Shadow Play by Pink Rabbit Productions 
Comments welcome: pinkrabbit@mailexcite.com

Disclaimer: All of the usual stuff about RenPic owning Xena and Gabrielle, plus your basic subtext warning (if the notion that women can be a whole more than friends offends, you really don't belong on this site anyway). No sex, but some violence and themes that may bother some folks. Read with some caution if you were deeply disturbed by the rift saga.

"Hello, Gabrielle," the voice was low and rich, a sultry combination of promise and threat.

The bard spun, green eyes going wide as she got a look at the woman lounging in the doorway to her hut. Her posture was deceptively relaxed, but the look in pale, blue eyes was supremely dangerous. "Xena," she whispered very softly.

The warrior rewarded her former lover with a feral grin that was somehow both terrifying and charming at the same time.

"If I cry out, you�ll have half the Amazon nation on you in moments," Gabrielle warned grimly.

She was being careful, Xena realized, to keep any emotion out of her voice: trying to keep the situation under control through sheer force of will. After all the bard knew her well enough to fear her ability to capitalize on any show of weakness from an enemy. And certainly, the warrior's former lover couldn't believe that they were anything but enemies now. Xena knew she'd made certain of that. Well, fine, they'd both made their beds. Time to lie in them. The warlord flashed a toothy grin that never reached her eyes. "All things considered, I might enjoy that too much," she pointed out with mock good-cheer. "Besides, I think we both know how it would come out�"

Gabrielle�s eyes flashed, and she grabbed for her staff. "Don�t you dare hurt any of my people," she snarled. She wasn�t the innocent child from Potedeia anymore. She was an Amazon Queen, and if she�d made some bad mistakes, well, that was part of life. She stood poised to act, making it clear she had no intention of allowing her former lover to create any more havoc.

Xena only chuckled at the scant threat. "Sounds like you�ve really taken to this royalty thing," she jeered derisively.

"I�m doing what I think is right�"

"And enjoying it so much."

"No," Gabrielle disagreed, tightening her hands on her staff, when she saw Xena stiffen. Fury quicksilvered through those deadly-pale eyes, before it was once again hidden behind an icy wall of indifference. "But some of us believe in loyalty," the bard added, her own temper flaring dangerously.

"Loyalty," Xena sneered, and made a small half lunge forward, her expression twisted for the briefest second. She managed to regain control of her temper, and jerked back, once against leaning against the doorjamb. "Damn you," she hissed. "You talk about loyalty, when you�re shacked up with Ephiny�"

"She�s a friend--" Gabrielle cut her off.

"Yeah, I know�remember, you and I used to be best friends," Xena shot back. Jealousy was like a knife in her gut, destroying the best of intentions.

Now, it was Gabrielle�s turn to struggle against her anger, hands fisting at her side as she visibly fought the urge to respond in kind. "Why are you here?" she demanded at last, her voice shaking, though she managed not to rise to the bait. There was a long uncomfortable pause, while the two women glared at each other.

Oddly enough, it was Xena who gave way first, pushing away from the doorframe. "Believe it or not, I came because I heard about the killings."

Gabrielle stiffened, and turned away, knuckles white as she tightened her hold on her staff. "We�re dealing with it," she said bitterly, without turning back.

It gave Xena a chance to drop the mask for the briefest moment, to stare at her former lover with every ounce of the hunger she was feeling. By the God, she�d nearly forgotten the younger woman�s beauty, nearly forgotten the need to hold her, touch her, be a part of her. "Have you found the killer?"

Another long pause. "No," the bard admitted. "But we will."

For the first time since she�d entered the camp, some of the warrior�s bitterness drained away, as she saw Gabrielle�s shoulders slump in defeat. She knew what it was like to lose those you cared for, and not be able to stop it. The God�s knew, she hadn�t been able to hold onto Gabrielle, and her life would never be the same for that failing. Her grief and rage had destroyed the bard�s love. One hand fisted at her side, as if she could physically force those memories out of her mind.

Suddenly, Gabrielle spun around again, peering suspiciously at the warrior. "I repeat�why are you here?" she demanded.

Xena felt a private corner of her heart, where she�d secretly maintained some hope she might get her former lover back, shrivel and cry out in pain. None of her inner turmoil showed in her expression though, as she schooled herself to maintain a perfect bland mask. "I went to see the Oracle at Corinth." She left out the reason why. Gabrielle didn�t need that weapon. "She told me I was fated to come here." She also left off the rest of the Oracle�s prediction. Gabrielle didn�t need to know that either, though Xena wondered if she�d be sorry or relieved to hear that the Oracle had predicted Xena�s death.

Gabrielle�s lip lifted in a hint of a sneer. "Oh, come on, Xena, I know you don�t trust oracles�so tell me why you�re really here."

"You�re getting cynical," Xena said softly.

"I have good reason."

"Can�t you believe I might care that something is killing Amazons?" Xena wondered what drove her to ask that question, because several of the possible answers scared the Tartarus out of her. The Gods knew she�d made certain Gabrielle would always believe the worst of her, but some part of her kept hoping the bard would think otherwise.

Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest, her expression doubtful. "According to everything I�ve heard, you�re in it for the money these days," she said by way of answer.

Xena barely covered a flinch. Untrue as those rumors were, she had no intention of defending herself against them. Not here and now. "A girl�s gotta eat," and a faint shrug of one muscular shoulder were her only responses.

"Funny," Gabrielle murmured darkly, turning away to cover her disappointment. "I�ve never found gold terribly edible."

Outside, crickets were singing to herald the coming night while the sun dropped behind the mountains. Gabrielle peered out. Another night. Probably more deaths.

As if sensing her thoughts, Xena drew close to her back, leaning close, as she whispered. "The Amazons haven�t caught this thing�you need help."

Gabrielle didn�t look back. "Your help?" she drawled meaningfully.

"That�s right," Xena exhaled.

The bard laughed very softly, the sound low and acid, while her shoulders trembled gently.

"You know I�m a better hunter than anyone in this village," Xena pointed out, uncertain how to take the hopeless sound.

"I know that," the queen of the Amazons admitted. "But, somehow, I don�t think we can afford you�Velasca�s followers took most of the treasury when they left." She spun around, glaring up at her former lover. "So you can go now," she challenged.

Dark brows drew together in a frown. "I don�t want your money," the warrior snapped impatiently, a fraction of her anger slipping out around the edges. She leaned forward, until her nose was a scant inch from Gabrielle�s. "And I never did." She curved strong hands to slender shoulders, barely resisting the urge to shake some sense into the girl. "I�ll catch your damn killer for you�"

"And your payoff?" Gabrielle demanded hotly.

Xena was angry, or she would never have done it, but standing this close, touching warm skin, and smelling the sweet scent of her body, she couldn�t resist the need to retake what was hers. "You," she growled. "The only damn payoff I want is you." She had the satisfaction of seeing the way Gabrielle�s pupils expanded, until her eye color was barely visible. She knew the other woman�s body well enough to know that, any protestations aside, she was aroused. Whatever else lay between them, their bodies still knew better than their minds. Gabrielle saw what was coming, and tried to yank free, but Xena was far stronger. She released her grip on upper arms to grab delicate wrists, pressing them sideways as she pinned the smaller woman against the nearest wall. She'd always been a conqueror and it was easier for Xena to fall back on those instincts than to try and explain her raw emotions. Less than a second later Xena�s mouth landed on the bard's. She felt the smaller woman brace for an attack, but instead, her kiss was perversely gentle, teasing and tutoring, until the bard couldn�t resist the urge to respond. Her lips parted with a low groan, instinctively inviting the firm thrust of Xena�s tongue. It had been months since they�d touched, and hot electrical need arced between them. Xena leaned into Gabrielle�s body as she deepened the kiss, exploring every inch of well-known flesh.

Sharp armor left pressure indents in the soft flesh of the bard's breasts and belly as she was pinned between the hard frame of the warrior and rough wall of the hut. A low moan echoed up from her chest, and she didn�t resist when Xena shifted her wrists over her head, transferring them to a one handed grip. The warrior ran a battle hardened hand down her slender torso, touching the considerable expanse of bare flesh revealed by her top. "Missed you so much," the warrior groaned through their shared kiss.

Gabrielle didn�t speak, just pressed against Xena, returning the kiss with rising passion as callused fingers touched her everywhere, caressing flesh that had craved this with haunting constancy since they�d been apart. In the months, she�d barely slept a night through without dreaming of the warrior�s touch, barely passed a day without missing the sound of her voice. "Damn you," she groaned, and hooked a leg around a muscled thigh. A moment later, Xena�s free hand gripped her thigh, long fingers curving underneath, as she half lifted the smaller woman against her body, grinding her pelvis into the soft delta between her spread thighs. The need coursing through both of them was blinding in its intensity, its heady effects leaving them oblivious and vulnerable.

Neither heard the soft pad of footsteps, nor the faint skidding sound of a sword being removed from its scabbard, but Xena did feel the sharp edge of the blade that landed under curve of her jaw.

"Let her go now, Xena," Ephiny growled furiously.

The warrior tensed, and her head snapped up, eyes locking with Gabrielle�s, but there was no other response. Xena wondered if Ephiny had the faintest idea just how close to dying she was. The warrior princess released her grip on Gabrielle�s thigh, lowering it to the floor, and freed one of her wrists, while maintaining a tight grip on the other. "Hello Ephiny," she murmured without breaking her gaze away from Gabrielle�s. "Still a loyal�subject�of Queen Gabrielle, I see," she sneered.

"That�s right," Ephiny hissed. "Now let her go and back off!"

Xena peered hard at Gabrielle, as if willing her to make a choice. She was so close to violence, she could feel its hot breath on the back of her neck. "Is that what you want, Gabrielle?" she whispered. "Do you really want to me to let you go?"

"I said, back off!" Ephiny repeated.

"Very protective," Xena drawled and turned a vicious smile on Ephiny. "One would almost think you were more than just her loyal subject." Her grip tightened on Gabrielle�s wrist. There would be bruises and regrets�later.

Ephiny sensed the threat of coming violence and tensed, ready to deflect any attack. "Whatever�s between Gabrielle and I is none of your business."

The bard gasped, struggling without complete success to force down a wince as Xena's hand tightened another notch. The warrior ignored the bait, and turned her head to pin the bard in place with a hard gaze. "Do we have a deal?" she demanded.

"Xena," the single word was barely audible, but it reflected a wealth of pain and disillusionment.

The warrior almost relented, was on the verge of it when Ephiny twitched the blade under her jaw. She saw Gabrielle�s eyes widen, and felt a warm trickle of blood on her throat. In an instant, her heart hardened, jealousy burning dark and hard. Only a woman with a reason would be that enraged. Her mind painted vivid pictures of their bodies twined, pale flesh painted in the sweet colors of fire and moonlight. "Deal, or not?"

Gabrielle stared up at Xena, trying to find some softness, some sign of the woman who�d once held her so close, made her laugh and cry out with ecstasy, comforted her when she cried, held her when she�d been frightened. An icy gaze gave nothing away, and the bard found herself wondering if she'd killed the woman she�d loved more than life itself.

Xena stiffened under the impact of that probing gaze, half-afraid Gabrielle would see all the emotions she was fighting so hard to conceal.

She saw none of them, only the diamond-hard fa�ade. "Deal," she whispered at last.

"No," Ephiny inserted, her unwillingness to trust the warrior written in every inch of her stiff posture. "She tried to kill you," she snarled angrily. "Threw you off a damn cliff. It was only a miracle you weren't hurt worse�."

Xena stiffened, looking away, not wanting the others to glimpse the shame in her eyes. She remembered that moment too well, hurling Gabrielle into space even as she fell with her. She muttered a single word under her breath. "Ilusia." She thought her voice too soft to be heard, but Ephiny seized on the exhaled word.


"There was no Ilusia," the Amazon regent snarled. "Just your sick excuse for attempting murder."

Xena tensed, expression taut. "Believe what you want," she growled.

"I saw your capacity for betrayal in every cut and bruise on her body," Ephiny responded. "You can't believe I'd trust you now."

Xena turned a diamond hard gaze on the other woman. "I don't care whether you trust me or not." She looked back at Gabrielle. "I only care what you think." Xena's mouth twisted in the most ironic of smiles, her full attention reserved for the bard. "You know you can trust me�to do your killing for you," she whispered silkily, and reached up to touch Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand, the gesture perversely tender. "You know that."

Gabrielle nodded. "She'll do what she promises," she sighed at last. "Put your sword away."

Ephiny didn't move.

"Do it, Ephiny, before I do it for you," Xena growled.

"Touch her, and I'll see you dead," Gabrielle threatened.

Xena's lip curled, now thoroughly convinced that her suspicions were on target. She reached up, bracing a single fingertip behind the flat of the razor edged blade and simply pushed it away from her throat. Suddenly, she released Gabrielle's wrist, lifting her hand to the back of the bard's head, levering her into a hard kiss. She could feel Ephiny's fury, but the Amazon couldn't respond without putting Gabrielle in danger. This time the warrior delivered the kiss Gabrielle had expected the first time, angry, demanding, leaving soft lips bruised and sore.

Xena relented at last, releasing her former lover, and pivoting to face Ephiny, eager for a fight.

Gabrielle stumbled back a step, and let out a soft gasp. "No," she commanded.

Ephiny flashed a furious look Gabrielle's way. "You can't seriously intend to--"

"Yes, I can," Gabrielle contradicted, and straightened to turn a hard gaze on Ephiny. "And I am�put your sword away."

Muscles taut, Ephiny slowly did as told though she was on the verge of refusing.

"Good girl," Xena taunted, and blew her a kiss.

Ephiny glared at the warrior, hate glittering in her eyes. She couldn't forget the sight of Gabrielle's face and body, bruised, bloodied, and beaten. Her hand started to snap back toward the hilt of her sword.

"No!" Gabrielle snapped.

Ephiny dropped her hand to her side.

"Well, well�you are in command," Xena rasped.

"That's right," Gabrielle whispered, forcing her former lover to deal with her and not Ephiny.

"Just don't forget our deal," the warrior hissed, then yanked Gabrielle close again. "And don't forget that I don't share," she insisted, her voice pitched too low for anyone but the bard to hear.

"Don't worry. I keep my bargains."

Xena stared at Gabrielle, searching every inch of her features and peering deeply into her eyes. "Good," she exhaled, then kissed soft lips again, taking command of them and demanding a response. She got it. Gabrielle moaned softly into the kiss, aroused, despite herself. A half sneer twisted Xena's mouth as she broke the kiss. She brushed the pad of her thumb along Gabrielle's full lower lip. "I'll see you in the morning," the warrior promised huskily, then flashed a smile toward Ephiny, who bristled. A moment later, Xena slipped out, into the encroaching night.

Ephiny glanced after her, then turned an angry expression toward her queen. "You can't seriously intend to follow through on any deal with her," she rasped.

Gabrielle blinked, coming back to the present. "In the last two weeks, Ephiny, that�whatever it is�has killed nine people from this village, and several more from others in the area. We're no closer to catching it than we were when we started. If Xena can stop it, I'll pay whatever price is necessary."

A muscle pulsed in Ephiny's jaw. "Have you already forgotten that she attacked you�and this camp�then tried to come up with some insane excuse for it?"

The bard's expression was distant as she nodded. "I haven't forgotten anything," she whispered.

"Then you know you can't--'

"Yes," Gabrielle cut her off sharply. "I can."

*****

Xena moved easily through the thick forest, her footfalls perfectly silent, posture alert, eyes bright as she scanned the area around her. She'd been in Corinth when she heard the news that something was terrorizing the Amazon village where Gabrielle ruled. She remembered the moment she'd heard the words with a keen, almost painful sense of clarity. In that instant of agony and terror, she'd known she'd never be free of the almost obsessional love that burned in her belly. Nothing seemed able to burn it out, not even the fact that Gabrielle's daughter had murdered her son.

Xena forced down those old hurts, reminding herself that they were in the past. She remembered the moment in Illusia, when she'd plunged the sword through Gabrielle, killing her, Gabrielle's shout of betrayal, their duet of forgiveness. She remembered it all, every last bit of it. If only Gabrielle did too, but when they'd woken that second time on the beach, she'd seen her own handiwork and faced Amazon swords. She'd pleaded, begging Gabrielle to understand�to remember, but she'd just stared at Xena in horror. Dammit, why did she refuse to remember? Didn't she know the answer to their mutual forgiveness lay there�in Ilusia? Xena shook her head, yanking free of the painful memories. She couldn't afford that sort of frustration and anger now.

She climbed carefully over a fallen log, mentally chastising herself to pay attention. There was something in these woods that was quite capable of killing the best Amazon hunters at will. She was a better hunter than any of them, but not enough that she could afford to get overconfident.

According to the stories, most of the killings had occurred near the river, so she moved in that direction.

The sound of slow moving water, soft and subtle, but distinct in the silence of the night, greeted her ears as she drew near. The river was wide and deep, with gentle banks, and thick overhanging trees. Xena scanned the deepening shadows, hunting for any sign of unwelcome movement. Both relieved and worried when she didn't see anything, she kept moving, hungry for any sign of her prey. She'd spoken to villagers on the road to the Amazon lands, listening carefully to the accounts of the terrifying creature supposedly haunting these woods. Everyone described it differently, until she'd concluded that no one had actually seen it and survived. A brief, and extremely curt exchange with Eponin as she was leaving the village had confirmed the notion. The first few victims had simply been going for water, but the others had been warriors, stalking the beast in an effort to stop the slaughter.. Xena stepped into a small clearing, nose twitching as she smelled the scent of old blood. Shattered branches and broken weeds littered the area in silent testament to the events that had recently transpired here. She crouched down, noting the dried blood still staining the ground and broken trees. The fight had been a nasty one. She noted the pattern of the combat, tracing the flattened weeds and grasses in relation to broken branches, painting an image of the event in her mind. It had taken time, and the attacker wasn't human, it was too low to the ground. And most likely it was four footed, or at least it could walk on four feet. It had played with her, prolonging things long after she'd stopped fighting. It was no mere animal turned manhunter. Xena felt her breathing pick up. It was much, much more. She swallowed hard, hair prickling on the back of her neck.

She tensed, moving very slowly, as she reached for her sword and pivoted.

The beast was perfectly silent and oddly insubstantial, little more than a too dark shadow, but she could make out the edges of heavily muscled shoulders, a huge head, and broad body positioned in a bulldog stance.

Xena felt her heart hammer in her chest and became aware of the fact that her hands were shaking. She tried to force down the fear, but couldn't, not while that thing was staring at her, its soft, whoofing breath suddenly sounding suspiciously like laughter. Xena yanked her sword free, her draw jerky for the first time in years. So, this was the thing killing Amazons. She narrowed her gaze, trying to see it better.

As if in response to her efforts, it melted from the shadows, moving into view. Scraggly hair dotted jet black flesh that was decayed and putrefying in places. A stench from Tartarus itself touched her nostrils. Another soft whoofing laugh hung on the air. It wasn't the least bit afraid of her.

"Great," Xena deadpanned, struggling to control the unfamiliar sense of terror. "Cerebrus obviously decided to have puppies." She rolled her sword, adjusting her grip, and waiting for it to do something.

The creature only stared at her, the black gaze assessing.

Xena became aware that her breathing was harder than normal, while sweat beaded on her skin and stung her eyes. "C'mon, doggie, do something," she exhaled. It occurred to her that she could attack, but when she tried to move, she couldn't make her feet respond.

Another soft whoofing laugh.

"Stop that," Xena hissed, barely able to get the words past the tightness in her throat.

Yet another laugh.

And it was a laugh. She was convinced of that now.

The damn thing was laughing at her.

She could see the humor in the limitlessly deep, black eyes.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" the warrior demanded, her voice hoarse with stress.

It only laughed at her again.

"Blast you, do something," Xena growled, rage and terror burning in her heart. She'd faced gods without batting an eyelash, but something about this beast terrified her.

More whoofing sounds.

Xena tried to attack, tried to lift her feet and lunge to slice it's fetid head off.

Tried, but couldn't.

It laughed at her again, knowing she couldn't fight its power. Laughed, and then leapt.

Paralyzed, Xena could only watch it coming until it was nearly on top of her. Somehow, she managed to drag the power from somewhere deep in her soul, and swing at the thing, tearing deeply into decaying flesh. It didn't seem to feel the blow, just continued its attack. Teeth dug into her thigh, and she collapsed, head falling back on her shoulders, mouth open as if to scream, but no sound came forth. In that instant, knowing she was dying, she couldn't help but think of Gabrielle; would she be even a little sad, would her heart clench, or would she feel a sense of triumph when presented with her ex-lover's body. The thing shook its head, throwing her about, like a dog with a rag doll in its teeth, playing with her like the toy she was when compared with it. Xena lost her grip on her sword, could barely even think as pain rattled through her entire body.

Then it let go, and she tumbled away�.

Xena returned to awareness lying on her stomach, mud coating bare skin. Her body was made of a thousand layers of agony, but the worst of the pain centered in her thigh where the thing had bit her. She twisted just enough to get a look, and noted deep puncture wounds leaking some kind of thick, yellow venom. The thing was still close. She could hear its breathing, then hot breath played along the back of her neck, burning her skin, reminding her that death was no more than a hair's breadth away. She couldn't afford to freeze again--not if she wanted to live. So many times in her life, she'd used her terror to survive. Just one more time--she whispered mentally--do it just one more time, or they'll be burying *your* body tomorrow. A sprawled hand lay near her fallen sword. She could feel the cool, damp metal against her open fingers. All she had to do was get a solid grip on it and twist. If she could move fast enough, she could cut off its foul head before the damned thing was any the wiser. Teeth gritted to force down the terror, she struggled to make her fingers work and got a grip on her sword hilt, maybe not too good, but it was a grip. Crying with the effort it cost her--Gods, was this what it had felt like for Gabrielle, when she'd faced her likely end at the hands of her best friend and lover? Xena didn't know; she'd never faced a terror like this, horrible, paralyzing, and agonizingly real--no, that's not true--some distant part of her brain reminded her as she fought to make her thigh muscles respond so she could twist and attack the thing--when Gabrielle was dead in Thessily, you faced it then. Then she let out a dull scream and somehow her body did what she commanded, rolling as she swung her sword with less control than she'd managed since she was barely fifteen. The razor sharp blade bit deeply into something.

The soft whoofing laugh echoed in her ears as she screamed again, muscles gaining in strength as she felt rage flow fresh and clean through her veins. It was like being reborn; giving way to the hate drove out the pain and terror, giving her inhuman strength as she attacked the monster, ripping and tearing with her sword, drawing black putrid blood with perverse glee in her heart. She heard the laugh gurgle away into a tortured wheeze and kept slashing and cutting, laughing with joy as she released herself to the waves of purest fury. She was the queen of the universe. Nothing could defeat her, certainly no tartarus-born monster. None could defy her, none refuse, and none stand against.

The thing died with an almost silent gasp, and she stood over it, laughing that it had thought it might be able to defeat her. She glanced down. Her thigh was a mess, but Gabrielle would clean it up. A smile twisted the warlord's lips. Ephiny had better plan on moving out, because she had no intention of sharing the bard.

She wavered slightly as she pushed to her feet, but grew steadier on the walk back to the camp. By the time she reached the first huts, she was moving easily, body graceful, the pain forgotten. Obviously, the injuries hadn't been as bad as she'd thought. By the time she reached Gabrielle's hut, she'd forgotten she'd been hurt at all.

Xena stepped through the open doorway, eyes narrowing in the gold firelight, pupils expanding as she located the bodies moving together, their soft sounds forming a well known symphony of sex. "Damn you," she groaned, tears filling her eyes, her heart turning to stone. Her sword was still dipped in the stench of filth and blood as she attacked, screaming as she hacked at them. Released, her rage was a wildfire that tore through flesh and emotion with equal ease. More Amazons came, though it was too late to protect their queen and regent. In moments, it was too late to even protect themselves. Once before, Xena had slaughtered an entire tribe of Amazons, but that time she'd done it with planning, with conscious intent. This time, she simply killed them as they came to her like lambs to slaughter.

And when she was done, she stood alone in the center of the village, slowly returning to consciousness in the wake of her berserker rage. Around her, the bodies of the dead littered the ground, while fire ate several huts, a side effect of cooking fires disturbed by the battle. She gasped and her knees buckled.

Once before she'd done something like this and laughed in the wake of the violence. Now, she retched, losing what little food she'd eaten in the last hours, her body spasming as though it could turn itself inside out.

Her head was still in the dirt when she heard it.

Soft rumbling laughter in a world that should contain only silence, or at most, the sound of tears.

Her chin lifted.

The glade. She was in the glade again, and the beast was sitting and watching her, its shoulders rippling with the low sounds of mirth.

Xena blinked, sniffing back on hoarse tears. She was leaning on her sword and she lifted it, hunting for any signs of the slaughter. Nothing. Her blade was smooth and clean, unmarred by blood or fresh nicks. Maybe it hadn't happened. She prayed to the very gods she so despised. Please, let it not have been real. "What are you?" she questioned, too exhausted to be quite so terrified as before.

The beast only laughed again, still refusing her any answers.

"Damn you," Xena hissed and pushed to her feet, hating that inhuman laughter with vicious passion. Her thigh throbbed in agony with the movement, but she forced her body to react. Pain and stiffness reminded her of the battering she'd taken. She was definitely at less than optimum, but she wasn't going to be beaten. She held her sword at the ready. "Come and get it."

The creature chuckled again, finding her efforts pathetic.

It had been a long time since anything had refused to be intimidated by her. Her lips twisted in a sneer. Fine then, let the thing underestimate her. All the better. She'd get to see the shock and terror in its eyes as it died. Full lips drew back from clenched teeth as she lunged, hacking and slashing. She heard the thing roar, felt the impact as she was tumbled, clawed, bit, and torn. In that instant, she saw the foolishness of her attack, realized she'd never had a chance, and gave over to hopelessness, letting the thing maul her with utter impunity.

Finally, it stood above her, laughing at her as she lay weak and beaten. Had the others died this way? Dying and beaten while their tormentor laughed at their fate? No, she realized in an instant. That fate had been reserved for her. The others had been nothing more than bait in a trap. "It was all just to bring me here, wasn't?" she croaked.

More laughter was the only response.

"Damn you," Xena hissed, and tried to push to her feet only to have her body fail her. Too weak to rise, she tumbled back to the muddy ground, coughing on a thin fog of dirt that rose around her. So, it would end this way, killed by some black hearted thing that found her a pathetic comedy of foolishness. She closed her eyes, resisting the persistent tension in her lungs as she croaked a single word, "Why?" She lost track of the world for a moment, distancing herself from her own body as she awaited an end without explanations.

It was Gabrielle's voice that brought her back around. "Xena�Xena�wake up."

The warrior blinked, grateful to find herself staring into gentle green eyes. "Gabrielle," she exhaled. "You're alive."

The bard smiled, her expression confused. "Of course I'm alive." She reached out, petting dark bangs. "After all, you haven't killed me yet." She offered an ironic smile. "Which is not to say you haven't tried."

The warrior pushed herself into a sitting position, then reached for the bard, framing the smaller woman's face in her hands. "No�Gabrielle�I wouldn't," she murmured. "I swear, I wouldn't hurt you." The memory of her sword tearing through flesh, like a hot knife through butter, burned through her mind even as she uttered the lie. Then she drew her close, kissing soft lips with hungry passion, pressing for and gaining entrance into her lover's mouth. Xena leaned into the kiss, groaning softly as she lost herself in the bard. Sweet, soft�then the flavor of iron�like a sword...or blood�.

Xena gasped, shoving the other woman back as the taste of blood filled her mouth. Gabrielle's arms flung wide as the sword in her back exited through her chest. Blood bubbled from the corners of her mouth and she gasped for breath.

Laughter.

The beast.

Xena could see it there, in the shadows�somewhere behind Gabrielle and the disembodied sword. Then it moved, melded into something else, changed and grew, stepping closer to Gabrielle. A pale hand gripped strawberry blond hair, yanking the dying bard's head back with savage joy.

It was a chakram that slit her throat.

Xena cried out as the body hit the dirt, half lunging forward, only to fall back as Gabrielle's attacker stepped over the bard's body, straddling her limp form as she casually flicked blood away from the chakram. "No," the warrior groaned, shaking her head in denial. She pushed away, expression panicked, scrambling away from the creature that stood only a few feet away.

Scrambling away from herself.

"No," the warrior sobbed. "You don't exist�you aren't here�"

Soft laughter echoed across the night. It was same laugh as the beast's, but also deeper, more intense�but still laughing at her weakness all the same. "Why the tears?" she demanded of herself. The warrior princess dropped to a crouch, dragging Gabrielle's head up to peer into open, sightless eyes. "After all, the bitch murdered your son." She let go, and Gabrielle's cheek hit the dirt once again.

Xena shook her head desperately, unable to look away as she watched herself straighten and move forward, body language languid and sensual. "She didn't," she argued, barely able to force the words past the tightness in her throat. "She never meant that to happen."

"Oh, come on," she heard her own voice complain. "You and I both know better. She set this all up. This is justice--"

"No!" Xena screamed in denial, even as she remembered planning the other woman's death. "That's not true�she�it wasn't her fault."

Full lips pursed, blue eyes full of disgust. "How can you defend her?" Xena demanded of herself, her expression a twisted, sneering smile. "Is she really that good a lay?"

"Stop it!" Xena shouted, shaking her head and backing away until her shoulders hit the rough bark of a tree. "It wasn't her fault! She didn�t' mean for Solan to be hurt!"

More low laughter. "Well, I guess you can tell yourself that if you like." The Xena-beast shrugged, flashing a wry smile. "After all, it's not like you were really close to the little brat, and she is a hell of a good fuck. Just ask Dahok--"

"SHUT UP!!!" Xena flattened her hands over her ears, desperately trying to block the voice out.

But she couldn't�because it was inside of her own head.

"Oh, come on�you know she wanted the old boy�chasing his converts like she did�quite a hot little act they had going--"

"NONONO!!" the warrior howled. "She didn't have a choice in that--"

"Didn't she?" she demanded of herself. "Get real. She loved it�just like she loved that little brat she had. You know, the one that slaughtered your only son."

"No�" Xena whimpered.

"In fact," the Xena-beast breathed, crouching down and leaning in close. "She loved the little demon more than she loved you--"

Xena shook her head back and forth. "That's not true." A callused finger traced her cheekbone, touching the tears that wet her skin. "That thing�it�it raped her--"

Harsh laughter cut her off. "Oh please, the whore loved every moment--"

"NO!!" Xena lunged at herself, tackling the muscled body into the dirt, wrestling with the demon-creature. "She was raped!! YOU KNOW THAT!!" She hammered her own head into the ground, trying desperately to kill the thing before it could make another lewd suggestion.

The thing lay unresisting beneath Xena, an ugly smile twisting that beautiful mouth. She laughed softly, and the warrior froze. "If that's the case, how could she love the child? That's just not possible." The Xena-beast licked her lips suggestively. "She wanted it�and you know that."

Xena stared down into her own eyes, once again aware of the pain throbbing through her body�through her very soul. Held up to her like that the foul suspicion was ludicrous, but she'd had that thought�had it and hated the bard.

She shoved away from the thing, crawling away when her body was too weak to stand. She just knew she had to escape. A solid boot caught her in the midsection before she could get very far.

"You're pathetic."

Xena shook her head, grunting as she was kicked again, the blow hard enough to send her tumbling.

"Your girlfriend goes whoring around with demons, murders your son, and chooses her daughter over you�and YOU PROTECT HER!!"

A fist clutching a chakram crashed into the side of Xena's face as she brought her head up, knocking her sideways and drawing blood. She pushed up on her hands, was knocked down again as a boot heel hammered into her jaw. She tried to push up again, but her body was too weak, too beaten by the battle with herself. "Who are you?" she whimpered into the dirt. A boot landed in the center of her back.

"Well, we never were the brightest star in the heavens," she complained to herself, leaving the Xena in the dirt to wonder which one she was, the victim or the tormentor. She forced down a mad giggle, struggling to clear her head.

"Me," she groaned at last.

"Very good." The voice was near her ear now, the boot gone from its braced position on her spine.

"So, I'm mad," Xena exhaled, sounding not entirely surprised by the development.

"I was sane once, but I got better." More sick laughter.

Lying sprawled, her body existing as nothing but a vessel for pain, could only pray for death. Hope for its touch to release her.

"Pathetic," she derided herself once again. The woman on the ground whimpered softly.

Xena fisted her hand into the dirt, fingers clawing at rough ground�rough ground�and a smooth sword. She tightened her fingers on the hilt, feeling strength flow through her muscles once more. "No," she ground out. She howled as she twisted, stabbing wildly with the weapon, feeling it bite into gristle and bone. "Not so pathetic now," she growled and somehow found the strength to push to a half crouch, lifting her weapon defensively.

More laughter.

Xena's eyes lifted, finding the figure she knew would be there, once again low slung, black and fetid, with dying flesh hanging from the twisted body.

And it was still laughing at her.

She tightened her grip on her sword, determined to try again. "Sooner or later, you have to die," she whispered.

"No," a soft voice disagreed.

Crystal blue eyes lifted. "M'lila?" Xena whispered, unable to believe the proof of her eyes. The gentlest of breezes touched her cheek as the former slave lifted her hand in a small gesture.

"Release your sword, Xena," the woman advised. "You do not need it."

The warrior princess shook her head. "It killed Gabrielle and it wants me dead

"This time you face an enemy who cannot be defeated by killing."

"That doesn't make any sense," Xena denied. "You find your enemy and you kill her�it," she corrected herself.

"You have been evil," M'lila pronounced. "You can fight evil." Her voice hardened. "Or you can become evil again."

"I have to kill it," Xena insisted, barely comprehending her former slave's words.

"You cannot�just as it cannot kill you�you can surrender to the beast, or you can become the beast. The choice is yours�" the woman's voice faded out as her image began to dissipate. Xena lunged, reaching for the other woman as if she might pull her back. Her hands passed through a thin fog, then M'lila was gone, and she was once again alone with the thing.

Xena tottered on her knees, eyes flashing uncertainly about the glade. It was gone, but she didn't fool herself that it had disappeared for good. She could feel its hate burning in her breast. It hated her, hated Gabrielle, longing to punish both of them. She scrambled forward, reaching out with hesitant fingers to touch the unmoving figure of the bard. Flesh that had been warm and soft was cold to the touch, the body that had once clung sweetly to her own already stiffening with the effects of rigor mortis. Xena gently brushed silky hair away from a smooth brow. The bard's eyes were open, staring sightlessly at the world and she tenderly closed them, then leaned forward to press a soft kiss to her temple.

"Very tender," a familiar voice sneered.

Xena twisted to find herself once again face to face with her own visage. The Xena-beast stood tall, her armor black and twisted in intricate patterns, the look in her eyes murderous, her sword dripping with the blood of a thousand innocents. How many victims had faced her this way? Xena frowned ever so slightly. Gabrielle had faced that, braved the warrior to find the woman within�and in the end, she had hated her for that very capacity to see past the obvious.

"What�nothing to say?" the Xena-beast demanded. "No defense for your beloved whore�won't you fight for the bitch's honor?"

Xena shook her head drunkenly. "You're me. I can't kill you," she exhaled.

The beast snarled in rage, lunging forward.

"I can't defeat you�" Xena exhaled as she felt the weapon tear into her body as it had thousands of others. "Except by surrender�"

* * * * * *

Xena stumbled into the camp, her body battered, her mind foggy. She found the queen's hut more by instinct than active knowledge, pushing the door open and limping inside. She heard the startled gasp, saw the flicker of movement in the dim glow of the coals that were all that remained of the night's fire.

"Xena!" Gabrielle's startled gasp tore at her because she truly heard and felt the fear. Gabrielle considered calling her Amazon guard, but the warrior was a pale, gaunt shadow of herself, and she was afraid a confrontation might leave her dead.

Xena slid to her knees, trembling as she rasped, "I'm sorry�I never�I never wanted to hurt you." She broke down into tears, head falling into her hands as she released the agony and guilt that could no longer be contained, no longer certain whether it was reality or just another Tartarus-born phantom she faced. Either way, she couldn't hold back the truth any longer. "No," she argued with herself, struggling to accept the lessons her own heart had been trying to teach her. "That's not true. I did�the Gods help me, I wanted to punish you for everything�for that thing touching you, for giving birth to its child�" Her fists struck the earth, welcoming the punishing pain. "For the fact that you could love that child." Her chin rose, eyes accusing. "How could you do that?!" She demanded angrily. "How could you love that thing?" Her eyes flashed with hate. "How could you love it more than me?!" She sobbed now, head falling forward into her hands.

Gabrielle stepped forward cautiously, studying her former lover with a worried gaze. She'd feared Xena might attack the camp or herself in some mad need for her idea of retribution, but this�this was totally unexpected. "She was just a child�" she whispered, remembering the tiny babe that had lain in her arms. "How could I have done what you wanted and lived with myself?" she questioned, her voice low and uncertain. Even if she had known for certain that Hope was evil then, she wasn't sure she could have done it. Wasn't sure it would have been the right thing even then. "It was murder, Xena. I couldn't have let you do that to any infant."

The words only brought harsher sobs as Xena allowed herself to remember a tiny face, soft skin. Had the babe been anyone else's, she would have protected it, tried to find another way. She saw that now. It was only because it was Gabrielle's that she'd hated it---her. She had helped shape Hope's evil just as surely as others had helped shape hers. "Oh, God, I'm sorry," she groaned, rocking gently in place. She felt Gabrielle's hands on her skin, the soft sound of her voice as she touched fevered skin.

"My God, Xena, what's happened to you?" the bard exhaled as she felt the heat burning through the warrior's body.

Ice blue eyes tipped up, their dazed sincerity shaking the bard to the core. "I'm sorry," Xena croaked and reached out with a shaking hand, touching the Gabrielle's cheek very softly. "No bruises�they healed," she whispered.

Gabrielle frowned. "Bruises?" She touched Xena's hair, finding it lank and dirty, slid her fingers up and brushed her forehead. "Xena, what are you talking about?"

"I'm sorry," Xena repeated, lost in her own daze. "So sorry�I never really wanted you dead�I just�." She shook her head drunkenly. "I just couldn't�" she trailed off, unable to complete the thought, before her splintered reasoning took off in another direction. "Then, when you couldn't remember what happened in Ilusia�" her voice trailed off into a hopeless sob that melted into a look of jealous resentment. "Why couldn't you remember? Did you want to stay with Ephiny?" Before Gabrielle had a chance to answer, the warrior snapped angrily at herself. "No, that wasn't real�just part of the illusion�the beast." She fell forward against Gabrielle, wrapping her arms tightly around her midsection to bury her face in her midsection. "I'm the beast," she moaned against her lover's skin. Clinging desperately, she collapsed into Gabrielle's hold, begging for forgiveness over and over in a litany of agony. She saw the crimes of her life laid before her, but none was so black as those on her soul; all of the things she'd thought and wished, all of the hates she'd collected and denied. For the first time in her life she confessed every single on and begged forgiveness for them all, until her body's scant strength gave out, and she passed into darkness�.

Epilogue

"How is she?" Ephiny questioned, her voice low and worried.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Better. Her fever's down and she woke enough to eat a little earlier." She looked up at the regent as she gently petted dark hair. "I tried to talk to her, but she wasn't really capable yet."

Ephiny crouched, eyes searching the unconscious woman's flushed features. "Runners have tracked her trail back through several neighboring villages. She's been stumbling about in a fever for days�maybe longer." She nodded towards a lump in the blankets where heavy bandages padded Xena's leg. "That snake bite on her thigh had had time to fester. Anyone else would probably be dead." She paused thoughtfully before continuing, "I've sent payment for a couple of farmers who've had sheep and cattle killed. Apparently she was raving about a beast stalking her�scared the Tartarus out of them�"

Gabrielle nodded, unsurprised by the news. Xena hadn't really been lucid since her arrival. "She thought she'd tried to kill me�kept apologizing for it." The bard shook her head, turning a worried gaze back toward Xena's unmoving form. "Is it possible�" she trailed off, afraid to give voice to her fears, "that she's finally�."

"Gone mad?" Ephiny questioned when Gabrielle couldn't form the words. "I don't know�but, hopefully, it was just the injury and illness. I've seen it happen before�a kind of temporary madness when the body is so badly damaged."

The Queen of Amazons nodded hesitantly, not wanting to go down the alternate path, clinging to the hope that it was just the fever that had caused her lover's fantasies. "When she arrived, she kept apologizing�I think she thinks she tried to kill me�and then she was angry because I didn't remember making up in someplace called Ilusia." The bard shook her head slowly, her confusion plainly showing in her eyes. She reached out, petting Xena's cheek, noting how the cheekbones stood out so prominently now that the warrior was so much thinner.

Ephiny sighed softly. "Her trail indicates she came down from the mountains. Trackers found Argo this morning�gone lame, ill fed, exhausted." At Gabrielle's worried look, the regent added, "I've arranged for her care. She should be all right in time." She shook her head thoughtfully. "She must have been up there �sick with grief�out of her head�hallucinating�." Ephiny shrugged. "We may never really know what happened...especially in her mind�." She touched Gabrielle's shoulder lightly, offering what little comfort she could. "If she lives�" she paused, wondering if she should have spoken, but needing an answer all the same. As regent, she had to know. "You'll leave with her, won't you?"

A long moment of silence followed the question, then Gabrielle spoke the single word very softly, and without looking back. "Yes." She drew a breath, then added, "If she'll have me."

Ephiny considered and discarded several responses, unhappy with the decision, wanting to change it, and knowing she had no right. "I should go speak with Eponin�more runners may have come in," she said at last and rose. She paused in the doorway. "I'll do anything I can to help," she offered.

Then Gabrielle did look back, offering a sad smile. It would have been so much easier if she could stay here and simply accept the Amazon way of life. "I know," she admitted.

* * * * * *

Something cool and at the same time warm was pressed against Xena's side. Pale blue eyes blinked groggily open, muscles instinctively tensing. She tipped her head down, finding silky red hair spread out over her shoulder where Gabrielle's head rested and an arm stretched across her midsection. She lifted a hand carefully, surprised to find her limbs trembling from that tiny effort.

"Gabrielle?" the warrior princess's voice was rough, little more than a croak, but it brought the bard awake in an instant.

"Xena," Gabrielle whispered, pushing up on one hand to stare down at her lover. "You're awake," she added and reached out to trace Xena's brow, amazed to find her skin neither too hot nor too cold for the first time in days.

The warrior coughed, her lungs still ragged from illness, but nodded. He breath was heavy, but her eyes were clear, no longer fogged by hallucinations and fever. She reached out a shaking hand to touch Gabrielle's cheek. "Was I wounded?" she tried to look down and check her own body, but any attempt to move just seemed to exhaust her more. She offered a tiny, embarrassed laugh before Gabrielle had a chance to answer. "I can't seem to remember."

Gabrielle continued outlining well known features. "Not exactly�you've been ill."

Xena shook her head, not quite believing that answer. "No�I'm never ill�" the words died out as she coughed heavily. "At least not usually," she admitted when she could breathe again. She settled back onto the pallet, eyelids heavy, already exhausted.

Gabrielle leaned across her, staring down into her lover's eyes as she smoothed hair back from her brow. "Relax now�get some sleep�let your body heal."

Xena nodded sleepily, already drowsy. "I dreamed about you," she whispered huskily. A small smile touched the bard's mouth, though the expression didn't quite reach her eyes, making Xena want to wipe away the hurt she glimpsed there. Following an impulse she didn't quite understand, she rasped, "I'm sorry." And reached up to smooth silky bangs away from the bard's forehead. Gabrielle caught her hand, tugging it down to kiss the back tenderly.

"I know."

"I love you, Gabrielle."

"I know," the bard repeated, though Xena would have sworn some kind of doubt lived in her eyes.

"Have I�done something?" the warrior questioned, struggling against the sleep that battered against her consciousness, sensing there was something she needed to know.

Gabrielle shook her head, kissing Xena's hand once again as she stroked her cheek lightly. "No�you just had some bad dreams�now sleep."

Xena nodded, relieved. "Love you�" she whispered again, already drifting off.

Gabrielle sat with her, gently petting her hair long into the night, as she would for nights to come as Xena's body healed, as she would whenever the warrior needed her�.

END

 

Author's Notes: With apologies to Dallas. Honestly, I found Bitter Suite anything but a satisfying conclusion to the rift, and the show's stance that it never happened in the aftermath even more unsatisfying. My response, if they can ignore it completely, I can conclude it never even happened.

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