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Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, and a few other characters used here are owned by MCA/Universal... though Iíve altered some of the characters quite a bit in places. I am not making a profit from this and it is not my intention to infringe on the rights of the owners of "Xena: Warrior Princess" in any way.
Disclaimer: Contains violence and language which may offend some. Depicts/implies drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and prostitution. Also depicts/implies sexual relationships between women. If you are under 18, suspect that this may not be your cup of tea, or live in a place where this type of material is prohibited by law, flee at once.
Disclaimer: There is one scene which depicts child abuse including sexual abuse. I am attempting to explicate the horror and pain associated with this type of abuse and in order to get my point across, I felt it necessary to give a fairly descriptive account here. If you feel that this may be too difficult for you to read, I respectfully ask that you donít.
Most of this was written prior to the airing of "Fallen Angel." Comments/miscellany? firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is dedicated to all who have lost in life and still... somehow found the strength to believe in the promise of tomorrow. It is also dedicated to the "guardian angels" out there who have a way of coming to us at the precise moment when we need them most.
By T.S. Chandler
Continues from here
Gabrielle slumped in her chair, her eyes roaming around the room, taking inventory of the other faces gathered in the circle. She hated these group sessions. Every afternoon at 2:00 sharp, she listened to six dreary stories, one after the other, before she forced herself to open her mouth and tell one of her own. She much preferred the individual sessions with Dr. Langford. The woman, unlike the psychiatrist in charge of the group sessions, never minced words and had a way of making her dig deeper for the answers she so desperately needed.
In group, she had discussed her drug use and the reasons for it, including the suicide thoughts and near death experience. But, unlike the other participants, she had never been an addict, though the courts had determined otherwise. She was just a confused, hurt woman looking for a way out. And making some extremely poor decisions along the way. And Dr. Langford accepted that, but she also forced the young woman to search her soul for the reasons behind her behavior. The good psychiatrist was there, not to provide the answers, but to teach her how to discover them on her own and Gabrielle respected that. After all, when she was released in two weeks, there wouldnít be anyone trudging along behind her in a white jacket, directing her every move, dictating her daily agenda. No, when she got out of this place, she was going to have to stand on her own two feet and, though the notion frightened her a bit, the thought of a chance at renewal was beginning to grow on her.
After the group session was over, she grabbed a quick bite to eat, and made her way to Dr. Langfordís office. Staring at the pictures on the wall, her mind wandering, she heard the doctorís strides interrupt the silence and pushed her shoulders back, sitting up as straight as she could in the plush blue chair. Taking in a deep breath, the psychiatrist placed a large stack of folders on the corner of her desk and took a seat in the chair across from her patient. "Gabrielle. How are you?," she asked in a manner that let the blond know she wanted an honest answer.
"I... I did what you suggested," she mumbled and stared down at the folded pieces of paper she clutched in her hand.
"The written account?" The doctorís gaze softened slightly along with her tone when the woman seated across from her nodded. "May I read it? You donít have to let me read it. You donít have to let anyone read it. The decision is yours to make."
Gabrielle felt her tears stinging her eyes as she unfolded the pages and let her eyes wander over the words. "I... I donít think I can. Iím not sure if..." She stifled her words and could feel the anger building inside her, though she wasnít sure why or with whom she was angry.
"Gabrielle..." Dr. Langford chose her words carefully, making eye contact with her patient. "Itís okay if youíre not ready. We can talk about whatever youíd like today."
The young womanís bottom lip began to quiver slightly and she cleared her throat, determined not to cry. "No. I want to do this today. I... I have to talk about it before it drives me crazy. Itís just that..." Her words were suddenly stifled and the tears began to flow, her shoulders shaking as she raised her hands to cover her face.
Unable to hide the compassion she felt for the sobbing woman, the doctor slid to the edge of her chair, leaning closer. "Iím not going anywhere," she whispered. "Take all the time you need." And with that, she passed the woman a box of tissues and leaned back in the chair again, watching the blond succumb to the pain she had kept locked away for so long.
Nearly half an hour passed before Gabrielle was able to choke back her tears and speak. "Iím ready," she said and a questioning expression appeared on Dr. Langfordís face. "I... I want you to read it." She reached forward, holding the pieces of paper out to the woman, who gently accepted them, her face seemingly frozen, revealing nothing as her eyes moved over the pages.
I was eight years old and it was raining that day. Mom was at work and Dad slept late and staggered down the hallway, straight to the fridge somewhere around noon. He popped the top on his first beer of the day and plopped down in front of the television set as usual. I could tell by the way he was breathing... he had a way of breathing... a weird sort of sigh when he was thinking about it. After a while, he made a phone call and before long Uncle Johnny arrived with another case of beer.
The two sat around drinking for what seemed like hours, insisting that I sit on the couch next to Johnny while they watched the basketball game on channel 2. "Come sit on your daddyís lap." I heard my father say before belching loudly and tossing another empty bottle onto the floor next to his chair. And I did. His breath was rank, as always, but I went anyway, sitting as still as I could, trying not to notice when his hand came to rest on my knee. I saw the looks he and Johnny were giving each other and I knew what they meant, but I thought if I was quiet enough...
It didnít take long for them to come after me. The way they always did. It started the same as always... when Dad unzipped his pants and exposed himself, forcing my hand against him. Knowing full well what was expected of me, I crawled off his lap and got down on my knees, wanting to get it over with so that I could go back to being normal again... maybe ride my bike for a while or roller skate on the sidewalk in front of the house. I remember praying for the rain to stop, longing for the sunlight. "Tell you what, Johnny. Iím going to give you a break today." I heard my father laugh and looked up at his face to find the grin of the devil himself plastered there. "Go on, Gabby. Show your uncle what I taught you."
I donít think I cried at that point, but I remember feeling sick. I knew better than to disobey my father. I still had the welts on my back from the day before. He must have owned hundreds of belts but there was one he kept hanging just inside the closet door. That was the one he used on me. And it didnít matter if I had disobeyed him or not. After a while, he started beating me every night, telling me he knew Iíd done something to deserve it... something that called for a good beating. Even when I was sound asleep in bed, he would come home after working the graveyard shift and drag me down the hallway to the den, order me to strip, and beat me until he knew I couldnít take anymore. Mom was usually there... watching. But she never said much about it. Especially if I had done something to make her angry during the day. When that was the case, she seemed to enjoy watching... hearing me scream. Lately, Iíve been thinking that maybe she hated me. Hated me because she knew about the things her husband was doing to me when she was away from the house.
On my knees, the familiar taste of piss and salt in my mouth, I heard Johnny mumble something and, without warning, my father snatched me up and tossed me onto the sofa like a rag doll, yanking what was left of my clothing off my body. I remember hitting my head on the wall on the way down and then I think I did cry. My uncle grabbed my legs, digging his fingers into my skin, leaving bruises and even though it hurt, I kept kicking, not caring about the consequences of my defiance at this point. Dad moved behind me and grabbed hold of my arms, pinning my wrists together above my head and there was nothing I could do. Johnnyís weight took my breath away and I remember crying and yelling and begging for him to stop. And he did stop... when he was finished. I remember feeling relieved until... I saw them change positions and felt my uncleís sweaty hands replace my fatherís, wrapping tightly around my wrists.
My father took longer with me than Johnny had. And he talked to me the whole time he was crashing down on me. Over and over again. I felt like I was being ripped apart. And my legs were numb. I can remember thinking that I wasnít going to be able to walk afterwards and that my mother was going to be angry. At him, for once, instead of me.
She was gone a long time and they took turns with me off and on nearly all day, alternating between that and drinking. After a while, I got sick and threw up all over the floor. I thought they would stop when they saw that I was ill. But they didnít. My father got angry and shoved my face into the puddle of vomit on the carpet and punched me a few times for making such a mess before ordering me to take a bath.
Sitting in the tub, I thought if I took long enough, it wouldnít happen again. Maybe they would forget I was there. But I was wrong. Before long, Dad came in and dragged me back down the hallway, after holding my head under the water for so long I think I nearly drowned. They were both drunk by this time and feeling pretty creative. They did things to me that afternoon that I donít think Iíll ever be able to talk about. No matter how long I sit here and write.
When she had finished reading, Dr. Lancaster carefully folded the pieces of paper and looked at the young woman who was now staring blankly out the window. "Gabrielle," she said quietly, but the blond refused to respond. "Gabrielle?" She repeated her name and waited to be acknowledged.
"What?" Gabrielle was surprised by the sharp bite in her own voice when she spoke and she knew she was giving the doctor a look that suggested she loathed her at that moment.
The psychiatrist, clearly feeling at least some of her patientís pain, stood and moved toward the woman, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.
The simple touch sparked something in Gabrielle, though she wasnít sure what. She felt the wave of emotion swell inside her soul and was unable to stop herself from falling apart no matter how hard she tried. The doctor knelt next to her and the blond leaned against her, sobbing uncontrollably on her shoulder. It wasnít long before she felt a second pair of arms wrap around her. The arms of the Amazon angel offering a safe haven for her shattered soul.
Several days had passed since her breakdown in Dr. Lancasterís office. A breakdown that she now realized had actually been a break through. "Are you ready?" Ephiny popped into sight without warning, but Gabrielle wasnít the least bit surprised.
"I was hoping..."
"I know you were." The spirit smiled and they embarked on yet another pilgrimage through time.
In the midst of what appeared to be a forest, their feet made contact with the dusty earth. The Amazon led her companion through the underbrush toward a smoldering campfire. Gabrielle stared at the two women, one of them pinning a brutish looking man to the ground. "What are they arguing about?," she asked the spirit, taking note of the scowls on both womenís faces.
"Would you believe a frying pan?" Ephiny snickered and shook her head, fond remembrances of her two companions flooding her mind.
The blond squinted her eyes and stared with wonder. "They... they look like..."
"Thatís because they are. You and Xena. The bard and the warrior. This is the final lifetime the three of us shared together. Before I was killed in battle."
Gabrielle couldnít believe her eyes. Aside from the short skirt and green tunic she was wearing, the blond looked exactly like her. And Xena. She was the spitting image of the woman who lives by the sea, except for the leather war garb of course. The words burned her eardrums as the two women bantered back and forth, bickering over the bent frying pan. Seems the warrior woman had used the coupleís only pan to beat the living daylights out of a few men who had attempted to attack them in their sleep. And the blond, clearly, was not amused. "Can we cook in your juices?!," she blurted out and Gabrielle chuckled, finding herself whisked away by the angel in the blink of an eye. "Hey!," the blond objected. "I was really enjoying that!"
"Hmmm. Well... I have a feeling you might enjoy this even more. Same time period. Shortly after the frying pan incident, matter of fact." She pointed toward the barn and the two made their way inside.
"Whoís that?" Gabrielle stared at the stout woman pouring what, judging by the rising steam, was extremely hot water into the bath tub shared by the bard and the warrior.
"Thatís Minya." Ephiny chuckled. "Sheís a trip!," she added and headed out the door behind Minya.
"Where are you going?"
The angel stood next to the doors and answered, "I think itís best if I leave you alone for this." She grinned and closed the doors, leaving her companion listening to the conversation taking place between the two women splashing around in the tub.
"Xenaaaa, thatís not the soap," the bard growled seductively and allowed the warrior to pull her onto her lap. Straddling her hips, she pressed her breasts against the woman and Gabrielle found herself unable to tear her eyes away. Oh god. I am a pervert! She told herself, but continued to watch as the warriorís hand disappeared under the water and the bard began to move her hips, sounds of sheer pleasure emanating from her throat.
Ephiny sat on a pile of neatly stacked kindling, entertained by the sight of Minya darting back and forth across the yard, in hot pursuit of an uncooperative goat. When she heard the barn door open, she watched her young companion stagger toward her, panting profusely. "Everything okay?," the angel called out, determined not to reveal the smile that was begging to cross her lips.
Breathing heavily, Gabrielle placed both hands on the pile of wood, steadying herself. "You..." She looked her friend in the eyes and continued to pant. "You... are... definitely... trying... to kill me."
"Raging libido--2. Self-restraint--0," the Amazon quipped and laughed, despite the frown on her friendís face. "Oh come on, Gabrielle! Lighten up!" She gave her a hearty slap on the back. "Consider it a bonus. I know you canít possibly have much privacy in that hospital room and, after all, you are only human." She gave her a sidelong look and narrowed her eyes, sparking the young womanís laughter.
"Ephiny?" The blond marveled at the scenery as the two walked among the trees, deciding to spend some time enjoying the splendor of nature before returning to the clinic.
"Do you have any idea how long itís been since... since I... you know?" She blushed slightly when the confession rolled off her tongue.
Taking a seat on a nearby rock, the Amazon looked at her friend and Gabrielle was taken aback by the fact that, rather than a smirk, her face revealed a look of understanding. "Youíve been through a lot. Your father and your uncle and... and then Jaimie. They were so cruel to you, Gabrielle. The awful way they treated you. The horrible things they did to you. It was more than unfair and it did more to you than leave a few bruises and scars. They almost destroyed you. Nearly all of you. And the fact that youíve been numb to so many things... physical and emotional... is no surprise to me. But you canít blame yourself and you shouldnít be ashamed of the effects your experiences have had on you. Itís perfectly understandable. You just canít let them defeat you. Thereís a time to hurt. And thereís a time to heal and, if anyone can get through this, you can."
The young woman felt herself beginning to break and thanked the higher power when she felt the spirit wrap her in her arms, the wicked pain of yesterday escaping her body in a sea of tears. And she knew, no matter what it took, she was going to rebuild her dreams, create a new tomorrow. One filled with the promise of love, of truth, of beauty, of wonder. And if that tomorrow demanded her tears, unlike yesterday, they would be short-lived and surmountable, a brief distraction from the happiness she now knew even she deserved.
Garry stood in the lobby, pacing back and forth, his eyes rising to meet the young woman fast approaching. Suddenly frozen in her footsteps, Gabrielle studied her friendís expression before darting toward him, giving him an enthusiastic hug. "Thank you. Thank you for all youíve done for me. Thank you for standing beside me. For believing in me. For giving me a chance. Youíll never know how much it means to me. Youíll never know how much I love you." She rattled the words off, unable to keep them to herself for another moment, and the man tightened his grip around her waist.
As the two made their way in the direction of Garryís car, he listened to the woman rambling on and on about the revelations she had experienced and the changes she was determined to make in her life. "...and, Garry?" She gently tugged on the manís arm, stopping him from taking another step. "Iím going to pay you back. Reimburse you for the room, the food, the electric bill, the clothes, the spending money..."
"Whoa! Slow down!" He chuckled and his eyes lit up. "One step at a time. Thereís no hurry."
"No..." She placed her hands on the manís face and spoke with earnestness. "I want to do this, Garry. Iím going to get a job and my own apartment and Iím going to pay you and Claire back."
The man gazed into his friendís emerald eyes, finding a spark there that he hadnít seen in a long time, and he knew she was going to be all right. "Okay. Do what you feel you need to do, but please keep in mind that thereís no hurry. You just concentrate on you for a while. Agreed?"
Giving him yet another quick hug, she nodded and he laughed out loud when he saw her skipping toward the car. A woman experiencing the grandeur of freedom as if for the very first time.
"Howís it going?" The Amazon appeared propped up against the bookcase next to the desk at which the young woman was seated.
"Iím drowning in a sea of job applications!" Gabrielle shoved the keyboard aside, and leaned back in her chair, her fingers beginning to cramp after hours of typing.
"Glad to hear it! Anything grab your interest yet?" She leaned over the womanís shoulder and began to sift through the stack of paper.
"Yeesss. Actually, Iíve got my heart set on this one." She handed Ephiny the document and watched as she perused the completed application.
The angel studied the piece of paper, occasionally reading words and phrases aloud. "... Oceancrest Wildlife Reserve... research assistant... dolphins... BS in Marine Biology required... top salary... benefits ..." Looking up from the page, she placed a hand on her hip, forcing herself to restrain her enthusiasm. "Nags Head, North Carolina?" She raised an eyebrow and patiently awaited her friendís response.
"Welllll..." Gabrielle smiled and began to explain. "It really is the most interesting job. And it would be a great opportunity. And the money and benefits look promising. Besides, Iíve always wanted to live near the beach. And... and... and..."
"So this has nothing to do with Xena?"
"Xena? Of course not! I hardly know the woman. I mean, I know I used to know her but... No, this is not about her." She laughed at the knowing expression on the Amazonís face and quickly added, "The fact that the position is in Nags Head is just a coincidence! Nothing more."
Ephiny grinned at her friend and said casually, "I came to visit you last night." Gabrielle felt her face flush and averted her eyes, listening as the angel continued to speak. "You were..." She moved in front of the blond, forcing eye contact. "... occupied. Want to tell me about it?"
"I... umm... errr... I was... we... she... oh god." The young woman stuttered, finally giving up when she realized that she was too flustered to form a complete sentence.
Through a huge grin, the Amazon responded. "I think you should know that what you experienced last night..."
"It wasnít a dream."
"Wh... What?! Ephiny, what are you saying? Did we... you and I... go somewhere? Together? Last night?"
"No, sweetie." The spirit shook her head and began to explain. "Youíre growing stronger. More powerful. More in tune with yourself... your present and your past. Gabrielle, you went to see her last night. But you went on your own."
"I... On my own?" The young womanís jaw dropped and she couldnít believe what she was hearing. "But... How?"
"Gabrielle, do you believe?"
"Believe? Believe what?"
"Do you believe in the things Iíve shown you? In the things youíve learned? Do you believe that you and Xena, the same Xena weíve seen on the Carolina beach, share something... special?"
The blond stared at her friend in disbelief, searching her mind for an answer. "Donít look here." Ephiny touched her fingertips to the womanís forehead. "The answer is here." She moved her hand, placing it over her friendís heart and prayed to Artemis that she would understand what she was trying to tell her.
Closing her eyes, Gabrielle concentrated, listening to the voices of the past whispering in her ear. "Our karmas," she mumbled and the Amazon felt her eyes fill with tears of joy. "Our karmas are connected. Theyíve always been connected."
"Yes, my friend. Now you understand," Ephiny said softly.
Trying to absorb the revelation, Gabrielle fell silent and focused on all that she had experienced over the course of her many life cycles. With each passing day, she remembered more and more about her past lives, particularly the things she and Xena had once shared. And with each memory, her faith in herself expanded, filling her with the hope she had been certain she would never recover. "Does she know? Does Xena know the things I know?"
"Iíve been waiting for you to ask that question," Ephiny sighed. "As I have come to you, another has come to her."
"She has a guardian angel too?"
"Yes. Yes, she does. My dear friend, Solari, was killed alongside me in the battle against the Romans. She too was chosen by Artemis. Itís her responsibility to help Xena the way itís mine to help you. Xenaís troubles and experiences in this lifetime differ from yours. Her demons are loneliness and the inability to forgive herself for past mistakes. And, if she is to be prepared for what lies ahead in a future life, she has to overcome the obstacles in this one."
"As you said, your karmas are connected. And, as you know, you are destined to lead the Amazon Nation. But, without Xena, that wonít be possible. Sheís destined to orchestrate the defeat of renegade tribes which will rise up and, in their lust for blood and power, bring about the downfall of the nation. Unless Xena is there to stop them, theyíll succeed and the Amazons will be forever extinguished. The kind of knowledge and power youíll need to fulfill your destiny is acquired over the course of many lifetimes. And that is why neither of you can afford to waste even one of your life cycles. No matter what happens, both of you must find a way to overcome your weaknesses and learn from them. And, my friend... you have to do it together."
"Ohhh. A group project, huh?," Gabrielle quipped and the spirit was clearly amused by the remark.
"Go to Nags Head, Gabrielle." Ephiny chuckled and disappeared.
The blond put her feet on the corner of the desk and leaned back in the chair, staring up at the ceiling. Together, huh? Mmmm god. Based on what I experienced last night, the idea of togetherness doesnít sound half bad. Hell, my bodyís still recovering. What a woman! I didnít know it was possible to... Damn. I have to stop thinking about it or Iím never going to get through these applications. She picked up a sheet of paper and began to fan herself, trying to quash the steam rising from her skin. Those eyes. That hair. Those lips. That body. Ohhhhh shit. She tossed the paper aside and scurried toward her bedroom. Overwhelmed by her nagging urge, she could hear the sound of the Amazonís voice ringing in her ears when she closed the door behind her. "Make it quick, Gabrielle! Youíve got a lot of work to do!"
"Ephiny!," she said in a harsh whisper when the spirit appeared in the room with her, blocking her path to the bed. "If I donít make it to that bed within the next ten seconds, Iím going to spontaneously combust!"
"That really happens, you know. Spontaneous combustion. The human body is composed of..."
"Okay, Iím leaving. Just one thing..." A mischievous smirk appeared on her face. "What youíre about to do... Xenaís already doing. This very moment. Howís that for a coincidence?" She winked before she vanished and Gabrielle felt her knees buckle as she scrambled toward the bed, disappearing beneath the covers in pursuit of relief.
Buried under the thick quilt, the woman with the sapphire eyes raised her hips off the mattress, her fingers sliding easily through the dampness between her legs. Kneading her breasts with one hand while the other worked to provide the release she craved, she heard herself say the womanís name.
The voice whispered in the young blondeís ear and she plunged her fingers deep inside, filling herself, the motion of her thumb against the aching nerves causing her body to quake. Xena. The name fell from her lips and she heard the passionate reply. Gabrielle.
Securing her bike to metal rack, the young woman took in the smell of the salt water wafting through the air on the sea breeze. Making her way over the sandy walkway, she listened to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and her heart began to dance.
Having landed her dream job, Gabrielle quickly discovered that she loved being close to the ocean. Everything about it held her captive. The gritty sand. The rolling waves. The scampering sand crabs which made an appearance each evening after dark. Though she couldnít afford a cottage or condo on the beach, she had managed to find a decent one bedroom apartment only a few blocks away. She spent her days working with Derrick Bloomfield, a local Marine Biologist, and her nights walking along the beach. Sometimes alone but, often, accompanied by the Amazon angel. As it turned out, Xenaís cottage was merely a mile away from her apartment and she and Ephiny had taken to walking the distance, losing themselves in conversation.
Emerging from the market carrying a plastic bag containing a loaf of bread, fresh chicken salad, and a quart of milk, she quickly stuffed the items into her navy blue backpack, tossed it over her shoulder, and pedaled home. Leaving Mississippi had been difficult, particularly saying goodbye to Garry. She had spent her entire life in the state and had never imagined she would someday leave it.
"Sandwiches and milk again?" Ephiny wrinkled her nose as she snooped through the grocery bag.
"Eph, what does it matter? You donít eat anyway." Gabrielle chuckled and placed the milk and chicken salad on the top shelf inside the nearly empty refrigerator.
"Exactly! The closest I get is watching you so the least you could do is humor me and order a pizza every now and then!" She slumped onto the sofa which still had that new smell even though Gabrielle had purchased it nearly two months before. Considering that she had only been working three months, the blond hadnít done a bad job decorating the place. "So... do you want to take a walk after you eat?" The Amazon waggled her eyebrows, knowing there was no way her friend was going to skip her nightly visit to the cottage by the water.
"Mmm hmm." The blond nodded and a naughty grin painted her face. "She spoke to me last night... while I was there... in her bedroom."
"Yeesss, I know. She couldnít see you, but she sensed your presence. She knew you were there and she knows who you are." The Greek spiritís tone revealed that she was pleased by the progress the two women were making. "As you have so many times before, the two of you are becoming one. What makes this time different is that you seem to be connecting before youíve even met face to face."
"Oh yeah. Weíre connecting all right. This morning, I was in the shower and I could swear she actually washed my back. You know, the way she used to... when I was Queen of the Amazons. I still canít believe I was once a queen." She giggled at the notion. "Guess my imagination is working over time, huh?"
"I wouldnít say that." Ephiny shook her head in disagreement. "If you felt Xena there with you, chances are, she probably was... in spirit. Pay attention to your hunches, Gabrielle. Trust your instincts. You and Xena share a powerful bond. And, my friend, you were a great queen."
"If Xena and I are destined to be together, why canít I just walk up and knock on her front door? Sheíll know who I am, right? She understands our connection."
"Weíve discussed this before." The angel raised an eyebrow. "Yes, sheíll know who you are when she sees you and yes, she understands the bond you share. But only the fates know when the two of you are destined to meet in this lifetime. And to force the event that is meant to happen by chance would be a huge mistake with dire consequences. I can only tell you that you will meet in this lifetime. I canít tell you when because I donít know. In this life, as in your previous lives, your relationship must develop as the fates see fit. Otherwise, you alter both of your life cycles and, therefore, your futures. And that includes your future lives. Life is a delicate tapestry, hand woven by the fates, and if you were to unravel even one thread, the effects would be irreversible."
"Then why, if my life is mapped out by the fates, are you here? Doesnít your presence in my life alter what would have been had I been forced to deal with my problems on my own?"
"My presence here is part of your destiny. Donít you see? Iím interwoven into the fabric of your life. Just as your destiny is to rule over the new Amazon Nation, mine is to prepare you for the day when you reclaim the mask. It was decided centuries ago in an agreement between the fates and the Moon Goddess. I will remain by your side for as long as you walk this earth. At least until the nation rises and you take your place as queen."
"And after that?"
"After that, Iíll pass over into the Elysian Fields where Iíll be reunited with my husband and son." A faint smile moved over the angelís lips when she uttered the words.
"Phantes and Xenan." Images of the Amazonís family appeared in Gabrielleís mind and she felt her heart sink as she sympathized with her friend. "All these years... Ephiny, why? Why would Artemis keep you from them for so long?"
"Artemis didnít condemn me to walk the earth. I volunteered. She needed my help. Our sisters needed my help. And I couldnít sit idly by, even in Elysia, knowing that I failed the Amazon Nation. Itís in my heart, Gabrielle. Itís what I am. What Iíll always be. And, when Iíve completed my mission, Iíll get my reward. Eternity with Phantes and Xenan. And the satisfaction of knowing that my sisters and the nation will thrive." Tears filled her eyes and the blond embraced her friend, in awe of her selflessness, grateful for her sacrifice.
Xena closed the drapes and lit a single candle, taking in the smell of rose petals when the wax began to melt. Breathing deeply, slowly, she took a seat on the bed and closed her eyes, allowing the visions of the bard known as Gabrielle to fill her mind. What were you to me, lovely woman? Friend. Lover. Wife. Soulmate. I guess a better question would be... what werenít you? No matter where my mind wanders... no matter which lifetime... youíre always there... standing with me, supporting me, loving me...
"And no matter where you travel, in body or spirit, sheíll always be the one thing you can count on." The angel appeared seated next to her, reaching out to gently take her hand.
"Solari," Xena whispered through a tranquil smile. "I was hoping you would come tonight."
"I just wanted to see how you were progressing. And I guess I kind of missed you." She returned the smile and playfully batted her eyelashes.
"I always knew I had that effect on people, but angels? Oh I suppose I have more skills than I thought." She laughed briefly before a grave expression appeared on her face. "Solari?" The angelís brow crinkled and she awaited the question. "How is she? Gabrielle?"
The spirit stared through the darkness at the shadowy outline of her friendís face and decided to take the opportunity to evaluate her progress. "You tell me," she insisted.
One corner of the womanís mouth shifted, creating a crooked grin. She loved a good challenge and knew what she was about to say was certain to dazzle her ghostly mentor. "Sheís doing very well. At work. At home. In her spare time. Sheís learning to love herself again. Sheís learning to love life again. And, as far as her knowledge of me... well, sheís almost as evolved as I am in that respect. She can feel my presence just as I can feel hers and she knows almost as much about our past lives together."
Solariís eyes widened and she was obviously impressed. "How do you know all of this? How can you be certain?"
Xena puffed her chest out slightly, proud of her accomplishment. "I followed her all day today. I witnessed her every move, every thought, every word, every emotion. And, my friend... I never even left the house." She stood and walked across the room, flipping on the light. "I did something else today during my journey," she said when she opened the door to the closet and reached inside.
The angel looked on curiously. Like Ephiny with Gabrielle, she had spent a great deal of time with Xena when she had first appeared to her. But, as the womanís knowledge and skill increased, she began to give her more and more time to figure things out for herself which she had successfully managed to do. She did check on her occasionally, sometimes appearing and sometimes covertly hovering overhead. But now, the former warrior was a pro at detecting her presence and always knew when she was watching.
"Close your eyes," Xena said and, when the angel complied, made her way back across the room, stopping when she was standing in front of her. "Okay. You can open them."
Solari lifted her eyelids and a gasp of surprise escaped her lips when she saw the items the woman was holding in her hands. "The gods, Xena! You did it!"
"Mmm hmm." She nodded and passed the objects to the wide-eyed angel.
"I always wanted one of these." The spirit chuckled, her eyes fixed on the shiny round object in her hand.
"A chakram? Yeah, most people did. They were pretty rare. In fact, the only other person I know of who had one was whatís her name, the blond with the big mouth. Oh yeesss... Callisto. What a bitch! What ever became of her anyway?"
"Ever seen the Lincoln Memorial?"
"The guy in the chair... heís sitting on her."
"Oh come on! Youíre full of shit!," she cackled.
"No. Sheís in there. She came back as a crooked politician and got herself between a rock and well... another rock. Heh heh. Sheís never coming back. Oh and Joxer..."
"Heís with Callisto."
"Joxer?! What did he do to deserve such a fate?"
"Xena, I know he was your friend but letís face it, the man was an idiot. And I have to tell you, he only got worse with each lifetime. The gods kept him around for a while for entertainment but eventually, as we all predicted, they tired of his antics and decided that the world would be a better place without him in it." She placed the chakram on the bed next to her and turned her attention to the magnificently crafted sword. "So, tell me, how did you manage to retrieve these?," she asked, though she already knew the answer.
Her eyes shimmering, Xena gave a detailed account of her journey through time, her meeting with Ares, and the brilliant maneuvers she had executed in order to defeat the God of War himself in a battle for possession of the coveted weapons. The weapons which had belonged to her centuries ago when she was known as Xena, Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle slipped her foot into her tennis shoe and tied the laces. "Letís do this before I get lazy and decide to go home and take a nap," she said to the woman patiently waiting in the doorway.
"The weatherís perfect. Might as well make the most of it," Karen replied, holding the door open for her companion. She had been hired by the wildlife reserve three days after Gabrielle went to work there and the two had immediately formed a bond when they discovered that they were neighbors. Karen lived in the same apartment complex, only two buildings away from her co-worker and the two had been running together at least twice a week for nearly two months. Karen was a nice looking woman with a sharp wit and an even sharper intellect. Gabrielle enjoyed the time they spent together, particularly their discussions about the splendor of the ocean and everything in it.
The cold air stung her lungs as she ran, her cheeks red from the wind blowing in her face. When they had completed their four miles, the blond slumped onto a nearby bench and wiped the sweat from her brow. "Gab? What are you doing tonight?," Karen asked, rolling up the sleeves on her faded sweatshirt.
"Well, I really hadnít thought about it." Gabrielle shrugged and glanced up at a flock of seagulls flying overhead.
"Do you ever shoot pool?"
"Pool? Yeesss, I have. But itís been a while."
"Why donít we go out tonight? Find a good band, have a couple of drinks, relax for a change?"
Though she was tempted by the idea of doing something different, she wasnít so sure she wanted to spend her evening in a smoke-filled bar. "I donít know," she groaned.
"Live a little, Gab. Whenís the last time you let your hair down?," Karen scoffed.
"It hasnít been that long!" She laughed and gave the question some consideration. "Well... okay, itís been a while," she admitted.
"Then weíre on. 8:00?"
The blond gave her a sheepish look and nodded, still not sure whether or not she liked the idea. "8:00. Iíll meet you at your place."
"Good!," Karen said enthusiastically and the two made their way toward the paved walkway.
The colorful lights swirled around the room while the thundering music pounded through the walls. "Great band." Karen nudged her friendís shoulder. "One of my favorites."
"Do they have a name?," Gabrielle asked, speaking into the womanís ear in order to be heard over the noisy crowd.
"Yeah. Snake Eyes."
"Hell, donít ask me." She shrugged her shoulders. "But you gotta admit, itís catchy. Iím going to get a drink. What do you want?" She reached in her pocket and retrieved her wallet, eyeing the bar.
"Do they have iced tea?"
Karen put her hand to her mouth and feigned a huge yawn. "Iced tea? Youíve got to be kidding."
"No. Thatís what I want. Iced tea." She smiled uneasily and watched her companion roll her eyes and saunter across the room. Maybe it was boring, but she had no intentions of clouding her mind, numbing herself with alcohol or anything else. Those days were behind her. She wanted to feel every emotion, see every vision, live every moment that life had to offer. Looking around the room, she quickly noticed that she was in a lesbian bar. She watched the members of the all-female band step down off the stage for a much needed break and, within seconds the sweaty, but fairly attractive, bass player approached and offered to buy her a beer which she politely declined, sending the woman stomping off in a snit.
"No iced tea. Sorry. Hope you like 7-Up," Karen announced, passing her the slender glass. Gabrielle watched her friend toss her head back, inhaling a double shot of Jack Daniels before sucking down nearly half a mug of beer in a single swallow.
When the two women had finished their fifth game of pool, Karen mumbled something about the slow song blaring over the speakers and asked her friend to dance. Tired and having had more than her fill of the rowdy crowd, the blond suggested that they call it a night. "One dance. And then weíll leave, okay?" Karen downed the rest of her ninth beer and placed the bottle on the bar before reaching for Gabrielleís hand. Reluctantly, the young woman allowed herself to be led to the dance floor, excruciatingly uncomfortable when her companion wrapped her arms around her waist and pulled her close.
Wrapped in the staggering womanís arms, her potent breath stinging her neck, Gabrielle began to feel as though she might vomit. "Hey," she said quietly in her friendís ear and Karen mumbled an incoherent response. Now supporting the drunken womanís weight, the blond could feel her stomach churning, memories of Jaimie flooding her mind. "Hey!," she said louder and Karenís body flinched.
"What is it, Gab?," she grumbled and drew her nearer, holding her tight. Too tight.
"Karen, Iím ready to leave. Iím not feeling very well."
"Letís just finish this dance and then weíll go," she answered, by this time repeating what she had said three songs before.
"I gotta go," the blond said with more force and attempted to wriggle out of the womanís arms, a wave of terror washing over her when she realized that Karen had no intentions of letting her go.
"Okay. Okay. Weíll go. Just one kiss and weíll go." She leaned in close and tightened her grip , brazenly sliding her hands down Gabrielleís back and over her buttocks.
"Karen..." She tried to speak as tears formed in her eyes, but her fear overwhelmed her. Placing the palms of her hands flat against the womanís shoulders, she gave her a shove, sending her stumbling backwards. "Iím... Iím sorry. Iím... Iím just..."
"Youíre just what?!," Karen shouted, causing heads to turn in their direction. "Just a tease?! Just a conniving little tease?!" Her glassy eyes scanned the room, taking note of the people now glaring at her. "Thatís right. Take a good look, ladies! Cause what youíre looking at here..." She held out her hands, gesturing toward Gabrielle. "Is a tease! A bitchy little tease who hasnít seen any pussy since the day she was born!"
The blond watched in horror as Karen toppled over, landing on the floor with a thud when a stocky woman with short dark hair landed a blow to her left cheek. "You all right?," the woman asked, obviously concerned.
Gabrielle meekly nodded, thanked her asking, and slowly wandered off the dance floor toward the exit. On her way out, she heard some of the women offering words of consolation. Her hands in her pockets, she shuffled toward the door, fighting back her tears.
She soon felt a warm breeze interrupt the chill in the air and, drying her eyes with the back of her hand, turned and headed in the opposite direction. The anger of a thousand yesterdays swelled in side and fire sparked in her eyes as she pushed her shoulders back when she heard Karen yell, "Gab! Baby! You rotten little tease! Change your mind about me?! Came to your senses, didnít ya?" She moved toward her and pulled her into a bear hug, whispering in her ear, telling her precisely what she had in mind for her "tight little body."
"Mmmm. Sounds nice, but Iíve got a better idea," Gabrielle purred in a seductive tone. "Iíve decided..." She moved her finger tips over the buttons on Karenís shirt and the crowd of females surrounding them watched with anticipation. "Iíve decided...," she repeated. "...that Iím going to teach you a lesson!" She raised her voice, startling the curious bystanders, and backhanded the woman, sending her crashing into the table behind her. Furious, Karen picked up a beer bottle and slammed it into the edge of the table, threatening the blond with the jagged edge. When she lunged in her direction, Gabrielle rolled out of her way, rising to her feet when she reached the corner of the room. Spewing obscenities, Karen staggered toward her and the young woman surprised her when she reached for the broom propped up against the wall, giving it a series of skillful spins that mesmerized everyone in the room. An effortless blow to the abdomen and one to the shins brought the drunken woman down quickly and sparked cheers from the onlookers huddled around the two women. "Apologize to these ladies for screwing up their night," Gabrielle demanded through clenched teeth, pointing the end of the broom at Karenís chest. Inebriated, defeated, and utterly mortified, the woman looked up the blond and at the sea of faces peering down on her. "Iím... Iím sorry," she mumbled and Gabrielle tossed the broom to the side. "Yes. Yes, you are sorry," she growled and made her way to the door, ushered out by a roar of approval rising from the crowd.
Lying in bed, she sensed that the angel was near. "Ephiny?"
"Rough night, sweetie?" The Amazon was suddenly stretched out on the bed next to her.
"Gods, you have no idea," Gabrielle moaned.
"Yeah, I hate bars and Iím a magnet for alcoholic lesbians."
"Iím pretty good with a broom handle," she snickered.
"Thatís what I wanted to hear," Ephiny said and rolled over, pulling the blankets over her shoulders. Pretty good indeed.
The angel pulled the brush through the dark tresses, listening to her friend rattle on and on about the blond bard. "When, Solari?! When is it going to happen?!," Xena asked at the end of her lengthy spiel.
"Iíve already told you. I donít know. The fates will..."
"The fates, the fates! Yeah, yeah. I know, but do they have to be so damned slow?! Iím ready. And so is Gabrielle."
The angel gave the womanís hair a playful tug, forcing her head back, enabling her to look her in the eyes. "Xena, youíll meet when the time is right. Thatís all I can tell you. It might be tomorrow. It might be next week. And it might be twenty years from now. I honestly donít know." She released her companionís hair and resumed the task of brushing the long strands. "I donít know why youíre complaining. You can see her whenever you like."
"Itís not the same. Without... flesh and bone... I want to touch her. Really touch her. And, lately, when I go to her, I feel worse than if I donít see her at all. This is torture!" She clenched her fists, obviously running out of patience.
"What?!," she snapped, hastily turning to face the spirit.
"Xena..." Solari placed her hand on the agitated womanís cheek, softly caressing the smooth skin. "Youíve fallen in love with her again, havenít you?"
Her heart pounding in her chest, resounding in her ears, she lowered her head and began to speak. "I remember everything, Solari. Everything we ever shared. Every word she ever said. Every smile that ever crossed her lips. She was my friend, my soulmate, my lover, my wife. I loved her then and... I love her now."
The angel listened carefully to the words, deeply moved by the heartfelt emotion attached to them. She knew Xena was hurting. She knew she longed to be with Gabrielle... needed to be with her. Yet there was nothing she could do to help her. Even as an immortal, she was bound by the laws of the universe, constrained by the rules established by the higher powers. "Xena, Gabrielle has come a long way and each day she learns something new. But she hasnít reached the level youíve managed to reach and, if you love her, youíll be patient with her. She has to do this at her own pace."
Xena closed her eyes, determined not to cry, and said quietly, "I canít bring myself to go to her tonight, but I donít think I can stand to be alone."
Without a word, the angel snuffed out the light and turned back the covers on the bed, climbing in behind her melancholy friend.
Gabrielle sat up in bed, clinging to her pillow. "Gabrielle? What is it? Whatís wrong?" The Amazon turned to face her.
"Itís morning," she whispered, staring at the sunlight shining through the window. "Ephiny?"
"I know." The angel spoke softly, aware that her friend was hurting.
"Why? Why didnít she..."
"Why didnít she come last night? Gabrielle, trust me. She has her reasons." The angel knew that Xena had fallen deeply in love with the blond, just as she had in every lifetime prior to this one. That was one pattern that had been consistent life cycle after life cycle. Xena was always the one in the lead and, therefore, always the one pining away for her love while the fates took their sweet time bringing them together.
"What reasons?" The young woman stared at the Amazon, her eyes demanding an answer.
"Gabrielle..." She released a heavy sigh. "This process is carefully mapped out. I know it can seem tedious and I know at times patience is hard to come by. Your job is to move on with your life, taking the time to learn as much as you can about yourself with each passing moment. Everything that happens to you happens for a reason and that includes the fact that Xena didnít make an appearance last night. Besides, you could have gone to her if you had chosen to. Why didnít you?"
The blond squinted her eyes and massaged her throbbing temples. "Because I sensed that she didnít want to see me," she mumbled.
"Sweetie, this will work out. You just have to..."
"I know. I know. Be patient," she growled, clearly annoyed.
"Soooo..." Ephiny stood and stretched her legs. "No work today. What do you plan to do with yourself?" She raised an eyebrow and gave her the same look her mother used to give her when she knew she had homework to do.
"Meditate, time-travel, work on my broom handle technique, hang out with a Greek Amazon angel, haunt the cottage by the sea. You know... the usual." She managed a smile, crawled out of bed and, slipping past the grinning Amazon, headed for the shower.
Ephiny stood next the window, taking in the not-so-interesting view of the parking lot below. Donít give up now, my friend. Youíve come so far. I know itís hard, but you have to have faith. You have to believe in the significance of your life, of your future, of your purpose. And today, my queen, you have a mission. A very important mission and, though you may not understand, this is one journey youíre going to have to take on your own. With a silent prayer to Artemis, the angel disappeared, trusting the young woman to rely on her own devices.
Xena felt her muscles relax and knew instantly that the blond was near. Concentrating, remaining perfectly still, she allowed the warm hands to move over her shoulders and down her arms before gentle fingers came to rest on her cheeks and soft lips met with her own. Mmm Gabrielle. She let herself melt into the kiss, sacrificing her soul to the sweet caress. The gods help me. I want you. I need you.
The young blond sat alone in her apartment, her body reclined on the bed, her mind on an erotic journey. Iím right here, Xena. I know you canít touch me. Not the way you want. But I pray you can feel me the way I feel you.
Sapphire eyes slowly closed and the raven haired woman could feel the gentle force pressing against her until she was lying flat on her back. I canít do this again. I canít stand the torment of knowing youíre here and not being able to... Oh gods, Gabrielle, canít you see? I need you. Not part of you. All of you. She felt the soothing warmth move over her neck and turned her head, giving herself over to the enchanting lips devouring her flesh, her body trembling when the sensation traveled over her breasts, culminating in a soft kiss near the center of her abdomen. And then she knew she was, once again, alone. "This is killing me!," she bellowed, helpless and frustrated. "Solari! Do you hear me?! Iím dying here!"
"Oh stop being melodramatic," the angel quipped when she made her appearance and a wry grin appeared on her face.
"She just left! Can you believe that?!," Xena ranted. "She was here kissing me and... Ohhh godssss help me! Then, out of the blue, she just went away! Poof! Gone!"
"Xena? Xena?!" The angel waved her hand in front of the womanís eyes in an attempt to gain her attention.
"What?!," she huffed.
"Did it occur to you that maybe she left because of something you said? Or, more accurately, something you thought?"
The former warrior grumbled under her breath and tried to focus. "Oh," she sighed quietly when she realized that Gabrielle had probably sensed her frustration over not being able to be with her in the flesh. "Guess I drove her away, huh?"
"No, baby, you didnít drive her away. Seems to me that sheís just trying to be respectful of your feelings."
"Yeah, I guess." Xena reached for her sword and began sharpening the dull blade, her mind consumed with thoughts of her soulmate.
Damn it! Gabrielle pulled the blankets over her head and pressed her hands to her forehead. She hadnít meant to agitate the woman. She just needed to see her, to be near her for a moment. "Am I ever going to get this right?!," she yelled and Ephinyís response sounded in her ears.
"Iíd put my dinars on you any day."
The young woman stared down at her attire, the familiar skirt and green tunic, and quickly noticed that she was carrying a satchel over her shoulder. What the... Hastily, she began to rummage through the contents, discovering several neatly rolled scrolls which she began to greedily devour, hanging on every word scrawled on the ancient parchment.
Only moments before, she had been sitting at her kitchen table, thinking about all that had transpired over the past year. Without warning, she found herself being transported through time, ending up here in the midst of the life cycle she had previously visited with her guardian angel. Only, the last time she was here, she had been wearing her own 20th Century attire and had been a mere witness to the life she once lived, watching the bard and the warrior frolic in the bath. But somehow she knew that this visit was different, though she had yet to figure out why. This time, she wasnít observing the body she had once inhabited. This time, she was actually in it.
Her eyes devoured the stories written on the scrolls, tales of the Amazon Queen and the Warrior Princess. Lost in thought, she sensed that someone was fast approaching and looked up from the parchment, stunned when she saw the form moving closer. Jesus? Nooooo. It canít be. But Iíve seen him before. She stared at the man with the long hair, wearing a flowing robe and sandals. Eli. The name popped into her head and, with it, the memories of the devi who had been by her side during the days just before her death on the cross.
"Gabrielle." He smiled when he said her name, drawing her into a tender embrace.
"Eli. My friend. How... how are you?" Not certain what she should say, she struggled to get the words out.
"I wouldnít get too chummy with him if I were you." A voice thundered in her ears and a puff of smoke emerged among the trees, evaporating to reveal yet another familiar face.
"Ares," the blond snarled, instantly on the defensive though she wasnít quite sure why.
"Do you know why youíre here, Gabrielle?" The God of War smirked and folded his arms over his chest. Noting the puzzled expression on the young womanís face, he continued. "Eli. Show her the little trinket youíre hiding under your robe."
The deviís face contorted as he reached under his cloak.
"Look familiar?," Ares asked through an arrogant grin.
The blond studied the oblong object, quickly recognizing it as the staff she once carried. The staff Ephiny had given her so long ago. She reached out and touched the feathers adorning the weapon, recalling the heartfelt gesture of her Amazon friend. Attempting to take the staff from the deviís hand, she was surprised when he refused to let go.
"Oh no. Itís not that simple, young bard," Ares grumbled and shook his head. "You need the weapon, but then Iím sure you already know that. But thereís a catch. Care to explain, Eli?" Enjoying the intensity of the moment, he shifted his eyes in the direction of the devi.
"Iím sorry, Gabrielle," the man said meekly. "But I canít condone violence. And if I give you the staff, youíre certain to use it to promote bloodshed and warfare. Itís not your fault. I know that. And I know you love your Amazon sisters but... but I canít support you in this. I know too much about your future. About what will happen if you resume the mask in a future life. Take the staff if you must, but youíll have to do it by force." The blond looked into her friends eyes, entranced by the stillness she found there.
"You know what you have to do, Gabrielle. And personally, I think itís pointless to drag this out. So, go on. Get it over with." His eyes narrowed and bounced back and forth between the bard and Eli.
The young woman read the godís mind and, realizing what she had to do, felt her heart beginning to crack. She was destined to retrieve the weapon and if she failed, she would alter her future, risking the demise of her Amazon sisters and the end of her connection with Xena. "The fates have made their decision," Ares said loudly, interrupting her thoughts. "Now make yours."
Lying on her bed, her face buried in her pillow, she began to cry. "Gabrielle?" Ephiny knelt next to the bed, placing a comforting hand on her back.
"I killed him, Ephiny. I murdered an innocent man. My friend. A man who wanted nothing more than to spread the message of peace. What kind of monster am I?! How could I do something like that?!," she wailed, overcome by her misery and guilt.
The angel glanced at the staff lying on the bed next to the weeping woman and whispered in her ear. "You did exactly what you were meant to do. When you chose the way of peace all those years ago, you chose a path that was in direct conflict with Amazon ways. An Amazon cannot live by a code of constant peace and harmony. Itís not possible. Our laws demand that we defend ourselves, our sisters, our nation. When Callisto broke Xenaís back and you saw her lying there on the ground, helpless, you broke from your way and defended her. But Artemis needed to be certain that you had transformed permanently. Gabrielle, we all did. You hold the future of our nation in the palm of your hand and Artemis had to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you would be willing to defend it. Thatís why you had to do what you did to retrieve the staff."
"Ephiny, I just killed one of my dearest friends!"
"No, Gabrielle. You didnít."
The blond raised her head and waited for an explanation. "You were being tested, Gabrielle. Tested by Artemis. Tested by the fates. You didnít kill Eli. You only thought you did. What you destroyed was a mirage. It was a necessary step to fulfilling your destiny, taking your place as ruler of the Amazons. Do you understand?"
"Ephiny, I broke the manís neck with my bare hands." She cringed at the thought and her anger began to rise to the surface. "I thought I was killing an innocent human being. Can you understand that?" She felt her jaw tighten when she turned her back to the angel, disillusioned with the way things were going.
"Gabrielle, think back for a minute. Think of the Amazons you knew and loved during your time as queen. Think of the faces of the women who managed to weave their way inside your heart, inside your soul. Do you remember them? Your sisters? Your friends? Gabrielle, do you remember me?" Her tone was passionate and stern as she tried to jog her friendís memory.
The blond let her mind wander back through time, memories of the women she had once loved coming back to her in an emotional torrent that rocked her to the core. And, in an instant, she understood. What she had done hadnít been in vain. She did what she had to do for the greater good. And though it was one of the most difficult decisions she had ever been forced to make, she knew she had made the right one. Of course, knowing that she had actually destroyed an illusion rather than a living being certainly helped to calm her nerves.
"She has the staff." Xena stared ahead as though she were in a trance and the angel, upon hearing the words, couldnít help but smile.
"It wonít be long now," Solari said under her breath.
"What? What did you say?"
"Noth... nothing. Itís just that this is a big step. Each of you has passed a significant test, one that plays an important role in your reunion."
"Itís going to happen soon, isnít it? Isnít it?! Tell me! When? When do I get to meet her face to face?" Xenaís enthusiasm was evident as she pleaded with the spirit, begging for more information.
"Xennaaaa," Solari groaned and shook her head. "You know I canít answer that question. I have no idea!"
"Maybe you canít tell me exactly when, but you know something youíre not telling me."
"I can only tell you this..." She couldnít help but laugh when Xena scurried across the room and grabbed both of her arms, clinging to them as though her life depended on it in anticipation of her next words. "In your past lives, during each and every life cycle, the two of you met shortly after both of you had traveled through time to, once again, occupy the bodies you had once inhabited. Back to the lifetime when you were a warrior and Gabrielle was a bard."
Xenaís eyes lit up and she began to ramble wildly. "And weíve done that. Solari, weíve done that! I went back and battled Ares for my weapons... in the body of the Warrior Princess. And now, Gabrielle has done the same thing! She used her body, the body of the bard, to deny the way of peace and retrieve her staff. Of course weíre going to meet soon! Why would the fates change a pattern that has been the same for hundreds of years?! Finally! After all this time!" She leaned forward and, in her enthusiasm, kissed the angel square on the mouth before erupting into a brief, but energetic, dance of pure elation.
"Xena, donít get your hopes up. Just because... Hey! Where are you going?!," she called out after the woman who was now heading down the hallway.
"To take a shower! Have to look my best you know!"
The angel, realizing that there was no point in trying to reason with her friend, shrugged her shoulders and took her leave.
"Ephiny, sheís so ready to be with her. Sheís driving herself and me absolutely crazy!" Solari threw her hands in the air in frustration.
"Sheís been the same way lifetime after lifetime. You would think youíd be used to it by now," the Amazon snickered.
"I know. Sheís just so... Well, after all, we are dealing with Xena here."
"Yeah. She can be pretty headstrong. Iím surprised she doesnít just damn the fates to Tartarus and head straight to Gabrielleís apartment."
"Bite your tongue!" Solari gave her friend a slap on the shoulder.
"Remember that time you had to tie her to a tree to keep her from tracking Gabrielle down?! Gods that was funny!" Ephiny doubled over with laughter.
"Funny to you maybe. She gave me hell!," Solari exclaimed and joined in her friendís laughter.
"You know Gabrielle wonít admit that sheís in love with her?"
"Yeah, yeah. I know. Same shit. Different lifetime. How long do you suppose it will take her this time?"
"Oh sheíll admit it before long. Sheís bursting at the seams. I can see it in her eyes. Sheís fallen pretty hard and something will happen to make her snap and, when it does, sheíll burst into one of her infamous unbridled testimonies. She always does." She shook her head, her affection for her friend obvious. "Shouldnít you be getting back to Xena?"
"Gods yes! Hades knows what sheíll do if I leave her alone too long in the state sheís in!," Solari announced and quickly vanished, Ephiny following her lead.
The angel appeared next to the dark haired woman and looked on as her friend studied the exquisite sword, running her fingers along the flat side of the blade, staring at her own distorted reflection in the shiny steel. "You going to be all right on your own tonight?," Solari asked, sensing that Xena needed to be alone. The former warrior nodded her head, never taking her eyes off the weapon that seemed to hold her captive, and the angel vanished.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielleís eyes were fixed on the fighting staff when she spoke and the Amazon slowly walked toward her until she was standing at her side. "Would you mind if I spent tonight by myself?," she asked, still gazing at the wooden weapon.
"No. Of course I wouldnít mind. You need time on your own," she said understandingly. "Youíll let me know if you need me?"
The blond mumbled a quiet "yes" and the Amazon disappeared from sight.
Staring down at the staff she held in her hands, Gabrielle found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the feathers adorning the tip. Unsure of what was about to happen and unable to do stop it, she watched her fingers tighten around the wood until blood poured from her hands. The walls circled around her and, terrified and trembling, she heard the staff hit the floor before she felt herself being drawn in by a force too powerful to resist.
Lying flat on her stomach on the floor, tears pouring down her cheeks, Xena struggled to rise to her feet, crying out when her body betrayed her. One hand gripped the sword lying next to her while the other reached out for the chakram, lying in two pieces on the floor, just out of reach. She took in a deep breath and the agonizing pain ripped through her spine once more. "Solari!" She screamed in misery, calling out for the angel when she realized her back was broken.
Solari, looking down on the woman, flinched and Ephiny reached for her arm. "No. We canít help them. You know that. They have to do this without us," she reminded the angel and her eyes filled with tears when she heard Gabrielleís voice rip through the air, begging her to stop the pain.
Xena, lying on the floor in her isolated cottage, and the blond, being forced against the wall by a will far more powerful than her own, simultaneously closed their eyes and prayed that the anguish would soon end.
Gabrielle felt the sturdy nail puncture her skin, cracking the bones in her feet. Forcing her eyes open and her head to the side, she watched the woman next to her meet the same fate. The falling snow chilled their flesh as the soldiers hoisted one cross, and then the other, forcing them upright. And the two women felt their souls leave their bodies in a river of warm blood.
The waves crashed on the shore, the white foam drifting slowly over the sand. The sky was dark and the moon took refuge behind a thick blanket of clouds. Disoriented and out of breath, Xena raised her head, spewing sand from her mouth, scanning the beach for any sign of life. She didnít know where she was or how she had gotten there as she gathered enough strength to stand. "Solari," she said aloud, but the angel was no where to be found.
Gabrielle awoke lying on her back in the icy surf. Confused, she stared up at the night sky and could feel the gritty sand scratching against her flesh. Struggling to sit upright, she reached up and tugged at the strands of seaweed tangled in her hair. "Ephiny! Ephiny!" She was terrified and her voice trembled when she cried out.
The two Amazon angels lingered overhead, keeping vigil over the women, helpless to do anything but watch and send a silent prayer to the Moon Goddess on behalf of their friends.
Lost and alone, Xena trudged over the sand, hoping she was headed in the right direction. She looked out over the rolling water, barely able to see the dark line of the horizon in the distance. Dressed only in the pair of jeans and thin white T-shirt she had been wearing before she was seized from her home, the cold sand stung her bare feet and the wind caused her body to shiver.
Gabrielle wandered through the darkness, listening to her teeth chatter, wishing she was wearing more than a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt. Seeking out the North Star, she cursed the sky when she couldnít find it and continued to make her way down the beach. The memory of her own brutal death fresh in her mind, she turned her thoughts to the woman she had seen hanging on the cross beside her. Deep in thought, she wasnít sure whether to be relieved or afraid when she spotted the approaching form.
Xena squinted her eyes, quickly realizing that the shadow in the distance belonged to a woman. Thank the gods. Maybe she can tell me where the hell I am. Picking up her pace, she moved ahead, placing a hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the blowing sand.
A sigh of relief escaped through the young blondeís lips when she caught a glimpse of the womanís shapely form and long tresses. She looks like she knows where sheís going. Mustering her remaining energy, she began to jog, heading in the direction of the approaching stranger who suddenly stopped moving. Coming to an abrupt halt, she strained her eyes, trying to see the womanís face.
Xena felt her legs weaken and her heart skip a beat. Overwhelmed and unable to believe her eyes, she nearly dropped to her knees, barely managing to steady herself. Her mouth opened and she tried to speak, struggling until the words finally came. "Ga... Gabrielle? Is... is that you?"
The blond instantly recognized the familiar voice and tears trickled down her cheeks as she continued toward her. Standing only a few feet from the woman, she felt her body go limp. Trembling, Xena lunged forward, catching her before she could fall. Gabrielle slipped easily into the womanís embrace. "Xena," she whispered through her tears and held tight to the familiar warm body next to her own.
The former warrior pulled her close, kissing her forehead, taking in her enchanting scent. "Iíve missed you," she said softly and as though not a day had passed since they were last together, the two women merged as one. The memory of yesterday. The promise of today. The hope of tomorrow.
Solariís eyes popped open when her fellow angel snatched her off her feet in an exhilarated bear hug. "Yeesss! Finally!," Ephiny shouted, bursting with excitement upon witnessing the long awaited reunion of the bard and the warrior.
"Eph... Ephi... ny," Solari managed through labored breaths. "As an... an... angel, you should... should know I still need... need to breath."
The Amazon spirit, realizing that she was crushing the air out of her companionís body, quickly released her. Grinning from ear to ear, she folded her arms over her chest and looked down through the clouds at the two women now lost in their embrace.
"Beautiful, isnít it?," Solari whispered through a contented sigh.
"Breathtaking, my friend." Ephiny continued to look on as her mind drifted toward Elysia and the immortal love that waited for her there. For a moment, she could see the faces, hear the voices of the two Centaurs and she longed for the day when she would be with her family. The birth of her son was the only thing that had kept her going when Phantes was murdered during a senseless war in which he had no interest. And her own death at the end of a sword deprived her young child of his mother and a young mother of her son. Never had she experienced the joy of being with both husband and son at the same time. But she knew when her mission was complete, when the future of the Amazon Nation was secure, she would cross to the other side and, at long last, fulfill her dream.
Nearly a month had passed since that night on the beach, the night when the warrior and her bard were finally reunited. The two women had spent a great deal of time together. In fact, they hadnít allowed a single day to pass when they didnít at least have dinner together. Their bond was growing stronger as time progressed. Stronger than ever before.
Gabrielle sat on the edge of the top step outside the cottage, admiring the spectacular sky as the sun sank into the horizon. "Come inside. Itís getting cold out here." The soothing voice warmed her soul as strong arms wrapped around her shoulders. Without hesitation, she stood and followed the woman inside.
Xena reclined on the bed next to the window and the blond accepted her quiet invitation to join her, sinking easily into her embrace. She felt the womanís fingers sliding through her hair and soft lips against her forehead, lulling her to sleep with tender kisses. Sharing the same dream, they journeyed through the portals of time, finding themselves in the midst of a city filled with wailing, consumed in flames, war planes flying overhead.
Gabrielleís legs ached as she ran down the cobblestone street, dodging the falling debris. "In here!," she shouted, leading the small boy through narrow tunnel which led beneath the ground. Crawling on their hands and knees, the young woman and child soon reached their destination, a small open space now filled from end to end with frightened men, women, and children, weeping and cowering against the walls and each other.
Above ground, Nazi soldiers were flooding the streets, forcing those left behind toward the caravan of military trucks, herding them inside like cattle. Gabrielle held tightly to the little boy, rubbing his back in an attempt to comfort him when he buried his head in her dress and began to sob. Her parents had been taken by Hitlerís men three days before and, though she didnít want to believe it, she knew she would never see them again. Her brother, the small blond-headed boy now clinging to her for dear life, was all she had left in the world and, if she had to lose her own life to save him, she would.
When the explosions and turbulence above ceased, the crowd slowly moved through the narrow tunnel toward the surface. Gabrielle lowered herself to the ground and leaned against the wall, rocking her baby brother back and forth, her heart nearly splitting in two when she heard him say, "Why do they hate us?"
Merely six years old, his sense of perception had always astounded the young woman. It wasnít so much what he knew, but what he understood. When she had explained to her brother that he shouldnít speak of his Jewish heritage in public anymore, he had looked her in the eyes and replied, "Why? Hitler isnít God, is he?"
The recollection brought a faint smile to her lips. No, Hitler wasnít God and she couldnít help but question her own behavior. Hiding here below the streets from someone who was, in fact, a mere man. But then, what choice did she have? What choice did any of her people have?
Xena sank deeper into the dream, watching the blond cradle the young boy until the scene faded away and she was carried over the streets, soon finding herself in a dimly lit room, surrounded by uniformed men. She listened as they talked and quickly realized that the man with his back to the rest of the group was herself. The self she had been in a former life. His voice was loud and his tone stern as he spoke of politics and warfare. Still addressing the group of soldiers, he slowly turned to face them. The warriorís body twitched when his face was revealed and, jolted from her slumber, she sat upright, sweat pouring down her face as she repeated the words over and over again, "Iím sorry, Gabrielle." She reached for the blond who was still lost in the dream, terrified when she was unable to wake her.
Emerging from the underground, the young blond led her brother by the hand, trying to remain in the shadows where they wouldnít be seen. She heard the footsteps behind her and began to run, pulling the young boy by his arm as the gunshots ran in her ears. Stopping in her tracks, she felt the childís hand slip from her own and tears poured from her eyes when she turned to look back. There on the ground lay the little boy, choking on his own blood as it trickled from his mouth and nose. Kneeling beside him, she drew him into her arms, straining to hear his final words. "Iím going home," he whispered through a familiar crooked smile and then closed his eyes.
The world crumbling around her, she raised her voice to the sky, cursing Hitler while she cradled her brotherís dead body in her arms. Her heart ached so badly that she never felt the stream of bullets enter her back.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle?" Xena shook her companion gently, trying to rouse her.
The blondeís eyes suddenly opened wide and she gritted her teeth, mumbling the words, "Damn you. Damn you for what you did to all those people." Her voice grew louder as she descended into a blind rage, lashing out at the woman next to her. "He was my brother!," she screamed, shoving the dark haired woman off the bed, pinning her to the floor, delivering blow after blow to her chest.
"Gabrielle! Stop it!" The Amazon angelís voice cut through the air and she reached down to pull the woman off the warrior.
The blondeís heart was pounding in her chest as she struggled in vain to free herself from the spiritís grasp. Realizing that she couldnít break free, she stilled herself and shouted, "Why?! Why in the hell did I need to see that?!"
Ephiny took a deep breath and calmly replied. "If youíll calm down and have a seat, Iíll answer your question."
Gabrielle did as she was told, barely glancing at the second Greek angel when she made her appearance. Solari reached for Xenaís hand, helping her to her feet, moving between her and Gabrielle when the blond, still overwhelmed by the dream, lunged at her again.
Ephiny took her friend by the arm and escorted her into the kitchen, Xena and Solari following behind. When the four were seated around the table, the two angels began to explain. "You asked why it was necessary for you to experience that life time...," Ephiny began. "As you both know, the two of you are connected. Each of you carries inside you half of the otherís soul. One will never be complete without the other."
"For godís sake, Ephiny! The woman was Hitler! And I was a Jew! I donít see how our souls were connected in this case! Whereís the love?! Whereís the friendship?! Iím sorry, but if we had some sort of miraculous bond, I sure as hell didnít see it!," Gabrielle blurted out, her anger seething.
"Gabrielle..." Solari turned to face her. "That was the one lifetime when you and Xena failed to connect as you have in this life cycle and in every other lifetime before and after Nazi Germany. Xenaís dark side is strong. It always has been and it always will be a powerful force that both of you will have to deal with. In some lifetimes, she has been better able to tame it than in others but, without you, she has no chance of overcoming it. And if she fails to conquer it, itís certain to overpower not only her, but you as well."
Ephiny found relief in knowing that her friend was beginning to calm down upon hearing the words. "Sweetie...," she began to speak. "You have no control over your past lives. But you do have the opportunity to make the most of this one and of all that follow. You needed to journey back to that period in time in order to develop an understanding of the importance of your bond with Xena. You had to see for yourself what can happen if you stop trying to learn... trying to grow... trying to understand. You have a gift, Gabrielle. Both of you do. Each other. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be reunited with her soulmate. Certainly not lifetime after lifetime."
"Yes," Solari interjected. "But, in every relationship, there is the potential for discord. And that potential for you and Xena can be found in the gap between her dark side and your tendency to follow the light. You have to learn to balance the two if youíre going to live as youíre destined to live... in harmony with one another. Understand?"
Xena sat in silence, listening to the angels explain what she already knew. Watching as the young blond seated across from her dried her eyes, she felt her heart sink. "Iím sorry, Gabrielle. I would never intentionally hurt you. Donít you know that?" Her brow furrowed and her tone was desperate. She had to make sure she understood.
Without a word, the young woman stood and made her way toward Xena. Taking a seat in her lap, she wrapped her arms around her neck and kissed her. "Well, thatís our cue." Ephiny winked at the angel seated next to her and the two Amazons took their leave.
"So..." Xena pulled back slightly and smiled at her companion. "Would it be presumptuous of me to assume weíre going to kiss and make up?" Gabrielle returned the smile and deepened the kiss, pulling her nearer. Her body on fire, the warriorís lips parted, welcoming her loverís exploration. She wrapped her arms around the young blondeís hips, her breaths growing quick when she felt them begin to rock back and forth in a seductive rhythm. "Ga... Gabri..." She attempted to speak only to be silenced when the woman kissed her more intensely.
"Shhh." The blond placed her fingers over the womanís lips and looked deep into her eyes. Xena could feel the tension in her shoulders subside under the loving stare. Releasing a deep sigh, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, concentrating on the soft fingers now drifting over her lips. Gabrielle studied the outline of her mouth, tracing the edges of her lips with her index finger, before gently slipping it between them. Xena welcomed the sweet flesh, sucking gently when the finger slid deeper inside, delighting in the way the womanís body felt, pressed snugly against her own.
Gabrielle sank into her lover, enchanted by the tenderness and devotion she found in her eyes. She and the warrior had spent countless hours discussing the cruel reality of her past, Xena holding her in her arms while she cried when the haunting memories came flooding back. The warrior had been good to her. Caring. Understanding. Patient. Loving. There were times when Gabrielle had wondered whether or not she would ever be able to make love again. Whether or not she would ever be able to allow someone to get that close to her... emotionally and physically... again. She had been with Xena, made love to her, in the spiritual sense, but the realness of their physical contact was different. She was flesh and bone and she had been taught only too well that flesh and bone is susceptible to pain. But now, as she sat on her loverís lap, feeling the heat of her flesh against her own, she was no longer afraid. She wanted her to touch her, to love her. Completely.
Straddling the warriorís thighs, she focused on the inviting lips wrapped around her finger, slowly removing the digit to kiss her once more. Xena melted into the kiss, fully aware of the blondeís trembling fingers fumbling with the buttons on her shirt. Starting at the top, they worked their way down until the last button was undone, exposing her cleavage. Gabrielle pulled back slightly, mesmerized by ample bosoms hidden behind the black satin bra. Leaning forward, she kissed the warriorís neck, slowly tracing a line downward until her mouth reached the tops of the enchanting peaks which began to rise and fall more rapidly with the touch. The words were muffled, but Xena had no trouble making them out. "Come to bed with me."
Xena stood beneath the study oak, her shoes hidden beneath the blanket of Autumn leaves covering the ground surrounding the tombstone. Gabrielle had been gone for nearly two months and not a day had passed when her soulmate hadnít visited the cemetery. Though she had tried, she couldnít seem to make it through an entire day without talking to her lost love and being there at her grave side somehow made her feel closer to the woman she knew would always hold her heart.
The two women had been blessed with forty wondrous years together in this lifetime. Living together. Learning together. Loving together. And, at this moment, every second of the time they had spent together fought for the raven haired womanís attention. As she always had, she remembered all they had shared... in this lifetime and lifetimes past. Now, as she stood staring down at the marble headstone, she tried to envision their future lives. She didnít know when and she didnít know how, but she knew her soul would certainly seek out itís other half... someday.
The bitter cold cut through the old manís skin, chilling his bones as he made his way through the snow. He came here every Christmas to place a wreath on his wifeís grave. She had always had a fondness for wreaths, particularly when they were decorated with holly berries and so today, just as he had done every Christmas for the past seven years, he gave his wife a small wreath covered with berries he had picked himself off the small bush in his backyard.
Reaching inside his pocket, he pulled out a worn pair of gloves and slipped his fingers inside, pulling them over his wrists. As he looked up, he saw her. An elderly woman sitting there in the cold, huddled next to a gray tombstone. The snow and ice crunching beneath his strides, he headed in the womanís direction, thinking that perhaps he could offer her a few words of condolence.
When he got closer, he noticed that she wasnít moving. Still and silent, she leaned against the snow covered marble, her eyes closed. "Maíam? Maí am?" The man called out as he continued on in her direction. But there was no response.
Gently nudging her shoulder, he assumed she was hard of hearing and called out again, taking note of her long dark hair, now mingled with strands of gray. Placing his hand against the womanís neck, he felt no pulse. Tears formed in the old manís eyes, chilling his cheeks when they began to fall as he read the words etched on the tombstone. Gabrielle Wilkens 1973-2040 My yesterday. My today. My tomorrow.
"Alililililililililili!" The warriorís battlecry bounced off the tree tops, resounding in the ears of the enemy. Head over heals, her body sailed effortlessly through the air until her feet hit the ground and she stood toe to toe with Raylin. The self-proclaimed leader of the renegade tribe, Raylin towered over the stalwart warrior, looking down on her through eyes as black as the night. Standing her ground, Xena stared back, her right eyebrow raising slightly when she heard the woman say, "Youíre too late. My warriors have already invaded the village. Your precious Gabrielle is probably being beheaded at this very moment."
"A beheading..." Xena slowly reached behind her back, retrieving her sword from itís sheath. "Now thereís a thought," she quipped, taking a swing at the woman that sent her retreating backward. Gripping her own sword in her hand, Raylin lunged forward, taking aim at the left side of the warriorís chest. "Thereís no way sheís going to become queen, Xena. I wonít let her take the mask that was destined to be mine," she grunted, moving swiftly to one side, expertly avoiding the warriorís blade.
"Oh, sheís going to take the mask. You might as well get used to the idea," Xena snarled and gave her sword a series of skillful spins before taking another swing, drawing blood when the blade made contact with the womanís upper arm.
Ephiny by her side, Gabrielle made her way down the stairs leading from the hut that would soon be the queenís quarters. When they reached the bottom step, the two women stood still, looking out over the newly constructed village. "Odd, isnít it?," Ephiny said quietly, her eyes moving over the area.
Gabrielle nodded. "Everything looks the same. Exactly the same. The village is the same as when..."
"The same as when you were queen before," Ephiny interrupted. "Yes. Yes, it does. Strange the way the world has managed to come full circle."
Gabrielleís eyes shifted, settling on the group of masked women gathered around the fire. It was a vision she had seen many times before. Many lifetimes ago. Standing there, surveying the village, watching over the women she would soon rule, her mind began to wander. She remembered everything about the Amazon Nation as it had once been. In fact, she was able to recall every lifetime she had ever lived. And every death she had ever experienced, visions of her most recent death being the most vivid at the moment.
She and Xena had been married for nearly ten years when the bombs began to fall. The earth trembled and what seem liked hundreds of mushroom clouds lit up the sky and then there was nothing. Only by the grace of the gods were they standing there today. "Why, Ephiny? Why, after we destroyed what they had given us, did the gods give us another chance at life?"
The Amazon pondered the question for a moment and then replied, "Because despite our flaws, despite our detestable indifference, they somehow find it in themselves to love us, Gabrielle." She took in several deep breaths and turned to the young woman standing next to her. "Theyíll be here soon."
The blond could feel the tears swelling in her eyes when she looked at her friend, once an angel, now flesh and bone, mere mortal as everyone else in the village. Artemis, in the interest of the new Amazon Nation, had restored both Ephiny and Solari to their mortal states so that they could help with the rebuilding of the village and ensure that Gabrielle reclaimed her position as queen.
Standing there together in the midst of their sisters, the women were aware of the fact that they would soon be parted. And both Ephiny and Solari knew that today, they would both experience death for the last time.
Already grieving the loss of her friend, her sister, her guardian angel, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the Amazon and held her tight. In the next moments, they lost themselves in one another, exchanging what would be their final words to one another for quite some time. Gabrielle and Xena, their destinies forever intertwined, would remain on the earth for many additional lifetimes, having much to accomplish before they crossed over. Having spent so many life cycles side by side with the Amazon, the young blond couldnít help but wonder how she would manage without her. "Will I remember you? In my next lifetime?," she whispered in her friendís ear.
"Do you want to remember me? Because you have a choice. Artemis has agreed to let you determine whether or not youíll remember anything about me or our time together. If you choose not to remember, youíll still know me when we meet again in Elysia. But if you choose to remember...." She paused and looked the bard in the eyes. "Gabrielle, it might be best if you opt to forget. After all, weíve been together for so long... Remembering will only cause you pain," she sighed.
A look of confusion and disbelief appeared on the blondeís face. "Yes, but remembering will also make me smile," she thought aloud and embraced her friend again. She hadnít expected to be faced with such a decision and she wasnít sure what she wanted. Though she had tried, she couldnít imagine her life without Ephiny in it and she knew, if she chose to keep her memories, she would certainly miss her desperately. But she and the Amazon had an amazing bond... How could she throw away everything they had shared?
"You have until my death to decide," Ephiny said quietly. "If you havenít made a decision by then, when you are reborn in the next lifetime, you will have no recollection of me. Gabrielle, I would understand if you chose to... Whatever you decide is fine with me. Understand?"
The young woman choked back her tears and raised her hand, gently stroking the Amazonís cheek. "I understand."
Now surrounded by renegade warriors, Xena was struggling to stay on her feet. Dodging swords and staffs, daggers and arrows, her life wasnít the only thing she was determined to defend. She understood the significance of this battle and, in her heart, she knew it was the most important battle she would ever fight. Gabrielle was destined to take the mask and rule over the Amazon Nation and, if she didnít, their souls would be forced to go their separate ways in the next lifetime. No matter what she had to do, there was no way she was going to let that happen. She loved the woman, needed the woman. And she refused to lose her, even if it meant she would have to die in this lifetime to ensure that her future lives would be spent with her soulmate.
Flinging her chakram, she watched it whirl through the air, bouncing off several tree trunks before cutting two of the renegade warriors down in their tracks. Raising her hand, she snatched the weapon in mid air before circling around, slicing through yet anotherís throat with the round blade. Raylin looked down at her younger sister now lying on the ground, blood pouring from her neck. Anger swelling in her chest, she cried out in anger and came at the raven haired warrior, gripping a sword in each hand. She had heard rumors of the warrior princessí fighting skills, but Xenaís performance today exceeded them by far. Regardless, she was going to annihilate her, destroy her along with the smug expression on her face.
Unadulterated contempt blazing in her eyes, she charged toward her enemy, determined to take her down. Adrenaline pumped through Xenaís veins as she raised her sword, blocking Raylinís blade when the renegade aimed a ferocious blow at the center of her abdomen. But the woman was strong, seemingly picking up strength with each stroke of her sword. Her anger building, the pain of losing her sister driving her rage, Raylin came at her again, this time knocking her off her feet. Standing over her, looking down at the woman now lying on her back between her feet, a sinister smirk emerged on the renegadeís face when she raised both blades above her head, the tips pointed directly at the warriorís chest. "You and your precious bard are finished," she growled. "And, as for those sniveling women you call Amazons... you can kiss them goodbye. Cowards, Xena. All of them. Spouting off their egotistical laws. Talking about the Amazon way. Blindly following Artemis, bending to her every whim, falling at the feet of their Moon Goddess. Not anymore, Xena. Not if I can stop it. The Amazon Nation, as you know it, is dead."
Without uttering a word, Xena stared up at the overconfident woman, her eyes keeping watch over the blades in the renegadeís hands as they began to descend. The warrior waited for the right moment, just before the tips of the swords reached her chest and, without warning, delivered a swift kick to the womanís abdomen, sending her sailing backward. Solari, now positioned behind the renegade, watched her own sword sink into the small of the womanís back. Impaled on the Amazonís blade, Raylin mumbled something incomprehensible and her eyes went dim.
A smug expression appeared on Solariís face as she retrieved her now bloody sword from the deceased womanís back and shoved her to the ground. "You all right?," she asked the warrior.
"Yeah, Iím all right," Xena grumbled as she stood. "Whereís Gabrielle?" A look of concern flashed in her eyes when she saw her friend stumble. "Solari? Whatís...," she began, but fell silent when the Amazon lost her balance and crumbled to her knees.
Confused and concerned, Xena knelt next to the woman who for so many lifetimes had been her guardian angel. And thatís when she saw the wound. A large gash in the middle of her back and, from the looks of it, it was deep. Too deep. Slumping forward into the warriorís arms, the Amazon mumbled, "I... I wanted to say goodbye before... before..."
"Shh... You donít have to say anything. I know. Solari, I know." Tears filled her sapphire eyes, spilling onto her cheeks as she felt the life draining from her mentorís body.
Ephiny and Gabrielle fought alongside their sisters, intent on preserving the Amazon Nation as it was meant to be. Her blows powerful and quick, the bard struck her opponent again and again, finally breaking the renegadeís neck.
The rebels had entered the village from the east and west, launching a brutal attack from both sides.
Ephiny sized up the three women now swarming around her, their weapons at the ready. The last of the renegades, the Amazon didnít suspect that she would have much trouble taking them out. Her sisters had been well prepared for the attack and had quickly obliterated the majority of the invaders before they were able to make it to the center of the village. Unfortunately, many of her friends had lost their lives in the process. She sensed movement behind her and, without thinking, twisted her waist, spinning around to land a ferocious kick to the womanís chest. Gasping for air, the would-be attacker slouched forward, clutching her chest, at least one of the broken ribs piercing her right lung. Watching out of the corner of her eye, Ephiny saw the bard fast approaching, staff in hand, quickly engaging the woman positioned just to her left.
Xena arrived in the village just in time to see the bard and the Amazon eliminate the last of the renegade forces. Standing next to one of the nearly completed huts, she watched the two women embrace. Gabrielle hugged the woman tightly and through a smile whispered, "Youíre still here. Ephiny, you made it through the battle!" Her tone was enthusiastic as she continued to speak. "Artemis must have changed her mind! Maybe she wants you to stay here in this lifetime. Maybe you have something to do here before you cross over. Maybe..." Her words were cut short when she felt the Amazonís muscles contract and her body grow limp in her arms. Within seconds, she heard Xenaís battlecry ring out and a look of confusion crossed her face when she saw the warrior leap on top of a nearby hut, attacking the woman standing on the roof, tearing the crossbow from her hand. Lost in their embrace, neither the bard nor Ephiny had noticed the lone renegade positioned on top of the hut.
"Ephiny? Ephiny?!" Gabrielleís voice quaked when she spoke. Supporting her friendís weight, running her hand along her back, she felt the arrow protruding from her flesh and began to cry. The Amazon, unable to speak, struggled for breath as the bard lowered her to the ground, carefully placing her on her side. Looking into her friendís eyes, Gabrielle could see her slipping away. "No!," she screamed in anguish. "You canít give up! You have to fight! Do you hear me?! You have to..." Suddenly remembering that her friendís death was preordained, realizing that nothing she could say was going to stop this from happening, she stretched out on the ground next to the Amazon, pulling her close. Her breaths growing increasingly shallow, Ephiny spoke softly. Words of encouragement and wisdom. Courage and hope. Friendship and love. Gabrielle felt the womanís chest rise for the last time as she took in her final breath and, quietly, the young woman whispered in her friendís ear, "I want to remember... everything."
Xena stood only a few paces away, her heart breaking when she saw the bard sobbing, clinging to the lifeless body that had, only moments before, been occupied by her Amazon sister. Her dearest friend. Her guardian angel. "Gabrielle...," the warrior said quietly, kneeling next to her lover. "Sheís with her family now. This is what she wanted." The blond, her eyes red and filled with tears, kissed her friendís cheek and turned to the warrior kneeling next to her, welcoming her comforting embrace.
When the moon was high, the Amazons delivered the bodies of their fallen sisters to the Moon Goddess, watching the orange flames light up the night sky. Gabrielle looked on, wrapped in the warriorís loving arms, memories of her angel flooding her mind. Her heart aching, she closed her eyes and whispered, "Thank you, Ephiny... for everything. And Artemis? If youíre listening..." She opened her eyes and looked toward the sky. "Thank you for the memories. Iíll cherish them always."
Xena stood in the midst of the sea of women, focusing her attention on the Amazon standing on the platform in front of her, listening intently as she addressed the audience. When the woman finished speaking, she held the queenís mask in the air, soliciting a roar from the crowd below. The warrior watched as her lover accepted the ornate symbol and held it above her head for all to see. A smile spreading over her face, Xena felt her heart leap in her chest. There, on the platform in front of her, stood Gabrielle, Queen of the newly restored Amazon Nation. And the warrior had never felt such love or been more proud of her... more devoted to her than she was at this moment. Though the battle to reestablish the Amazon Nation had been a challenging one, as she stood there gazing up at bard, she knew the source of her profound emotion wasnít the mask, but the woman behind the mask.
Lifetime after lifetime she had watched her soulmate struggle to make it through the difficult times. She had watched her hit rock bottom, only to rise to her feet again, determined to overcome whatever obstacles stood in her way. She had witnessed her courage, her perseverance, her seemingly limitless strength. She had watched her learn and grow, laugh and cry, love and hate. Never had she seen anyone so determined to make the most of what life had to offer. And she knew she never would again. Gabrielle was the energy driving her forward, giving her life meaning. She was the force behind her beating heart, the reason for every smile that crossed her lips and, as she stood there looking up at her lover, she felt alive. Contented. Grateful. And, most of all, complete.
The horse moved at a leisurely pace, carrying the bard and the warrior over the dusty ground. The sweltering summer heat proved merciless, baking their flesh as they made their way toward the river. Despite the heat and the sweat trickling down her back, Gabrielle leaned backward in the saddle, melting into her loverís embrace. Xena wrapped her arms around the bard, massaging her bare midriff with the tips of her fingers. "Gabrielle... what are you thinking?," she quietly asked.
The young blondeís eyes wandered, reveling in the way the sunlight bounced off the surface of the water. "Angels," she said. "I was thinking about angels."
"What about them?," the warrior whispered, delivering a series of tender kisses to her cheek.
"I was thinking...," the bard sighed and extended her arm above her head, reaching behind her to briefly run her fingers through her loverís hair. "They seem to appear at the precise moment when we need them most. When weíve lost our hopes and our dreams. When we weíre certain weíll never find our way on our own. Out of nowhere, they come to us, lighting our way home."
"They are amazing, arenít they?," the warrior replied through a smile when Solari crossed her mind.
"If not for Ephiny, I think I would have allowed the world to destroy my soul. When I needed knowledge and strength, she was my teacher. When I needed love and encouragement, she was my friend. And..." She began to laugh and added, "When I need a swift kick in the ass, well..."
"Let me guess. She was the boot planted firmly against your backside," Xena chuckled.
"Oh yeah," Gabrielle laughed and shook her head , her mind brimming with fond remembrances of her friend.
"Solari was the same way with me. She had a way of saying the right thing at the right time. It always amazed me that she knew what I needed before I did."
"Have you ever tried to imagine what might have become of us if they hadnít appeared when they did? Where we would be if not for them?"
The warrior let the words drift through her mind, pondering them carefully before she replied. "I donít think we would be at all, Gabrielle. At least, I know I wouldnít."
"Funny the way they work, isnít it? They come to you when youíre certain youíre soul is dying. When youíve reached the point of no return. When youíre heart is empty. Yet... they donít fill the void for you. They teach you how to fill it yourself."
"And once they do, you never forget the lessons youíve learned," Xena sighed. "You carry them with you through the remainder of your lifetimes. Sometimes they get lost, but one way or another, you always manage to find them again."
"Hmm?" The warrior gave the leather reins a tug, coaxing the horse to a halt. After climbing out of the saddle, she helped the bard dismount and immediately took her in her arms. "What were you going to ask me?"
Gabrielle let her hands wander over her loverís shoulders, drifting slowly over the muscles in her arms. Looking the dark haired woman in the eyes, she asked, "What do you think our next lifetime will be like?"
Xena studied the bardís expression and, finding a look of puzzlement there, answered, "Like this, Gabrielle. I think our next lifetime will be..." Deciding that there were times when words simply werenít enough, she stopped talking and bent down, placing one arm around the back of the bardís knees and the other around her back, scooping her off the ground. She kissed her deeply, reassuringly, lovingly as she carried her toward the edge of the riverbank. And placing her gently on a patch of soft green grass, she whispered, "My love, I intend to spend the rest of the afternoon showing you what tomorrow has in store for us."
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