Can You Hear My Thoughts
"Can you hear my thoughts?" Gabrielle asked the specter beside her.
Xena shrugged her broad shoulders. "Sometimes. When Im close, I cant hear you, but the farther away I get, the louder your voice is."
The blonde nodded. After the life theyd lived together, having the ghost of her best friend next to her didnt seem that odd. It was, however, making it difficult for her to accept the fact that Xena was really dead, and apparently staying that way.
"Where do you go?" Gabrielle turned her back to the sea and looked at her friend. Xenas long hair flowed in the misty breeze, backlit by an ethereal glow. She looked beautiful, as always.
The warrior shook her head. "Im not sure. There are other spirits there, though. Ive talked to a few people and they dont really know either."
"Is it heaven?"
"I dont think so. Its not hell, tartarus, or elysia either." She brushed a wayward lock of hair from her face as if the wind were effecting it.
"You should know, I guess," Gabrielle said sadly. Shed never had any preconception that the warrior would live forever, or that she would herself for that matter, but Xenas departure seemed cruelly premature. They had been on the precipice of an amazing change in their relationship, only to have the possibility snatched from their grasp. If she thought about it, the bard knew it was a fitting end. Her mistake had been in not telling Xena how she felt from the very beginning.
Mirroring her position, Xena leaned against the boat. Their shoulders should have been touching, but the dark-haired woman had lost all ability to touch solid objects, including her friend. Instead, Gabrielle felt only a slight prickle of sensation when her flesh passed through the warriors energy.
The stars overhead were brilliant, each one shining almost as bright as Polaris itself. She wasnt really thinking of the twinkling gems, though. She wanted to, but the young woman feared that part of her life was over, her transformation into a roaming warrior complete. It wasnt what she wanted, but she had little choice now. Gabrielle missed the days when her pen served as her greatest weapon and the heft of a sword was only a mystery she didnt particularly care to solve.
Not that she wasnt proud she could now protect herself and defend others. Xena had helped hone her skills to a point beyond almost anyone she would meet, and Gabrielle was never hesitant to use her skills when there was no other choice. Before their final trip together, shed been getting used to the idea of settling down with her friend. When Xena had told her they would go to the land of the pharaohs, thered been a twinkle in her blue eyes that said more than her words. Gabrielle knew it was finally time for them to quit using the distractions of the road to separate themselves and concentrate on the true depth of their relationship.
Now, the confused young woman had no reason to settle down, and certainly no one to do it for. She supposed she would continue what she and Xena had started, a path of working for the greater good of the world, if not for herself.
Gabrielle looked over to her friend, who stared contently at the sky. In a way she was glad Xena was at peace, no more feeling the need to redeem herself for her past sins. At the same time, she didnt think Xena would be happy not having any more challenges to overcome. They both shared that trait.
Another characteristic they shared was the frustrating inability to completely speak their feelings. Sure, theyd confessed their love to one another a hundred times, and meant it sincerely, but neither had had the courage to take the extra step and demonstrate exactly what theyd meant to each other, even though theyd longed to do so. Shed wanted to know Xena in every way, practically from the beginning. At first it had only been a vague sexual attraction. As they became closer, Gabrielle had realized she loved everything about her friend, even the horrific aspects of her character. Having someone who knew her so completely as well, she knew she didnt need another companion for anything, and she didnt really want one. Stubbornness and fear had kept her from ever telling Xena she wanted to know her inside and out.
Clinching her teeth, the bard knew it was too late for that now. Xena, however, would know about it anyway. "Im in love with you, ya know."
The warriors head snapped down from her star gazing, meeting her friends eyes. She swallowed hard. "I I know."
"Doesnt hurt to say it now, I guess." Gabrielle closed her eyes and lowered her face into her hands. "Actually, it does hurt," she rasped, feeling the tears well.
"Im sorry," Xena said softly, closer than shed been before.
"Sorry doesnt cut it, Xena," the bard said angrily. "You didnt have to do this and I cant for the life of me imagine why I let you. There had to be another way."
Shaking her head, the warrior said, "There wasnt another way. It had to end like this."
Fiery green eyes shot to the apparition. "No, it didnt. You didnt purposefully kill those people. They didnt need vengeance; they needed to be released, which you did. Someone with an agenda simply told you what you wanted to hear, and you believed it."
Obviously taken aback by her friends harshness, Xena stammered. "What do you mean?"
"I mean Akimmi wanted you, and now shes got you. And Im alone."
Xena shook her head. "I havent even seen her. I think shes gone beyond wherever. Gabrielle, I told you Im staying here and I meant it. Please dont be angry."
"Dont be angry? Are you kidding me? Youre dead Xena. Nothing more than a trick of the lights, with no substance. How long do you think youre going to like that? Soon enough youll be ready to go to the next level of where ever you are, looking for the next adventure you can actually take part in. It may have been good enough for me, but youre not the kind to follow a warrior around." She choked back a sob, not wanting to show Xena her weakness. Gabrielle didnt want to be mean, but her emotions were bubbling over.
Hurt blue eyes looked away. "I thought it was the right thing to do," she said quietly.
"Well, it was selfish." Seeing her friends defeated slump, Gabrielle felt guilty for being so hard on the love of her life. "Or maybe Im selfish. I dont know anymore."
Suddenly, Xena stood directly in front of her. "Id give my soul to hold you right now," she whispered.
"So would I," the bard answered. "Xena, if I can find a way to bring you back, will you let me?"
The warrior looked long and deep into her friends eyes, hopefully seeing the life she was missing. "I dont know, Gabrielle. Ive done so much to deserve to be where Im at."
Shaking her head, the blonde took a deep breath. "You just keep thinking about it, then, because I plan to find a way. I was a fool to let you go. I cant live without you."
A gentle smile on her face, Xena laughed, outstretching her hand, holding it near her partners face. "You can do anything you set your mind to. Youre the most amazing person Ive ever known."
For an eternal moment, they looked into each others eyes, seeing hope and doubt swirling in a confused mass. Love rested there as well, letting Gabrielle know she could do anything, and no matter how much Xena protested, she would live again. First, though, she had to convince the warrior she had a right to live.
Considering that daunting task, a wave of exhaustion washed over the young blonde. She had hardly slept since Xenas death, too afraid the spirit would disappear while out of her sight. Her body would not be further denied, though.
"Im going to my cabin to lie down," she said.
"Thats a good idea. You look tired. Ill stay here and keep watch."
Gabrielle reached for her friend, grimacing when her hand passed through Xenas. "Please come with me. At least until I fall asleep."
With a sad smile, the warrior agreed, following Gabrielle into the bowels of the ship and her cold, lonely cot.
Gabrielle tossed and turned for a while as Xena watched her, finally drifting into a calm sleep, her soft breaths coming in a familiar cadence. So many nights on their travels, the warrior had watched her friend in the exact same manner, her thoughts usually as troubled as they were now, if for different reasons. Tonight, Xena wondered why she had constantly brought this wonderful woman constant sorrow.
Reaching over, she tried to pull the cover up to her friends shoulders, only to have her hand pass through and into Gabrielles skin. The blonde stirred, but did not wake. Frustrated, Xena sighed and stood from the bed. She needed to figure this ghost stuff out. She could sit and stand on things, but not touch with her hands.
Xena walked away, knowing that she would soon be in another world. When she got too far away from Gabrielle, she instantly found herself in a series of dark tunnels. Some had light at the end, and some had darkness. Though the light drew her, the warrior resisted the urge to go to it, knowing it would mean an end to her contact with her friend.
Not knowing what she was looking for did not keep Xena from exploring the caves. Gabrielle was right in that respect: she needed constant challenge. Xena suspected she was at some point in between life and the after-life, like the limbo shed heard of in old ghost stories. It wasnt torture, though, as the old men in the tavern described it. She felt at peace, even more so when she was near the bard. When she was roaming the tunnels, she felt pulled in two directions.
"Xena," a mans voice said from behind her.
"Yes, whos there?" Her body went rigid, ready for a fight.
Another figure, creating his own light, moved into her field of view. "Weve been looking for you."
She didnt know why, but Xena suspected this man had died in the fire. "What do you want?" she asked defensively.
He smiled at her sadly, his almond eyes understanding, though she didnt understand herself. "You should come to the light. It is bliss."
A dark eyebrow rose. "Then why arent you there?"
The man laughed. "I work with the Master to bring lost souls into his fold. I will be by his side again soon."
He motioned and turned, Xena following despite herself. At the end of the tunnel, where there had been nothing before, a bright light beckoned them. If she was honest with herself, she could admit that leaving Gabrielle wasnt the only reason she was afraid of the light. Part of her still believed a million deaths awaited her for each one shed caused on Earth.
"You have paid the ultimate price, Xena. Your repentance is done."
Alarmed the man could read her mind, the dark woman stopped in her tracks. "Get out of my head."
Standing in front of the illuminate portal, the man, shorter than her, held out his hand. "You must learn to trust."
"I know how to trust," she answered, thinking of Gabrielle.
"She is lost to you and you are confused. Step into the next world and leave the last one behind. You will not be disappointed."
Xena didnt think he was lying, yet she couldnt bare the thought of living without her friend, even if she could never be everything to her that she should, or perhaps because of it. "I cant," she said, even as she took a step forward. The draw of the light was tremendous, pulling her with an almost physical force.
As if in a dream, she heard Gabrielles voice calling her name. The bard was awake, in need of her. Xena shook her head, looking at the man trying to lead her to salvation. "I cant," she said, turning.
"In life you were able to do what was right, Xena. You too will find your way in death."
Sprinting away from him, Xena hoped he knew what he was talking about. Right now, though, she was doing what she wanted to, what she had to.
The windblown streets of Buto, with the hot sun beating down upon them, didnt look much different than those in Greece. Shops in the market were much the same, hawking staples and delicacies at bargain prices, or so the salesmen claimed. And though the outdoor café sold a different fair, the smooth-topped tables and well-worn chairs were familiar.
Watching the dark-skinned Egyptians pad stealthily across the hard-packed surface speaking in their guttural tones, Gabrielle knew she was in another world. Being in a land so far away, it was strange to see such a large Greek influence on their way of life. Most people she came across spoke her language as well as she did. She wished Xena were there beside her to share the wondrous new sights, but in a way, she was also glad she wasnt. Having her friend around only as a ghost, unable to touch and feel, was almost as bad as not having her at all.
As theyd left the boat, Xena had simply disappeared, her image fading away into thin air. The bard was not alarmed, however. She knew Xena had meant it when shed promised shed never leave. The woman was good at keeping oaths, as she was at holding onto old wounds, which was why they were in this dreadful situation now.
Gabrielle didnt need many supplies, but she looked around the marketplace anyway. The bag on her back held food and other important articles. It might as well have been empty for all the comfort it gave her. She knew it wouldnt, but she hoped that a few minutes distraction would help ease her soul.
Nothing appealed to her as she walked down the rows. The sweaty merchants saw her, a foreigner, as an easy dupe. They tried to reel her in to their rickety wooden tables with promises of the greatness of their goods. Even the clothes shops didnt attract her, the beautiful silks and awesomely colored fabrics held her eye for no longer than the rock merchant two stalls away. Shed been depressed before, but now, she felt more desperate and lonely than she ever had. Not even the lonely days after Xena had been lost to the savage tribesman in Greece had she been in such darkness.
At the end of a row buried deep within the market, probably so far back that most people did not travel past it, Gabrielle found a stall displaying scrolls. If she planned on staying in Egypt, or anywhere in the area, she supposed it would be worth her while to investigate their history and customs. She picked up several of the documents and glanced at the words, knowing immediately the language was old and unused.
An almost silent bell announced the presence of the shopkeeper, his face a sunken mask of age, his hair dingy gray, his mouth full of missing teeth. Still, he smiled. Gabrielle felt sorry for him, knowing any purchase she made would no doubt be the only thing putting food in his belly.
"Fine scrolls," he said, his accent thick.
"What other kinds do you have?" she asked.
He spread his weathered hands across the table, motioning to the cornucopia of parchment. "Healing scrolls, story scrolls, even have scrolls of the great Virgil. Very sophisticated."
Gabrielle laughed, knowing that Virgil wasnt as sophisticated as this man thought. She briefly wondered if Joxers son was still alive, and what he might be doing back in her homeland. It was hard to believe he was an acclaimed playwright.
The old man glanced to either side of the hut and whispered to her, leaning over the table. "I have old scrolls too. Secrets. Only for you."
Her curiosity piqued, Gabrielle leaned a little closer to him and lowly asked, "What kind of scrolls?"
His eyes lit up. "Scrolls for spells and curses. Some from the great priest Tahotep. He gives me many. Make lots of money."
"And what does this priest specialize in?" she asked.
The old man glanced around again. "He is keeper of the dead. Pharaohs, far back, he watches. Some say he brings them back."
As if lightening had struck her, Gabrielle straightened, her back rigid, her heart hard, trying to stave off the wave of hope trying to wash over her. "He brings people back from the dead?"
"So say some people. Never seen it."
"Do you have any scrolls for that?"
He shook his head. "No, but others from him. I have a text on how to keep cats away. Very important."
The absurdity of his comment didnt register with her. "How can I contact him, this Tahotep?"
"Oh, he lives very far away. Only comes one time a year. He just left."
Gabrielle cursed silently.
"But you can find him," he said, his kind eyes sensing her need. "Follow the sun to the West, until you reach the great pyramids. You will find him there. Be careful, though, vast deserts lie in between."
Without a doubt, she knew she would cross any distance of desert to bring back her soulmate. The bard thumbed through the scrolls until she finally found one that looked to be a remedy for a stomachache. She took out a golden coin, knowing it was worth ten times her purchase, and handed it to him. "Thank you for your help. You have no idea what it means to me."
A toothless grin graced his features and he nodded his head simply. "Go to the sun god Ra in the West. Tahotep will help you. Show him the scroll and he will know I sent you."
With lightness in her step, she continued back to the market proper, her mind turning on what she would need for a desert journey. She and Xena had crossed them before, and out of all the climates shed been in, deserts were the harshest. An extra water bag, or more, would be essential. Judging from the camels shed seen around the port, she knew it would be a good idea to obtain one. Not knowing how far her journey was made it difficult to judge her need. Gabrielle hoped her intuition would provide her with enough goods to complete the trek.
Mentally cataloging the contents of her pack, she felt the weight of the urn against her back and the energy of Xenas ashes. She didnt know how this Tahotep brought people back, or if he really could. All she could do was pray that this was the answer shed been hoping would come along.
The hot desert sand warmed her feet through the thick soles of her sandals, as she trudged further into the foreign land, the blistering sun overhead thoroughly heating the rest of her body. Gabrielle had bought garments to protect herself from the damaging rays, and already only a little while into her journey, she was soaked with sweat and miserable. She wasnt a fan of the cold, but at least in that type of climate she could cover up and get warm. Out here, amongst the desolate dunes, she could do nothing to cool herself. Even the occasional wind that blew across her path was dry, sandy, and discomforting. Her goal, however, was worth all the trouble in the world.
"What are you doing out here?" Xena asked from behind her, several miles into the adventure, when the sun was near setting.
Gabrielle glanced to her side and saw her warrior, decked out in elegant, beautiful green and blue silk robes, completely unaffected by the heat. "Im making cookies. What does it look like Im doing?" Xena smirked at her, and she smiled back.
"I thought you were gonna stay in Buto."
"That was the plan, but Ive changed my mind. Ive heard there are great pyramids across the desert and Id like to see them."
Xena nodded and they walked along in silence. The warriors image gave no indication she was less than real, but like any oasis the bard might find in this place, the dark woman was just a mirage.
After a while, Xena turned to her friend, her crystal blue eyes twinkling. "Ya know, I always thought you were sexy when you were sweating."
Gabrielle blushed and tried to hide her surprise, obviously failing by the look on Xenas face. "Thanks," she said quietly.
"You cant imagine how many times I thought about wiping the wet hair from your forehead and kissing you, giving you something else to think about."
The blonde cleared her throat. "I could say the same." They both nodded, accepting the truth, as if their intimate sexual contact consisted of more than a couple of poorly masked attempts at a kiss. Somehow, theyd never really succeeded.
With both their minds on what seemed so unattainable, even to Gabrielle who had some slim hope in her heart, they continued until only the moon and the stars gave a dim luminescence over them. Gabrielle suggested they make camp, both of them pretending Xena needed input and protection from the elements.
She hoped the fire she built would be enough to keep away any desert predators, though she knew shed been in danger the moment shed left the town. Even Xena, who seemed an expert at everything, said she was not as comfortable there as she was in the forests of Greece. Despite the danger, they both sat by the fire, the bard partaking of the dried meat and fruit shed packed. She ate only small portions, knowing she needed to conserve in case shed underestimated the distance to her destination.
Lying down on her makeshift pallet, Gabrielle was charmed to have Xena there beside her, so close, yet untouchable. "Whats the most dangerous animal in the desert?" Gabrielle asked, curious and wanting to talk to her friend.
Xena sighed and thought for a moment. "Besides me, ya mean?" She raised an eyebrow and the bard nodded. "Id have to say the snakes. Im not sure about this desert, but I know King Cobras live in environments like this, and even snakes that are more dangerous."
"Where do they live?" Gabrielle asked, concerned. Shed been more aware of predators like wolves, who could be easily seen.
The warrior looked around, considering. "Generally, I think they live in burrows in the ground and under rocks; places that are cool. They probably just come out at night."
Gabrielle looked around for rocks, horrified to see several large ones shed chosen to camp near. Theyd seemed somehow to be a protection, but now thinking of the slithering beasts that could be harbored there, it didnt seem like such a good idea.
Xena laughed, watching her. "I think it will be all right. Snakes have a bad reputation, but most of the time they dont attack without provocation."
"I hope youre right," the bard said, "or I may be joining you sooner than we expect."
Her face turning very serious, Xena softly said, "Dont say that. You have so much to live for."
Gabrielle wondered where her friend got her resolve, because she knew that the bard herself had no such commitment to self-preservation. "Ive lived for you for so long, Xena. I dont know what to do now."
"No, no, no. You didnt live for me," the dark-haired warrior said softly. "You can do anything, be anything, and change the world. Youve been the hero all along, Gabrielle."
The blonde shook her head doubtfully. "I never cared about that. What we did together was always secondary. Our being together was the most important to me. Youre the reason for my everything."
Xena reached out, as if caressing the bards face, her fingers tingling against the soft skin there. "Id kiss you right now if I could," a tinge of sadness in her voice.
Wishing more than anything that the warrior could, Gabrielle simply closed her eyes and absorbed the supernatural warmth of her friend, letting it cushion her into sleep, where in dreams her wishes could come true.
The bard looked hot, beads of sweat across her forehead like drops of rain, her face a dark, radiating red, but Xena could only sympathize with her, the warriors days spent in the blazing sun long behind her. Shed come to accept that rather easily, at least she thought, knowing that much of life had been fleeting and unimportant. The people shed shared her life with had marked the milestones.
Looking back on her sweetest memories, most of which involved Gabrielle, the dark woman knew she could not trade a clear conscious for a life with her friend. Theyd shared too much and too deeply. Now that the deed was done, and no easy backtracking solution presented itself, she didnt know what to do.
Gabrielle stumbled in the sand up ahead and Xena was instantly at her side. Reaching out to steady her friend, the warrior stopped herself and sighed in frustration.
"Are you all right?" she asked, her silky voice unsteady.
Trudging forward, the bard looked to her slowly, taking a moment to focus on the tall form. "Im fine. Its just hot."
"Too hot. You should stop and rest."
Her glassy green eyes forward again, the bard said, "Why? The sun would just fry me. Id rather keep moving."
Xena stopped in front and put her arms out, but her friend passed through. "I want you to stop. Youre going to hurt yourself."
"Im fine," Gabrielle said coolly and kept moving.
In all the years theyd known each other, and all the scrapes theyd been in, Xena had never been more worried about her friend. From time to time since Japan, shed been so despondent that the warrior worried Gabrielle might try to hurt herself. Then the blonde would sober up and be in normal spirits, if not cheery.
After two days in the desert, Xena wondered if Gabrielle had a plan in mind other than finding pyramids. The woman loved life, but she was taking Xenas death hard. And the warrior couldnt blame her. When they were finally at the ridge of truly opening up to each other and starting a new, exciting phase in their lives, her past had ruined it all. Xena thought it only fitting.
She hated that her soulmate had to suffer, though. Xena paused in the sand, unable to feel the searing heat she knew to be there, and watched the petite blonde trek forward. Making mistakes had seemed a constant in Xenas life that shed hoped to one day outgrow. She never had, unfortunately, and entangling Gabrielle in her cursed web had been the worst, best, and only one she didnt regret.
The bard stumbled sideways, almost stepping into a rough crag of rocks, then stood still in the dry air. Xena sighed, pondering how she could get some sense into the stubborn woman.
Either walking or floating, she wasnt sure which anymore, Xena moved toward Gabrielle. "Are you ready to rest now?" she asked, stopping beside her.
Gabrielle didnt say anything, standing unnaturally frozen, her eyes burning into the sand in front of her. Xena followed her gaze to a tightly coiled black disk she horrifically realized was a snake, its tail penned beneath her friends foot. The small outcropping cast a shadow over it, but Xena could see it was a large, obsidian cobra, its body bowed like an s, its eyes trained on the intruder.
The warrior wanted to scream, knowing she was helpless to do anything. Instead, she concentrated on speaking in calm tones. "Gabrielle, you need to slowly take your foot off the snake."
"I cant, she whispered, panting silently. "I think Im gonna pass out."
At the moment, the taller woman understood the feeling. "You cant. If you fall, hell strike you."
"I know." Green eyes blinked several times and her body remained rigid. "Im tired, Xena. Maybe its for the best."
"What are you " Xena frowned, realizing what the woman meant. She moved in front of her friend, her ghostly legs mixed with the rocks. "No its not. Theres too much good left for you to do."
Gabrielle nodded slightly, her eyes clearing. "I know. Ive got to get to Tahotep."
Though she didnt know what or who Tahotep was, she didnt care. Anything that motivated the bard worked for her. "Okay, weve got to think."
Chuckling, the bard grinned wearily. "Good idea."
Ignoring Gabrielles nervous chatter, Xena tried to come up with some way she could save her friend. She didnt notice the blonde squatting until her eyes were almost even with the snakes black ones, where the shadows crossed in an invisible pulse.
"What are you doing?" she asked in a harsh whisper.
The snake bobbed menacingly as Gabrielle settled on her haunches, taking great care in sliding most of her boot off the long body. "Im getting down here on his level so Im not such a threat."
Xena started to protest, but it made perfect sense. "What now?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Im slowly taking my foot off and Im hoping "
Gasping, the warrior reached for the cobra as it uncoiled to strike, its razor sharp fang heading directly for the bards exposed chest. There was no way she could live through a bit so close to her heart.
Before Xena, or the serpent, could register what was happening, Gabrielles hand darted out, catching the scaly reptile just behind the head. He hissed and writhed, going nowhere in her fright-solidified grip.
"By the gods, Gabrielle! I cant believe you just did that." Xena squatted next to her friend, her eyes fixed unbelieving on the snake.
Breathing hard, her chest heaving, the bard licked her painfully dry lips. "Neither can I. What the hell do I do now?"
Xena put her hands up. "You got me. I think this proves youve finally surpassed your teacher," she said with a grim smile.
"Not hardly," Gabrielle responded, beginning to emerge from her daze. Her eyes cut around the area, searching.
The warrior, of course, had ideas as to how to safely dispose of the beast, which she hoped would be fairly easy. After what shed seen, though, she didnt feel the need to bark out orders. For the first time she realized that if she couldnt come back, Gabrielle would make it. At least her legacy would include that fine accomplishment, if nothing else.
Standing steadily, the blonde picked up the snakes tail in her free hand and walked to a larger rock formation nearby. Xena followed her, amazed when Gabrielle placed the reptile gently on the ground, standing still as it slithered away. Apparently, no creature alive could resist the womans charm.
As they resumed their original course, the bard seemed to have a renewed sense of energy, her focus on reaching her destination, leaving little room for conversation. Their silences usually werent awkward, their many moons together creating a comfortable knowledge of when quiet was called for. When the bard remained silent for too long, though, Xena began to wonder what could be wrong.
It wasnt until the sun began setting, an orange glow hitting Gabrielles face, that she noticed her friend was crying. No sobs wracked her body, or screams issued from her throat, but the pain on her face was real nonetheless. The tears made sad, lonely tracks down her smooth cheeks, and Xena thought shed never seen anything as heartbreaking.
"Whats wrong?" she asked softly.
The bard shook her head ruefully and shrugged. "That freaked me out," she motioned behind them, "Im fine."
"Is that all?" Xena questioned, hoping that her friends behavior was nothing more than the stress of the adventure, knowing better.
Green eyes shot to her sharply, but Gabrielle waited a moment before speaking. "I dont feel like talking."
The words, among the scariest Xena had ever heard, cut through her with Katana strength. Though it was possible for them to share comfortable silence, letting nature surround and speak for them, or losing themselves in each others company. This wasnt one of those times. A need to talk, to express her feelings, positive and negative, shown brightly from the blondes face.
Xena could not believe the question she wanted to ask, having declared such insecurity no more than weakness in the past. Even so, the lack of communication weighed more at the moment than her pride.
"Are you mad at me?"
Gabrielle looked at her, eyebrows arched, like she hadnt expected the question. "Im not mad at you. At least not any more."
"I guess I was selfish."
Swallowing hard, the bard said, "I just dont know if you were thinking. Neither was I. We can find another solution to this." Her jaw was set in determination, muscles flexing.
More than anything shed wanted before, Xena hoped the bard was right. As if the snake episode only moments before was meant to show her, the warrior knew they that they could do anything they set their minds on. Like the sand beneath their feet, she felt completely subject to the whims of the wind, and knew in the coming days, her presence, or lack thereof, would be either as comforting or destructive to her friend.
The pyramids, two smaller ones on the outside and a monstrosity in the middle, jutted from the beige earth as if they had emerged directly from the center of the world. Gabrielle wondered how the massive structures had been built, especially considering the lands stifling heat. Before their destination had come into view, shed felt faint, having to still her breathing as Xena had taught her to avoid a lecture.
Feeling rejuvenated, Gabrielle picked up her pace, not quite gliding across the sandy floor, keenly aware that Xena was no longer beside her. Shed been in and out once she recognized that the bard would be okay. Gabrielle still wondered where she went and what it was like, but for the most part, she didnt want to hear about it. She tried not to think much about the warrior at all, because she couldnt seem to do it without feeling the hurt of what theyd lost, both in life and after it. Thinking about Tahotep, and the promises he unknowingly held in his hopefully powerful hands, was much safer.
The closer she came to the pyramids, the more amazed she was at the depth of their composition and the massiveness of their size. There was nothing in Rome or Greece to compare, not even the Coliseum, which shed believed to be huge. When she was close enough to make out the grainy texture of the blocks making up the pyramids, she again marveled at the effort it must have taken to build them. Each stone, intricately placed in formation, was larger than any person, or any twenty people, could possible lift. The home shed grown up in was considerably smaller than the base-blocks coming through the sand. Though she had little faith in the gods, she wondered if theyd helped the Egyptians in their construction. She had no idea why they would. Perhaps the Egyptian gods were more powerful than their Greek brethren, or perhaps someone else had helped all together. Whatever the explanation, if her trip resulted in nothing other than the sight of the wonders before her, it would have been worth the work.
Wiping her forehead, which was devoid of sweat, sticky and pliable in its dry desolation, Gabrielle hoped that her reward would be much greater than a pretty view. Strangely, there appeared to be no one living in, or at least around, the structures. No animals or dwellings of any sort were evident. The darkened doorways, cut periodically in the building blocks, looked as dusty as the desert floor, and as equally uninviting.
"What are you doing?" Xena asked out of nowhere.
Gabrielle started, turning to smile at her friend playfully.
The one she received in return charmed her. "This is why I came here," the blonde said, pointing behind her, feeling more upbeat than she had since before Japan.
Xena looked at the scenery and nodded. "It looks pretty." She obviously didnt want to say anything to offend her friend.
"Yes, its pretty, but Im not here on vacation. Im hoping there is someone inside who can help me."
Xenas expression plainly asked with what the mysterious person could help.
"I was told there was a man here who could raise the dead."
The warriors mouth dropped a little and the pieces fell into place. "I should have known you were up to something," she said.
"I hope you didnt think Id just stop fighting for you, Xena. If Ive learned anything from you, its how to be stubborn."
Xena laughed. "You had that down pat long before you met me."
"Yeah, right," Gabrielle said, wishing she could reach out and playfully punch her friends arm, as shed done so many times before. The thought sobered her. "His name is Tahotep and Im going inside to see if hes here."
Her jaw clinching, the warrior motioned she would follow. The bard was proud of the respect that she had earned. It didnt seem to matter from anyone else, but from her friend, knowing that she was capable in the womans steely blue eyes, the emotion was powerful. It meant that she was worthy, that she was accomplished, and best of all, that she was loved.
The torchlight showed fewer spiders and other insects than she expected, but the floors were alive with stringy, squeaking rats and the occasional snake, most of whom seemed to hide in corners peacefully minding their own business. When the sunlight visible through the open door disappeared through the tunnel behind them, Gabrielle had to swallow hard and remember why she was journeying into the heart of the mystical labyrinth. After a distance she calculated to be halfway through the building, they came to an open room, circular, with doors lining it every few feet. The bard briefly pondered where the other tunnels went, and how they would ever find Tahotep through the maze the inside apparently contained.
She stopped in the middle of the room, put a hand on a hip, and looked to her friend. "What do you think?" she asked, hoping Xena had a better idea than simply roaming the corridors.
The doubtful look on the beautiful dark-haired womans face showed that she didnt. "I dont think theres anybody here. I havent seen a fresh footprint or heard a sound. Your friend has moved onto greener pastures."
Gabrielle sighed, thinking the same thing, yet unwilling to give up. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it as bright light filled the chamber and the hissing crackle of fire met her ears. Around them, springing from the dormant sand, a wall of flame encircled them. Reaching to Gabrielles waste, several feet away, she only felt soft prickles of heat. She noticed immediately that she was not the center around which the fire rotated, but that it evenly circled both she and Xena, dancing eerily to a wind she couldnt feel.
Saying nothing, the bard shifted the pack on her back to a more comfortable position, readying herself for a confrontation. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see Xena doing the same.
The fire provided a bright circle of light around them, seeming to darken the rest of the chamber, and beyond the aura of the flames, the darkness was pitch and almost evil.
"Why are you here?" a male voice asked in flawless Greek.
Both women turned to the sound of the voice. Gabrielle squinted, but could see nothing. "Ive come for your assistance," she said, sounding calmer than she felt.
"Why should I help you?" the man asked cockily, a little closer.
"Because I can help you," the bard returned.
A silky chuckle issued from the blackness, and slowly, the voices owner slinked into the light. He was short and thin, his body concealed in a long robe that stretched to the floor, covered by a pattern of swirling wisps painted on purple fabric with reflective dye that caught the orange tendrils of the fire and mirrored them back throughout the hall. His hair was silvery gray, reaching almost to his shoulders, fanning out behind his ears to create a shield on the back of his head. Though darker than her own, his skin showed evidence of many hours spent in the dark with little sunlight, its opaqueness almost blinding.
"I know you," he said, pointing to Xena. "Ra told me you would come."
Gabrielle recognized the name as that of an old Egyptian god, the sun god, worshipped by many as the ruler of all creation before the overbearing Romans savaged their land. She didnt necessarily disbelieve the mans statement, nor did it matter. She was simply pleased to see that he apparently did not object to the warriors presence, or her own. "You can see her?" Gabrielle asked, not shocked, but pleased that Xena could be seen by another, a confirmation that she had not gone insane.
"As I see you," the wild-haired man said, glancing again at the bard. "You are correct, Little One. You will help me, and I will help your friend. Where is her body?"
Dismissing the Little One remark in favor of the wonderful affirmation hed made, Gabrielle hefted the bag on her shoulder, feeling for the weight of Xenas ashes. "Ive got her ashes. Is that enough?"
Tahotep rubbed his chin. "One must have a powerful soul to bring back such a weak body, but it can be done."
Sighing with relief, Gabrielle again shifted the pack on her back and looked to her friend with a smile. "Xena can do it. Ill keep her body until its time, though. If thats okay with you?"
"You do not trust me?" he asked, a not quite surprised look on his face.
Gabrielle remembered the day she would have trusted anyone with something as precious as her life, and probably Xenas. She wasnt that person anymore, for better or worse. "I dont know you, but I hope that after I help you, youll keep your word. Before then, you have no reason to, so Ill just hang onto this until then."
"You are wise, Little One. I will help you."
The lump in her throat went down hard, requiring complete concentration and willpower. This wasnt the time to cry, though. She had to figure out what sort of, no doubt impossible task, the little sorcerer wanted her to perform.
A shadow flickered at the end of the tunnel in which she traveled, a wrinkle in the dark significant enough for her sharp eyes to catch. Xena picked up her pace and progressed toward the movement, hoping for a little excitement. She guessed that was what she was looking for in her explorations of wherever she was. Part of her thought it was just a dream, and she would soon awake with Gabrielle by her side and the rising sun over her shoulder. Most of her knew she was in another place, a different reality, and there was only a thin veil between where she was and the afterlife. She couldnt live completely in Gabrielles world, because she didnt fit there in her current state. Alternatively, her desire to be in the other place wasnt enough to make her abandon her friend. After all, they were on the precipice of a significant development, or at least she hoped.
The tunnel T-ed and she followed it left, where the apparition had moved. She didnt see anything solid, but deeper into the darkness, the warrior thought there was a shift in the dim light that was more than a twinkle in the torch.
Shed left Gabrielle traveling into the city on a mission. Here, in this dreamlike world, she couldnt quite remember what the mission had been, but she knew it involved the plot to bring her back to life, which was all that mattered. Carefully stepping across the dirt, pursuing the intruder, she silently prayed for the bards safety, and her success.
An object, likely a living being, stood perfectly still, pressed against the rocky wall, not breathing, moving, or making any sound. Xena had been in a similar position before, hoping to deceive a predator or enemy, and escape with her life. No matter how long she lived, though, or how many prey she came across, no one could use her old tricks as well as she.
With lightening reflexes, she reached out with one hand and grasped her subject where she imagined a mans throat would be, and searched for hands and weapons with the other.
"Argggg," a man gasped, flailing beneath her tight grip.
Xena pulled him away from the wall, pulling him around so that his neck jammed into the crook of her elbow, and securing one of his arms beneath his shoulder blades. "Who are you and why have you been following me?"
"I miss you, baby," he said in a choked gurgle.
Xena frowned, recognizing the cadence of the voice, not believing it. "I never thought Id see you again," she said, loosening her grip and pushing the form away.
The man snapped, and magically, the torch nearest them lit with flame. "Come on, Ive been listening to your thoughts. I know youve never got me completely out of your system." The dark-haired man twirled his mustache.
"Hah," she laughed, looking him over, noting his youth and vitality as if shed seen him in life only yesterday. "Its good to see you," she said seriously, meaning it.
"Hail to the king, baby," Autolocus said cockily, flashing his arms out to his sides, a rakish grin on his lips. His hand returned to his face and played with his mustache while he appraised Xena, which seemed to be a ritual he practiced each time they met. "You look okay for a corpse, too."
Nodding to him, the woman accepted the compliment. "So what brings you back from beyond? As if I need to ask."
"I wasnt forced. I can tell youre struggling, and I know Gabrielle is too. I just wanted to help."
She could accept that on face value. No matter how much bravado and arrogance he displayed, Autolocus was a good man, with a good heart. "Thank you, but if you want me to cross over, its not gonna happen."
"Thats not what Im here for at all. I think you and I both know that youre not supposed to be here."
"Do we know that?" she asked, wanting to believe it, still not allowing herself.
"I know it, and so does Gabrielle. Dont you know you were manipulated?"
Bristling slightly, she shook her head. "How was I manipulated? I brought this all on myself."
He frowned, deepening the dimples in his tan cheeks. "Youre only partly right. We all did things we werent proud of in our lives. Since Im already beyond mine, Im not afraid to say you probably did more than most of the rest of us. But one thing you learn after living a lot of years, and making it to where I am, is that forgiveness comes from acceptance, and it comes from our hearts." He smiled and glanced away, almost embarrassed. "You didnt need anyones approval to live, you just needed your own."
"I " Her mouth opened, but she didnt know what else to say. "Akimmi told me "
"Akimmi lied to you, Xena. Once youd helped all those souls pass over, your debt to them was done and they forgave you. At least the ones that mattered did. They didnt need anymore retribution. Theyre not the ones who deal in that. When your time comes, when it really finally comes, youll have to answer for your life." He shrugged his green-clad shoulders. "Until then, you answer to no one but yourself."
Xena thought back to the young Asian woman shed helped when she normally didnt help anyone but herself, and wondered how shed been betrayed by the woman not once, but twice, and how shed given up the most precious gift of all for her. She supposed it was because Akimmi knew to pray on her biggest weakness. In all Xenas days, whether riding rough with Borias, or forging the amazing bond shed had with Gabrielle, her weakness had always been love. In the first instance with Akimmi, it had been the warriors desperation to be loved that led to the deception. In their second encounter, Akimmi had preyed on the fear Xena had that she was unworthy of the love she had for the bard. Normally, she was hard on herself and considered herself extremely tough, but she couldnt be angry for being soft when tenderness was a virtue.
"Do you understand?" Autolocus asked, his voice gently masculine.
"Yes, I think so. Yes."
"Good, now you just do everything you can to get back to that little girl."
Feeling the tension ease, Xena released a relieved breath. "Gabrielles not a little girl anymore, Autolocus."
"Dont I know it."
Xena looked at the man and remembered the experiences theyd shared, his wisdom, wit, and humor. Suddenly, a well opened inside her and she missed him terribly. "How did you ?"
He shrugged. "You know me. When men get older, their hearts go. There was this beautiful blonde with these big " He grunted rudely and held his hands in front of his chest, alternating them up and down.
The dark-haired woman laughed and put her hand on his shoulder, happy to be able to feel his strength. Knowing the time difference between here and the world, Xena decided to stay with her friend for a while. Gabrielle would be waiting, hopefully closer to bringing her back.
The expansive dining hall reminded Gabrielle of being in Rome, excesses and vanity as far as the eye could see. The long, rectangular tables were filled with the citys richest citizens, each packing their stomachs past capacity on the delicacies before them. Tapestries covered every wall, telling the stories of the pharaohs and their Roman conquerors. Anything she could ever want to eat was lined upon the gold leaf tablecloth. Unfortunately, she wasnt there for food.
The object of her attention, Rogarius Octavius, sat at the head of her table, his most favored statesmen to his right, the most desired women to the left. It had taken Gabrielle only two days to catch his eye and be invited to a feast. She guessed that after enough food and wine were gone, the orgy would start. She couldnt wait.
Tahotep had been very specific, and adamant, in his assignment to her. The Roman bastards whod overtaken his land had stolen his most sacred talisman. In order to bring Xena back, he would have to have it. The bard suspected he had other plans for the charm as well, but as long as Xena was his first priority, she didnt care.
Despite her good intentions, Gabrielle was becoming impatient with the game she was playing. Shed planned to woo Rogarius and steal the stone when his defenses were down. Hed only managed to get it because he was the wealthiest, most powerful man in the town, collecting jewels and other precious rarities for sale back home. His money, and the fact that he was a Roman, meant he could do just about anything. He wore the talisman as a necklace, a beautiful red stone, so dark it was almost black, except the eerie highlights reflecting off its face.
She had hardly spoken to the man, but she could tell he was pompous and arrogant, and she knew he was not the type of man she would normally carouse with. Under the circumstances, however, Gabrielle would do most anything to get close to him. Rogarius seemed to have an eye more for tall, thin redheads, much like the three women seated next to her, closest to the host. Hed given her a long look when hed invited her to the feast, an intrigued expression that turned her stomach. The bard had worked hard to make friends with the girls to get the opportunity. Her plan was working like a charm so far, if she could stick to it.
A roar of laughter surrounded her and she joined in as if she knew what the joke was. The dull, transparent beauty next to her leaned over and confirmed that Rogarius was the funniest man in the world. Gabrielle grinned and nodded. These were exactly kind of people she detested being around. She generally tried not to hate, or even dislike anyone if she could help it. People who were only interested in wealth, sex, and power were the kind of friends that didnt interest her at all. There was so much more to life.
The longer she sat at the table and sipped her glass of wine, stirring it occasionally and watching the pale red liquid splash around the cup, the more she was convinced that this was the night to make her play for the stone. Once all the food was consumed, or all that was going to be, the host no longer laughed or joked, as he had at the beginning of the night. His eyes were hazy and droopy as he sat in his high-backed chair, listening to the stories, increasingly gory or erotic, travel around the table. He had pulled a girl into his lap, and alternated between fondling her breasts and his own manhood. Somehow, he didnt seem to be into either one.
Gabrielle wondered how much alcohol it would take to knock the man out, along with the other men seated around. They all seemed sleepy, or clumsy in their stupors. She didnt know if it was enough to allow her the latitude she needed. Her eyes would not leave the amulet, the reflecting light drawing her to it again and again. Rogarius held the key to her life in his hands, and he could not have cared less, his disgusting attitude making her want to rip the necklace from him, removing his head in the process.
Finally, the bard had had enough. Rogarius and the girl had quit messing around, and she was asleep in his lap, and the Roman was the same. The two men nearest him were still telling stories and drinking wine. Most of the others had slinked away, some only a few feet, to engage in carnal pleasure, and others presumably to their rooms or homes.
She hoped she could just slip to the head of the table, pull the necklace off, and quietly walk away. When she was close enough to examine him, the blonde immediately knew getting the rock off without causing a scene would be impossible. The stone was on a thin metallic band, possibly gold, too small to slip over his head. Shed have to take it off using the latch, or break it. Trying the first would definitely wake him, and he would be in a better position to catch her. The best plan would be to jerk, break, and run.
The talking men didnt seem to notice her standing next to Rogarius, appraising the jewelry. Other people in the hall were even more oblivious. Gabrielle looked at the door, saw that it was open, and mentally traced her escape route. With a deep breath, she reached out and pulled on the stone. As her hand closed around it, a strange sensation tingled up her arm, the power alluring. The chain snapped and the mans eyes opened, groggily blue.
She was almost to the door when the first shout issued forth, and several people looked up from their activities. A man who was nearest to the door rose, stumbling toward her, as she sprinted through it. When she was out of the building, her mind told her there was probably chaos raging inside, but she didnt feel the pressure of a chase. Shed lightly tethered her horse before the party, her plan already at the forefront of her mind. The animal, a stout, black Arabian, was well rested and conditioned, hopefully restless and with energy to burn. Still, two days before, at a slow trot, the journey from the pyramids had taken her a candlemark to complete.
The desert night was almost pleasant compared to the searing heat of the day, but it was still hot. She didnt want to push the horse too hard, but the bard rode as fast as she could. As she pulled away, she could hear horses stirring in the barn behind the palace. There was nowhere to hide in the distance between the village and the cluster of pyramids. She could only hope that she could get to her destination before she was caught, and that she would be able to fend off the troops, or escape into the safety of the labyrinth.
A short distance away, the pyramid well within her sight, she heard the definite snort of horses and the thunder of hoof-beats in the sand. She would make it, but just barely, and would probably not be able to make it to the protection of the tunnels. Whimsically, she wondered where Xena was, and if there was someway the warrior could help her, though realistically, she knew there wasnt. Through the years, Gabrielle had worked hard to prove to the warrior, and herself, that she could take care of her own interests. Even so, something inside her longed for the warriors skilled, well-intended, protection. She hoped this wasnt a time that she really needed her, because Xena could do nothing for her but watch.
Even as she could feel the horses breaths on her back, she didnt turn around, afraid to see how many men followed. Almost to the entrance, Gabrielle planned to jump off her moving Arabian and run inside. She could see Xena up ahead, standing in the shadows, urging her faster forward.
To her horror, when the bard landed, her feet jammed into the sand, and the rest of her body shifted forward, throwing her down in a hard heap. By the time she could stand, ten armed men surrounded her, their curved swords drawn, their wild eyes angry. She really wished she had her sias, but shed been playing a role tonight, so she pulled her only weapon, a long knife shed concealed in her boot.
As the men started closing in, the shouts filling her ears, she took a deep breath and focused as shed been taught. Before one sword could strike at her, however, a huge concussion cracked the air, radiating from the pyramid behind her. Gabrielle felt it, but not as much as the advancing men, who rocked backward as if hit by a chariot, sprawling backward in the harsh sand. They didnt stop as if from a dying gust, the silent invisible wind moving them further, and further away, until they disappeared into the darkness.
Xena was at her side instantly. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle looked to her, a grin spreading across the bards face, warmth filling her heart. "I am now."
Inside Tahoteps chamber, the mysterious man put his hand out for the stone. "You have it." It wasnt a question.
"Yes." Gabrielle handed him the talisman, glad to be rid of its power and ready to see it work. The gray-haired mans eyes closed in rapture as the felt the slick hardness.
"Give me the body."
Reluctantly, she pulled the urn from her pack and gave it to him. Deep down, she was petrified that his magic would not work. He spread the ashes on the floor and began walking silent circles around them.
Backing away, the bard looked to Xena, who stood at her side quietly. "Are you ready?"
"Ive never been more ready. Im scared, though," Xena whispered, her expression childishly endearing.
The bard scooted closer, feeling the same way. "Yeah, what are you going to do first."
Xena smiled and leaned toward her. "Im going to kiss you."
Smiling back shyly, hardly able to wait any longer, Gabrielle turned to the sorcerer. Tahotep was still walking around the ashes, now lowly chanting in ancient Egyptian. He seemed to have tuned out the world around him.
Gabrielle looked to Xena and felt her stomach sink to her knees. The warriors image was dim and flickering, her expression slightly alarmed, but hopeful. As Xena faded into nothingness, Gabrielle silently asked, "Can you hear my thoughts?"
The warrior nodded and smiled. "I love you too," she whispered, the sound echoing endlessly as the dark beauty disappeared.
On the stone floor in the center of the room, where her remains had been, now was a sturdy form taking slow shape. The bards misty green eyes wouldnt quite focus on the developing body, sliding off each time she tried like warm tears. Without a doubt, Tahoteps spell was working.
A cool breeze, with no apparent source, blew her hair back, along with the water on her cheeks. The harder it moved through the chamber, the faster the body materialized before her. A dark shock of hair and powerful curves continually defined as the priests voice grew louder.
Quickly crossing the chamber, Gabrielle dropped to her knees beside her friend. Though shed hoped her plan would work, shed been afraid all along that she and Xena had played this game one too many times. For reasons no one knew, however, some god once again favored them.
When Tahotep stopped his monologue, Xenas body was fully formed, the dim torchlight bouncing off the curves of her naked body and her tranquil closed eyes. The peace in her features brought more tears to the bards eyes, born of joy and hope.
Tahotep put his hand on her shoulder. "Live every day as if it is your last," he said quietly.
Gabrielle nodded and watched him leave the room. Motion in front of her brought green eyes to her friend, who leaned up on an elbow. Xena looked up at her, blue eyes misty and alert.
"Hi," the bard said, shy once again.
Xena smiled, relieved, reaching out steadily and stroking her friends face, clearly reveling in the feel of her. Without saying a word, she leaned up and pulled Gabrielle to her slowly, until their lips met in a soft, sweet kiss, full of the promises and commitment of eternity.
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