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That night, Xena couldn't sleep. Not that she ever really could anyway.
She always had nightmares. It was okay during the day when it was light and
they were moving, and with Gabrielle's constant storytelling, Xena never
thought about the past. Well, hardly. But at night, when it was quiet and
her friend was asleep, Xena was afraid. Afraid because it was then the
darkness enveloped her and she didn't want to be pulled back with it.
Sometimes she could feel it entering her, whispering to her, beckoning her,
and there were even some times when she almost wanted to listen.
She never told Gabrielle any of this. Because worse than her fear of
becoming the evil warrior of her past, she was a hundred, a million times
more terrified of losing her best friend. It was an unspoken fear, buried deep
within her subconscious, and Xena covered it by being distant and sometimes,
even when she didn't want to be, a bit harsh. More than anything, Xena
wanted to confide her thoughts and fears to Gabrielle, but she couldn't. She
couldn't even tell herself.
Xena, Warrior Princess, scared? She scoffed at herself and began to pace
around the campfire. Just a few feet away, Gabrielle was sleeping
peacefully, a slight smile on the younger girl's lips. Xena wondered what she was dreaming about.
Gabrielle knew Xena was watching her. And she knew Xena thought she was asleep. This happened every night. Xena would tell her to get some rest and Gabrielle would lie down on the smoothest patch of dirt possible, close her eyes, and pretend to sleep. But the whole night Gabrielle would remain awake, feeling Xena's eyes on her. She wanted more than anything to stay up and talk to her friend, but that wasn't Xena's way. The worst part was knowing Xena was watching her because she could feel how deep the sadness in her eyes was, how much pain Xena was in, was always in. But Xena never rarely talked to her about it, and Gabrielle didn't know what to do. She tried sometimes, but usually when Gabrielle spoke, the words that came out of her mouth were never what she really wanted to say.
But what did she want to really say? This was something she spent hours, days, weeks, mulling over. She had so many questions, so many feelings, so many...
Xena sat down beside her, leather squeaking, so close Gabrielle could feel the warmth from her body. Gabrielle's heart started pounding louder. What if Xena found out she had only been pretending to sleep all this time? What would she do? Xena never told her anything about her feelings but grudgingly and even as long as Gabrielle had been with her, it seemed she only knew the barest details of her best friend's life. What she would give to know everything. Sometimes, she could feel Xena wanting to confide in her. It was the one thing that gave Gabrielle hope, the one reason she stayed.
Gabrielle turned on her side. For some reason, she had an urge to cry.
It was at night when Xena cried. She usually did it far away from Gabrielle even though she thought the girl was asleep. She didn't want to chance her waking up and seeing her. Crying wasn't something a warrior princess should do, it was something she had always thought only people like Gabrielle did. Funny thing was, in all the time she'd known Gabrielle, the girl had cried even less than she. Not that Gabrielle knew that, or ever would. Xena was ashamed. But she was always going to cry, she knew that. She wanted to tell Gabrielle, she wanted to feel the girl comfort her and hold her and tell her she would be okay. She wanted to - no, she wouldn't even let herself think about that....
She couldn't burden Gabrielle with her guilt - she knew the bard would take it upon herself to try and protect her. And that wasn't fair to her. So many times Xena wanted to just give up, she felt so helpless, and it was only being with Gabrielle that saved her. She suspected Gabrielle knew that, but it was unspoken and always would be.
Tonight, the tears had just started with no warning. Usually Xena could go off by herself and control them. But not today. She just sat there by the campfire, silent, strong tears (what other kind could be expected?) coursing down her cheeks. She didn't dare wipe them away, knowing that would just bring more. They ran down her face and fell to the ground. She stared at Gabrielle's beautiful face as though it could bring her strength. But tonight, tonight was different. The tears didn't stop. Xena closed her
Gabrielle felt a drop of wetness hit her cheek. She resisted the urge to
wipe it away. Then Xena would definitely know she had been awake all this
time. If it continued, she could just pretend she'd been woken up by the
rain. But then another drop fell, near her mouth. It seeped in through the
crack of her mouth and she tasted the saltiness of a tear.
Her heart jumped. Xena was crying. Her first instinct was to leap up and take Xena into her arms and hold her. But she knew she couldn't. Xena would never allow it. Gabrielle knew by this time what was expected from her and what her role was. She knew Xena would resist if she tried to do or say anything. But she wanted to. She wanted to more than anything. In the year that she'd known Xena, from the first time she saw her, something about the warrior princess had done something to her. Something inside, feelings she had never had before. They scared her, and excited her. More and more recently she had become aware of them, but she was afraid. Afraid Xena would reject her and then what? Where would she go? A life without Xena was worse than being with her and never telling her how she felt. But how did she feel? Gabrielle couldn't even say the words to herself.
So Gabrielle resisted the urge and stayed on the ground, her heart breaking for the pain Xena was in, the pain she could never seem to make go away. If only Xena would talk to her...This time, she couldn't stop her own tears - the ones for her best friend.
"Gabrielle?" Xena saw her best friend's eyes flutter.
Gabrielle sat up. "Xena?" She yawned, hoping Xena wouldn't notice how fake it was. "What time is it?" She brought her hands up to her eyes pretending to rub them so she could wipe the tears away.
"Late. Why aren't you sleeping?"
"No. You weren't."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. Her friend seemed tired, and older. Gabrielle
looked down at the ground, picking at some pebbles.
"Gabrielle, how long have you been up?"
Gabrielle looked back at Xena. Her friend's blue eyes bore into her. They were the most incredible eyes she had ever seen. She could look into them all day, and at night they danced in front of her, too. Her own eyes traveled over the rest of Xena's body. So beautiful. What she wouldn't give just to touch her, really touch her, just once. "Uh, not long, I, I just had a bad dream."
Xena stared at her. Gabrielle was lying, she could feel it. She knew
Gabrielle knew she'd been crying. Immediately Xena felt embarrassed. And
when she felt that way, there was only one way she could act.
"Don't lie to me, Gabrielle. How long have you been watching me?"
"Watching you? What do you mean?" Gabrielle was taken aback by the harshness in Xena's voice.
"Come on, Gabrielle, you and I both know you weren't asleep."
"I was, I -," Gabrielle panicked.
"You saw me crying."
Pause. Gabrielle looked down. "I'm sorry."
"Why are you sorry?"
Gabrielle suddenly took a chance. If Xena just wouldn't reject her, this
time, maybe, just maybe...She reached out to touch Xena's shoulder. "Xena, I
want to help you. Please, can you let me in, please...that's all I ever wanted, and you never let me , I can help you, I..." That was too much, Gabrielle knew it, but it was too late.
Xena pulled away from Gabrielle's touch. "No, Gabrielle, you can't help me. There is nothing you could ever do for me, nothing. Nothing." As soon as they came out of her mouth, Xena regretted them. But she couldn't take them back. Why did she just say that to her? - It wasn't true! She knew the one thing she could say to take it back, but she couldn't say that either. Could she?
Gabrielle stared back at her. Gods, that girl was beautiful. Some hair was in her face and Xena had to fight the almost irresistible urge to brush it away. But now her blue eyes were filled with tears. Tears Xena had caused. Xena suddenly realized how much she had hurt her friend, how much she always hurt her. And always would. It was her fault, like everything else was.
And this time she couldn't take it anymore. Not Gabrielle. So she did the only thing she could think of. "Just leave me alone."
Those words resounded in Gabrielle's ears. Xena couldn't possibly have meant that. But the coldness in Xena's eyes told her all she wanted to know.
Gabrielle stood up, her own eyes becoming cold. Gabrielle picked up her staff, not looking at Xena. "Goodbye, Xena." With that, she walked off into the darkness.
Xena watched Gabrielle go, her mouth quivering. Her heart was breaking as she tried to keep from screaming out. But she had to do it, or she'd end up hurting her even more as time went on. It wasn't fair to Gabrielle to stay with her, with someone who could never give her the happiness she so deserved. She knew Gabrielle would be better off. Wouldn't she? Wouldn't she?
Gabrielle was not used to being alone. Back in her village, she'd always had her family and her sister Lilla. Not that she ever felt like she really belonged there, but a home was a home. And while she had been lonely, she had never been *alone*, really.
And then she had been with Xena. And that had felt so right. So for her whole life, Gabrielle had not once had to think about what she would do on her own. She had naively never thought she would have to.
She couldn't go back to her village. It wasn't her home anymore. Her true home had been with Xena, she knew that. Her home had been Xena. Now all that was gone, too.
She felt a flash of anger. How could Xena do that to her? All the times she had been there for her and stood up for her and tried to help her - how could she be so cruel? Didn't Xena know how much she -
No, she didn't, Gabrielle told herself. She never knew how I felt, I never told her. And you know what? I'm glad I didn't tell her, because I don't even know how I feel, not anymore. I'm glad I didn't tell, I'm glad. "I'm glad!" she screamed out into the forest. "I'm glad!!!!!" She threw her staff against a tree and an unhappy owl flew out of its home, hooting wildly. Gabrielle sank to the ground, hand over her face. "I will not cry," she told herself. "I won't, I won't, I won't," but she did anyway.
Xena was used to being alone. Even in her village she had always felt like an outsider. Only Lyceus had even tried to get to know her, and only then as much as she would allow, and really most probably because he was her brother and felt a little bit obligated. No one else bothered. Xena didn't really care - or, at least, she pretended not to. She knew from the very beginning she was different. She liked being different - until it led her to causing Lyceus to get killed - she would always blame herself for that. And then after that she never really liked being different anymore.
Not until Gabrielle. Gabrielle changed her in ways she never thought anyone could. She had given her so much, so much understanding no one else had cared enough to. Marcus, Marcus was a wonderful man, but Xena had been with him during a time when she wasn't so wonderful herself. A time she didn't want to remember, but the time that would forever shape her life and her feelings. She had killed so many...
...But she wouldn't hurt Gabrielle. As much as it destroyed her to make Gabrielle leave, she knew she had to do it. It was for Gabrielle, it was all for Gabrielle.
Now what, she thought to herself. Now what do I do? It made her laugh. She felt lost. With Gabrielle by her side, she knew exactly what she had to do. It was as if helping all those people was important because Gabrielle saw her do it. Now she felt like it didn't matter anymore. Like nothing mattered anymore.
A noise up above startled her. An owl was flying by, hooting angrily. I wonder what got him up, thought Xena. Maybe he can't sleep either.
Xena turned back to the campfire. It was slowly dying down. Xena reached over and picked up the blanket Gabrielle had been sleeping on. She didn't even take any food, Xena thought. She began to get up, but thought the better of it. She'll be fine, she's not a child, she's told me that herself many times. I know it, I've seen it. I know how much she's grown up these past months.
Xena held the blanket up to her cheek. It smelled like Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stood up. I'm gonna be fine, she told herself. Just fine. I don't need anyone to take care of me. She started walking more confidently. Maybe that was my problem - maybe I depended too much on other people. Well, not anymore, not anymore.
It was getting light out and Gabrielle felt less and less afraid. She didn't know where she was going, but she didn't care. At every step, her legs moved faster, her face became more set. I should have done this a long time ago. I don't know why Xena kept me around so long anyway, I mean, I obviously meant nothing to her. She just tolerated me.
She suddenly stopped. Wind whistled past her cheek and she brought her hand up to her face. A FLASH - and she remembered-
A GREEN FIELD. Gabrielle stepped out into the sunshine, smiling. It was so beautiful. But something was wrong, something was missing.
"Xena?" she called out. "Xena? Where are you?"
No answer. But at the other end of the field was a group of people, waving at her. She began to jog over, still looking out for her friend.
Her grandparents were in that group, so was Tallus, everyone she had ever known and loved who had died. It was so wonderful to see them all. She smiled, but there was still something wrong. She wasn't happy.
"I'm dead, aren't I." It was a statement, but Tallus nodded anyway.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
It was perfect there. Gabrielle should have loved it, but she couldn't. It felt like she had left a part of herself somewhere. Tallus took her aside.
"It's Xena, isn't it?"
"How did you know?" She asked. His eyes bore into her and he smiled sweetly. "Everyone knows," he replied.
"What do you mean?"
At that moment, she felt something tugging her. A little at first, but then she felt it so strongly she almost couldn't breathe. She felt herself gliding back from where she had come, faster and faster. She reached out for Tallus.
"What's happening? Wait!!!"
Tallus waved at her. "You're going back where you're needed more than here, Gabrielle."
At every pull, Gabrielle felt it more and more inside of her. A feeling so powerful she couldn't even explain it. It was a feeling she had only dreamed about. It was incredible.
"Say hi to Xena for me," Tallus called out.
EVERYTHING WENT BLACK. Gabrielle closed her eyes and WHAM! her breath came flooding back and her eyes popped open.
Immediately Xena pulled Gabrielle to her, her hand caressing Gabrielle's cheek, tears and sweat running down her own face. "You're alright," Xena whispered to her, then kissed her forehead. Gabrielle just stared up at Xena, trying to catch her breath. Xena pulled her close and rocked her, her body pressed against Gabrielle's. It felt so good to be back with her. So right.
FLASH - Gabrielle pulled her hand away from her cheek, her face stony again. I should have stayed there, with everyone. Xena didn't need me. Tallus was wrong. She didn't need me.
Gabrielle kept on her way. Alone.
Xena sat on Argo, letting the horse lead the way. She had unconsciously followed Gabrielle's trail away from their camp. When she realized what she was doing, it was too late to turn back. Too late. She laughed at herself. She always seemed to be doing everything too late.
Argo whinnied at a squirrel that ran by. It distracted Xena for a second. She felt lost again suddenly, aimless. Where would she go now? She had no home. Her home was with Gabrielle.
She could feel the tears coming, but this time she stopped them. She wouldn't cry over Gabrielle again. It wasn't the girl's fault she couldn't let herself feel. But she hadn't wanted to hurt Gabrielle, couldn't she see that? She did it for her. She did it all for her.
Without wanting to, she remembered the last time she had cried over Gabrielle...
Xena held Gabrielle in her arms, frantic. "Come on, breathe! Wake up and breathe!" she cried, shaking her. She'd tried everything. Not even her own breath had worked. Everyone around her was staring at her with pity, shaking their heads. She was hysterical, more hysterical than she had ever been in her own life. She couldn't even hear what the others were saying, all she could see was Gabrielle. Gabrielle, her friend, the one person in this world that meant more to her than anything else. She couldn't die, not Gabrielle! Not her...
She yelled at her. "Don't you leave me!" Maybe if she yelled loud enough, Gabrielle would hear her. She had never felt so helpless, so useless. "Don't leave me, don't leave me!" She began to bang on her chest. It was too late, she was dead. "Wake up!" She hit Gabrielle again. "Wake up...." Nothing. Xena was choking on her own tears, her own horror. One more time. "Wake up!!!!"
Gabrielle suddenly came alive. Xena gathered her into her arms, unbelieving, shaking, shuddering with fear. At that moment, she would never have let go of Gabrielle again.
She remembered -
ANOTHER TIME. Gabrielle thought she was dead. She had sat by her prone body, and stared at her, as if trying to memorize her face. She was so calm, so strong, where Xena wasn't. Gabrielle had reached out and traced her eyelid with her finger, brushed back her hair, then reached over and ever-so-gently given her a soft kiss. The edge of Gabrielle's lips had touched the edge of hers.
When Xena was under, all she could think about was what was going to happen to Gabrielle and how she had to get back for her.
But now Xena had let her go again. Xena had never minded being alone before. Now it was killing her.
Gabrielle walked out from the forest and into a field and saw the boy standing about ten yards in front of her. He wasn't exactly a boy, really - he was probably not much younger than her. His hair was dark brown and came to his shoulders. His green eyes burned brightly, and she couldn't take her own eyes off of them, they were so captivating. He stood there, staring at her. Immediately she was wary, then laughed at herself for it. Suspicion of people was something she'd never had before she met Xena. But those days were over. People had only attacked them because they were afraid of Xena, or hated her, not knowing how much she'd changed. But why would anyone attack her? Gabrielle felt her old trust flowing through her. She didn't have to be afraid. So what if Xena weren't around to protect her, she didn't need that anymore.
She approached him carefully anyway, however, clutching her staff just a little bit tighter. He smiled brightly at her. "Hello," he said.
"Hi." He looked really nice. The exact type of boy she always seemed to attract. She never was really "attracted" to them like that although she wasn't sure why. She tried to like them, but it always turned out to be more of a "friend"-type relationship. Her sister and her had countless nighttime conversations about what it was supposed to be like to fall in love, but Gabrielle had never felt that feeling with any boy. Her sister had a thousand boys she'd liked, and Gabrielle pretended to as well because she didn't want Lilla to think anything was wrong with her. But she had not felt "that" way about anyone in her life. Except...
Gabrielle shook her head. The boy looked at her strangely. "I'm Christopher," he said.
"Gabrielle," she returned curtly, her mind still on something else. Someone else.
"Well, Gabrielle, I'm sorry, don't let me keep you from where you're going," he smiled, stepping aside, bowing his arm.
Gabrielle suddenly felt foolish. She blushed, and smiled widely. "I'm sorry, Christopher, I was just - thinking about something. Nothing, really."
"I could see that," he grinned again. "Sure must have been an important nothing." Gabrielle suddenly thought how cute he was. The dark hair, the eyes - Maybe, maybe if she tried this time, it would be different. Maybe she could forget about -
"Do you live around here?" She didn't see a village anywhere in sight. Just fields, rocks, and the forest behind where she had just come.
"I live everywhere," Christopher replied. "The world is my home."
"Me, too, I guess," said Gabrielle.
Christopher stared at her for a few seconds. "Would you like something to eat?"
In all that had happened, Gabrielle had not thought about food. Now suddenly, her stomach growled. "If it's not any trouble."
"Not at all. Come, sit down, I'll be right back."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said as Christopher led her to a rock. She sat down and watched as he disappeared behind a huge boulder. She smiled as she watched him go. Maybe she would be okay after all.
But something nagged at her, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.
Xena walked next to Argo, but she might have well have been asleep, for all the attention she was paying to where she was going. At least three times, she tripped over stones and tree roots, yanking down hard on Argo's bridle, pulling the horse's head down with her. "I'm sorry," she said to the mare. But Argo didn't seem to mind. The horse was listless and seemed tired herself. It was as if even she knew something was different. Wrong.
Suddenly, an arrow whistled through the air, missing Xena's head by a fraction of an inch, spearing into a tree beyond. For a fraction of a second, Xena didn't know what to do, it was as if she was helpless, for the first time in a long time. But then, she regained herself and immediately whirled around, just in time to catch an arrow aimed straight between her eyes.
A man stood there, a bow and arrow in his hand. He looked like a wolf. "Xena. I thought it was you. Good thing, too. You would have been dead."
"Nice way to say hello, Kenneth." Xena snapped the arrow in two and threw it down to the ground. "Now good-bye."
She turned back around and continued walking. Kenneth jogged up to her. "Xena, is that how you greet an old friend after ten years?"
She refused to look at him. "You were never my friend, Kenneth."
"Oh, that's right. Xena, warrior princess, doesn't have any friends."
Xena stopped in her tracks. "No," she said, more to herself. "I don't."
Kenneth eyed her strangely. "You don't seem like yourself, Xena. I'd heard you'd changed, but this is too much. What happened to the real you?" His eyes glinted. "What happened to the world's greatest murderer?" He reached out to touch her shoulder but she grabbed his arm, teeth gritted, and twisted it.
"You don't want to get me angry, Kenneth. Not today." She dropped his arm and he rubbed it. She continued walking.
"I see you still have it in you, Xena," he called after her. "You're still that killer you always were and, no matter what you try to do now, you always will be."
The words stung her. But she didn't let on. She kept walking. Yet, once more, her feet slipped out from under her and she stumbled forward. Were it not for her hand on Argo's steady bridle, she would have fallen into the dirt.
Gabrielle finished the fish Christopher had cooked. It wasn't nearly as good as the ones Xena used to catch, but she couldn't complain. The boy had been so nice, telling her tales of his travels, and little anecdotes. He had been so many places, all on his own, and had really enjoyed himself. She thought, while listening to him, it didn't seem so bad at all, to be alone. She might even have a good time. However, once again, she felt no feelings for him, as she felt about every man she had ever met. But she wouldn't admit to herself why.
She had barely said a word all afternoon. She had so many stories, so many tales she knew he would love to hear, the ones she loved and knew so well. But they were all about Xena. And she just couldn't bring herself to say her name. He didn't prod her, but a few times, she caught him glancing at her pensively. She kept her head down.
"Gabrielle," Christopher finally said. "I can see you don't really want to talk. I just want to offer to you that you can stay with me for awhile, if you have no other place to go."
She had had a place to go less than twenty-four hours ago. But not anymore. But she wouldn't, couldn't, tell Christopher about that. For once she was no longer just Xena's sidekick, she was her own person, and she wanted to keep it that way. She had sworn to herself that she would no longer depend on anyone for her life. From now on, it would just be her. "I'd like to," she began, "but, I can't. You've done so much for me already."
He nodded, standing up as she did. "I'd better be on my way. Thank you, so much, Christopher."
He put out his arm and touched hers. "Really, Gabrielle, I think you might want to stay. It can be dangerous out there for a girl all on her own. You never know who you could meet. They might not all be as friendly as me."
"I'll be fine. I can take care of myself." She inched away from him, not wanting to touch him again. His touch seemed very odd in ways she couldn't explain. His green eyes glowed at her. She was suddenly very uncomfortable.
"I guess Xena taught you a few tricks then," he said.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, turning to catch a glimpse of her staff a few feet away on the ground. "How did you know I knew Xena?"
"Everyone knows about Xena and her little 'friend'. So where is she?" he said, looking around.
"We're not - traveling together anymore."
"A fight?" he asked. "Too bad."
"No, not a fight," she backed up, closer to her staff. "I've got to go."
Christopher smiled at her again. But this time, the smile was no longer friendly. It was downright threatening. "No," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think you're going anywhere."
Xena felt a dull pain inside of her head. She brought a hand up to massage her temples. It wasn't unusual for her to get a headache, but, like everything else, she never voiced the pain, not to Gabrielle, not to anyone. They came and went whenever they pleased, but they were always a given. Like the tears. Like Gabrielle used to be.
Used to be. Not anymore. Just one more time, Xena wanted to hear the girl's voice. At first, she didn't think she'd ever be able to get used to listening to her talking all the time, but now she realized how much she really depended on it. She had depended on Gabrielle too much. She had never let herself feel that way about anyone before. And that was another good reason the girl was gone, she told herself. I can't depend on anyone but myself, I shouldn't, she said over and over. I can't trust anyone but myself. Never again. Never again.
Xena felt a coldness overcome her. One she hadn't felt in a long time. It was the only way she had survived before, being able to steel herself against the hurt. But she couldn't make it last. Something was happening, she could feel it. Something was wrong, something that was her fault. Something with Gabrielle. She had to do something.
No, she berated herself. Gabrielle's fine. She's - something caught in her throat and she coughed. Her eyes teared up. Something was definitely wrong.
Argo stopped and snorted at something in front of her. Xena glared at her horse. "Come on," she said, pulling at the bridle. She didn't know where she was going, but she knew she had to get there, and soon. Argo began to rear and buck, refusing to go any further. A squeal escaped the horse's throat and she took off, galloping past Xena into the forest beyond.
"Argo!" Xena cried out. She was beginning to panic about Gabrielle. A terrible fear flooded through her. She brought her fingers up to her mouth to whistle. Just then, her headache shot darts into her brain and she fell to her knees, her hands holding her head. As she fell, an arrow caught her from behind, getting her in the right shoulder blade. It had been aimed at her head.
Xena pitched forward, hand reaching for her chakram. Blood poured from her shoulder and ran in streams to her fingers as she desperately grabbed for the weapon. But it was too late. Just as she was about to hurl it, Kenneth was standing above her. He wielded a sword above her throat, the tip of it touching her neck. And he dug the blade into her skin, smiling all the while.
Drops of blood formed on her skin around the tip of the sword. Xena lay on the forest floor, one hand trapped beneath her body, the other under Kenneth's hand. Yet she glared up at her attacker with the strength of one who has been to Tartarus and back. The pain was immense but she wouldn't let on. Kenneth twisted the blade further into her neck. Xena didn't flinch once although she could even almost taste the blood in her throat.
The arrow that still protruded from her shoulder sank in deeper as she was forced to lean back even further on it. She was losing so much blood, she could feel its stickiness beginning to cover the ground beneath her. Waves of heat rushed over her. She was going into shock. She couldn't think. There was nothing she could do. She knew this man, he wasn't anyone, why had he been able to catch her off guard like that? Why had she not heard him coming? That never happened to her! Why now? Why him? Was she really going to die like this, here? She realized now no one would bury her with Lyceus.
She closed her eyes. So what if she died. It wasn't like anyone would even care, not really anyway. Her mother might be sad, but she must have expected it at some point from her warrior daughter. Toris would be there to comfort her mother, but to him, it wouldn't be a sister who had died, just a stranger like she always was. She didn't really have a family to mourn her. Just Gabrielle. She had told Gabrielle once that she meant more to her than blood ties ever could. But Xena had betrayed her family, and she had betrayed Gabrielle. After the way she had treated her, maybe she deserved this. Her past had finally caught up with her. And if she died, it would all be over, everything. After she was dead, she couldn't hurt anyone ever again. It was small comfort.
She could feel herself slipping away as Kenneth continued to slowly torture her by ever-so-slowly shoving the blade into her neck. It would be so easy just to give up...so easy...no more pain...maybe she would be able to sleep again...
A BRIGHT FLASH - behind her eyes. GABRIELLE. Gabrielle was in trouble. She was hurt. Xena could feel it. Everything came tumbling back - the reason why she hadn't heard Kenneth approach. She had been too occupied with Gabrielle.
"I always wanted to have you in this position, Xena," Kenneth smiled at her. "Under my complete control."
Xena opened her eyes once more. "Never," she whispered fiercely at him. "Never." And then she sank into darkness.
Gabrielle looked at Christopher. The green eyes she had found so intriguing were now making her sick but she couldn't stop looking at them. They mesmerized her. "Who are you?" she asked.
He smiled. "Someone who hates you, Gabrielle."
"Why do you hate me? I've never seen you before in my life."
"Oh, no, you don't know me, that's true. But you're friends with Xena. And Xena does know me. She knows how much I loathe her, how much I curse her, how much I want to kill her. And I'm going to. With your help."
Gabrielle yanked her staff up off the ground. "I'll never help you." She held it out in front of her. His eyes were still on her.
Christopher made no move except to smile at her again. "I'm not going to fight you, Gabrielle. I'm not stupid, I know I wouldn't win. I won't have to fight you. You're going to bring Xena to me all on your own."
Gabrielle had to laugh. "Why do you think that? There is no way I would ever do that. I'm leaving."
"Go ahead, try it."
Gabrielle took a step backwards. His eyes were still locked on hers and she suddenly couldn't move. They had captivated her.
"What are you doing to me?"
Christopher grinned even wider than before. "In twenty-four hours you will die. By your own hand. But...if you bring Xena to me before then, I can take this curse off. I can save you." He walked close to her and reached out to touch her face. "I'd like to save you."
She jerked away. "Never," she spat. "Never." But his eyes still stayed on hers and her feet were frozen.
"Listen to me, Gabrielle. You don't want to die. You haven't done anything wrong. Maybe you had a poor choice of company, but that's not enough of a sin to die for. But Xena, Xena's done so much wrong. It was only a matter of time before she got hers. If it wasn't me, it would just be someone else. But I want it to be me. You can understand that, right? I know you can."
CALLISTO flashed before Gabrielle's eyes, Perdicus' dead body. It had been such a mistake to marry him, but Gabrielle had been so confused. Christopher still stared at her as if seeing what she saw. "Yes, Gabrielle. You listen to me. You hate Xena. You hate her."
Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No," she whispered, the last of her resolve draining away. His eyes were so...powerful, so entrancing.
He continued, "Gabrielle. I want you to find Xena and bring her to me. Bring her alive. If you can't do it within twenty-four hours, you will kill yourself." He brought out a small pouch and handed it to her. "Take this. It's poison. I want you to ingest it if you fail. Because you will not be allowed to live if you fail. Do you understand? It's either Xena or you."
Gabrielle nodded, her hand clutching the small pouch. She tucked it into the top of her shirt.
Christopher smiled. "Now you may go." He took his eyes off Gabrielle's.
Immediately the girl sucked in her breath. What had just happened? She backed away from Christopher, the staff out in front of her. "I'm leaving," she called after him. "Don't try and stop me."
"Oh, I would never do that," he said, waving after her. "Good-bye, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle wanted to continue the way she had been going. But for some reason, her feet wouldn't let her. She began to retrace her steps, leading back the way she had come.
She had a headache. It throbbed mercilessly. All Gabrielle could think about was Xena. She didn't know why, but she had to find her.
Xena regained consciousness thinking about Gabrielle. The girl's irresistible smile, her intelligent eyes, the awkwardness she used to have becoming grace. The way she believed in Xena when no one else did. If there was one reason Xena didn't die, it was Gabrielle. If the girl was in trouble, she had to help her.
She opened her eyes into blackness. Something covered her eyes. Her arms and legs were trapped. In her mouth was something soft as well. She couldn't move.
"Xena," she heard Kenneth's voice by the side of her head. "I see you're up. That's good. I wanted you to be awake when I killed you."
His voice moved and Xena tried to follow it. "Let me tell you what I'm going to do so you can know what to expect. I hear it hurts more that way."
His breath was right on her face. Xena tried to shrink back, but the constraints prevented her from doing so.
"Xena," she heard him sneer. "You are tied to a wooden pole. Around you, all around you, are sticks, twigs, hay, things that can be burned easily. Like you will be once I set this fire."
Xena could smell the smoke now. It was right by her face. She could hear it sizzling. A spark jumped onto her ear and burned.
"Why am I doing this, you might ask." But Xena didn't have to ask. She knew this man well. He had traveled in her army many years ago until she had banished him because she had caught him stealing. At the time, she had given him an ultimatum - either he was to leave quietly and never return, or she could reveal to the others what he had been doing and chance even being killed by them in disgrace. Of course he had chosen to leave quietly. However, on his way out, some of the men caught him anyway, and taking him as a coward not wanting to fight for Xena, they had beaten him and left him for dead. When Xena finally found out what was happening, she stopped it. Again, she helped him, she let him leave, this time, in disgrace.
For a long time, she had thought he would be back to try some sort of revenge, knowing he blamed her for what had happened. But she had always dismissed him as harmless, one of the worst warriors she had had on her side regardless. And now, more than ten years later, he had finally caught up with her. When she had first seen him, she'd had more on her mind than to worry about him. For some reason, she had underestimated his anger.
He whispered in her ear as more sparks jumped onto her flesh. "I don't hate you for letting them beat me. I hate you for not letting me die. You knew...you knew how much worse it would be for me to live in disgrace, alone, but you did it anyway. And now it's your turn to feel how I felt all those years."
If he only knew that she did know how he felt, alone. She had always been alone, her whole life, until Gabrielle. And she would die alone.
Gabrielle kept walking. It was still daylight and the sun hurt her eyes. The headache still throbbed. How long had she been walking? Where was she going? Why couldn't she remember anything that had happened that afternoon? All she could think was the guy had been nice, but a little weird. All she could remember about him was the color of his eyes. They had been so, so unreal. And now she had an overwhelming urge to find Xena, and soon, or...she didn't know. There was something she had to tell her, or do for her. But why couldn't she remember what it was?
Gabrielle brought her hand up to her head again. She knew something wasn't right, but what?
A sharp NEIGH woke Gabrielle out of her reverie. Argo burst out of the foliage, barreling straight towards the girl. At the last second, Argo screeched to a halt, wheeling nervously, whinnying.
"Argo?" Gabrielle said, surprised. "What are you doing here? Where's Xena?" A wave of apprehension washed over her. Something was happening to Xena. The horse had never really liked Gabrielle, but she did trust her, Gabrielle knew that.
Gabrielle mounted the horse, her headache disappearing into the fear she suddenly felt. For some reason, all she was thinking about was that she needed to get Xena alive.
"Bring me to her, Argo." Gabrielle didn't have to ask twice. The horse galloped off the way it had come.
Xena felt the heat and the sparks all around her. Less than two feet from her. Soon, she would feel the flames crawling up her body, eating away at her flesh. She remembered Sirrah and all the innocent people who had died there like this. Somehow this was very fitting.
Kenneth stood back, watching his handiwork. For ten years he had planned this, obsessed over finding Xena and destroying her, but he never knew how easy it would be. Xena really was slipping. It was almost as if she had wanted this, like she had been looking for an excuse to give up. It brought him less pleasure than he had expected.
A twinge of guilt hit him which he brushed away. He put his head down and walked away into the forest. He would watch from there.
As the flames crept closer and closer, Xena began to remember. All the people she had killed, their deaths, the blood, the screams, the hatred and anger that had consumed her body for so long. All that Gabrielle had taken away. Xena had never truly felt love before, and she had never felt someone's love for her. She didn't want to let it happen, but it had. She knew why she had to make Gabrielle leave. She knew she couldn't face her own feelings for her. She had been afraid. Always, afraid.
The heat was closer now. Xena let her head hang down. Kenneth was right. It made her sick once more to know that she created this person, that she had begun all the hatred herself. She had no one to blame. All the fight and spirit had left her. Everything left with Gabrielle. He was right. It was time for her to die.
The wind swept through Gabrielle's hair as Argo's feet skipped over rocks. The two flew back to where Xena was. All Gabrielle could think was she had to get there soon, or something was going to happen.
As Argo ran, Gabrielle's mind wandered back to Christopher. What had happened between them? She had enjoyed his company, she could feel that, but something else was bugging her.
Twenty-four hours. The number was etched in her mind. What was going to happen in twenty-four hours?
For a split second, she felt a terrible fear, a horrifying sense of loss. And then she saw XENA, lying on the ground.
Gabrielle jumped off of Argo and ran to her best friend. Xena lay on her stomach, not moving, her arms bent backward. Gabrielle turned her over.
The blue eyes were blank, the face pale. Xena was dead. Her mouth was frozen in an expression of horror.
Gabrielle pulled Xena to her. "Xena," she cried. "Xena!!!!" She turned her face up to the sky and howled. "NO!!!!!!!!!"
FLASH - A ROCK IN FRONT OF HER. Gabrielle snapped back into reality just as Argo made the giant leap. But Gabrielle didn't. She was unprepared and fell off the horse, smashing her head into the rock.
Gabrielle rolled off the boulder to the forest floor, body limp, blood running down the side of her face.
Xena's head jerked up. Gabrielle. Something was happening to Gabrielle. She had to help her, she had to get out of there. The flames licked at her legs. It was no time to give up, not now, not with Gabrielle hurt, she had to do something!
From thirty yards away, while sitting on a rock, Kenneth watched Xena suddenly come to life. After half an hour of seeing her head droop, her lifeless body just waiting to be burned, he had felt more disgust with the woman he had hated rather than taking pleasure at her demise from his hands. But now...Blindfolded, gagged, and tied to the stake, Xena was utterly helpless. The new Xena was. But no one could tell the old Xena she couldn't do anything, she was trying anyway. Finally. Finally, he thought. This he watched with interest. He almost wanted her to get free.
Xena's mind was working overtime as she raced to loosen herself from her bonds. Gabrielle. Her best friend. The one person she trusted. Her life. Her lo-
Flames spit at her hands, burning her. She couldn't jerk them away. Her skin began to sizzle. There was nothing she could do. Why hadn't she tried earlier? Now Gabrielle could be dead. Because of her. Always because of her.
Within her mind rose a scream. A scream like no other she had ever uttered before. With it came the strength she needed to yank one hand free.
Kenneth sat up. He almost couldn't see Xena anymore, she was surrounded by the flames, but he thought he almost heard something. But that would be impossible. He tried to reassure himself, but his mind kept on going back to the same motto he had based his entire plan of revenge on. "Don't ever underestimate Xena." He got up and began to walk over.
Furiously, gritting her teeth and steadfastly ignoring the pain, Xena got her other hand free. The entire arm was numb - Kenneth hadn't even bothered to remove the arrow, it still stuck out of her shoulder. She could already smell the scent of her death. Not too many minutes ago, she was awaiting it, even looking forward to leaving the world. Now she fought it. She had to get to her friend, it was all that mattered. The only thing that got her through was thinking about Gabrielle, as it always was.
She bent over, fire burning her hair, her arms, as she hurriedly ripped away the rope at her legs. She was free,
She gathered up her strength and with an "Iyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi," flipped over the fire into the safe clearing beyond.
She rolled to the ground, extinguishing the flames, as she yanked off the blindfold and gag. The first thing she saw was Kenneth, leering at her. Once again, he had the sword in his hand, and once again, it was pointed at her throat.
"Not so fast, Xena."
Argo stood over Gabrielle's prone body, nudging her with her muzzle, whinnying. The girl remained motionless. The cut on her forehead grew uglier as the blood refused to clot. It ran into the corners of her mouth.
In her mind, all Gabrielle could see was flames. Flames all around her, threatening, but not touching her. A path led her to the center of the flames, to a wooden stake. Xena was tied to the stake, burning and bleeding, head down, eyes closed. It was the most terrifying sight Gabrielle had ever seen. Xena - completely helpless. It was something Gabrielle never thought she would have to know. Not her Xena. Being helpless was Gabrielle's strong suit. But Xena - not Xena.
But times had changed. Gabrielle had grown up. She had been face-to-face with evil. And while she had never killed, she had seen its face many times, enough to realize it had rubbed off on her. The feelings that went along with it. She knew why Xena was how she was, even if Xena never said it. She understood the depth of her pain, even if she didn't exactly have it herself.
But when Xena felt pain, Gabrielle did, too. She always had and she always would. Staring at Xena's burning body, Gabrielle suddenly came to life. She ran over to her, beating away flames as she undid the ropes. Xena fell limply into her arms. There was no way she could be alive.
But with Gabrielle touching her, Xena's eyes fluttered open one last time.
Gabrielle was caressing Xena's face, brushing her hair back. "Xena," she said. "Don't talk."
"I have to," Xena said, with effort. "I'm so sorry."
"There's nothing to be sorry about, Xena."
Xena nodded. In her weakened state, the tears were flowing relentlessly from her eyes. She stared up at Gabrielle and one last time, spoke. "I love you, Gabrielle."
She was dead. Gabrielle held onto her friend in utter shock. She began to shake. "Why, Xena?" She held her friend closer, her face pressed against Xena's bloodied one. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
She brought her lips down to Xena's. She tasted Xena's blood. It was in her mouth.
GABRIELLE tasted her own blood. It was choking her. She sat up, pain shooting through her body. The first thing she saw was Argo, frantically trotting back and forth. When the horse saw her, she whinnied, urgently. Gabrielle knew. She stood up, ignoring the pain and got on the rock. She slid onto Argo and the two were off running.
"We're coming, Xena," she whispered. "We're coming."
This time, Xena didn't even think twice. She grabbed the blade of Kenneth's sword and managed to yank back so hard on it that he flipped over, hitting the dirt with his back. Immediately, she stood over him. He was grinning.
"Xena. You're back," he smiled. "You know, I'm actually glad. I was wondering what was going on with you."
Xena, breathing heavily, held the sword against him. All she could think about was getting the arrow out of her back, it was hurting so much. It was still bleeding and she knew that soon she would be too weak to do anything. And she had to save her energy to help Gabrielle. If Kenneth really tried, he could do more damage to her than he maybe thought.
But if she just killed him now. She brought the sword closer to his neck, and saw the fear in his eyes. She saw the fear that had been there for ten years, ever since he had left her army, in disgrace. She knew how he felt, all alone, afraid, wanting revenge because it was the only thing that kept him from completely hating himself.
Maybe he had been right. Maybe she should have let him die right from the beginning. Then he never would have had all that pain.
Xena knew without Gabrielle she would have been dead a long time ago.
Xena stared into Kenneth's eyes. She didn't want to kill him. But everything she saw in his eyes told her differently. He wanted her to do it. He had wanted her to do it ten years ago. It wasn't something you asked.
He lay back defiantly, as if daring her to go ahead. Xena lifted up the sword. "Go. Get outta here."
Kenneth slowly stood up. "The old Xena would have killed me."
"No," she said. "The old Xena didn't kill you either."
Kenneth shook his head. "You're always doing the wrong thing, Xena. You never learn. You had your chance. You never learn. If you're not going to do it," he took the sword from her, rather easily. "I will."
He raised the sword up high.
Gabrielle was almost there. She could feel it. Argo ran faster.
Kenneth raised the sword up high. Xena just watched him, motionless, as if in a trance. "This is on your head, Xena", he said, as he plunged the sword down.
Gabrielle raced into the clearing in time to see the man with Xena lifting his sword and bringing it down. "No!!!!!!!!!!!!" she cried as she and Argo hurtled forward. But it was too late.
The sword pierced straight into the heart. Kenneth stood there, holding onto the sword now in his own flesh where he had put it. And he was smiling at Xena. "You finally killed me, Xena," he said as he fell to the ground, dead.
Xena, stunned, watched the man die. She didn't even see as Gabrielle jumped off Argo and ran to her. All that was in her eyes was the blood.
Gabrielle took everything in in one glance. Her friend stood stock still, an expression of terror in those beautiful blue eyes. Gabrielle reached forward and touched Xena. Xena jumped back, finally seeing Gabrielle as if for the first time.
Neither of them said a word. Both looked as if they were already dead. Only their eyes said any differently.
"You came back," Xena said with a slight smile.
Gabrielle finally saw the arrow in Xena's shoulder. "Xena, your shoulder, here let me..."
As Gabrielle came closer, Xena began to lose consciousness again. Gabrielle was all right, she was all right. With a slight smile on her pained face, Xena fell heavily into Gabrielle's arms. The only words out of her mouth: "You came back."
Ignoring her own wounds and aching body, Gabrielle worked all night on removing the arrow. She remembered exactly what Xena had taught her, but remembering and actually doing were not the same thing. Argo stood nearby, impatiently flicking her tail. "Yeah, I'd like to see you do this," Gabrielle told her.
Gabrielle undressed Xena carefully. A few times, she had to stifle her gasps of horror when she saw the burns and cuts all over the warrior's body. Xena had been in fights before, but never one that had left her so badly beaten up.
It took about an hour, but Gabrielle finally extracted the arrow. Once in her hands, she hurled it away like it was contaminated. It hit the base of a tree and Argo gave a little hop in the air at the sound, as if she was as tense as Gabrielle had been. She probably was, Gabrielle thought.
A few times, as she bandaged Xena, her gaze wandered over to the man who lay only several feet away from them, his eyes still open in death, the blood lying in streams from his body. She shuddered, wondering who he was and what he had done and why. Why did people hate Xena so much? Why couldn't they see how wonderful she was. Gabrielle saw it, she'd seen it the first time she watched Xena defeat Draco. No one could ever make her believe Xena was evil. She alone had gotten through Xena's thick shell, even if only a bit. But it was enough. Xena had let her and only her and in a way, it had made her so proud. She was Xena's chosen one. But there was only so much she could take. She was so confused, and Xena not talking to her didn't help that.
Gabrielle had seen the stake and the burnt hay and ropes that lay in shards around it. She had seen the open, raw, rope burns around Xena's arms and legs and it made her sick with the knowledge of what Xena had gone through. How did she get away? And what gave her the strength to do it?
But knowing Xena, she would never tell her. If Xena lived. With the looks of things, it was a miracle Xena wasn't dead. She should have been.
That only made Gabrielle more guilty. She blamed herself. It took all her strength to not cry as she washed Xena's wounds. She only had a few ointments from Argo's saddlebag with which to clean Xena's body. As she carefully moved the cloth over Xena's flesh, she couldn't help noticing once again how beautiful the warrior was. Gabrielle had never seen anyone more beautiful than Xena. Strong emotions ran through her as she sat staring at Xena, ones she had only read about, ones she had never felt with anyone else, and now knew she never would. If Xena died, she would die, too. Because Xena was her other half, her heart and her soul, her life. If only Xena knew that....maybe she did...
Gabrielle ran a shaking hand over Xena's arms. Xena had to live. She had to. Gabrielle replayed how happy Xena had looked to see her - how relieved, really. She would be okay, she had to be. Gabrielle needed her to wake up. And soon.
Gabrielle shook her head. And soon? Or what? What did that mean? Again, she looked at Xena lying there. For once in her life, Gabrielle was the one taking care of her. And she liked doing it. She wanted to do it. Not under these circumstances, but Gabrielle could feel that there was something right about it all. She was supposed to be there, always. Nothing would ever make her leave her again.
For a long while, Gabrielle gazed at her best friend. The warrior's black hair had been singed. In the moonlight, the cuts were less visible. Gabrielle put one finger delicately on the cut on Xena's throat. She rested it there for a second.
Gabrielle lay a blanket over Xena's body, then lay down beside her, although she didn't plan on sleeping at all that night. She put one arm protectively around her. Argo stood nearby. She wasn't sleeping either.
Xena murmured and moved closer to Gabrielle. At least she was alive, thought Gabrielle, as she now cradled Xena completely in her arms. But why did it have to take something like this to bring them closer?
This time it would last, though, thought Gabrielle. Xena wasn't going to get away from her again. Not if she had anything to do with it.
Xena hadn't slept this well in a long time. In fact, she hadn't even really slept in years. But this night, even though she could feel a dull aching throughout her body, she was really asleep.
Once she opened her eyes. She thought it was a dream. Gabrielle lay beside her, arms around her, holding her. Their blue eyes had gazed at one another. "You're alive," Gabrielle had smiled.
"You're really here," Xena had replied. They continued looking into one another's eyes. Xena had never felt happier in her life than at that moment.
Their faces were an inch apart. Xena could feel Gabrielle's warm breath on her skin, she could feel it healing her. She closed her eyes and imagined their lips brushing against one another. What a wonderful dream, she thought, as she smiled.
Gabrielle remained staring at Xena. Had they really kissed? It seemed so unreal, yet she was sure it had happened. But Xena lay with her eyes closed, breathing like one in sleep. Yet there was a tiny smile on her face.