THE FEAST OF ALL SOULS

by Joseph Connell

 

 


General Disclaimer: Gabrielle, Xena, and whoever else you recognize belong to RenPics and MCA/Universal. Everybody else is my own creation. This is a piece of fan fiction being written for fun and not profit. Don't bother suing, guys, I'm stone broke from University and professionally paralyzed. Content herein includes: sex, blood, angst, half-demons, sex, mayhem, sex, fire, earthly language, sex, rather graphic instances of physical and sexual violence, and sex. Oh, and there are plenty of scenes of love-making between two women who are very much in love. If any of this bothers you or offends your delicate sense of moral propriety, be on your way now or don't go complaining later.

This is a compilation of several of my earliest stories woven into a (hopefully) coherent tale. I was rather dissatisfied with the way I'd left certain issues outstanding issues in the original posting of this story, not to mention how I'd screwed up the placement of certain holidays. I finally got around to re-writing the relevant sections and present them here for your perusal.

This story takes place in the "Blood and Roses" altverse of Katrina Blau. You would be advised to watch the episode "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.", then read Katrina's canon stories "Bite Me" and "The Fonder Heart" to get a handle on the background here. Thirty-second recap: Gabrielle is the bastard daughter of Bacchus, God of Wine. Xena is the offspring of Ares, but was killed over a century ago by the goddess Callisto.(guess Xena's healing touch didn't take) Fast forward to the present day: Gabrielle happens across and beds a streetwalker who looks, talks, and acts like the long-dead warrior; and whose name, impossibly, is Xena.

Final warning: it gets particularly graphic here, particularly around chapter 8, 16, and 17. I'd suggest skipping these if you are eating, have trouble sleeping, or have a weak heart. Consider yourselves warned.

On with the show...


 First Prelude: Autumn Equinox

 

The instant Morgan met the man's eyes, she knew coming to the club had been a mistake. The only reason she even entered that night, damn it all, had been because she knew it belonged to her 'mother', though the Ancient had likely forgotten about her over the centuries. As well she should, Morgan forever attempted to convince herself. Hades, she'd willing forget about herself, or, better still, simply do away with herself given half the chance.

"The Fields" was but the smallest holding among the Ancientšs many, many properties amassed over the course of her life. The converted top floor of a warehouse dating back to the 1940s, all ambiance and soft music as haunting as they were melodic. Sharp flavored drinks and amore in the air.

It had been a mistake to come.

It had been impossible not to come.

She'd known who owned the club, having made it her business to know such things over the centuries, following her 'mother' and all her affairs from the distant shadows. Many a time she'd longed to step forward and name her for what she was . . .all courage abandoning her the instant she caught sight of the crown of shoulder-length hair as burnished and shining as the sunset.

So, here she sat, Morgan Sofitia Fythe, anthropologist and Wiccan priestess, in a soft-lit bar filled with goth-wannabees and not a few serious pagans, trying her damnedest to disappear before the gaze of surely the handsomest man there. The classical rough-hewn sort of handsome that a generation ago would have been "Mr. All-American", with his cropped hair a dark shade of brown and unshaven jaw. His perfect eyes, somehow neither blue nor brown nor hazel and yet all three at once, set within a lean face and possessing all the calm of a cloudless afternoon sky. His lips, neither thin nor full, crooked into a grin at once endearing and mocking. 'Can't resist me can you?' that grin mocked her, both knowing the answer.

He sauntered towards her booth, his pace unhurried. Morgan was a deer, caught in the headlights of his presence. Don't do this, don't do this, Goddess please don't do this. . .was all that she managed to think coherently as he placed two bottles on the table before her.

Guiness. Her favorite brew, and the only one she'd drink.

Bastard! Morgan would have screeched, had she voice.

His own was some microbrew with some absurd name, something she could stare at for hours on end, and never remember.

Fucking shit rat bastard!

"Share a drink with me, luv?" His accent was something between Irish, public-schoolboy British, and midwestern American drawl. At once gentle to the ears, as gentle as the strands of MacKinnet and Clannad which floated across the club's sound system, and as grating to her every nerve as if she grasped a live wire in her bare hand.

Morgan had no voice, so she grabbed the bottle and chugged down two mouthfuls, much to the amusement of her suitor. He watched her with all the intensity of predator watching prey, his eyes not once wavering. Even when he lifted his own bottle to his lips. It was all she could do to keep her own eyes on the narrow neck of dark-colored glass before her.

The bastard was seducing her, her of all people, without so much as meeting her eyes!

The stout was a rich, frothy taste which soothed her throat, while it disquieted her mind with memories of years and lifetimes past. Of emerald green hills of her native land, of the loud public houses where she'd wenched in her youth, and her eternal struggle against the legacy of her own blood.

The bottle was drained within minutes, and Morgan could only damn her immortal heritage which refused her the luxury of even the smallest release of indulgence. . .of alcohol, at least. Her infrequent lovers over the millennia, whether male, female, and otherwise, to a one held her stamina and passion in awe. Lovers were infrequent not for lack of either passion or opportunity, but out of fear of such primal drives. Her mother's heritage left her forever wary of herself, to say nothing of the native power which resided within her. Her own few demonstrations of it were awesome in their own right, and something Morgan would willingly live without.

This one, he called to her with song sweeter and stronger than anything Poseidon's Siren hags might conceive. Their eyes had not met for more than an instant, so practiced was he. She was his, and soon he would utter the words Morgan knew she would be helpless to resist.

Still, this one wasn't cruel in his conduct. He took his time finishing his own beer, even going so far as to ask "Want another?" All Morgan could do was curse the desertion of her voice, not that she'd have been able to do much more than gulp it again. The burn another would have on her throat was little compared to the flame of this one's continued presence. All she could do was endure it.

Too soon, he too was finished. Morgan felt his eyes upon here for some minutes before he said the words she dreadedŠand longed for.

"Take me to your place."


Morgan had long ago taken to living high above the city, a hang-over from her early days of life. Not actually living mind you, which was a luxury she'd come to enjoy only in recent decades, but her first centuries were a constant fear of discovery interlaced with both seeking and avoiding her mother. Who had time for such things as literature and art and home-cooking when being sought by fools determined to burn you at the stake?

Her love of heights had developed from forever sleeping and sheltering in caves and bell-towers. She'd often sought sanctuary in the temples and cathedrals, a bit of irony considering who so often incited the riots and hunts for her, never mind she always felt safe there. Protected.

Ironic, but no more so than the rest of her existence.

She led him into her condo, which sat nestled within a tower full of them. She owned this, and a few other properties with it. Morgan Sofitia Fythe was a wealthy woman, more out of a matter of necessity than desire. Necessary, if she were to keep pace with her mother, and marshal to her defense should it ever be needed. Necessary, if she were to acquire position and weapons (both of steel and of 'expertise') she believed would be of use to her in this modern age.

The condo was large and comfortable, its walls wood and carpets plush with thick fiber. The furniture was minimal, but elegant in its simplicity of design. What available space there was, and there was quite a bit of it, was filled almost to capacity with artwork both painted and sculpted (most her own work under other names she'd lived under, little of it she actually cared for) and display cases containing ancient tomes and bladed weapons of nearly every description, length, and design. The books were simply for reference and occasional laughs (the mis-telling of some of the events were comical in the extreme), while the blades were for practical use.

Who knew when unpleasant company would come calling? It didn't hurt she preferred blades, not unlike her mother's long-time companion, the fearsome warrior whose heart was infinitely purer than that absurd Order of knights, now hopefully extinct (and good bloody riddance!). Blades were quiet, precise, and required knowledge to use.

Morgan felt an irrational fear of rejection, almost desperate that he would approve of it all. Which, judging by the way he sauntered all about and expelling the occasional sniff through both nostrils, he didn't. And this enraged Morgan almost beyond control. Rather than risk comment, she brought up the lights to their usual soft dim. She wasn't photo-sensitive by any means, but neither did she believe in dwelling in the full light of day. Too many flaws were visible then, too damn many and too easy to see. Better to stay to the shadows, where they couldn't be seen. Where she had at least the illusion of invincibility to protect her.

More sniffs, whose intent she couldn't identify, which fanned her emotions from cold fear to slow-burning irritation. Sniffing at her art. . .she could live with that, given she often did so herself. Sniffing at the books. . . okay, so she wasn't big on dusting. Sniffing at her bladesŠthat was like slap in the face. It was something Morgan could live with, even forgive.

Except he was doing it at every weapons case. It sounded like he was judging every weapon in every damn case. That was a lot of weapons.

It took a lot of time.

When her guest finally completed his rounds, Morgan had gone from irritation to anger to bare-contained (and wholly-unconcealed) rage and frenzy. The fact he hadn't graced her with so much as a glance this whole time left her at once relieved and all the more steamed. It set her mind to work, her eyes flickering for the one thing she'd need.

Morgan had subtly shifted her position to small table near one of the cabinets. Her hands fairly itched for the object of her desires, while the object of her anger wandered his merry way towards the bay window which looked out over the city. This took him well away from any of the artwork, which was a relief. Hey, she might not think much of her talent (and just what do gallery owners and agents know?), but that didnšt mean she couldn't be sentimental about it.

Her eyes didn't waver, even when it was within reach, off the bastard's back. Not that she needed to see it to know where it was. She could sense it, and it her. Theirs was a powerful connection, constructed over the ages. It sang to her, sometimes quite literally. On a rare occasion it even managed to carry a tune.

Right then, all Morgan could hear was his damned sniffing and the rustle of his suit coat. She wasn't going to tolerate either anymore.

She found her voice. "What should I call you?" she asked softly, not really caring if he answered or not. "Eh?" It was a muffled sound of confusion, as though spoken around something while being caught up short. "Oh. 'Michael' will do, I suppose."

She could sense he'd taken up position leaning against a bare spot of wall. One which angled inwards. Good, Morgan thought as the reassuring sensation of cold metal met her hand. She swept it up and began her own quick-yet-looking-utterly-unhurried pace to parallel his own.

"Michael?" Now it was Morgan who was caught short. He couldn't be that unoriginal, could he?

"Michael," he confirmed, cigarette dangling unlit from the left corner of his mouth. 'Michael' had been looking out over the city's lights, arms folded and his right shoulder was braced against the wall.

He looked utterly at ease, relaxed and fearing nothing. Morgan stopped when she stood across from him. The lighting was low enough so not to hint at the burnished metal in her hand.

Michael turned to face her and calmly asked "Got a light, luv?"

An ornately carved mass metal, easily a foot-and-a-half long, and crowned with a three-sided blade, buried itself not a full inch from his cheek. Each edge looking sharp enough to cut the air it had just sailed through, never mind the solid wall against which he leaned.

The metal of the weapon was burning hot, as though lit from within, casting a soft glow upon his pale skin.

Michael didn't so much as blink.

"Oh," was his only response. Not a sound of surprise as much as one of acceptance, no more impressed than if she'd offered him a match or flipped a lighter open. "Cheers." Michael pressed the tip of the cigarette to the metal, the air instantly taking the pungent odor of tobacco, and settled back to his original position.

Their eyes locked now, another game beginning.

The same one they'd played for a millennia.


He was quick in seizing the initiative, allowing her no time to think or mount a second attack. Michael turned both eyes unto the dagger his nominal hostess had just thrown at him (Goddess above, will the woman never change?), gazing at it with enough deliberateness that he might actually have been studying its carved surface. Both eyebrows raised as though in surprise, the cigarette suddenly plucked from his lips. Michael turned to Morgan, who'd taken in his every move with careful concentration.

Her eyes were hooded, though not with anger as he'd expected them to. This made Michael slightly unnerved, his initial plan of engagement now gone to pot thanks to the woman's newfound self-control. Hades take her. He needed a distraction, or he'd likely never get out of this room alive. Death held no terrors for him, save for the consequences he alone was aware of. Consequences which had led him to seek this one out, that they might be avoided.

Damned if he'd make it easy.

"I see an east Indian influence here." He positioned himself and the cigarette as he spoke. The first faced her fully, the smoldering tip second hovered unnoticed near his right palm. "Been imitating the Tuggs, have you?" Then the area around his left eye jerked with an involuntary flinch, though the remainder of his faced was utterly neutral, eyes unwavering.

Morgan risked a glance downwards, towards the cigarette in his hand.

The cigarette whose glowing tip was now being stubbed out. . . by being twisted directly into his right palm.

Her eyes went wide with shock, and quickly met his again. They were alight with humor and satisfaction, as was the small grin which graced his lips. There was no pain to be seen there.

What came next happened very, very fast. As it always did.


Michael let go of the cigarette, grasping the still-glowing weapon with his left hand. He pulled it free from the wall and sent it back to its owner, business end first, all in one smooth motion. The metal hadn't even left his hand when he all-but-spinning to the left. On sheer instinct and blind faith, Michael threw his right arm out, and was rewarded with it making very satisfying impact with the glass-and-wood doors of one of the weapons cabinets. The poor barrier didn't stand a chance, shattering noisily beneath his outstretched arm. He spun as he passed it, grasping the first handle his left hand came to, using his momentum to pull it free of the cabinet. He finally came to rest, both feet planted firmly under him (for once), near the wall opposite the bay window he'd been gazing out of only a moment ago. His blind-chosen weapon held low and at-the-ready.


Morgan was hardly idle. The grin had alerted her, and her hands were already traveling upwards to intercept his return of her 'gift' before it had even left Michael's hand. She'd caught it without fail, though the force behind the throw had been far in excess of what she'd expected of him. It rocked her off-balance just enough to make her loose track of her guest's movements. The sound of a cabinet's doors being broken (third along towards the wall, the one with the short swords and a pair of oak quarterstaffs, unless she was mistaken) told her all she needed about his intentions. She herself had been thinking along similar lines, and had already dropped the golden dagger to the floor while diving for her most prized possession. It came to hand easily, easier than the dagger had, and she smoothly rolled back to her feet as though the mirror-image of her guest.

She was certain the surprise would be exquisite, knowing Michael could not have seen her weapon of choice.


Michael's discarded cigarette finished its descent to the carpet.


They stood like that for a span. Lethal dancers, their metallic arms outstretched and waiting.

Morgan had assumed right, Michael being very surprised. . .though not for the reasons she expected.

Oh, her chosen weapon was impressive enough. Easily four-feet of solid steel, polished to that perfect shine. The double-sided blade was a masterpiece of its craft, the edges so fine they might as well have simply disappeared from sight. Michael recognized the workmanship and the blade itself, not the least surprised she'd freed it from its stone sheath and kept it with her. Better her than those idiots who cowered around the round table and behind their superstitious codes.

Morgan held it easily in one hand, choosing her left rather than her right. This surprised Michael, worrying him far more than the blade itself. She'd never chosen her left before, and he'd always managed to only hold his own against her. She wasn't the sort to offer anyone, especially him, an advantage however small.

"Ah should be insulted, luv," he said, allowing the pommel of his 14th-century katana short sword, held in low guard position (blade out, both hands on the handle, its length held at a forty-five degree angle), to sink slightly and linger around his groin. He waved the blade ever so slightly, his knees bent as the position demanded. "Yours is bigger than mine."

It was obscene. It was hilarious.

It distracted her for all of a hundredth of a second.

It gave Michael all the time he would ever need to seize the initiative.

The dance of blades began.


The sword Morgan held was named 'Caliburn' by those who forged it. Said to have magical properties, its steel unbreakable, that it could only be wielded by the righteous, so many myths surrounded the blade and its origins Morgan had long ago ceased paying them heed. Its stone sheath had released it to her hands without hesitation. Only two others had ever managed so, though neither had managed it with such ease as she. That Morgan had never learned swordplay, as she had never learned so much else, did not slow her in the least.

The air between them lit with sparks. It sang with hum of steel-against-steel.

One of the residents on that floor, a high school music teacher by profession, would later swear the sounds of the duel were the inspiration for at least eight orchestra pieces she would eventually write. Each of these would become famous for their complexity and beauty, as well known as any symphony by Beethoven, and only the most accomplished of orchestras would ever manage their intricacies.

It would be impossible to recount the stratagems and tricks each used against the other. So fast were their movements, so easily were they blocked and countered, the entire duel might as well have been choreographed beforehand.

The remainder of the residents paid the noise little mind. Some, like the music teacher, would ascribe it as music. Others as cable reruns of "Highlander" turned up too loud. Most simply ignored the noise and slept the night peacefully, having long ago gotten use to their eccentric (if attentive) landlord.

Morgan's heritage was not dual, but a trinity, and so more than a match for Michael's millennia of skill and practice. Her Olympian blood, diluted perhaps but there nonetheless, mixed with her human DNA and natural unpredictability alone made her Michael's equal. Forever boiling beneath the surface was more raw power than might be found within all the stars of the heavens. Morgan knew this as instinctively as she knew she breathed and liked the taste of nutbread, and for this reason she deliberately avoided learning quite literally anything of substance.

Oh, she could speak most any language on this planet (and quite a few 'dead' ones to boot), and easily write them all like a native. She wasn't so backwards that she couldn't operate a microwave or repair faulty electrical wiring.

But training in the arts of war, or painting, or cooking, or most anything, those things she'd avoided with a fear more rabid than that which she herself had long been regarded with. The irony to this was not lost on her. Untrained she might be, but more talented and experienced than conceivably any other mortal (or immortal for that matter) on this planet. The fact she did this entirely out of a sense of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to those who, more often than not, tried to take her head, was but sauce for her already-cooked goose.

You would think those years with that Norman rabble-rouser and his daemon-spawned tutor would have taught her a thing or two.

She'd commanded armies, presided over ceremony, protested atrocity, raised children to their potential, and cooked mean stews, all without more preparation than simply watching it be done.

Little wonder then that Michael's katana was shattered with one of the few blows Morgan delivered at full strength. The force telegraphed by the attack was quite sufficient to throw the unfortunate duelist back a good six feet. He didn't enjoy the experience, neither the raw force of the blow rattling both arms as though they were twigs caught in a windsheer nor being propelled over several pieces of furniture. No, sir, not something he'd willing choose to endure.

Not that having the business end of Caliburn hovering less than an inch from one's eyes was anything to sneeze at either.

"Give me one, just one good reason not to rid myself of you for all eternity, Unseili!" Morgan said the first bit calmly, practically hissed the last bit, and all but spat the title in his eye. It terrified Michael. Not Caliburn so much, but the way her voice had gotten softer and softer with each word. But even that would have been bearable, had she not called him by his old House's name.

It meant she was pissed. Not angry, not enraged, not even spitting-I-am-gonna-tear-your-eyes-out-with-my-unsharpened-fingernails-very-very-slowly furious.

She sounded ready to call down the Overgods themselves.

The world had more of chance surviving collision with Sol herself than having Oberon or Pangea walk the land.

Michael let himself consider none of these things at all. To do so would leave him dangerously close to panicking, if not the suicidal sort of impulses generally reserved for stock brokers after a crash of 200+ points. Throwing himself off her balcony wasn't even an option. It wouldn't do much good anyway.

One good reason, he thought to himself. Let's see. . .

"Ye owe me a drink."

Oh, brilliant, that was. That evening didn't really count, and damned if he could immediately recall another incident even close.

The point of Caliburn slowly withdrew, though not without obvious reluctance. Morgan's eyes narrowed quite a bit, communicating something between grudging respect and outright loathing. "Hmm," she grunted, as though considering the legitimacy of such a claim. She drew it out.

Just to see the bastard sweat it.

She liked the feeling it gave her.

She hated the fact she liked it.

"Nhh," was the only sound she'd give in concession, making some vague gesture with Caliburn for Michael to stand and warning him against so much as blinking wrong. Morgan could communicate quite a bit with the smallest gestures. Holding Caliburn one-handed and waving it about like it was one of Senticlese's wooden toys didn't hurt, either.

"That," she gestured with swordpoint at the shards of metal now adorning the carpet near him, " was an irreplaceable piece of history, old son. Any reason I shouldn't take it out of your hide?"

"'Cause I'm a piece of walking history myself?" Michael risked a smile. She didn't return it.

The chances he'd walk out of this place intact were growing ever more remote. The balcony was looking more attractive all the time.

Then she did something totally unexpected. She buried the swordtip into the carpet and leaned upon it as one might a walking stick. The brought Michael up short. In all the centuries he'd known this woman, he'd never seen a moment of whimsy from her, especially when it came to two things: her mum, and that damned pig-sticker she was presently leaning on.

Michael communicated his confusion on this by blinking, quite rapidly, several times. To which Morgan gave a sort-of-but-definitely-not-complete smile. Smug bitch.

"You'd better have a good reason for all this then, clown," she said with humor that would have chilled the blood of corpses. "Or that blade won't be the only thing needing to be rebuilt."

So here it was, the proverbial moment of truth. Trouble was, Michael wasn't exactly sure what the truth was, never mind what possessed him to approach her that night. He only knew rumor and a few names. The names were common fare and fodder for her, and rumor swirled about them all like so much noise that it went pretty much unnoticed now.

Morgan suffered him as a fool in centuries past, but no more. Not since that mad bitch Callisto managed to do in her mum's warrior.

Honesty, dishonesty, honesty, dishonesty, honesty. . .

"Your mum's not alone anymore." Truth, though not necessarily honest. He might be Unseili, true, but there were limits which even he and his fellow coutiers might press. Besides, this little declaration had the desired effect.

Granted he wasn't expecting to have Caliburn pointed back into his face. . .

"Explain that." Morganšs lack of tone alone would have loosened his tongue. Coupled together with the blade holding still right before his eye, Michael would have cheerfully recounted his entire life's tale. Or admitted to every murder ever committed. Goddess, the woman was terrifying like this.

He opted to follow her instruction, mind racing all the while over what he could and could not tell her. Somehow the words came through sounding both coherent and, more importantly, complete. The smallest admission would be deadlier to him than the most grandiose lies. Lies she would cripple him for, but an omission she might catch would sing of untold truths, truths that he would have no choice but give.

"She found a companion a short while back. A. . . lookalike. . . of her warrior. They're living together now in the mansion, though the girl has pretty much taken it over." Morgan's expression hardened to the constitution of granite, causing Michael to quickly add "But in a good way. She hasn't touched the businesses or the money. She's refused salary, gifts, everything. She bloody argued with your mum in the stores over prices and had to be dragged, literally, into Victoria's Secret! The girl's only been good for her, anyway. Never seen the old bard smile as much in my life. . . "

"Where?" Morgan interrupted, eyes still narrowed. "Where did they meet?"

"In town, by all accounts. I heard it to be a chance meeting."

"Who is she?"

"Calls herself 'Xena', and that's the lot of it." He risked a grin. "Don't think I didn't try to. . ."

"What is she? Callisto out for mischief? Valeska, maybe? Or that little bitch Discord?"

Michael interjected quickly, and prayed to whatever deity might listen he'd go quick. "She was a streetwalker, and looking no more than twenty-five."

Caliburn was suddenly out of his face, only to be replaced with Morgan herself, nostrils flaring in a way that promised imminent mayhem. "And Mum knew about this?"

"How d'you think they met? Over coffee?" That earned him a glare, though a distracted one. At least she was out of his face.

Now Morgan took to stalking towards the bay window, her back fully to him, not so much as glancing backwards. Michael wasn't sure whether to be relieved or offended. He'd worked hard to earn her distrust, if only so she wouldn't end up blindly trusting everyone she came across...as her mum once had. Even that bastard Myrren hadn't robbed her of that.

"Get out." It was soft uttered, a voice trembling on the edge of a whimper.

Michael rose, but didn't leave. Just as he'd done his worst to earn her hate, he'd done his best to keep her safe. Damned if he'd leave her like this.

"Ye know," he drawled over his shoulder, calmly wandering towards the door, "it doesnšt seem like such a bad thing to happen." He didn't sense so much as a twitch from the room's other end. . . except for the fly brushing its hind-quarters down with its back legs over in the kitchen area near the balcony door. He reached for the doorknob and said with perfect calm "At least she's shacked up with someone. . . experienced."

He was out the door just as the vase hurled at him made contact with the wood. Mission accomplished! Though aloud he parted with "Yer landlords goin' to love you for this."

Michael of House Unseili wasted no more time, and was gone before another missile found its way to her hand. The danger was actually nonexistent.

Morgan had far more important things on her mind, not even aware that she muttered "I am the bloody landlord."


The night was well along, Luna already in descent, when Morgan came back to herself. She hated it, this inevitable slide into near-catatonia she found herself in whenever her mother was mentioned. Three millennia, barely a handful of meetings, to a one amidst some crisis or another...and still the woman who bore her could drive her to the borders of madness and beyond.

It was all Morgan could do to lean her forehead against the sliding glass which separated her from the cold night's air beyond. She opened her eyes and dared to gaze at her reflection.

A woman, as she always was and always recreated herself. Middling height, olive skin, blue eyes hinting towards gray, hair a deep russet shade, though hennaed slightly by so much exposure to Sol. The point of her chin, gentle slope to her ears, cheekbones prominent, though not, all these spoke to her true heritage, that of her long-dead father. Only the shine to her eyes, the fullness and gentle quirk to her lips spoke to that of her mother.

Though which 'mother' could have been debated, given the massive blade hanging loosely in one hand just then.

Once, the first time she rebuilt her appearance, having allowed it to decay after a century's wear, it was in the image of her mother, though she'd had to leave that behind soon enough, her mother's kin mistaking her and seeking her life. Not even their ashes were left when they'd 'caught' her. After that, the faces became blurred, unexceptional, unnoticeable. Oh, she'd once made herself beautiful, only to fall prey to the wiles of that daemon-son seer. She survived the catastrophe which resulted and managed to spirit Caliburn away from those that would have abused it. She lived to her name, and nursed the old ways and stories while the rest of the land she'd known went to pot and madness.

She wandered, not unlike her mother, heading first south, then east, across mountain and great sea. She became of every color of skin, was known by the seers and wise elders of every village she encountered. She learned in spite of herself, and could not forget a single thing.

Nor could she ever bring herself to hate her mother. Her father? No contest there, and not for an instant did she regret driving Caliburn into his heart. She'd have cheerfully done the same to every member of every House of Arcadia, had she the opportunity. Goddess, all that power and wisdom, and her da's kin proved so insensitive and mercurial a lot; small wonder the natives usually thought of them as evil embodied.

Using names like 'Al-Shaityn' and 'Dahok' didn't help much, either.

'Gabrielle' on the other hand. . .

She wouldn't know her now. How Morgan prayed that she wouldn't! Every time. . . every time before had led to pain. If not to her, then to Gabrielle, or to her warrior. . . to her other 'mother.'

No, she couldn't hate Xena either. Not for wishing her dead as but an infant, not for nearly killing her as a changeling when they met again, not for any of it. Love can forgive all trespasses, and she loved Xena every bit as tenderly as she did her mother. Callisto's murder of the warrior was as much a stab to her heart as it was trauma to the bard. She'd visited her mother many a night afterwards, in silence and shadow, soothing her nightmares as best she could. Not always successfully in some cases, as that bizarre time in India demonstrated. She'd even approached the Ancient a few times over the century, and guarded her cousins and mortal kin with a passion that rivaled her mother's own.

Now she had this bit of news to chew on. And bitter fare it was. Bloody indigestible even.

Oh, she had no objection to Gabrielle finding a new love. The Ancient loved so easily and deeply. But there would forever be a part of her that wouldn't be touched, save by her warrior alone. And in the hundred years since that terrible moment that the warrior had been sent to Charon's barge, Gabrielle had taken many a nightly lover, but never another mate. There were too many years between them for Morgan herself to take that role...though, Goddesses' grace, she would have tried for all she was worth, had she been less of a coward.

Now. . .now she was trying desperately to make sense of the noise in her head. She was blind to everything else, even the small fact she'd started wandering about the living room and secreted Caliburn back to its hiding place, never mind repairing the damaged cabinet and wall with but the merest 'flick' of thought. Her thoughts were far away, in a mansion on the edge of the forest. . .

No surprise she ended up on the balcony, eyes on the dim horizon.

Gabrielle was with Xena. . .a 'Xena' . . .who used to be a streetwalker. . .a whore. . .a whore who looked exactly like the warrior. . .Gabrielle just let her into her house. . .just like that and snap of the fingers. . . Gabrielle never did anything like that before. . . never. . . Xena wouldn't let her. . . but Xena was dead. . . gone. . . but now she was back. . .

Morgan didn't like the way this sounded, not at all!

She could only sigh and resolve to do what she knew would be needed. Gabrielle had never hesitated, even in the darkest hours between herself and her warrior. Morgan. . . Hope. . . herself was testament to this. Her sire's darkness, like that of Gabriellešs own, failed there.

She would go to her mother, and do as she should have centuries before. Hope would have satisfaction of her mother's happiness, or ensure it however it proved necessary.


Luna bid the world farewell, Sol greeting and awaking it, as Hope stepped away from the balcony. The late spring morning was crisp, yet as vital as any harvest morning. Birds sang to the breeze.

The dawn warmed the earth below, readying it for the age-old celebration of life and bounty.


Further across the land, two lovers, warm and sated from their celebration of the coming festival in the oldest and best known manner, slept to the coming dawn. Both dreamed of dark days past, and the bright ones to come.

One in particular, small in stature and honey-haired, dreamt of an infant afloat on a river, the current carrying it to her waiting arms. It was the same dream she'd had for more nights than might be imagined. This time, though, rather than waking the instant her fingers touched the basket, she lifted the tiny bundle into her arms and murmured the child's name into crown of dark hair over and over.

Tears came from beneath her closed eyes, and splashed down unto her love's bare shoulder and breast. The taller one gazed down on her lover, lips tight with worry. She had not been sleeping that well herself, and her lover was not the sort given to tears or nightmares. Keen ears caught what she muttered in her sleep, and it filled her with both longing and love.

"Hope," was the name-word muttered, over and over, a smile as brightening as the coming day belying any sadness to her tears.

Hope you want, my love, the dark woman vowed silently, tightening her grip gently. Hope you shall have. This led her to grin. Now all she had to do was figure out whether "Hope" was animal, vegetable, or mineral.

Her brilliant blue eyes drifted shut as they instinctively snuggled closer together, the taller wrapping herself tighter around the smaller, as much seeking shelter from her own disquiet as offering comfort for her lover's.


Second Prelude: Samhain's Morn

 

The Ancient huntress waited for the first rays of dawn to creep over the land before going for her ritual hunt. The urge came less frequently now, these millennia since her birth, and she'd come to suspect she'd long ago passed having the actual Need. Yet, for nearly a century now, it was on this day that she would hunt.

It was fitting, marking the passage of seasons from summer to winter, the day her Celtic cousins and children named Samhain.

She might go the full year without once feeling the slightest twinge of Thirst, and without fail awake to this day to find its return. An old friend, one slipping into her consciousness with ease and familiarity with the lifting of Morpheus' veil.

It was fitting for it to come on this day, when the veils between light and darkness were all but gossamer, she would hunt. Artemis herself had virtually decreed it so, when the goddess had shared table with her chosen's Queen centuries earlier. There was a nobility to the huntress, one infinitely more genuine than any that might have been found in Olympus, and the goddess loved her for it.

The goddess of the hunt was not the only one.


She slipped from her love's arms, her body instantly screaming for the loss, though she'd been awake for nearly an hour. This time, at least, she hadn't awaked weeping her eyes out over some dream.

Gabrielle felt at once compelled to both flee the woman spread out upon the bed, lest the Thirst make a meal of her(Gabrielle's secret, most chilling fear...one not borne out once in over two millennia), and to return to the warm nest of her arms. She'd slept alone for over a century, and now could not so much as doze unless next to her raven-haired lover.

It was both good and bad that this was not her Xena, merely a mortal child(she, who was millennia old, couldn't help the thought) who bore uncanny resemblance. Gabrielle had chanced upon such visions before over her centuries of life: a priestess here, an aristocrat there, even a timorous socialite. This one, in who's arms she'd now found rest, had been a whore. An impossible coincidence of met glances and unresolved emotions, a meeting of supposedly cheap passion and release in exchange for currency...all evolving in the course of hours into devotion between the two. No longer whore and client, but lovers.

Insane, but no more so than the rest of her life.

Oh, she'd planned to offer the child a way out the existence Gabrielle had found her in. Upon hearing her name, well...at that point Gabrielle would have willingly thrown her over her shoulder carried her to the home they now shared, nobility be damned.

But this child, this Xena, had come willingly. She'd forgone the payment or any talk of compensation for their first encounter. Gabrielle had tried to offer her some manner of payment, a position, extravagant promises of a new life. This Xena listened to it all, face utterly neutral, Gabrielle becoming terrified that she'd offended this vision of her lost love. The result was an increasingly incoherent string of sentences, which caused the child to smirk and place two long fingers on the redhead's lips, instantly silencing her.

"I will wash your dishes." Xena said simply. "I will scrub your floors. I will do anything, anything, you ask of me, so long as I can stay close to you."

With those words, all of Gabrielle's heart melted and reformed itself in the child's hands. To another's ears, this was doubtlessly suspicious, a child of the streets taking advantage of a rich woman's grief. Her attorney and secretary, a competent and understanding man by the name of Peter Marcous, had suggested as much. But Xena refused all payment, did whatever Gabrielle bade (little as that was), made no demands upon her wealth, and in fact showed almost no interest in it whatever. She allowed Gabrielle to purchase clothing for her, but quietly argued against the jewelry and meaningless accessories the smaller woman wished to shower upon her.

Her argument was succinct: "I have you, and I have myself, and that's enough." She demonstrated this time and again, night after night, for hours on end. Gods, the child's stamina and passion easily matched her twin, as did her devotion. Still, she bent to the superior will and proved a gracious loser, allowing Gabrielle to spoil her a little.

Just a little, though. Her will stronger, her wits far sharper, than she let on, winning through argument where she could not by plain stubbornness.

The house staff were minimal, and underworked at that. Xena took over their supervision, and attended personally to the dozen-odd repairs needed to ancient house. She never asked what needed doing, nor did she so much command the staff and suggest (and very gently at that) where service to their employer might be improved with minimal effort on their part.

As a result, the house became more of a home, the meals tastier, the company less...sullen. Gabrielle was a true empath, and one could not remain in a century-long funk of mourning and avoid it impacting upon others. Even Peter proved more accepting of Xena's presence, treating with if not familiar care he did of Gabrielle, then at least with the respect he afforded the rest of the staff.

Gabrielle herself had become almost oblivious to all this. The merest thought of their nights together, skin-to-skin, absent any cover and in the full light of Luna, was quite enough to wipe out all other thought. They'd had no need of a quilt to keep the chill at bay, even in midwinter, for the full year now.

Even the chill of her nightmares, most centering on her lost warrior and nights long ago, were but the charred remnants of their shared heat.

And if this wasn't her Xena, she was enough.

Gabrielle was glad this wasn't the old Xena, otherwise she'd have never managed to slip out without awaking her love. The old Xena, after she'd pried the secret from her, had been understanding. This new one was too much a mystery for Gabrielle to willingly chance it. This new Xena simply rolled over unto her side and grasped a pillow to her, as though it were a ready substitute for her missing savior and willing partner.

With the smallest of sighs (though whether of relief or sadness it was impossible to know), Gabrielle turned and strode out of the bedroom dressed only in her skin. She needed only collect a knife from the kitchen and she'd be ready.

She didn't dare so much as glance back at the bed, knowing her will too fragile, and Thirst slowly gaining strength.


It was only after the door closed, and sharp ears confirmed the smaller woman was well away, that the taller one dared to open her eyes. A similar, ambiguous sigh escaped between her lips, carefully muffled by the pillow beneath her.


Gabrielle stood in the open field behind the house, whispering her ritual words of thanks and promises of respect to the forest beyond. Even in this modern age of poisons and small deaths she still ate the flesh of her prey, though she never dared risk feeding her guests or staff on it, and of course slaked her Thirst upon the blood. What she didn't eat raw (thank the gods she had a solid digestive system) was left as a gift for the rest of the forest's denizens.

They, at least, understood.

She took off in a run, intent upon finding her prey with all the speed of Hermes. No challenge today, so she concentrated on finding and providing a mercy.

And consequently utterly oblivious to the signs of those awaiting her.


Those who followed the darker paths, who could not stand the sun and hated this powerful Ancient, had learned her ways and habits with relative ease in recent years. They knew she no longer hunted with any frequency, hunted only on this single day, and kept the hunt to her private estate. She had no attendants or retainers to guard her, as had been the habit in the old days, and carried only a simple knife.

Easy prey they thought, and the market for assassins had changed little over the centuries. Upwards of a dozen killers awaited the blond woman in the woods, armed with the oldest of weapons (no Driad bones needed for her, only sharp steel and enough damage done to overwhelm her) and trained through hard experience. They'd been in position for over a day, and the woods had all but forgotten they were there.

Gabrielle made it no secret of her presence, laughter of abandon echoing off the trees. She passed each of them by, totally unaware of their eyes upon her sleek form. A few admired her sensual appearance, others the economy of motion coupled with her obviously-wild passion. All moved to follow her slowly, to position themselves for when she ceased running, and await the moment for the kill.

So intent were they upon their target, not one so much as sensed the approach of the small woman's appointed protector. Even if they had, it would have made scant difference.

And, to a one, each never made it past the first movement.

The first eight were dispatched quickly, their necks broken in various angles, none making a sound. Their executioner knew there was no time to interrogate them, not if the huntress was to be protected.

The next three were simply left paralyzed. If they later provided useful information on their employers...perhaps their deaths would be made quick. Perhaps. It was quite simple, really; nerve clusters were one of those absurd drawbacks about belonging to the human race that most didn't know about.

The last one, who by sheer chance had found himself at the rim of the planned 'circle', likewise went down in silence. Though in his case, an offer was whispered into his ear, offered so softly it might easily have been the wind.

"You have thirty seconds to tell me your employer's name, or I'll let you expire slowly." The question he could not ask, his vocal cords as frozen as his the flow of his veins, was communicated through his eyes, which had clouded over and couldn't see a damn thing. In answer, the voice said "Tell me, and you'll go quick."

The killer was a professional, and professionals work to a code a conduct, the canon of which is never reveal a client. This likewise must have been communicated through his now-sightless eyes, because the presence of his attacker was suddenly gone.

Thirty seconds is a long time to take to die. One can reevaluate their entire lives in such a span. So it was with the four assassins, none of whom gave up the requested secret, none of whom crossed over a Charon's barge without each having a lifetime's worth of regrets, all going unmourned.

Gabrielle saw and heard none of this, and completed her hunt without incident.

There was unspoken agreement between her protector, who watched her rituals from cover, and the Life around them that she would be protected from this knowledge for the time being, all evidence of those who would rob the forest of its dearest and most blessed friend was taken away, hidden by the denizens there. The protector then likewise disappeared from view. The presence, as powerful as that of the huntress herself, was simply there and then...not. The forest didn't understand, and didn't try to. It had an ally now, perhaps even a second friend, and could now defend its first and best friend far easier than in the past.

Gabrielle went through rites and rituals as old as herself. Skinning the tired old hare that had surrendered itself to her, gutting and cleaning the animal for those denizens of the woods who needed the meal. She herself had drank her fill quickly, not wishing to profane (as if she were even capable of such a thing) a place she thought of as sacred, and was anxious to return to both bed and love.

Still, she was careful to observe all her rituals. She might hurry her actions, she never skipped a one.

The work was done, and seemingly in record time. The air was chill to lungs, winter definitely approaching fast. Gabrielle could already feel the forest readying for its seasonal slumber. Something was amiss here, nothing dangerous but nothing she could immediately identify either. A feeling of deja vu, calling to something deep within her.

It made her long for her lost love as never before, almost enough to lead her to seek out a driad dagger and...

But no, she could no longer do that. She had another life now. Not necessarily a better one, but one as full of passion and love as ever before, and that was enough for now.


Gabrielle fairly floated back to their bed. The dawn's light only just creeping onto the grounds and illuminating their bedroom and its single, giant window-for-a-wall. She felt alive as never before, and it was only through an effort of centuries-hardened will not to through herself atop her still-slumbering love upon returning.

Xena was still in the same position as when she'd left. Not wishing to awake her sleeping 'Princess'(an endearment whispered for her ears alone, while Xena would always rejoin 'my Queen' with absolute reverence in her voice), Gabrielle pressed herself against the brunette's back, spooning her and enveloping her with all the love and warmth she could summon.

Her nostrils flared slightly as she caught whiff of a new scent. Fresh soil, autumn leaves...Could Xena have followed her? Could she have...seen...

No, Gabrielle shook her head, not willing to entertain such a possibility. She would have heard. These were probably her scents she caught, for she'd given herself only the most cursory of washings downstairs before returning to bed.

The instant she'd wrapped herself around her love, Xena let go of the pillow and with practiced easy (and a healthy bit of deliberative sensuality) enveloped the redhead in her own arms. "You're back," she purred, her eyes still closed.

"Needed a snack," Gabrielle said, the excused practiced and recited to perfection.

"You're cold." Xena's arms drew her tighter. "I have," she said, placing a soft kiss on her forehead "just the thing" another, more insistent one placed over her right eye, "to warm you" a third, on the bridge of the nose, "right here." She concluded with a deep, searching kiss on the smaller woman's lips. The heat, the passion, the love as clearly transmitted as if it communicated mind to mind.

Gabrielle did not try to resist, loosing herself in their morning heat, Helios' light warming the room with them.


Chapter One: Igniting the Bonfires.

 

It was only after they'd ordered dinner that Xena became certain that they were being followed.

The feeling had been nagging her since early that morning, strong enough that she noticed it even in the afterglow their morning lovemaking, though it proved subtle enough not to instantly alert her. Their breakfast went uninterrupted, as did their shower (always lasting far longer than it might normally, the sight of each other's nude bodies simply proving too much), dressing, and the morning business.

The last, normally consisting of meeting over the phone and new orders to the brokers Gabrielle retained, interested Xena only a little, and even then only as far as her concern for her love's financial well-being. She trusted Marcous enough that she didn't worry about Gabrielle being robbed. Gabrielle herself was no slouch in negotiating with these corporate types, and so often handed them the worst possible deal (for them, never those on whose behalf she worked) which they happily swallowed, while Gabrielle walked away with the real profit.

During these brief moments in the late morning, Xena would go out back for a run, occasionally practice a few of her better-hidden skills. A decade in the circus, followed by her time riding with the Outlaws had taught her quite a bit. Another ten years on the streets hadn't hurt either. She'd never told Gabrielle of the things she'd learned during those nightmarish years...and never would. Xena refused to endanger their companionship by revealing... Goddess...she knew, just knew Gabrielle would throw her out the instant she discovered...

Practice went quick that morning, more due to her state of mind than effort at improving already-honed skill. Though she did feel a bit guilty about taking out her anxiety on an otherwise-defenseless tree. Her aim with the thin throwing blades she kept with her on such runs seemed only to sharpen with her fear. Her reflexes likewise took on almost superhuman speed and precision. It didn't help that the feeling of being watched proved all the stronger outside. In fact, Xena was first aware of it there, on the forest's edge.

They'd become great friends, she and that clump of woods behind the house. It put her in mind of days long past, when she and her sister would run through whatever bit of woods or brush were nearby, one pretending to be old Artemis while the other would become great Ursula the bear. Or the they would hold imaginary conversations with the greatest of trees, and attend little tea parties held in rings of stone or green, the antics of the beetles and butterflies their entertainment.

But these woods, so wild and untamed, was almost as calming to her as the mellow tones of Gabrielle's voice. It was different with Gabrielle, who exercised so total a command of her heart it would have easily terrified the "her" of but a year ago. That Xena had long ago sworn never surrender herself to another. Her ten years on the streets-selling herself first for blow, only later for coin enough for food-not once had shown her another would care. She'd believed that with what little she believed remained of her heart, her soul long ago lost.

Strange, she would sometimes ponder, how everything one "knows" can be changed in but a single moment.

It hurt to think how desperately she'd fallen for this small, slight redhead. It hurt because the feelings ran so deeply, far deeper than Xena would have wished. Far deeper than she could ever let herself believe possible. That a woman like Gabrielle might feel the same shook her as nothing else might.

Xena didn't entirely believe she did. It was a cynical, unworthy thought...but there it was all the same. Why the hell should a beautiful, rich woman like Gabrielle, who (judging from the number of guests, both male and female, that came over for dinner, drinks, and the odd bit of conversation) had more suitors than the entire Kennedy line put together, suddenly take in a twenty-six year old streetwalker? Why offer her a new life (in Bermuda, for Goddess' sake!)? Why shower her with everything from custom-tailored suits, hand-crafted bits of jewelry, and five wardrobe's worth of Victoria's Secret lingerie...all within a day of meeting her?

To hell with that; what possessed her to offer herself to Gabrielle like she had? "I will wash your dishes..." She'd said it pressing two fingers to the small redhead's lips. "I'll do whatever you ask me to... just let me stay with you."

She hadn't thought as she said this. She simply spoke what came to mind. Where the words came from... she could never tell. Oh, she knew exactly what organ had spoken then, but if pressed she'd swear it all originated below her beltline, not well above.

And so here she was, living in a mansion, eating good food three or four times a day (damn if that cook wasn't persuasive about her taste-testing), wearing clothes she'd only seen in store windows...making love with more passion and intensity than she ever had, for even her highest paying john, in the past.

Not that she hadn't been tempted by Gabrielle's many offers of salary, gifts, and 'compensation'. She'd heard it all, each word ringing like a hundred church bells in her head. And still she offered herself as a maid, or bedwarmer, or whatever... simply so she could stay close to this small, beautiful woman. Some vestige of pride, something she'd have sworn had been driven out of her decades ago, demanded she not simply take her up on the offer of riches and luxury. She just couldn't and that was that.

And so Xena Alexandran dusted off skills of organization and persuasion instilled in her by her grandmother (may the ancient bitch rot in every hell there ever was!) and took over management of her their home. It was actually easier than she'd expected. The staff proved receptive to her ideas and suggestions, as shocked as Xena herself was at the breadth of her knowledge. From cooking (who would have thought just two pinches of pepper and a slice of garlic could add such taste to a soup?) to carpentry (despite the fact she hadn't picked up a hammer since she was only hip-high and had an almost pathological fear of sharp edges!) to the organization of a surprise function (how in the name of the Almighty did she know which utensil went where?), there seemed little Xena was incapable of doing. Only Gabrielle seemed unfazed by this.

Not that the both of them didn't take exception to her accountant/financial advisor's thinly veiled insinuations about her "motives" at least where Gabrielle's money was concerned. Xena concluded Gabrielle herself had spent time outside of the confines of finer society, given the language she used when Marcous aired such ideas. It was as colorful as anything she'd heard riding on the back of a hog or fighting for her patch of sidewalk.

So, to demonstrate her sincerity where the money was concerned, Xena would remove herself from the house every morning. She would jog out to the woods, practice her throwing knives, a bit of improvised acrobatics, and she'd be back in time to see Gabrielle's coffee go cold. She made no mention of it, nor did she allow Gabrielle to flaunt it as much she might. No doubt many a store clerk were badly confused as to why she put up such a fight over prices and style. The scene she'd all but staged outside of Victoria's Secret had probably turned more heads than if the pair of them were stark naked.

Hell, she'd have done it just so they could 'make up' afterwards.


"You look distracted," Gabrielle said, venturing for the first time that day. She'd been quite patient with Xena, waiting for her to speak whatever it was that had obviously been bothering her. After nearly three millennia as a public storyteller, to say nothing of living with one who was more closed-mouthed than a rock, Gabrielle had developed a fine sense of other's moods. This one was an open book.

"Ehh?" Xena looked up, bravely meeting her eyes. Bravely, because Gabrielle knew she'd not part with a single detail. Xena would lie through her beautifully straight teeth to protect her.

"You. You've been distracted all day."

"How. . .what do you mean?" Or, if not actually lie, at least dismiss or distract the question. What was rather idiotic, given Gabrielle had evidence this time to press the issue.

"I mean, my love, that you aren't one to bruise your poor thumb and fingers simply because she's a closet masochist." She let her eyes flicker onto right hand, whose thumb and first two fingers were bandaged by a few stands of white gauze. Xena had been hanging hooks for some recently acquired artwork, the nagging feeling of eyes on her sufficient to cause her to pound her hand rather than the wall. Embarrassing, to say the least.

Xena, to Gabrielle's consternation, chose to concentrate on her steak, sawing into the poor side of beef with all the delicacy of lumberjack. Gabrielle wet her throat with a sip of wine and reconsidered her options. If this wasn't her Xena, the one she'd lived and loved for three millennia, she was the closest thing to genuine dopplegangger she'd ever come across. It was irritating and heartbreaking all in the same breath, not that she'd change a thing. If nothing else, this was familiar ground to her, and so the strategies she'd likely have to employ were already set. It was just a question of which to use.

Xena, being Xena, easily blew all her carefully laid plans out of the water.

"We're being followed."

Gabrielle wasn't sure which was more shocking: Xena's sudden declaration, its content, or the fact she'd come to such a conclusion in the first place. She didn't doubt Xena's suspicion for an instant, herself suspecting the same for some time. It was more the fact Xena even voiced it in the first place, and with a conviction normally absent from anything she spoke. Normally Xena would suggest a second-opinion on any project she'd completed, from cooking to carpentry, which led Gabrielle to the amusing conclusion that she might be trying to bankrupt her, given the only ones who could possibly have done better were the sort serving royalty and commanding six-figure hourly fees.

Rather than let slip her own thoughts, Gabrielle tried to coax more from her lover, if only to confirm the feelings she herself held. "Oh?" was her response, a small grin suggesting amusement. Gabrielle prayed to Artemis it looked real. "More of your admirers probably. I wish they'd try hitting on your 'younger sister' every now and thenÓ"

"It isn't. . ." Xena tried to interject, only to be drowned out by Gabrielle's droning.

"...not like you don't ever get enough, do you? I'm not sure who Maggie is cooking for half the time, us or just you."

"It's. . ."

But Gabrielle, ancient bard that she was, was very much on a roll. "Well, I can certainly understand it. I mean you're nothing short of beautiful. Absolutely ravishing, even. . ."

"Gabrielle. . ."

"Ónever mind that I'm utterly in love with you, so I really don't mind you are the one who gets hit on all the time, while I'm fending off fundamentalist Christians who're trying to lynch the pair of us. . .did you want to say something?"

"Shut up."

It was delivered with such tone and intent that Gabrielle was immediately thrown back three thousand plus years. Even so, she was far from the naive farming girl from the countryside when she'd first heard that voice. Where once her throat might have closed up, Gabrielle now took only a moment to think up something witty and responsive to fill the resulting silence. "Was it something I said?"


Xena couldn't help but shake her head, rolling her eyes while biting down on her tongue to keep from saying something. . .indelicate. Actually, she wanted to scream. Loudly. Very loudly.

Very very loudly.

Though she had no real idea why just then. She was irritated, yes. On edge, yes. But so enraged that she'd risk breaking every piece of crystal in sight again? The last time had been simply because she was trying to hit the high notes on some tune she'd had bouncing in her head for the past year or two.

This time she was just wanted to start screeching like a banshee. It wasn't Gabrielle's voice, either, which Xena knew as certain as she did her love for the woman that she'd never tire of hearing babble about the most inconsequential things. Which, while all good and well, left her with absolutely nothing to blame this sudden urge on.

Instead, knowing that she would be screaming any minute now, Xena quickly got up and headed for the exit.

Gabrielle took a final, measured sip of her wine and rose to follow. She hardly stopped long enough to pay the cashier, instead depositing a small pile of bills into the girls hands and collecting their coats, her eyes riveted on her love's back.


The pair who had taken it upon themselves to watch events unfold did so with some measure of approval.

Still, the slower of their pairing, who by some joke of Fate was both a former athlete (an Olympiad from the time of Cyrus of Persia no less) and a blond to boot, felt the need to actually say it. "That went well."

His companion, a once-debutante who frequented Prohibition era nightclubs as a youth, kept her council and made to leave herself. To her eyes, things were not going well. The Ancient no doubt suspected she and her companion were in danger, and judging by the dark-haired one's behavior she was likewise on edge. Having watched the Ancient far longer than her own companion, who vastly preferred his nightly bloodsport to the duty of surveillance they'd been given, she knew this new companion to the normally-solitary Ancient to be level-headed and reserved. The occasion outside of the lingerie shop had been staged, she was sure, and whatever arguments these two played out in public were just that: play.

That this dark-haired beauty would come so close to losing composure in so public a setting suggested she'd underestimated the sensitivity of the mortal. This was one to watch, particularly as her sensitive ears had picked out everything that had been said across the room, both said and unsaid. The Ancient was not one to be quieted easily, while her companion was not one to speak in sentences of more than two or three words at a stretch.

They'd have to walk carefully from here on, lest the plans she and hers shared became dust. It was only with reluctance that she placed a hand on her companions arm and essentially pulled him from their table. Though the Olympiad towered over her and easily was double her width, she felt no fear in handling him so roughly. Her's was blood straight from the He-of-the-Dark-Vine, while his was of some simpleton wretch he'd fancied as a conquest in the woods outside of Olympia one night.

Obviously current research was truer than it realized, as nothing but genetics could explain wits as dense as those housed in this one.


The departure of the pair did not itself go unnoticed. The eyes which viewed them did so with all the interest of one who had seen the mating of flies upon a wall. . . which is to say: very little.

The same had watched the Ancient and her lover bicker and leave with far more interest. This was a new dynamic to them, interesting and not a little worrying. By all accounts bickering was hardly a new thing for these two, whether it be over clothes, money, or Gabrielle's choice of salad dressing. If ever there was a worthy pair, it was these two.

Ears equally keen had picked out the words and banter, causing a rare smile. She'd smiled so little in recent times, yet could never resist it seeing these two. But this night there was a bittersweet taste to it, suspicions being confirmed and curses immediately springing to mind.

"Bloody festivals!" was her only audible explanative. Rather than sit there and ruminate, this third party (consisting of one) finished her own wine (wishing it was Guiness all the while) and made to follow. There was an urge to giggle at this, her head suddenly light from so many realizations coming to a head all at once.

"Bloody follow-the-immortal-leader," she snickered. "The dead-leading-the-undead." This was incredibly funny to her, though she managed to keep composure enough to make it out the door and to her car. Those she followed had already done likewise.

She watched for the second pair, but had eyes mainly Gabrielle and Xena as they conversed beside their limo. Now it was back to her most familiar role: waiting in the shadows.

She'd done it for millennia, and so could stand a few more hours.


Chapter Two: Lanterns Alight.

 

Whether it was the night air, Gabrielle's presence, or simply getting out of that damned crowded restaurant, Xena immediately lost all urge to so much as shout, never mind actually scream. This was not necessarily a good thing, as Gabrielle herself looked ready to have words. Xena could only mentally steel herself, knowing the smaller woman's temper formidable...though she'd only once actually heard her raise her voice, and that was a sincere sounding "Damn!" when a cup of coffee had been spilled into Xena's lap.

She was unaware her stance had taken on that of a whipped child: head held low, one shoulder up, the other down, feet planted firmly. It stopped whatever Gabrielle might have said cold.

If her rage at the child proved fleeting, it was stoked to a full bonfire against the trials and wounds inflicted upon her by the years before they met. She dearly wished the similarities between her lost love and her living one didn't run so deep that learning of her didn't involve prying odd details out of casual conversation, or arriving at her own conclusions by observing the girl run hither and yon throughout their home, restoring it almost single-handedly to more than simply four walls. (Okay, at least twenty dozen walls, but you get the idea; theirs was a BIG house)

Angry as she might have been, Xena's words still echoed in Gabrielle's mind. "We're being followed." Indeed they were. This left her awash in a cold fear that was actually twofold: first, that Xena's life was at risk, and second, that her own secret might be revealed. The first she was certain she could defend, and the second she'd long feared and kept every bit as hidden as Xena guarded herself. It was actually a bit of selfishness on Gabrielle's part, rather than concern for her new love's peace of mind, that she guarded her...parentage so closely.

She'd only barely survived the century following Callisto's visitation of them, and knew she simply would not survive a single day if she lost her raven-haired love again.

Rather than let her private turmoil likewise show on her face, Gabrielle moved to practicalities. It was a cold one that night, with Demeter's tears making a light carpet on the land. Xena was encased in an Armani pants suit which, while its rich blue set off her sapphire eyes, did little to combat the night's chill. The fact she wasn't shivering didn't fool Gabrielle in the slightest; she herself was half-Olympian, and she was freezing.

"Here, you," she said through the cloud of her own breath, handing Xena her overcoat. "Get this on before you catch your death." The child did as bade, still refusing to meet eyes, though her posture screamed her expectation of being screeched at in a moment. . .if not worse. It very nearly undid Gabrielle. Merciful Artemis, if she were more fragile. . .

"Let's head home." It was all Gabrielle could trust her voice with just then. Xena trusted her own not at all, and wisely offered no argument.


The Olympiad, known these days as Dante, waited until the pairs limo pulled away from the curb to let himself out of the car. His partner, Margareeth D'Arcy, took this without surprise though not without anger.

"And where the fuck are you off to?" Margareeth reveled in the profanity so common to the modern day. Before yielding to the call of the dark, she'd been ever attentive to the mores placed on her by society. A good girl, her father's pride in every way. God, how she hated that creature she'd once been. Though right then she hated her thick-skulled companion far more, as much because she knew the answer to her own question as because the idiot refused to answer.

"Fuck you then!" Marg pulled the door shut after him, not sparing him another glance as he half stumbled towards the closest alleyway. She lit the engine and carefully pulled away. Dante was an idiot and easily replaced...though she wasn't looking forward to petitioning the Crypt elders for a new second.

She wasn't concerned for that evenings duties. She'd done without the idiot almost from the start. So, without another thought of him, Marg looked towards another several hours crouching in that damned wood behind the Ancient's house. Damned but the place gave her the willies, the feeling of a thousand eyes upon her back...


Dante was hungry. Starved, in fact. He'd subsisted for too long on weak fare of strays and rats. He'd tolerated his annoying partner's henpecking and insults for weeks on end. She'd blustered and threatened, but never moved to stop his nightly sport. Perhaps she wasn't as brainless a cluck as he'd concluded, knowing him a favored of the elders and thinking better of annoying them.

He wandered all about the streets, looking for something suitable. Theirs was a hardy breed, but not one immune to the ravages of nature. The smallest virus could prove as deadly to him as a thousand Driad bones, though his sharpened senses were enough to warn him of any such danger. And...Damn it all!...the danger was all around him then.

It took hours, but ultimately there was one. Not a pretty thing, mind, but one free of any disease. The rest of the streetwalkers went their own way, some with envy in their eyes. Dante spared them no time, nor did he waste any in bargaining the woman's price. "Five hundred for the night." His tone was flat, which for him meant the hunger was nearly all-consuming. It also communicated a very clear message to the woman, advising her not to refuse the offer. She wouldn't have anyway, though she didn't think much of a john taking her by the arm so forcefully. It hurt.

They made their way quickly to the nearest hotel. More accurately, Dante made his way there and essentially dragged his catch after him. Hunger made his grip tighter. The manager likewise took note of his demands and made no comment. The room was paid for in moments and Dante was even quicker to get there. The woman was starting to protest such rough treatment, though he was deaf to it. His only thought was to reach the room and enjoy this night as he never had.

The room was on the third floor and the elevator wasn't working. The stairs creaked underfoot and grated on his nerves worse than the woman's harping. He still refused to offer her so much as glance, which was actually a small mercy. To have looked at her, however momentarily, would have led to the hunger taking control and drinking of her right then and there.

This didn't stop him from practically tearing the door off its hinges, nor from practically throwing the woman into the darkened room and tearing at his clothes all in the same move. The Thirst was consuming him whole. It robbed him of all thought save to feed.

He hadn't turned on a lamp, preferring the darkness.

Which made it particularly appropriate for the door to slam behind him...entirely by itself.

The Thirst deserted him instantly.


Its wasn't much really. The striking of a match, far off in the single room's corner. It hardly cast any light, and what little it did was only enough to illuminate the cigarette its flame was applied to. The small fire winked out of its own accord, for no sound of breath could be caught in the still silence.

Dante began to sweat, hard, his exposed skin taking on a clear sheen in the dimness.

There was movement in that corner. Smoke could be seen drifting away from it. Circles and other shapes, ones not normally possible with tobacco smoke, drifted past the single window, the room's only source of illumination.

The streetwalker got to her feet, instinctively backing way. She didn't realize until her should brushed against slick skin that she'd been backing into her intended client. This made her jerk in the opposite direction with a start.

A calm, low voice emanated from the form which moved from that corner, to stand stock still beside the window. No feature or detail could be seen.

"There's money on the bed, girl." It was a woman's voice to be sure, though the flatness to it belayed any emotion attached to, inspiring pure dread. "Take it and leave." The woman quickly snatched up the thick envelope which lay on the musty bedspread. She was out the door without even checking the envelope's contents. Anything, anything, was better than staying with that lunatic john for another second.

She didn't even notice the door shut itself, again, the instant she was across the threshold.


Dante had remained immobile throughout all of this.

The glowing tip of the cigarette was the only company he knew.


"I know you." And she did. Her memory was quite clear where his like were concerned. It gave the old being a shudder of power unlike any she'd experienced in years.

Such a declaration was not lost on Dante, who was prompted out of his immobilityä though all her could manage was a bare swallow of saliva and squeak "Howä?"

"In the woods outside of Thrace." She revealed in his terror, hating herself for it all he while. "One Spring Solstice festival." She made a show of remembering the distant moment. "There hadn't been any rain since winter's thaw, and the woods were dry underfoot."

She moved into the light. Dante saw nothing his long memory could grasp. A tall creature was she, with eyes of dark hazel and rich brown hair. Her tanned features, clearly illuminated by the lamplight from outside, were nothing exceptional or prominent. He wouldn't spare her a glance on the street normally. She looked neither old nor young, and her heritage, save that she was European, was a mystery to his eyes.

A small smile graced her lips, as though he could hear his confusion spoke aloud. "You and your pack thought me another. The Amazon bard, who traveled with the warrior princess."

A dim memory, one of pain and panic, took light in his eyes.

"I was merciful then." Actually, she reminded herself, I was half-dead and barely conscious. Damned if I tell him that. "I might be so again." The sweat was now very clear on his skin. Who would have thought a Bacchae could sweat so?

She approached his still form with grace and calm. Her voice was low, almost sensuous. "Tell me of your interest in the Ancient one and her companion." There was no demand in the request, no hint of authority or steel to the voice. It was spoken playfully, as though in bed in the afterglow of passion.

It terrified Dante as nothing else. Even the elder Gaunt was a mild thought compared to this.

Terror can tighten or loosen the tongue. Dante was caught between the two just then. Muscles frozen, mind shuffling back and forth between today and yesterday, thoughts a jumble of emotions boiling beneath a locked lid, boiling to an explosive mix.

"Tell me," she said in the same non-tone.

A single tear escaping, Dante told all he knew.


It didn't take nearly as long as she'd expected. Only minutes, in fact. What little she learned made her cold. What she didn't learn turned her colder still.

There was only heat in her hazel eyes as they met those of the Bacchae cowering before her. He took it for passion, assuming this to be her mercy. She moved with a slow deliberateness he himself had used on many a seduction in the wood. Neither boy nor girl in the old days could resist coming to his spring to bathe.

The smile she gave him undid his paralysis, only to have it reasserted by the gentle hands which drew across his bare shoulders and cupped his jaw.

He returned the smile. . .

. . .and felt his neck wrenched as she used her grip to throw him, body and all, towards the opposite wall, with such strength as to rival all the elders known!

Dante twisted, desperate to bring his natural abilities to bear. Through exercise of will a Bacchae can soar on the wind, and so he tried. The best he managed was to avoid plunging through the wall and instead shattering the closed window. His impact against the glass and wood was still sufficient to jar his concentration, causing him to plummet to the asphalt below. Still he twisted, trying to keep from landing head-first, and managed to land at a sharp angle.

Despite this the impact shattered his neck and shoulder, leaving his head twisted at a most unnatural angle. The side of it was split open by the force, one eye crushed and the other nearly popped out of its socket. Blood pouring out of every orifice, whether his mouth, eyes or ears, and staining the dark concrete into something darker still.

This left him to the darkness of the healing coma that overtook him almost instantly. He didn't fear this, and was not a little grateful for it.

He was beyond her reach now.


Morgan Sofitia Fythe, whose name once was Hope, cursed herself under her breath for an idiot as she glanced out the window she'd just hurled that piece of meat out of. She'd wasted valuable time on a creature who was barely verbal, never mind actually intelligent enough to put two thoughts together. She'd heard his partner's cursing him as they'd separated outside the restaurant. That alone should have told her of his unimportance.

She shook her head and collected her coat. She'd become too cautious of late, wasting her time guarding the flanks while the enemy, who didn't have much more in brains than the meat she'd just tossed, attacked from the front.

Damn it all. Damn "Michael" for leading her to this. Damn her mother's blood-kin for their madness. Damn that meat for being such an ignoramus. Damn Bacchus for spreading his poisoned blood so wide she'd never be done with them all. Damn herself for her caution.

Morgan-Hope damned it all. . .except for her mum and her dark-tressed love. She'd watched them together for nearly a month now, having to avoid them only when Gabrielle went hunting that morning. Her mum's senses were at their peak at such times, and she had no wish to disturb the woman's peace right then. Thank the Almighty these fools hadn't tried something as obvious as hiring out assassins!

Now she had at least some notion of what these self-styled lords-of-the-undead, a misnomer if ever there was as Bacchae were not actually dead, planned against Gabrielle. The meat knew only that in the next day or so was the moment they planned to be, quote, "rid of the Lord's spoiled seed," unquote, or something equally and pointlessly dramatic. Obviously he meant Gabrielle, who carried Bacchus' blood but none of the corruption. This left Morgan-Hope with very little time. It was the first of November, All Saints Day, in a few hours. After that, there was no telling what the meat's masters might have planned.

A new wave of curse erupted in her thoughts, loud enough to simply drown out the wail of sirens outside. . .and the pounding of approaching feet in the hall outside. Morgan-Hope was deaf to it all as she moved back into the shadows from whence she'd come.


Only silence greeted the officers who kicked the door open. Even turning on the lights, which revealed only an untouched bed and broken window, told them nothing.

The room was otherwise empty as any crypt.


Chapter Three: The Oldest Dance

 

The ride home was silent, but oddly soothing. Gabrielle leaned into Xena's shoulder, as much to reassure herself as to demonstrate her feelings to the other. Her emotions were all a bubbling stew since her customary hunt yesterday morning, doubts suppressed for more than a year worming their way into every thought.

That she loved this mortal child was beyond question. Whether Xena held the same feelings was another question, much like the bulk of her past. Gabrielle had no doubt there were stains, which she held no fault of Xena's. The world today had become a cruel enough place, and for her 'Princess' to have survived for so long on the streets as she had hinted a great deal about her capacity for survival. Gabrielle herself was certain she'd seen worse in the slums of Whitechapel and Warsaw.

For all that, Gabrielle knew her companion to be as right a soul as her namesake. All the same, it hurt that there was still such distance between them, that she would have to pick and pry the smallest detail out of her. Oh, she was under no illusions as to the reason for Xena's reluctance to share her past.

But how to communicate her understanding without revealing all...and thereby losing her to fear? Or, worse, outright hatred?

Gabrielle could not help but wonder at the wisdom of risking her heart again, after all this time, even to one so like her lost warrior.

These thoughts were muted somewhat by the feeling of an arm sneaking about her shoulders and bringing her tighter to the strong frame beside her. Gabrielle closed her eyes and offered a small prayer to Artemis, that her troubled mind might find peace.

Xena herself was surprised by Gabrielle's gesture, almost certain her behavior earlier had thrown at least a little distance between them. Clearly this wasn't the case. Her own arm moved almost of its own accord, encircling the redhead's shoulders and pulling her closer gently, as though she would shatter under the merest touch.

She wanted to cry as Gabrielle had their first night together. That they'd only been whore and client was forgotten. Those tears...Xena knew she could never forget them. She'd seen her cry different tears in her sleep, muttering a name over and over: "Hope." This had become a nightly occurrence over summer, leading Xena to worry a little.

It was one of those nights that she found her (previously unknown) singing voice. She crooned a melody she'd heard herself only in dreams, matching every pitch and note perfectly, and soothed her lover to still deeper sleep. The tears didn't stop, but they were no longer accompanied by choked sobs or a spell of thrashing, the latter generally resulting in Xena having a sore spot or two come morning.

What divine power could have smiled on her so to give her such a treasure? Xena had never believed in a merciful or gentle God, all evidence of her life speaking to the contrary. How could she have been so blind?

No words went between them. No apologies, no declarations of love or devotion. None were needed.

But even this comforting silence between them, where both could regroup themselves, did little to ease their nerves. They were still being watched from afar. They were both sure of this, and equally determined to keep the other from loosing sleep over the matter. Their thoughts mirrored each other's perfectly, as did their plans for ensuring the other's peace that night.

Had they known the other's thoughts, both would have erupted into such gales of laughter that such plans would have proved unnecessary, as they both would have passed out in minutes.


At first glance the mansion would have looked forbidding and unapproachable. The gray sky overhead, neither fully daylight nor nightfall, could only add to the illusion of menace. But Xena's eyes had grown used to seeing their home in any conceivable light, and the soft glow emanating from a few select windows dispelled any unease she might have felt then.

Gabrielle continuing to lean against her didn't hurt any, either...though the light snores emanating from her weren't terribly soothing.

Max, their ever-reliable and silent driver, pulled up to the front door as opposed to the garage. He was hardly as dense as his stoic expression and sunken eyes led people to assume, and he knew his employers (emphasis on the plural, given the amount of running around Xena had him doing) needed to get themselves home post-haste. And to his mind the five minutes needed to back the car into its stall was ten minutes longer than these two needed to wait.

He'd put the car into park and moved to get out as quickly as his practiced reflexes allowed so to open the door for them. He was slightly disappointed that Xena, yet again, beat him to the punch and was all but carrying Gabrielle to the front doors. The driver could only shake his head and wonder at the woman's speed. Not that it was all that surprising, mind, particularly as he'd been married himself for thirty years now.

Xena glanced over her shoulder, giving the older man a nod of thanks and bidding him a good night, all without a single word. Max took the hint and got back behind the wheel. His only thought from there on was to get in-doors and enjoy his wife's cooking. . .at least for a start.

He was grinning like an idiot all the way to the kitchen.


The low buzz of Gabrielle's snoring took on a increasing nasal quality to Xena's ears. In fact, they'd lost their soothing repetition and were sounding more like a repetitive nose-blowing. To say nothing of the overly-deep breaths she was taking with each snore. Xena was fighting not to smile, never mind laugh aloud, and having to fight hard at that.

She didn't doubt that while her love's eyes were closed, Gabrielle wasn't missing a thing.

The battle was all but lost by the time she made it to their bedroom. Xena took her escalating frustrations out first on the door, swinging it open with a very solid kick. This only gave her a sore foot, which in turn gave her focus enough to stride to the bed and literally throw Gabrielle all the way to her side of the king-sized mattress. No small feat, more because of the distance involved than the smaller woman's weight.

A delicious peel of laughter erupted from the redhead, who immediately propped herself up on her elbows and gave her partner such a sultry look. Xena returned with a deep frown, the sort only possible when one bites down, hard, on the insides of their cheeks lest they laugh themselves hoarse.

As Xena stalked towards the bed, Gabrielle involuntarily took her lower lip between her teeth. Xena's eyes spoke of things and intentions which made Gabrielle more than a tad nervous. "Err," Gabrielle stammered, backpedaling as far as she could until flat against the headboard.

Xena's eyes didn't leave her own. Not while she kicked off her own shoes, tossed off her jacket, undid her pants, blouse, and bra, shucked off her panties...all in slow, deliberate succession and with and emphasis on showing off the sleek economy of her muscles and movements. There was no break in the sequence from one item of clothing to the next, no time allowed to savor the slow-fast revelation of bronzed skin, the chore done in mere moments.

It was as cruel a torture as any Gabrielle had endured.

And those eyes told her this was only the beginning.

"Xena. . ." was all Gabrielle could breathe as her eyes roamed every inch and contour of the tall woman's body, from her full and firm breasts to the flat stomach to the rich patch of ebony curls nestled between her sleek thighs to strong legs. And back up past the broad shoulders, strong jaw, curving mouth, and perfect nose to the twin points of sapphire which bored into her as her love continued her approach. Those eyes, which hadn't wavered, were even more dangerous now.

"Now, Xena. . ." Gabrielle instinctively kicked a foot out, to stop this slow, dangerously sensuous approach. The foot was instantly captured by two very strong hands, which divested it of the heel it wore (its only protection) and promptly grasped the ankle, pulling with a fair bit of force. Gabrielle was suddenly flat on her back and quite helpless.

Her breathing was getting erratic, while Xena remained utterly calm as she stalked up unto the mattress and hovered above her prone prey on all fours, looking every inch the feral predator. Gabrielle felt fire ignite throughout her, sure her skin was as red as if her insides had all caught ablaze right then. Gods knew she was sweating enough to be, while Xena remained every bit as cool and collected as she had their first night.

This one never lost her composure, save at that moment of ecstasy, when all Gabrielle's efforts would be rewarded with cries so intense and sweet they threatened to make her deaf. The merest touch now would leave her trembling hard with want.

Xena's eyes, those burning points of purest blue, pinned her prone while practiced fingers undid the straps and clasps of her dress. Involved work as this was, as close-fitting as the dress might have been, Gabrielle didn't feel the merest brush of skin-on-skin. She groaned aloud, a guttural noise she recognized only from its almost nightly repetition.

"Quiet," Xena commanded, Gabrielle clenching her teeth against the noises she would have issued. They weren't polite ones, anyway, and would only give Xena motive to try even more insidious tortures. "And stay still," was added for good measure while her fingers peeled off the satin slip which encased her smooth flesh, both knowing that she would start arching and twisting to meet the fingers which left her stripped and helpless. The dress and lingerie disposed of, Xena lowered herself millimeter by millimeter, promising imminent contact. . .yet not allowing a single touch of skin.

The anticipation alone threatened to send Gabrielle over that peak of ecstasy which had built in her since the morning, a final plunge she was unwilling to experience alone. The first, wholly accidental brush of skin nearly undid her, the purr which escaped from her warning of her impending climax. . .leading Xena to abandon all contact and remove herself as far from reach as possible.

Needless to say, this was not an action Gabrielle was willing to take lying down. Xena didn't manage to back away more than a metre before a flushed and sweating Gabrielle was on top of her, rudely tackling the taller woman and pinning her with far more strength than someone so small and slight should have been able to muster.

Xena's laughter, deliberate and musical, was cut off by Gabrielle's accusation of "Tease," right before bringing her lips down onto Xena's with such force to rob both of breath. They lay breast to breast, thigh to thigh. Each could feel the other's nether-curls scratch as they ground their hips in perfect rhythm, threatening to drive each to orgasm. Their breathing automatically synchronized, their tongues dueling for entrance. Gabrielle allowed Xena's to brush her lips before she herself pulled away, keeping a very solid grip on the other's arms and holding her down. The moan, a sound somewhere between plea for mercy and outright agony, this elicited from Xena, alone was worth the Herculean effort it took her not to scream for the loss of contact herself.

Still, the pressure building within her core was relentless enough to give voice to her need. "What. Do. You. Want?" Gabrielle managed, each word needing a full breath. Xena's eyes, which had closed since the instant of the kiss, cracked open to a fine slit. Her lips trembled.

But no sound came.

"What do you want?" Gabrielle asked again, this time working a knee between Xena's clenched thighs, its solid roundness pressed hard against her steaming and impossibly wet center.

Again no answer, save a gasp of air and back suddenly arched, came from the woman below her.

To see her lover respond so to her, and the feelings of fiery abandon this inspired within her aching core, brought sweat across Gabrielle's whole body and tears to her eyes. It was too much, to hot to hold back, to wild to control.

The fire was beyond restraining, spilling down her own hips as her knee became slick with Xena's heat.

"Tell me," was all she could whisper, her voice cracking from the strain.

Xena suddenly broke from Gabrielle's strong hold, her arms snaking around her torso and trapping the redhead against her. Their breasts, a thousand times more sensitive now, flattened against the other's, their stone-hard nipples aching in both pain and delight from this sudden pressure now put upon them both. Xena slid a full thigh between her own, pressing upwards with equal force to Gabrielle's knee.

Her lips captured Gabrielle's, tongue plunging deep.

Tears and sweat flowed from both in a never-ending cascade.

Two sets of hips ground against each other like pistons, perfect harmony and synchronization of movement, the pace accelerating with each revolution.

They moaned as one. Cried as one.

Their hearts pounded in time.

The world exploded in fire and musk and release.

They screamed as one voice, lost in each other's mouth, in each other's souls.


The two hung there for a span of moments, small spasms of muscles and limbs their only movement, bodies tightly locked against each other's. Both collapsed to their sides, still locked by strong arms and still-stronger passion.

Xena could only breath in the most ragged, noisy fashion. Not that she was complaining, as it sounded suitable revenge for her snoring earlier. Pity the intended victim of this unsettling noise wasn't conscious enough to appreciate it.

A small grin of triumph graced her exhausted features. Winner and still champion! She'd have shouted it, had she breath enough.

Instead, Xena let her eyes close and her thoughts drift off to join her love.


Chapter Four: Dreaming the Darkness

 

They were waiting for her, there in the dark. Waiting as they had for so many nights since Samhain last. They were ancient and eternal, only their faces and members changing over the course of centuries and millennia.

They were four...and one other. . .that night, as they had been since the settling of the Americas. Their sixth had chosen that moment to declare war upon his then-allies, though his chair remained at their table, left empty. . .as a reminder of betrayal. . .

Until now.


She knew this was a dream. A figment concocted by her imagination and fears, nothing more.

This knowledge didn't make the stone floor or dank air any less chilling. Nor the voice which rang out from the circular table before her any more friendly.

"Welcome."

This time it was the African woman who greeted her, the one dressed like a voodoo priestess with a colorful scarf wrapped about her head and beaded necklace hanging from her neck. But her eyes were a glowing red, a deep enough shade to remind her of fresh-spilt blood.

"Sit. Be comfortable." This came from the pudgy man wearing a powdered wig and lipstick.

Her legs moved of their own accord, carrying her to the vacant chair. She sat as bade, the bare wood cold to her equally naked skin. The merest glance from any of those who watched her, four pairs of crimson eyes eager for even the briefest contact, dispelled any discomfort. . .and all thought with it.

If those eyes removed her will, they did nothing to her hearing. She certainly wasn't deaf to their words, taking it all in and desperately attempted to make heads-and-tails of what were essentially legs, arms, and trunks of conversation, not simply a clear thread of exchanges. It put her in mind of the tentacles of an octopus trying to communicate with one another. . .when each were of their own mind.

"Is she prepared?" the powdered wig asked once she was settled.

"Perhaps enough. Perhaps not enough." This came from the one sitting two chairs away from the powdered wig, a bodybuilder in a toga with solid white hair and a fetching scar tracing his right cheek.

"I would not have us delay the ceremonies," the African woman declared. "The energies fade fast these days."

Beside her sat another woman, whose skin was only slightly lighter in shade and whose own robes were a striking orange with red fringes. "Our supporters and retainers will be hard pressed to wait another year."

"Leave that to me." The toga spoke in a tone that might have been final, was in no way convincing.

There was a shuffle of movement to her right. The fifth chair was occupied by what looked like a mass of dirty curtains and bed linen, all draped over an old- fashioned coat rack. If this was another participant to the "conversation", it certainly wasn't saying much.

This didn't stop everyone from giving the chair occupied by the dirty linen with the occasional glance or outright stare. They even nodded at it.

Creepy.

"I agree with Gaunt." The African again. But who the hell was 'Gaunt'?

"As do I," the woman in orange agreed. Girls against the boys?

"Hmm." The toga grunted in ways men generally do when they agree without wishing to say it aloud. The powdered wig said nothing, but slumped back into his own chair and generally looked quite sulky.

The African gave everyone, including the dirty linen, but not her, dangerous eyes. She couldn't help but wonder what was being communicated. It was potent stuff, whatever it was.

"Which leaves us," the orange and red robe was saying, "with our guest."

Again, four pairs of red stars were on her again. Just as they had been a dozen times a dozen nights before. Some nights it frightened her. Others, simply puzzled her.

Then and there, it was a fear that turned her heart to a lump of. . . something. . . colder than ice. . . and infinitely harder than stone.

She wanted, desperately, to say something. . .anything. . . to get those eyes off her. . .away from her. Her mouth didn't work. They wouldn't let it work.

Panic gripped her muscles, willing them to shake.

Why wouldn't they let her voice work?

Why. . . The African watched this and nodded, as though in full approval. Her full ruby lips broke into a knowing grin and she turned back to the others. "I think she's ready. Her dreaming mind is sufficiently unbalanced to allow easy access." There was a pride in her voice, as though she were a pet project of only cursory importance.

It angered her. The anger gave her strength.

Not much, but enough. She could feel her muscles again. And if her core was still cold with fear, it was a sheen of ice. . .covering a volcano's explosive core.

She managed to move her own eyes (the others were talking amongst themselves again) from the scene before her. Unfortunately, the first thing they drifted to was the dirty linen to her right. . .

It wasn't simply a collection of rags and filth. It was, she could see now, a filth-encrusted robe and hood. There was a definite shape to it, one with a head (of sorts) distinct atop its. . .shoulders? The hood, while deep, didn't obscure the fact there was something in there. . .

Something with eyes. . .which glowed a red more powerful than the rest of them put together. . .

Eyes which burned into her. . .

Sucked her dry. . .

Then she saw the face beneath those eyes.

Her voice came back.

And she screamed. . .

And screamed. . .

And screamed. . .


Xena awoke silently, her body slick with cold sweat and every muscle clenched. She barely managed to swallow the scream about to form on her lips. It took some moments for her thoughts to calm enough to remind her of where she was.

She lay on her back, Gabrielle curled beside her. A shudder went through her as her muscles tightened. . .in fear. . .again. This time of the small woman sleeping beside her. She didn't know why she felt this. She wasn't even sure she cared.

Xena could only roll onto her side, away from Gabrielle, and closed her eyes.

Sleep came and claimed her. . .eventually.

But not before Gabrielle herself opened her own eyes, staring at her love's back. These nightmares, always coming on the heels of their lovemaking, had started almost the same time her own dreams of her long-lost Hope faded. If those dreams, of finding her infant daughter, left her mildly disturbed (Artemis forgive her she'd barely thought about her first child in nearly a century), then these nightly visitations drove her to distraction. Another night and she would do what to that point was the unthinkable, and intrude upon her sleeping love's dream. . .directly. This would stop, come what may.

No sigh of either distress or acceptance escaped her this time. In time she, too, slept again, but gained no rest from it.

It was a small mercy she didn't feel the silent tears which came in her sleep that night.


Chapter Five: Unforgiven Vows.

 

If ever asked, Simon Elias Ferreau would maintain he was sufficiently well-rounded enough that nothing short of Armageddon would faze him...and even then, only if done in grand Cecil B. DeMile fashion: cast of thousands, extravagant scenery, biblical overtones, et cetera. He had good reason to hold such an opinion of himself, though truth be told it had nothing to do with his claims of being fifty-two and four times married.

Right then, at 2:42 am, on November second, Simon Elias Ferreau learned one cannot be prepared for everything. . .

Certainly not an old acquaintance holding the tip of very large sword to his throat in the dead of night.

Bad enough she practically kicked him through a wall upon arriving, but then she added indignity to embarrassment by saying "Remember me, Malachai?" She drawled his old name, as though it were a caress and still managed to make it an insult.

"My name," he managed archly, "is Simon. . ."

"Spare me," the dark-tressed woman spat. "Your name is Malachai, fourth and youngest son of Ephron the sheep-herder and his third wife Mary and were born in the valley of Galilee on the day David slew the giant Goliath." The sword, which appeared literally out of nowhere, drifted ever closer to his throat. "And I don't have time for your contrived innocence."

Simon. . .Malachai. . .looked into eyes older than his own. "You never had time for anything important, did you?" He drew the name out, a veiled sneer of irony. "Hope?"

Those eyes narrowed tightly, almost to fine slits of nameless color. It took Morgan...Hope...long seconds to remember why it was so important she keep this fool alive just then. The tip of Caliburn, her sword and only reliable companion for longer than she cared to remember, came close to leaping forward of its own accord. Hope wondered if the old creature before her realized how close he came to his final death.

Instead, she reigned in her anger and lowered Caliburn, though its tip now hovered at his heart rather than throat. The gesture, and its meaning, were not lost on the man. He relaxed as best he could, propping himself up on elbows and managing to get into a more comfortable position.

"Now, what brings you to my neighborhood?" Despite a tone of disinterest, both knew his full attention was her's.

Caliburn didn't waver from its post. "I need to know why a couple pieces of meat have been watching Gabrielle Artemes and her companion for the past month. An ex-Olympiad and a flapper. I spoke to the Olympiad before coming here." Hope paused to let him digest this. "Not a complete cell of brain in his entire body," she added with scorn.

"Ah," Malachai drawled. "That would be Dante, better known as 'The Moron'."

Hope merely grunted in acknowledgment. "So he claimed. Except for 'The Moron' bit."

Malachai continued. "He's one of the Circle's less...talented... creatures."

"You mean 'was'."

"Indeed." Malachai nodded, then caught himself. "You didn't ?" Those eyes again. "You did."

"I'm sure a three-story dive into the sidewalk will keep him out of trouble for the time being."

Malachai groaned as though in agony. "You did."

"As I said, not a complete brain. Which means he didn't know as much as I need to know right now." Hope settled down on her haunches, Caliburn's point staying stationary and emphasizing her fast-expiring patience. "Since his partner isn't available, I come here to see what my old friend can tell me about these goings-on." There was nothing friendly about her smile, or her tone, and certainly nothing at all endearing about the way she waved her sword about.

The silence stretched between them for perhaps a full minute.

"Need I remind you of the debts between us, old man? I need to know what the hell is going on here." She paused for effect, letting her words and his memory dredge up all the business yet unfinished between the two of them. It was several centuries' worth. "So. . .enlighten me." A nearly infinitesimal jab with sword point emphasized the request.

Malachai had no doubts as to her sincerity, nor to her obvious determination to see this through. He'd survived this long thanks in no small measure to being able to immediately divine such details from those he'd come into contact with, not unlike a dousing rod finding water.

Insanely, he found himself debating for some seconds on how badly he wanted to live another three thousand years. Hardy as he might be, this bitch could certainly kill him, potentially through sheer terror. He'd had a decent enough time, both before and after tasting of the Dark Wine, and could pass on with few regrets.

The again, how badly did he want to explore the world beyond?

"The elders must have decided that they have had enough of her, so they've planned to kill her. That can be the only reason I can think they'd assign the likes of Dante to watch her and her's." Best start with the obvious, Malachai concluded. Give him time to tease what he could from his...old friend.

"This is news?" Hope's voice was sarcasm incarnate. "They've been trying to do that since the fourth Crusade." She was engaged in her own silent debate as to how much it was worth restraining herself much longer.

"True," he granted, recognizing his danger. Time for some wild guesses. "But how often do they try with a plan already laid out?" Daring greatly, he locked eyes with her's, and only by sheer willpower kept this contact. It was like staring into the sun. Two suns, in fact, neither of which blinked for an eternity of heartbeats.

"And what makes you think the Circle actually has a plan? The only 'plans' those monsters ever manage to concoct are ways to backstab and murder one another!" The disbelief in Hope's voice was sharp, almost accusatory. It sounded strange to Malachai's ears, such things coming from one who had seen so much more of the world, and beyond, than he.

The swordpoint wavered slightly. Malachai took this as a cue to wrestle himself into a position which didn't involve such contortions of his spine. Finding one that afforded at least a bit more comfort than simply being laid out prone, the old Bacchae regarded his interrogator more closely. There was something almost desperate (not a word or state of mind he'd ever before seen in this one) to her manner. Beyond her seeming disbelief of what should have been blatantly obvious, this sudden propensity for direct, even violent confrontation (the damage to the wall was going to be a joy to try explaining) flew in the face of past encounters. Hope had mastered the art of winning through threat, of conquering by sheer presence, and getting what she wanted simply by raising one eyebrow. Gods knew he'd rather face the Circle's collective wrath than risk her ire, never mind having her in his face like this.

He could only assumed she was running scared, hence her lashing out. Which meant she knew more than she'd already revealed. Time to see how good his instincts were.

"True enough," he granted again. "You've said that the Ancient and her companion have been followed for the past month, yes? The Circle has known where she has lived for the past seventy years and more. I repeat, why have her watched by as disposable an asset as Dante if they already know such things, eh? Smacks of a plan."

Hope did nothing as he stood, save match his ascent and keep Caliburn's point within striking distance. Her eyes wandered over his shoulder for just an instant, as if weighing his words and having to force herself to accept their truth. This was as surprising to Malachai as her violence. Since when did Hope, who's experience circled this globe and all its shadows twice over, have to be convinced of anything?

She pinned him with those eyes of his again, ones which glowed white hot within the abyss of the pupil. "What do you know?"

"What do you?" His greatest dare yet, throwing her words back at her, particularly given her already-demonstrated impatience. At least it got her eyes off him, if only for a moment.

"The Feast of All Souls." Those eyes, no longer dangerous, but actually pleading now. It nearly drew a shudder from him, his mistaking one sort of desperation for another. Gods.

"I've heard nothing of this." Malachai spoke with open arms and empty hands, demonstrating his ignorance clearly as possible. "The Vanir have been silent, their courtiers silent...which is actually rather unusual for them."

"But. . .nothing more?" She went utterly still for no longer than the blink of an eye, during which time she thought of nothing save plunging Caliburn through his chest, tearing across and up and down and clefting him into so many pieces that the floor might become littered with tiny tiny pieces of. . .

"Nothing."


All strength deserted her right then. She'd done entirely too much in too short a space, all of it coming to absolutely no gain, leaving her drained. Damn it all!

Hope swung away from the old one, her knuckles turning white for the strength of her grip on Caliburn's pommel. There was no time for this...and yet here she was all the same. The force with which she was clenching her teeth was equally wasted, giving her nothing except a distracting ache in her jaw.

Ironically, this might well have been the most positive thing she'd done since breaking her covert watch on the mansion two nights earlier, insofar as it focused her thoughts enough to actually think about her next step rather than simply react. She'd been lashing out all that night, from the instant she'd cornered the meat in his hotel room to racing out here, thousands of miles distant, simply to ask what could have been as easily asked over the phone.

If whatever the circle had planned come nightfall was to be averted, Hope recognized she needed to recognize them as something more than a collection of decayed and treacherous asses. Malachai was right, in that this all smacked of at least an underlying plan. Not something she'd actually had much experience with when it came to her distant kin. But then, most of the one's she'd encountered were little more than animals. While the Circle had a long history of regicide and simply backstabbing one's ally, most of the current membership had actually lasted longer than its predecessors. This lot seemed capable of fending off their natural instincts and working together at this.

Gabrielle's death would send off shockwaves throughout their dark world. She was the single most powerful of Bacchus' direct offspring, both for followers and her own 'attributes'. Were they to assassinate her, how many enclaves and holdouts would simply cease their resistance altogether, never mind actually run to their banner?

Their dark world balanced upon the thinnest of wire. That wire was Gabrielle, whether she realized this or not. Gods alone knew what would happen if it were cut.

Malachai was staring at her now. Hope recognized that look, and felt something akin divine revelation.

"Why are they waiting?" she wondered aloud. "She was actually out hunting on All Hallow's. And surely their powers are better charged while the veil is lowest. . ."

Malachai adopted the air of a lecturer. "The night of All Hallow's Eve, I grant, the best moment to capture and control the energies of the other side. The seepage has become especially acute in the past century, with the revival of spiritualism and whatnot, so I suppose there is some residual seepage they could use."

"Still...to wait so long...?"

"These are powerful days in and of themselves. The ceremonies of both All Souls and All Saints involve stir powerful emotions in its participants. . ." Malachai's self-righteous tone lit a momentary fire in her eyes. She extinguished it by ruthless effort of will. The man might be arrogant and irritating as all hell, but experience had taught her the value of listening...even to the arrogant ones.

"By saying 'goodbye' to the deceased?" Hope put as much petulance and disbelief as she could manage into the question, knowing she already knew the answer.

"The day is as sacred to the Japanese and the Moslem as it is to the Catholic and the Celt." Hope nodded her acceptance of this, having seen the celebrations of each culture and more. "And remember: it's the level of belief involved that determines how the real the actual level of power is."

"This isn't stage magic we're talking about," Hope reminded him, ready to clench her teeth again with frustration. "These forces are. . ."

"Potentially strong enough to physically tear this planet apart, to say nothing of what it would do to the collective unconscious."

"To say nothing of a single immortal?"

"Exactly, provided it can be focused properly." His thin lips curled up in a semi-smug grin, pleased to have led her well enough along to the obvious.

Hope wiped it away, her fist suddenly dislodging several teeth and adding several hairline fractures to his jaw. The force of the punch was so controlled, quite unlike the first one, that this time he went through the wall. It was only the strength of his Bacchae blood-gifts and his natural physical girth, itself significant, which let him live through the experience of essentially demolishing a plaster wall with cement-reinforcement.

Dazed as he was, he heard Hope's voice spit out "I'll be back later."

'There's a pleasant thought' was Malachai's final though before drifting off into unconsciousness.


It had begun to snow when Hope reached the street. Caliburn was secreted from both sight and mind, as much from herself as from the rest of the world at large. This was a long-practiced habit, securing the blade against those who would steal it by simply removing it from memory until it was once again needed, a fortunately rare occurrence.

She wandered the early morning streets for a time. Her car had been left outside that hotel, some distance from there, where she'd "spoken" to that piece of meat Dante. And look where that little escapade had led her.

Another flurry of silent curses-ones against the Circle, Bacchus himself, her own good person, the Titans, the universe in general-erupted across her thoughts.

It was so damn obvious, all of it...she should have seen it the instant Dante told her the day chosen. Of course All Souls Night held as much significance as Samhain itself, perhaps more so for raw symbolic value. Bacchae, particularly their elders, fancied themselves the 'lords of the undead' and so tended to let their imaginations run riot as to how far their influence ranged. The small fact the transformation did not involve the actual death of the participants was often lost on them. Such was the consequence of an era of mass media, where the most obvious truths can be lost, and the price of hubris.

Her teeth clenched as though against the unfelt cold. The weather nothing compared to the ice clenching her from within.

The Circle couldn't have picked a better night to work their plans. She'd felt the wildness of the energies and Powers two nights earlier, as no doubt had every priest and priestess with the merest gift of Sight the world over. Much had crossed over that night, most doing no harm and quickly returning from where it came. Still, there was enough left swirling about the ether to cause calamity undreamed of. All that was needed, as Malachai pointed out, was a focus to it.

And there was the rub. Gabrielle herself was simply too damn strong to be the focus itself. Hades, she'd likely know of any attack against her before the attackers did! And now she'd be even more careful, what with Xena in the house. . .

She stopped dead, the gray of her suit standing out starkly in the snow-reflected light. Now there, Hope mused, was the real enigma in all this. This "Xena". Ever since being informed of her presence in Gabrielle's life, Hope had spent literally every waking moment digging for the material facts of the woman's past. She'd learned more in that evening's misadventures than she had for all the effort she'd put in over the past several months. Yet, Hope strangely felt no anxiety where this woman was concerned, and seeing the two of them together only reinforced her acceptance of this newcomer's place in Gabrielle's life. An enigma to be sure, a bloody walking question mark, but not one she could see any threat in.

At least, until now.

Her pace picked up unconsciously, a terrible possibility suddenly coming to mind. Terribly plausible that is, and all the more horrifying for it. Hope didn't try and divine the fine details out of this sudden epiphany, her entire mind and energy centered on one goal: to get back to the mansion and keep those two safe. She'd bloody stand guard literally on top of the pair of them if that's what it took!


Her footsteps echoed down the sidewalk, their stucco rhythm increasing with each step. Had there been anyone listening, they would have heard those steps veer off into an alleyway after taking several blocks in stride. Veer off...and fade to silence.

That morning's snowfall didn't amount to much, and what little it did allowed only the vaguest of footprints.

Her's entered the alley, where the shadows proved especially thick, and simply ended four paces beyond the turn, well before where the snows turned to damp concrete.


Chapter Six: The Oldest Dance, Second Movement.

 

She would always be up with the dawn. It had been a ritual as constant as the sunrise and sunset, instilled in her by a childhood working hard amongst the Pandemonium Rings Travelling Circus. She could work a full day of shucking straw, cooking meals, cleaning cages, and whatnot on but an hour of sleep. Millie, her sister, would contest her at every turn. They made a sport of everything: who could cook the fastest, who could clean the most cages, who could run the fastest from one chore to the next, who could learn this trick or that the quickest.

Millie wasn't even a month older than herself, and had always held her own...until death came nipping at their heels one autumn morning.

That morning gave her new reason to awake with the dawn, nightmares attacking her nightly, giving her no peace and no reason to keep sleeping. She'd come to dread sleep, more than the old patron's temper or his switch. Even those years on the back of Scooter's Harley, and later being passed from one pimp to another hadn't freed her of the fear, but left it buried instead. Bruises fade with time, cuts and breaks heal, scars remain as trophies to survival.

But how do you run from ghosts calling for you, ghosts which surround you on all sides. Or outrun flames that will never be extinguished? How do you escape these things which live only in your dreams?

Even Gabrielle couldn't free her from this. Like Scooter and the pimps, she simply added another layer of metaphorical dirt atop the fear's equally-metaphorical coffin. A thick layer, granted, but the fear remained there, lurking until unearthed by her dreams.

Xena opened her eyes to the morning's light, its brilliance slowly spilling into their bedroom. Her back was to Gabrielle, which immediately snapped her into full awareness and lucidity. This was wrong. Pretty much the wrongest (was there even such a word?) thing there ever could be, particularly in light of the decidedly erotic aches which permeated her throughout. It positively hurt to so much as breath, never mind break into as wide a smile as she did right then, memories of their orgasmic "duel" (as they'd come to think of their bedroom contests) filling her mind and flooding her loins.

Normally Xena would make yet another contest of stretching and enfolding her 'Queen', determined to bring her once more to the brink before the smaller woman even had a chance to open her eyes. Right then, it was terribly important that she have Gabrielle, in her arms and otherwise.

She rolled quickly from one shoulder to the other, and was rewarded by a very sincere "Oww!" accompanying the sharp impact of her right elbow against an object at once soft and hard. Xena flinched with Gabrielle's cry, and was careful to finish moving without contact on either side. Two pairs of eyes met, one quite sheepish.

The other pair, a pair of shinning emeralds belonging to the wounded party, flashed through expressions of surprise, outrage, confusion, still more outrage, and ultimately settling upon something between amusement and annoyance. The pain of a small knock on the head was little compared to the urge to laugh and curse in the same breath. It was a bubble welling up in her throat, making it difficult to simply breathe. And harder still to resist knocking her attacker across the room...and utterly ravish this beautiful creature against every available surface.

Gods, Xena was never as beautiful as in moments of shy vulnerability like that moment. Provocatively posed on one hip, balancing herself on one arm, eyes and chin cast downwards, causing her raven locks to fall across those massive shoulders and brush her breasts, half-hiding them from view. The dawn's first light streamed in behind Xena, casting a sensual glow that outlined her entire form. Innocence and temptation intermixed.

Gabrielle moistened both lips, her mouth now utterly dry from the sight. All her body's moisture was pooled in her molten core. Her skin screamed for contact, her core for release.

But Gabrielle had far stronger control than that, and so simply propped herself up on one elbow and gave Xena a stare between slitted eyelids in what she intended to be a copy of the same Xena had afixed her after throwing her unto the bed last night. Her lips remained straight line only through a determined effort of will. "Bad dream?" was her only question, which elicited a flinch from Xena as though backhanded across the cheek...with brass knuckles. Seeing this, Gabrielle felt a solid blow in the chest, her heart contracting as though squeezed between stone fists. Gods, when would she learn?!

Before any (needless) words of apology could escape her lover, Gabrielle quickly closed the distance between them and pressed against every inch of bare, bronzed skin she could manage. Her own complexion, despite centuries of sun and weather, remained cream and untouched in comparison. With the smallest 'flick' of thought she swept the hand Xena supported herself on and sent the tall woman tumbling unto her back, quickly crawling over her and hovering there. A silent dare to her lover to endure the same as she'd given.

The raw thrill which gripped Gabrielle in seeing Xena's response, her wetting both lips with a shaky tongue and leaving them parted, their trembling accompanied by poorly disguised panic seeping into those brilliant eyes, went without sign past her sly smile. This was a special thrill of Gabrielle's, the ability to provoke a sweat of anxiety from this otherwise-fearless beauty of her's.

So intent was she on continuing this scene, Gabrielle nearly missed the many silent pleas Xena's body fairly screamed. Xena's fists clenched at either side, knuckles white and arms trembling with effort not to lash out; she'd taken her bottom lip between her teeth and clenched the tender skin hard between them; the tension gripping her was a palpable entity between them, radiating from her every inch as though it were her very sweat. Gabrielle felt all of this, as well as the silent screams echoing within her love's mind, screams she interpreted as cries of need and want.

It never occurred to her that all this meant Xena might, in fact, be fighting outright terror rather than desire.


Xena floated within a sensual haze of emotion and sensation so intense it bordered on torture...but it was no longer loving passion that consumed her.

Oh, she craved Gabrielle's touch as she once had the coke she'd numbed herself on before walking her bit of street. More, truth be told, though not simply because she feared the price it might extract from her. For the merest brush of their hands or most chaste of kisses, Xena would gladly ransom her soul and more.

But the same passion as that in Gabrielle's eyes, so prominent in her only moments before, was now gone. In its place Xena felt only a mindless panic. The sight of her lover hovering over her reminded her of seeing a Black Widow hovering over its prey. The year she'd now spent in Gabrielle's house had given her back some small bit of self-respect, which now reared its tiny head and reacted to being laid prone and at the mercy of this woman she loved more than anything.

Xena was suddenly no longer in their bed. Her early days on the streets suddenly played themselves out in all their Technicolor horror in her eyes, consuming all thought and sensation.

One moment singled itself out among all the degradations.

Her arms stretched out between twin posts of thick muscles, wrists gripped by hands of iron.

The bite of leather and razor barb against her naked flesh.

The screams coming with each strike of the whip. Screams coming from her. Screams coming from the one behind her. Wildcat screams.

On the cold stone floor. Panting. Bleeding. Delirious on coke and pain. Lying a puddle of blood and cum-juices.

The Wildcat hovering over her on all fours, brown eyes wide.

Saying "Why am I doing this to you?" Brown eyes which were all innocence. "Because I bought you. Because I own you." Then screaming "BECAUSE YOU LOOK! JUST! LIKE! HER!"

The Wildcat keeps screaming.

And hurts her some more.

Suddenly it wasn't Gabrielle crouching over her, teasing and loving her...it was the Wildcat who touched her now...who aroused her and made her feel like cockroaches crawled beneath her skin...

And she couldn't move, because the Wildcat would hurt her even worse if she tried. So Xena lay there, body still but sweating, eyes closing of their own accord, lungs working too hard, limbs frozen from the same cold which froze all thought.


Xena's sudden hyperventilating was the first clue, though this was clear to Gabrielle only in hindsight. Xena, who to this point had watched everything with wide, almost panicky eyes, sudden closed them and went completely still. Gabrielle's practiced eyes caught her jaw working beneath the skin, clenching and unclenching. The skin about those closed eyes bunched tight, the brow above them furrowed into a strata of wrinkles.

Had she been even a hair more drunk on her desire for Xena just then, Gabrielle was certain she would missed the true meaning of all these tiny signals, perhaps even to the point of *forcing* another tumble between them. Instead, she yielded to the small voice of caution and, in a whisper softer than a breath, called "Xena?"

In response, Xena flinched from crown to toes as though struck with a cattle prod.

Gabrielle wanted to do several things all at once: to tear apart every bastard and bitch who'd ever laid a hand on her love; to seek out the Fates and tear Xena's cord from their capricious weave; scream and cry until her lungs bled for the pain her love now endured; somehow take all that pain into herself and never ever let her feel it again...

Instead all she could do was call again, even softer. "Xena?" No flinch this time, but her jaw clenched even tighter (if that were even physically possible), and Gabrielle caught sight of the tears welling in those beautiful, if hidden eyes. This emboldened her, as cold fear always does. "Xena, please look at me." Steady as Gabrielle's tone was, the plea there might as well have been shouted from the mountaintops and echoed through a thousand valleys.

Xena opened her eyes, beholding her through a film of tears, and as quickly shut them again. She rolled to her side, her back once more to Gabrielle, and curled into a tight fetal ball. All this happening so quickly Gabrielle could do nothing save sit back, her curled legs under her and eyes wide and watching.

Xena was shaking now, and no longer hyperventilating. Rather Gabrielle heard soft breaths in tempo with the tremors that gripped Xena's huddled form. Soft breaths, and the sobs they fed.

Every nerve in Gabrielle sung out in pain right then, while tears slowly tracked down her own cheeks. She took several heartbeats to collect herself before trying to speak again, knowing calm and clarity of voice was needed now, and not the hysteria which threatened to grip her. "Xena?" Gabrielle again whispered, again with uncloaked plea. She boldly reached a hand out to her love's shoulder, but stopped short of actually touching its smooth surface. "Please..." She gulped for air. "Please...look at me. Please."

She whispered it over and over again, praying with ever-escalating desperation to Artemis that the words would be heard. Her own tears increased with every repetition, as did her fears for her love.

Eventually the tight play in Xena's shoulders and back loosened, though slowly, and the sobs subsided. She still shook, though not as violently. Whether it was minutes or hours later didn't matter in the least to Gabrielle, who breathed silent prayers to the Gods as she watched Xena uncurl. When finally Xena was fully in repose, not unlike she'd been only minutes earlier, did Gabrielle risk gently brushing her fingertips across the bronzed and flushed flesh at her shoulder. She fully expected Xena to curl back up and go completely catatonic.

Xena lay there on her side, unresponsive to her lover's touch.

Gabrielle felt the hysteria ready to break loose from her every pore. She collected herself only with great effort, managing to speak as calmly as before. "Please," was her final plea, knowing she could keep herself calm no longer, that the next sound she would utter would be banshee screams. Already her own shoulders were tensed and fists balled, ready to pound everything in sight into so much scrap.

But Xena turned, facing Gabrielle fully, and the sight bringing new tears to the latter. Xena's were simply too puffed and bloodshot to allow more to come, her bronzed cheeks discolored by the countless tracks there. Her full lips were pressed into an uneven line, something hovering between utter despair and simple blankness.

It was nearly enough to undo Gabrielle, not knowing which was worse. She didn't dare trust her voice, lest it crack and she herself be thrown again into tears. Nor did she have the least idea what to say. What could she say right then? Hades, Gabrielle didn't even have a clue as to what brought all this on in the first place.

All she could do was hold those treasured eyes for as long as the other would allow, trying to communicate words she could not form with voice-words of comfort, of understanding, of love-through her eyes. Eyes which were quickly going blind for the tears there.


Xena met Gabrielle's eyes with all the resignation of the condemned and soon-to-be executed, expecting anything from disgust to plain indifference there. Instead there were only tears...and something else. Fear, confusion, raw pain, and desperation were all there, side-by-side with acceptance, comfort...and unconditional love. How she could read such things, she who had been an emotionless whore and plaything, was beyond Xena just then. She saw and understood it all, especially the question behind it all, as easily as if Gabrielle spoke it.

Xena read the question. Not the "What did I do?" or "Are you alright?" or "What can I do?" which covered the real question. Xena brushed those aside, suddenly bold and unwilling hide within herself as she had after rolling away from Gabrielle. Only Gabrielle's voice, strained and desperate as it had sounded, had called her back from that numbness so quickly.

She'd caused Gabrielle pain, the sin of sins, and all because she couldn't handle a few bad memories. If Gabrielle threw her out for it, Xena wouldn't be the least surprised. This newfound resolve didn't stop the tears from flowing again when she managed to get her voice working. It didn't stop her from shaking from the memories and phantom-wounds which ached once again. It didn't stop her reaching blindly out for Gabrielle, even knowing she'd pull away in disgust.

"She...hurt...me." That was all she could manage, and then lost herself to the pain and fear again.

Only distantly did Xena realize Gabrielle's arms were around her the instant the words had come out, wrapping her tight and cradling her.

The way Gabrielle held her...it wasn't the way one would with a despairing child, gently if distantly. Gabrielle was clinging to her, as if for dear life, as if she were trying to absorb Xena into herself. Gabrielle was shaking as well, even harder, and her sharp ears caught sobs intermixed with her own. And were those fresh tears that dripped down unto her hair?

When the distance between feeling and realization was closed, when Xena understood, her own arms snaked about the smaller woman of their own accord. She buried herself into Gabrielle's breast, not caring how pathetic she knew she must look, and now gave herself fully to the tears rather than simply be consumed by them.

She'd nearly calmed when she heard the words Gabrielle had been muttering into her hair. "I love you. Please don't leave me." Over and over and over again.

It brought more tears. Xena welcomed them this time, letting them cleanse her now as they should have long ago.


 Chapter Seven: Morning Business

 

They ran out of tears almost at the same time, a small mercy Gabrielle was thankful for. Her ribs were starting to sing out for the pressure Xena was putting on them, while her own instinct was to tighten her own hold. Given that she cradled Xena's head, such would not have been a good idea. The thought gave her a small, inaudible giggle.

Xena heard it all the same, and the laughter left her relieved instead of offended as it might have others. She this led her press herself even closer to Gabrielle, as though she might absorb the humor through touch of skin.

She felt Gabrielle take a breath and say "Xena?"

"Hmm?" Xena was too engaged in being soothed by the steady beat of Gabrielle's heart to offer more.

"You...you're crushing me."

Xena quickly looked up, panicked, only to meet the mirthy eyes and sly grin of an amused Gabrielle. They grinned in unison, laughter quickly following, though it was more in the attempt than the execution. Neither really had the breath for more than a few puffs.

This didn't stop them from kissing, quite hard.

Amazingly, it was Xena who broke away first. This led to another bout of semi-laughs from both, which quickly descended into a spell of pained-sounding gasps for breath.

Xena loosened her arms and moved to sit on the bed's edge, suddenly very self-conscious. Her head bowed once again, shoulders squaring as if tensing for the blow of the patron's switch.

All she received was the gentle, undemanding touch of first Gabrielle's fingers, then the smooth warmth as the smaller woman pressed herself against her tall, strong back. Gabrielle's nipples hardened on contact with her, generating the most sensual of pressure there. Xena let her head roll back to rest on Gabrielle's shoulder as her love's arms encircled her tummy, the fingertips tracing nonsense patterns against its firm surface. Gabrielle kissed along her neck, her tongue seeking out pulse there with practiced ease. Finding it, she rendered Xena nearly insensate as she kissed and nipped at the veins. Gabrielle never left a single mark there, and not for lack of passion or pressure.

Xena tried to reach upwards, to hold Gabrielle there forever, only to be defeated by her weak body's inability to defy the laws of gravity. When Gabrielle did pull away, Xena found herself near to tears for the loss.

"Have I told you this morning," Gabrielle whispered into her ear, "how much I love you?"

Xena's eyes crept open at this, and turned slowly within the arms encircling her until she was face-to-face with her love and savior. Sapphire met emerald, both now polished to radiant shine rather than dulled by the tears there. Too many tears already this morning, and still Xena couldn't resist them. Nor would she even try with these.

Their lips met in a kiss unhurried and undemanding. A simple meeting of lips, its meaning deeper and more connecting than all the sonnets and poems written for lovers in all history.

Where Gabrielle had worn a sly grin of teasing sensuality and promise before, she now was gripped by something akin to divine rapture. When Xena broke away, though not surrendering contact completely, she breathed in her deepest, most probing tones "Have I told you the same?"

The effort it had taken Gabrielle to fight off her earlier hysteria was nothing, nothing compared to the strength it took to open her eyes just then, to focus once more on the woman she loved so dearly and desperately. Breathing alone was nearly beyond her, and Xena's eyes demanded an answer. Pity she couldn't think what the question was.

Xena breathed a short laugh, a real laugh, at the sight of perplexity which crinkled Gabrielle's brow. She leaned forward again, intent on still another kiss.

Immortal though she might be, Gabrielle knew her limits. Another kiss of any sort and she'd be catatonic for the rest of the day. After a year together, she'd grown somewhat used to Xena's occasional mood swings; yet another mirror between the child and her lost warrior. The strongest passions coming after these dark moments. Both tested her mettle harder than any of her dark kin or the immortal and clever enemies they'd managed to attract over the millennia.

Knowing she could not withstand even a brush, Gabrielle summoned her reserves and could only move back a single hair and raise arms of leaded iron, hands up in surrender and a plea of mercy.

"Shhh..." Gabrielle shook her head at the sound of her slurred and weakened voice. She tried again. "Shh...shower...first." It took all her breath to force it out, and still more to let the laugh that had bubbled up from how patently absurd she realized it sounded. It came out as a wheezed cough.

Gabrielle looked up when she realized Xena had not joined in, and found herself being studied with all the intensity a scientist might give some new and previously unknown species of insect. The tall woman slid forward, carefully avoiding contact, and lowered her head to sniff all around Gabrielle's shoulders, neck and about her face, lingering quite deliberately near her mouth. Gabrielle froze, letting their breath intermingle. She couldn't help but blink when Xena abruptly pulled away and regarded her with those piercing, precious eyes.

"You're right," Xena said, as if too a petulant child. "You stink."

Gabrielle had only just opened her mouth, ready to object in the strongest possible terms, when she was abruptly gathered up in two strong arms and carried to the door. Quick as Xena's pace was, Gabrielle felt herself cradled as though she were the most delicate of crystal, not the least sway to either side or feel of pressure was to be felt.

Xena stopped at the door and tried to stoop to reach the doorknob. Both hands were, however, fully occupied keeping her precious burden aloft, and Xena spent a few moments as though attempting bypass this simple fact. It was a fascinating display of intensity, as though she might twist the ornate knob by sheer force of her gaze. Her brows furrowed again, this time in anger, and her lips puckered with enraged disgust. Gabrielle feared she'd kick the door off the hinges, a feat she knew was fully within Xena's capacity...

...only to see all anger suddenly drain from her expression, a serene sort of acceptance taking its place. A one-shoulder shrug later, and Gabrielle found herself all but tossed over that same shoulder and carried across the threshold and down the hall with all the dignity one affords a sag of potatoes!

Gabrielle's shriek, first of shock, then utter embarrassment, was matched by Xena's delighted laughter. Her squeals of "Xeeeennnnnaaaaa!", as well as her ineffectual pounding and slapping of her tormentor's back and butt, went completely ignored.

This continued even after they arrived at the floor's massive bathroom. Along the way, They passed the open door of Marcous's office (the advisor kept both eyes firmly fixed on the sheet stock quotes before him) and their maid Madrigail, who continued dusting the frames of the wall's portraits before her as though deaf and blind to the scene; she'd long since become used to the antics of these two, and loved them dearly for it. They were quickly joined by the sounds of running water and the sounds of first one body being tossed into a full bathtub, then another jumping in. A good amount of splashing could be heard, each followed by shrieks of delight and abandon.

Madrigail, whose cleaning took her near the door, simply shook her head at the sight of a small wave of sudsy bathwater flowed out from beneath the closed door. "Now I 'ave to get de mop again," was her only observation to be heard, her Slavic accent thickening and eyes shinning bright with affection.


A very long, very active soak later, and a content (not to mention criminally smug) Xena Alexandran stretched out in the massive tub. The tingling of her skin she knew had nothing to do with the bath salts and numbing heat of the water she relaxed in.

Gabrielle had withdrawn a short time before, determined to deal with Marcous and all her other daily business before yielding to Xena's charms yet again. Xena's token protestations had the desired effect of hardening Gabrielle's resolve to see to her affairs, while the provocative pose she'd 'unintentionally' struck as Gabrielle struggled with her bath robe was certain to give the redhead all the motivation needed to complete everything in record time. Xena knew her love well, and would not see her forgo her other commitments; Gabrielle was simply too responsible a creature to let herself ignore such things, and would make herself miserable were she to even try.

"This love thing," Xena mused softly to the steam curling around her, "is such a pain." Her smug grin belayed any regret implied by her words.

Rather, she relaxed completely into the warm water and let both eyes drift shut. The tub was a long one, easily accommodating her long frame and allowed her to fairly drift away, both physically as well as consciously.

Experience had taught Xena the dangers of Gabrielle's bathtub, particularly with Gabrielle in the tub with her, and hence her personal decree that they would only shower in the morning. Gabrielle had rolled her eyes and done an elaborate curtsy saying "Yes, your royal highness.", but went along with it all the same, privately conceding Xena had a point. Accidentally drowning because of orgasm-induced fatigue would have been such an undignified way to go.

In this case, Xena herself was simply too lazy to bother pulling herself out, and so was careful to drape both arms over the sides sufficiently that she wouldn't slip under the water's surface before drifting completely away.

In moments, she was snoring away, purring for all the world like a much-satisfied cat.


Xena dreamed.

The stone was cold beneath her feet, the wind behind her biting into naked flesh.

She stood atop some high plateau, an abyss over the edge, mountain summits and boiling gray clouds overhead. The sky would occasionally light with a lance of lightning off in the distance. There was no sound to be heard: noes howling of hurricane winds, nor cry of birds, nor even the crash of thunder.

Just cold, and silence.

She wrapped both arms about herself and looked out over the expanse. Dense mist and ragged peaks were all that were to be seen. The frequent lightning, becoming even more frequent with each second, did nothing to dispel the deep shadows that covered this place.

She knew this place. It chilled her, making her shake worse than the damn wind did. It made her want to call out...to scream to...to...

There was no one else there. No one to call to. No one...

So why were there a thousand eyes on her? Why did she know there were a thousand eyes on her?

The silent lightning continued flashing, becoming stobe-like in its regularity. Soon the sky was fully alight with it, and the equally-silent wind picked up in speed and strength. It scoured her flesh... biting...ripping...

She was driven to her knees and squeezed teary eyes shut, her breath stolen by the damn wind...she couldn't scream...couldn't breath... hurt to shiver...all she could do was shiver...so...cold...

The silence was suddenly broken.

Thunder, like a hundred thousand drums, exploded overhead.

The wind found its voice in a mournful howl of outrage and despair, enough for all the damned souls of eternity.

Her voice drowned it all out. Screams...nothing but screams...

And then...

Nothing. The sky went dark. The wind fell silent.

Even her own voice went mute.

Still huddled on the hard rock, she opened her eyes. A great cave mouth yawned before her, its high stone arches stretching far above. There was nothing to be seen in the depths beyond, save utter darkness. Nothing to be seen...but still sounds drifted from within.

The snap of a whip...the whimper of suffering...a chuckle as chilling as raw ice...

A shadow detached itself from the rest to her side. She turned to face it with far greater calm than she felt, body tensing to flee, to throw herself into the abyss if that's what it took to escape.

No, she realized, not a shadow. A tall figure in hooded robes. Clean ones, she was relieved to see, remembering the silent, filthy one who'd sat at that table...

"Choose," the figure ordered, its voice booming in her head.

She could only blink in confusion. "What? Choose...?"

The figure approached as though floating across the uneven ground. When it was but inches from her, it raised its bowed head, giving her full view of what lay within.

A jaw and two rows of perfect, pearly teeth, no skin or flesh covering either. Sharp-looking cheekbones. An exposed nasal cavity. Sockets without eyes. The white surface of the entire skull was smooth, almost polished-looking.

She felt no fear seeing this. Only a...familiarity...as though she'd seen this thing before from a distance.

The skull clearly spoke to her, even with the absence of lips.

"You must choose, Xe..."

 

"...Na?" The voice, ringing out close to her ear, and the hand which fell onto her shoulder so startled her, Xena thrashed about for a moment, catching the hand and applying a vise grip to it.

"Hey!" was Gabrielle's indignant exclamation, more to Xena's grabbing her than the amount of (now cold) bath water that was slopping her suit, skirt, and blouse. She caught sight of the momentary panic in Xena's eyes, the concern in her own reaching out to the startled woman and snapping her out of her shock.

Xena realized how tightly she was gripping Gabrielle's wrist and quickly released it, taking and letting out a ragged breath. "Ohhhh, God," she groaned, feeling cramps and complaints throughout her muscles and bones.

"C'mon, o wrinkled one," Gabrielle said, helping Xena to her unsteady feet and out of the tub. "Time to get out before you catch cold."

Xena only gave a noncommittal grunt, then caught sight of Gabrielle's professional attire. "You certainly dressed quick," she commented as the redhead took to vigorously toweling her dry.

"Excuse me?" Gabrielle looked up from her labors, herself presently on her knees and busy rubbing down a muscular thigh and firm hip, stoically ignoring the ebony thatch of curls she was eye-level with. "You mean you've been in here the past two hours?"

"Two...hours?" Xena was incredulous.

"Two hours," Gabrielle confirmed. "I didn't find you back in the bedroom, so I'd assumed you'd gone out running or something."

"No, I was...dreaming." Xena frowned, as though deep in thought. So deep she missed the clear look of concern Gabrielle gave her.

"Well, I hope I was in there somewhere." The redhead's teasing words were lost on their target, whose brows furrowed even tighter as she padded naked to the door. Gabrielle stared after her, calling sharply "Xena?"

This made the taller woman turn, eyes once more focused on her. "What?" Gabrielle smirked and tossed her a terrycloth robe, deliberately aiming for her head and quite please to see it impact on target.

"You forgot something," the redhead smirked, stepping past her mildly embarrassed and confused significant other and quickly making her way back to their bedroom. She made it to the doors when Xena, her poorly tied robe rapidly flapping fully open, fairly sprinted into her. Rather than impacting with the smaller woman, a laughing Xena again gathered her into her arms and carried her past the threshold, kicking the door closed behind her.

Muffled giggles and the occasional "thud" filtered out. Madrigail, who was busy hauling a mop and bucket up the stairs and towards the bathroom, shook her head to these sounds. "Ach," she muttered, looking skyward. "Now eye 'ave to put new sheets on de' bed, too." She frowned hard, lest she begin laughing herself sick. How she loved those two!


A short while later found Xena going through her morning routine, as much to work the kinks out of her joints as out of habit.

She needed this routine actually, though not quite in the way she needed air or Gabrielle's touch. Those she needed for simple survival, whereas the routine was more for her own sense of security.

She'd jogged the length of the wood twice before even sweating, and twice more for good measure. The light snow from the previous evening crunched beneath her thick-soled sneakers, and the air still held a crisp bite to it. The woods were silent again this morning, though without the sense of dread or fear Xena had sensed in previous mornings.

Still, she was cautious as she entered the wood for throwing practice, going so far as to bring out two blades and hold them at the ready in either hand. The wood might be at peace, but Xena was anything but.

It was less than a dozen paces in before she sensed movement. The thin blade, more resembling a hairpin than anything, was lancing the air before she'd even fully turned. It buried itself not even a millimeter from the foreclaw a very startled gray squirrel, who scampered upwards to the safety of higher branches. The other blade was suddenly sailing towards another tree trunk, this time in the direct path of a similarly- frightened squirrel, this one in the process of scampering to the opposite side of the trunk and out of view of this newcomer. It froze for only a tenth of a second before resuming its flight.

New blades slipped into both hands and Xena turned herself in a slow circle, eyes taking in a thousand and one details around her. Closing her eyes, she let fly first one, then the other blade. The first severed a single leaf from its stem on a low-hanging branch twelve paces from her. The other buried itself deep into a naturally darkened patch of bark on a trunk more than twenty paces away. Taking a cleansing breath, Xena silently thanked the trees and squirrels for this time and apologized for the distress she knew she caused. If only that old harpy of a grandmother could hear her now. The thought brought a bitter smirk to Xena's face as she collected her blades and stowed them away. That Bible-thumping bitch would have happily slaughtered everything on four legs and cut down every tree in sight, all because of some shallow reading of Genesis. And she'd have apoplexy if she knew just how she and Gabrielle 'entertained' each other at night.

Xena took a last, measuring look at the wood as she made her way to its edge. Something wasn't right, or so the suddenly-taunt hairs on the back of her neck informed her. Not wrong necessarily, just...

True, there were no birds singing that morning, the majority having the good sense to fly to warmer climates for the season. And the few squirrels and chipmunks she'd seen were too involved gathering their winter stores to spare her more than a moment's glance. Nature was quietly preparing for the passage of seasons.

So why did it feel as though she was under singular scrutiny?

Xena was suddenly anxious to be back with Gabrielle. Very anxious. And so wasted no time sprinting back to the house, long legs carrying her far. Though not far enough to escape the feeling of eyes on her.


To an outside observer, it would have looked as though one of the tallest trees suddenly had a woman's face appear out of its trunk. A face whose glowing eyes opened and followed the departure of dark-haired runner, a small smile forming and tugging at the hard bark of its lips.

Hope, who had taken refuge within this ancient tree, had watched the dark-haired one's activities from the moment she'd left the house with ever-growing fascination, closing her eyes only when she entered the woods directly lest they be seen.

This was the fragile, moody patron who all-but fled a restaurant and needed to be comforted like a child the previous night? This sleek creature, who acted with grace and precision which was nothing short of god-like? This was Gabrielle's companion for over a year now? Who could aim on instinct alone and who act upon those instincts without hesitation or error?

For an instant, Hope considered leaving the two of them to their peace, almost convinced her protective presence was unneeded. Then she took another look at this Xena's retreating back, this time with eyes for more than simply the physical.

She saw the dark wisps of nightmare and malevolent charms that trailed and surrounded her. This angered Hope as nothing else might, the stink of the Circle suddenly overpowering. She looked down, at the ground near her refuge's base. A single hand could be seen there, though only just, buried to the wrist.

Cruel as the thought was, Hope wished the little spy had put up more of a struggle against the assault she had directed, if only so her final demise could have proven more...protracted. It was a cruel thought, unworthy of the daughter of the gentle Gabrielle. Hope really didn't care, her own naturally gentle nature taking a hard edge where it came to the Ancient and her companion.

This last thought aside, Hope turned her attention back to the house. She was content this would be close enough for now, and so settled into her own intense surveillance, patiently awaiting the moment she knew would come.


Chapter Eight: Blood Games and Sport

 

The Circle never slept, even in full daylight. They had less to fear from the cleansing light of Sol than did the degenerates and monsters who served them. In their veins alone coursed the seed and strength of all their forebears, let and drunk from those same bacchae. A show of cunning and ferocity proving each worthy to sit at this table.

Because these Elders never slept, they reveled as though entertaining their collective Father personally.

The African woman, Nassada by name, so reserved when it came the business of seizing influence from others, was always the first to shed her restraint. She threw off her dyed robes and spread herself out unto the table, her entire length fully in provocative motion.

The giant in toga, Augustus, citizen of Rome, leaned down and kissed Nassada's full lips. Her right hand snaked upwards, long fingers curling about the back of his bald head, pressing him even closer. Her left sought the body of Caliphon, the castewoman of old Dehli, and was not long denied contact.

Caliphon had let her own robes fall to her waist, exposing her swollen breasts and dark skin. She leaned forward, allowing her African sister free access. The very feel of the smaller one's skin elicited a moan of want from the dark-skinned Elder, who broke the kiss she had been so intent upon and gazed with heady breaths upon the now-reclining castewoman. Augustus too turned and looked upon the smaller woman, his eyes turning predatory, his hands abandoning their work upon the breasts of the African.

Caliphon simply narrowed her eyes at the pair and reclined back into her chair, removing herself from the African's reach. An invitation wrapped in a challenge too succulent to ignore.

Augustus was the first to move, striding away from the prone Elder to stand fully before the small one. She appeared to be no more than a slip of a child in comparison to his massive bulk. The toga did nothing to hide his massive erection, and his eyes stabbed as daggers into hers', the command as clear as though spoken.

The castewoman did as bade, easily moving the folds of his tunic aside and taking his entire length into her mouth. As naturally large as he was, doubly so now engorged by arousal, she easily slipped him into her. She was well practiced at this, and worked him with such skill the Roman felt his release build quickly...too quickly. He attempted to command her to stop, only to find his voice gone.

Nassada rose from the table, no longer able to stand simply watching this scene unfold without taking her own small bit of satisfaction from it. She took to kissing and raking her sharp nails across Augustus' back, carefully hitting key nerves she knew would send shockwaves of sensation throughout him.

He began to whimper eyes squeezed tight against the rushes of pleasure-agony that now boiled in his groin and exploded in his brain. The whimpers quickly became incoherent cries, more the mewling of a babe than a millennia-old demigod.

Unmoved, Caliphon continued her brutal ministrations on his cock, using her tongue now and sucking him for all he was worth. She felt the increasingly erratic pulse of his flow through the vein she now nursed, nearly grinning with pride and amusement. The Roman's discomfort was her meat and drink just now, and she intended to savor it to the fullest.

When finally his cries broke, so too did Caliphon's control. She bit down on the strangely soft flesh of his manhood, her fangs easily piercing the skin and releasing the red life gathered there. Caliphon drank it all with relish. Again Augustus took to whimpering, now in relief rather than in pain.

As the last of the thick vitae was swallowed, she let the Roman's shrunken organ slip from her lips. A small trickle of his blood escaped the corner of her mouth, trailing its way down her chin and dribbling upon her exposed breast. Her flat gray eyes met the deep purple of Nassada's own, which peaked over the Roman's shoulder. The passion to be seen there fairly igniting the air between them.

Nassada had been supporting Augustus throughout his ordeal by wrapping her long arms about his massive shoulders. She used this leverage now to all but toss him away; easily done, given his weakened state and the fact he could no longer support himself. He impacted face-first atop the table, then slid bonelessly to the floor, his breath coming in pants and gasps.

The women had eyes only for each other.

Nassada advanced a single step, Caliphon rising with smooth economy, the remainder of her bright robes and cloak falling to a puddle at her feet as she did. They gazed into each other's eyes, no tenderness nor affection to be seen there. Only hunger...and want...and each daring the other to satisfy themselves.

The African moved like a spider springing upon prey trapped in its web, though her actions were far less lethal, all the more surprising for it.

She knelt to eye-level with the castewoman's swollen breasts, taking a nipple into her mouth and nursing like a starved babe would. Caliphon's knees became weak at this, her eyes squeezing shut in time with each suck and swallow Nassada applied. Her mouth had dropped open from the instant lips made contact with nipple, and stayed open throughout. Even when Nassada began nipping and biting the sensitive nub, which brought tears to the castewoman's eyes.

Nassada suddenly pulled away from the breast, Caliphon almost sobbing (in relief? in despair?) as she did...only to nearly scream as the African took the other nipple into her mouth and repeat the process, using her fingers to continue to torment the first. Amazingly, she kept time with the yield her ministrations bore, not letting a drop slip past nor escape her swallows.

Caliphon groaned now, her sharp nails raking Nassada's scalp and shoulders, leaving thin rivulets of red with each stroke. She returned all that the African now took and inflicted upon her, measure for measure.

The pain was the sweetest pleasure to the African, driving her to suck even harder from the castewoman's teat, her own nails making rough play on her prey's bare back and soft buttocks.

Too soon, she had drained both breasts of their bounty, leaving her to only lick her lips, the bloody stains and streaks her well-soaked tongue left drawing Caliphon down to meet and lick those delicious droplets away.

Even Bacchae can feel pain, and Caliphon soon had to draw her lover-tormentor to stand once more, solely to relieve the pain in her back from standing in a hunched over position for so long. Nassada allowed herself to be led so, savoring their contact and pressing to deepen it.

So involved was she on the small castewoman, she failed to hear the movement behind her. Augustus had watched all that had occurred, the heat of it renewing his strength...and vigor. He'd sat there silently for a time, slowly teasing his growing erection to its full length, until the need had welled up in him and threatened to overflow there and then.

He'd stood and silently made his way to stand directly behind the African, the dripping scratches on her back every bit as tempting as the firmness of her ass-cheeks, which jiggled only slightly no matter how sudden her movements. He listened for her moans against the Indian's mouth, using these to judge how aware she was of the danger to her (literal) rear. He listened, and was not left disappointed long as they grew in crescendo.

Sensing her near her peak, Augustus roughly grabbed her gyrating hips and rudely thrust himself between her ass-cheeks, plunging hard and deep into that most private region.

As though acting on instruction, Caliphon in the same moment as the Roman's violation seized both of Nassada's wrists and twisted them behind her back, holding them tight with one hand and trapping them between her own spine and the Roman's massive chest. With her free hand, she took to alternately caressing and torturing either nipple, alternating whenever the mood struck her.

For Nassada, who had enjoyed the sport she'd made of her peers, this was a cruelty a thousand times worse than any indignity she might have inflicted. Oh, she denied these two the satisfaction of the cries and pleas that built in her throat, keeping silent, even moving in time with each of the Roman's thrusts into her. Still, she could feel the blood which leaked out beneath his assault flow slowly down the insides of her thighs. The sharp pain lancing her breasts would soon lead to excretions from there as well, all much to the castewoman's delight she was sure.

Still, none of them lasted as long has they had before. Caliphon was the first to collapse back into her chair. Augustus followed soon after, his last thrusts into the African the most brutal he could manage, drawing more than a fair share of blood from her. His withdrawl came with a slurping sound, the surface of his cock slick and shinning with red. Nassada outlasted the pair of them by a whole ten seconds, falling hard to her knees and having to support herself on her balled fists as well. Augustus simply leaned against the table's edge, panting hard and deep.

The sound hands clapping came from the far wall. An audience of two, but only one giving applause, the sound carrying easily through the otherwise empty chamber.

"Bravo," Cameron, whose powdered wig seemed a ludicrous accessory even to these ancients, boomed with overblown drama. "Simply beautiful. The best you've yet done. Bravo!" He stood in his breeches, white stockings, and brass-buckle shoes, his massive chest and stomach bare and displaying the scars of past intrigues.

All three communicated their reply with their eyes alone.

To which Cameron replied, stepping away from the wall as did, affording them all an unimpeded view, "Are you too tired for the gifts I have brought?"

Leaning against the stones of the wall were five youths, each no older than sixteen. Three boys and two girls. All beautiful and stripped bare. One of the girls, the elfin one with bleached blond hair and perky little breasts, and one of the boys, likewise a blond, were shorn of their pubic hair. The rest were otherwise intact and unmarked. Their eyes were vague and focused, indicating they had been drugged prior to being brought here.

Nassada felt her mouth water at the sight of an Arabic boy, his blue-black hair a thick mane reaching to his shoulders. Caliphon took an instant fancy to the pale lad beside him, his own dark hair standing in contrast to creamy shade of his skin. And Augustus felt himself harden yet again at the lean girl-child swaying at the end of the line-up, her dark russet hair and thick pubic thatch making his hands ache to run through them, and fondle her delicate little form.

Seeing his compatriots' reactions, Cameron smiled and said "Then by all means: enjoy." Cameron waited until each had selected their toy, choosing the shaved blond boy for himself and turned to address the silent one, who likewise had observed the earlier sport. "And what of you? Will you not enjoy my gift?"

The silent one, Gaunt by name, was known to be neither male nor female. Gaunt kept to itself, and hid itself from sight within those filthy robes it was always seen in. When Gaunt hunted, it did so alone and out of the view of all other. Gaunt sat within this Circle only because none dared to challenge its power, the bones of those fool enough to try were enough to fill a cemetery.

Gaunt answered with actions, not words, as was its habit. It turned from the scene and disappeared into a nearby alcove.

Cameron merely shrugged to this, saying "More for me then," as he took both blonds by one arm each and guided them to one of the ante-chambers, where he could enjoy his sport in peace.


The blood soon flowed in earnest, quickly accompanied by cries and screams which, all, ended too quickly.


Chapter Nine: Confessional

 

Gabrielle paced back and forth before her most trusted confidant.

"I'm worried about her. I mean, really worried about her," she said, knowing her confidant would keep silent and allow her to gather her thoughts however she might.

"The mood swings were hard enough. It was like looking back over time and seeing the same damned cycle play out. Half the time she's all over me, the other half she won't let me near her. Its like...well, just after Ares showed up and spilled the beans. Now..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off, other thoughts intruding and demanding attention.

She stared into the darkness of her private room, a single high window providing the only illumination to the place. She came here often in the past few months, to talk, to vent, sometimes simply to find a temporary refuge from the pressures that had built to an almost crushing weight lately. Xena, nor any of the staff come to it, knew of it. It was her refuge alone, though she added incentive to keep Xena from knowing about it.

Dry-washing her face, Gabrielle sighed and said "I should have told...should have let it all come out when I first learned, shouldn't I? Oh, sure, Ephiny and the rest understood and accepted it. Artemis forgave it. How in Hades was I supposed to know they would? I didn't understand. How could anyone?" She shook her head and gathered herself. Her eyes were bleak as they turned back to the one she addressed.

"I know she wouldn't understand. She couldn't." Gabrielle paused as though awaiting the question she knew was coming. When none came, she nearly spat "Well, what could I say to her? 'Xena, I realize this will come as a bit of a shock, but you see...I'm actually a two thousand-year-old demigoddess, who has to occasionally hunt live prey and drink its blood because my biological father happens to be the basis for many of the vampire myths of the world. He was the Greek god of Wine, you see, and enslaved his followers by forcing them to drink his blood. Disgusting, huh? And yes, I do occasionally drink human blood as well, but only for special occasions.

'Oh, but you don't have to worry. You see, you happen to be the spitting image of my old lover, who also happened to be a demigoddess, so I wouldn't dream of hurting you. Her name was Xena, too. What happened to her, you ask? Oh, this insane goddess we knew a century or so back incinerated her to ashes.

'Why, yes, I have been alone a long time, but that isn't the reason I asked you to come live with me. You see, not only are...are you Xena's twin...but you also happen to be such a dynamite lover I fell in love with you that first night we were together. So it isn't just...just the sex...I love you..." Her voice fell to a desperate whisper. "I love you."

Tears, which had formed since she began her 'confession', finally began streaming down her cheeks, her voice finally giving out to the strain of attempting to keep so calm when her emotions allowed her no such peace or control. Gabrielle completely broke down, dropping to her knees, as her confidant looked on without expression.

"Gods," she finally managed to choke. "All I seem to do..." she hiccuped "these days...is cry. Whether we're in a store or out to dinner or just walking...all she has to do is look at me and I want to sit down and bawl my eyes out. I can't help it. Its like looking into a baby's eyes every time...every single damn time." Her gaze drifted back to the floor. "She's so innocent," she whispered.

Gabrielle angrily wiped away the tears, her mouth pressed into an angry line. "No! I can't tell her...can't let her find out...she'll leave me, I know it." She looked up, meeting the eyes of her listener and engaging in a staring battle. "I know she will," Gabrielle insisted, not breaking eye contact. The listener won, as always, as the redhead abruptly turned away, eyes downcast and directed now at the floor.

"I know it," she insisted one last time, a fresh wave of tears and sobs threatening, but not breaking.

Still, it took Gabrielle some minutes to collect herself enough to trust her voice. "I will not give her up!" she declared defiantly. "I won't risk losing her to anything. Not the truth, not my fears... and not to any nightmare, either."

Gabrielle stared at her confidant, and would have sworn she saw two brows tighten in disapproval. She put up both hands, forestalling objections sure to come. "I know, I know. I swore I wouldn't enter another's dreams. But...Gods...she hasn't had a decent night's sleep in weeks. It was bad enough when it was just me, dreaming of Hope every night...oh, I never told you about that, did I? It started up just after Solstice, but didn't last long. Just after Beltane." A moment of melancholy overtook her, a single tear escaping the corner of her eye.

"I should have protected her better, shouldn't I? It should have been me..." Gabrielle caught the listener's eyes again. "So many 'shoulds'. It seems that's all I have anymore. You never had patience for that, did you?"

The listener kept its stony silence, letting the thinly veiled accusation linger.

"No," Gabrielle concluded. "No, you were always the one for action. Which is why I can't understand why you're so opposed to me needing to do this." Her own eyes hardened as she approached her confidant, coming to stand literally nose-to-nose with her.

"She is suffering, damn you. You would never turn away from anyone who needed help, whether it was Gregor or Meg or, Gods forgive us, Joxer! What is so different about her?" Gabrielle backed up a step and took a breath. "Hunting down and killing the ones who hurt her won't solve anything," she stated practically, but still had to turn away, lest an even more practical argument could be communicated. "The only way I can give her peace is to stop it once and for all. And that means going into those dreams and..."

Her confidant's silence spoke volumes.

"Yes," Gabrielle conceded. "I could loose her because of that. If that happens, I'll just...die." She turned back, eyes bleak.

"I should have died a long time ago...with you."

The bust of Xena of Amphipolis was beauty incarnate. So precise in detail, so perfectly formed and carved, one could be forgiven thinking it alive at times. Her eyes, formed of cold marble, kept the fire and expression of the lost warrior, while her mouth with set in its eternal crook of an almost-grin. It stood atop a marble pillar, leaving it eye-level with Gabrielle. It had taken her months of literally nonstop work to carve it properly, and was rendered with such breathtaking perfection that she was often painful to look at. The memories were forever close to the surface, all nineteen hundred winters worth.

Many had been the ill-conceived act or idea that had been nixed by discussions such as these, so well had they known each other that Gabrielle could almost hear the warrior's objections. But now...

"So be it," Gabrielle declared. "If she leaves, she leaves. But I won't have her hurt ever again, nor want for a thing." She took another deep breath, steeling herself for what came next. "And after I see to that...we'll be together again. I promise."

She took one step forward, and brushed her lips against her lost love's. "I miss you, Xena. But I can't let this go on."

Tears formed again, but she hadn't the strength to let them fall just yet. She turned and, with a calm so stiff it could only be false, strode out of the room.


Not one minute passed after the door shut before Hope moved from her sanctuary of the deepest shadow. She'd heard all, seen all, and felt unfamiliar tears sting her own eyes.

She had never loved her mother as she did at that moment. Her course was never clearer than right then. No more pain, for either of them. No more, ever.

Hope returned to the shadows, content to wait for the moment when she would do what was needed. She had patience enough for that.


Chapter Ten: Parallel Thoughts, Never Meeting

 

Xena and Gabrielle spent much of the rest of the day alternately seeking and shunning one another's company.


Xena was in rather good spirits when she came in from her run, bouncing and rebounding as though an emotional racquet ball. The rest of her was simply along for the ride...a ride she intended to pull to a stop only once she had a certain small redhead in her arms once more.

The redhead in question was only just coming up from her errand to the basement, where she'd fled the minute Xena was out the door. None of the staff had seen her head down, and so were a tad confused at Xena's inquiry of her whereabouts. Even Madrigail, who saw all and whom nothing escaped, was momentarily stumped.

When Xena looked in their bedroom a second time (the first having yielded no luck), she was pleased to see her target busily going through one of their voluminous wardrobes. Approaching with all the grace of a jungle cat stalking its meal, her runners making no sound on the thick carpet underfoot, Xena was soon behind the redhead, intent on enjoying this moment.

It was short-lived.

Instead of melting back into the arms which suddenly encircled her waist, as she normally would, Gabrielle gave a panicked yell and drove a very strong elbow into her attacker's midsection. Xena could only roll with the blow, expelling a very pained breath as she tumbled back. It never ceased to amaze her just how strong her lover was, given her deceptively delicate build and gentle appearance. Right then, she wished Gabrielle was what she normally appeared as.

The redhead essentially screaming at her didn't help her recovery much. "What are you thinking?!? I could have..."

"And a good morning to you too," Xena managed to huff, wincing as much at the tone her badly-in-need-of-a-full-breath voice took as the discomfort of her abused abdomen.

"Damn it, Xena!" Gabrielle exploded, then calmed herself. "You scared me."

This brought Xena up short, causing her to look up sharply as she clamored to her feet. "Excuse me?"

"You..." Gabrielle began, only to be overrun by Xena's voice.

"I scared you? Since when are you the nervous type?" Between the pain, the surprise, and a sudden defensiveness she couldn't identify, Xena's voice took a tone somewhere between incredulous and outrightly sarcastic.

Gabrielle's mouth became a firm line, the sort normally reserved only for those who slighted Xena in some way. 'Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!' chanted in the latter's head. Hoping to forestall the coming explosion, Xena to a quick step forward, arms opening and as placating a grin as she could manage, intent upon kissing that dangerous frown away.

But Gabrielle would have none of it just then, a single hand coming up and silently (and imperiously) commanding "Halt." Xena obeyed, willing to endure whatever tirade Gabrielle's anger might prompt.

No such tirade was coming, however. Xena found herself becoming all the more nervous for the silence which started to stretch between them. She soon found herself biting her upper lip, the chill in Gabrielle's eyes sucking the heat from the room about them.

Obviously unable to look at her another second, Gabrielle marched around Xena and out of their bedroom. Xena watched her go with some relief, and something akin to anger slowly igniting in her own breast.

A fire that caught first spark when she realized Gabrielle had be removing suits and dresses from her wardrobe.

For her part, Gabrielle was in turmoil. Xena's sneaking up on her was an old game of theirs, this time no more shocking than the last. What was shocking here was her reaction this time, particularly stopping the kiss Xena had so clearly telegraphed. And the fact she had yet to reign in this uncharacteristic temper she was going through left her even more disturbed. Ironically, this in turn stoked her temper to the point she was very close to letting loose on Xena again.

The only solution, since she couldn't trust her voice with anything save grunts more worthy of primates than of demigoddesses, was to get as far away from Xena as possible before something was said. Something doing irreparable harm.

She blindly found her way into Marcous' office and grabbed the first thing she could. In this case, the market figures from the previous week. She quickly lost herself in the meaningless columns of numbers, willing the anger away and praying to Artemis (she seemed to be doing that a good deal this morning) this would pass soon.


They didn't see nor seek each other out until lunch, both yielding to their growling stomachs at the same time. They met in the kitchen, catching eyes and attempting to speak at the same time. Gabrielle had by this time calmed herself to where she felt it safe to talk with Xena again. Xena, by contrast, was an exposed nerve-ending.

Gabrielle had an orange in her hand. Xena's were clenched into white-knuckled balls of bone and tension.

"Xena, I'm..."

"Gabrielle, what..."

Gabrielle giggled, but sobered when she saw the unamused expression creasing Xena's face. Still, she couldn't help the grin which stayed. This only fueled Xena's already burning irritation, and her eyes communicated this very clearly.

"I'm sorry," Gabrielle blurted.

"You should be." The harshness of Xena's tone, something at once familiar and alien, caught Gabrielle short. Her grin faded, astonished shock taking its place, asking the question her deserted voice couldn't.

"If you don't trust me with the wardrobe, perhaps you should check your bank accounts...though I suppose that's what you and dear old Peter were doing all morning!"

Gabrielle needed a moment...several minutes actually...to digest and process this. Even when it did actually sink in, she needed a minute more to ensure she'd heard it correctly. It was her bardic talents and training operating in reverse: she twisted and turned the words every which way, desperately attempting to avoid the blatant and unavoidable meaning of them. Said meaning as much communicated by bitter scowl and wrinkled brow as by Xena's utterance.

Gabrielle could only blink once, once again, and once again before she found her voice again. Even then, all she could manage was a very weak "What?"

"I said," Xena basically hissed through clenched teeth, her tone like that to a slow child, "if you don't trust me with my wardrobe..."

"I heard you," Gabrielle interceded in a tiny voice.

"Then would you mind telling me what you were doing pouring over every print-out and ledger on your banker's desk? Or what you were looking for among my clothes?" Xena took a breath, though whether to continue her interrogation or to gather her strength Gabrielle couldn't tell. "Come to that, why you all of a sudden can't stand to look at me?" She took a step forward, this time too quick to be stopped on spoken (never mind silent, though either would have left her a deflated as punctured balloon) command, and essentially went nose-to-nose with her cherished love.

"What? Cat got your tongue?" she challenged. "Or don't I excite you anymore? Were you just seeing someone else when you looked at me?"

Gabrielle looked up, and Xena caught the horror there.

That had much the effect of the detonation of a nuclear device directly atop Ground Zero: it left structures (here, two very shocked and mortified women who loved each other dearly) intact if rather worse for wear, caused one devil of a noise (neither of them could hear anything now, save the thunder of their heart's each palpitating wildly), and resulted in a wonderful amount of collateral damage (though miraculously the only thing damaged was the orange which had been in Gabrielle's hand, which was suddenly reduced to citrus pulp).

The art of conversation was no longer dead between them; it was decapitated, mutilated, disemboweled, and its organs donated to a thousand recipients. In short, neither could form even the most basic word right then, capable only of staring at the other, though for slightly different reasons.

For Gabrielle, it was the shock at what she perceived to be the insight this Xena displayed which bordered on prescience. Yes, she saw her lost warrior in this child, more and more every day, and never more so than just then. It left her at once overjoyed and utterly terrified. The child's accusations were forgotten, save that they'd implied something about the trust between them.

For Xena, it was the shock she saw so clearly communicated from her love's expressive eyes which struck her mute. The shock, and the realization it prompted her to face. She'd finally done it, hadn't she? She'd actually managed to completely screw up what was otherwise the first solid, trusting relationship she'd managed to build in over a dozen years, and all over the dumbest possible ideas.

Those clothes were bought with Gabrielle's money, not hers. If she wanted to take them back, or sew them into a quilt, or use them for rags, it wasn't as if Xena had any right to object. As for the accounts, she'd made it perfectly clear she had no interest in them. Why had she blurted out such obvious crap in the first place? Christ, she swore to herself, in a second I'm going to start bawling again!

She might have already killed her relationship, but damned if she was going to let Gabrielle have the satisfaction of seeing her hard-won pride destroyed as well.

This time it was Xena who turned on her heel and stalked out the room, leaving Gabrielle with only a gaping mouth and a crushed orange still in hand. Even the sound of squealing tires and an engine in overdrive didn't release Gabrielle from the hold her racing, tumbling thoughts had placed upon her. This isn't to say she was insensate to her surroundings or the events around her, and certainly not to Xena's abrupt departure. Everything simply seemed four rooms distant to her, beyond her reach and so beyond immediate care.

When finally she came back to herself, her mind still attempting to reconcile the child and the warrior as one, it was only because Madrigail had come into the kitchen and clicked her lips in disapproval.

"You want juice, use de juicer and no' yer hands," the aged Slav told her employer, leaving as she'd come to fetch mop and bucket.

Gabrielle became hyper-aware of herself and her surroundings with this. The slight sting as raw citrus juice found its way into a paper-cut somewhere on her hand. The bright sunlight streaming into the empty kitchen, its wooden counter- and tabletops and white tiled floor sudden barren and uninviting. The sick feeling which had taken residence in her gut, one not simply from lack of food. The words of accusation which rang in her ears.

It suddenly hurt to be in the sun. To be anywhere, in fact. Distantly, Gabrielle realized she was still in shock over this...whatever was happening between them. It made no sense, from her reaction in the wardrobe (what had she been looking for, anyway?) to the this madness. All she could think to do at that point was find somewhere quiet, sit down, and patiently await the earth to open up and swallow her whole. She deserved nothing less.


When Xena returned, some three hours later, she looked far worse than her jovial step should have allowed her. Her hair, while combed, was sleek and damp. Her cheeks were flushed as if from Herculean exertion, and her running clothes (which she hadn't changed out of all morning) showed heavy sweat patches and, quite frankly, stank to high heaven.

For all that, she was grinning like a fool and had the same bounce to her step as her morning run had given her. The grin, in fact, proved infectious. She breezed past Madrigail and their cook, Jenniver, who were sharing a cup of coffee in the kitchen, stopping only to bid them good afternoon and pour herself some juice from the refrigerator. Both, who had worried endlessly for their mistresses, were now left smiling as though all were suddenly right again.

Xena fairly bounded up the steps to the second floor and their bedroom, having gulped down the juice and feeling all the more invigorated. She all but exploded into the bedroom, stripping off her sweats and runners in quick succession. Humming as she might have been, both vocally and otherwise, Xena had eyes only for clues as to Gabrielle's whereabouts. Nothing leapt out, and Xena forced herself not to worry over this...yet.

First, she needed to clean up, as physically as she had mentally.

Her workout in town had drained her of the pointlessly aggressive energy which had been churning her guts since the incident at the wardrobe. This had left Xena first mortified by her stupidity and the insinuations she'd thrown about so easily. This had quickly given way to a wave of intense terror, the sort only accomplished when one is faced with death not in the next minute, but only hours away. When you know its coming, you have time to ruminate, compose long lists of regrets, and generally see how you've wasted your time. So it was with Xena Alexandran, who faced the very real possibility of such death (provided Gabrielle was merciful enough and would simply kill her) upon her return to the house.

Still, her partner in the dojo had practically brow-beaten her into facing both the possibility and the music. This led to a receding of the actual fear, in its place arising a gritty determination to see this through. This, unfortunately, had manifested itself in yet another round of mental tail-chasing, leading itself into an expectation of the worst and undertaking suitable preparations. Preparation in the form of rehearsing the preemptive statements of righteous and defensive pride she'd hammer into Gabrielle the instant she saw her.

Xena had just turned into the driveway when a sliver the conversation at the dojo worked its way past her ruminations and promptly disarmed literally every bomb she might have tossed.

"She treat you right?" "Yeah, sure. Doesn't trust me worth beans, but..." "Well, would you? The way you're going at that bag?" She'd practically kicked the heavy punch bag off its chains at the time, realizing with horror exactly who she'd visualized it to be. This in mind, her self-righteous (right then in the midst of composing an particularly brutal tirade about supposed transgressions) shrunk to the size of the common dust mote and blew away (as dust motes are wont to) into some distant corner of her subconscious.

By the time she'd parked in the garage and killed the engine, a sort of lightheaded giddiness had overtaken her. For an insane moment Xena thought she might be pregnant, remembering seeing Martia the Python Handler swing from happy to outrightly furious like that for nearly three months. She'd brushed her palm against her belly, as flat and firm as ever, and couldn't help but nearly laugh at the notion.

Hence her wide grin upon greeting the maid and cook. Hence her scampering all about like an excited schoolgirl.

Having disposed of her sweats, Xena rummaged through the wardrobe and drawers for towel or robe. She found only a heavy towel, one unfortunately not long nor wide enough to wrap herself in. This brought another smile to Xena. She couldn't remember the last time she'd not shed her clothes, at least twice, from dawn to dusk in the past year. It had gotten to the point where she almost felt uncomfortable in anything save the tightest lingerie and dresses...or better still nothing at all.

Draping the towel over one shoulder Xena casually strode to the bathroom, still humming to herself some nonsense tune, and hoped there was at least some hot water left. Then again, a cold shower might help her think clearly.

Without Gabrielle's presence (that thought essentially killed her tune) the shower went quick. Just as well, as the water soon turned cold. Xena stepped out and rubbed herself down. Her few efforts at whistling or humming fell flat, and so she decided to work on in silence. This was just as well, as she heard the approach and arrival of a certain redhead. Her courage suddenly faltering, Xena kept her head down and concentrated on her thighs and shins.

When finally she looked up Gabrielle was standing there, leaning against the threshold, arms crossed and eyes hovering between worry and anger. "And where have you been?" she asked, her tone frosty in the warm mist hanging about them.

"Out," Xena said tonelessly, unwilling to betray her thudding heart. Stepping around the smaller woman, she added "Problem with that?" It had slipped out before she could stop it.

"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm glad, actually."

Xena stopped dead in her tracks at that. "Why?"

Gabrielle's only answer was a gaze of longing, loss, and decision. It left Xena chilled to the core. Before she could ask anything, even the obvious, Gabrielle turned away and made for the staircase. The set of her shoulders, the steadiness of her pace, all clearly communicated the message: "Don't ask me now. I am not ready to talk to you."

Xena watched her go, heart sinking with each step Gabrielle took down the staircase. Eventually, she roused herself enough to return to the bedroom, yielding to the sensible notion of getting some clothes on.


Sunset found them eating in the dining room, one at either end of the banquet table.

Like the rest of the house, it was simple and breathtakingly elegant in furnishing. The exterior wall was all towering windows, allowing the last light of day to filter throughout and highlight the simple table and chairs there. Gabrielle was not one for opulence, but certainly for style.

Xena wore jeans, a tank top, and had gone barefoot for the remainder of the day. She'd kept well out of Gabrielle's way, hiding out in her well-stocked library and reading bits and pieces from the few non-scholarly works there. On the street, her reading had been limited to the trash her pimps or johns had kept. Here, she rediscovered good writing, though that day she'd had to avoid her usual diet of sonnets. A single line from any of them would see her come apart at the seams, probably permanently.

Gabrielle had likewise kept to herself, though she'd been out walking the grounds and felt calmer for it. Her pumps and pants suit had been a loss when she'd come in, forcing her to risk entering their bedroom. The memories alone nearly undid her, their sweetness every bit as devastating as seeing the pained realization in Xena's eyes earlier.

How either managed to eat was a riddle neither the gods nor Fates might ever unravel. Yet here they were, drinking their wine and swallowing their food, neither tasting a damn thing. Neither comfortable in the others presence.

Xena, not surprisingly, was the first have her fill of the silence between them. She nearly threw her cutlery onto her plate and said "We need to talk." Her voice carried in the otherwise silent room, though Gabrielle refused to look up. One glance from those eyes across the table, and she was done for.

So, Gabrielle instead kept her eyes on her barely touched plate and said "So talk." Naturally, she didn't see Xena's flinch, though she couldn't help but feel those eyes harden.

"I want to know...what I did wrong." Xena had her hands clenched in her lap, an unsuccessful effort to keep them from shaking. "I...want to know what...what you want me to do." Her voice clearly betrayed the lump which had formed in her throat, nearly strangling her voice.

Gabrielle heard it clearly, her eyes wide. She was left drained, with no defense against her now. Only the truth remained. Please, Artemis, let it be enough! "I don't want anything from you, Xena." Gabrielle looked up, tears once more in her eyes.

"Except you."

Xena faltering courage suddenly rallied and gave her strength enough for the question she'd ached with since the afternoon. "Me? Or...her?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "She...her name was Xena, too." This caused another flinch, which Gabrielle was spared for the mist which obscured her vision. "She's dead...has been dead for a...long time." She paused, suddenly needing breath. "Long before I saw you." That was it. Gabrielle couldn't form another word, never mind see further than her nose.

And so she didn't see the parade of emotions playing across Xena's face. Anger first, then despair. The first prompted by the admission, the next from the same, but more for her belief in their love being lost. Hearing her namesake was dead gave her a moment's satisfaction (played out as a smug smirk which curled her lips), only to have it washed away by the pain of Gabrielle's tears. The despair gripped her again, this time for herself alone. How dare she take satisfaction from Gabrielle's pain! Gabrielle was worth a thousand of her, and here she was taking delight from the death of someone she loved.

Even in the haze of her own misery, Xena could see her choices clearly. She could flee this house, this life, and return to the streets she belonged on. With luck, she'd be dead in a month and Gabrielle would be spared further embarrassment by her. Or...she could stay and at least try and ease Gabrielle's grief, even a little. Worthless as she might be, Xena Alexandran had never been one to turn her back on anyone suffering.

She was moving before even realizing she'd made the decision, hardly even feeling the carpet scratching her bare feet.


Gabrielle was blind and deaf to everything, save her own self-loathing. She'd done it. She'd broken her own vow and managed with just a few words to condemn herself to an eternity of loneliness. Xena would leave her now, disgusted and rightly so. And now? Now she didn't even have the strength left to finish her own destruction.

She felt the presence which knelt beside her, and the hand which brushed away the rogue tendrils of strawberry hair which had fallen around her face. She felt, but refused to believe.

Even when arms as strong as a Titan's, as gentle as the morning's light encircled her, even then she refused to believe. She leaned to the side, into those arms, willing to entertain the illusion as long as it would last.

When the arms didn't fade, but tightened their grip on her, and remained far past her eyes drying of their tears, only then did Gabrielle dare open her eyes and risk loosing this phantom peace.

She saw a thick, bronzed arm around her chest and shoulders, solid and glorious in its gentle strength. Turning her head slowly to the side, she met Xena's gaze. It was one of resignation, acceptance, and expectant hope. She heard Xena's voice, barely believing the mercy she was being shown. "I will be whatever you want me to," Xena said, her words nearly lost. The next part she read in those expressive eyes, and it awoke her like a bucket of ice water to her face. "Please, don't..."

Gabrielle heard the remainder before it was even said, and placed two fingers on her lips as Xena had done to her a year ago, stopping those terrible, pointless words from coming. Don't send me away.

She tried to speak, but it came out as a croak. Gabrielle swallowed and tried again. "I want you."

"But..." Xena tried to say around her fingers, only to have them pressed harder against her lips, silencing her protest.

"Life is too short for me to live in the past." An ironic statement, she thought distantly, coming from someone who has lived two millennia. "I'm done with that. She's gone, and you're here. Now."

Xena let go of her love's shoulders and removed the lips from her mouth. "I...you see her in me, don't you?" she challenged, her eyes suspicious.

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, giving Xena her answer. The tall woman tried to pull away, only to be gripped by the forearms with a tighter than she thought possible. The intensity in the eyes which now regarded her held her with still greater strength. "I see the woman I love," Gabrielle insisted. "I see the face of someone I knew a long time ago. I see the face of someone I saw die a long time ago." There was desperation in her voice and eyes now. "But I love you. Not your face, not your hair, or your eyes, or any of that. Don't you understand? Please...please understand..." Her voice had started to crack from this, the intensity in her eyes too much to allow her to see the understanding Xena tried to communicate. She was gripping those arms even tighter now, but Xena gladly endured the pain.

"I love you," Gabrielle was croaking now. "I love you...she's dead...not you... you're all I've got...left...she left me alone...don't leave...please don't leave..." On and on like that.

Xena wasn't silent either, cooing and whispering assurances and words of comfort into her love's ear, equally desperate to reassure her.

Eventually, both calmed, and Gabrielle realized with some chagrin how tightly she'd been holding onto Xena. She eased her grip, but stopped short of releasing it altogether. Xena herself made no move to pull fully away.

They stayed like that for awhile, simply staring at one another, neither wholly comfortable, neither willing to back away even a hair from the other.

"I believe you," Xena said out of the blue. Gabrielle looked deep into those brilliant eyes, and saw no deception or doubt there. She believed, and all she could do was lean forward once more, back into the waiting arms of the one who loved her.

Luna was beginning her ascent over the horizon when Xena disengaged herself from the embrace and said in her ever-practical voice "Its been a long day. Let's go to bed." Gabrielle could only laugh at this and tried to get to her suddenly shaky feet.

Without a word, Xena bent down and gathered her into both arms, carrying her away from the table. She knew (or thought she knew) there would be no more love-making tonight, only some much needed sleep.

Had she seen Gabrielle's wisp of a grin, she might have been better prepared.

Madrigail padded in a short while later. Her only observation on seeing the plates and empty room was a sigh of "At last." With a motherly grin of satisfaction, she set about cleaning away the leftovers.

Her grin widened a bit as her sharp ears picked out the sounds which drifted down from above. The sound of a distant shriek, first of surprise-turned-laughter, and the sound of something...no, someone impacting on the floor upstairs, quite hard from the sound of it. More giggling. Two voices, now. She shook her head. God, she loved those two.


Chapter Eleven: Coping Strategies.

 

When Xena had left the house after the confrontation in the kitchen, she didn't actually have any clear destination in mind. The universe might as well have contracted to the look she'd caught in Gabrielle's eye. The look which communicated volumes. The look which asked 'How did you find out about her?'.

The look which made Xena tear off at 55 mph in the Chevy convertible (one of Gabrielle's few extravagances), hoping to find a hairpin curve or (better still) a cliff she could jump off of.

She found neither. Gabrielle had chosen a depressingly flat region to live in.

The road into town wasn't nearly as winding or long as her preoccupied thoughts made it to be. She was down the main street in less than five minutes, reducing speed more on instinct than due to conscious decision, and absolutely no idea where she was heading. After a full year of going up and down these streets, Xena was confident she knew every one and every outlet here.

That mental map had somehow been tossed out the car window, and so she had to reduce her speed even further and actually watch where she was going. It was maddening. It was irritating. It made her want to punch something...very, very hard.

The Almighty Whatever chose to smile on her just then. She was just passing one of the small dojo she'd come to frequent. The one, Xena was please to see, that was more a boxing ring than anything else. They knew her well enough here that no-one would have thought her sudden appearance particularly odd. True, normally it would herself and Gabrielle coming in to practice quarterstaffs and the odd tumble-match.

The scowl that thought brought on would prove deterrence enough that anyone who noticed wouldn't say a thing. Fortunately, the dojo proved practically deserted, and so she was spared any odd looks right then. In the state of mind she was in, Xena suspected she might well...

Rather than let herself ruminate on that unpleasant possibility, Xena went straight to the hanging punch-bag and proceeded to give it whatfor, not even stopping for the briefest warm-up stretches. She simply started hitting the bag.

Xena had never had formal training in any fighting style. Oh, she'd been ringside at a few bare-knuckle matches back with the circus, and been party to a few run-ins with Scooter's enemies (the law included) which invariably ended in a knife-fight of one sort or another. Even so, Xena had never handled a gun, nor been shown even the most rudimentary forms or strikes.

All of which made the complicated series of punches and kicks she delivered to the hard column of canvas and stuffing before all the more exceptional. To have seen it, one would think her a competition champion in who knew how many disciplines and tournaments.

Xena kept pounding the bag for as long as her breath held out. A remarkable amount of time, given her lack of preparation. Even so, the only way she could maintain her stride was to start envisioning faces. The first was Granma', shattered by well-placed roundhouse kick. The next was the circus patron, his gap-tooth leer and crooked nose likewise dispatched. Scooter Cook tanned and not-unhandsome features she mangled with a very solid one-two punch to the nose and chin. A rapid-fire one-two-three (one punch delivered to the eye, one punch catching the nose and upper lip, and a solid roundhouse guaranteed to crack a few ribs) combination dispatched Gabrielle...

...and stopped her completely dead.

The bag was swinging with such force it was a wonder it didn't break its suspension and simply fall.

The pounding of her heart, the roar of her panting breathing, the mental image of Gabrielle lying at her feet, face bloodied and spine twisted...these were the only things Xena was aware of. She was sure recrimination and self-loathing weren't far away, though both had the good grace to allow her to wallowing in shock for awhile.

Unlike others, that is. "Hey?" someone practically shouted near her ear. Xena's slow, very slow turning towards the voice was a thousand times more unnerving than if she'd simply spun on her heel. The deep breaths she was taking didn't help the scene any.

"You okay?" It was a woman Xena neither knew nor recognized. A few inches shorter than herself, with russet brown hair cut to a bob, and a face belonging on magazine covers. She wore a skin tight tank-top and trunks but no shoes (this was a dojo, after all) and was regarding Xena with wary eyes. Her relaxed stance was warning enough for Xena to think twice before trying anything crazy.

"I know you?" Xena growled, slowly calming but all the more explosive for it.

"No, I'm new here." The woman glanced meaningfully at the bag. "Just blowing off steam?" Xena nodded slowly. "You have an argument or something?" Another nod, her skin cooling and suspicions rising with each second.

"I needed...needed to get away." Xena heard herself speak as though observing all this from afar. She had no idea why she was suddenly so willing to speak of her domestic disputes to a complete stranger, and seemed incapable of quieting herself.

She barely registered the worried, even confused tone to the woman's next question. "She treat you right, right?"

Xena could only throw her head back and give a bitter laugh to that. "Yeah, sure." It was either that or she break down and cry like a baby. "Doesn't trust me worth beans, but..."

The woman cut in, quite forcefully. "Well, would you? Given the way you were going at that bag?"

Xena snapped her head around and glared, ready to harangue this stranger who... who...

One look at those earnest, open eyes...eyes as green and perfect as Gabrielle's... and all Xena could do was stare at the floor, suddenly very ashamed to be alive.

The woman moved off to a shadowed corner, wiggling a little here and there so to loosen her joints and began a series of stretches. It might have been it attractive, even arousing, had anyone been paying attention. Xena certainly wasn't.

Xena was completely focused on the still-fresh image of a bloodied and broken Gabrielle lying at her feet. Unable to stand it an instant longer, Xena turned and all-but ran back to the car.

She sat in there for some minutes, gripping the steering wheel in a death-grip, her breathing erratic and strained. Catching sight of herself in the rear-view mirror, Xena's eyes hardened to flint. "Well?" she questioned the reflection, voice dripping with contempt. "You going to do right by her, or what?"

With that, she revved engine to life and swung the convertible around, mindless to the traffic honking at her impromptu Y-turn or the few uncooperative traffic she'd encountered. Only an abiding respect for pedestrians kept her running them all.

Xena's entire mind was focused on returning to the house, and (she prayed fervently if unconsciously) to Gabrielle.


Hope had watched her leave. Her stretches were more for show than out of need, and so could devote her attention to other, more critical matters.

She'd heard literally every word which had passed between those two since awaking, generally rolling her eyes at each exchange and shaking her head in disgust. This wasn't the Circle's doing, she knew that. It was a thousand times worse, and just as unsolvable: it was a lover's quarrel to the power of ten!

Following and dealing with Xena was, in Hope's estimation, the easiest course. Not to mention the safest. Gabrielle... that was a confrontation neither of them were ready for.

Her stretches done only minutes after Xena's departure, Hope stood and yawned. Nearly two days without sleep wouldn't have normally bothered her. Two days of pushing her more...innate abilities to their limits without a break...now that was exhausting. Hopefully, she reflected, it wouldn't be much longer.

None of the few of the patrons of the dojo noticed when she simply walked into the deepest shadow behind her.

Nor did anyone comment on how, when others went back there to go through their own warm-ups, the corner was completely empty.


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