Cat Scratch Fever
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and backstory belong to MCA/Universal. This story and it's particular characters (Flaxon, Brightbane, Aurora, the story of Brighttail etc.) are copyrighted to the author.
Love/Sex Warning: I happen to believe that Xena and Gabrielle share a love that they express not only spiritually and emotionally, but physically. If such expressions bother you, please find another story to read, there are so many excellent writers out there. If you are underage, or this type of material is illegal where you live, wait til you are old enough, or move :).
Mushball Alert: I'll admit it, I'm a Mushball. :)
For Brenda :) for being such a wonderful friend.
To Lisa :) for being a great editor.
To Wynna :) for putting up with me.
To shayd :) for sharing a year and a half of joy with me.
Finally, this is to KoKo, my new baby.
Wind to thy wings, sHaYcH
Author's Note: This story takes place after "Cat's Meow"
Comments, criticism, etc. can be sent to:firstname.lastname@example.org. I really like to hear from you! :)
" Blood calls to blood 'cross a sea of years.
Misty darkness descends upon the stony tor as an ages old horror appears.
drip venom eyes glitter bright Skaelar's vengeance nears.
Two stand back to back in the unnatural night to thwart the vile beast.
A woman of war and a woman of peace.
A sword flashes; A staff crashes. Claws rend and tear.
The dance of death begins.
The raven of war leaps high warcry singing in her veins.
The dove of peace drops low to deliver the distracting blow.
Blade pierces skull as wood splinters bone.
In death throes the creature makes its final attack.
The warrior falls back victory gleaming in her eyes.
To see the monster's tail impact mercilessly with her beloved companion's
A sickening crack. A forced out sigh.
The woman of peace brought down.
A scream of pure anguish breaks the darkness.
Crystalline tears fall from sky-stolen eyes.
A single word is heard.
The standing-room only bar erupted into violent applause as the cloaked figure stepped down from the stage. The stranger made her way over to a table at the far corner of the room where a woman dressed in battered armor sat, nursing a mug of ale. As she approached, the warrior looked up, the waneing torchlight barely picking out the gleaming traces of tears on her face. The shrouded woman sat heavily.
"Sweet Gods, it's been two months and my ribs still hurt."
"Gabrielle, I warned you not to over-exert yourself too soon." The warrior's voice crackled with concern.
"I know, you did, Xena, but I have to retrain myself in my own way." The bard sighed and lowered her hood. Her face was pale and there were drawn lines of pain around her eyes. A barmaid finally managed to make her way to their table and quietly deposited a mug of warm, spiced cider and a bowl of thick stew in front of the exhausted woman.
Slowly, Gabrielle ate. Xena watched her, eyes narrowing when the bard pushed the bowl away, still half-full.
"Gabrielle, eat. You need your strength."
"I can't. My chest hurts too much and I'm too tired." Xena signalled the barmaid, who bustled over to the table quickly.
"Room. Bath. Broth. How much?" asked the dark-haired woman tersely.
The buxom blonde cocked her head to the side, pondered a moment and replied, "Five dinars."
Xena reached into the pouch on her belt and carefully withdrew the coins. Handing the barmaid the money, she growled, "And make it fast."
"All right. Just give me a quarter candlemark," replied the serving maid.
"Done." The serving girl raced off to prepare the room and bath. Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Love, do you think that you will be okay for a few minutes? I want to settle Argo for the night."
"I should be." The bard smiled wanly. "Don't forget Flax."
"How could I?" With a quick grin, Xena was up and moving before the other woman could reply.
Xena stepped out into the wind whipped night, shivering slightly at the pre-winter chill. 'It's just as well that we stay here for the night, Gabrielle would surely catch her death outside tonight.' She made her way to the stables, noticing that the young boy who had relieved her of Argo earlier was busily mucking out a recently vacated stall. He looked up when he heard her boots crunch on the straw.
"Will ye be stayin' then, ma'am?" he drawled.
"Yes, Trev. We'll be staying." The statuesque warrior smiled. "I'm here to make sure Argo is bedded down for the evening."
"She's o'er in her usual place, then." Trev returned to his noisesome task. Xena went to Argo's "usual" stall. The Potter's Grail was several weeks of hard travel from the main trade routes and its inaccessability made the inn a perfect place of refuge for Xena in her warlord days. Argo's stall was one that she herself had paid to have built. Opening the gate, she quickly scanned the various hidden traps and alarms. No one was going to mess with her horse. A smile flashed across her face briefly as she remembered the mangled hands of the last would-be horse-thief. 'I'll be he still has trouble using a fork.'
Argo was calmly munching on some oats, her saddle and tack hanging from pegs on the wall and her coat gleaming from a good currying. A large black and white cat was lounging on a shelf next to the saddle soap. He looked up at her entry.
::About time you got here. I was beginning to think that I would expire from hunger. Or maybe boredom,:: the dry voice in her mind complained.
"Flax, the day you die of boredom is the day that I will eat Argo's hay." Argo, for her part, just huffed into her feed trough.
::Its true.:: the cat's mind-voice whined. ::That over-grown pony you call a horse isn't much for chit-chat when she's stuffing her face, and that whey-faced youngling can't hear me.::
::I am NOT a pony!:: whuffed the palamino while flicking her tail at the cat.
"Well, no need to worry any furthur, your furry-highness. We're staying here for the night. Gabrielle overdid it again."
::Again? Mother-god's teats! When will she learn? Her healing will come on its own.:: At least, he hoped so.
"I know, Flax, but you know Gabrielle." Seeing that Argo was well cared for, Xena reached up under the shelf currently occupied by Flax, twisted a hidden peg and caught a pouch of coin that fell from a cleverly concealed hidey hole. She smiled grimly, wondering how her beloved bard would react if she knew that many of their dinars came from such caches that she as a warlord had left littered all over the Grecian countryside as a precaution should she ever be on the run.
'Not that I ever thought I would need them. Now I am grateful for my fear induced foresight. And I do try to make sure that I spend the money in the same places that it came from originally.' Still, she couldn't help but feel some regret and shame at using her ill-gotten dinars. For Gabrielle, though, she would use coins from a corpse's eyes.
::Stubborn as a mule and twice as ornery. Yes, I know my bondmate well.:: Flax lithely jumped down from his perch and flicked his tail around Xena's legs. ::Let's get back to her, I can feel that she's getting lonely.::
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Xena replied, shaking her head to clear it of the cobwebs.
Icy wind blasted through the tavern as Xena and Flax entered. Gabrielle looked up and smiled when she saw her lover return, her favorite fuzzy companion seated on the warrior's shoulder like some kind of exotic bird. The barmaid, who had introduced herself as Peg, bustled over and murmured something to Xena. Xena smiled and nodded at the blonde and motioned for Gabrielle to make her way over to the two women. Gabrielle grimaced a bit as she pushed herself out of the chair and slowly shuffled over to Xena and Peg.
"Peg tells me that the room and bath are ready, my love. Shall we retire for the evening?" Xena smiled into Gabrielle's warm green eyes.
"That sounds like a wonderful idea, best I've heard all night, in fact." The bard wheezed a bit as she said this.
::Soul-sib, you are not well. You've got to tell Xena how much pain you are in. She can help you.:: Flax's mental admonishment cut through Gabrielle's foggy thoughts with razor sharpness.
::Huh? Oh, Flax. I know. I just hurt so much. And it's getting so hard to breathe. I just don't want to worry her needlessly.::
::Ree-luv listen, not saying anything will worry her more than saying something. 'Sides, you have cause to be in pain. You had 5 ribs broken by that monster. Not to mention all the internal bruising. You need to see a healer. Someone who knows more about medicine than Xena.::
::That's not likely,:: the storyteller chuckled dryly. ::I don't think that there's too many people in the world who know more about the human body and what kills it than Xena.:: The warrior, bard and feline ascended the stairs, the barmaid following behind the trio.
The room Peg had aquired for them was small, but cozy. A fireplace dominated the south wall and a steaming tub filled most of the floorspace. The bed was just barely large enough for two, but it looked quite soft and comfortable. A small table for two was cozily placed in front of the fire and two rickety chairs provided the only seating area. Flax gracefully leapt off of Xena's shoulder and curled up in front of the fireplace.
::Oh, now this is nice.:: He blinked slowly in appreciation.
"Glad you approve, fur-face," chuckled the warrior. Turning to Peg, she grimaced as pleasantly as she could and muttered, "Thanks." Gabrielle had sunk into a cloaked heap on the bed by the time the warrior had ushered the barmaid out. Once the door was firmly bolted, Xena exhaled with relief and cast a worried glance at her bard. "All right, lazy bones, it's time to get you cleaned up. Then you can sleep." Gabrielle groaned wearily, but made an effort to sit up.
"Can't I just take a bath tomorrow?" she whined.
"That's what you said yesterday at the river, remember?" The warrior allowed a smile to cross her face. "Now, let's get you out of those dirty things." She reached for the bard, nimble fingers undoing the clasps that held the dark garment around the smaller woman's brutalized body. Resigned to her fate, Gabrielle let Xena disrobe and bathe her, then fell into a deep, pain-filled sleep. After the tub had been hauled away, Xena removed her breastplate, bracers and greaves. Although exhausted, she did not sleep. She sat by the young bard, watching the ragged rise and fall of the recently injured chest and cried silently. As the tears dripped from her eyes, she found herself lost in the memories of two months past.
It was a beautiful spring day. The birds were singing, the flowers were blooming, and the bees were buzzing merrily along. It was also the morning after Xena had opened up and told Gabrielle how she felt, with a little help from the four-legged members of their party, of course. She had been amazed to wake in the arms of a beautifully naked Gabrielle. Even more astonishing, albeit pleasantly, was the fact that she too was unclothed. The warrior smiled and stretched languidly. She could still feel the ghostly touch of the bard's lips and fingers on her skin.
::'Bout time you woke up, warrior-kin.:: Golden eyes peered down at her from a low branch of a nearby tree.
"You really did just speak, didn't you?" Xena's voice rang with incredulity. "I wasn't imagining things yesterday."
::Aye, warrior-kin, that I did. Oh, close your mouth. You're not a fish and flies aren't very tasty.:: Amusement tinged Flax's mind voice. 'Mother-goddess, is she always this dense?' Xena clamped her mouth shut and glared at the kitten.
"All right. If I can accept gods and goddesses messing around with my life, I suppose I can accept a talking cat. What'd you say your name was, cat?"
::Flaxon the Nine Tailed. You may call me Flax,:: he replied haughtily.
"Well, Flax, my name's Xena, and the next time you get under my feet, I'll step on you. Got it?" The warrior had not forgotten the previous evening's "accident."
::Humph. You might thank me instead of spouting idle threats. If I hadn't gotten under you feet, warrior-kin, you would not be waking up as pleasantly as you did,:: the cat retorted.
"Why you...I oughta wring your furry little..." The warrior shot up out of the blankets, murderous intent gleaming wickedly in her crystal blue eyes.
"Xena! Stop!" Gabrielle had woken just in time to see her beloved warrior about to snap the neck of her newly acquired "pet." Xena looked up to see her bard looking at her with shock and amazement in her clear green eyes. Dropping the slightly mangled kitten, she dusted her hands together and sighed.
"I was only teasing him, Gabrielle. You should know that by now." Wicked amusement flashed from her sky colored eyes.
::Oh, yeah, that certainly looked like teasing from my perspective. NOT.:: With an indignant mew, Flax huffed off into the forest. Xena made a silly face at Gabrielle and the bard, for all she was worth, couldn't help herself, and she dissolved into a puddle of giggles. Seeing the mirthful bard, Xena got a look of pure mischief on her face and extended long, powerful fingers towards the still chuckling Gabrielle.
"Oh, no. No Xena, don't you dare..." But it was too late, the warrior was on top of the bard, tickling her in all the right places. Gabrielle was laughing so hard she was crying. 'My warrior, laughing and giggling like a child. Who'd a thought?' The bard knew that she wouldn't be able to take much more of the sweet torture, so she did the only thing she could do--she fought back. Reaching her own little fingers up under the warrior's ribs, she began dragging her fingernails across the sensitive skin she found there. Xena yelped when she felt the light pressure of Gabrielle's fingernails scraping across her abdomen, causing the bard to grin delightedly. "Ha-ha! Gotcha!" the bard crowed.
The warrior's eyes grew solemn as she looked deep into the eyes of her beloved bard. "You've always had me, Gabrielle. I was just too stubborn to do anything about it." Tears filled Gabrielle's eyes.
"Oh, Xena. I do love you." and she crushed the now foolishly grinning warrior to her.
"Oof. I love you too, Gabrielle." Xena closed her eyes as she felt the bard's soft lips against the steady throb of her pulse. Reveling in the warm rush of sensation that washed over her, she thought to herself, 'I suppose an early start is out of the question,' and bent her head to taste Gabrielle's mouth once again.
The warrior shifted her position on the chair she had moved beside the bed and leaned over to brush a stray lock of amber hued hair from the sweat soaked brow of her bard. The memory of their first day's happiness together left bittersweet speckles of desire in the warrior's mind. Flax stood and stretched his sleep kinked body and padded over to the bed.
::Any change, warrior-kin?::
"None, Flax. I'm worried. Those broken ribs should have healed by now." Flax blinked his eyes, once, twice, considering. He had been right all along, and now it might be too late. Damn him to the nine hells, why didn't he say something earlier? Ah well, nothing ventured...
::Warrior-kin, now may not be the best time to start being nice to you, but since it's for her benefit, I will try.::
"I'm touched. Really." Sarcasm dripped from the warrior's rumbled reply.
::Hist! Listen to me, warrior-kin. The tale-spinner's ribs were not the only things injured by that beast of blackness. I don't think either of you quite knew what you were up against.:: The cat placed a paw on Xena's knees and gazed at her, daring her to turn away.
"Go on, fur-face."
::I didn't think this was so at the time, but the monster was he whom we call "Brightbane the Soulstealer".:: The import of the feline's softly spoken words was completely lost to the human warrior.
"And this means?" Xena was beginning to lose her patience. As she was about to reach down and put the 'touch' on Flax for more information, Gabrielle's eyes flew open wide and she cried out in terror.
"Let me go!" Pushing the cat aside, Xena was kneeling beside Gabrielle instantly, caressing her face, whispering soothing words to her love.
"It's all right my love, you're safe."
::She can't hear you warrior-kin. Brightbane has her now.:: Flax closed his eyes once more. They were too late. He had failed. 'I'm sorry mistress,' he cried silently. 'I have failed you again.'
Xena scoffed to herself mildly. Surely the cat was wrong. Her Gabrielle was fine. She was just sleeping. She could wake her anytime she wanted to. She shook the bard gently. "C'mon, sweetie, wake up. Dinner's ready." The bard didn't even stir, she just lay there, unmoving. The warrior shook harder. "Gabrielle, wake up. Time to go." No response.
::It is as I have said, warrior-kin,:: the cat's mind voice said sadly, ::she is gone.::
"No! I don't believe you." Ache. Hollow. Cold. Shivers started creeping up her spine. Wetness touched her cheek.
::Believe it, warrior-kin.::
Xena reached over, grabbed onto the scruff of Flax's neck. Bringing him up to face her, she looked at him and in a voice that brooked no debate, commanded, "All right, Flaxon, just who or what is this Brightbane? And how do I free my Gabrielle from its touch?"
The black and white cat looked at Xena for a long while before answering. ::I will tell you warrior-kin, but you must swear blood oath that you will n'er reveal this tale to any, including Gabrielle.::
Xena narrowed her eyes a bit at the request, but for the life of her beloved, she would do anything. Unsheathing her breast dagger, she drew the tip across her left palm, creating a shallow cut. As the blood pooled in her hand, she knelt next to the now regally seated cat.
"I, Xena of Amphipolis, do so swear, in front of gods and Man, that whatever I should hear from you this day will go with me to my death, untold." She then tilted her cupped palm and allowed three drops of the crimson liquid to spill on the floor in front of Flax. The cat's golden eyes flashed in the moonlight as he reared back on his haunches. Raising his left paw, he extended the claws of his right paw and pricked the pad of the raised paw. Three drops of feline blood joined those of the human's on the floor.
::I, Flaxon the Nine Tailed, accept thy oath, Xena, Warrior-Kin of Amphipolis, and so swear to give thee what'ere information I can to aid thee in thy quest.:: Flax licked his punctured paw while Xena rumaged around in her saddle bags for a rag to clean up her hand.
"Ok, I gave you your stupid oath, now tell me about this Brightbane."
::As you wish.:: The cat lightly jumped up onto the bed and curled up at the comatose bard's side. ::Nine times nine lives ago, there walked this earth a mother and her nine kits. Each kit had nine black tails and nine black claws...::
"Flax, I don't have time to listen to one of your feline bardic tales!" growled the exasperated warrior while seating herself back in the chair beside the bed.
::Shh. I'm sorry, this is the only way I know of to tell you of Brightbane.:: Flax fixed the warrior with a penetrating stare. ::Now, do you want to hear this, or shall we let the story weaver die?:: Xena's face paled at the word "die" and she slowly nodded for Flax to continue. ::Now one would think that these kits were special enough, but even so, there was one kit who stood out among his clan. His name was Brighttail Star-eyed. Brighttail was the exception to his brothers and sisters for among his nine dark tails, he had one white tail. His mother knew that this marked him as a chosen of the Goddess and schooled Brighttail in all the arcane ways of the feline Mysteries. Under his mother's tutelage, Brighttail grew into a strong and brave Tom, a canny hunter and wise poet. When Brighttail came of age, he set out to find his life-mate. He traveled far and wide, crossing the great water several times in his quest for the perfect Queen. He searched the length and breadth of the world over, but he never found a female that he felt was his Queen. So when the end of his life came, he made a deal with the Goddess. He would exchange one of his tails for a new life in order to find his Queen. Reluctantly, the Goddess agreed to grant this wish to Brighttail. So Brighttail, the cat with nine tails, became Brighttail, the cat with eight tails. He felt his soul slide out of his old body, into a new one. When he opened his eyes, he was a kit once more with an entire life ahead of him in which to search for his Queen.::
"Flax, I fail to see how this, albeit interesting, story is going to save my Gabrielle," said the warrior.
::I'll try to hurry it along for you.:: came the sarcastic reply. ::So it was in this manner, exchanging a tail for a life, that Brighttail spent eight of his nine tails. Though he had searched and searched in each lifetime, learning more and more about the Mysteries as he searched, he never found his Queen. At the end of his eighth life, the Goddess came to Brighttail's call and told him that he would have one last chance. So Brighttail gave up his final tail, the white one. In his ninth lifetime, Brighttail of No Tails found his Queen. Yet because he was now tail-less, she would have nothing to do with him. Cursing the gods for his misfortune, he vowed revenge. After slaying the Queen who should have been his, he consumed her mortal form. Then, to continue his vengeance, he began using his vast knowledge of the Mysteries to steal the souls of life-tied couples.:: There was more to the story of course, but Flax couldn't figure out a brief enough way of portraying to Xena the hollowness that Brighttail had felt upon learning that by giving up his tails, he had lost his chance at love, and that by selling off his soul bit by bit, he had forever lost the Sunlit glades of the Spirit Realm. At least not in a way that would satisfy the warrior's need for haste.
"So Gabrielle is dying because some cat couldn't get laid?" Xena was not amused.
::Essentially. Although I believe the romantic would see it more in the light of Brighttail sacrificed everything for nothing.:: Xena rolled her eyes. Great, even the cat was as mellodramatic as Gabrielle.
"Ok, now that we have that established, what in Tartarus can we do about it?"
::How should I know?::
"Oh, well, I assumed, that since you knew so much, you'd know that too." Sarcasm lined Xena's fear-filled voice. If Flax didn't know what to do...no, she wouldn't think of that, not yet. The warrior buried her head in her hands. "Ok, Flax, if you don't know what to do, who would?" The cat thought for a while. 'Indeed, who would know how to defeat the soul-eater?' He thought and thought, licking his paws and washing his face in contemplation. Finally, an idea began to take shape.
:: Perhaps, just perhaps, his mother would know.::
"Wouldn't his mother be dead by now, Flax?" Xena asked flatly.
:: Aye. But I can shadow-walk to the Spirit Realm and ask her.:: He tried to sound nonchalant about it, but even Xena could hear the fear in Flax's mind voice.
"What is it, Flax? Why are you so afraid of shadow-walking?"
:: It's nothing, Xena. Just give me a few minutes to ready myself. :: No way was he going to admit to the warrior that he could lose his very soul trying to save Gabrielle's. Xena gave him one of her patented "oh bullshit" looks and just snorted.
"Uh huh. Right. Flax, you're full of it. Now, is there anything I can do to help?"
'Should I trust this human? Mother-goddess, she is the soul-mate of my two-legged sister...and I would trust my bondmate with my life.' Flax shook his head almost imperceptibly.
::All right. Yes, there is something that you can do. I need to be certain that nothing happens to my physical body while I'm shadow-walking. I ask you to guard me.::
"Is that all? I can do that." Xena was a little put out by the seemingly harmless request.
::Xena, listen to me. Guarding me may not be as easy as you think. I may be gone for many hours during which you may neither eat, sleep nor leave the room. No matter what happens. Even if the building itself should catch fire.:: Flax's vehemence set Xena back on her heels, and she contemplated the cat for a long while.
"Well, then we'll just have to make certain that this place doesn't catch on fire. Now, you didn't mention drink. I assume I can do that?"
::Very perceptive, warrior. Yes, you may drink. In fact, there is a tea that I will instruct you on how to make to aid you in your guardian duties. Just remember, no matter what happens, you cannot leave my side. Also, some of the Spirit Realm may creep over to the real world by using my body as a portal. It will be your duty to keep the shadow monsters at bay. This is why you cannot sleep.::
"Very well then, Flax. Let's get this over with. I want Gabrielle healthy and whole again," said Xena with determination as she stood and walked over to the wash basin and scrubbed herself off, hoping the chill of the water would help to wake her up some.
She sat, waiting, watching. Flax's little feline body twitched a bit in his trance induced state, but so far, nothing unusual had happened. Xena glanced at the bed, biting her lip at the pallor of Gabrielle's face. 'So pale, death grants more rosiness to those beautiful cheeks than does the soulstealer.' She sipped at the bitter herbal broth that she and Flax had prepared and continued to watch her bard's barely rising chest. The cat mewed once, and the warrior's head snapped around and down to Flax's resting place. Now lying on his back, legs thrust upwards and stiff, his tail thrashing wildly about, her only hope for Gabrielle's salvation looked more like roadkill than a dreamwarrior.
The dreampaths. Shadows and smoke wafted about his whiskers. Sounds caused his ears to twitch nervously. So many smells that his nose turned in it's resignation for the day. Flax hated this place. He ran, his lithe form loping across the dreamscape, flashes of nightmarish reality teasing the corners of his eyes. A form rose up before him, all fangs and claws. Not even slowing his pace, Flaxon twisted his body to the side and rolled around the night terror. He kept on running. He could now see the glow of the Sun-Dreaming Grounds.
Suddenly, Flax's eyes shot open, and he let off an unholy yowl. Xena, who had started to drift off, nearly jumped from her skin at the spine torquing sound. Her sword was in her hand before her brain registered its familiar shape. From the still-prone cat's mouth a greenish-gray vapor eeled its way up to her eye level. Before her startled gaze, the vapor coalesced into a monstrous form of teeth, eyes and claws. Shrieking a cry of release, it dove at her. Even though her mind was still numb from shock, the warrior's battle honed instincts brought her blade up in a slicing arc, cutting the heinous creature in two. Its shrill cry vanished with it's demise. The two halves of the horrid nightmare image disolved into mist as its corporeal form touched the solid wooden floor next to Flaxon's sleeping form. Sheathing her sword, Xena shook her head and flopped back into the chair. 'Gotta stay awake...gotta stay awake.' The litany poured through her head.
He was almost there. The brightness on the horizon already filled his field of vision, only the shadows behind him gave him the knowledge that his journey was not yet done. Flaxon stretched out his forelegs, pushing off with his hindlegs and put on a new burst of speed. ::For you, sister-soul.:: He mindyelled as he felt the sparkling, twisting, tearing pain of passing through the dreamveil.
When he could feel himself again, he gave his battered body a ghostly lick, and began to pad around the Spirit Realm, sniffing the air for the familiar scent. ::Where...no...ahh...I can just about...there!:: He was off once more, chasing down the elusive personal fragrance of Brightbane's mother, Aine. He knew well that scent...of honey golden flowers strewn with the dew of morning and the warm sunshine peeking through the clouds.
The one thing he had neglected to tell the warrior was the one secret that gave him an edge in his search. Aine was not only the mother of the monster Brightbane, but his own as well. The memory laced scent led him to a sunlit patch of soft grass where he found her, reclining in a patch of dreamlight, napping away the morning's run. Flaxon paused, drinking in the sight of his dam, then padded silently up to her and nuzzled her cheek, waking her.
::Wake, mother. I need you.:: Oh, how those words brought back memories. Of a kitten, in an alleyway, in some far away city, pawing at his mother's too still body, pushing his nose into her side, and her not responding...
::Fla...Flaxon? Bast's Teats, is it you, my son?:: Flax felt the beginning of feline tears gather in his butter yellow eyes. Shoving his youthful sorrows deep inside, he continued to nuzzle his dam.
::Yes, mother, it's me. I have need of your counsel.:: Aine began to gently wash her son's ears.
::It's about Brighttail...he, he's stolen the soul of my human bondmate.:: Now his tears fell. Great silver drops that his mother's rough tongue swished away along with the grime of the dreampaths.
::Ahh. So it is the knowledge of my elder son's doom you seek then, little one?:: Flax dropped his tail in shame.
::I...yes mother. I will not lie. My purpose is to destroy my vile brother and return my chosen's soul.::
::Fratricide is a very serious crime, my son. Are you certain the two-legged one is worth it?::
::She is worth the sun, moon and stars. She is worth the wild hunt. She is worth everything for she is purity and grace itself. And she is beloved of one whose hunt is for redemption of her soul. A hunt which would fail and die if my chosen were not there to guide her.:: Aine was silent, continuing to lash her tongue over Flax's now prostrate form. She finally paused in her maternal ministrations and closed her eyes for one long moment.
::Then I will help you, my youngest. Brighttail's doom is his greatest quest. Seek you his True Love and ask of her one tear. Mix this with the essence of yourself, your bondmate, and the hunter. Add to it this, :: she plucked a single whisker from her feathery cheek and wove it into his own long feelers, ::and apply the resulting elixer to the blade of the hunter. Strike straight for the heart and your bondmate shall be free...miss and all shall perish, with no hope of the Fields. Do you understand me, my son?:: Her eyes were solemn as she preened his ears.
::Yes, mother. I do. Thank you.:: He rose to leave.
::Not yet, Flaxon, I ... I have missed you. I would have your comfort for a while longer.:: Flax sank back down next to his mother and the two of them slept together for a brief stretch of timeless time, enjoying the peace of their reunion.
Xena was exhausted. Four more of the strange vapor beasties had emerged from the still silent body of Flax and she had defeated each one. The last creature had been the toughest, and it left its mark on her in the form of a long, shallow gash down her left arm. Now that arm hung uselessly at her side, rendered nerveless by some unknown poison. She could feel the otherworldly toxin spreading over her body and she desperately hoped Flax would return before she succumbed to it's effects and keeled over. A day candle burned slowly in her peripheral vision. She counted the drips. One...two...the counts blurred together as the wax slid down the shaft of the taper to join the large puddle of hours pooled at the base of the candlestick. A whisker twitched. Then another. Eyelids fluttered, legs once stiff relaxed and dropped bonelessly to the floor. Flax yawned, and slowly began to awake.
"It's about time, fur-face." Xena grumbled tiredly.
::I missed you too, warrior-kin.:: Flax made a half-hearted swipe at his tail before sitting up and finally noticing the warrior's wound. ::You've been hurt, Xena. This is not a good thing.::
"Yeah, well, when you fight, it happens sometimes." Xena was much too tired to be diplomatic.
::Were you injured by one of the shadows from the Spirit Realm?::
"No, I slipped and fell on my chakram." Sleepy sarcasm dripped from her words.
::Is your arm numb? Are you feeling nauseous?:: Xena hadn't noticed the nausea before, but as soon as Flax brought it up, her stomach, realizing that she was paying attention, let her know that it was NOT happy. She blanched and grew a little green faced.
"Yeah, now that you mention it. I am. Thanks." More sarcasm.
::Don't mention it. No, no, this is not good at all. We need to get you fixed up first. First off, would you happen to have any valerian?::
"You mean catnip? Yeah, I think I have some in my herb pouch. Why? Do you want to get high?" Xena's stomach curled around her intestines and squeased.
::No silly, it's for you. Hmm...let's see, valerian, willowbark, colt's foot, a few cobwebs...oh, and this.:: Flax calmly listed off the herbs as if cats were herbalists by trade, then calmly plucked one of his own whiskers from his cheek. Holding the stiff shaft of hair in his mouth, he leapt onto the table and dropped the "secret" ingrediant into the bowl that he and Xena had mixed the stimulant in. ::Warrior, can you gather the other things I mentioned and bring some heated water?:: Xena pushed herself off the floor, using her sword as a brace. A deep gouge formed under the tip of her sword as almost all her weight was supported by the three foot long shaft of steel.
"Oh great, now I feel dizzy. This is lovely. All the effects of being drunk, without the actual pleasure of the drink. Remind me to do this again sometime." The warrior had now managed to maneuver her barely responsive body over to her saddlebags and was clumsily tossing aside belongings in order to locate her herb pouch.
::Anytime, warrior-chum,:: Flax wryly agreed. Xena just snorted and made a noise of impatience when her sought after quarry proved to be lodged between some of Gabrielle's extra clothing. Yanking her pouch out and sending two of the billious green half shirts the bard appeared to adore into the fire, Xena victoriously held out the asked for herbs. Noticing the fire in the hearth begin to crackle once more, then realizing what was fueling the flames, a smile of pure delight crossed her face.
"Gabrielle is gonna kill me..." she chuckled.
::I don't think she'll miss those too much, Xena. Cobweb please.:: Flax had nosed out the required amounts of the herbs, minced them with his razor sharp claws, and painstakingly transferred them into the bowl. Xena captured a dusty web on the tip of her sword and theatrically dangled it over the cat's head, tickling his whiskers with the wispy silken threads. ::Cut that out.:: Flax playfully growled as he swiped at the elusive webbing. Xena just laughed and let the feline catch hold of the silk and add it to the bowl's eclectic mixture. Grabbing the pot of water that had been left near the coals to heat, Xena staggered over to the table and sat with a plop on one of the rickety chairs. Pouring the amount of water Flax dictated into the bowl, she watched with interest as the cat used his paw to stir the rapidly congealing contents around.
"So what is it that I'm supposed to do with that mush?" she finally asked, curiosity overwhelming her exhaustion.
::We are going to slather this all over that wound, then you are going to drink as much water as you can handle, then you are going to vomit,:: the cat replied matter-of-factly.
"Oh. Joy." The warrior rubbed her temples with one hand. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm not going to like you in the morning?"
::Never fear, my warrior friend, I'll still be the same adorable, handsome feline you know and love and you'll still be the same too-butch-for-your-own-damn-good warrior. All you need is a bit of sleep.::
"I'm so relieved. By the way, did you actually learn anything in that Spirit Realm or was that just an excuse for another one of your 'naps'?" The dark green paste now seemed to have met with Flax's approval as he was attempting to scoop some of it up onto one of his paws. "Here, let me do that. If you paw that stuff on me we'll be here til next Solstice."
Xena dipped three fingers into the warm, viscous paste and began applying it liberally to the scratch on her left arm. Immediately she felt an increase in her nausea, but she clamped her teeth down and finished the job, then drank as much of the now lukewarm water as she could stomach. The medicine, whatever its properties, began to work. Grabbing hold of a convenient bucket, Xena spent the next few minutes heaving. When her spasms subsided, she wiped her mouth with a corner of her shift, and took a shallow drink of water. When that didn't re-present itself, she took another swallow, then tiredly stumbled over to the bed.
Crawling in next to her bard and dropping her sword to the floor beside the bed, she pulled the covers up to her shoulders and mumbled, "G'night Flax. Tell me all about your trip in th' mornin'..." The warrior's eyes fluttered shut as she finally allowed Morpheus to cradle her in his arms.
Crystalline shafts of light fractured around her...she was running running running...each spear of light that struck wounded her more, stole more of her memories...her name, her face, her life all vanished in the blaze of shattered radiance. She cried out the one word that still held meaning, a name that meant warm hands, a soft touch and comfort. "XENA!"
Xena sat bolt upright at the bard's impassioned cry, not even realizing that she had rolled over, grabbed her sword and was scanning the room for potential enemies. Flax too was awake, but much calmer.
::Xena! Relax, it is only the Brightbane's nightmares she lives. Do not fear. Rest...that's it, rest, my bondmate's heartkin...you are still over tired...:: Flax's soothing mind voice had Xena releasing her blade and crawling back into the warm bed before she knew what was happening. A yawn stole her voice and Morpheus stole her protests. She slept once more.
Whiskers tickling her toes woke her this time, the sun in the window long since gone down and the fire snuffed out. Xena rubbed her eyes, peeling them open to gaze on the pale face of her bard, still lying quietly beside her, flesh cool to the touch.
"Ugh. How long did I sleep, Flax, and how much did my laziness cost us?"
::Two days, another 6 dinars, and don't worry. You needed to rest. I need you to be at your absolute best for the next few days.::
"You never did tell me if you found the answers or not," Xena said as she stood and dressed rapidly. Soon, she had their meager belongings packed; the only thing that remained was to pick up the comatose Gabrielle. She knelt down next to the bed and ran her fingers through the bard's sweat soaked hair. Kissing her beloved's forehead, she whispered, "Gabrielle, I know you're in there, and I...I just want you to know that I love you and that I won't fail you."
::I have the answers we seek. First we must travel to the west, to the setting sun, and find a female cat of flame-colored fur.:: Flax himself wondered how he knew that, but he was not going to question the wisdom of his dreams. ::Then, we obtain a few items to make an elixer which we will apply to your blade, then we will seek out Brightbane and rid the world of his scourge forever.::
"Sounds like a plan. Tell Argo I'm on my way down." Xena stood, hoisted the saddlebags onto her shoulder, cast a loving look at her sleeping bard, and headed out the door. Stopping at the bar to toss down six dinars, she smiled wanly at the innkeeper who only pocketed the coins with a grunt. After saddling up her mount, she led the mare out into the evening light, not wanting to spend another day in idleness. She returned to their room, picked up Gabrielle and carried her down the stairs, Flax preceding her.
After settling Gabrielle as best as she could in the saddle, she hopped up behind the bard, steadied her love with one arm and reached down for Flax to jump up. The feline surprised her by gracefully leaping into Gabrielle's lap and curling up against her midriff. Once again she murmered softly to her bard, "I know you hate riding, but this is necessary." Gabrielle's head lolled back against her armored chest and she felt her heart constrict painfully. Clicking the "go" command and giving Argo a knee, they set out westward.
::Does she have to make sounds like a sick bug?:: Argo whined to Flax as she began to pick up her pace.
::Of course she does, my hooved friend, it's an easy sound to make and it's quick. Please hurry now, we don't have much time.::
::For you, you little charmer, anything.:: Argo put a bit more fire in her step and their speed increased even more.
Three days they traveled west, only stopping when they could go no further. At each town they stopped in, they checked around for an orange Queen, but found none. Gabrielle had begun to show signs of worsening, and her state was causing Xena to sink into a black despair. Knowing that it might all be futile, the warrior had started attempting to get her bard to drink some lukewarm broth at night, so that she would not die of starvation or dehydration. She would sit, broth-soaked cloth in hand, dribbling the liquid into Gabrielle's flaccid mouth, and coax the girl to swallow convulsively. Flax was beginning to worry about the warrior's mental state. She talked constantly to the bard, as if the girl could hear her, describing the birds, plants and other sights they passed on their journey. The only effect the broth seemed to have though was to go right through the bard, causing Flax to sleep on the other side of the campsite. Xena, not at all amused with Flax's apparent desertion, cleaned Gabrielle and continued to feed her the nourishing liquid.
Five days, and they had reached a tiny coastal village called Felinos. While the warrior sought lodging in the tiny village inn, Flax searched the wharves and alleys for the elusive orange Queen. His nose picked up the scent of sandlewood, amber, and drying plants and he followed it to an herbalist's hut. Sitting in the morning sunshine on the porch was the most beautiful flame colored feline he had ever seen. Keeping his rising hopes in check, he approached the house with caution.
::Go no further, strange Tom. Give me the knowledge of your name.:: The soft, prickly mind voice caressed his senses.
::I am Flax, bondmate of Gabrielle the Bard. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?:: The amber furred cat slid off of its perch and padded out to smell him. They briefly exchanged sniffs, acquainting each other with their bodysmells.
::I am Aurora, bondmate of Kellan the Healer. What do you seek?:: The feline was female! Flax just about raced around the entire yard in his joy.
::I seek a boon, M'lady Aurora. Tell me, does the name Brightbane mean aught to you?:: Flax did not cease his formal tone, he knew if he offended the Queen, all would be lost.
::Of course, young Tom, I know the legends. What boon do you seek?:: Aurora was clearly boring of the younger cat. Flax decided to damn formality and, in the quickest fashion he could, explained what his quest was. ::And you believe that I am Brightbane's True Love?:: Aurora asked, when he was finished with his story.
::I don't know, all I know is that a dreamsending told me to go west and seek a flame furred female, and you are the first flame furred female that I've seen.:: Flax was getting desperate, he knew that there wasn't much time left for his Gabrielle.
::I see.:: Aurora sat, tail swishing, and studied the young Tom before her. 'So much life in him, so much exhuberance. And love for his bondmate as well...to be willing to risk so much...could he do it? Could he destroy Brightbane?' Her thoughts stilled. 'Yes, with my help, yes. He could save his bondmate and free my love from his self imposed curse.' ::Yes, Flax. I am she. I am Aurora Arianrhod Long Whisker and I am the True Love of Brighttail now called Brightbane. I will grant you the boon you crave.:: Flax was stunned. Here before him was a legend, a legend come alive when he most needed it to. He knew then, that maybe, just maybe there would be chance for Gabrielle.
::I am most honored, True One. Will you follow me to my bondmate's lodging?::
::Yes. Lead on, young Tom.::
Flax and Aurora arrived at the inn to find that Xena had taken the bard to their room and was now sipping a mug of warm wine while waiting at the bar for her feline companion. When she saw not one but two cats enter, one of them a brilliant orange color that seemed to absorb the firelight around her, she felt her spirit lift for the first time in weeks.
"'Bout time you decided to wander back. I was worried that I was gonna have to leave you behind again," the warrior drawled while downing the remainder of her wine.
::That is your chosen?:: Aurora arched a feline eyebrow. Flax snickered.
::No, that is my chosen's lifemate.:: Aurora's other eyebrow joined the first.
::Really, now this is interesting. Show me your chosen.::
::Xena,:: he mindcalled to the warrior, ::this is Aurora. She wants to see Gabrielle.:: Now Xena's eyebrow rose and she nodded slightly. Setting her cup down on the counter, she stretched and wandered down the hall to the room she and the bard had been given for the night.
After Xena had shut the door behind the two cats, Aurora jumped up on the bed and began nosing around Gabrielle's body, sniffing various areas. Only a few seconds passed, then Xena, growing impatient, growled, "Well, are you gonna help us, or shed all over Gabrielle?" Flax's eyes popped wide in shock. Aurora's head twisted around and she laid a baleful glare on the pacing warrior princess. Xena returned the stare with her own "look". It was a "staredown" between warrior princess and wise Queen. The battle of wills was on. Neither flinched, blinked or twitched. Finally, Aurora sniffed and then, emited a sound that vaguely resembled a chuckle.
::Got fire that one! I like her! She'll do quite nicely. Quite nicely indeed. All right, warrior, calm down and have seat. I'll assume that you are civilized enough to own a bowl.:: Xena smirked at the chuckling Queen and dug her bowl out of her saddlebag. Setting the bowl in the center of the table, she sat in the single chair the room provided.
"There's your bowl. What now?"
::We wait for moonrise.:: Aurora replied, jumping up into the warrior's conveniant lap and inhaling the combined scents of cinnamon, hyacinth and leather. ::You have a good scent warrior. I like you.:: Where upon the cat promptly curled up and fell asleep in the startled warrior's lap.
Moonrise, and Aurora woke the napping warrior by nuzzling her cheek. ::Rise, warrior-kin, it is time.:: Xena, cursing herself inwardly for sleeping on the job, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and sat up.
"Now what?" she asked, still trying to wake up.
::Now, we prepare the elixir.:: Replied Flax. He jumped onto the table pricked a pad and allowed three drops of his blood to dribble into the bowl. ::Now you must take three drops of your blood and three drops of Gabrielle's blood and add them to the bowl.::
"This cat magic is pretty bloody," Xena remarked as she pricked her thumb, watched as three splashes spattered into the bowl, then took the bowl and moved to the bed.
::I didn't make up the rules, I just follow them,:: Flax retorted. Xena shot him a snarky look and carefully pricked Gabrielle's left thumb. Gathering three drops of blood into the bowl, she returned to the table and set the bowl back down.
"Next?" Flax's tail swished and he reverently unwound a whisker that she had never seen before from his own long ones. He dropped the thin silver shaft into the bowl and it vanished with a puff of white smoke. Then Aurora touched her dark emerald eye with a paw and let a single clear bubble of sorrow fall into the bowl. Xena observed it's descent, her eyes locked onto the tear. It hit the mixed crimson liquid with a soft splink sound and then, as she watched the gooey ripples, the fluid began to morph into a golden hue. When the metamorphosis was complete, the bowl now held a thin sliver of soft golden light. "Well, I'm impressed. What do we do with it now?"
::You are supposed to coat your blade with it, warrior,:: said Flax as he licked his battered paw. 'I got to learn to quit messing with this magic stuff...it hurts too much,' he grumbled to himself. Xena got her sword and reached into the bowl for the sliver. Instead of touching what she thought was a small object though, she discovered that her fingers slid into an oily substance that clung to her hand tenaciously. Painting her fingers over the blade of her sword, she watched as the small amount of liquid covered the entire blade. Once her sword was completely covered, the golden substance flashed once, then disappeared.
"Neat. Ok, now, where's Brightbane, I got three feet of steel I want to get him intimate with." It was a snarl.
::Tomorrow, warrior. Tomorrow I will take you to his lair,:: Aurora replied, with an eons old sadness. Xena slid her sword home into its scabbard and sat back down, clearly unhappy with the feline Queen's decision.
::Go get something to eat, Xena, I will watch over Gabrielle.:: Flax offered.
"I'm not hungry," Xena said angrily.
::Xena, eat. If you are tired and hungry tomorrow, we will just have to wait another day,:: Aurora said calmly. Xena rolled her eyes, but got up and went out to the common room, grumbling about being ordered around by ratcatchers.
::Is she always that prickly?:: Aurora asked Flax, as she jumped off the table and joined the bard on the bed.
::No, usually she's a lot worse,:: Flax replied as he joined her in keeping watch on his bondmate.
Dark dark dark all her world was dark now. No light no sound no smell no touch nothing black nothing colorless odorless everything was going away now no names nothing...she was fading slipping sliding deeper faster toward nothing...
Morning dawned cloudy and wet. A squall had settled over the tiny fishing hamlet and was doing its level best to make the citizens miserable. Xena frumped and grumped and made many unintelligible curses against the gods that had sent such dreary weather, but she bundled up her bard and armored up with as much haste as she could spare. They left the village shortly after the morning meal, heading in a northeasterly direction. Aurora, leading the warrior and the Tomcat, took her time in avoiding puddles until Xena, exasperated with the feline's pickiness, jumped down from Argo's back, scooped up the indignant Queen and settled her in front of Gabrielle. Using one hand to keep the still out of it bard in the saddle and the other to lead her horse, Xena had Aurora give her directions.
Six hours later, they arrived at their goal--a rocky set of caverns that lined the coast. Finding an unoccupied cave, Xena quickly laid out both her and Gabrielle's bedrolls then tucked the bard in tight. Xena kissed Gabrielle tenderly on the lips and said, "You'll be safe here, Ree. I'll be back shortly." Setting Argo at the entrance to the cave, she gave one command and dropped the reigns. "Guard." Instantly, the horse's ears rolled forward and she moved into battle position.
::Flaxon-friend, tell her I'll protect the bard with my life.:: Argo nickered.
::She knows, hooved one. Thank you.:: Flax nuzzled Argo's foreleg and then joined Aurora in seeking a path down to the beach below.
A path located, the warrior and two cats picked their way to the shell-lined shore. Xena could now see a huge cave opening about half a mile to the north. Breaking into a run, with the felines following, she raced the tide for the cavern. Making it just before the water rolled in, she vaulted into the stalagtite and stalagmite riddled cave. Lying in the middle of the cave was the ugliest creature she had ever seen. Fire erupted inside of the warrior. This was the monster that had harmed Her Gabrielle! Striding across the sand and rock strewn cavern floor, she stopped when she felt Flax's paw on her calf.
::Stop here, warrior. Wake the beast first. You must strike for the heart,:: the cat warned. Xena nodded her understanding.
"Brightbane!" she shouted, waking the monster. It rose, up and up and up it went, till it was three times the height of her old friend Goliath. Winged, fanged, scaled and tailed, it was the same beast that she and Gabrielle had defeated so many months ago. Twin crimson eyes socketed in a scaled, noxious breathed head snaked around to seek out its rude visitors. Seeing Xena and the two felines, its eyes narrowed and a puff of yellow gas escaped its nostrils.
"What do you seek me for Mortal?" the beast roared.
"I seek to bring about your doom, soul-eater," Xena replied with a deadly calm. Laughter filled the cavern as Brightbane's head tipped back, revealing whisker-like protrusions under his long, angular jaw. His snake-like tail lashed out for her and she somersaulted backwards.
"Oh ho, I've heard that more times than I can count, puny one. Just because you sent me away once does not mean that you can do it again." He uncoiled himself and stood, front shoulders rolling forward as he began to hunch down and open his mouth. One arm came up, claws shooting out of his paw with a air splitting screech. "Prepare to die, Mortal."
Aurora stepped forward. Brightbane, really noticing the cats for the first time, whipped his triangle shaped head down to gaze at them. "My Queen..." he keened, as his nose came within inches of the female.
::Yes, Brightbane. It is I, Arianrhod, your Queen. I order you to release the mortal soul of Gabrielle the Bard.:: Brightbane locked his glowing red eyes with Aurora's emerald ones.
"I...I cannot," he whispered.
::So be it. Your doom is here.:: Aurora's ears drooped and she faded back into the shadows soundlessly. Xena, who had not been idle, had edged closer until she was almost directly under the mammoth beast. Unclipping her chakram, she held it up, glanced around to formulate her strategy, and let the deadly circle fly. It banked and binged off of walls, rocks, boulders and the floor to fly straight up for Brightbane's face. He reared up and back, laughing.
"You'll have to do better than that if you wish to defeat me, Mortal."
"I already have," Xena replied calmly.
"What?!" he bellowed. Then, his head fell forward and he saw her sword, sticking out of his chest, buried to the hilt into his heart. "You...you defeated me." His eyes began to glaze over and two bright red stones dripped from his eyes, shattering in a burst of splinters as they hit the floor. Locking his eyes with Xena's, eyes that were now the same brilliant blue as the warrior's, he whispered, "You freed me, Mortal. Thank you." Brightbane's body began to shimmer, and her sword clattered to the floor. Where the monster once stood, a solid black, tailless cat lay dying. Two balls of fur streaked across the floor to sit by his side.
::I'm dying. I'm actually dying,:: he mindwhispered.
::Yes, you are my love.:: Aurora nuzzled Brightbane's side, which was bleeding copiously. The ruby liquid painted streaks through Aurora's fur. ::Please beloved, free the mortals. You will have the power now.:: He nodded weakly. Aurora curled her body behind his and Xena could just barely make out a silver chord of light that stretched between the dying Tom and his beloved.
::For you, my Queen. I'd...die for you.:: His eyes closed, and his body was etched in a blue haze for an instant, then he melted away. Aurora and Flaxon began to keen, a low, long howl of a grief so deep that it sent Xena to her knees to hear it.
When the eerie sound died away, Aurora turned to Flax and Xena. ::Thank you.:: She whispered. The beautiful Queen nuzzled Xena's hand once and then turned to rub noses with Flaxon. A sense of peaceful serenity eddied out from around the sunset furred cat, washing over the warrior and Flax, then, in brilliant burst of light, she vanished.
"Is it over?" asked Xena, groggily.
::Yes, warrior-kin, it's over. Gabrielle is free. Go to her. I wish to remain here for a time.:: She didn't know why, but suddenly, she was terribly exhausted. Staggering out of the cave and heading back to her love, she called out to Flax.
"Thank you, fur-face, I will never forget what you did." Flax's tail twitched his acknowledgement as he began the process of grieving for his lost brother and the Queen who gave her life so he could find redemption.
Gabrielle woke to find herself alone in a cave, swaddled in way too many blankets. "Xena?" she called out softly. No answer. What the heck was going on here? she wondered. She sat up and stretched. For the first time in she didn't know how long, her ribs didn't hurt and she felt great. A little stiff, but all in all, she was fine. A dark shadowed figure appeared at the cave opening. Not seeing her staff anywhere within reach, Gabrielle grabbed the nearest rock and whispered, "Who's there?"
"Gabrielle?" Xena stood in the entryway, just staring at her beloved bard, tears of joy streaming unheeded down her face.
"Xena!" Gabrielle flew into the warrior's tired embrace. "What the Hades is going on here?" she asked as soon as she could breath again.
"It's a long story, Gabrielle. I'll tell you in a bit. First I need to do something."
"This." Xena bent her head down and gently placed her lips against the bard's, pouring all her love into that one single connection. Gabrielle loved these kisses. They took her to a place outside of time where she and the warrior were one with no one around to separate them. Her mouth eagerly sought out the warrior's in return, her tongue brushing past Xena's delicate lips to tangle passionately with the warrior's. The kiss deepened. Somehow, they ended up on the bedrolls, shucking their clothes and armor while trying to stay connected at the mouth. Impossibly, they were naked, together, kissing and cuddling and touching and relearning each other's forms. Gabrielle didn't know why, but she felt like it had been years since she had moaned while Xena's mouth tasted her flesh, or had heard the warrior's cries of need as her own hands searched out every sensitive spot on the warrior's battle hardened body. They fell together, grasping the edges of the blanket and pulling it up around them, cuddling close, letting their love flow around them and communicate for them. They fell asleep that way, mouths almost touching. Xena's last words to the bard were, "I love you forever, bard of my heart."
"And I love you forever, warrior of my soul."
Flax was shadow-walking again. This time, there were no monsters to face, for he was dreamwalking in the Spirit Realm. He approached the bright lands with a smile, seeing his mother frolic with his newly returned elder sibling and, who was that? A flame orange Queen who leaped and jumped and chased her beloved Brighttail across the same sunny clearing he had been in before. Smiling his happiness, Flaxon let himself fall deeper into Morpheus' arms, thanking Bast for making all his wishes come true.