitting 'em thing after all." She waved a hand at the slumped figure curled up nearby. "Worked like a charm."

Gabrielle snorted, shaking her head in disbelief. "Not quite what I was going for," she said as she straightened, reaching behind her and producing the staff that she'd placed behind her. "But its a step in the right direction, I guess."

Xena grinned, watching the bard move closer, the staff held comfortably in one hand. "They couldn't fix your sai, hmm?"

"No," Gabrielle shook her head as she stopped in front of her friend, looking down at the wooden weapon in her hand, gently caressing the surface with a thumb. "But that's okay. It uhm..." she glanced back up, meeting Xena's eyes. "It's nice." She waved a hand around. "Evil warlord, lousy odds, a staff, you..." A small smile. "Just like the good old times, huh?"

Xena returned the smile, stepping closer and wrapping her arms around the bard's waist. "Yeah."

Gabrielle reciprocated instantly, burying her face into the warrior's chest and enfolding her in a tight hug.

She was afraid. Horribly afraid. Not for herself, of course, but... She leaned back a little, as Xena loosened her hold a fraction, which allowed them to look at each other. Gabrielle reached out, her fingers gently trailing down the warrior's cheek. "Be careful," she whispered, her voice hoarse. "Please?"

Xena took the hand in her own, gently kissing the back of it. "Don't worry," she smiled, reassuringly. "Wherever we go from here, we're going there together."


The smile grew a fraction. "I promise."

Gabrielle released a breath, her insides becoming less restless at the vow. "Really?"

A soft chuckle, then Xena leaned closer and captured her lips, for a long, sweet moment. "Really," Xena murmured as they broke off, leaning her forehead against the bard's.

Gabrielle sighed happily. "Okay." She allowed Xena's close presence for another moment, then reluctantly backed off. "See you after the battle."

Xena nodded in response, then they both turned and strode off into opposite directions.

Haru pulled back his horse, which was dancing around restlessly. The horse snorted as his movements were restrained, sending a wild puff of breath up as a small could in the early morning sky. Haru let his eyes flick over his surroundings, almost as restlessly as his horse. The first rays of sunlight were crawling their way into the world, and the trees threw long, faint shadows across the road.

Everything was quiet. Just a bit quieter than it ought to be, Haru realised, as he allowed his horse a bit of the more reigns, the animal moving forward again. There were birds twittering, and he could detect faint scurrying of small animals through the dried fall leaves, but... He frowned. There was something missing. Something very small, that just wasn't quite right.

His stallion's hoof cracked a twig in half, and the animal startled in response at the sudden sound. "Easy," Haru whispered, laying a hand on the horse's neck, absently stroking the hairs there with his thumb. "Calm down now."

Another edgy snort.

"I know," the samurai lifted his gaze, again observing the woods around him. "There's something wrong. But what?"

"Sir?" A young voice sounded behind him, and Haru glanced over his shoulder to see the cavalry coming closer to him. The boy in the front looked at him questioningly.

The samurai managed a smile. "Just talking to my horse."

The soldier pulled to a halt beside him. "Can we ride on?"

Haru released a breath. "I'm not sure. Nothing seems the matter, but..."

At that moment a rattling forced its way into his hearing and his head shot up, his eyes gazing down the road, to where he knew the sound was coming from. From the corner of his eyes he saw the soldiers frowning at him, but moments later they too heard the noise.

Haru loosened one hand from the reigns, and reached for the katana at his side, letting his palm curl around the weapon's hilt, prepared for what was about to come. His horse snorted again and backed up a step, but he laid his heels against the animal's flanks, and again took control of the horse's movements.

The rattling grew louder and louder, and then finally the source of the noise spun around the bend of the road, a little further up ahead. Haru frowned. It was a cart, pulled by a wildly galloping horse. It seemed no one was guiding the wagon.

"What's that?" he heard Genyo's voice not too far behind him.

"Stay back, my lord," he warned, as he himself pushed his horse forward, taking a few steps closer for half turning the stallion and effectively blocking the bigger part of the road.

The horse pulling the cart seemed not intimidated in the slightest and galloped on, his hooves thundering loudly on the damp earth. Haru's stallion shifted restlessly, only standing his ground because of his trust in his rider. Horse and samurai watched the wagon ride closer and closer and closer until...

Just a few feet before impact Haru pushed himself up, coming to stand with his feet on the saddle. A jump later he was seated on the frantic horse's back, pulling the heavily breathing animal back as hard as he could. The horse protested fiercely, but caught between the experienced rider and the army blocking his path he finally relented, pulling back to a trot. The first line of soldiers stepped aside and let the horse slide to a halt in their midst.

"Is it theirs?" Genyo peered past the heads of his soldiers curiously.

"My Lord, there are several barrels in the back," a spearman spoke up, hopping onto the back of the wagon, while Haru let himself slide off the horse.

"What's inside?" the daimyo inquired.

"This could be a trap," the samurai cautioned hastily, as he held the horse's reigns.

The spearman looked at him, then nodded, lifting up his spear and then with a croak of wood he pushed his weapon straight through the top of the barrel until he could feel it force its way into the bottom.

The soft sound of liquid pouring over wood followed. The spearman frowned, pulling back his weapon before kicking at the side of the jar, causing it to tip over. The liquid splashed out, a few splashes ending up on his armour and that of some of the other soldiers. The spearmen knelt down, dipping a finger in the liquid and lifting it to his nose. "Alcohol."

"Alcohol?" Genyo cocked his head, studying the remaining barrels. "What would they do with this much alcohol?"

"I thought about drinking it all at first..."

All eyes shot forward once more, to see a single woman standing in the middle of the road, several metres away, a burning torch held in one hand. Xena grinned wickedly. "...but then I figured, it'd be put to better use burning the skin off your faces, so..." She wiggled her fingers, then with a careless toss flung the torch forward.

"Get down!" Haru let go of the horse's reigns and grabbed the nearest soldier by the collar, pulling him away from the cart and down onto the ground, just before the torch hit the back of the cart. The flames instantly ignited, the alcohol liberally spread over the wood, and within moments also found human flesh to chew on.

The spearman screamed out in pain, jumping from the car in a reflex to get away from the fire. Right into his fellow soldiers, who he'd splattered with alcohol only moments before.

More screaming shot up, and the horse who'd been pulling the cart panicked again and shot forward, pulling the burning wagon with him through the thick packed ranks of soldiers.

Genyo's horse reared in fright, dumping the daimyo off his back. Genyo growled, pushing himself back to his feet, then his eyes widened as he saw sweaty hooves and burning wheels approaching him at full speed. He tried to move, but it was as if he was frozen in place and could only watch as the wagon road closer, and closer...

The air was pushed from his lungs as he was swept aside and pulled to safety in the nick of time. When he opened his eyes again he saw Haru half crouched over him, his samurai's eyes following the now receding cart as it continued its path of destruction, some men getting trampled by the horse's hooves, others smouldered by the fire. Then his eyes tracked back to Genyo. "Are you all right, my lord?"

Genyo gazed at him for a moment, then he recovered himself and growled, pushing his general back roughly. "Get off me!"

Haru quickly recovered his balance and rose to his feet as the daimyo did. "It was a trap my lord, and its left the army is in chaos. We must retreat."

"No!" Genyo's dark eyes had found twinkling blue through the masses, her victorious gaze daring him to come closer. "Get her! Attack!"

"But, Lord..." But before Haru could even attempt to talk some sense into the daimyo, Genyo had rushed forward, knocking the nearest cavalryman off his horse and pulling himself on the animal's back. In despair the samurai tossed up his hands, but without another word he drew his katana and ran forward as well, following Genyo into battle.

Xena pulled her chakram free, lifting it to her lips for a moment. "Come back, okay?" she whispered confidentially to the metal. "Or you're gonna make me look really stupid."

With a firm toss she launched the weapon forward, shifting over the heads of screaming soldiers and hungry fire, to bounce off a forehead far down the lines. The ring shifted sideways, cutting right through the two beams attaching the still burning cart to the horse pulling it. As he felt his burden falling off him, the horse sped up, racing from the battlefield as fast as he could. Behind him the cart tilted forward and crashed to a sudden halt in the sand, making a remaining barrel crash to bits against a nearby tree and sending flaming liquids over another dozen soldiers.

In the meantime Xena had turned and was running in the opposite direction, Genyo and some of the remaining cavalry in pursuit. Far behind she could hear the remains of the army being rallied by squadron leaders to follow her as well.

Xena jumped, flipped, reached out a hand, fished her chakram out of the air, landed and continued her run with complete ease. A wicked little laugh drifted up from her throat.

Genyo was closing in on her, and she could hear his wild growl right behind her, but this time it was echoed by yelling in front of her. Xena looked up to see her troops running from around the bend. It was just a handful of villagers with staffs, but even that was more than either Genyo or his men had been expecting. Xena flashed a smile. And he probably wasn't expecting the archers hidden in the trees either.

"Hurry!" Haru called out to the men running beside him, as they tried to catch up to the cavalry. "We must get to Lord Genyo before..."

The dim morning sky suddenly lit up before him, stripes of flamey yellow soaring down from the trees. "...that happens," he finished with a sigh, as he increased his pace even further, distancing himself from the other runners. He pulled a small dagger from his belt, the mark of hojo burned into the green coloured hilt, and negligently he tossed it towards a treetop. As he ran on he heard the scream as a man fell to his death.

His eyes searched the battle, finding the cavalry clustering around his lord, trying to fend off the attack. He spotted the woman from Higuchi in the masses, pulling a soldier from his horse and to the ground, where she pushed her sword through his heart. He also saw Himiko, the young girl valiantly fending off a sword's blow and then attacking a mounted man herself. Then there were a dozen other villagers, but...

Haru's dark eyes widened. The warrior. The woman named Gabrielle. She had not joined in the fight. A glance upwards. Was she hiding in the trees with the archers, or...?

Screams then behind him, this time of his own men, and as he turned he saw the ground the remainder of the army had just ran over open up, more fighters armed with staffs pouring from the earth.

Gabrielle jumped up, flipped and then landed solidly on both feet on the ground, her staff instantly finding a skull to crash into. With a crack of bones her first victim dropped onto the ground. Before they could turn she'd swept the legs out of two others and managed to break the neck of a third, clearing the way and allowing the villagers behind her some time to crawl from their hiding place.

She ducked under a spear and grabbed for the hilt as it passed over he shoulder, yanking both weapon and spear holder closer. She neatly head butted the man into unconsciousness, taking the spear from his limp hands, twisting it around and then tossing it back into the masses, spiking two other soldiers to a tree.

Razan stepped up next to her, slamming the edge of his staff quite expertly into an opponents chin, dislocating the man's jaw.

"Any more behind us?" Gabrielle called over the sounds of battle.

"None that can fight," Razan answered, as he barely missed a sword, lifting his staff to parry the next blow, only to find his opponent had already been taking out by a harsh strike to the back of the head. He darted a quick glance at Gabrielle. "Thanks."

"No problem," the bard returned, poking another opponent in the gut and the half turning, slamming her elbow against his nose.

Xena hopped up and kicked out, booting another soldier from his horse and sending him crashing onto the ground. She lifted her sword in one hand to finish him off, but before she could the point of a staff was slammed against his forehead, rendering the man merely unconscious.

"It's working, Kami!" Himiko breathed, moving a bit closer and ending up back to back with the warrior. "They are closed in, like you said."

"And this surprises you?" Xena drawled, shooting a smirk over her shoulder.

Haru stood rooted in place for a moment, right in the middle of the battlefield, his eyes darting from left to right, from Himiko and her Kami fighting up ahead, to the warrior now closing in behind them. An arrow landed at his feet, a trinkle of smoke drifting up from the wet sand as the fiery tip was extinguished.

The army was weakened and surrounded. The trap these villagers had made was well thought through and had been executed to perfection.

There was no way out. The fight was upon him now, and it appeared he had two options. His eyes again turned to the right. He could go back and attempt to force an exit for his people, a way of escape, which would mean he would have to go up against the warrior Gabrielle and kill her. Or...

His eyes darted to the left again, where a wild battlecry now rose up as Xena discarded another foe. The warrior was surrounded by men now, Genyo having just declared there'd be a huge reward for her head.

Or he could take out the Kami. Take out the other key warrior and weaken moral.

Without another thought he turned left, grabbing a firmer hold of his katana as he started running towards his target.

Gabrielle planted her staff in the ground and used it for balance as she jumped up and kicked her boot into a stomach. It had all turned out even better than they had been expecting, the fire had spread even more rapidly than they had hoped for and had taking out the majority of the army. It had also wounded some of the remaining men, both physically and mentally, and those were exactly the ones that had stayed back and as a result were now faced with her. The demoralized troops gave the unskilled villagers relatively little trouble, and Gabrielle was glad for it, desperately fearing a massacre if their plan had failed.

A sudden restlessness bubbled up inside of her, and she lifted her gaze, looking over the many heads to make out Haru in the distance, running towards...

Gabrielle's eyes widened, then without a second thought she pushed herself up, flipping over the next few attackers. She elbowed another out of her path as she started running, ducking weapons and blows swung in her direction.

Xena's breathing was growing more rapid. Being dead hadn't really helped keep her fitness level up, after all. She smiled wryly at the thought, ducking under a spear tossed her way, letting it embed itself in a man rushing up to her from behind. As she rose she jerked her sword back, the hilt impacting with someone's chin.

Soldiers were charging her from all sides. Which was what she had counted on. She knew she would be Genyo's main concern, and that that way the less capable villagers would be mostly spared. Xena winced as a sword's edge nicked her shoulder.

It was getting kinda crowded in here though. She swung her chakram to her left, slicing through the neck of the soldier who'd managed to draw blood. She barely heard the arrow and only just managed to push it aside with the flat of her hand. The sooner this battle ended, the better.

The dark warrior was in trouble Haru realised, as he approached the battle. He shot a glance to his left, to see his lord still seated atop his horse, yelling out orders. He drew a small crossbow dangling from the horse's side and aimed it into the chaos where the Kami was fighting, but judging by the angry look on his face he had missed.

Haru jumped over the fallen body of one of the spearman, then ducked under a staff swung at him by some brave but foolish villager. Without slowing his pace he slammed his staff into her forehead, sending her crashing to the ground.

The villagers didn't concern him. To fight them would be dishonourable. He should only fight with the strongest of warriors, samurai like him. His eyes found his target through the masses, which were thinning as the Kami called upon powers beyond himself to defeat the odds once more. This Kami was samurai, whether she had once officially carried that title or not. She was a worthy opponent.

His fingers folding around the hilt more tightly. The world slowed around him as he pulled back his blade, his eyes focussed on the woman now only a few feet away. She half turned, blocking a sword with her own, then ducking as she continued the motion, slicing open his stomach.

Onle one more soldier stood between him and his opponent, and Xena himself took care of him as she pushed back her sword and gutting him. Haru felt his anger building and he tightened his hold on his weapon, his eyes finding a place on her lower back, where his katana could best be embedded into her spine. He forced himself not to think as he pushed the weapon forward, the world speeding up again as he waited for the feeling of his weapon cutting through bones.

But his katana never touched the warrior, as another body jumped in between and suffered the blade's impact herself.

It all happened too fast for him to grasp. For a moment he just stared blankly into the deep green eyes only inches away from him, not understanding what was going on. It was only when he felt warm liquid seeping onto his hands and looked down to find his weapon embedded up to the hilt in Gabrielle's stomach, that he realised what he had done.

This wasn't supposed to happen, his mind spoke up. He had intentionally gone left, had chosen to attack the Kami to avoid running into Gabrielle. He hadn't wanted to fight her, hadn't wanted to run the risk of having to take her life because... Because he respected her. Because he'd seen in her a true warrior, but one with a limitless respect for life, something most fighters had lost. He'd seen someone who, in spite of the darkness she had clearly seen, had managed to remain pure of heart.

And now he had killed her.

The strength faded from his arms and legs and, brought out of balance, he staggered back, pulling the sword from his opponents flesh before he fell to the ground on his knees, staring ahead of himself numbly.

Xena discarded herself of two more opponents, before she spun around again, feeling a presence close by now that she'd rid herself of the majority of her assailants. She found Gabrielle standing in front of her, the bard's back turned towards her. She could see Haru on his knees a feet more feet away, gazing up at the blonde blankly.

"Gabrielle?" She inquired, walking closer, her senses informing her her attackers were staying at bay for the moment. "Why are you...?"

She was only just in time to catch the bard as the woman's knees faltered. "Gabrielle?" Her voice took on a hint of panic as she guided Gabrielle to the ground, the bard's upper body cradled in her arms.

Slowly, the blonde's head turned towards her and green eyes met hers. And they spoke to her, wordlessly, but she found herself not understanding what was being said. Then her fingers touched her friend's stomach and she felt the blood.

Her eyes shot down immediately, and she saw the bard's tunic was liberally stained in the liquid, and that with every shallow breath more blood coursed out from a gaping hole on her abdomen.

"I did it," came the gentle voice, no more than a whisper, and Xena's eyes returned to Gabrielle's face, finding an odd little smile there. Gabrielle managed to lift a hand and reached up until she was touching the warrior's cheek. Xena stared back at her, dumbfounded by this sudden change of events. "I wasn't..." Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly, swallowing back the pain. "I wasn't too late." Her thumb trailed a path over the warrior's cheek, leaving a red mark in its wake. "I saved you this time... didn't I?"

Reality hit and Xena felt a sob rake through her body. Helplessly she pulled her friend closer, laying her cheek against the blond hair. "Yeah," she managed, hoarsely. "You did." She pressed her lips to the bard's sweaty forehead, trying to stop her brain from spinning. "But... But you gotta let me save you back now, okay?" She leaned back a little, cupping Gabrielle's face in her hands, forcing the slightly glazy eyes to meet hers. "Hang on for me?" A tear sought a trail down her cheek. "Please. Please, don't leave me now."

Some of Genyo's soldiers, who'd watched the scene, now came back their senses and the first now charged towards Xena's unprotected back. But before he could even get close a wooden staff was slammed into his stomach with a heartfelt yell. Himiko then proceeded to move the wooden weapon upwards, driving it against his chin and sending him staggering back. She half turned, looking over her shoulder and catching the eye of one of one of her fellow villagers. "Protect the Kami!" she yelled, before blocking the jab of her opponent's spear. She focussed all she had on the moves she'd been taught, doing her best to ignore the lump in her throat or the tears streaming over her face.

She traded a few more blows with her adversary, then managed to duck under one of his attacks, running past him and then slamming her staff back, against the back of his head. She quickly turned, prepared for the next attack, but she'd hit him hard enough and the soldier slumped to the ground. Before Himiko could run off to join the protective circle that had formed around the Kami and her friend however, a sharp pain sent her staggering back. Her eyes shot to her left shoulder, to see an arrowhead protruding from the skin there. She reached our to touch the wooden shaft, then jerked her hand back as the smallest movement sent another jolt of pain through her whole body.

A wild yell brought her from her trance and she could only barely jump out of the way of the sword lunged in her direction. She looked up to find Genyo lifting his weapon for a second attack, swinging it towards her head. She quickly took a step back, watching the blade slice through the empty air in front of her with fearful eyes.

"Bitch," Genyo hissed under his breath, his eyes narrowed to slits. "I should've never let you walk away. I should have just killed you. You and your spawn."

Another lunge, but this time Himiko managed to parry the blow, wincing as the impact shook through her aching shoulder. She tilted her head to look up at him, meeting his eyes. "You won't hurt my daughter," she spoke up, trying to not let the mind clenching fear that was suffocating her heart show. "Never again."

"Hah!" Genyo snorted, an evil gleam in his eyes. "Won't I?"

"No," Himiko replied, then she swung out, her staff impacting with her opponents side.

But her fear had weakened her, and the blow wasn't hard enough to push the daimyo off balance. Before Himiko could pull her weapon back, Genyo had caught the end, and with a vicious tug he pulled the weapon closer, dragging her along with it, until she was pressed right up against him. A hand grabbed onto her arm, fingers digging into her skin.

His touch brought back memories Himiko had worked so hard to repress and they left her shivering, unable to even move a muscle. His voice rasped into her ear. "I can do anything I want," he said, smugly. "You know this from experience."

Genyo grabbed onto the arrow's hilt and drove it in deeper. A scream of pain came from Himiko's throat and disappeared there in the mixture of other screams on the battlefield.

Genyo roughly pushed her away from him. She staggered back, but was unable to keep her balance and fell to the ground. Her eyes lifted, to see Genyo coming closer, towering over her.

It was a deeply rooted instinct to survive that drove her to reach for her side, pulling the dagger she'd taken into battle from its sheath and holding it up in front of her defensively. "I'll kill you," she heard herself say, both her hands folded tightly over the weapon's hilt.

The daimyo snorted, twisting his sword in his hand. "You couldn't even hurt a fly. No, you'll join your blond warrior in death, Himiko. And don't worry." He lifted the blade up, aiming for the girl's neck. "Your daughter will be with you soon."

The blade swung down, but before it could hurt Himiko it was pulled aside, along with its owner.

The breath was pushed from his lungs as Genyo impacted with the hard earth. Hastily he scrambled back to his feet, spinning around to find the one who'd attacked him rising up as well. His eyes widened as he spotted his assailant. "Haru?"

The dishevelled figure of his general staggered back to his feet. He'd flung his helmet aside and his hair was blown disorderedly over his scalp. He looked nothing like the self assured, calm samurai Genyo knew. The daimyo's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I had her! She was dead! Why are you protecting her!"

"It's over," Haru replied, taking a shaky step closer. "We must retreat."

"Retreat?" Genyo spat. "But we're winning!"

"Winning?" the samurai shook his head, then waved a hand at the area around them. Genyo's eyes followed his, to see the path littered with bodies. Only in one corner of the road a few more soldiers were fighting, trying to break the barrier that had been formed around Xena and Gabrielle. "Look at it, Genyo," Haru whispered, his voice cracking. "Look at the blood."

For a moment, the daimyo actually seemed taken aback, but then his features hardened once more. "What about it?"

Haru gazed at him. "You can end this."

"I don't want to," Genyo shot back, reaching down and retrieving his sword. "This won't end until they're all dead." He turned his back towards his general and started tom move away, but a hand grabbed onto his arm and pulled him back to a halt.

"Genyo, please," Haru pleaded. "Don't..."

With a growl Genyo swung his sword towards his samurai, who only just managed to duck away from the weapon. "Shut up!" He swung out again, and again Haru avoided the blade. "Do you want me to kill you before I kill the bitch?! Is that it?!"

Haru lifted both his hands in a calming gesture. "Genyo, calm down."

"Cause I can do that, you know?" the daimyo continued, jabbing the sword at the samurai's abdomen once more. "I can."

He thrust the weapon forward once more, but this time it was caught and held. Blood seeped from Haru's hand onto the cold metal. Genyo's eyes shot up, to find Haru staring back at him, seeming unnerved by the blade cutting into his hand.

Haru tightened his hold even further and then pulled, jerking the sword from his master's hands. He spared it a disgusted look, then flung it away harshly. The weapon landed a few metres away, at the base of a tree, ending up between several roots, the blade tilted slightly upwards.

Genyo attempted again to walk away, but his wrist was grabbed and he was pulled back. "Let go!" he snarled, tugging at his arm to free himself.

"What will you gain from killing her?" Haru asked, keeping a firm hold. "What will you gain from killing the mother of your child? For the love of the kami, Genyo, she's just a girl!"

"Let me go now, Haru!" the daimyo warned.

"This bloodshed will lead you nowhere. Can't you see that?"

"You disgust me," Genyo spat back, angrily. "You dishonour yourself and you dishonour the memory of your father. I am appalled I once called you brother." Genyo jerked his hand back once more, and he managed to break free from Haru's hold, which was perhaps, weakened by the sting of his words. He'd put all his weight into the effort however, and now that Haru was not holding him upright he staggered back, trying to regain his balance.

"Genyo, look out!" the samurai warned, but to no avail. The Daimyo was unable to regain his balance and he fell backwards.

The sword Haru had tossed away so negligently moments ago drove its way into the young man's chest.

Himiko watched as Haru rushed to his Lord's side, falling to his knees beside him. The samurai cupped Genyo's face in his hands, talking to him, asking him to open his eyes, but there was no response.

Genyo was dead.

Himiko stared at the scene, disbelievingly. He was dead. The man she'd feared more than any other on this earth was dead. He wouldn't hurt her or her daughter ever again. Her eyes tracked down, to the dagger still held in her hand. She hadn't killed him of course, but for a moment there...

For a moment she'd wanted to.

She looked back up again, to find Genyo's soldiers had stopped fighting, shocked by their Lord's death. Swords and spears had been dropped to the ground and the men and women from her village were now rounding up the remaining fighters, using pieces of cloth and ropes to tie their hands together behind their backs.

The archers who'd been hiding in the trees climbed down the tree trunks, and stepped onto the forest path. Onto the battlefield, which was littered with the bodies of men and women, most Genyo's men, but she could spot at least five she recognised as being from her village. Further down the road the flames had spread and were gnawing at the trees. The smell of blood and burned flesh was predominant in the air.

The dagger fell from her hand and the weapon thudded to the ground, the tip embedding itself into the earth. She lifted her hands, pressing her face against her palms, trying to hide the tears that were now coursing down her cheeks.

They'd won, yes... But at what cost?

She couldn't allow herself to dwell in the pain too long however. She would have time for that later. She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand and forced herself to move forward, towards where a few of her people were still standing clustered around the Kami and her fallen friend.

Gabrielle was, wondrously, still alive. But her face was frighteningly pale and it was clear she'd lost a lot of blood. Somehow though, the blonde managed a smile as she saw Himiko looking over Xena's shoulder. "Hi," she mouthed, too weak to actually speak. Himiko produced a watery smile in return, before gently reaching out and laying a hand on Xena's shoulder.


Xena tilted her head up, emotion-filled blue eyes meeting hers.

"What can I do?"

The warrior blinked, her mind still not cooperating. "I..." she swallowed. "A stretcher. We..." she returned her gaze to the bard, her fingers gently caressing a blood-splattered cheek. "We need to get her inside. I'll need medical supplies, bandages, thread..." A sniffle. "And I'll need 'em fast."

Himiko nodded, squeezing her shoulder comfortingly before turning. "Razan?" The young man who'd been talking to the ones guarding Genyo's soldiers looked up, then jogged towards her. He bent his head respectfully to his leader. "We'll need the fittest here to run back to the village, prepare a space for the Kami and her friend," she told him. "And we'll need the others to create

something to carry Gabrielle."

"I'll run back myself," Razan said, squaring his shoulders a little. "I'm still fit. I was..." he darted a glance at where Gabrielle was lying. "I was well protected."

"All right then," Himiko patted him on the shoulder. "Go. And hurry."

"There's one more thing." The young man waved a hand in the direction of where Haru was huddled over Genyo's body. "What about him? There's not enough of us here to go up against a samurai and capture him." He leaned a bit closer, dropping his voice. "Do you think the Kami could..."

"No," Himiko immediately interrupted him. "She's needed elsewhere." She reached out, taking the piece of rope he held from his hands. "I'll go."

Razan's eyes widened. "But..."

"No, buts," the girl cut him off. "You run back to the village and prepare for the Kami's arrival. Now."

Without waiting for him to respond she turned away from him and started towards where Haru sat bent over his Lord's body. Himiko studied him as she walked closer.

He was not the man she'd seen on the battlefield, had observed from a distance many a time. The man with his head raised high, his shoulders squared, emanating confidence. No, this was a broken man. A broken man, with a fractured heart.

She stopped in front of him, looking down at the bent figure. For a moment she just stood there and watched him, then Haru himself moved, tilting his head back to look at her. He hadn't cried, but there was a profound sadness in his eyes that told her that he would have if he'd been able. He spoke up, his voice slightly hoarse. "If I hand you my sword now... Will you take my head?"

He'd fought for the enemy, Himiko reminded herself. Had hurt people she loved. But still... Her eyes filled with sympathy, as she slowly shook her head. "I can't," she replied in a whisper.

Haru swallowed, dropping his eyes as he nodded a little in acceptance. Then he raised both his hands and held them out to her, palms up. "Do what you must."

Himiko cocked her head a fraction. "You won't fight me?"

A wry smile tugged on the samurai's lips. "To attempt to kill you now after saving your life at..." his eyes tracked to Genyo's lifeless face. "...at so high a cost would be unwise."

Himiko regarded him for another moment, then she lifted the rope she'd brought with her and laid it over Haru's wrists. The samurai closed his eyes as he felt the ropes bind his hands together, but he accepted his faith in silence. The girl's hands were gentle, and she bound his wrists not nearly

tight enough, but he suspected she was aware of this.

"Do you regret it?"

He opened his eyes at the barely audible question. "Do I regret what?"

"Saving my life?" Himiko clarified softly. "You lost him, because you did."

It was a question Haru hadn't expected. He automatically darted a glance at his Lord's lifeless body, then he looked back up at the young woman standing before him. He studied her, quietly, for a long silent moment. Then he shook his head. "No. I would trade his life for yours a thousand times."

Himiko blinked a few times, then she diverted her eyes shyly. "Oh..."

Haru managed a small smile at this, then he rose to his feet. "So... Lead me away from here then."

Brown eyes glanced up, then the girl hastily nodded, turning and gently tugging at the rope she held. Haru followed without protesting.

Quietly he observed the field around him, watching as a quartet of villagers passed, carrying a hastily fabricated stretcher. His eyes widened a triffle, almost hopefully. "She is still alive?"

Himiko glanced behind her for a moment, then nodded. "Barely."

Haru's eyes followed the stretcher as it headed for the spot where Gabrielle had fallen. The crowds surrounding the warriors split, and Haru could only just see a bit of pale white skin, covered in smears of blood.

"I hope you make it, Gabrielle," he whispered into the wind. "For if you don't, my soul will be scarred eternally for having been the cause of your death."


Gabrielle bit down as she was moved from the stretcher onto the large bed that had been prepared for her. She'd been taken to the village infirmary apparently, which was just another small hut. This hut however had a bed more comfortable than the average inhabitants here had, and there was a table standing in a corner, with several pots and jars, from which a faint herby scent eminated.

The trip had been little more than a blur to her. She'd opened her eyes a few times, seeing trees move past, bushes. Xena's face hoovering over her in concern.

Xena was afraid. She tried to look confident, pretend like everything was fine, but Gabrielle had learned to look past the warrior's fa┴ade a long time ago. There were these little things that always clued her into Xena's true feelings. Her movements, which were always thought through and fluent, would become hasted and slightly more uncoordinated. She'd never stop to catch a breath, like she had to keep busy, had to keep her hands moving. There was this little muscle just above her right eyebrow that twitched. And the eyes. The eyes spoke volumes.

Gabrielle turned her head a little, ignoring the men who'd carried her inside nervously fussing over the blankets, and watching the warrior as she stood with her back towards the bard, bent over several jars as Nene, the local healer, explained their contents. Xena nodded a few times, then started sampling bits of herbs from some of the jars, mixing them together in a small wooden bowl. In her haste the warrior nearly knocked over a bowl and she reached for it in reflex, dropping her priceless herbs in the process. Gabrielle could hear her curse under her breath.

Gabrielle managed to lift a hand and touch that of a young boy puffing up her pillows. "Leave us," she managed, adding a small smile to take the sting out of the order. The boy blinked at her for a moment, then nodded hastily, motioning for the others to leave as well.

The bard watched them go, then refocused her attention on her friend's back. "Xena?"

The warrior darted a glance over her shoulder, then she faced forward again, speaking some words to Nene while she poured hot water over the herbs she'd selected. Nene bowed politely, then backed out of the room as well.

Xena finished her mixture and turned, taking the few strides to Gabrielle's side and kneeling down next to the bed. "Okay, just breathe in," she instructed, as she held the bowl under the bard's nose, allowing the fumes to enter her nostrils.

Gabrielle did as she was told, wrinkling her nose at the nasty scent. "Don't have to drink that, do I?" she murmured.

Her friend managed a smile. "No, I..." A breath. "I'm afraid the sword poked a hole in your stomach. Anything you drink or eat, will just..."

"Save me the imagery," Gabrielle cut her off, sucking in another ragid breath filled with steam. She blinked a few times, scattering the waterdroplets that had condensed on her eyelids. Through the mist she searched Xena's face. It was hard to keep the warrior in focus, but Gabrielle wasn't sure whether that was because of the steam or...

"You're hurt," she whispered, as she noticed the red streak near Xena's shoulder.

Blue eyes blinked at her a few times, then she darted a glance at the cut in her upper arm. "Ow," a breath. "That, yeah, I..." A light shrug. "Don't even feel it."

"You should bandage it," Gabrielle murmured. "I could..."

"No," Xena reached out with her free hand, laying it against the bard's cheek. "I'm taking care of you. Not the other way around. Got that?"

Gabrielle smiled faintly, as she leaned into the touch. "Yes, sir."

She heard Xena snort softly, then the humid warmth of the steam dissapeared as the warrior moved the bowl away, placing it on the small table beside the bed. "I'm gonna have to rebandage the wound. Stitch it up. It's gonna hurt," the warrior spoke softly.

"It's not gonna help," Gabrielle whispered back.

"Shh," Xena pushed some dishevelled blond locks back with her other hand. "I won't have you talking like that." She leaned closer, pressing her lips against the bard's forehead. "Destiny's picked another fight with me, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna let her win."

Gabrielle smiled softly. "What if it's not a fight, but a peaceoffering?"

Blue eyes studied her a moment, then the warrior shook her head. "Fumes have gone straight to your head," she managed to joke, kissing the bard again, this time on the lips, before pushing away the blankets and starting to unwind the make-do bandage from around her friend's waist.


Himiko pushed open the door with one hand, leading her child along with the other. "Come on, sweetie."

Iyo obediently toddled inside, wide round eyes observing her new surroundings. There was not much for her to see however. The room was dark, the curtains were pulled shut, and there was no furniture, except for one wooden structure that rose above her head. It looked like a bed.

Her mama looked down at the bed for a while, sadly, then she half turned and reached down, lifting Iyo up so she could look at the bed too.

The toddler blinked a few times. "Daddy," she looked up at her mother with wide, fearful eyes. "Mama, isse daddy," she said again, in a whisper. "We godda go."

Himiko smiled down at her, stroking the soft black hair. "It's okay, sweetheart. He's not going to hurt you anymore." She reached down and gently shook Genyo's lifeless shoulder. "He can't take you away from me. He's... asleep now."

Iyo cocked her head at her mother, unconvinced still, then she gazed down to look at her father. He was very quiet... "Sleep?"

"Yes," Himiko pressed a kiss against her forehead, sniffling a little. "And he's going to stay asleep for a very very long time. Until..." The girl laid her head against her daughters, looking down at the man she'd feared and hated for so long. "Until he's forgotten about all the bad things that happened to him, and all the bad things he did to other people and... And when he's forgotten all that, maybe he'll wake up. And he can be your daddy then, and you can play together."

"Daddy be nice?" Iyo's eyes brightened a little. "Play?"


"Good," a happy smile spread across the toddler's face. "Daddy go play good."

Himiko smiled for her daughter's happiness. "Yes, it is." She affectionately patted the child's cheek. "So you just think happy thoughts about him, okay? Don't... Don't hate him, or be afraid. Cause that'll just make you feel bad inside."

"Okay," Iyo agreed cheerfully, happily placing a kiss on her mother's cheek, before startng to squiggle, forcing Himiko to put her back on the ground.

Himiko watched her toddle off tolerantly, then she returned her gaze to Genyo's still form. For a moment she just stared at him, letting thoughts spin around in her mind. Thoughts of what he'd done. And why he'd done it. "There's two things I must say to you," Himiko whispered then. "One is: I won," a wry grin crossed her lips. "You were stronger, and more powerful, but I still won, because... Because I fought you for the freedom to love my child. You only fought out of hatred for life. And love is stronger than hate." A pause. "And two is..." A tiny smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "I forgive you. Not because what you did stopped hurting, cause it'll never stop hurting, but... I'm tired of hating you. And I don't want my child to grow up with the burden of hating her father. So..."

"Mama!" Iyo impatiently toddled back into the room and tugged at the fabric covering her leg. "Come!"

Himiko chuckled softly, allowing the child to take her hand and lead her away. She shot another look over her shoulder, at the figure on the bed. Then she purposefully turned her back on him, following her child out the door and back into the sunlight.



Haru opened his eyes, as one of his soldiers seated near him spoke up.

"What do you think they'll do to us, sir?"

"I don't know." The samurai exhaled, leaning his chin on his bound hands. "But I promise I will do my best to get you out of here."

Silence again, as the soldiers returned to their pondering. Haru closed his eyes once more, the events of the previous hours immediately presenting themselves again. Green eyes flashed up from the darkness, followed by the image of his lord falling onto his own blade.

The samurai bit his lip. He'd been so sure once, of who he was and of his bushido, his way. But now... Now he had defied his lord. He'd saved the enemy. And the worst of it all was, that he didn't regret either action. He did regret his lord had gotten killed and knew himself responsible.

Everything was so confused. Haru pressed his palms against his eyelids. What was he supposed to do now? Now that his Lord was dead, who would lead his people? There would either be civil war, or one of the other daimyos would come and capture the province. Either way, innocents would die. And he would be responsible for it all.

Genyo had been right when he said he'd dishonered his father's name.

The door to the hut they'd been locked in opened suddenly, allowing the bright sunlight to shine into the room. Haru looked up, blinking against the brightness, to see several villagers standing in the doorway, armed with staffs. "Come," one spoke up, motioning with his weapon for them to get up. "It is time for your judgement."

The whole village had gathered around to watch. The sand crunched under his knees as he was pushed down onto the ground. He forced himself to lift his head, to eminate an air of confidence that he didn't possess.

One by one his men knelt down next to him. When they'd all been placed in the centre of the square, silence decended once more. All seemed to wait for something, but Haru only realised what it was, until she'd arrived.

The doors to one of the huts swung open and Himiko stepped outside, gracefully descending the few steps from the door to the ground. The crowds split immediately as Himiko slowly moved forward. Haru noted she was still dressed in armour, several bloodsplatters staining the leather.

She stopped a few feet in front of the line of men and folded her hands behind her back, studying them all quietly for a few moments. There was something... different about her, Haru noted as he took in her confident stance, her relaxed pose. She seemed... calmer, than she ever had before. More at peace.

"I uhm... I must admit I'm not sure what to do with you." A small smile touched Himiko's lips. "I've never had prisoners of war before."

There was some muted chuckling from the crowd.

"I've heard from stories that I have two choices though," the girl continued. "I either lock you all up here, or I kill you. And you can see we don't have the resources to lock you up." Himiko stated calmly, then unsheathed the dagger she'd sheathed at her side.

The soldiers looked at each other fearfully. Haru could hear some swallow, and he could feel the men beside him start to shiver.

"I uhm..." Himiko started walking down the lines, watching as the soldiers flinched as she passed. "My grandfather told me that what I do with this weapon will mark my leadership. That it will be... a symbol, of what I stand for."

Haru watched as she halted in front of him. He drew in a breath, then tilted his head back a little, allowing her to reach the soft skin of his neck. "I give you my life. Willingly. But I beg of you to spare these few men here today. There has been so much bloodshed today. Let it end with me."

The girl was silent for a moment, then he heard her exhale. "I'm afraid I can't do that," she said then.

Haru closed his eyes, resigning himself to his faith and...

His eyes popped open again however when he felt cold metal sliding along his wrist, followed by the feeling of the ropes that had been binding his hands falling away. His gaze shot up, to meet deep brown eyes smiling abck at him. "I don't kill," Himiko said softly. "I can't. That's not who I am." She took a step back waving her hand towards the opened gates behind her. "Go."

For a moment, Haru just stared up at her blankly. "You... You are letting us leave?"

A nod.

"All of us?"

Another nod.

"After what we've done?"

"Especially after what you did." Himiko produced a tiny smile. "You're right. There's been enough bloodshed today. I don't want to be the cause of any more. Ever, if possible."

Haru seemed to consider this for a moment, then he slowly rose to his feet. A glance sideways showed him some of the other villagers were untying the remainder of his men.

"Go," Himiko repeated again.

The soldiers didn't think twice about the girl's offer and they quickly ran for the open gates, slipping past Haru and Himiko one by one. Haru followed them with his eyes, then as the last one had passed he turned again to the young girl standing in front of him. He bowed his head in respect. "I wish my people had had a leader as wise as you."

Himiko blushed slightly.

Haru straightened again, meeting her eyes for a moment more, then he too took of, jogging after his men, in the direction of the gates.

Himiko turned and her gaze followed him as he crossed the village. Razan stepped up next to her, laying a hand on her shoulder. "He could return to wage war again."

"Yes," the girl nodded in response, resheathing her dagger resolutely. When she looked back up she found Haru standing at the gates, looking back at her. Their gazes met a moment, then he turned and disappeared from sight. Himiko managed a small smile. "But somehow I don't think he will."

It was a field, endless it seemed. Gabrielle smiled as she felt the grasstalks tickle her bare feet. She could hear the soft sound of water flowing up ahead and she spotted a familiar figure sitting near the stream. Akemi rose to her feet, waving at her. "Gabrielle!"


The bard gasped in a breath as her dream suddenly ended and was replaced with an intense pain searing through her entire body. Her eyes flew open to see Xena's face hoovering over her, the blue eyes filled with a mixture of concern, doubt and utter fear.

Gabrielle focussed on just breathing for a moment, since that was hard enough to accomplish. Finger stroked her skin lovingly, and she finally managed to lift her eyes again and look up at her friend. "I had a dream."

Xena produced an unconvincing smile in response. "Did ya?"

"It was a field. Pretty. Akemi was there."

The warrior diverted her eyes, pulling the blankets up a little higher and straightening the edges meticulously. "Sounds nice."

Gabrielle remained silent for a few moments, then: "It wasn't a dream though, was it?"

Xena's head shot up, and Gabrielle saw the lingering panic she'd been trying to hide. "Of course it was," the warrior waved off the suggestion, managing another smile, which was about as convincing as the first. She rose from the bed, turning her back on the bard and returning to her herbs, selecting some more before grinding them to even smaller bits with a mortar. "You were asleep. You had a dream." A shrug. "That's perfectly normal. You.... You're doing fine."

Gabrielle turned her head, laying her cheek to rest against the soft pillow as she regarded her friend's tense form. "I'm dying."

"You're not," Xena returned, her movements becoming a bit more agitated.

"Vital stuff got sliced up," Gabrielle ignored her. "I lost a lot of blood. I can't drink anything, or eat." Xena's motions stilled and the bard could hear her exhale. "I can feel it, Xena. I... I know you tried, but..."

A loud crash shook the hut, as the bowl impacted with the wall and shattered to bits on impact. The pieces clattered to the floor and moments later tiny bits of herb fluttered down around the shards.

Gabrielle looked at the remains of the bowl for a moment, then returned her gaze to Xena, who'd placed both hands on the table for support, her head hanging forward, clouded in shadows. "Decided it was all the bowl's fault, did you?"

"No. It's mine." Xena closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath. "He was after me."

"I knew what I was doing," her friend tried comfortingly. "I had a choice, and I made it, knowing what the outcome would be." A small smile. "I don't regret it."

Xena produced something between a sob and a snort, shaking her head. "You don't understand."

"I do."

"No, you don't!" The warrior spun around, revealing watery eyes and cheeks dampened with tears. "I..." she choked on the words, taking a few steps closer and sitting down at Gabrielle's side again. "I was gonna stay with you."

The bard's smile grew a fraction. "I know."

"I was..." A pause, then blue eyes lifted in confusion. "What?"

"I realised I forgot to ask you something, before the battle, and I walked back and..." Gabrielle swallowed, focussing on her words. "I heard you talking. To Akemi."

Xena's mouth opened a few times to speak, but nothing came out. "Oh," was all she could manage, finally, dropping her eyes.

"It's the most amazing thing you ever did for me," the blonde reached out, covering her friend's hand with her own. "Giving up everything, your honor, for me." She felt the warrior's fingers weakly entangle with her own. "But I would never let you give up everything you believe in."

"I believe in us," Xena countered. "I mean, we're here together now. You were in Egypt and I was dead and we ended up together. Isn't that a sign?"

"I got gutted. Isn't that a sign?"

Xena growled a little under her breath. "It was my decision to make."

"No, it wasn't," Gabrielle retorted. "Your last decision was about your past and I understood you had to make that one on your own. But this one is about our future." A breath. "And if you stayed at their expense, it'd come between us. And you would give up everything that makes you you. We'd feel guilty, and take it out on each other." She pulled their linked hands closer, laying the palm of Xena's against her cheek. "Destiny's offering us a way out, Xena. And it's a good one." A pause. "You know that peace I said I've been looking for all my life?"

The warrior nodded faintly.

"I think I know where to find it now."

They stared at each other for a long moment, filled only with the faint sound of wind brushing through the leaves and the soft twittering of birds. Finally Xena spoke up, her voice slightly hoarse. "You realise you're not going anywhere without me, right?"

Gabrielle managed a faint smile at this. "I know."

"Good," the warrior leaned closer, pressing a kiss agianst her forehead, before rising to her feet. "There's things I need to get."

Haru slowed his pace, going from a jog to an easier pace and finally halting. He stood quietly, watching the scene before him. The battlefield, silent now after the bloodshedding was done. Himiko had collected the villagers who'd lost their lives and had even ordered for the bodies of the enemy to be covered by white cloths. It had an eerie air to it, the path covered with small mounds of white fabric.

So many had died. And so many more would die, Haru realised as he stared blankly at the field before him. This... This was just the beginning, even though it seemed like an end. The two rivalling daimyo's would wage war over Hojo's furtile lands and many innocents would die in the process. The few soldiers that had survived today's battle, and the few men that had stayed behind would either be killed in battle, or be executed by whoever won.

Haru bent his head, closing his eyes. He had failed. He had failed his lord, he had failed his father, and he had failed his people. And there was no one left to serve, to make amends for his failure. It was clear what he had to do.

Footsteps behind him and then he heard the rasps as the remaining soldiers slid to a halt beside him. "Don't look," Haru spoke up, quietly. "Don't think. Just keep running home."

"But..." One of the soldiers stammered. "Sh... Shouldn't we..."

"You can come back for them later," the samurai cut him off. "Now it is important to return to Hojo. The people must know before the other daimyos, so plans can be made for defense and evacuation."

The soldier next to him blinked a few times, then nodded a little. "Yes, sir."

The samurai drew in another breath, then laid a hand on the soldier's shoulder. "Lead them home. There is something else I must do."

"Yes, sir." The soldier nodded again, then he moved forward again, motioning the men to follow him.

Haru watched them as they ran down the path, as fast as they could, not looking at the white outlines of their friends and family. He watched them until they'd disappeared around the bend. Then he squared his shoulders, walking forward and kneeling down next to a young man's body, moving the cloth aside a bit to reveal a sheath attached to his side. Haru reached over and removed the dagger inside it, then turned and walked off the path, deeper into the forrest.

He wasn't sure how far he strayed from the road, his mind elsewhere, preparing for the task that lay ahead. His feet felt heavy, as if he'd walked for miles and miles, when in fact he had probably only been walking for a few minutes.

A small clearing opened up before him, nothing more then a tiny space without trees or a multitude of roots lying in the way. There were only soft autumn leaves covering the harsh, cold earth.

Haru let gravity do its work and he fell to his knees. He laid the dagger in front of him, then sat up, squaring his shoulders. It would not be according to ritual, but he had little choice. He removed the bracers he'd worn, then reached for his side, unstrapping his armor. He tossed it all to one side, until he was dressed only in a simple smudgy white tunic. Carefully he loosened the belt securing the garment and he let the kimono fall open, exposing his chest and abdomen.

He closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath, attempting to calm himself. It would be a slow, excruciatingly painful death, but that was what he deserved. In one single day, he had managed to ruin everything. With one single stroke of his katana, he had destroyed everything he stood for.

He reached forward, taking hold of the dagger with both hands, turning the blade towards him. He brought it closer, laying the tip against his abdomen, slightly to the left. He tilted his head back, finding small patches of blue through the thick foliage, and he focussed on them, as he tightened the hold on the dagger's hilt and...


It was barely more than a whisper, but Haru heard it nevertheless. He swallowed, not having to turn around to know who it was that was standing behind him. "Leave."

"Please don't do this," Himiko spoke up again, tentatively stepping closer, dry leaves crackling softly under her feet. "Whatever you think is the reason you should die..."

"Reasons," the samurai corrected her. "There are so many reasons."

"None can be good enough to justify you taking your life."

The girl circled him, and he tilted his head back to look up at her, the knife still in his hands, pressed against his abdomen. She had changed and was now dressed in a simple light blue kimono. It looked better on her than armour, he thought. "You don't understand," he said. "As a samurai, there are rules I must obey. I lost in battle. It would be dishonourable to go on."

"But..." Himiko lowered herself to her knees as well, the earth staining the fabric of her kimono. "But what about your people? If you leave them now, when they need you the most, they will die. There is no honor in that."

Haru dropped his head, closing his eyes. "I cannot lead them. I killed the daimyo."

"It was an accident."

"It would not have happened if it hadn't been for me. I am to blame. I am to blame for all of it," the samurai countered, his fingers clenching around the wooden hilt. "I failed my lord, and he left no heirs for me to serve." A breath. "Leave me now."

"No!" In reflex Himiko reached out and grabbed onto his wrists, to prevent him from driving the blade into his abdomen. His eyes shot up and met hers. They were so close now she could see tiny flecks of hazel floating around in the deep brown of his irises. "I..." She managed, her throat having gone dry. "I..." A million thoughts crossed her mind at once, leaving her in chaos, but knowing she had to speak she grabbed onto the first argument that presented itself. "What about my daughter?"

A moment of silence, then Haru's hold on his weapon loosened just a fraction. "What about her?"

"Well..." Himiko swallowed, her fingers still wound tightly around his wrist. "Technically, isn't... Isn't she Genyo's heir?"

The samurai frowned, pensively.

"I mean, you're supposed to look after the daimyo's family, right?"

"Fight for me, Haru. As you did for my father and will for my children." Genyo's words of the previous day echoed in the samurai's mind. He cocked his head a little, considering. Genyo had made him this request, to fight alongside him, and he had accepted. And by doing so had he made him a promise. He stared into the anxious brown eyes looking back at him. This was of course not what Genyo had intended, but...

"I mean, I'm... I'm not saying y... you should..." Himiko drew in a breath, trying to stop her stuttering. "I'm just saying there's other ways to gain honour than through death. You're... You're a nice guy." She blushed a little, as she realised what she'd said. "I mean, what you did for me today and... And Gabrielle spoke of you respectfully."

Haru dropped his gaze once more.

"She doesn't want you to die," the girl hastily blurted on. "I've gotten to know her a little, and I'm positive she doesn't. And I sure don't, and your people don't, so..." A breath. "So, why were you doing this again?"

A silence fell. Himiko bit her lip, a tiny voice in the back of her mind asking her how the hell she'd ended up here, in this absurd situation, trying to keep some man she hardly knew from following his chosen path. This man who had fought with her enemy, had hurt her friends. So, why was she here, trying to convince him to not take his life?

Her gaze shifted then, as suddenly the wrist she now realised she was still holding onto moved. The muscles that had been tense moments before relaxed, and Himiko found herself able to pull the samurai's hand away from his body, and the dagger with it. Tentatively, she took the weapon from him, their fingers brushing lightly as she did so. Only then did she look up, and their gazes met, and held for countless seconds. "So..." Haru spoke up finally, a touch hesitant. "What do we do now?"

It was a while later when Himiko reentered the village, a tiny smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. The sun beamed down and warmed her face with the soft late afternoon rays and she tilted her head back to soak up the warmth fully, closing her eyes contently.

"Oef!" the breath was pushed out of her as she impacted with another body. She opened her eyes, blinking a few times to chase the red blur from her vision, to see Xena had crouched down in front of her and was collecting several plants and roots that had fallen. "Oh, Kami, I..." She hastily dropped to her knees as well, helping the warrior. "I'm so very sorry. I didn't..."

"It's okay," Xena hastily cut her off, straightening again and holding out a hand for the other herbs, a touch impatiently. "Don't worry about it."

Himiko cocked her head a little, noting the kami's tense features. "Are you all right?" she inquired, before she could reconsider. "Gabrielle isn't...?"

"No," Xena managed a smile, waving the girl's ponderings off with her free hand. "Gabrielle's fine." A breath. "We're both fine."

"I'm glad," Himiko produced a warm smile in return. "I was just on my way to the priest to see if I can help him find a way for you to stay with Gabrielle and have your happy ending." The smile grew even further. "Everything is working out so well now, I'm sure this will too, Kami." She reached out and gently squeezed Xena's upper arm. "I will see you soon."

"B..." Xena started to protest, but the girl had already jogged off, on her way to visit the priest. She released a breath, considering whether to go after her for a moment, but she realised she didn't really have the time to do that now.

Moments later she pushed open the door to the healer's quarters, and peeked inside. Green eyes lifted and smiled at her, and she released the breath she didn't even realise she'd been holding before she stepped inside fully. "Hi."

"Hi," Gabrielle greeted her in return, before she let her gaze drift down again, back to the parchment lying at her side. She lifted her quill again and jotted another few words down.

Xena continued into the room, laying her findings on the table and pulling over a new bowl. "Whatcha writing?"

"Just some thoughts," Gabrielle murmured, as she absently dipped the tip of the quill in the small inkjar balancing on the bedside table.

"Still the bard, huh?" Xena commented with a small smile, as she selected some of the plants and placed them in the bowl, before starting to grind them to a pulp with the mortar. "How are you feeling?"

"Crappy," the blonde replied honestly. "But at least it doesn't hurt so bad anymore. Pressure points rock."

" I would have used them before, if I could have. But..."

"I know," Gabrielle interrupted her. "Sucky aftermath."

"Yeah," Xena darted a small smile over her shoulder, then faced forward again. "Are you nearly done? Sun's setting soon."

"Nearly there," Gabrielle replied, rereading the words she'd written as she chewed on the end of her quill pensively.

"There must be something." Himiko unrolled the scroll she was reading a bit further, her eyes hastily scanning over the old text in front of her.

"Mama?" Iyo tugged impatiently at her mother's kimono. "Mama, no fun!"

"I know, honey," Iyo reached down, lifting her child onto her lap. "But this is important. We have to help the Kami."

"Sena?" the toddler bounced happily on her mother's lap. "Sena good!"

"Which is why we must help her," Himiko mumbled, unrolling the next bit of text.

"Go see Sena!" Iyo helpfully suggested, squirming around in her mothers hold and grabbing for her shoulder, attempting to pull herself up and over, in the direction of the door.

"No, no," Himiko left the scriptures again, holding her daughter back with both hands. "Later. When we have answers."

"Go now," was the retort, Iyo continuing to stuggle vehemently. "Mama, leggo!" the child tugged hard to free her hold, and finally managed to do just that. Unfortunately there was only thin air behind her, and she tumbled back, towards the ground, until...

She landed on a nice soft surface. She bounced a little and the surface moved, which was fun, so she bounced some more.

"My lady?"

Iyo blinked as her bouncy surface suddenly started talking, then she looked to her right to see it actually had a head. "Yes?"

"Would you please not jump on my stomach?" it said. "It is rather painful."

"Iyo!" This was her mother's voice, sounding a bit upset. "Come here, you." She was lifted up again, hugged tightly to her mother's chest. "Don't you ever do that again. You could have hurt yourself."

Himiko looked up, shooting a grateful and slightly embarresed look at her visitor. "Thank you."

Haru rose to his feeet, then bowed respectfully. "My pleasure," he said, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. "Just protecting my lady." A breath. "I uhm..." he pulled a piece of parchment from his belt, a green ribbon tied around it, and held it out to the girl. "I came to offer you an alliance, on behalf of my people."

"An alliance?" Himiko placed her daughter on the ground and took the offered parchment, unrolling it, her eyes scanning over the content.

"As I see it, alone we will be easy prey for the other daimyos," Haru went on. "But together, we may stand a chance." He waved a hand at the paper. "I know it's an uhm, an odd request, after the events of today, and I'll understand fully if you'll need time to..."

"I accept."

Haru blinked at her. "Pardon?"

"I accept," Himiko repeated, with a small smile. "I'll have to talk to my people, but I think they'll understand that it is wise to join forces, now especially." She laid the parchment on the table and picked up a wooden pen and dipped it in the ink, scribbling down her name at the bottom of the document. She blew on the ink to let it dry, then handed the parchment back to Haru. "Here."

The samurai took the offered alliance, glancing down at it for a moment with a blank look. "Thank you," he finally managed, rolling the paper up and returning it to its place on his belt. "That's uhm... much more than I ever exected."

Himiko's smile grew a fraction. "We will have to talk about the exact details of this alliance sometime soon." She waved a hand at the papers scattered around her. "I'm afraid I don't have the time now. I'm searching for information for the Kami and her friend."

"How is she?" Haru immediately inquired. "The friend I mean. Gabrielle?"

"The Kami said she was fine," the girl replied, seating herself again, and pulling the next scroll closer. "Though she still seemed rather upset when I saw her. I hope that if I find an answer to her question, they will both feel better."

The samurai considered this for a moment. "Is there... maybe... something I can help with?" he tried then, tentatively. "I don't wish to be in your way, but I feel rather guilty and..."

Iyo, who'd been gazing up at this new arrival for a while now, got tired of all this talk, and decided it was time she became the centre of attention once more. "Ey?" She reached out and tugged at the edge of samurai's kimono.

Haru glanced down. "Yes, my lady?"

"Who's you?"

The young man smothered a smile. "Well, according to your mother..." he knelt down, so their faces were closer. "...I am your humble servant."

"Sevvant?" Iyo considered this for a moment, then giggled happily. "Good!" As quick as she could she toddled towards him. "Go play!" She collided with him, and Haru lost his balance as a result. He let himself fall back, to avoid hurting the child and then winced as Iyo enthusiastically jumped on his stomach once more. He hastily reached for the child and lifted her up, so she was levitating above him. Iyo giggled, flapping her arms around enthusiastically. "Fly!"

Haru rolled his eyes, but couldn't repress a smirk. "You are quite the troublemaker, aren't you?"

The child nodded her head rapidly, laughing.

"That's what I thought," Haru shot a glance sideways, finding Himiko watching them both, an allowing smile on her face. She nodded as his eyes questioned her whether she was all right with this. Haru held her eyes for a few more moments, then he turned his attention back to his new charge. "So you wish to fly, my lady?"

"Yes!" Iyo answered immediately.

"Well then," Haru moved his centre of balance back a bit, then neatly hopped to his feet, the child chortling delightedly in respons. "Then you will fly."

"Hold on," Xena bent down and wrapped an arm around the bard's knees, and the other around her shoulders, before straighteneing again and lifting her up.

Gabrielle laid her cheek against the warrior's shoulder, as she allowed herself to be carried to the window. Xena carefully placed her so she was seated on the wide windowsill. The warrior remained standing, her arms lightly around her friend, and Gabrielle leaned against her, so she wouldn't lose her balance.

The setting sun outlined the small huts of the village in a red glow. In the distance Gabrielle could see the sea, and she could almost hear the hiss as the burning orb dipped into the water, the waves scattering the orange rays in all directions.

She'd seen lots of sunsets in her life. Especially the last few months, where she'd watched them all with Xena, before the warrior would leave to return to the afterlife once more.

Sunsets had been an ending. The end of a day, end of her time with Xena... But this sunset... She drew in a breath, tasting the sweet, slightly warm air and savouring it. This sunset was a beginning.

"It's beautiful," she mumbled, nestling a bit closer to Xena.

The warrior balanced her chin on the bard's head and closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on her face, the gentle rays colouring the insides of her eyelids in a deep red colour. "Yeah."

Silence fell, and lasted, as the sunk sank deeper and deeper into the sea, the bright red turning into shades of orange. Xena kept her eyes closed, focussing on the sounds of birds twittering and leaves blowing in the wind. The faint voices of people in the distance. Gabrielle's gentle breathing.

The colours changed, from orange to pink, and from pink to even gentler colours, until the faintest of shimmers remained. Xena saw none of it. She listened, for the first time in a long time, not to the sounds behind the sounds, but to the sounds themselves. And she heard them become a melody, a song she'd never taken the time to listen to before.

Until now.

A small smile crossed her lips, and she pulled Gabrielle a bit closer in response, breathing in deeply and simply enjoying the world around her. She allowed her eyes to drift open just as the sun disappeared entirely, leaving only a warm glow in its wake. She waited until even that glow had disappeared, then she drew in a breath and spoke. "Are you ready?"

"Yes," was the response, soft but certain. "Are you?"

Xena pressed a kiss against the top of the bard's head. "You know what just happened?"

Gabrielle leaned back a bit, gazing up at her friend. "What?"

"Nothing," the warrior replied with a smile. "No... tiny little noises poking at my senses, no muscles twitching ready to attack. No desires. No hate. I just... enjoyed living for a moment. I haven't done that since I was fifteen." Xena gently stroked a blond lock behind the bard's ear. "Thank you. For giving me this moment."

"I think you gave it to yourself." Gabrielle turned her head a bit, pressing a kiss against the palm of Xena's hand. "Maybe you finally realise you deserve it."

The warrior suppressed a grin. "Maybe."

She allowed herself to drift in this moment, in Gabrielle's eyes, for a fraction longer, then she straightened and shifted her hold a bit, lifting the bard from the windowsill again.

The sheets rustled as Gabrielle was placed upon them once more, with utter care. Xena moved back a bit, but she held on to the bard's hand, letting their fingers entwine as she reached for a cup she'd placed on the bedside table. She held it in front of her, gazing down at the contents, watching tiny black flakes drifting in the liquid.

Her eyes tracked back up to Gabrielle's face. The bard smiled at her. Xena smiled back.

The warrior lifted the cup, drawing some of the mixture into her mouth, then she leaned closer, hoovering over the bard for a few moments, before she touched her lips to Gabrielle's.

Gabrielle simply enjoyed the kiss, allowing some of the liquid to slide down her tongue. Xena pulled back a bit, leaning her forehead against the bard's. They swallowed at the same time.

They lingered for a moment, then Xena half turned, pulling off her boots, before scooting a bit closer to Gabrielle and lying down next to her. The bard rolled over, instantly finding her spot curled up at the warrior's side and exhaling contently as arms curled around her in response.

Xena closed her eyes once more, immediately feeling the effect of the herbs. Her limbs felt weak and heavy. She could hear Gabrielle's breathing start to slow.

"How long?" the bard's voice drifted up softly, as she rubbed her cheek against the sturdy shoulder she was leaning against.

"Not long," Xena responded simply. "Maybe just enough for you to say something really profound."

A faint chuckle. "Would you mind if I saved the profound stuff for later?" Gabrielle murmured. "And just tell you I love you?"

"No." The warrior smiled. "I don't mind." She pressed a kiss against the bard's temple. "I love you too." Another breath, this one slightly raspier than the previous one. "Now and forever."

Gabrielle drew their linked hands closer and laid them against her heart. "Forever," she repeated softly.

"Argh," a throaty growl escaped Himiko as she angrily tossed aside yet another scroll. She'd stayed up the entire night looking for anything at all to help the Kami with, but her search had resulted in absolutely nothing whatsoever. Himiko released a tired breath, letting her head rest on her hands. Dawn was approaching now, and she was running out of time.

Haru, who had remained at her side, watched the bent form sympathetically. He sat in a corner with one of the scrolls on his one knee, and a sleeping infant on the other.

Footsteps made Himiko look up, to see the priest moving closer to her. "Anything?" She asked, her eyes desperate now.

The kannushi shook his head sadly. "I fear not, my child. I'm sorry."

"We..." Himiko pushed herself to her feet and started pacing from left to right. "We must look harder. Maybe we missed something or..."

"We went over all the scrolls. Twice." The kannushi sighed deeply. "The Kami cannot stay on earth while the souls of Higuchi are dwelling in the afterlife. She must be with the souls for them to be at peace."

"There must be a way," Himiko matra-ed, as her mind raced past countless thoughts. "There must be a..."

She stopped her pacing suddenly, her brows frowning. From his corner, Haru watched her in intrigue. The kannushi studied her as well. "Child?" he gently interrupted her pondering.

Himiko turned towards him. "You said the Kami must be with the souls."

"Yes," the priest nodded. "For them to be at peace, yes."

Himiko hastily slipped past the kannushi, to one of the shelves, her fingers sliding over several scrolls until she found the one she was looking for, pulling it free. "Maybe we could..." She unrolled the scroll, her eyes flying over the contents until... "Yes!" She pointed at a a line of text. "That's it!"

"What?" The kannushi asked anxiously.

"We've been looking at it all wrong," Himiko spoke, her eyes taking on a new glow. "We can't bring the Kami back to the souls, no." She handed the scroll to the priest, pointing at her findings. "But we can bring the souls to the Kami."

The kannushi blinked at her a few times, then his eyes tracked down to the text, skimming over the words. "Reincarnation..." he mumbled, wonderously. "Of course, of course..."

"Get everything ready," Himiko instructed, as she ran towards the door. "I must tell her the good news."

It wasn't far to the healer's cot and Himiko reached it in no time. She felt like she was flying, in spite of her fatigue. "Kami!" She pushed open the door and burst inside, too excited about her news to consider the time of day. "Kami, I found..."

The words stilled on her lips. The room was dark, except for the faint glow of a candle, of which the wax had almost entirely melted away, only a puddle remaining on the table it had been placed upon. The faint glow just managed to illuminate the two forms wrapped around each other on the bed. She couldn't see Gabrielle's face from where she was standing, but the kami's was visible. A smile was tugging at her lips. She looked very happy.

"Kami?" Himiko spoke again, in a whisper this time. "Kami, wake up. I bring good news." She walked a bit closer. "Kami?" She reached for the warrior's hand, then flinched back as her fingers touched the skin.

It was cold.

Himiko staggered back a pace, her eyes wide now. "No," she managed to whisper, shaking her head. "No." Blankly she stared at the scene, not sure what to do.

The door creaked softly as Haru entered, halting as he saw Xena and Gabrielle's silent forms, and Himiko standing beside them, a hand pressed against her mouth in shock.

Quickly he circled the bed, ending up on the opposite side of Himiko. He leaned closer and laid two fingers against Gabrielle's neck, feeling for a pulse. After a moment, he dropped his head, exhaling gravely.

"Are..." Himiko spoke between sobs. "Are they...?"

Haru glanced sideways, spotting a cup placed on the bedside table and reaching for it, lifting it to his nose and sniffing. He winced. "Poison."

"Oh no," Himiko managed, hiding her face in her hands and turning away, facing the wall. "Please, no."

The samurai looked down at Gabrielle, reaching over and pushing a few errant locks back, to reveal her face. Her features were relaxed and she was smiling contently. Haru managed a smile in return. "The heavens must be twice as beautiful this day, having gained two souls so pure and loving," he spoke softly.

Himiko drew in a shaky breath, closing her eyes as thick teardrops slid down her cheeks. "I was too late," she choked somehow. "If I'd been faster, maybe I..."

A hand touched her shoulder, comfortingly. "There was nothing you could have done."

"But..." Himiko sniffled. "She asked me to find a way. And I failed her. I..."

"No." Another hand was placed on her other shoulder, and she was gently turned around, so she was looking at the bed once more. "Look at them," Haru whispered.

The girl wiped at her eyes with her sleeve, the tears blurring her vision.

"Do they look disappointed?"

Himiko gazed at the peaceful scene, then shook her head a little.

"Exactly," the samurai squeezed her shoulder a little. "They are at peace now. Finally."

The girl continued the gaze at the scene, her body unconsciously looking for comfort and finding it as she leaned back against Haru. "I didn't get to say goodbye." A sniffle. "I... I didn't get to thank them for all they did for me."

Haru exhaled, his cheek brushing against Himiko's black hair. "Neither did I." A breath. "But perhaps we were not meant to s..." He paused then, frowning.

Himiko tilted her head back a fraction, looking up at him. "What is it?"

In response Haru circled her and headed for the head of the bed, kneeling down and picking up a folded piece of parchment. Carefully he opened it, finding neatly scribbled letters on the surface.

Himiko peaked over his shoulder, curiously. "What does it say?"

"I always imagined I'd die in battle," Haru read. "On some battlefield, somewhere, and that the last moments of my life would remain unwritten."

Yet now I lie here, faced with the rare gift of filling these last few pages. To write an ending to our story.

So much has happened these past few days, so much I'd love to tell about, but I fear I have neither the strength nor the time to do so. What difference will it make anyway if I speak of another battle, another adventure. I've told of so many already after all. To show the cruelness of war. And to prove that one woman can stand amidst it all and make a difference, regardless of her past.

I think I've made my point.

Exactly thirty one years ago, to this day, I was lying on the cold harsh ground, shivering under the blanket that had been tossed at me so carelessly. It was freezing, rocks poked into my back and the eerie sounds of the night filled my ears and kept me from sleep.

I should have felt horrible. But I didn't. As I looked up to the stars peeking through the canopy above me, I remember thinking that this night, this first night in the wide outdoors with this odd friend I'd made, was likely to be the best night of my life.

But I've been blessed to see thousands of nights in her presence, and somehow they managed to surpass that perfect moment, entering a realm beyond perfection.

I won't say my life with Xena has always been peachy. I've hurt her. And she's hurt me. I realise that if we hadn't met, I wouldn't have killed. Wouldn't have lost the child I loved with all my heart. Would have remained the innocent girl from Potedaia, with a good heart and a pure soul.

But in this moment, as I lie here, dying, I realise I would willingly darken my soul a thousand times if it'd allow me to relive this life with her. We have suffered more than two people should, but at the same time we have shared a deeper love than I ever believed existed. And in the end, somehow, this makes the hurt irrelevant.

I love her. I have always loved her. Even when I hated her, I loved her. And soon, when the time comes where we will both pass on to the here after, I will be able to love her for the rest of my eternity.

I can feel that peace we've searched for. I can feel it like you can feel the rain, before it has fallen. And as I let it fill me, soothe the aches in my heart, I realise that this night, this night in which I will die, is likely to be the best night of my life.

It was a field, endless it seemed. It was filled with flowers in all possible colours, and some even in impossible ones. The fragrant smell of blossoms lingered in the air. The cheerful laughter of children, as they chased each other around the trees. A bird twittered as it flew over, standing out starkly against the bright blue sky.

Under a large tree, two figures rested in the shadows. One, a blonde, resting with her back against the bark, the other lying down, her dark hair scattered over the first person's lap. The blonde waved a hand about animatedly, telling some story or another, while her companion watched her allowingly.

"So what do you think?"

"About what?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "The story?"

"Ow, yeah," Xena grinned cheekily. "It's nice."

The bard sighed, poking her index finger at her friend's forehead. "You are no help what so ever."

"Hey," the warrior looked up indignantly. "Who's the story about again?"


"Damn straight," Xena made a grab for the finger near her forehead, capturing the blonde's hand. "You wouldn't have a story without me, bard. Remember that."

Gabrielle chuckled softly, absently entwining her fingers with the warrior's. "Hey Xena?"

"Hmm?" was the sleepy response, Xena having closed her eyes again, enjoying the warmth and her comfortable position.

"Do you think we could pass into other afterlives?"

One eyelid opened. "What? Dying five times ain't enough for ya?"

"It's not that," the bard explained. "I'd just like to go see Ephiny sometime.And Solari and the other Amazons. My parents. Even Joxer."

Xena smirked.

"You think we could do that?" Gabrielle continued, curiously. "I mean, if you could appear on earth, another afterlife shouldn't be a problem, right?"

The warrior considered this for a moment, then shrugged closing her eyes again. "I guess."

"Can we go tomorrow?"

Both eyes opened. "We just got here!"

"Can we?" Gabrielle looked at her pleadingly. "I really would like to see them."

Xena gazed at her for another moment, then rolled her eyes. "Fine, fine." She muttered grumpily, as she rolled onto her side, wrapping her free hand around the leg she was resting on. "I was getting tired of these obnoxiously cheerfull birds here anyway."

"Yes!" Gabrielle chortled, happily placing a kiss on the warrior's cheek. "This is gonna be so much fun."

Her companion exhaled gravely. "Somehow I get the feeling we're gonna end up in a whole lot of trouble."

"Ow please," the bard waved her off. "We're in heaven. How much trouble can we possibly get into?"

Blue eyes shifted up and gazed at the blonde for a long moment, then Xena sighed even deeper, letting her head sink back on its comfortable pillow in resignation. "I don't know yet," she muttered, closing her eyes again. "But I'm sure we'll find out tomorrow."

The End

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