Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television programs Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
Violence: Were mixing Xena, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Octavian here. What do you think?
Subtext/Maintext: PG-13/R. Yep, X & G are in love. If that offends you, you might not want to read this story because you could find yourself enjoying it.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org or
Setting: This story falls sequentially after "A Solstice Treaty." Ive taken extreme liberties with history and religion here, but then, so does the show.
CLEOPATRA 4 A.D.
(posted July 28 , 2000)
"...(Love) has unquenchable faith, hopes under all circumstances, endures without limit. Love never fails ..."
-I Corinthians 13:7-8, the Bible, Modern Language Version, copyright by God.
It was like flying. She floated skyward on an endless dark current, feeling weightless and completely powerless to propel her body away from the clutches of whatever unknown force was drawing her up. Occasionally, odd flashes of reddish-orange light rendered her momentarily blind, and strange thundering sounds vibrated against her sensitive eardrums. After what seemed an eternity, the momentum shifted, and just as quickly as she had flown upward, she found herself falling, spiraling down toward the ground, which was rising up to meet her much too quickly.
"Whoooaaaaa!!!" She couldn't help but cry out, as her feet made solid contact with a hard smooth surface, jarring the breath from her lungs. She quickly tucked into a ball and rolled forward into a flip, leaping and spinning in a high arc until she at last sprung up onto her feet once more. Hmmmm. The warrior quickly assessed her physical faculties, flexing her muscles and tentatively doing a few more flips just for good measure. Everything seems to be in place and functioning properly. She bounced lightly on her heels a couple of times and felt the familiar slap of her scabbard against her back. And my weapons are still with me. She looked down and eye-balled her chakram, along with the ever-present boot and breast daggers.
She shook her head slightly, and ran her fingers through her hair, flicking a thick lock out of her eyes. Gods. Her head was throbbing and her mouth felt as dry as wheat chaff. She patted her sides and regretfully discovered that somewhere during the unexpected journey, she had been divested of her water skin. Guess I'll have to look for water. She warily panned her surroundings. Wherever in Tartarus I am.
Her dwelling place appeared to be a cave of some sort, with rough uneven walls that rose to a high rocky ceiling. She looked up and squinted toward the craggy stalactites that warred for space over her head, trying to determine if there was an opening somewhere above her that she might have fallen through when she landed ... Here. There was no clue as to how she had entered the mysterious cavern, or where "here" might be. Three different arched openings led toward dark passages that twisted and turned out of her immediate line of sight.
How in the name of Ares did I end up in this place? She turned in a slow arc. And why? The warrior circled the large chamber, pausing at each of the doorways and peering down each of the three tunnels, trying to remember the sequence of events right before she was transported to her current location, and wondering if she should stay where she was or follow one of the unknown exits. Let's see. I was in the tomb of Khufu, I pried open his sarcophagus, it was empty, and then Gabrielle warned me about those torches that started to light up. Gabrielle. Oh gods.
Xena sat down heavily on the smooth cool floor of the cave, crossing her legs and resting her chin on top of her upraised fists, her elbows propped on her inner knees. Her last distinct memory was hearing Gabrielle scream as she was carried out of her partner's sight. I left her behind. She pictured Gabrielle's face and the warm green eyes, and her fingertips involuntarily flexed, as if to touch the soft skin she could almost feel. Sorry, love. It's not like I wanted to go anywhere. Hang on. I'll figure out how to get back to you. I promise. Another thought jarred her, causing a brief fresh rush of adrenalin. What if something happened to Gabrielle too? What if she needs me ... and I'm not there? Please, baby, be okay. I'll get back to you as fast as I can.
Well. She abruptly rose to her feet. That settles that. I'm not gonna get anywhere just sitting on my butt. She moved to the center of the cavern and closed her eyes, cocking her head and listening intently, directing her higher ear toward each passageway one by one in turn. The first tunnel emitted just the faintest dripping sound, like a small trickle of water over rock. That could be a good choice. She rotated partway and re-focused. The next passage was completely silent. Eerily quiet, and an unexplainable chill raced up the warrior's spine. Hmmmm. As she honed in on the last tunnel, she could hear a tiny crackling or rustling noise, which could have been anything from fire to rodents scurrying about. Hope it's not any rats. A second shiver danced across her back.
Finally, since she was so thirsty, she chose the passage with the liquid noise, in hopes of quenching her painfully dry mouth and throat. Damn. I know better. She suddenly realized that she had not ingested much water that day, even during the camel ride across the sand dunes to the pyramids. Bet I'm getting dehydrated. She continued to take cautious steps on the surprisingly-level tunnel floor, and mentally calculated, determining that she had consumed three or four mugs of the non-alcoholic apple cider back at the inn. That should count for something. She tried to re-assure herself.
As she drew closer to the source of the promising sound, it occurred to her that it was getting darker, and that even though there had been no apparent source of light in the main chamber, that it had not been completely pitch black. In fact ... she spun around and faced back toward the main room. From where she now stood, the room she had just left glowed faintly. I could see pretty damned well in there. Wonder where the light comes from? She felt her scalp hairs prickle and closed one hand around her biceps to rub the goose bumps that shot down her upper arms. Okay. I need water. Let's just keep going and hope that's what I'm gonna find down here.
Her internal clock told her that somewhere between a quarter and a half-candle mark had passed since her trek began, and the smell of water grew stronger, assaulting her nose with a teasing mineral scent that made her notice her dry mouth even more. She licked her cracking lips and groaned. Gods, what I wouldn't give for a drink right now.
It was almost pitch black, and she slowed her steps considerably, inching along and blinking constantly, trying to focus on something, anything ahead of her. She heard a slight sloshing noise and her hopes rose that it was indeed a water source not too far away. Wish Kallerine were here. The bacchae-slaying Amazon had the sharpest eyes of anyone the warrior had ever met. Combined with Xena's acute sense of hearing, they made a formidable team on the few search and hunting parties they had both participated in together since Gabrielle and the warrior had moved into the Amazon village.
Caught up in memories of home and her partner, the warrior momentarily took her complete attention off merely walking, and suddenly, without warning, she hit loose gravel and began a long slide down a steep slope, losing her footing and tumbling head over heels until she was once again falling through the air. After a twenty-foot drop, she hit water, plunging into the icy depths until her feet touched bottom. She crouched down and pushed off, using powerful strokes of her arms and legs to re-surface with a splutter, clearing the water from her nose and mouth with a forceful breath of air. "Gods-be-damned!" She cursed at the darkness around her. "How many times am I gonna fall today, anyway?!"
The pool was so cold it took her breath away. I said I was thirsty. She managed a rueful smile and sniffed the freezing water for any chemicals that might preclude drinking it. A sigh and a slight grateful gasp, and she plunged her face back under, gulping greedily of the welcome wetness until she had to stop due to the shooting pains in her temples from the cold substance. Gods. She smacked her lips. That tasted better than Solstice Eve dinner.
One good thing. She began to swim toward what she hoped was the embankment she had fallen down. This water's way too cold to support life. Least I don't have to worry about anything trying to bite me. Or eat me. 'Course, hypothermia could be a problem if I don't get outta here pretty quick. Then again .... She thought about the strange way in which she had arrived in the cave. ... I don't know where in Hades I am. For all I know the laws of nature as I know them don't apply here. Maybe there are strange creatures in here.
She reached a solid surface and felt carefully along it for several feet. As far as she could tell, with the practically zero visibility and her sense of touch, it was an almost vertical wall. Okay. She sighed and reached down into the water, groping against her side and gratefully finding her chakram still in place at her waistline. With a forceful strike, she embedded the weapon into the solid rock to mark her place, and began a pains-taking circuit of the perimeter of the pool, feeling her way along hand over hand while she treaded water, since it was too deep for her to touch bottom and keep her head above the surface. What seemed like an eternity passed before she reached out and touched the chakram, and realized she had been completely around the pool.
"Great. Now what?" She posed the question to whoever might be listening. As far as she could tell, she was in something akin to a quarry pool, a basin of water that was completely surrounded by high vertical rock walls that she couldn't climb. At least not without great peril due to the oppressive darkness. "Arrrgggghhhh!!!!" Her frustrated cry echoed off the high walls around her. "I'm tired and I'm cold and I wanna go home." And I want to be with Gabrielle. She slammed a fist against the rock and then regretfully rubbed it, knowing she had just caused yet another bruise.
Think warrior. She dunked her face back into the water in an effort to clear her head, and had the good fortune to open her eyes. And see the faintest hint of light coming from somewhere below the surface about twenty feet down, across the pool from where she was. That's weird. She quickly retrieved her chakram and swam on top of the water with her face down just beneath the water, drawing steadily toward the light source. She reached the far wall and took a deep breath, before she flipped up and around, diving headfirst downward until she reached the light's entry-way, a hole in the rocky wall that was easily large enough for her to swim into. A steady stream of pale light shone from the depths of the opening. She studied it and then floated back up until her head was once again above water.
She closed her eyes for a long moment. If she concentrated hard enough, she could still feel the sense of impending doom, her heart pounding and the illusion that the water was closing in around her, crushing her, as she swam further and further into unknown dark levels of the lake, so desolate that it was devoid of any kind of life. She could still remember every detail of her trip to the underworld to visit Marcus and help Hades retrieve his helmet of invisibility. She had reluctantly let go, once and for all, of a love that she had known deep in her heart was not to be. And had returned to contemplate a growing love for a friend she had already come to depend on more than she was willing to admit to herself at the time.
It was the first and second time in succession that Gabrielle had sat and waited patiently for her to return from a journey that they both knew might kill her first. Both times the bard had tried to convince her that swimming to the bottom of a lake was crazy, and both times she had lost the argument, simply hugging Xena instead and telling her to be careful.
And I put her through that not once, but twice in a row. Gods. I didn't even think about how hard that must have been on her. Each time Xena had returned from the depths of the murky lake, Gabrielle had been there, holding quietly onto a profound hope and belief in the warrior that Xena didn't even begin to understand. Still didn't understand sometimes. Don't know what you see in me, sweetheart, but I hope you never lose sight of it.
Now she faced a similar choice, but this time she wasn't aiming for the bottom of a lake, she was aiming for the end of a tunnel that might or might not bring her back to the surface and a source of air again. I am insane. She knew what she was contemplating was fool-hardy, and that if Gabrielle were there, she would be giving Xena an earful as to just how stupid her next action really was. "Don't have a choice, baby." She whispered softly, almost as if she were praying. "If I don't get out of here, I'll be waiting for you under that willow tree, just like we promised."
She closed her eyes and pictured her lover's face, remembering some of their times together in brief flashes ... Pulling a young village girl up behind her on Argo, not knowing it would change everything ... Saying goodbye when Gabrielle left to go to the Academy, feeling more empty than she ever had in her entire life ... Saying goodbye again when Gabrielle went home to Potadeia ... Being more happy than she ever dreamed possible when the bard returned to her both times ... Laying on her death bed as poison took her life, never more proud of Gabrielle than when the bard was willing to fight for the greater good ... Desperately blowing breath into her dead friend's lungs near Thessaly, and crying tears of joy when it worked ... Understanding for the first time that her choice to be a warrior had made the difference between Gabrielle's freedom and being a slave ... Praying in a moonlit glade that Gabrielle would not take up a sword ... Kissing her future lover in a dream scape, and knowing that it left both of them breathless ... Pulling Gabrielle from a burning coffin, and then opening her blinded eyes, seeing the bard's face first, and realizing that she always wanted to be able to see that face ... Leaping from a cliff, making an impossible landing, even if it meant being stranded on a cursed boat for life, just as long as it was a life spent with her best friend ... Watching her world and their friendship slowly unravel through a series of poor choices and mis-communication, breaking her heart ... Opening her eyes in the surf on a beach with Gabrielle in her arms, and realizing she never wanted to let go ... Pouring a antidote from a vial into a dying bard's mouth, and finding that since Gabrielle was going to live, she wanted to live too ... Watching her best friend take a dive down a lava pit, and going insane with grief in a wild attempt to find her, no matter where she had to go to do it ... The bittersweet joy of discovering that Gabrielle was alive, but that she was going to die with her sometime in the future ... Weeping as she embraced her future lover in a forest outside Potadeia ... Wondering if the way of peace would drive a wedge between them ... Finding out they were eternal soulmates ... Watching helplessly as Gabrielle did take up a sword to defend her in a Roman compound ... Watching in agony while her best friend was crucified .. Sitting under a willow tree in the Elysian Fields, and discovering they were much more than friends ... A kiss in an inn near Mt. Ymarro, that led to much more than a kiss, and the look of wonder in her new lover's eyes as they took each other to a place they had never been before together ... Holding Gabrielle afterward, and knowing that she could never love anyone else again ... Watching with pride and fear as the bard defended her own Amazon mask, and won ... Getting down on her knees in a crystal cave, and asking Gabrielle to spend the rest of her life with her ... Her joy when the answer was "yes."
Well. The warrior opened her eyes and was acutely aware of the cool smooth band on her left ring finger. I'm not ready to quit making new memories with her just yet, and the first step to getting back to memory-making is getting out of this place. With great determination, she took a deep breath and plunged back under the water. As she reached the lighted passageway, she grabbed onto the edges and used her superior strength to propel herself forcefully into the entrance, kicking with measured strokes and parting the water ahead of her with her fisted hands. The light grew brighter, spurring her forward. Her lungs began to burn and she fought the almost irresistible urge to breathe. She could hear her own blood pounding inside her body, and just when she thought she was going to burst, she exited the tunnel and exploded upward, breaking the surface of another unknown body of water and gasping for life-giving oxygen.
It took a moment for her senses to re-group, but as her body began to calm, she realized that the pool she was now in, while surrounded on three sides by yet more sheer cliffs, had what appeared to be a navigable shore about a hundred yards opposite from where she was. In no time at all, she was crawling onto another gravely floor and barely managed to stop herself from kissing the ground, snickering at her memories of her first ride on a ship with her partner. Gabrielle had hit the beach and dropped down on all-fours, kissing the dark sand and raising her head to reveal a dirt-smeared face that Xena found totally irresistible. Even covered in mud, she's pretty damned cute.
The immediate danger past, the warrior realized that she was totally exhausted. She carefully stood up and felt the beginnings of several bruises. I'm gonna hurt worse tomorrow. But if I'm hurting in Cairo by then instead of here, I hope I remember not to complain. Looking down, she discovered she had long scrapes down both legs and arms from the precarious fall into the pool. She wondered if she had managed to piss off one of the gods ... again. Maybe ... She thought about Saqqara and her warnings about the mummy's lair being cursed. Ra. That would be just great. I could have gods on three continents out to get me. Or Khufu. Didn't Saqqara say that Khufu was angry because his body was missing?
Xena started to tremble, as the cool air of the cave began to dry her totally-soaked body, and her leathers clung to her with a damp, unpleasant, almost suction-like grip. Uggghh. Her head was still killing her, her scratches were starting to burn, her entire body felt as if she had been severely beaten, and to top it all off, now she was freezing to death. "This day is gonna go high on the suck list." She muttered under her breath. She took a few tentative steps and winced as her water-logged boots made an annoying squishing noise with each contact on the hard ground. "Gee." She mumbled. "Maybe if my luck holds out I'll get a raging case of foot rot too."
She looked around the room. While quite a bit larger, it otherwise wasn't too different from the one she had first landed in, with the exception of the pool at one end, and this time there was only one apparent way out, a small opening on the far side of the chamber. Well. At least I don't have to make a choice this time. In addition to a glowing flicker of light which she could see coming through the doorway, she could smell the acrid odor of fire. She sniffed the air and the scent tickled something in the recesses of her brain. She thought about it for a moment and realized the fire smelled much like the smoke that always accompanied Ares when he appeared or disappeared.
Maybe this is all just a really bad dream. She knew from the various sources of pain and discomfort on and inside her body that she was very much awake. And alive. I guess I should be thankful for that. she shook herself all over, re-settling her armor, and grabbed her chakram, drawing it up defensively in a sweeping arc. Okay. She gazed at the lone exit with mixed caution and curiosity. Let's go see what's on the other side of that door.
A knock at the door to her private bed chamber startled the Egyptian awake, and she guiltily rubbed sleep from her eyes. She had sat down in one of the large leather overstuffed chairs for what was only supposed to be a few minutes, as she waited for Meleah to report to her. She hadn't meant to fall asleep. As she looked out the tall windows, she realized that at least two candle marks had passed. That's strange. I wonder what took her so long? "Come." Her voice carried across the room with confident authority.
She was surprised when the person who entered was not Meleah, as expected, but the head cook from her private kitchen. "Your majesty." The dark-skinned man nervously licked his lips. "Begging your pardon. But there's been an .... accident."
"What sort of accident?" Cleopatra bristled and got up to cross the room.
"We ... that is ... um ... Meleah is dead." The cook's eyes were sad. He and Meleah had worked together since Meleah was a very young girl. He had spent hours teaching the girl the fine art of cooking, and how to combine the various spices to create the delicious dishes the queen loved most.
"Dead?!" The Egyptian reeled at the information. "How? What happened?"
"She never came back after she took the drinks to Antony and his men. We started looking for her, and someone found some blood on the ground beside your private well. We looked around some more and discovered that the bucket that stays attached to the rope on the crank, along with the rope itself, was missing. Then someone noticed that the tray Meleah had carried was sitting on a bench in the courtyard. One thing led to another, and ..." The man shuddered. "... her body was found in the well. She had been stabbed in the heart."
Ra forgive me. Cleopatra was overwhelmed with regret and remorse. Somehow, she instinctively knew that her long-time servant had probably been murdered for following her own orders to spy on Antony. "Listen to me." The Egyptian strode purposefully to a small writing desk, pulling out a blank piece of parchment and a quill. She dipped the quill into an inkwell and began writing furiously while she spoke. "Don't tell anyone that I know about Meleah's death yet. Just tell anyone who asks that you knocked and I told you to go away. Do I make myself clear?"
"Of course your highness." The man nodded slightly our of respect for his queen.
"Good." Cleopatra finished her note and blew on it to dry the ink, then rolled it up, securing it with a piece of red satin ribbon and her own seal, pressed into a bit of wax she dribbled on the edge of the paper. "Now. I need you to take this to the carrier pigeon station in the city. Make sure no one follows you. Tell the station manager that it is a message for Xena, the warrior princess. Tell no one of this note's existence."
"Yes your majesty." The cook bowed deeply, accepting the parchment and the assignment graciously. He briefly looked around to make sure no one was in sight, before he left the room and slipped out of the palace via a seldom-used side entrance. With a healthy dose of fear, he quickly covered the distance between the palace and the carrier pigeon station, careful to take as many side streets and back alleys as possible.
Once the message was delivered, he breathed a sigh of relief and began a leisurely stroll back to the palace, running through the evening's dinner plans in his head, and sparring a wistful moment to remember the dead girl who would not be assisting him with his preparations. He never saw the arm that reached out from around a corner, dragging him into an alley before a dagger slit his throat with one efficient slice. His body hit the ground with a thud, as the warm blood quickly soaked his tunic, running down his neck to pool beneath him in the sand, staining the fine sugary grains a dark russet color.
The Roman soldier deftly knelt to a crouch and patted down the body, looking for the parchment. He had been keeping watch through a barely-cracked door from the room next to the queen's bed chamber, and had carefully tracked the cook as he left the palace with a rolled piece of paper under one arm. Unfortunately, he had been detained by an Egyptian soldier, who had pulled him aside and questioned him at length as to his reason for freely roaming the streets of Cairo. Unknown to Marc Antony, after the attack on Eli's followers, Cleopatra had put her entire city guard on alert to interrogate any Roman soldiers who seemed the least bit suspicious, and the troops had been a bit over-zealous in their effort to obey their queen.
By the time the soldier let him go, the Roman had lost track of the rotund cook, and finally decided to wait in hiding along the route the man would surely take to return to the palace. He didn't have to wait long. He knew the chance that the man still had the note on him was slim, and he cursed in frustration. The desert heat was getting to him, and he longed to return to Rome and the comforting familiarity of his own meager quarters in the military bunk house he shared with several other comrades.
He walked out of the alley and looked down the street toward the direction from which the cook had traveled. Slowly, he began to follow the narrow lane, studying the various businesses on either side of the road and mentally dismissing each one until he reached the carrier pigeon station. Hmmmm. He entered the small office and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the low light. "Excuse me." He smiled charmingly at the young woman behind the counter, flashing a row of dazzling white teeth at the girl. "Did a plump man just deliver a message here? Possibly with the queen's royal seal on it?"
The girl smiled shyly back at him. "Why, yes sir. Is this it?" She turned to a group of deep slots that were cut into the wall, and retrieved the rolled parchment. "He said it's for Xena, the warrior princess."
The Roman took the note, allowing his fingers to briefly touch those of the girl in a flirtatious gesture. She giggled and batted her eyelashes in response, as a rosy blush colored her cheeks.
The soldier liked what he saw, and decided he would have to pay her another visit after work. He quickly broke the taboo seal with a crack of the wax, and unrolled the paper. He looked up before he began to read. "You said this was for Xena?"
"Yes." The love-struck girl replied. "The warrior princess. She's been in here a few times over the last couple of days."
"Really?" The Roman's brows shot up. "That's interesting. You're sure it was Xena?"
"That's who she said she was." The girl wanted to be helpful to the handsome soldier. "She's retrieved other messages here as well."
"Well, thank you." The soldier tucked the note inside his belt and touched his fingertips to his metal helmet to bid the girl farewell. "Maybe I can meet you for dinner later this evening. Perhaps at the inn across the road, say a candle mark after sundown?"
"Oh, yes." The young girl beamed. "I'd love to."
"Until this evening, then." The Roman smiled and left the station. And found himself spun and pressed against the outer wall face-first, with the pointed end of an unidentified weapon poking into the skin just over his jugular vein, as a knee pressed between his legs from behind, threatening to cause some extreme pain if he made any sudden moves. "What the ...?"
"Sorry. No dinner for you." A hand snaked around between his torso and the building wall, grabbing the note. "I'll take that. And don't bother trying to fight me. I've had a really, really bad day, and I won't hesitate to use this if I have to."
He felt the weapon dig in a bit deeper, but the voice behind him was easily identified as that of a woman. He grinned and started to reach for his sword at his side, when the knee suddenly drew back and then moved up swiftly, making solid contact with his manhood. He saw stars as he grabbed the area with both hands and groaned loudly. He wasn't in pain for long, as something struck him solidly at the base of his skull, and darkness quickly claimed him.
Gabrielle sighed and spun both sais before tucking them back into their leather loops on the outside of her boots. Idiot. She dragged the unconscious man back into the carrier pigeon station and shot daggers with her eyes at the young girl, whose eyes grew wide as a gasp escaped her lips.
"One word about this." Cold green eyes bore into the girl. "One word at all. To anyone. And I'll come back and do the same to you. I promise I'm not going to hurt him." She stepped into the alley and placed her fingers to her lips, blowing a series of whistles. Tobias appeared from around a corner and stopped beside the back door. The bard was really glad she had decided to borrow her four-legged friend from Mary and Yoseph. She retrieved several thick strips of rawhide from a saddle bag and bound the soldier's ankles and wrists. Now. What do I do with him?
She leaned out the back door again, facing the empty alley. "Eli. Come on. I know this is hard, but I need you." The Devi also came out from the same corner where Tobias had been waiting, his shoulders slumped in defeat. Once again, Xena and Gabrielle had managed to draw him into activities that went against his convictions. Yet just as every other time before, a part of him recognized the necessity of his friend's actions. He silently helped Gabrielle load the soldier across the donkey's back and managed to smile. "Where to, my friend?"
"Um ..." The bard ran through her options. "... take him to your encampment, can you?" Gabrielle smiled gratefully when the Devi nodded in agreement. She and Eli had discussed his current situation, and he had informed her that he and his closest followers had a small tent-city set up down by the river just outside the southern city limits, with about twenty-five of the faithful living there in a communal setting. "I know your people will treat him right. I've got him tied pretty securely. Here." She reached into a saddle bag. "Gag him." She handed the Devi a strip of linen. "We can't risk him making any noise if he wakes up before you get outside the city. Take the back alleys as much as you can, and find a blanket or something to throw over him. Keep a watch on him for me. Please? I'll send word when it's okay to release him."
"Sure. I owe you and Xena that much. But what are you going to do?" Eli placed one hand on the bard's shoulder. "I don't like the idea of you being alone over there."
"Eli." Gabrielle looked up at her friend with very blood-shot eyes. She wondered if there were any tears left inside, and then just as quickly knew that not only were there more, but she was holding them carefully in check, as they threatened to break free at the slightest provocation. "I'm no stranger to bizarre situations. I need you to watch this man until I sort things out. I have got to read this message, send a return message if necessary, and then I have to go back over to Giza."
"Gabrielle." The Devi squeezed the shoulder. "It's dangerous."
"I ... don't ... have ... a choice." Gabrielle drew her words out for emphasis. "I have to believe that she's going to find her way back from wherever she went. Since she left from there, I think that I should wait for her there. I can't explain it. Just a gut feeling I have. Besides, if it were me, she'd do the same."
"Very well." Eli leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Be careful, my friend."
"I will." The bard watched as her friend led the small donkey down the street toward the river, along with the two placid camels. It had been a very long afternoon. Once she got over the initial shock of her partner's disappearance, she had first searched the entire pyramid, looking for any clues as to where Xena might have gone. She found nothing. After that she had simply plopped down in the middle of the main chamber, and cried her eyes out, this time with no wailing, but silent tears of frustration and fear that her lover might be gone for good.
Eli had tried to console her and had even attempted to use his sketchy connection to the nether world to see if he had any feel for what had happened to Xena. But just as it always was for him where the warrior was concerned, he felt nothing. Could sense nothing, other than Gabrielle's overwhelming pain. He had summoned Saqqara, who seemed reluctant to share any information she might have, until she finally merely said that Xena wasn't dead, and that the warrior was needed elsewhere. The ghostly girl had then vanished herself, and they had heard from her no more.
It was one of the hardest things she had ever done, to get up and walk away from the pyramid, when every fiber of her soul cried out for her to stay and wait, just like she had always waited for Xena whenever they were separated. But they had discussed the greater good too many times, and Gabrielle knew that her lover had an agenda, and since Xena wasn't present to carry out her plans, it fell to the bard to step in. Gabrielle had made one last thinly-whispered plea to her partner to please come back soon, and then she had forced herself to leave.
They had promised the tied and gagged soldiers outside the pyramid that they would eventually send someone to release them, and the bard had called upon the Devi to assist her in dragging them into one of the small ante-chambers, out of sight. She had apologized to the soldiers profusely, as well as to Eli for asking him to do something that was against his principles. Then she and the Devi had made a very long, hot walk to the ferry, because the bard discovered that she was unable to mount the camel by herself. Xena had helped her up the first two times.
From there, Gabrielle was in a quandary. She knew no one in Egypt, save Cleopatra, Mary, and Yoseph. She had decided to pay a visit to the latter two, and had begged to borrow Tobias so that she wouldn't have to walk everywhere in the desert heat. She also wanted the little donkey in the almost unthinkable event that she had to leave Cairo quickly and alone, with all of her and Xena's belongings.
Yoseph had been more than willing to loan out what had originally been Gabrielle's before him, and told her to keep him for as long as she needed. Mary had hugged her and told her to please be careful. The bard had given Mary the poem she had written, and asked that her new friend not read it until after she was gone. Yeshua had come outside and told her in no uncertain terms that everything was going to be okay. That had provided her with her one true smile during the dreadful afternoon.
With a heavy heart, she had ridden Tobias back to the carrier pigeon station, while Eli had ridden on camel-back, with the extra camel tied to a lead behind him. Gabrielle knew that Xena was expecting a message from Cleopatra, and she was determined to intercept it. Thus, she had merely happened to be standing on the threshold of the cozy office when she heard the soldier inside, flirting with the station clerk while they discussed a message that was obviously supposed to go to Xena.
It had surprised her how quickly she had gone into protective mode, determined not to fail her soulmate in her absence. She didn't even remember drawing her sais, much less how she had summoned up the strength to strong-arm the Roman and pin him to the wall. But it had worked. She'd seen Xena make such a move hundreds of times. Wish you could have seen that, love. A tiny part of the bard still craved the warrior's approval, even though on a much greater level, she knew that she had not only Xena's approval, but everything else that went with it, the whole package that comprised the mysterious, enigmatic, complicated person that Gabrielle loved with all her heart and soul.
The bard wearily sat down on a bench in the city center square, and unrolled the parchment, quickly scanning the dainty even handwriting, which thankfully was in Greek. So. She chewed her bottom lip in thought. Cleopatra is on our side now, for whatever reason. Gabrielle heard a tiny internal warning bell go off, unsure of why she was wary. The Egyptian wanted to meet with Xena at their inn at supper time. The note said the queen knew where they were staying, as her sources had made a point of letting her know of their whereabouts the day they left.
Very well. The bard's soul hadn't felt so unsettled in a long time, part of her longing to rush back to Giza, and part of her knowing she had work to do. I guess I'd better get back to the inn and wait for Cleo. Sweet Artemis. How am I going to explain Xena's absence, and what we were doing in that forbidden chamber? It's not like she and I exactly like or trust each other in the first place. Okay. I'm a bard. How difficult can it be to talk my way around the situation until Xena returns? If she returns. No. She will return. She immediately chastised herself for her negative thoughts, and wiped several tears off her cheeks as they spilled downward.
She looked across at the sun, which was sitting low in the sky, preparing for its final descent below the horizon. Her sad eyes trailed toward the pyramids, which she could barely see sticking up in the far distance. She was going to be a little delayed in getting back over there, and was profoundly aware, in a brand new way, of just how much she would be losing if her partner was lost forever. I can't lose you. Not now. Our life together is just beginning. It all became too much, and a tremulous breath escaped her lips as her chest tightened with fresh unshed tears. "Xena, where are you?"
The warrior stood with her back pressed tightly against the wall next to the door, as she listened intently to low voices and a popping hissing noise that was unmistakably a fire. Or two. She looked up at the chakram that she held at shoulder level, and thinking better of it, placed it back on its hook and instead moved forward away from the wall enough to draw her sword. She cringed as the water-logged leather scabbard emitted a squishing noise similar to the one her boots made when she walked. Gods. Hope whoever is in there didn't hear that.
She focused all her senses on the conversation, and managed to sort out only two voices, one quite angry and another one a bit smug. Xena counted to three and then leaped into the middle of the doorway to reveal herself to whoever was in the room. Two mouths stopped moving in mid-conversation as the men turned to regard her, neither of them showing any real surprise at her presence.
"Xena." A dark-skinned man with a black goatee- like beard, long black hair, and flowing red robes regarded her with some amusement. "I see you've made it through the tunnel system in one piece, for the most part." His eyes roamed the length of her bruised and scratched-up body. "Although I must say, you aren't as smart as my friend here said you were. You see, if you'd chosen the other tunnel, the one with the crackling noises, it would have taken you a lot longer to walk, but you would have come out right over there without having to swim or dive first." He gestured toward another doorway across the room.
"That so?" The warrior glowered at the men. "Well ... you know my name, that's obvious enough. So you must know a little bit about me, enough to know that I arrived here quite by accident and not of my own accord. And even if I had known about the other tunnel, I generally take short-cuts, even if I have to exert myself a bit to get through them. I prefer to save time over doing a little extra work. So ..." Her eyes grazed first one man and then the other. "Who are you and why am I here? And why in Hades are you chained up?" She directed her attention to the other man, who was seated on a large throne that he appeared to be chained to with several strands of thick gleaming silver links.
"I'm sorry." The standing man moved closer, stopping out of range of her sword. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Khufu, and my friend back there is Osiris."
Xena snorted in disbelief. "Osiris? As in 'I lost my winkie to a Nile River croc?' That Osiris?" She burst out laughing. "You're a god and he's just a dead man. Don't tell me he managed to chain you up."
"Long story." The Egyptian god of entry to the netherworld actually blushed.
"Well." The warrior walked right up to the edge of the platform the throne was perched on, propping one foot on the edge and resting her forearms across her upraised thigh, her sword hanging loosely from one hand. "I'm all ears. I have no idea where I am, and don't even begin to know how to get back to where I was . Why don't you boys tell me your whole sordid story, or better yet, why don't you send me back to Giza, unless you need me for something."
Khufu strolled back toward them, flanking the other side of the platform. "Don't look at me. He brought you here. I was just going to go down and flatten you for desecrating my tomb, but he took advantage of my absence, and the portal I opened, and zapped you up here. If it were up to me, I would have just driven you and your little blonde friend away."
Before he knew what happened, the former pharaoh was pinned to the gilded floor by an angry warrior with a sword pressed against his throat. "You leave Gabrielle alone, or I'll ..."
"You'll what?" Khufu taunted her. "Kill me? I'm already dead."
"I'm not stupid." Xena blinked. "It's obvious you have some long-standing grudge against my man Osiris over here, and if I had to make a really educated guess, I'd say it has something to do with the fact that you're dead and don't have a body to show for it. You've got all these nice trinkets and most of your family and even your dog down there in that rat-hole of a pyramid, but for all you've got, he ain't letting you into the afterlife until you've found your missing carcass, am I right so far?"
Two pairs of dark eyes locked briefly before the god and the pharoah both nodded in astonishment at her perceptiveness.
"Just what I thought." Men. Gods. Ares preserve me from ever becoming either one. The warrior pushed off of Khufu and began pacing back and forth. "So ... you arrived here, or wherever it is you report to when you die, and he wouldn't let you pass over. Then you took off, found some chains, and somehow managed to capture him. That's why all those confused souls are roaming around back there in Egypt, because Osiris is bound and no one can cross over until he's free." She boldly stepped up next to the throne and fingered some of the thick metal loops of chain. "The only thing I can't figure out is how he managed to capture you and then keep you all this time. And why ..." She rolled her eyes at both members of her audience. "... you two weren't smart enough to work out some sort of compromise."
"Compromise?" Two pairs of black eyebrows questioned her.
"Yeah." Her voice oozed sarcasm. "Like gee, say, if Osiris were to make an exception and let you pass over without a body, then you'd let him go." Xena released a weary breath she had been holding. "And how come Ra hasn't intervened by now?"
"Oh. That an one's easy." The pharoah chuckled. "He simply doesn't care. He has plenty of souls to care for already, so missing a thousand years' worth is nothing to him. Just means less work. He told us about a year into our stand-off to work it out between ourselves."
"So why no deal between you two?" The warrior was gaining appreciation by the minute for the gods of Olympus.
"Because I don't trust him." The pharoah and the god spoke simultaneously and pointed at each other.
During the conversation, Xena continued to examine the chains that imprisoned Osiris, studying them with an educated eye. "Who made these?" She suddenly spun around and snarled at Khufu.
"Let's just say I made a little journey across the Mediterranean when he wouldn't let me cross over." Khufu glared at Osiris. "It's not like I had anything better to do at the time. I did a little mountain-climbing while I was there. Met a friend of yours." He grinned evilly at the warrior.
"Hephaestus." Xena growled. "He's no friend of mine." She stealthily glanced at the chains again, forged from the only metal that could contain a god. Okay, Ares. She spoke silently, refusing to think of it as a prayer. I hope I'm right about this. With a flick of her wrist, she flipped her chakram from its hook and cleanly sliced through the layers of chain that were wrapped around Osiris' torso. Heh. I always suspected he added a little oomph to this thing when he repaired it. The warrior grinned triumphantly, caressing the smooth weapon with her thumb.**
It took a moment for the god to realize what had happened, as the coils slid off his body and hit the floor with a loud clank of metal on metal, while several sparks flew from the highly-charged molecules of Hephaestus' handiwork. At the same time, low fires that burned from twin urns on either side of the throne suddenly flared up, shooting several feet into the air, and a roaring noise filled the large glowing chamber. Osiris rose to his feet in almost slow motion, as a roar built up from deep in his gut and burst forth with decibels that made Xena cover her ears.
Uh-oh. She held her sword in a defensive stance and ducked down low, as hundreds of ghostly figures appeared in the tall room, swirling around and moaning loudly, before they quickly vanished through an invisible portal similar to the one that had transported Xena to ... Here. Gods. I still have no idea where I am. She watched the apparitions vaporize and cautiously stood back up to her full height. "Ares balls! What was that?" She frowned at the newly-released gods.
"Those were the souls that have been waiting to cross over, at least some of them." Osiris sighed. "A whole lot are still missing. I think they've been turned back so often, they're afraid to believe it's okay now. The ones you just saw, they've gone to the great gate of the other world, where I'll be joining them shortly to determine if they can enter or not."
"Not if I have anything to do with it." Xena felt an arm close around her from behind, and she was pulled back and the long blade of a saber pressed against her throat.
"Khufu." She drew the name out. And quickly slammed the back of her head into the pharoah's face. While she couldn't really damage him permanently, he could apparently still feel pain, as he dropped to the ground holding his nose.
"Ouch!" He screamed with rage. "If I had any blood, my nose would be bleeding."
"And broken." The warrior swung her own sword around in a wide arc. "Come on. Let's get this over with. I really want to get back to Egypt."
"Fine by me." Khufu stood and assumed a similar stance, making the first strike with his saber, looking quite pleased as Xena took a step back. The smile was soon wiped from his face, as the warrior kept moving back, and spun around, the edge of her sword connecting solidly with his saber and throwing him off balance for a moment.
"Let the games begin." Xena's laugh rang out through the mostly-empty chamber, and she went on the offensive. slicing and parlaying, spinning and kicking, forcing the pharoah backward and around the room as he desperately tried to gain the upper hand. "What's the matter?" The warrior taunted. "Didn't know I was a demigod?"
"A ... demigod?" Khufu's eyes grew wide as comprehension dawned. "You mean ...?"
"Yeah." She continued to battle him. "You may be dead, and I might not be able to kill you, but I just might decide to see what all I can do to you. Who knows?" She grinned. "I've never really explored my powers. Might as well start now, eh?"
"I ... uh ..." The pharoah was mute, and he re-doubled his efforts to disarm his new nemesis.
Oh, yeah. Xena saw the fear in his eyes, and it called to something deep inside of her that she had buried when she thought to bury her sword and chakram in the ground on the outskirts of Potadeia. She closed her eyes and simply let go, allowing the part of her that was Ares to take control, feeling the dark power surging up from the depths of her soul, consuming her with the most powerful strength and rage that she had felt since the crucifixion. She had almost forgotten what it was to feed on the fear of another.
Khufu saw the change in her countenance, and knew the battle was already lost. He continued with a valiant effort, but the warrior was transformed into the efficient fighting machine that was her birth-right, and he finally began to miss some of his defensive strokes against her, forced at times to duck, jump, or roll out of her range. Whereas he had been initially certain of victory, now, not only was he sure he would lose, he was no longer confident that he couldn't be killed. What happens to a dead soul? He shuddered.
The warrior watched and saw his concentration break. Her war cry ripped from her throat, and she slammed her sword blade against his saber with all her strength, wrenching it from his grip. It flew across the room and slammed against the far wall, shattering into several pieces. She quickly pinned him again, but this time her eyes flashed, somewhere between insanity and possession, and she laid her sword down with the flat of the blade against his throat. "Surrender, and it stops here."
"And if I don't?" Khufu bluffed.
"Don't know." Xena eyed one of the flaming urns. She picked him up bodily and held him over her head by the collar, his feet dangling inches from the edge of the fire. "Wonder what happens to you if you're burned by these ... eternal flames?" She glanced sideways at Osiris, and guessed at the answer. Yeah. Eternal flames can kill a soul.
"Okay, okay." The pharoah squeaked. "I surrender. Please. Let me go."
Gods. The warrior knew the dark side was far from under control. She wanted, really wanted, to just dump the selfish spirit-man into the fire and watch him burn, and make sure that after a thousand years, he paid for all the pain he had inflicted on the poor dead innocents of Egypt. Not to mention killing his own family just so they would go with him. But that's his religion. She reminded herself. As for the other ... She pondered that, and realized that if she had been turned back at the gates of eternity just because her body was missing, she might have behaved in a very similar fashion.
Slowly, as if she were standing outside her own body, watching herself, she released him and stepped back, shaking her head in a fruitless effort to gain clarity. She turned in a dark fog to face Osiris. "Look. I ... um ... I know someone who might be willing to hang out around the pyramids for a while and attempt to communicate with all the spirits who are reluctant to try to cross over. I'd really like to go home now, if you can arrange that." She gasped silently. It took all her strength to fight the residual rage and concentrate on having a civil conversation with Osiris. Ares, we need to have a talk.
"Of course." The god nodded graciously. "I at least owe you that."
"What about him?" Xena inclined her head toward the cowering Khufu. Her hands itched to help dispose of him.
"I think I may let him cross over, if only to keep him from causing any more trouble." Osiris smiled, tiny glints flashing in his eyes. "Besides, I think he'll be punished sufficiently. I'm about to send him on to the other side with all those souls he held back for the past thousand years. I'm sure they will deal with him in their own way."
"Good point." The warrior chuckled lightly, still feeling dark tendrils of energy probing at the edges of her brain. "My friend down there. His name is Eli. Be gentle with him. He's an Indian Devi, but he's still learning about his powers." Just like I am. She added silently.
"I'll keep that in mind." Osiris paused and spread his arms out wide to the sides. "Thank you Xena. There's a good chance we won't ever meet again, but I'll never forget what you did for me. If you ever need anything, well ... don't hesitate ..."
"Thanks. Right now, all I need is to get back to ..." She felt a brush of air across her body, and in a split second, she was standing back in Khufu's tomb. Laying in a corner curled up in a ball, apparently unharmed and fast asleep was ..."Gabrielle." The warrior whispered softly. Was I dreaming? She looked down at her legs and arms and the long scratches which almost certainly had bits of embedded rock in them. The wounds throbbed faintly. No. It all happened.
Her heart pounded against her rib cage and she took several gulps of dank dusty air, remembering the sword battle with Khufu, and the rage she had willingly allowed to consume her. And why, exactly, did I just let that take over? Did I really need that part of myself to win? Or am I getting weak, letting my guard down too much when it comes to Ares?
She gazed at her sleeping partner for a long time, afraid to move. What happens if someday I can't control that when I'm with her? What if we have a fight or something, and I just haul off and ... Oh gods. Her feet, as if with a mind of their own, were already pushing her forward until she was standing over her lover. I need her so much. Every day. Does she feel the same way? And even if she does, is it good for her to need someone like me? She knelt down and hesitantly place one trembling hand on the bard's side. "Hey."
Green eyes fluttered open, the color barely distinguishable in the light of a single torch that burned in a holder on the wall. "Xena?" Her voice wavered. "Xena!" Gabrielle sat up and flung herself into her lover's arms, hanging on with a grip that threatened to cut off the warrior's breathing. Or circulation. Or both. The bard wept silently as she allowed the reality of the arms that held her to slowly sink in.
Xena remained silent, afraid to speak and unable to come up with anything that adequately described her emotions. And in that instant she remembered again the reason she was alive, and the doubts dissipated in the presence of the greater power of what was between them. I'm here for her, and because of her, and that's all that matters. She went with it, and simply held onto the small shaking body that fit against hers just perfectly, soaking up the warmth, allowing the pure love that only Gabrielle could give her to push the remainder of the dark emotions back down to the deepest recesses of her being, until they might be needed again. A few hot tears of her own squeezed out of her eyes as she rocked the precious gift she had thought she might not see again.
"It's okay." The warrior finally managed to whisper. "Everything's okay." Now. She looked around and continued to cradle her partner. "Are you here alone? Where's Eli?" The warrior's voice was raspy with emotion.
"He's ..." The bard sniffled, as a few more tears trickled down the end of her nose. "... guarding my prisoner for me so I could come back her and wait for you."
"Your prisoner?" Xena sat back and studied her partner's face. "What's going on? How long have I been gone?"
"Oh." Gabrielle felt fresh tears sting her eyes. "About half a day. Long enough to drive me stark raving mad with fear and grief. Xena ..." The bard pulled her partner back against her and nuzzled her face into the spicy-scented skin, inhaling deeply and letting the familiar smell permeate her senses and drown out her remaining fear. "Where were you?"
"Not sure." She reached down and brushed tears away from Gabrielle's face, reveling in the soft skin against her fingertips. Skin she would never get enough of touching. "Long story. I don't think I was on this world. I think I was on the outskirts of the Egyptian land of the dead. I ... took a couple of tumbles, rescued a god, fought an angry spirit, and then came back here."
"Nothing out of the ordinary, huh?" The bard managed to laugh.
"Yeah. Nothing special. Except ..." Her voice trailed off, as she decided to put off discussing her fight until after she'd gotten some sleep. "... I'm really tired. And I want a bath. And .... I still need to find out what Cleo decided to do. I need to go to the carrier pigeon station and then ..."
"Xena. I got your message for you. Cleo's with us." Gabrielle spoke against the smooth flesh she was still buried against, unwilling to move from the safe embrace. "I met with her. Another long story. But everything's fine with her and she's prepared to work with you against Antony."
"Good." The warrior felt muscles that had been tense for hours slowly relax. "Gabrielle?"
"Hmmm?" The bard softly kissed her partner on the shoulder.
"Can we go back to the inn and talk about everything in the morning over breakfast?"
"Um ..." The bard reluctantly pulled back and reached across, raking her fingers through her partner's dark hair. "That depends."
"On what?" An arched brow rose in confusion.
"How you feel about walking all the way back to Cairo at this late candle mark, or riding double on Tobias." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. "I kind of forgot to bring one of the camels with me."
"Tobias?" The brow disappeared further behind the dark bangs.
"'Nother part of the long story." One of Eli's follower's had returned the little donkey to her after Eli had gotten the imprisoned soldier settled at his campground.
Almost two candle marks later, two weary bodies emerged from the warm bath at their inn in Cairo, donned sleep shirts, and silently padded down the hallway to their room. They had both opted to walk back from the pyramids, and had ended up sharing of their time apart from each other after all, talking softly or listening in quiet understanding in turn, occasionally sharing a laugh or offering a shoulder for a few tears. Now, as they entered the moon-lit room, it was a little past midnight, and neither one could remember the last time a bed had looked so inviting simply for the purpose of sleeping.
Everything was out in the open between them, everything but one. The warrior was still reluctant to speak of her encounter with her own darker half. It wasn't so much that she wasn't resigned to it herself, it was more that she was uncertain of how her partner would react to it.
Xena sank down wearily in a chair, as two small hands gently urged her to sit. Gabrielle had already made the warrior promise to let her clean up her scrapes as soon as they got through with the bath. The warrior smiled weakly and lifted her arms as the bard tugged off the sleep shirt, and began a routine that had become almost as familiar to them as setting up camp or building a fire or searching for food. Xena leaned forward as the bard started off by dabbing the medicinal herbs at some scratches on the backs of her shoulders and arms.
"Gods." Small fingers probed briefly at one of the cuts, gently removing some bits of debris. "How hard did you fall?"
"Which time?" The warrior chuckled lightly.
"You fell more than once?" Gabrielle stopped long enough to change her position, moving to the other shoulder and repeating her actions.
"I didn't exactly fall the first time." Xena leaned over her thighs on her forearms. "I sort of tucked and rolled. But that next one. It was so dark, I'm not even sure how far down I fell before I hit air. The drop from the edge into the water seemed like it took forever. I think that's where all the dirt came from. Although I woulda thought the water would have washed most of it away."
"Some of it's imbedded under your skin, honey. The water couldn't get to it." The bard used the point of a fine bone needle to dig beneath some of the tiniest rock fragments, careful not to prick the tanned skin in the process. "Okay, I think I'm done with your shoulders." She moved around to the front of the chair and placed one hand against her lover's upper chest.
"Now sit back." Gabrielle watched her partner lean into the chair, and the blue eyes didn't quite meet the bard's gaze, instead peering off a little to the side before Xena closed them. The bard hovered over the warrior, meticulously cleaning her scraped arms while she studied the tired face and the slumped posture. Something else is wrong. She knew it, and frowned. There's something she's holding onto because she's afraid of what I'll think. Without realizing it, Gabrielle sighed rather audibly as she finished with the warrior's arms and knelt down to begin taking care of the long legs.
Blue eyes slowly opened and Xena watched the bowed blonde head for a long time, as she felt the bard's skilled hands taking care of her, just like Gabrielle had for over four summers, almost five. The bard was unaware of the warrior's observation, and she quietly moved from one leg to the other. She continued to look steadily at her partner's legs, feeling the occasional twitch of muscle under her fingertips, as the warrior reacted to the slight stinging sensation caused by the herbs. As she reached the last scratch, she dabbed at it deliberately and then placed one small kiss just below Xena's knee cap, and sighed again.
"Hey." The warrior's alto voice broke the silence, and green eyes flew up to meet blue, before the bard's quickly flicked away in pain, as she folded up the linen strip she had used and retrieved Xena's sleep shirt from the chair arm. "Gabrielle." The deep voice persisted. "What's wrong?"
"Don't know." The bard stood up and leaned over her, and gestured for the warrior to raise her arms while she pulled the sleep shirt back over her head. "You don't have to answer me right now if you don't want too, but I'm thinking I should be asking you that same question." She kissed the top of the dark head, and without warning was pulled down across Xena's lap, as the warrior held her tightly against herself.
"Xe?" Gabrielle reached across and tilted the chiseled chin up, forcing eye contact, only to be met by two closed eyelids. "Whatever it is, nothing changes. Look at me. Please?"
Two blue orbs slowly appeared. "You got any water handy?"
"Sure." The bard made her way across the room and retrieved a full water skin. By the time she turned back around, the warrior had moved from the chair to the window, and was leaning out, staring aimlessly at the stars and puzzling over her remaining doubts and fears regarding Gabrielle. "Here." The bard held the water in front of her, and as Xena uncapped it and began to guzzle, the warrior felt one of her partner's arms slide around her waist.
"Xena." Gabrielle pressed up against her tall partner's side. "Come on, honey. Let's go to bed. I know you're tired. It can wait. Come on."
The warrior smiled sadly and allowed herself to be led toward the bed. She sank down onto the soft mattress and held one arm out, inviting Gabrielle to crawl in beside her, which the bard promptly did, snuggling up tightly against Xena's side and draping one arm across her stomach. "I love you, Xena. Today ... I ..." She stopped, as the emotions welled up and she felt the fear of loss all over again.
The warrior felt wet tears drip onto her collar bone, and she instinctively pulled the bard closer, running one hand under her lover's linen sleep shirt and lightly massaging Gabrielle's back. "Baby, we're both really, really tired. Just know that I feel the same way. I was so, so afraid that I wasn't going to make it back here. And I wasn't ready to leave you. I ..." Xena worked at some knots in her partner's lower back and scowled. Oh gods. I am such an idiot. "Hey. How're the cramps?"
"Haven't had much time to think about them, actually." Gabrielle sniffed. "I'm in a little pain. Nothing too bad, really."
"Need any herbs?" The warrior continued to gently dig into the tense muscles, feeling them relax against her touch.
"No." The bard smiled and kissed her partner on the side of her neck. "You're medicine enough."
The warrior took that, and tucked it away to add to her memory collection, and puzzled over her next words, grateful that Gabrielle had gotten used to her silent ways a long time ago. She finished with the massage and wrapped both arms around her partner, pulling the bard closer. "Gabrielle, does it ever frighten you that Ares is my father, that he is half of who I am?"
So that's the problem. The bard rolled further over onto her stomach, until she was half-sprawled across the warrior, and raised up on her forearms where she could see her partner's face. "Xena, I've suspected that Ares was somehow related to you ever since the furies tried to drive you insane. Your story about him being your father then, it rang true to me. I'm sorry I never said anything before. I thought if you wanted to talk about it, you would, but I wasn't certain so ..."
"But does it scare you?" Do I scare you? She searched her lover's eyes for some sort of positive affirmation, and found quiet steady belief shining back at her.
"No." Gabrielle brushed back the dark bangs and trailed her fingers across the high forehead. "I've seen you in battle. I know what you are capable of. The first time I ever saw you it was in the middle of a fight."
"And you followed me anyway." The warrior frowned at the revelation.
"Yeah. I ..." Gabrielle stopped herself, just short of bringing up some very painful memories for both of them. I've been a victim of your dark side before, love. She remembered a slap in a prison cell, not even a year after they had met. She had run then. Run away. Who needs to be treated like that? She'd been through that with her uncle. Well ... She had thought at the time. She didn't have to take that from someone who was supposed to be her friend. But she had realized that the warrior was under the influence of something outside herself, and she had later found out she was right. She had gone back, to help however she could, and Xena herself had managed to trick Ares, using his own promise to her advantage.
And then there was that whole scene in the Amazon village after Hope killed Solan. Xena felt guilty enough about all of that, without Gabrielle bringing it up yet again. They had hashed it out so many times, each time putting together more pieces of the puzzle. Even a few days ago, her partner had told her for the first time that she had been under the influence of drugs at the time. Each new revelation from either of them brought more healing and more closure. Even so, this was not the time or place to dig it up. It would always be there between them, and both warrior and bard knew that Xena had the capability to lash out if she allowed her darkness free reign. What you need, Xena ... the bard allowed the love to reflect from her face, willing Xena to see it. ... you need to know that I followed you, and I still follow you, because I love you, no matter what.
"Yes. I followed you anyway." The bard tried to smooth the worried wrinkles out of her partner's skin. "What I do know ..." Gabrielle paused, measuring her words carefully, knowing that they were important to her lover. "... is that the part of you that fights to help other people, the part of you that puts herself in danger to protect me ... if you find that side of yourself because of your connection with Ares, then I am thankful for that part of you. I fell in love with you. All of you."
"But what about India? I felt your judgment after that trip, every time I raised my sword ..."
"No." Two fingers brushed across the warrior's lips, silencing her. "I never wanted you to change. What you felt was your own insecurity, Xena. Because I was changing, you were afraid that you had to change too, or lose me. It's true, isn't it, if you think about it?"
"I ..." By the gods, she didn't ever ask me to change did she? Xena remembered their conversation on the banks of the Ganges, right after the bard had hefted her staff into the water. Gabrielle had acknowledged then that Xena's way was the way of the warrior. "... yeah. I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. I don't know why I didn't see that until now."
"It's okay." The bard leaned in and briefly kissed her. "I saw it, but it was something you needed to work out for yourself. Something I think part of you is still working through, actually."
"That is definitely true." Xena pulled her lover down for another kiss and then shifted, until the bard was once again curled up against her side with the warrior's arms around her. "I ... when I fought Khufu, I let that dark part take over, Gabrielle. I'm not sure why. It's been a long time since I consciously did that. I think that probably every time I fight, it's there on some level, but this time, I welcomed it, didn't even try to fight it. Afterward, it frightened me."
"Why?" The bard traced non-descript patterns across her lover's abdomen, her fingertips causing a light pleasant tickling sensation through the thin linen material.
"Because when I was through fighting, I couldn't push down those dark feelings right away. They stayed with me for quite a while." She paused, trying to figure out how to elaborate. "I think I was afraid because I couldn't control it. It was like once I let it take over, it was controlling me."
And gods know she can't stand to not be in control. The bard smiled wryly into the darkness. "But they're gone now, aren't they?" Gabrielle's hand wandered lower, moving under the sleep shirt to touch bare skin, her fingers enjoying the slight shift of muscles as she continued her idle activity.
"Yeah. Um ..." Xena laughed. "... you're making it really hard to concentrate, you know?"
"Oh. Sorry." The bard's hand flattened so that she was making soothing circles with her palm, and she felt the muscles calm, the twitching replaced by the even rise and fall of her partner's rib cage "Xe ... maybe you should think of that like you would your breathing or your heart rate."
"Whaddaya mean?" The warrior looked down at the fair head that rested against her shoulder, unable to see Gabrielle's eyes.
"Well ..." The bard's hand stilled and she smiled as Xena reached down and wordlessly urged her to continue with the belly rub. She resumed and turned slightly, kissing the warrior above her left breast, feeling the strong heart beating below the surface. "Whenever you exert yourself, your breathing and your heartbeat get faster, correct?"
"Yeah." The dark brows furrowed. "So?"
"So, after a fight, are you able to just make your breathing or your heart beat immediately return to normal?" Her hand wandered further up, resting flat and still over the warrior's diaphragm where the deep even breaths she felt emphasized her illustration.
"Well of course not." Xena snorted. "What kind of question is that? I just have to wait until they gradually slow down. I don't have any control over ..." She stopped suddenly, as her own words sunk in. "Oh."
"Yeah." Gabrielle rolled over on her stomach again, looking down into the silvery-blue eyes. "'Oh.' The bard smiled. "Xena, don't worry so much. I've seen you after a battle. You sometimes feed off the adrenalin for several candle marks. I've watched you. There's nothing wrong with that. If that is what it takes to keep you safe, if that's what you needed in order to come back to me tonight, then I hope you never lose your dark side. Don't be afraid to embrace it, Xena. I'm not."
"No?" The warrior smiled playfully, quirking one eyebrow and tilting her head to the side against the pillow.
"No." The bard felt strong, yet gentle hands cup both sides of her face, and she pursed her lips before she returned the smile with a mischievous grin of her own. "In fact, since we started ... well ... you know ..." She gazed down the length of her body draped over Xena's. "... seems like a lot of the time you manage to channel your residual energy into some very creative directions, if you know what I mean."
"I ..." Xena pulled the bard's face down until their mouths were so close that her words tickled Gabrielle's lips. " ... know exactly ..." She kissed her lover quickly. "... what you mean." She kissed her again, deepening the contact and gently exploring the sweet mouth, as if for the first time, not coming up for air until she felt the bard's body molding into hers, and Gabrielle's hands began a slow inquisitive exploration that caused Xena's skin to catch on fire.
The warrior groaned and shifted, raising her knee and running one foot up and down the back of a curved calf, while she tightened her hold around her lover's body and began to gently move against Gabrielle. Somewhere along the way two sleep shirts came off, and Xena's chest heaved, as she felt the sensual contact of skin on skin, which only served to increase her passion, along with her lover's very talented lips, that were doing a dance of their own down her body. After several minutes, she sighed in frustration, slamming her head back against the mattress, the pillow having somehow found its way onto the floor. "Damn. We can't ... at least not for a few more days."
"I know." Gabrielle willed her hands to stop, and she inched her way up the long torso until she hovered directly over the warrior, face-to-face. She licked her upper lip, trying to forget the taste of the salty skin she had been sampling, and managed to smile, as she traced Xena's face with her fingers. "Xena, today, did you think about what it would be like to lose this? To lose us?"
"Yeah. It was just about all I could think of." She closed her eyes and enjoyed the physical and emotional closeness. "You know that underwater tunnel I had to swim through?"
"Do you have to bring that up again?" Gabrielle shivered. "It's a mental image I don't care to have too deeply ingrained. Don't want to have bad dreams of you drowning."
"Me neither." The warrior chuckled and opened her eyes again, gazing deeply into the serious green ones that looked back at her. "Right before I dove down to take that swim, I thought about all of our times together, the best and worst ones. The ones that will always mean the most to me, and I knew all over again that I want to spend the rest of my life making memories with you. And I want it to be a long, long life with enough memories to fill a thousand of your scrolls. I don't ever want to lose ... us."
The bard shivered again, but this time it was a happy chill, and she slid back down against the warrior's side, sighing in contentment as a long arm wrapped around her, pulling her tightly into the safest place she had ever been, and a place she never wanted to leave. She felt Xena's fingers running back and forth against her scalp, and she tilted her face up and met her partner's lips in a long affirming kiss. "Xena, I don't ever want to lose us either."
"You know what I want?" The warrior allowed her fingers to travel south, moving in a slow trail up and down Gabrielle's back.
"Patience." The bard giggled. "A few more days."
"Not that." Xena managed to sound indignant, and felt a small hand slap her lightly on the stomach. "Okay, yeah. I really want that, too. I swear, here I am trying to be all serious, and you're the one making light of the situation. What's wrong with that picture?"
"I'm sorry, honey." Gabrielle kissed the now-bare skin she was nestled against. "I'm listening. What do you want?"
"I want, more than anything, to finish up here and go home to Greece, and be joined with the girl that I hope to grow old with." Xena rolled over, gently pushing the bard onto her back. "That, Gabrielle, is what I want. I want to make you smile, and laugh. I want your face to be the first thing I see each morning and the last thing before I go to sleep." She placed one hand on her partner's lower stomach. "I can't wait to see you carrying our children. I know you are going to be beautiful, even more beautiful to me then, if that's possible."
"What if it's you carrying the children?" Gabrielle teased, partly in an effort to keep from crying at the sweet words that were pouring over her soul.
"Maybe I will, eventually. But unfortunately you're the one who is expected to produce an heir for the Amazon mask." The warrior leaned down and kissed first one, and then the other of the upper swells of the bard's breasts. "I never thought I could have a family of my own. You've shown me possibilities I didn't think were ever going to be options for me. If anyone had told me even one year ago that I would be laying in bed curled up around you, talking about joinings, and children, and the future, I would have thought they'd lost their minds."
"Yeah, me too." The bard's breath caught, as the warrior's lips descended again, this time a bit lower. "Gods that feels good."
Xena felt the smaller body arch up against her, as two small hands came to rest on top of her head, and she slid one hand underneath Gabrielle's back, pulling her up against her. "Want you." Xena raised up briefly. "So much." She blazed a trail up her lover's chest and throat, until she hungrily attacked the full lips, and pushed a powerful thigh between her partner's legs. "Don't know if I can wait."
"Xe ..." The bard's defenses rapidly crumbled. "Please."
"I'm sorry." With a great amount of self-restraint, the warrior managed to back off, and settled instead for urging her partner onto her stomach before she also lay stomach-down with her cheek nestled between Gabrielle's shoulder blades while she ran her hand up and down the bard's arm, assuming a sleeping position that was one of their favorites.
Gabrielle could feel the uneven breathing against her back, along with tiny kisses the warrior peppered across her skin, and she felt sorry for her frustrated lover. "Xena." She spoke softly, her face pressed against the pillow. "Did you ever, I mean while you were ...?"
Even in the darkness, the warrior could imagine the blush she knew was creeping up her modest partner's cheeks, and she reached up for a confirming touch of the heated skin. "If you mean, have I ever made love while I was cycling, the answer is 'yes'."
"Isn't that kind of um ... icky?" The bard's cheeks grew even warmer.
"Depends." The warrior resumed her idle strokes against the bard's firm biceps. "Some things are definitely out, and it sort of depends on ... timing and everything. But no, it wasn't always, as you put it, 'icky.' But it's not something I ever initiated, and more often than not, it was because I was with someone who was impatient, and I had to give in to appease them. Like so many other things, it was a compromise on my part, something I was willing to do in order to get something I wanted. Usually something that had nothing to do with love or sex, and everything to do with maintaining my own twisted sense of power and control."
"Oh." Gabrielle half-turned until they were spooning. "Xena, if you really, really want to, we can."
"Gods I love you." The warrior kissed an exposed shoulder. "But I don't want it, not like that. I won't be a dog. I don't ever want you to do anything that you're uncomfortable with, and I can tell this is something that you're definitely not comfortable with. I want you, almost all the time, and I don't think that's any secret between you and me." Xena laughed, a rich throaty sound that pierced the darkness.
"But beyond physical desire, I love you. Really love you. Not just with my body, but with all my heart and soul. I spent my entire life trying to find something, anything, to fill the great big empty hole inside of me. At first with money and wealth, then with power and control, and later, after I met Hercules, by trying to help other people. But none of it worked. There was only one thing that fit the shape and size of that hole perfectly. Wanna know what it was?"
"What?" Gabrielle's voice was very soft, and she scooted back, pressing her body more tightly against her lover's stomach.
"You." The warrior splayed one hand across the bard's flat torso in a protective gesture. "You just busted in, and poured yourself into that empty space until even the smallest crevices were patched up. I had no choice, sweetheart, but to fall in love with you. So I think I can wait a few days until we're both ready to express that in the physical sense. I know you with my heart, and your heart knows me. That's enough. It makes the waiting all the sweeter, knowing how special it will be when we are able to come together again."
"Xena ..." Gabrielle turned in her lover's arms until they were facing each other, smiling as she felt one of the warrior's long legs drape across her hips, pulling her in. "... do you have any idea how you make me feel? When you say things like that? I ... my brain turns into jelly. I can't breathe. I can't think. Is there any way I can bottle this up, so that no matter where I am, or what's happening, I can just reach into my pocket and pull it out, and remember what ... this ... you ... feels like? I just want to crawl inside of you, and always feel this way."
"You are inside of me." Xena kissed the blonde head. "And I'm not ever letting go of you. And I promise you, my love, I will do my best every day, for the rest of my life, to make you feel happy, and secure, and loved. Gabrielle, when I reach the end of my days, nothing else is going to matter, except for whether or not I got this ... got us ... right."
The bard felt the emotions rise up, catching in her throat, and she buried her face into Xena's chest. After several deep breaths, she just let go, and allowed the happy tears to spill over, dampening the soft skin her face was pressed against, as she felt the warrior pull her close, holding her tightly. "Xena." She whimpered. "I ..." She trailed off, unable to speak, no words coming to mind that would even begin to express what her heart was so full of.
"Shhhhh." The warrior kissed the fair hair again. "You don't have to say anything, love." She held the small trembling body, and allowed her partner to cry, until she felt the bard finally grow still. "Hey. You asleep?"
"No." The bard kissed her partner's wet salty skin. "Just enjoying being in your arms."
Xena smiled, pressing her own lips against Gabrielle's forehead. "You mean all this time, all I had to do to render you speechless was declare undying love and devotion? Geez, woulda done that years ago, if I'd known that was all it took."
"You are evil." The bard slapped her on the hip. She grew quiet again, in spite of herself, reflecting upon a time, not so far in the past, when she was the one who chatted non-stop each evening, while Xena merely sat off to the side of the fire, nodding and grunting her major forms of response to almost any question Gabrielle had, or any statement she made. "You know, Xena. You keep this up, and I might not have to read your mind anymore."
"You can't read my mind." The warrior sounded indignant.
"Can too. At least sometimes." Gabrielle tilted her head back and bit off a laugh at her partner's incredulous expression.
"Yeah, like what?" The warrior pulled away slightly, just enough to make eye contact.
"Well ... I know when you're in pain, because your lips get all thin and tight, and you walk kind of stiff. And I know when you're angry, 'cause your eyes go almost silver, and your jaw gets this little twitch, here ..." The bard traced the jawline in question.
"What else?" Xena forgot to remain impassive, her curiosity growing at the new insights her partner provided.
"And when you're feeling playful, your posture, it gets all lose, and your eyes kind of twinkle, and you get the cutest little grin on your face." Small fingers brushed across the warrior's lips. "And when you're sad, you might as well just stand on Olympus and announce it, Xena. When you are sad, all I have to do is look into your eyes, and I can see to the very bottom of your soul. And oh ..." The bard warmed to her topic. "When you're feeling competitive or really enjoying a fight, you get this really evil grin on your face, and you sort of throw your hair back, and your eyes laugh."
"So, miss smarty pants. What am I thinking right now?" Xena waited, doing her best to put on the mask she had worked so hard to perfect.
"You're curious, but you're trying to hide it because you don't want me to know that you're actually interested in learning about all of this." Gabrielle grinned as the warrior's eyes grew wide for an instant, confirming her answer. Gotcha. The bard laughed, and snuggled up against her partner's long frame. "So ... what's on the agenda for tomorrow?"
"I need to get word to Cleopatra to meet me. She and I have a lot to discuss. Then you and I need to find us a couple of camels and ride out to meet Octavian halfway." The warrior felt her own body screaming with exhaustion, even though her mind was racing way ahead, and she knew that morning was going to arrive much too soon.
"Couple of camels?" Gabrielle pushed her lower lip out in a pout. "Xena, I don't like the idea of riding one of those things alone."
"You're not going to ride alone." Xena chuckled. "You're gonna be riding with me. The other camel is going to carry some supplies we need to pick up, including a tent."
"Yeah. Some of the territory we need to travel through is almost totally barren, not much more than just shifting sands. Too harsh to sleep in without some kind of shelter, and it may take us a couple of days to get to Octavian." The warrior smiled, knowing her partner was gradually falling asleep, the bard's breathing growing slower, and her body becoming more limp in her embrace. "Besides, once we do reach Octavian, I want to make sure you and I have some privacy while we sleep. I'm not too keen on you and I sleeping out in the open around an army of strange men."
"Me neither." Gabrielle yawned, feeling her jaw pop into place in the process with a grinding click. "Ouch." She felt strong fingers examine her joint, just below her ear.
"How's your neck?" The warrior continued her exploration, moving down her partner's upper shoulders and on down the muscles on each side of her spinal column.
"Kinda stiff, now that you mention it." The bard grew still as Xena gently touched various pressure points, which caused referred pain to shoot down and through her arms and legs. "Gods. Musta gotten all messed up sleeping on the floor in the pyramid."
"Yeah. Everything's slightly out of place. I can't believe I didn't notice that earlier. I need you to stretch out on the floor for a minute."
"O ... kay." Gabrielle complied and then felt her partner straddle her, the warrior's weight on her own knees.
"Take a deep breath and hold it." Xena placed her hands flat on each side of the bard's spine. "Now, let it out." As she felt the bard exhale, she quickly pressed down, causing the vertebrae all up and down Gabrielle's back to pop into place.
"Gods." Pain that she hadn't realized she was experiencing quickly left her body, to be replaced with a sense of relief. "That was awesome."
"Now, roll over on your back." The warrior scooted up until she was kneeling on the floor above her partner's head. "Trust me?"
"Of course." The bard giggled. "Especially if you're about to put more stuff back in place."
Xena laughed. "Yeah. Now ..." She grasped Gabrielle's head firmly between her hands. "Relax. Think of something totally calm. Our terrace back home, or laying in the sun, or ..." The bard's body went visibly more limp. Guess she got it. "Okay. Hold that thought." Xena twisted the bard's head to one side and then the other, and Gabrielle's neck also realigned itself with loud cracks of bone against bone.
"Mmmm." The bard's eyes were closed. "Can I just sleep here? I'm not sure I can move right now."
"No problem." The warrior lifted her up and swung her partner around, laying her down on the bed and then crawled in beside her, curling up around Gabrielle's back and snagging her around the waist, pulling her in. "Sleep, baby. We've got a long day tomorrow."
"Xena." The bard's voice mumbled in her half-coherent state. "Where did you learn to do that?"
"Mmmm." The warrior's face was nuzzled into sweet-smelling blonde hair. "Lao Ma."
"Oh." Gabrielle yawned again, this time with no pain. "Figured." Her eyes closed.
"Hey." Xena kissed her partner between her shoulder blades. "What were you thinking about, right before I fixed your neck?" She moved higher, kissing the part in question. "Hmmmm?"
"You mean to make myself relax?"
"Yeah." The warrior nipped a salty-sweet shoulder.
"Um ..." Gabrielle smiled, knowing her partner couldn't see her face. "I was thinking about how it feels, when I'm laying in your arms, kinda like right now, only ... well ... more like right after we've ... um."
"Go on." The throaty voice purred. "You started."
"Beg to differ." The bard giggled. "You asked."
"True." Xena bit down gently on an earlobe. "But now I want to hear the rest of your answer."
"Sometimes ..." Gabrielle placed her hands over the ones that were wrapped around her, resting against her stomach. "... the way you touch me, Xena. Gods, you take me up so high, and then when we come back down. Feels so nice ... like floating on a cloud or something. Anyway ... that's what I was thinking about ... how that feels."
"Well ... I aim to please." The warrior smirked. "Glad I could ... hey, wait a minute." A thought occurred to her. "Just 'sometimes'?"
Soft snoring greeted her ears. Damn. Sometimes? Xena groused internally, her ego somewhat wounded. What did she mean by that? I'll show her 'sometimes.' Just wait until ... The warrior finally shrugged. Oh well, guess there's always room for improvement. She grinned wickedly into the darkness. Oh, Gabrielle. The challenge you just unwittingly issued ... gods am I gonna have fun proving myself to you. Xena kissed the fair head one more time before closing her eyes. 'Course, I think you're gonna enjoy it just as much I am.
Continued in Part 9
**This is not the super-chakram of season five. In this Xenaverse, it is still the old chakram, which Ares repaired in "March the 16th." As for the super chakram, patience. Lots of patience. <G>
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