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The Betrayal

by Danielle

That night, Xena couldn't sleep. Not that she ever really could anyway. She always had nightmares. It was okay during the day when it was light and they were moving, and with Gabrielle's constant storytelling, Xena never thought about the past. Well, hardly. But at night, when it was quiet and her friend was asleep, Xena was afraid. Afraid because it was then the darkness enveloped her and she didn't want to be pulled back with it. Sometimes she could feel it entering her, whispering to her, beckoning her, and there were even some times when she almost wanted to listen.

She never told Gabrielle any of this. Because worse than her fear of becoming the evil warrior of her past, she was a hundred, a million times more terrified of losing her best friend. It was an unspoken fear, buried deep within her subconscious, and Xena covered it by being distant and sometimes, even when she didn't want to be, a bit harsh. More than anything, Xena wanted to confide her thoughts and fears to Gabrielle, but she couldn't. She couldn't even tell herself.

Xena, Warrior Princess, scared? She scoffed at herself and began to pace around the campfire. Just a few feet away, Gabrielle was sleeping peacefully, a slight smile on the younger girl's lips. Xena wondered what she was dreaming about.

Gabrielle knew Xena was watching her. And she knew Xena thought she was asleep. This happened every night. Xena would tell her to get some rest and Gabrielle would lie down on the smoothest patch of dirt possible, close her eyes, and pretend to sleep. But the whole night Gabrielle would remain awake, feeling Xena's eyes on her. She wanted more than anything to stay up and talk to her friend, but that wasn't Xena's way. The worst part was knowing Xena was watching her because she could feel how deep the sadness in her eyes was, how much pain Xena was in, was always in. But Xena never rarely talked to her about it, and Gabrielle didn't know what to do. She tried sometimes, but usually when Gabrielle spoke, the words that came out of her mouth were never what she really wanted to say.

But what did she want to really say? This was something she spent hours, days, weeks, mulling over. She had so many questions, so many feelings, so many...

Xena sat down beside her, leather squeaking, so close Gabrielle could feel the warmth from her body. Gabrielle's heart started pounding louder. What if Xena found out she had only been pretending to sleep all this time? What would she do? Xena never told her anything about her feelings but grudgingly and even as long as Gabrielle had been with her, it seemed she only knew the barest details of her best friend's life. What she would give to know everything. Sometimes, she could feel Xena wanting to confide in her. It was the one thing that gave Gabrielle hope, the one reason she stayed.

Gabrielle turned on her side. For some reason, she had an urge to cry.

It was at night when Xena cried. She usually did it far away from Gabrielle even though she thought the girl was asleep. She didn't want to chance her waking up and seeing her. Crying wasn't something a warrior princess should do, it was something she had always thought only people like Gabrielle did. Funny thing was, in all the time she'd known Gabrielle, the girl had cried even less than she. Not that Gabrielle knew that, or ever would. Xena was ashamed. But she was always going to cry, she knew that. She wanted to tell Gabrielle, she wanted to feel the girl comfort her and hold her and tell her she would be okay. She wanted to - no, she wouldn't even let herself think about that....

She couldn't burden Gabrielle with her guilt - she knew the bard would take it upon herself to try and protect her. And that wasn't fair to her. So many times Xena wanted to just give up, she felt so helpless, and it was only being with Gabrielle that saved her. She suspected Gabrielle knew that, but it was unspoken and always would be.

Tonight, the tears had just started with no warning. Usually Xena could go off by herself and control them. But not today. She just sat there by the campfire, silent, strong tears (what other kind could be expected?) coursing down her cheeks. She didn't dare wipe them away, knowing that would just bring more. They ran down her face and fell to the ground. She stared at Gabrielle's beautiful face as though it could bring her strength. But tonight, tonight was different. The tears didn't stop. Xena closed her eyes.

Gabrielle felt a drop of wetness hit her cheek. She resisted the urge to wipe it away. Then Xena would definitely know she had been awake all this time. If it continued, she could just pretend she'd been woken up by the rain. But then another drop fell, near her mouth. It seeped in through the crack of her mouth and she tasted the saltiness of a tear.

Her heart jumped. Xena was crying. Her first instinct was to leap up and take Xena into her arms and hold her. But she knew she couldn't. Xena would never allow it. Gabrielle knew by this time what was expected from her and what her role was. She knew Xena would resist if she tried to do or say anything. But she wanted to. She wanted to more than anything. In the year that she'd known Xena, from the first time she saw her, something about the warrior princess had done something to her. Something inside, feelings she had never had before. They scared her, and excited her. More and more recently she had become aware of them, but she was afraid. Afraid Xena would reject her and then what? Where would she go? A life without Xena was worse than being with her and never telling her how she felt. But how did she feel? Gabrielle couldn't even say the words to herself.

So Gabrielle resisted the urge and stayed on the ground, her heart breaking for the pain Xena was in, the pain she could never seem to make go away. If only Xena would talk to her...This time, she couldn't stop her own tears - the ones for her best friend.

"Gabrielle?" Xena saw her best friend's eyes flutter.

Gabrielle sat up. "Xena?" She yawned, hoping Xena wouldn't notice how fake it was. "What time is it?" She brought her hands up to her eyes pretending to rub them so she could wipe the tears away.

"Late. Why aren't you sleeping?"

"I was."

"No. You weren't."

Gabrielle looked at Xena. Her friend seemed tired, and older. Gabrielle looked down at the ground, picking at some pebbles.

"Gabrielle, how long have you been up?"

Gabrielle looked back at Xena. Her friend's blue eyes bore into her. They were the most incredible eyes she had ever seen. She could look into them all day, and at night they danced in front of her, too. Her own eyes traveled over the rest of Xena's body. So beautiful. What she wouldn't give just to touch her, really touch her, just once. "Uh, not long, I, I just had a bad dream."

Xena stared at her. Gabrielle was lying, she could feel it. She knew Gabrielle knew she'd been crying. Immediately Xena felt embarrassed. And when she felt that way, there was only one way she could act.

"Don't lie to me, Gabrielle. How long have you been watching me?"

"Watching you? What do you mean?" Gabrielle was taken aback by the harshness in Xena's voice.

"Come on, Gabrielle, you and I both know you weren't asleep."

"I was, I -," Gabrielle panicked.

"You saw me crying."

Pause. Gabrielle looked down. "I'm sorry."

"Why are you sorry?"

Gabrielle suddenly took a chance. If Xena just wouldn't reject her, this time, maybe, just maybe...She reached out to touch Xena's shoulder. "Xena, I want to help you. Please, can you let me in, please...that's all I ever wanted, and you never let me , I can help you, I..." That was too much, Gabrielle knew it, but it was too late.

Xena pulled away from Gabrielle's touch. "No, Gabrielle, you can't help me. There is nothing you could ever do for me, nothing. Nothing." As soon as they came out of her mouth, Xena regretted them. But she couldn't take them back. Why did she just say that to her? - It wasn't true! She knew the one thing she could say to take it back, but she couldn't say that either. Could she?

Gabrielle stared back at her. Gods, that girl was beautiful. Some hair was in her face and Xena had to fight the almost irresistible urge to brush it away. But now her blue eyes were filled with tears. Tears Xena had caused. Xena suddenly realized how much she had hurt her friend, how much she always hurt her. And always would. It was her fault, like everything else was.

And this time she couldn't take it anymore. Not Gabrielle. So she did the only thing she could think of. "Just leave me alone."

Those words resounded in Gabrielle's ears. Xena couldn't possibly have meant that. But the coldness in Xena's eyes told her all she wanted to know.

Gabrielle stood up, her own eyes becoming cold. Gabrielle picked up her staff, not looking at Xena. "Goodbye, Xena." With that, she walked off into the darkness.

Xena watched Gabrielle go, her mouth quivering. Her heart was breaking as she tried to keep from screaming out. But she had to do it, or she'd end up hurting her even more as time went on. It wasn't fair to Gabrielle to stay with her, with someone who could never give her the happiness she so deserved. She knew Gabrielle would be better off. Wouldn't she? Wouldn't she?

Gabrielle was not used to being alone. Back in her village, she'd always had her family and her sister Lilla. Not that she ever felt like she really belonged there, but a home was a home. And while she had been lonely, she had never been *alone*, really.

And then she had been with Xena. And that had felt so right. So for her whole life, Gabrielle had not once had to think about what she would do on her own. She had naively never thought she would have to.

She couldn't go back to her village. It wasn't her home anymore. Her true home had been with Xena, she knew that. Her home had been Xena. Now all that was gone, too.

She felt a flash of anger. How could Xena do that to her? All the times she had been there for her and stood up for her and tried to help her - how could she be so cruel? Didn't Xena know how much she -

No, she didn't, Gabrielle told herself. She never knew how I felt, I never told her. And you know what? I'm glad I didn't tell her, because I don't even know how I feel, not anymore. I'm glad I didn't tell, I'm glad. "I'm glad!" she screamed out into the forest. "I'm glad!!!!!" She threw her staff against a tree and an unhappy owl flew out of its home, hooting wildly. Gabrielle sank to the ground, hand over her face. "I will not cry," she told herself. "I won't, I won't, I won't," but she did anyway.

Xena was used to being alone. Even in her village she had always felt like an outsider. Only Lyceus had even tried to get to know her, and only then as much as she would allow, and really most probably because he was her brother and felt a little bit obligated. No one else bothered. Xena didn't really care - or, at least, she pretended not to. She knew from the very beginning she was different. She liked being different - until it led her to causing Lyceus to get killed - she would always blame herself for that. And then after that she never really liked being different anymore.

Not until Gabrielle. Gabrielle changed her in ways she never thought anyone could. She had given her so much, so much understanding no one else had cared enough to. Marcus, Marcus was a wonderful man, but Xena had been with him during a time when she wasn't so wonderful herself. A time she didn't want to remember, but the time that would forever shape her life and her feelings. She had killed so many...

...But she wouldn't hurt Gabrielle. As much as it destroyed her to make Gabrielle leave, she knew she had to do it. It was for Gabrielle, it was all for Gabrielle.

Now what, she thought to herself. Now what do I do? It made her laugh. She felt lost. With Gabrielle by her side, she knew exactly what she had to do. It was as if helping all those people was important because Gabrielle saw her do it. Now she felt like it didn't matter anymore. Like nothing mattered anymore.

A noise up above startled her. An owl was flying by, hooting angrily. I wonder what got him up, thought Xena. Maybe he can't sleep either.

Xena turned back to the campfire. It was slowly dying down. Xena reached over and picked up the blanket Gabrielle had been sleeping on. She didn't even take any food, Xena thought. She began to get up, but thought the better of it. She'll be fine, she's not a child, she's told me that herself many times. I know it, I've seen it. I know how much she's grown up these past months.

Xena held the blanket up to her cheek. It smelled like Gabrielle.

Gabrielle stood up. I'm gonna be fine, she told herself. Just fine. I don't need anyone to take care of me. She started walking more confidently. Maybe that was my problem - maybe I depended too much on other people. Well, not anymore, not anymore.

It was getting light out and Gabrielle felt less and less afraid. She didn't know where she was going, but she didn't care. At every step, her legs moved faster, her face became more set. I should have done this a long time ago. I don't know why Xena kept me around so long anyway, I mean, I obviously meant nothing to her. She just tolerated me.

She suddenly stopped. Wind whistled past her cheek and she brought her hand up to her face. A FLASH - and she remembered-

A GREEN FIELD. Gabrielle stepped out into the sunshine, smiling. It was so beautiful. But something was wrong, something was missing.

"Xena?" she called out. "Xena? Where are you?"

No answer. But at the other end of the field was a group of people, waving at her. She began to jog over, still looking out for her friend.

Her grandparents were in that group, so was Tallus, everyone she had ever known and loved who had died. It was so wonderful to see them all. She smiled, but there was still something wrong. She wasn't happy.

"I'm dead, aren't I." It was a statement, but Tallus nodded anyway.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle."

It was perfect there. Gabrielle should have loved it, but she couldn't. It felt like she had left a part of herself somewhere. Tallus took her aside.

"It's Xena, isn't it?"

"How did you know?" She asked. His eyes bore into her and he smiled sweetly. "Everyone knows," he replied.

"What do you mean?"

At that moment, she felt something tugging her. A little at first, but then she felt it so strongly she almost couldn't breathe. She felt herself gliding back from where she had come, faster and faster. She reached out for Tallus.

"What's happening? Wait!!!"

Tallus waved at her. "You're going back where you're needed more than here, Gabrielle."

At every pull, Gabrielle felt it more and more inside of her. A feeling so powerful she couldn't even explain it. It was a feeling she had only dreamed about. It was incredible.

"Say hi to Xena for me," Tallus called out.

EVERYTHING WENT BLACK. Gabrielle closed her eyes and WHAM! her breath came flooding back and her eyes popped open.

Immediately Xena pulled Gabrielle to her, her hand caressing Gabrielle's cheek, tears and sweat running down her own face. "You're alright," Xena whispered to her, then kissed her forehead. Gabrielle just stared up at Xena, trying to catch her breath. Xena pulled her close and rocked her, her body pressed against Gabrielle's. It felt so good to be back with her. So right.

FLASH - Gabrielle pulled her hand away from her cheek, her face stony again. I should have stayed there, with everyone. Xena didn't need me. Tallus was wrong. She didn't need me.

Gabrielle kept on her way. Alone.

Xena sat on Argo, letting the horse lead the way. She had unconsciously followed Gabrielle's trail away from their camp. When she realized what she was doing, it was too late to turn back. Too late. She laughed at herself. She always seemed to be doing everything too late.

Argo whinnied at a squirrel that ran by. It distracted Xena for a second. She felt lost again suddenly, aimless. Where would she go now? She had no home. Her home was with Gabrielle.

She could feel the tears coming, but this time she stopped them. She wouldn't cry over Gabrielle again. It wasn't the girl's fault she couldn't let herself feel. But she hadn't wanted to hurt Gabrielle, couldn't she see that? She did it for her. She did it all for her.

Without wanting to, she remembered the last time she had cried over Gabrielle...

Xena held Gabrielle in her arms, frantic. "Come on, breathe! Wake up and breathe!" she cried, shaking her. She'd tried everything. Not even her own breath had worked. Everyone around her was staring at her with pity, shaking their heads. She was hysterical, more hysterical than she had ever been in her own life. She couldn't even hear what the others were saying, all she could see was Gabrielle. Gabrielle, her friend, the one person in this world that meant more to her than anything else. She couldn't die, not Gabrielle! Not her...

She yelled at her. "Don't you leave me!" Maybe if she yelled loud enough, Gabrielle would hear her. She had never felt so helpless, so useless. "Don't leave me, don't leave me!" She began to bang on her chest. It was too late, she was dead. "Wake up!" She hit Gabrielle again. "Wake up...." Nothing. Xena was choking on her own tears, her own horror. One more time. "Wake up!!!!"

Gabrielle suddenly came alive. Xena gathered her into her arms, unbelieving, shaking, shuddering with fear. At that moment, she would never have let go of Gabrielle again.

She remembered -

ANOTHER TIME. Gabrielle thought she was dead. She had sat by her prone body, and stared at her, as if trying to memorize her face. She was so calm, so strong, where Xena wasn't. Gabrielle had reached out and traced her eyelid with her finger, brushed back her hair, then reached over and ever-so-gently given her a soft kiss. The edge of Gabrielle's lips had touched the edge of hers.

When Xena was under, all she could think about was what was going to happen to Gabrielle and how she had to get back for her.

But now Xena had let her go again. Xena had never minded being alone before. Now it was killing her.

Gabrielle walked out from the forest and into a field and saw the boy standing about ten yards in front of her. He wasn't exactly a boy, really - he was probably not much younger than her. His hair was dark brown and came to his shoulders. His green eyes burned brightly, and she couldn't take her own eyes off of them, they were so captivating. He stood there, staring at her. Immediately she was wary, then laughed at herself for it. Suspicion of people was something she'd never had before she met Xena. But those days were over. People had only attacked them because they were afraid of Xena, or hated her, not knowing how much she'd changed. But why would anyone attack her? Gabrielle felt her old trust flowing through her. She didn't have to be afraid. So what if Xena weren't around to protect her, she didn't need that anymore.

She approached him carefully anyway, however, clutching her staff just a little bit tighter. He smiled brightly at her. "Hello," he said.

"Hi." He looked really nice. The exact type of boy she always seemed to attract. She never was really "attracted" to them like that although she wasn't sure why. She tried to like them, but it always turned out to be more of a "friend"-type relationship. Her sister and her had countless nighttime conversations about what it was supposed to be like to fall in love, but Gabrielle had never felt that feeling with any boy. Her sister had a thousand boys she'd liked, and Gabrielle pretended to as well because she didn't want Lilla to think anything was wrong with her. But she had not felt "that" way about anyone in her life. Except...

Gabrielle shook her head. The boy looked at her strangely. "I'm Christopher," he said.

"Gabrielle," she returned curtly, her mind still on something else. Someone else.

"Well, Gabrielle, I'm sorry, don't let me keep you from where you're going," he smiled, stepping aside, bowing his arm.

Gabrielle suddenly felt foolish. She blushed, and smiled widely. "I'm sorry, Christopher, I was just - thinking about something. Nothing, really."

"I could see that," he grinned again. "Sure must have been an important nothing." Gabrielle suddenly thought how cute he was. The dark hair, the eyes - Maybe, maybe if she tried this time, it would be different. Maybe she could forget about -

"Do you live around here?" She didn't see a village anywhere in sight. Just fields, rocks, and the forest behind where she had just come.

"I live everywhere," Christopher replied. "The world is my home."

"Me, too, I guess," said Gabrielle.

Christopher stared at her for a few seconds. "Would you like something to eat?"

In all that had happened, Gabrielle had not thought about food. Now suddenly, her stomach growled. "If it's not any trouble."

"Not at all. Come, sit down, I'll be right back."

"Thank you," Gabrielle said as Christopher led her to a rock. She sat down and watched as he disappeared behind a huge boulder. She smiled as she watched him go. Maybe she would be okay after all.

But something nagged at her, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.

Xena walked next to Argo, but she might have well have been asleep, for all the attention she was paying to where she was going. At least three times, she tripped over stones and tree roots, yanking down hard on Argo's bridle, pulling the horse's head down with her. "I'm sorry," she said to the mare. But Argo didn't seem to mind. The horse was listless and seemed tired herself. It was as if even she knew something was different. Wrong.

Suddenly, an arrow whistled through the air, missing Xena's head by a fraction of an inch, spearing into a tree beyond. For a fraction of a second, Xena didn't know what to do, it was as if she was helpless, for the first time in a long time. But then, she regained herself and immediately whirled around, just in time to catch an arrow aimed straight between her eyes.

A man stood there, a bow and arrow in his hand. He looked like a wolf. "Xena. I thought it was you. Good thing, too. You would have been dead."

"Nice way to say hello, Kenneth." Xena snapped the arrow in two and threw it down to the ground. "Now good-bye."

She turned back around and continued walking. Kenneth jogged up to her. "Xena, is that how you greet an old friend after ten years?"

She refused to look at him. "You were never my friend, Kenneth."

"Oh, that's right. Xena, warrior princess, doesn't have any friends."

Xena stopped in her tracks. "No," she said, more to herself. "I don't."

Kenneth eyed her strangely. "You don't seem like yourself, Xena. I'd heard you'd changed, but this is too much. What happened to the real you?" His eyes glinted. "What happened to the world's greatest murderer?" He reached out to touch her shoulder but she grabbed his arm, teeth gritted, and twisted it.

"You don't want to get me angry, Kenneth. Not today." She dropped his arm and he rubbed it. She continued walking.

"I see you still have it in you, Xena," he called after her. "You're still that killer you always were and, no matter what you try to do now, you always will be."

The words stung her. But she didn't let on. She kept walking. Yet, once more, her feet slipped out from under her and she stumbled forward. Were it not for her hand on Argo's steady bridle, she would have fallen into the dirt.

Gabrielle finished the fish Christopher had cooked. It wasn't nearly as good as the ones Xena used to catch, but she couldn't complain. The boy had been so nice, telling her tales of his travels, and little anecdotes. He had been so many places, all on his own, and had really enjoyed himself. She thought, while listening to him, it didn't seem so bad at all, to be alone. She might even have a good time. However, once again, she felt no feelings for him, as she felt about every man she had ever met. But she wouldn't admit to herself why.

She had barely said a word all afternoon. She had so many stories, so many tales she knew he would love to hear, the ones she loved and knew so well. But they were all about Xena. And she just couldn't bring herself to say her name. He didn't prod her, but a few times, she caught him glancing at her pensively. She kept her head down.

"Gabrielle," Christopher finally said. "I can see you don't really want to talk. I just want to offer to you that you can stay with me for awhile, if you have no other place to go."

She had had a place to go less than twenty-four hours ago. But not anymore. But she wouldn't, couldn't, tell Christopher about that. For once she was no longer just Xena's sidekick, she was her own person, and she wanted to keep it that way. She had sworn to herself that she would no longer depend on anyone for her life. From now on, it would just be her. "I'd like to," she began, "but, I can't. You've done so much for me already."

He nodded, standing up as she did. "I'd better be on my way. Thank you, so much, Christopher."

He put out his arm and touched hers. "Really, Gabrielle, I think you might want to stay. It can be dangerous out there for a girl all on her own. You never know who you could meet. They might not all be as friendly as me."

"I'll be fine. I can take care of myself." She inched away from him, not wanting to touch him again. His touch seemed very odd in ways she couldn't explain. His green eyes glowed at her. She was suddenly very uncomfortable.

"I guess Xena taught you a few tricks then," he said.

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, turning to catch a glimpse of her staff a few feet away on the ground. "How did you know I knew Xena?"

"Everyone knows about Xena and her little 'friend'. So where is she?" he said, looking around.

"We're not - traveling together anymore."

"A fight?" he asked. "Too bad."

"No, not a fight," she backed up, closer to her staff. "I've got to go."

Christopher smiled at her again. But this time, the smile was no longer friendly. It was downright threatening. "No," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think you're going anywhere."

Xena felt a dull pain inside of her head. She brought a hand up to massage her temples. It wasn't unusual for her to get a headache, but, like everything else, she never voiced the pain, not to Gabrielle, not to anyone. They came and went whenever they pleased, but they were always a given. Like the tears. Like Gabrielle used to be.

Used to be. Not anymore. Just one more time, Xena wanted to hear the girl's voice. At first, she didn't think she'd ever be able to get used to listening to her talking all the time, but now she realized how much she really depended on it. She had depended on Gabrielle too much. She had never let herself feel that way about anyone before. And that was another good reason the girl was gone, she told herself. I can't depend on anyone but myself, I shouldn't, she said over and over. I can't trust anyone but myself. Never again. Never again.

Xena felt a coldness overcome her. One she hadn't felt in a long time. It was the only way she had survived before, being able to steel herself against the hurt. But she couldn't make it last. Something was happening, she could feel it. Something was wrong, something that was her fault. Something with Gabrielle. She had to do something.

No, she berated herself. Gabrielle's fine. She's - something caught in her throat and she coughed. Her eyes teared up. Something was definitely wrong.

Argo stopped and snorted at something in front of her. Xena glared at her horse. "Come on," she said, pulling at the bridle. She didn't know where she was going, but she knew she had to get there, and soon. Argo began to rear and buck, refusing to go any further. A squeal escaped the horse's throat and she took off, galloping past Xena into the forest beyond.

"Argo!" Xena cried out. She was beginning to panic about Gabrielle. A terrible fear flooded through her. She brought her fingers up to her mouth to whistle. Just then, her headache shot darts into her brain and she fell to her knees, her hands holding her head. As she fell, an arrow caught her from behind, getting her in the right shoulder blade. It had been aimed at her head.

Xena pitched forward, hand reaching for her chakram. Blood poured from her shoulder and ran in streams to her fingers as she desperately grabbed for the weapon. But it was too late. Just as she was about to hurl it, Kenneth was standing above her. He wielded a sword above her throat, the tip of it touching her neck. And he dug the blade into her skin, smiling all the while.

Drops of blood formed on her skin around the tip of the sword. Xena lay on the forest floor, one hand trapped beneath her body, the other under Kenneth's hand. Yet she glared up at her attacker with the strength of one who has been to Tartarus and back. The pain was immense but she wouldn't let on. Kenneth twisted the blade further into her neck. Xena didn't flinch once although she could even almost taste the blood in her throat.

The arrow that still protruded from her shoulder sank in deeper as she was forced to lean back even further on it. She was losing so much blood, she could feel its stickiness beginning to cover the ground beneath her. Waves of heat rushed over her. She was going into shock. She couldn't think. There was nothing she could do. She knew this man, he wasn't anyone, why had he been able to catch her off guard like that? Why had she not heard him coming? That never happened to her! Why now? Why him? Was she really going to die like this, here? She realized now no one would bury her with Lyceus.

She closed her eyes. So what if she died. It wasn't like anyone would even care, not really anyway. Her mother might be sad, but she must have expected it at some point from her warrior daughter. Toris would be there to comfort her mother, but to him, it wouldn't be a sister who had died, just a stranger like she always was. She didn't really have a family to mourn her. Just Gabrielle. She had told Gabrielle once that she meant more to her than blood ties ever could. But Xena had betrayed her family, and she had betrayed Gabrielle. After the way she had treated her, maybe she deserved this. Her past had finally caught up with her. And if she died, it would all be over, everything. After she was dead, she couldn't hurt anyone ever again. It was small comfort.

She could feel herself slipping away as Kenneth continued to slowly torture her by ever-so-slowly shoving the blade into her neck. It would be so easy just to give more pain...maybe she would be able to sleep again...

A BRIGHT FLASH - behind her eyes. GABRIELLE. Gabrielle was in trouble. She was hurt. Xena could feel it. Everything came tumbling back - the reason why she hadn't heard Kenneth approach. She had been too occupied with Gabrielle.

"I always wanted to have you in this position, Xena," Kenneth smiled at her. "Under my complete control."

Xena opened her eyes once more. "Never," she whispered fiercely at him. "Never." And then she sank into darkness.

Gabrielle looked at Christopher. The green eyes she had found so intriguing were now making her sick but she couldn't stop looking at them. They mesmerized her. "Who are you?" she asked.

He smiled. "Someone who hates you, Gabrielle."

"Why do you hate me? I've never seen you before in my life."

"Oh, no, you don't know me, that's true. But you're friends with Xena. And Xena does know me. She knows how much I loathe her, how much I curse her, how much I want to kill her. And I'm going to. With your help."

Gabrielle yanked her staff up off the ground. "I'll never help you." She held it out in front of her. His eyes were still on her.

Christopher made no move except to smile at her again. "I'm not going to fight you, Gabrielle. I'm not stupid, I know I wouldn't win. I won't have to fight you. You're going to bring Xena to me all on your own."

Gabrielle had to laugh. "Why do you think that? There is no way I would ever do that. I'm leaving."

"Go ahead, try it."

Gabrielle took a step backwards. His eyes were still locked on hers and she suddenly couldn't move. They had captivated her.

"What are you doing to me?"

Christopher grinned even wider than before. "In twenty-four hours you will die. By your own hand. But...if you bring Xena to me before then, I can take this curse off. I can save you." He walked close to her and reached out to touch her face. "I'd like to save you."

She jerked away. "Never," she spat. "Never." But his eyes still stayed on hers and her feet were frozen.

"Listen to me, Gabrielle. You don't want to die. You haven't done anything wrong. Maybe you had a poor choice of company, but that's not enough of a sin to die for. But Xena, Xena's done so much wrong. It was only a matter of time before she got hers. If it wasn't me, it would just be someone else. But I want it to be me. You can understand that, right? I know you can."

CALLISTO flashed before Gabrielle's eyes, Perdicus' dead body. It had been such a mistake to marry him, but Gabrielle had been so confused. Christopher still stared at her as if seeing what she saw. "Yes, Gabrielle. You listen to me. You hate Xena. You hate her."

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No," she whispered, the last of her resolve draining away. His eyes were so...powerful, so entrancing.

He continued, "Gabrielle. I want you to find Xena and bring her to me. Bring her alive. If you can't do it within twenty-four hours, you will kill yourself." He brought out a small pouch and handed it to her. "Take this. It's poison. I want you to ingest it if you fail. Because you will not be allowed to live if you fail. Do you understand? It's either Xena or you."

Gabrielle nodded, her hand clutching the small pouch. She tucked it into the top of her shirt.

Christopher smiled. "Now you may go." He took his eyes off Gabrielle's.

Immediately the girl sucked in her breath. What had just happened? She backed away from Christopher, the staff out in front of her. "I'm leaving," she called after him. "Don't try and stop me."

"Oh, I would never do that," he said, waving after her. "Good-bye, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle wanted to continue the way she had been going. But for some reason, her feet wouldn't let her. She began to retrace her steps, leading back the way she had come.

She had a headache. It throbbed mercilessly. All Gabrielle could think about was Xena. She didn't know why, but she had to find her.

Xena regained consciousness thinking about Gabrielle. The girl's irresistible smile, her intelligent eyes, the awkwardness she used to have becoming grace. The way she believed in Xena when no one else did. If there was one reason Xena didn't die, it was Gabrielle. If the girl was in trouble, she had to help her.

She opened her eyes into blackness. Something covered her eyes. Her arms and legs were trapped. In her mouth was something soft as well. She couldn't move.

"Xena," she heard Kenneth's voice by the side of her head. "I see you're up. That's good. I wanted you to be awake when I killed you."

His voice moved and Xena tried to follow it. "Let me tell you what I'm going to do so you can know what to expect. I hear it hurts more that way."

His breath was right on her face. Xena tried to shrink back, but the constraints prevented her from doing so.

"Xena," she heard him sneer. "You are tied to a wooden pole. Around you, all around you, are sticks, twigs, hay, things that can be burned easily. Like you will be once I set this fire."

Xena could smell the smoke now. It was right by her face. She could hear it sizzling. A spark jumped onto her ear and burned.

"Why am I doing this, you might ask." But Xena didn't have to ask. She knew this man well. He had traveled in her army many years ago until she had banished him because she had caught him stealing. At the time, she had given him an ultimatum - either he was to leave quietly and never return, or she could reveal to the others what he had been doing and chance even being killed by them in disgrace. Of course he had chosen to leave quietly. However, on his way out, some of the men caught him anyway, and taking him as a coward not wanting to fight for Xena, they had beaten him and left him for dead. When Xena finally found out what was happening, she stopped it. Again, she helped him, she let him leave, this time, in disgrace.

For a long time, she had thought he would be back to try some sort of revenge, knowing he blamed her for what had happened. But she had always dismissed him as harmless, one of the worst warriors she had had on her side regardless. And now, more than ten years later, he had finally caught up with her. When she had first seen him, she'd had more on her mind than to worry about him. For some reason, she had underestimated his anger.

He whispered in her ear as more sparks jumped onto her flesh. "I don't hate you for letting them beat me. I hate you for not letting me die. You knew how much worse it would be for me to live in disgrace, alone, but you did it anyway. And now it's your turn to feel how I felt all those years."

If he only knew that she did know how he felt, alone. She had always been alone, her whole life, until Gabrielle. And she would die alone.

Gabrielle kept walking. It was still daylight and the sun hurt her eyes. The headache still throbbed. How long had she been walking? Where was she going? Why couldn't she remember anything that had happened that afternoon? All she could think was the guy had been nice, but a little weird. All she could remember about him was the color of his eyes. They had been so, so unreal. And now she had an overwhelming urge to find Xena, and soon, or...she didn't know. There was something she had to tell her, or do for her. But why couldn't she remember what it was?

Gabrielle brought her hand up to her head again. She knew something wasn't right, but what?

A sharp NEIGH woke Gabrielle out of her reverie. Argo burst out of the foliage, barreling straight towards the girl. At the last second, Argo screeched to a halt, wheeling nervously, whinnying.

"Argo?" Gabrielle said, surprised. "What are you doing here? Where's Xena?" A wave of apprehension washed over her. Something was happening to Xena. The horse had never really liked Gabrielle, but she did trust her, Gabrielle knew that.

Gabrielle mounted the horse, her headache disappearing into the fear she suddenly felt. For some reason, all she was thinking about was that she needed to get Xena alive.

"Bring me to her, Argo." Gabrielle didn't have to ask twice. The horse galloped off the way it had come.

Xena felt the heat and the sparks all around her. Less than two feet from her. Soon, she would feel the flames crawling up her body, eating away at her flesh. She remembered Sirrah and all the innocent people who had died there like this. Somehow this was very fitting.

Kenneth stood back, watching his handiwork. For ten years he had planned this, obsessed over finding Xena and destroying her, but he never knew how easy it would be. Xena really was slipping. It was almost as if she had wanted this, like she had been looking for an excuse to give up. It brought him less pleasure than he had expected.

A twinge of guilt hit him which he brushed away. He put his head down and walked away into the forest. He would watch from there.

As the flames crept closer and closer, Xena began to remember. All the people she had killed, their deaths, the blood, the screams, the hatred and anger that had consumed her body for so long. All that Gabrielle had taken away. Xena had never truly felt love before, and she had never felt someone's love for her. She didn't want to let it happen, but it had. She knew why she had to make Gabrielle leave. She knew she couldn't face her own feelings for her. She had been afraid. Always, afraid.

The heat was closer now. Xena let her head hang down. Kenneth was right. It made her sick once more to know that she created this person, that she had begun all the hatred herself. She had no one to blame. All the fight and spirit had left her. Everything left with Gabrielle. He was right. It was time for her to die.

The wind swept through Gabrielle's hair as Argo's feet skipped over rocks. The two flew back to where Xena was. All Gabrielle could think was she had to get there soon, or something was going to happen.

As Argo ran, Gabrielle's mind wandered back to Christopher. What had happened between them? She had enjoyed his company, she could feel that, but something else was bugging her.

Twenty-four hours. The number was etched in her mind. What was going to happen in twenty-four hours?

For a split second, she felt a terrible fear, a horrifying sense of loss. And then she saw XENA, lying on the ground.

Gabrielle jumped off of Argo and ran to her best friend. Xena lay on her stomach, not moving, her arms bent backward. Gabrielle turned her over.

The blue eyes were blank, the face pale. Xena was dead. Her mouth was frozen in an expression of horror.

Gabrielle pulled Xena to her. "Xena," she cried. "Xena!!!!" She turned her face up to the sky and howled. "NO!!!!!!!!!"

FLASH - A ROCK IN FRONT OF HER. Gabrielle snapped back into reality just as Argo made the giant leap. But Gabrielle didn't. She was unprepared and fell off the horse, smashing her head into the rock.

Gabrielle rolled off the boulder to the forest floor, body limp, blood running down the side of her face.

Xena's head jerked up. Gabrielle. Something was happening to Gabrielle. She had to help her, she had to get out of there. The flames licked at her legs. It was no time to give up, not now, not with Gabrielle hurt, she had to do something!

From thirty yards away, while sitting on a rock, Kenneth watched Xena suddenly come to life. After half an hour of seeing her head droop, her lifeless body just waiting to be burned, he had felt more disgust with the woman he had hated rather than taking pleasure at her demise from his hands. But now...Blindfolded, gagged, and tied to the stake, Xena was utterly helpless. The new Xena was. But no one could tell the old Xena she couldn't do anything, she was trying anyway. Finally. Finally, he thought. This he watched with interest. He almost wanted her to get free.

Xena's mind was working overtime as she raced to loosen herself from her bonds. Gabrielle. Her best friend. The one person she trusted. Her life. Her lo-

Flames spit at her hands, burning her. She couldn't jerk them away. Her skin began to sizzle. There was nothing she could do. Why hadn't she tried earlier? Now Gabrielle could be dead. Because of her. Always because of her.

Within her mind rose a scream. A scream like no other she had ever uttered before. With it came the strength she needed to yank one hand free.

Kenneth sat up. He almost couldn't see Xena anymore, she was surrounded by the flames, but he thought he almost heard something. But that would be impossible. He tried to reassure himself, but his mind kept on going back to the same motto he had based his entire plan of revenge on. "Don't ever underestimate Xena." He got up and began to walk over.

Furiously, gritting her teeth and steadfastly ignoring the pain, Xena got her other hand free. The entire arm was numb - Kenneth hadn't even bothered to remove the arrow, it still stuck out of her shoulder. She could already smell the scent of her death. Not too many minutes ago, she was awaiting it, even looking forward to leaving the world. Now she fought it. She had to get to her friend, it was all that mattered. The only thing that got her through was thinking about Gabrielle, as it always was.

She bent over, fire burning her hair, her arms, as she hurriedly ripped away the rope at her legs. She was free,

She gathered up her strength and with an "Iyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi," flipped over the fire into the safe clearing beyond.

She rolled to the ground, extinguishing the flames, as she yanked off the blindfold and gag. The first thing she saw was Kenneth, leering at her. Once again, he had the sword in his hand, and once again, it was pointed at her throat.

"Not so fast, Xena."

Argo stood over Gabrielle's prone body, nudging her with her muzzle, whinnying. The girl remained motionless. The cut on her forehead grew uglier as the blood refused to clot. It ran into the corners of her mouth.

In her mind, all Gabrielle could see was flames. Flames all around her, threatening, but not touching her. A path led her to the center of the flames, to a wooden stake. Xena was tied to the stake, burning and bleeding, head down, eyes closed. It was the most terrifying sight Gabrielle had ever seen. Xena - completely helpless. It was something Gabrielle never thought she would have to know. Not her Xena. Being helpless was Gabrielle's strong suit. But Xena - not Xena.

But times had changed. Gabrielle had grown up. She had been face-to-face with evil. And while she had never killed, she had seen its face many times, enough to realize it had rubbed off on her. The feelings that went along with it. She knew why Xena was how she was, even if Xena never said it. She understood the depth of her pain, even if she didn't exactly have it herself.

But when Xena felt pain, Gabrielle did, too. She always had and she always would. Staring at Xena's burning body, Gabrielle suddenly came to life. She ran over to her, beating away flames as she undid the ropes. Xena fell limply into her arms. There was no way she could be alive.

But with Gabrielle touching her, Xena's eyes fluttered open one last time.

Gabrielle was caressing Xena's face, brushing her hair back. "Xena," she said. "Don't talk."

"I have to," Xena said, with effort. "I'm so sorry."

"There's nothing to be sorry about, Xena."

Xena nodded. In her weakened state, the tears were flowing relentlessly from her eyes. She stared up at Gabrielle and one last time, spoke. "I love you, Gabrielle."

She was dead. Gabrielle held onto her friend in utter shock. She began to shake. "Why, Xena?" She held her friend closer, her face pressed against Xena's bloodied one. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

She brought her lips down to Xena's. She tasted Xena's blood. It was in her mouth.

GABRIELLE tasted her own blood. It was choking her. She sat up, pain shooting through her body. The first thing she saw was Argo, frantically trotting back and forth. When the horse saw her, she whinnied, urgently. Gabrielle knew. She stood up, ignoring the pain and got on the rock. She slid onto Argo and the two were off running.

"We're coming, Xena," she whispered. "We're coming."

This time, Xena didn't even think twice. She grabbed the blade of Kenneth's sword and managed to yank back so hard on it that he flipped over, hitting the dirt with his back. Immediately, she stood over him. He was grinning.

"Xena. You're back," he smiled. "You know, I'm actually glad. I was wondering what was going on with you."

Xena, breathing heavily, held the sword against him. All she could think about was getting the arrow out of her back, it was hurting so much. It was still bleeding and she knew that soon she would be too weak to do anything. And she had to save her energy to help Gabrielle. If Kenneth really tried, he could do more damage to her than he maybe thought.

But if she just killed him now. She brought the sword closer to his neck, and saw the fear in his eyes. She saw the fear that had been there for ten years, ever since he had left her army, in disgrace. She knew how he felt, all alone, afraid, wanting revenge because it was the only thing that kept him from completely hating himself.

Maybe he had been right. Maybe she should have let him die right from the beginning. Then he never would have had all that pain.

Xena knew without Gabrielle she would have been dead a long time ago.

Xena stared into Kenneth's eyes. She didn't want to kill him. But everything she saw in his eyes told her differently. He wanted her to do it. He had wanted her to do it ten years ago. It wasn't something you asked.

He lay back defiantly, as if daring her to go ahead. Xena lifted up the sword. "Go. Get outta here."

Kenneth slowly stood up. "The old Xena would have killed me."

"No," she said. "The old Xena didn't kill you either."

Kenneth shook his head. "You're always doing the wrong thing, Xena. You never learn. You had your chance. You never learn. If you're not going to do it," he took the sword from her, rather easily. "I will."

He raised the sword up high.

Gabrielle was almost there. She could feel it. Argo ran faster.

Kenneth raised the sword up high. Xena just watched him, motionless, as if in a trance. "This is on your head, Xena", he said, as he plunged the sword down.

Gabrielle raced into the clearing in time to see the man with Xena lifting his sword and bringing it down. "No!!!!!!!!!!!!" she cried as she and Argo hurtled forward. But it was too late.

The sword pierced straight into the heart. Kenneth stood there, holding onto the sword now in his own flesh where he had put it. And he was smiling at Xena. "You finally killed me, Xena," he said as he fell to the ground, dead.

Xena, stunned, watched the man die. She didn't even see as Gabrielle jumped off Argo and ran to her. All that was in her eyes was the blood.

Gabrielle took everything in in one glance. Her friend stood stock still, an expression of terror in those beautiful blue eyes. Gabrielle reached forward and touched Xena. Xena jumped back, finally seeing Gabrielle as if for the first time.

Neither of them said a word. Both looked as if they were already dead. Only their eyes said any differently.

"You came back," Xena said with a slight smile.

Gabrielle finally saw the arrow in Xena's shoulder. "Xena, your shoulder, here let me..."

As Gabrielle came closer, Xena began to lose consciousness again. Gabrielle was all right, she was all right. With a slight smile on her pained face, Xena fell heavily into Gabrielle's arms. The only words out of her mouth: "You came back."

Ignoring her own wounds and aching body, Gabrielle worked all night on removing the arrow. She remembered exactly what Xena had taught her, but remembering and actually doing were not the same thing. Argo stood nearby, impatiently flicking her tail. "Yeah, I'd like to see you do this," Gabrielle told her.

Gabrielle undressed Xena carefully. A few times, she had to stifle her gasps of horror when she saw the burns and cuts all over the warrior's body. Xena had been in fights before, but never one that had left her so badly beaten up.

It took about an hour, but Gabrielle finally extracted the arrow. Once in her hands, she hurled it away like it was contaminated. It hit the base of a tree and Argo gave a little hop in the air at the sound, as if she was as tense as Gabrielle had been. She probably was, Gabrielle thought.

A few times, as she bandaged Xena, her gaze wandered over to the man who lay only several feet away from them, his eyes still open in death, the blood lying in streams from his body. She shuddered, wondering who he was and what he had done and why. Why did people hate Xena so much? Why couldn't they see how wonderful she was. Gabrielle saw it, she'd seen it the first time she watched Xena defeat Draco. No one could ever make her believe Xena was evil. She alone had gotten through Xena's thick shell, even if only a bit. But it was enough. Xena had let her and only her and in a way, it had made her so proud. She was Xena's chosen one. But there was only so much she could take. She was so confused, and Xena not talking to her didn't help that.

Gabrielle had seen the stake and the burnt hay and ropes that lay in shards around it. She had seen the open, raw, rope burns around Xena's arms and legs and it made her sick with the knowledge of what Xena had gone through. How did she get away? And what gave her the strength to do it?

But knowing Xena, she would never tell her. If Xena lived. With the looks of things, it was a miracle Xena wasn't dead. She should have been.

That only made Gabrielle more guilty. She blamed herself. It took all her strength to not cry as she washed Xena's wounds. She only had a few ointments from Argo's saddlebag with which to clean Xena's body. As she carefully moved the cloth over Xena's flesh, she couldn't help noticing once again how beautiful the warrior was. Gabrielle had never seen anyone more beautiful than Xena. Strong emotions ran through her as she sat staring at Xena, ones she had only read about, ones she had never felt with anyone else, and now knew she never would. If Xena died, she would die, too. Because Xena was her other half, her heart and her soul, her life. If only Xena knew that....maybe she did...

Gabrielle ran a shaking hand over Xena's arms. Xena had to live. She had to. Gabrielle replayed how happy Xena had looked to see her - how relieved, really. She would be okay, she had to be. Gabrielle needed her to wake up. And soon.

Gabrielle shook her head. And soon? Or what? What did that mean? Again, she looked at Xena lying there. For once in her life, Gabrielle was the one taking care of her. And she liked doing it. She wanted to do it. Not under these circumstances, but Gabrielle could feel that there was something right about it all. She was supposed to be there, always. Nothing would ever make her leave her again.

For a long while, Gabrielle gazed at her best friend. The warrior's black hair had been singed. In the moonlight, the cuts were less visible. Gabrielle put one finger delicately on the cut on Xena's throat. She rested it there for a second.

Gabrielle lay a blanket over Xena's body, then lay down beside her, although she didn't plan on sleeping at all that night. She put one arm protectively around her. Argo stood nearby. She wasn't sleeping either.

Xena murmured and moved closer to Gabrielle. At least she was alive, thought Gabrielle, as she now cradled Xena completely in her arms. But why did it have to take something like this to bring them closer?

This time it would last, though, thought Gabrielle. Xena wasn't going to get away from her again. Not if she had anything to do with it.

Xena hadn't slept this well in a long time. In fact, she hadn't even really slept in years. But this night, even though she could feel a dull aching throughout her body, she was really asleep.

Once she opened her eyes. She thought it was a dream. Gabrielle lay beside her, arms around her, holding her. Their blue eyes had gazed at one another. "You're alive," Gabrielle had smiled.

"You're really here," Xena had replied. They continued looking into one another's eyes. Xena had never felt happier in her life than at that moment.

Their faces were an inch apart. Xena could feel Gabrielle's warm breath on her skin, she could feel it healing her. She closed her eyes and imagined their lips brushing against one another. What a wonderful dream, she thought, as she smiled.

Gabrielle remained staring at Xena. Had they really kissed? It seemed so unreal, yet she was sure it had happened. But Xena lay with her eyes closed, breathing like one in sleep. Yet there was a tiny smile on her face.

Something that felt like joy leapt through Gabrielle's heart. Everything would be okay now, it would. She was sure of it.

Something was bothering her. Something rubbing against her own chest. She had been too preoccupied with Xena before to notice it, or maybe it finally decided it wanted to be noticed, but now...she reached into her shirt.

A small velvet pouch lay in her hands. She opened it up and looked inside. It smelled like nothing, and just looked like finely ground powder. It made her cringe, but she couldn't throw it away, there was something about it...

Gabrielle restrung the pouch and held onto it with her right hand. Suddenly, fear struck her heart.

She let go of Xena and turned the other way, still holding onto the pouch. Her mind was racing, she was terrified, but she didn't know why. But she knew that she'd find out soon enough. The words "seven hours" flashed through her mind. Seven hours, or you die.

Gabrielle was up before dawn. The fact of the matter was, she hadn't slept at all, not after she had discovered the pouch. Way back in her mind, she knew what it was, what was in it, but she couldn't realize why or what it had to do with her. All she knew was that she had to get Xena somewhere, and soon. Or else something was going to happen. Something bad.

So she spent the rest of the night worrying. Mostly about Xena. She had gazed at the warrior the entire time, watching her breathe, deeply and evenly. A few times, Xena began to mumble. Gabrielle tried to make out the words. But she couldn't. The only word she heard distinctly was "Gabrielle."

At first, Gabrielle had thought Xena was awake. She had rushed over, terrified something was wrong. "What is it?" she asked. "What can I do?"

She had taken Xena's hand in hers. Suddenly, Xena held onto it tighter, smiling, and turned away in her sleep. It had all been in her sleep. What was she dreaming about me? thought Gabrielle. She didn't want to move her hand away from Xena's, so she sat there, a bit uncomfortably, ignoring her own pain. But it was okay. Xena slept with Gabrielle's hand tucked away under her body. She was so warm. Finally, Gabrielle had had to move it, it was dead asleep and really quite painful. But just an inch in another direction, she wasn't going to take it away completely. Not when getting any touch from Xena seemed like winning a war. But it was then that Xena woke up.

For a second, Xena couldn't remember where she was or how she'd gotten there. All she saw when she opened her eyes was Gabrielle.

A flutter went through her. She hadn't felt that kind of feeling in years. She didn't know whether she'd ever felt it that extreme. Just looking into Gabrielle's beautiful face set it off and she couldn't think of anything else. She didn't want to.

But in the background, her eye caught a vision of the wooden stake and everything flooded back, including the pain.

Immediately, she reached back to touch her shoulder. A bandage lay over the arrow wound.

"Don't touch it," Gabrielle said, moving Xena's hand away. "I mean," she said awkwardly, letting go of Xena's hand. "I don't want you to hurt yourself."

"I don't think I could feel much worse," Xena said wryly. And she didn't. Her body was consumed with pain, racked with it. As soon as she remembered what had happened, she felt every injury. She could barely move, she was so sore.

"I'll be right back, we should change some of the bandages," Gabrielle replied.

Gabrielle moved a few feet away to gather the things she needed. Xena's eyes followed her. They were the only part of her body that didn't hurt at this point.

Until she looked at Gabrielle. Closer. She always had studied Gabrielle's movements beforehand, it was one thing to do while the girl was talking, and she knew every inch of the bard's body by heart. It was her job to know. Not to mention that she wanted to. She wanted to know how Gabrielle worked, thought, felt.

So when she looked at Gabrielle this time, what she saw broke her heart even more. Her own pain went away and turned into the bard's.

A long, ugly-looking cut covered half of Gabrielle's face, along with a black eye that had swollen half of her left eye shut. Her clothes were in shards and dried blood encrusted all over it. Nasty bruises layered her bare skin. Her movements were jerky and painful to watch. In a flash, Xena knew that Gabrielle hadn't even bothered with herself all night, she had been too busy taking of care of her.

And once again, Xena was filled with guilt. The guilt of someone who knows they have put someone they love in harm's way.

I'm so selfish, Xena thought, as she watched Gabrielle. It was my fault she got hurt, that she came back, it's all my fault. It would have been better had I died.

Gabrielle looked up as if she had heard Xena's thoughts. Tears came to Xena's eyes as she saw how old Gabrielle looked. Gabrielle looked like her. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair.

Xena struggled to sit up. "Gabrielle, don't," she began.

Gabrielle jerked her head up and rushed over, arms around Xena's shoulders. "Xena, don't move. You're hurt."

"So are you."

Gabrielle looked down at herself as if seeing her own wounds for the first time. And she probably was, Xena thought. She hadn't even noticed them because she was too busy with me!!!

"They're okay," Gabrielle said. "I'm fine, really. Now you just lie back."

"No, Gabrielle. You listen to me now. They could be infected. I'll take care of them, you just relax."

"But, Xena," Gabrielle began to struggle.

"No." And when the warrior said no, the warrior meant no. Gabrielle heard that tone in her voice and it almost made her smile. Plus the fact that she was also hurting so badly she really couldn't have resisted too much.

Xena picked up the bandages and the water that Gabrielle had so carefully brought back from a pond the night before as she had cleaned Xena's wounds under the moonlight. Carefully, Xena began to rub gently at the dirt-filled scratches along Gabrielle's body. She had to slip the girl's shirt off as she did so. Gabrielle unconsciously shuddered. With cold or something else, Xena did not know.

All the pain left Xena's own body as she worked on Gabrielle's. The smooth, soft skin, the freshness of it, the beauty of it. Xena let her hand linger. "You're so sore," she whispered to Gabrielle. Her hands moved over the girl's back as she began to knead her muscles, massaging her.

Gabrielle closed her eyes. Although it hurt a little, it felt so good just to have Xena's hands on her skin. The woman knew exactly where to press, where to be soft. Who would have known a warrior's hands to be so gentle? Gabrielle felt her breathing get quicker. If only things could be like this forever, not just when one of them was hurt, or...

Gabrielle bit her lip. She wanted to say the words to Xena, but she couldn't. Something was stopping her. What was it?

Xena closed her own eyes. It felt so right to touch Gabrielle. She knew the bard's body in and out, she knew every mark, every muscle, almost better than her own.

"That feels so good," Gabrielle murmured. Xena let her hand slide down to meet Gabrielle's. Their fingers intertwined and stopped there, their eyes back open, wondering what the other was thinking. Both hearts beat faster.

Gabrielle spoke first. "Why did you come back?" she breathed.

"I had to," said Xena. "I...I..."

Xena suddenly let her hand go and turned away. She couldn't say it, still.

Gabrielle immediately turned around after her. She raised her hands, wanting to put them around Xena. Finally, she did. "Me, too," she said, after a long pause. "Me, too."

Xena brought her hand up to meet Gabrielle's once more. This time, it didn't stop there. Gabrielle moved her hand up to Xena's face and caressed her neck, her cheek, stopping her hand near Xena's mouth. Xena closed her eyes as Gabrielle's finger moved to her lips.

"I felt you," said Gabrielle. "I felt you needing me."

Xena wanted to tell her she was right, wanted to tell her just how much she had needed her. She couldn't say the words. But Gabrielle knew. She embraced Xena from the back, leaned her head against her. Xena held onto Gabrielle's arms.

"I'm sorry I wasn't here for you." Gabrielle whispered.

"Oh, Gabrielle, no," Xena said, turning around. They faced each other. She put her hand under Gabrielle's tear-streaked face. "Never say that to me. It wasn't your fault. It's never your fault. It will never be your fault."

Suddenly, Gabrielle jerked away. She stood up. Xena, immediately distant once more, her natural reaction, watched as Gabrielle picked up her shirt from the ground. She thought she saw her take something out from the shirt, a small pouch, but it was gone so fast she couldn't be sure.

"We better go," said Gabrielle. "It's not safe around here. You can ride Argo, I feel okay now. I'll get everything ready."

She kept her back to Xena as she gathered up the things she had used during the night. Xena watched her, her face growing hard again. I shouldn't have done that, she chastised herself. I should have known better. Never again. Never again.

As Gabrielle got ready, she felt sick. Why had she run away from Xena like that? It was what she had always wanted. Why? Why couldn't she remember anything, why wasn't anything making sense anymore?

Maybe, maybe if she brought Xena to where they were going, everything would be okay again. Maybe. Yes, that's what she'd do. Then everything would be fine. It would. Wouldn't it?

Argo did not want to go. She balked and neighed and refused to move forward until Xena took her bridle and spent five minutes pulling at her. She didn't want to go back the direction they had come. Probably the only reason she did end up moving was because she could see the effort Xena was putting into convincing her, the evident pain in even moving the littlest muscles. And Argo never wanted to disappoint Xena. Usually Xena was right. But today even the horse could feel something was wrong.

Gabrielle had told Xena that they should go back the way she had been walking. Xena hadn't wanted to pass Kenneth again, so she readily agreed. Gabrielle had tried to ask about him, but all Xena said was that he had hated her from a long time ago and had caught her off guard. Gabrielle didn't ask for more information even though she desperately wanted to know. If Xena wanted to tell, she would. The old Xena was like that. The new Xena wasn't much different. Gabrielle hadn't wanted to pull away last night, she had wanted so desperately to touch Xena, be with her, hold her. She couldn't. She felt dirty. And she didn't know why. It had to do with the pouch, she knew that. It was safely tucked away in her shirt again. Waiting, taunting her. Gabrielle wanted to get away from it but she didn't know she was heading right into it.

"You ride Argo," said Xena. Gabrielle gave her a look.

"No way. You get on, I'll help you."

Xena stood next to Gabrielle. Even wounded, the woman was formidable, and about eight inches taller. "No, Gabrielle. You're riding. You're hurt, and I'm not having you walk."

"Xena, it's no time to pretend you're strong. You can't walk, you can barely even move, I saw you trying to bend over to pick up the chakram over there. You looked like an old woman."

"Well, if we don't stop talking soon, we'll both be old women. You'll just have to ride with me then."

Gabrielle hadn't wanted to suggest it, and obviously neither did Xena, but it was the only choice. Argo was the only female among them not hurt, and she had carried their weight before. It was just that they hadn't wanted to be in such close quarters. Not now. Not after last night.

Xena looked at Argo. She suddenly realized how Gabrielle might think the horse was too tall. Just then, the horse's saddle looked to be about five feet above her. Her bones screamed out just thinking about trying to get up there.

"Give me your leg," said Gabrielle. Without waiting for a response, she leaned over and took Xena's right leg in her hands.

"Gabrielle, no, you're not strong enough," Xena began to plead, but at that moment, Gabrielle hefted up with all her might and actually managed to get Xena halfway there. Xena did the rest on her own.

"Thank you," Xena said, surprised.

Gabrielle nodded. Xena put her hand down. "Take it."

"You can't. Just let's find a rock."

With that, Xena encircled Gabrielle's hand and hoisted her up.

"I guess whatever I can do, you can do better," said Gabrielle as she settled in behind Xena. She self-consciously put her hands on Xena's waist.

Xena could feel the tension in Gabrielle's movements and she silently cursed herself for creating the distance between them. Gabrielle didn't want her, she was only trying to help and Xena had taken advantage of that. Gabrielle thinks we're only friends, Xena said silently. And that's all we are.

She kicked Argo into motion. Once more, the horse tried to refuse, but half-heartedly, as if realizing herself this is what the Fates had in store, went on. But even she walked slower than usual.

As the left the area, Xena took one look back at the wooden stake, at Kenneth's dead body. It lay in the same place, the same sword sticking out of him. Even if they'd wanted to, she couldn't have managed to bury him. And she hadn't wanted to. Not since Callisto had died had she felt so guilty. She had created these people and look what had happened. And gotten Gabrielle in the middle every time. A wave of hate swept over her. Not for them, for her. She tried to put it out of her mind as they left. We can start over again, she thought. Again. But then she remembered. That's what I said last time. I can never start over again.

Her face hardened. She focused in on the sunrise. And on Gabrielle's hands around her waist.

Gabrielle spent the first half-an-hour staring in silence at Xena's back. This was not how she had imagined her first emotion of love to be. She had thought it was Perdicus, the sweet charm, the sensitivity, the openness with his feelings, everything he had that Xena didn't. But she hadn't been in love with him. She loved him, as a friend. But it tore her apart to leave Xena, more so because she could see how torn Xena was, pretending not to be. If Xena had only told her to stay, made one move, said the right words - but she never did. And she never would. She thinks I'm a child. Still. She looked at the back of Xena's neck. Oh, how she wanted to touch her hair. I'm not a child, Xena. I'm not.

Suddenly, a crick in her neck. An unbearable thirst. Oh Gods, she was hurting. It wasn't from the physical wounds, they throbbed dully, it was something else. Her breathing became more ragged, she had to suck in for gasps of air. She was late. But for what?

Xena heard Gabrielle's breath change. She heard everything and felt everything the bard did. Something was wrong.

"Are you alright, Gabrielle?"

"Fine, Xena. I guess just I hurt a little." Gods, why couldn't she tell Xena something was going on? She couldn't say the words.

In front of her, Xena grew concerned. Gabrielle must be hurting more than she's letting on, I hear it in her voice. How could she take her mind off of it? Suddenly Xena smiled. Of course. I'll do what she does for me. It won't be as good, but maybe for a few minutes she can think about something else.

"You know, I had this friend once. We were almost the same age, he and I, he was a little older. He was more of - a dreamer - than I was. He was a lot like you in some ways, the good ways."

Gabrielle listened, at first confused as to why Xena was talking about something she never usually did, but loving the sound of her voice. The words came out of Xena maybe not so eloquently, but to Gabrielle, they were beautiful.

"Anyway, he was an incredible healer. His hands, the sound of his voice, could soothe anyone, even the wildest animals around our village, which were usually the people. Pregnant women would ask to have him by their bedside while they were giving birth. If he just held onto their hand and talked to them, they wouldn't feel a thing. The babies would come out smiling."

Behind her, Gabrielle grinned, enthralled.

"No one knew how or why he had gotten this amazing gift, they all said Zeus must have blessed him at birth. I myself thought it was Athena. It's funny, if I had heard anyone telling this story, I would never have believed it. But I was there. I remember once I had fallen off my horse, and I was on the ground, my leg was broken, bent backwards. Christopher found me, helped me walk back to the village."

The name hit Gabrielle. Christopher? Why did that ring such a bell?

"By the time we got back, my leg was almost healed. I only had to stay still for a week. It was torture for me even that little, but if it weren't for Christopher and his touch, it would have been much more. As it was, my leg healed up perfectly. In a way, I feel like it's even stronger than the other one."

"That's amazing."

"He was." Xena was silent.

"Where is he now? How come I've never heard of him?"

Xena paused, her smile turning into sadness. She should have picked her stories more carefully. She hadn't thought of Christopher in such a long time. But suddenly he had felt so close again. It was almost as if he was telling this story. Then, she heard Gabrielle's words behind her.

"Xena? Xena what happened to him?"

"He and I were riding one day. I stupidly suggested that we race. It was something I did with all the other kids. No one could beat me. He knew that, I knew that, but I asked it anyway. Christopher was never the athlete, he didn't need to be, not with everything else he had going for him. But he knew how much I liked racing, I mean, he knew he was going to lose. But he said yes anyway. For me."

Gabrielle was silent. She could feel what was coming, hear it in Xena's voice.

"So we started off. I was a little behind him, in the beginning. I always liked to play catch up, give a head start. It had stormed the night before. I didn't know the tree had fallen. I could have warned him if I were ahead. I could have jumped over it. But he couldn't. If I had only been ahead, his horse would have followed mine over it. But his horse wasn't used to jumping that much. The tree must have been about four feet high and at least three feet wide. His horse stopped short and he had no chance. He hit the tree and rolled off of it to the other side. I couldn't see where he was and I was going too fast to stop. My horse jumped the log, but not him."

"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle's hands tightened around Xena's waist. "It wasn't your fault."

Xena put her head down. She hadn't wanted to tell so much. But the words wouldn't stop. Everything was as it was all those years ago. She had relived everything. He had still been alive after her horse hit him. Barely. But for some reason, his hands, his voice, his touch, didn't work on him. He had died in her arms as she was carrying him home.

Now they all knew. All three of them knew they were heading for what could be their death. But none of them could stop it. Something out there more powerful was beckoning them, wanting them to betray one another. And in betraying one another, that would kill them a million times worse than any regular death could.

Argo suddenly stopped and gave a great shake. It went right through Xena and Gabrielle. They were only less than a mile where something, someone, awaited them.

Argo shivered again. She might as well have shivered for all of them. And then she walked on.

Gabrielle recognized the part of the woods they were in. It was where she had met Christopher less than twenty-four hours ago.

Christopher? She remembered his face all of a sudden, but still couldn't remember anything else of what they did, or what he said. He had seemed nice. And he had told her stories.

While listening to Xena's story about her friend, Gabrielle had experienced complete and utter fear in the pit of her soul. There was no way it could have been the same Christopher, the one she had met was too young, but there was something about it, something about his eyes, the way he looked at her. Something so comforting, yet so terrifying, as if he had this great power over her he could have used at any time. Those eyes, staring at her. She could hear his voice telling her, telling her....what was he saying? It was about Xena...he wanted...what did he hurt her to think about it, but she had to. She had to remember. And then she did. Only for a split second, but it was enough.

"NO!" Gabrielle cried out. "Stop!" She brought her hands up to her ears and held them tightly.

Xena jerked around. "Gabrielle?" She had never seen her friend so distraught. Her eyes were squeezed shut, tears dripping out, her face red, flushed, she was shaking crazily.

"No!!!!" Gabrielle screamed again. "I won't let you do it!"

Xena immediately slid off Argo, her own aches forgotten. She pulled the trembling Gabrielle off of the saddle just as the girl herself began to fall. "Gabrielle, get down. What's wrong, what is it? Gabrielle, what is it?"

Gabrielle opened her eyes wide. They were bright green. Xena blinked, they hurt her to look at them. When she looked again, Gabrielle's eyes were just the same as they had always been. But that green. She had seen a shade like that only once before. Christopher. He was the only one she had ever known with eyes that color. When he was dying, she had kept her eyes on his the entire time, hoping if he had something to concentrate on, he would stay alive long enough to reach the village. But he had died while still staring into her eyes anyway. That remained in her memory for a very long time. And now Gabrielle had that same look in her eyes.

Gabrielle reached up for Xena frantically. Her eyes shone with pain. She took hold of one of Xena's leather straps and pulled herself up. Her voice hoarse and low, her lips cracked and dry, she whispered the words, as if it hurt her to say them. And if only Xena knew how much it did hurt. "Xena. Xena," she breathed urgently. "Xena, you have to leave. You have to get away from here, please. Please Xena, go." She dropped her hands and fell back, Xena still holding her up, and grabbed for her head again. The immense hurt shooting through it seemed ready to kill her, but not before it made her suffer first. That warning to Xena was the last straw. And Gabrielle knew it. But she had to tell Xena, she had to. It had taken all her strength, but she had done it. She didn't care if she died, but not Xena. Not Xena.

"What are you talking about? Gabrielle? Gabrielle?" Xena watched her friend's eyes slide shut again, but the bard was far from asleep. Rather, she seemed to be having fits, within herself. Xena lay her flat on the ground, her hands already soaked with Gabrielle's sweat, which lay in sheets all over the girl's body. She didn't know what to do. She had seen Gabrielle like this once before. And there was no way she would let her die again.

She patted Gabrielle's cheeks. "Gabrielle. Gabrielle, come on. You're gonna be okay, just open your eyes, you're okay. You're not gonna die."

Gabrielle gasped loudly and her eyes went wide. She stared at Xena blankly. Then she started to mumble unintelligently.

"Alright, that's good, at least you're awake. You'll be fine, you'll be fine. You're so hot." Xena began to unbutton Gabrielle's tank top. "Just keep breathing, okay? You're fine, you're fine."

Halfway done with Gabrielle's shirt, the pouch hiding in it, fell out and hit the ground. Xena picked it up. "What's this?" She loosened the drawstring and sniffed at it. Then she looked back at Gabrielle, terrified. Poison? Why did she have this, what was going on?

Gabrielle was still aware, underneath all the fits and shaking, she knew what was happening. But she couldn't stop it. Her mind was saying one thing, her senses another. She knew she had done the right thing telling Xena to leave, even if it had killed her. But what if she didn't listen to her?

The pouch. Something about the pouch. She saw Xena holding onto it and watching her, a fearful expression in her eyes. Gabrielle desperately wanted that pouch, she had to have it. She needed that pouch, Gabrielle knew that. She hadn't done what she'd said she would, she hadn't brought Xena somewhere, and now she needed that pouch and whatever was in it. It was time. The twenty-four hours were over.

Gabrielle sat up suddenly and with animal strength, she yanked the pouch out of an unsuspecting Xena's hands. "Give that to me," she growled.

For a split second, Xena watched Gabrielle shake the poison into her hand. The girl brought her hand up to her mouth.

Xena knocked Gabrielle's hand away. "No! Gabrielle, what are you doing? That's poison! Where did you get it? Can you hear me?"

Gabrielle faced her friend with hate in her eyes. Her green eyes. She smiled evilly. "Xena, why did you do that? I needed that. Why do you always ruin things for me?"

With that, the bard stood up. Quick as a flash, she reached behind her and grabbed her staff from Argo's saddle. Xena caught it just as Gabrielle flung it at her head. She twisted it around until the staff was pressed against Gabrielle's stomach, trapping the girl between it and her own body. It used up most of her effort and if Gabrielle had struggled, she would have let it go. But Gabrielle didn't. Instead, the girl turned her head so that she was an inch away from Xena's face and once again gave an evil smile.

"You can't save me forever, Xena." With that, Xena watched in utter horror as Gabrielle bent her head and licked off the rest of the poison still stuck on her hand with all the sweat. Enough poison to still kill her, and slowly, and painfully.

Xena dropped the staff and grabbed Gabrielle's hands, but it was too late. The deed was done.

As soon as Gabrielle swallowed, her eyes went back to their original blue. Her face softened. She was herself again. With Xena's hands still around her own, Gabrielle sunk to the ground. "Xena, I'm sorry," she muttered. "But had to save you..."

"No!" Xena cried. "Gabrielle, you'll be okay. You have to throw it up, okay? Okay? Throw it up!"

She grabbed Gabrielle around the waist and heaved upwards. Again, and again. But Gabrielle was unconscious. It was no use. The poison was going to stay.

But Xena kept on trying, like she always did. Gabrielle's last words rang in her ears. "I had to save you...." What did that mean? Why had she been telling her to leave? Save her from what, from who?

Xena wouldn't let herself cry. Not now. Gabrielle needed her. She needed to find an antidote, and fast. She had to get to a village. There must be one nearby, where they had been headed. The poison could be stopped if she found the right antidote quickly enough, she knew that. It had to be.

With no effort, Xena lifted Gabrielle's dead weight up to Argo's saddle. She slid in right behind her. Argo took off immediately.

In her deep subconscious, Gabrielle could still feel what was happening. Xena was still going the wrong way.

Gabrielle knew she was dying. And she knew that Xena was going to die, too. This time, there was no way she could stop it.

Xena rode hard. She swept by the clearing where Gabrielle had encountered Christopher without a second glance. She had to find a village, and now.

And suddenly, up ahead, there was one.

"Heeya," she yelled, spurring Argo on faster. In front of her, limp and pale, was Gabrielle. Her breathing was shallow, her face still shone with sweat. Her lips were parted and her eyes were at half-mast. It scared Xena to look at the expression on her face. So she concentrated on the village in front of her, praying, as she only rarely did, to whoever was out there listening that Gabrielle would find help there. That she wouldn't die. And if she didn't? Xena wouldn't let herself think about that.

The village was deserted. With Gabrielle in her arms, Xena ran door to door. "Anyone here?" she called out, over and over. "I need help!" The phrase echoed back at her. When did Xena, warrior princess ever need help before? She found it so ironic she almost laughed. She screamed it out again. "Is someone here, there's a girl dying!" No one replied except for a few birds flying around, screeching back at her.

Each time she went into an empty hut, she became more and more determined that Gabrielle would live. She knew about poisons. All she needed was some medicine, she would be able to figure out what to do. Whoever used to live here must have left some behind, there must have been a doctor, a store somewhere.

Xena burst into one of the huts. It had been a store once upon a time. Broken shelves lined the walls. On the floor were remnants of containers, chipped and fragmented. They might have once held something, but not anymore. Not anymore.

Xena looked down at the girl in her arms. She was so delicate, so unlike her. So many times Xena would have just given up if it weren't for Gabrielle. What would she do if something happened to her? It would be her fault, all her fault. Just like all those men she had killed. Just like Lyceus. Just like Christopher.

"I won't let you die, Gabrielle. I promise. I won't let you die." As soon as the words were out, Xena felt sick. What if she couldn't keep that promise? Again.

Xena was laughing. "I'm gonna get you, Christopher!" she yelled out. He wasn't too far in front, and he was only even ahead because she had let him. His horse was not even half as fast as hers, she knew that, everyone knew that. She always won these things, even with all the head starts she gave. But that didn't stop anyone from trying to beat her. "Just give up now, Christopher," she called out again. "You know I'm gonna win!"

"That's what you think," he called back, turning his head and grinning at her. The challenge in his green eyes excited her. Not many people could put up even a mediocre fight against her. She knew all the tricks, she was a fierce competitor.

They flew over sticks and branches and small rocks. Christopher was inching away. Xena goaded her horse on faster. The smile began to leave her face. She wasn't gaining on him half as fast as she had expected. It was as if her horse was going even slower when in reality, she could feel the horse running faster than ever before. But Christopher's horse was flying.

Christopher turned his head again. "Now who's winning, Xena?" He smiled. And because he was looking at her, he didn't see the fallen tree around the bend.

But Xena did. "Christopher, watch out!" Maybe she shouldn't have yelled. Maybe his horse would have gone over it just fine if she had just left him alone. But when she saw that enormous log in the road and Christopher looking at her, she had just screamed out.

Christopher whipped his head back around. His horse would have tried to jump, and maybe even made it had Christopher not yanked back on his mouth.

Two inches away from the log, the horse stopped short, trying to get away from the sudden searing pain in his mouth. Christopher flew over the horse's head, still in forward momentum, and disappeared over the other end of the fallen tree.

In a split second, Xena watched this happen, too numb to scream, knowing she was going too fast to stop herself. But she turned her horse's head in the opposite direction from where she had thought she'd seen Christopher fall, and made the leap herself.

It was an amazing feeling, to clear the log. Her horse had done it beautifully, flawlessly, as always, even as old as she was getting. Everyone had wanted to buy the horse from Xena's mother when it was foaled, but she had kept it for her daughter growing up, knowing the excellent breeding and quality of the horse's sire and dam. When the horse began to have her own foals, she too left behind a legacy of incredible children. Her youngest daughter had been Argo, and the only thing Xena had taken along with her when she left her village. Argo had only been two years old, but Xena had felt in her the kinship she had with her mother. Xena was always right about horses.

But at that moment, baby Argo was galloping around with the other yearlings in the village, playing and utterly unaware of what was happening.

Xena saw the look in his face as she landed on top of him. She tried to twist her horse in the air, but Christopher had rolled exactly in the one place where they couldn't avoid him.

His eyes begged her silently not to kill him. But she couldn't help it. With a sickening crunch, her horse's hooves cracked into his bones.

Frothing at the mouth, the horse came to a stop, as if she too knew what had happened. Xena slid off slowly. She didn't want to go back and look. But she had to.

She knelt down by Christopher's prone body. Blood ran down from the corner of his eyes and from his nose. She knew the horse had hit his collarbone by the angle in which he lay.

"Oh Christopher, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she reached out, hesitantly. She thought back to when she had broken her leg and he had helped her by putting his hand on her, by talking to her. Maybe, maybe...

She leaned over his chest. He was still breathing! There was still hope. She lifted up his hand gently, and placed it over his heart. "Christopher, if you can hear me, please. I am so sorry. I am so sorry."

Instead of getting better, his breathing became slower, more ragged. Xena became more and more frantic. "I'm going to go get help, okay?"

But she couldn't leave him. She didn't know what to do. She closed her eyes, tears falling out, onto his face. And then he opened his eyes.

That green, that beautiful green, was flecked with red. She was looking into the eyes of a dead man, she could see that. It sickened her. But she couldn't, she wouldn't leave him.

"Xena," he managed to choke out. "Don't leave me."

"I'm not, I'm not," she said, taking his hand once again. He was shaking trying to speak. He coughed, spitting up blood that got on her. But she didn't wipe it away.

"Take me home."

"I shouldn't move you. I can go get help, you'll be okay."

"Take me home." His voice was surprisingly firm and angry. Xena collected him in her arms. He was small for a man and very frail. She should never have let him race her. She should never have -

"Don't let me die, Xena."

"I won't, Christopher. I won't, I promise. I won't let you die." Her eyes met his. As she walked back with him, he was still staring at her when he shuddered his last breath, the green looking so accusingly at her blue. She never forgot that look.

A noise behind her in the hut. Xena started and whipped around, still clutching onto Gabrielle. "Who's there?"

A little old man, hunched back, a hood over his face, tottered into the hut.

"Do you live here" Xena asked. "Can you help me please? This girl is dying."

The old man said nothing.

"Can you hear me? We need help, she's going to die."

"Did you promise her she wouldn't die?"

Xena recognized the voice. But it couldn't be. "I did," she said.

The old man lifted his head, and suddenly, it wasn't a little old man anymore, it was Christopher, just as he'd been twelve years ago, before he'd died.

"You recognize me?"

"Of course," Xena said.

Christopher smiled. "Then you must know why I came back."

Xena nodded. "For me," she said. "You came back for me."

"But I won't let you take Gabrielle." Xena stared into Christopher's green eyes, her own blue ones matching in coldness. "You want revenge - take me. Not Gabrielle. She has nothing to do with this."

"But I didn't do anything to her, Xena."

"You poisoned her."

"That wasn't poison." He smiled. "That's only what I said it was. But she thinks it is. I only gave her a little suggestion. She did it to herself. She had a choice. Bring you to me or die. And she'd rather die than hurt you. And so she is. Lucky you, Xena. If I'd only had a friend like that when I was dying... Ah, well, it doesn't matter now anyway, because you'll soon be together again."

"What do I have to do?"

"What you should have done twelve years ago. Given your life for mine. People needed me, Xena. They didn't need you. You're a killer, I was a healer. You didn't deserve to live more than I did. You shouldn't have. It was a mistake. It was you who was supposed to hit that tree first. Not me. You let me hit it."

"Is that what you think? Christopher, I would have gladly given my life up for you if I'd known how. I tried..."

"You promised me. You promised me you wouldn't let me die. And you broke that promise. I shouldn't have been the one in Hades for all that time while you, -you got to play around, do whatever you wanted, kill, pillage, murder. You were free, while I was trapped. Not anymore, Xena. I've spent years here that I shouldn't have and now I can finally go back to where I belong, and so can you. Dead like you should have been. Suffering with everyone you killed, those hundreds of people you slaughtered mercilessly. Including Gabrielle."

Xena stiffened at Gabrielle's name, her eyes wandering down to the bard. She was almost dead, Xena could see that, her last breaths coming slowly and very far apart. At least it didn't look like she was in so much pain anymore. And if it wasn't really poison, maybe there was hope...

"Gabrielle deserves to live. It's not fair."

"Life isn't fair, Xena, I know that. You know that. It wasn't fair that I died."

"It was an accident, Christopher!"

"There are no "accidents" around you, Xena. Ask Kenneth. Lyceus? How about Callisto? Or, I have a better idea, why don't you ask Perdicus? I think Gabrielle might want to hear about that."

Xena took a step backwards. In her arms, Gabrielle mumbled something unintelligible. Xena shook her head. Christopher smiled. "I know you know what I'm talking about."

"What happened to you, Christopher? What happened to the kind, caring, loving boy I used to know? The one I looked up to. The one I wished I had been like."

"He's dead. Because you killed him. You destroy everyone you know, Xena. Even you know it's true. And let me let you in on a little secret," he said, leaning in closer. "Gabrielle will find all of this out. And soon. She'll see she didn't have to die if it weren't for you. How will that feel, Xena? Knowing she'll despise you even in death, for eternity? How will it feel to look into those beautiful blue eyes and see the hatred for you in them?"

"But Gabrielle knows - "

"-Gabrielle knows nothing about the real you. She only saw what she wanted to see. Like I did. But you aren't good. You can't love. Look what happened to me, it was all your fault. But you didn't care."

"How can you say that? I still have nightmares!"

"That means nothing. You got away with it, everything you ever did. People forgave you, they gave you a second chance, while I rotted here. You don't think this is fair. That wasn't fair. You didn't deserve a second chance."

Xena got to her knees and lay Gabrielle gently down on the floor. Christopher watched her with some consternation. She stared at Gabrielle. "You're right." Xena looked back up at Christopher, tears shining in the corners of her eyes. "But don't take her."

Christopher laughed, a short snort. "What's so special about her? Why do you care more for her than you did about me?"

"It's not about Gabrielle, Christopher. Why be like me and kill? She's innocent. Let her go. I know you can. Please. Please let her live."

"Don't beg, Xena. It's humiliating."

Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers, touching each finger separately, rubbing them. Christopher became increasingly nervous. "What are you doing?"

"Don't you see, Christopher? She's just like you were. Maybe, maybe she can't heal with only her touch. But one look at her smile...her hear the sound of her voice...she heals. I know because she did it for me." Xena looked proudly up at Christopher. "Don't take her away from the life she can live and the people who need her."

"Don't you need her?"

"I'll be fine."

Xena kept her friend's hand in hers as she began to brush back the loose strands of hair around Gabrielle's face. For a few seconds, Christopher just watched.

"You're in love with her." It was a statement. He sneered, as if saying the word "love" hurt him somehow.

Xena continued to gently touch Gabrielle's face. Why deny it anymore, she couldn't. "Yes."

Christopher shook his head. "Well, it looks like I was wrong, doesn't it? Xena, warrior princess, can love." He laughed again. "And look who she's chosen."

Xena said nothing. She concentrated on Gabrielle.

"I should have known, the way you were acting, the way you kept her around all that time, when she seemed nothing but a nuisance. I knew she was in love with you, but - "

Xena lifted her head up sharply. "How do you know that?"

"Come on, Xena. You're not stupid. Didn't you ever see the way she looked at you, talked about you? It was like you were a god. She died for you, Xena. Of course she was in love with you. But you never told her how you felt, did you? Another mistake, Xena. You always seem to do the wrong thing."

"I know." Her voice choked up. "I know."

Christopher studied Xena intensely. "Do you really want her to live? Wouldn't you rather keep her with you?"

Xena shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. "I won't have Gabrielle be the last life I take." She turned her head back down, the tears falling freely now.

The tears fell onto Gabrielle's face. Each tear hit her skin and soaked into her body. Way beneath the surface, Gabrielle awoke. She could see Xena in front of her, feel her holding her hand. But her touch felt different this time. Barely, as if underwater, she could hear Xena's words, but not what they were. But she was dead, wasn't she? How could she hear them? The death was different this time, no green field, no dead relatives and friends greeting her. Only Xena.

Gabrielle's heart ached. What if her punishment in death was to look at Xena forever without being able to speak to her, to touch her, to tell her how she felt. If only she had said the words. She should have. She loved her. She had loved her from the moment they met. Why? Why did this have to happen? She had been so close to telling her. And now she never could. But she had to say them out loud, one time. Even if only she could hear them.

I love you, Xena.

Both Xena and Christopher started. They both looked at Gabrielle. She was still. Had she spoken? But that was impossible.

Xena touched Gabrielle's face carefully. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle, can you hear me? Gabrielle? Did you say something?"

"No. No way." Christopher scoffed. But he was nervous. "She's dead."

"But it wasn't poison, you said so yourself. She could still be alive."

"Never. She thinks that if she was alive, you'd be dead. And she'd never do that. In effect, she's killed herself through her power of her mind."

"But she can just as easily come back then!"

"Not once she's dead. And she's almost there. You can't reach her. It's too late. Give it up, Xena. You're too old to believe in magic."

"I never believed in magic, Christopher. That's not what I believe in. It's who I believe in." She bent back down to Gabrielle, hands on her face. "Gabrielle. I know you're still in there. Please hear me. Please come back to me."

"Xena, you're being ridiculous. She's too far gone. Look at her."

Xena was looking at her. She had been looking at her. For a year, Gabrielle's face was the one she had woken up to, had dreamed about (when she could actually sleep), the one she depended on, the one she so loved. And even in Gabrielle's pale, death-like state, she knew. Xena knew Gabrielle was still alive. She could feel it.

Christopher watched Xena as she gazed upon her best friend. Maybe Xena had changed more than he'd thought. That, or the girl really did mean something to her. It was almost sad looking at the two of them. For a second, Christopher felt a pang of guilt.

He shoved that away. No. Xena had left him to die when she should have been the one. She had never loved him the way he had loved her. None of it was fair.

"Xena, it's time. You can be with her soon enough."

Xena caressed Gabrielle's face with her rough fingers. Gabrielle's hands were so smooth, like the rest of her. So young. It wasn't right that she should die when she had so much left to give.

"Christopher, you can't let Gabrielle die like this. I don't care what happens to me. But if you still have some good left in your heart, you know you have to let her live."

"Xena, I can't do that. Even if I wanted to. I don't have any control over her mind. Only she does. She's the one who'd have to want to come back. And she can't anymore. Come on, Xena, let's get this over with."

Xena reflexively clutched Gabrielle closer, rocking her back and forth in her arms. "No. Just give me a chance first, to try and get her back. Then I'll come. I just have to try."

Christopher was going to say no. He opened his mouth, then something stopped him. Maybe it was a flash of the Xena he used to know from a long time ago, the Xena before she turned to a killer the day she let him die. He had loved her so much. Her spirit, her beauty, the way she had about her. He knew that's what Gabrielle saw in her, that's why he had hated Gabrielle so much, didn't care if she died. He looked at the Xena now in front of him, silently begging. He smiled. The day Xena begged him. Maybe he could have some fun with this.

"All right, Xena. I'll give you five minutes. If you can bring Gabrielle back, I'll let her live."

"Can you let us be alone?" He opened his mouth again, but Xena stopped him. "If I was going to try something, I would have already. I'll be here in five minutes. And I won't fight you."

"You backed out on your word before."

"If she's not alive in five minutes, I swear to you, Christopher, you can have me. I'll even do it myself."

Christopher nodded. "All right, Xena. But remember this. You've never given people their lives back, you've only taken them. And that's how it will always be."

He walked out and left the two of them alone.

Xena bent her face down to Gabrielle's. The bard was no longer breathing, or if she was, it was so faint that it didn't even register on the warrior's skin. Xena began to whisper near Gabrielle's ear, her face touching hers.

"Gabrielle," she began. "Gabrielle, I know you can hear me." Xena smiled. "I know you'll be alright, no matter what happens. You don't have to worry about me anymore, alright? I know you always have, but I'm fine. It's you I'm worried about right now. Just come back to me, okay?"

Xena sighed, biting back the tears. "Why did you have to go and try and save me, huh? That was my job, not yours! I never deserved you. The day you came into my life, the day I almost gave up know how I don't believe in the gods, well, I don't know who else could have given you to me that day. You were a gift I could never repay. You always thanked me for saving your life, well, Gabrielle, you saved mine many more times. Any time I felt like nothing was worth it anymore, I looked at you and suddenly it was."

Their faces were together, Xena's cheek pressed against Gabrielle's, her voice near Gabrielle's ear. "Don't you worry about me. It's better if I go. Christopher's right. It's time for me. But not for you. If you leave like this, I won't ever forgive you, Gabrielle," her voice wavered. "You've done so much for me, I just want to do this one thing for you. Gabrielle, I...I never got a chance to tell you all this. I should have. But I was scared. Please forgive me. I was so scared."

Underneath her, Gabrielle moved her eyelids. But Xena didn't see. Her own eyes were closed. "Oh, Gabrielle, I love you...I love you. But I knew if I told you, I'd end up hurting you. But I did anyway. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry....I'm so sorry..."

She was silent, squeezing Gabrielle to her. It felt so good just to hold her, hold her the way she'd always wanted to.

But then...then it happened. Suddenly, Xena felt the arms she was holding onto to hold her back. Gabrielle was alive.

Xena raised her head. Gabrielle's eyes looked back at her full of her own tears. "Did you mean that, Xena? What you just said?"

Wordlessly, Xena nodded.

"I heard you," Gabrielle murmured. "Why didn't you tell me before?"

"I told you, I was scared."

"But...but Xena doesn't get scared!"

They both smiled. Gabrielle reached up and touched Xena's lips softly with hers. The joy that rushed through Xena was quickly stopped by the pain she knew would still follow. She pulled away.

"I can't stay, Gabrielle."

"You have to."

"I can't. I promised Christopher."

"No!" Gabrielle cried out. "It's not fair. What about what you promised me?"

Xena shook her head. "Gabrielle, I would just end up hurting you. I have to go with him."

Gabrielle kissed Xena again, this time with more passion. Xena was surprised at the force Gabrielle was showing, amazed, and loving it. She felt so good in her arms, like she'd always meant to be in them. This was the way things should have been.

"They still can be," Gabrielle said, as if reading her mind.


They didn't even hear Christopher walk back in.

"Well, well, girls," Christopher said as he saw them in each other's arms. "Looks like I was wrong again, doesn't it? Nice to see you again, Gabrielle. Guess you can live after all. See, I don't go back on my promises. Now, come on, Xena." He reached out his hand and Xena stood up to take it.

Gabrielle stood up in between them. "You're not taking her."

"Oh, but I am. She promised. And this time, she's not going back on that promise."

"Gabrielle, it's okay -," Xena began, but Gabrielle cut in.

"I never promised you." Gabrielle said. Both Xena and Christopher looked at her.

Christopher laughed. "But you're not Xena."

"That's where you're wrong."

Christopher stopped smiling.

"I'm more Xena than you think." Xena watched the bard with amazement. She knew the girl could talk her way out of things, but this was different. What was she doing? "Ask her yourself, Christopher. Ask her if she'd still be here without me."

"I don't know what you think you're doing, Gabrielle, but it's not going to work."

"Christopher, you said Xena promised you she'd take your place. But you didn't ask me. I'm as much a part of Xena as she is of me. And you didn't ask me."

"That doesn't count, Gabrielle."

"Then ask her yourself. Ask her if she'd still be alive if I weren't?"

Christopher turned to Xena. "What is she doing?"

"I'm trying to tell you, Xena and I are like the same person, Christopher. You can't just have one part without the whole. It doesn't count. Her promise doesn't count."

Christopher sneered at her. "I don't care what you say, Gabrielle. Xena's mine. It's only right."

Gabrielle stood in front of him, her face inches away. "The wrong person didn't die that die in the woods that day, Christopher. Why do you think Xena couldn't save you? It wasn't because she didn't try. It was because you were supposed to die."

"But she's a killer! How can the right person have died?"

"And what do you think you'll be if you take her life now? You talk so much about healing and saving, I don't see that. I see you as evil. I see you as worse than anything Xena's ever done. If you take her life, and you live, I will guarantee that what happens to you up here will be a million times worse than where you are now."

"You threaten me? You?"

"I'm not threatening you, I'm telling you the truth. Ask yourself this. Would you rather be remembered as someone good, or would you rather live knowing how selfish, how cruel, how hated you are? Because I will hate you. With all my heart, all my soul. And you will feel it, believe me, you'll feel it. And then you'll start to hate yourself, if you don't already. Is that what you want? Just let it go. Let it go, Christopher."

Christopher licked his lips. He looked back and forth at the two of them. He saw the fierceness burning brightly in Gabrielle's eyes, but more than that, he saw the love for Xena there. Stronger than any love he'd ever seen.

"You have a chance, Christopher. Let Xena out of her promise and be remembered as a good man, the one we all know you can be. Do the right thing."

For a minute, Christopher stood his ground. An agonizing minute. Xena and Gabrielle waited painfully. He stared at them both. Finally, he looked at Xena. "Like I said before, Xena, you're a lucky woman." Then, without another word, he turned and left.

Gabrielle and Xena gazed after him, his image fading every step he took until he disappeared. Gabrielle's features softened. "Thank you," she said softly.

Gabrielle turned back to Xena. The warrior was looking at Christopher's memory. She reached out to touch the warrior's shoulder. Xena jumped.

"Oh no, not again. Do we have to start all over? When I touch you, you jump?"

Xena smiled. A sad smile, but a smile full of her love for Gabrielle. "You saved me again, Gabrielle."

"No," Gabrielle answered. "I think we saved each other."

She brought her hand up to Xena's face. "You don't know how much I've always wanted to touch you like this."

"I wanted you to." Xena put her hand over Gabrielle's.

"I love you," Gabrielle said.

"I said it first," Xena replied, smiling.

"Of course," grinned Gabrielle.

They leaned in to kiss each other again.


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