The Feast of All Souls.
By Joseph Connell
General Disclaimer: Gabrielle, Xena, and whoever else you recognize belong to RenPics and MCA/Universal. Everybody else is my own creation. This is a piece of fan fiction being written for fun and not profit. Don't bother suing, guys, I'm stone broke from University and professionally paralyzed. Content herein includes: sex, blood, angst, half-demons, sex, mayhem, sex, fire, earthly language, sex, rather graphic instances of physical and sexual violence, and sex. Oh, and there are plenty of scenes of love-making between two women who are very much in love. If any of this bothers you or offends your delicate sense of moral propriety, be on your way now or don't go complaining later.
This is a compilation of several of my earliest stories woven into a (hopefully) coherent tale. I was rather dissatisfied with the way I'd left certain issues outstanding issues in the original posting of this story, not to mention how I'd screwed up the placement of certain holidays. I finally got around to re-writing the relevant sections and present them here for your perusal.
This story takes place in the "Blood and Roses" altverse of Katrina Blau. You would be advised to watch the episode "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.", then read Katrina's canon stories "Bite Me" and "The Fonder Heart" to get a handle on the background here. Thirty-second recap: Gabrielle is the bastard daughter of Bacchus, God of Wine. Xena is the offspring of Ares, but was killed over a century ago by the goddess Callisto.(guess Eli's healing touch didn't take) Fast forward to the present day: Gabrielle happens across and beds a streetwalker who looks, talks, and acts like the long-dead warrior; and whose name, impossibly, is Xena.
Final warning: it gets particularly graphic here, particularly around chapter 8, 16, and 17. I'd suggest skipping these if you are eating, have trouble sleeping, or have a weak heart. Consider yourselves warned.
On with the show
First Prelude: Autumn Equinox
The instant Morgan met the man's eyes, she knew coming to the club had been a mistake. The only reason she even entered that night, damn it all, had been because she knew it belonged to her 'mother', though the Ancient had likely forgotten about her over the centuries. As well she should, Morgan forever attempted to convince herself. Hades, she'd willing forget about herself, or, better still, simply do away with herself given half the chance.
"The Fields" was but the smallest holding among the Ancient¹s many, many properties amassed over the course of her life. The converted top floor of a warehouse dating back to the 1940s, all ambiance and soft music as haunting as they were melodic. Sharp flavored drinks and amore in the air.
It had been a mistake to come.
It had been impossible not to come.
She'd known who owned the club, having made it her business to know such things over the centuries, following her 'mother' and all her affairs from the distant shadows. Many a time she'd longed to step forward and name her for what she was . . .all courage abandoning her the instant she caught sight of the crown of shoulder-length hair as burnished and shining as the sunset.
So, here she sat, Morgan Sofitia Fythe, anthropologist and Wiccan priestess, in a soft-lit bar filled with goth-wannabees and not a few serious pagans, trying her damnedest to disappear before the gaze of surely the handsomest man there. The classical rough-hewn sort of handsome that a generation ago would have been "Mr. All-American", with his cropped hair a dark shade of brown and unshaven jaw. His perfect eyes, somehow neither blue nor brown nor hazel and yet all three at once, set within a lean face and possessing all the calm of a cloudless afternoon sky. His lips, neither thin nor full, crooked into a grin at once endearing and mocking. 'Can't resist me can you?' that grin mocked her, both knowing the answer.
He sauntered towards her booth, his pace unhurried. Morgan was a deer, caught in the headlights of his presence. Don't do this, don't do this, Goddess please don't do this. . .was all that she managed to think coherently as he placed two bottles on the table before her.
Guiness. Her favorite brew, and the only one she'd drink.
Bastard! Morgan would have screeched, had she voice.
His own was some microbrew with some absurd name, something she could stare at for hours on end, and never remember.
Fucking shit rat bastard!
"Share a drink with me, luv?" His accent was something between Irish, public-schoolboy British, and midwestern American drawl. At once gentle to the ears, as gentle as the strands of MacKinnet and Clannad which floated across the club's sound system, and as grating to her every nerve as if she grasped a live wire in her bare hand.
Morgan had no voice, so she grabbed the bottle and chugged down two mouthfuls, much to the amusement of her suitor. He watched her with all the intensity of predator watching prey, his eyes not once wavering. Even when he lifted his own bottle to his lips. It was all she could do to keep her own eyes on the narrow neck of dark-colored glass before her.
The bastard was seducing her, her of all people, without so much as meeting her eyes!
The stout was a rich, frothy taste which soothed her throat, while it disquieted her mind with memories of years and lifetimes past. Of emerald green hills of her native land, of the loud public houses where she'd wenched in her youth, and her eternal struggle against the legacy of her own blood.
The bottle was drained within minutes, and Morgan could only damn her immortal heritage which refused her the luxury of even the smallest release of indulgence. . .of alcohol, at least. Her infrequent lovers over the millennia, whether male, female, and otherwise, to a one held her stamina and passion in awe. Lovers were infrequent not for lack of either passion or opportunity, but out of fear of such primal drives. Her mother's heritage left her forever wary of herself, to say nothing of the native power which resided within her. Her own few demonstrations of it were awesome in their own right, and something Morgan would willingly live without.
This one, he called to her with song sweeter and stronger than anything Poseidon's Siren hags might conceive. Their eyes had not met for more than an instant, so practiced was he. She was his, and soon he would utter the words Morgan knew she would be helpless to resist.
Still, this one wasn't cruel in his conduct. He took his time finishing his own beer, even going so far as to ask "Want another?" All Morgan could do was curse the desertion of her voice, not that she'd have been able to do much more than gulp it again. The burn another would have on her throat was little compared to the flame of this one's continued presence. All she could do was endure it.
Too soon, he too was finished. Morgan felt his eyes upon here for some minutes before he said the words she dreadedand longed for.
"Take me to your place."
Morgan had long ago taken to living high above the city, a hang-over from her early days of life. Not actually living mind you, which was a luxury she'd come to enjoy only in recent decades, but her first centuries were a constant fear of discovery interlaced with both seeking and avoiding her mother. Who had time for such things as literature and art and home-cooking when being sought by fools determined to burn you at the stake?
Her love of heights had developed from forever sleeping and sheltering in caves and bell-towers. She'd often sought sanctuary in the temples and cathedrals, a bit of irony considering who so often incited the riots and hunts for her, never mind she always felt safe there. Protected.
Ironic, but no more so than the rest of her existence.
She led him into her condo, which sat nestled within a tower full of them. She owned this, and a few other properties with it. Morgan Sofitia Fythe was a wealthy woman, more out of a matter of necessity than desire. Necessary, if she were to keep pace with her mother, and marshal to her defense should it ever be needed. Necessary, if she were to acquire position and weapons (both of steel and of 'expertise') she believed would be of use to her in this modern age.
The condo was large and comfortable, its walls wood and carpets plush with thick fiber. The furniture was minimal, but elegant in its simplicity of design. What available space there was, and there was quite a bit of it, was filled almost to capacity with artwork both painted and sculpted (most her own work under other names she'd lived under, little of it she actually cared for) and display cases containing ancient tomes and bladed weapons of nearly every description, length, and design. The books were simply for reference and occasional laughs (the mis-telling of some of the events were comical in the extreme), while the blades were for practical use.
Who knew when unpleasant company would come calling? It didn't hurt she preferred blades, not unlike her mother's long-time companion, the fearsome warrior whose heart was infinitely purer than that absurd Order of knights, now hopefully extinct (and good bloody riddance!). Blades were quiet, precise, and required knowledge to use.
Morgan felt an irrational fear of rejection, almost desperate that he would approve of it all. Which, judging by the way he sauntered all about and expelling the occasional sniff through both nostrils, he didn't. And this enraged Morgan almost beyond control. Rather than risk comment, she brought up the lights to their usual soft dim. She wasn't photo-sensitive by any means, but neither did she believe in dwelling in the full light of day. Too many flaws were visible then, too damn many and too easy to see. Better to stay to the shadows, where they couldn't be seen. Where she had at least the illusion of invincibility to protect her.
More sniffs, whose intent she couldn't identify, which fanned her emotions from cold fear to slow-burning irritation. Sniffing at her art. . .she could live with that, given she often did so herself. Sniffing at the books. . . okay, so she wasn't big on dusting. Sniffing at her bladesthat was like slap in the face. It was something Morgan could live with, even forgive.
Except he was doing it at every weapons case. It sounded like he was judging every weapon in every damn case. That was a lot of weapons.
It took a lot of time.
When her guest finally completed his rounds, Morgan had gone from irritation to anger to bare-contained (and wholly-unconcealed) rage and frenzy. The fact he hadn't graced her with so much as a glance this whole time left her at once relieved and all the more steamed. It set her mind to work, her eyes flickering for the one thing she'd need.
Morgan had subtly shifted her position to small table near one of the cabinets. Her hands fairly itched for the object of her desires, while the object of her anger wandered his merry way towards the bay window which looked out over the city. This took him well away from any of the artwork, which was a relief. Hey, she might not think much of her talent (and just what do gallery owners and agents know?), but that didn¹t mean she couldn't be sentimental about it.
Her eyes didn't waver, even when it was within reach, off the bastard's back. Not that she needed to see it to know where it was. She could sense it, and it her. Theirs was a powerful connection, constructed over the ages. It sang to her, sometimes quite literally. On a rare occasion it even managed to carry a tune.
Right then, all Morgan could hear was his damned sniffing and the rustle of his suit coat. She wasn't going to tolerate either anymore.
She found her voice. "What should I call you?" she asked softly, not really caring if he answered or not. "Eh?" It was a muffled sound of confusion, as though spoken around something while being caught up short. "Oh. 'Michael' will do, I suppose."
She could sense he'd taken up position leaning against a bare spot of wall. One which angled inwards. Good, Morgan thought as the reassuring sensation of cold metal met her hand. She swept it up and began her own quick-yet-looking-utterly-unhurried pace to parallel his own.
"Michael?" Now it was Morgan who was caught short. He couldn't be that unoriginal, could he?
"Michael," he confirmed, cigarette dangling unlit from the left corner of his mouth. 'Michael' had been looking out over the city's lights, arms folded and his right shoulder was braced against the wall.
He looked utterly at ease, relaxed and fearing nothing. Morgan stopped when she stood across from him. The lighting was low enough so not to hint at the burnished metal in her hand.
Michael turned to face her and calmly asked "Got a light, luv?"
An ornately carved mass metal, easily a foot-and-a-half long, and crowned with a three-sided blade, buried itself not a full inch from his cheek. Each edge looking sharp enough to cut the air it had just sailed through, never mind the solid wall against which he leaned.
The metal of the weapon was burning hot, as though lit from within, casting a soft glow upon his pale skin.
Michael didn't so much as blink.
"Oh," was his only response. Not a sound of surprise as much as one of acceptance, no more impressed than if she'd offered him a match or flipped a lighter open. "Cheers." Michael pressed the tip of the cigarette to the metal, the air instantly taking the pungent odor of tobacco, and settled back to his original position.
Their eyes locked now, another game beginning.
The same one they'd played for a millennia.
He was quick in seizing the initiative, allowing her no time to think or mount a second attack. Michael turned both eyes unto the dagger his nominal hostess had just thrown at him (Goddess above, will the woman never change?), gazing at it with enough deliberateness that he might actually have been studying its carved surface. Both eyebrows raised as though in surprise, the cigarette suddenly plucked from his lips. Michael turned to Morgan, who'd taken in his every move with careful concentration.
Her eyes were hooded, though not with anger as he'd expected them to. This made Michael slightly unnerved, his initial plan of engagement now gone to pot thanks to the woman's newfound self-control. Hades take her. He needed a distraction, or he'd likely never get out of this room alive. Death held no terrors for him, save for the consequences he alone was aware of. Consequences which had led him to seek this one out, that they might be avoided.
Damned if he'd make it easy.
"I see an east Indian influence here." He positioned himself and the cigarette as he spoke. The first faced her fully, the smoldering tip second hovered unnoticed near his right palm. "Been imitating the Tuggs, have you?" Then the area around his left eye jerked with an involuntary flinch, though the remainder of his faced was utterly neutral, eyes unwavering.
Morgan risked a glance downwards, towards the cigarette in his hand.
The cigarette whose glowing tip was now being stubbed out. . . by being twisted directly into his right palm.
Her eyes went wide with shock, and quickly met his again. They were alight with humor and satisfaction, as was the small grin which graced his lips. There was no pain to be seen there.
What came next happened very, very fast. As it always did.
Michael let go of the cigarette, grasping the still-glowing weapon with his left hand. He pulled it free from the wall and sent it back to its owner, business end first, all in one smooth motion. The metal hadn't even left his hand when he all-but-spinning to the left. On sheer instinct and blind faith, Michael threw his right arm out, and was rewarded with it making very satisfying impact with the glass-and-wood doors of one of the weapons cabinets. The poor barrier didn't stand a chance, shattering noisily beneath his outstretched arm. He spun as he passed it, grasping the first handle his left hand came to, using his momentum to pull it free of the cabinet. He finally came to rest, both feet planted firmly under him (for once), near the wall opposite the bay window he'd been gazing out of only a moment ago. His blind-chosen weapon held low and at-the-ready.
Morgan was hardly idle. The grin had alerted her, and her hands were already traveling upwards to intercept his return of her 'gift' before it had even left Michael's hand. She'd caught it without fail, though the force behind the throw had been far in excess of what she'd expected of him. It rocked her off-balance just enough to make her loose track of her guest's movements. The sound of a cabinet's doors being broken (third along towards the wall, the one with the short swords and a pair of oak quarterstaffs, unless she was mistaken) told her all she needed about his intentions. She herself had been thinking along similar lines, and had already dropped the golden dagger to the floor while diving for her most prized possession. It came to hand easily, easier than the dagger had, and she smoothly rolled back to her feet as though the mirror-image of her guest.
She was certain the surprise would be exquisite, knowing Michael could not have seen her weapon of choice.
Michael's discarded cigarette finished its descent to the carpet.
They stood like that for a span. Lethal dancers, their metallic arms outstretched and waiting.
Morgan had assumed right, Michael being very surprised. . .though not for the reasons she expected.
Oh, her chosen weapon was impressive enough. Easily four-feet of solid steel, polished to that perfect shine. The double-sided blade was a masterpiece of its craft, the edges so fine they might as well have simply disappeared from sight. Michael recognized the workmanship and the blade itself, not the least surprised she'd freed it from its stone sheath and kept it with her. Better her than those idiots who cowered around the round table and behind their superstitious codes.
Morgan held it easily in one hand, choosing her left rather than her right. This surprised Michael, worrying him far more than the blade itself. She'd never chosen her left before, and he'd always managed to only hold his own against her. She wasn't the sort to offer anyone, especially him, an advantage however small.
"Ah should be insulted, luv," he said, allowing the pommel of his 14th-century katana short sword, held in low guard position (blade out, both hands on the handle, its length held at a forty-five degree angle), to sink slightly and linger around his groin. He waved the blade ever so slightly, his knees bent as the position demanded. "Yours is bigger than mine."
It was obscene. It was hilarious.
It distracted her for all of a hundredth of a second.
It gave Michael all the time he would ever need to seize the initiative.
The dance of blades began.
The sword Morgan held was named 'Caliburn' by those who forged it. Said to have magical properties, its steel unbreakable, that it could only be wielded by the righteous, so many myths surrounded the blade and its origins Morgan had long ago ceased paying them heed. Its stone sheath had released it to her hands without hesitation. Only two others had ever managed so, though neither had managed it with such ease as she. That Morgan had never learned swordplay, as she had never learned so much else, did not slow her in the least.
The air between them lit with sparks. It sang with hum of steel-against-steel.
One of the residents on that floor, a high school music teacher by profession, would later swear the sounds of the duel were the inspiration for at least eight orchestra pieces she would eventually write. Each of these would become famous for their complexity and beauty, as well known as any symphony by Beethoven, and only the most accomplished of orchestras would ever manage their intricacies.
It would be impossible to recount the stratagems and tricks each used against the other. So fast were their movements, so easily were they blocked and countered, the entire duel might as well have been choreographed beforehand.
The remainder of the residents paid the noise little mind. Some, like the music teacher, would ascribe it as music. Others as cable reruns of "Highlander" turned up too loud. Most simply ignored the noise and slept the night peacefully, having long ago gotten use to their eccentric (if attentive) landlord.
Morgan's heritage was not dual, but a trinity, and so more than a match for Michael's millennia of skill and practice. Her Olympian blood, diluted perhaps but there nonetheless, mixed with her human DNA and natural unpredictability alone made her Michael's equal. Forever boiling beneath the surface was more raw power than might be found within all the stars of the heavens. Morgan knew this as instinctively as she knew she breathed and liked the taste of nutbread, and for this reason she deliberately avoided learning quite literally anything of substance.
Oh, she could speak most any language on this planet (and quite a few 'dead' ones to boot), and easily write them all like a native. She wasn't so backwards that she couldn't operate a microwave or repair faulty electrical wiring.
But training in the arts of war, or painting, or cooking, or most anything, those things she'd avoided with a fear more rabid than that which she herself had long been regarded with. The irony to this was not lost on her. Untrained she might be, but more talented and experienced than conceivably any other mortal (or immortal for that matter) on this planet. The fact she did this entirely out of a sense of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to those who, more often than not, tried to take her head, was but sauce for her already-cooked goose.
You would think those years with that Norman rabble-rouser and his daemon-spawned tutor would have taught her a thing or two.
She'd commanded armies, presided over ceremony, protested atrocity, raised children to their potential, and cooked mean stews, all without more preparation than simply watching it be done.
Little wonder then that Michael's katana was shattered with one of the few blows Morgan delivered at full strength. The force telegraphed by the attack was quite sufficient to throw the unfortunate duelist back a good six feet. He didn't enjoy the experience, neither the raw force of the blow rattling both arms as though they were twigs caught in a windsheer nor being propelled over several pieces of furniture. No, sir, not something he'd willing choose to endure.
Not that having the business end of Caliburn hovering less than an inch from one's eyes was anything to sneeze at either.
"Give me one, just one good reason not to rid myself of you for all eternity, Unseili!" Morgan said the first bit calmly, practically hissed the last bit, and all but spat the title in his eye. It terrified Michael. Not Caliburn so much, but the way her voice had gotten softer and softer with each word. But even that would have been bearable, had she not called him by his old House's name.
It meant she was pissed. Not angry, not enraged, not even spitting-I-am-gonna-tear-your-eyes-out-with-my-unsharpened-fingernails-very-very-slowly furious.
She sounded ready to call down the Overgods themselves.
The world had more of chance surviving collision with Sol herself than having Oberon or Pangea walk the land.
Michael let himself consider none of these things at all. To do so would leave him dangerously close to panicking, if not the suicidal sort of impulses generally reserved for stock brokers after a crash of 200+ points. Throwing himself off her balcony wasn't even an option. It wouldn't do much good anyway.
One good reason, he thought to himself. Let's see. . .
"Ye owe me a drink."
Oh, brilliant, that was. That evening didn't really count, and damned if he could immediately recall another incident even close.
The point of Caliburn slowly withdrew, though not without obvious reluctance. Morgan's eyes narrowed quite a bit, communicating something between grudging respect and outright loathing. "Hmm," she grunted, as though considering the legitimacy of such a claim. She drew it out.
Just to see the bastard sweat it.
She liked the feeling it gave her.
She hated the fact she liked it.
"Nhh," was the only sound she'd give in concession, making some vague gesture with Caliburn for Michael to stand and warning him against so much as blinking wrong. Morgan could communicate quite a bit with the smallest gestures. Holding Caliburn one-handed and waving it about like it was one of Senticlese's wooden toys didn't hurt, either.
"That," she gestured with swordpoint at the shards of metal now adorning the carpet near him, " was an irreplaceable piece of history, old son. Any reason I shouldn't take it out of your hide?"
"'Cause I'm a piece of walking history myself?" Michael risked a smile. She didn't return it.
The chances he'd walk out of this place intact were growing ever more remote. The balcony was looking more attractive all the time.
Then she did something totally unexpected. She buried the swordtip into the carpet and leaned upon it as one might a walking stick. The brought Michael up short. In all the centuries he'd known this woman, he'd never seen a moment of whimsy from her, especially when it came to two things: her mum, and that damned pig-sticker she was presently leaning on.
Michael communicated his confusion on this by blinking, quite rapidly, several times. To which Morgan gave a sort-of-but-definitely-not-complete smile. Smug bitch.
"You'd better have a good reason for all this then, clown," she said with humor that would have chilled the blood of corpses. "Or that blade won't be the only thing needing to be rebuilt."
So here it was, the proverbial moment of truth. Trouble was, Michael wasn't exactly sure what the truth was, never mind what possessed him to approach her that night. He only knew rumor and a few names. The names were common fare and fodder for her, and rumor swirled about them all like so much noise that it went pretty much unnoticed now.
Morgan suffered him as a fool in centuries past, but no more. Not since that mad bitch Callisto managed to do in her mum's warrior.
Honesty, dishonesty, honesty, dishonesty, honesty. . .
"Your mum's not alone anymore." Truth, though not necessarily honest. He might be Unseili, true, but there were limits which even he and his fellow coutiers might press. Besides, this little declaration had the desired effect.
Granted he wasn't expecting to have Caliburn pointed back into his face. . .
"Explain that." Morgan¹s lack of tone alone would have loosened his tongue. Coupled together with the blade holding still right before his eye, Michael would have cheerfully recounted his entire life's tale. Or admitted to every murder ever committed. Goddess, the woman was terrifying like this.
He opted to follow her instruction, mind racing all the while over what he could and could not tell her. Somehow the words came through sounding both coherent and, more importantly, complete. The smallest admission would be deadlier to him than the most grandiose lies. Lies she would cripple him for, but an omission she might catch would sing of untold truths, truths that he would have no choice but give.
"She found a companion a short while back. A. . . lookalike. . . of her warrior. They're living together now in the mansion, though the girl has pretty much taken it over." Morgan's expression hardened to the constitution of granite, causing Michael to quickly add "But in a good way. She hasn't touched the businesses or the money. She's refused salary, gifts, everything. She bloody argued with your mum in the stores over prices and had to be dragged, literally, into Victoria's Secret! The girl's only been good for her, anyway. Never seen the old bard smile as much in my life. . . "
"Where?" Morgan interrupted, eyes still narrowed. "Where did they meet?"
"In town, by all accounts. I heard it to be a chance meeting."
"Who is she?"
"Calls herself 'Xena', and that's the lot of it." He risked a grin. "Don't think I didn't try to. . ."
"What is she? Callisto out for mischief? Valeska, maybe? Or that little bitch Discord?"
Michael interjected quickly, and prayed to whatever deity might listen he'd go quick. "She was a streetwalker, and looking no more than twenty-five."
Caliburn was suddenly out of his face, only to be replaced with Morgan herself, nostrils flaring in a way that promised imminent mayhem. "And Mum knew about this?"
"How d'you think they met? Over coffee?" That earned him a glare, though a distracted one. At least she was out of his face.
Now Morgan took to stalking towards the bay window, her back fully to him, not so much as glancing backwards. Michael wasn't sure whether to be relieved or offended. He'd worked hard to earn her distrust, if only so she wouldn't end up blindly trusting everyone she came across as her mum once had. Even that bastard Myrren hadn't robbed her of that.
"Get out." It was soft uttered, a voice trembling on the edge of a whimper.
Michael rose, but didn't leave. Just as he'd done his worst to earn her hate, he'd done his best to keep her safe. Damned if he'd leave her like this.
"Ye know," he drawled over his shoulder, calmly wandering towards the door, "it doesn¹t seem like such a bad thing to happen." He didn't sense so much as a twitch from the room's other end. . . except for the fly brushing its hind-quarters down with its back legs over in the kitchen area near the balcony door. He reached for the doorknob and said with perfect calm "At least she's shacked up with someone. . . experienced."
He was out the door just as the vase hurled at him made contact with the wood. Mission accomplished! Though aloud he parted with "Yer landlords goin' to love you for this."
Michael of House Unseili wasted no more time, and was gone before another missile found its way to her hand. The danger was actually nonexistent.
Morgan had far more important things on her mind, not even aware that she muttered "I am the bloody landlord."
The night was well along, Luna already in descent, when Morgan came back to herself. She hated it, this inevitable slide into near-catatonia she found herself in whenever her mother was mentioned. Three millennia, barely a handful of meetings, to a one amidst some crisis or another and still the woman who bore her could drive her to the borders of madness and beyond.
It was all Morgan could do to lean her forehead against the sliding glass which separated her from the cold night's air beyond. She opened her eyes and dared to gaze at her reflection.
A woman, as she always was and always recreated herself. Middling height, olive skin, blue eyes hinting towards gray, hair a deep russet shade, though hennaed slightly by so much exposure to Sol. The point of her chin, gentle slope to her ears, cheekbones prominent, though not, all these spoke to her true heritage, that of her long-dead father. Only the shine to her eyes, the fullness and gentle quirk to her lips spoke to that of her mother.
Though which 'mother' could have been debated, given the massive blade hanging loosely in one hand just then.
Once, the first time she rebuilt her appearance, having allowed it to decay after a century's wear, it was in the image of her mother, though she'd had to leave that behind soon enough, her mother's kin mistaking her and seeking her life. Not even their ashes were left when they'd 'caught' her. After that, the faces became blurred, unexceptional, unnoticeable. Oh, she'd once made herself beautiful, only to fall prey to the wiles of that daemon-son seer. She survived the catastrophe which resulted and managed to spirit Caliburn away from those that would have abused it. She lived to her name, and nursed the old ways and stories while the rest of the land she'd known went to pot and madness.
She wandered, not unlike her mother, heading first south, then east, across mountain and great sea. She became of every color of skin, was known by the seers and wise elders of every village she encountered. She learned in spite of herself, and could not forget a single thing.
Nor could she ever bring herself to hate her mother. Her father? No contest there, and not for an instant did she regret driving Caliburn into his heart. She'd have cheerfully done the same to every member of every House of Arcadia, had she the opportunity. Goddess, all that power and wisdom, and her da's kin proved so insensitive and mercurial a lot; small wonder the natives usually thought of them as evil embodied.
Using names like 'Al-Shaityn' and 'Dahok' didn't help much, either.
'Gabrielle' on the other hand. . .
She wouldn't know her now. How Morgan prayed that she wouldn't! Every time. . . every time before had led to pain. If not to her, then to Gabrielle, or to her warrior. . . to her other 'mother.'
No, she couldn't hate Xena either. Not for wishing her dead as but an infant, not for nearly killing her as a changeling when they met again, not for any of it. Love can forgive all trespasses, and she loved Xena every bit as tenderly as she did her mother. Callisto's murder of the warrior was as much a stab to her heart as it was trauma to the bard. She'd visited her mother many a night afterwards, in silence and shadow, soothing her nightmares as best she could. Not always successfully in some cases, as that bizarre time in India demonstrated. She'd even approached the Ancient a few times over the century, and guarded her cousins and mortal kin with a passion that rivaled her mother's own.
Now she had this bit of news to chew on. And bitter fare it was. Bloody indigestible even.
Oh, she had no objection to Gabrielle finding a new love. The Ancient loved so easily and deeply. But there would forever be a part of her that wouldn't be touched, save by her warrior alone. And in the hundred years since that terrible moment that the warrior had been sent to Charon's barge, Gabrielle had taken many a nightly lover, but never another mate. There were too many years between them for Morgan herself to take that role though, Goddesses' grace, she would have tried for all she was worth, had she been less of a coward.
Now. . .now she was trying desperately to make sense of the noise in her head. She was blind to everything else, even the small fact she'd started wandering about the living room and secreted Caliburn back to its hiding place, never mind repairing the damaged cabinet and wall with but the merest 'flick' of thought. Her thoughts were far away, in a mansion on the edge of the forest. . .
No surprise she ended up on the balcony, eyes on the dim horizon.
Gabrielle was with Xena. . .a 'Xena' . . .who used to be a streetwalker. . .a whore. . .a whore who looked exactly like the warrior. . .Gabrielle just let her into her house. . .just like that and snap of the fingers. . . Gabrielle never did anything like that before. . . never. . . Xena wouldn't let her. . . but Xena was dead. . . gone. . . but now she was back. . .
Morgan didn't like the way this sounded, not at all!
She could only sigh and resolve to do what she knew would be needed. Gabrielle had never hesitated, even in the darkest hours between herself and her warrior. Morgan. . . Hope. . . herself was testament to this. Her sire's darkness, like that of Gabrielle¹s own, failed there.
She would go to her mother, and do as she should have centuries before. Hope would have satisfaction of her mother's happiness, or ensure it however it proved necessary.
Luna bid the world farewell, Sol greeting and awaking it, as Hope stepped away from the balcony. The late spring morning was crisp, yet as vital as any harvest morning. Birds sang to the breeze.
The dawn warmed the earth below, readying it for the age-old celebration of life and bounty.
Further across the land, two lovers, warm and sated from their celebration of the coming festival in the oldest and best known manner, slept to the coming dawn. Both dreamed of dark days past, and the bright ones to come.
One in particular, small in stature and honey-haired, dreamt of an infant afloat on a river, the current carrying it to her waiting arms. It was the same dream she'd had for more nights than might be imagined. This time, though, rather than waking the instant her fingers touched the basket, she lifted the tiny bundle into her arms and murmured the child's name into crown of dark hair over and over.
Tears came from beneath her closed eyes, and splashed down unto her love's bare shoulder and breast. The taller one gazed down on her lover, lips tight with worry. She had not been sleeping that well herself, and her lover was not the sort given to tears or nightmares. Keen ears caught what she muttered in her sleep, and it filled her with both longing and love.
"Hope," was the name-word muttered, over and over, a smile as brightening as the coming day belying any sadness to her tears.
Hope you want, my love, the dark woman vowed silently, tightening her grip gently. Hope you shall have. This led her to grin. Now all she had to do was figure out whether "Hope" was animal, vegetable, or mineral.
Her brilliant blue eyes drifted shut as they instinctively snuggled closer together, the taller wrapping herself tighter around the smaller, as much seeking shelter from her own disquiet as offering comfort for her lover's.
Second Prelude: Samhain's Morn
The Ancient huntress waited for the first rays of dawn to creep over the land before going for her ritual hunt. The urge came less frequently now, these millennia since her birth, and she'd come to suspect she'd long ago passed having the actual Need. Yet, for nearly a century now, it was on this day that she would hunt.
It was fitting, marking the passage of seasons from summer to winter, the day her Celtic cousins and children named Samhain.
She might go the full year without once feeling the slightest twinge of Thirst, and without fail awake to this day to find its return. An old friend, one slipping into her consciousness with ease and familiarity with the lifting of Morpheus' veil.
It was fitting for it to come on this day, when the veils between light and darkness were all but gossamer, she would hunt. Artemis herself had virtually decreed it so, when the goddess had shared table with her chosen's Queen centuries earlier. There was a nobility to the huntress, one infinitely more genuine than any that might have been found in Olympus, and the goddess loved her for it.
The goddess of the hunt was not the only one.
She slipped from her love's arms, her body instantly screaming for the loss, though she'd been awake for nearly an hour. This time, at least, she hadn't awaked weeping her eyes out over some dream.
Gabrielle felt at once compelled to both flee the woman spread out upon the bed, lest the Thirst make a meal of her(Gabrielle's secret, most chilling fear...one not borne out once in over two millennia), and to return to the warm nest of her arms. She'd slept alone for over a century, and now could not so much as doze unless next to her raven-haired lover.
It was both good and bad that this was not her Xena, merely a mortal child(she, who was millennia old, couldn't help the thought) who bore uncanny resemblance. Gabrielle had chanced upon such visions before over her centuries of life: a priestess here, an aristocrat there, even a timorous socialite. This one, in who's arms she'd now found rest, had been a whore. An impossible coincidence of met glances and unresolved emotions, a meeting of supposedly cheap passion and release in exchange for currency...all evolving in the course of hours into devotion between the two. No longer whore and client, but lovers.
Insane, but no more so than the rest of her life.
Oh, she'd planned to offer the child a way out the existence Gabrielle had found her in. Upon hearing her name, well...at that point Gabrielle would have willingly thrown her over her shoulder carried her to the home they now shared, nobility be damned.
But this child, this Xena, had come willingly. She'd forgone the payment or any talk of compensation for their first encounter. Gabrielle had tried to offer her some manner of payment, a position, extravagant promises of a new life. This Xena listened to it all, face utterly neutral, Gabrielle becoming terrified that she'd offended this vision of her lost love. The result was an increasingly incoherent string of sentences, which caused the child to smirk and place two long fingers on the redhead's lips, instantly silencing her.
"I will wash your dishes." Xena said simply. "I will scrub your floors. I will do anything, anything, you ask of me, so long as I can stay close to you."
With those words, all of Gabrielle's heart melted and reformed itself in the child's hands. To another's ears, this was doubtlessly suspicious, a child of the streets taking advantage of a rich woman's grief. Her attorney and secretary, a competent and understanding man by the name of Peter Marcous, had suggested as much. But Xena refused all payment, did whatever Gabrielle bade (little as that was), made no demands upon her wealth, and in fact showed almost no interest in it whatever. She allowed Gabrielle to purchase clothing for her, but quietly argued against the jewelry and meaningless accessories the smaller woman wished to shower upon her.
Her argument was succinct: "I have you, and I have myself, and that's enough." She demonstrated this time and again, night after night, for hours on end. Gods, the child's stamina and passion easily matched her twin, as did her devotion. Still, she bent to the superior will and proved a gracious loser, allowing Gabrielle to spoil her a little.
Just a little, though. Her will stronger, her wits far sharper, than she let on, winning through argument where she could not by plain stubbornness.
The house staff were minimal, and underworked at that. Xena took over their supervision, and attended personally to the dozen-odd repairs needed to ancient house. She never asked what needed doing, nor did she so much command the staff and suggest (and very gently at that) where service to their employer might be improved with minimal effort on their part.
As a result, the house became more of a home, the meals tastier, the company less...sullen. Gabrielle was a true empath, and one could not remain in a century-long funk of mourning and avoid it impacting upon others. Even Peter proved more accepting of Xena's presence, treating with if not familiar care he did of Gabrielle, then at least with the respect he afforded the rest of the staff.
Gabrielle herself had become almost oblivious to all this. The merest thought of their nights together, skin-to-skin, absent any cover and in the full light of Luna, was quite enough to wipe out all other thought. They'd had no need of a quilt to keep the chill at bay, even in midwinter, for the full year now.
Even the chill of her nightmares, most centering on her lost warrior and nights long ago, were but the charred remnants of their shared heat.
And if this wasn't her Xena, she was enough.
Gabrielle was glad this wasn't the old Xena, otherwise she'd have never managed to slip out without awaking her love. The old Xena, after she'd pried the secret from her, had been understanding. This new one was too much a mystery for Gabrielle to willingly chance it. This new Xena simply rolled over unto her side and grasped a pillow to her, as though it were a ready substitute for her missing savior and willing partner.
With the smallest of sighs (though whether of relief or sadness it was impossible to know), Gabrielle turned and strode out of the bedroom dressed only in her skin. She needed only collect a knife from the kitchen and she'd be ready.
She didn't dare so much as glance back at the bed, knowing her will too fragile, and Thirst slowly gaining strength.
It was only after the door closed, and sharp ears confirmed the smaller woman was well away, that the taller one dared to open her eyes. A similar, ambiguous sigh escaped between her lips, carefully muffled by the pillow beneath her.
Gabrielle stood in the open field behind the house, whispering her ritual words of thanks and promises of respect to the forest beyond. Even in this modern age of poisons and small deaths she still ate the flesh of her prey, though she never dared risk feeding her guests or staff on it, and of course slaked her Thirst upon the blood. What she didn't eat raw (thank the gods she had a solid digestive system) was left as a gift for the rest of the forest's denizens.
They, at least, understood.
She took off in a run, intent upon finding her prey with all the speed of Hermes. No challenge today, so she concentrated on finding and providing a mercy.
And consequently utterly oblivious to the signs of those awaiting her.
Those who followed the darker paths, who could not stand the sun and hated this powerful Ancient, had learned her ways and habits with relative ease in recent years. They knew she no longer hunted with any frequency, hunted only on this single day, and kept the hunt to her private estate. She had no attendants or retainers to guard her, as had been the habit in the old days, and carried only a simple knife.
Easy prey they thought, and the market for assassins had changed little over the centuries. Upwards of a dozen killers awaited the blond woman in the woods, armed with the oldest of weapons (no Driad bones needed for her, only sharp steel and enough damage done to overwhelm her) and trained through hard experience. They'd been in position for over a day, and the woods had all but forgotten they were there.
Gabrielle made it no secret of her presence, laughter of abandon echoing off the trees. She passed each of them by, totally unaware of their eyes upon her sleek form. A few admired her sensual appearance, others the economy of motion coupled with her obviously-wild passion. All moved to follow her slowly, to position themselves for when she ceased running, and await the moment for the kill.
So intent were they upon their target, not one so much as sensed the approach of the small woman's appointed protector. Even if they had, it would have made scant difference.
And, to a one, each never made it past the first movement.
The first eight were dispatched quickly, their necks broken in various angles, none making a sound. Their executioner knew there was no time to interrogate them, not if the huntress was to be protected.
The next three were simply left paralyzed. If they later provided useful information on their employers...perhaps their deaths would be made quick. Perhaps. It was quite simple, really; nerve clusters were one of those absurd drawbacks about belonging to the human race that most didn't know about.
The last one, who by sheer chance had found himself at the rim of the planned 'circle', likewise went down in silence. Though in his case, an offer was whispered into his ear, offered so softly it might easily have been the wind.
"You have thirty seconds to tell me your employer's name, or I'll let you expire slowly." The question he could not ask, his vocal cords as frozen as his the flow of his veins, was communicated through his eyes, which had clouded over and couldn't see a damn thing. In answer, the voice said "Tell me, and you'll go quick."
The killer was a professional, and professionals work to a code a conduct, the canon of which is never reveal a client. This likewise must have been communicated through his now-sightless eyes, because the presence of his attacker was suddenly gone.
Thirty seconds is a long time to take to die. One can reevaluate their entire lives in such a span. So it was with the four assassins, none of whom gave up the requested secret, none of whom crossed over a Charon's barge without each having a lifetime's worth of regrets, all going unmourned.
Gabrielle saw and heard none of this, and completed her hunt without incident.
There was unspoken agreement between her protector, who watched her rituals from cover, and the Life around them that she would be protected from this knowledge for the time being, all evidence of those who would rob the forest of its dearest and most blessed friend was taken away, hidden by the denizens there. The protector then likewise disappeared from view. The presence, as powerful as that of the huntress herself, was simply there and then...not. The forest didn't understand, and didn't try to. It had an ally now, perhaps even a second friend, and could now defend its first and best friend far easier than in the past.
Gabrielle went through rites and rituals as old as herself. Skinning the tired old hare that had surrendered itself to her, gutting and cleaning the animal for those denizens of the woods who needed the meal. She herself had drank her fill quickly, not wishing to profane (as if she were even capable of such a thing) a place she thought of as sacred, and was anxious to return to both bed and love.
Still, she was careful to observe all her rituals. She might hurry her actions, she never skipped a one.
The work was done, and seemingly in record time. The air was chill to lungs, winter definitely approaching fast. Gabrielle could already feel the forest readying for its seasonal slumber. Something was amiss here, nothing dangerous but nothing she could immediately identify either. A feeling of deja vu, calling to something deep within her.
It made her long for her lost love as never before, almost enough to lead her to seek out a driad dagger and...
But no, she could no longer do that. She had another life now. Not necessarily a better one, but one as full of passion and love as ever before, and that was enough for now.
Gabrielle fairly floated back to their bed. The dawn's light only just creeping onto the grounds and illuminating their bedroom and its single, giant window-for-a-wall. She felt alive as never before, and it was only through an effort of centuries-hardened will not to through herself atop her still-slumbering love upon returning.
Xena was still in the same position as when she'd left. Not wishing to awake her sleeping 'Princess'(an endearment whispered for her ears alone, while Xena would always rejoin 'my Queen' with absolute reverence in her voice), Gabrielle pressed herself against the brunette's back, spooning her and enveloping her with all the love and warmth she could summon.
Her nostrils flared slightly as she caught whiff of a new scent. Fresh soil, autumn leaves...Could Xena have followed her? Could she have...seen...
No, Gabrielle shook her head, not willing to entertain such a possibility. She would have heard. These were probably her scents she caught, for she'd given herself only the most cursory of washings downstairs before returning to bed.
The instant she'd wrapped herself around her love, Xena let go of the pillow and with practiced easy (and a healthy bit of deliberative sensuality) enveloped the redhead in her own arms. "You're back," she purred, her eyes still closed.
"Needed a snack," Gabrielle said, the excused practiced and recited to perfection.
"You're cold." Xena's arms drew her tighter. "I have," she said, placing a soft kiss on her forehead "just the thing" another, more insistent one placed over her right eye, "to warm you" a third, on the bridge of the nose, "right here." She concluded with a deep, searching kiss on the smaller woman's lips. The heat, the passion, the love as clearly transmitted as if it communicated mind to mind.
Gabrielle did not try to resist, loosing herself in their morning heat, Helios' light warming the room with them.
It was only after they'd ordered dinner that Xena became certain that they were being followed.
The feeling had been nagging her since early that morning, strong enough that she noticed it even in the afterglow their morning lovemaking, though it proved subtle enough not to instantly alert her. Their breakfast went uninterrupted, as did their shower (always lasting far longer than it might normally, the sight of each other's nude bodies simply proving too much), dressing, and the morning business.
The last, normally consisting of meeting over the phone and new orders to the brokers Gabrielle retained, interested Xena only a little, and even then only as far as her concern for her love's financial well-being. She trusted Marcous enough that she didn't worry about Gabrielle being robbed. Gabrielle herself was no slouch in negotiating with these corporate types, and so often handed them the worst possible deal (for them, never those on whose behalf she worked) which they happily swallowed, while Gabrielle walked away with the real profit.
During these brief moments in the late morning, Xena would go out back for a run, occasionally practice a few of her better-hidden skills. A decade in the circus, followed by her time riding with the Outlaws had taught her quite a bit. Another ten years on the streets hadn't hurt either. She'd never told Gabrielle of the things she'd learned during those nightmarish years...and never would. Xena refused to endanger their companionship by revealing... Goddess...she knew, just knew Gabrielle would throw her out the instant she discovered...
Practice went quick that morning, more due to her state of mind than effort at improving already-honed skill. Though she did feel a bit guilty about taking out her anxiety on an otherwise-defenseless tree. Her aim with the thin throwing blades she kept with her on such runs seemed only to sharpen with her fear. Her reflexes likewise took on almost superhuman speed and precision. It didn't help that the feeling of being watched proved all the stronger outside. In fact, Xena was first aware of it there, on the forest's edge.
They'd become great friends, she and that clump of woods behind the house. It put her in mind of days long past, when she and her sister would run through whatever bit of woods or brush were nearby, one pretending to be old Artemis while the other would become great Ursula the bear. Or the they would hold imaginary conversations with the greatest of trees, and attend little tea parties held in rings of stone or green, the antics of the beetles and butterflies their entertainment.
But these woods, so wild and untamed, was almost as calming to her as the mellow tones of Gabrielle's voice. It was different with Gabrielle, who exercised so total a command of her heart it would have easily terrified the "her" of but a year ago. That Xena had long ago sworn never surrender herself to another. Her ten years on the streets-selling herself first for blow, only later for coin enough for food-not once had shown her another would care. She'd believed that with what little she believed remained of her heart, her soul long ago lost.
Strange, she would sometimes ponder, how everything one "knows" can be changed in but a single moment.
It hurt to think how desperately she'd fallen for this small, slight redhead. It hurt because the feelings ran so deeply, far deeper than Xena would have wished. Far deeper than she could ever let herself believe possible. That a woman like Gabrielle might feel the same shook her as nothing else might.
Xena didn't entirely believe she did. It was a cynical, unworthy thought...but there it was all the same. Why the hell should a beautiful, rich woman like Gabrielle, who (judging from the number of guests, both male and female, that came over for dinner, drinks, and the odd bit of conversation) had more suitors than the entire Kennedy line put together, suddenly take in a twenty-six year old streetwalker? Why offer her a new life (in Bermuda, for Goddess' sake!)? Why shower her with everything from custom-tailored suits, hand-crafted bits of jewelry, and five wardrobe's worth of Victoria's Secret lingerie...all within a day of meeting her?
To hell with that; what possessed her to offer herself to Gabrielle like she had? "I will wash your dishes..." She'd said it pressing two fingers to the small redhead's lips. "I'll do whatever you ask me to... just let me stay with you."
She hadn't thought as she said this. She simply spoke what came to mind. Where the words came from... she could never tell. Oh, she knew exactly what organ had spoken then, but if pressed she'd swear it all originated below her beltline, not well above.
And so here she was, living in a mansion, eating good food three or four times a day (damn if that cook wasn't persuasive about her taste-testing), wearing clothes she'd only seen in store windows...making love with more passion and intensity than she ever had, for even her highest paying john, in the past.
Not that she hadn't been tempted by Gabrielle's many offers of salary, gifts, and 'compensation'. She'd heard it all, each word ringing like a hundred church bells in her head. And still she offered herself as a maid, or bedwarmer, or whatever... simply so she could stay close to this small, beautiful woman. Some vestige of pride, something she'd have sworn had been driven out of her decades ago, demanded she not simply take her up on the offer of riches and luxury. She just couldn't and that was that.
And so Xena Alexandran dusted off skills of organization and persuasion instilled in her by her grandmother (may the ancient bitch rot in every hell there ever was!) and took over management of her their home. It was actually easier than she'd expected. The staff proved receptive to her ideas and suggestions, as shocked as Xena herself was at the breadth of her knowledge. From cooking (who would have thought just two pinches of pepper and a slice of garlic could add such taste to a soup?) to carpentry (despite the fact she hadn't picked up a hammer since she was only hip-high and had an almost pathological fear of sharp edges!) to the organization of a surprise function (how in the name of the Almighty did she know which utensil went where?), there seemed little Xena was incapable of doing. Only Gabrielle seemed unfazed by this.
Not that the both of them didn't take exception to her accountant/financial advisor's thinly veiled insinuations about her "motives" at least where Gabrielle's money was concerned. Xena concluded Gabrielle herself had spent time outside of the confines of finer society, given the language she used when Marcous aired such ideas. It was as colorful as anything she'd heard riding on the back of a hog or fighting for her patch of sidewalk.
So, to demonstrate her sincerity where the money was concerned, Xena would remove herself from the house every morning. She would jog out to the woods, practice her throwing knives, a bit of improvised acrobatics, and she'd be back in time to see Gabrielle's coffee go cold. She made no mention of it, nor did she allow Gabrielle to flaunt it as much she might. No doubt many a store clerk were badly confused as to why she put up such a fight over prices and style. The scene she'd all but staged outside of Victoria's Secret had probably turned more heads than if the pair of them were stark naked.
Hell, she'd have done it just so they could 'make up' afterwards.
"You look distracted," Gabrielle said, venturing for the first time that day. She'd been quite patient with Xena, waiting for her to speak whatever it was that had obviously been bothering her. After nearly three millennia as a public storyteller, to say nothing of living with one who was more closed-mouthed than a rock, Gabrielle had developed a fine sense of other's moods. This one was an open book.
"Ehh?" Xena looked up, bravely meeting her eyes. Bravely, because Gabrielle knew she'd not part with a single detail. Xena would lie through her beautifully straight teeth to protect her.
"You. You've been distracted all day."
"How. . .what do you mean?" Or, if not actually lie, at least dismiss or distract the question. What was rather idiotic, given Gabrielle had evidence this time to press the issue.
"I mean, my love, that you aren't one to bruise your poor thumb and fingers simply because she's a closet masochist." She let her eyes flicker onto right hand, whose thumb and first two fingers were bandaged by a few stands of white gauze. Xena had been hanging hooks for some recently acquired artwork, the nagging feeling of eyes on her sufficient to cause her to pound her hand rather than the wall. Embarrassing, to say the least.
Xena, to Gabrielle's consternation, chose to concentrate on her steak, sawing into the poor side of beef with all the delicacy of lumberjack. Gabrielle wet her throat with a sip of wine and reconsidered her options. If this wasn't her Xena, the one she'd lived and loved for three millennia, she was the closest thing to genuine dopplegangger she'd ever come across. It was irritating and heartbreaking all in the same breath, not that she'd change a thing. If nothing else, this was familiar ground to her, and so the strategies she'd likely have to employ were already set. It was just a question of which to use.
Xena, being Xena, easily blew all her carefully laid plans out of the water.
"We're being followed."
Gabrielle wasn't sure which was more shocking: Xena's sudden declaration, its content, or the fact she'd come to such a conclusion in the first place. She didn't doubt Xena's suspicion for an instant, herself suspecting the same for some time. It was more the fact Xena even voiced it in the first place, and with a conviction normally absent from anything she spoke. Normally Xena would suggest a second-opinion on any project she'd completed, from cooking to carpentry, which led Gabrielle to the amusing conclusion that she might be trying to bankrupt her, given the only ones who could possibly have done better were the sort serving royalty and commanding six-figure hourly fees.
Rather than let slip her own thoughts, Gabrielle tried to coax more from her lover, if only to confirm the feelings she herself held. "Oh?" was her response, a small grin suggesting amusement. Gabrielle prayed to Artemis it looked real. "More of your admirers probably. I wish they'd try hitting on your 'younger sister' every now and thenÓ"
"It isn't. . ." Xena tried to interject, only to be drowned out by Gabrielle's droning.
" not like you don't ever get enough, do you? I'm not sure who Maggie is cooking for half the time, us or just you."
"It's. . ."
But Gabrielle, ancient bard that she was, was very much on a roll. "Well, I can certainly understand it. I mean you're nothing short of beautiful. Absolutely ravishing, even. . ."
"Gabrielle. . ."
"Ónever mind that I'm utterly in love with you, so I really don't mind you are the one who gets hit on all the time, while I'm fending off fundamentalist Christians who're trying to lynch the pair of us. . .did you want to say something?"
It was delivered with such tone and intent that Gabrielle was immediately thrown back three thousand plus years. Even so, she was far from the naive farming girl from the countryside when she'd first heard that voice. Where once her throat might have closed up, Gabrielle now took only a moment to think up something witty and responsive to fill the resulting silence. "Was it something I said?"
Xena couldn't help but shake her head, rolling her eyes while biting down on her tongue to keep from saying something. . .indelicate. Actually, she wanted to scream. Loudly. Very loudly.
Very very loudly.
Though she had no real idea why just then. She was irritated, yes. On edge, yes. But so enraged that she'd risk breaking every piece of crystal in sight again? The last time had been simply because she was trying to hit the high notes on some tune she'd had bouncing in her head for the past year or two.
This time she was just wanted to start screeching like a banshee. It wasn't Gabrielle's voice, either, which Xena knew as certain as she did her love for the woman that she'd never tire of hearing babble about the most inconsequential things. Which, while all good and well, left her with absolutely nothing to blame this sudden urge on.
Instead, knowing that she would be screaming any minute now, Xena quickly got up and headed for the exit.
Gabrielle took a final, measured sip of her wine and rose to follow. She hardly stopped long enough to pay the cashier, instead depositing a small pile of bills into the girls hands and collecting their coats, her eyes riveted on her love's back.
The pair who had taken it upon themselves to watch events unfold did so with some measure of approval.
Still, the slower of their pairing, who by some joke of Fate was both a former athlete (an Olympiad from the time of Cyrus of Persia no less) and a blond to boot, felt the need to actually say it. "That went well."
His companion, a once-debutante who frequented Prohibition era nightclubs as a youth, kept her council and made to leave herself. To her eyes, things were not going well. The Ancient no doubt suspected she and her companion were in danger, and judging by the dark-haired one's behavior she was likewise on edge. Having watched the Ancient far longer than her own companion, who vastly preferred his nightly bloodsport to the duty of surveillance they'd been given, she knew this new companion to the normally-solitary Ancient to be level-headed and reserved. The occasion outside of the lingerie shop had been staged, she was sure, and whatever arguments these two played out in public were just that: play.
That this dark-haired beauty would come so close to losing composure in so public a setting suggested she'd underestimated the sensitivity of the mortal. This was one to watch, particularly as her sensitive ears had picked out everything that had been said across the room, both said and unsaid. The Ancient was not one to be quieted easily, while her companion was not one to speak in sentences of more than two or three words at a stretch.
They'd have to walk carefully from here on, lest the plans she and hers shared became dust. It was only with reluctance that she placed a hand on her companions arm and essentially pulled him from their table. Though the Olympiad towered over her and easily was double her width, she felt no fear in handling him so roughly. Her's was blood straight from the He-of-the-Dark-Vine, while his was of some simpleton wretch he'd fancied as a conquest in the woods outside of Olympia one night.
Obviously current research was truer than it realized, as nothing but genetics could explain wits as dense as those housed in this one.
The departure of the pair did not itself go unnoticed. The eyes which viewed them did so with all the interest of one who had seen the mating of flies upon a wall. . . which is to say: very little.
The same had watched the Ancient and her lover bicker and leave with far more interest. This was a new dynamic to them, interesting and not a little worrying. By all accounts bickering was hardly a new thing for these two, whether it be over clothes, money, or Gabrielle's choice of salad dressing. If ever there was a worthy pair, it was these two.
Ears equally keen had picked out the words and banter, causing a rare smile. She'd smiled so little in recent times, yet could never resist it seeing these two. But this night there was a bittersweet taste to it, suspicions being confirmed and curses immediately springing to mind.
"Bloody festivals!" was her only audible explanative. Rather than sit there and ruminate, this third party (consisting of one) finished her own wine (wishing it was Guiness all the while) and made to follow. There was an urge to giggle at this, her head suddenly light from so many realizations coming to a head all at once.
"Bloody follow-the-immortal-leader," she snickered. "The dead-leading-the-undead." This was incredibly funny to her, though she managed to keep composure enough to make it out the door and to her car. Those she followed had already done likewise.
She watched for the second pair, but had eyes mainly Gabrielle and Xena as they conversed beside their limo. Now it was back to her most familiar role: waiting in the shadows.
She'd done it for millennia, and so could stand a few more hours.
Whether it was the night air, Gabrielle's presence, or simply getting out of that damned crowded restaurant, Xena immediately lost all urge to so much as shout, never mind actually scream. This was not necessarily a good thing, as Gabrielle herself looked ready to have words. Xena could only mentally steel herself, knowing the smaller woman's temper formidable...though she'd only once actually heard her raise her voice, and that was a sincere sounding "Damn!" when a cup of coffee had been spilled into Xena's lap.
She was unaware her stance had taken on that of a whipped child: head held low, one shoulder up, the other down, feet planted firmly. It stopped whatever Gabrielle might have said cold.
If her rage at the child proved fleeting, it was stoked to a full bonfire against the trials and wounds inflicted upon her by the years before they met. She dearly wished the similarities between her lost love and her living one didn't run so deep that learning of her didn't involve prying odd details out of casual conversation, or arriving at her own conclusions by observing the girl run hither and yon throughout their home, restoring it almost single-handedly to more than simply four walls. (Okay, at least twenty dozen walls, but you get the idea; theirs was a BIG house)
Angry as she might have been, Xena's words still echoed in Gabrielle's mind. "We're being followed." Indeed they were. This left her awash in a cold fear that was actually twofold: first, that Xena's life was at risk, and second, that her own secret might be revealed. The first she was certain she could defend, and the second she'd long feared and kept every bit as hidden as Xena guarded herself. It was actually a bit of selfishness on Gabrielle's part, rather than concern for her new love's peace of mind, that she guarded her...parentage so closely.
She'd only barely survived the century following Callisto's visitation of them, and knew she simply would not survive a single day if she lost her raven-haired love again.
Rather than let her private turmoil likewise show on her face, Gabrielle moved to practicalities. It was a cold one that night, with Demeter's tears making a light carpet on the land. Xena was encased in an Armani pants suit which, while its rich blue set off her sapphire eyes, did little to combat the night's chill. The fact she wasn't shivering didn't fool Gabrielle in the slightest; she herself was half-Olympian, and she was freezing.
"Here, you," she said through the cloud of her own breath, handing Xena her overcoat. "Get this on before you catch your death." The child did as bade, still refusing to meet eyes, though her posture screamed her expectation of being screeched at in a moment. . .if not worse. It very nearly undid Gabrielle. Merciful Artemis, if she were more fragile. . .
"Let's head home." It was all Gabrielle could trust her voice with just then. Xena trusted her own not at all, and wisely offered no argument.
The Olympiad, known these days as Dante, waited until the pairs limo pulled away from the curb to let himself out of the car. His partner, Margareeth D'Arcy, took this without surprise though not without anger.
"And where the fuck are you off to?" Margareeth reveled in the profanity so common to the modern day. Before yielding to the call of the dark, she'd been ever attentive to the mores placed on her by society. A good girl, her father's pride in every way. God, how she hated that creature she'd once been. Though right then she hated her thick-skulled companion far more, as much because she knew the answer to her own question as because the idiot refused to answer.
"Fuck you then!" Marg pulled the door shut after him, not sparing him another glance as he half stumbled towards the closest alleyway. She lit the engine and carefully pulled away. Dante was an idiot and easily replaced...though she wasn't looking forward to petitioning the Crypt elders for a new second.
She wasn't concerned for that evenings duties. She'd done without the idiot almost from the start. So, without another thought of him, Marg looked towards another several hours crouching in that damned wood behind the Ancient's house. Damned but the place gave her the willies, the feeling of a thousand eyes upon her back...
Dante was hungry. Starved, in fact. He'd subsisted for too long on weak fare of strays and rats. He'd tolerated his annoying partner's henpecking and insults for weeks on end. She'd blustered and threatened, but never moved to stop his nightly sport. Perhaps she wasn't as brainless a cluck as he'd concluded, knowing him a favored of the elders and thinking better of annoying them.
He wandered all about the streets, looking for something suitable. Theirs was a hardy breed, but not one immune to the ravages of nature. The smallest virus could prove as deadly to him as a thousand Driad bones, though his sharpened senses were enough to warn him of any such danger. And...Damn it all!...the danger was all around him then.
It took hours, but ultimately there was one. Not a pretty thing, mind, but one free of any disease. The rest of the streetwalkers went their own way, some with envy in their eyes. Dante spared them no time, nor did he waste any in bargaining the woman's price. "Five hundred for the night." His tone was flat, which for him meant the hunger was nearly all-consuming. It also communicated a very clear message to the woman, advising her not to refuse the offer. She wouldn't have anyway, though she didn't think much of a john taking her by the arm so forcefully. It hurt.
They made their way quickly to the nearest hotel. More accurately, Dante made his way there and essentially dragged his catch after him. Hunger made his grip tighter. The manager likewise took note of his demands and made no comment. The room was paid for in moments and Dante was even quicker to get there. The woman was starting to protest such rough treatment, though he was deaf to it. His only thought was to reach the room and enjoy this night as he never had.
The room was on the third floor and the elevator wasn't working. The stairs creaked underfoot and grated on his nerves worse than the woman's harping. He still refused to offer her so much as glance, which was actually a small mercy. To have looked at her, however momentarily, would have led to the hunger taking control and drinking of her right then and there.
This didn't stop him from practically tearing the door off its hinges, nor from practically throwing the woman into the darkened room and tearing at his clothes all in the same move. The Thirst was consuming him whole. It robbed him of all thought save to feed.
He hadn't turned on a lamp, preferring the darkness.
Which made it particularly appropriate for the door to slam behind him...entirely by itself.
The Thirst deserted him instantly.
Its wasn't much really. The striking of a match, far off in the single room's corner. It hardly cast any light, and what little it did was only enough to illuminate the cigarette its flame was applied to. The small fire winked out of its own accord, for no sound of breath could be caught in the still silence.
Dante began to sweat, hard, his exposed skin taking on a clear sheen in the dimness.
There was movement in that corner. Smoke could be seen drifting away from it. Circles and other shapes, ones not normally possible with tobacco smoke, drifted past the single window, the room's only source of illumination.
The streetwalker got to her feet, instinctively backing way. She didn't realize until her should brushed against slick skin that she'd been backing into her intended client. This made her jerk in the opposite direction with a start.
A calm, low voice emanated from the form which moved from that corner, to stand stock still beside the window. No feature or detail could be seen.
"There's money on the bed, girl." It was a woman's voice to be sure, though the flatness to it belayed any emotion attached to, inspiring pure dread. "Take it and leave." The woman quickly snatched up the thick envelope which lay on the musty bedspread. She was out the door without even checking the envelope's contents. Anything, anything, was better than staying with that lunatic john for another second.
She didn't even notice the door shut itself, again, the instant she was across the threshold.
Dante had remained immobile throughout all of this.
The glowing tip of the cigarette was the only company he knew.
"I know you." And she did. Her memory was quite clear where his like were concerned. It gave the old being a shudder of power unlike any she'd experienced in years.
Such a declaration was not lost on Dante, who was prompted out of his immobilityä though all her could manage was a bare swallow of saliva and squeak "Howä?"
"In the woods outside of Thrace." She revealed in his terror, hating herself for it all he while. "One Spring Solstice festival." She made a show of remembering the distant moment. "There hadn't been any rain since winter's thaw, and the woods were dry underfoot."
She moved into the light. Dante saw nothing his long memory could grasp. A tall creature was she, with eyes of dark hazel and rich brown hair. Her tanned features, clearly illuminated by the lamplight from outside, were nothing exceptional or prominent. He wouldn't spare her a glance on the street normally. She looked neither old nor young, and her heritage, save that she was European, was a mystery to his eyes.
A small smile graced her lips, as though he could hear his confusion spoke aloud. "You and your pack thought me another. The Amazon bard, who traveled with the warrior princess."
A dim memory, one of pain and panic, took light in his eyes.
"I was merciful then." Actually, she reminded herself, I was half-dead and barely conscious. Damned if I tell him that. "I might be so again." The sweat was now very clear on his skin. Who would have thought a Bacchae could sweat so?
She approached his still form with grace and calm. Her voice was low, almost sensuous. "Tell me of your interest in the Ancient one and her companion." There was no demand in the request, no hint of authority or steel to the voice. It was spoken playfully, as though in bed in the afterglow of passion.
It terrified Dante as nothing else. Even the elder Gaunt was a mild thought compared to this.
Terror can tighten or loosen the tongue. Dante was caught between the two just then. Muscles frozen, mind shuffling back and forth between today and yesterday, thoughts a jumble of emotions boiling beneath a locked lid, boiling to an explosive mix.
"Tell me," she said in the same non-tone.
A single tear escaping, Dante told all he knew.
It didn't take nearly as long as she'd expected. Only minutes, in fact. What little she learned made her cold. What she didn't learn turned her colder still.
There was only heat in her hazel eyes as they met those of the Bacchae cowering before her. He took it for passion, assuming this to be her mercy. She moved with a slow deliberateness he himself had used on many a seduction in the wood. Neither boy nor girl in the old days could resist coming to his spring to bathe.
The smile she gave him undid his paralysis, only to have it reasserted by the gentle hands which drew across his bare shoulders and cupped his jaw.
He returned the smile. . .
. . .and felt his neck wrenched as she used her grip to throw him, body and all, towards the opposite wall, with such strength as to rival all the elders known!
Dante twisted, desperate to bring his natural abilities to bear. Through exercise of will a Bacchae can soar on the wind, and so he tried. The best he managed was to avoid plunging through the wall and instead shattering the closed window. His impact against the glass and wood was still sufficient to jar his concentration, causing him to plummet to the asphalt below. Still he twisted, trying to keep from landing head-first, and managed to land at a sharp angle.
Despite this the impact shattered his neck and shoulder, leaving his head twisted at a most unnatural angle. The side of it was split open by the force, one eye crushed and the other nearly popped out of its socket. Blood pouring out of every orifice, whether his mouth, eyes or ears, and staining the dark concrete into something darker still.
This left him to the darkness of the healing coma that overtook him almost instantly. He didn't fear this, and was not a little grateful for it.
He was beyond her reach now.
Morgan Sofitia Fythe, whose name once was Hope, cursed herself under her breath for an idiot as she glanced out the window she'd just hurled that piece of meat out of. She'd wasted valuable time on a creature who was barely verbal, never mind actually intelligent enough to put two thoughts together. She'd heard his partner's cursing him as they'd separated outside the restaurant. That alone should have told her of his unimportance.
She shook her head and collected her coat. She'd become too cautious of late, wasting her time guarding the flanks while the enemy, who didn't have much more in brains than the meat she'd just tossed, attacked from the front.
Damn it all. Damn "Michael" for leading her to this. Damn her mother's blood-kin for their madness. Damn that meat for being such an ignoramus. Damn Bacchus for spreading his poisoned blood so wide she'd never be done with them all. Damn herself for her caution.
Morgan-Hope damned it all. . .except for her mum and her dark-tressed love. She'd watched them together for nearly a month now, having to avoid them only when Gabrielle went hunting that morning. Her mum's senses were at their peak at such times, and she had no wish to disturb the woman's peace right then. Thank the Almighty these fools hadn't tried something as obvious as hiring out assassins!
Now she had at least some notion of what these self-styled lords-of-the-undead, a misnomer if ever there was as Bacchae were not actually dead, planned against Gabrielle. The meat knew only that in the next day or so was the moment they planned to be, quote, "rid of the Lord's spoiled seed," unquote, or something equally and pointlessly dramatic. Obviously he meant Gabrielle, who carried Bacchus' blood but none of the corruption. This left Morgan-Hope with very little time. It was the first of November, All Saints Day, in a few hours. After that, there was no telling what the meat's masters might have planned.
A new wave of curse erupted in her thoughts, loud enough to simply drown out the wail of sirens outside. . .and the pounding of approaching feet in the hall outside. Morgan-Hope was deaf to it all as she moved back into the shadows from whence she'd come.
Only silence greeted the officers who kicked the door open. Even turning on the lights, which revealed only an untouched bed and broken window, told them nothing.
The room was otherwise empty as any crypt.
The ride home was silent, but oddly soothing. Gabrielle leaned into Xena's shoulder, as much to reassure herself as to demonstrate her feelings to the other. Her emotions were all a bubbling stew since her customary hunt yesterday morning, doubts suppressed for more than a year worming their way into every thought.
That she loved this mortal child was beyond question. Whether Xena held the same feelings was another question, much like the bulk of her past. Gabrielle had no doubt there were stains, which she held no fault of Xena's. The world today had become a cruel enough place, and for her 'Princess' to have survived for so long on the streets as she had hinted a great deal about her capacity for survival. Gabrielle herself was certain she'd seen worse in the slums of Whitechapel and Warsaw.
For all that, Gabrielle knew her companion to be as right a soul as her namesake. All the same, it hurt that there was still such distance between them, that she would have to pick and pry the smallest detail out of her. Oh, she was under no illusions as to the reason for Xena's reluctance to share her past.
But how to communicate her understanding without revealing all...and thereby losing her to fear? Or, worse, outright hatred?
Gabrielle could not help but wonder at the wisdom of risking her heart again, after all this time, even to one so like her lost warrior.
These thoughts were muted somewhat by the feeling of an arm sneaking about her shoulders and bringing her tighter to the strong frame beside her. Gabrielle closed her eyes and offered a small prayer to Artemis, that her troubled mind might find peace.
Xena herself was surprised by Gabrielle's gesture, almost certain her behavior earlier had thrown at least a little distance between them. Clearly this wasn't the case. Her own arm moved almost of its own accord, encircling the redhead's shoulders and pulling her closer gently, as though she would shatter under the merest touch.
She wanted to cry as Gabrielle had their first night together. That they'd only been whore and client was forgotten. Those tears...Xena knew she could never forget them. She'd seen her cry different tears in her sleep, muttering a name over and over: "Hope." This had become a nightly occurrence over summer, leading Xena to worry a little.
It was one of those nights that she found her (previously unknown) singing voice. She crooned a melody she'd heard herself only in dreams, matching every pitch and note perfectly, and soothed her lover to still deeper sleep. The tears didn't stop, but they were no longer accompanied by choked sobs or a spell of thrashing, the latter generally resulting in Xena having a sore spot or two come morning.
What divine power could have smiled on her so to give her such a treasure? Xena had never believed in a merciful or gentle God, all evidence of her life speaking to the contrary. How could she have been so blind?
No words went between them. No apologies, no declarations of love or devotion. None were needed.
But even this comforting silence between them, where both could regroup themselves, did little to ease their nerves. They were still being watched from afar. They were both sure of this, and equally determined to keep the other from loosing sleep over the matter. Their thoughts mirrored each other's perfectly, as did their plans for ensuring the other's peace that night.
Had they known the other's thoughts, both would have erupted into such gales of laughter that such plans would have proved unnecessary, as they both would have passed out in minutes.
At first glance the mansion would have looked forbidding and unapproachable. The gray sky overhead, neither fully daylight nor nightfall, could only add to the illusion of menace. But Xena's eyes had grown used to seeing their home in any conceivable light, and the soft glow emanating from a few select windows dispelled any unease she might have felt then.
Gabrielle continuing to lean against her didn't hurt any, either...though the light snores emanating from her weren't terribly soothing.
Max, their ever-reliable and silent driver, pulled up to the front door as opposed to the garage. He was hardly as dense as his stoic expression and sunken eyes led people to assume, and he knew his employers (emphasis on the plural, given the amount of running around Xena had him doing) needed to get themselves home post-haste. And to his mind the five minutes needed to back the car into its stall was ten minutes longer than these two needed to wait.
He'd put the car into park and moved to get out as quickly as his practiced reflexes allowed so to open the door for them. He was slightly disappointed that Xena, yet again, beat him to the punch and was all but carrying Gabrielle to the front doors. The driver could only shake his head and wonder at the woman's speed. Not that it was all that surprising, mind, particularly as he'd been married himself for thirty years now.
Xena glanced over her shoulder, giving the older man a nod of thanks and bidding him a good night, all without a single word. Max took the hint and got back behind the wheel. His only thought from there on was to get in-doors and enjoy his wife's cooking. . .at least for a start.
He was grinning like an idiot all the way to the kitchen.
The low buzz of Gabrielle's snoring took on a increasing nasal quality to Xena's ears. In fact, they'd lost their soothing repetition and were sounding more like a repetitive nose-blowing. To say nothing of the overly-deep breaths she was taking with each snore. Xena was fighting not to smile, never mind laugh aloud, and having to fight hard at that.
She didn't doubt that while her love's eyes were closed, Gabrielle wasn't missing a thing.
The battle was all but lost by the time she made it to their bedroom. Xena took her escalating frustrations out first on the door, swinging it open with a very solid kick. This only gave her a sore foot, which in turn gave her focus enough to stride to the bed and literally throw Gabrielle all the way to her side of the king-sized mattress. No small feat, more because of the distance involved than the smaller woman's weight.
A delicious peel of laughter erupted from the redhead, who immediately propped herself up on her elbows and gave her partner such a sultry look. Xena returned with a deep frown, the sort only possible when one bites down, hard, on the insides of their cheeks lest they laugh themselves hoarse.
As Xena stalked towards the bed, Gabrielle involuntarily took her lower lip between her teeth. Xena's eyes spoke of things and intentions which made Gabrielle more than a tad nervous. "Err," Gabrielle stammered, backpedaling as far as she could until flat against the headboard.
Xena's eyes didn't leave her own. Not while she kicked off her own shoes, tossed off her jacket, undid her pants, blouse, and bra, shucked off her panties...all in slow, deliberate succession and with and emphasis on showing off the sleek economy of her muscles and movements. There was no break in the sequence from one item of clothing to the next, no time allowed to savor the slow-fast revelation of bronzed skin, the chore done in mere moments.
It was as cruel a torture as any Gabrielle had endured.
And those eyes told her this was only the beginning.
"Xena. . ." was all Gabrielle could breathe as her eyes roamed every inch and contour of the tall woman's body, from her full and firm breasts to the flat stomach to the rich patch of ebony curls nestled between her sleek thighs to strong legs. And back up past the broad shoulders, strong jaw, curving mouth, and perfect nose to the twin points of sapphire which bored into her as her love continued her approach. Those eyes, which hadn't wavered, were even more dangerous now.
"Now, Xena. . ." Gabrielle instinctively kicked a foot out, to stop this slow, dangerously sensuous approach. The foot was instantly captured by two very strong hands, which divested it of the heel it wore (its only protection) and promptly grasped the ankle, pulling with a fair bit of force. Gabrielle was suddenly flat on her back and quite helpless.
Her breathing was getting erratic, while Xena remained utterly calm as she stalked up unto the mattress and hovered above her prone prey on all fours, looking every inch the feral predator. Gabrielle felt fire ignite throughout her, sure her skin was as red as if her insides had all caught ablaze right then. Gods knew she was sweating enough to be, while Xena remained every bit as cool and collected as she had their first night.
This one never lost her composure, save at that moment of ecstasy, when all Gabrielle's efforts would be rewarded with cries so intense and sweet they threatened to make her deaf. The merest touch now would leave her trembling hard with want.
Xena's eyes, those burning points of purest blue, pinned her prone while practiced fingers undid the straps and clasps of her dress. Involved work as this was, as close-fitting as the dress might have been, Gabrielle didn't feel the merest brush of skin-on-skin. She groaned aloud, a guttural noise she recognized only from its almost nightly repetition.
"Quiet," Xena commanded, Gabrielle clenching her teeth against the noises she would have issued. They weren't polite ones, anyway, and would only give Xena motive to try even more insidious tortures. "And stay still," was added for good measure while her fingers peeled off the satin slip which encased her smooth flesh, both knowing that she would start arching and twisting to meet the fingers which left her stripped and helpless. The dress and lingerie disposed of, Xena lowered herself millimeter by millimeter, promising imminent contact. . .yet not allowing a single touch of skin.
The anticipation alone threatened to send Gabrielle over that peak of ecstasy which had built in her since the morning, a final plunge she was unwilling to experience alone. The first, wholly accidental brush of skin nearly undid her, the purr which escaped from her warning of her impending climax. . .leading Xena to abandon all contact and remove herself as far from reach as possible.
Needless to say, this was not an action Gabrielle was willing to take lying down. Xena didn't manage to back away more than a metre before a flushed and sweating Gabrielle was on top of her, rudely tackling the taller woman and pinning her with far more strength than someone so small and slight should have been able to muster.
Xena's laughter, deliberate and musical, was cut off by Gabrielle's accusation of "Tease," right before bringing her lips down onto Xena's with such force to rob both of breath. They lay breast to breast, thigh to thigh. Each could feel the other's nether-curls scratch as they ground their hips in perfect rhythm, threatening to drive each to orgasm. Their breathing automatically synchronized, their tongues dueling for entrance. Gabrielle allowed Xena's to brush her lips before she herself pulled away, keeping a very solid grip on the other's arms and holding her down. The moan, a sound somewhere between plea for mercy and outright agony, this elicited from Xena, alone was worth the Herculean effort it took her not to scream for the loss of contact herself.
Still, the pressure building within her core was relentless enough to give voice to her need. "What. Do. You. Want?" Gabrielle managed, each word needing a full breath. Xena's eyes, which had closed since the instant of the kiss, cracked open to a fine slit. Her lips trembled.
But no sound came.
"What do you want?" Gabrielle asked again, this time working a knee between Xena's clenched thighs, its solid roundness pressed hard against her steaming and impossibly wet center.
Again no answer, save a gasp of air and back suddenly arched, came from the woman below her.
To see her lover respond so to her, and the feelings of fiery abandon this inspired within her aching core, brought sweat across Gabrielle's whole body and tears to her eyes. It was too much, to hot to hold back, to wild to control.
The fire was beyond restraining, spilling down her own hips as her knee became slick with Xena's heat.
"Tell me," was all she could whisper, her voice cracking from the strain.
Xena suddenly broke from Gabrielle's strong hold, her arms snaking around her torso and trapping the redhead against her. Their breasts, a thousand times more sensitive now, flattened against the other's, their stone-hard nipples aching in both pain and delight from this sudden pressure now put upon them both. Xena slid a full thigh between her own, pressing upwards with equal force to Gabrielle's knee.
Her lips captured Gabrielle's, tongue plunging deep.
Tears and sweat flowed from both in a never-ending cascade.
Two sets of hips ground against each other like pistons, perfect harmony and synchronization of movement, the pace accelerating with each revolution.
They moaned as one. Cried as one.
Their hearts pounded in time.
The world exploded in fire and musk and release.
They screamed as one voice, lost in each other's mouth, in each other's souls.
The two hung there for a span of moments, small spasms of muscles and limbs their only movement, bodies tightly locked against each other's. Both collapsed to their sides, still locked by strong arms and still-stronger passion.
Xena could only breath in the most ragged, noisy fashion. Not that she was complaining, as it sounded suitable revenge for her snoring earlier. Pity the intended victim of this unsettling noise wasn't conscious enough to appreciate it.
A small grin of triumph graced her exhausted features. Winner and still champion! She'd have shouted it, had she breath enough.
Instead, Xena let her eyes close and her thoughts drift off to join her love.
They were waiting for her, there in the dark. Waiting as they had for so many nights since Samhain last. They were ancient and eternal, only their faces and members changing over the course of centuries and millennia.
They were four...and one other. . .that night, as they had been since the settling of the Americas. Their sixth had chosen that moment to declare war upon his then-allies, though his chair remained at their table, left empty. . .as a reminder of betrayal. . .
She knew this was a dream. A figment concocted by her imagination and fears, nothing more.
This knowledge didn't make the stone floor or dank air any less chilling. Nor the voice which rang out from the circular table before her any more friendly.
This time it was the African woman who greeted her, the one dressed like a voodoo priestess with a colorful scarf wrapped about her head and beaded necklace hanging from her neck. But her eyes were a glowing red, a deep enough shade to remind her of fresh-spilt blood.
"Sit. Be comfortable." This came from the pudgy man wearing a powdered wig and lipstick.
Her legs moved of their own accord, carrying her to the vacant chair. She sat as bade, the bare wood cold to her equally naked skin. The merest glance from any of those who watched her, four pairs of crimson eyes eager for even the briefest contact, dispelled any discomfort. . .and all thought with it.
If those eyes removed her will, they did nothing to her hearing. She certainly wasn't deaf to their words, taking it all in and desperately attempted to make heads-and-tails of what were essentially legs, arms, and trunks of conversation, not simply a clear thread of exchanges. It put her in mind of the tentacles of an octopus trying to communicate with one another. . .when each were of their own mind.
"Is she prepared?" the powdered wig asked once she was settled.
"Perhaps enough. Perhaps not enough." This came from the one sitting two chairs away from the powdered wig, a bodybuilder in a toga with solid white hair and a fetching scar tracing his right cheek.
"I would not have us delay the ceremonies," the African woman declared. "The energies fade fast these days."
Beside her sat another woman, whose skin was only slightly lighter in shade and whose own robes were a striking orange with red fringes. "Our supporters and retainers will be hard pressed to wait another year."
"Leave that to me." The toga spoke in a tone that might have been final, was in no way convincing.
There was a shuffle of movement to her right. The fifth chair was occupied by what looked like a mass of dirty curtains and bed linen, all draped over an old- fashioned coat rack. If this was another participant to the "conversation", it certainly wasn't saying much.
This didn't stop everyone from giving the chair occupied by the dirty linen with the occasional glance or outright stare. They even nodded at it.
"I agree with Gaunt." The African again. But who the hell was 'Gaunt'?
"As do I," the woman in orange agreed. Girls against the boys?
"Hmm." The toga grunted in ways men generally do when they agree without wishing to say it aloud. The powdered wig said nothing, but slumped back into his own chair and generally looked quite sulky.
The African gave everyone, including the dirty linen, but not her, dangerous eyes. She couldn't help but wonder what was being communicated. It was potent stuff, whatever it was.
"Which leaves us," the orange and red robe was saying, "with our guest."
Again, four pairs of red stars were on her again. Just as they had been a dozen times a dozen nights before. Some nights it frightened her. Others, simply puzzled her.
Then and there, it was a fear that turned her heart to a lump of. . . something. . . colder than ice. . . and infinitely harder than stone.
She wanted, desperately, to say something. . .anything. . . to get those eyes off her. . .away from her. Her mouth didn't work. They wouldn't let it work.
Panic gripped her muscles, willing them to shake.
Why wouldn't they let her voice work?
Why. . . The African watched this and nodded, as though in full approval. Her full ruby lips broke into a knowing grin and she turned back to the others. "I think she's ready. Her dreaming mind is sufficiently unbalanced to allow easy access." There was a pride in her voice, as though she were a pet project of only cursory importance.
It angered her. The anger gave her strength.
Not much, but enough. She could feel her muscles again. And if her core was still cold with fear, it was a sheen of ice. . .covering a volcano's explosive core.
She managed to move her own eyes (the others were talking amongst themselves again) from the scene before her. Unfortunately, the first thing they drifted to was the dirty linen to her right. . .
It wasn't simply a collection of rags and filth. It was, she could see now, a filth-encrusted robe and hood. There was a definite shape to it, one with a head (of sorts) distinct atop its. . .shoulders? The hood, while deep, didn't obscure the fact there was something in there. . .
Something with eyes. . .which glowed a red more powerful than the rest of them put together. . .
Eyes which burned into her. . .
Sucked her dry. . .
Then she saw the face beneath those eyes.
Her voice came back.
And she screamed. . .
And screamed. . .
And screamed. . .
Xena awoke silently, her body slick with cold sweat and every muscle clenched. She barely managed to swallow the scream about to form on her lips. It took some moments for her thoughts to calm enough to remind her of where she was.
She lay on her back, Gabrielle curled beside her. A shudder went through her as her muscles tightened. . .in fear. . .again. This time of the small woman sleeping beside her. She didn't know why she felt this. She wasn't even sure she cared.
Xena could only roll onto her side, away from Gabrielle, and closed her eyes.
Sleep came and claimed her. . .eventually.
But not before Gabrielle herself opened her own eyes, staring at her love's back. These nightmares, always coming on the heels of their lovemaking, had started almost the same time her own dreams of her long-lost Hope faded. If those dreams, of finding her infant daughter, left her mildly disturbed (Artemis forgive her she'd barely thought about her first child in nearly a century), then these nightly visitations drove her to distraction. Another night and she would do what to that point was the unthinkable, and intrude upon her sleeping love's dream. . .directly. This would stop, come what may.
No sigh of either distress or acceptance escaped her this time. In time she, too, slept again, but gained no rest from it.
It was a small mercy she didn't feel the silent tears which came in her sleep that night.