Phantasia

by Taiko

DISCLAIMERS: Part 1

SUBTEXT: Yes, absolutely! In fact it's becoming main text.

FEEDBACK: Please send me a note and let me know what you think. xgfan1@aol.com

Special thanks to my beta readers: CAS, Slaw & Extra! :-)
And thanks to my Warrior for her love & support and for being my inspiration.

I would also like to thank everyone who's stuck with this story. Sometimes I'm a bit slow at getting the parts out but you all stay with it and encourage me to continue. My thanks to all of you.
~Taiko
2/6/02

Part 8

The field was filled with wildflowers and the wind was rustling. A small blonde head peaked out from its hiding place between the tall flowers.

"Hello, Mother!"

She couldn't help but smile at the sight of her son, playing in the field. This was her field, or rather, her family's field. It was always her wish to bring her son here, where she grew up, someday. It was such a wonderful town. That is, if you were not a teen-aged girl who aspired to become a bard.

Gabrielle was supposed to be married the summer she turned eighteen. She had put up a good argument against it, but her father was stubborn. Perdicas was nice enough, but she didn't love him. She longed to travel and see all the things and places she'd read and heard about. When she told her father she wanted to go to the Athens City Academy for Performing Bards, he forbade it. She couldn't take it anymore. Her plan had been to run away and travel the known world.

Now, here she stood in her field enjoying the infectious laughter of her son. The laughter was short lived, however, as storm clouds quickly rolled in. As the sky darkened, she saw a dark figure on a horse, riding towards them at lightning speed. Gabrielle called Orion to her, scooped the boy into her arms, then carried him to the trees. They watched as the horse drew closer. The figure was hooded and wore all black. As the horse approached the edge of the forest, a masculine voice called out, "You can't hide from me!"

Gabrielle's heart pounded as the man jumped off his horse, sword in hand, and stalked toward her and her son. Lightning flashed behind him and thunder roared. She yelled for Orion to run, determined that her son would get away. She knew the frightened child was about to protest, but a loud war cry caused both of them to turn.

The queen couldn't believe her eyes. A beautiful woman with long, flowing, dark hair did a flip off of a pale horse and landed between Gabrielle and the masked man. With a style and grace that the queen had never witnessed before, this dark-haired woman quickly disposed of the dark rider. When the woman turned to Gabrielle, all the queen could see were the most incredible blue eyes, and an intoxicating smile.

The clouds moved away and the sun shone brightly. Peaceful sounds of the outdoors once again filled the air as the tall woman closed the gap between them and stood before the queen. Gabrielle stared, in awe.

Slowly, the dark head tilted closer, "It's all right, Gabrielle. I'm here now."

The queen felt a hand gently stroke her cheek. "You saved us," the queen stated.

The tall figure smiled, "No, it's you who saved me."

Her heart raced as the mysterious woman leaned closer until their noses were almost touching. Gabrielle knew what was coming and the anticipation was unnerving. Her eyes closed and her lips parted slightly, waiting to be taken by the tall stranger.

The boy giggled.

Warm lips barely touched hers.

"Gabrielle?"

The queen bolted upright. Her heart was pounding and her breathing was labored as she tried to get her bearings.

A dream, she realized. By the gods, it was a dream. The images were slowly fading but there was one image she could not forget. Xena. That woman was Xena.

***

Ria had made sure to check on the queen at first light. What she found had brought a smile to her face. The Conqueror had fallen asleep half-seated in a chair, half- resting on the edge of the bed, with her hand placed on the queen's arm.

She had quietly woken the Conqueror and shooed her off to get cleaned up and change her clothes. Servants had entered the chamber with food and drink for the queen. Ria then decided it was time for Gabrielle to wake up. She gently called her name.

When there was no response, Ria moved closer, noting the quick rise and fall of the young woman's chest. She then raised her voice and attempted to raise the queen out of Morpheus' grasp once more.

The older woman jumped when Gabrielle woke with a start.

"By the gods, Gabrielle, are you all right? It was just a dream. You're safe."

Taking a moment to reacquaint herself with the waking world, Gabrielle fell back to the bed and breathed a heavy sigh. "It was so real," she mumbled.

"Dreams can be very real. Want to talk about it?"

"No, Ria, thank you. It's fading already," the queen responded, her mind struggling to remember all the details. There was one detail, however, she could see in her mind's eye very clearly. Xena... the way she looked and smelled, the sound of her voice... her eyes... her lips... oh gods.

Gabrielle started to get up and winced as her forgotten injury made itself known.

"Where do you think you're going?" Ria reprimanded. "You've had a rough time of it and you still need your rest."

The queen decided not to argue. She was rewarded with a bit of cider and some nutbread. Gabrielle chuckled as Ria propped the pillows so the queen could sit comfortably against the wooden headboard.

"Nutbread? Why, Ria, are you bribing me?"

The older woman feigned innocence, "Your Majesty, would I do a thing like that?"

"Yes."

Both women laughed as Ria placed the tray on the queen's lap.

***

The Conqueror felt refreshed as she strode down the corridor toward her destination. She had washed and changed into clean clothes. Her thoughts were consumed with the young woman down the hall.

She approached the door and lifted her hand to tap it, when it abruptly swung open and out walked Ria.

The older woman smiled and gave the warrior a slight nod, as she stepped aside for the Conqueror to enter. Xena grinned and nodded in return, then quickly stepped through the threshold and focused on the blonde woman propped up in the bed.

At the sound of the door closing, Gabrielle looked up from her plate. The vision before her made her mouth go dry and her pulse begin to race. It's her... the warrior from my dream. The queen could not believe the detail. Xena's pants, boots, shirt, even her hair were all exactly as they were in the dream. By the gods. A slight shiver ran through her as the memory of the Conqueror's lips against hers flooded her senses. Her eyes closed for a moment as she wrestled with her emotions. It was a dream... only a dream. Gabrielle opened her eyes and the vision was still there, standing before her. By the gods.

Xena stood a few feet from the bed. The young queen was staring - no gaping - at her and she didn't understand why. She looked herself over, making sure everything was in place. Once she was certain she was fully clothed and everything was in order, she looked back over at the queen. "Is something wrong?"

The question broke the spell Gabrielle seemed to be under and the young woman shyly apologized, assuring the Conqueror that everything was fine.

Xena was wary, "You must still be in pain. I'll put some more salve on your wound and then leave you to rest." She hurried over to the table where she had left her supplies.

"No!"

Xena turned, startled by the sudden outburst. She could see the queen's face turn a lovely shade of crimson. That made the warrior grin. She wasn't sure exactly what was going on in that little blonde head, but she found the effect endearing.

"You don't want me to put the salve on?"

"No, I - I," the queen stammered. Oh gods! "I'm fine really, you don't have to leave." Green eyes quickly dropped down to the tray on her lap. A small piece of nutbread was left, but the queen found that her appetite was gone.

She's blushing again. My, my, what is going on in that pretty head of yours, Gabrielle? Xena decided to pretend she didn't notice anything out of the ordinary and turned her attention to the items on the table.

Oh gods, she must think I am a complete idiot, Gabrielle berated herself. It was a simple dream. So she looked like a dark angel, and so she saved you and Orion and so she kept leaning in closer and closer... her smell... those eyes... those lips...

The queen snapped out of the fantasy when she heard Xena turn and walk toward her. A dream... not real... a dream.

Xena put the items down on the edge of the bed and moved the chair closer. She sat down and reached out for the tray on Gabrielle's lap.

"May I take this?"

Gabrielle looked up for the first time since her earlier stammering. "Yes, of course." Then she made the mistake of looking into those blue eyes. Quickly, her green eyes lowered once more to stare at her lap.

Xena removed the tray, placing it on the end table. She slowly slid the blanket off the queen's lap down to her knees. Gabrielle was wearing a thigh-length sleeping dress. Warrior's hands reached out to take hold of the shirt as blue eyes caught the attention of the young queen.

"May I?"

"Oh- yes, yes, of course," the queen stammered and lifted slightly, helping the warrior raise the shirt and get an unhindered view of the sutured wound on her side.

"It looks much better. You still need to rest today, and possibly tomorrow, but it's showing signs of healing." Xena began gently rubbing salve over the area.

All of the queen's senses went into overload. What is happening to me? Come on, Gabrielle, she's only dressing your injury. She's done this before. So why is it affecting me like this?

Xena felt the queen flinch at her touch. "Are you okay?"

"Y-yes, I'm fine... just fine." Gabrielle's attempt at sounding nonchalant failed.

Xena grinned inwardly as she saw the blush rise up the queen's face. I think I understand. The Conqueror took pity on the queen. She quickly finished and watched in amusement as Gabrielle hastily covered herself back up.

The amusement turned to wonderment. This woman had done what no other had accomplished, not even Lao Ma. She made a dent in Xena's emotional armor. The Conqueror knew there was no turning back.

"You do need your rest, Gabrielle. Are you sure you want me to stay?"

"Yes, please." The queen tried not to sound too anxious.

Xena sat back in the chair and watched Gabrielle lean back against the headboard. She rose and motioned for the queen to sit forward.

"Let me get that."

Gabrielle smiled and carefully leaned forward a few inches. That gave Xena enough room to pull one pillow up far enough for the queen to rest her head comfortably.

"Better?"

"Much." Another smile. "Thank you."

The Conqueror returned the smile and returned to her seat.

They began discussing the latest happenings. The queen was worried that, with the storm over, Brutus' ships would return. With all the reports coming in and no sightings, Xena felt that his fleet may have been lost in the storm. Either way, she would continue protecting the island, and requested that Phantasia keep up all of the extra security precautions. Gabrielle agreed.

The conversation veered over to other topics. Xena found herself very curious about life on this small but beautiful island. And she even dared to broach the subject of the queen's childhood. She found this to be very new territory for her.

Normally Xena would engage people in conversation because she needed something from them. Usually information that she would use later to manipulate them or others. This time she was simply curious. The warrior realized that she wanted to learn everything she could about this young woman's life.

Gabrielle entertained the warrior with stories of her years as queen, her son and her childhood in Poteidaia. As Gabrielle relayed her tale, she spoke with such passion and expressiveness that it was no surprise to Xena that at one time the queen had wanted to become a bard.

"How did you and your husband meet?"

With that innocent question asked, Gabrielle found herself in a slight dilemma. She hadn't intended on explaining her capture and subsequent beating by slave-traders. A part of the queen wasn't sure if revealing those events to the Conqueror was wise. Slaves were everywhere in Xena's realm. If it were known that the Queen of Phantasia was a former slave, the Conqueror could declare herself ruler without batting an eyelash. Yet, the voice inside Gabrielle kept telling her that Xena could be trusted.

She listened to the voice.

As the events that led the young girl from Poteidaia to Phantasia unfolded, Xena felt her blood begin to boil. How dare anyone hurt such a gentle creature? Who did Mezentious think he was? A former soldier and slave-trader for the Conqueror, that's who. It's my fault. An innocent, beautiful young woman lost her family and suffered horrendous physical injuries all because of the monster I had become. Xena couldn't bear the pain that ripped through her soul, making it difficult to look into the concerned green eyes that were reaching out to her.

"Xena, what's wrong?"

Without a word the Conqueror stood and strode out onto the balcony. She needed air.

There was a slight breeze blowing, the sky was clear and the midday sun was shining. It was a beautiful day, which was in complete contrast to what was happening inside the lone figure looking out across the courtyard. There was a rage, the likes of which she had never felt before. Rage was not an unfamiliar feeling for Xena, but this time the rage that she felt was directed inward.

All those years of conquering and taking, squandering and pillaging. All the people she had hurt in this lifetime. Her soul was heavy with a guilt that had been creeping up on the Conqueror very slowly these past few years. But now... it was like a thousand razor blades had ripped across her soul when Xena learned what she had done to this young woman. Gabrielle had to have realized that whether directly or indirectly, the Conqueror was ultimately responsible for many of the tragedies in her life.

Xena heard soft footsteps making their way onto the balcony. She knew who it was but couldn't bring herself to turn around. You're a coward! You did this to her, now face her! She slowly turned and saw the young blonde standing in the archway. In that instant, green eyes, filled with concern, captured the warrior's heart. After all this woman had been through, and all that Xena had done to her, she was still caring and giving.

The warrior could see the question in those eyes, imploring her to reveal the secrets that had been locked away in the farthest recesses of her soul. Only two words found their escape as a lone tear traveled down her tanned cheek.

"I'm sorry." It was soft and raspy but the queen heard her.

"For what? Xena, you didn't hurt me, Mezentious' men did."

"He worked for the Conqueror. Your family is dead - murdered - and you were forced to watch. Then you were beaten and left for dead. All done by my men." The pain was too great and Xena was forced to turn, once again staring out over the courtyard. "I am the cause of all your suffering. From the moment you were taken away from your home, up to and including the kidnapping of your son. It was me... my fault... all my..." The tears were becoming harder to fight back as the full weight of the guilt and shame washed over the once-mighty warrior princess.

Watery green eyes never left the Conqueror, watching as the pain from inside poured out for all to see. But Gabrielle was the sole witness to the unraveling of the all-powerful Conqueror.

Xena turned her head at the feel of a hand on her left shoulder. She saw the compassion in the queen's eyes and swore that she would spend the rest of her days protecting and caring for this woman.

Suddenly Gabrielle winced and Xena remembered the young woman was injured. She immediately lifted the queen into her arms and carried her to the bed.

"I'm okay," The queen half-heartedly protested. She was getting used to being in the arms of the Conqueror.

"You should be resting," was the stern yet gentle reply.

After Xena laid the queen on the bed she placed the blanket over Gabrielle's legs, then turned to leave.

"No, please don't go."

"Gabrielle, I shouldn't be here," this said with her back to the queen.

"Why?" The queen was feeling desperate. She knew that if Xena left this conversation would remain unfinished. "Please Xena," a pause as the tall woman remained still. "For me?"

That was all it took to force the Conqueror to turn and face the queen. There was a quiet pleading in those green eyes that she couldn't - wouldn't - ignore. Xena moved to the chair beside the bed and sat down.

"What happened to you, Xena?" At the questioning look from the Conqueror, Gabrielle explained, "What caused a young girl from Amphipolis to become the Destroyer of Nations?"

Anyone else asking that question would have been told to mind their own damn business. But there was no malice in the question, no hidden agenda, only a true curiosity. Gabrielle wanted to know what made Xena who she was. So the warrior answered the question.

She began the tale that told of her home village and of a warlord named Cortese, followed by the death of her brother, the hatred of her mother and the coldness that took over her heart. The warrior became the bard and the queen was completely engrossed in the story. As the story moved to the present with the kidnapping of Orion, tears began to fill blue eyes and misty green ones followed suit.

"Why didn't you kill us?" The question that had been in both their minds and hearts was now out in the open waiting for the warrior to answer.

The response came quicker than either woman expected, "I couldn't. I didn't want to hurt either of you." The Conqueror's voice was husky from talking and holding back the pain and tears.

"Xena, forgive me, but you've killed others for much less. Why not me? Why not my son?" Gabrielle was searching those blue eyes, wondering if what she thought she saw was truly there.

"When I first saw you... you walked into the Grand Hall and I knew. Oh I fought it, but I knew." There was silence as Xena relived that fateful meeting. The first time she laid eyes on the queen she new her destiny was to change its path forever. It was hard to believe that was less than two weeks ago.

Gabrielle remembered her thoughts that morning as she walked the red carpet to the woman she had feared most. She had pushed those feelings aside. As she recalled, the Conqueror made it easier by showing her cruel nature, but somehow the queen knew that it should have been worse. What surprised Gabrielle now was the realization that she didn't blame Xena.

"What did you know?"

The question brought Xena back to the present. She gave the question careful thought.

The silence was deafening as the two women searched each other's eyes. One was trying to truly see the woman behind the mask and the other was attempting to gain the strength to say three words that she hadn't uttered in over 14 years. Three words that expressed feelings that she never dared to feel since. Three words that only scratched the surface of her feelings for the young queen.

"I love you."

Part 9

Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse