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Copyright Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and the Amazons are property of MCA/Universal. I'm merely borrowing them temporarily.

General Disclaimers: This is the final (gasp!) installment of a six story arc called "Chiaroscuro." The first five were "Tales of Dark and Light," "The Queen and the Solider," "Innamorata," "This Fire," and "Time of Grace." Reading those are imperative if you don't want to be totally lost in this one. Oh, and just in case you were wondering, this entire arc takes place shortly before "The Furies" and the events of the third season.

Sex/Violence Disclaimers: This is a story about two women very much in love, so if physical displays of those emotions are a problem for you or your neighborhood, then this is someplace you don't want to go. There is also a fair amount of blood and gore... Xena's in a pretty bad mood, so be warned.

On a Historical Note: Marc Antony was an actual Roman general who served under Caesar and was a member of the Second Triumvirate-- along with Octavian (later known as Caesar Augustus) and Lepidus-- who ruled Rome after Julius Caesar's assassination. In true Xenaverse fashion, I have twisted the historical truths to fit my own reality and to suit my own dubious dramatic purposes. In other words, Antony's invasion of Greece never happened...

Thanks: Okay, I know I promised to end it with the last one, but I lied. This is the end... of the arc. Hopefully not the end of my writing career, such as it is. Once again, thanks to everyone for the time they took to drop me a note with encouraging words. Special thanks to those who listened to me whine (Tim in particular) and who paid attention to all the details. It matters, guys. Thanks.

Questions and comments are always welcome at:



Part VI: Walk Through Fire
SL Bowers

Argon rose from the hills like a city from a bard's tale. The sun gleamed brilliantly off the white-washed city walls, and the surrounding fields looked impossibly green in the dazzling light. The road leading into the city proper was well-tended and guarded by alert sentries who greeted their comrades with sharp nods. Even the air seems crisper... Gabrielle noted, breathing in the clean scent as they emerged from the dappled shade of the forest. She sat easily behind Xena, her arms wrapped comfortably around the warrior. Their travel today had been free of the edgy tension that had plagued the first two-thirds of their journey, and the group had made good time. The hard ride had left no time for introspective discussion between the warrior and the bard, but Gabrielle could feel the subtle calm that had settled over her lover. Neither woman relished the task ahead of them, or the pain it would inevitably bring.

The gates swung open, granting the weary group passage into the city itself, and a short ride led them to the palace-- where they were greeted by a grinning Corin. "Reyna! I knew you'd find them." The tall, blond Amazon hadn't changed much in the short time since Xena last encountered her in Ares' little playground, and the warrior couldn't stop the shiver of recognition that ran through her body. Corin wore the garb of command well-- the green, gold, and tan of the city-state's crest was more than flattering to her lean form. She's found it... Xena thought to herself, taking in the woman before her and remembering the Amazon's quest to reconcile herself with not only her lost love but also with her forsaken goddess.

Corin was one of Athena's Chosen. "I was touched by the goddess at an early age," she had told Xena. "Sometimes I think I was born with her sword in my hand." But the Amazon had left that path after a vicious rape at the hands of her lover's brother and had joined Ares for a short time, until she realized that rage would not heal her wounds or bring back her abandoned lover. When she encountered the warrior and the bard, Corin had been searching for a way to reconcile the visceral release that riding for Ares had given her with the understanding that she could not survive living purely on the extremes of emotion. "You see, there was just one problem with Ares' method of training. In order for me to feel pain and anger to their fullest, Ares had to let me feel all my emotions-- including the love I had for Livia in the same way... The rage and the love started fighting within me. And I had to get some sort of control. I couldn't just feel any longer. Reason-- Athena's mark-- found a way to guide me. It was a quest for redemption that resonated with the Warrior Princess. In Corin, Xena could see someone who had fought a battle so similar to her own. And she won... Xena could see that now, looking down at the woman standing before her. She reconciled with Athena... and Livia obviously... she's now their commander of the guard. I wonder what happened to the brother?

There was more to Xena's relationship with Corin than met the eye. Both women had caught the attention of the God of War and had become his disciples. "I consider Corin to be my greatest failure-- after you, of course, Xena..." Ares' taunting words came back to her now. I had such plans for you two, the likes of which the world has never seen... But Xena had seen-- when the god finally lost his temper with his favorite and had beaten the warrior nearly to death. Gabrielle told Xena she had been unconscious for four days... but Xena had lived another life during that time. A life where she was a warlord with a conquered Greece at her feet and Caesar-- and Italy-- in her sights. A life where Corin was a devoted partner in her bed, and Gabrielle was a slave under Valesca's thumb. It was yet another in the long string of Ares' attempts to lure the Warrior Princess back into his fold, and the God of War had indeed pulled out all the stops. Seduce me with Corin. Give me an army like no other. And the ability to avenge the greatest wrong ever done to me. She had managed to walk away ...again... but it had been so close. Closer than Gabrielle knows... Xena reflected, thinking about the details she had left out when relating the story to the bard.

A gentle tug on her boot drew the warrior out of her reverie. "Xena?" Gabrielle had dismounted and was now looking up at the tall woman with a questioning glance. "Are you going to sit on Argo all day? She might like a rest, you know."

Gabrielle was staring at her expectantly, an unmistakably loving expression suffusing her features. With the gaze, Xena felt the burning away of another bleak layer of the darkness surrounding her soul. It was such a simple thing-- a glance exchanged by lovers-- but for the warrior it was an extraordinary sensation. A silent moment of understanding and healing that passed unnoticed by everyone except the two women involved. "Sorry, just... thinking..."

"You gotta stop that," the bard bantered. "Could be dangerous."

Xena snaked a menacing eyebrow skyward, then stopped and smiled winningly at her lover, grateful that they could still play. "I know," she nodded. "I should leave the hard stuff to the likes of you."

"Absolutely. Remember--"

"An Amazon Queen beats a Warrior Princess." She gracefully leapt off Argo and handed her reins to a waiting groom. "But you probably need to know something..." Xena bent her mouth dangerously close to Gabrielle's ear. "We're not in Amazon territory anymore," and punctuated her statement with a gentle nip of the bard's skin.

"Eep!" Gabrielle jump at the warrior's unexpected, but seductive, touch. "Uh... does that mean what I think it means?" She grinned.

"You'll just have to wait to find out, won't you?" She jerked her head towards the now waiting commander and Amazon Regent. "Come on, I think we have an audience with another queen. Corin!" she called. She proffered an arm which Corin immediately accepted in greeting. The commander's skin was as supple as Xena remembered, and the strength in her muscles under that skin nearly matched Xena's own. "You're looking well."

"As are you, my friend." Their arms remained clasped a moment longer than necessary, and the warrior saw a flicker of awareness dart through the commander's green eyes before it was gone. The tall, blond warrior turned to Gabrielle and offered the queen a sweeping bow. "Your Highness-- it's wonderful to see you again. I'm sorry my queen can't be here to greet you, but King Merron and his troops arrived only yesterday, and she's... settling them in."

Xena arched a brow at the news, but waited until the remainder of the introductions were made before voicing her question. "Merron? What's he doing here? I would have thought he'd just send Captain Ridley and his troops."

She watched as Reyna led the Amazons to the auxiliary barracks, leaving only herself, Gabrielle, Corin, and Ephiny. The four began the lengthy stroll to the Queen's receiving room.

"Ridley's here," Corin acknowledged as they walked. "But it seems the kind was quite impressed with an exhibition put on by a certain Amazon lieutenant and wanted to see her along with the rest of the Amazons in 'real action.' His words." An amused gleam sparkled in Corin's eyes. "You know, I didn't know better, I'd swear he was talking about you." She paused for dramatic effect. "But then he talked about how loyal and devoted to the Queen and the Nation this lieutenant was."

Gabrielle suppressed a giggle, and Xena rolled her eyes at the teasing. "Okay, okay..." She held her hands up in surrender. "Gabrielle had some official duties there, so I was her..."

"Lt. WP," her queen finished with a smile.

Corin nodded thoughtfully. "I bet you looked good in Amazon leathers."

Xena, Corin, and Ephiny watched with amazement as Gabrielle and the Argonian Queen, Livia, launched themselves into animated conversation. Merron had excused himself almost immediately, citing "travel weariness," and it was all the assembled women-- Livia included-- could do not to groan at the king's mild histrionics. Livia had insisted on dispensing with all the attendant formalities to the introduction of two queens, waving Gabrielle's bow away with a brisk, "You're here to help save my neck," she grinned infectiously. "Feel free to call me Livia." Since this mirrored the Amazon Queen's own approach to her position, Gabrielle felt instantly at ease. On the surface, the two women were nothing alike-- Gabrielle had grown up an ordinary girl in the small village of Poteidaia, while Livia had been raised from birth to be a ruler-- but both young women shared an extraordinary ability to look into other people and see the good that would otherwise remain hidden. Xena, in particular, was most grateful for the bard's insight, for she knew that without it, Gabrielle never would have stayed with her, and the warrior never would have been granted this precious gift she now enjoyed.

"Well--" Corin muttered, "Looks like I didn't have to worry about those two getting along."

"Guess not," Ephiny chuckled.

The trio watched their queens a moment longer before turning to the grave subject that brought them together. "I hope Merron isn't fool enough to think he's coming anywhere near that battlefield tomorrow," Xena stated bluntly.

"No, even he's not that stupid." A wry smile from the Pellosian commander. "Personally I think he just wanted to see all the Amazons in one place. You made quite an impression," she nodded at the Warrior Princess. "But Ridley's got a good head on his shoulders, and Merron's smart enough to let his Captain run the Guards."

"That's a relief. So what's our strength?"

"With the assembled troops of Pellos, Argon and the Amazons, we've got a pretty formidable force. I can show you the numbers when we get to the command tent. But Antony's still got more centurions." Corin grimly informed them.

"Have you heard anything from Antony?" Xena asked.

"We sent messengers out to him, asking him his intentions. He told us he was only interested in our unconditional surrender. Anything less, and-- to quote him-- we would feel the wrath of Rome's displeasure."

Xena snorted disdainfully. "Sounds like Caesar."

"Antony is his right-hand man," Ephiny offered.

Corin snickered. "In a manner of speaking--" she grinned. "I've heard stories about those two--"

Xena and Ephiny immediately held out their hands to stop Corin. "Please! That is someplace I definitely do not want to go," the Amazon Regent pleaded with a smirk.

"Okay, okay. It doesn't exactly help our situation anyway."

"So he's headed to Poteidaia, for a seaport foothold in Greece," the dark warrior mused aloud.

"It would appear so," Corin concurred.

"Hello, ladies--" A warm, rumbling bass voice rolled over them. "I'm glad you made it, Xena."

The warrior turned around to see the smiling brown eyes of the Pellosian general. "Ridley. It's good to see you again," she took the proffered arm and shook it firmly. "You remember Ephiny, the Amazon Regent."

The captain of the guard nodded at the Regent and shook hands with her as well. Then he turned his eyes back to Xena. "You're looking a whole lot better than the last time I saw you," referring to the jarring vision of the lifeless body of the Warrior Princess that he helped carry into the castle at Pellos.

"Thanks Ridley. I'm feeling a whole lot better too," she smiled gratefully. "Your healers took good care of me." Noticing Corin's furrowed brow, she leaned over and said quietly, "I'll tell you about it later."

"You better," the commander murmured.

"So what's the plan?" Ephiny asked.

Corin glanced at the military minds before her and shrugged. "I'm open to suggestions."

Xena arched a thoughtful brow and pursed her lips. "I have an idea..."

Gabrielle looked around, but the dark warrior was nowhere in sight. She had seen Xena, Corin, Ephiny and Ridley disappear a few candlemarks ago while she was locked in discussion with Livia. Both queens were well aware that they lacked anything to contribute militarily to the planning, so they had left the strategic discussions to the others. However, what ha resulted from the conversation between the two queens was the birth of a friendship that would serve their subjects well. Livia had already made tentative plans for she and Corin to visit the Amazon territories in the late summer, and Gabrielle promised that she and Xena would be there. It would also be the first time Corin had returned to her homelands since she had left the Amazons following the rape. Although Corin was originally from one of the Northern tribes, all Amazons were united under the in absentia rule of the bard, and the Argonian queen looked forward to the visit, as well as seeing how Corin had grown up.

Now that the bard had the "queen stuff" out of the way, she really wanted to talk to her warrior. She just needed to reconnect following the day's tumultuous activities, since it looked like tomorrow was going to be even worse. Dawn was the deadline for Argon's surrender according to Antony's terms, and she knew that wasn't going to happen. Gabrielle wandered out of the receiving room where she and Livia had been and strolled down the hall, looking for any sign of the dark warrior. She stopped at an intersection of corridors and was about to continue forward when a pair of strong arms that she recognized encircled her waist and snatched her behind a heretofore unnoticed door.

"Uumph!" the bard growled as the air left her lungs, but the protest was more for effect than anything, and she nestled quite happily in the warrior's snug embrace. "There you are. I was looking for you."

"What a coincidence..." the warrior murmured. "I was looking for you too." Capturing the bard's mouth with her own.
Long, dreamy moments passed as they explored the softness of each other's lips. Finally the bard pulled back reluctantly and contemplated the seductive blue spheres that gazed back at her. "Not that I'm complaining," she whispered, "But for someone who's about to tangle with the Romans, you certainly are in a good mood."

Xena laughed throatily and stole another kiss. "Well... I was catching Corin up on current events..." Another kiss, this time deeper as warrior's tongue teased the bard's in tender play. "...About everything that's happened between us recently..." Running a length of kisses down her lover's neck and smiling at the sensual tremors that coursed through the bard's body. "...And I found myself thinking about you..." This time Gabrielle sought the warrior's mouth and tangled her hands in the thick ebony hair. "...I know, I know... I'm supposed to leave the thinking to you..." She chuckled, managing to disengage the red-head's lips, but not her hands. "...But I just couldn't help myself..." Sliding their bodies closer and maneuvering Gabrielle towards the hastily-constructed pallet of furs that lay behind her. "...Once I started thinking about you..." Gently, she swept the bard's feet out from under her, sending them tumbling softly onto the furs. "...I had to see you."

Gabrielle couldn't stop the laughter that bubbled up at the unexpected sweetness from her lover. "I hope you haven't been spreading lascivious rumors about your Queen, soldier," she bantered. "I do have a reputation to uphold, you know."

Xena's eyes shone as she quietly disrobed the Amazon Queen, deftly sliding buckles, ties and fasteners out of her way, and revealing a warm expanse of soft, pale skin to her reverent gaze. The warrior felt her breath catch in her throat as her eyes trailed over the welcoming form of her lover. "Things have happened so fast," she began.

"I wouldn't say that, Xena," the bard teased. "It took us three summers to get here."

And got a rueful smile in return. "True," she replied. "But now that it's happened..."

"You sorry?"

"Not in the least," Xena answered without hesitation. "I am sorry that this whole mess with the Romans had happen now." She shrugged. "I wanted..."

"I know, Xena," Gabrielle interrupted her. "Me too." And tugged the warrior into a deep kiss that set the dark woman's senses reeling.

"You're really good at that," Xena whispered when their lips finally parted.

"Funny, I was going to say the same thing," the bard grinned. "Now I think we need to get this leather out of the way." She indicated the warrior's tunic, a light smile playing across her face as she watched her lover obediently strip the leather from her body.

"That better?" she asked, settling herself comfortably above the smaller woman who groaned at the smooth contact of Xena's long form against hers.

"Much," Gabrielle muttered, her slender fingers beginning to roam across the sleek muscles.

"Wait..." Xena laughed, capturing the bard's hands in her own. "Before we get... carried away..." Exchanging a smirk with her partner, "I know we haven't really had a chance to talk since last night, and until this whole thing with Antony is over... I can't make any promises." She drew a shuddering breath and focused on the bard's concerned gaze. "It's so hard, Gabrielle. Trying to hold on when everything in me..."

Gabrielle clasped the warrior to her in a tight embrace. "Then hold on to me, Xena." She whispered in her lover's ear. "Hold on to me."

The night was warm and balmy, and a gentle west wind teased the flickering flames of the campfires laid out across the palace grounds' rolling hills. A cloudless sky displayed Artemis' moon to her best advantage, and blankets of tiny lights dotted the horizon. Xena wistfully thought about the summer evenings she and Gabrielle played the "Lights Game"-- as the bard called it--  and the rare lazy nights when their days had been unmolested by vagrant bandits or murderous warlords. She relished those times, listening to the bard weave her tales while she puttered about the camp and watching her small form snuggle down in the bedrolls to contentedly drift off to sleep. Her relationship with the bard was the best part of the warrior's life-- it had been for a long time-- and now... now things were unalterably different, and Xena couldn't help but wonder what other changes would result.

I can think of a few good ones... the warrior thought wryly, enjoying the pleasant aftereffects of the few candlemarks she and the bard had just spent together. But there were other possibilities... not nearly as pleasant... that worried the dark woman. Wearily she pressed her fingers against the bridge of her nose and resolutely tucked those thoughts away for a later time, when she had the luxury of considering them. There were Romans on the way, and self-contemplation was not the order of the evening.

The warrior sighed and stretched her legs, thinking that now would be a good time to check on the others. She bemusedly watched Gabrielle immersed in deep conversation with the Argonian queen. I don't think either of them has stopped talking long enough to draw a breath this evening. The warrior stood to leave, but not before replying to the bard's questioning glance. "I just want to check on the others," she whispered into the Amazon Queen's ear. "Sometimes soldiers get kind of... rowdy... before a big engagement, and I need to make sure nobody has too good a time, okay?" The bard smiled at the warrior's small gesture and merely squeezed her hand softly in response.

She knew Gabrielle was more than a little worried about her, despite their stolen time this afternoon. The tensions that Xena had managed to be able to shunt aside while wrapped in her lover's arms now came back with sickening weight. The warrior felt a mixture of relief and apprehension that the bard was willing to fight for these new feelings between them-- but deep down Xena still feared that ultimately it wouldn't matter-- that her soul belonged to Ares. Always has, always will... I'm afraid... No matter what I do...

The warrior walked the perimeters of each campfire, carefully appraising the conditioning of the soldiers she encountered. What she saw heartened her about the morning's coming battle. Ridley's men were as toned and prepared as she remembered. And Corin's troops were simply magnificent. Battle-ready and disciplined, the Argonian soldiers combined the best attributes of the Amazons with their commander's own inimitable flair. Softly she sighed, standing at the crest of a hill that overlooked the whole camp. They had a plan; their soldiers were primed. There was nothing else for the Warrior Princess to do but wait.

"You know," a voice said softly behind her, "We do have perimeter scouts so the generals don't have to do this."

Xena chuckled as Corin strolled into view. "I'm no general."

"Now you are," the blond commander replied. "Livia and I talked with Ridley and Ephiny, who in turn talked to Merron and Gabrielle. We're all in agreement-- if you'd do us the honor." A solemn expression covered her sharp features. "Lead us into battle tomorrow, Xena." Holding up her hand to forestall the warrior's heated refusal. "The plan is mostly yours anyway-- and Ridley, Ephiny and I are going to be looking after our own cores. Somebody needs to have the big picture in mind during the chaos. The best person for that is you."

Xena shook her head vehemently. "It's not my fight, Corin."

"But here you are," Corin replied. "You came because somebody needed help... that's who you are now, Xena." She grinned. "Like it or not. And you have the most experience of anyone who's going to be on that field tomorrow. It makes sense," she urged.

The commander's request confronted Xena with the very things she had most been trying to set aside during her musings this evening. The hungry part of the warrior's soul clamored for the role, eager to tear into the Romans and give vent to the rage that had been locked up for past summers. But another part of her quailed the responsibility, afraid that tenuous new connection she had made with the bard would be shattered by such an undeniably vicious encounter. Xena well remembered their experience with the Horde, and Gabrielle's outrage at her behavior. She was right then... And this is a thousand times worse than the Horde. She said to hold on to her, but what if I can't? What will she think of me then, if I let go to the darkness? The warrior couldn't stop the shudder than ran through her body at the thought.

Seeing the flinch, Corin placed a concerned hand on her friend's shoulder. "Xena?"

"It's so strange," she looked at the blond commander thoughtfully. "This... choice... facing the Romans... seems to be a recurring episode in my life."

"What do you mean?"

"I assume Ares showed or told you about my... encounter... with Caesar all those summers when I was first... getting started." She paused while Corin nodded. "Yeah... well you know Gabrielle and I went to Pellos about a fortnight ago. While we were there, Ares and I had a little disagreement over Gabrielle and her place in my life." She smiled wryly. "That's the first time he's ever really lost his temper with me... I guess I got off lucky, I was only unconscious for four days... and not dead. But during those four days, I learned a little something." A quirked brow in Corin's direction. "Would you like to know what it was?"

The commander felt the breath leave her body at the knowing look in the warrior's pale  eyes. "He showed you what he had planned for us."

"Oh no, Corin..." a low purr cascaded over the blond warrior. "He wasn't just content to show me... He put me right in the middle of it..." Xena laughed sardonically. "You and I had conquered Greece and were going after the Romans... He put it all at my feet, Corin... and it was so hard to walk away..." Xena closed her eyes at the memory of her time-- unreal though it was-- with the blond woman beside her. So hard and yet, in some ways it was the simplest decision of my life...

"And why did you walk away, Xena?" the commander prompted.

She took a deep breath and ran one long fingered hand through her hair. "I had to find Gabrielle..." Xena looked helplessly at the commander and shrugged. "I had to come back for her."

A smile twisted itself across Corin's features. "Then what makes you think this time will be any different?"

Gabrielle shook her head in amazement at the tale Livia had just finished relating. "I can't believe your brother actually thought he could get away with it."

"We all knew there was something-- not quite right-- about Aaron, but no one suspected just how damaged he was," the young queen sighed in memory of her brother's savage attack on Corin and his depraved intentions towards her. "When Corin came back and threatened him right after the attack, something just-- snapped and he threw himself off the tower's balcony." A still-angry light colored her kind blue eyes. "It's been five summers since he died, and I've tried to bring myself to forgive him," she shrugged at Gabrielle, "But I can't. Maybe now that Corin's returned for good, things will be different and I can. Honestly though," she gestured helplessly. "I don't think that day will ever come."

Slowly Gabrielle shook her head. "You know, I always said that the only way to stop the cycle of hate was through love-- and forgiveness, I guess. I forgave Callisto for everything she'd done to me, for murdering Perdicus--" Referring to the story of her short-lived marriage she had already shared with the Queen. "--But, you know, I don't know what I would do if anyone harmed Xena." The one time Xena had been seriously harmed-- killed in fact-- the bard had been so consumed with getting the warrior to Nicklios, she hadn't had time to contemplate what she felt for the man who was responsible. She gazed into the crackling flames of the fire and suddenly realized that what she felt for the warrior was far beyond anything she'd ever experienced, anything she had even known was possible. Xena had been so many things to her over the last few summers-- protector, mentor, friend, sister... and now... lover-- that she'd become firmly embedded in the bard's soul, and Gabrielle couldn't imagine a life without her.

And that was one of the red-head's largest fears. Even though their relationship had encompassed so many roles, there had been firm boundaries between them... places in the warrior's life where she allowed no one, not even someone she called "her best friend," to go. Gabrielle knew that Xena kept so much of herself off-limits because the warrior feared the bleakness of her own soul-- and Gabrielle respected that fear. But the bard knew she couldn't just love the parts of the warrior that Xena deemed "acceptable." She hungered to know all of her lover... and she could feel the barricades separating them crashing down every time they touched. Whether the warrior wanted to or not, Xena was opening herself to the bard's love, and-- for both their sakes-- Gabrielle hoped she was strong enough to withstand all the darkness she had yet to see.

"For a bard, you're awfully quiet," Livia teased.

A sheepish grin escaped Gabrielle's lips. "Well--" she cocked her head. "I do have a few things on my mind."

"Would a tall, dark warrior be one of them?"

"That obvious, huh? Actually, she'd be all of them." In spite of herself, she felt a warming glow flare in the pit of her belly at the mention of her lover. Ooh, this is going to take some getting used to...

"How long have you two been together?" Livia grimaced, "If you don't mind me being presumptuous and asking."

Gabrielle smiled and waved off the Queen's apology. "I don't mind... In fact, it's kind of nice to have somebody to talk about her to. Even now, after all this time, she still makes the Amazons nervous. And Xena and Corin do have a few things in common, after all," she laughed.

"That's true," Livia agreed. "I've never heard Corin speak more highly of someone."

"Well, Xena returns the sentiments. After those two sparred, it was all Xena could talk about for days-- how good Corin was, how smart--" We won't go into all those other things that Xena didn't talk about... I still wonder about those two, but.. Nah... Corin's obviously happy here... and Xena... well...


"Huh?" She shook her head. "Sorry, went out again, didn't I?"

"Sometimes it does help to talk about these things. But I don't want to pry."

"Please," Gabrielle shook her head. "Please pry. Otherwise, I'm going to end up talking about all this to a tree, and I'm not sure how much experience the local foliage has with someone like Xena."

The pair chuckled at the image of Gabrielle interrogating a cypress tree, even though Livia had no idea of how true the bard's statement was. "I was asking how long you two had been together."

"Well, we've been traveling together about three summers."

"I see," Livia grinned mischievously. "Now-- how can I put this delicately? How long have you been more than traveling companions?"

"Oh!" A rush of heat to Gabrielle's face sent a beautiful flush crossing her features, and she looked anywhere but at her new friend. "Sorry. I'm kind of new at this."

"Well, we've all--"

"No, Livia. I mean really new at this-- Remember, before Xena, I was married for one day-- and night," she added with another blush.

"So? How long have two been lovers?"

"Um-- about four days?"

The Argonian queen's eyebrows shot skyward. "Oh my--"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, that's pretty much where we are right now, too."

"Well, Xena, did it ever occur to you, that maybe history is repeating itself?"

The dark warrior regarded the shadowy planes of her friend's features. "What do you mean?"

"Let me see if I've got the story right. Things are beginning to change between you and Gabrielle, and you're beginning to act on your feelings for each other." Corin nodded thoughtfully. "I can see where that would drive Ares nuts. I mean, for how many summers have you kept her at arm's length because you felt you weren't worthy?" She shrugged. "You did Ares' job for him. So now that things are changing, he tries to bully you into pushing her away again. But it doesn't work. Does any of this sound familiar?"

Xena snorted derisively. "All too familiar."

"So anyway. It doesn't work. He loses it-- beats you within a hairsbreadth of your life--" Seeing the inquiring brow arched her way, she shook her head sadly. "I can see the bruises, Xena. Even though most of them are faded, I've got a pretty good idea of what he did to you." Pausing briefly as the warrior acknowledged the damage with a quietly downcast eyes. "He knows he can't control your feelings for Gabrielle, but he can manipulate the connection between us." A long pause, and then the commander added, "You were dreaming about me, weren't you, Xena?"

"How did you know that?" The warrior asked softly.

Corin smiled wryly. "Because, Great Zeus knows, I was dreaming about you."

They shared a moment's silence, both recognizing the kinetic attraction between them, but vividly aware that their hearts where claimed by others.

"Anyway--" Corin continued. "He uses our connection to give you everything you ever wanted-- a splendid army--"  she grinned wickedly, "--a dashing lover and a chance for revenge. What more could you want? Only you have to walk away from the most powerful force in your life--"

"My feelings for Gabrielle."


"So what did you mean by history repeating itself?"

"What do have here, Xena?" She gestured at the camp below them. "Two of the best trained armies in Greece, plus the Amazons. The Amazon Queen is your lover. And Caesar's prize general is coming to town. Now, I ask you again-- Does this sound familiar?"

"You think Ares told Caesar to come here?"

"I think he might have planted the idea. You know more than anyone Caesar's determination to conquer the world. Athens and Sparta hold a lot of influence. If they fell--"

"So would the rest of Greece... and a lot of other places." Xena shook her head again and paced a few steps away. "Corin, that's exactly why I can't lead the troops tomorrow. If Ares did plant the idea, then I'll be playing right into his hands. He wants me back, Corin. And I guess I'm only postponing the inevitable. I mean the Chosen can only run so far, can they?"

Corin's green eyes blazed fiercely and her tone turned harsh. "I've told you this before, Xena. You do not belong to Ares."

"Then why in the gods names won't he leave me be!" she shouted in reply. "Everyone and everything I have ever held dear has been destroyed because I picked up that damnable sword! But I can't for the life of me put it down... It's who I am... How can that not belong to him?"

And then a quiet voice from her memory answered her. "It's not all you are, Xena. Or you wouldn't have been able to walk away." Gabrielle's words. More of the bard's light that shone on her withered soul. She hung her head in exhaustion.

Corin drew an angry breath and blew it out explosively, gathering in her temper. When she began to speak, her measured, even tones rang dully in the dark warrior's mind. "Don't you get it? You are free. If you truly belonged to Ares, you wouldn't have been able to walk away. Ever. It's that simple. Just as I have never been able to walk away from Athena. I could renounce her protection, but I could never renounce her. He seeks you because you're strong. Because you, among all others, are who you make yourself. You've dwelt in your capacity for evil, Xena, but you haven't even begun to touch your capacity for good."

"Not exactly the best time to be entering a battle zone, is it?" Livia ventured mildly.

Gabrielle chuckled ruefully. "You don't know the half of it. Xena has a... history... with the Romans."

"So things could get ugly?"

"Things already have gotten ugly, Livia. It's like she's two people-- the one who's my friend and... lover and one who just... goes away... to someplace I can't reach her when stuff like this whole Romans thing happens."

"Ah... and therein lies your problem? Making her understand that you love all those parts of her, even the ones she doesn't want to let you see?"

"That's half the problem."

"And the other half?"

"Those parts that she doesn't want to let me see?"


"They scare the Tartarus out of me."

Looking up at Artemis' moon, the warrior gauged the night's passage. In a way, she couldn't wait for the morning, for with it brought a coming battle, and her body always responded eagerly to the challenge thrown before it. She hadn't returned to the campsite, although she knew Gabrielle would be waiting for her. Instead, Xena had chased Corin's words around her head until she was dizzy with the pursuit. Corin truly believed in her ability to do good, to be good-- before, only Gabrielle had that kind of faith in her. The blond commander was right... she had dwelt in her capacity for evil. It was home to her still. And what place does that leave for Gabrielle?

Knowing that dawn's arrival would come far too soon for everyone, the camp and palace alike retired early-- the Amazons willingly snugging down in the newly enlarged barracks with the rest of the Argonian and Pellosian soldiers. Xena went to make her bedroll with the rest of the women, but Corin caught her arm, wagging her head sharply. "Oh no you don't, Princess. You belong with Gabrielle. Especially tonight."

Xena opened her mouth to protest, then closed it abruptly, too weary to spar anymore with the commander.

"Good move," the blond warrior crooned approvingly. She brought them to a halt in front of a closed wooden door, which she rapped upon smartly.

"Yes?" came Gabrielle's voice through the door.

"Delivery, Milady."

A frowning bard opened the door.

Corin offered a sweeping bow. "One Warrior Princess, delivered, as requested." Then she chuckled fiendishly. "Enjoy." And was off before Xena could swat her in annoyance.

Gabrielle laughed delightedly at the commander's shenanigans. "Get in here, you," she said softly, tugging on the warrior's bracer and shutting the door behind them. "Were you going to disappear on me again?"

Xena ducked her head and spent a long moment in contemplation of the floor.

Gabrielle let out a long sigh. "Xena-- if you don't want to be with me, that's one thing." Noting when the warrior jerked her head up in alarm. "But if you're just running scared--"

"No, Gabrielle! I mean, yes-- I mean, I just... I thought we covered this this afternoon."

"So did I, Xena. But you were going to disappear again tonight."

"I know... Just... instinct, I guess. To try and keep the bad stuff from you." She paused and drew a deep breath, smiling ruefully. "Let me do this again. I do want to be with you... and yes, I'm scared... but not of what I feel for you."

"Okay then," the bard smiled. "That's a start. We can sort everything else out from there." She wrapped her arms around Xena in a fierce embrace, trying to communicate through her touch just how much she needed the warrior and how very wanted she was.

Xena couldn't help the next words that slipped out, completely without her permission. "Do we have to sort the 'everything else' out now?" She offered a weak grin to the bard, who slapped her lightly on the arm.

"Of course we don't. We have plenty on our plate right now with Antony on his way and all." She broke the embrace and pulled down the coverlet on the large bed. "I think we both need a good night's rest more than anything."

"I won't argue with that," the warrior agreed, sitting down on a nearby chair and beginning to methodically remove her armor.

"But there is one thing I want to tell you." The seriousness in the bard's tone abruptly centered the warrior's attention on her face. "I know Corin was going to ask you to lead the troops tomorrow." Seeing Xena's answering nod, she continued. "And I hope you accepted. Xena, you know more about waging war than Corin, Ridley and Ephiny put together. You're the right person for that job." She closed the few steps between them and knelt down before the seated warrior. "I want you to promise me one thing, Xena. I know... how difficult... tomorrow is going to be for you. Please don't let go of what we feel for each other. You once told me that you'd always be here for me, Xena. Now it's my turn to tell you the same thing. No matter what... how hard it seems... how dark it gets... I'll be here--" she pressed hard on the space just over the warrior's heart, "--for you. If you'll let me."

Xena captured the bard's hand and brought it reverently to her lips, brushing a soft kiss across the knuckles. Gabrielle let her fingers trail across the soft plane of her lover's cheek and gently bent the warrior's head to her own. Their mouths met in a warm tangle, each stealing the breath from the other's lips. Falling into the speckled green of her lover's eyes, Xena whispered softly. "Gabrielle, you've believed in me for so long... even when I didn't. I don't know what I've done to deserve it-- I don't think there's anything I could have done to earn it-- but for whatever reason... your trust in me has never wavered. I promise you, I'll always hold your trust... and your love... as close to me as my own heartbeat."

Sometimes... Gabrielle thought hazily as Xena led her to their bed and curled them up together under the warm blankets ...for someone who doesn't talk much, Xena has quite a way with words.

Betrayal glittered in his cold eyes-- eyes that she could see were now blacker than any evil she had ever been, ever known. "I thought we going to conquer the world," she whispered. The betrayal stunned her, but only insofar as she hadn't seen it coming. Overconfident of her seductive powers, she had never dreamed that anyone could refuse her will.

"We?" he sneered. "There is no we, Xena. There is only Rome."

It was then the young brigand knew she was going to die. And in a way, she was relieved. The brief days she had shared with the Celtic slave had rent a gaping tear in the newly-formed, blackened shell over her soul. The small slave's light threatened to pour inside her, and Xena was afraid of what would happen then. Anger was all she had known this last summer. Anger and a determination never again to be brutalized at the hands of murderous thieves masquerading as soldiers. Lying wrapped in this woman's arms had shown Xena that there was a place of peace and understanding. She did not live there as her lover did, but had merely been granted a precious temporary passage. And she was grateful she had known it, if only for a moment.

Xena awoke in silence. No light filtered through the broad windows across from the bed. It's still early, she observed through waking eyes. Not dawn yet. She regarded the lithe form tucked neatly against her side. In their sleep, Gabrielle had claimed the dark woman's body with a protective arm draped across her chest, while a small hand gently cupped the warrior's right breast. Xena felt cradled in the forgiving peace that extended from the dream of her time with Mi'Lila. She had been resigned to dying that night and, for a long time after, truly believed that it would have been best if she had. Looking at her love sleeping next to her, the warrior who cursed all gods sent a silent thanks to whatever-- whoever-- had decreed that she live. Mi'Lila saved me from Caesar's cross, only to deliver me with her death to ten summers of carnage. The gods help us all, my love, if anything ever happens to you. This thought launched an icy current rippling through the silvery warmth that Morpheus had cast over them. Responding to the shudder in her partner's frame, Gabrielle instinctively tightened her hold on the warrior, and Xena placed a quiet kiss on the bard's forehead to gentle her.

She pulled back to see sleepy green eyes appraising her. "You okay?" the bard mumbled.

"Fine, love. Just waking up."

A drowsy smile stole over the red-head's face. "I love hearing that," she murmured, turning her face against Xena's neck and softly nipping the skin.

Xena pretended not to hear the bard's words-- or at least pretended not to know what she was talking about-- but if the truth be told, she loved hearing it too.

They lazed about for a little while longer, exchanging increasingly awake kisses, before the warrior reluctantly disentangled herself from her lover's tenacious hold. "No one else is up," Gabrielle protested.

"They will be soon. I've got to review the plans one more time and then make sure everyone is assemled and knows their responsibilities," was the crisp, military reply. She would never admit it to Gabrielle, but she was even more loath to leave their haven than the bard was. She knew today would bring many things, not the least of which was meeting Roman legions for the first time since Mi'Lila's murder. She had promised Gabrielle that she wouldn't let the darkness reclaim her; however, she could feel the stirrings in her blood, the clamor for vengeance on behalf of those Caesar had murdered in Rome's name. Sarrus, Bracha, Teldus... youths from Amphipolis whose only crime was to believe her rash promises of making their homeland safe ...Barbarians they called us... My friends, you didn't deserve your fate...

"Xena?" Gabrielle caressed the dark woman's face gently with her hands, a worried expression covering her beautiful features. "What's wrong? Talk to me."

But the warrior couldn't. Staring into the spiraling verdant lucency of Gabrielle's eyes, she realized that to talk now would be to open the remainder of her soul to the unbearable brilliance of the bard's love and to release all the pain and secrets from their shrouded crypts. Three summers of traveling-- of campfires and battles, of shared joys and hardships-- had entwined her life with that of the bard, and this last fortnight had all but eradicated the carapace that protected her brittle soul. After everything they had shared, to answer that call now to me... would be to surrender the last vestments of her emotional armor. That could not happen today, not with everything that awaited them. Let me hang on to it a bit longer, love... I promise you... It's for the best...

Xena swallowed hard, refocusing her eyes from their journey inward. When she looked at Gabrielle again, the smaller woman could see the burning pale and knew her lover was gone. She thought back to the warrior's anguished words a few nights prior "...I can't do this all at once..." she had pleaded "... and I can't do it now... not with Caesar... not with it all right here..." The bard nodded her acceptance of the warrior's silence, even though all she wanted was to hold tightly to this woman and scream for her Xena to come back. "I know," she finally whispered.

At that, Xena's eyes closed. "Thank you," she breathed. With a last kiss, so soft that Gabrielle almost thought she imagined it, the warrior left their bed and moved to the battle beyond.

The barracks area was filled with the skittish energy of soldiers anticipating a battle. Xena had been in the command tent for over a candlemark, pouring over the last details of their plan-- which consisted mainly of going out to meet Antony's attack rather than taking purely defensive measures. As a warlord, Xena had specialized in being outnumbered and out-weaponed by the kingdoms to which she had laid seige, so the outlandish odds against them didn't worry her as much as they might another general. Actually the warrior felt pretty good about their chances. She may have only three divisions, but they were incredibly strong and led by three people with whom she trusted her life. And that was something she'd never had on a battlefield before. A simple knife in the back during a fight-- she'd learned early on in her warring days-- could make a lieutenant a captain, or a captain a general-- and she'd learned to fight with one eye on the enemy, the other on her troops. I think Antony's gonna be walking into a little more than he expected...

This final thought led the Warrior Princess to give her three generals a wicked grin as they entered the command tent. Corin, Ephiny, and Ridley exchanged glances before grinning back at her. With her sword and chakram securely in place and her hair a dark cloud around her shoulders, the warrior was resplendant in the black leather that clung to every sleek muscle. A pulsing intensity swirled around her-- not the roiling energy of battle fever that ricocheted off everyone within reach-- but a contained, controlled power that spoke volumes about the woman wielding it. This was the Xena of legend-- the soldier who conquered half of Greece, the warrior who mesmerized the God of War.

Looking at her assembled generals, she thought again about her conversation with Corin last night, when the commander had suggested that Ares had at least planted in Caesar's mind the germ of the idea for attacking Greece. One more effort, Ares? If I walk away now will I finally be free? Pushing her own musings away, she forced herself to focus on the task at hand. "Everyone assembled?" she asked quietly.

"Getting there," Ephiny replied. "The last core of Ridley's men are riding out to the flanking positions."

The quartet had agreed on a three-pronged attack, with Argon's troops meeting Antony head-on. They didn't know what intelligence measures-- if any-- the Roman general had employed, so they were uncertain if he knew Queen Livia had enlisted aid. Certainly he wouldn't be expecting Amazons-- who were normally recalitrant about aiding city-states-- so Xena sent the most of the Amazon force flanking to Antony's left and Ridley's men flanking right. She had decreased the size of the main force meeting the Roman, hoping to lure him into throwing the entire weight of his troops into a full-out frontal assault, leaving little or no rear guard. Then, if everything went according to plan, the Amazons and Pellosian troops would circle around, meeting at Antony's unprotected rear. They would have him surrounded.

"Good," she nodded. Then, knowing something more was expected of her, she cleared her throat. "Look..." Gods this is hard... These three weren't a throng of soldiers easily manipulated by promises of plunder and victory in battle. They weren't --as Gabrielle referred to it-- in the Warrior Princess-thrall. They were here to defend their homes, their families, and their friends. So the words she spoke were not meant to seduce. Or bewitch. Or incite. They were a simple expression of gratitude to a group of dear friends and fellow soldiers. "You all know what it's like to go into battle and lead your own troops. You know what could happen at any moment out there." She paused, locking gazes with each of them, memorizing the color of each pair of eyes-- the warm brown of Ridley, the cool blue-grey of Ephiny, the piercing green of Corin. "I've never fought beside a group of people with so much honor and decency. I... I can't tell you what it means to me that you've asked me to lead you. It's something I never thought I'd live to experience. Thank you for your trust."

The Warrior Princess blinked back an unexpected brightness in her pale blue eyes and offered a crooked smile to her comrades.

"Thank you, Xena, for accepting." Corin returned the smile and held out her arm. When Xena reached to clasp it, Corin tugged her into a warm embrace. As the warrior buried her head in the commander's thick blond hair, she heard a quiet whisper. "Remember, Princess, you are free."

She nodded as she pulled back from the hug and smiled. Turning to Ridley, she accepted a fervent handshake and a toothy grin. "We'll kick his arse all the way back to Rome."

"Without a doubt," the dark woman seconded. She looked at Ephiny, who was studying her with an inscrutable gaze. The warrior arched an inquistive brow as if to say, What is it, Eph?

Wordlessly, Ephiny embraced Xena's long form. The slight body of the Regent felt inconsequential in the warrior's arms, and Xena struggled to keep the shock from her face. A handshake, a gruff clap on the shoulder, even a nod-- any of those she had expected, but not this gesture. When Ephiny broke away, a slight smile played at the corner of her mouth. "That's because Gabrielle can't be here," she said softly, for Xena's ears alone. "As for me..." she paused, looked about to say something, then thought better of it and shook her head. "The Amazons are proud you're leading us today, Xena. I have no doubts about the success of the day's battle." She stepped away a pace and proferred her arm, every inch a formal Amazon.

The warrior smiled and accepted the handshake as well as the tribute. "Thanks, Eph." Looking at her generals, thinking about the forces they faced, she too was confident of the day's outcome. "Now I believe we have some Romans who need to be taught a lesson." Her eyes danced at the thought. "Shall we?"

The morning had not been a lazy one for the noncombatants either. Livia and Gabrielle met in the Commons Area shortly after their respective warriors had left them. Efficiently, they began setting up an infirmary area for the casualties that the battle would inevitably bring. Argon's healers were well-qualified, and there was no dearth of supplies. As she worked, Gabrielle couldn't help but remember the war in Thessaily, where she and Xena had been desperately trapped-- the warrior forced to work with almost no supplies and a group of healers more concerned with prayers to the gods than with treating the shrieking wounded. A shiver ran through her at the memory of their time there ...Hippocates said I died... but Xena never talked about it. I remember burning white pain and a welcoming warmth... but all I could hear was Xena screaming for me and I knew I had to go back... Was that what it was like for her? The warrior had never talked about her time on the other side, just as Gabrielle hadn't talked about hers-- and somehow, the bard suspected their experiences were much different. But each had come back for the other. For Xena and Gabrielle, that was enough.

"Are you having second thoughts about not going?" Livia's quietly musical voice interrupted her contemplation.

Ruefully the bard shook her head. "No," she answered. "As well as I can defend myself with my staff, a battlefield full of Roman centurions is no place for someone who won't kill." Not to mention Xena would probably get herself killed in a heartbeat just trying to keep me safe. She had no illusions about the warrior's priorities. "You first, everyone else second, myself last," the warrior had told her when pressed about her overprotective behavior. "I can deal with facing my own death, or losing some villager-- or even someone in my family-- in a battle, Gabrielle. But the thought of losing you..." Xena's voice had trailed off in a strangled choke, and the bard had thrown her arms around the warrior in an unthinking gesture of solace. It had been shortly after the pair had faced Valesca, when so many things had been said for the first time during sleepless nights around the campfire. Although neither had known it had the time, the warrior and the bard were well down the path that had led them to where they now were. "Besides," Gabrielle continued her conversation. "I can do more good here. Traipsing around after Xena for a couple of summers has taught me a thing or two about healing. I can't do everything that Xena can do, but I can stitch up a wound pretty well." She grinned conspiratorily. "Xena gets banged up a whole lot more than she lets on."

Livia nodded knowingly. "Tell me about it. Corin's the same way. What is it with those two?"

The bard shrugged. "I think it's just warriors in general. But I have to say Xena's worse about it than most. She's got that stoic-brooding-determined thing down pat." Gabrielle's thoughts wandered to their travels together, and how her warrior had changed over time. Actually, she hasn't really changed that much. I've just gotten better at reading her... understanding why she does what she does. Although maybe, now... it will be easier for her to let me in... "I used to think she was so cold because she didn't feel anything-- that all those years as a warlord had just burned all the emotion out of her. But now I know that she became that way to keep from losing her ability to feel." The red-head furrowed her brows, trying to give voice to the engima that was the Warrior Princess. "Does that make any sense?"

"You love her very much," Livia quietly stated.

"I didn't think it was possible to feel this much for someone," Gabrielle replied simply.

The Argonian Queen nodded in a kinship of understanding.

From the distance, they heard the unmistakable ululating cry of the Warrior Princess and the answering roar of the assembled troops. The noise seemed to shake the palace walls, and a glacial chill spread through Gabrielle's blood that was worse than any fear she'd ever known. This was more than the fear of Xena's injury or death that she already lived with every day-- it was the new, blinding awareness that each time Xena drew her sword, she was fighting not only the man in front of her, but also the very force of her own darkness. Every battle now threatened to overwhlem the fragile life she had worked to create these last three summers. Gabrielle closed her eyes and sent a silent prayer to whatever god might be listening.

"It's started."

Blood slicked her sword and ran down the hilt, threatening to dislodge her grip. Xena grimaced as a seemingly unending stream of centurions kept hurling themselves forward. She and Corin formed the point of the wedge that drove deep into the ranks of Romans, but still-- after almost a whole day of fighting-- she couldn't see Antony's banners. Argo reared and whirled, narrowly missing a spear hurled towards her flank, and Xena sliced through the arm of the Roman who had thrown it. He screamed in agony, and the lad's last vision was of the warrior's grisly smile as she neatly separated his head from his shoulders.

Just to her left she saw Corin fighting grimly on, gore streaking her face and hair. At some point she had been unseated, and now she fought hand-to-hand with three bellowing soldiers. Dispatching them with ruthless alacrity, she whistled shrilly for Berdach. The huge black mare leapt over the bodies to come to her mistress' side. Remounted, she spared a worried glance at Xena-- who sent two more down in the meantime-- and roared at their troops to move forward.

As the Greek coalition surged ahead, Xena could feel the Roman soldiers buckling under their onslaught. Strategically placed Amazon archers shot flaming arrows into the midst of the enemy line, creating more chaos, as agonized shrieks rose from both men and horses as the projectiles hit their marks. Smoke stung Xena's eyes, sending tears streaking through the soot and blood that covered her face. The deeper they pressed, the more she could feel the innervatating joy of battle racing through her. She laughed wildly as a Roman youth attempted to cut through the girth on Argo's saddle. Deflecting his sword with her own, she neatly unseated him with a flick of her wrist. Argo reared as the boy tumbled to the ground, and the warhorse trampled the flailing youth underfoot.

Suddenly she caught sight of the first Pellosain riders bearing down on the Romans from the opposite side. We've broken through the line... Xena's mind raced ...but where in Tartarus is Antony? Sending the general's body back to Rome-- sans his head-- was now Xena's one burning goal. They had-- as she promised-- soundly thrashed the Romans, now she wanted to send an unforgettable message to Caesar. She relentlessly cut down the stream of men pouring at her from either side.

"Corin!" she shouted over the din. With a sweep of her hand, she directed the commander to lead a core against the troops coming at them from the left, she motioned a core of Ridley's just arrived men to join her on the right. She had to give the centurions credit, they didn't break rank and run when they realized they were surrounded. Of course, they don't exactly have anywhere to run...

Twelve summers of experience now tempered the once-overwhelming surge of power that flared in the pit of her belly. Where she had once torn through battlefields in an orgy of bloodletting, she now savored the pursuit, her will grimly bent to one single purpose-- finding Antony. All of the long-dormant instincts were there, awakened in a way they hadn't in many summers, clamoring in outrage against the iron bands that held them in check. The fevered energy pounded against the warrior's eyes, screaming for vengeance.

For the blood of the Romans.

For the blood of Caesar.

Killing Antony will bring him to me...

She randomly severed arms and legs from the bodies that flung themselves at her, while her eyes constantly scanned for the general's banner. She had made contingency plans should the Romans have circled behind the main city walls-- and there was a force of soldiers from Argon, Pellos, and the Amazons waiting for just that emergency. But as she crested a small rise and brought Argo to a halt, she realized that those plans were unnecessary. Below her stood Antony's guard, doggedly locked in combat with Ephiny and a core of Amazons.

A raging warcry echoed through the small valley, freezing the combatants for an endless moment in time. Those who were able to see the figure that descended upon them beheld a spectacle that was surely Death's harbinger. The huge pale warhorse spewed foam from her mouth, snorting and blowing out gusts of air with a toss of her head. The creature on her back was covered in grime and blood that tangled her onyx hair in thick snarls and coated the bronze armor in an ensanguined crust. The only thing that identified her as human were the eyes that stared back at the Romans and Amazons alike-- but they burned with an unnatural blue flame that was more terrifying than the entrails of some unfortunate soldier that were dripping from her sword.

"ANTONY!!!!" she bellowed. "SHOW YOURSELF!!!!"

An immortally beautiful man stepped forward. White-blond, close-cropped locks covered his head, framing a traditionally Patrician Roman nose and deep blue eyes that would have rivalled Xena's had she been sane at that moment. He was tall and well-muscled, his long frame covered by gleaming gold armor, speckled with blood. The combat had only just reached him, but he was not a general to shrink from the batte once it was brought to his doorstep.

Xena swung down from Argo's back, landing softly on the thick grass. Her strides towards him were the measured prowl of a predator who has at last found her prey and is not about to release it. Her lips pulled back into a ghastly snarl, revealing teeth that were shockingly white against the blood. "We meet at last," she purred, her voice alarmingly at odds with the eerie burning in her eyes and her gory appearance.

The Roman showed no trace of the terror that shimmered through the others standing on the blood-soaked ground. He merely arched a brow at her and offered a slight nod of his head. "I take it you're the commander of this force?" he asked simply.

"My name is Xena."

Awareness flickered across his rich cobalt eyes. "The Warrior Princess." A tight smile painted the general's lips. "Your reputation proceeds you," he said with a faint twitch of his jaw at the news.

"It usually does," she replied. "I'm here to tell Rome that her people are not welcome on Grecian soil. Any illusions Caesar has about conquering this part of the world end now."

"And I'm to be this messenger?" Antony asked skeptically.

"In a manner of speaking," she crooned. "You can choose, actually."

"What do I get to chose?" He bantered, seemingly content to play her game.

"Which part of your corpse I send back to Caesar as the message-- your head or your heart."

Her words hung in the air for just a moment-- long enough for them to register with everyone on the battlefield, the general most of all. He screamed in outrage at the temerity of the barbarian woman and drew his sword, approaching the bloody figure in a wary circle.

Xena laughed evilly as the darkness finally surged forward, vengeance well within its grasp. First Antony, then Caesar... Then Rome? It was all so simple to this part of her. Kill everything that had wronged her, everything that had sent her spiraling down this path-- and then maybe the torment would end. The nightmares, the guilt, the sense of not deserving those things she held dear...

But what then? A quiet plea rose from the depths of her soul. And its voice was Gabrielle's.

Xena closed her eyes to ward off the tender sound, and Antony's blade glanced off her shoulder, drawing the first blood that was hers all day. Intuitively she parried a more serious thrust that would have genuinely harmed her and batted his sword away with the flat of her blade.

Is your soul so steeped in blood that you can't live any other way?

And for just a moment... everything went away...

The bard's face was so clear in her mind's eye. She could almost feel the tangled red-gold hair in her hands, see the lips slightly parted in breathless anticipation of their kiss, breathe in the musky scent of their lovemaking...

Xena shuddered at the sensations, the knowledge of what she was walking away from should she answer the darkness' call. She had fought so long, so hard-- not to change what she was-- but to control it. Looking grimly at the Roman general standing before she thought, I'll be damned if I'm going to throw it all away for the likes of him... And slowly the darkness bent to the warrior's will and receded to its adumbral lair.

Antony, sensing a lessening in the swirling energy around the Warrior Princess, drove relentlessly forward, but even as Xena only fought to defend herself, he was hopelessly outclassed as a swordsman. Half a dozen efficient strokes left the Roman general disarmed and resigned indeed to being the messenger Xena had promised Caesar.

She stood over him, sword pointed at his throat and wearily shook her head. "Go home, Antony. Tell Caesar the city-states of Greece won't be plunder for the Empire." She turned her back on the Roman lying in the dirt, startled to meet Corin's eyes. The commander flinched at the light that still gleamed feverously in the warrior's pale eyes. Still, she met Xena's gaze and nodded softly.

The Warrior Princess mounted Argo and whirled the horse around, leaving the field to those who would clean up what the day's battle had wrought.

Gabrielle was astonished at how few casualties trickled in throughout the morning and afternoon. A handful of soldiers were killed outright, but other than that the wounds sustained were minimal. But everyone had stories of the Warrior Princess cutting a bloody swath through the Roman front line in a piceous fury. Each tale the bard heard sent her deeper into a kind of quiet despair, even as her heart cried out in protest. She knew exactly how capable Xena was of inflicting the damage that the soldiers described-- she had seen a glimpse of that fury against the Horde, and that was against an unknown enemy. Gabrielle could only imagine what rage Xena had felt upon seeing the Romans again, reliving that unspeakable time on the cross.

She saw Corin and Ephiny come in with the last of the troops and there was still no sign of Xena.

"Where is she, Corin?" the Amazon Queen demanded.

The tall, blond commander held out her bloody hands in a calming gesture. Livia was at her side, having found her immediately in the cacophony of celebrating soldiers. Not only had the coaliition won the day, but they had done so decisviely and with minimal casualties. Gabrielle shuddered to think of the dead and wounded Romans left on the field by Xena's sword. "She's all right, Gabrielle. She's got a small wound on her shoulder, but it's nothing. A couple of stitches fixed it right up."

To the point: "Then where is she?"

Ephiny, arriving just as Corin was answering the Queen, exchanged uneasy glances with the blond commander. "Gabrielle--" she hesitated. "I don't think you want to go near her right now."

"Don't tell me what I don't want to do," she snapped at her Regent-- who blanched at the savage tone in her Queen's voice. "Now tell me where she is."

Corin sighed and ran a hand through her grimy hair, wincing at the filth in the strands. "She's in your chambers. She said to tell you she'd... be away... for a little while. That you'd know what that meant."

Gabrielle nodded, and her heart ached a little more. "I do, Corin. And I also heard about everything that happened." The bard blew out a nervous breath. "I have to go to her." Ephiny tried to protest, but she waved the Regent away with a shake of her head. "This doesn't concern you, Ephiny."

The Regent's already-high temper snapped. Xena's battlefield display had been both magnificent and horrible, unlike anything the Amazon had ever seen. The Warrior Princess today had been a legend brought to life far beyond any tale ever told. "Doesn't concern me, My Queen? Tell me how sending you up to a half-mad warrior right off the battlefield doesn't concern me! If you're not worried about your own safety, I have to think about it for the sake of the Nation." Ephiny took a deep breath and tried to steady her tone, but the frantic cast in the blue-grey eyes belied her attempt at calm. "You weren't there, Gabrielle. You didn't see her-- she was like the old Warrior Princess." She paused, then spoke softly. "The woman upstairs isn't your lover."
There was a long silence while Gabrielle regarded her friend peacefully-- despite the sudden pounding of her heart-- and then smiled gently at the worried countenance of her Regent. "You're wrong, Ephiny," she replied. "That's exactly who she is."

Three tubs full of water had finally wrung all the gore from Xena's long hair. The water had run red after each rinsing, but now she reclined in the large bath, hoping that the scalding water would leach some of the coiled energy from her body. She was still wound tightly, the metallic tang of blood fresh in her mouth, the screaming and roar of the battlefield ringing in her ears. At times like this she though she had been born to feel the sting of battle, the power of being life and death to an army. It stirred something in her that nothing else ever had.

Her hyper-aware senses picked up the quiet creak of the door and the gentle footsteps that were unmistakable to her ears.


"Hi," the bard said softly. The warrior's back was to her, and Gabrielle could see the muscles knotted up in her shoulders. The dark woman's very being seemed to vibrate with rigidly harnessed intensity, and the bard couldn't stop the involuntary shiver coursing through her veins that was part fear and-- if she were brutally honest-- part fascination.

She closed the last few steps that separated them in silence. Xena still had not spoken. With trembling hands, she reached out for the warrior, brushing her fingertips across the width of those broad shoulders.

Xena flinched at the contact. "Gabrielle--" A warning growl, but the bard could hear the thready tremor that ran through the word.

Slowly she sank to her knees behind her lover, bringing her mouth level with the dark woman's ear and sliding her arms around Xena's neck. "The darkness and the light, Xena--" she whispered. "I promised you-- the darkness and the light."

Gabrielle wasn't sure what she expected as she watched Xena rise smoothly from the tub-- maybe it was a rough embrace or some fevered, out-of-control coupling -- but it certainly wasn't the silent, motionless warrior who now stood before her. Tendrils of steam curled from her bronze skin as it connected with the cooler air, and the bard was hypnotized by the rippling movement of the muscles under that skin. Her raven hair was sleekly combed back from her face, sending the high planes of her features into sharp relief. There was something elegantly lethal about this Xena, centered in the liquid chaos of her blazing blue eyes. It occurred to Gabrielle that this creature was the source of innumerable tales-- most of which were not her own-- and now she knew why. Her bard's mind scrambled for a way to describe what she saw even as her body was paralyzed by the warrior's mesmerizing presence.

The warrior took a step closer, an appraising cast in her stormy eyes. Gabrielle's breath quickened-- whether from her lover's proximity or the lingering perusal of her figure, she couldn't say. "Undress for me, Gabrielle," she said softly.

Coherent thought stopped for the bard at that point, and silently, she obeyed Xena's command. As each article of her Amazon garb was removed, she surrendered another part of her body to the warrior's glance. At last the two lovers stood revealed to each other.

Wordlessly, Xena took Gabrielle's hand and led her to the soft pallet that they shared. Lowering the bard gently on the coverlet, she spooned her body around the smaller woman, burying her face in the long, red-gold hair. Slowly she trailed the callused tips of her fingers down the sloping lines of Gabrielle's ribs, across the curve of her hip, smoothing her palm against the defined muscles in her thigh.

The bard drew a deep shuddering breath at the delicious sensations shimmering through her body, as Xena stroked her length yet again. Gabrielle tried to turn in the warrior's embrace to reach her love, but the dark woman stopped her with a quiet hand. "Shh... Gabrielle..." she whispered in the bard's ear. "I just need... to feel... you... right now." A kiss pressed itself into the smaller woman's neck. "Is that all right?"  There was an almost imperceptible tremble in those long fingers when they ran their course again, and Gabrielle realized with sudden clarity that everything in this Warrior Princess was about control. Control over her body to make it perform inhuman feats on the battlefield. Control over her mind to not hesitate when everything was almost lost. Control over her very presence to intimidate even the Olympians.

And now, Xena was asking for control over her... if only for a short while.

"Yes..." she breathed, pushing through the fears that still remained and releasing herself to the warrior's touch.

Xena's hands traced intricate patterns along the creamy expanse of her lover's skin, growing more and more familiar with each curve, angle, and swell of the bard's body. She lingered over the responsive muscles in Gabrielle's abdomen as they flexed in reply to the dancing reconnaissance of her fingers. The lovers lay in silence, unbroken except for the patterns of their breathing-- the warrior's deep and even, the bard's growing more ragged with each touch.
Gabrielle didn't know how long this quiet exploration lasted, she only knew that it was awakening a deep need within her... And with this need came the understanding that Xena was gentling the fire out of her own body even as she caressed it into the bard... so that the flame was now shared between them. An answering moan found its way out of her throat as she arched into her lover, her hands instinctively reaching behind her for the skin she felt pressed against her.

The rolling sound of Gabrielle's desire opened the floodgates to the warrior's own. She nudged the smaller woman's legs apart with her thigh and gently cupped a hand to her lover's sex, marveling at the heat that awaited her. "Oh... yes..." she murmured, quite unaware she was speaking aloud. "Gods you feel so good..."

The bard let out a frustrated growl at the delicate touch of Xena's hand and her own inability to find purchase on her lover's body. She could feel the aroused tips of the warrior's breasts brushing against her shoulders, and she hungered to hold them in her mouth, to caress and tease them beyond endurance. The warrior's other hand had found the bard's own aching breasts and cradled in her palm each fullness in turn, stroking the desire within her lover to new heights.

Instinctively Gabrielle arched again into the pleasure of the caresses, but her mind rebelled against the anonymous nature of their lovemaking. Control be damned, she wanted Xena to know beyond any shadow of a doubt whom she was loving and who was loving her in return.

With an agile twist of her hips, she slid from beneath Xena's hands and flipped herself over to face the ardent gaze of the warrior, wedding blue flame to green. The dark woman's eyes widened slightly at the sudden movement, but she willingly received the ravishing embrace of Gabrielle's mouth with her own.

Without preamble, Gabrielle's hand slithered between their two bodies, searching out the core of the warrior's desire. Xena shuddered at the first knowing stroke deep within her and reached for the bard in kind. Their eyes remained locked upon each other in an unblinking gaze that fed the sensations coursing through their bodies. The pair slipped easily into the timeless rhythm of desire, touching each other with a rare and precious grace. The warrior was the first to break their gaze, throwing her head back with a sensual groan as Gabrielle's lips closed over the flaring pulse in her neck. About to break over the edge, Xena's free hand found the flesh covering the bard's pounding heart, seeking to maintain the connection with her lover through the exquisite pleasure that wracked both their bodies.

"Oh... gods..." the dark woman gasped on uneven breath... and found her eyes drawn once again on the fervent gaze of her partner-- who held the warrior's head tightly in one hand as the other sought the last strokes that would take her lover over.

"You're mine, Xena..." came the harsh, ragged whisper.

And in that eternal half-second before release, Xena recognized with blinding luminescence that she had indeed given her soul to the woman who lay beside her... that she was more helpless before Gabrielle than she ever had been before anybody... gods help us both... and with a quiet cry of exaltation gave herself over to the freedom of coming into her lover's arms.

For now... for this warrior... the battle was over.

Let me stay here with you, I breathed into the steam. Let me stay here with you like I did in that past life... This is my skin, my climate. Hold me between your breasts.
 Let me find that place once more.
--Jenifer Levin