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Disclaimers: All of the characters described herein are the property of MCA/Universal Studios/Studio One.
There is violence, but no sex, although a loving relationship between two women is depicted.
The events in this story occur immediately after SACRIFICE II.
GETTING HER BACK
By Nusi Dekker
Xena turned back to face the lava pit. On her left, Joxer sat on the stone altar steps like a statue, staring at nothing. The air in the temple was hot and close and smelled of rotten eggs. Sparks and steam still issued from the vent after the initial explosion of gasses when the red-hot lava had swallowed her most cherished friend.
Before her floated the face of Gabrielle, looking back at Xena as she pulled her daughter with her into the pit. Their eyes had locked; then her beloved Gabrielle's face had disappeared beyond the rim. Her screams for Xena echoed through the cavernous temple. Her arms stretched toward her horrified partner, who watched helplessly as she tumbled all the way down, finally splashing into the boiling lava pool alongside the evil Hope.
Xena couldn't comprehend what had happened. How could Gabrielle have done this to her, sacrifice her own life for Xena, to let Xena, who was supposed to be the one to die a warrior's death, live instead? Xena thought she had known Gabrielle, had finally figured her out. If only Xena had set aside her arrogance for once and listened to her partner's heart, really listened, believed in the depth of Gabrielle's love. Like Gabrielle had believed in Xena, after all that had happened, after all the mistakes Xena had made.
The warrior had reminded Gabrielle about her own darkness, the faults in her character like unhealed wounds. But after three years of traveling together, Xena had never bothered to really understand the feelings of the woman she most loved. What a fool she was to have so misjudged the depth and quality of Gabrielle's character! She should have looked within herself, should have realized that Gabrielle would have bonded with her newborn daughter, as she had with her own son. And she could have prevented that bond. 'I should never have put that thing in her arms, I should have strangled it as I pulled it from her body,' she thought.
Xena then thought about that fateful day on the dock, leaving Gabrielle and Argo alone without a backward glance, so intent was she to pay that ancient debt. How could she have dreamed that Gabrielle could be capable of such intense jealousy, over a relationship from so long ago. Jealous enough to betray Xena for it. So devestated by Xena's refusal to listen to her that Gabrielle would sell her own soul to Ares.
Ares! The one who had compelled Gabrielle to make the ultimate sacrifice. He would pay. The warrior spun around, still gripping the knife that killed Callisto, but he was long gone. She turned the knife in her hand and studied the blade. Where it had been plunged into Callisto's black heart, the knife had been cleansed of blood. But Xena had not driven the dagger in to the hilt, and for a space of three fingers, a trace of hind's blood clung to that part of the blade. If Xena drove the knife all the way in this time, it would be enough to kill the God of War.
Sobs eminating from the far corner of the temple snapped her back to the present situation. She looked toward the sound and saw Seraphin huddled on the floor, rhythmically rocking back and forth, her eyes wide in horror, staring at the lava pit. Next to her, the Priest of the Blood sat unmoving, seemingly paralyzed by Dahak's sudden release of his mind. Several other priests lay where Gabrielle had knocked them out with her staff. She hadn't even noticed that Gabrielle had fought a dozen priests, had kept them away from her partner. Xena had forgotten all about Gabrielle, so focused was she on plunging that dagger into Hope's heart. And now it felt as if her own heart had been ripped out of her chest, sacrificed to Dahak. Suddenly the temple was stiffling. She had to get out.
"Joxer! Joxer!" Xena shouted, raising her hand to slap him out of a seeming reverie. Joxer turned his dulled eyes towards the warrior, his face wet with tears. "Joxer, I need you to take Seraphin back to Poteidaia, to her family," Xena said, very quietly.
Joxer looked into Xena's red-rimmed eyes, the pupils dilated to obscure the blue irises, so that her eyes looked black. Her face was a chalky white, like hard marble. He looked away, slowly hoisted himslf up, wobbled briefly as a wave of dizziness came over him, and turned toward Seraphin. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Gabrielle's staff laying across the altar steps. It had been such an important part of Gabrielle and he wanted it to remember her by. That Xena might want it did not even enter his mind. He took a step and bent to retrieve it.
"You touch that, you die," Xena's voice was low and menacing, a monotone. He almost had his fingers around it, but he hastily pulled his hand away, and backed away from the staff, and from Xena, who had stepped toward him. He almost slapped his own head. Of COURSE she would want it.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, his face turned away. He moved to Seraphin who shrank from him as he approached.
"Don't worry, I won't hurt you. I'm here to take you home. I'm a friend of Gabrielle's."
"No-o-o-o!" she shrieked. "The Betrayer! She killed the Goddess!"
The warrior, incensed, quickly strode over and slapped Seraphin across the face. "It's over Seraphin, you are going with Joxer. Joxer, get her out of here NOW!" Seraphin, looking at Xena in fear and bewilderment, cupped her reddening cheek with one hand as Joxer lifted her into his arms. He threw a last look at Xena but the warrior's eyes remained as marble as he turned and carried Seraphin out of the temple.
Xena watched them leave, then turned for one last survey of the temple. The bloodless body of Callisto lay on the cold stone behind her. Brown eyes still stared at her. Funny, how in death, her face looked happpy and so innocent - like a child's. A thorn of regret pricked at Xena's gut; she had seen what looked like love in her enemy's dark eyes. 'You laughed at me,'she thought. The thorn receded as grief returned.
"You got your wish, Callisto," the warrior said, as fresh, hot tears coursed down her cheeks. "I just hope you made it to Tartarus."
Xena stuck the hind's blood dagger in her left boot, and bent to drag Callisto to the pit, then stopped. What would happen to Callisto's body if she just left it there? The thought of even touching Callisto now brought bile into her throat. She left it.
Xena turned toward the Priest of the Blood, who was watching her. The urge to kill that little worm was so overwhelming, but it would be murder, and Gabrielle would hate her for it. Through her veil of grief, she vowed then that she would never do anything again to merit Gabrielle's hate.
She moved to where the staff lay and picked it up with her left hand, laid the smoothly sanded wood against her cheek.
"I know you can hear my thoughts, Gabrielle. I will get you back, I know a way. The hind's blood knife will be my bargaining tool. I won't let you leave me." With a last glance at the altar, she walked quickly out of the temple.
She ran up the hill behind the temple, and found Argo, with the two horses borrowed from that last village near the Sister Peaks, well-hidden behind a stand of trees. After attaching their bridles to Argo's saddle, she mounted and thrust the staff through a small holster in front of the saddlehorn. She then set Argo on a slow pace that would bring them back to the village by sundown.
Xena felt at the pouch on her waist. She had gotten her deposit back upon returning the horses, and had used a few dinars for food. But she had taken no wine or ale, for she felt that she needed to stay sharp for what lay ahead. She needed to rest Argo for a few hours, but she herself would not sleep this night.
She sat against a tree, watching Argo. In front of her, a wisp of white mist swirled, coagulated into cloudlike shapes. The face of Gabrielle formed within the mist.
"Gabrielle!" the warrior yelled, jumping up. Argo started, then snorted and fidgited with her restraints. Xena stepped toward the apparition, reached out with her hand. "Gabrielle, I'm going to get you back. I promise."
The beautiful face shimmered in the mist, then her features sharpened as she turned her eyes toward Xena. They were so full of love, and they bore into the warrior's own with such intensity that her own tears started to well again. As Xena watched, the lips of the apparition began to move, as if to say something. But no sound came, and Xena could not understand. The silent whispers became more urgent.
"What is it? I can't understand you! Gabrielle! What are you trying to tell me?"
The face was disappearing. Xena had to somehow keep it together. She lunged at the apparition, reached out to touch again the face of her love. But her hand passed through emptiness, and Gabrielle's face dissipated into the night air.
"Gabrielle!" she shouted, but the image was gone. Xena stood in the empty space that had been Gabrielle. She closed her eyes. She could smell the pines and laurels, could now hear crickets, an owl, Argo's breathing. And she could feel the most searing pain she had ever known.
Better to keep moving. She quickly mounted Argo and cantered off, under the full moon, toward the Halls of War.
Xena walked along the same cliffs where she and Gabrielle had been only two days before. The warrior had driven Argo so hard that the horse was covered with foamy sweat, so Xena had to take a large part of the afternoon to walk Argo to cool her down, then dry her off. Argo was now unsaddled and freed to rest in the upper hills.
Xena knew that she would find Ares in his own domain - either in the Halls of War or his own Temple. She figured that his switching of sides and his betrayal of his own family would keep him banished from Mount Olympus, at least for the time being.
The well-disguised entrance to the Halls of War now stood before her. This was the place where Hope had broken out of her cocoon of flesh and bone, had emerged as the identical image of her beloved Gabrielle. It had taken every last ounce of Xena's will to raise her sword against a face that looked exactly like the one she had loved so well, that she had hurt so much in the past. She remembered how she had to keep repeating in her head,'This is the monster who killed my son, this is the incarnation of Evil.' And when she had almost done it ... she was blindsided by Gabrielle! Oh, how angry she had been!
Xena shook herself to get back to what was at hand. She had to find a way to staunch these overwhelming feelings of guilt and remorse. They were getting in the way of what she needed to do. She walked through the entrance to the Halls of War, along the dark corridors, toward the massive throne of Ares. As she got closer she could smell the putrifying flesh and slime of Hope's cocoon which still covered it.
Ares was close by. The hair on Xena's neck started to rise. She crouched low to remove the hind's blood knife from her boot.
Lightening flashed to her left. She whirled around as the God of War appeared in a puff of black smoke.
"Ares! Thought I'd find you here. So Daddy kicked you out of Mt. Olympus, eh?"
"Oh, he'll get over it. Thing about Dad is, his memory isn't that great anymore. He'll forget all about it."
"How touching. But you won't be around long enough. You killed Gabrielle, and now I'm going to kill you!" With snarling malice, Xena raised the knife so that Ares could see it.
"You can never get to me. I'll easily avoid you," Ares laughed, his eyes fixed on the dagger. "Gabrielle asked for my help. She owed me, fair and square. All she had to do was prevent you from dying. I didn't tell her to jump in the pit."
"Aaahhh!!" Xena screamed as she lunged at Ares. She slashed at empty air as Ares vanished, then reappeared behind her, laughing.
"Still have that control problem, I see," mused Ares. "You know, you should have paid more attention to your little friend. She wasn't very happy that you left her for Lao Ma. Hey, I just happened to be in the neighborhood, she asked me ... what more can I say?"
Xena glared at Ares with extreme hatred. "You goaded her into it," she said. "You fed into her guilt. You wanted her out of the way. You WANTED her dead!"
"So you would come back to the fold. My army is waiting for you. Without Gabrielle around you'll be back to your old familiar self in no time at all!" Ares crossed his arms and smiled at Xena, confident of his strategy.
"I'd rather be in Tartarus than follow you," Xena snarled. She crept closer to him, never taking her eyes off his, as she waited for an opportunity.
Ares backed off a step, his own eyes flitting between the knife and Xena's face.
"This is ridiculous," he said. "Gabrielle chose her own path. After all, Hope was HER daughter." Ares walked in a circle around Xena. "HER little girl killed your son, isn't that right, Xena? Now don't I recall you dragging Gabrielle through half of Greece for that little infraction? Haha!" He strutted around Xena, taunting her.
Xena slowly swiveled around to keep Ares in her line of sight. She fought to stay in control; her body trembled from the effort and sweat beaded her face. She set herself, determined to get close enough to him.
"Yeah Xena, I just can't understand why you're so cut up about her," Ares continued. "She did you a big favor. Not only did she die for you, but now it doesn't even matter if you screwed things up with her. She's gone."
"Damn you Ares! I would have gladly died to save her, and I would trade places with her in a heartbeat - even if I end up in Tartarus!"
A mischevious smile tugged at Ares' face. "Do you really think that I, Ares, God of War, would have allowed the Fates to cut the life thread of my most prized prodigy? What made you think that the hind's blood would kill Hope?" Ares watched as Xena's eyes widened.
"The hind's blood only kills the Olympian gods! Heck, she's not even a god! She doesn't have any of our powers, and besides, she's half-mortal!" Ares broke out into a triumphant grin. "Do you want to know the kicker? Even if you had managed to stab Hope, it wouldn't have killed her! And you wouldn't have died!" The incredulous look on Xena's face as she began to comprehend his elaborate set-up made Ares swell with pride. His plan had worked so perfectly!
His face now took on a mock seriousness. "For once, Gabrielle did something right. Her way was the only way to destroy Hope. You would have failed, Xena. Think about it."
Realization dawned on Xena. "Hope was carrying your progeny, Ares. You didn't want Hope to die - you were protecting her! Your little plan for Gabrielle to sacrifice herself worked, you Bastard!"
Now Xena made her move. With the dagger still in her left hand she brought her right hand down to the chakram hanging at her waist. "Prepare to be separated from your head!" she shouted, and flung the chakram with her full force.
Ares ducked and the chakram missed him by a hairsbreath. He turned his head to watch the chakram ricochet off the stone walls of the cave, and in that instant Xena leapt to his side, thrusting the dagger into his abdomen just under the breastbone. The chakram careened back toward them and Xena caught it, replacing it on her waist hook without ever taking her eyes off Ares.
Ares looked down at the knife embedded in his stomach. The deadly hind's blood glinted on the blade just above the wound. Xena's hand tightened on the handle. Ares dared not move.
"You can't kill me Xena," he said. "You'll be tormented by the Furies forever. You convinced them that I'm your father, remember?" He looked at Xena's grim, set face. "You'll end up a babbling idiot like Orestes."
"After what you did to Gabrielle, killing you would be worth every minute spent with the Furies," replied Xena. She shoved the dagger a little deeper into his flesh, dangerously close to the hind's blood.
"However, I need a little favor from you," she continued, conversationally. "You are going to help me restore Gabrielle's life." She gave the dagger a little twist for emphasis.
"Xena, you know I can't raise the dead! Only Asclepius ... or Hera can do that! You are asking the impossible!" Ares stared at Xena incredulously, fearing that she had already started to go mad.
"No, you listen to me, Ares!" Xena hissed through clenched teeth. "We're going on a little trip, you and me. You're going to take me back through time! I know you can do it because you sent Iolaus." Her white teeth flashed in a mock smile.
"No, Xena, we're not allowed to mess with the timeline. I got in big trouble last time. Don't make me do this!" Ares felt a burning in his abdomen. Xena had forced the knife further into his gut. He knew that his life was very close to ending.
"You have no choice, Ares. Do it!"
Ares felt his life slipping away. The pain was becoming unbearable; the knife in his gut felt like a burning brand. "Take it out Xena!" he pleaded, raising a trembling hand toward her.
Xena pulled the knife out halfway. The pain dissipated almost immediately. Ares felt that he would pass out from the relief.
Xena's hands were still on the hilt, ready to shove the knife back in. "Will you take me back through time then?" the warrior demanded. Her icy blue eyes bore into his dark ones, and he could detect a barely restrained eagerness to kill him right there, right now.
"I said I'll do it Xena, now take the knife out already!"
Xena roughly yanked the knife out of his abdomen, then stepped back and quickly shoved it back into her boot. She had never taken her eyes off Ares, and now moved closer to face him.
"Look, I'll take you back, but there are certain things that you need to know," Ares said, watching Xena. "As a god, I can time travel all I want, but doing it with mortals ... It's a whole different thing."
"You had no problem sending Iolaus back. He was able to save Alcmene and her unborn son Hercules."
"Is that what he told you?" Ares laughed bitterly. "He's already forgotten about it. No, I'll tell you what really happened. When I sent Iolaus after Callisto, that was the first time I'd ever sent a mortal. And he changed the future - for the better, I might add. Iolaus failed to stop Callisto from barbequeing poor Alcmene, so Hercules was never born. And when he returned to the present - oh, it was glorious! You, Xena, were Empress of the entire known world! Conqueror of Chin, Gaul, Britannia, Persia, Egypt, and Rome!"
Xena stared at Ares, her eyes widening. Iolaus had never told her any of this. "You lie!" she shouted. "That never happened! Hercules is alive and well! And I'm no Empress!" She bent to get the dagger back out of her boot.
"Wait! You haven't heard the whole story!"
Xena straightened back up. "Go ahead, but make it fast. I want to get going and you're not changing my mind."
"All right," said Ares. "Iolaus found the Cronos Stone, he said it was on your royal sceptre."
"Yeah, well, he was able to figure out how to use the stone to send himself back through time before your imperial guards were able to kill him. Beats me how he could manage it. Anyway, he went back on his own to rescue Alcmene. I had nothing to do with it. In fact, I would have stopped him if I had known. He ruined the future of my dreams!" He looked at Xena and shook his head as he thought of what might have been.
"So Xena, did Iolaus tell you how he watched you crucify your precious little Gabrielle, just for speaking her mind? And that you had her legs broken just so you could hear her scream? You were truly magnificent, Xena. Too bad that little runt had to go mess it up," he said, smiling sweetly at her.
Xena fought to maintain her self-control. Ares was trying to bait her and was almost succeeding. "Too bad for you it didn't happen!" she spat at him. "I'll take my chances. Let's get on with it!"
"Okay, but I'm warning you. Don't fraternize with your past counterpart, It'll just complicate things. You want to cause as little change in the timeline as possible. Get in, do only what you need to do, and get out. Oh, and once we get to a certain time period, we can't go further back into the past. We can only go forward. That's the limit of my power. Ready? It's your call. Lead on."
Xena and Ares found themselves near the border of Gaul on the road to Rome, the site of Xena's first meeting with Khrafstar. They immediately heard voices in front of them so they ducked behind some trees. Peering out from behind a tree trunk, Xena saw Gabrielle, alive, standing in the background while her own counterpart was speaking to the guards. She rose to go to Gabrielle, to put her arms around her again, to take her away from that evil monster, but Ares grabbed her arm with an iron grip and pulled her back.
"Are you out of your mind? You can't go out there now!" Ares whispered.
"You idiot! You got us here too late!" she hissed back at Ares. "You were supposed to get us here before Gabrielle and I met up with the soldiers!" Xena was seething. Ares had miscalculated their arrival; the warrior had missed her opportunity to divert the soldiers away from this road, and now she faced the prospect of watching Khrafstar go free.
"You're the one who got us here, Xena, it was your call," said Ares, keeping his grip on her arm. "We can't go back. Deal with it and move on."
Xena watched from her hiding place as her counterpart finished conversing with the guard, then began to lead Argo away from the prisoners. "Keep going!" she hissed at her counterpart between clenched teeth. She would have leaped out onto the road right then, but Ares still held her down.
"Kill us here if you want," Khrafstar was shouting to her counterpart. "Our people will never give in to Caesar!
The counterpart warrior spun around and strode back to the guards. "Let these men go," she said. Xena watched from behind the tree, appalled at how easily that bastard had hooked her, like a big, stupid fish. She watched as the guard refused. Her counterpart then ripped into him and his companions as if they were the extensions of Caesar himself. As the soldiers escaped and ran for their lives, Xena's counterpart walked over to Khrafstar and freed him from his wooden yoke with a slash of her sword.
Xena couldn't watch any more of this. She couldn't stand seeing herself act with such stupidity and ignorance. She had allowed herself to be manipulated into handing her best friend over to Dahak without even a thought for the bard. The arrogance displayed by her counterpart, her own arrogance, was almost too much for the warrior to bear. She closed her eyes, but through the blackness she saw the image of Gabrielle, looking at her as if at a stranger. It was finally sinking in; it had been her decision to go to Britannia in pursuit of Caesar, and it was she, and she alone, who had sealed Gabrielle's fate.
She opened her eyes. The roadway was now empty. This part of their history was over, and nothing had been changed. She turned to Ares, who finally took his hand off her arm.
"Take me away from here," she said, an unfamiliar sound of defeat in her voice.
Xena thought for a minute. There was another chance to make things right for Gabrielle, another chance to bring her back into the warrior's arms.
"To the Temple of Dahak in Britannia. To the time when we captured the temple from the Romans."
Xena and Ares materialized behind a stand of trees near Dahak's temple. Xena moved closer to the clearing in front of the temple and parted some bushes for a better view of her surroundings. She could see about nine or ten Roman soldiers lounging around the entrance. As she watched, one of the soldiers turned away from the group and stared into the forest at Xena's right. Xena could hear sounds of movement within the thick underbrush. The Britons were in position. The attack was imminent.
Suddenly an arrow whistled through the air, landing in the Roman's chest. As he fell, a soldier yelled "Square! Shields!" The soldiers quickly formed a box, hiding under their impenetrable shields as a rain of arrows fell then bounced harmlessly off them. Then as Xena watched, her counterpart raced into the clearing on a borrowed horse, screaming her warcry. She somersaulted off the horse and landed right in the center of the shielded men, scattering them like dice. As the counterpart warrior pulled her sword from her back to fight, the Briton army ran out of the bushes with their own swords drawn, joining in the melee. The soldiers, greatly outnumbered, beat a hasty retreat to the hills. The Briton warriors ran after them, followed by Boadicea with her chariot.
Xena could see the bloodlust shining from her counterpart's eyes as she kicked at her horse's flank in her eagerness to join the chase. Studying her other self with frank curiosity, Xena thought she appeared downright scary. Xena had been traveling with Gabrielle so long that she hadn't realized that people still feared her just from the way she looked. Gabrielle had stood up to her, yet had let the warrior be herself. Her profound arrogance had been allowed to go unchecked.
"Hey Xena, I just remembered. I got some business elsewhere." Ares' voice next to her ear made Xena jump. She had forgotten that he was still there.
"What?" she said, momentarily confused.
"I'm cutting out for a while. Think you can handle this one by yourself?"
"Of COURSE I can do it, Ares. All I have to do is prevent Gabrielle from going into that temple."
"O-kay," said Ares, drawing out the word. "Just watch yourself. Remember what's at stake." He disappeared in his requisite flash of light.
Of course she knew what was at stake. In that temple Gabrielle would make her first kill, and it would be through trickery and betrayal. The one Xena most loved would be violated in the worst way, and Xena would be unable to stop it once the fire of Dahak was released. No, she must not fail this time.
Xena's counterpart was now galloping furiously down the road in pursuit of the Romans. Khrafstar, Gabrielle and the group of worshippers emerged from behind a low stone wall.
This was it. Xena jumped out from behind the tree and ran across the clearing to the group, which was moving en masse toward the temple entrance.
"Wait! Stop! Gabrielle! Don't go in there! Get away from them! Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle stopped to regard the warrior with confusion. Why wasn't she doing what Xena was telling her? 'Am I incoherent or what?' thought Xena. She slowed down in front of the congregation. They all turned scrutinizing eyes at her.
"What the ... Who in Tartarus are you?" asked Gabrielle suspiciously, staring at her as if she were a bacchae.
"What?" The warrior, temporarily taken aback, could hardly believe what she was hearing. "You know who I am! Now let's go." Xena reached for Gabrielle's hand, but the bard flinched and stepped back. Khrafstar and another tall priest formed a barrier between Xena and Gabrielle.
"This isn't Xena," Khrafstar said to Gabrielle. "It's some evil entity in the form of Xena."
"That's ridiculous! Come on, Gabrielle," Xena coaxed with some urgency. Things weren't going as she had planned. Why would Gabrielle doubt her? Something was wrong.
Khrafstar spoke again to Gabrielle in his most gentle, disarming voice. "We saw her ride up the hill. Look Gabrielle, you can still see her, there on the far rise."
"Yeah, I see her," replied Gabrielle, shading her eyes with her hand. "She's with Boadicea. I can see her chariot." She turned back to Xena. "Who are you? Ares? Xena told me you could change your shape to look like anybody. I saw you change to look like her father, enough to fool her."
"I'm not Ares, I'm Xena! You can trust me on this, Gabrielle," the warrior said, her eyes holding the bard's. The zealot priests moved to form a protective circle around Gabrielle, with Khrafstar still in front of her. It looked like Xena would have to fight her way through these crazies to get Gabrielle out of there. Things were getting more complicated by the minute, especially now that she also had to deal with Gabrielle's unexpected skepticism.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle," said Khrafstar, although he was still turned toward the warrior. "Our One God will protect you from this demon who calls itself Xena, and He will lead you to salvation!" Khrafstar finished his sermon-like oratory with a flourish. His face had taken on beatific qualities. It made the hair rise on the nape of the warrior's neck.
Gabrielle had taken her attention off Xena and was now squinting hard again toward the far hills. "I can't see her anymore. Maybe it wasn't her up there after all, Khrafstar. It's pretty far away and there's a lot of people up there." She turned back to Khrafstar. "Maybe this IS Xena," she said thoughtfully.
'Yes! Finally I'm getting somewhere!' thought Xena. "Of course it's me!" she retorted to Gabrielle. Her eyes flicked to Khrafstar. "This man will do you great harm! He will betray you! I know this. Please come with me," she pleaded with uncharacteristic ferver to the bard.
"No!" Gabrielle replied, the skepticism back in her voice. "What you just said proves you're not Xena. Xena left me with Khrafstar because she trusted him, as I do. Since we've been here Xena has had no thought for anything except avenging Caesar. When we were kidnapped and taken to Caesar's stronghold, Khrafstar protected me. He kept me from being afraid by telling me about his god. Xena didn't even come for me until it was convenient for her."
That last statement made Xena flinch. Gabrielle was right. She should have gone for her bard as soon as she knew Gabrielle was missing. Instead, she had thought of a plan to use her best friend so she could embarrass Caesar in front of his entire army.
The bard continued, "We were imprisoned all night. Khrafstar watched over me so I could get a little sleep without worrying about being molested. At dawn we were tied to yokes and hauled out to the crosses with ropes around our necks, like animals. When they tied us to the crosses and hung us up, I thought it would be my last day on earth. The ropes cut off the blood to my arms and it hurt like Hades. I thought that Xena had abandoned me. I never dreamed she would allow me to endure such torture for so long. I thought she loved me more than that."
Gabrielle stopped and looked curiously at Xena. It seemed as if the erstwhile warrior was registering some emotion, was actually squirming, maybe even showing some feeling for the bard. But of course this wasn't the real Xena. That had already been established in Gabrielle's mind.
She glanced back at Khrafstar and continued, "The sun was high in the sky by the time Caesar came out of his tent. I had been on the cross for hours by then. I was so thirsty, and I could barely hold myself up to breathe. The strength in my arms was gone. Caesar ordered my legs to be broken. Xena finally showed up to rescue me then, but only because Caesar was there, just so she could shove it back into his face."
'So she knew what I did, knew why I left her to suffer. Yet it didn't change her love for me,' thought Xena.
Gabrielle continued, "When we got back to Boadicea's camp, Xena never even asked me how I felt. All she wanted to know was if I'd spilled any information to Caesar. And she never even thanked Khrafstar."
The bard turned and spoke now directly to Xena. "No, you are not Xena. In her present frame of mind, no way would she be here. She's up there battling Caesar!"
Xena could do nothing but stare in horror at what Gabrielle had just told her. It was all true. She knew what Gabrielle had gone through, she had been on the cross herself, had felt that same terrible pain. Gabrielle had never said a word to her about it. But then, Xena never really cared to know what her companion thought. She'd brushed the bard off often enough. Gabrielle just learned to keep her mouth shut where the warrior's fragile ego was involved.
"Let's go," said Khrafstar, putting his arm around Gabrielle's shoulder the exact way Xena did. The priests all turned in unison and started moving toward the entrance, leaving Xena standing in the dust.
"No!" she cried, lunging at Gabrielle while trying to shove Khrafstar out of the way.
The zealots descended upon Xena, punching her and grabbing at her arms and legs. The warrior fought back with maniacal strength, lashing out at her opponents and sending some flying. Khrafstar still had his arm around Gabrielle and was pulling her out of the way, closer to the temple. Xena intensified her fighting. She must not lose Gabrielle now!
There were six priests pinning her arms down, restricting her movement. She couldn't get her legs up high enough for a good kick. She was able to dispatch two of the priests by temporarily freeing her right side. But three more took over. There were too many of them. She began to fear that she would be overpowered before she could rescue Gabrielle. Her struggles became more intense.
A woman rushed out of the crowd of priests, brandishing a heavy stick. Xena realized with a start that the woman was Meridian, the one who Gabrielle would soon kill as part of Dahak's sacrifice. Meridian stopped in front of the warrior and took a mighty swing. Xena fought valiantly to get out of the way but was held fast. The stick broke in two as it smashed across the side of her head; Xena slipped bonelessly to the ground.
The priests abruptly left the warrior sprawled in the dust and rejoined Khrafstar and Gabrielle.
"Our god has helped us to vanquish the enemy. Come rejoice with us, Gabrielle," Khrafstar invited, holding his hand out to her.
Gabrielle smiled as she placed her hand in his, and he led her through the doors of the temple.
"Come on, sleepyhead, wakey-wakey!"
Xena awoke abruptly to the sting of slaps on her cheeks and the sound of thunderclaps assaulting her ears. She opened her eyes to see Ares hovering over her, and lightning playing across the dark clouds in the sky above her.
"Well, looks like you bungled this one up good," Ares was saying. "On the bright side, your buddy Caesar didn't see your little disaster."
"What!?" Xena yelled, trying to rise as she realized where she was. "I've got to get in there, got to save Gabrielle!"
Ares held her down. She couldn't even get to her feet.
"You're too late. It's already started. Gabrielle has made her kill," said Ares, with mock sympathy. Overhead the sky exploded with white light.
Xena cast her head down in resignation and frustration. She could no longer stop the progression of events. This feeling of utter helplesness was something she hadn't experienced - until that tragic event which precipitated her presence here.
She now heard a different kind of thunder - the hoofbeats of a horse run to the limit of its endurance. Her counterpart suddenly burst into the clearing and galloped with furious intent toward the temple entrance. Xena and Ares were in plain sight in the center of the clearing, but the counterpart warrior saw only her destination. She leaped off the frothing, rearing horse and dashed into the temple.
"Time to go Xena," Ares said. "You have only one more chance to get your beloved Gabrielle back." The warrior turned to gaze inquiringly at him. "You must kill the offspring before it draws its first breath, right as she delivers it. Know what I'm getting at? Okay, then you have to make sure the body isn't burned. Make sure it's disposed of properly. Got it? This is your last chance," the war god repeated.
"Yeah, I got it," Xena replied. This was it. Her last window of opportunity. She must succeed, or die trying. The fire of determination reignited in her eyes. She stood up, refusing Ares' proffered hand.
By Nusi Dekker
Xena found herself in a dark alcove of mossy stone. It took the warrior a few minutes for her eyes to get accustomed to the reduced light. A quick scan of the immediate area showed that she was alone. So Ares bailed on her this time. Good. No distractions. She just hoped that Ares had dumped her in the correct time period.
The warrior peered around the corner of the alcove. It opened into a long hallway. It was familiar to her; the castle of the Knights of the Pierced Heart. She remembered the last time she was here, having to deliver that demon baby, not knowing at the time the havoc it would wreak on the very foundation of both their lives. Just remembering the horror, the throes of intense pain Gabrielle went through made Xena nauseous. She would be forced to play that scene all over again soon enough. Xena just hoped that she could do it right this time.
A low moan eminated from the door at the end of the hall. The warrior crept spider-like, sliding her hands along the rough cobbles of the wall. At the doorway, she peeked in very carefully. The room was bright from the sun shining through several windows high up near the ceiling. Several horses, sheep, and a billy goat were scattered around the room on dirty straw. The stable hadn't been mucked out in many days. The stench was barely tolerable. Luckily, the windows provided some ventilation.
Laying on a horse blanket in one of the unused stalls was Gabrielle, silently writhing and clawing at her enormous belly as she grimaced in pain. Xena could see the abdomen expanding even as she stood watching. The birth was imminent. The warrior wanted so much to go to her now, to ease that suffering, to hold her, love her, take away that pain. But no, if her new plan was to work, Xena had to first locate her other self, then allow herself the time to get into position.
Xena slipped stealthily out of the doorway and crawled along the base of the wall, past the alcove and several empty rooms to a great wooden double-door which was re-enforced with ironwork. There was a large keyhole which the warrior now peered through. Inside the room was a massive round table where the four knights sat. Xena's facsimile paced the floor while speaking animatedly to the knights. Xena knew what was being said. She remembered every word, even though the events had already taken place for her over a year ago. No need to hang around longer. She made her way back to the alcove and crouched in wait. It wouldn't be long now.
Rough panting could be heard from the direction of the stables. Suddenly a visceral scream rang out, blood-curdling and gut-wrenching in its proximity to Xena. Behind the closed doors of the room where the knights sat, the sound had been piercing, but it was nothing like this. Being so much closer, it was as if every hair on Xena's body stood on end in response. It was all she could do to command herself to stay in the alcove, out of sight.
At the end of the corridor the huge doors slammed open and Xena's counterpart burst out of the room, sprinting down the corridor toward the stables. Xena pressed herself against the wall of the alcove. The hallway became very dark; lightning began to flash through the slitted windows accompanied by peals of thunder. The smell of burnt flesh permeated the air.
Footfalls crashed across the entrance to the alcove. Xena sprang from its depths like a lioness, broadsiding her past self. The counterpart warrior, intent only on getting to Gabrielle, was completely surprised by the attack. She quickly twisted in midair as she fell to the ground, facing her foe. Her eyes widened with shock as she stared into the eyes of her mirror image, who smiled and smashed a fist hard into her forehead.
Xena's hand ached from the blow. She knew that she had to hit her other self with all her strength, knew how much force was needed to knock her out. The warrior stooped to place her hands under her counterpart's armpits, then dragged the unconcious warrior into the alcove. Well-hidden from anyone running through the corridor, she wouldn't be waking up anytime soon, Xena hoped.
Xena dashed out of the alcove and down the corridor, just ahead of the knights who had just piled out of the massive doorway and were now thundering down the hall in pursuit. She ran into the stables, then whirled around to slam the door and slide the bolt in place. Xena hoped it would hold long enough. She had lost several precious seconds disposing of her counterpart.
Just as she got to the writhing and moaning bard, the knights reached the locked door and were now pounding on it with their heavy sword hilts to break it down. The warrior's time was running out fast.
Gabrielle screamed in piercing agony. Xena forced the bard's legs apart and ripped away what was left of her underwear. The warrior quickly examined her and saw that she was fully dilated. A small piece of pink head was already visible.
"Come on Gabrielle, you can do it. Breathe! Now push!"
"No-o-o-o-o! It hurts so much!" Gabrielle screamed.
Xena shot a glance to the door, which was now beginning to splinter from the repeated blows. The pounding seemed to have intensified. The knights must have found something outside to use as a battering ram. Her eyes shot back to the bard, who howled with each contraction, her face red and swollen almost beyond recognition.
"Here! This'll help!" Xena shouted to Gabrielle as she jabbed at pressure points along the bard's rib cage. "Now push! Come on! Push! Almost there!" She coudn't tell if she was even getting through to the bard.
Gabrielle threw her head back for a final, heart-stopping scream. Her back arched as fresh paroxisms of agony washed over her body. Xena had done all she could to block the pain but it wasn't helping this time. She bent her head and concentrated on getting this monster baby out before Gabrielle died on her.
A swordhilt broke through the door, sending a shower of wood fragments over the two women in the stall. The lightning lit the room with increasing frequency, spooking the livestock into stamping and pawing at the ground. All except the goat, strangely calm as he watched the events taking place on the straw.
The baby's head popped out. The umbilical cord was wrapped loosely around its neck. This would make Xena's task a lot easier. The baby looked so normal. For a split second, Xena hesitated, then as she remembered what this beautiful baby would become, quickly tightened the umbilicus around the baby's neck before it could draw its first breath. She held the cord down on its throat with her thumb as she tried to guide the rest of the fetus out of Gabrielle's body.
"Come on, push Gabrielle. Almost over."
With a final great effort, the bard expelled the fetus from her body, and lay panting, swollen eyes wide with the horror of what she had just gone through. Outside, the thunder and lightning suddenly disappeared, replaced by a steady torrent of rain.
Xena held the baby girl in her hands. The face was a vivid blue. She was quite dead.
The knights shattered the door and burst into the room with their swords drawn. At the same time, the goat lowered his horned head and charged straight at Xena.
"Xena, what's happening?" Gabrielle tried to twist around on the straw to see what she had borne, shock and panic evident in her voice.
Xena threw the tiny corpse to her side away from Gabrielle's line of vision, then flipped onto her back. She caught the underside of the goat which was now almost upon her and sent it flying over her head. The billygoat tumbled into a heap of straw at the far end of the room.
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed hoarsely.
The knights were now crowded around Xena and the fetus. "It's dead!" one of them announced, stooping for a better look. "Looks like it was born dead. It's got the cord around its neck."
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted. The bard was struggling to rise. Xena pushed the knights out of the way and lunged at her, forcing her back down onto the blanket. "Gabrielle, lie still. You are still bleeding. The baby's dead," the warrior added through gritted teeth. She placed both of her hands, still bloodied from the childbirth, along each side of Gabrielle's face, caressing gently, trying to calm her. The bard stared up at her with wild, unfocused eyes and began pummelling the warrior with her fists, on the edge of hysteria. Xena straddled her, pinning both arms down with her knees. Still holding the bard's face, staring deeply into her eyes, the warrior pressed down on the sensitive points of Gabrielle's jawline, causing her to pass out.
Xena had vowed to herself never, ever to use the pinch on Gabrielle under any circumstances. But the warrior was working with extreme desperation. Her counterpart was there in the alcove, and if she was still unconcious, she wouldn't stay that way for long. Xena would have Tartarus to pay for the way she handled this, but if it all went right, Gabrielle would be alive when she returned to her own time. And that was all that mattered to her right now.
The warrior quickly rose, then went over to where the corpse lay, still surrounded by the knights, who were now arguing about what to do next. Xena grabbed a grooming rag and wrapped it around the dead baby along with the afterbirth. She turned and shoved the bundle into the arms of the nearest startled knight.
"Take this away and destroy it, but don't burn it, or it will be reborn. It is the evil spawn of Dahak and is fed by his fire. You got that?"
Xena had put the bundle into the arms of the knight who she remembered had most wanted it dead. She knew that he would see to proper burial. The knight gravely nooded at her. "Yes, I will make sure it is properly disposed of," he said to her. The other knights resheathed their swords.
"Now I have to get some water for Gabrielle. Stay and watch her until I get back." Xean turned toward the doorway, grabbed a bucket, and ran through the shattered opening. She had to trust her instincts that these men were chivalrous enough to watch over her friend. She could see no other options right now.
At the alcove, the counterpart warrior was dizzily attempting to rise while holding her head, uttering low moans. Xena dropped the bucket and pounced on her past self, wrapping her arms around the struggling warrior. She placed two fingers on her contemporary's throat. The struggling ceased immediately. Xena could sense her counterpart's extreme confusion. How strange it felt to be in such an intimate position with her own self, in this way.
"Listen to me!" she hissed into her counterpart's ear. "I've come from the future! I AM you! I forced Ares to send me here. Gabrielle's baby was born dead," she lied. Xena's past self bucked violently at this last statement. She opened her mouth to let out a yell, but Xena slapped a hand over her mouth and increased the pressure on her throat.
"No! Shut up and listen! That spawn of Dahak was suffocated by its own umbilical cord! Gabrielle's alive but she's weak and in shock. There's a cistern halfway up this corridor. Take the water to her. She needs you now, to stay alive. Believe me, you'll thank me for this!" the warrior finished, with a touch of irony. She quickly let her counterpart go, wheeled and ran toward the far end of the hall.
Xena rapidly gained her feet and whirled around to see the figure that looked exactly like her, no, WAS her, an apparition from the future, retreating into the darkness. The warrior started down the corridor in pursuit. This was too wild for her to comprehend. She wanted to catch that figure, find out more, but before she could act on that thought, her facsimile suddenly disappeared into a blinding vortex of light.
The warrior blinked furiously to rid herself of the spots dancing in front of her eyes. Gabrielle was alone, maybe dying. She must get to her friend now. Still partially blinded, Xena felt around and found the bucket, grabbing the handle. With her vision beginning to clear, she quickly located the cistern and dipped the bucket into the clear water.
Sprinting back to the stable entrance, the warrior stepped through the splintered doorway as two of the knights were leaving. Xena saw that one of them carried a small bundle wrapped in rags. Blood was seeping through the folds of the rough cloth. She wanted to have a look at the bundle, but Gabrielle needed her immediate attention. She let the knights pass and went directly to her partner, who lay unconscious.
Xena knelt beside her friend and felt her neck for a pulse. It was there, rapid and hollow. Gabrielle's hair was soaked and matted from sweat. Her face was wet and mottled, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. The bard's body was shivering from shock.
"Please get me some more blankets," the warrior said, not taking her eyes off Gabrielle. She heard footsteps retreat from the room.
"Gabrielle," the warrior called softly while examining her carefully. Blood smeared the bard's face. Where in Tartarus did that come from? In the subdued light, she could see sanguine fingerprints marking the pressure points on Gabrielle's jawline.
"Son of a Bacchae," Xena swore when she realized what her future counterpart had done to her friend. She could not conceive ever doing this to Gabrielle. What act of extreme desperation would have driven her to come back in time, and do this to the one she so loved? It must have been a matter of life and death. The death of Gabrielle, that would be the only reason, she thought, as she worked on the bard's face, massaging the feeling back.
Gabrielle's eyes suddenly flew open and focused on the warrior leaning over her. "Xena," she whispered hoarsely, struggling under the warrior's firm but gentle hands. "My baby...I feel so bad...what happened?" Tears spilled down her white, puffy face.
"I'm so sorry," Xena could only manage a croak. She didn't know what to say. She could only go on what her future counterpart had told her before vanishing into time. She had the strange feeling that she may have been lied to - by her own self!
One of the knights stepped up to the pair carrying a clean blanket and some more rags. "I thought you could use these," he said, holding the rags out to Xena, while dropping the blanket next to her. The warrior looked up at him and saw that his face was kind. Beyond him, the other knight was scowling at Xena, as if she had somehow thwarted some grand plan of his.
"Thank you," the warrior said to her benefactor. "Do you have a cleaner room in the castle where I can take my friend? She is too weak to travel."
"Of course. There is an unused weapons storage room down the corridor. There's a bench where your friend can lie down, but not much else, I'm afraid. But at least there's no animal dung. We have no other spare rooms. Our castle is quite small," he said apologetically.
"Thanks. We have all we need for now. I'll need to get Gabrielle cleaned up before I move her."
"I'll go see to the room then," the knight said, turning to go.
"Wait. What is your name?"
"I'm Goewin, and that's my mate Eochaid," he said, turning to look at his friend.
Eochaid threw a surly look at Xena before stalking out through the splintered doorway.
"What's eating him?" asked Xena.
"I don't know," said Goewin. "Ever since your friend's baby was stillborn, he's been like that. I don't know why it's affecting him so much."
Xena nodded. So they all believed that the baby had been born dead. If she had indeed come to this time from the future to slay the child of Dahak, she had covered up the act well.
Goewin walked out, leaving the two women alone. Gabrielle was so weakened that she was now sobbing helplessly, no longer able to control her shivering body. The warrior took the bard into her arms and held her close, gently rocking her, slowly easing her off the soaked, bloody blanket. With one foot, Xena deftly rolled the disgusting mass into a ball and pushed it away.
"Gabrielle," she called softly.
"My baby, where's my baby?" the bard cried, her voice muffled. Her face was buried in Xena's neck, as if she wanted to hide away inside her partner. Xena understood; Gabrielle had to withstand the humiliation of having an audience of strange men at this most private experience.
"It was dead, Gabrielle, the knights have taken it away to be buried." Xena had not seen the baby before it was spirited out of the room. She was too concerned for her friend, who had looked near death. The warrior hated not having full knowledge of the situation.
"I killed her, didn't I?" As she spoke, Gabrielle stared up into Xena's eyes in a haze of madness which made the hair on the warrior's neck stand on end. She had never seen Gabrielle like this. And how could she know if it was a little girl? Had her counterpart actually shown the dead baby to her?
"No, you didn't kill it, it was tangled in the umbilicus. It was an accident," Xena said with as much ferver as she could muster, remembering what she had been told in the alcove. "You have to go on. You will be all right. I'll be right here."
But the warrior had a feeling that things wouldn't be all right for a while. The extreme trauma that Gabrielle had to endure ... so many things had happened that were beyond Xena's control. Or were they? No, the warrior thought decisively, she couldn't have helped Gabrielle, she had to fight Caesar! Something was wrong, though, as unwanted feelings of guilt unexpectedly intruded into her mind.
Xena concentrated on Gabrielle. With one free hand she laid a fresh blanket out on the straw, then expertly stripped the bard of the torn sackcloth garment she had been wearing, and threw it on the fetid pile.
"There's no one here, Gabrielle, we're alone. I'm just going to clean you up a little," the warrior said to reassure her, although she was pretty sure that Gabrielle was too out of it to be aware that her lower torso was completely naked and exposed. Xena dipped one of the rags in the bucket of water and gently wiped Gabrielle clean. The bard had quieted down and was now leaning against the warrior, limp as a rag doll. There seemed to be no response, no feeling in that small, tortured body as Xena gently cleaned the private, intimate areas.
What if that thing in her body had been allowed to live? Would Gabrielle have been spared this agony? Xena sensed that her friend's misery was caused by Dahak, and as long as they stayed here, that demon would continue to exert his influence on them both.
After folding the last rag and placing it to the side, Xena rolled Gabrielle back onto the blanket, covered her up, then went to retrieve the bard's horsehair bag. Rifling through the contents, she found clean underwear and an extra skirt. Gabrielle's preparedness was one of the things Xena most loved and admired about her friend. She went back to Gabriellle's side and quickly clothed her, carefully placing the folded rag in her underwear to soak up any remaining blood. Then she picked the bard up and carried her out of the smelly stable to a cleaner place and hopefully toward recovery.
The torchlit corridor faded into nothing as Xena materialized in the dim light of a crescent moon. Fighting off residual vertigo, she realized that it was the middle of the night. She was standing in a fragrant pine forest. Some distance away, in a small clearing, a campfire burned, sending shadows dancing in the trees. A lone figure lay sleeping under a fur blanket. Could it be? Had she truly succeeded this time? With rising excitement, the warrior turned to run toward the campsite.
"Hold it right there, Xena," said Ares, suddenly stepping out of the shadows.
Xena spun to face her antagonist. In her anticipation of seeing Gabrielle again, she had not even detected the presence of Ares, as close as he was to her. She was getting sloppy. Her guard must never be let down when it concerned the God of War.
"So, Xena, it appears that you finally managed to pull it off, although you ignored my warning against fraternizing with your past self," he said, slowly walking in a circle around the warrior.
"Oh, yeah, you got your irritating little friend back. Her progeny hasn't come back to haunt us yet, so our little Dahak problem is gone ... for now. And everything connected to Dahak after you killed his spawn never happened, so that wimp son of yours is still around, too."
"Solon." Xena closed her eyes with abject relief. The she opened them and stared back at Ares. "Is that all? I want to go to Gabrielle."
"No, there is one more little detail. You may have altered history to bring your beloved Gabrielle back to life, but she still owes a debt to me. Can't teach an old dog like you new tricks! You still left her to go to Chin, she still made her bargain with me. That part of the timeline never changed."
"Bastard!" Xena yelled, reaching down for the hind's blood knife only to connect with her bare leg. "What?" She was barefoot, dressed only in a small leather sleeping shift. She stared at Ares, angered and confused.
Ares burst out laughing. "Oh, that was precious! Looking for your hind's blood dagger? It doesn't exist! Ha ha! There is nothing you can do to hurt me! Oh, did I play this one perfectly!" He strutted around Xena like a proud cock.
The warrior's anger almost superceded her joy that Gabrielle was alive. Ares had manipulated her into doing his dirty work for him to get Dahak out of his hair while causing her best friend great suffering. Nothing had really changed. Ares would still call Gabrielle on her obligation to him. Xena just had to make sure that he never got the opportunity.
"Thanks for nothing," she said, turning her back on him and walking away. He stood chuckling to himself; the hated sound receded as she made some distance between them.
She walked softly up to the campsite. Her beloved friend lay sound asleep on the bedroll, golden hair spread across the fur cover. Beside the bedroll were piled Xena's own weapons and armour. A quick survey of the camp showed that Gabrielle occupied the only sleeping area, and Xena was meant to share it. But in her absence the bard had spread herself across the entire blanket.
Xena smiled as she knelt down to reclaim her territory. Her friend was snoring softly in a relaxed sleep. Just hearing her, seeing her like this, made everything she had just done to change the past worth it. Even though she had wound up once again serving the God of War after she had vowed to herself to turn her back on him forever. Worth it, because Gabrielle was alive, was still with her, and still loved her.
She very gently rolled the bard onto her back and kissed her lips softly. Gabrielle didn't wake, but stopped snoring and smiled in her sleep. Xena lay down next to her and was immediately wrapped up in arms and legs as the bard snuggled close. The warrior felt an instant wave of heat course through her body. No need to pull that fur over her. She felt so incredibly good she thought that this must be what the Elysian fields are like. To be with Gabrielle. Having her back. Just like this.
There was still work to be done on their relationship. She had gotten another chance, and she wasn't going to blow it this time. Tomorrow she'd suggest some barehanded fishing, just the two of them. Then later on they could go see Solon.
Xena was so happy. Gabrielle's head was resting on her shoulder. She turned her own head and kissed the sleeping bard all over her face before finally placing her forehead against the soft golden hair.
She closed her eyes. The tiredness from her time-traveling ordeals was beginning to set in. "I love you," she whispered. She would say that to Gabrielle every chance she got, she told herself as she drifted into sleep.
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