DISCLAIMER: All characters are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The story crawled out of my own twisted mind, however. This falls into the realm of fan fiction. I don't anticipate any material profit from this; it's for fun, not money.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wrote the story rather quickly, in response to a competition deadline (I'm such a procrastinator). Had a great time, on this end of it. As always, I hope that you like it, too, on the reader's end. If you find it a good read, then that's my reward. Hope you enjoy!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Eye of Hephaestus
By D.J. Belt
Gabrielle stirred slowly in her bed, her groans protesting the harsh music of the morning birds singing just outside her window. Her eyes refused to open, and she did not have the will to force them. She covered her head with a pillow to shut out their persistent melodies, and breathed a sigh of relief. Then the headache hit, a pounding that caused her to lean up on one elbow and wince. Her hand went to her forehead as her cloudy mind shook itself into some semblance of order and began to replay the events of the evening before. "By all the gods in Tartarus! How much did I drink last night?" she muttered aloud, just one second before her stomach flipped and contracted. "Oh, oh!" She threw back the covers and darted for the open window, just making the sill before her stomach exploded. After a moment, she let go of the sill and slid to the cool floor, sitting in a tangled lump and holding her head. The door opened and footsteps padded across the floor, stopping just next to her tortured form.
"Oh, Gab. Look at you. You're a mess. Sitting on the cold floor, as naked as the day you were born. You drank too much again, didn't you?"
"Do you have to stomp around and scream so much? Gimmie a break here." Gabrielle's growl held no patience for the gentle chastisement evident in her sister Lila's voice. She said nothing in rebuke, just pulled the blanket from the bed and knelt down to wrap it around Gabrielle's shoulders. As she did, Lila studied her sister's form. She noted the sinewy muscle, the absence of body fat, the scars which dotted and lined Gabrielle's body. A warrior, Lila thought to herself. This is what you left home so many years ago to achieve? This is the result of all your efforts? Skinny, you are. Scarred. She noted the large dragon tattoo on her sister's back. It seemed to be laughing at her, she thought. Where is the bright-eyed girl I once knew? Where is your delightful innocence now? It is almost as if you have taken Xena's darkness upon yourself. Oh, sister. I hurt for you. Lila shook her head slowly, sadly, and wrapped the blanket around Gabrielle's form.
"Come on, Gab. Let's get you cleaned up." She helped Gabrielle up off the floor and led her out of the room to the kitchen table, wrapped ears to toes in her blanket. "Sit here. I'll make some tea. You will feel better in a minute. Do as I say, now. Don't argue with me."
As Gabrielle sat at the table, she muttered, "Where have I heard that before?"
"Xena used to say that to me all the time. 'Don't argue with me.'"
"But, I'll bet you always did anyway." Gabrielle just grunted in response, closing her eyes to the pounding hammers in her head and the bitter taste of bile in her mouth. After a moment, a wooden cup was gently placed into her hands and helped up to her mouth. "Drink this, now. It always helped father when he had gotten a snoot full." Gabrielle grunted in protest, but the hands helping her were firm. "You will like it. I sweetened it with honey." She surrendered to her sister's gentle touch and swallowed a few mouthfuls of the warm, sweet concoction. After she drained the cup, she let it hit the table with a thud, and winced. Her stomach flipped again at the smell of baking bread filling the kitchen. I'm not gonna be sick again, am I? That's all I did, the last three days at sea. Puke. Now, I'm puking again. She fought down the unsettled stomach with some deep breaths and opened one eye to look at Lila, puttering around the kitchen. Just like mother did. Even looks like her. How I miss her. Gabrielle gave a small snort of derision. Good thing she never saw me like this. She would have exploded.
Gabrielle's aching thoughts were interrupted by the kitchen door opening. Lila's daughter, Sarah, entered through the wooden arch holding a bucket of water and stopped as she saw Gabrielle sitting at the table. She studied the tortured form wrapped in the blanket and a small quirk of a grin formed at the corner of her mouth. "Damn! Look at you, auntie! You look like shit! When's the funeral?"
Gabrielle's one opened eye raised up to meet her niece's amused gaze. "Ha, ha. A comedienne in every family."
She passed through the kitchen, holding the bucket with both hands. "And a drunk in every family, too. I know, I know...it's a tough job, but someone has to do it. There's a bath waiting for you next to the fireplace. Come on."
Gabrielle struggled to rise and felt a pair of helping hands guide her, blanket and all, to the fireplace and the waiting wooden tub. Lila's voice was firm, but sad. "Come, dear. Soak for a bit. You'll feel better after a while." She felt the cool morning air hit her body as the blanket was removed, and lifted first one leg and then the other to step into the warm water. She slid down into the bath and let out a soft groan as she felt the water's heat welcome her. Crossing her legs, she slid down until the water was just under her chin. By the gods, this feels good. I just might live through this, after all. Why in Tartarus do I keep doing this to myself? Xena, I know that you can hear me. Talk to me. I need your wisdom here. She closed her eyes and listened for an answer. There was none; only the distant singing of the birds and the scrape of wood on wood next to the tub. She opened one eye, and saw Sarah pull up a short, three-legged stool next to the tub. She sat down and offered another cup of warm tea to Gabrielle, who held up one finger.
"Wait a minute." She slid down into the tub, dunking her head beneath the water, and came back up for air. Wiping her face with one hand, she accepted the tea from the young blonde woman with the other. "Thanks. That stuff is helping." Sarah nodded, and watched Gabrielle as she drank a bit of the tea.
"Auntie, I never thanked you enough for getting me out of Africa. You and Xena freed me when I thought that all hope was lost. You risked your lives for me. I will always be in your debt."
"Nonsense. Don't feel so. You are family. You're my niece. We only did what ......your grandparents and your father tried to do and failed at." Gabrielle looked at her niece, who said nothing but simply studied the floor at her feet. "It's not like it was the first time we had faced evil together. It was old hat for Xena and I."
"Judging from the scars on your body, I would say so." Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at that. "You have really become a warrior, haven't you?"
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders in response. "I guess that I have. I guess that more of Xena has rubbed off on me than I ever imagined." Xena. How I miss you.
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Auntie, I love you dearly. You know that, don't you?" Gabrielle cocked one eye at Sarah and waited. Oh, oh. Here comes the lecture.
"We're worried about you. Mother says that you are so different from what you were. It's as if there is something dark and unsettled within you. Look, you've been with us for four days. You have been drunk twice now. Badly drunk. She says that's not like you. You never were that way before. She says that you always smiled and laughed. You don't, now. You are very grim. What's wrong? I want to help, if I can. We both do. What can we do, Auntie?"
Gabrielle sat and stared at the cup in her hand. Where to begin? So much has happened to me. How to explain? Then, another voice pecked away at her consciousness. Give her a chance, Gabrielle. She has seen much pain as well. I'll bet you that she can help. Gabrielle tilted her head. "Xena?" she whispered. A pleading, expectant whisper. Her niece's eyes watered a bit, and she spoke softly.
"Is that it? You are grieving for Xena?" She laid a hand lightly on Gabrielle's arm. "I am so sorry. We all mourn her death, but it must be many times worse for you. I know something of how close you two were. My mother has told me. You know, she never was warm to Xena, but she knew how the woman had changed, and how good she was. She knew how you had kept her darkness in check, and how the two of you gave purpose to each other. To not have that now must be a terrible emptiness."
"You should be the bard. The gods know that I no longer am."
"What? Of course you are. I saw the scrolls open in your room. You were working on them last night, weren't you?"
"Not as hard as I was working on that bottle of wine, I guess." She forced a slight, tight smile. "You are all the family I have left, you and your mother. You are kind to take me in, and put up with my....moods. The truth is, I......just didn't know where else to go. What else to do." She took a sip of tea, and continued. "You see, we were more than just traveling buddies, Xena and I. We were deeper than that. I was her conscience. She was my purpose. Her path was my path, and she always said that I illuminated her way."
"And you were lovers as well, weren't you?" The young blonde smiled gently at her aunt, who cast surprised eyes up from the tub.
"Was it that obvious?"
"It was to anyone who longed for the depth of love that I felt between the two of you. I longed for that, you know. My husband was a ruthless bastard. I survived only by serving him just as ruthlessly. He never loved me, and I really hated him. But I always wished, really hoped, that someday, someone would love me as Xena loved you. I could see it. We all could."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something, anything that would make sense of the swirling emotion that suddenly consumed her soul. Nothing emerged except squeaks, and then the cup fell from her hand to clatter upon the wooden floor. Agonized tears welled up in her eyes, and her face grimaced. Then, the torrent of grief poured out. She choked on loud, racking sobs as the tears flooded out of her eyes and down her face. Sarah left the stool and crouched down by the tub to hold Gabrielle, who just buried her face in the soft material covering the young woman's shoulder. She had no strength left to control herself; the grief emerged unhindered, a bitter, deep grief unlike any that she had ever known. She vaguely could feel the arms enfold her and a gentle voice say, "That's it. Cry, now."
In between choking sobs, Gabrielle heard her own voice. "Gods,.......I........miss.......her.......so.........much!"
Lila stood in the doorway of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a cloth and feeling sympathetic tears run down her own cheek as she watched. Oh, Gab. I ache for you. You have lost your life. You have lost more than I have ever known. What is there left for you, once you have had half your soul taken? No wonder you drink. Will you ever find purpose, life, love like that again? I doubt it. You are dying, I think. And we must watch you die. Lila turned away, unable to hear the heartbroken grief any longer, and walked out into the back yard's warm sun. She dried her face with her cloth and listened to the songbirds. New purpose, Gab. That's what you need. A mission. A wrong to right. A giant to slay. That will keep you from wallowing in your own grief and a wine bottle. It may just save your life. But, where to find such a thing? She walked farther out into the yard and sat down on the edge of the low stone well. A goat walked up to her, and she absent-mindedly petted it as she spoke out loud.
"Xena? It's Lila. I need to talk to you. Gabrielle says that the dead can hear us. I'm not sure that I have ever believed that, but anything is worth a try. If you can hear me, then listen to me. I.....know that we haven't always seen eye to eye about Gabrielle, but she needs you now. She's in my house, dying of grief. I don't know what to do. When she lost you, she lost purpose, she lost part of her soul. She's living in agony and wine. Help us. Please?" Lila sat for a long time, quietly listening, unsure of just what to expect. I'm starting to feel really foolish here. What am I doing, talking to a dead woman? One who's probably burning in Tartarus, for all I know. Lila, you're an idiot. A moron, to believe such things. But, still, I want to believe that she can hear me. I want to, so much.
"Then why don't you?" A deep, silky, feminine voice nudged her from behind. Lila sat frozen for a moment, and then cautiously turned her head around. The cloth fell from her hand; an audible gasp escaped from her lips. Xena was sitting on the well next to her, shimmering in the sunshine. Darkness mixed with beauty; dark leather and metal armor, dark hair, and a magnificent set of blue eyes above an endearing smile were all present.
The form bowed slightly. "Not quite in the flesh, I'm sorry to say. But, yes. That is my name." Her eyes reflected a warm friendliness and set Lila at ease. "You rang?"
"Is...it really you? I'm not imagining this, am I? You are here?"
"I'm certainly not in Tartarus, if that's what you mean." Lila blushed slightly. "What's up?"
"Er, I'm not sure of how to talk to a......ghost? I mean, that's what you are, aren't you?"
"That'll do for now. Just as good a word as any. And you're doing fine. Keep talking. By the way, you say more than you know. I can read thoughts sometimes as well. Nifty little skill. Wish I had that when I was alive. Would have come in handy. Now, what's on your mind?"
"It's Gabrielle. She's in a horrible way. Um, have you seen her lately?"
The smile left Xena's face, and she nodded. "I stay closer to her than she knows."
"Does she see you?"
"Seldom. I've allowed myself to show outwardly to her a couple of times. I don't know whether she really thinks it's me, though, or just some wishful, drunken dream."
"Then you understand why I'm so concerned about her?"
Xena pulled her knees up under her chin and wrapped her forearms around her legs. "Yes. I'm concerned, too. This can't go on. She will destroy herself." Xena looked intently at Lila, and smiled gently. "I was much that way when your sister found me. Lost. Brutalized. Bereft of hope, it seemed. She turned all that around for me. Made me what I am today. A force for good instead of evil. She's the only reason I'm not 'burning in Tartarus', as you put it. She taught me how to love again. Others. Myself, especially. That one was a big lesson."
"Then tell me, what can we do? You must know of something! I'm at my wit's end!" Lila wiped a stray tear from the corner of her eye. "You say that you owe her. Can you not help? Can you not do anything? Can you not...I don't know...effect some magic, or something?"
"Magic?" Lila shrugged under Xena's gaze. "I wish it were that easy. I haven't been dead for centuries, you know. I'm just learning the extent of the power now at my grasp. But I will tell you this..." Lila nodded, and blinked a couple of times questioningly. "You were right on the button when you thought about her loss of purpose. She does need a mission. She does need to right a wrong. She needs to climb out of that wine bottle and kick some ass."
Lila smiled at that, in spite of herself. "Spoken like a warrior, I guess. Got any ideas? Maybe some bandits or something?"
Xena grinned a twinkling, sly grin. "Nah. That's small fry. That won't do anything but get her irritated. You have to understand, that sister of yours is quite a formidable warrior. She needs to kick some really big ass!"
"Er...how big an...ass... were you thinking of?" Lila wasn't quite sure she wanted to hear the answer, but it came anyway.
"How's the God of War sound?"
Lila's hand covered her mouth. "Can she do that?"
"Not a doubt in my mind. Look, the events are already in motion. I will be with her every step of the way. It will happen very soon. Speaking of which, gotta go.....make some more arrangements. See ya 'round." Xena hesitated for a minute. "Hey. One more thing."
"Thanks. For looking after her, I mean. I appreciate it."
"She's my sister. I love her. And, I...appreciate you bringing my daughter back to me."
Xena shrugged. "That was as much Gabrielle as it was me. Thank her. See ya." With that, Xena disappeared from the side of the well. Lila sat quietly for a bit, mentally digesting the gist of the most amazing conversation she had ever experienced. Finally, she got up from the well, picked up her cloth, and walked back to the kitchen door. Hesitating for a moment, she stepped inside to see her daughter drawing the bread from the oven.
"Where's your aunt? Is she still bathing?"
Sarah looked up from the bread loaves. "No, she's finished. She's in her room, dressing. Said something about taking a ride today."
"Well, that's positive, anyway. She always loved the country. Maybe it will have some soothing effect upon her. We can make her a lunch."
"Already have, Mom. It's the bundle here. Fresh bread and cheese. Don't let her forget it."
Lila walked back to the room that Gabrielle occupied. She peered in, and saw her sister finishing the lacing of her boots. "Feel better?"
Gabrielle looked up from her task, her face taking on a slightly chagrined look at the question. "Yeah. Thanks. I'm almost human again. Even got the taste of the marching army out of my mouth." She went back to finishing the lacing of a boot. Lila sat on the bed beside her and watched her as she picked up her two sai and shoved one into each boot, their handles protruding out of the tops.
"Gab, can I ask you something...personal?"
"Sure, Lil. What?"
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Gabrielle cocked her head quizzically at that, and considered the question for a moment. "Yeah, I do. Seen 'em. Seen a lot of weird stuff in my travels. You wouldn't believe half of it."
"Have you ever seen Xena's ghost?"
Gabrielle's face fell. "That's not funny, Lil."
Lila gave her an earnest look. "I didn't mean it to be. Listen to me. Just answer the question. I need to know."
"Why?" Lila gave her an exasperated look. "Okay, okay. Yeah, I have. In the east, when she...died, I spoke with her spirit. I saw her then. On the ship, traveling back. I saw her then. I even think I saw her once or twice since I got back to Potidaea, but I can't really be sure anymore. Maybe it was just.....wishful thinking. Or a drunken hallucination. Sometimes I think that I hear her voice in my head. It's probably just my imagination. She's dead. That's that. It's all over. I just gotta get used to it."
Lila laid her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Listen, Gab, don't count Xena out so completely. I have a feeling that she's closer than you think, if you'd just look and listen."
Gabrielle rose from the bed and retrieved her chakram from the table. As she was hooking it on her waist, she snorted. "Since when did you get so spiritually-inclined?" She looked at Lila's hurt expression, and continued, "I'm sorry. That was mean. I'm just not myself these days." She turned and spread her hands wide. "Look, I would love to see Xena. I have eyes. I don't see her. I have ears. I don't hear her. What do you want from me?"
"You have to use the eyes and ears of the spirit to see spirit or hear spirit. That should be easy for you, Gab. You are a beautiful, spiritual being. Always have been."
"Then how come I'm so.....alone?"
"It's rather hard for one's spirit to shine through if it's wallowing in self-pity and getting pickled every night." Gabrielle said nothing, just stood in the center of the room with her mouth open. The words had hit her with the force of a lightening bolt. Is that what I'm doing? Is Lila right? The voice returned to the back of her head.
She's right, Gabrielle. Listen to her. Pull yourself together. Gabrielle cocked her head to one side and searched the air with her eyes.
"Xena? Is that you?" She stood still for a few more moments, Lila watching with fascinated fear from her spot on the bed. Gabrielle's eyes finally lit back upon her sister, who continued the conversation.
"See? You aren't as alone as you think. I have a feeling that Xena is closer than you imagine. Don't shut her out of your soul." Lila rose from the bed and walked towards the kitchen. "If you're going riding, it's a beautiful day for it. The horse needs some exercise, and so do you. Don't forget your lunch."
"Lila. Wait." Lila stopped and turned to face her sister. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then walked forward and hugged her tightly. "Thank you. For everything. I know...I haven't been easy to live with lately. I love you both dearly. Whatever happens, don't ever doubt that."
Lila smiled at her. "We love you too, Gab. It just hurts us to see you suffer so. Now, go. Enjoy yourself. Have some fun. Take a ride. I want to see you smile again."
Gabrielle sat on the blanket, allowing the Chalcidicean sun to warm her skin. The horse grazed idly nearby, and the bread and cheese had tasted better than she had ever remembered. Life is still beautiful, I guess. In spite of it all. If I can say that, then perhaps there is some hope for me.
There is, my love.
Gabrielle's head jerked up. "Xena?" She looked around. "Is that you?"
I'm right here.
"Where? I can't see you anywhere. Tell me that I'm not losing my mind. Tell me that it's you."
It is. You can't see me because you don't try. Try.
"I want to. So much."
Try. Meditate on it.
Gabrielle sat upright, cross-legged, on the blanket, assuming the lotus position that she had learned in India. She breathed in and out deeply several times and closed her eyes. Her being focused on her center, her feelings, her heartbeat. She could still feel the soft breeze and hear the buzz of insects in the distance. She could feel herself, little by little, begin to recapture some of the euphoria that she had once known so long ago as her training came back to her.
"There. That wasn't so hard, was it?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes, and started visibly. Sitting on the ground in front of her, shimmering in the grass, was Xena. Her entire body thrilled at the sight, and she actually felt a chill of fear creep up her spine. Her mouth opened, but she was unable to speak more than a few words. "Xena! How...where...?"
Xena grinned broadly as she watched Gabrielle's reaction. "Yup. I'm here. Well, what's left of me, anyway. What's cookin', Gabrielle?"
"Gods, Xena, how I've missed you. Where in the blazing Hades have you been?"
"Right near you, much of the time. You haven't noticed, however. Too busy getting drunk these days, I imagine."
"Spare me. Everyone else is on my back. Don't nag. I like the wine. It dulls the pain."
"No, it doesn't. It just makes it worse. Trust me on this one. I've been there."
"Yeah. I remember putting you to bed a few times." Gabrielle smiled wistfully.
Xena laughed. "And I remember picking you up off of your ass when you were full of henbane, too. That was the first time that you ever told me that you thought I was beautiful." Gabrielle chuckled at that. "You're actually laughing. I like that. Your laughter was always music to me, you know that?"
"Xena, look at you. You're talking more now than you ever have. You look so...at ease. So radiant. What is it like for you?"
"Being dead, you mean? Not too shabby, actually. No hunger, no thirst, no pain, no weariness. Kinda nice. But, the neatest thing about it is the incredible power that I've been endowed with. Power for love. Power for good. Power for what is right. I'm just learning their full capacities, really."
"Teach me, Xena."
"Can't. You still occupy the physical realm. Having a body just gets in the way of it." Xena eyed Gabrielle critically. "Speaking of bodies, yours looks a little the worse for wear. You're too skinny. I can see ribs. Big dark circles around your eyes. You look like shit. Take better care of yourself, will you?"
Gabrielle turned her eyes down to the grass, and shrugged her shoulders. "What for?"
"What for? Gabrielle, you've got great things to accomplish yet!"
"Like what, Xena? What can I do? You were always the hero. I was your sidekick. You did the great things. I was a tagalong. Got in your way, half the time."
"Don't start with the self-pity again. You have matured into a formidable warrior in your own right. Don't sell yourself short. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have gotten out of some tight spots."
"Who am I kidding? I'll never be like you."
"You already are, and more." Gabrielle looked up at that, to see Xena studying her critically. "The Amazons and I may have taught you to be a warrior, but you taught me true nobility of spirit. That is the most powerful asset that a warrior can possess. You have it in greater abundance than I ever did."
"I don't feel very noble right now."
"That's because you're too busy beating yourself up. Grief. Loneliness. Self-pity. I'll bet there's some self-loathing in there, too. I'm an expert on that one, remember? Shake it off, Gabrielle. I need you. Very soon, we're going up against something big."
"We? Did you say, 'we'?"
Xena just smiled. "I said we. As in, you and me. Remember, I am near. If you don't see me or hear me, it's because of you, not me, most of the time. And remember one more thing."
"I love you. You are me, my love. You are half of my soul. We will be together again, in ways more glorious than you can ever imagine. Just have patience."
"But Xena, it's so hard without you here. I miss you so much. I ache for you. When I lay down to sleep, it just hurts. That's when I miss you the most. You're not there at night to.... hold me. That hurts more than anything."
"Is that why you drink at night?"
Gabrielle nodded as she studied the blanket. "I suppose so. I never thought about it much, but I suppose so." She felt the tears well up in her eyes again. "I just miss you so. Why did you leave me, Xena? Why? I hurt so badly!"
Xena's eyes softened, and she smiled sadly. "It was for the best. You know that."
"Reflect. You will see. I must go now. Things to do. I love you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle wiped the tears with her hands. "I love you too, Xena. Please come back."
Xena's shimmering form blinked from sight. As Gabrielle sat on the blanket, she heard the voice speak to her. I will, my love.
She just sat for some time, still, unmoving, feeling the breeze and the warm sun. I will, my love. A ray of hope? A promise? I wish that I could believe again. Why can't I? Finally, she stood, collected her things, and stuffed them into the saddlebag. She mounted the horse, picked up the reins, and clicked her tongue as she thumped her heels into the horse's sides. She turned the animal's head towards Potidaea, shining in the distance, and urged it into a gallop. I will try to believe again, Xena. For you. I will try.
Gabrielle had spent some time in the barn caring for the horse before she took the saddlebags and clumped back into the house through the front door. As she entered, her niece looked up from the loom in the corner of the main room. "Auntie. Did you have a good ride? You must have; you look a bit windblown."
"Yeah. It was nice."
"Oh, by the way, there's someone here to see you. She's in the kitchen." The young woman smiled a sly smile and jerked a thumb in that direction. "A religious pilgrim."
"A pilgrim? To see me? Yeah, right."
"Go and look."
Gabrielle walked into the kitchen. There, at the kitchen table, sitting and sharing tea with Lila, was an attractive young woman with long brown hair and a quirky grin. "Eve! Where did you come from?" The woman stood and embraced her, a warm, strong embrace.
"Gabrielle! Dear aunt! I'm so glad to find you. You look..."
"Like shit? Yeah, I know. Tell me about it."
Lila put out another wooden mug and filled it with warm tea. "Sit here with us. Eve was just telling me some most remarkable stories about you and Xena. I had no idea that you had lived such amazing adventures."
"What can I say? I'm full of surprises, these days."
Lila and Eve traded cautious glances and looked back at Gabrielle as she sat and nodded thanks for the tea. Eve took the lead in conversation.
"Gabrielle, I was worried about you. I came to see for myself if the rumor I had heard was true."
"What rumor? Gabrielle the lush? Damn. Word gets around, doesn't it?"
Eve studied her with a knowing eye. "And I came to pay respects to my mother. I thought that perhaps you could help me with that."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, I can. Eve, I'm so sorry. I should have been able to do something, anything...."
"We all die, Gabrielle. The question is not 'if', it's 'how' and 'why'. You and my mother were on a noble quest. Her self-sacrifice gave many souls rest. It was her choice. There was nothing you could have done, so quit blaming yourself."
Gabrielle sat silent for a moment. Is that what this is? Do I blame myself? Yeah, I do. I feel like scum. It was all my fault, her death was. Was this what Xena wrestled with, all those years? She looked up. "I will take you to where I've placed the ashes, whenever you are ready. Just say the word."
"Now will be good, if you're not too tired from your ride." Eve raised her eyebrows in question.
"Nah. The horse did all the work." She smiled a wry little smile at the attempted joke. "We can walk there. C'mon." Eve and Gabrielle rose from the table, as Lila reminded them of dinner. They left out the front door and walked diagonally across a field to a bluff overlooking the distant seas. There, at the apex of the bluff, was a small white stone marker. Gabrielle kept a respectful distance as Eve knelt at the stone and studied it. On it, she could see the simple inscription:
Eve placed her hands on the stone and closed her eyes. She stayed that way for some time, as Gabrielle paced the side of the hill and gazed out over the distant sea. She stood, lost in thought, until she felt a crackle of ozone behind her. A familiar voice growled a greeting, one which caused the hair to stand up on the back of her neck.
"Well, if it isn't the irritating little blonde. How's tricks, cutie? Love the tattoo, by the way."
Gabrielle didn't even have to look to know the owner of the voice. "Go away, Ares."
"Hey! Is that any way to welcome an old acquaintance? One who surrendered his immortality to save your life?"
"You should have let me die. It would have been kinder, I think."
"Okay. Well, then. Is that any way for a mortal to talk to the God of War?"
"What are you doing? Pulling rank now?" Gabrielle turned to face him. "What do you want, Ares? I'm not in a very good mood these days."
"What is it with you? That time of the moon? Or are you still grieving for your lost love?"
"I'll ask you again. What do you want?"
"I think the question should be, 'What do you want?' Let me guess. You're alone. You're without direction, without purpose. I can give you that."
"The only thing that you ever gave me was a hard time."
"Ouch! Well, okay. I admit that we haven't been that close in the past. It doesn't mean that we can't be, in the future. A future which can be glorious for you and for Greece."
"What are you talking about, Ares?"
"Aah, got your attention now, have I? I have a proposition for you."
Gabrielle gave a slight snort. "Yeah. Right."
"No, I'm serious. I've been watching you. You have blossomed into a warrior of impressive skill. My thanks to the Amazons and Xena for that. You have incredible potential."
"Potential for what?"
"That's the issue here. I have a vision, and you can be part of it. A huge part."
"I'm not sure that I ever liked your visions, Ares."
"You'll like this one. Think about this. Greece is a bunch of quarreling city-states, continually fighting amongst themselves. You know it. I know it. How would you like to put an end to all that, and see Greece rise to the greatness it deserves, united and powerful?"
"Under you." Gabrielle stood, frozen. "Yep! I can raise an army that can con...er, unite Greece. All I need is a leader. Someone with ability. Charisma. Intelligence. Someone who's learned from the best that there ever was. That's you." She just stared as Ares continued, "Think of all the good that you could do. Put an end to all these petty wars. The death. The plundering. The needless suffering. You could rule. Make Greece over in your own way. Even stop the persecution of Eli's followers, if you choose. Just think of the possibilities. The Amazon nation could become strong and proud again under your rule. Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons could become Gabrielle, Queen of Greece."
"Ares, it just all seems rather hollow to me. No thanks."
"Ah, that's it. Okay. You force me to play my trump. How about this: you agree to lead my army and rule Greece in my name, and I give you back your dead love."
"You can't do that."
"Hey! How about a little respect here? I'm a god. I can do whatever I want. Trust me here, kid. I can do it. Admit it. Don't you want that more than anything in this miserable little world? Don't you miss her? Don't you long to feel her in your arms again? Look into those big blue eyes? Hear that voice? Feel the touch of her in the night? I know you do. How long has it been for you? How much longer will you go on aching for her and not having her? I can make it all change for you. Just say the word."
Gabrielle turned away from Ares and gazed out across the water. He's good. Damn. It's as if he can see into my soul. Finds every button to push. Can he really bring her back? It almost seems worth it. Ruling Greece my way and having Xena in my arms again. All I have to do is say yes.
Don't do it, Gabrielle.
Xena? Is that you?
Don't you dare do this. We need to talk.
Gabrielle turned around and looked again at Ares. He stood, hand on the pommel of his sword, eyes piercing into her. She opened her mouth and her words seemed unbelievable, even to herself. "Can I get back to you on this?"
"Hey! Take your time. Think about it. Sleep on it. I can wait. Just remember, it's all in your hands. A Greece made in your image and Xena, too. What more can you want? Or, you can crawl back into that wine bottle and die a slow, miserable, lonely death. It's up to you. Just don't take too long. Remember, I'm your only friend now. I'll be in touch."
With that, there was another crackle of ozone, and Ares was gone. Gabrielle stood quietly and looked out over the water, feeling numb. A hand softly placed on her shoulder made her jump slightly.
Eve was behind her.
"Thank you. It was good to see her resting place. You have done well. Mother would have loved this place."
Gabrielle nodded. "I thought so. She always did, when we visited here."
Eve hesitated for a brief moment and then spoke again. "Gabrielle, I am also here as a messenger. There is a great evil preparing to descend on Greece. I need you to fight it."
"A mission? Sorry. It's not the same without Xena." Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not the gal."
"Yes, you are. You are the only one who can do this. And you aren't alone. Mother is with you. She told me so." Gabrielle looked at Eve, but said nothing. "Doesn't she talk to you?"
"We talked today. It was good to see her. I don't see her or hear from her much, though."
"Well, she said you're the one for the job."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow in half-interest. "Job? What job?"
"Putting Ares away for good."
Gabrielle felt a jolt of electricity run through her. "What are you talking about?"
"Walk with me back to the house. I'll explain it all to you, on the way."
That evening, Gabrielle sat at the table in her room. The open scrolls reflected the light of the single oil lamp, but Gabrielle's eyes stared, unfocused, into the center of the room. It would be so easy. Just say yes. I could have Xena back. I could rule Greece properly. It would be so easy. Too easy. What's the catch? Her hand reached for the wine bottle and drew back suddenly when a new voice whispered in the room.
Now you're thinking the way I taught you.
Meditate, Gabrielle. Bring me to you. Try.
She picked up the oil lamp and walked to the center of the room. Sitting down, she assumed the lotus position and stared into the flame of the lamp before her. A few deep breaths, and then she concentrated. When she looked up, Xena sat across from her, on the other side of the flame.
"Hey, good-lookin'!" Xena's smile lit her room. Gabrielle smiled in spite of her mood.
"Hey, yourself. What's a warrior like you doing in a place like this?"
Xena winced. "That's a terrible pick-up line for a bard."
"These days, I'm a terrible bard."
"No, you're not. Look, we have to talk."
"The Ares thing?" Gabrielle assumed a slightly guilty look.
"Yeah. You are really tempted, aren't you? And don't deny it; I can perceive your thoughts, you know."
"Somehow, I think that you always could."
"And that dream of yours last night. Whoa! I learned a few new moves. That was really smoky."
Gabrielle blushed slightly. "Xena, do you mind?"
Xena's eyes seemed to twinkle. "Sorry. Right. Just couldn't help myself. I'm actually having a bit of fun, being dead."
"Well, I'm glad you're having such a good time. Look, Xena, I have to ask you something."
Xena leaned forward, ready to listen. "Sorry. Down to business."
"If I....do this, would you want to come back to me?"
Xena looked hurt. "I want to come back to you more than anything I know, my love."
"Then what's so wrong with it? What's wrong with me ruling Greece, instead of some tyrant? I could do so much good!"
"With Ares as your boss?" Xena raised a critical eyebrow at Gabrielle. "Think about it. The God of War, ruling in peace and prosperity? I doubt it. Not in his nature. He will have you slash and burn until he himself destroys you with another chosen one. He exists for violence and war, Gabrielle, not peace and prosperity. Use your common sense. He is crafty beyond belief. He will make you over in his own image and then use you without mercy."
"But he will bring us back together in this realm." Gabrielle watch Xena for a reaction. When she perceived none, she continued. "He can do that, can't he?"
Xena nodded. "Yes. He can. He has the power."
"Then what's so wrong with that?" Gabrielle was almost in tears.
"This." Xena leaned forward. "He will, given time, destroy everything about you that is so beautiful. Your heart. Your compassion. Your sense of decency. Your love of what is good and right. And he will destroy us. Your love for me. My love for you. He still wants me, you know. Who knows? He may even try to swing a way to make me eventually destroy you."
Gabrielle sat, stunned. She's right. I can see him doing this. He would play me for a fool. The bastard. He would do it just for chuckles. He would bring her back, not for me, but for himself.
"Bingo. You're right on the money, Gabrielle."
She looked at Xena through the tears that pooled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. "Then is there no hope for us?"
Xena studied Gabrielle for a long time, not speaking. Finally, she gave a sigh and began her thoughts.
"Why don't we turn his own game back on him?"
"Huh? You've lost me."
"Look. We need Ares to get me back to the mortal realm. He needs the Eye of Hephaestus to give him undisputed power over Greece. It has the power to hold the other gods in captivity. It also has the power to hold him in captivity. Get my drift?"
"A trade? Your mortal life back, for the Eye?"
"Yeah, but with a twist." Xena smiled slyly and crooked her finger at Gabrielle, who leaned closer. "It's like this......."
Gabrielle sat at the table in her room, staring at the bottle. Finally, she reached over, pulled the stopper, and took a long drink. She let the bottle thump back onto the table and swallowed hard. Here goes nothing. Gather your courage, Gabrielle. You're gonna need it.
"Ares? I need to talk to you!" She waited for a moment, then called again. Finally, a crackling of ozone announced his arrival.
"You're lucky, kid. I usually don't make house calls." He eyed her for a moment, his gaze drifting over the bottle with her hand still on it, her slouched form in the chair, and then her face. The haunted expression, the dark circles around the eyes, were all accentuated by the oil lamp flickering on the table beside her. "You have something that you want to tell me?"
"Maybe. First, I want your deal again. Give me your word that you won't try to go back on a deal."
He assumed a mock expression of innocence and placed his hand on his chest. "Me? Go back on a deal? I'm hurt, Gabrielle. You're talking to the God of War, here."
"Yeah, I know." She took another swig. "Give me your word." Thump! went the bottle on the table again, and Ares waved his hand in the air.
"Okay, okay. I promise that a deal is a deal. Will that do?"
Gabrielle eyed him critically. "For now. Repeat your terms?"
"Here it is. You lead my army, the one I will raise for you, in the conquest of Greece, and when you're finished, I bring Xena back from the dead for you."
Gabrielle said nothing, just eyed him carefully. Then, she raised the bottle again, took a sip, and let it back down to the table as she spoke. Thump! "Not good enough. I have another idea."
Ares looked irritated. "Not good enough?!?"
"Nope." Another drink. Thump! "I have a counteroffer."
"A counteroffer? I can't believe this!! You've got brass, honey! Do you know who you're talking to here???"
"Yep. A god who needs a mortal to lead his army." Drink. Thump! "A god who probably needs the Eye of Hephaestus to make his conquest complete."
Ares eyed her craftily. "How do you figure that?"
"Well, it's like this. Many of the Greek cities that would need to be conquered have patron gods or goddesses." Drink. Thump! "There's still some of you left, even though my lover, when she had power to kill gods, went through you guys like..." Drink. Thump! "Poop through a centaur. They're gonna be really pissed when they discover that you mean to rule all of Greece. They're gonna try to put you out of business. You need control of the Eye to contain them. Am I right?" Drink. Thump!
Ares was steaming. His eyes bulged, and then he settled back a bit and stroked his chin.
"Am I right?" Drink. Thump! Finally, Ares exploded.
"Yeah! You're right! And will you stop that thumping, already? You're driving me batty!"
"So here's my counteroffer. You want the Eye. I want Xena back now. I don't wanna wait until Greece is conquered. I'm lonely." Drink. Thump! "I get the Eye, you walk into the temple, take possession of it, and then you give me Xena. We talk about the conquest of Greece later. What do ya say?" Drink. Thump! Ares was pacing the room, and Gabrielle now noticed that his shoulders flinched noticeably each time the bottle hit the table. Oh, yeah! Put the pressure on. "Come on, Ares. What do ya say? You know that you have to have the Eye to..." Drink. Thump! "Do this thing. That's the first step."
"Maybe I'll just take it myself. Maybe I don't need a drunk chick to do it for me. And will you stop that noise, in the name of Hades?"
"Maybe you're a god. Maybe you can't just walk in there. It's Hephaestus' domain, after all. Maybe you need a mortal to do it for you. Drunk chick or not. Get the guards out of the way. I can do that in my sleep. Xena taught me. You know I can do it. What do ya say, God of War?"
Ares paced and stroked his chin. Drink. Thump! "Come on! You get the Eye, and I get Xena. Ya got nothin' to lose. Just say yes." Time for the coup de gras. Drink. Thump! "Or is the God of War chicken?"
Ares exploded. His face turned beet red and the veins bulged out on the sides of his head. "You've got balls, sister, I'll tell you that! Nobody calls the God of War....CHICKEN!!!" Gabrielle just sat, slouched in her chair, and eyed him dispassionately.
"Is that a...yes?" Drink. Thump!
"Will you stop that already??? Yes! Damn right! You got a deal, blondie! You take care of those guards, and I'll restore Xena to her mortal form! Call me when you've done the job! No tricks!"
Ares stood in the center of the room, preparing to disappear. Go for broke, Gab. "Ares. One more thing."
"Do you need Xena's ashes in order to restore her?"
"Nah. I'll give her a whole new body, just like the old one. You won't be able to tell the difference."
"What??? What now?"
His expression softened a bit. "You bet. And, lay off the sauce, will ya?" He closed his eyes to dematerialize, and then paused. "Nah. On second thought, don't. I like you better this way."
Gabrielle eyed him. "Yeah. Me, too." Drink. Thump!
Ares clapped his hands over his ears. As he disappeared, the last thing he said was, "Shit!"
As the ozone burned away, the room was once again quiet, lit only by the flickering oil lamp. Gabrielle sat at her table. Well, Xena. It is done. Stay with me here. She thought she heard something muttered in the back of her head. What? Did you say something? The voice was louder, now. Put...the...stopper...back...in...the...bottle! Gabrielle looked at the bottle, lifted it to her ear, and shook it. It was almost empty. Oh, oh. This one's gonna hurt in the morning. "'kay, Xena." She picked up the stopper, looked at it, and said, "I got a better idea." She put the bottle to her lips, and tilted it up. There wasn't much left, and she drained it away. Then, she stuck the stopper back into the bottle's neck, belched loudly, and gave a short chuckle. Let's hear you beat that one, Warrior Princess. The closet door opened, and Eve stepped out.
"Gabrielle, that was great! You played him like a lyre!" She stopped in her tracks and studied her aunt for a moment. "Oh, my. Are you all right?"
"Sure. I'm great. Feel like a million friggin' dinars! 'Smatter? Don't I look all right? Yeah, I know. I look like shit!"
"Are you drunk?"
"Sure I'm drunk. You bet yer cute lil' ass I'm drunk! Had t' make it convincing. And, y'know what?" She fixed glassy eyes on Eve, who only raised her eyebrows. "I don' give a centaur's butt. Feels good. Oh, yeah. Oh, damn. I got t' pee."
Gabrielle rose from the table, a bit unsteadily as it appeared to Eve, and began walking to the window, loosening the waist of her skirt. Eve headed her off, and turned her towards the door. As she staggered through the kitchen with Eve following behind, heading for the privy, Lila and Sarah were sitting at the table in the kitchen drinking hot tea. They followed the procession wordlessly out the back door with their eyes and then looked at each other. After a moment, Eve stuck her head back in the door and whispered loudly, "She did it!! He fell for it!! She was magnificent!!" Eve's head disappeared, and reappeared a second later. "She's also toasted! I might need some help here."
Lila and Sarah looked at each other and back at Eve. "No problem. We're experts at that by now." Eve gave them a puzzled look and then disappeared again. Lila and Sarah just sat, sipping their tea in silence. Finally, Sarah said, "Looks like she'll need another bath tomorrow." Another long silence followed, punctuated only by the sipping of tea. Finally, Lila spoke.
Gabrielle swung her leg up and over the saddle, settling in comfortably. Behind her, Eve was already mounted on another horse. Their saddlebags were full of provisions, and their blankets were stowed behind them. At the door of the small house, Lila and Sarah called out wishes for their safety and good speed. With a wave, Gabrielle nudged her mount into motion, Eve following behind. As they rode down the path, Eve moved her horse up even with Gabrielle's.
"How's the head?"
Gabrielle looked over at her and grinned. "Not bad, actually. Feel pretty good."
"It's nice to have a purpose again, isn't it?"
"Yeah. And hope, too."
"Hope? For what?"
Gabrielle looked at Eve. "I just might get Xena back out of all this."
"You just might, at that." Eve then broached the next subject carefully. "Er, Gabrielle?"
"Did you bring any wine?"
Gabrielle looked over at Eve. After a moment, she answered. "Nope. Somehow, I don't think that I'll need it anymore."
Gabrielle nodded her head. "You can say that again. Now, let's get our butts to Macedonia. We've got a god to trap."
Eve called out, "Last one there is centaur poop!" and kicked her mount into a run.
"Oh, a challenge? You're gonna get smoked, girl!" She thumped her heels into the horse, and took off after Eve, gaining on her. The two women rode their horses down the road, laughing.
Way to go, Gabrielle. Way to go. You're on the mend. See you in Macedonia, my love.
Gabrielle and Eve sat in the low bushes and trees, studying the temple in the distance. A couple of guards stood at the door, recessed into the side of a hill. Okay, Xena. I'm here. What now? As if reading her mind, Eve placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and spoke softly.
"Mother wanted you to wait here and study the patterns of the guards for a bit. I have an errand to run. Be back as soon as I can. She said for you not to do anything until I get back."
Gabrielle nodded, and Eve disappeared. She heard the thud of the horse's hooves as Eve rode away. Two guards. They don't move. No cover. Difficult to sneak up on them. Have to wait until nightfall. Let's see when they change watches.
They'll change watches at dusk. That's the best time, my love.
Bring me to you.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and breathed deeply a couple of times. As her body relaxed and her concentration turned in upon itself, she could feel another presence near her.
"You're getting good at that."
Gabrielle opened her eyes. "Xena! Thanks for coming." The shimmering form sat next to her, blue eyes radiant and piercing.
"I'm always near." They just sat for a moment, enjoying each other's presence. Gabrielle cautiously reached out a hand and stretched it out to Xena's form. Her hand went right through it. "I'm spirit, Gabrielle." The bard's face fell, and her hand rested back in her lap. "You can't touch me with your body, but you can with your soul. Try." Gabrielle looked at Xena questioningly, hopefully. "Try."
Gabrielle closed her eyes again, and breathed deeply. She concentrated inward, and then towards the form near her. In a moment, she felt herself borne up into a swirling cloud of emotion. Magnificent, breathtaking lightness lifted her consciousness, a state in which the ache, the loneliness, the grief all left and she was overwhelmed by a consuming flame of everything that seemed loving, right and good. Then, just as quickly, she descended. She once again became aware of the feel of the ground underneath her, the smell of the vegetation, the song of birds in the distance. She opened her eyes and looked around her. Xena still sat at her side, but was smiling. A magnificent smile, it seemed to Gabrielle. One that she had seldom seen in life.
Xena eyed her. "Pretty neat, huh?" Gabrielle was speechless, and just nodded in reply. "What you felt there is only the start."
"I'm not sure that I can take any more than that, Xena. That was....." Incredible? Fantastic? Nah. Those words are all too weak. Orgasmic? Naah. Still too weak.
"Yeah. Know what you mean."
"Is that what it's like...you know..."
"For me? No. It's nice, but not like that. You have to understand, that's what it's like for us. You and me."
Gabrielle's eyes widened in understanding. She looked at Xena in earnest seriousness and simply said, "Xena? I want to die. Let me come to you. There's nothing for me here anymore."
Xena shook her head. "Not yet. There's still much to do here."
"Like what? Forget Ares. I don't need to do this. Xena? It would be so easy. The pinch, and in thirty seconds, I'm with you forever." And don't think that I haven't thought about it a lot, Xena.
"Gabrielle, I'm coming back to you. We've got things to do yet. The mortal world needs us. Not just me. Not just you. Us. Together. You need to get me back to you. I'm counting on you, my love. Get Ares to bring me back. We'll lock him up, and save Greece countless suffering. We'll live out our lives here. Together. And, when the time comes, we'll make the step you want to make, but we'll do it together." Xena looked into Gabrielle's face. "Understand?"
She tilted her head slightly, as she looked at Xena. "Then you do want to come back?"
"Of course I do. Why would you think otherwise?" Xena's eyes became imploring, questioning.
Gabrielle shrugged. "You just seem so happy, so at ease..."
"Sure, it's nice being spirit, but it's glorious being with you. Do this. Bring me back. Please?"
"I will, Xena. I love you."
"I love you, too. More than you can ever imagine."
Gabrielle felt herself smile. "I don't know, Xena. I can imagine an awful lot."
"You keep doing that. It will guide you through this fight. Remember: I will be with you. Never doubt that."
"Good for you. Now, Eve will bring you the means to disable the temple guards. Strike just after the watch changes. You will know what to do. Take care of yourself, my love."
"Bye." With that, Xena disappeared. Gabrielle sat for a moment, looking into the empty air where the spirit had been. Then, she shook her head and looked towards the temple again. Come on, Gabrielle. Concentrate, here. Still two guards. They don't move. After the watch changes and darkness falls, then I can get close enough. For what? I really don't want to kill anyone here. 'The means to disable the temple guards?' What could that be?
She reached into her bag and brought out a piece of bread, which she ate slowly as she watched the temple door and the progress of the sun across the sky. In the late afternoon, a distant horse behind her signaled the return of Eve. A few minutes later, a rustle of bushes let her know that Eve was by her side.
"Gabrielle? Didn't you hear me coming? You didn't even look. I could have been a guard."
"I knew that it was you."
"You did? How?"
"I could hear your breathing. You have a cold. It was you."
"Creepy. You've been hanging around my mother too long."
"Yep. I learned from the best."
"I'll say. Look, here is how we're going to take care of the guards. Got them from an armorer in the next village. He owed Mom a favor." Gabrielle looked, and saw a small crossbow and a handful of darts. Eve held up a small bottle. "This is a mixture that will put them out without killing them. Best if you practice with it a bit before you use it. We have an hour or so until dark."
Gabrielle hefted the small crossbow in her hand. Nice. Well-balanced. Let's give it a try. She cocked it and placed a dart into it. Holding it up at arm's length, she aimed it at the trunk of a nearby tree and squeezed the release. With a thump, the dart impaled itself into the tree very near where she had been aiming. She shot several more into a tight cluster near the first dart, then nodded her approval.
"Nice shooting, Gabrielle. Just before we go down there, we'll dip the points into the bottle."
"Eve, have you ever been inside this temple?" When Eve didn't answer immediately, Gabrielle looked over at her companion. "Eve?"
Eve nodded. "Yes. It was several years ago. I led a patrol into this area with the idea of raiding the temple. You know. Gold. Whatever."
"Romans, in Macedonia?"
"Sure. We were everywhere, when I led part of the Roman army. Conquest was our purpose for existing. Gold makes one powerful. You remember the Golden Rule, don't you?"
"He who has the gold, rules?"
Eve grinned. "That's the one. Didn't find any, however."
"What's in there? How do I recognize the Eye?"
"Can't miss it. It's huge, and looks like a large, smooth jewel in an ornate mounting."
Just inside the door. Big chamber. It dominates the room."
"So it can't be removed?" Eve shook her head. "So, Ares has to come into the temple to claim it?"
"Right. That will be his undoing. Mother said to strike the Eye with this, once he is well inside." Eve reached into her bag, withdrew a circular object, and handed it to Gabrielle.
"Xena's old chakram? Eve! Where did you get this?" Gabrielle accepted the metal ring gingerly, astounded to see it again. It had been soldered together at the two points where it had broken, the last time it had been thrown.
"Bribed a guard for the pieces, a couple of days after...you know, the... fight. I wanted something to remember my mother by." Eve smiled sadly. "Carried it with me, ever since."
"Will it work?"
"Should, for one throw, anyway. Don't miss, will you?"
One throw. All this hinges on one throw. "I won't." But, what if I do?
You won't, my love.
"I know," Eve said. "I believe in you. Now, look. Mother says that after the chakram strikes the Eye, the door will begin to close. You have to get out of there or you will be trapped inside with Ares."
"That's a delightful thought." Gabrielle tried to picture the scenario in her mind's eye and felt a sudden thrill of fear grip her. "If I can get out, then so can Ares."
"Throw the chakram from near the door. It will only take a few seconds to close. She says that after the Eye is struck and begins to glow, he's stuck. It doesn't work the same way for mortals."
"What about spirits?"
Eve looked at Gabrielle, her mouth open. "I...don't know."
"Well, then. We'll just have to make sure that Xena is back in her body and out the door before I throw this thing."
"Just trust Mother. She knows what she's doing." Gabrielle nodded and swallowed heavily. I'm so scared. What if I screw this up? So much could go wrong. I'm not sure that I can do this.
You can do it. Believe.
I really want to, Xena. I'm not sure that I've believed in anything since you died.
Believe. Like I believe in you.
"Gabrielle, the guards are changing. It's almost time." Eve pointed to the temple door. A changing of the guard was taking place. Two new guards took their places, and the old ones left. Gabrielle looked about her and mentally took inventory. Crossbow. Darts. Sedative. Chakram. She popped the small vial open and dipped the tip of each dart into the thick liquid. As she waved the point in the air a bit, the stuff dried and left a coating on the tip. She then loaded one dart into the crossbow, and placed the others in her bag. Why did I bring these scrolls along? Never had time to work on them, this trip. Hades. Too late now. Just leave them in the bag. She hung the old chakram over the newer one by her side, and then thought better of it. Ares might see it and smell a rat. She picked up the bag and stuffed the chakram down into it, next to the darts. That's better. Gods, I am so scared. Stay with me, Xena. You have always been my courage.
I'm here, my love. Believe. Now, go and kick some ass.
Gabrielle felt her fear eat at her, but she felt another emotion rise in her soul. Courage? Resolve? Whatever it was, it felt good, she decided. Damn good. She looked over at Eve.
"It's almost dark. I'll get into position. When you see me there, distract the guards."
Eve smiled slyly. "Don't worry. I know what to do."
Gabrielle shouldered her bag, took the loaded crossbow into hand, and crept slowly off into the brush towards the side of the hill. Eve waited a few minutes, and then left quietly in the other direction, keeping an eye on Gabrielle's progress as best she could in the dusk's shadows.
Crossbow in hand, bag on shoulder, Gabrielle crept forward through the brush, making a circular path towards the temple door. Quietly, very cautiously, she worked her way to within crossbow distance of the nearest guard. Got to get close. Got to make this count. Where's Eve?
As if on cue, Eve walked past the guards, stopping to talk to one of them. The guard greeted her and Eve responded flirtatiously. The nearest guard noticed the banter and it drew his attention. Now. Gabrielle raised the crossbow and aimed carefully. Gently, her finger put pressure on the release. The crossbow jumped and the dart thudded into the side of the nearest guard's neck. He grabbed at the dart and staggered a bit. Then, his knees buckled and he fell backwards, hitting the wall and sliding downwards into a lump on the ground. Gabrielle had already cocked the crossbow and loaded a second dart. She crept forward slightly, staying in the darkness, getting as close as she dared. The farthest guard looked around and noticed his companion collapsed. Eve made a comment of some sort, and followed him as he walked over to investigate. As the guard bent over his fallen comrade, Gabrielle took aim and squeezed the release. The dart thudded into the man's helmet and bounced off. He looked around with a startled manner, and then drew his sword. Damn! C'mon, Gab, Gabrielle thought. Shoot straight. Try again. She cocked the crossbow and loaded another dart. The guard was wary now, sword drawn. She looked for an open spot to shoot at, but he was facing directly towards her. His body armor covered most of the surface of his chest. Eve nudged him on the shoulder, and pointed up at the trees overhead. As the guard raised his eyes to the trees, his neck was exposed. Nice going, Eve. Gabrielle aimed and squeezed, and the dart found its mark. The guard dropped his sword and clutched at his neck. She could see his eyes, large and round with question and fear, as he staggered a bit and fell to his knees. After a moment, he slumped a bit and sat still. Eve looked him over for a minute, then placed one foot on his shoulder and gave a push. He fell over sideways.
Gabrielle emerged from the darkness near the temple door and joined Eve. They approached the door carefully. Gabrielle and Eve both looked over the walls for some indication of how the door opened, but saw none. They turned their heads towards each other, and Eve spoke first.
"How do we get in?"
Gabrielle's mouth gaped. "I thought you knew."
"No. The door was open, last time I was here."
"Oh. Well, what do we do now?" They stood at the closed door for only a moment, when another voice interrupted. Gabrielle? Eve, honey? Bring me to you.
"Xena?" the two women exclaimed in unison. They looked at each other and Gabrielle said, "C'mon. Let's do this." They both closed their eyes, breathed deeply, and began to concentrate. After what seemed an eternity to them, a sultry voice near their shoulders brought them out of their concentration.
"Nice going. Now let's get the door open."
They opened their eyes and looked to find a shimmering Xena, standing in the night next to them.
Gabrielle was first. "How, Xena? How does it open?"
She crossed her arms over her chest. "I dunno. I thought you guys did." They both gaped at her, and she cracked a broad smile. "Just kidding, just kidding. Lighten up! I'm sure that it opens from the inside. I'll check it out. Wait here." Xena walked forward and merged into the stone door. As Gabrielle stood, she shuffled her feet a bit and looked over at Eve.
"Lighten up?" Eve just smiled her best quirky smile and shrugged her shoulders.
After a few moments, the door rumbled and began to open. When it approached waist high, the two women ducked underneath it and entered the temple. Just inside the door, they straightened up, expecting to see Xena standing before them. She was not there. Instead, they were face to face with a temple priest. They stared at each other for a very startled second, and then the priest's hand went for the short sword by his side. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" the priest growled, and began to draw his sword.
"Quick, dart him, Gabrielle!" Eve shouted, and Gabrielle raised the small crossbow to aim at his neck. It wasn't cocked, and no dart was in the groove. She looked dumbly at the empty weapon, then back at the priest's face. He had noticed the absence of a dart as well, and closed the distance to Gabrielle with a grin on his face. She raised the weapon and brought it down hard on his bald head with a loud smack. He halted in his tracks. His eyes crossed and his knees buckled. She hit him again, and he collapsed to the floor with a grunt and a thud, not moving. As Gabrielle stood, looking at the form at her feet, Eve walked up next to her and joined her.
"Or you could do that, I guess." The two women looked at each other. "Boy, that's gonna look colorful tomorrow." They reached down and each took an arm. The priest's form was dragged out of the middle of the room, to rest along the wall. As Eve and Gabrielle straightened up from their task, they looked around the chamber. Gabrielle called out.
"Xena? Are you here?"
Xena's shimmering image walked towards them. She looked at the recumbent priest, and then at Gabrielle's crossbow. "Unorthodox, but effective." Xena turned towards Eve. "Honey, you should get out of here. Don't want Ares to see you. He might get suspicious."
Eve headed for the door. "Right. I'll get the horses and wait close by." Just before she exited the temple, she stopped. "Good luck, you two." They nodded at her, and she disappeared out into the darkness.
"What now, Xena?"
"We call Ares. Or rather, you call Ares. I'm going to hide myself. Remember, I'll be in here, very close, but you won't be able to see me." Gabrielle nodded. "As soon as he restores my body, I'll take possession of it. You have the chakram? The one that Eve gave you?"
Gabrielle patted her bag. "In here."
Xena pointed. "There's the Eye. Remember, hit it from near the door. Then, we'll run like Hades."
"What about you? What if something goes wrong?"
"Nothing will. We have to make this work. Have faith, Gabrielle. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm just scared. Really scared."
"Good." Gabrielle looked at Xena questioningly. "That will put all your reflexes in high gear. Use your fear like I taught you. It will be your friend." She nodded her understanding. "Now, are you ready?" Gabrielle swallowed loudly and nodded again. "Go call him, my love."
Gabrielle walked towards the door. As she reached it, she turned around and looked for Xena, but she was not to be seen. She took a couple of deep breaths and faced out into the darkness of the night. "Ares?" She waited a moment, and called again. "Ares? The job is done!"
In answer, the crackle and spark of ozone lit the air just beyond the temple entrance. Ares materialized. He stood still for a minute, looking at Gabrielle. Then, he spoke to her.
"Damn, girl. You did good. Everybody taken out to the trash?"
Gabrielle nodded. "The Eye is yours, Ares." She waved a hand for him to follow, and then turned and walked back into the temple. He followed, stood in the center of the chamber, and looked around. His gaze froze when it hit the Eye. Then he clenched a fist and waved it in front of his chest triumphantly. "Oh, Yeah! Bingo! That's the ticket, blondie! You keep this up, and you're gonna be riding high in Greek history!"
"I want Xena back." Gabrielle's statement was simple, but authoritative.
"Huh?" Ares turned and looked at her.
"Xena. I want her now. That was our deal." Gabrielle was staring at Ares with fierce, unblinking eyes. "Give me Xena."
"Yeah, yeah. But first, let's talk about your conquest of Greece."
Gabrielle was firm. "I don't care about Greece. I just want Xena. A deal is a deal. Pay up, Ares." Her voice was becoming a low growl. He's going to try to double-cross me, Xena.
Keep it up. You're doing fine, love.
"Don't you care about your own homeland? You could do so much good."
"Before or after I pillage it for you?"
Ares winced. "Hey, you've got me all wrong. At heart, I'm really a peace-loving guy. I want to see Greece blossom." He looked intently at Gabrielle. "You could make that happen."
"You're asking for a lot of faith from me, Ares. So far, all I've gotten from you are big words and promises. Show me some action. Show me Xena."
"Hey, don't push it. Look, let's talk." He waved his hand, and a table with a flask of wine and two goblets appeared. "Buy you a drink?" Gabrielle looked at the wine bottle for a long minute. Ares just smiled and said nothing, but stood with a questioning look and a grin.
Don't do it, love. Keep your wits about you.
"Not now, Ares. Maybe later."
"Ah, never drink on the job, eh? That's good. I like that." He sat at the table and poured himself a goblet of wine. "I, however, am a god. It doesn't bother me. Er, you don't mind?" Gabrielle shook her head, and paced. "Relax. Sit down."
"Quit stalling. Give me Xena."
Ares just sipped his wine. "Aah, that's good. Refreshing. You must be thirsty after your efforts here. Sure you won't join me?"
"I'm sure." Gabrielle paced a bit more and then stood, one hand on her hip, crossbow dangling from the other, facing the God of War from across the room. "Damn you, Ares, a deal is a deal. Give me Xena!"
Ares slammed the goblet down on the table. "Don't talk to me like that! You would do well to remember that I'm the God of War. Maybe I need to teach you a little respect." He extended his arm and a blue ball of flame left his hand, headed directly for Gabrielle's chest. She had no time to react, but just stood frozen to the spot as she saw the flame streak at her. Oh, shit. This is going to be painful. Just before it reached her, it doubled back on itself and hit Ares in the chest. His chair fell over backwards with a clatter, and his legs flew up into the air as he sprawled out on his back. Gabrielle stood still, unable to move for a second, then shook her head in disbelief. Xena, was that you?
Right here, my love. Gods, that was fun.
Gabrielle couldn't help herself as she felt a smile creep across her features. As Ares stood up and dusted himself off, he eyed Gabrielle. "All right, you little wise-ass. How did you do that?"
You've got the initiative now, Gabrielle. Go for it.
"I'm full of surprises these days, aren't I?" She drew herself up to her full diminutive height and stood proudly. "Now quit screwing around and give me Xena."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He began walking around the table, and suddenly whirled and shot another ball of flame at Gabrielle. It stopped in midair, about a foot from Gabrielle's chest. She could feel the heat of it as it hovered. Ares' eyes widened, and he appeared nervous. She kept her eyes upon him, narrowed and all business.
"Give me Xena, or this one's really gonna hurt."
Ares challenged her. "Take your best shot, blondie." At that, the ball of flame snapped across the room at blinding speed and exploded the wine bottle on the table in front of Ares. He was drenched in the stuff. He stood in total disbelief, dripping wine and blinking.
Oh, yeah. This is great. C'mon, Ares. Let's go three for three. Batter up!
Gabrielle allowed a small smile to creep upon her features. "Xena, Ares. Do it."
Ares growled and threw another ball of flame at Gabrielle. She felt fear, but kept her stance and didn't move. Sure enough, the ball of fire doubled back and whizzed past Ares' shoulder as he ducked slightly. As he straightened back up, the ball bounced off the back wall of the temple and headed back for him. He crossed his arms across his chest and smirked. "You missed." A split second later, he jumped up and held both hands to the seat of his pants. "Yeow! What the...?" He danced around the room, slapping his rear with both hands, as his leather pants smouldered and sparks flew. Gabrielle concentrated on maintaining her composure at the ridiculous sight and almost lost it completely when she heard Xena's comment.
Gotcha! Phew! I hate the smell of burning biscuits, don't you, Gabrielle?
Gabrielle stuffed the small crossbow into her bag, crossed her arms across her chest and eyed Ares cooly. "Pretty good moves for a white boy, Ares. You know, I could do this all night. How many of those do you have left?"
"You're funny, blondie. Real funny. What did you do, learn that in the east?"
"Something like that. Now cough up Xena. We can have the dance contest later."
"Okay, okay. I'm getting tired of this, anyway." He walked gingerly over to a stone altar, closed his eyes and concentrated. His hands waved over the slab, and it began to glow. Gabrielle could see a body begin to materialize out of the glow. Ares worked for a long moment, and then the glow subsided. Gabrielle forced herself to stay calm and walk slowly over towards the slab, looking at the God of War's handiwork. Her breath caught as she looked on the body of Xena: Warrior Princess; friend, lover, soul-mate. She looked magnificent. Her form was replete with dark leather and metal armor and a sword. All she was missing was her chakram. She lay serenely, eyes closed, at rest. Ares stepped back and eyed Gabrielle.
"Satisfied? Check her out. Damn good work, if I do say so myself."
Gabrielle slowly reached out a hand and stroked the cheek. It was even warm. Her heart pounded in her ears, and she could feel the emotion rising in her soul. "Xena?"
Distract his attention, Gabrielle. Get him to turn his back to me. Then get ready to throw that chakram and run.
Gabrielle looked at Xena's body again, and stroked the hair. "She's magnificent, Ares. You really came through, after all."
"See? Never let it be said that the God of War welches on a deal."
Gabrielle backed away from the slab, looking at Xena. She mustered a look of confusion, and then directed her attention to Ares. "She's not moving. What's wrong?"
Ares followed her with his eyes. "Nothing. She's right here, as you can see."
Gabrielle backed up further, shaking her head. "She's not moving."
"That, blondie, is because the deal was for Xena's body. I gave you that. Her spirit is another matter. Can't do anything for you about that." She stared at Ares.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, not yet, anyway. Her body has to be animated by her spirit. You get that when you conquer Greece for me." He leveled his dark, piercing eyes at Gabrielle and smirked. "Now, you wanna talk about leading my army?"
Gabrielle started pacing, her hand over her mouth. She walked around a bit, keeping Ares in sight out of the corner of her eye. He turned to follow her pacing, and his back turned towards Xena.
Keep him going, my love. Just a minute more.
"What do I need to do?"
"I thought you'd see it my way. First, you go back to Potidaea and wait. I'll raise the army. Won't take long. Then, I come and get you."
Gabrielle faced Ares. From her vantage point, she could see Xena's eyes snap open. She covered part of her face with her hand. "How long will all this take?"
"Week. Maybe two. It will be a large army. We'll start here, in Macedonia. As good a place as any. March south, establishing rule as we go. You're a great little negotiator; I'll bet that you could even talk many of them into surrendering without a fight." Xena silently sat erect and began a silent pace towards the door. She seemed a bit unsteady on her feet. Unused to her body yet. "We can start with Potidaea, if you like. That will be ironic. Ha!"
Ares was warming to his task. "Then? We go all the way to Laconia. We'll gather strength as we go. Oh, yeah! Sparta will be the tough nut to crack, though! They'll never give up without a fight." His eyes were shining with the vision of war.
Gabrielle kept slowly pacing, causing Ares to turn and look at her. His back was to the open door. Xena reached the door, and gave a wave to Gabrielle. She looked up, and saw that Ares stood between her and the Eye. Can't hit it from here. Got to move. She held up a finger.
"Er, Ares? Hold that thought. Got to...um, use the trees for a minute. Mind?"
He waved his hand. "Mortals. Go ahead. I was just getting warmed up, though."
She pointed to the table. "I think that I could use that drink now. Could you, er...another bottle?"
"Not a problem, blondie." He focused his attention away from the door and onto the table. Gabrielle began walking quickly past him and looked back to assure herself that his mind was on the table. As she passed the Eye, she reached into her bag. Her hand found the chakram, and she pulled it out. Xena was just outside the door, leaning against the wall. She motioned with her hand. As Gabrielle wheeled, her arm shot straight out. The chakram whirred through the air, wobbling slightly. It struck the Eye and broke into two pieces. The large jewel began to glow and hum. Xena found her voice.
"Run, Gabrielle! Run!" Gabrielle broke into a frantic run, not looking back. The door was beginning to close. Xena stood just outside, her hand stretched out. Behind her, she could hear Ares' enraged shout.
"What the blue Tartarus is this? You double-crossing little bitch! Your ass is mine, blondie!"
Xena pointed. "Gabrielle, look out! Duck!"
Gabrielle didn't look back. She stretched her legs as far as they would go. As she ran, a flash and explosion picked her up and hurled her through the air towards the door. She hit the ground with a thud, sprawled in the dust.
"Come on, Gabrielle! Run!"
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and started running again. She could see the door closing in front of her, and Xena's hand stretched out to meet her. As she reached the door, she dove towards it and rolled into a ball. She could feel the top of the door with the soles of her boots as she rolled. The rumble of the door filled her ears. In a flash, two more balls of flame struck at the ground just outside of the door. Gabrielle felt herself picked up off of the ground and slammed against the side of the wall just outside of the door. The explosions were deafening, and hunks of rock and dust flew about. She landed on her stomach and face on the dirt, and just lay still for a moment. The door slammed shut with a resounding bang, and Gabrielle just lay face down in the leaves and dirt, her breath taken from her body. As the noise abated, she heard a slight ringing in her ears. She slowly lifted her head and looked about her. She coughed a couple of times and tried to sit up. Can I move my arms? Yeah. Legs? Yeah. Good. Gonna be sore tomorrow. Oh, gods! Xena! Where's Xena! She coughed a couple of more times, and called out. "Xena?" Cough. "Xena?" No answer. She looked around. Darkness and dust clouded her vision. Her heart pounding, she sat up and frantically and searched the dim night with reddened eyes. "Shit! Xena! Answer me, damn it!"
"I'm right here, potty-mouth." A dark form slowly crawled out of the periphery of the darkness surrounding the door, and reached out to grasp Gabrielle's hand. Their fingers met and intertwined. That simple touch seemed to infuse Gabrielle with an overwhelming joy, and she pulled the hand towards her. The sultry, slightly ragged voice followed it. "Ouch! Watch the manicure, will ya?" Gabrielle felt long, strong arms reach out and circle her shoulders. She fell into them, held on tightly, and closed her eyes, just gripping Xena with all her remaining strength.
"Xena!" Cough, cough. "It's you. You're really back with me?" No answer came, just a tighter squeeze from the arms enfolding her. She had no idea how long they stayed that way, crouched in the dust and desperately hanging on to each other. Finally, hands went to her shoulders and she felt herself propped up. She opened her eyes and was nose to nose with a very alive Warrior Princess.
"You bet. In the flesh, my love."
"I'm so glad." Cough, cough. Boy, that was sure eloquent, Gabrielle heard herself think. Xena just chuckled.
"Nice to know that you're overwhelmed. C'mon, let's sit here for a bit. Got to catch my wind." They crawled over to the door and sat back against it, side by side, exhausted, dusty, silent. Gabrielle's hand reached out and took Xena's, and they stayed that way, saying nothing for a few minutes. Slowly, their heads turned in unison towards each other and infectious grins broke out on both faces. Gabrielle began laughing, and Xena followed. The laughter escalated into hysterics, as the tension left them and the realization that they had succeeded took its place. Tears flowed from their eyes; they doubled forward, wiping at their faces. Finally, they settled back, exhausted and smiling. An occasional chuckle broke the silence. Xena spoke.
"Well, you did it. You bested the God of War."
Gabrielle looked at Xena, to see her smiling. "Nope. We did it. You and me. Together."
"You know, if you get any better at this warrior gig, we may have to redefine our relationship."
Gabrielle looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Well..." Xena's eyes twinkled in the dim light. "I may end up being your sidekick."
Gabrielle smiled a bit at that. "Gabrielle: Warrior Princess, and her trusty sidekick Xena. Yeah. I like the sound of that."
Xena said nothing, just put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her in against her own side. Gabrielle felt the familiar texture of the leather and metal. Just like you never left me. She felt a hand on her cheek, turning her head towards her friend and wordlessly, Xena placed a kiss on her mouth. At first gentle, it became deep and passionate. They were interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat loudly.
"Ahem. Can't leave you two kids alone for a minute, can I?"
They reluctantly broke off the kiss. Eve stood about six feet away, her quirky smile plastered all over her face. She held the reins of two horses. Her eyes became very soft, and she continued, "Hello, Mother. Good to have you back." She dropped the reins and stepped forward, offering her hand to assist her two companions up and off of the ground. Xena stood first, stiffly stretching, then embraced Eve for a long moment. Gabrielle stirred herself and rose, groaning slightly at the bruises that she was sure were forming.
"Good to be back. Eve, thanks for everything you did."
Eve shrugged. "It's nothing, compared to what you two just managed." She took the reins of her horse and swung one leg up and over the saddle. "Well, I'm off to deliver a message to Hephaestus."
"A message?" Gabrielle cocked her head in question.
"Yeah. He has a mess to clean up in there. Besides, you two have a lot of, er...catching up to do."
Gabrielle looked around her. "Xena? Where's my bag?" She waved her hands in the air and began frantically pacing. Xena looked at her. "You know, the bag that was on my shoulder. It has my scrolls in it. Where is it?"
All three women looked around the ground outside the door. Gabrielle was frantic. Finally, Xena said, "It must still be inside. I'll bet you lost it when you fell in there."
Gabrielle's face fell. "We can't open the door, can we?"
"Don't know how. Trust me, you don't want to go in there, anyway. Ares doesn't like you very much right now."
"But what about my scrolls? Xena!"
Xena shrugged. "It'll give Ares something to read for the next couple of millennia. And, trust me, I have a feeling that you're going to write many more."
Eve joined in. "I'll ask Hephaestus to take care of them for you. Maybe you can get them back later." Gabrielle nodded, not very reassured. "Must be off. Love you both. Bye!" She nudged her horse and began to trot away.
As she left, Xena shouted after her. "Eve! Eli sends his greetings!"
She shouted back over her shoulder, "Yeah. I know. Thanks!" Her horse's hooves thumped off into the night, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone.
"Well, Warrior Princess. What now?" Xena walked over to the horse and picked up the reins. She looked up at the night sky and sniffed the air.
"It's gonna rain. We need to find shelter."
"There's an inn just down the road. Let's go there." Xena nodded agreement, and they began walking away from the temple door, heading for the main road. Gabrielle stopped and put a hand on Xena's arm.
"Oh, Xena. Most of my money was in the bag. Wait a minute." She went back to the saddlebags, rummaged a bit, and drew out a small cloth purse. She opened it, and out fell some coins into her hand. "Probably not enough for a meal and a room. Looks like we can either have one or the other." Gabrielle looked apologetically up at Xena, who shrugged.
Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically. "Starving!"
"Me, too. Let's eat, and we can sleep outside."
"But, Xena, it's going to rain. We'll be wet and miserable. I wanted our first night back together to be...you know....special." She eyed Xena. "Don't you have any money?"
"Gimmie a break. I just came back from the dead." They resumed walking, and Xena noted that Gabrielle looked crestfallen. Then, she suddenly brightened.
"That's it! Xena, I have a great idea!"
"Oh?" Her eyebrow raised slightly.
"There's got to be a crowd at the inn. We'll hustle 'em!" Gabrielle became rather excited.
Xena's mouth fell open. "We'll what?"
Gabrielle waved her hand. "No, silly. Not like that! You know.....I'll tell a few stories. We'll pass the bowl around the room. Earn some money." Xena eyed her impassively. Gabrielle continued, standing rather proudly. "After all, you are traveling with a bard of some renown, you know."
"Do tell!" Xena noted her friend's sparkling eyes, and smiled.
"Yeah! It'll be just like the old days. Always worked for us then! Why not now? C'mon, Xena. What do you say?"
"And just what will I do, while you're 'hustling the crowd'?" Xena put her hands on her hips and feigned a teasing, questioning attitude.
"'Working the crowd', Xena. I prefer the phrase 'working the crowd'. You'll do what you do best. Stand at the bar, and look really intimidating." Xena laughed. "We always got more money when you did that. Didn't you ever notice?"
"No, actually, I never did."
"It's true. Hey, you can still look intimidating, can't you?" Xena scowled down at Gabrielle, narrowing her eyes. Gabrielle gulped. "Oh, yeah. You've still got it. That's good. Do that when we're in there."
"Do you feel up to it, Gabrielle?"
"Yeah. Sure. Got to get myself in the mood, though. I need a prop. Hang on just a minute." Gabrielle took off into the darkness, back towards the temple, leaving Xena scratching her head and fidgeting next to the horse. In a couple of minutes, she trotted back, holding a spear from one of the temple guards. She stood next to it, mentally measuring it with her eye, and then lifted the chakram from her belt and neatly sliced off some of the shaft and the metal tip. As she held the staff vertically, its butt end on the ground next to her foot, she smiled proudly. "There. How does that look?"
Xena reached out and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. "You look every inch the bard, Gabrielle." They began walking again, the horse trailing behind them. They walked that way for a bit, not saying anything, just pressed against each other as their steps became synchronized and the tap! tap! of the staff kept time to their pace. Finally, Xena interrupted the silence.
"Are you gonna keep my chakram?"
"Oh. Sorry." She lifted the weapon off of her waist and handed it to Xena, who dropped it into the hook on her side. "Actually, I was just holding on to it for you. I knew that you'd be back." She snaked her arm around Xena's waist and held on as they walked. "You were coming back to me, weren't you?"
"I never left you, my love."
After a moment's reflection, Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. I know that.......now." Xena just eyed Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye and smiled.
"So, what stories are you going to tell? I'll bet that you have some great new ones."
"As a matter of fact, I do. I thought that I'd tell one about a short, blonde, tattooed Warrior Princess and her tall, dark and sultry sidekick." Gabrielle cocked her eyes up towards Xena, wondering what reaction that would bring. Xena just laughed.
"Sounds good. Can't wait to hear it."
Gabrielle was dumbfounded. "Really?"
"Really. I love a good fantasy."
Me, too, Warrior Princess, thought Gabrielle. Me, too. Oh, yeah. You just wait.
"You're a baaad girl."
"What? I didn't say anything."
"You thought it."
"Oh! Can you still read thoughts, Xena? That is so unfair. You know that I can't read yours. Can you really read mine?"
As they walked along the road, snuggled against each other, Xena didn't reply right away. When she did, there was a twinkle in her voice. "I'll just let you keep guessing on that one for a bit."
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