Disclaimer: All of these characters belong to someone else (USA Studios, Universal, Renaissance Pictures, etc.). No harm or infringement intended. This story contains no graphic sex or violence, but it is a subtext friendly zone.
Time Period: Immediately following the Xena: Warrior Princess series finale, A Friend In Need.
"It's time, Gabrielle," Ares said in a gentle voice.
"I know," Gabrielle whispered, letting her eyes wander through the dimly lit passageway. "I just didn't think it would happen so soon," a pause, "or in that way," an exhale of breath, "for that reason." She shook her head in disbelief, and then looked up at the God of War. "Thank you, for giving me this time, for holding up your end of the deal."
Ares nodded silently.
"And thank you for collecting these, keeping them safe." The bard ran her hands along the rough orb of rock, pausing every few inches to caress her scrolls, which rested in the stone, each in their own individual hole. She smiled at the memories.
"I needed something to read while you girls were snoozing," He made a weak attempt at a grin.
"Mmm, twenty-five years is a long time to be without your favorite
plaything. Glad to help you break up the monotony here on
"Thanks for the addition," he said, pointing.
Gabrielle nodded and touched the newly added scroll with melancholy.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. Your stories will not be forgotten. I'll see to that personally," Ares said sincerely.
The bard just smiled, silently doubting the sincerity of the statement, but hoping for the best.
With a wave of his hand, the stone rotated into the wall, revealing a simple circular shield to mark the treasure. A new presence caught his eye.
"Hello, Celesta," Gabrielle breathed.
"Hello, Gabrielle. Are you ready?" Celesta held out her hand.
Gabrielle was always surprised when she saw Celesta---her beauty and grace, as she floated just above the ground with her ever present, ever burning candle. But, she mused to herself, should Death not be beautiful?
"Yes," she replied, "I'm ready." She turned and began to walk toward the hovering figure.
Ares watched the scene unfold with great interest from beneath his slightly raised brow. A sudden burst of light disturbed the quiet anticipation, as Aphrodite burst in with a shout.
"No!" She grabbed the bard's arm, stopping her progress toward Death.
Gabrielle put a comforting hand on Aphrodite's arm, "It's all right, Aphrodite it's time," with a gentle squeeze. "Actually," she said, looking to Ares with appreciation, "it's way past time."
"No!" Aphrodite reiterated, now turning to her brother with obvious anger. "You got what you wanted, Ares. There's no reason for this now."
The air between the siblings was electric. Gabrielle's brow furrowed and her eyes darted quickly between Ares and Aphrodite.
"Reason? We had a deal, Aphrodite," the bard offered calmly. She shot a questioning glance at Ares and waited for his affirming nod. It didn't come. Instead he turned his eyes to Aphrodite.
"This was decided years ago, Aphrodite, it's none of your concern," he sternly scolded his sister. "Gabrielle agreed to it. It's not something I pulled out of my sleeve at the last minute like---" He stopped abruptly and looked away, cutting off his speech before he said something he'd regret.
Gabrielle shot him a concerned look.
"What's going on here?" Gabrielle asked anyone present. She raised her hands in question and turned to face each one. They all looked at each other and avoided her gaze when it fell on them. "Aphrodite?" She questioned hotly, turning slightly to face the goddess at her side.
Aphrodite looked over at her brother, as he took a menacing step toward her.
"Aphrodite!" Gabrielle barked, tightening her grip on the goddess's arm.
Aphrodite ignored her and continued the stare down with her brother.
"This is not ... your concern!" Ares shouted, accenting the words with a finger thrust toward his sister. They were face to face now.
Gabrielle released Aphrodite's arm and stepped back, wary of the palpable energy oozing from the gods. Celesta merely observed in silence, as she so often did. It was obvious to Gabrielle that this was a matter between Love and War.
"She is my friend, Ares!" Aphrodite angrily pointed into his chest. "That makes it my concern!" More staring.
Ares blinked first, and then a broad grin crept across his face. He turned to Gabrielle, her brow twisted in confusion. "She's a sentimental fool, Gabrielle," he said calmly. "What else would you expect from the Goddess of Love?" With a wave of his hand, he made like the little tiff was nothing, and stepped away.
"Well, I'm rather sentimental myself, Ares, and you're the God of War, so what's your point?" the bard responded, putting her hands on her hips.
Ares just smiled and sat down on a boulder, hands resting on his knees. "I think I'm outnumbered," he mused, wearing his best charming grin as he regarded the three women.
Aphrodite focused her gaze and squinted in anger, "Nice try, Bro but you're not going to get away with this by changing your tact. You used her!" she hissed, lowering her voice as she pointed at Gabrielle. She continued glaring at her brother.
"Wha---?" Ares began, putting his hands to his chest in innocence.
"Wait a minute," Gabrielle protested simultaneously, putting up one hand. "Look," to Aphrodite, "I'm not sure what's going on here." Now in a soothing voice, "I appreciate what you're trying to do, my friend, but he's not lying. We do have a deal."
"You're right, Gabrielle," the goddess turned to face her friend. "He's not lying, he's just not telling the whole truth. And I'm going to tell you what's going on here."
That brought the God of War to his feet, glaring with rage.
Aphrodite swaggered over to Ares. "He tricked you Gabrielle," she began, in a taunting tone. Her gaze never wavered from her brother as she walked around him in a slow circle. She trailed one hand lightly across his broad shoulders as she spoke. His breathing increased as well as his temper. "He realized a long time ago that Xena was lost to him---"
"And you just couldn't resist helping that along, could you, Sis?" he interrupted bitterly.
Aphrodite smiled, patted his shoulder, and let out a satisfied, "Hmph." She continued her path around his body until she was facing him. With a quick shove, he was deposited to his seat on the boulder. "And you just couldn't let her go, could you Bro?"
The way he shifted and worked his jaw told Gabrielle that Aphrodite was on to something.
Aphrodite settled in behind her brother, draped one arm across his chest, and rested her chin on his shoulder. "Your best bet was better luck next time hmmm?" she crooned into her brother's ear as she traced its outline with one finger.
Gabrielle's confusion deepened.
"You'd just start over in the next life hmmm?" She glanced at the bard to see if she was getting the hint of where this was going. Furrowed brow.
Aphrodite got up and walked a few paces until she stood next to her friend. Gabrielle gave her a questioning glance. The goddess raised an eyebrow in her brother's direction. Both women were now staring at the God of War, while Celesta silently observed the scene.
Aphrodite crossed her arms, tilted her head, and glared at her sibling, "Well " she dared.
Ares put out a hand and made a gesture of defeat, "Oh, no. Please. You're doing such a swell job," he snapped, crossing his arms and pouting like a small child.
"Well," she began, this time to Gabrielle.
"Wait wait " the bard interrupted, lifting her hands. "If what you're saying is that he wanted Xena to die so that he could torment her in her next life---"
"Hey, I object to the word torment!" Ares complained. "I was good to her. I gave her everything!"
"Quiet, you!" came in unison from the goddess and the bard.
Ares continued sulking.
"Then why wait?" Gabrielle continued. "He had a dozen chances to take her, and if he wanted me out of the picture, why didn't he just let me die in that pit, in Dahak's temple? Why go through all the trouble of saving my life and offering me some deal?"
Ares raised a mocking, wondering brow at his sister.
"Mmmm that's the irony of it, Gabrielle," the goddess answered. "Without you, Xena couldn't have gone on---"
"She never would have gone back to him or what she was, Aphrodite. I'm sure of that," Gabrielle interrupted.
Aphrodite rubbed the bard's shoulder, "I know, little one, I said she couldn't have gone on---" the goddess raised her brow and dipped her head slightly to emphasize what she meant.
"Oh," Gabrielle understood, and then thought for a moment. "Well, so then we're back to letting me die in the pit. Xena um doesn't go on and Ares takes his shot at her in her next life. Which, by the way," the bard sharpened her tone and glared at Ares, "won't be any more successful than this shot."
"Yeah, yeah," he rolled his eyes and waved her off.
"So, I don't get it?" the bard concluded, turning back to Aphrodite.
"Yeah. Makes no sense," Ares quipped with confidence.
"Quiet!" in unison.
"She wouldn't cross over to rebirth at her death unless she'd found her true self in this life."
They all looked over as Celesta spoke.
"Without that discovery, her essence would remain suspended ending at this incarnation."
"Oh," Ares threw his hands up, "now you say something. Hey, we don't need any help over here!" he whined, pointing at Death.
"So, you see Gabrielle," Aphrodite began, "the only way Xena was going to find her true self in this life, was through you. He had to save you---"
"So that I could save her so that you " Gabrielle turned to Ares, her anger rising, "You bastard! You used me!" It was all she could do not to fly across the room and throttle him.
"Exactly!" Aphrodite mused, her voice lifting.
"Oh, like you didn't get what you wanted out of this, little girl. A few more years of warm fuzzies." He hugged himself and made an obnoxious face. "Who gave you that? I did!" Ares boasted.
"Actually, I handle the warm fuzzies," Aphrodite added quietly, raising her hand.
"Ugh, Ares, you are unbelievable!" Gabrielle spat.
"Yeah, well thank you. I do try," he chided smugly.
"Gods!" Gabrielle put her hands to her head. "Um sorry," she looked up, apologizing to the present company for the curse.
"Mmm. Yes, he is something, isn't he? But that's not even the best part, is it, Ares?" He glared in response, Aphrodite smirked in return. "What do you gain from her death now?" pointing at Gabrielle. "She led Xena to her true self. You got what you wanted," picking up her argument where she'd started it.
"Because he doesn't think I know my true self," Gabrielle broke in, before the god could answer. Ares' plan was becoming very clear. "He never thought that I belonged with Xena, but when he found he could no longer control her, I became the key to getting her back. He also thought that under her influence, I would never find my true self. So, if Celesta takes me now, he thinks I'll be suspended here for eternity and Xena's soul will go on, and he can corrupt her utterly, in every lifetime, with no one to get in his way."
"Pa leeease," he snorted in denial, rolling his eyes.
Aphrodite shook her head and moved over to where Celesta was floating.
"Shows how much you know, Ares," the bard continued flatly. "Think about it. Without me, you get one lifetime of mayhem at best. We complete each other. Without me, your plan for her doesn't work."
"Kinda cocky there, aren't you, blondie?" he mused.
"It's a fact, Ares, and you know it. You've already lost. Not only do I know my true self, I know that the path I'm on is exactly where I should be. And as for the future, my soul is linked with Xena's. Even you will not change that."
"Blah, blah, blah yeah whatever," Ares mumbled in irritation. "Bottom line, we had a deal. Xena dies, you die. Xena's dead your time is up let's go. Take 'er away," snapping his fingers toward Celesta and thumbing over his shoulder.
"And who's going to enforce that deal, Ares?" Aphrodite said smugly, looking up from her conference with Death.
Ares looked up at Celesta, who slowly shook her head. "It is not her time " Her voice trailed off as she disappeared.
"Hey!" Ares shouted, jumping to his feet. "Her time was years ago! We had a deal!" His protest fell on deaf ears.
Aphrodite put her hands on her hips and let out a giggle, "You're so cute when you're losing!" She made an L with her thumb and forefinger and put it to her forehead, Loser, she mouthed.
Gabrielle feigned indifference, but the faint smile on her face gave her away.
"We're not finished," Ares bristled in Gabrielle's direction. "You're living on borrowed time!"
"Who isn't," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
"And YOU!" he pointed at his sister, enraged. No words followed, just a clenched fist and bulging veins on his brow. A faint blue flash, and he was gone.
"Whoa he's pissed," Aphrodite chuckled.
Gabrielle gave her a cautious glance, "I think that means trouble for me."
"Don't worry, little one. He'll get over it," Aphrodite said, with a small squeeze on the bard's shoulders.
"Hmph. Not likely. This is Ares we're talking about," Gabrielle reminded her.
Aphrodite didn't seem too concerned, the bard noticed, but why would she be, she was a god. Ares was her brother. What could he do to her?
"Celesta won't do his bidding. She's a free agent. And without the Fates to do his dirty work, I think you're pretty safe," the goddess said with confidence.
Gabrielle didn't answer. She studied the ground and shifted uncomfortably.
Aphrodite sought out the bard's face, which was now hidden by the short blonde disheveled hair on her bowed head. "Gabby?" the goddess lifted the bard's chin with a hand.
Gabrielle gently shook her face from Aphrodite's touch and covered her eyes with her hand. "I'm sorry, Aphrodite." She now raised that hand in apology. Tears filled her eyes. "I I just didn't think this far ahead."
Aphrodite put a comforting hand on her back as they sat down.
"I knew Celesta would come for me soon after Xena well you know," she made vague motions with her hands. "But now, suddenly, I'm faced with life without her and I'm not sure I know how to do that."
The goddess just nodded in sympathy.
"It's odd," the bard continued, "when I realized, by that fountain, that she wasn't coming back that she wouldn't let me bring her back, the wave of grief was just " gods, she said silently, remembering the emotion, "overwhelming. And then I remembered that I wasn't going to have to live without her, that I would join her soon. And then I was just sad for us that our time in this life was over. And proud proud of her, because she'd come so far we'd come so far and we did that together." Her voice was breaking, and emotion was beginning to get the best of her. She stopped briefly to try and compose herself. She was unsuccessful. "What we had was um " she bit back a sob, "really amazing," she finally got out through a tight throat.
Aphrodite merely listened, doing what she could to comfort her friend.
"I'm sorry, little one," pulling her close until the young woman's head was resting on her shoulder.
"Ugh," Gabrielle finally said, sitting up and pulling herself together. "I'm a mess," she sniffed, wiping her face with her forearm.
"Here you go," a silky pink handkerchief filled her vision.
"Thanks," with a smile. "Aphrodite?" A sniff.
"What did you tell Celesta?"
"Gabrielle " Xena nudged her soul mate. "Hello where are you?"
"Oh um sorry," the bard blinked. "What were you saying?"
"I was saying, the guy was like two inches away from cracking my skull," the warrior held up her hand and demonstrated the distance between her thumb and forefinger. "You totally saved my butt. Giving you half of the chakram gives a new meaning to the phrase double trouble," she grinned, and went on picking dirt out of her scabbard, happily reliving the day's minor skirmish, pointing out, every so often, how pleased and proud she was of how Gabrielle had handled herself.
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle mumbled, getting lost in thought again as she gazed into the campfire. She had told Xena most of what had happened to her while they were separated, as Gabrielle liked to refer to Xena's latest brief exit from this life, but while her experiences made a few things clearer, there were also questions with answers only Xena could give her. And to get those answers, she would have to tell Xena the whole story. She wasn't sure she wanted to do that.
Xena was full of energy, even after the long day and a small skirmish with some raiders. Swapping battle stories was never one of the bard's favorite pastimes, but the warrior told them with such vigor and passion that she couldn't help but be charmed by the performances. Besides, it was one of the few times she got to hear her soul mate speak in almost full sentences.
Tonight Gabrielle's mind was elsewhere, as Xena's voice droned on in the background.
"So, the two-headed cyclops steps all over the guy's punch line, and says 'You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.' " Xena knew her partner wasn't listening to her battle musings, but she also knew the bard couldn't resist a good risquι joke.
Gabrielle furrowed her brow and blinked at the fire. Then she snapped her head in the warrior's direction. "What?" she snorted.
Xena just laughed. "Thought that would get your attention."
The bard sat up straight and stretched out her back, "I'm sorry Xena, I was just thinking---"
"About me, I hope," the warrior joked. That made Gabrielle laugh.
"Wow, you're in a good mood tonight," the younger woman smiled. It felt so good to have her partner back. Sometimes the feeling was overwhelming. Tonight she was just tired. Maybe it was all just catching up with her. Maybe it was the shift in time that brought her companion back to her. Maybe it was holding in the secrets, and wondering about the questions. That was about to change.
"I was thinking about you, actually."
"Hmm. Judging by the scowl that's been on your face all night, that doesn't seem like a good thing."
"Well, actually, it was something Ares said about you." Gabrielle was trying to decide what to tell and what to leave out.
"Ahhhh, that'll do it." The warrior put down her scabbard and gave her soul mate her full attention. "Was this when you met him in the forest when you went to find Eve?"
"Um no. It was before that, when I got off the ship from Japa."
"Oh. I don't think you've told me about that." Xena settled in like a child waiting for a good bedtime story.
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably, and scratched her head, "Yeah well, um Ares and Aphrodite were fighting about um us." Pause. "Remember Ares' plans for our future lives? You know I told you about that."
"Well, Aphrodite was sticking up for us---"
"Whoa," Xena interrupted, "Aphrodite, sticking up for us against Ares, no less? They must be in the hate-hate phase of their love-love relationship. If you know what I mean," the warrior winked.
Gabrielle paused, and processed what Xena was referring to. "Yeeeah " she drew out and cleared her throat, "um, anyway---"
"For a bard, you're being awfully ummy tonight, which usually means you're hiding something," Xena said, getting serious.
Okay busted, Gabrielle sighed inwardly. I'll tell her everything, eventually, but for now, I'll try to get Xena to do some explaining. "Sorry, I'm just a little out of it tonight," ignoring the second part of Xena's statement. "Where was I? Oh yeah. Um, Aphrodite said---"
"I want you to leave Gabrielle alone."
"Just Gabrielle?" Ares raised his brow. "Hmmm. Oh I see," he smirked. "I thought the irritating little blonde was your new plaything. Can I watch?" the God of War chuckled.
"Leave them both alone, Ares. And I don't just mean this time around," the goddess threatened.
"No can do, Sis. Xena's in my blood, I'm in her blood. You know that."
"You had no right to do that to a mortal, Ares---"
Gabrielle paused in her recollection and glanced over at Xena to see if there was any reaction.
Xena was the one lost in thought now, quite serious. The warrior felt a tingle in her palm. She absentmindedly flexed her hand as a distant, long buried memory suddenly awakened---
She was just outside of Amphipolis. Cortese's army was bearing down on her village. The farmers and sheepherders were ill prepared to hold off the tide of the oncoming soldiers. She'd joined with those who were willing to fight, but she could see it was quickly becoming a futile effort. In her arms, she cradled the lifeless, bloody body of her younger brother, Lyceus. He had stayed to fight by her side, even as many of the other fighters had fled, including her older brother, Toris. She was consumed with grief, and exhausted from the battle. A wave of hopelessness threatened to drown her as she realized all that she had been fighting for would be lost. Her brother was dead, her village would be burned to the ground, the rest of her family scattered to the hills, and she would surely be taken and sold as a slave or worse. In desperation, she called out to Ares.
"And Ares said, 'Tsssst rights. Please! She asked for my help. Begged for it, in fact!' " Gabrielle continued, carefully watching her partner. Xena was no longer listening.
The God of War appeared before the distraught, sobbing girl. "Are you asking for my help?"
Xena suddenly felt very small in the shadow of the menacing god. "Please," she whimpered weakly, "help me."
"What exactly would you like me to do?" Ares scanned the mayhem.
She looked all around her. The peaceful fields of her youth had been turned into a bloody, smoke-filled battleground. "Stop them," indicating the soldiers. She looked at the body cradled in her arms and held him closer. "Save him," she begged through sobs.
"And what will you give me in return?"
She could think of nothing that she possessed that would interest the God of War, except--- "I give myself to your service."
"Do you know what you're saying?"
The young girl looked around the battlefield as the soldiers were making quick work of overrunning the village. "Please!" she begged impatiently.
"Everything in life is a choice," he began to preach. "To get one thing, you have to sacrifice something else."
"Are you going to help me or not!" she screamed hoarsely, still sobbing. Time was running out.
"Ooooh, a feisty one. I like that," he grinned. He looked away, as though in thought, and said, "Okay, here's the choice," suddenly serious, "the life of your brother, or your village."
"What?" she stared in disbelief.
Ares looked around at the battle, mindlessly humming in satisfaction. "Ya know, these guys are really good," he said, thumbing over his shoulder. "A few more minutes and they'll have this place laid to waste. Then they'll trudge on into those hills there, and massacre what's left of the population. Your choice." He looked around. "Time's a wastin'."
The choice was no choice. She buried her head into her brother's chest, "I'm so sorry, Ly," she sobbed.
"Ahem " Ares cleared his throat and leaned over, "I hate to break up this touching scene, but---"
"Save the village, you bastard!" she screamed, with hate in her grief stricken eyes.
Ares smiled at her nerve, and removed the dagger from his waistband, "Too bad," he lamented as he looked around the battlefield. "The day was going so well." Shrug. "Give me your hand."
Xena extended her hand, still stained with her brother's blood. Ares grasped it firmly and cut a gash that followed the lifeline in her palm. He did the same to his own hand and joined it with hers in a firm grip.
"Gods," Xena breathed quietly, still flexing her hand. It's been a long time since I thought about that, mentally scolding herself.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, putting a hand on her partner's knee.
Xena indicated with a wave of her hand that she would explain later.
"Sorry, Gabrielle. Go on."
"No, I think you just answered my question."
"Was there a question?"
"Is there blood between you and Ares? Literally?" the younger woman asked cautiously.
The warrior looked down and ran a finger along the lifeline in her palm.
"Xena you ... are ... blood bonded ...with Ares," Gabrielle said slowly, in disbelief. She paused in stunned silence as the revelation sank in. "Well, that explains a lot," she said finally, lifting her hands. "I can't believe you never told me that," she shook her head. "And here I thought I was just an underachiever."
"It was a long time ago. I was very young."
The warrior relayed the circumstances that set her on her path of destruction.
"Gabrielle," she said cautiously, "that's not all."
"Good grief, Xena, what else could there be? Wait " she held up her hand, "forget I said that."
"I bonded my soul to him as well."
"What? Xena!" she spat incredulously.
"Relax, I took care of that. Joxer and I---"
"Joxer?" a question. "Joxer," a statement to the air. "Joxer knew," a statement to Xena. The warrior winced, looked away and scratched the back of her neck.
"Argh! Unbelievable," Gabrielle groaned, as she got to her feet and began pacing in agitation.
The warrior got up and tried to calm her companion. She stood face to face, with her hands on the younger woman's shoulders to still her. "Gabrielle, it was while you were missing, after Hope, after the pit. Ares said he would return you to me if I agreed to marry him in front of the Fates."
"You married him? In front of the Fates!"
Xena thought Gabrielle's eyes were going to pop out of her head.
"Gabrielle," Xena said gently, putting a hand over her soul mate's mouth, "please, let me finish." She told her of how she'd walked out on the wedding, bound her soul to the God of War in return for this lifetime with her, and how she'd stolen the contract and hidden it in a sea cave. "So it's all taken care of. He can't have my soul without the contract, and he'll never find the contract. There was no reason for you to know."
Gabrielle's shoulders relaxed.
"And honestly, once I hid the contract, and got you back I kind of forgot about it." She released her partner, who merely stared at her.
Gabrielle rubbed her nose with her hand in fleeting agitation, and put her hands on her hips. She cleared her throat and nudged the ground with her foot. "Well," the bard began, "since we're playing true confessions---" She took her seat and began telling of her encounters with Ares, starting with the pit. "I remember falling and the heat and Hope, but the next thing I remember is being with Ares in the forest, outside of Poteidaia."
"No sign of Hope?" the warrior interrupted.
"No. We were alone. He offered me my life."
"In return for what?" Xena asked, in a distrustful tone.
"He would let me live, but only until your death, and then my life would end, as it should have at the bottom of that pit."
"What?" Now it was the warrior's turn to be agitated. "And you agreed to that?"
"Uh Xena, think about it. Either I'm dead, or I live the rest of my life with you until your death and then I'm dead. Does it sound like there's anything resembling a choice in there?"
"Argh. He is such a bastard! It was his damn fault you wound up in that pit!" Now the warrior was on her feet and pacing.
"Let's not get on that chariot, Xena," the bard cautioned.
"What does he get from that?" the warrior wondered out loud, and then stopped pacing. "Did he try to take your life, Gabrielle?" she asked in concern.
"After I left Japa, yes. When the ship docked, he was there waiting. He took me back to Mt. Olympus."
The warrior paced some more, shaking her head and cursing under her breath.
Gabrielle continued her story. She told of how Aphrodite had come to her defense and how Celesta had refused to take her.
"He was pretty pissed off about that. Then, when he showed up again, in the forest, on my way to find Eve, he tried a new approach. He was Hades bent on getting your ashes back."
"He never gives up," Xena grumbled. "I guess we're finally collecting on that time we saved Celesta's life, eh?"
Gabrielle was silent. She looked down at her hands, mindlessly rubbing at a freckle as if it would move.
The bard worked her jaw a bit. "Xena, she just didn't take me. She didn't say why," she mumbled impatiently. She got up and started to set out their bedroll.
Xena followed her, and with a gentle hand on her partner's face, she made her look into her eyes, "True confessions, Gabrielle. No more secrets hmm?"
The intensity of the blue eyes, even in the dim firelight, melted any resolve the bard had mustered regarding the knowledge she held. She reached up and encircled her soul mate's hand in her own. She let out a breath and resumed her seat on the log, in front of the fire.
The warrior did the same and waited patiently. It took several minutes of lip chewing and freckle rubbing before Gabrielle spoke.
"You loved Akemi, Xena," she began. A simple statement.
Oh, the warrior sighed in relief, almost audibly. This I can handle. "Gabrielle---" she began in a loving tone. Before she could continue, Gabrielle put up a hand.
"No, Xena. It's not what you think. It's not about me. It's about Akemi and how you felt about her."
"I don't understand."
"She wasn't who she seemed to be." The bard was getting a bit more apprehensive.
Xena slid a little closer and put her arm around her soul mate in a conciliatory manner. "Gabrielle," she cooed.
There was no easy way to say it, and Gabrielle thought hard about how to break it to her. "Do you remember when I met Atrius, your father?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," the warrior said, a little impatiently, anxious to get to the bottom of her soul mate's apprehension. "But he wasn't my father, it was Ares in disguise."
"Right," Gabrielle agreed, hoping Xena would catch the drift and not make her say it out loud.
Xena gave a perplexed look into the silence, "What does that have to do with Akemi?"
Oh boy. "It was Ares," Gabrielle finally spat out.
Xena seemed to stop breathing, "What was Ares?" she asked with hesitation.
"She was Ares." Gabrielle looked at her companion, who seemed to be frozen in time. She put a comforting hand on her thigh, "Akemi had been killed by her father with the rest of her family. You never met her."
Xena closed her eyes, her jaw so tight she was sure she'd shatter her teeth. The whole world seemed to go silent, except for the beating of her heart. It all made horrible, twisted sense now. How Akemi had known all of the right buttons to push, why her father was so surprised to see her, why the townspeople were so afraid when she tried to place Akemi's ashes in the family shrine.
"Xena?" Gabrielle knelt on the ground, at her partner's feet, so that she could see her face. It was contorted and twitching, somewhere between anger and grief. She couldn't tell which. "I'm so sorry," rubbing her knee. She got back up and stroked her companion's dark hair, pulling her to her chest. She could tell by the tears falling on her arm and the heaving of Xena's shoulders that she was crying, but she made no sound. She maintained the embrace until the tears stopped. Gabrielle continued to stroke her head. "I'm so sorry," she said again. "I know you loved her."
"It's not that," Xena finally said, sitting up and wiping an eye. "It's my life. My whole gods forsaken life," said forcefully to the air. Then she let out a humorless chuckle, "Oh, that it were gods forsaken, how happy we'd be, eh?" She impatiently wiped her other eye.
"Xena," Gabrielle said with compassion, as she laid a hand on her soul mate's forearm.
"No, Gabrielle," her anger was rising. "It's like my whole life has been lived for his entertainment."
Gabrielle could feel the muscles tensing under her hand. She gave a little squeeze.
"And the irony of it is," Xena continued, "I asked him to do it!" She threw her hands up, rose to her feet, and began pacing, trying hard to keep her temper.
"You asked for help, Xena, in an impossible situation. He took advantage of you. He's a bastard, that's what he does," the bard reasoned, as she got up to calm her distraught partner.
"Well, he's not going to do it anymore! Ar---" Before she could get out his name, Gabrielle had cupped her hand over the warrior's mouth.
"Shhhh Xena! What are you doing?"
"I'm going to kill that soulless bastard! That's what I'm going to do!"
"You can't kill him, Xena."
"Okay, you're furious," the bard began carefully, and you have every right to be," stroking the warrior's arms, trying to hold back the rage that was seeping through every pore in her body. "We're going to take care of him. I have a plan. Do you trust me?"
Xena let out a slow, angry breath as the tension eased from her body. "Of course, I trust you."
"Okay. We'll start out first thing in the morning. I'll tell you on the way." Time enough to come up with a good plan, the bard mused.
"No. Let's start now."
From the warrior's demeanor, she could tell there was no use in arguing. They packed up the camp, doused the fire, and off they went. Think quick, bard.
Gabrielle did her best to stall for time while she formulated a good plan, but in the end, she decided Aphrodite was her best bet. Xena didn't like that idea. They argued about it for most of the way to the goddess's temple. No sleep and a pissed off warrior princess perfect.
"Gabrielle, you can't seriously think Aphrodite is going to help us defeat her own brother!" the warrior hissed.
"Xena, she's my friend. If she doesn't help us, I know she won't stop us either. Please trust me. Let me try. We need her help," she implored.
"All right," Xena spat sharply.
Gabrielle waited for the "but " that usually followed. It never came. She blinked a thank you at the warrior and strode off toward the temple, Xena following behind. She stopped and turned, which caused the warrior to almost crash into her. "And remember, she has no memory of sending me back for you."
"Yeah, yeah, go on," the warrior mumbled, with a hand on her partner's back.
The Goddess of Love suddenly appeared, and before the bard knew it, she was enveloped in a warm hug. Hmmm, dιjΰ vu, Gabrielle thought to herself, as she picked soft, pink down feathers from her lips.
"Xena!" the goddess moved on to her next victim. "So, how are my two favorite mortals?" she asked, as she backed off to regard the pair. "Hmmm, looking pretty mortal. Jeez, you guys look like you've been dragged through Tartarus. Are you all right?" in her usual direct tone.
"Um yeah," Gabrielle began, offering a glance at Xena, who just scratched her head and looked away. "It's just been an interesting little patch here, that's all. It uh seems to be working out though." That brought a small grin and a slight nod of agreement from the warrior.
"Good. What brings you here? Bring any more virgins that need protecting?" she giggled, as she peered at the temple entrance.
"Heh," Gabrielle chuckled. "No, not this time. Something a little more serious, I'm afraid."
"Oh," the goddess sighed in disappointment. "Not too serious, I hope," changing her demeanor. "I mean, how can I help?" Hands on hips. "You two aren't having trouble, are you? Do I need to give you an extra love whammy?" she asked, warming up her hands.
"No, no," the pair protested in unison. "Thank you, Aphrodite, we're fine," Gabrielle continued. "You've already blessed us with more love than two people could ever have hoped for." She offered Xena a loving look, which was accepted and returned with a slight tilt of her head and an appreciative smile.
"Oh, girl," Aphrodite waved her hand, "I'd love to take credit for that, but it's all you. You earned it the old fashioned way. What you twove got going on," she pointed at them with both hands, "whew not even the gods themselves can touch it," said as a matter of fact.
Gabrielle looked to Xena, who true to her word, was going to let the bard handle this. "But your brother is going to try," she began, "I we have a situation, with Ares," she continued slowly.
Aphrodite looked down, then away, working her jaw slightly as if she knew what was coming. She crossed her arms and blew out a breath. "What's he done now?" she asked cautiously, raising her chin.
"Well, it seems he's been playing both ends against the middle, and well, the middle is getting a little too crowded." No reaction. "We've got to he's got to be something's got to be done." Behind Gabrielle, Xena rolled her eyes. "Before it's too late," the bard stammered, not particularly pleased with her effort to illicit the goddess's help either.
Aphrodite suddenly became very serious, "I love my brother very much, Gabrielle."
"I know, Aphrodite, I'm sorry, I didn't mean---"
The goddess raised a hand, "It's all right, Gabby, I know he can be just too much sometimes. And what he's done to you two, and what he's going to do---" She stopped, closed her eyes, and bowed her head.
"You know what he's going to do?" Xena said forcefully, stepping toward the goddess.
Gabrielle put out a hand to stop her progress and reinforced it with a look.
"Which plan would you like to know about?" Aphrodite asked coolly, out of character.
Xena broke Gabrielle's grasp and lunged toward the goddess. "Don't play games with us, Aphrodite!" she growled, with a threatening finger.
"Xena! Stop it!" the bard pulled her back. "This is not going to help," she urged, trying to calm the irritated warrior.
"Gabrielle," Xena lowered her voice and hissed through pursed lips, "I almost stayed dead because of him, and if it's my lot in this life that I only have these few years to be with you, then so be it, and maybe I deserve that. But I'll be damned if that bastard is going to take away the rest of your life and our future lifetimes together."
The bard had no argument there.
"Damn," Aphrodite muttered under her breath. "He swore he'd given up on that." She looked hopelessly at the pair.
"He hasn't, Aphrodite. I know that for a fact." Gabrielle turned to face the goddess. "Whatever he has planned, he will not stop until it's done," she said, resolutely.
Aphrodite closed her eyes and nodded in acknowledgment.
Xena approached, offering a hand of apology, "I'm sorry, Aphrodite."
Aphrodite accepted the hand and gave a gentle squeeze in return. "It's what he is, Xena. He doesn't know any other way."
"I know," the warrior replied with a touch of sympathy. "Will you help us?"
Aphrodite stared at the warrior, and then shifted her gaze to Gabrielle, "Come with me, I have to make a quick stop first."
The trio materialized in a dimly lit cave, with strange objects of all shapes and sizes strewn about; a throne, weapons, jewelry, and a myriad of other objects that Xena couldn't make out in the darkness.
"What is this place?" she asked, to no one in particular.
"Gods R Us," Gabrielle whispered under her breath.
"You've been here before?" her soul mate whispered in surprise.
"Yeah, don't touch anything."
Aphrodite pulled a vial off a shelf and walked over to the pair, "Ready?"
"Where are we, Aphrodite?" the warrior asked.
Whoa, Xena thought to herself.
"Where are we going now?" Gabrielle queried.
"Catacombs, baby," the goddess said with vigor.
With a blue flash, the God of War appeared in the room, which was decorated with bright colored fabrics that swooped down from the ceiling. An undersized banquet table in the center of the small space was filled with fruit and wine. Aphrodite was lounging in a throne at one end of the table.
"Love what you've done to the place, Sis," he said sarcastically, looking around.
Aphrodite smirked and raised a cup at him.
"What do you want?" he griped.
"World peace, free love you know, the usual," she deadpanned.
"What do you want, Aphrodite?" Ares crossed his arms in annoyance.
"We have some unfinished business." She put down her cup.
"Xena," he guessed.
"It's going to stop."
"She's a big girl, she can take care of herself," he complained.
"She was a child, Ares. You took advantage of her and then manipulated her, and then---"
"Oh, and how is that any different from what you do?" he interrupted, pointing an accusing finger. "We've been through all of this," he said with a dismissive hand, turning to leave.
"I use my powers for good," Aphrodite called after him.
Ares got a good laugh out of that. "Hey, I live here. Don't pull that sweet, innocent Goddess of Love act on me. This isn't some cheap, dinar store scroll you're auditioning for. I know you. So lay off the sugar. Besides, she loved every minute of it. She was a natural, even before my help. You know it. You've seen her. She's magnificent," he said proudly.
"All right, all right. Ugh," waving her hand in exasperation. "Blah, blah, blah this is going nowhere." The goddess suddenly gave in, changing her disposition. "How 'bout we just agree to disagree, hmmm?" She raised her cup again in a toast.
"As always," Ares agreed with a grin, picking up his own vessel. They drank the toast.
Aphrodite put her cup down and waited patiently. "You really have gone too far with her, Ares. Especially sending her back to Japa."
Ares smirked and took another drink. "I thought we were agreeing to disagree."
"You won her heart when she was there the first time." Aphrodite got up and walked the length of the table toward him, "Why couldn't you just take that and be happy?"
"She didn't love me. She loved Akemi," he said dejectedly, taking another drink.
Aphrodite slid behind her brother, leaned her head on his back, and encircled his chest with her arms, "Akemi was an illusion. The heart," she rubbed his chest, "and the words were yours, Ares."
He pondered the statement. "It was the only way she would ever love me," looking sorrowfully into his cup.
From their hiding place, just outside the room, Gabrielle and Xena could hear the voices floating through the still air in the catacombs of Mt. Olympus. Xena closed her eyes and let her head rest against the cold stone wall as her jaw clenched at the god's declaration of love. Gabrielle wasn't sure what emotion her soul mate was suppressing, but she reached out and held Xena's hand. The warrior kept her eyes closed and acknowledged the touch with a slight nod and a tightened grip on the hand.
Aphrodite gave her brother a squeeze, then released him, and slapped him on the back, "But you're the great and powerful God of War," in a mocking tone, "love like that wasn't good enough, was it? You needed her to love you for you, and that just wasn't going to happen this time around, was it?"
Ares was taken aback by the sudden mood swing. "What's the matter, Sis? Didn't take your herbs this morning?" Ares chided.
Aphrodite walked a few paces, leaned against the table edge and continued, "You couldn't leave well enough alone; you had to go back for more. That was a mistake. Using the spirit world as your personal playground is breaking the rules, Ares. Big no-no," she scolded.
"There are no more rules, Aphrodite. Don't you get it?" he barked at his sister. "Ol' daddy's not here to screw us up anymore. No more games, no more manipulations. We're free! We can do things we never even imagined before."
Aphrodite let out a sigh as she listened.
"The whole world is ours! Can't you feel the power?" He bathed in the statement for a moment. "Whoa feels gooood!" He was snapping sparks from his fingers with one hand, and taking another drink with the other.
Aphrodite was silent for a moment, regarding her brother pensively. "And that's the problem," she began. "There have to be rules, Ares, especially for the God of War. Zeus may be gone, but I'm still here."
Ares stared at her with a blank expression for a few moments, and then broke out in a fit of laughter, "You can't be serious! Oh, Sis," he slapped his knee as he bent over snickering. "Oh, you kill me," he let out a breath and wiped his tearing eyes.
"Mmm, not quite, but this will do," she crossed her arms and waited.
"Whoa wha---" Ares' head began to swim. "What did you put---" he looked into his cup. "What are you doing, Aphrodite?" He dropped the chalice and steadied himself on the edge of the table.
The goddess's demeanor was suddenly quite menacing. Her frilly pink negligee had abruptly turned into a simple, elegant black number. "I'm laying off the sugar, as requested."
Ares' knees began to buckle and he collapsed to the floor, unable to support his weight any longer.
Aphrodite crossed over to him and knelt beside his head.
"You ca can't kill me " he stammered, "I'm the God of War!"
The goddess was not moved.
"The world needs us both. Balance remember?"
Aphrodite just smiled. She glanced around the elegant banquet room, and as she did so, the bright, festive surroundings became a dark, sparsely filled cave-like room. A huge skull with horns dominated the dιcor, and in front of that, a sarcophagus, with the now immobile Ares inside. His eyes glanced over to his left, where he spotted a large glowing red eye, surrounded by golden metallic rays. It was the Eye of Hephaestus, watching silently over him from atop the huge skull. His eyes widened in panic and disbelief when he realized his fate was worse than death. He was in the prison tomb built by Hephaestus for his irrepressible wife. He used his last bit of strength to plead with his sister.
"Don't do this, Aphrodite. I'd rather have oblivion than this."
"I can't kill you, Brother. Balance remember?" Her mocking tone was quite disconcerting. "You'll just be resting for ever."
"There will be no balance without my influence," he tried to reason.
Aphrodite shook her head and smiled, "You and I both know that's not true." She arranged a stray hair on his brow. "Sure, we can push a bit here," she smoothed another stray hair, "and pull a bit there. But didn't you notice? The world didn't come to an end when most of the Olympian gods perished. It just became more self-sufficient. It's all in here for those mortals," she tapped her heart.
"No. They need help," he said weakly.
"And they'll always find it, Ares. Wherever they can. It's what they do. They give us the power, not the other way around." She gently stroked his face, her eyes softening.
A tired grin formed on his lips. "You'll miss me," he whispered. "You'll miss me and you'll release me, because you can't live without me." There's that charming grin.
"You may be right," she breathed with a sigh.
"That's my girl," he said, somewhat relieved.
"That's why I'll give Xena the key. Only she can release you."
His eyes widened and he began to protest, "That's not fair, Aphr---"
She silenced him with a kiss.
She lingered a moment, regarding his face for the last time, "What is it they say, Brother? All's fair---"
Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, the great God of War sucked in a deep breath, released it, and closed his eyes.
"Good boy," Aphrodite breathed with affection. A kiss on his forehead, followed by a wave of her hand, and the lid on the sarcophagus slid closed. She stood in quiet reflection for a moment and took in and released her own breath. "All quiet on the Olympian front," she called out of the room.
Gabrielle and Xena cautiously entered the tomb. Gabrielle paused at the doorway, Xena continued in until she was standing in front of the sarcophagus. She put a hesitant hand on the lid that was decorated with a carved likeness of Ares. Gabrielle watched silently. Aphrodite moved to the warrior's side and put a hand on her shoulder.
"You don't quite know what to feel, do you?" she inquired.
The warrior didn't answer, just stared at the lid, lost in thought. She removed her hand and looked up at Aphrodite, slightly startled to see her standing there. "Hm?" the warrior mumbled.
The goddess gave her a knowing smile and patted her on the shoulder.
"Let's get this over with," Xena said with sudden impatience.
The pair strode over to where Gabrielle was standing, just inside of the doorway. Aphrodite directed them just outside of the room and pointed to the side of the entrance. There, shining in the torchlight, was a flat circular ring decorated with a simple pattern.
"That's your old chakram, Xena," the bard sputtered in surprise.
Xena peered closer, "Yeah it is, but " She stepped back and both she and Gabrielle regarded their respective halves of the balanced chakram that hung from their waists.
"That's a chakram," Aphrodite corrected. "Go ahead, Xena, take it."
Xena began to reach, and then hesitated, remembering what happened in the temple, where her dark and the light chakram were joined. "Is it dark, or light?" she inquired.
"It's neither," Aphrodite assured her. "This one is a key. Hit the Eye of Hephaestus with it, and it will seal the tomb," she pointed at the large red eye across the room.
"That seems a bit much," Gabrielle mumbled.
"Yeah, well, Hubby was a bit a bit obsessed always coming up with some gadget or another for the gods. He was especially proud of the dark and light chakram thingy, that is until Ares stole the dark one and but " she waved off her own speech, "you know the story."
"Did Hephaestus ever imprison you here, Aphrodite?" the bard asked, taking in the room one last time.
"Nah we ... um ... worked things out. You know how those arranged marriages go. Ew," she wrinkled her nose and winced. "Take it, Xena," indicating the chakram on the wall. "Only the one who seals the tomb can open it again."
Xena reached for the key. "And that's not going to happen," she said, as she threw the chakram toward the Eye of Hephaestus. Wall. Torch. Eye. Wall. The heavy door began to come down as the chakram hurled back toward the warrior. Instead of reaching up to catch it, she took her half of the balanced chakram from her waist and held it in front of her face.
"Xena!" Gabrielle began to protest. But before she could even get out the rest of her sentence, the key was split in two as it impacted the chakram half in Xena's hands. Aphrodite and Gabrielle ducked, as the two parts ricocheted off the walls and fell to the ground.
"Whoa Xena! How did you know that would work?" Gabrielle stammered.
"Just must be my day," the warrior mused.
"I'll say," the bard exhaled, as the tomb door slammed shut.
"Whew. Well," breathed Aphrodite.
They all stood in an awkward silence for a moment.
"I don't know what to say, Aphrodite," the warrior began gently. "Thank you," she hugged her.
More awkward silence.
Xena shifted a bit and turned back to the tomb, putting one hand on the door and reflecting in silence. She gave the door a slight push, as if to make sure it wasn't going anywhere, gave a quick nod of approval, and bent down to scoop up the broken chakram.
"Now," she said, examining the broken pieces "what to do with you?"
"Ooh, I know," the bard offered. She paused and looked around, as if to get her bearings, "Come on."
Aphrodite had her hands on her hips and she was sizing up the passageway in both directions.
"Are you coming, Aphrodite?" Gabrielle called back.
"Go on. I'll catch up. I just have to do some public service announcements around here." With a wave of her hand, carved warnings appeared on the walls.
Gabrielle led Xena down the dimly lit passageways until she found what she was looking for, "Ah here we go."
Xena had been following her cautiously. "I've got to tell you, Gabrielle, it's a little disconcerting that you know your way around the catacombs of Mt. Olympus," Xena confessed, looking uncomfortable.
"Yeah, that's a terrible feeling, isn't it?" the bard said sarcastically. "Welcome to my world."
Xena offered an uneasy glance.
"Tsst I'm kidding, Xena," Gabrielle poked her in the gut and chuckled. She reached out, putting pressure on a mantle that was recessed in the wall. "This ought to do it." The simple shield above the mantle rotated into the wall to reveal the scrolls hidden behind it.
"Gabrielle, those are your scrolls," Xena remarked with surprise. "But how did you---"
"Been here, done this," was her reply.
Suddenly, Aphrodite appeared behind them, "Ooh there they are," the goddess peered closer at the scrolls. "Ares was quite protective of these," reaching out and gently tapping one. "Started collecting them while you were 'away' ..." She made quotation marks in the air, referring to their twenty-five-year sleep. "Are you going to take them with you?"
"Well, no, I hadn't really thought about it," Gabrielle looked up at Xena, who shrugged. "I think I'll leave them here, and add one, if that's all right. I know they'll be safe."
"That they will, little one." The goddess gave her a squeeze.
"I thought maybe you could hide one half here," the bard said in Xena's direction, referring to the broken chakram. "And we can hide the other half somewhere else."
"Good idea," Xena said, as she jammed one half of the chakram, broken ends first, into the stone that sheltered the scrolls.
Gabrielle nodded in approval. One final look at her scrolls, and she leaned on the mantle again to send the scrolls back to their resting place.
Aphrodite deposited the pair just outside of the catacomb walls, pausing to seal the entrance. The lock was a dial with a handprint imbedded in it, encircled by the colorful stones. "Now, if you ever want to collect those scrolls it's ruby, then emerald," she instructed.
"Ruby, then emerald got it," Gabrielle said, mimicking the motion with her hand.
"Is there someplace I can drop you ladies off?" the goddess asked, clasping her hands together.
"No offense, Aphrodite, but I think we'd like to get wherever we're going the old-fashioned way for a change," Xena said, getting a nod of approval from her partner on the matter.
"I can understand that," the goddess smiled, and pulled the pair into a group hug. She stepped back and put one hand on each face, "Take care of yourselves."
"We will," the warrior smiled.
"Thank you for everything, Aphrodite," Gabrielle hugged her again. "You're a good friend."
The goddess gave her an extra squeeze. "Be happy, Gabby," she said sincerely, into the bard's ear.
"I am, Aphrodite." One more squeeze.
The goddess stepped back and regarded the pair. "Don't be strangers," she gave a satisfied sigh, then disappeared.
Gabrielle stared at the spot for an instant, "I hope she'll be all right."
Xena put her arm around her soul mate, "I'm sure she'll be fine, Gabrielle. Anyone who could entomb the God of War for eternity---"
"Mmm," agreed Gabrielle. "But I think that was you." She looked at the other half of the broken chakram still in Xena's hand.
Xena simply smiled.
"Where are you going to hide that?" the bard asked, pointing at the broken chakram.
"Dunno. I think I'll let you take care of that. Wherever it is, I don't want to know about it," she said as she tucked it into the bard's pack.
"Don't trust yourself where Ares is concerned, hm?" It wasn't a jealous or bitter statement, merely factual.
"Can't be too careful," Xena agreed.
"All set then?" asked Gabrielle, responding to the pat on her back.
"Yep," the warrior chirped, offering a parting glance at the catacomb entry. "It'll be a cold day in Tartarus before he ever gets out of there."
"Great. Let's get out of here."
"Right behind you."
"Looks like we're back to wandering around Greece, looking for trouble."
"At least we're consistent."
"That's a joke, right?"
"You know, Xena, I used to think Mt. Olympus was in the clouds," the bard said, as they continued their trek from the catacombs toward Thessaly.
"Nah, just another myth by another bard with a vivid imagination," the warrior commented dryly.
"Is that a dig?"
"No, it's a compliment," Xena smiled, with a nudge. "The gods love you guys. You make everything sound so big and mysterious and powerful," she teased, gesturing with her hands.
"So, that's why you keep me around," Gabrielle mused.
That brought a broad toothy grin from her partner and a hand on her back. They both snickered.
As the day wore on, Gabrielle could see Xena's mood begin to take on a more somber tone. They walked in silence for a long stretch until they decided to stop for the night. The forest seemed vaguely familiar to the bard. Then she remembered why, and realized the source of her partner's darkening mood. They set up camp and ate dinner, mostly in silence. Afterwards, Gabrielle worked on a new scroll, and Xena fiddled with a bit of armor, but gave up when she couldn't keep her mind on it.
"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle said quietly, trying to coax her solemn companion into talking about it.
Xena shifted a bit on the log where she sat and stared into their campfire, "I almost lost you here once."
"Well, you didn't. And that was a long time ago a very long time ago." Here we go, the bard sighed inwardly.
Xena rarely dwelled on the "what ifs" anymore. But Gabrielle knew that finding out about Ares' masquerade as Akemi had really shaken her partner. She also knew that the more Xena thought about it, the worse she was going to feel. Xena knew it too, so for now she was content to just skim along the surface of her discomfort.
"Yeah, I know," the warrior scratched her head, "but it just makes me think---"
"Don't do it," the bard chided.
That brought a little smile from the warrior, but she continued on with a litany of her past sins that had impacted the pair in their travels together. Since misery loves company, Gabrielle tried to add her past sins to the list, but the warrior just managed to turn them into some game of Six Degrees of Separation to Xena's Past Mistakes. The younger woman let her soul mate indulge in the self-pity for a while, but then she decided enough was enough.
"Well, well, well," Gabrielle began sarcastically, "aren't we just something? It seems that we can't make a move without stepping into a big load of centaur dung, huh? And somehow, in the grand scheme of things, you caused it all."
Xena just fidgeted with her hands and worked her jaw a bit.
"Xena," she reached out and touched the worried hands, "I'm not scolding you," the bard said with a smile, trying to keep things light. The warrior gave a small shrug and an attempt at a smile, but Gabrielle could tell her mood had not changed. "Okay Xena, I'll tell you what," she paused briefly, "I'll tell you the rest of my deep, dark secrets, and you tell me all of yours, and then I'll draw up this map," she drew an imaginary rectangle in the air above her head, "and we carefully navigate our lives around the little skulls and crossbones." She traced a crooked line in the air, demonstrating their path. It was meant as a joke, hoping her companion would see the absurdity of it. She didn't.
The tension clearly showed in the warrior's face as she turned to face her partner. "Gabrielle, I was a horrible person and I have a very ugly past, and whether Ares is around or not, it's just going to keep popping up," she snapped. "I can't possib---"
Two fingers to her lips cut off her words, as the bard settled into the space by her side and encircled the warrior's shoulders with her free arm.
"Shhhh Xena," she soothed, removing her hand from the warrior's lips and rubbing an arm, "come on ... it's all right."
Xena began to utter a protest but the bard threatened to silence her again. Xena didn't speak, and Gabrielle continued with her gentle stroking.
"Look," she began, in a no nonsense tone, "I'm not a child, Xena. I know there are probably hundreds of stories I don't know about, don't want to know about, will probably never have the occasion to know about."
The warrior cringed at the truth of that statement.
"And that's okay honestly," giving a gentle squeeze.
"But gods, Gabrielle, aren't you sick of it?" the warrior spat, disgusted. "My past keeps coming up like a bad lunch in a rundown backwater tavern, and you're the one that suffers."
"What bothers me, Xena," Gabrielle countered gently, "is you beating yourself up over it. There's nothing you can do to change the past. You can only work to make the future better. You said that. Whatever comes up, comes up, Xena, we'll deal with it," she paused, "just like we always do." Not spoken as a complaint, just a fact of life. "And I'm no saint, we both know that," Gabrielle added.
"Please, Gabrielle, your deep dark secrets?" the warrior mocked. "Tsst, there's not even a contest there."
"You're right, Xena, it's not a contest. And if it were," the bard paused, "you'd win the 'Really Big, Bad, Nasty Warlord of the Century' award." This she said in a goofy, mocking tone, making quotation marks in the air around the title.
It finally brought a chuckle to the brooding warrior, who massaged her temples for a moment. "Okay, okay I give," she smiled, with a dismissive wave of her hand, slightly embarrassed by her sour mood.
Gabrielle patted her partner's knee and grinned, proud of her ability to bring her soul mate out of her funk.
Xena let out a relieved groan and stretched her back a bit. Gabrielle got up from her seat and stood behind her companion, massaging her shoulders to break up the tension that had settled there. Xena moaned in appreciation.
"Ugh that feels great. Thanks." She enjoyed the touch, letting the gentle kneading push away her unpleasant mood. She had to smile at her soul mate's uncanny skill of bringing her back to her center. Her thoughts turned to Gabrielle and how much she'd grown in years since they'd met, from a feisty, naοve child, gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the world, to a competent, self-assured woman, wise beyond her years.
"You don't really have any deep, dark secrets, do you, Gabrielle?" the warrior wondered out loud.
"Hmmm " Gabrielle stopped her kneading and put a hand to her chin. "Well, you know about the sixth toe " They both chuckled. "Other than that, I think I'm out, currently." After a brief silence, she patted Xena on the shoulder, "Don't worry, Xena, I'm not even going to ask about yours," she said with a grin. She began kneading again, "There is one thing I would like to know, though---"
"I'd like to know if you've taught anyone else the pinch," the bard gently prodded.
"Because I feel it may have a direct impact on my future."
Gabrielle stopped the massage and returned to her seat, straddling the log to face her partner. "Think about it, Xena, everyone who learns the pinch dies ... badly. It's a curse, not a sacred trust," she said with an impish grin.
Xena just chuckled, and then thought for an instant.
"That's not true, Gabrielle."
"Heh," Gabrielle began to count on her fingers, "Akemi, you, M'l---"
"Akemi doesn't count," the warrior broke in, "and I'm still alive."
Gabrielle gave the warrior her best glare and then let out a laugh.
"Akemi does count. Ares or not, she still wound up dead again."
Xena actually chuckled at that and shook her head.
"And how many times have you died, Xena?" the bard continued, innocently tapping her chin with a finger.
Xena gave that serious thought. "Oh, wait Gabrielle, I think that's a trophy you win," the warrior joked back.
"Um ... no, I think we're even now," the bard corrected.
"No, no, this last one doesn't count because you went back and changed the timeline."
"Yes, but it still happened for me, so I'm counting it. Hey wait you still died, you goof. I just happened to bring you back instead of leaving you there," she poked the warrior in the side.
"Oh right. Even," Xena said with a big grin. "Did I remember to thank you for that, by the way?" she deadpanned, and poked the bard back.
"Hey, that tickles!" Gabrielle squeaked, and attacked her partner in earnest until they tumbled off their perch in laughter.
Xena wound up sprawled on her back with a giggling bard on top of her, "Ooooh, gods," Gabrielle exhaled, as she rolled onto her back, settling her head on one of the warrior's outstretched arms.
"It feels good to laugh again." She rolled to her side and then to her stomach, propping herself up on her elbows. "And yes, to answer your question, you have thanked me." She reached out and began to trace a slow, seductive line with her finger along Xena's arm. It started at her muscular bicep and ended at her shoulder, where the tracing stopped and the bard looked up, to see an interested warrior gazing back. "Many times," Gabrielle purred. She raised one eyebrow and continued the trace along her collarbone. "In many ways," up went the other eyebrow.
At this point, Xena couldn't help but break into a full faced grin.
The bard withdrew her tracing hand and inched closer, pulling herself up onto her hands and leaning over the warrior's grinning face. In her best impersonation of Xena, she lowered her voice, "You have many skills," raising her eyebrows several times.
Both women broke into a fit of laughter as Xena gathered her soul mate into her arms.
"I'll have better memories of this forest now," Xena mused, as they lay side by side, staring up at the stars.
"Oh, excellent. Here, let me cross this forest off the list of bad memories," the bard joked as she rubbed in the air. "One down---"
"Tsst," Xena elbowed her gently. They stared in contentment at the vast sky.
In the stillness of the evening, it wasn't long before past events filtered into their thoughts.
"Why didn't Celesta take you?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment, and let out a pensive sigh, "Aphrodite told her what Ares had done about Akemi, I mean. He was out of control, and it was only going to get worse. It was a judgment call, on Celesta's part."
"Well, I hope it's a long time before I can see her to thank her," Xena joked.
Gabrielle smiled. "I'll second that," raising a hand.
"You weren't going to tell me about Akemi, were you?" the warrior asked, seriously.
Gabrielle bit her lip and rolled over on her side to face her partner, propping her head up on one hand. She reached over, touched Xena's hip, and gently started tracing mindless circles there. "I really struggled with that, Xena." A pause. "You loved her. She obviously touched you deeply."
Xena couldn't deny that. She rolled over and mirrored her soul mate's position, grasping the tracing hand, "Thank you for wanting me to have that." She squeezed and released the hand.
"But on the other hand," the bard continued, "you had a right to know that you were being manipulated by Ares."
The warrior acknowledged the struggle with a nod.
"How do you feel now that you know it was Ares, I mean?" Gabrielle probed gently, as she picked up an errant twig and fiddled with it absentmindedly.
Xena looked down and smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle on their bedroll. Her brow twitched, but she didn't answer.
Gabrielle reached over and took her hand, "You don't have to answer."
Xena squeezed her hand, "It's not that, Gabrielle, I I don't---"
"Want to go there right now," her partner finished.
Xena nodded regretfully, "Soon."
Gabrielle understood. She patted Xena's hand and rolled onto her back, playing with the twig with both hands now.
Xena held her position and regarded her partner's relaxed form. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, for not telling you about the blood bond with Ares."
The bard smiled amicably, "I'm sure you have your reasons, Xena, you usually do. And they're usually good ones," she added, twirling the twig.
"I'm not sure I have a good one this time. I never really think about it. It was a long time ago and I just kind of take my skills for granted," the warrior shrugged. "My ego makes me want to think it's from hard work and dedication. The rest of me just doesn't want to admit there's a part of him in me."
"See, good reasons," Gabrielle smiled and pointed the twig at her companion.
"I'd hate for you to think that I'd kept something like that from you for some"
"Xena," Gabrielle interrupted, with a raised hand, "I'm over it. It's fine. It just surprised me, that's all ... or maybe it didn't." Shrug. "It's not every day you find out your best friend has a god's blood coursing through her veins."
"It's hardly any, Gabrielle---it's not like I'm a demigod or something," Xena said, rolling onto her back and putting her hands behind her head.
"Oh, I dunno," Gabrielle teased, "I've seen you do some pretty amazing things."
Xena smiled and nudged Gabrielle's knee with her thigh. They stared at the stars in silence for a while, until the warrior sighed and cleared her throat.
"Um About Ares, and Akemi all of that," she made a vague gesture with her elbow.
Gabrielle rolled over, propped herself up on her elbow, and gave her partner her complete attention. Xena continued staring up at the stars.
"I think he loved me in his way," she mumbled the last part. "That makes me sick and sorry for him all at the same time, and you know me and my thing for bad boys," she chuckled.
Gabrielle smiled in concurrence.
"I don't quite know how to resolve those emotions. I don't know that I have to, or want to." A shrug. "It's the bigger picture that bothers me." A pause. "Looking back on my life, I don't know what was him and what was me. I thought I'd found who I was, you know, outside of Ares' manipulations. But now I just feel like my whole life, right up until I sealed that tomb, was directed by him. I'm not sure I know who I am anymore. Did I choose the paths I took, or did Ares?"
Gabrielle just listened. She understood the questions her partner was struggling with. She also knew some questions just didn't have answers. That's just the way it is---for everyone. Watching Xena's practical mind trying to resolve the riddles of the universe was quite like watching a mouse in a maze. Someone promised him cheese if he found the exit. Sometimes there is no exit.
"Was I evil before I met him, or did he make me so?" Xena pondered. Must have cheese.
"Well, look at it this way, Xena," the bard attempted a rescue, "you started on the right path. It just got twisted along the way, through no fault of your own, by the way," she emphasized.
Xena gave her a doubting look.
"You reached out to Ares trying to do something good saving your village," Gabrielle pushed. "And then he gave you a choice, and you chose the greater good over your beloved brother. I think that says a lot about who you are."
"I'm not going to use him as an excuse to absolve myself of all the horrible things I've done, Gabrielle. I was there too," she admonished.
"Yes, you were there. And I know you would never use him as an excuse, that's not what I'm saying. We all have to take responsibility for our actions. But for Zeus's sake, Xena, between Ares and the cast of unsavory characters he'd surrounded you with, you never had a chance." She put her hand on Xena's hip. "And even with all of that against you, you still turned your back on that life and found your way back."
"I had a lot of help," the warrior said, almost automatically, folding her arms across her stomach.
"Just like you had a lot of help to be evil, Xena." A simple truth.
Xena massaged her lifeline reflectively.
"We're all affected by outside influences," her soul mate continued. "In the center of that storm is one constant presence. Look into your heart, Xena, you'll find yourself there."
Xena grinned slowly, propped herself up on an elbow, and gazed at her partner for a few moments. "I see you there," she said softly.
Gabrielle smiled and enjoyed the sentiment for a moment. "Okay, then look just over my shoulder see the tall, dark, handsome one with her arms around me? That's you."
"Hmmm," Xena closed her eyes and feigned concentration. "I can't seem to tell them apart."
"Tsst Xena," Gabrielle threw the twig at her companion.
Xena swiped it away with a smile.
"Yeah, poor me," the warrior bemoaned. "You know, Gabrielle, for all I know, Ares could have pushed you into my path."
"Well, considering how things worked out for him, it was the biggest mistake he ever made," the bard reflected. "Besides, I think our path together is a lot bigger than one little God of War. Embrace your past, Xena, the good and bad. It all comes together to make you who you are now."
Xena gave her a skeptical look, and then started peering behind her and to both sides.
Gabrielle started looking as well, "What are you looking for, Xena?"
"I wanted to see if Eve was in the bushes, feeding you lines."
"Ha, ha," Gabrielle groaned. "All right, check this out, and then I'll shut up." She sat up and rummaged through her pack, producing a new piece of parchment. Then she leaned over and broke a fresh twig from a low hanging branch. Now she was sitting cross-legged in front of the still lounging warrior. "Okay, see this piece of parchment?" she unrolled it and held it up.
"Yeeees," the warrior drew out drolly.
"How many sides does it have?"
Xena thought for a moment. "Six," she said, smiling proudly.
"Hmm," Gabrielle smiled. "No, two," she showed both sides.
"Okay." She crumpled it up into a ball and held it out in her hand, "How many sides does it have now?"
"That was a perfectly good piece of parchment, Gabrielle," Xena admonished.
"How many?" she emphasized the question by moving the balled parchment closer.
"Flower, pretty. Bacchae, bad," the warrior said flatly.
That got a huge grin from the bard. "Still two."
Xena rolled her eyes.
"Now," Gabrielle uncrumpled the piece of parchment and flattened out the wrinkles. She tore a finger's width strip from the top edge of it. She held up the strip. "How many sides?"
"What is this? Test day?" the warrior complained, "Two."
"Good girl," the bard teased. She then took the strip, one end in each hand, twisted it a hundred eighty degrees, and joined the ends with a bit of sap from the twig she'd broken off. It made a continuous loop with a twist in the center. She held it up.
"How many sides?"
Gabrielle raised one eyebrow and broke into a devilish grin, "One."
Xena just stared at her. "Give me that!" she snapped, as she snatched it out of the bard's hand. The warrior examined it, with a concentrated frown, pausing briefly to give her partner a skeptical glance.
Gabrielle picked up her quill and some ink and offered it to her companion, "Go ahead."
Xena took the items with feigned annoyance. She dipped the quill in the ink, gave Gabrielle a quick glance, and began to draw a line lengthwise down the center of the loop. Sure enough, she came right back to where she'd started without lifting up the quill. "One," she said in amazement, under her breath. She looked up, to see her soul mate grinning proudly.
"Sometimes you make my head hurt, Gabrielle." She looked back down at the loop in her hands. "Thank you," looking up, with genuine affection. "I'm keeping this." She gazed at it like a child with a new toy, and then she paused, "What's your point again?" Xena held up the loop, feigned bewilderment, and smiled.
"Tsst Xena," Gabrielle shook her head and laughed as she gathered up her writing tools. "That answer has so many levels," she settled down on her side on their bedroll, facing her partner, "but I don't want to make your head hurt."
"Yeah. Can't be too careful. Big dumb warrior might hurt herself," Xena said in a goofy tone, folding up the loop, tucking it away, and settling down on her back.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and exhaled a laugh. "Good night, big dumb warrior," she teased, and closed her eyes.
"Good night, Gabrielle," Xena leaned over and kissed her partner on the forehead.
A loud snap from the campfire brought Gabrielle back to consciousness. She'd had no intention of falling asleep so quickly. When she opened her eyes she saw her partner still awake, on her back, focusing idly on the now unfolded loop in her hands. Gabrielle smiled. It always amused her when her intellectually deep, incredibly complicated soul mate pretended to be a bonehead. She also knew that Xena's analytical mind would ponder over every aspect and implication of her new toy until she was satisfied that it had nothing else to offer. That's going to take a while, Gabrielle smiled to herself.
Xena suddenly felt the green eyes burning into her face. She looked over, to see her soul mate's adoring eyes smiling at her. The warrior returned the affectionate gaze and held up the loop. "I love you, Gabrielle," said with admiration.
"I love you too, Xena," said with a satisfied grin.
Thanks for reading.
This story copyrighted by the author.