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by Anne Kistner

"Why are you always in a hurry?" Gabrielle asked as she finished packing her bedroll. "It's barely light outside and I haven't had a lick to eat in over a day!"

Her frustration with Xena only increased as the tall beautiful warrior straddled Argo and started down the trail. "Hey, wait up for me!" she yelled as she stumbled after her.

"We have to get to the other side of Hasipon's forest before nightfall, Gabrielle. I told you this last night, if you'll remember. I haven't been here before, but the stories I've heard of these parts are not good." She bent and grabbed Gabrielle's arm to hoist her up on Argo's back. "We will make better time if we both ride. All I ask is that you hang on this time." With a smile, Xena snapped the reins and Argo took off down the path.

Gabrielle, not being fully awake, leaned her head against Xena's back and sighed. "She should be use to this behavior of her friend by now," she mused, but it never got any easier. Long nights, early mornings, and the lack of constant nourishment were beginning to take its toll on the young bard. As the sun crept up over the hill, its warmth eased Gabrielle back into sleep once more.

"I know I'm pushing hard, my young sweet friend," Xena quietly thought to herself. "I am just trying to keep you out of harm's way. I wish you could know how much your life means to me. If it weren't for you, I'd have lost myself long ago." With a kick to the horse's sides, the three headed west toward the forest in the distance.

A few hours passed and Xena felt Gabrielle stir behind her.

Momentarily, Gabrielle forgot that she was on a horse and tried to stretch. Unable tp catch herself, she fell clumsily to the ground.

"Gabrielle!" Xena slowed the panting horse and slid to the ground. "Hold on, and I'll be right there!" She rushed back to her fallen friend on the ground. "Are you all right?"

"Yes Xena. I guess this is what is needed to wake me up in the morning, huh?" Faltering, Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm to stand. A sudden stab of pain in her right shoulder caused her to wince. Xena noticed her look and caught her as she once again fell to the ground.

"What's wrong? Where does it hurt?" Xena tried not to smile as she knelt down beside Gabrielle. It quickly vanished upon seeing beads of sweat forming on Gabrielle's upper lip.

"I think I forgot the 'drop and roll' method as I fell." Gabrielle tried to joke as Xena helped her to sit. "Don't worry. I'll be fine. Quit your fussing, Xena. It makes this even MORE embarrassing!"

"I guess we'll stop for that BREAK, now." Xena muttered as she stood. "I'll go see if I can scare us up something to eat. You just rest and I'll be right back." With that, she was off.

After rubbing her shoulder, Gabrielle looked around for some wood to start a fire. Her arm began to tingle and the tips of her fingers went numb. Shrugging it off, she gathered some kindling and lit the fire.

"Xena will definitely make me stay in some village somewhere if she thinks that I'm hurt. I've got to start convincing her that I can take care of myself. " Shaking a sudden wave of nausea away, she sat down near the fire to wait for her warrior friend to return.

SWOOSH! Xena's sword landed squarely on the rabbit's neck. She was delighted at the size of her kill and giggled to herself as she started back toward where she had left Gabrielle. This would surely make her friend's day a bit brighter. Gabrielle was definitely not the morning type. There had been many times that she had been hesitant to wake the sleeping girl due to her unusual morning personality.

"What took you so long?" Gabrielle didn't turn around as the tall girl sauntered into the clearing.

"You should always defend your back Gabrielle. You have the tendency to keep forgetting that little tidbit." Xena arched her eyebrow and continued. "Total concentration is needed if you intend on mastering your abilities."

"Just bring that over here and cool it with the lecture."

Her look told Xena not to press the issue. A strange feeling came over her and she knelt to her friend. "Are you all right, Gabrielle? Maybe I should take you to back to Asenerio."

"NO!" Gabrielle stood and gave Xena a serious frown. She had already seen this coming. "I'll be fine, Xena. We'll eat and then move on, okay?"

Wishing she had kept her mouth shut, Xena sighed and began the task of skinning the rabbit. It no longer seemed to be that big a catch anymore. Glancing at her friend, she wondered if maybe she had said or done something else that had intensified Gabrielle's gruff mood.

"Oh well, she'll tell me when she's ready, I guess." Xena muttered and left it at that. They finished their meal and continued on their way.

The forest loomed in the distance and by now, the long hours of travel were noted by the setting of the sun. Xena urged Argo on, pushing the animal to its limit.Gabrielle suddenly felt uneasy as they finally made it to the entrance to the forest.

"Xena, do you feel it? It's like someone, or something is watching us." She leaned in closer to her warrior and wrapped her arms tightly around the leather clad waist. She had hopes of feeling reassured. It didn't help.

"Shh....Listen." Xena silently dismounted and drew her sword. The look on her face brought confirmation to Gabrielle's questions. "Great. It takes a great deal to spook Xena, Warrior Princess." Gulping back her own butterflies, Gabrielle slid off Argo, landing next to Xena.

"Hurry. Get off the road and take Argo with you." Xena commanded. "Wait for my signal and DO NOT come out til I give it!" She tried to give the girl a comforting smile, but it was unsuccessful. She knew that Gabrielle wasn't up to par and was worried that a confrontation might end in tragedy.

The twilight made it difficult to see, so Xena closed her eyes and let her exceptional hearing take over. To her right, she could hear Gabrielle's rising heartbeat and Argo's switching tail. A slight rustle of leaves directly above her sent her into a defensive roll. Recovering, she had just enough time to secure the chakurum before five figures repelled from above. The sword in one hand, chakurum in the other, she advanced with intensity. Two silhouettes were quickly cut down and as Xena turned, she could see that the remaining three had been joined by a dozen more. With a quick jump, she somersaulted into the air, releasing the chakurum with a force. Its blade dropped three more bodies before returning to her outstretched hand.

Gabrielle's arm was really beginning to throb. She couldn't make out bodies, but she could hear the shouts and clashes of metal in the distance. "I've got to help her, Argo. She can't do this alone." Urging the horse safely behind some trees Gabrielle grabbed her staff and ran toward the sounds. Knowing her arm might possibly hinder her, she switched the staff to her left hand and joined the attack.

Xena dove to the ground and raised her sword upwards. A figure grunted as he connected with the blade. "By the Gods, how many are there?" Xena knew she was beginning to tire. At least ten had fallen by her hand, but more kept coming. Suddenly, another uneasy feeling swept over her. Where was Gabrielle? Was she all right or had they gotten to her, too? Before she had a chance to answer, the sound of wood hitting metal was heard to her left. She was here!

"I told you to stay away!" Xena yelled into the dark. No response. "Gabrielle?!"

"I'm over here, Xena!" Gabrielle answered with a grunt. "I can't see a thing, but I can feel them!" With that, her staff collided with an assailant's head.

As the moon rose, its light shone into the clearing. Once again able to see, Xena charged at a few more, but an unnoticed hand reached out and tripped her. Stumbling, Xena landed on something soft. Almost immediately, she sensed an unusual odor and looked down at her breastplate. It was covered with a white powder. Straining to see where it had come from, she was suddenly overwhelmed with a deep rage welling up within her. Unable to stop it, she gave a battle cry and dove back into the fight. With this new second wind, she began to smile, then laugh as her weapons hit their mark. As each shadow fell, a deeper feeling of pleasure came over the towering warrior. She couldn't get enough of this!

Gabrielle heard the cry but she couldn't see her friend. "Good!" she thought. "Xena is in control. We may win this yet." She was tiring quickly and her arm was practically useless at this point. Trying to find some reserve strength, she let out a yell and swung her staff at an approaching shadow. Instead of connecting, it was caught and yanked from her grip.

"Xena! I'm so sorry. I didn't see you!" Gabrielle reached to hug her friend, but was violently pushed aside. Gabrielle was further shocked when Xena came at her with her own staff.

"Hey! It's me! Gabrielle!" She took a step back, but tripped over a fallen figure. Xena advanced and, with the staff, took Gabrielle's legs out from under her. In the moonlight, Gabrielle could only see her friend's eyes. They were wild and menacing.

A blow to her right side and another to her legs brought Gabrielle back to reality. Trying to stand, she was once again hit. This time, a tremendous blow across her back sent her sprawling. As pain raced up her back, Gabrielle knew her strength was gone. She heard the staff splinter and hoped this crazy attack was over. To her right, two figures came at Xena, which gave Gabrielle time to roll away. She could hear the maniacal laugh coming from her best friend and a feeling of dread washed over her entire body. The old Xena was back. Gabrielle could see that this woman was battling like never before. Her only hope was to try to get to Argo and get away without being noticed. But, as she turned for retreat, pain exploded in her head. With a tremendous force, Xena's elbow connected. It violently whipped Gabrielle's head back and she crumbled to the ground. Before the warm darkness of unconsciousness came to claim her, Gabrielle whispered, "Xena."

"Die, die, die!" Shrieking with delight, Xena cut down the last of the shadowed figures she had been battling for hours. Looking around, she was disappointed that there were no more. She took a step and her toe hit something solid. She bent down and noticed a broken Amazon staff at her feet. Without thinking, she gathered it to her and whistled for Argo. The urge to fly was too great. She somersaulted onto the animal's back and yanked on the reins harshly. Even Argo was surprised at this wild behavior and bucked slightly at the snap. With a shriek and yelp, Xena flew through the night. The air smelled of sweat and death and Xena inhaled deeply as the trees of the forest flew by. This was what she was. This was her destiny. She felt invigorated and refreshed.

The forest was very large and dense. Hours passed before Argo emerged out the other side and a slight breeze awakened Xena from a dreamless sleep. Dismounting, she took a look at her surroundings. Aches in her arms reminded her of the recent battle, but as she stretched, the details seemed foggy.

She eyed a small stream and led her horse to the water's edge for a well-needed drink. She removed her armor and waded into the waist-deep flow. Dirt and sweat were soon gone from the bronzed skin and Xena could feel the sting of her cuts as the water hit them. Last night had taken its toll and she leaned back on the bank to rest. Fatigue brought sleep near, but a nagging feeling pulled her back quickly. Something was missing. Xena sat up and looked at her horse. "What is wrong with this picture?" She stood and waded back to the grazing creature. As she approached, a sight brought concern to her eyes. There, stuck in the scabbard meant for her sword was a broken staff.

"Gabrielle!" Her shout echoed off the trees around her as she ran the rest of the way. Grabbing the staff, Xena noticed the dried blood snaked about the surface.

"Where are you?" Once again she yelled, now with more force, powered by the rising feeling of panic. Her memories seemed blank and Xena's head began to throb. She dropped the staff and tried to steady herself by clutching her head in both hands. "Where are you? Why aren't you here? Did you leave me?" These questions raced through her mind, over and over.

The morning sun broke through the leaves and a single ray found its way to a small heap on the ground. The feeling of warmth caused the young girl to stir, but the pain in her head sent her into a moment of nausea. After rising slowly, she discovered that she had only one functioning arm. With a small cry, she grabbed the trunk of a tree to steady herself.

"Where am I?" The area looked foreign and the girl could not make out anything familiar. She sat back down and began to size up her situation. Her right arm was surely broken. With the trouble she had breathing, she figured that some ribs were broken, too. Her inability to see from her left eye convinced her that she must have had a terrific blow to the head. But, by whom? And why had they done this to her? A slight feeling of panic grabbed her and the young girl slid back down in the dried creek bed from where she woke. Had she done something wrong and had been punished? Another wave of nausea hit and she leaned over to wretch. Her strength was gone and she slipped back into darkness.

Xena regained her composure and grabbed Argo by the reins. "Do you know where Gabrielle is, girl?" Her questioning eyes searched the horse's face for recognition. "If you do, take me to her." She remounted Argo and set out to where they had just come. A bad feeling was nagging at her. Why couldn't she remember? The battle itself was already nothing more than a mere thought.

What was happening? Suppressing hysteria, she was too deep in her thoughts to hear the rounds of laughter brought in by the morning breeze.

The sun was high in the sky when the girl awoke again. She collected her thoughts and realized that she had to get out of this place. Her steps were slow and unsteady as she tried hard not to succumb to the next wave in her stomach. Guiding herself by trees, she fixed her good eye on a point and willed herself to go there. Her arm was in such bad shape that the pounding of her feet brought only more pain to her already pummeled body. She suddenly felt very afraid that she would never make it. And if, by some chance, she DID get out, where would she go? In the distance, the girl heard the sound of rushing water and with agonizing steps, headed in that direction.

"Faster Argo!" Xena leaned into the horse and slapped his sides with the reins. The thought of her friend in trouble was almost too much to bear. If it meant searching the entire wooded area, she would find Gabrielle. She glanced down at the staff and tried with all of her might to remember the events that had taken place the night before. It had been dark and there had been many a foe, but she couldn't find the face of her friend. It was almost as if she had not been there. If she wasn't, however, then how did Xena have her staff? Concentrating on the task at hand, Xenia returned her gaze to the forest in front of her. She would find Gabrielle. She knew her life depended on it.

The crisp cold water didn't keep the young redhead from walking in. With a sharp intake of breath, she eased her body further into the water. Wincing at the pain in her side, she tried to relax as the coldness began to numb her sore body. Leaning back, the girl allowed her body to float and she studied the sky above. This might be it. She had no recollection of her past or herself and the water lapping around her began to give her some comfort. All she had to do was turn over and inhale. It seemed so easy. Pain began to flow away with the current and with it, panic and caring. Just as she was about to give in to the feeling, she heard a growl. Glancing up, she stared right into the eyes of the ugliest monster she had ever seen.

With numbed strength, she kicked up and pushed off the creature back toward the bank. The creature caught her booted foot in his mouth and began to bite down. In a last ditch effort, she reached up and released the latch holding her boot to her calf. Leaving the boot to the beast, the girl half swam, and half ran to the bank. Adrenaline pumping, she momentarily forgot her broken ribs and arm and climbed almost effortlessly up the bank. Sinking to the ground, she got a full eye view of the nasty being. It whipped her boot from side to side and then, losing interest, let it go.

"No meat in this," it growled, and sank back to the depths below.

Once again, feeling the pain returning, the fair-haired girl rose to leave. "If I don't go now, while I still feel numb, I'll never go" she muttered and started the trek back up the hill. Glancing down, she spotted a sturdy fallen branch. She reached down and, picking it up, began to twirl it in her left hand. It felt familiar and the girl leaned against it for support. "Hmmm.." She wondered.

Xenia came to a halt at the sight of strewn bodies. Shrugging off a nauseated feeling, she jumped from the horse and grabbed her sword. The bodies were everywhere and she was shocked at the amount of blood. The night before had been bad, but this was not what she remembered. Xena turned over one of the dead. Gasping, she recoiled at the sight in front of her. It had no face! Stifling a scream, her eyes searched wildly for her friend. This was the work of Gods!

"Ares! Come out. I know you are here!" Xenia lifted her sword, recognizing the familiar feeling in the air. Whipping around, she stood no more than six inches away from the dark, handsome god.

"Well, hello there, my beautiful, wild one!" Ares exclaimed as he took the sword for the surprised warrior. Slinging it behind him, he grabbed Xenia's shoulders and brought her to him. Laughing, he drank in her smell and beauty. "My, don't we have vigor and triumph just oozing from us!" Xenia struggled to free herself, but was held tightly in Ares' grip.

"What do you want, Ares?" she seethed through her teeth. Her harsh gaze went unnoticed and Ares leaned down to capture her lips in his. Crushed against the warrior god, Xenia felt the deep desire beginning to rise to the surface.

"I want what I have ALWAYS wanted, Xena." He gazed into her eyes. "You."

With a last attempt to free herself, she bit down on Ares' lip and kneed him in the groin. Ares let out a yelp and released her, pushing her away. His anger amused Xena, who let out a giggle.

Xena raced to her sword and recovered in a defensive stance. "What have you done, Ares?" She glared at the figure before her.

"No Xena," his eyebrow arched. "This is what you did." Smiling, Ares swept his arm in a wide arc. "This was done by your hand, not mine."

Xena stood upright and followed his arm with her eyes. The scene was devastating and she recoiled at the thought. She shook her head in disbelief and turned her gaze back to Ares.

"I don't remember this. You are lying to me!" Xenia spat the words and Ares took a step toward her. "You are playing with my mind!"

"Fine. See for yourself." Ares grabbed Xenia's chin with his hand and stared directly into her eyes.

The vision took hold and Xena saw immediately what Ares had been talking about. She saw herself with reckless abandon slash and mame the figures. She shuddered at the look she had in her own eyes. Not being able to contain it any longer, she screamed and fell to the ground, sobbing.

"NOOOO!" She let go of her sword and pressed her hands tightly over her eyes. The tears came in a rush and her strength rushed out of her. She had done what she had promised not to do. A defeated look shrouded her gaze and she looked up to Ares. "WHY?"

Ares knelt and frowned upon the sobbing beauty.. "Why? Because this is your destiny, Xena. You are my creation and this is what you were meant to do." Laughing, he pulled Xena to her feet. "You aren't exactly acting the way a warrior should, though. Dry those tears. Warriors don't cry!" With a bit of disgust, he backed away from the raven haired beauty.

"Where's Gabrielle?" Xenia blinked through her tears. "Is she safe or did she get caught in your plan, too?" She reached up and wiped the tears with the back of her hand.

"Oh, well . . . ," Ares looked at his feet and back to Xenia. "I don't think we're going to have trouble from her anymore. She was always in the way, anyway. You have more important things to think about now, my vision of delight." He once again stepped forward to caress Xena's face.

Xena slapped back his hand and glared. "What are you saying? Is she dead? Where IS she?"

Her look changed and this time she stepped forward with her sword raised to his chin.

"Calm down. She's alive. For now, anyway." His amusing look only fueled her newly lit fire."But, I doubt you'll find her before it's too late. And if you do, I'm not certain she'll want you.

His words cut Xenia to the bone. What did he mean? What had he done to Gabrielle?

"Search if you must, my star pupil. But remember, your destiny lies with me." With that, Ares vanished, his laugh lingering in his wake.

The girl was tired. Her strength had once again vanished and the pain was unbearable. She crested the hill and spotted the turbulent river below. The sun was beginning to set at her back and she found a niche in the rock to shield her for the night. Wincing and crying out loud, she lowered her body to the ground. Nausea gripped her and she once again leaned over with heaves of pain. Spent, she leaned back against the rock hoping the warm darkness would once again claim her. The pain was too much. It tortured and bent her soul. She cried out again at nothing. There was no one to hear her cries. No one to stop her pain. She let go and welcomed the darkness as it came. A smile crept to her lips and she was gone.

Xenia realized that Argo needed water. She led him down to a small creek and dismounted. Realizing her own need to drink, she knelt and brought a cupful to her lips. "Aaaah," she sighed and took in another mouthful. Her hands stopped mid air to her third drink as her gaze rested upon an object in the water. Panic rose in her heart as she reached to pull in the thing floating near her. "Gabrielle's boot!" She screamed aloud and stood to inspect the thing. Long gashes were torn from the leather and she could make out teeth marks near the ankle. Frantic, Xenia dropped the boot and began to search for other footprints on the bank.

"Noo," she cried. "This can't be the end. Gabrielle!" Her words echoed through the forest. She dropped to the ground and began wiping away leaves furiously. "She's not dead" she told herself, but the words seemed hollow. The one light in her life, the reason Xena had to go on, was beginning to dim. Just as she seemed to give up, she spotted a footprint and then another. She was alive! Bursting with a newly found energy, she followed the steps up the bank. Whistling to Argo, Xena raced up the embankment in pursuit of her friend.

The trail of footsteps was hard to follow. Xena noticed that, many times, in place of a footprint, there was a small indent instead. She concluded that her friend had a walking stick and must be hurt. "I've got to hurry," she breathed and pushed on.

The night was quickly approaching and she was losing the ability to see.

The footsteps stopped at the edge of a cliff. Winded, Xena knelt and tried to still her quickly beating heart. She leaned over the side and looked into the churning waters below. The moon had risen and its light cast an eerie glow upon the land. Xena looked, but could find no more tracks to follow. For the second time in hours, her heart raced. Had Gabrielle not seen the ledge? Had she fallen into the river below?

Head raised to the sky, Xenia cried out. "Gods, bring me Gabrielle! She is my heart, my soul. Everything that is good with the world lies within her. Please....!"

Xenia's body started to shake and she collapsed to the ground. She hung her head as the turmoil rose from deep within her.

"What did you say?" a small voice asked behind the fallen warrior.

Xenia's head whipped around and she squinted to see in the dark. There, lying in a heap against the rock was her friend. She rushed to her side and fell before Gabrielle, sobbing with relief and joy. It lasted only seconds. What lay before her made her gasp with horror. Gabrielle lay in blood and bruises and only one eye was looking back at her.

"Who . . . who are you?" a feeble voice asked. "What do you want from me?" With as much strength as she could muster, Gabrielle rose to a sitting position with her good arm.

"It's me, Gabrielle," Xenia answered, trying to sound as comforting as possible. Her quivering voice told her that she wasn't doing a good job of it. "It's Xena" she continued and placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.

Wincing from the pressure of the warrior's hand, Gabrielle flinched, recoiling Xena's hand away.

"Who is Xena?" Gabrielle looked at the tall woman with questioning eyes. A fleeting vision crossed her view. The pain in her side quickly brought her to a sickening reality. This was the woman who had tried to kill her just the night before!

"Get away from me!" Gabrielle tried to rise, but her legs wouldn't support her and she slid back down the rock. A new wave of nausea hit and she tried, without success to squelch it. Dry heaves like she had never known racked her body and she succumbed to the folds of darkness again.

Xenia pulled back and Gabrielle's spitting words hit her like blows. She didn't know her! Why was she so scared, so repelled? As she watched in despair, her friend passed out and it was once again quiet.

Quickly, Xena rose and collected some wood for a fire. She needed to tend to the girl's wounds. Small moans could be heard from Gabrielle, but she closed her ears and concentrated on the work at hand.

Xenia pulled Gabrielle to the newly lit fire and tried to assess the damage. Gabrielle's right arm was severely broken and the bruises on her side told Xenia that the girl had also suffered some broken ribs. She brought back strips of cloth from Argo's saddlebag. She set the arm as best she could and began the task of wrapping Gabrielle's torso. The moans increased and Xena had to fight back tears as she continued to work on her wounded bard. The eye was completely swollen shut and with her knife, Xenia winced as she sliced the skin to release blood. Securing a patch around her eye, Xena's will started to ebb. She stroked Gabrielle's cheek with her fingertips and gazed at her face in the firelight.

"I promise to avenge what has happened to you" Xena silently swore. "I hate you, Ares, for going this far. This was between you and me. She wasn't part of this." Gulping back tears, Xena continued the task by setting the ankle. She could see the deep marks left from whatever had grabbed her foot and applied ointment to keep out infection.

When she felt she had done everything she could, Xena, at last, collapsed on the blanket. Her thoughts were only of her friend's safety, but fatigue was quickly setting in. As she was about to drift off, something Gabrielle said made her sit up.

"Don't hurt me, Xena." Gabrielle was caught in a nightmare. She was being chased by a tall warrior with a staff. "STOP!" she screamed, but the figure kept advancing and she knew she couldn't get away. As the staff came within inches of her head, something jerked her away.

"Gabrielle . . . Gabrielle!" Xenia shook her friend slightly, not wanting to hurt her more. "Wake up, Gabrielle, you're having a bad dream." Gabrielle's eyes fluttered and opened into the face of the warrior from her dream.

"Get away!" Gabrielle screamed again and wildly swung with her good arm at Xena.

Xenia easily ducked and gently grabbed the arm. She leaned over and tried to console the scared bard in front of her.

"Get back, whomever you are" Gabrielle cried. "You tried to kill me once, but I won't give you the satisfaction of a second chance. I'll jump first before I go through that torture again!" She inched toward the edge of the cliff and Xena took two steps back in horror at the words just spoken. She couldn't believe what she had just heard. Was that why she had the broken staff? Was that why Ares had made that last comment? "If you do find her, I'm not certain she'll want you" rang in her ears and she backed away from the shaking girl before her.

Suddenly, she was back in the forest. As she watched, horrified, she saw herself coming at Gabrielle with the staff. With each blow she landed on Gabrielle, Xena cried out in her own pain. She watched as her elbow smashed into her friend's face and the body crumbled to the ground. The laugh that followed roared in her head and she covered her ears and screamed.

"STOOOOPPPP!" At the top of her lungs, Xenia cried for help. She sank to the ground and brought out the dagger lodged behind the breastplate of her armor. With a sorrowful look at her friend before her, she leaned back to stab the vile thing that she had hoped for was gone. Herself. With tears streaming down her cheek, eyes never leaving Gabrielle's, Xenia whispered, "I'm sorry Gabrielle . . . I love you." Using all the force she had in the world, Xenia plunged the dagger deep into her heart.

"Not so fast, warrior!" Ares grabbed the dagger and pressed his hand over Xena's heart. The wound immediately closed and her face rose to meet his glare.

"What is this? You have no right to leave this earth. You belong to me!" His words roared like thunder and Xena could see fire in his eyes. She swallowed slowly and stood to respond.

"I belong to no one Ares. You might have taught me, but you will NEVER own me. I will gladly give myself to Hades before I give myself to you." Her voice lowered as she found new strength. "I gave my soul to Gabrielle, for it was SHE who brought me back from your darkness. You have not brought me closer by this act. You have lost me forever. If it means I travel for the rest of my days in grief of what I've done to her, then let it be so. I will carry that burden, but I will never kill for you again." Xena turned from Ares and walked away from the firelight. The dread welled up in her and she gasped for breath.

"Don't go."

The voice sounded like that of an angel and Xena's body shivered. She slowly turned to the sound and saw Gabrielle leaning on a stick before her. In the firelight she could see that her cheeks were wet with tears and her bottom lip was quivering.

"I heard what you said and I forgive you, Xena." Averting her eyes from the tall raven haired woman above her, she whispered, "I love you, too."

Xena rushed to catch Gabrielle as she slipped back to the ground. Lifting her salvation in her arms, she carried her back to the fire. A long look between them gave each their answer as Xena wrestled with a new wave of tears. With her head cradled in Xena's lap, Gabrielle reached up and wiped away the tears.

Long into the night, Xena watched her friend sleep. Ares had given her a gift she could not repay. Silently thanking the Gods, she slipped into sleep with the assurance she had not felt in days. Gabrielle was home.

The end

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