"Xena, come in."
"Thank you. It has been a while since we have spoken."
"I was wondering if you could answer some questions for me."
"If I have answers, they are yours."
"My love, my soulmate, Gabrielle, has said that she is worried. She feels that she is losing me."
"Has she not lost you already?"
"Not really. I have never stopped visiting her and I feel her in my heart always."
"Then what is her concern?"
Xena's spirit was restless. It moved around the room like sunlight on the water. "Time feels different here. Akemi and I can spend what feels like a few hours together and when I return to Gabrielle I discover I've been gone for days. It's like watching a river; the current is always faster when you're in the water than it appears from the shore."
"Is she still able to hear you?"
"Only with her heart; I find I am unable to impact the physical world in the way I once was."
"Can she still see you?"
"Yes, but it takes great effort now. And when we... " Xena hung her head, not from shame, but sadness.
"I assume, then, that your ability to make physical contact with her has become laborious also."
"Yes." The colors of her spirit turned dark shades of blue and grey. "Why is this happening?"
"It is the way of the spirit to release its ties to the physical world. It no longer needs that connection to exist."
"But her! I need her."
"No. You have her in your heart. You will always have her in your heart. You only return because your spirit still remembers that she needs you."
"Will I forget?"
"You will not forget her or the love you shared. Neither will she. But by releasing her, you release her heartache as well."
"So I'm here and I'm at peace, but she can't find peace there because I'm trying to maintain our relationship?"
"That is correct."
Janae helped round the prisoners up and detain them in cells. Then, on a hunch, she went to the queen's hut. She had to knock on the door twice before she got an answer. "What is it?"
She didn't wait for an invitation to enter. Instead she pushed open the door and stepped inside. "Gabrielle?"
She heard a sigh from in front of the fireplace. "Close the door, Janae." Gabrielle had a pan of water and a healer's kit in front of her. She was trying to negotiate repairing a cut on the back of her right arm.
"No, I have a cut on the back of my arm."
Janae looked at the bloody pieces of cloth on the floor and disagreed. "Looks pretty much like a wound to me."
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped in resignation. "Have you ever stitched a wound?"
"Well, it's time you learned."
"I don't know, Gabrielle. Why don't you just go to Sapphra?"
"Sapphra's busy and I need to be. Now come over here and help me. If you're going to be a warrior, you're going to need to know how to take care of a wound or you won't live long."
Janae moved across the room and sat on the side of the wound. "Wash your hands in that basin," Gabrielle ordered. "Spread the sides of the wound apart." Janae complied, causing Gabrielle to hiss in pain.
"I'm the one that got me injured. If I hadn't been so angry I would've ended the fight sooner and he wouldn't have had the chance to cut me."
"So you were punishing him; Tyro said as much."
Ignoring her comment, she continued with her instruction. "While it's spread apart take that packet of herbs and sprinkle them inside the wound. It'll help ward off any infection." This time she suffered in silence. "Now, take this needle. Start on the end of the wound that is the most shallow and make tiny stitches. Don't leave too much area between stitches; the smaller the stitches, the smaller the scar. I'm sure you'll do just... Gods! You have the hands of a sailor!"
"Then go get Sapphra to do this!" Janae took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Is there something you can take for the pain?"
"Nothing that won't put me to sleep until morning... There's too much to do."
"Can't Cyane and Tyro handle things until then?"
"No! Now will you just stitch up my arm?" The blonde glared over her shoulder, asking, "Are you always this stubborn?"
Janae grinned incorrigibly, "Are you?" There was a beat of silence, then both women laughed. "I'll do my best."
Gabrielle turned to face her young friend, resting a hand on one of her thighs. She understood her fears. "You'll do just fine." They stared in to each other's eyes for a long moment. "Stitches just hurt. It doesn't matter who does them. The more you practice, the better you'll get."
"Okay... You're the teacher." Gabrielle turned away from her and didn't utter another sound as she stitched the wound. But she really did have hands like a sailor...
Akemi found Xena watching over the port that was once Higuchi. "Hello, Xena. I have felt in my spirit that you are troubled. Will you talk with me about it?"
"We have been here for some time now, but I never fully grasped that I would have to completely leave Gabrielle." In the sunlight, her reflection was striking, but sadness was painted across her face. "I thought... I knew my body would be gone, but... "
"But you did not realize that your relationship would eventually end?"
"I didn't even have time to think things through! You not only concealed the truth from me before my death, but waited until it was too late to find another option!"
Akemi bowed her head in a motion of shame. "I have waited for this."
"For your anger. You are right... I did wait until it was too late, because there was no other option to find. Your love for her is so strong that I feared it. I feared that you would choose her over us."
"Don't you mean you feared I would choose Gabrielle over you?"
"That is true also. I have loved you for so long and waited for you to return, knowing you would rescue me. Then when I saw you with Gabrielle, I lost faith, not only in the love you once felt for me, but in your conviction to save us all from Yodoshi."
"Akemi, I have always carried love for you, even though you shattered my heart so many years ago. But I am not in love with you; I am in love with Gabrielle."
"But you are now separate from Gabrielle, and will remain that way. Do you not wish her to find a companion that would protect and care for her in the same manner that you did?" She tentatively reached out to touch Xena's face. "And you are still so beautiful. Is your anger eternal? Is it so great you do not think it possible that one day you might forgive me and, perhaps, learn to love me again."
"She's my soulmate."
"Yes, and she is there and you are here. That will not change. I do not expect your love for her to fade and she will never stop loving you either, but is the heart so small that it only has room for one love?"
"My heart in not small; it is full. In our next life, she and I will be together again. Until then, her love is enough to sustain me."
It was a busy night for Gabrielle. She checked on the women in the healer's hut; there were no deaths. She silently thanked whatever god was listening, even though she remained unsure whether they could hear her or not. She convened the council and after much debate they decided to turn the slavers over to the authorities. Tyro repeatedly called for their deaths, but Gabrielle remained firm that since they had taken to lives, their lives would be spared. Instead, the weapons master would choose a group of women to transport the prisoners as soon as the weather cleared.
At some point in the middle of the night, Gabrielle managed to return to her hut. Inside she found a fire burning. There was a plate of food warming on the hearth. As she crossed the room to eat, Janae emerged from the back room. "Did you do this?"
"Thank you. I'm so tired I wouldn't have eaten until morning."
"I know." She looked over her shoulder and then back again. "I have a bath drawn if you'd like to bathe before you eat. The plate will stay warm longer than the water."
"You drew me a bath? How did you know when I would be here?"
"I posted Kara outside the council hut. She reported to me as soon as the members began to leave."
Gabrielle had to laugh in spite of herself. "That's pretty clever. But how did you know I wouldn't be angry at you for entering my hut without permission?"
Shrugging, Janae replied, "I was betting that if you were too tired to get something to eat and too tired to draw a bath, you'd be too tired to be angry at me for doing it for you."
"It was a good bet."
"I'm glad you're not angry. How does your arm feel?"
"Well, it hurts, but the dressing has held up well. You did a good job."
"You've been in and out of the rain all night. Come get in the bath and I'll replace the dressing after you eat."
The queen was too tired to argue. She rose and walked into the bathing room. There were candles spread around the tub, giving the room a warm glow. The romantic setting gave Gabrielle pause. As if reading her thoughts, Janae explained, "I thought the candles would be relaxing."
"You're right; they're lovely. Thank you for preparing this for me." She had hoped the younger woman would take that as her hint to leave.
"You're welcome. Now let me help you."
Turning to face her caregiver, Gabrielle insisted, "No, that's okay. Really. I can do this."
"You think I didn't notice your bruises? You took care of me when I was battered; please, let me do the same."
Glancing over her shoulder, Gabrielle asked suspiciously, "This isn't river water, is it?"
Janae chuckled. "Of course it is, but it's warm river water. I don't think you need an ice bath." With that she began untying the halter strings beneath her shoulder blades. "I think you need something to relax your muscles." It was a whisper in her ear and it caused goose bumps to race across her skin. "Am I right, Teacher?"
Gabrielle's mouth was suddenly very dry. Her pulse was pounding at her neck by the time the top strings were untied. Janae held on to one of the strings and lifted it away. Then she moved to the clasps in the back of the skirt. Gabrielle wanted to stop her, knew that she should... It had just been so long since someone had been there to take care of her.
By the time she reasoned that out, her skirt was on the floor. Trembling hands traced the outline of the dragon on her back. "I know this makes you sad, but it is so incredibly beautiful." Tender lips kissed the head of the dragon, then made a trail from one shoulder to the next. "Just like the woman who wears it."
Gabrielle began to tighten and flow in places she was sure had long forgotten how to react to another living human. She searched for the words that had always come so easily to her and none came. Another whisper in her ear made her stomach quiver, "Now let's get you in the bath."
A knock at the door woke Gabrielle. She tried to stir, but found herself wrapped in two muscular arms. There was a warm body snuggled against her back and legs matching the curve of her own. "Good morning, Sleepyhead." It was a sweet sound against the back of her neck.
"I'm going to kill whoever is at that door... " Her eyes still heavy with sleep, she rolled over to nuzzle into a broad shoulder. "Good morning to you, too." She kissed the shoulder briefly and worked her way up the neck until she reached Xena's lips. It was a chaste, sleepy kiss. As she pulled away she opened her eyes. But the eyes before her were not the dazzling blue of Xena's, they were a rich dark brown. She gasped.
An awkward space hung between them until Janae spoke the truth. "You were thinking of Xena."
"I'm sorry. I was. I haven't woken up in anyone's arms in over two years. And the last arms that held me were Xena's."
"I understand. I really do. It's okay."
The knock on the door was followed by Cyane's voice. "Gabrielle? Are you okay?"
"Oh, Gods!" she whispered to Janae. "Stay here." She leapt from the bed to find that she was totally naked. She turned back to look at Janae, who was studying her appreciatively. "Just a minute!" she called. She grabbed her robe from the foot of the bed and exited to the main room.
"Are you okay?" Cyane asked.
"Sure; why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, it's almost midday and you never sleep this late anymore."
"Midday! Really? I guess I was more exhausted than I realized." She absently ran her fingers through her hair while she tried to gain her bearings. "Is something wrong?"
"No, there's nothing wrong, except we can't find Janae."
"You can't find Janae?" Okay, play stupid until you can think of something else. "Who was looking for her?"
"Tyro. There's a break in the weather, so she loaded those slavers up first thing to take them to the authorities. She wanted to invite Janae to go along, but couldn't find her." She waited for Gabrielle to speak, but she didn't. "You wouldn't, by any chance, know where she is, would you?"
"I'm right here," Janae revealed as she emerged from the back of the hut. She was fully clothed. "I drew a bath for Gabrielle last night, but fell asleep before she arrived back from her council meeting. Instead of waking me, she covered me with a blanket and let me sleep."
"Oh... that was nice of you," she said coyly to her friend.
"Well it would've been pretty cruel to wake me from a dead sleep to send me out into the rain so I could go back to sleep in my own hut."
"That's true... " Cyane was clearly not buying this story. "But just so you know, Tyro was not quiet about looking for Janae. The women have been betting all morning that she was in here."
Gabrielle looked over to Janae, who shrugged. "Well, they were right. It just wasn't for the reason they're all hoping."
"Okay... Well, now that I know you're okay, you can go back to sleep, or whatever."
"Cyane... " There was a clear warning in Gabrielle's growl.
"I'm leaving! I'm leaving!" And with that she fled out the door.
Gabrielle waited for the door to shut before slumping into a chair. "Well, that's just great... "
Janae was silent behind her for so long that she turned around to see what she was doing. There were tears running down her face. Gabrielle was suddenly tired again. "What's wrong, Janae?"
"You're ashamed the women would think you could be interested in me?"
"No! I just didn't want either one of us to be at the center of the village gossip." She crossed the room and took Janae's face in her hands, gently wiping her tears. "Janae, any woman would be lucky to have you; you're the ideal Amazon and on top of that you're kind and considerate and attentive."
"You mean any woman but you."
The blonde turned away from the warrior and moved back to the chair. "I've had the love of my life, Janae."
"What, your heart only had enough love in it for Xena? I don't believe that."
"No, of course not; but Xena was my soulmate. When you find the person you're going to spend eternity with... "
"Would you have wanted her to be alone?"
"You mean if it had been me who died?"
"No; I would have hoped that she found someone to spend the rest of her life with, someone to love and take care of her."
"And if she did, would that make you doubt the love you shared?"
"Nothing could make me doubt the love we share."
"You talk about her as if she's still here."
"She is still here, in my heart."
"She should always be in your heart, Gabrielle. But it wasn't her arms that you slept so peacefully in last night."
That truth hung in the air, heavy and painful. "About last night... "
"Nothing happened. You fell asleep in the bath, so I laid a towel out, climbed in, lifted you out of the water, and carried you to bed. I placed you on the towel and dried your beautiful body off. I started to leave, but you grasped my hand in yours. Even in your sleep, you knew you didn't want to be alone. So I took off my clothes, dried off, and climbed in bed. As soon as I was beside you, I could tell you were resting easier. You snuggled into my arms and let out the sweetest sigh I've ever heard."
Gabrielle was blushing. She started to say something, but Janae cut her off. "I know that Xena was your soulmate. And I know that no one could ever replace her. But I don't want to replace her; I'm not a substitute. I'm a woman and I'm in love with you." She crossed the room, grabbed Gabrielle by the hands, and pulled her up into her arms. "And what I really want is for you to make room in your life and your heart for me." With that, she delivered a kiss that was passionate and urgent.
Gabrielle was still breathless as Janae walked out the door.
With the prisoners gone and most of the repairs finished, there wasn't much to do, so Gabrielle left the village to walk in the forest. She walked for most of the evening and into the night, although her path never took her far from the village. When the moon was high she sat by the river and called to her soulmate. Soon a warm breeze wrapped around her like a blanket. "Hello, my love."
"Hello to you, too. Why do you have stitches on the back of your arm?"
Gabrielle smiled. "That was quick."
"Like I wasn't going to notice... What did I miss?"
"Yesterday. They've had a scout camp on the edge of our lands for days so they must have been planning the attack for a while now."
"Why didn't you just run them off before they could get settled?"
"Because they were camped beyond our border and I couldn't be sure what their motives were. We handled it. It was actually very strange. For slavers, they weren't very good."
"Was anyone hurt?"
"Nothing serious. I suppose damaged goods don't bring a very high price."
"I'm glad no one was hurt. And I'm especially glad that you're okay." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and kissed her on the top of her head. Almost immediately, her bard was sobbing. "Tell me what's wrong."
"I know, Sweetheart."
Gabrielle's emotions swung to anger as she stepped away from the safe feeling that enveloped her. She could see Xena, transparent and yet breathtaking, surrounded by moonlight. "Do you? Do you really know you're dead?"
"Of course I do, Gabrielle."
"I'm not sure you do. You were off saving complete strangers from Yodoshi while I was fighting for your head."
"This again?" Xena retorted.
"What else is there? It's the last thing we had. Your decision is the last thing we had!"
They stood silently, listening to the churning of the river for a long time. Finally Xena broke the silence. "I spoke to Harukata. He says that you will never know happiness unless I let you go."
Tears were streaming down Gabrielle's face unchecked. She knew it was the truth. "What else did he say?"
"He said that we would never lose the love that we share, that we will both carry it with us always."
"And what do you think?"
"I think that every time I visit you, I make you sad. And every time I don't visit you, I make you sad. I think you deserve more."
"So you're leaving me?"
"Just for this lifetime. I'll be waiting for you in the next one."
"How will I know you?"
"That's the easy part. I'll be the one who loves you without condition and without limits."
Gabrielle wiped her tears as she turned to face her soulmate for the last time. "Will you be with Akemi?"
"No. Where I'm going, the love we shared will follow. I don't need to have another to be complete. I am already complete, because you made me that way."
Gabrielle hung her head, ashamed of her own need.
"Look at me... " When she looked up, it was her Xena. She was breathtaking and radiant. "I want you to live your life and love again with my blessing. I want you to fall in love and get married and have children and grandchildren. I want you to grow old and die in your sleep, lying in the arms of someone you love."
Taking her in her arms for one last time, she kissed her. It was long and tender and bittersweet, and when they parted she wiped Gabrielle's tears and said, "I'll be waiting for you, so don't be afraid when your time comes. Until then, there's an amazing young warrior back in your village who, I'm willing to bet, would very much like the chance to win your heart."
Gabrielle was shocked. "How did you know?"
Xena smiled that devastating smile of hers. "I know us warrior types; we're a sucker for a beautiful girl."
"I love you, Xena. I'll always love you."
"Then you must fight for her." The voice startled them both. They turned to see Harukata standing between them and the tree line.
"What are you talking about? It was you who told me I needed to let her go."
The ghost killer approached them and knelt at their feet. His chin fell to his chest and he held his hands out as if in prayer, "I did, Xena. And now I must beg your pardon a thousand times."
"Why do need my pardon?" Xena growled.
"Because you have been deceived."
"By everyone but Gabrielle."
Xena's energy was glowing red with anger. "Talk fast, Harukata. I have a feeling I'm not going to like this."
"Okay, somebody better start talking or I'm going to start cutting things off one little piece at a time... " Tyro was standing over the prisoners. She was holding the clay jar that contained Xena's ashes.
The man who had been their leader spat at her feet. "We're not afraid of you."
Tyro laughed out loud. "And why is that?"
"Because when we deliver that, we'll become more powerful warriors than you could ever imagine."
"Xena's ashes are going to make you powerful warriors?"
"No, I am... "
A strong wind began to whip about the campsite. The men began to groan and wail. Tyro turned and sat the clay pot carefully aside before drawing her weapon. The other Amazons followed her lead. One of them called out, "What's going on?"
"I don't know!" Tyro called back, just before the wind became completely still. "What the... ?"
The ropes fell off the prisoners. They flew at their captors, full of energy and rage. The Amazons were outnumbers; two fell quickly. Tyro was calling for a retreat as she dropped one of the men.
No one noticed a pair of hands that materialized around the clay jar. "I'll take this, thank you."
"I knew it. I knew it!!" Gabrielle paced along the water's edge. "That lying, manipulative... "
Xena sat silently on the ground next to Harukata. She shook her head and spoke to him, "Twice. She's made a fool of me twice."
"Her powers of persuasion are great. She manipulated 40,000 souls, including me, to participate in her lie."
"So she could be with Xena... " The bard was furious. "And there was no sunset time limit on placing her ashes in the Fountain of Strength either?"
"That is correct."
"Why does she need Xena's ashes now?"
"She doesn't need them; she feared you would one day discover the truth and return them to the fountain."
Gabrielle screamed in frustration. "I hate that bitch!"
"I'm gonna kill her."
"I suspected that would be your response. That is why I brought you this." He reached behind him to produce the katana that Xena had used to defeat Yodoshi.
"I can't imagine what she will do to you once she discovers that you've given me this."
"Her anger will be great; that is why my fate lies with your ability to defeat her. However, I should warn you. She was not among us when I left to come here."
The men pursued the Amazons throughout the night. They ran without tiring, but could not quite match the women's determination to remain alive. The sentries at the border sent one runner ahead as the other joined in the exhausted women's defense.
"She's coming," Xena announced.
"I felt her presence."
The call to arms was sounded. Gabrielle listened closely, studying the approaching battle. "Sounds like she brought some friends with her... "
Gabrielle was already running toward her village when Xena bowed to Harukata. He placed the sword in her extended hands. "I have shamed myself with this deception."
"Harukata, I can't blame you for wanting to free all those souls. The fact that Akemi would only help save them if you participated in her deception only brings her shame. Shame would only have been yours if you had allowed me to lose my soulmate forever. The idea that once I let Gabrielle go my soul would've been trapped there forever, that there would be no future lives for us... That is unimaginable to me."
"We all fear Akemi deeply. But to deny your love its right to live on... It was more than I could bear."
"So I thank you for your courage and hold no grudge for your past actions. Carry no shame as you return to the land of peace."
Harukata bowed deeply and then faded into the night.
Gabrielle emerged from her hut, armed with weapons as Tyro and the other women entered the edge of the camp. Tyro collapsed into Cyane's arms, who then stood over her lover in protection. The men followed immediately behind in a terrible clash of metal and flesh.
Their queen made her way across the center of the open compound, leaving a trail of dead men behind her. Janae appeared to her right, creating her own wake of destruction. A circle of Amazon warriors was formed around the women who had run for their very lives all night long to receive this protection.
Xena was kneeling silently beside the water. She waited until Akemi was nearly beside her before she spoke. "I pity you."
"Why is that, my love?"
"I'm not your love. And I pity you because all you've ever done is lie and manipulate the people in your life. You don't know how to love; you only know how to possess. You father taught you well."
"You're wrong, Xena. I do love you. I love you so much that if I can't have you, no one will."
Xena turned with the katana just in time to deflect a blow from Akemi's sword. A look of shock registered as she realized what weapon Xena possessed. "The first time I killed you with this it broke my heart. This time it's going to be a pleasure."
"I'll send that old man in to an eternity of nothingness when I find him."
Xena stood and squared to fight. "You're not ever going to get that chance."
The battle in the village raged on for hours. The morning light was glowing in the east by the time the conflict was down to just two people.
"I let you win last time," the man boasted.
"I let you last as long as you did," Gabrielle countered. She reached down for her sai as she grinned confidently.
"We'll see... "
They came together in the middle of Gabrielle's remaining warriors. The women cheered and cat-called as their queen countered every move the man made.
Akemi's battle with Xena seemed to be at a stalemate. The small woman had been wounded by the katana, but Xena had yet to be able to deliver the killing blow.
"You hear that cheering, Akemi? It means that the men you sent to get my ashes are losing."
"Your ashes were stolen during the first attack and lost somewhere along the way. They do not matter now, Xena. The death I bring you today will be an eternal one."
"Are you sure about that? Because I could swear I hear your father calling you... " Xena unleashed her battle cry, along with all the anger and frustration and love that she carried within her.
In the distance, a flash of light streaked toward the sky, followed by a harsh drum of thunder that rolled across the land.
Gabrielle turned her head toward the commotion, "Xena... "
Her opponent took that moment of opportunity to strike. Without hesitation, Janae lunged forward, placing herself between the blade and her queen. Gabrielle turned back in horror. His sword still impaled in the young woman, she drove one of her sai through the front of his throat.
He looked surprised as he fell dead.
Gabrielle fell to her knees, gathering Janae into her arms. "No, no, no... Please don't die. Please... "
Janae managed to focus on sad, green eyes one last time before her eyes closed forever. Gabrielle screamed her heartbreak to the sky.
"You go, Xena. Now, go get your girl." Aphrodite smiled as she poured the ashes into the fountain on Mt. Fuji.
Their queen only allowed herself a moment to grieve. "Cyane, get the women together. If Akemi won that battle by the river, we're all in trouble."
"Look! Someone's coming through the trees!"
Gabrielle stood and pulled her sai from the man's throat. They formed a wall of defense between the remains of their village and whoever was in the forest. Rays of sun suddenly flooded across the land, temporarily blinding them all. By the time they could see again, Xena was in full view. Her dark hair was flowing in the wind and her body was solid and whole.
Gabrielle dropped her weapons and raced toward her warrior.
The Amazon nation cheered as their queen leapt into her soulmate's arms.
They spent the day tending to the wounded and building funeral pyres. That evening they cried and danced as Xena's voice accompanied the remains of their fallen sisters, including the one who had loved her soulmate, to the Amazon land of the dead.
At last, Gabrielle cried herself to sleep, mourning the losses in their village and her personal loss of a woman who had loved her and died for her. As the sun rose the next morning, she felt strong arms surrounding her, keeping her safe. She stirred, sensing behind her a long body curled along the length of her own.
"Good morning, my love," was whispered in her ear.
She turned and nuzzled into the shoulder before her, kissing it tenderly. Then ever so slightly, her lips began to quiver and her closed eyes filled with tears. Tentatively, her lips made their way up a long neck and strong jaw to soft, sweet lips. She leaned back and drew in a ragged breath, then looked into the face before her. This time the eyes were blue.
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