From his place atop his massive war-horse, Caesar looked amusedly down at his soldiers binding Gabrielle to the cross. Divide and conquer, my dear Xena. I told you your emotions would be your undoing. You may have stopped me in Greece, but it all ends here. His broad chest expanded as he took in a deep breath of the bitter air, a smug grin on his handsome features.
Annoyed at the interruption of his silent contemplation, Caesar turned his head in the direction of his soldier's call. His grin faltered slightly, then came back full force at the sight before him.
Hundreds of slaves, men and women, most armed only with their determination, spread across the vast field of snow separating the slave camps from the rest of the town. At their head was the woman of his dreams and of his destiny. "Xena," he purred, sitting his now dancing mount with ease. "Get them!" he ordered.
Roaring, his soldiers drew their weapons and went out to meet the onrushing charge. Undeterred, the slaves kept coming, determined to end their lives in a noble cause, determined to die free, fighting for their homeland and for the woman who had freed them from their captivity.
Xena fought as one possessed, slashing and spinning and killing wantonly. No blade could touch her as she carved a swath of death around her, making a pathway in blood for the others to follow. She gave no thought to the slaves behind her or the Romans before her. Her sight was set on only one thing; the arrogant red plume that decorated Caesar's helm blowing in the arctic wind.
Her blind rage ate through her meager reserves quickly and she found herself winded, her strength diminishing alarmingly. Still she fought on, only one thought in her mind. Kill Caesar.
Closer and closer she came, her eyes only on her goal, blocking out everything else. The Romans were getting closer to her, beating and slashing at her unprotected body and face. Blood began to flow from new wounds and old, but her step never faltered. She gave better than she got, killing each and every Roman who crossed her path, revenge her only watchword.
Finally, the last of the common soldiers fell before her blade, leaving her way clear to the Centurions ringing Caesar, protecting Rome's holy treasure with their bodies. Caesar grinned down at her as his mount pranced within the tight circle of Roman bodies. "Welcome to the party, Xena," he said smugly.
The Warrior Princess, her sword raised far above her head, snarled in rage and began to sprint toward the final ring of men keeping her from her ultimate goal.
Caesar held one arm up. "Not so fast, my dear. Look." Sweeping his arm in a grand gesture, he directed Xena's attention to the ground off to his right. As a group, the Centurions parted, allowing a clear view.
"Gabrielle," Xena moaned, her sword dropping from suddenly nerveless fingers. The fight drained from her ravaged body and she dropped to her knees. "Gabrielle!" she keened, starting to crawl along the snow-packed ground in a desperate attempt to get to her bound lover, leaving a trail of blood to mark her torturous passage.
Caesar laughed at the scene before him. "How the mighty have fallen," he chided from his position atop the horse. "It's as I've always taught you, Xena. Divide and conquer. You were always so quick to pick up my other lessons. I wonder why this one has always eluded you?"
Ignoring him, the warrior continued to crawl toward her dazed lover, scrabbling over the shards of ice as she tried to regain her feet. Her body betrayed her and she fell into a heap in the snow. "Gabrielle," she rasped.
With a nod, Caesar ordered two of his centurions to capture the warrior. They pulled her still struggling body upwards, dragging her back to where Caesar held court. "All isn't lost, my dear," he said to the captured woman.
Xena dragged her head upward, staring at him, her eyes icy and full of death.
"Oh, make no mistake. Gabrielle has to die. Just think of it as a little payback for every friend who has ever rescued you from your destiny. But crucifixion is such a humiliating death, Xena. And I've always had at least some respect for you. So, I'll give you a choice. You see, you were just a bonus here. My real interest is in these berserkers I've paid so much to create." He flung out an arm to indicate the now recaptured male slaves who stood some distance from him. "Killing these poor fools won't tell me much about how good my new army is going to be. But you, my dear. You'd be a better test of their strength. So, out of respect for our relationship, I'll offer you a choice of deaths. Either you can join your friend up on the cross, or you can take your chances with the berserkers."
Steeling herself and digging deep for the last reserves of her depleted strength, Xena shook off the harsh grip of the Centurions. On shaking legs, she started toward the smug form of Caesar, her lips widely parted in a snarl of inhuman rage, with no weapon save her anger and body.
Smiling sadly, Caesar nodded again and his entire guard fell on the desperate warrior, pinning her to the ground. "Crucify her," he ordered, almost sadly.
A Roman held a highly polished shield in front of Xena as she was eased back onto the cross. She felt the rough wooden plank as it abraded against her bleeding welts, felt her arms stretched tight on the crossbar as her wrists were attached to the beam with stout hemp rope. Turning her head to her right, she watched as another soldier straightened Gabrielle's twisted body, aligning it on the cross. Her eyes ran over her lover's battered, dirty form, resting on her head, which was turned away as if in shame. Oh, Gabrielle. Your beautiful hair. She knew she had to say something, anything to let her beloved friend know her true feelings. Why must these declarations always be made at the time of our deaths? She cleared her throat silently, willing the words out. "Gabrielle, you are the best thing in my life."
Gabrielle promised herself she wouldn't cry. She knew that now was a time her strength was needed above all. Slowly, she turned her head to look into Xena's beautiful eyes. The expression on the warrior's face surprised her. There was a calmness there. Far from resignation, it almost appeared that Xena was relieved. As if she knew they had fought the good fight and now was the time for letting go.
Now I know how the vision changed when I chose to step back into this world. Instead of Xena dying alone, she would die with me. A small smile found its way onto her lips, her own spirit filled with the calm serenity that was shining from her lover's features. The words she'd denied them both sprang forth on a breath of joy. "I love you, Xena."
She closed her eyes, waiting for the Fates' curse to take her. But there was nothing save for a Roman soldier putting a block underneath her wrist. Then came the absolute blinding pain of a nail forcing its way through her wrist, sawing agonizingly along her ulnar nerve. A scream welled up in her soul, melding with the agony and filling her entire being.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, struggling against the ropes as she felt a long spike being driven through her palm. Two Centurions came quickly, kneeling on her wrenching arms as the second nail was driven through her flesh, pinning her to the crosspiece. "Gabrielle!!!!"
"Xeeeeennnnnnaaa!" her partner screamed as another nail was driven through her right wrist. Gabrielle's body bucked against the cross, writhing in an agony she'd never experienced before. Another Centurion stepped forward, forcing the bard's body to remain on the cross.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!! Look at me! Open your eyes and look at me," Xena commanded with every ounce of her bearing.
"Xeeeennnnaaaaa!" Gabrielle screamed again, her head whipping back and forth, her body continuing to writhe and buck despite the heavy weight of the Roman soldier pinning her down. "Xena, where are you? Xena!!!"
"Gabrielle! I'm right here! Open your eyes, beloved. I'm right here!" Curling her hands against the agony in her palms, Xena forced her voice to calm. "Gabrielle, follow my voice and come to me. Open your eyes."
Turning her head slowly, the bard opened her eyes in increments, locking onto the mesmerizing blue depths of her lover's eyes, seeing all the love, trust and absolute unbreechable devotion this woman had for her. The pain receded into the background, suddenly unimportant in the face of the love staring her in the face. "Xena," she whispered.
Xena's face broke open in a blinding, loving smile. "I'm right here, beloved. Always. Right here." A tear trailed down the chiseled cheek of the Warrior Princess. "I love you, Gabrielle."
As her cross started its long journey upwards, Gabrielle felt a curious tugging at her body. There was no pain; that feeling had banished against the strength of Xena's undying love. It was more a feeling of subtle displacement. "Xena?" she whispered, confused. Her voice sounded in the air like a gentle breeze. She blinked.
Then blinked again, cocking her head to one side, unable to believe the vision in her sight. There were two Xena's before her. One hung limp from the cross as it was pounded upright into the frozen ground. The other floated in the air before her, long arms held outward in a gesture of welcome, a dazzling smile creasing her perfect features. Wordless, Xena beckoned with her hands, her smile broadening.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked again, realizing for the first time that her body was no longer bound to the cross. She took a hesitant step forward, than another as the wind bore her weight easily. With a shout of joy, she closed the distance between them, throwing herself into the warrior's solid, welcoming arms.
A flash so bright it hurt her eyes accompanied their joining. A chorus made up of infinite voices sounded in her ears. The feeling of Xena's spirit enveloped her totally, filling up every molecule of her being with warmth, adoration and love.
The light continued to grow in brilliance as the bard melded within the spirit of the warrior. Opening her eyes, she stared at Xena's face, which rapidly became her own, then shifted again, the beauty overwhelming in its intensity.
"Xena?" she asked a third time, a tiny thrill of fear shooting through her. "What's happening to us?"
"I don't know," came the melodious voice in her ear. "But it's wonderful."
Gabrielle laughed, a clear, joyous, unfettered sound. "It is, isn't it!" She turned and looked through Xena's eyes? Her own? She didn't know and it didn't matter. Their bodies hung lifeless upon the crosses that bore them up. A tendril of sadness snaked its way through her rapturous spirit. "Oh, Xena," she breathed, "I'm so sorry."
The warrior's presence was, as always, solid around and within her, banishing the sadness with the power of her unending love. "Don't be sorry, my love. That doesn't matter. It never did. This is what matters. Always."
The two-who-were-one turned as another presence made itself known; a presence Gabrielle recognized easily. "Balder?" she questioned.
The glowing light flashed brilliantly as it settled close to her. "Yes, my child. You remembered my lessons and found your home. I'm proud of you." The colors in the light shifted as the god's attention was turned to the part of them that was Xena. "Your love and steadfastness showed her the way, warrior," the voices intoned with sincerity. "You, who have no use for gods, deified the love you share. I am well pleased."
"Balder," the warrior replied, non-committal as ever.
A tingling of chimes heralded the god's pleased laughter. "I know you both have many questions, but I'm afraid the answers must wait until our business here is finished."
The colors within the field of energy shifted and changed until a human form coalesced from them. It was of a young, handsome man, his long blonde hair curling over broad shoulders and back. A beautiful blue robe, matching exactly the color of his eyes, adorned his strong, muscular body. Gabrielle could tell Balder had become visible to his people by the gasps that ran through the crowd as the town's populace looked up in awe and fear. The bard laughed as Caesar's mount reared and pawed at the specter, dumping his rider, wide eyed and cursing in a most undignified manner, into the snow.
"People of Gudvargen, hear me. I have watched over you for many generations with sadness in my heart, yet doing nothing because I gave you the freedom to do as you will. When you enslaved your brethren, treating them worse than the beasts of the field, and did so in my name, I had but one hope. That one day there would be one among you who would be strong enough to stand against this injustice. To my eternal shame, when that catalyst did finally come forth, it was not from the fold of my own flock, but from another land where my name is unuttered." Balder lifted his hand over his people. "Let the scales fall from your eyes so you may look upon your handiwork."
Moans and cries were heard from the crowd as the people looked around at the remaining slaves who stood huddled in the bitter Norse air, shivering, sick and beaten.
"These are your own brothers and sisters whom you have taken from their homes and families, enslaved, starved, beaten and made to do your bidding out of greed, hatred and ignorance. That you have chosen to do so in my name is a crime which even I am hard pressed to forgive."
Balder moved to where Gunni was kneeling, the priest's face white with fear, his body trembling. "Any you," the god said with infinite sadness, "you who chose to speak in my name to turn my own people against the sound of my voice for your own selfish pleasures. For you, there is no forgiveness. If a whore of Rome is what you wish to be, then a whore of Rome you shall be."
The god turned to Caesar, who had managed to regain his feet and was staring, wide-eyed, at the apparition before him, unbelieving. "Were it within my powers, I would have you hung from one of your own crosses, Caesar of Rome," Balder spat. "But your destiny lies elsewhere. Take this 'priest' as a token of my great 'esteem' for your glory and leave my lands."
Caesar looked defiantly up at the Norse god, his helm tucked under one arm. "What about my berserkers? They're my soldiers, bought and paid for fairly."
Laughing, Balder gestured to his right. "Within a very short time, Caesar of Rome, your mighty army will be reduced to nothing."
Caesar and the townspeople gasped as Xena and Gabrielle became visible to them. Caesar's eyes opened wider as his gaze darted between the crosses and the vision before him. "Xena? But where . . . . But how . . . . How did . . . ."
"Still having trouble with those sentences, I see," the warrior smirked.
"This isn't over," Caesar warned.
"It's very over," Balder stated, drawing up to his full, towering height. "Now gather your troops and leave my lands, Caesar, or your precious destiny will belong to me. And it will involve a great deal of pain."
After a long moment, Caesar looked away, then mounted his horse. With a gesture of his arm, his troops fell into step behind him. Gunni, bound and gagged, brought up the rear of the column, propped between two large Centurions. As he was about to leave, Caesar looked once more over his shoulder. "You haven't won yet, Xena. Nothing will defeat the glory that is Rome." Turning, the Roman leader arrogantly reined his horse in the direction of Rome.
Xena watched the scene with her arms crossed over her chest, one eyebrow raised and a smirk on her face.
Gabrielle turned her attention to the town's people, some of whom were breaking off in small groups and heading toward the slaves, offering warmth and compassion where none had existed before. "Balder," the bard asked in a soft voice, "what will happen to them?"
"The slaves? They're free to do whatever they wish. It's my hope that they'll stay on awhile. There's much they can teach the people of Gudvargen."
"And the townspeople?" She turned to the god, a serious expression on her face. "They're not all bad, Balder. People like Panacea and the members of the resistance really did want to end slavery here. And the others . . .well, I think many of them were blinded by the words of Gunni and men like him. I don't think they should be punished."
"Gabrielle," Xena's warm voice came from behind the bard. "Don't forget you're talking to the god of forgiveness here."
The bard blushed. "Er . . .sorry, Balder."
Balder laughed, tossing his head back in his mirth. "No need for apologies, my child. Even gods can learn a thing or two from the pure of heart." His expression became deadly serious as he took both women into his glance. "I have something very serious to ask of you both. A task I must ask you to perform. It's very dangerous."
Gabrielle grinned. "How dangerous could it be? I mean, we are, well, dead, after all, aren't we?"
Balder returned the smile, though his eyes were sad. "Death, as I'm sure you're both aware, is relative. There's the death of the body. And the death of the spirit. Gabrielle, your choice to return to the living set off a chain of events that has repercussions far beyond this one country, beyond even your own Greece, though it will be the first to fall."
"Get to the point, please, Balder," Xena interjected.
The god was not offended. "You've dealt with a berserker before, Xena, have you not?"
"Then you know what one is capable of."
"I do," Xena replied, remembering.
"Gunni has trained an army of two hundred such men, their powers amplified a thousand fold through sorcery and trickery. Even now, under Caesar's rule, these men are bringing others into their fold. If they are unleashed on the world, their powers will be unstoppable. Caesar plans to use these berserkers to conquer Greece, and from there, the world will be in his grasp. The merged force of you, Xena, and you, Gabrielle, is the only thing that has a chance of stopping these men."
"I'm not sure I understand," Gabrielle said. "I saw some of these guys when Balder inducted them into the rite. They seemed like ordinary men to me." She turned questioning eyes to her partner. "Am I missing something?"
"Gabrielle, the berserkers are like nothing you've ever seen before. They use your emotions against you. They pull things, painful things, from your mind to make you weak." The warrior could still feel the pain of her mind-shattered legs as she fought Alti's Berzerker. "They're almost impossible to defeat."
"Well, obviously Xena, you defeated one."
"One, Gabrielle. And it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. We're talking over two hundred here. Each with the same power."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Ok, so they're hard to fight. That's never stopped us before. And now that we have the added bonus of being already dead, how hard can it be?"
Balder laid a gentle hand on the bard's shoulder, turning her to face him. "Gabrielle, your bodies may be dead, but your spirits are very much alive. And the spirit is what the berserkers attack. If they win, your spirits will die. Forever. They will be beyond even my power to retrieve."
Gabrielle looked up at Balder in shock, then slowly turned to face her partner. "Xena?"
Smiling slightly, Xena closed the distance between them, gathering the bard up into her strong embrace, melding their spirits together once again and surrounding Gabrielle with their joined love and devotion. "Face them here, or leave them for others to try and defeat. It's our choice, Gabrielle. But whichever one we make, we do it together."
The bard turned her head from its place on Xena's shoulder. "Balder, could you excuse us a moment?"
"Of course. When you've reached your decision, call my name."
When the god disappeared from view, Gabrielle laid her head against Xena's warm chest, then giggled.
"What?" Xena asked.
"It's just weird. I mean, we're dead and all, but it's almost like nothing has changed. I can still feel you. Smell you." She placed her soft lips on the skin of Xena's chest. "Mmm. Taste you. Why is that?"
"I'm not sure, exactly," Xena replied truthfully. "Maybe it's a memory thing."
"Maybe." The bard wrapped her hands around Xena's waist and sighed. "Xena, I don't think I can do this. When we were still alive, I always knew there'd come a time when one or the other of us would go on from this life. But I also knew that, when the time came, we'd be together again." She lifted her head away from her partner's warmth, wiping tears from her face. "By the gods, even when I'm dead I'm still crying." She met her lover's intense stare. "Xena, remember what I said to you in the dreamscape? It's still true. I can't lose you again." She tightened her hold around the warrior. "I won't."
Xena cradled Gabrielle's head against her chest, her long fingers stroking the bard's newly shorn hair. "I'm with you to the end, my love. You know that."
The bard sighed again. "You're not gonna make this decision for me, are you."
Gabrielle took in a deep breath, then let it out. "Xena, let's just walk away from all this. We fought the good fight, right? Let someone else do the battling for once. We've earned our rest."
"Are you sure that's what you want?"
"Yes that's what I want! For once in our lives together, I want to be selfish! I'm tired of fighting! It never seems to end! For once, I just want some peace!"
Xena tightened her arms around the now sobbing bard, rocking her gently and stroking her back, saying nothing.
Quieting, Gabrielle pulled slightly away. "We can't do that, can we. We can't just walk away. It's not who we are." A tremulous smile crossed her face as she gazed at the loving acceptance, and faint hint of amusement, in the warrior's translucent eyes. "You knew I was gonna say that, didn't you."
Pulling away completely, the bard playfully cuffed Xena's broad shoulder. "Alright then," she said in a strong, sure voice, "let's go kick some Berserker butt."
Gabrielle turned, but Balder appeared before the words ever left her lips. "Have you reached a decision?" he asked, his eyes betraying nothing.
"We'll fight," the bard stated.
Relief evident in the god's features, he smiled. "Wonderful. Now, there are a few things you'll need." Holding out his hands, Xena's sword and chakram materialized into one, Gabrielle's staff into the other. Handing them over to the couple, he smiled again at the look of questioning coming from Gabrielle. "This battle will be on two plains. Physical and spiritual. Make no mistake, the weapons the berzerkers wield, their swords and the like, are real. And they can hurt you. Even kill you. Your weapons can do the same, so don't make light of them. You must use them to defeat the enemy. Spiritually, the berzerkers will reach into your minds and pull out painful experiences, most likely significant to you both. Their goal will be to separate you from one another, making you much easier to defeat. You must avoid this at all costs. Only if you're together in this can you defeat them. Do not use anger, rage or hatred. They'll only turn those emotions against you. You can only best them with the love you share. Your skills will be an extension of that love. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied. "I think so."
The god placed his gentle hands on the bard's shoulders. "You are going to have to relive some very painful times, my child. In order to win, you have to be absolutely sure, in the deepest part of yourself, that you can deal with these images. You'll both be feeling the same thing at the same time. If Xena falters, you must be her strength. And she will be yours. If there are issues that involve you both, you must resolve them immediately because if you don't, you will be separated and all will be lost. Can you do this?"
After a long moment, Gabrielle blinked, then nodded. "Yes. I can. We can."
Balder smiled warmly in response, the love he had for this young woman evident in his eyes. He bent his head slightly and gave her a kiss to her fair hair. "Your gods have chosen wisely, my child. My love goes with you." Releasing Gabrielle, Balder reached out a hand and clasped Xena's wrist in a warrior's grip. "Best of luck to you both," he said. At Xena's simple nod, he continued. "Come. I'll take you to them."
When Gabrielle reopened her eyes, the group was standing before the mouth of a mammoth cave cut into the side of a mountain. Dim lighting from a thousand torches flickered before the entrance, giving the maw an eerie glow. "This is far as I am able to go," Balder said regretfully. "There's a narrow tunnel that leads down into the mountain. It opens out into a huge arena where the berzerkers live and practice. I'm sure they've been made aware of your presence by now, but they'll wait for you to come to them." He enveloped the bard in an all-encompassing hug. "Remember the lessons you've learned, my child. And, above all, remember where your home is."
Gabrielle gave the god a watery smile, nodding. "I will," she promised.
"Go, then. And good luck."
Turning from Balder, Gabrielle grasped Xena's hand and together, they walked into the cave.
Separating slightly, the pair held out their weapons in readiness as they descended into the tunnel. It was well lit, though chilled and damp. Torchlight flickered in random patterns over the rough stone walls which dripped with water from the icy runoff high above. The floor was sandy and their footsteps were silent as they continued down the pathway.
Gabrielle shivered slightly and smiled inwardly. You'd think being dead would make you impervious to the cold, she thought to herself as she followed along slightly behind her tall partner. As usual, Xena seemed unaware of any discomfort. Figures, the bard snorted softly. She's a regular at this dead stuff. I'll just have to follow her lead. As always.
Lost in her thoughts, the bard almost stepped into Xena's broad back as the warrior halted, one hand held outward to block her lover's advance. Peaking around one broad shoulder, Gabrielle saw that the tunnel widened out into a space of immense proportions. Hundreds of heavily armored men stood in ranks, their weapons battle ready, staring toward the tunnel. Gabrielle almost gasped in shock. The men differed dramatically from the ones she'd seen in Balder's temple. Their bodies seemed immense and well muscled. Their eyes glowed with brilliant yellows and oranges, their pupils split lengthwise like a cat's . . .or a snake's. The bard shuddered again, then pulled back against the tunnel wall, breathing heavily.
Relaxing her arm, Xena turned to face her lover, noticing her discomfort. "They haven't seen us yet," she whispered. "There's still time to back out."
A huge part of Gabrielle's soul jumped at the words, her mind's eye picturing her grabbing Xena's arm and fleeing back down the tunnel the way they had come, leaving the men for someone else to deal with. With all of her strength, the bard fought down the overwhelming urge, breathing deeply to cleanse it from her system. "No. We have to do this."
A corner of Xena's mouth lifted in the half-smile that Gabrielle so adored. Raising one hand, the warrior gently cupped the bard's chin, leaning forward to capture Gabrielle's lips in a sweet kiss of affirmation.
Denied contact for so long, Gabrielle reached up and threaded her hand through the warrior's thick raven hair, pulling her head down further and deepening the kiss into one of fiery passion. Tongues dueled for dominance inside hot, wet mouths as soft moans sounded from constricted throats. Spirits melded, split, then melded again, passion dancing through every atom of their joined souls.
After a moment that might have spanned eternity, the two separated again, their breathing ragged. "Wow," Gabrielle whispered on an uneven breath.
Xena smiled, her blue eyes velvet with love as she hefted her sword. "You ready?"
Gabrielle fell easily into step behind and to the left of the warrior, well away from the taller woman's sword arm. Xena's weapon laid casually along one shoulder as she sauntered into the massive cave, smiling charmingly. "Hello, boys. Can we play too?" she asked coyly.
The men were well trained and, aside from a slight shuffling of many booted feet, did not meet the warrior's taunt with an advance. Instead, they waited, weapons hefted and ready, for the two women to close the distance between them.
Stepping up to the first row of men, Xena removed the sword from her shoulder, twirling it about in her characteristic fashion before diving into the conflict, a feral grin on her face.
Taking her cue from the warrior, Gabrielle fell into the fray as well, her staff whirling expertly about her body as she delivered vicious hits to armored bodies. She fought swiftly and surely. Somehow, through their merged spirits, the bard seemed to have picked up an additional dose of Xena's fighting skills because her hits went exactly where they were needed, exactly when they were needed. Soldiers collapsed before her and she felt herself suffused with a joy of fighting that she knew could only be coming from her partner. This isn't so bad, she scoffed to herself as she set her sights on another group of mostly silent men, keeping a part of her attention pinned on the awesome ballet that was her lover in action.
Her eyes widened as she saw Xena go down to her knees, a keening wail coming deep from within the warrior's throat. "Godsbedamned!" Xena gasped out, using her arms to deflect the multitude of blows bearing her down to the ground. "Not the legs again! Can't you guys pick something else for a change?"
Gabrielle bulled her way past the onrushing soldiers to get to Xena's side. "Xena! What is it?"
"My legs," the warrior gasped, still thrusting and slashing with her sword from her place on the sandy ground. "The cross."
The bard stared blankly at her partner for a moment, at a loss. Then a vision filled her mind; a vision of a younger Xena, a sandy beach, and a group of Roman soldiers as they sat before a fire, waiting for the crucified woman and her cohorts to die.
Alright. Alright, I can do this," Gabrielle assured herself. Lifting her head, she strained to see which of the berserkers had Xena under his control. But it was impossible. The men were grouped together, each one staring at the downed warrior as they attempted to get through her defenses. Ok, that's not gonna work. Think, Gabrielle. Think. Her legs were broken, but now they're not. They were healed sometime, somewhere. Reaching into their merged memories, she caught a glimpse of a beautiful, dark haired woman with Asian features. Lao Ma! That's got to be her!
"Xena!" she cried out, still battling the surging horde around them both. "Remember Lao Ma! Remember how she healed your legs!"
With all her strength of will, Gabrielle gathered the vision in its entirety and fed it through their spiritual link, feeding it to her partner as one would a skin of life-saving water.
She was laying upon a long cot, her shattered legs throbbing in torment. She could feel the smooth silk of the robe as it gently encased her body. Lao Ma, her hair unbound and flowing freely, knelt beside her, her hands gently traveling up and down the length of her legs. She could feel the incredible sensual power of the healing force as it left Lao Ma's hands and entered her body, tendrils of tingling fire snaking their way into and out of her uncooperative limbs as it made them strong and whole once more. Her entire body vibrated with the power as it rolled over her in a wave of ecstasy, invigorating her and pooling its potency in her breasts and at the apex of her legs.
Shuddering with the intensity of the image Gabrielle was forcing her to remember, Xena got her legs beneath her and, with her battle cry spitting full force from her lips, thrust her body upwards as if shot from a bow, throwing soldiers away from her with brutal force. She flipped once, at the top of her leap, then landed down on the bodies once more, felling them with vicious kicks and blows from her sword. "Thanks!" she shouted out to Gabrielle, her grin ferocious.
"No problem!" Gabrielle replied, her own spirit still vibrating with the sexual energy that had poured forth in the shared vision. Stepping back into the battle, the young bard twirled her staff around her head, then put all her power behind a blow to the chest of one man, sending him completely off his feet to land crashing down onto several other soldiers. Her grin widened as she stalked her next victim. She saw his eyes flash, his pupils elongate, then she was forced to the ground with the power of the images he raped from her brain and fed back to her, scene by brutal scene. "NO!" she screamed, caught up in the vision of tendrils of fire which snaked out and clamped onto her ankles with inhuman strength. "No! Xena!!"
Kicking a skewered body off her sword, Xena decapitated the berserker standing between herself and the bard. "Gabrielle! What is it? What do you see?"
"Dahok!!" the bard screamed, barely managing to deflect the blows coming at her as she scrabbled on the ground, trying hard to get out from beneath the weight of the horrible vision rushing through her mind. "No! Xena! Help!!!"
Lifting her head, Xena spotted the problem and, removing her chakram, whipped it into the berserker's face. The razor sharp weapon caught and held fast, slicing through the man's eyes and burying itself into his skull. With one hand, Xena retrieved her weapon and with the other, her fallen lover. "You alright?"
"I am now. Thanks!" The bard hefted her staff, about to strike another blow when she felt her legs yanked out from under her again, her mind filled with yet another vision.
She could feel the breath as it rushed from her lungs as she hit the ground hard. The braided leather of the whip bit cruelly into her bare ankles, cutting off the feeling to her feet immediately. Her eyes widened in fright as she watched Xena vault aboard the horse and with a mighty yell, spur the borrowed mount into action, dragging her bound body helplessly behind. She could feel the jagged stones and sticks as she was dragged mercilessly over them, the horse's pace quickening as Xena urged him on, her face twisted in a snarl of hatred.
Trapped within the power of the vision, Gabrielle's hatred overwhelmed her and she jumped to her feet, staff raised. The berserker controlling the bard smiled, ingested the hatred, and returned it to the woman, its potency tripled. A scream of the purest rage split Gabrielle's lips as she swung at her partner with all her strength.
From the very periphery of her vision, Xena saw the advancing staff and just managed to disengage with the soldier she was pummeling to deflect the screaming missile with the flat of her blade. The contact rang all the way up to her shoulder. She turned her body fully toward Gabrielle, her eyes wide.
"I hate you!!!" the bard screamed, winding up and lashing out again at her partner, aiming for her dark head.
Xena ducked quickly, then leapt over a blow designed to break her legs, flipping once to come behind her lover. With her free hand, the warrior ensnared Gabrielle, pinning her tightly against her own long body. Her fierce eyes darted around to find the man responsible for this. Intense hatred roared through her soul, almost buckling her knees.
Another vision was fed through to the warrior and she moaned, looking on at the dead body of her son, draped across an alter in an empty hut. "Solon," she groaned, weakening her death grip on Gabrielle. Her grief was used masterfully against her and this time, her legs did buckle, dumping her to the floor.
Breaking free, Gabrielle spun quickly, landing a hard blow against Xena's unprotected side, slamming the keening warrior against the stone wall of the cave.
Grabbing her side, Xena stumbled to her feet, her face a rictus of grieving agony, her sword hanging limply at her side. "How could you?" she howled. "You knew who she was but you sent her in there anyway! How could you?!?!?"
Gabrielle was upon her in an instant, rage and hatred steaming off her in waves, her staff a blur about her body as she aimed blow after blow against her soul's mate.
Xena defended against the intense blows, her mind a miasma of unending grief. "You killed my son," she moaned. "You killed my son. You killed my son!" Using her unsurpassed strength, Xena began to advance upon the swinging bard, her grief quickly giving way to rage and hatred. Her lips widened, her teeth gleamed, clenched within a mouth that screamed for blood.
As she advanced with the grace of a huge cat stalking its prey, the vision within the warrior's mind changed. Her attack halted abruptly as her head jerked to one side, her eyes unfocused.
She was high in the air, Alti's taloned fingers wrapped tight around her throat. She could feel the shamaness' hot breath as it jetted against her face in fierce blasts. Then she flashed to a snowy hill, staring at herself in the bright mirror of a Roman shield. She felt the rough bark of the cross as she was laid back against it. To her right, Gabrielle lay, turned away, her body adjusted by yet another Roman soldier.
"That was interesting, huh, Xena," Alti said.
Back to the snowy field. "Gabrielle. You are the best thing in my life."
"I love you, Xena."
Back to the trees, blurring by at an incomprehensible rate. "Your little friend is dying with you, Xena. How does that make you feel, huh?"
"Yes. Because if she's dying in my future, that means she's alive!"
A brutal hit to the side of her face jerked Xena out of the vision. Her hand shot out, halting the staff as it came at her again. With a mighty jerk, the warrior pulled on the staff, causing Gabrielle to fly over the ground and into her arms. "Love, Gabrielle!" she shouted into the hate-filled face. "Love is the key!"
"There is no love," Gabrielle growled, sounding eerily like Hope. "There is only hate." Her body arched and twisted in a desperate struggle to get out of Xena's tight embrace. "I'm gonna kill you, you bitch!" she screamed, her mouth frothing with the intensity of her emotions. "I hate you!!"
Xena shot a quick glance over at the berskers. Each one was standing still, simply watching the scene play out, confident of their ultimate victory. With every shred of her enormous courage, the warrior dropped her sword, released her beloved, and handed Gabrielle back her staff. "If there is only hate, Gabrielle, then kill me now. I won't live without love. Not anymore."
Stepping quickly back, Gabrielle hefted her staff, readying it for the killing blow. Hatred consumed her and she fed on it, cherishing it, loving its vibrant energy as it caressed her soul, promising ultimate satiation. Readying herself, she took one last look into the eyes of the woman she hated above all others.
And stopped dead. The crystal blue eyes, so unlike the laughing eyes of her tormentors, imbued her soul with different visions.
Lying side by side, watching the stars and naming their patterns.
Cuddled up close in an awkward embrace as she watched the boy she loved led off by Celesta.
A gentle hand at her back as she watched the sky, mourning her dead husband.
A warm hand clasping hers in gentle support as she dropped a golden ring into a calm sea.
A cherished kiss in the dreamscape of a woman she thought she'd never see alive again.
Love was the key.
"Oh, Xena," she whispered, lowering her arms, then dropping her staff, tears streaming down her face in gentle trails. One step. Two. And then she was across the small space separating them, flinging herself into the outstretched and welcoming arms of the woman she loved above all others.
A blinding flash shot through the cave, throwing light into every shadow as two souls met and merged once again. A love which even the gods could not comprehend filled the huge cavern, battling in its own unique way against the forces of darkness within. Singly and in small groups, the remaining berserkers slumped to the floor, the insane light of evil sorcery gone from their eyes as quickly as a candle flame extinguished on a gentle breath of air.
It was over.
"Xena and ... "
The three voices that spoke the words sent a chill up Gabrielle's spine. She took in the cold stone walls that surrounded them. It was similar to the cave they had fought the Berserkers in, but somehow different, and familiar. When her eyes focused she found the Fates before her and Xena beside her.
A growl welled up in Gabrielle's throat as her unspent rage against the Fates rose in her chest.
A strong hand on her arm stopped her progress toward the demi-goddesses of destiny.
"Love, Gabrielle," Xena whispered with a half smirk. "Love is the key."
"Love," Gabrielle repeated with a sneer. "Think I can love them to death?"
Xena's reply was cut short by Atropos. "We understand."
"Your rage," Clotho finished the sentence from her wheel where she spun the thread of life.
"You understand my rage," Gabrielle repeated slowly as she advanced on the trio, anger etched clearly on her face. "How could you possibly understand my rage? How could you even begin to understand what these past few months have been like for me and Xena?"
"We've watched," Atropos motioned toward a misty hole in the stone wall. Pictures of Xena and Gabrielle's adventures flashed by.
"Watched?" Gabrielle's anger could no longer be denied. "That's been the problem all along. All you do is watch. You don't care how your decisions make us mortals feel. You don't care how your little deals with other gods might affect the lives you so freely spin around here. All you do is watch as we go through trial after trial. You watched while Phlanagus lost his life because of me. You watched as Temeculah lost his blood innocence because of me. You watched while I had to
deny the other half of my soul the love I want to show her. You watched while she nearly froze to death in a cave. I didn't even notice because I was so busy trying to fulfill some destiny you picked
out for me. You watched while I turned my back on the one thing I love more than my own life."
Tears glistened in her eyes as she turned to Xena. "I'm so sorry, Xena, I never meant to hurt you."
Xena had spent Gabrielle's soliloquy glaring holes into the indifferent Fates. Her gaze softened as the bard spoke. "I knew gods were involved somehow, Gabrielle. I never blamed you or stopped loving you. Not even for a second."
Gabrielle smiled through her tears at the warrior.
"Your destiny," Atropos' voice broke their gaze.
"Is fulfilled," Lachesis, the Fate who decides such matters, concluded.
"You have," Clotho picked the thought back up.
"Defeated evil," Atropos stated.
"Your combined energy," the spinner of Fate intoned.
"Your love," clarified the scissor holding Fate.
"Was the key," the decider of Fate spared a smile for the two.
"Love?" Gabrielle again burned with impotent rage at the Fates. "How could love be the key when I couldn't even tell Xena that I loved her?"
The Fates exchanged glances and began their explanation.
"We hoped," Atropos spoke first.
"Your declaration of love," Clotho continued.
"Would come at the right moment," Lachesis finished.
"It did," they said with one voice.
Xena snorted. "We always seem to be making declarations of love to one another right before it seems we're about to die."
Atropos nodded and smiled at the warrior. "Gabrielle's words of love."
"Freed you both," Lachesis spoke.
"Your debt," Clotho picked up.
"Is paid," Atropos caressed her scissors and smiled at Gabrielle.
"Debt?" Xena raised an eyebrow, her gaze turning from the Fates to Gabrielle.
"Her debt was," Atropos began.
Xena raised her hand. "Please, let Gabrielle tell me, it won't take as long."
"As," Atropos stated, bowing her head.
"You," Clotho added.
"Wish," Lachesis completed the thought.
Xena rolled her eyes and nodded her thanks to the Fates. She looked to Gabrielle.
"You remember," Gabrielle turned to Xena, keeping a wary eye on the Fates who had returned to their life and death duties, "my debt to Ares for getting me to Chin ahead of you, and how he called it in over the whole Hope thing."
"Yes," Xena nodded. "He told you if I killed Hope I would die. That's why you sacrificed yourself in the pit."
"Exactly," Gabrielle nodded. "After my fall into the pit, the next thing I remember is being here, with the Fates. They told me I had not yet fulfilled my destiny of defeating evil, but that I had a choice, I could die, or go back to you."
"What was the catch?" Xena folded her arms in front of her chest.
Gabrielle smiled, "That's exactly what I asked them. The catch was I couldn't tell you that I loved you, or make love to you. In return they restored my blood innocence with the understanding that if I spilled one drop of blood in anger I would die. That's why I had to find the joy in fighting, learn to control my anger, and not tell you that I love you."
Xena nodded. She had mentally put the story together earlier, but it was good to have it finally confirmed.
"I told them that was unacceptable, but then they," Gabrielle stopped, a sob tried to escape her throat, "they showed me your death."
"Yes," Gabrielle confirmed, "at the hands of Alti."
"You saved my life by coming back," Xena wrapped her arms around the bard and kissed her head.
"Well, if you can call getting nailed to a cross and dying on a snowy Norse mountaintop saving your life," Gabrielle snorted, wiping away a stray tear, "then, yes."
"So why are we here now?" Xena released the bard and stared into her eyes.
Gabrielle turned to the Fates and cleared her throat, "Hey, Atropos, you're on."
The Fate turned and smiled at the bard. "You both," she began.
"Have a," Clotho chimed in.
"Choice," Lachesis brought up the rear.
"A choice?" Gabrielle demanded, flinging her arms into the air. "What is it with you Fates and your choices, huh?"
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice was firm, but loving and had the barest hint of amusement hidden in its dulcet tones.
The bard stopped her flailing and turned back to the trio. "Oh alright. What's the choice gonna be this time?"
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. Gabrielle put their common thought into words. "I thought we were already dead."
"Not," it was Atropos who spoke.
"Quite," and Cloto who spoke next.
"Not quite," Gabrielle repeated. "Could you be a little more cryptic?"
Atropos ignored the bard's sarcasm and continued. "You are."
"Spirits," they spoke in unison.
"Two, but one," Clotho nodded.
"I knew you could," Gabrielle couldn't control her sarcasm. The Fates were on her last spiritual nerve.
"What will happen if we choose life?" Xena gave a sidelong glance to Gabrielle who appeared to be muttering to herself.
"You will," Atropos began the labored sentence.
"Go back," Clotho continued.
"To Greece," Lachesis said.
"I figured that much," Xena retorted. "A timeline, ladies. That's what I'm looking for here."
"No fiery pits?" Gabrielle was suddenly interested in the conversation.
The three finally took the silent route and merely nodded their heads in affirmation.
"No more Hope?" Gabrielle's excitement was growing.
Three more affirmative nods.
Gabrielle sensed another catch. She frowned. "But I go back without my blood innocence."
"No," Atropos approached the bard and laid a hand on her shoulder. "That is your reward for defeating Dahok and Caesar's Berserkers."
"They can speak whole sentences," Xena muttered to Gabrielle.
The bard didn't hear her. She was too busy trying to take in the information. "There's no catch then?"
"None," the three Fates confirmed.
"And Xena and I can," Gabrielle was almost too afraid to ask.
The Fates smiled at once and nodded. "You can," they said in unison.
The bard smiled broadly and turned to her partner. "Xena, I love you."
Xena returned her lover's smile. "I love you, too, Gabrielle."
"Get used to hearing it, because I'll be saying it often."
"I'll never tire of it, my love," Xena wrapped her long arms around the bard. She closed her eyes and took in the scent of her honey-haired soul mate.
When she opened her eyes, the Fates were gone, replaced with the familiar surroundings of grass and trees. Xena recognized the place. They were standing just outside the Halls of War.
She released Gabrielle who also scanned their surroundings.
"We're home," she smiled at the warrior.
"So we are," Xena bent down and captured the bard's lips with her own.
Gabrielle scowled at her reflection in the lake.
"You'd think the damned Fates could have given me my hair back," she complained.
Xena's reflection joined hers in the water as she knelt beside Gabrielle. She ran her hand through the bard's shorn locks. "I don't know, I kinda like it."
"You do?" Gabrielle whipped her head around, immediately missing the feeling of having her hair falling around her shoulders. Xena smiled her reply and let her hand rest on the bard's neck. She gently massaged the skin she found there. Gabrielle leaned into the sensuous touch, and moaned slightly.
"Ok," she breathed. "It might not be so bad."
"Besides," Xena grinned wickedly. "It'll grow back."
The bard's scowl returned as she swatted Xena's hand off her neck. She was about to give the warrior a piece of her mind when a blinding flash of blue light appeared before them.
"Balder!" Gabrielle stood and rushed toward the blonde god as he materialized. She threw her arms around him in an enthusiastic embrace. He laughed gently as he returned the hug.
"Gabrielle, it's good to see you," he smiled at her as she drew away.
"Xena," he nodded to the warrior, who now stood behind Gabrielle.
"Balder," she returned the nod and crossed her arms over her chest.
"What are you doing here?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well, I can't stay long," the Norse god looked around, and continued in an exaggerated whisper. "In fact, I'm breaking all sorts of god-type rules just being here, but Odin and Zeus worked out a deal to let me come."
"Tell us what's happening in Gudvargen," Gabrielle motioned for the god to join her on a nearby log at the campsite they had picked after leaving the Halls of War. The bard sat beside the god and put her hand on his forearm. Xena chose to remain standing, keeping an eye out for any trouble that might follow this foreign god around.
"The news is good!" the god exclaimed. "The town has outlawed slavery and freed everyone at the camps. Many of the ex-slaves say they will return to Greece, but some have agreed to stay and teach the people more about the Greeks. Some may even come to accept me in time."
"They'll be glad they did," Gabrielle gave the god her brightest smile.
Xena nearly laughed as the Norse god's ruddy complexion turned even redder at the compliment from a mortal bard. "I hope so, Gabrielle," he said quietly.
"How is Panacea?" Gabrielle keenly missed her new northern friend.
"Your friend Panacea is well," Balder smiled at the bard. "She talks to me about you. She misses you, and hopes both you and Xena are happy."
"Tell her we are," the bard stole a glance to the warrior who nodded her assent to the message.
"I will," he confirmed. "Oh, and by the way, she's been reunited with her daughter, Helene."
Xena's face showed concern. "How is Helena?"
"She's much better," Balder focused on Xena, "thanks to you, my friend. You saved her life."
Xena shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and simply nodded. She was relieved to hear that Helene had survived the revolt and was doing better. She didn't want any credit for it though and Balder's words made her more uncomfortable than she would ever admit.
"Also," Balder continued, his eye on the fidgeting warrior, "there's a new baby in town with a familiar name."
"Oh?" Gabrielle was curious.
"Yes, it seems little Xenan's life was saved by a stranger in the night," Balder smiled at Xena who was now finding the grass beneath her feet thoroughly engrossing.
"Xena!" Gabrielle now focused on the warrior.
"The child would have died otherwise," Xena spoke in a rush. "Besides, how did they know it was me?"
"Well, they prayed to Balder, and, well, I never was good at keeping secrets," the god confessed with joy.
The bard playfully slapped the god on the arm and joined him in his laughter.
"Gods," Xena rolled her eyes. "Another reason to never trust them."
Balder sniffed the air and stood. "I must go now."
Xena moved to stop him. "Wait, what about the Amazons that were in the camp with me?"
Balder's smile faded. "Several of them lost their lives fighting Caesar's troops."
"Who?" Xena asked with a heavy heart.
"Corien, Sarebet and Porfis," the god bowed his head in honor of the Amazon dead. "They fought well, and have gone to their reward."
"The others?" Xena asked hopefully.
"Iolake and the rest are returning to Greece to join Queen Serristria," Balder told her. "I appeared to them and told them you were alive. They hope to meet up with you again someday."
Balder smiled, his face radiant in the Grecian sun. "I bring greetings from the new High Priest of my temple in Gudvargen. Of all my children, he most espoused the values I hold dear."
"I'm sure he'll do well," Xena replied.
Balder's image began to fade out. "I really must go now. Take care. Love each other well."
The Norse god disappeared as he spoke his last words.
Gabrielle stood and slipped her arm around Xena's waist. "I'm sorry about the Amazon warriors, Xena. Balder's right, they're in a better place. They're free now, and so are all the others. They didn't die in vain."
Xena smiled at the bard and took her in her arms. "Neither did we, my love."
The night was calm, a billion stars weaving a tapestry in the evening sky. A cheery campfire blazed and crackled, throwing dancing light and shadow on three sanguine forms. A large blonde war-horse contentedly cropped tender shoots nonchalantly, as if being transported across hundreds of miles in an instant were an everyday occurrence.
The fire's cheerful flames flashed crimson highlights across a blonde head as it rested back against a leather-clad chest. Xena sat propped comfortably against an downed log, the bard nestled between her thighs, her strong arms wrapped around the young woman's waist as they both stared into the fire's light. "Xena?"
"Can we talk?"
"I just wanted to tell you that I'm sorry. About everything that happened."
The warrior's sigh gently ruffled Gabrielle's shorn hair. "We've been through this already, Gabrielle. There's nothing to be sorry for. The Fates made you act the way you did. It wasn't your fault."
Twisting slightly within the warm embrace, Gabrielle looked up to meet the piercing eyes of her lover. "The Fates might not have made things any easier, Xena, but I can't blame them for everything I did. I want . . .no, I need to start taking responsibility for my own actions. I started doing that with . . . Hope. Then, for some reason, I seemed to forget it again."
"I'm not sure I understand you."
Gabrielle sighed, knowing this would be difficult to put into words. "Xena, when I first met you, I saw you as everything I wanted to be, and wasn't. Strong. Self-assured. Focused. You seemed to have it all, while I had nothing. And I know that wasn't fair to you, because I didn't know what was going on inside of you every minute of every day. But I couldn't see that . . .then. And as we traveled, even though I began to see what you were going through, I still saw you as this . . .I don't know . . .goddess, almost. Every plan you made was perfect, every fight, perfect. And if something did go wrong, you didn't seem to let it get to you. You just went on and did what you had to do, and it all worked out."
She turned, fully facing her partner now, her deep green eyes intent. "I wanted so much to be like you. This strong, confident, perfect woman who could just wave my hand and have things fall into place for me." The bard looked down, one hand tracing idle patterns over the shoulder strap of Xena's leathers. "And when bad things started happening to me, I tried to be that person. I tried to tell myself that I was as strong as you were and that I could handle it." She sighed. "And I finally realized just what that takes out of you. I hurt inside, so badly. And nothing seemed to make that better for me." She looked up again, meeting Xena's eyes once more. "And part of me was so angry with you, Xena. Because you seemed to just take these things in stride while I . . . . while I fell apart."
Swallowing against the tears in her throat and in her eyes, Gabrielle continued, surrounded by the loving compassion that Xena gave her. "So instead of coming to terms with my own actions, learning from them and moving on, I began to look for something, anything to take away the pain I was feeling. I thought maybe I had found that in Gudvargen, with Balder and his people. For the first time in a long time, I felt that maybe I wasn't the bad person I thought I was."
A hesitant hand came up to briefly caress Gabrielle's cheek. "Did I do that to you?" Xena asked softly, her eyes an open book to her tortured soul. "Make you feel as if you were bad?"
Gabrielle captured the gently trailing hand, cupping it to her cheek fully and holding it there. "No, Xena. Never! It's just that . . .when I looked at you, when I looked into your eyes and saw the pain you kept inside, I couldn't face it. It only added to my own pain, especially since I knew that some of that pain, a lot of it, maybe, was because of me and the things I did. I just couldn't face that. But those people, they looked at me like I was fresh, and new. They saw me as I would like to see myself again, a good person with good ideas to offer. And I got swept up in that feeling because I needed it so badly. For the first time in a long while, I felt like I could stand up on my own two feet, without having to lean on you for balance. It felt good. It felt so good that I began to forget some of the lessons I'd learned walking by your side."
Reaching out, Gabrielle captured Xena's other hand, holding both together in her own, her expression deathly earnest. "Xena, I know that your original plan for freeing the slaves was a good one. I knew that you'd do it with as little violence as possible. I know you've changed. But for some reason, I couldn't see it that way then. I think I was so wrapped up in these people's adoration of me that I began to believe that my way was the only way. I belittled you and your plans. I finally thought that I'd gotten where I wanted to be when I started out on this journey four years ago." Tears fell from her eyes, slowly rolling down her cheeks. "But I forgot the most important thing of all. That this isn't just my journey. It's ours. And than nothing works out as well as when we do it together." Releasing one of the warrior's strong, callused hands, she reached up and stroked a black tendril of hair from Xena's face. "And that's what I'm sorry for. Can you ever forgive me?"
Xena's answer came in the form of a kiss that was so sweet and so pure that it shattered the last of Gabrielle's regrets, leaving her soul bare and reborn.
After a long, sweet moment, the two women pulled apart, Xena leaning back slightly and cupping Gabrielle's flushed face in her large, warm palms. "Gabrielle," she whispered in a low voice, husky with emotions and burgeoning passion, "I'm not proud of many of the things I've done in my life, especially when those actions caused you to hurt. But you've always forgiven me, even when I haven't forgiven myself. How can I do any less for you? You are the light that guides my steps and the love that keeps the darkness at bay." She gathered the bard in her arms, resting her cheek atop the blonde head. "I love you."
Gabrielle broke down, her sobs drenching the warrior's chest. "By the gods, I love you too, Xena. So much." The bard tightened her embrace, trying to burrow herself into the warrior's very soul, as she'd done back in Gudvargen.
Xena returned the pressure for a brief moment, before pulling slightly away again, tipping up her sobbing partner's chin with one hand while tenderly brushing the tears away from Gabrielle's face with a gentle thumb. "Hey," she whispered, smiling crookedly though her own eyes were suspiciously bright. "Hey. It's alright. I'm here. It's alright."
Giving her partner a watery smile, Gabrielle reached up, displacing the warrior's gentle hand and wiping the tears off her face with the back of her hand. She chuckled slightly. "Maybe I should have asked the Fates to seal my tear ducts, huh?"
Cocking her head, Xena pretended to consider the matter seriously, before smiling crookedly again. "Nah. Then your eyes would dry up and then where would you be?"
Gabrielle chucked again, brushing the last of the tears from her cheeks. "We couldn't have that, could we," she said dryly. She met her lover's eyes and just stared, feeling the warmth of the bond they shared wash over her, tingling through her senses and cleansing her spirit of sadness and pain.
The two women stared at one another for long moments, their smiles broadening while the unnoticed fire crackled cheerfully in the clearing. Gabrielle reached out an almost tentative hand, fingering Xena's strong jaw, then trailing down her elegant neck to where her pulsepoint jumped. The bard's gaze turned to one of wonder. "I can touch you now," she whispered, feeling the heart beat under her hand accelerate with her words.
"Yes. You can."
Gabrielle's eyes were almost shy as they met the darkening blue of her lover's. "May I?" she asked hesitatingly. "May I make love with you?"
In answer, Xena reached out and gently clasped Gabrielle's wandering hand, raising herself easily to her feet and bringing the bard up with her. "C'mon," she said, leading her partner over to where the bedrolls were laid out.
Reaching her destination, the warrior released her lover and faced her, smiling gently at the look of trepidation in the bard's sweet face. Lifting her hands, she slid them under her shoulder straps, allowing the straps to fall down over her broad shoulders as she reached behind and loosened the stubborn ties to the battle dress. With a gentle shrug, she brought the leather forward and down, allowing it to slide noiselessly down her long body and stepping out of its protective circle. She looked up at Gabrielle's muted gasp to see tears flood the verdant eyes once again.
"You're so thin," the bard whispered mournfully, her hand, shaking, reaching out and tracing the hollows between the warrior's prominent ribs.
Giving her partner a half smile, Xena captured the trembling hand and brought it to her lips, depositing a gentle kiss to Gabrielle's knuckles. "Nothing a week or two of your cooking won't cure," she said, her voice warm, comforting and tinged with fond amusement. Releasing the bard's hand, Xena reached out and placed her fingers on the ties to Gabrielle's top, her eyebrow raised in a question.
Gabrielle sniffled, then nodded, a small, shy smile spreading her lips.
Returning the smile, Xena's long, dexterous fingers made short work of the ties, opening the top and sliding it up and over the bard's warm torso. Dropping the top to the leaf-littered ground, the warrior's hands next dropped to the intricately tooled belt at Gabrielle's waist, easing it away from the bard's lithe body and dropping it and the skirt to the ground at Gabrielle's feet. Grasping her hand once again, Xena led her lover over the puddle of discarded clothing and onto the thick pelts that served as their bedrolls.
Xena turned Gabrielle slightly so that the firelight played over the younger woman's lightly tanned skin. The warrior traced the flames' gentle patterns with feather-light touches, her eyes rapt with love and devotion. Her callused fingers paid homage to the soft skin of her soulmate, leaving a tingling warmth in their place as they danced lightly across one straight collar-bone, pausing to rest briefly in the hollow of Gabrielle's throat before continuing their journey across the other collar- bone to gently brush against a muscled shoulder.
Gabrielle stood trembling as Xena's hands coaxed a joyful fire from her skin and soul. She felt like some sort of goddess being worshiped by a devout follower, so affirming were the gentle caresses. Her heart picked up its pace as moisture began to gather at the apex of her thighs. Her skin flushed a rosy hue in the fire's bathing light and her breath became deeper and more rapid.
The warrior's nostrils flared as the delicate scent of the bard's arousal perfumed the wood-smoke scented air. Stepping closer, she brought their bodies into close contact all along their lengths, trailing her fingers down the smooth, silken skin of Gabrielle's strong back, leaving a map of gooseflesh to mark her passing. Her hands continued downward, skimming over and finally cupping the cheeks of Gabrielle's buttocks, measuring their pleasing weight against her palms.
The bard gasped slightly as Xena lifted and gently separated the cheeks of her ass. A slightly chilled tendril of air blew across the place where she was most heated and she rocked her hips instinctively against the pleasure of it.
Xena grasped Gabrielle's hips, gently pushing her lover away slightly. Her head bowed and came closer in minute increments, her raven hair forming a lush curtain as their lips met, gently at first, then deepening as passion caught them and bore them up toward the night's shimmering sky.
Gabrielle felt her knees weaken slightly, but Xena's clasp on her hips remained strong and sure as she eased them both down onto the thick fur with negligent strength, never breaking the kiss. She lay full out atop the bard's smaller body, knowing how Gabrielle liked the feel of her weight pressing down. Her breasts tingled as they kissed their mates and Gabrielle squirmed slightly in pleasure. The kiss deepened further, tongues dueling in passionate advances and sly retreats, filling them both with the long-missed taste of one another.
Moans were traded and swallowed as bodies grew sweat-slicked and rocking. Flames played teasingly over burnished copper and honey gold, caressing corded muscles standing out in bas relief, warming a space already heated past the light of a thousand suns.
Xena moved slightly, sliding easily off of Gabrielle's damp body to rest at her side. Her hands picked up their trail again, not so tender this time, as she ran the heated flesh of her palms over hills and valleys, moving lower, always lower.
Gabrielle was so ready, so headily gripped in passion's sweet hold, that she knew she would explode the moment Xena reached her goal. She squirmed slightly in disappointment, never wanting the feelings to end, if even for a moment. But her lover knew her well and read her signals easily, bypassing the throbbing rigidity of her and smoothly separating folds grown swollen and wet with the warrior's rapt attentions.
Suddenly, blissfully, she was filled to overflowing by the long, strong fingers of her soul's mate. The women groaned in tandem at the haven encountered and Xena just rested there a moment, her eyes closed in sweet abandon, feeling the wet heat of her lover throbbing against her sensitized skin in steady, strong contractions, her fingers clasped in a glove of the softest silk.
Slowly, strongly she started to thrust, her fingers curling to stroke the bard's inner walls with the feeling of coming home. Gabrielle, as always, picked up her rhythm easily, taking more of her lover into her with every welcoming tilt of her hips. The bard's breathing deepened again, low keening moans issuing forth on panting breaths as she began the long, slow spiral upwards. Another finger filled her further and her sighs and moans turned to soft grunts that counterpointed the cheerful crackling of the campfire.
Sensing her lover's nearness to the peak, Xena lowered her head, her hair fanning against the bard's creamy skin, and took one swollen nipple into her mouth, biting down gently as her palm rotated upward and gently cupped itself against the only untouched part of the bard's throbbing core.
Gabrielle gasped in deep at the dual sensations, holding her breath as she prepared to slip past the wall of rational thought. A hissing breath between her teeth became a primal cry as she shut her eyes against the fractured light in her soul. Her inner walls expanded, then clamped down hard on Xena's thrusting fingers. Her hands raised of their own accord, stiffened fingers sinking into raven hair as her hips bucked wildly, the orgasm flowing through her body in powerful waves of purest sensation.
It ended as sweetly as it had begun, Xena's now stilled fingers resting deep within, her head lifting, then lowering to gently claim passion-bruised lips in a warm, welcoming kiss. Gabrielle's hands loosened their hold, coming to gently cup the warrior's high cheekbones, her thumb gently tracing an elevated raven eyebrow that further exposed the blueness of twinkling eyes. "I love you," Gabrielle said, her voice husky, her eyes heavy-lidded.
A smile brightened Xena's face at the words. "I know," she said in a deep, rumbling voice, her free hand gently brushing the sweat-slick bangs from Gabrielle's forehead. Smirking slightly, the warrior lightly wiggled her fingers before gently withdrawing them from inside her lover.
Returning the smirk, Gabrielle grinned deep into the warrior's smoky, violet eyes as she pushed her partner over onto her back "And now, I finally have the chance again to show you just how much." Laying a gentle kiss to Xena's lips, she let her tongue trace a trail over heated skin until it circled the nipple of one ripe breast. Lowering her head, she took the nipple full into her mouth, suckling gently, then with stronger pulls as Xena's hands in her shorn hair tenderly guided her movements and made the warrior's desires known.
Xena kept her neck arched, her head erect as she watched, with sensual pleasure, her lover's feast upon her breasts. The gentle pulls arced down into her groin and her body prepared itself for its long awaited invasion. Her legs parted of their own accord and the cool night breeze played over her wetness, arousing her further.
The bard paid homage to both generous breasts, then her tongue lapped at the sweat in the valley between them as her ears picked up the increase in the warrior's breathing. Smiling inwardly, she moved lower, trying hard not to think too deeply on the almost painfully thin body she worshiped. As she reached the nest of curls armoring Xena's sex, she inhaled deeply, pulling the ambrosial scent of her lover's arousal deep into her lungs. Then she settled her body between widely spread legs, lowering her head and gently nipping at the coarse hair with her lips, pleased with Xena's gasps of pleasure. Spreading passion slicked folds, Gabrielle took a long, deep taste, moaning in hedonistic pleasure as the taste of musky spices exploded onto her tongue.
Xena's body twitched at the contact. She rested her weight on her elbows, still watching as her lover feasted on her, her eyes glittering in the firelight, half lidded and passion-filled. A growl sounded forth into the still air as three fingers entered her strongly, fully, widening and filling her in the sweetest of ways. Her head lolled back, raven hair fanning out over the thick pelt of the bedroll as her hips took up the rhythm Gabrielle set with fingers and tongue. Her body weaved and danced to the bard's erotic tune, her muscles clenching and releasing as she drew more of her lover in.
She stilled for the briefest of instances before exploding, pushing hard against Gabrielle, who dug her feet into the soft earth and pushed back, meeting strength with strength and never wavering. The warrior uttered a soft, whispering groan as her climax came over her in a wash of light and sound and sensation. She reveled in it, reaching out and pulling the feelings deep into herself as a barrier against the darkness in her soul.
Her elbows gave out and she crashed against the warm, damp furs, Gabrielle guiding her back home safely, surely and lovingly. When the last of her contractions stilled, her lover pulled gently out and away, moving up her body to rest against her, kissing her deeply to share the flavor and the joy of the loving.
Xena gave Gabrielle a tired smile, curling her arm around the bard's shoulders and melding their bodies together. "Welcome home, my love," she whispered, nuzzling Gabrielle's sweet smelling hair.
Gabrielle smiled against Xena's chest. Home. It was a word she had to travel to distant lands to learn the true meaning of. Home. It was this place. This clearing. Home. It was this woman. It was herself. It was both of them together. It was their love and what it meant to them both.
It was home. And it was something she would never forget again.
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