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|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
"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
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
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
"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
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
Gabrielle didn�t look back. "Your help?" she drawled
"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
"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,"
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
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
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
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
"I saw your capacity for betrayal in every cut and bruise on her
body," Ephiny responded. "You can't believe I'd trust you
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
The warrior blinked, grateful to find herself staring into gentle
green eyes. "Gabrielle," she exhaled. "You're
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
* * * * * *
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�.
"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
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 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
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�.
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
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