Thanks: To the ex-guards for feedback. And to Terence for the title. (I'll say.)
Check It Out: There's hot, steamy, passionate love expressed between women in this story, so if you aren't in the mood to read something like that, or if for some reason it's illegal for you to do so, don't read the story. Also, the Conqueror uses the word "fuck" a lot; there's just no pre-Mycenaean equivalent for the modern audience.
Some Info: This is a story about Xena The Conqueror and an alternate ending to the Hercules episode "Armageddon Now, Part 2." It's a little dark, but not for a Conqueror story; she's got serious issues but she's no rapist. It is also a first time story and a bit of a hurt/comfort story. And it's a romance and an adventure and a cautionary tale and......
Didja like it? MiladyCo@aol.com
I lie in bed, my head pounding; Ares has been screaming in it all night. It's only a few hours now until dawn, and though I am finally alone, I know I won't sleep at this point. I stare at the ceiling of my huge canopied bed and wonder why it's so important to that bastard that I leave Corinth before morning. I have grown tired of him. His bluster and his threats, his attempts at seduction. Pathetic excuse for a god who refuses to show his face! I know that scum well enough by now to know that if he wants me out of Corinth there is something here worth seeing. Of course, at this point I would probably defy him just for defiance's sake alone. Fuck him. Fuck you all. Pain makes me angry. Drinking will help.
My room is huge and even with the fire going, cold, when I slip out from under the furs of my bed. I grab a robe and my hooka and sit in my big chair by the window, smoking opium and looking out at the blackness. The smoke makes me cough and I coat my throat with the dark wine I favor lately, as a tranquility falls over my thoughts. My anger dissipates as my eyes grow used to the darkness. I can see the trees outside the window, the nearby mountains outlined against the dark sky. I let my mind float and I imagine that there is something out there for me. Something beyond this rage and this feeling of always being driven. Something that will soothe my heart. And there's Ares again, whispering about how I don't deserve that, I don't want that.
"You're Xena the Conqueror," he whispers persuasively inside my head, "You don't need comfort, you don't want peace. How can you even think of that when everything you've worked for is within your grasp?"
"Go away!" I shout aloud, throwing the now-empty wine bottle against the wall where it breaks with a satisfying smash, "Leave me alone you bastard! You don't know what I want! I don't even know what I want! I hate ruling the world! I hate all these people! I hate you most of all. I wish you were mortal just so I could kill you."
I could hear his rage, "Leave Corinth tonight, Xena. It will be the beginning of the end if you don't. I promise you. You know you can trust me, Xena. I have never lied to you."
"Your voice makes my head hurt. I welcome the end. GO!"
"You will regret--"
Alone again. I smoke more and I start another bottle of the wine. It's raining out the window now and I wonder not for the first time, what death is like. Maybe blackness forever? Or pain, like the sound of Ares whining in my head, like the feeling of my heart as broken as my legs, or the agony it will cause me to continue this life one more day. Part of me could kill them all if I had the time, if I wanted to enough, but I don't anymore. Kill them if they come near me, sure, but I seek no one out. Hating them is satisfactory. This is enough of the world for me, you bastard.
What will tomorrow bring? The beginning of the end of what? Of him, of me, the world? Just another empty threat from the god of war. Loser. Time to add to the scar. I grab the small knife from under the cushion of my chair and pull my robe back to reveal my right thigh, and there they are. Hundreds of little X-shaped marks, in rows, ringing my thigh many times over. One for every time I have wished that my life was done. Tiny marks bringing exquisite pain, reminding me that I am still here, that I can feel. Alive even though I just don't want to be. Slowly I make the first cut, dabbing the blood with my finger and licking it off; this is a pain I can put a name to. A pain that I can control. The line that crosses the first is the more difficult, and I concentrate on the knife, on the way it feels to slowly cut my own flesh; a pain that I know will lessen with time. I think back, trying to remember a time I felt anything. Anything more than hate and fear and anger and despair. Nothing comes to mind. No scene from my childhood, no moment of sexual ecstasy, not even in my greatest victories can I remember feeling anything closer to pleasure than disappointment.
Maybe tomorrow will bring something good. Maybe Ares is afraid, he sounded so desperate. Is that a glimmer of hope, Conqueror? You don't deserve something good. I swallow down the last of my blood with some wine and contemplate perhaps sleeping later on. The dreams don't even really bother me anymore. Just another part of my reality that I have accepted. My attendants will be here momentarily to dress me for my day of pompous displays and public executions. Through a haze of opium smoke I watch as the sun comes up over the mountains and try to find the will to face the day. I know my rage will get me through like always. I don't need more than that.
As I begin drinking the last glass of my second bottle of wine, the sky starts to turn pink. For a moment I feel like I'm about to cry, and I grind it down, push the tears back behind everything else. It's easy. But I note that I felt sad, for a moment, maybe even wistful. "Stupid bitch," I mutter to myself and throw my glass against the wall.
As if on cue, my servants enter to dress me. I sit in my chair staring out the window, as they gently comb my hair out and begin to create one of their masterpieces. I regain my control quickly, plastering onto my face the expression I plan on displaying the entire day. Cruel indifference. I wear it well.
"Someone get me more wine," I say. One of the girls bows and goes to fetch it. If it please the Conqueror, and it does.
"Don't do it, Xena," says his voice in my head, quiet and threatening. It is exasperating. I speak back to him in my head, "Leave me alone you bastard I'm through with you. I've heard your warning. GO!"
"Xena, everything we've worked for is at stake. You don't understand the danger--"
"Shut up!" I scream, out loud, unfortunately. My servants continue to dress me, pretending they haven't noticed. It's not like it's the first time. I can sense his presence still in my mind, but he's quiet for the moment. His being there in and of itself is maddening, painful. "OUT!" I scream as loud as I can and he's gone.
So it's time for the pomp, and the procession heads outside. We will put on a show for these creatures, these conquered weaklings. I barely speak to my people, for if I wasn't careful, I'd say something of what I feel: I hate every single one of you so much it makes me want to scream. I wish you were all dead with maggots crawling through your flesh. My eyes are wasted looking upon you and I would gladly rip them from my head if I thought it would truly ease my agony. But I am not that naive. I know the world exists only to bring me pain; I have lived the proof of that. And I have paid the world back in full. Last time I was hurt I learned my lesson; hurt them first and you're spared the pain of their betrayal.
You will all die some day, I think as I stare out over the crowd come to watch the crucifixion. It consoles me to think that. They will all die and others will feel pain because of it. And I will just watch. Like I will watch this girl they've told me about. Young and beautiful and full of hope, they say, she'd already managed to turn some people against me before my men captured her. Unlike many of the others here, she will die today. How dare she give anyone hope? Hope, the greatest lie of all. Sometimes when I see children walking with their parents I want to grab them and scream the truth; that everything their parents will tell them is a lie, that there is no happiness, that there is no safety, that there is no "someday" or "one day" or "forever." I want to tell these children to give up hope now, to save themselves the pain of the terrible disappointment later. And I hate their parents for telling them these lies, while knowing the truth.
My headdress makes my neck ache but it's just a little more pain to add to the rest. That little bastard Caesar understood about spectacle. The one created by his execution had been impressive indeed.
It is time for them to bring out the girl. I don't care if she dies. I don't care if she turns people against me. Stupid fucking boring ceremony. I should have brought my flask.
Ares returns to my head.
"This is it, Xena. Don't do this. Leave now."
"It's the girl, isn't it?" I whisper.
"Let me take you to Olympus. Let me show you the stars."
"Spare me, Ares," I say in my head as I watch the commotion I know heralds her arrival, "You've shown me everything you have to show and it does nothing for me. You are worthless to me."
"Don't look at her. Tell them to kill her and walk away."
Two soldiers drag her out into the open and throw her to the ground. All I see are long wavy golden locks and I stand and slowly move towards the condemned.
"This is your last chance. You'll never hear from me again. Walk away."
"Bye," I say in my head as I walk down the steps, drawing nearer to her. I can feel it already but I don't know what it is. Only that it pulls me and it is far, far stronger than any god. Everything around me is a blur except the girl.
"I have done everything I could to make sure the prophecies didn't come to pass," he whispers.
I grab her by the hair and look into her eyes. I have the sensation of moving very quickly through space towards her, to end up, thump!, right where I was but totally different. I touch her face. I feel Ares' absence and yet all I can hear is a roaring in my ears. I don't know what I say to the girl, I imagine I make terrible threats; I can't hear myself speak. Is she talking to the crowd? Does she think these animals have minds of their own? It's just the feeling of her eyes. A feeling. A new feeling. I tell them to tie her to the cross and break her legs. I wish everyone dead, and I return to my throne. I listen as she screams in pain and they take her away.
Now I must watch hour after hour of fighting in my honor. It bores me. I hate it. I hate the dress I'm wearing and the feeling of the sun in my eyes and all this paint on my face. Owning everything gives no real power--look at me sitting here watching this crap, powerless to do anything about it, wishing only that my existence would end. I press the underside of my wrist against the arm rest of the throne until it hurts and I smile. Of course they think it's the pleasure I derive from the blood lust on display. I owe myself another X on my leg. Suddenly something interesting happens--a small, blond man tries to steal my scepter, but he is easily caught and taken to the dungeon. I'll question him later. Alas, the excitement is over in seconds. Back to the fights.
Finally, after hours of this tedium, I can return to my chambers.
I drink and pace my bedroom until dark, muttering to myself and smoking opium.
"It's the girl, isn't it?"
Her eyes are green.
"I have done everything I could to make sure the prophesies didn't come to pass."
"It's the girl, isn't it?"
Ares is gone. It's the girl. She is the thing that changes everything. When I looked in her eyes, I felt. Something other than hate or pain. Something nice. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
I had them put the cross where I could see it from my window. So I sit here, dressed in the thin silk undergarment I wear under my ceremonial robes, smoking again, and thinking. Looking at the cross. I can't tell it's her from here, but I know it is. That she has long golden hair and her legs are broken and in her mind she is probably already begging for her own death. I have a coughing fit and I could swear she looks right at me, though my window is as dark as any other in the castle. I can't see her eyes but I feel them meet mine through the dark night and there's that mysterious feeling again. Everything is slow and part of me is melting into the chair and part of me is flowing out on the breeze towards this girl. I know it's the drugs but at the same time...
Suddenly, for the first time in years, I feel like I have a choice. An important choice. But it's no fucking choice at all. Continue to live a life I would rather be dead than endure another day, or take the damn girl down from the cross and see what happens. How bad can the prophecies be, anyway? I watch as her head falls back to rest on her chest.
I notice a storm has suddenly gathered in the dark sky. In moments, out of nowhere, pouring rain. Thunder explodes almost directly over heard and I watch as lightning sets a dead tree ablaze. Barefoot, I grab my sword and walk quickly across the hall to the room where the boys sleep. They are always different boys, children of my house servants on Conqueror night shift, and I bash the pommel of my sword against the door to wake them up as I slam it open. I imagine I look like a madwoman to the sleepy boys, as they rise to attention, half-dressed and ready to serve me. Still rubbing sleep from their eyes they follow me silently out into the storm. Only a fool speaks to the Conqueror in the middle of the night.
The rain is coming down in sheets and the girl on the cross looms closer and closer; the boys must think I'm mad. I know I am. Everything around us seems huge, the mountains and the trees, my castle. One moment all of it is dark, thick and wet like moss, and the next lit bright white as if by magic. Soon I am looking up at her, surprised to see she's still conscious, dripping wet. The sound of the thunder is so close it makes even the great Conqueror jump with surprise. I look up at her, like a ghost in the light of the lightning. To my amazement, she speaks.
"Hi. I'm Gabrielle. Have you come to save me?"
"Are you delirious?"
"How long have I been out here?"
"At least twelve hours."
"Then I'm probably delirious."
I gesture towards the ladders, "Help me take her down."
We climb up and untie her, and I carry her down, cradling her wet, shivering body in my arms, her head resting against my chest. I send one of the boys ahead to fetch a healer to my rooms, the other boy walks back beside me, trying not to drag my sword.
As we enter the castle she whispers, "You saved me. I owe you."
I smile. I must be drunker than I thought. I carry her to my chambers and there's K'ao Hsin, ready for anything. I put the girl down on my bed. She seems to be semiconscious.
"If it please you Conqueror?" asks K'ao Hsin. I am already walking to the window; to my bottle and my hooka and the dark of the night.
"Broken legs and she hung on a cross all day."
"Thank you, Conqueror."
She works. I light my hooka with a burning twig. Might as well use K'ao Hsin's services while she's in Corinth. Not as powerful as her mother was, but still gifted beyond anything I've seen otherwise. She watches over things for me in Chin, visiting Corinth like all my other regents who are here for the annual celebration. But tonight, she will begin to heal this girl. This dissident with the long blonde hair and the eyes like sea foam after a storm. This girl whose power is strong enough to cause Ares to give up without a fight. This girl whose name I wish I could remember. Did she know it was me, when she told me her name? That I who condemned her also saved her? I turn to see K'ao Hsin making her drink, a pain killer or sleeping draught I imagine. Still she whimpers in her sleep as her legs are set and I have to look away. The night is black and I have been drinking and smoking opium for days without food or sleep. A body as powerful as mine can take a lot of abuse. It doesn't seem right that one person should be this powerful. But I am not like other men. Or women for that matter. Out the window it's as if there are all kinds of dark things moving in the shadows. The storm has passed as quickly as it began.
K'ao Hsin coughs behind me.
"Yes?" I ask impatiently.
"She will sleep and feel little pain for hours now. Then she will need to eat and drink. I will come and visit her tomorrow and soon her legs will be healed. Conqueror?"
"Thank you K'ao Hsin. At times like this you are invaluable."
"Times like this, Conqueror?" she asks. I stare at her.
"When bones are broken, and need healing fast."
"Good night, Conqueror."
She leaves and I am left alone with the girl. She lies on her back, her legs in splints, wearing, why in fact, my favorite night shirt, the soft light blue one. She looks lovely and as I watch her from my perch on my chair by the window, I ask myself why I don't hate her now. Why do I not react to her as I do to everyone else; with loathing or at best indifference? I remember that I'm wet, and I peel the silk from my skin, leaving it in a pile by the window. Passing the huge mirror I catch my eye and I stop to look at myself in the candle light. Stunning. Cold. Less scars than you'd imagine. My beauty always disturbs me so I try not to look. Like a wooden sword painted gold; lovely to look at but not much use in a fight. Worthless. I don't want to rule and I'm tired of war and I hate everything, just everything. I look into her eyes and hear her say, "Hi. I'm Gabrielle." Her name is Gabrielle. Such a pretty name. I grab a bottle from the table and draw my arm back, aiming for the mirror, and I see her face next to mine. I want to touch it and I want to kiss her and the bottle falls from my hand, crashing to the floor.
"Help me," she whispers from the bed, her eyes closed. On top of everything else, she was out in the hot sun for hours today. Feverish and dehydrated and in terrible pain. I move to the bed and sit down next to her.
"Yes," I whisper. Her hand lies on the blanket and I take it in my own. Her eyes are still closed and she sighs heavily. I feel her hand mold itself to mine, warm and dry and strong. I didn't expect her to feel like that. But I like it. I like the way something feels and I like the way liking it makes me feel. It could be any manner of trap still, I know that. But it feels right. I realize I don't hate her because for some reason I think that she doesn't hate me. Or wouldn't, if she knew me. Gabrielle.
She sleeps. I look down at her. She's lovely. Her features are elegant and her breasts are perfect, and her hair is a shade of gold I have never seen before. I run my fingers through it and it's more like satin than silk. I realize I can't reach my wine, so I blow out the candle instead. I lie down next to her and fall asleep, still holding her hand.
I wake up. It's dark and I sense someone near me. It's the girl. Gabrielle. A quiet thrill goes through me when I think her name. It's like the one word is the answer. I feel her hand tighten around mine.
"You awake?" I whisper.
"Yeah. Who are you?"
"Like the Conqueror. Are we safe?"
"Kind of." There is no safety.
"I feel safe with you. I have no strength and I can't move my legs. Please stay with me, Xena."
"I'll stay," I whisper, thinking this will seem a fever dream to her later, and yet...
The next time I wake up the room is a murky blue-gray with the dawn. I am still holding her hand and when I turn to look, she is watching me.
"Good morning Xena," she says, with a little smile.
"Good morning. What's to smile about?"
"Well, I was expecting to be dead this morning, for one thing. And it just feels so nice to hold your hand."
I stare at her. Involuntarily I tighten my grip on her hand. She squeezes back and smiles at me.
"How do you feel?" I ask her.
"My legs hurt. My head hurts. I'm hungry."
"My head hurts too." I get up and go out into the hall, and again I bang on the door waking the boys up. I tell them I need breakfast, and they look up at me, terrified, then they're down the hall like a shot. I go back in and tell her breakfast is on the way.
"You're naked, you know," she tells me.
Something like a laugh comes out of my mouth as I look down to see she's right. I grab a thick brown robe from the back of a door and put it on. I stand by the window and look out at the gray morning.
"Hey Xena, come here," she says. She is just so pretty, the way the right corner of her mouth turns up when she smiles. I go and lie back down next to her and let her take my hand. It's been so long since I've just gone on instinct I barely recognize that's what I'm doing. I'm used to all this strategy and endless levels of potential disaster to consider. We lie here and stare at each other.
"You're the Conqueror, aren't you?" she asks, not like she's just thought of it but like this seems a safe time to ask me.
"I was until last night," I whisper.
"And now?" she whispers.
There's a tapping on the door and the boys enter carrying trays of food. I tell them to bring a table up to the bed and they put the food on it and leave.
"They seem to think you're the Conqueror."
"They know what's good for 'em." I smile at her and consider her predicament. She needs to sit up to eat and she's too far away from the headboard to lean against it without moving her legs. I don't want to see K'ao Hsin's face if I move her legs, so I have only one choice. I move along the bed until I am sitting next to her. I carefully raise her body until she's sitting up straight, and I position myself behind her.
"Lean back," I say, and she does, but she doesn't have far to go, because my chest is there to keep her upright. "Okay?"
"Yeah," she says, letting all her weight rest against me, "This is so much better than having my legs broken I can't tell you."
I fill up a plate and put it on her lap. "Do you have to keep bringing that up? That couldn't have been us. You saying horrible things about me, me crucifying you. Those were different people."
"Sorry. You're right. What kind of person would I be if I let the woman who ordered my death hold me like this?" she says, and begins eating. I grab a cup of wine from the table and drink. Silence falls upon us gently as she enjoys her breakfast and I enjoy the feeling of her body pressed against mine. She's right; she's not just leaning against me. Suddenly I feel this fear coming up out of the most hidden parts of me, and I don't like it. It scares me, the fear, and I push it down. Another cup of wine. Her hair smells like the rain. None of this is happening. I close my eyes and allow only the smell of her hair to register. I don't know how much time passes, but when I open my eyes she is no longer eating and my arms are wrapped around her waist.
"Uh, I guess I fell asleep," I mutter lamely, "Finished eating?"
"Yes. Thank you. It was delicious."
The blonde man! That's it. I have to go interrogate him. That's the ticket out of this room. I tell her I have to go do some things.
"I'll wait here," she says, smiling at her little joke; she's immobilized.
"K'ao Hsin will come back soon to work on your legs. Remember her?"
"Yes. From Chin. Long black hair. Causes great pain."
"That's her. Okay." I turn my back to her and look through my trunks for something to wear. Fuck these ceremonial robes. I want to be able to move. I find leather pants and some old shirt I don't even remember, a pair of boots. A belt, my sword, I'm ready.
I pause at the door and I feel the urge to say something important to her as I exit. "Bye." I say. She smiles. Ouch.
Walking through my palace on my way to the jail, I am reminded of how much I hate my home. Dark and cold and dirty, a horrible place to live. I feel myself getting angry just from walking down the halls. Everyone I pass lowers their head as I walk by, making eye contact impossible. Dogs and chickens racing around, circling my legs. My head aches. Gods I hate my life.
The jail is not a pretty place but better than many I have seen. At least it is above ground so it gets fresh air. There is silence from the guards and prisoners as I stride down the hall of the prison. The blond man sits in his cell, and jumps up when he sees me.
"Who are you, little man?" I say, standing just out of his reach outside the bars.
"My name is Iolaus. In a different world, I'm your friend."
"I don't have any friends, Iolaus. What did you think you were doing yesterday?" He's not really scared of me. He acts like he knows me. I can feel that he really thinks he does know me, but I know he doesn't. It's unnerving. Perhaps he is completely insane.
"I come from a slightly different world. A world where you're not the Conqueror but a hero instead. I need the Cronos Stone to bring things back to the way they should be."
"I see. My friend. Trying to help." This is almost funny.
"It's just a stone then; you don't need it. I'll buy it from you."
"I see." Clearly I don't believe his bizarre little story.
"If Gabrielle were here, she'd make you believe her."
"Gabrielle?" I say, way too sharply for the Conqueror. The Conqueror has no emotions, remember Xena? Dammit! I need a drink.
"Yeah. She's your best friend, your soul mate. She's very persuasive, got a way with words. She'd make you understand."
"What does she look like?" My blood has never felt quite so cold as it does at this moment. I imagine I look frightening.
He's nervous now. "She's, uh, beautiful. Long blonde hair, green eyes, about my height."
"Is the stone part of a prophecy?"
"Probably. I mean, it belonged to the father of the gods, after all, so I figure it's been written about a great deal. But for our purposes today, I just need it to travel through time and save a whole lot of people."
He almost makes me smile, this little man with the big dreams. Saving people with a stone. I admit part of me is curious.
"Tell me about this saving people thing, Iolaus."
He paces his cell, the dust in the air sparkles in the shafts of light that spread through the room from the window. His hair is bright gold when the light hits it, and I have never seen a man with such a charming smile. "Saving people is the most wonderful thing in the world. Seeing someone in danger, knowing you're strong enough to help them. It feels as good as being in love."
I look at him blankly.
"Okay then, what's the best feeling you can think of?"
"Being so intoxicated that the pain goes away," I say before I can stop myself. Oh gods. Was the prophecy simply that I would no longer be able to hold my tongue?
"Okay, I know that feeling, too. Saving people is a thousand times better than that and you don't feel like Tartarus in the morning."
I almost laugh and then remember; when I came to take Gabrielle down from the cross, she asked me if I had come to rescue her. That had felt good, he's right. Carrying her back to the palace, knowing she was alive because of me. (Yes, she had been about to die because of me too. But that's not the point here.) Opening my eyes to find my arms around her waist; that had felt very, very good.
"I'll think about it, little man," I say, leaving and locking the cell door behind me. I tell the guards to get him some food and treat him well. I don't know why. Maybe because he didn't treat me like the Conqueror. He treated me like Xena. A different Xena, but Xena nonetheless.
I attend to more crap. All the leaders from my realm want attention they're just not going to get from me. But some tasks are necessary for the Conqueror so I spend too much time in my throne room wishing I could go smoke opium and stare out the window. As every person speaks I repeat "I don't care," in my mind before I respond to them and it makes things bearable. In 24 hours I met two people who made me laugh. That bastard Ares never made me laugh. Tomorrow night is the Conqueror's Ball, the most elaborate party of the year in Corinth and the highlight of the week of politics and policy. Everyone is looking forward to it except me. I refuse to have anything to do with the planning. I will attend and not kill anyone and that's the most they can expect. I won't even guarantee not to make a terrible scene. They're lucky to be alive.
I open the door to find Gabrielle asleep on my bed, still on her back, her legs no longer in splints. There are all sorts of other signs that tell me K'ao Hsin has been here. Most lingering is the incense and the scent of candles just blown out. The candles that are still lit smell wonderful. I walk silently to the window, taking off my belt and sword. I pour a glass of wine and light my hooka, the sun is setting quickly and everything feels strange. As the opium begins to take effect, I feel something different envelope me. I think about how beautiful Gabrielle's breasts will be naked, and then I giggle at the fact that I thought "will." The realization of how intensely I want to make love to her sends a warmth through my body. And the ways I want to make love to her, well, I blush just imagining it.
I remember that I owe myself an X on my thigh from yesterday but I just don't feel like doing it.
"Xena?" she asks. I spill wine on my shirt.
"Hey," I say, twisting around in the chair so she can see my face around the back of it, "How ya feeling?"
"Much better. I'm in much less pain but I'm still not supposed to move. K'ao Hsin is nice."
"Want some wine?"
I bring my things over and sit on the bed behind her again. It feels safer, not looking into her eyes. And her body pressed against mine feels so right. I pour her a cup and we toast.
"To life," she says, and I repeat it, amazed at my willingness to toast to the continuation of existence. I offer her the hooka, and she asks what it is. I tell her and light it for her. She smokes and coughs and I put the hooka down, circling my right arm around her waist. She rests her arm over mine, her hand over my hand. I close my eyes and hold my breath as she leans her head back against my chest.
"Tell me about yours," I say.
"Yeah. How did you get here from there."
She settles back into me and I can tell the opium has relaxed her. "I grew up in a town called Poteidaia. I had parents and a sister. I hated it there. I wanted to do things with my life. One day a warrior named Joxer came to my town and he seemed safe enough so I left with him. We traveled together for a while, helping people when we could, but once we got to Corinth, I found people and things that were exciting to me, and after a bit we parted ways. I did odd jobs. I wrote. I met people and talked to them and I learned about the world. Over time this made me political. I was my own woman, I could support myself, I was brave and I could fight; the stronger help the weaker, so I did. I ended up speaking up against the Conqueror, I wanted to give the people back their power, remind them what it feels like to be strong and capable... You know how that ended... Your turn."
Her hand resting on mine begins a slow caress and I wonder if she has any idea what she does to me. Her body sitting between my legs, the smallness of her waist. I tighten my grip everywhere I am touching her as I begin my little story.
"It's not like I thought it over. I mean, I didn't grow up dreaming that someday I would conquer the world. I had skills in certain areas. I had...pain. Things fell into place kind of naturally. I came to the attention of certain influences that were...less than positive. I was so angry and so driven to fight and kill and win, and where do you go from one victory but to another and another and suddenly, if you're good enough at it, you're ruling the world. But ruling the world is a terrible thing. Nobody tells you it sucks, because few people have tried it, but it's boring and lonely and the responsibility is terrifying if you think about it so you try not to think about it. Other than outlawing slavery, there was nothing I wanted to do with this world once I had it."
We sit here quietly and drink.
"Am I your prisoner, Xena?"
I feel her fingers curl around my hand, pressing it into her stomach.
"I can leave if I choose to?"
"Yes," I whisper, closing my eyes as I feel tears rise up and into them, hard as I try to stop them. I hold her tightly, pressing my face into her hair, and will my breathing to be calm.
"That's good to know," she says, snuggling more deeply into my embrace.
My relief is like a balm pouring down from the heavens and over both of our bodies. We are silent again, just feeling the moment.
"Do you know anyone named Iolaus?"
"Do you know anything about a prophecy, having to do with you?"
She giggles in my arms, "Is there one? How exciting!"
"I'm not sure. It's hard to explain." No way I'm talking about Ares. Saying his name, gods, even thinking it... He could still be watching me. "Do you feel like you know me from another world?"
"All these questions, Xena!" she says happily,
"I'm sorry. Are you tired?"
"Actually, yeah. Let me think about that last one and tell you tomorrow?"
I gently lay her down in the bed and change my clothes. I'm going to bed because she's going to bed? Am I tired? Without smoking myself into a stupor? How is that possible? As I blow out the candles and move toward the bed a million different thoughts collide in my brain. I'm glad it's too dark for her to see my face. I get into the bed next to her, pulling the blankets up over us.
"Can I tell you something?"
"I want you to know... if my legs were healed, I'd be crawling over there and putting my arms around you."
I clear my throat, "Good to know." And the gods know I try to take my time about it, to pretend like it is my idea, like I would have had the guts to do it otherwise. But I just crawl over to her and put my head on her shoulder and my arm around her waist and fall asleep in minutes.
The next morning I have a lot to do so I'm out of bed before she wakes up. The idea has been brewing in the back of my mind but the moment I wake up I have it figured out. Meetings meetings meetings. Refusing to give my opinion on the plans for tonight's ball, last minute changes in the menu or the decorations or anything. I'm starting to scream at people to leave me alone by the time I head back to my chambers. Gabrielle is sitting up by herself in bed smiling at me, and the food I'd ordered is on the table next to her.
"You look wonderful," I say.
"Thank you. K'ao Hsin was here. She's coming to visit again this afternoon and she says I should be able to get around just fine in time for tonight."
"That's great," I say as I pull off my boots and my weapons and move to sit by her on the bed. No excuse to hold her while she eats, but today looking into her face is not so terrifying. I seem to actually be eating for the first time in days. As I take a sip of my wine I note that it's my first glass of the day.
"I think she meant, you know, with the ball tonight and everything, that I'd be able to get out of bed and attend. If, you know, if someone were to ask me... I think perhaps K'ao Hsin thought that somebody had already asked me to go to the ball with them... The way she described it, it sounds like it will be the most wonderful party in the world."
Gabrielle is staring at me, waiting for a response. Struck with terror I try to remember the words she just spoke and to make sense of them. The ball. She wants me to ask her to go with me? Could that possibly be what she's saying? I feel my cheeks flush and I hear myself say, "Gabrielle, if I may be so bold as to request it, would you do me the great honor of attending the Conqueror's Ball with me this evening?"
I watch as her eyes darken one shade at a time until they are dark green. It only takes a second and it reveals a new side to her. A passionate side.
"Xena, I would be most happy to accept your invitation."
We eat lunch. Every so often our eyes meet and it is so exciting and fragile we don't even try to put it into words. Risk beyond risk. This can't be it; the whole prophecy. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. Once we're finished with our lunch I explain to her that there is more I have to do, and I will meet her here just before the festivities begin.
More meetings. My signature, my seal, all manner of secret handshakes. The one time of the year we all get together, and I must admit that this year I feel almost proud. I trust these people, from K'ao Hsin, to Borias, my regent in the Steppes, to Vercinix in Gaul, and this is probably the first time I could ever say that with confidence. But of course it is still terribly boring and ends only in time for everyone to prepare for the ball.
I feel exhilarated as I rush back to my chambers. Gods, is this the first date I've ever had? Don't think about that, Xena. I enter my room and look into the bathing chamber, it is dark and lit by candles, and my servants have filled the huge bath with steaming water. I gesture for Gabrielle to join me. She walks slowly, but she walks, and we enter the room together. The incense that permeates the small chamber smells like chocolate and we stand still and let the servants undress us, looking away at crucial moments to give each other privacy; I hope she hasn't seen the scar on my thigh. We descend into the deep tiled bath and sit across from each other, leaning back against the sides as we let our bodies get used to the hot water. The women I hire to attend me in the bath have only the gentlest touch, and we both relax into their care. There are worse jobs in my realm than washing the Conqueror's hair. They are so professional they do not give any sense that they note Gabrielle's presence as unusual even though they have never seen me with another person in my bed chamber for as long as they have known me. What they don't know is that it's been over ten years since I last shared myself with anyone that way. After Borias fell in love with me and everything became unbearable on a level that I couldn't even begin to face within myself, I decided to make sure I never allowed that to happen again. It's amazing he ever forgave me for the things I did to him just because he loved me, but he still hasn't forgiven me for taking the herbs that would make sure that what he thought of as his "child" would not grow. I was not made for loving. That was obvious. So it was over, all of that. Until now.
Steam rises from the bath and we stare at each other through it. My servants massage us and it is the most amazing feeling; as I watch hands touch Gabrielle's shoulders, I feel strong hands caress mine, and for the moment it gives the illusion that our body is one. And I haven't smoked since...yesterday? I close my eyes as my servant washes my body and I can't help but imagine the hands are Gabrielle's. I am startled out of my fantasy by a touch on my leg. I look into her eyes and know that it's her foot, her leg stretched along the floor of the bath. Her smile makes me want to lunge across the water and kiss her, but I manage to hold myself back. We are guided out of the bath and made to sit on towels near it as our hair is dried and lotion scented with hyacinth is smoothed into our skin. I watch her and I can tell how much she is enjoying the luxurious treatment. Our eyes meet for an instant, and then we lower them. I let my gaze float where it will and it ends up on the hands massaging lotion into her chest and her stomach. Gods she is beautiful. I have never seen a woman this beautiful. Her stomach is so smooth and so muscular, she is so fit and so fresh. I lift my gaze to see that hers rests on the hands that are moving over my own body and I feel my face flush. At the very least she is curious; I can do a lot with curious.
Another servant has put a screen up dividing my bed chamber in two. I am taken to the side by the window and I stare out of it as I am dressed. Again I think of the knife under the chair cushion, and somehow the idea of putting a blade to my flesh is incomprehensible. What is she going to expect tonight? Dancing. I will have to ask her to dance, and dance with her. Slowly. I can do that. Make sure her goblet is always full. When I look down at myself I see I have been dressed in dark blue velvet leggings with a black leather battle skirt in the style of Rome over them. On top is a tight bodice, the same blue velvet, sleeveless with a low neck, much more feminine than my usual style. I attach a ceremonial sword to my hip, add black leather arm bands on my upper arms, and somehow the outfit feels right, almost pleasurable. I ask that my hair be left to fall around my shoulders, and I stare out the window, drinking wine as they finish dressing Gabrielle. Everything I'm doing seems right. I feel a confidence in my decisions.
Suddenly I realize that Ares has crept into my mind again. He whispers, "There's still time, Xena. You can still stop all this."
Inside my mind, I laugh, "You must really think I'm crazy. I thought you said you were going to leave me alone." I stare out the window and concentrate on the mountains in the distance, reminding myself that he has no power.
"Your father died because of her, Xena."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Ares."
"One night when you were a child, he came to my temple to pray and I took pity on him and spoke to him. I told him of your great destiny, of the prophecies that told of your downfall and the beginning of the end. I told him how the girl was the key. He went home and tried to kill you. Your mother killed him first. Like mother like daughter. Forget about the girl. If you but ask me, I can make you a goddess, Xena. Please, ask me."
"Thanks for the story. You may go now, Ares," I say in my head. Godhood. Two days ago I would rather have been dead. Today I would rather be with Gabrielle. He disappears from my mind. I can only hope for good this time.
I turn to look at her, and were I a poet instead of merely a fool, I might find the words to tell her how glorious she looks. That the tight red silk dress makes my heart pound three times too fast, that her skin is so pale and creamy in comparison that I want to brush my cheek against it anywhere she'll let me. Her hair is down but for a few strands tied back from her face, forming a braid that hangs all the way down her back. Finally I notice that she is also speechless, and I catch her eye, making her smile at me.
"You look stunning, Xena," she says finally.
"And you," I say, "are a sight worth waiting a lifetime for."
I put my arm out and she rests her hand upon it. We move slowly out into the hallway.
"I can do this, right?" she asks.
"You? These people have never seen me with someone on my arm in all the years they have known me, and the last time they saw us, I was ordering your death."
"And they will all stare at me and try to imagine what the Conqueror might possibly see in me. And if by some miracle they did not find me lacking, Xena, what would they see?"
"They would see a breathtakingly lovely woman in a very sexy dress. A woman with a magnificent presence, and obviously someone of great importance because she is with the Conqueror. But they will not see what I see. They could not even begin to see that."
"Xena," she says as we walk down one of the many corridors we will need to traverse to reach our destination, "I know exactly what you mean." Her hand squeezes my arm harder and eventually we arrive at the doorway of the great ballroom.
I can hear the party inside. The sound of hundreds of guests, almost as many servants, animals, and the music from at least three bands, all playing different tunes, drifts out into the hall. Gabrielle closes her eyes and lifts her chin, the better to soak it in.
"I hate parties," I say.
"You'll like this one," she grins at me. Sexy and cute at the same time.
"Because you'll be with me, obviously. I'll show you a good time. I promise." The grin again. She's killing me. I resist the urge to fall to my knees and beg her; I don't even know what for.
Her hand resting on my arm, we nod at each other, and take a step into the great ballroom.
A wave of silence moves across the room as my subjects stare up at the elevated entrance way. I can feel them all examining us, measuring us up and finding us impressive. In seconds I take in the room; huge, high-ceiling, chandeliers festooned with wild flowers hanging above table after table of guests. Hundreds of people, colorfully and elegantly dressed, staring at us.
We are announced.
"Her Royal Majesty, Xena The Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, Warrior Princess of Chin and Amphipolis, Queen of Gaul and the Isles of Britannia, Empress of the Territories Formerly Known As The Roman Empire, Ruler of the Lands to the South and The North, The East and The West, Master of Greece, Lord of All She Surveys, Supreme Commander of The Known World; and Gabrielle."
I turn and smile at Gabrielle and she smiles at me. The crowd below us bursts into applause and the energy in the room is like nothing I have ever experienced before. The bands begin to play again and people standing in the high balconies overhead throw tiny bits of colored paper down onto the revelers. Gabrielle's hand still holding my forearm tightly, we descend the steps and walk slowly across the giant ballroom. People stare at us, or smile, or kneel to kiss my hand, and Gabrielle's hand. She is taken aback and charmed by it. There are tiered levels with more tables at two sides of the room where the entrances are, a stage at one end, and the Conqueror's throne at the other. All around the main floor are the bands and the tables and tables of food and drink and servants racing to fill mugs, dogs yapping at their heels. Flowering vines hang down all the walls, and silver ribbons are draped over everything. Every few seconds I hear the sound of crockery breaking.
Finally we make it to our table, a level above the main floor, on display yet secluded. My throne is huge, with more than enough space for the two of us; we sit, staring out at the room. It is incredible. I know if I'd had anything to do with it, it would have never have been this beautiful. A few days ago it would have been torture simply to sit here surrounded by all these people, all these hateful enemies. But now... I turn to look at Gabrielle and she looks at me and I pray no one can see our expressions. Her hand sits between us on the table and I put mine over it and squeeze tight.
"So this is what it's like to be the Conqueror," she says, her eyes bright with pleasure.
"Oh no. This is what it's like to be with you."
"Bands and confetti and hundreds of people stuffing their faces and screaming drunkenly? That's like being with me?" Gabrielle asks, tilting her head and giving me that incredible smile.
"No. Beautiful music and good food and the feeling of excitement--that's what it's like being with you."
We are served a first course. I don't know what it is but it's delicious. I am in tune with everything happening around me and yet it is as if it is just us. I pour her her first glass of champagne, and of course she loves it, who would not? Vercinix sends me cases of the stuff from Gaul, and I am pleased someone was wise enough to make sure we had more than enough for the ball.
"So tell me about this Joxer," I say.
"Joxer? Well, he was a really nice guy, kind of deluded but never cruel to anyone. Not much of a warrior when we met but I taught him to fight well enough with a staff to protect himself. We traveled around doing good deeds and I read the stories I wrote in taverns for dinars. It was fun for a while."
"Why did you break up with him?"
"Break up with him? Joxer? It wasn't like that between us. I have always wanted to wait for the right person. I knew that when I met that person I would see into their soul and instantly know who they were and that they were exactly the right person for me. Joxer didn't come close."
"Yeah?" I croak. My whole body hums.
"Yeah, Xena. When I looked down at you from that cross, you no longer wore the mask of the Conqueror, you wore your true face. The face of a woman who had seen a lot of pain and yet was taking a chance and trusting her heart. In that moment, I fell madly, unstoppably in love with you, and I have not for one moment doubted the depth of my feelings."
I no longer hear the party around us, and all I feel is the touch of her hand on my arm and the passionate intensity of her eyes meeting my own. And then she says:
"I can't believe you haven't kissed me yet."
It is the most wonderful sentence I have ever heard uttered by another human being and I slowly lean towards her until my lips meet hers. It is like everything that she is and everything that I am meets in our lips in a sparkling explosion of joy. Her hand that was on my arm is now on my thigh and her tongue gently licks my lips until they part; my mouth welcomes her so tenderly. It is a kiss so beautiful, so full of love, that for generations songs will be written proclaiming it's radiance.
I pull back just far enough to stare into her eyes, "I love you, Gabrielle," I whisper.
She smiles more, "I know."
"I want to be with you," I whisper urgently, suddenly feeling my desire so intensely that I am unable to meet her eye.
"Tonight," she whispers, her lips grazing my ear and making me gasp, "after the ball, I will give you everything and ask only that of you in return."
"You terrify me, Gabrielle," I whisper.
"I terrify myself," she says, pulling back to look at me, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "So what's this whole thing about a prophecy""
"Oh, that? Nothing." I smile.
"Ummmm. And the former life thing? Just go ahead and tell me, Xena."
"It's probably all just crap," I say, slugging down a glass of champagne. "These two people, they each sort of told me these stories that were about you. One of them, he wanted me to stay away from you. The other one, he said he knew us in another life, where I was...a hero, and you were my soul mate and that he needs to bring that other world back because this world is not the right one."
"Not the right world? The soul mate thing sure would explain a lot," she says, "Why were you supposed to stay away from me?"
"Because of the prophecies. I have no idea what they are, but I think I'm starting to get the picture."
"There's something special about us together." Gabrielle moves along the cushion and presses her body against mine. "You feel it, don't you?" she whispers into my ear.
"Of course I do," I whisper hotly, by head bowed.
More food is served to us, and more champagne. We hold hands as we eat, gazing out over the noisy crowd. I point people out to her, tell her tidbits about their lives, things I think will amuse her. I realize that I don't find them hideous and pathetic anymore, but funny or noble or sad, depending. The bands, now all playing the same song, have joined together on the stage across the hall from where Gabrielle and I sit, and an area is cleared out in front of the stage for dancing. Along the edges of the hall I note all sorts of entertainments setting up, from fortune tellers to snake charmers, people who can draw your likeness in mere moments, and I point them all out to Gabrielle. She's getting tipsy.
"You know how this is the Conqueror's Ball?"
"Yeah..." she says slowly, eating a huge slice of chocolate cake.
"And how I am, after all is said and done, the Conqueror?"
"Yeah..." she says in the same tone.
"Well, it is the tradition that the Conqueror leads the first dance."
"Oh please, like you've done that in years!" she immediately protests, play-punching me in the arm.
"Tonight is different."
"Because I'm in love, and everyone can see that. Suddenly I am being put to a whole different set of standards. Can't you feel the energy? You think I usually get applause? It's all because of you."
"Okay, fine, we'll lead the dance."
"How do your legs feel?"
"Why don't you feel them and see?"
I grin at her and run my hand down her silk-covered thigh, reach the end of her dress, and run my hand back up her hot skin underneath it. She closes her eyes and sighs.
"They feel great," I say, once I catch my breath.
So we stand and I put my arm out for her. The music stops and all eyes turn to us as we walk slowly down the steps from the dais and across the ballroom to the dance floor. By now everyone is drunk and their appreciative stares at Gabrielle make me proud, not angry. I can feel them getting a vicarious thrill from us; the way the eyes of the old women light up as we go by, as if remembering a time when they were young and in love and the world still held possibilities. I have to remember to thank Ares; if he had not warned me so strongly against Gabrielle, I am sure that possibilities would still be hidden from me behind clouds of smoke and walls of pain.
We reach the dance floor and we bow to each other, trying not to laugh. I haven't danced in a thousand years. The music starts, slow and romantic, and I sweep her into my arms. I hold her body tightly against mine, as I guide her effortlessly around the floor. It is as if our bodies are meant to be one, and images from what we will share later tonight come into my mind immediately.
"What?" she asks me as we spin by the stage with the musicians.
"Just thinking about later tonight. How wonderful it will be."
"Oh. Yes," she says, blushing furiously.
The first dance ends and other couples join us on the floor. The music starts again, still slow but joyful, giving me visions of open fields, chasing Gabrielle through the flowers as her golden hair streams out behind her and she laughs.
"Everyone else seems to be having a wonderful time too," Gabrielle says. The look in her eyes makes me so happy.
"Yes," I say, "Though just a few days ago I would have hated them for that...Do you know how unhappy I was?"
"Yes," she whispers, "I could feel it."
I pull her tight against me and we walk off the dance floor. I see people watching us, watching me, but they do not approach. No one would dare risk disrupting my pleasure. Arms around each other, we wander the edges of the party, looking at the different entertainments. We end up in front of the fortune teller who looks up at us and smiles, "You already know your future, do you not?"
I look down at Gabrielle smiling up at me.
"Yes, we do," she says, squeezing my waist just a bit tighter.
We stand together and watch magic tricks performed by a young man with a heavy beard and long dark hair. I force myself not to try to figure out how they are done. The champagne has cut the headache from the opium withdrawal to about half of what it was before, but I know I have to stop drinking now; I want to be there with her completely tonight.
Gabrielle gestures for me to lower my head and she whispers into my ear, "Can we leave?"
"Did you have a nice time like I promised?"
"I did. Thank you."
"Then yes, lets go."
I decide that we will sneak out of the ballroom, so I take her hand and weave through the crowd to an unmarked exit. It is one of the secret passages I had created throughout the palace, and as soon as we enter it, she pushes me up against the wall and begins kissing me, passionately. I feel her hands hot on my arms and I can barely breathe. It's pitch black and already the sound of the music is softer.
"Xena," she whispers urgently into my ear, her breasts pressing against mine.
"Yes," I whisper back, running my hands through her hair and wishing my eyes would adjust to the lack of light. My body is responding in ways it never has before. The feeling of her hair against the skin of my arm alone...
"I saved myself for you," she whispers.
"I wanted," she whispers, her tongue lightly tracing the rim of my ear, "I wanted the first person who touched me to be the one I had waited for. I wanted it to be like this."
"Like what?" I whisper, shivering as she touches the tip of her tongue to my neck.
"You tell me, Xena. How does it feel?"
"I have to see you. Let me light something."
Reluctantly I let go of her and reach for the torch and the light that should be by the door. I light it and there's Gabrielle, flushed and squinting at me.
"You are just precious," I say.
"Take me to the stables."
Holding her hand, I guide her quickly through the back corridors of the palace. I had them painted to resemble the hallways inside the pyramids, with all sorts of hieroglyphics. Gabrielle appreciates them in the shadows as we move by.
At the stables Gabrielle asks the stable hand for a horse. He looks to me and I nod. Moments later he presents her with a beautiful gray mare with a white mane--just the horse I would have chosen for her. She mounts and reaches down for me. I don't think anyone has helped me onto a horse since my father, when I was a very small child. I take Gabrielle's hand, feeling her strength as she pulls me up, and as I slide into the saddle behind her I realize that I have had a fond memory of my childhood. It feels warm. I wonder if my mother really killed him. It doesn't matter. Gabrielle asks the stable hand to pass her this huge purple silk banner than lies in a heap on the ground, and she slings it over the horse's neck. I wrap my arms around her waist and we're off.
In moments we are on the road. The moon is bright again tonight, and the sky is cloudless. The horse keeps a steady and slow pace under us, and I find myself pressing against her back, one of my hands on her stomach moving to caress her waist. The silk is so cold and smooth. She sighs and presses back against me.
"Where are we going?" I whisper into her ear.
"The beach," she whispers, "I always dreamed that when my true love and I... made love for the first time, that it would be on the beach. At night."
"You are so romantic," I say, wondering if she has really stopped to consider the sand.
"It's not a problem is it?"
"Not at all."
"Good," she says, and kicks the horse gently into a canter. The wind whips her hair and mine across my face as I lean back and let the night envelope me. Her muscles move against me as she rides the horse, the night sounds and smells are a blur as we pass through them, the only constant the full moon that looks tonight to be not so far above us. We stop short and I realize we are in the middle of the beach. Before us the water is shimmering black and endless, even darker than the sky at the horizon. The sand below us is white in the moonlight, and there are huge pieces of driftwood everywhere, bright like polished bone, leaving their intricate shadows on the sand. We sit on the horse and take in the silence; nothing anywhere tonight but us. My arms are wrapped tightly around her and I am compelled to whisper her name.
"Yes," she whispers back dreamily.
"This is the perfect moment."
We are silent again. The water shivers when the wind touches it. It as if suddenly I can actually feel my soul. Like I am one with everything, especially her.
"Fortune favors the brave," she whispers.
Slowly I reach forward, sliding my hands down along the red silk of her open thighs. I hear her exhale, a quiet hiss, as my hands move back up along her skin, pulling the dress back with them. Gently I massage her warm, naked thighs, and I feel my center throb as she groans and presses back into me.
"Xe... you..." she pants, reaching behind her for my head and pulling me down into a scorching kiss. I feel like I am the universe itself as I kiss her, my passion and my control perfectly blended. My right hand still on her thigh, my left travels up her body to her breast and as I gently squeeze it, she moans into my mouth. The horse takes an unexpected step forward, and we catch ourselves, her hand on the saddle horn, mine around her waist.
"Off the horse," she says, and I jump off, reaching up and putting my hands again around her waist, staring into her eyes in wonder as I lift her off the horse. I lower her slowly, and as my lips come in contact with her neck, Gabrielle wraps her legs around my waist. I feel her hands in my hair and I look up at her. She is radiant, her skin blue white in the night, her lips dark like her dress, her hair shining.
"I need to tell you again how beautiful you are," I say, and she kisses me tenderly. "But I can't kiss you and stand up at the same time."
"And they say you have the strength of ten men. The blanket."
I put her down and we take the purple silk banner off the horse, spreading it out to see that it has my profile from the new three dinar coin in raised black velvet on one side. She laughs and we turn it over, then sit together in the middle, staring out at the Gulf of Corinth. I unlace her sandals and she lies back on the silk. I fumble with the knots on my boot laces, my mind a wild haze of images and feelings, awareness that this is the last possible chance I have to avoid my destiny. I turn and look down at Gabrielle, sprawled out on her back, her hair like the rays of the night-time sun around her. Who would I be even to consider avoiding this fate? Slowly I lower myself until I am lying next to her, and she turns her head to face me.
"I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to make love to the most powerful woman in the world."
"I could give you Rome like it was a necklace," I joke.
"But I don't want just Rome," she says, smiling, her eyes watering.
"I know. You want everything," I whisper.
"Yes," she whispers.
"I will do my very best."
I lean over and look down into her eyes. I begin to ask myself how something that feels this good could possibly be real and doesn't she have to be some kind of trick. With all my strength I push these doubts out of my mind and I kiss her. The kiss reminds me that there is no doubting our bond. Only our lips touch and it is like, what? My experience is so limited and so ancient that to say it is like nothing I have ever felt is not saying very much. Her lips are like jewels, like the skin of a peach, like the smooth and elegant pomegranate seed. I yearn to touch her yet this delicate connection is so perfect in itself. Gabrielle makes the tiniest sounds of pleasure, and the sea laps the shore, and the crickets chirp in the distance. After many minutes she raises her hand and caresses my cheek and my jaw, lays her fingers on the edge of our mouths, touching the kiss. I groan. Her hand caresses my neck and suddenly her grip tightens, pulling my mouth more roughly against her own. The kiss becomes sloppy, more sexual, and I let my hand touch her waist, run down to the edge of her dress and push it up again, my hand caressing her naked skin. I put my hand on her hip and she moans into my mouth. Then my hands are all over her, firm and gentle and full of fire. With my tongue I wet the silk that covers a breast, and I suck on her nipple until she moans. She pulls me back up her body for another soul-shattering kiss, then rubs her cheek against mine and whispers in my ear, "Take off your shirt, Conqueror."
I move back from her and pull off my shirt and my leather battle skirt.
"Much better. Come here," she whispers, pulling my torso on top of hers. I can't help but cry out at the feeling of her hands on my naked back.
"Oh, Gabrielle! I love you so much I can't--" and she is kissing me again, the silk against my nipples, her strong, gentle, calloused hands on my shoulders. This is what it feels like to own the world. This is birth and death and everything in between. Suddenly we are snaking her dress up her body and over her head, and it is like the birth of Aphrodite right in front of my eyes. She pulls me down on top of her and I am breathing so hard I can't even kiss her. My mouth is against her shoulder and I bite it softly. I move my hand to her breast and cup it gently, stroking her nipple with my thumb. She arches up to me and whispers in my ear that I have to take my pants off. I hesitate. I have no choice. Lying in her arms, I unlace them, pull them off and throw them into the sand. Gabrielle pulls me back down on top of her, forcing me to lay my length upon her. We sigh as if one, and she puts her arms around me.
"I have never known such happiness as this, Xena," she whispers in my ear as she massages my back and my bottom, "You are just lovely."
I smile into her neck and tense as I feel her hand near the scar on my thigh. She presses me more closely to her and I know it must be rubbing against her perfect skin, she must be able to feel the roughness of the most recent additions. Her hand moves under my bottom, stroking the raised marks tenderly.
"Tell me," she whispers into my ear.
"I had to let the pain out somewhere," I whisper.
"May I see?" she asks it so delicately as she sits up and looks into my eyes. I touch her face and tell her yes. She looks down and her eyes water as she strokes the little marks. "When?"
"Whenever it hurt so badly that I didn't want to be alive. I haven't made one since we met."
"I love you so much, Xena, " she whispers fervently, bending to kiss the newest of the scars. I shiver. "I want to love all of you, Xena. Please let me help ease your pain."
I take her face in my hands and pull her into a slow, sensual kiss. "I told you," I whisper, biting the edge of her lip, "Everything."
She puts her hands on my shoulders and pushes me back onto the silk. The sky is getting slowly lighter; I can almost see colors. Our eyes are locked as she climbs on top of me, pushing my thighs apart. No other parts of our bodies are touching as she lowers her center onto my right thigh. She is so wet, my Gabrielle, and she moves her hips in a circular motion, spreading her come all over my thigh, all over the tiny scars.
"Oh gods," I moan.
"It feels good?" she asks, her voice deep with desire.
I bend both of my legs and surround hers, wrapping my arms around her and pulling her against me. Though she is on top, I am in control, my hands guiding her hips, I thrust gently up against her. I run my hands over every contour of her body that I can reach, and all of it feels perfect, as if her warm flesh is what my hands were made to touch. Gabrielle's hand slips between our bodies and gently pinches my nipple. I moan and capture her mouth, my mind swirling with emotion. She grinds against me, panting, her hair gets caught in our kiss. The smooth glide of my center against her thigh as she moves back and forth above me, her lips on my neck and her hand on my breast. Suddenly I realize that I am about to explode and I thrust up against her fiercely, her passionate cries loud in my ear.
"Forever," she gasps, "promise me, Xena!"
"Yes!" I cry, "Yours forever."
I come, the field of stars behind my eyelids exploding into silver fragments, falling to the ground around me like fireworks at a New Year's festival in Chin. I hear Gabrielle call my name and the world stops for just one moment. She falls onto her side, arms still wrapped around me, and opens her eyes into mine.
"Xena," she gasps, "That was just...that was just..."
"Yeah," I agree and I embrace her tightly, kissing her soft lips. We lie there as the sky gets lighter. I hide my face in her hair, scared of the day.
"Gabrielle," I say quietly into her neck.
"Yeah?" She says,
"When the sun rises..." I can't go on.
"Tell me. What then?" she asks gently.
"I'm...I'm no longer the Conqueror."
"I quit. I've dissolved the empire and given my regents sovereignty over their lands. As of the sunrise."
She pulls away slightly to look into my eyes. She is smiling and I figure that's a good sign. Her hands on my face, her lips on mine.
"That's wonderful. You make me proud."
"Will you still be mine? I will give you everything I am, everything I have. Though I may not be the Conqueror, I am still more wealthy than you could imagine."
"I love you, Xena. Dinars have their uses but I would love you no matter what, Conqueror or peasant girl or anything in between. There is no one for me but you."
I can feel her moving herself with her own words, her nipples harden against my breasts and I feel warmth spread through my body.
"What about that stone?" she asks.
"Not my decision anymore."
"But what if it works, what if this world ends? What if that's the meaning of the prophecy?"
"In both worlds we are together, Gabrielle. I don't care about anything else. Do you?"
"If in every world I get to love you," says Gabrielle, such a serious look on her face, "to be loved by you, then whether or not it's this world is immaterial."
"I adore you, Gabrielle" I say.
"Not much time left, Conqueror. How will you spend your last moments as ruler of the known world?"
"How can you even ask?" I smile as I bend to kiss her, already knowing that the last moments will be the best. Our lips meet, and I feel the sun's first rays caress my skin. I am no longer the Conqueror. I am Xena again. And I am hers forever, no matter what. Bring on the prophecies. I dare you.