“Major” Cara had seen Major Warden arrive on an air bike and was calling him to her side. He had probably been looking for her but she had been walking around with Xena making her own assessment of the damage here in front of her HQ. The Major heard her distinct voice over the general noise. “Ma’am” He hurried over to her while avoiding people that were doing their jobs. She led him up onto the steps to get out of everyone’s way. “Report” He noticed that Sergeant Blake stood beside the Colonel as if she were a personal aid. He didn’t recall hearing of the promotion and Sergeant Blake’s uniform didn’t indicate that she had been promoted. It was none of his business but it was curious. He also noticed that the Colonel had retrieved the sheath to the strange Katana that she had decided to carry this day. It had surprised him to see her with it and it had surprised him even more when he had seen her fight with it. He had had no idea that she was a swordswoman. She was also carrying Sais on the outsides of her boots. She had not drawn them but after the show with the swords he had no doubt that she knew how to use them as well. Then there was the sudden influx of female warriors into the Corps. There was no doubt that they were warriors and that they were favored by the Colonel. He just couldn’t figure out where they had all come from. Some of them he recognized but he couldn’t remember any of them being especially exceptional as he had noticed today. There were changes in the wind and he knew that soon he would need to make a decision on which side he would choose to fall. He still didn’t really know the sides. But in his soul he knew that he would choose to stand beside his Colonel. In the past couple of days she had more than justified every ounce of faith that he had ever put in her.
“Ma’am, the city is being scoured as we speak. We have yet to find any stray aliens. They seemed to have all stayed in the proximity of their shuttles and hence are all dead. Our casualties were high. We lost approximately thirty percent we have another ten to fifteen percent with critical injuries and about the same amount with minor injuries. The civilian population also took some pretty hard hits although their overall numbers are much lower. It will take us many days to properly assess the structural damage but a lot of the city was spared. Our food and water stores were untouched. Our major concern right now is that if we are attacked again we will have only the ground batteries and only about six Fighter squadrons to fend them off until they make ground fall.” He stopped speaking. Cara had closed her eyes and sighed with resignation. He allowed her time to absorb the information.
“Major Baldridge is alive and well and will be joining us shortly.” He injected because he knew that it would help her to accept the rest if she knew that her friend was alright. Warriors such as the Colonel aren’t supposed to have favorites. They’re supposed to be impartial to all and equally caring for all. But like most humans she had a best friend. And she had sent her best friend on what was considered by most to be a suicide mission to protect Sergeant Blake, if his information had been correct and now she needed to know that he had managed to survive. Between the mission and the alien ship she had lost half of their air born Fighters. The price had been steep. He hoped that whatever Sergeant Blake had been after on Earth had been worth it.
“Thank you Major.” She said warmly but wearily. The Major stood silently. He knew that she was thinking and he had not been dismissed. “Major, I know that you’ve seen a few strange things in the last couple of days. But right now I need you to trust me. I need to know that you’re on my side.”
She was asking him to choose his side now. “You are my commanding Officer. I will follow your command to my death.” He said without resignation.
She nodded at him and gave him a small smile and a squeeze on his shoulder. “We’re vulnerable right now. We need to stabilize the city under one Commander. Do you concur?” Cara was both looking for support and confirmation that she was not just a megalomaniac after power.
Major Warden thought on it for only a heartbeat or two. It was a long time for him. He was not accustomed to having a question like this pose d to him. He was a battlefield General not a Politician. “You’re right. A Civilian Government will hurt us right now. I have heard reports that Major Baldridge was attacked by both Earth and Luna Fighters. If that is so, and I believe that it is then we have no choice but to act decisively and independently.” He had been looking her directly in the eyes, after saying those words he turned his gaze to Xena. “I do not know what is happening Colonel…” He turned to look to Cara again. “…but I trust you.”
Cara nodded minutely at first then stronger. “Good, do you think that any of my Commanders will be against me?”
He simply shook his head. “No, we are Marines and we are Martians. Many of us have thought for a while that Mars should be free of the yolk of Earth. You are our leader… lead us and we will follow.”
She smiled broadly at that pronouncement. “Good, I assume that you have a way of contacting one another incase of such an event. I want you to do so. Place contingents in the homes of all the Council Members and at the Governor’s house as well and await my command.” His eyes had wandered back to Xena.
“Forgive me Colonel but what of Mr. Blake?” He asked with some hesitation.
Margo answered the question. “He is one of the Council. My children are safely tucked away and he is alone.” He nodded curtly at her response.
“I don’t think that we have any aliens to worry about but we’re not going to tell the civilian populace that just yet. It’s best if they stay indoors for now. I will return to my office now and give you what… fifteen minutes to contact the others and get into position? If the city police get in the way neutralize them without permanent damage. We can deal with them later if they don’t want to comply.”
He actually smiled at her. “The City Police hate the Governor. They have often spoken out about him and in favor of you. You can be a harsh task master but you are fair. Many things have been strange in the past couple of days but we know that you will tell us what is going on. That alone makes you a damn site better than the Civilian Government.” He paused but she could see that he was not yet done. “Major Baldridge went on that mission of his own free will. He was seen taking orders from a Sergeant.” He glanced at Xena again. “The entire shuttle was full of female Marines that you have been heard calling Amazons. At first we thought that it was a joke but clearly it is not. These things are strange. I saw how you and the Sergeant fought here today. Dan trusts you… and so do I… I don’t see anyone except the Council or the Governor actually complaining about this.”
Cara couldn’t remember ever hearing Major Warden speaking so much at one time. She was impressed, not by what he had seen or even by his connecting of the various dots. But he was never this eloquent. Go figure! “Thank you Major… and I promise once we are moving forward again and even during the process I will start explaining all of this, perhaps even as soon as tomorrow morning.”
He smiled and nodded sharply. “By your leave then Colonel, I have work to do… as do you.”
She countered his salute with one of her own and he spun on the step and practically danced down the steps. “Well Cara, who would have figured that so many people were just waiting for you to take over?”
“Yah, who would have figured? So, let’s go and do this shall we?” Cara turned around and headed into the building. She was careful not to speak a word until she was safely back in her office. The GEV for the building had been programmed partially by the Civilian Government she had no idea what strange commands may be lurking in the thing. But her office GEV was mostly a separate entity. “GEV, lift the shelter in place for this building only. Get me my beach house and my wife on the line.” She walked over to the bar and pulled a Diet Pepsi from the refrigerator and handed it to Margo then took one for herself.
“You know that you should buy stock in this company?” Margo commented as she popped the top on the bottle.
“You know what Margo… we have a ton of money between our two families and for the most part we don’t use it. I think that when we have a little time we should consider going into business together. Maybe we should try and make Mars completely independent of Earth and Luna. Maybe purchasing the Pepsi Corporation could be a good start.” She took a long pull on her soda and burped loudly when she was done.
A moment later Dan strolled through the door, Cara smiled hugely and walked over to shake his hand. “What’s up fuckers?” Dan said cheerily. Dan slapped her hand away and pulled her into a hug. “No I’m not happy to see you, I have a pen in my pocket… no really it’s a pen. It’s too long to be my dick.”
Cara was shaking her head as she was stepping away. “So, Dan how bad was it on Earth.”
She wasn’t wasting any time. Xena… in her already shy Margo suit was trying to slink away from the inevitable backlash that was coming from her soul mate. A look from Gabrielle and Xena stopped her in her tracks. Xena was afraid of nothing… except for the wrath of her beloved.
Dan wasn’t blind he could see the impending blow out. So of course he tossed something flammable onto the smoking grill. “Not bad, we had to cut a line between the Amazons and Earth Force on the dock. Then on the way out we got to fight off both Earth’s and Luna’s Fighters. We didn’t lose too many. But hey, we saved the Sergeant.”
Gabrielle looked at him quizzically for a moment and then turned to Xena. “Are you telling me that you didn’t even get off the dock?” She asked both of them.
Dan extended a hand to Xena…inviting her to answer; as he walked over behind the bar and started rummaging around in the cupboards. Xena didn’t really want to answer because she knew what was coming. She took a big breath and tried to avoid looking Gabrielle in the eyes. “Ares and some troops met us on the dock. We were pinned down. Dan had to bail us out.” There, it was out.
“You never made it off the dock.” It was not a question. Gabrielle was seething, Cara was boiling over. “How many did we lose? How many did we sacrifice so you could scratch an itch?” She was looking at Xena but something drew her attention away from her confrontation, it drew Xena’s attention as well. They both turned to see Dan sitting at the bar opening a steaming bag of popcorn.
He looked up at them when he realized that they had stopped talking. “What... I can’t watch a show without popcorn.” He tried to sound innocent… it wasn’t working. They stared in silence. “Please continue, don’t let me bother you.” He said as he threw some kernels into his mouth.
“Dan, I love you like a brother…but… out… now. Take your popcorn with you.” Cara was in the act now.
“Ahh, Cara… I’ve earned this! I went and fetched your hero’s sweetie, I shot a crap load of Earth scum and Luna shit from the skies. Then I get back here with your precious cargo and had to shoot a big bug carrying chrysalis from the skies here and you won’t let me listen to Gabrielle give her shit for it all?” He actually managed to sound indignant.
“No Dan this is between Gabrielle and Xena. So… out.” Cara was insistent.
“But you and Margo get to listen.” He whined. She just pointed at the door. “Fine… be that way.” He grabbed her soda off of the bar where she had set it. He took a long drink. “You’re not any fun anymore.” He tucked his popcorn in his arm, kept the soda and left the room.
Cara raised an eyebrow and shook her head. When the door shut behind him she spun on Xena. “Well Xena are you going to answer me?”
“Gabrielle… Cara, I owe you both a huge apology… and it can never be enough. Because it can never bring them back…” Xena was clearly repentant but this is not what Gabrielle wanted and strangely enough it’s not what Cara wanted.
“No, Xena an apology will never be enough to bring them back. But that’s not what this is about and you owe them nothing. They all followed you willingly. Their lives were theirs to give and that is what they did.” Xena was confused now and it showed on her face.
“Then I don’t… know what you want.” She pled.
Gabrielle laughed lightly without humor. “Of course you don’t. It never even occurs to you. Sometimes I wonder why I bother. But I know that I do because I love you.” A tear escaped her eye and Xena reached to dry it. Gabrielle doesn’t let her. “Xena, I don’t know how else to say this so I’m just going to spit it out.”
Xena nodded and hoped that Gabrielle’s words don’t filet her.
“Xena, I’m tired of competing with your ex-lovers.” Gabrielle searched her soul mate’s eyes for something besides the disbelief that now filled them and finds only confusion. Xena really had no idea what Gabrielle was talking about.
“When you got that message from Lau Ma that told you that the Green Dragon had gotten too big and needed to be brought low, you never once considered taking me with you. You told me that you would throw the years with me away to go do the bidding of this woman.” Xena tried to interrupt and Gabrielle lanced her with an icy stare that stole the words from her lips. “Oh I know… you were trying to protect me. And even that isn’t what really eats at me. You know what really pisses me off about the whole China thing? I ended up apologizing to you!” She was pacing.
“That wasn’t the end of it. Next came her daughter K’ao Hsin. She calls… and off you go again to repay the same debt! At least that time you took me with you so I could watch you try and kill yourself for the love of another woman.”
“Gabrielle you know it wasn’t like that. I owed her. She saved my life.” Xena was still pleading.
Gabrielle looked at her and doesn’t reply to Xena’s comment. “I turned my head with Hercules and Marcus and even Borias. But then there was Ulysses and Draco and Rafe and Lucifer and who can forget Ares… Ares, the ex who has haunted us for centuries? The last time that I saw him he had a marriage license signed by you to be his bride for eternity!”
“Be fair Gabrielle I needed his help to find you.” Xena was quickly losing ground and she knew it. “It was the only way I could get him to help.”
“That time…” Gabrielle laughed lightly again and again there was no humor in the sound. “Oh and by the way, just for the record… next time you’re thinking of cheating on me with someone like… oh I don’t know Ulysses for example… make sure I’m actually asleep in the bunk or have the courtesy to talk where I can’t hear you.”
“Gabrielle, I didn’t know… I wasn’t going to cheat on you. He was married.” She really couldn’t catch a break and should exercise silence.
“No, you didn’t know because you didn’t care to look or listen. And I’m pretty convinced that if he hadn’t been married you would have left me behind.”
“That’s not true! I never would have left you behind!” Xena raised her voice.
“No, you would have kept me around so I could watch while the woman that I loved married someone else.” Gabrielle’s anger was beginning to reach the boiling point but her voice remained level.
“What… like I watched while you married Perdicas? Do you know how much it hurt when you told me that you loved him? Do you have any idea?” Xena was animated and defensive.
“Ya, actually I think that I do, I got to feel something like it… when you told me about Akemi.” Her voice was as cold as iron.
Xena’s face fell. Gabrielle had struck the most sensitive of nerves.
“I remember when that monk showed up and he spoke one name… one name… and you couldn’t get away from me fast enough. You ran off to Japan and suddenly I might as well have been a hired hand. You shared everything with her! ”Gabrielle momentarily lost control over her voice and it rose to a yell. She took a deep breath and continued in a more level tone. “She knew that you were going to die and join her. That’s why she gladly volunteered to give me the dragon. It was my consolation prize from her.” Xena was stunned. She had no idea what to say or even to think.
Gabrielle gave another dry humorless laugh. “The joke’s on her. I like the dragon. At least I know that it’s not going to run off to Japan every chance it gets.” She bit off the last words and choked on the tears that were building.
She had turned away from Xena. She just couldn’t look at her anymore… even if it really wasn’t her face, it was close enough. “Look Xena, I… you’re my soul mate and I love you with every fiber of my being.” She breathed heavily while she spoke. “And I get it…finally…” She snorted derisively. “I always was a slow learner.” She could hear Xena speaking behind her but she blocked out her soul mate’s words in her mind. “A long time ago you said that if this was to be our destiny that we would see it through together. So… let’s just see it through together. It kind of gives me a perverse sense of right to be chasing one of your ex-girlfriends through time… and now apparently space a swell. It does my heart good to try and kill her.” A small smile played on her lips even as the tears swelled in her eyes.
“I’ll be what you need me to be…because I love you and I can’t seem to stop it… despite… knowing how you feel. I’m sorry… I’ve tried to be everything that you wanted… I guess I just don’t fill the shoes. But I’ll stand at your side through any life that we get thrown into and I’ll help you kill her until she is finally gone. Then maybe… you can be reunited with… whoever it is that you really love.” The tears had long since spilled past her lower eyelids and were flowing freely down her face. The thought of having lost or never actually had Xena’s full love was ripping her in pieces.
Xena’s hands were on her shoulders. She wanted to melt into Xena’s arms but she was so angry and so hurt that she refused herself what she considered to be a guilty pleasure… an empty pleasure… a lie. Xena was talking but she couldn’t hear her through the blood rushing in her ears. Suddenly Xena was turning her around to bring them face to face.
“Gabrielle” The word formed on Xena’s lips but Gabrielle could not hear it. Her heart was shattering and her eyes were drowning. This isn’t how she had imagined this confrontation taking place. Xena loved her… she knew that… didn’t she? She could barely see Xena’s lips moving and could almost feel her hands brushing her cheeks. Xena looked desperate.
“Gabrielle can you hear me? Baby, answer me!” Xena all but shouted into her beloved’s face. Gabrielle’s high emotions of anger and fear were not mixing well with the adrenaline rush and the emotions that come with the realization of the first kill. Cara’s body was going through what amounted to sensory overload. The brain was shutting down many nonessential functions so that it could get a handle on the rest of the body. Unfortunately it was shutting down all of its own senses to save it from any new input that it would have to deal with. Without those senses Gabrielle was not hearing what she needed to hear.
Xena finally gave up and pulled Gabrielle into a strong and supportive embrace and simply held her and let her sob against her chest.
Gabrielle and Cara both knew that Xena was holding them. But beyond that they knew very little. Gabrielle was struggling with the thought of not really being Xena’s eternal beloved while Cara couldn’t get the image of Alti flying across the wrecked shuttle from her mind. The twisted smile and the twisted and burned body were tattooing themselves on the inside of her eyelids.
“It’s okay, it’s okay I’ve got you love. I’ve got you and I’m never letting go.” Xena’s words began to penetrate Gabrielle / Cara’s mind. Gabrielle had no idea how long she had been standing in Xena’s arms. Xena’s hands and arms were strong and they felt comforting. Gabrielle basked for a moment in the dream. She didn’t want to wakeup to the reality that she had imagined.
“Xena” She croaked out.
Xena immediately tilted Gabrielle’s chin up to look into her watery bloodshot eyes. “Gabrielle I…”
Gabrielle pulled her chin away. She didn’t want to hear any excuses or lies or anymore reasons why she had to tolerate being treated this way. But Xena had other ideas. She pulled on Gabrielle’s chin again and when Gabrielle resisted she stopped and a sob caught Xena’s in throat. That made Gabrielle’s head snap up quickly. Xena was crying.
“Gabrielle please, let me speak. I listened to you… I really did. Now you need to hear me.” Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks.
Gabrielle stayed silent. Xena was right she had the right to be heard. It was the least that Gabrielle could do right now.
“I know that I’m tough on you and it’s not fair… it’s not fair for me to lean so heavily upon you or upon your love for me. I’m always trying to make amends for my past and somehow you always get hurt or pushed aside because I want to protect you from it.” She put her hands once again on Gabrielle’s cheeks. This time Gabrielle could feel them… really feel them.
There was a long pause while Xena thought. “I could give you explanations for every dumb thing I’ve done. But they all boil down to one thing. You are the most precious thing I have ever had. I don’t know why you love me. I don’t know how you can. But your love… it gives me strength when I have none, it gives me hope when all is gone, it gives me a compass and a direction and it gives me an anchor when everything seems lost. Your love… you are everything to me and I will do anything to preserve that, to preserve you.” The pain in Gabrielle’s eyes was lessening but it was only being replaced by confusion not understanding.
“Look we both know that I’m not the one that does the sensitive talks. So… let me make it simple. I love you Gabrielle. I love you more than I can even comprehend. I don’t know how you tolerate me or what exactly you see in me. All I know is that I want to be that person that you see. I want to somehow become that person that you see in your mind’s eyes. I want to be worthy of your love. So I try with all of my might to correct the sins of my past and to find redemption.” She stopped because a smile broke out on Gabrielle’s face. Xena bit her lower lip. She was hoping that her beloved somehow understood her ramblings.
“Xena you can’t get redemption through deeds. You can’t correct your past mistakes… not anymore. They are too far in the past. The people that you once wronged are long gone. Besides you have already done what you needed to do to gain heaven. That should prove to you that your sins have been forgiven.” She was pulling a bit of alien gore from Xena’s shoulder where it had lodged itself in her armor. Neither woman had cleaned their bodies from the fight. They had washed their faces and arms with a handful of water for each and that was all. The alien blood was a thick green goo that had little odor, at least they couldn’t smell anything and they had it everywhere. And Gabrielle now had more goo on her face from having rested it against Xena’s gooey armor.
“How do you figure?” Xena was intrigued. “I’m pretty sure that I became a demon that you had to fight.”
“Yah, but then you were forgiven and given the ability to kill Gods.” Gabrielle graced Xena with one of her smiles.
“And then I turned that ability onto Michael and it was taken away.” Xena countered.
“But you are here.” She said with finality. “Xena, when are you going to accept this God’s forgiveness and welcome Him? He’s already proved that He’s the biggest and the baddest and that He’s willing to accept you into His kingdom.”
“Yah, well I was invited into Olympus as Ares’s wife and into Valhalla as Odin’s consort. What makes this God any different?” She was not impressed.
“He hasn’t asked you for your body or your favors. He hasn’t tried to use you as Ares once did. He hasn’t lied to you and as far as I know He has kept His word at every turn and He has kept us together instead of always trying to break us apart.”
Xena considered her words. “Hmm, you have a point. But I still gotta wonder… what’s His end game?”
Gabrielle actually laughed. This time there is amusement in the sound. “According to Cara, who is a big follower of this God, His end game is our happiness. She says that He has adopted us as His children and only wants what is best for us like any parent would.”
“Cara’s a follower? Strange that Margo didn’t know, but she is saying the same thing. Humph, I’ll keep playing it by ear if you don’t mind. I’ve made it this far by believing in you Gabrielle. I’ll just keep doing that if it’s alright with the cosmos.”
“You believe in me… really?” Gabrielle finally heard what Xena had been saying.
“Oh, Gabrielle… of course I believe in you. I told you that you’re my compass. And it’s clear that I went a little off course this time… again. But you brought me back. You always do. I can’t count how many times you’ve saved my life or my soul. I owe you more than I could ever owe anyone or all of them put together. It’s a debt that I can never repay."
Gabrielle was smiling inside and out. All of her fears and her anger were laid to rest. The wound in her soul was finally draining of the infection that had been eating at it. “Your love is payment enough. Just love me Xena and don’t make me compete anymore. You have nothing to redeem or to repay to anyone but me. Pay me with your love.” She pulled her beloved’s head down to hers and they indulge in a long kiss. Mor ealien goo was spread across Gabrielle’s bare chest and stomach and she didn’t care.
Gabrielle eased away from Xena by a scant inch and whispered, “And no more Japan… not ever…”
“Never again… no matter how many times we’re resurrected.” Xena whispered and then engulfed Gabrielle’s waiting lips again. They only come up for air because the GEV reminded them of the calls that Cara had placed.
The after effects of their battle with Alti were affecting more than one emotion. After having so many close calls with death they both had a need to feel. They needed to feel love. They needed to feel closeness and they needed to feel another body pressing against them. They needed to feel alive and they needed to express that jubilation of life with someone.
But there was work to do. It wasn’t over yet.