A dark plume of smoke rose up from the valley below, and a sense of foreboding filled me. Were we too late? I wrapped my arms around Xena's torso more tightly, needing to feel comforted. She must have sensed my distress because she squeezed my hand gently before nudging Argo into a gallop. I prayed to whatever gods were out there that we would get there in time.
As we drew nearer, we could see the armed men surrounding a small hut. I realized that they must have fired burning arrows in an attempt to smoke B'Elanna and Seven out. I watched as several of the attackers dropped, injured by the strange weapon B'Elanna held. She and Seven were at the front of their hut, standing side by side, defending themselves bravely against over fifty bounty hunters. We continued to travel closer to the women as they fought a desperate battle. My eyes widened as I saw archers beginning to redraw their bows and aimed them at our friends. Xena snatched her Chakram up and let it fly it destroyed most of their bows. One however, managed to fly true and struck B'Elanna's shoulder. She cried out and dropped her weapon, falling to her knees. The horde of attackers took advantage of their weakened defense and immediately swarmed over the two women.
A right hook caught B'Elanna on the jaw, sending her reeling backwards. She let out a roar, and head-butted the man who had hit her, causing him to drop like a stone, then idly thanked her Klingon heritage for her hard skull. She shook her head to clear it, then charged a man who was grappling with Seven, knocking him aside. B'Elanna's ribs were aching and a deep gash on her thigh made it hard to dodge attacks. It was increasingly difficult to focus, and she was beginning to feel dizzy from loss of blood. Her phaser had run out of charges after a few minutes, and she'd discarded the useless weapon. She saw a swords-woman come at her from the right, and quickly grabbed up a discarded sword, parrying the overhead blow with it. The heavy sword felt unfamiliar and unwieldy in her hand and she barely blocked her opponent's next thrust. From the corner of her eye, she saw three men surround Seven, one of them armed with a large, painful looking, cudgel. She roared again, slicing her sword into the woman with new determination. Blood red rage clouded her eyes and she snarled, fighting to reach Seven. How dare they hurt her beloved!
Seven had backed up against the wall of the hut, she'd taken down a fair number of the attackers but there were too many they just kept coming. Her breath came in short gasps, and Seven felt her left hand twitching, it had become harder to control it as the battle progressed. She was utterly exhausted and felt defeat staring her in the eye as leering faces surrounded her.
"You killed my friend, bitch. You'll pay for that." The man smashed his cudgel into her leg. Seven screamed in pain. Another man grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to the ground while the other two kicked her, aiming cruelly for the kidneys. Seven clenched her teeth as the blows rained down upon her, waiting for her opportunity. It came drawing upon her last reserves of strength, she flipped up and quickly applied the Vulcan nerve pinch to one opponent. It was followed by a strong roundhouse kick that shattered the skull of another. The third man took one look at her cold, ice blue eyes and opted for retreat he ran straight into B'Elanna's fist.
Seven watched, horrified, as an arrow slam into B'Elanna's shoulder, causing her beloved to cry out and drop to her knees. Bright colours burst inside her head as a painful blow from behind knocked her down at the same time. She was paralyzed frantically, she tried to get to her feet and reach B'Elanna but others held her down. She could do nothing but watch as a man approached the fallen half Klingon, walking with an arrogant gait. Apparently, he was the leader of this group who had spoken to them earlier. He grabbed a handful of B'Elanna's dark brown hair, damp with sweat and blood and pressed his sword to her throat.
"I've lost many men to you."
Despite her vulnerable state, she glared back defiantly at him.
"You do not fight like a woman... and you're not an Amazon." Jerking her head up, he examined her forehead ridges, running his thumb over them. His eyes narrowed, "What are you?"
He twisted the arrow in her shoulder, causing her to grit her teeth. To her annoyance, a whimper escaped from her lips. Seven thrashed while her oppressors held her down.
"B'Elanna!" The borg's eyes were filled with fury, but her body was just too weak to obey her commands.
"Answer me. Or do you want me to... interrogate... your blonde companion?"
"I'm a Klingon, P'taQ!" She spat in his face.
He cocked his head, unsure what to make of the answer. "No matter, in a few minutes you'll be nothing but carrion meat." He lifted his blade, enjoying the look of terror in Seven's eyes. "I'll give you a clean death because you fought well. Blondes are rare in these parts though..." he paused, then added almost regretfully, "I'll have to give your girlfriend to my boys. They've earned it."
B'Elanna snarled, "No! Damn you, bastards!" She struggled against her captors.
"Sorry, Klingon, nothing I can do about it." He smiled at her, then raised his sword for the killing blow. B'Elanna closed her eyes, awaiting her death.
"Stop." The command came unexpectedly and the man pulled his blow in reflex to a familiar voice he had once obeyed without question, years ago.
All heads turned to the intruder.
"Xena." He stared at her as if he'd seen a ghost.
A smile played upon her lips. "Dakkon." She greeted him.
"I have my own army now, Xena." He turned to point his sword at her, "I don't need you, get out of here. This is my business."
"Oh, but that's where you're wrong." She casually walked towards him, like a hunter stalking her prey. "This is very much my business." She purred in a dangerously low voice.
B'Elanna had almost fainted with relief at the welcome sound of Xena's voice; she could now smell the man's fear. Gone was the cool, condescending victor his stance was defensive, and she could see how nervous he was as he faced the warrior princess.
"Stay back!" He thrust his sword towards her, trying to keep the lethal woman at bay. "Damn you, Xena." He growled, "Don't come any closer..."
"Or what, Dakkon?" She said pleasantly, "You never could lay a hand on me..." Her voice turned icy cold, "Except that last day, when I ran the gauntlet."
"I didn't want to do that." He said desperately, "They would have killed me too if I didn't."
"You know how I feel about betrayal, Dakkon." She took a step closer. "Do you remember what I used to do to deserters?"
He visibly paled. "I didn't betray you."
"Oh, didn't you?"
"No." He choked out; "I left! I left right after you did... I couldn't stay with them anymore after that."
"Really?" She asked in a sarcastic tone, "So... you left my army after helping them beat the living daylights out of me, and now you've taken up a new job killing my friends." She drew her sword. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't gut you right here."
"I... I didn't know they were your friends." He swallowed, unable to meet her eyes. "I apologize, Xena." He said softly.
Somehow, B'Elanna knew that they weren't talking about her. She wondered what kind of history Xena and this man had.
"Get out of here." She growled.
Everything was silent as the two figures stood metres away from each other, eyes locked as if in some sort of contest. Finally, Dakkon dropped his eyes, snapped out "Yes, Sir" and saluted smartly before ordering his men to withdraw. There were a few grumbles, but nobody dared to defy his orders openly no one wanted to cross the warrior princess.
As the last of the men left, Gabrielle stepped out from behind the trees leading Xena's horse, Argo. She helped Seven shakily stand up while Xena supported B'Elanna, and the four women returned to the shelter of the somewhat blackened hut.
"Thanks for helping us out " B'Elanna was cut short by Xena stuffing a leather cloth into her mouth. She gave the warrior a questioning look.
"You may not want to thank me after I finish getting this arrow out." Grinned the warrior wryly.
The half Klingon nodded and tensed in anticipation for what she knew would be a painful session. To Xena's credit, it was done quickly and skillfully with a minimum amount of discomfort. She broke the shaft with a quick snap, and pushed it out of B'Elanna's shoulder smoothly. Despite Xena's skill, however, by the end of it B'Elanna was looking pale and was drenched in sweat.
"I am here Lana." She answered in an unsteady voice. They'd forgotten about Seven in the process of treating B'Elanna's more serious wound.
The half Klingon strained her head to look at the borg. "Seven? Are you okay?" Concern filled her voice as she berated herself for not making sure Seven was all right.
"I am functionally within ade " Seven began waveringly, she paused, a confused expression on her face before she slumped to the floor.
What a harrowing experience the last few days have been. It has been like a nightmare and I am yet to awaken from it. B'Elanna was distraught when Seven collapsed, of course, and it was all we could do to keep her resting while Xena and I tended to Seven. Eventually she subsided though, knowing that there was nothing she could do for her Seven. Still, she did not fall asleep for a long time, and when she did the lines of worry did not leave her face.
Seven had not received many wounds from the battle, and what wounds she wore were superficial and largely irrelevant. I asked Xena what her affliction was she looked fine, after all - it was as if she was in a peaceful sleep. My warrior explained that Seven needed to 'regenerate' and that without it, she would soon die she was like a flower that needs sunlight to survive. Seven had been living on borrowed time over the last two weeks, and now the flower was wilting.
We kept vigil by Seven all through the long night, afraid that if we did not watch; her life would slip from our grasp. Once, she stopped breathing completely and it was only Xena's skill as a healer that saved her. Towards morning, Seven's condition improved she even awoke, asking if B'Elanna was all right, before falling once again into a deep slumber.
While we looked after our two wards, Xena and I talked of the day's events. I inquired about Dakkon it seemed to me that he was more to Xena than just another warlord from her past.
"Who was Dakkon?" I asked, "He looked surprised to see you today."
Xena sighed, "A mistake something I regret intensely to this day..."
"Tell me about it." I prompted, knowing that if Xena were to ever find redemption, she'd have to find peace within herself first.
She sat down, her back against the wall. She was reluctant to talk about it at first, but eventually began to open up. "The first time I saw him was when I raided his village. This was quite soon after Cortes sacked Amphipolis, after Lyceus was killed... and Dakkon, who was barely out of childhood at that time, reminded me of my brother. I remember the fear and awe in his eyes... it was an image that came back to me when I destroyed his village five years later. I'd returned from Chin, and was making my mark upon Greece as the Destroyer of Nations. Dakkon had married his sweetheart by then, and was just about to begin life as a young father." Xena fell silent for a moment before continuing, "I killed his family... and seduced him into joining my army... Dakkon was torn between lust and hate for me... I ended up turning him into a warrior, a killer." She paused, "He rose quickly in my ranks, and gained my trust he was one of my most loyal men... but he turned on me along with the rest of them when Darfus made me run the gauntlet." Xena smiled with a hint of bitterness, "I don't blame him though, I don't blame any of them all I did was destroy his life."
At this point, Xena looked over to B'Elanna who had awoken and was listening to Xena's story quietly.
"What do you think of me now?" she asked, "Still think I'm some sort of hero?"
"Yes." B'Elanna said without hesitation.
"You're wrong. What I do now is nothing compared to what I did... I can't atone for what I did."
"Xena, you have to stop dwelling on the past." The half Klingon insisted, " Look at Dakkon, he's moved on... he has his own life now, however messed up it is. The past is past you need to move on too."
"She has a point, you know." I agreed with her, secretly hoping that Xena would take the advice to heart. It was exactly what I'd been trying to tell my warrior for months.
Xena didn't reply but nodded her head, refusing to talk any more on the subject.
It was many hours later that Seven awoke again. She had been in a coma-like sleep for a day it was like her body had shut down to save itself. It was a great relief to both Xena and I when our injured friend awoke. B'Elanna, who had refused to leave Seven's side through the entire ordeal, was getting extremely irritable at being confined to the small cabin it was... stressful, to say the least, to watch the half Klingon pace the room repeatedly, looking as if she would put a hole through the wall with a frustrated fist.
B'Elanna rushed to the makeshift bed, seeing Seven stir for the first time in hours.
"Lanna?" A weak voice inquired uncertainly.
"I'm here, love."
Seven closed her eyes, trying to remember what had happened. There had been a fight, and then Xena had appeared, saving them from the bounty hunters. She couldn't remember much after that her last memory had been watching Xena remove the arrow from B'Elanna's shoulder. Then she'd felt terribly weak all of a sudden and Seven knew that she must have collapsed. She flexed her left hand experimentally and found that she could barely move it. This was not good her body had begun to shut off her larger implants in an attempt to save energy for her cortical node. This meant that she didn't have a lot of time left the end was approaching faster than she'd anticipated.
"Lanna... I can't move my hand."
B'Elanna tried not to panic. She too, knew the stages she knew that Seven would soon be lost to her. It was hard, but she knew she had to be strong for her beloved. "Are your other implants working?"
"Yes... I think so." Fear had never been so evident in the borg's voice, and at that moment, B'Elanna would have given anything to be able to reassure Seven, to be able to say 'It'll be okay.'
B'Elanna laid her head on Seven's chest, listening to the soft but steady beat of her heart. It soothed her and she was able to calm down a little. "Apart from your implants, how are you feeling?"
"I am weak... but I feel fine." Seven stroked B'Elanna's hair gently with her human hand. "Do you believe Voyager will find us, Lanna?"
The question caught the half Klingon off guard; it had been a long time since they'd discussed Voyager. It was unlikely that the ship would find them now as they'd been missing for over 17 days already. But they both knew that Janeway was not one to give up easily, and deep down in their hearts, the women still carried a hope that Voyager would still come for them.
"Yes." B'Elanna told her, "Kathryn wouldn't give up on us."
"Unless she thought we were dead."
B'Elanna raised her head to look at Seven; "Do you think that's possible?"
"Yes. The wormhole collapsed, we were in it at the time. She would not know that we survived." Seven argued.
"Voyager will come for us, you just have to hold on until then."
Seven sighed. "It is unlikely that they will find us."
"NO! I will not give up hope. I can't..." B'Elanna faltered, "I can't live without the hope that you'll survive... I can't live without you."
"You must live." Seven stated firmly, "In the event of my death, you must continue living."
"You can't ask that of me." B'Elanna whispered.
"I am asking you Lanna..." Seven stroked her cheek, "Promise me, you will keep functioning after I die."
B'Elanna stared at her hands, which were clenched tightly into fists. She could feel her fingernails dig into her palm and she welcomed the pain it was nothing compared to the pain that clutched at her hearts at that moment. "I promise," she heard herself say, "But only if you promise me that you'll keep fighting... and hold on for as long as you can."
Seven nodded wearily, "Yes, I'll hold on for you." She wrapped her arms around B'Elanna, and shifted over in her bed to make space for her lover. B'Elanna crawled into the bed and snuggled into Seven's side.
"Sleep now, your body needs to rest."
"You will stay with me?"
They fell asleep clinging to each other tightly, never wanting to let go, wishing the night would go on forever they knew that morning would bring nothing but darkness.
Captain Kathryn Janeway had no idea what to make of the pudgy little man sitting opposite her. Apparently, their whole race was fairly plump and short and their males tended to start balding around the age of 30. She was slightly unnerved by how human these aliens were. Upon switching off the universal translator, she found that even their language resembled human speech patterns. However, nothing was stranger than the way they bargained they were almost Ferengi-like... in a human sort of way. Definitely disturbing.
"Add fifty more bars of gold and you have a deal." Launssomi, the alien Captain stated.
Gold was easily produced, and wasn't worth much to Voyager, but Janeway decided to humour the little man he seemed to enjoy haggling. "Fifty??" she tried to sound outraged.
"I'll go no lower. Take it or leave it."
"Thirty is all I can afford... Besides, surely the information you have isn't worth that much?" Janeway asked, amused, "I'm sure there are others around here who know about this wormhole... I could always ask around..."
"Forty, I'll give you the information for forty." He reluctantly offered, looking a little disconcerted.
The Captain pretended to mull over the offer, secretly enjoying their exchange it was fun to alarm him, he was so easily flustered.
"Oh come on," he whined, "You're getting a bargain here. I have children to feed at home... we'll all starve at this rate."
"Deal." Janeway said finally, after a long, dramatic pause.
He brightened visibly. "I require payment first." Then added hastily, "It's nothing personal, you have to understand... nobody's trustworthy anymore though, you see one can never be too cautious."
Janeway resisted the urge to roll her eyes, then tapped her comm badge to order a perplexed Ensign to bring 40 bars of gold. The heavy box was carried in and placed in front of Launssomi, whose eyes practically glittered.
"So tell me about this wormhole. You claim that it's there, how come we can't see it?"
"Ah, well, that's because it's not there right now."
Janeway said nothing, trying to quell her impatience and waited for him to continue.
"It's like a gateway you see," he explained, "It only opens once every five days... and it's only there for about 30 minutes, before it disappears again."
Her first feeling was one of profound relief it explained where B'Elanna and Seven went, they could still be alive. It was quite probable that they were trapped on the other side, unable to return or contact Voyager. "So it should appear again in two more days, is that correct?" she asked.
"Yes, that's right." He paused, a troubled look on his face. "There's one other thing you should know..."
"What?" Janeway asked, suddenly filled with apprehension.
"Time moves at a different pace on the other side... approximately five times faster."
Janeway closed her eyes. Damn. "It's been three and a half days since my crew members disappeared... you're saying that more than two weeks have passed for them already?"
Running fingers through her hair, the Captain sighed. This changed everything. She knew that Seven had to regenerate within a week and worried about how the young woman was coping. Was B'Elanna looking after her? The two women were known for their hostility towards one another, but she'd seen a gradual friendship build up between them over the months. Yes, B'Elanna would take care of Seven and both of them were very capable women. Janeway felt slightly better, although not by much. It was so frustrating, not knowing what was happening to her lost crewmembers not just crewmembers; they were like daughters to her. She hated not being able to do anything what if they needed her this very moment... what if she was too late? She gritted her teeth in frustration that she could do nothing for them. Nothing but wait.
Seven was lying on her back, wondering what death felt like. Would she know when the moment came? Or would she just cease to exist perhaps her consciousness would just disappear unexpected, sudden. She was not afraid, it would just be another section in her life she could always adapt, even in death. What bothered her was how B'Elanna would fare. She knew that her beloved would be damaged terribly when she died. Already, the half Klingon was functioning below acceptable levels she rarely left Seven's side, sleeping only three to four hours a night and hardly eating anything at all.
B'Elanna was asleep now, exhausted from a stressful day of looking after Seven, watching the borg's body slowly deteriorate. As she watched B'Elanna sleep, Seven decided that the love between them was the only thing she would regret losing, it was the only thing that now kept her anchored to this earth. It made her heart ache to think that soon, she would never again behold the sight of her beloved's face, nor ever hear her Lanna's sweet voice calling out her name. They would never be able to make a home together, or raise children... there were so many experiences she wanted to share with B'Elanna, but never would have the chance to. It hurt to know that they would lose each other so soon.
Seven felt cold and could not stop shivering even though a large fire was roaring in the middle of the room. All her implants had begun to fail the day before, and now she was losing the vision in one eye. It had only been two days since she collapsed, and it frightened her that everything was beginning to shut down so quickly. She'd thought that her borg enhanced body was more resilient. Why was it so cold? She tried to suppress her uncontrollable shivering, not wanting to awaken B'Elanna.
The half Klingon's brow furrowed as she slept and with an effort, Seven lifted her right hand to gently touch the ridges. My love, she thought, How I wish we could have more time. A tear slid down Seven's gaunt, alabaster cheek and fell onto B'Elanna's hand.
"Seven?" B'Elanna's eyes fluttered open, blinking in confusion. She looked at the teardrop on her hand, then lowered her head and licked it off. "You're crying..." Her thumb softly brushed away another tear from Seven's face. "Are you afraid?"
"No," she replied in a faint voice, then cleared her throat, "No, I'm not afraid of dying... I just... I wish I didn't have to leave you so soon. I'll miss you, beloved."
"I'll miss you too, BangwI." B'Elanna held her lover closer. She closed her eyes, treasuring the soft tickling of Seven's breath against her neck. A small silence descended before she spoke up again, "You know the dream I told you about? The one with the blonde woman who would sing to me?"
Seven nodded weakly, barely moving her head.
"I dreamt of her again... It was " her voice cracked, "It was you, Seven... you were falling down the chasm and I couldn't hold on... Damnit." She closed her eyes. "I don't want to lose you."
Seven didn't know how to reply. She wanted to tell B'Elanna that she wouldn't lose her, but that wasn't true. They both knew that Seven would soon die; it was just a matter of time. She sighed and held B'Elanna closer; "I love you." She whispered.
"I love you too."
Neither women spoke much for the rest of the night Seven was too weak to do much and drifted between consciousness and sleep. B'Elanna held the shivering borg in her arms, rubbing her back gently in a soothing motion. Together, they waited for the inevitable.
We sat outside their cabin, knowing they needed time alone. It would be the last hours they had with each other. Xena was agitated it was obvious in her stance and by the way she repeatedly threw her chakram, letting it rebound off the trees before catching it. Sparks flew as it slammed into a rock wall, the strength of Xena's fury driving the weapon deeply into the stone. She hated being inactive, even more; she hated being helpless as she watched Seven slowly die. Always before, she had found a solution a way to save the day... why couldn't she save her friend now? Her eyes narrowed and she suddenly sprang to her feet. "Ares!" she called loudly. I stiffened as I realized what she was about to do.
"Xena, no!" I cried.
"Ah, Xena. Always a pleasure." The god of War materialized with a blaze of blue flames, clad in his usual black leather but sporting some new sideburns. He sauntered over to Xena's chakram and plucked it from where it was lodged in the rock. Twirling the weapon around on his finger, he approached us "What can I do for you today, my dear?" He glanced at me. "Still have blondie with you I see."
My warrior snatched the chakram away and returned its place on her hip. "Her name is Gabrielle." She ground out, then looked away for a moment before clenching her jaw and meeting his eyes; "I need a favour from you."
"Oooh, the warrior princess needs a favour now." He chortled gleefully, "What's it worth to you?"
"What do you want, Ares?"
"What I've always wanted. Really, Xena, you should know by now." He paused. "I want you to be my warrior again the Destroyer of Nations my Queen..." He looked dismissively at me; "You can even keep the irritating blonde, although Hades knows why you would want to."
I glared daggers at him. He smirked.
"Can you do what I ask though?" I couldn't believe Xena was willing to bargain with him.
"What, save the borg woman? Sure thing. There's plenty of ambrosia stashed up on Mt. Olympus that should save her. I'll just pop up there and give her some."
"No, you will not." A deep voice interrupted their conversation, saving Xena from the dilemma of choosing what to do. The imposing figure of Zeus, king of the gods, had appeared behind Ares and was bearing down upon him.
"I've had enough of you messing with mortal affairs." He thundered, glaring at his son, "And you will definitely NOT be changing the destinies of these women. The two aliens are from a different universe you are forbidden to do anything for them."
Without another word, Zeus grabbed Ares' shoulder and the two immortals disappeared with a blaze of fire, leaving Xena and I to stare at each other.
"Would you really have accepted his terms?" I wanted to know. Would she have left me and gone back to Ares if Zeus hadn't interceded?
Xena sighed and sat down again. "No... Even if I had wanted to, I couldn't." She looked at me, "I would never leave you for him you know that, right?"
"Not even if it would save Seven?"
Xena usually proud shoulders were slumped, "No... It would have done more harm than good. As much as I want to save Seven, I wouldn't subject the world to me again... not with Ares influencing my every action... I just felt I had to do something for Seven, you know?"
I just nodded, taking a seat on the log next to her. We sat together in quiet, pensive contemplation for the rest of that day. Food was the furthermost thing from our minds at the time, and sleep was out of the question... we were both too distressed about Seven's condition. The day stretched on, finally descending into darkness as night stole over the forest quietly. Even the wildlife seemed subdued, there was not a rustle in the undergrowth, the nightingales were mute not even a cricket chirped. It seemed as if a silence had covered the world, smothering everything.
Then, a candlemark before the first pale rays of sunshine creeped over the treetops, signaling the dawn, the silence was brutally shattered. The heartrending howl that came from inside the cabin made the hair on my bare arms stand up on end, and caused tears to flood my eyes. The timbers of the cabin shook from the intensity of it and the previously silent birds took to the air in panic. It seemed as if it would last forever. Finally the death-cry abated, giving way to the helpless sobbing of a woman who had lost her soulmate. It was over... Seven of Nine was dead.
B'Elanna looked up, "What is it?" she snapped irritably, annoyed at the interruption to her work.
"Uh... we, we're... you need a break Lieutenant." The timid ensign stuttered out nervously. "You've been here since alpha shift... that's 16 hours straight you've been working nonstop. We're just worried about you, Chief."
"This work needs to be finished," she replied tonelessly, turning back to her work. "Don't worry, I'll rest later."
The ensign could do nothing but walk away. He sighed, frustrated at the lack of response from B'Elanna. The entire engineering crew had noticed B'Elanna's grief, and most of them had guessed by now that it had something to do with Seven of Nine's death and whatever happened between them while they were stranded. They'd held a funeral for the borg a few days earlier, and everyone had noticed the conspicuous absence of their Chief Engineer. Some had attributed it to the hostility the two women had shared, but the people who understood B'Elanna knew that it wasn't so she would never be as petty as to not attend a funeral because of a personal grudge. Besides, the Lieutenant had began to develop a friendship with Seven in the days prior the away mission, they'd been spotted spending time together off duty. There was something else going on with B'Elanna that concerned the deceased borg.
"Captain to Torres."
"I'd like to see you in my ready room as soon as possible please." The worried voice of the Captain came through the comm badge.
"I'll be right there." B'Elanna responded shortly, then slammed down the PADD she'd been holding as the link was severed. She stalked out of Engineering growling a stream of curses, leaving the bewildered crew to exchange troubled glances.
Janeway was waiting for her as she strode into the ready room, but said nothing.
"What?" The exasperated half Klingon snapped.
The Captain frowned, "I don't think I like your attitude Lieutenant."
B'Elanna tried to hold her temper in check. "I apologize Captain. However, I'd like to know why you interrupted my work."
"I want you to take a break, consider yourself officially off duty for the next 48 hours." Janeway said. Then in softer tones, "What's going on B'Elanna? We're concerned about you."
"I assure you, I'm fine, Captain. A break isn't necessary." She replied in formal tones. She stared straight ahead, refusing to meet Janeway's eyes.
"Please, call me Kathryn." The Captain insisted, then sighed, "B'Elanna... everyone has noticed, you're definitely not fine. Tom talked to me this morning, he thinks the marriage isn't working out."
"Well dissolve it then."
"What? You're not even going to try to save your marriage?"
B'Elanna shrugged, finally meeting Janeway's shocked eyes. "I don't care for Tom anymore... the marriage was failing before the away mission anyway."
"What happened on that planet, B'Elanna?" Janeway leaned forward in her seat, "Don't tell me you're fine. Something happened there and it's changed you."
"Look, I already documented everything in the official report... and I'll deal with my own problems, it's none of your business."
"Everyone on this ship is my business." A pause. "It was Seven wasn't it?" she probed cautiously, "Something happened between you and Seven."
The half Klingon flinched at the name of the woman who haunted her daily thoughts and tortured her nightly with dreams of what could never be. She kept silent; keeping her eyes focused on Janeway's coffee mug.
"Tell me about it." Kathryn prompted gently.
"I can't..." B'Elanna took a shuddering breath, "I'm sorry Kathryn, maybe someday... just not today."
The Captain nodded, letting B'Elanna have her privacy, she knew that the young woman had to first come to terms with what happened, herself, before she could begin to heal.
"Computer start personal log, B'Elanna Torres." She took a deep breath before beginning.
"I wonder sometimes why I don't cry I've shed no tears since Seven died. Even when my hearts seem to be breaking from the pain of my loss, as I lie alone at night or worse, next to Tom's droning snores I have no tears. I used to accuse Seven of having no emotions, but eventually saw that she did have feelings... she just didn't express them like the rest of us. I am, in a way, like that now... I can't share my emotions nobody would understand if I did.
It's been a week since Voyager entered the wormhole and beamed me up. Everything was so hurried... I barely had a chance to say goodbye to Xena and Gabrielle... and Seven. We'd made a funeral pyre for her a few days after her death I had still held onto the hope at the time that Voyager would be able to revive her if they came. But after two days, Seven's body began to break down... even in death her borg systems were drawing energy from her human body... like a parasite. So we burnt her body... it wasn't really Seven, just the corpse, the shell... Seven no longer resided in the discarded husk, and so I saw no reason to take her ashes with me. I left the urn containing her ashes on the planet, in the cabin our home in the place where we first found love.
Seven's last few hours of life were a nightmare, her condition deteriorated quickly... her muscles had begun to waste away, and her cortical node was failing. At times, she could not remember her assimilation, nor could she remember Voyager... one thing that amazed me and warmed my soul... despite the fact that the love of my life lay dying... was that she never forgot my name. She would open her eyes, beautiful blue eyes filled with love for me, and she'd say my name with a voice so faint I had to strain to hear it. I held her hand through it all, our fingers entwined... I held on long after she died, not wanting to let go... It was not until Xena called my name many hours later, worried that I still hadn't emerged from the hut, that I finally pried my hand loose of Seven's cold, stiff fingers... and walked out into the harsh sunlight of that accursed day.
I sometimes wish I could forget all that happened in those three weeks, for it plagues me... haunts me.... But I know that I never will or ever would even if I had the chance. I would relive it a thousand times over because for a brief time, I was with my beloved.
This is the story I could not tell Kathryn... I do not think I can ever tell it, despite what I said to her. It lies here within my heart, locked away forever..."
"End personal log."
After B'Elanna left, Xena and I boarded up the cabin. We stood outside it for a long time, remembering all that had passed, and sending out one last goodbye to wherever our friends may have gone. We left the area, knowing we would not return too much had happened there that touched us too deeply.
And so it seems that their story has come to an end. Yet it doesn't feel right, somehow, that these two lovers should be torn apart like this... one dead, ashes confined to the ground, and one alive, out in the stars somewhere in a different universe....
Mt. Fuji, Japa, 30 years later...
Cradling Xena's face in her hands, the blonde woman lowered her head to kiss her fallen love. Their lips touched, allowing one precious droplet of water to pass the warrior's lips. It was water from the fountain of strength, on Mt. Fuji, and it would give Xena's ghost the strength to defeat Yodoshi. The warrior opened her eyes to see her lover's smiling face.
She stood up as strength flowed through her body, imbuing her with a supernatural vitality. She faced the bard.
"Gabrielle, I need the sacred katana to finish the job."
The sword was placed gently into the palms of her outstretched hands.
"Thank you." She whispered softly.
Gabrielle nodded and glanced at the western sky, it was beautiful shade of pink and gold. "The sun is setting, Xena... I have to find your ashes."
"Gabrielle..." the warrior hesitated, "I "
"C'mon!" she was interrupted by Yodoshi's angry roar. The powerful spirit had recovered and was now spinning, turning into a deadly whirlwind of flame. He soared high into the sky, and Xena had no choice but to follow.
Gabrielle abruptly turned away, determination etched in her features as she crouched over the ledge from which Xena's urn had fallen. She had to retrieve Xena's ashes before sunset, or her beloved would be lost to her forever.
"Gabr " Xena started to call after her, in vain. Another roar from Yodoshi forced Xena to turn and face him. "Aiyiyiyiyiyi!!!" She too, became a ball of flame that spun round and round, flying higher and higher. The two spirits raced across the sky, setting the treetops alight before they collided, smashing into each other with a tremendous explosion. They sky rained fire as they both materialized on the ground once more.
"Enough of this!" boomed Yodoshi as he emerged from the flames. The two spirits began to fight in earnest, and the sound of swords clashing filled the forest.
Gabrielle had begun to descend the cliff face, having spotted Xena's urn lying snugly in a bird's nest several metres below. The climb down was perilous the few footholds she found were treacherous and slippery with ice. Her foot slipped, and she almost fell, but she regained her precarious hold and continued her vital mission with renewed determination.
Meanwhile, the ghostly battle raged on. Yodoshi matched Xena blow by blow, and lightning crackled as their swords clashed together, locked in a struggle of colossal power.
"You're about to join the 40 thousand souls you condemned, Xena." The evil spirit snarled at her, baring his teeth in a feral grin. "And the first thing I'll do is take the head off of your friend with the tattoo."
Gabrielle inched closer to the urn, her foot nudging the nest while she clung onto the cliff face with her hands. Almost there... just slightly further. She gasped with the effort of hanging on. If only she could get down a little closer...
"You won't live that long." Xena returned, before forcing his sword away with a mighty heave. She slashed at him, their swords meeting again before the warrior woman backflipped behind Yodoshi and sent him flying backwards with a strong kick. He slammed into a tree before flying back towards her, sword raised before him, wearing a terrible visage of hatred. Xena twirled the katana expertly, impaling the ghost upon it using his own momentum. Yodoshi let out an awful scream and dropped to his knees as his killer unsheathed her sword from his body with a sickening slurp. Whirling around with a cry, she beheaded him in one swift stroke.
The urn sailed through the air in an arc before falling... into Gabrielle's hand. She clutched it tightly to her chest and breathed a sigh of relief, then began the grueling climb back up. The sun was beginning to set...
Xena's eyes widened as the thousands of spirits that Yodoshi had consumed began to glide free from his corpse. The glowing, jellyfish like spirits darted around the warrior before soaring into the air. One, however lingered behind the others...
Gabrielle finally reached the top, hoisting her tired, aching body over the ledge. She hurried towards the fountain, but stopped as she saw the samurai standing before her. He was the general of the army that defeated Xena, whom Gabrielle had killed just hours before. She had denied him an honorable death by refusing to behead him. Now he stood with his sword pointing towards her wrathfully.
"I deserved the dignity of a warrior."
Gabrielle looked towards the west, knowing that if she paused to fight him, it would be too late to save Xena. In that moment, she made a decision.
"Dignity huh?" She lifted the chakram off of where it rested on her hip. "Like you showed my friend?" Green eyes hardened with resolve, and she let the chakram fly... like she'd seen Xena do so many times in the past. It struck his temple, rebounding off the rock wall before she caught it, amazement colouring her features as she stared at the round weapon. The only other person who had been able to use the weapon was Xena. Glancing at the sky once more, she hurried towards to fountain of strength.
The face of a young girl appeared on the lone spirit that hovered before her.
"You've redeemed me... you've redeemed them..." A joyful voice rang out. "You've redeemed yourself."
"Go in peace, Akemi." Xena replied as the little ball of swirling energy floated away with the others, "We'll meet again... one day..."
Poised, leaning over the fountain, Gabrielle removed the lid from the urn with shaking hands. She moved to tip the contents of the small bronze pot into the clear water, only to be stopped by a firm but gentle hand.
"Xena?" She turned to the warrior in confusion.
"Xena, the sun is setting." The bard said urgently, "I have to bring you back."
"No," Xena's hand guided Gabrielle's in closing the lid, "Not if it means condemning the souls of the forty thousand who burned at Higuchi."
"The souls are free?" Confused eyes scanned Xena's face.
"Free from Yodoshi's grasp... Akemi didn't want to tell me this incase I wouldn't come back to help..." She paused, "But for those souls to be released into a state of grace, they must be avenged." Xena explained softly, "I must stay dead..."
Gabrielle opened her mouth, unsure of what to say. "But...if I bring you back to life..." she trailed off.
"The souls will be lost forever."
The younger woman's eyes filled with tears and she closed them angrily, turning away. "Xena..."
The warrior could only watch sorrowfully as her beloved dealt with the harsh, painful truth.
"That is not right." The bard protested, turning to face her again.
A tear trickled down Xena's cheek.
"I don't care..." she whispered pleadingly, causing Xena to give a small, sad smile, though in her heart Gabrielle already knew what she had to do. "You're all that matters to me." Tears ran freely from her eyes.
"Don't you know how much I want to let you do this?" Xena stared intently at her love, "But if there's a reason for our travels together... it's because I had to learn from you enough to know the final, the good, the right thing to do." She stopped, overcome with tears. "I can't come back," she whispered, "I can't..."
Gabrielle dipped her head, finally accepting what had to be, painful though it was. She sat down beside the fountain. "I love you Xena." She looked to the warrior, "How am I supposed to go on without you?"
"I'll always be with you Gabrielle." She replied as the bard rested her blond head on Xena's shoulders. She leaned into Gabrielle's embrace. "Always."
They watched their last sunset together, tears shining in both pairs of eyes. All too soon, the sun dropped below the horizon, and Xena bowed her head, eyes closed as she began to shimmer and fade...
The warrior opened her eyes. Why was she still here? The sun had set completely, leaving them in darkness.
"You're still here." A hesitant hand touched her face.
Gabrielle stood on the deck of the ship, holding the urn in her hands while looking out to sea. "A life of journeying has brought you to the farthest lands, to the very edges of the earth..."
A hand was placed on her shoulder. "And to the place where I'll always remain your heart."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at the warrior.
"So where to now?" asked Xena.
Gabrielle stayed silent for a moment. "Xena..."
"Seven's ashes are still in that cabin..."
The warrior was silent. The unexpected reminder of their dead friend brought back painful memories, long buried.
"Harukata told me that the ashes had to be sprinkled in the fountain by the second sunset after death." Gabrielle furrowed her brow; "It's been a far longer time than that..."
"And you think it's still possible to bring her back?"
"I think Harukata was lying."
"Why would he lie?"
"Xena, think about it. From the very start, he held a grudge against you... he blamed you for the forty thousand people who died in the fire." Gabrielle explained her thoughts, "He must have thought that it would take me much longer to get your ashes, and that I would give up after the second sunset had passed."
Xena thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, that would ensure that the souls would be avenged, letting them move onto a higher plane."
"...and it would explain why you didn't disappear after that second sunset..."
"That means Seven still has a chance." The warrior smiled.
"Yes." Gabrielle grinned at her, eyes bright with hope "I knew their story wasn't finished... Now we have a chance to bring them back together."
"We have a problem though." Xena added.
"How do we get B'Elanna back here?"
Her head was nestled snugly in a warm lap while soft hands stroked her hair. The brilliant blue sky was unmarred by clouds and the sun bathed her bare body in golden warmth. A gentle breeze caressed her skin and caused the grass she was lying in to ripple, tickling her. Closing her eyes, she was lulled to sleep by a beautiful voice singing to her. The tune was hauntingly familiar, though she did not understand the words she only knew that the ethereal lyrics were for her, issued from the throat of a goddess. Everything was a warm, blissful haze... she felt safe here, she was happy.
Her eyes slowly fluttered open to see a pair of intense blue eyes looking back at her.
"Who are you?" she found herself asking, even though she'd seen the woman a thousand times before and had asked the question a thousand times over.
"Don't you know who I am, Be'nal?"
As always, she did not have a chance to answer. The ground began to shake ominously, and in an instant, the sky turned dark. Lightning flashed, splitting the sky in a jagged streak as rain began to fall, piercing her skin like billions of icy needles. B'Elanna stood up, unsure of what to do as the muddied ground began to slide away from under her feet. She scrambled away from the unstable earth as the mudslide began to carry everything away. A split began to form as she watched, and soon a wide chasm gaped at her feet. Where was her blonde goddess? She looked about frantically, eyes widening as she finally located her about to fall over the edge of the chasm. She slogged through the mud towards the woman, but it held her back, sucking her down. She growled in frustration and charged on, knowing that she had to save her. The half Klingon cried out in relief as her hand caught hold of the other woman's wrist and gripped on with a fierce desperation. The elements were working against them, however. The ground continued to shake and lurch, each jolt almost wrenching B'Elanna's arm out of its socket. The rain made their grip slippery and she found herself unable to hold on slowly, but inexorably her hand began to slide away until they were only holding on by the fingertips. Looking into the woman's calm blue eyes, time seemed to be frozen as her fingers began to lose their tenacious grip...
B'Elanna's eyes flew open, and she sat up breathing heavily. The engineer ran her hands through her sweat-drenched hair, trying to stop shaking. It was the fifth time she'd had that nightmare this week... they were turning her into a nervous wreck. She now dreaded going to sleep; knowing that she would be awakened every time by the dream. Why was this happening? She'd hadn't had this dream for six years... in fact, the last time had been... it had been the day before Seven died. She immediately cut off that train of thought. No thinking of Seven. She sighed and leaned back, tucking her legs up against her chest. Closing her eyes, B'Elanna tried to calm her racing hearts, and wondered why it was all coming back to haunt her now.
Perhaps it was because she'd been working closely with Borg technology recently, and it had brought back painful memories of her lost love. It had been a busy day at work the new model she'd been working on was almost ready to be tested. It was a new project that was a melding of Federation and Borg technology the first Starfleet vessel to travel at transwarp speed. The little ship was B'Elanna's pride and joy; she'd been working on it for almost four years now, and soon, it would be completed.
The first two years after they returned to the Alpha quadrant was spent wandering aimlessly, wanting to give up on life. She'd traveled from planet to planet, never really settling down anywhere... she hadn't even kept in touch with any of the Voyager crew. Janeway had eventually tracked her down and talked to her at length... she then finally told Kathryn the entire story then, and it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off her chest. "You promised Seven that you'd live... but would she want you to be living like this?" Janeway had asked her. It was what finally made B'Elanna pull herself together. After that, she'd joined Starfleet's newly formed Research and Design Department, designing and improving new ships something she truly enjoyed because it allowed her to be creative, while providing a challenge for her engineering skills. She was not happy, but at least she had finally stopped thinking about Seven's death and moved on. Hadn't she? If so, then why the hell were these dreams coming back? B'Elanna sighed in frustration and turned over, pulling the covers up. The half Klingon viciously shoved her troubled thoughts into the back corner of her mind, she had to get some sleep tomorrow would be another busy day.
"There it is." Gabrielle pointed the out the barely visible track that would lead to the cabin. It had faded a lot over the decades and was now all but invisible.
Xena nodded, "You're getting better at this."
"I have a good teacher." The bard replied.
The warrior just raised her eyebrow, an indulgent grin on her face. Her hand shot out suddenly and ruffled Gabrielle's hair, effectively messing it up.
"Hey!" the shorter woman laughed, slapping away the hand. Xena somersaulted into the air and hung there, just out of her lover's reach.
"Shorty." This comment was met with an indignant glare from Gabrielle. Grinning, the warrior swooped down and tackled the bard, tickling her unmercifully. They rolled through the leaves, wrestling, until the blonde woman got the upper hand and pinned Xena to the ground.
"Ooh, I think someone's losing their touch." She teased, then blinked as she saw the ground beneath her begin to move away slowly. "Uh... Xena? What are you doing?"
Gabrielle scowled playfully, "Damned ghosts..."
A grin. "I have many skills." She planted a firm kiss on the blonde woman's lips and, holding onto her lover tightly, Xena increased her speed towards the cabin below them, laughing. "Aiyiyiyiyi!!!"
They had left it 30 years ago with such sorrow and pain in their hearts, but it was with much higher spirits (no pun intended) that the two companions returned.
Cursing, B'Elanna threw back the covers and stumbled out of bed. Another nightmare the same one, again. Damnit, why does it keep screwing with my mind? So absorbed in trying to dispel the dream's hold on her by cussing it out, she almost missed the soft chime of her door.
"Yeah, hold on." She hollered, pulling on some clothes quickly. She ran her hands through her hair a few times to arrange it into some semblance of orderliness.
"B'Elanna?" A familiar voice called out.
"Tom??" B'Elanna opened the door to find the helmsman standing there, looking every bit like he had six years ago when they'd parted ways. "Um... come in." She stepped back from the door. He smiled the charming smile of his, and produced a bunch of red roses from behind his back.
"What the hell is this?" B'Elanna eyed the flowers.
"It's my way of saying..." he brushed a lock of hair off his forehead, "Well, it's my way of saying that I want us to have another chance."
"Yeah. I know we didn't part the best of ways... but you know, I've had a long think about us, and B'Elanna... I forgive you."
"You forgive me??"
"Well yeah, I heard from the other crewmembers that you had an affair with Seven..."
B'Elanna clenched her jaw.
"It really hurt that you left me for that borg. But I understand now that you were probably under very harsh conditions on that planet and"
"Tom, shut up." B'Elanna cut in, unable to take his insensitive comments anymore; "We're not getting back together."
"Why not?" Confusion filled his face. "Lanna... don't you want us to have another chance?"
"I'm in love with Seven."
"But she's dead!"
An unreadable emotion flared in B'Elanna's eyes. "Get out." She growled.
"Get out, Tom."
A sigh. "All right, but think about it... think about what we had." Then he turned and left.
As soon as the doors slid shut, B'Elanna slumped onto her couch, burying her face in her hands, "Great, just what I needed that to start off the day."
It wasn't Tom that had bothered her, but the reminder of Seven Seven, the woman she had tried so hard to forget lately, was painful. Dreaming of Seven hurt, thinking of her hurt... it was why the engineer tried so hard not to. Despite all her endeavors to close off her heart, however, it was futile what she'd told Tom was true. She still loved Seven. And it hurt.
The cabin was just as they had left it, although looking a little worn. Gabrielle kneeled down, using the chakram to scrape away the earth that had hardened over the years. She lifted the urn, carefully brushing away the dirt with her fingers.
"Here it is."
Xena nodded, "Lets take it back to Japa now."
"What about B'Elanna?" Gabrielle inquired.
The warrior was silent for a moment, her face impassive. She turned to the other woman and said with a quiet certainty, "She'll come."
It was now or never. B'Elanna took a deep breath and typed in the command to open the transwarp conduit that would take her back to the wormhole and back to Seven. As the small ship entered the passageway, she leaned back into the chair and forced herself to relax, casting her mind back to the days leading up to her abrupt decision.
After numerous nights of the same dream, the same agony upon waking up to an empty bed and a barren future, the engineer had finally gotten around to some serious thinking. Where was she heading in her life? Would she just continue to work, and work, occasionally going out to dinner with a few superficial friends? Then, eventually, she would die... alone, with barely anyone noticing. How could she go on like this?
She'd promised Seven to live, but that promise had been broken years ago, when her spirit had lost its fiery spark the passion that had so enthralled Seven was gone, the light from her eyes was gone. No, she was not breaking the promise in doing this she was fulfilling it. She would return to the cabin, perhaps she would die there... in the only place she'd truly felt alive. Perhaps she would live out the rest of her life in solitude and become a hermit. She grinned wryly at that. Whoever would have imagined it B'Elanna Torres, once Chief Engineer of the now legendary Voyager, a hermit. She almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Surprisingly, once she'd made the decision to return, she'd felt better than she had in years.
In one reckless move, she'd beamed off the other pilot and high tailed it out of there before anyone else even noticed in other words, she'd stolen the ship. She had requested that she be present for its first test drive incase something went wrong they'd agreed. So now here she was, in the only Starfleet vessel capable of transwarp travel a top-secret project they'd been working on for years. Soon, she would exit the conduit, arriving at coordinates a few light years away from the Tambius wormhole. All she had to do, then, was wait for the wormhole to open and fly through it again, just as she had that fateful day six years ago. She had been unsure the first time she had considered returning, but every night her resolve was strengthened by the dreams. Finally, she'd surrendered to the irresistible pull and to what her gut instincts were screaming at her she would go back.
As if sleepwalking, B'Elanna made her way towards the cabin in a daze. One recurring thought kept entering her mind. Nothing has changed. It was as if everything had been frozen in time preserved for when she returned. But no, there were differences, just small things, but they were there all the same. The trail looked a little fainter, and the foliage around the river was a little thicker. The birdsong
Some things, however, were just as she had left it and they brought back pleasant memories of a happier time. There was the riverbank where they'd often watched the sunset together... and the large flat rock, where Seven had lain sometimes, soaking in the sun, while watching B'Elanna fish for their dinner.
B'Elanna stepped into the clearing, so moved by the sight of worn, run-down cabin that she almost missed the figure sitting on the log. The engineer stopped in her tracks, staring at the blonde woman who sat facing away from her. From behind, it almost seemed as if... as if it were Seven. What was this, some sort of joke? She moved closer, hearts pounding, legs suddenly weak and unable to support her. The blonde beauty, hearing her approach, stood and turned around.
The half Klingon was in shock, staring at the woman before her. The woman she had seen so many times before, in her dreams. Her mouth was dry, and she found herself unable to do a thing.
Gathering her scattered wits together in a supreme effort of will, she voiced the question she had always asked before. "Who are you?"
"Don't you know who I am, Be'nal?"
It was Seven, but without her implants and wearing a simple homespun dress. B'Elanna did not want to respond always before, it had been in this moment that the dream had changed into a nightmare, spiraling out of control. So she did not say anything, but instead stared into the brilliant blue eyes of the woman she loved, trying to convey all she felt in that one look.
Seeing B'Elanna incapable of responding any time soon, Seven took the initiative and moved forwards, closing the remaining distance between them. Her fingertips touched B'Elanna's and she drew closer until they stood facing each other, her palms resting lightly against the other woman's. Each woman drank the sight of the other, fingers entwined.
The half Klingon felt long arms wrap around her body and she held onto Seven tightly. She inhaled deeply, breathing in the familiar scent of her beloved. She closed her eyes and laid her head against the warm chest, listening to the strong, steady heartbeat. No questions were asked by either woman they didn't talk at all. For now, it was simply enough to be there, existing. Together.
"Looks like our work here is done." Xena smiled as she hovered in the air, above the treetops near where B'Elanna and Seven were standing.
"Shouldn't we go say hi?" Asked Gabrielle as they began to drift slowly away from the cabin. She was held securely in place by Xena's arms, a comfortable place to be. Small wonder that flying was now her favorite mode of transport.
"Of course... later though. I'm sure they want a little time to themselves first." She grinned, and winked.
Gabrielle looked down at the small figures below them and laughed, "Oooh, I see." A pause. "Uh, Xena? You're going in the wrong direction... the sky is that way."
"Oh. Right." The warrior even managed to look a little contrite.
"So move your leather-clad butt." Gabrielle poked Xena's leathers.
"Yes ma'am." She replied meekly, then flashed an evil grin. All of a sudden their speed increased dramatically, causing the shorter woman to yelp. Laughing, the warrior and her bard flew into the sunset together.
Below them, the reunited lovers looked up, startled by the familiar battle cry. They waved, smiling in fond remembrance of their friends... before turning their attentions back to each other.
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