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UNDER WESTERN SKIES by Eva Allen
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, September, 1999.
Cautiously, she opened her eyes. She was lying on her back, staring up at oak leaves which moved softly in the breeze. After a moment, a bird began to sing, and then a second one. The sound was familiar, and it made her smile. Lowering her gaze, she saw the Cronus Stone sitting on her stomach, still clutched tightly in her hands. She set it aside, raised her arms, and pushed up the sleeves of her nightshift. Her pain had vanished, and now she saw that her skin showed no trace of ever having been burned. Rolling onto her side, she propped herself on one elbow. A few paces away, Argo stood looking around as though somewhat bewildered.
"It's all right, girl," Xena called to her. "We're home now."
Seemingly assured by the sound of the warrior's voice, the mare tossed her head and gave a small snort. Then she turned and ambled off toward the lake which lay basking in the late afternoon sun.
Xena sat up. They were home -- back where she had hoped they would be, at the campsite by the little lake. But where was Gabrielle?
It took her a moment to spot the younger woman, buried as she was beneath a big pile of gear. Working quickly, Xena shoved everything aside, then stared in alarm at her lover. Apparently, the pine coffin had stayed behind in Colorado, but Gabrielle lay as stiff and unmoving as if she were still in it.
"Gabrielle?" Xena murmured as she reached out to run her hands over the bard's face. The skin felt cold to her touch, and the warrior suddenly became aware of a tight knot of fear in her gut. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?" she asked with growing urgency. But there was no response. Bending down, she lifted her lover in trembling arms and pulled her close.
"We're home, Love," she said, kissing the top of the blond head. "It's time to wake up now." And she began to rock gently back and forth. "Come on, Gabrielle," she pleaded. "Come back to me. You have to come back. You said you would if I got us home again. I love you so much. Please come back."
And then, to her relief, she felt a small shudder run through the bard's body, and heard a long, whimpering sigh. After a few moments, the green eyes opened and blinked in the light.
"Welcome home, Sweetheart," Xena said, caressing the younger woman's cheek.
Gabrielle looked around, apparently trying to orient herself. Then she turned her gaze on Xena. "You did it," she said. "You got the Cronus Stone."
"I did it," Xena agreed with a smile, and softly kissed her lover's forehead. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"Kind of stiff . . . and a little cold."
The warrior nodded. "Yes, that's the way I felt when I first got my body back that time after I died. We'll just sit here a few minutes until you get warmed up. Do you want a blanket?"
"No. Just keep holding me. That feels really good."
"Mmm. It does, doesn't it?"
"It felt good when I was dying, too," Gabrielle said quietly. "Thanks for staying with me. I wasn't afraid at all."
"You knew I was there?"
"Yes. Toward the end it was like I just sort of floated out of my body -- I can't really explain it -- but I could see you there, holding me. And then after a while, I had to leave, and I ended up at Charon's boat."
"Did you give him the coin?"
Gabrielle nodded. "He's kind of a quirky, grumbly old guy, isn't he?"
"Yeah, he is," Xena agreed, then asked, "How was it on the Other Side?"
"Well, Hades was pretty surprised to see me. He didn't know how I could still be alive after two thousand years, so I told him about our little trip to the future. Then I also told him that you were going to get the Cronus Stone, so we could go home to Greece."
"And what did he say about that?"
"He seemed a little skeptical, but he said I could wait in the Elysian Fields until we found out if I was really going back or not."
"Did you like it there?" Xena asked softly.
"Yes, very much."
"Gabrielle, I-- Well, at the last minute, I thought maybe you wouldn't want to come back. I thought maybe you'd be happier staying wherever you were."
The younger woman smiled and reached up to caress Xena's cheek. "I could never be happy for very long in any place if you weren't there with me," she said.
"So you're not sorry I brought you back?"
"No. Not for a minute." Then she pulled Xena's head down and kissed her with an eagerness that surprised the warrior.
"Well, your lips are getting warm, at least," Xena said with a grin when the kiss ended.
"Yes, and the rest of me is warming up, too, but let's just pretend that you still need to hold me for a while, okay?"
Xena laughed. "I don't think that will be a problem," she said.
"Tell me what happened after I died," Gabrielle said. "Tell me how you got the Cronus Stone back."
"Oh. Well, there's not much to tell, really," Xena said, trying to keep her voice casual, even as a sense of dread crept over her. "After you, uh, died, I rode out to the canyon, and I found the cabin with no problem. The sun was just barely up by then. The outlaws were busy packing up to leave, but first they were trying to get Isaiah buried."
"Isaiah? What happened to him?"
"I shot him during that gunfight. Don't you remember? I guess it was just a few minutes before you got shot."
Gabrielle frowned for a moment and then nodded. "Okay, yeah. I think I remember now."
"Anyway, I didn't have much trouble capturing George and Bill. I tied them up in the cabin and then I made them tell me where the Cronus Stone was. It turned out the bank money was hidden in the same place, so I got it, too."
"Then what happened?"
"Nothing, really. Herbert came along and he took care of the outlaws."
"Took care of them? You mean, he put them in jail?"
"Yes, of course."
"And that's the whole story?"
"Uh-huh. I told you there wasn't much to it." Xena grinned and then said, "Hey, if you can do without me for a minute, I think I ought to get Argo unsaddled."
"Okay, sure," said Gabrielle, but as she sat up, she gave the warrior a puzzled look.
"Are you hungry?" Xena asked. "Why don't you look and see what kind of food Lizzie sent back with us. It's in a cloth bag there somewhere." Then she stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled.
"Xena, why am I wearing my regular clothes and you're just wearing your nightshift?" Gabrielle asked.
"Uh, well, I wanted to be comfortable," Xena said, as she got to her feet. "You know, for traveling."
"You've never traveled in your nightshift before."
"No, but maybe I should have," the warrior said with a grin. "It feels pretty good, actually." Then she padded off on bare feet to meet the mare. "Hey, girl," she said, rubbing Argo's nose. "Are you glad to be eating Greek grass again?"
The horse whickered softly and nuzzled Xena's cheek. Smiling, the warrior began unbuckling the bridle as she breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she wouldn't have to tell Gabrielle the whole story after all. Or at least not right now. Her mood was definitely beginning to improve.
But then Gabrielle called out, "Xena, what in Zeus' name happened to your boots?"
Her boots? She had not seen or even thought about her boots since the explosion at the cabin. Turning, she stared at the blackened leather objects Gabrielle was holding up.
"It looks like you put them by the fire to dry and then forgot about them," the younger woman said.
"Yeah. I guess that was pretty silly of me," Xena said.
"Is that what really happened?" Gabrielle asked with a note of disbelief in her voice. "It's not like you to be so careless."
"No, but I was sort of distracted -- what with you dying and everything."
Gabrielle's look softened. "Well, we'll have to buy you a new pair as soon as we get to a town," she said, setting the boots aside. "How much money do we have?"
"Not much," Xena said. She hung the bridle on a tree limb and moved to unbuckle the saddle cinch. "I kept fifteen dinars out for us and gave the rest to Nicholas and Lizzie."
"Fifteen dinars won't buy a pair of boots," Gabrielle said, shaking her head. "I still can't believe you let them get scorched like that. The soles weren't even worn out on this pair yet."
"We'll manage somehow," Xena said, and then, hoping to change the subject, she added, "Say, do you know what I forgot to tell you?"
"Nicholas asked Lizzie to marry him -- and she said yes, of course."
"Oh, I'm so glad!" Gabrielle said. "They'll make a wonderful couple. I don't know why they didn't get together before this. When did he propose to her?"
"Actually, it was that last night you told stories, after the rest of us all went to bed," Xena said. "But I didn't hear about it until the next evening. You were off visiting the outlaws at the time," she added with a grin, "and when you came back, I forgot all about telling you." Then she pulled the saddle off and set it on the ground. Argo gave herself a quick shake, turned, and trotted off.
"Well, I'm very happy for them," Gabrielle said.
"Me too," Xena responded. She walked back over and stood looking down at her lover. "Did you find the food?" she asked.
"No. I didn't look for it."
"Oh. Well, it should be--"
"Xena, I'm not interested in food right now. I just want you to sit down here and talk to me. I want you to tell me what's wrong."
"Wrong? There's nothing wrong, that I know of."
"Yes, there is. Some of the things you've told me just don't seem to add up. I think there's something you're afraid to tell me." She patted the ground beside her. "Come on. Sit down and let's talk."
With a sigh, Xena seated herself cross-legged next to her lover.
"Okay," said Gabrielle, "now, are you going to tell me what's going on, or am I going to have to ask questions?"
"I guess you'll have to ask questions, since I'm not sure what it is you want to know."
The younger woman looked at her for a long moment, and then said, "All right. Let's start with your nightshift. Why are you wearing that instead of your leathers and armor?"
Xena stared at the ground. She could go on lying, but she knew that eventually Gabrielle would manage to find out the truth. And once the bard knew what had really happened at the cabin . . . The warrior took a deep breath and tried to push down the fear that was rising within her. "I couldn't wear my leathers because I got burned," she said finally.
"Burned?" Gabrielle said in surprise. "You mean badly burned?"
"Yes. I probably would have died if we hadn't come back here."
"What part of you got burned?"
"My face. My arms. Most of the front of me. Oh, and my boots," Xena added, with a slight smile. Then she ventured a look at Gabrielle.
The younger woman did not smile back. "The pain must have been awful," she said softly.
"Yeah, it was. Thank goodness for Nicholas and his morphine."
"How did you get burned?"
"There was a fire."
"At the boarding house?"
"No. At the cabin."
"The fire started while you were there getting the Cronus Stone?"
Gabrielle gave a deep sigh of frustration. "Come on, Xena," she said. "Help me out here. Don't make me go on playing this guessing game."
Xena looked at her and then looked away. She needed to tell the story -- needed to get the horrible truth out into the open -- but how could she talk when her throat felt as if there were a hand clamped around it? She took a deep breath and let it out again. Then she began to speak in a flat, expressionless tone. "After I tied up the outlaws and got the Cronus Stone," she said, "I poured kerosene on the floor and struck a match. Then I went outside to watch the place burn down."
"You set the cabin on fire? With those men tied up in there, helpless?"
Xena nodded, but did not meet her lover's gaze.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked in a low voice. "Why did you do it?"
Xena looked at her then. "Because I wanted them to suffer for what they did to you," she said simply. "I wanted to hear them scream while they were dying."
"But Xena, I got away before they could actually hurt me."
"Yes, but they wanted to hurt you, and they would have done it, too, if they had had the chance. They would have raped you -- all three of them. You know that as well as I do. And anyway, Bill Garrison shot you. He shot you in the back and killed you, Gabrielle. And he wasn't even sorry he did it. That's why I set the cottage on fire."
"The cottage? You mean the cabin."
"Yes, the cabin. Of course that's what I mean," Xena said impatiently.
Gabrielle regarded her thoughtfully for a few moments, and then said, "I think you just explained something. You burned the cabin down just like I burned the cottage. Garron died in the cottage fire, but he was unconscious and he didn't suffer. You wanted to make him suffer for hurting me."
Xena nodded. "Yes, I suppose you're right," she said. "That explains what I did, but it doesn't excuse it. I let myself become a monster. I broke my promise to you." She stopped, and then finished in a whisper. "I'm sorry."
"Xena, how did you get burned? You still haven't told me that."
"Oh. Well, while I was watching the cabin burn, Herbert came along. When he found out what I had done, he called me a monster. Then he ran into the cabin and brought George out."
"So George didn't die?"
"No. He's in jail."
"I was going to try to save him -- I started running toward the cabin -- but then it blew up. I had seen a couple of kegs in there, but I didn't realize they had gunpowder in them."
"You would have gone into a burning building to save the man who killed me?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"Yes, but that doesn't make up for what I did," Xena said grimly. "If I hadn't started the fire in the first place, he wouldn't have needed to be saved. I deserved what I got. I should have just let myself die -- but I knew I would end up in Tartarus, and I'd never see you again." She stopped, her voice too choked with emotion to go on. She could not look at Gabrielle, could not bear to know what the bard must think of her. Drawing her knees up to her chest, she wrapped her arms around them and sat staring at the lake, envying the calmness of its waters.
After what seemed like a long time, she felt Gabrielle's hand on her shoulder.
"You know, a strange thing happened to me when I died," the younger woman said. "It was like someone showed me my whole life, and I could see everything good I'd ever done, along with all the things I could have done better. I didn't feel like I was being judged," she went on. "I felt cared about. I felt forgiven."
"Hades did that?" Xena asked in surprise.
"No. It wasn't Hades. It was someone -- or something -- much bigger. I know this sounds crazy, but it felt like the Source of Life itself."
Xena stared at her in silence. Gabrielle's face looked serene, almost radiant.
After a few moments, the bard met her gaze and smiled. "Xena, do you remember that first night after we left Lydia's, when I was talking about having killed Garron? You said I needed to forgive myself and move on, but I just couldn't seem to do that. I couldn't accept that I had killed someone. I wanted to go back and make it so it never happened."
"Yes, I know," Xena said softly.
"Well, when I died, and I felt forgiven for the way I had lived my life, I was finally able to forgive myself, too. I realized that I had set standards for myself that I just couldn't reach. I thought I could be perfect, and when I couldn't be--" She shook her head and gave a wry smile. "And what's even worse," she went on, "is that I set the same kind of unreasonable standards for you."
"Asking someone not to become a monster isn't unreasonable, Gabrielle. I broke my promise," Xena said flatly. "I betrayed your trust in me." She looked away again, unwilling to see the rejection that must be in her lover's eyes.
But Gabrielle moved closer and ran her fingers softly through the warrior's hair. "Xena, what I'm trying to say is that now I can understand better why I did what I did, and why you did what you did. Yes, you let your anger take control of you for a time, but I can also see that you would never have been so angry if you hadn't loved me so much. And how could I not forgive that?"
Xena felt a heavy weight suddenly drop from her shoulders. She looked at Gabrielle. "You forgive me?" she said in a tone of wonder.
"With all my heart."
Then the younger woman reached out, and Xena buried her face against her lover's breast. Tears stung her eyes and she was powerless to stop them. Welling up from someplace deep inside her, they broke free in great sobs of relief. How long they continued, she wasn't sure. But while the storm lasted, she clung to Gabrielle as she would have to a raft in a raging flood. And when it was all over, she lay, exhausted, with her head in her lover's lap.
"Feel better now?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know what's wrong with me," Xena said. "I never cry like that."
"I guess there were some things that just needed to come out," Gabrielle said as she dried the warrior's cheek with gentle fingers.
"Yeah, I guess so. Thanks," she murmured. She closed her eyes in order to savor the rare sense of peace. Then her stomach growled loudly.
Gabrielle laughed. "I think we'd better start looking for that bag of food," she said.
* * *
There was fried chicken, a loaf of bread, a big hunk of cheese, some blackberries and peaches, and two carefully-wrapped slices of cherry pie.
"What are those big, long, green things?" asked Xena.
"Corn," Gabrielle said. "This is the way it grows in the field. Lizzie showed me some. If you pull off the green leaf part, like this, you can see the kernels."
"Oh," Xena said, nodding.
"There are some green beans here, too," Gabrielle went on, digging deeper into the cloth bag. "And onions and potatoes."
"But we don't know how to cook some of those things," said Xena.
"Yes, we do. At least, I do. I spent a little time with Mary in the kitchen, and I asked a lot of questions."
"Can you make one of those pie things?"
Gabrielle laughed. "I might be able to make one if I had an oven, but I don't think it can be done very easily over an open fire."
"Mmm. Too bad."
"Well, we could settle down someplace, and you could build me a little clay oven, and then I'd be able to bake lots of pies for you."
"Yeah, well, maybe someday," the warrior said with a sardonic grin.
They ate in companionable silence, and when they finished, Gabrielle said, "How about if we go swimming? Would you like to do that?"
"Sounds good to me," Xena agreed.
"Where do you suppose our towels are?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know. Lizzie did all the packing, but I'd guess they're in one of the saddlebags."
The younger woman reached for the nearest saddlebag and opened it. She peered in, frowned, and pulled out a small paper bag. "I wonder what this is," she said. Then she opened it and grinned. "The combs I bought! And the rubber balls!" she exclaimed. "Oh! It's going to be so much fun to give these to people!"
Xena smiled at the younger woman's delight. Then, leaning back with her arms to support her, she stretched out her legs and crossed her ankles.
"Here's the book I bought," Gabrielle said, pulling out the leather-bound volume. "I'm so glad I'll get to finish it," she added as she flipped happily through the pages. "Maybe we should talk to each other in English so we won't forget it."
"Sure, we can do that sometimes, if you want," Xena said. "And it will be useful to know a language that no one else understands."
"Yes, kind of like when we spoke Greek to each other in Colorado," Gabrielle agreed. Then she turned her attention back to the saddlebag. "What's this doing here?" she asked as she pulled out a second book. "This is Ellis' book of love poems. Xena, you should have given it back to him."
"I did," Xena said, puzzled. "At least I told Lizzie to return it to him. Maybe she forgot."
Gabrielle opened the cover and stopped to stare at some writing there. "This wasn't here before," she said. "Ellis must have written it."
"What does it say?"
"It says, 'To Gabrielle, teller of tales, lover of words,'" she read slowly. "'I wish I could have heard more of your stories. Don't ever let the poetry in you die. Fondly, Ellis.' Oh, and then down below, he wrote, 'Parting is such sweet sorrow.'" She paused and then explained, "That's what Romeo says to Juliet in that story by Mr. Shakespeare."
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," Xena mused. "That's good." She sat up and crossed her legs again. "So Ellis sent the book home with us as a gift," she said.
"Yes. Wasn't that sweet of him?"
"He's a sweet man," Xena said, then added, "Lizzie told me they had put in some gifts. I guess maybe that's what she was talking about."
"Gifts? In the plural?" asked Gabrielle as she laid the book aside and looked into the bag again. "Maybe there's something for you, too." She rummaged around for a moment and then pulled out a small, oblong packet, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. "Yes, here's something," she announced. "It says, 'For Xena' on it."
Curious, the warrior reached out for the packet. She turned it over, examining it, then slipped the string off and unfolded the paper. "A pocketknife!" she exclaimed. "This must be from Herbert." She grinned as she opened the blades and tested their sharpness against her thumb.
"Too bad you don't have any pockets," Gabrielle commented dryly.
"Hmm. Well, I can always carry it with my breast dagger."
"That would work."
"Or I could just keep it in one of the saddlebags. It's not much of a weapon, really, but it will come in handy when I need a knife for other things."
"Oh, here's another package!" Gabrielle said.
"Who's it for?"
"It doesn't say."
"You open it," Xena said.
Excitedly, the younger woman untied the string and opened the paper to reveal a stoppered bottle.
"What is it?" she asked, handing it to Xena.
"Laudanum. It's for pain," Xena said. "Is there a note from Nicholas?"
"Uh, yes. Here's one. It says, 'For Xena and Gabrielle, a gift I hope you never have to use. May you be happy and healthy, and may you always love each other.'"
"What a nice note," Xena said, "but if he really thinks we'll never need the laudanum, well, he doesn't know much about how we live."
"You're right about that," Gabrielle agreed. Then she peered into the saddlebag again. "Hey, look at this," she exclaimed as she pulled out a folded piece of cloth. "I think it's what they call calico," she added.
"I like that color of blue," Xena said.
"Yes, and aren't these little flowers cute?"
"I guess that's from Lizzie, but what are we supposed to do with it?"
"I don't know. Maybe we can make a scarf out of it or something. We'll figure it out." She smiled at the warrior. "This is so much fun! I can't believe they sent all these gifts for us. I wish we could have given them something in return."
"We did, Gabrielle. You gave them some wonderful stories, among other things, and I gave them Ellis' life. Lizzie said it would all even out in the end because our paths would keep crossing in other lifetimes." She was silent for a few moments, and then said, "Do you think there's any truth to this reincarnation thing? You died, but you went to the Elysian Fields."
"Yes, but I had the sense that may just be a place where people can wait for a while, and later they really do go on to live other lives."
"But what about the people in Tartarus?"
"I don't know, Xena. I wasn't really dead long enough to figure it all out." Gabrielle smiled softly and reached out to squeeze the warrior's hand. "The only thing I know for sure," she added, "is that wherever we go and whatever we do, I want to be with you."
"I want the same thing," Xena said. Then she pulled the younger woman toward her, and their lips met in a lingering kiss.
"You know, I don't mind being alive again at all," Gabrielle said when they moved apart.
"That's lucky, because you really don't have much choice in the matter."
The bard laughed and picked up the saddlebag again. "Guess what I found," she said. "Our towels! They were in the very bottom. And the soap is here, too."
"What! No more gifts?" said Xena with an impish grin.
"Well, not in that bag anyway. Let's save the others and look in them after we go swimming."
"I don't know if I still want to swim. Maybe I'll just play with my pocketknife."
"You can do that later," Gabrielle said firmly. Then she plucked the knife out of Xena's hand and dropped it back into the saddlebag. "I think I'll take a blanket down there for us to sit on," she went on, and yanked one out of the pile of gear. As she did so, something red tumbled into view, and the two women found themselves staring at the Cronus Stone.
Slowly, Gabrielle reached over to pick it up. "What shall we do with this?" she said.
"What do you think we ought to do with it?"
The younger woman didn't answer right away. She stared at the stone, turning it in her hands and running her fingers softly over the glass. Finally, she looked at Xena. "I guess we should destroy it," she said in a low voice.
"Are you sure?"
She nodded. "It's what I should have let you do in the first place," she said. "But I just wanted--" She stopped speaking and bit her lip.
"I know what you wanted," Xena said softly. "Anyone would have wanted the same thing. I was just afraid of the stone's power -- that we couldn't control it."
"You were right. I ended up dead, and you almost died, too."
"Yes, but we had a good adventure. And we learned some things along the way. We saw the future, and that's something very few people get to do."
"And we made some good friends."
"Yes. That was the best part," Xena said. "If I thought we could somehow go back and visit there again, I'd say we should keep the stone, but--"
"But if we went back, we'd both be dead."
"Right. Unless we could go to an earlier point in the future. But it's too risky. There's too much chance for something to go wrong."
"I agree," Gabrielle said, with growing conviction in her voice. "And if it's risky for us, it would be risky for anyone who used the stone." She smiled a little and then went on, "So if you don't mind, I think I'll just remove this particular temptation from the world forever."
Xena nodded and gestured her permission.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, stood up, and looked around. Then she walked resolutely over to a rock and smashed the Cronus Stone against it. The pieces scattered on the ground and lay there, gleaming dully. The bard stared at them for a few moments and then at the metal base, which she still held in her hand. "The future leads to the past," she muttered, and then threw the base as far as she could into the underbrush.
* * *
"Okay, now we can go swimming," she said, dusting her hands off as she walked back over to where Xena was sitting. And before the warrior could respond, she unlaced her bodice and stripped it off. Then, unfastening her skirt, she stepped out of it and stood there wearing only a grin.
Xena felt the familiar ache of desire stab through her lower gut. Standing up, she walked over to her lover. "Turn around," she said. "I want to see something."
Obediently, the younger woman turned, and Xena reached out to run her fingers over a portion of her back, to the right of the spine.
"Is that where I got shot?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes," Xena said. "The bullet went in about here, passed all the way through, and hit a rib here--" she went on, reaching around to touch the younger woman's ribcage. "Then it bounced back somewhere. Nicholas couldn't find it."
"Wow. No wonder it hurt like Tartarus."
"Mmm-hmm," Xena said as she embraced the bard from behind. "And if the bullet hadn't hit that rib, it would have gone right on into me."
"Really? Then I saved your life, didn't I?"
"Yes, I guess you did," the warrior said with a wry smile. "But I wish it could have been the other way around."
"Well, can you see anything there now?" Gabrielle asked. "Any trace of the wound?"
"No, nothing. It's perfect, just like before," Xena said as she bent forward to kiss Gabrielle's ear.
"Let me see your wound," the bard said, pulling free from Xena's embrace and turning around.
"The one on your arm, where you got shot that first day."
"Oh. I'd forgotten about that one," Xena said. Then, reaching down, she grasped her nightshift with both hands and pulled it off over her head.
"I can't see anything," Gabrielle said, examining the warrior's left arm.
"I know, and my burns are gone, too."
The younger woman regarded her soberly for a moment, then gently cupped Xena's breasts in her hands. "Were you burned here?" she asked.
"Yes," Xena said, as another wave of desire washed over her. "I was burned pretty much all over," she added, "except for my back."
"I wish I could have been there for you," Gabrielle said.
"I wish you could have, too," the warrior said. Then she put her arms around the younger woman and buried her face in the blond hair. The sensation of Gabrielle's bare flesh against her own was almost more than she could endure. Drawing a deep breath, she set her mind to calming her heartbeat and ignoring the sudden wetness between her legs. She had let her lust get out of control before and it had only served to hurt and frighten her lover. She would not allow such a thing to happen again.
Breaking free from the embrace, she stooped down to pick up the blanket. "We'd better get going, if we plan to swim," she said.
"Yeah, you're right," agreed Gabrielle, and she gathered up the towels and soap. Then she took Xena's hand, and they started toward the lake. "Well," she said as they walked along, "we know we're back in the same place we started from, but do you think it's the same day we left, or is it five days later?"
"I don't know. I hadn't thought about it. I suppose it could even be a totally different year."
"Oh, now there's an interesting possibility."
"I guess we'll just have to wait until we get to a town and can ask somebody what the date is."
They had reached the edge of the water, and Gabrielle stopped to stare at something on the ground. "Look! It's my comb!" she exclaimed, then picked it up. "It doesn't look like it's been here very long -- I mean, not more than a few days, anyway."
"At least nobody came along and took it," Xena said. "And the fact that it's here means we didn't go back to a point in the pastbefore we first arrived at the lake."
"Right. But we could still be in the future."
"Yes, but probably not too far, or someone would have found the comb and kept it by now," Xena said. Then she spread the blanket on the ground.
"Well, at least we've narrowed it down," Gabrielle said. "And when the moon comes up tonight, we can see if it's in the same phase as before." She dropped the comb, soap, and towels on the blanket. Then she moved to put her arms around Xena.
"I want to go ahead and swim, Sweetheart," the warrior said, giving the other woman a quick kiss on the top of the head. Then she waded out until she was waist-deep. Diving under, she swam some distance before surfacing again. The water was not as cold as she had hoped it would be, but still it seemed to help cool the fever of her longing. Glancing toward shore, she saw Gabrielle wading into the lake, and caught sight of the triangle of reddish hair still visible just above the surface of the water.
The younger woman gave a cheery wave, and Xena waved back, then resolutely averted her eyes. Turning onto her back, she floated, staring at the sky without really seeing it. Everything had worked out well, she reminded herself. The Cronus Stone had brought them home, alive and healthy. She was reunited with Gabrielle, and best of all, she had been forgiven. It was more than she had dared to hope for -- more than she deserved. She was happier than she had any right to be.
Lost in thought, Xena did not notice Gabrielle's underwater approach until the younger woman surfaced suddenly at her side and laughingly pushed her under. Water rushed in through her nose, and she came up spluttering and choking, but with Gabrielle's wrists clamped tightly in her hands.
"Ha! I got you!" the bard gasped.
"Yes, but who's got who now?" Xena asked, laughing and coughing at the same time.
"Okay, you've got me, and I surrender," Gabrielle said, wrapping her legs around the warrior's waist.
Xena released the younger woman's wrists, then put her arms around her and pulled her close. With strong kicks, she kept them afloat and began to move them toward shallower water. "You're really in a wicked mood today," she murmured in her lover's ear.
"Yeah, I guess I am," Gabrielle admitted. Then, sliding her hands up in between them, she began to tease Xena's nipples.
The warrior gasped a little as a shock of pleasure ran through her. She stopped kicking, and as her feet drifted downward, they touched the sandy bottom of the lake. Standing up, she began wading slowly toward shore, steadfastly trying to ignore what was happening to her nipples. But just as her breasts emerged from the water, Gabrielle suddenly kicked free and planted herself in front of the warrior. Then, with an impish grin, she bent down, lifted one of Xena's breasts to her mouth, and began to suck.
With a low moan of anguish, Xena pushed her away. "Don't, Gabrielle," she pleaded. "Don't make this harder than it already is." She turned and started to wade away, but Gabrielle caught hold of her arm and stopped her.
"What's so hard about it?" the bard asked quietly.
Xena looked at her. "You know what happened the last time we tried to make love," she said. "I don't want to frighten you like that again."
"You won't," Gabrielle said. "I feel different now."
"What do you mean?" Xena asked as she turned to face her lover again.
"Do you remember how Lizzie kept talking about healing that wouldn't feel like healing at first? Well, I think that's what happened."
Xena raised one eyebrow questioningly, but didn't speak.
"It's kind of hard to explain," Gabrielle went on, "but part of it was my getting captured by those outlaws. When I escaped from them, I felt better about myself -- not so scared and vulnerable and dependent on you for protection anymore."
Xena nodded, but still said nothing. Reaching out, she softly caressed the younger woman's cheek.
"And then when I died-- Well, that gave me a whole new perspective on life, so to speak." Gabrielle stopped and put her own hand overXena's, which she then brought to her lips and kissed. "I saw that the best thing in my life was my love for you," she went on. "And I also saw that I had let my fear and guilt come between us. You wanted to love me, and I just couldn't let you."
"Gabrielle, it wasn't your fault that you reacted that way. Anyone would have."
"I know, but dying helped me look at it differently. And it helped me let go of my fear much sooner than I probably would have otherwise. That's why I'm ready now -- I'm ready to let you touch me, and I'm ready to make love again. Please, Xena," she finished in a whisper. "Please say you still want to."
The warrior hesitated for only the briefest of instants before she scooped Gabrielle up and started once more toward shore, kissing the younger woman as they went. When they reached the blanket, she sank to her knees and laid her lover down, then stretched out on top of her.
The kisses continued, more passionate now, as Xena began to relax and enjoy the intensity of her feelings. Slowly and somewhat cautiously, she moved her hands over Gabrielle's body, and as she felt the younger woman respond, her confidence grew. Still, she wanted to be on the safe side, so after nibbling a little while on one of her favorite earlobes, she murmured, "Gabrielle, if I do anything that hurts you or scares you, I want you to stop me, okay?"
"I will, Xena, I promise," the younger woman said. "But so far, everything you've done feels wonderful."
Encouraged, the warrior let her hands and lips roam more freely, rediscovering all the secret places where a touch or kiss was sure to drive her lover wild. There was a sense of wonder to it all -- almost as if they were making love for the very first time. But there was a beautiful familiarity about it, too. It felt like coming home again.
Xena took her time, trying to control her own urgency while gradually driving Gabrielle's closer and closer to the limit. When she finally slid her hand into the hot, wet place between her lover's legs, she was rewarded with a moan of pure ecstasy.
"Please, Xena! I can't wait much longer!" the younger woman gasped.
The warrior felt her own control slipping away as Gabrielle panted and whimpered beneath her touch. She straddled the bard's thigh and began to move her body against it, even as she slid her fingers up into the velvety softness of her lover's vagina. Gabrielle grasped Xena's breasts in both hands and, bringing one to her mouth, sucked the nipple fervently. Moments later, though, she released it, crying out as her body began to buck and writhe. Xena followed her almost immediately, giving a deep groan when her orgasm broke and then spread in glorious waves all the way out to her fingers and toes.
The two women clung together until it was over, and then collapsed, damp and exhausted, with Xena sprawled halfway across Gabrielle.
For a time, neither of them spoke, and Xena was aware of nothing except the gradually-slowing gasps of their breathing, and the thudding of her own heart.
"That," Gabrielle murmured at last, "was incredible."
"You said it," Xena assented.
"I can't believe we waited so long."
"Mmm, well, maybe that's part of what made it so incredible."
"Yeah, you're probably right."
Xena propped herself up on one elbow and reached over to brush Gabrielle's wet hair out of her face. "It's a good thing you thought to bring this blanket down here," she said. "I don't believe we could have made it all the way back to the campsite."
Gabrielle grinned and then ran a playful finger down Xena's breast and around the circle of her areola.
"You had this whole thing planned, didn't you?" the warrior asked as a new shiver of desire ran through her.
"Yes," Gabrielle said with a smug smile. Then she sat up, pushed Xena over onto her back, and straddled her. "And now I'm planning to torment you the same way you just did me."
"Go ahead, do your worst," Xena said with a weak grin. "I'm powerless to resist."
They did not sleep that night until the moon was far down the western sky. Nor did they wake until Helios had given light to the earth for several hours t he next day. Death had separated them for less than a full day, but there seemed to be so much for them to catch up on and share. And of course there was the lovemaking. How had they done without it for so long? It seemed incredible now to think of all the pain that had come between them since that morning at the cottage when they had last reveled in the pleasures of each other's bodies.
"Xena," Gabrielle said while they were eating a breakfast of bread and cheese, "what are we going to do now?"
"Do? About what?"
"You know what I mean. What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?"
"Oh. Well, can't we just go on with our lives, like before?"
"Yes, I suppose that's what we'll have to do," Gabrielle said, "but don't you feel different? Like we've changed somehow and we're not the same people we were before?"
Xena considered this while she chewed a piece of Lizzie's soft, white bread. "Yes, I guess I do feel different," she admitted, "and you seem different, too. But I think that's what happens when people go through some big experience, like we've just been through. We've seen the future, and that's bound to make us look at the present in a whole new way. But underneath it all, we're still the same two people we've always been, right? It's just that now I have a pocketknife and you have some rubber balls."
Gabrielle laughed. "Okay, so are we still going to Corinth to find Hercules and Iolaus?"
"Well, I'd like to do that, wouldn't you? It would be fun to tell them where we've been and what we've done."
"Oh, yes! I'd like that, too. But do we have to leave right away? It would be nice to spend a few days here -- just the two of us. I feel sort of like we're getting to know each other all over again."
Xena smiled softly at her lover. "That would be very nice," she said. Then she pulled the younger woman close for a kiss. "Have I mentioned yet this morning that I love you?" she murmured when their lips parted.
"No, I don't think so," Gabrielle replied, "but you did say something about it several hundred times during the night."
"Okay, good. I don't want you to forget it," Xena said, and then her lips found Gabrielle's again.
* * *
A few hours later, Xena was standing thigh-deep in the lake, fishing. She had caught one fat carp already and was advancing on a second one, when she heard Gabrielle calling her name. She glanced up to see the bard coming toward her, carrying one of the saddlebags.
Holding her hand up for silence, Xena turned her attention back to the carp. She edged forward a step or two, then suddenly reached under the water and grabbed the fish in both hands. She flung it out onto the shore, where it flopped in the sunlight, sending up a spray of silver droplets.
"Well, that should make us a good dinner," Xena said, "two fish plus all those nice American vegetables." She grinned as she waded out of the water, then bent to brush the water drops off her legs. Gabrielle had not answered, and when the warrior took another look at her, she saw that the younger woman's face wore an expression of pained puzzlement.
"What's wrong?" Xena asked, straightening up.
"Do you know what's in this other saddlebag?" the bard asked.
"No, Gabrielle. I told you that Lizzie did all the packing." Xena walked over to where the younger woman stood, staring into the saddlebag.
"Did you tell her what to pack?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well, yes," Xena said uncertainly. "At least I told her some things I didn't want her to forget."
"Did you tell her to pack this?" Gabrielle asked, thrusting the bag out so that the warrior could see into it.
"By the gods!" Xena whispered. Then she reached in and pulled out a revolver. It was the one she had used in Colorado, but she had never expected to hold it in her hands again. "Herbert must have put this in here," she said, glancing at Gabrielle. "But I never asked him to, I swear. It never even entered my mind that he would do such a thing." She positioned thegun in her hand, handle snug against her palm, finger resting lightly on the trigger. Then, raising it, she peered along the barrel at a tree on the other side of the lake, remembering with pleasure how it felt to fire the pistol. "Are there bullets in there, too?" she asked.
"Yes," Gabrielle said glumly as she pulled out two boxes of ammunition.
Xena nodded. "That should last for quite a while, if we're careful," she said.
"Surely you're not thinking of keeping the thing!" exclaimed the younger woman.
"Well, why not? It was a gift, after all. I can't just throw it away. And I won't use it much -- just for special occasions. You know, like when we have to fight monsters or dragons or big, evil giants." She grinned.
But Gabrielle was not amused. "Listen to me, Xena," she said, clamping an urgent hand on the warrior's arm. "This thing is bad. We can't have it around. What if someone else gets ahold of it? Can you imagine someone like Callisto with a gun? Or even Draco? Or how about Ares? What if Ares got his hands on it?"
Xena stared at her and swallowed hard. "We'll just have to be really careful with it," she said. "Besides, no one else would know how to use it."
"And you don't think they'd figure it out? You're dreaming now, Xena. If Ares got this gun, he'd take it to Hephaestus and have him make hundreds more of them. Don't think he wouldn't."
Xena was silent. The thought of Ares with guns and gunpowder was a chilling one, but she didn't want to admit that Gabrielle was right. "The world is going to have guns someday, no matter what we do," she said quietly. "There will even be guns here in Greece."
"Yes, but not for hundreds of years -- maybe more than a thousand. Just because we know what's coming in the future doesn't mean we have to make it hurry up and happen -- especially not if it's something bad." Gabrielle stopped for a moment to study Xena's face, and then, apparently feeling she was making headway, went on. "We know that guns will be used to kill people -- millions of people. Is that what you want?"
"Gabrielle, we already know how to kill lots of people. We've got swords and bows and catapults and--"
"Yes, but once the gun is invented, things will get worse. Even more people will die. Innocent people. You know that as well as I do."
Gabrielle paused for a moment and laid her hand directly over the pistol. "It was a gun that killed me, Xena," she said in a low voice. "Can you really keep one around without thinking about that every time you use it?"
Xena looked at her. "And if you had been killed by a sword instead of a gun, would you want me to throw my sword away?" she asked.
"No, I guess not," Gabrielle admitted. "You found the flaw in my logic there. But I'm not sure we can look at this from a purely logical point of view anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, remember when we got the Cronus Stone and you just had a gut feeling that it was dangerous and ought to be destroyed?"
"I have the same kind of feeling about this gun. You were right about the Cronus Stone, and I'm right about this. You've got to trust me, Love. Please."
Xena smiled a little and turned her eyes from Gabrielle's face back to the revolver. "You're right," she said softly. "There's no good reason to keep this thing around." She turned it over slowly and ran her fingers across the engraved design. "I guess Herbert didn't think this through very well before he gave it to me."
"Herbert uses a gun every day of his life and probably can't imagine a world in which you don't need one," Gabrielle said.
"Yeah, I guess you're right." Xena turned the gun over again. Her mind knew what needed to be done, but her hands seemed curiously unwilling to do it. "What if I just fire it a few times before I throw it away?" she said, looking hopefully at her companion.
Gabrielle sighed. "All right," she said reluctantly.
Opening one of the little boxes, Xena took out six cartridges and quickly loaded them into the chambers of the revolver. Then she looked around for a moment and selected a tree some forty paces farther along the lakeshore. She pulled the hammer all the way back, aimed carefully, and squeezed the trigger. The report seemed unusually loud, shattering the stillness and sending several terrified birds squawking into the air. Where the bullet hit the tree, it ripped through the bark and left it hanging in ribbons. The smoke from the gunpowder lingered in the air, making Xena's nose burn and her eyes smart.
Lowering the pistol, she turned to Gabrielle. "You're right," she said. "This gun doesn't belong here." Then, drawing her arm back, she flung the weapon far out into the lake and watched it land with a big splash.
"Can I throw these in?" Gabrielle asked, holding up the two boxes of ammunition.
"Sure, go ahead."
So Gabrielle threw the boxes, one at a time, out into the deep water. Then she put her arm around Xena's waist, and the warrior responded by wrapping one hand around her lover's shoulders. The two of them stood silently for a time, watching the ripples spread across the surface of the lake. "Thanks," the younger woman said at last. "I know that was a hard thing for you to do."
"Yes, but it was the right thing to do," Xena said. "And you're the one who inspires me to keep trying to do what's right," she added.
Gabrielle smiled up at her. "You've inspired me a few times, yourself, you know," she said, then added, "I love you, Xena."
"I love you, too," the warrior replied, and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. Then she asked, "What do you want to do this afternoon?"
"You mean, after we have more wild, screaming sex?"
"Yeah. After that," Xena said with a grin.
"Well, I've got a lot of things to write about, so I'd kind of like to get started doing that."
"Okay. Good idea."
"This is going to make one fantastic story, you know," Gabrielle added.
"Yes, I know," Xena said, smiling as she pulled her lover close.