The call of a falcon echoed over the heavy bulk of the mountain. It called again before alighting at its cliff top aerie, warning the intruders on her mountain to keep their distance. They needed little encouragement in this regard as they struggled slowly up the narrow, somewhat winding path up the mountain. The wind was biting and frigid, carrying tiny shards of ice that made any exposed skin feel raw and lacerated. Rocks were strewed over the path, and thankfully no rain was falling or seemed likely to, as the path appeared to be a dried up stream bed, forced by the hardness of the rock to take a more indirect path downward than was typical. Any water at all would have made the stretches of large, smoothed rocks they had to scramble through slippery as ice.
It had been two moons, and Xena had set neither hide nor hair in or near the temple. What now seemed clear was her powers were not going anywhere, and they weren't weakening. They seemed to be increasing, and while a few people in Amphipolis had ben fearful of her reaction to this change, Xena's first reaction was caution. The potential of these powers and what they could ultimately mean for her made her jumpy and nervous. Tyrannizing others with them was the very last thing in her mind, although experimentation and just relaxing a little bit had shown they were not involuntary, and they had limits. Certain things were beyond some rough limit of scale for her. So she couldn't change the weather, or remodel mountains or anything. Merely healing someone or shifting some pile of junk using her powers tended to leave her bone tired and half starved. End result, Xena was flatly determined she didn't like this new development at all.
Gabrielle had found herself unsure at first what it was about the whole thing her partner found so upsetting. Being able to heal people was really cool. In fact, that had impressed her more than anything. But as the attitudes of the majority of the Amphipolitans changed again, and she saw many of them refuse to let Xena help them fix a fence, or herd in the cattle. Move away and make a broad empty space around her in the inn. Keep silent or only nod during conversation with her. Stop talking as soon as she was within what they believed to be earshot and staying silent until she was out of it again. Of course, Xena could hear better than they realized, and knew all too well they were asking each other why she didn't start acting like what she was and head for Mount Olympus, leaving the mortals in peace.
Through no fault of her own, Xena had lost the hard won place in her own hometown. No matter what, she was an outsider again. Gabrielle understood all too well the cruel habits of people in smaller places when you didn't quite fit in, especially when the lack of fit had as much to do with their percepption as choices you might have made. So she struggled to soothe her unhappy best friend, who had been used to her usual level of strangeness, accepted that. But this was beyond that. One of the oldest farmers, a cheerful man who had regularly let Xena ride his horses when she was still a feckless child... his reaction to Xena's newfound powers was to insist she keep away from his farm, not even to visit the gentle old horses, who held a majestic retirement court in a small field of mostly grass and clover.
The bard also found herself trying to soothe Cyrene, who had long ago tried so hard to keep just this sort of thng from developing. One afternoon, as her dejected daughter quietly carried in some wild game for the evening's stew, the elder woman had finally snapped. It was beyond her, she had exploded furiously. It was beyond her how if Hercules had powers, everyone threw him parties and bragged far and wide about the hometown boy made good. But ultimately, they considered him ordinary. She wanted to know, what the Tartarus was the difference? Gabrielle had pondered that, and suggested an answer she knew the innkeeper wouldn't like. Hercules was ordinary looking, barring his height. Xena was most certainly not ordinary looking, with that dark hair and blazing blue eyes. The villagers had always minded themselves in Cyrene's inn, because they believed the pale blue eyes were the hallmark of a powerful witch. To them Xena was more of the same.
Cyrene had dropped abruptly onto a chair, looking exhausted. "I know that." she said quietly. "Xena isn't the only one being treated differently now. I kept her heritage quiet for a reason." Out of habit, she had run her bit of rag over the tabletop. "When the two of you have finished seeing if Xena can shuck off these powers like a pair of old boots, please come back here." Gabrielle stared at her in puzzlement. "I might need an escort to Themiskyra at last."
So, their time was pretty sewn up for the next while. Xena hadn't argued with the idea. Gabrielle knew the request struck the warrior as similar to many of hers. Her mother put up with so much, and asked her for so little. How could she say no?
Where they were heading now was a temple, perched high on the ragged shoulder of this mountain, a temple of the Great Moira. According to reputation, and Gabrielle's reading, there the strange Goddess could alter such things as divine powers. It was she who ultimately stripped Ares of his, before his imprisonment began. If she could strip his, surely he could do the same to Xena's. The warrior just wanted to go back to what she had originally been. It was a driving, relentless desire, and Gabrielle was beginning to understand there was more to Xena's intense determination to get to the temple than merely trimming away the ability to do weird party tricks and help out people who were sick or hurt.
The temple of the Great Moira, when they first saw it, stopped them short. It really wasn't what they expected. It was no more, and no less than a large workshop, tucked inside a stone edifice which was itself joined to a huge cave running deep into the mountain. Gabrielle had learned such arrangements were a clear sign of great age. This temple had been here since before the Greeks had come from the north. Despite the chill, dyeing vats were arranged neatly around the courtyard, novice priestesses patiently dipping in hanks of wool and flax. Just visible through a doorway was a second courtyard, this one occupied by stonecarvers. As they watched another acolyte passed hurriedly through the doorway into the weaver's courtyard, and drew a cloth across it, pinning down it's loose edge. An understandable precaution against rock dust.
An older priestess, dressed inn red, stood at the end of the road leading to the temple, eyes calm and grave. "Welcome." she declared. The warrior and the bard, exhausted by the long climb and the emotions of the whole situation simply stared. "You have been expected, of course. Please, allow us to see to your refreshment and rest before you see the Great Moira."
"She's actually here?" Gabrielle asked in surprise.
"She always comes herself when mortals are willing and able to face her. It is her way of acknowledging and respecting their maturity." the priestess smiled. "You have met her before, though you will not immediately connect her appearance then with the appearance she wears most often here. Please follow me, and allow my assistants to carry your heavy bags." Xena reluctantly surrendered hers, keeping back her sword and chakram. Gabrielle found herself hanging onto her scrollcase and staff in much the same way and had to laugh at herself.
"I see, Gabrielle, that you carry your sense of duality with you. Yet even words may be a powerful weapon, if chosen wisely." No suggestion was made to them at any time that they be separated. Instead they were guided to a bathing room, and not long after they had sunk with great relief into the deep, steaming tub, the two assistants had collected their clothes for washing. smiling, the two young women had made a show of leaving sword, staff, chakram, and scrollcase alone. The replacements for the battered lethers and brief Amazon outfit were two light tunics and sturdy boots. Xena sighed.
"What's wrong with my leathers?"
"Well, maybe they figure since the chances of us having to fight anyone are pretty small, there's no need for them. Not to sure what the logic around my clothes could be, though." Gabrielle replied, soaping one arm.
"Maybe they figured they'd better give you some clothes so you wouldn't have to run around in your cloak all day." Xena's tone was ently teasing, and she splashed the bard a little. "To be honest I'm kind of glad they did. Just watching you was giving me he wrong kind of goosebumps on the way up here." The bard snorted.
"I don't see how light tunics are going to help with that." she half swam through the water... the tub was very deep, and dried one hand on a towel laying ready nearby. She flipped over a bit of the cloth, and blinked in surprise. The tunics were light, but were made of finely woven wool, and she knew from experience such material was warmer than it looked. It also tended to be expensive. Neatly folded and hidden by the tunic was a set of leggings. There proved to be a similar pair under the larger tunic set out for Xena. "Okay, maybe they will be helpful."
The next order of business was food. When they passed into the main room adjoining the bathing room, they discovered it was a sort of suite. A large double bed sat against one wall, a fire burned cheerfully across from it. A table laden with fruit, bread, cheese, and meat waited for them. The jugs of water and wine had been hung in a skillfully made basket outside the shuttered window to keep cool. "Gods," Gabrielle breathed. "It's like a honeymoon suite. You'd think this was a temple of Aphrodite."
"Nah." Xena replied, taking a bite out of an apple and going to get the jugs. "No pink."
After the bath, the meal, and a good two candlemarks rest, the priestess came by to collect them. "My Goddess tells me you are impatient to at least hear what she has to say concerning your purpose here, even if you do not begin until tomorrow." she explained.
"Sounds good. I think I actually like the way your Goddess works." Xena sounded mildly surprised.
"The Great Moira is very busy. It is not possible for her to spend time on the games many of the immortals you have met prefer to play."
They passed through airy corridors, the walls draped with great picture hangings. Days of work by skilful hands had rendered an astonishing amount of history into the cloth. Initially, the pictures were of familiar, everyday things in Greece. representations of stories they already knew, from the deeds of hercules to the tragic death of Jason. Gabrielle winced. She had heard how he had finally become a homeless, drunk beggar, wandering helplessly all over Greece. One day, in a fit of melancholy nostalgia, he had made his way to the rotting hulk of his once noble and famous ship, and sat by it, wondering how things had gone so wrong. Was it good or bad luck the rotten keel had fallen loose and brained him? The bard was honestly unsure.
The further down the corridors they went however, the more unfamiliar the scenes in the tapestries became. They began to show people in bright coloured, often layered clothing. They lived in unfamiliar towns, dancing in great rings around tall women dressed in gorgeous bell-shaped skirts. Or around women in skirts made of... Gabrielle squinted. Strings? Then she realized they were made of numerous strings of beads hung from an ornate girdle. Some had rows of metal bells, and this reminded her of the things her mother had spoken of once. Tinkle skirts, named for the noise they made when the women danced in them. hekuba had mentioned them when speaking of her own grandmother, who had danced in one on feast days until the beautiful skirts were outlawed.
The corridors soon ceased to be straight, and they began to descend in a great spiral. At first it seemed they must be hopelessly lost, but Xena's keen sense of direction and attention to the structure of the building had made her realize all of the corridors were simply interconnected, and there was only one direction they went in. You couldn't get lost, because there was only one path. Intrigued, she opened her mouth to ask the priestess about it, but it was too late. They had arrived at a wide, round doorway, a huge stone omega.
"Please enter." the priestess requested, motioning with one hand. Xena was about to just step in when Gabrielle stopped her.
"Wait." she took one of Xena's hands and carefully tangled their fingers together. "Let's make sure we get in there together." The place was giving her the creeps.
"You got it." smiled Xena. Then, unexpectedly, she drew the bard into a hug. "I really love you, you know that." The bard sighed happily, just enjoying how that hug felt and the way her partner smelled like sandalwood and leather despite the bath and the new clothes.
"I love you too." Feeling much more fortified, they faced forward, together, and stepped through the doorway.
The room was in fact a cave. It was neat and clean of debris and dust. Sitting in its centre was a tall woman with her back turned to them. To one side of her was a large basket of thread, in all sorts of colours, including some never seen before that had no names. Before her was a tall vertical loom, the cloth on it already more than half of the frame's length long, hence the woman's ability to sit while she worked. Even as they watched she threw the shuttles back and forth with startling, inhuman speed, knocking the new rows up automatically with a flick of the wrist. She wore a long, greyish black robe, and her hair was a similar colour. Unable to see the woman's face, Xena glanced at the tapestry, and felt her blood run cold. The tapestry showed two lives she knew well. Hers and Gabrielle's, flowing seamlessly into a whole towards the second half of the cloth.
"Your eyes no longer deceive you. It is good to see the lesson learned when you possessed of yourself of the scabbard has never been lost. It is good to see that your eyes have remained unclouded by cynicism, Gabrielle, or I would have to explain this tapestry to you. In this case, the pictures speak best." Now the woman turned, revealing she was no mortal woman at all, of course, but the three eyed Great Moira. "Please sit down. This will probably take awhile." she smiled kindly, and despite the strangeness of her appearance, the apprehension lessened somewhat in her two visitors. They sat down, still somewhat reluctant.
"Xena, why have you insisted on the long journey to this place." Xena opened her mouth to protest, and Moira held up one long finger. "Speak to me as if I do not knwo. Let me hear how you perceive it."
The warrior hesitated awkwardly. "A few moons ago, in the middle of trying to deal with an army without getting a bunch of people killed, I started manifesting these powers." She paused, and watched the Moira nod. "I want to go back to the way I was before that happened."
"Simple, and clearly put. Gabrielle, is this how you see this grueling journey?"
The green eyed woman blinked in surprise. "Surely it doesn't matter?"
"Of course it does. You could have said this was a bad idea at any time, or simply refused. Xena would have followed your wishes without hesitation or regret. She trusts your judgement. And she wishes to give you happiness."
"Oh." Gabrielle opened and shut her mouth a couple of times, feeling a bit like a landed fish. "Well, I don't know myself, if you can get rid of powers if you're half god... but I think that coming up here to get things settled so that Xena feels more comfortable at the very least is more than enough reason to come."
"Interesting." the Moira leaned back. "And the two of you were already aware of this difference in perception?"
"Yes, we talked about it a lot." Xena answered, feeling a bit prickly. She had been working on the communication thing really hard, dammit. How about some credit.?
"Tch... it is not your communication skills that inspire the question. More it is my wondering if perhaps I should have delayed your arrival here with a storm, so that the two of you could sort out the fear that has truly driven you here." She rose to her feet. "You both fear the same thing." The Moira smiled sympathetically. "It is a completely understandable fear. You fear that what these strange powers mean is that Xena has become immortal, and you must needs one day be separated, forever."
Gabrielle felt her heart clench tight as her fist around Xena's fingers. "Yeah well, I figure, if anybody can make me mortal again if that's the case, it'd be you." Xena declared. "Eternal life is a pretty pointless thing if you can't be with the person you'd give your soul for."
"But if you can't, or you won't, that's too bad. You'll just have to make me immortal, or I'll harass every deity I can get my hands on until you're all so sick of me you give up and do it." Gabrielle declared fiercely.
"Now then now then... no need to bring those others into it." the Moira chided gently. "Certainly, I can do either thing... but it is not arbitrarily done. These are huge changes. They must be chosen, with full knowledge of the consequences, free of any pressure, accidentally applied or otherwise, from anyone. Though you do not recognize me, you have done me great service before, and I am willing to repay you in kind. It is only fair and just, and I am glad to have the opportunity. But it is not a matter of merely wave this hand or shake that bell, unfortunately."
Xena blew out a long, unhappy breath. "Well, that does make sense." She had refused to act on her feelings for Gabrielle for the longest time for exactly those reasons. It would have been wrong to bind the younger woman to her in such a fundamental way, if Gabrielle had had no idea what she'd have to deal with.
"Then you will begin tonight. The better to deal with it now, then second guess. Trust me in this." the Moira stood up and walked to the back of the cave. "You must each draw back the veil, and enter separately. You will journey separately, but not alone." By her left side was an irregularly shaped gap, a pale, glistening, spider web like piece of cloth draped over it.
The two mortal women stood up, and took deep breaths. "Okay, well, guess it just goes to show, careful what you ask for, you might get it." Gabrielle joked wanly.
"Oh yeah." Xena smiled crookedly. "One for the road?" The bard smiled a real smile.
"Sure." later, Gabrielle would be unable to say how long that kiss actually lasted. A moment? An hour? A week? She had no idea.
"Don't forget, I love you. And if there's a way for me to give this junk up so I can be with you, even if I have to be ordinary for the rest of my life, that's okay."
Gabrielle laughed in spite of herself. "You could never be ordinary. But promise me something?"
"Anything, you know that."
"Promise me, if you can do greater good with one of your choices, that you take that one. The world needs all the goodness it can get, Xena." For a long moment, Xena was frozen. How could Gabrielle ask her that? What if... her face suddenly cleared. 'Ah Hades,' she sighed inwardly. 'Why didn't I ever clue into that before?'
"Okay. I promise. You promise me the same thing." the bard blinked at her in surprise.
"Okay, I promise." Gabrielle sounded puzzled. "You just weirded me out."
"Sorry." Gabrielle stared at that crooked, endearing grin for a long moment, determinedly reimprinting it on her mind's eye.
"Gabrielle, you're gonna give me a headache." this comment had earned Xena a smile.
"I'll be waiting for you on the other side." unconscious of the double meaning in her words, Gabrielle squared her shoulders, thanked the Moira politely, and stepped through the veil.
"Your Gabrielle is a brave woman." commented the Moira, as Xena stepped up to the veil.
"She's got more bravery in her little finger than I do most days." agreed the warrior, and stepped through the veil.
Another cave. Well. That was no surprise, Gabrielle thought somewhat irritably. But given the run up, her bardly sense of drama was demanding something more interesting. Splashing was coming from somewhere in front of her. Tightening her grip on her staff, which she had religiously carried with her along with her scrollcase. Silly maybe, but it had turned out to be the right thing to do, it seemed. Gabrielle stopped, rubbing at her temples. Evrything she thought about seemed couched in those terms. Seemed, maybe, in spite, however. She was suddenly not very certain about much of anything. Except Xena. Through all the hard times, the times that had been scary, and brutal. They had never dimmed her bone deep belief in her lover's fundamental goodness. Or that she was loved in return. How many beliefs had died, when those still remained, even in the face of evidence that could be construed to say the opposite? A deep breath. Maybe that was all she could really do. Stick to those beliefs, and soldier on.
Moving forward hesitantly toward the splashing, she wondered what it could be. It didn't sound like the regular movements of an underground stream, or of the slightly less regular activity of a geyser. In fact it sounded like... her jaw would have dropped on the floor if it hadn't been attached. Sitting by a large, steaming thermal pool, was Amynome. Splashing around in it were Phobos and Deimos, her massive feline friends. "What was in that wine?" Gabrielle muttered in bafflement.
"Nothing." Amy smiled. "Well, except the ordinary stuff. You're allowed to have a friendly buddy when you feel weirded out and unsure."
"I don't understand... are you actually here?"
"Yes and no. No, Amynome, the young Amazon who is Xena's cousin is not here, literally. I am... her doppelganger."
"Dop.... oh, like the Northpeople say... gods, this is so weird. No offense, by the way." Gabrielle added quickly.
"None taken." Amy... well the doppel-Amy smiled.
"What do I do, just keep moving?" Gabrielle could see the path continued out of sight, with no branches visible from where she stood.
"Yes. Time doesn't stop." collecting her soggy pets, Amy followed her down the corridor. For the first while, Gabrielle found herself astonished, then relieved the path remained easy to travel. Everything she had read suggested this was some part of the underworld, with its rivers of fire, ice, ad so on. That she had come to the conclusion this wouldn't be so bad a little early was proved when she slipped on the suddenly slimy floor and fell heavily. The stuff clung to her bare hands, and she shuddered with disgust. Amy stood by, unaffected by the slippery floor.
"I bet you can't give me a hand up?" Gabrielle asked ruefully.
"No, I'm afraid I'm quite insubstantial." As if to prove the point, Phobos and Deimos began to chase each other through walls.
"Oh great... makes sense, apparently I have to do the real work." Clambering to her feet and scrubbing her hands on her thighs, Gabrielle began movng again, stepping more carefully and using her staff to help herself along. "Do you know if I'll meet more people like you... doppelgangers, I mean, not necessarily supportive."
"Yes," Amy replied simply. "But when they come, I must leave until your time with them is finished."
"In case I feel like you're swaying my decisions?"
"You're much more laconic than the real Amy." Gabrielle smiled. The corridor remained slimy, and unfortunately the stuff became deeper, sucking at her feet in a thoroughly disgusting manner. "Why slime?" she turned to repeat the question, but Amywas gone. "Oh... brace youself, bard." she muttered.
"Hello, Caesar. It already hasn't been nice talking to you. Good bye." the bard set her jaw and began slogging through the slime again. She had the hang of walking through it now.
"Gabrielle, I'm hurt." Caesar pursed his lips, his distinctly heart shaped face shifting into a mock innocent expression. "And we've been such friends."
"Caesar, that would only be true if people gave their hemerrhoids names." temper, temper, Gabrielle scolded herself.
"There's one more reason to have the barding profession banned in Rome." Caesar replied in an indifferent tone.
"Surely you don't consider the unpleasantness in Britannia my fault. It was all Xena's." he reappeared in front of her. "If she hadn't treated me so badly the first time we met, then defied me again later... I would never have had to crucify you."
"It's a good thing this isn't the real you, or you'd be making yourself sick." Gabrielle pushed past him, surprised he was actually substantial.
"Where was she when you had to face the soldier who tried to rape you later?"
The bard stopped short. "How do you know about it?"
"I mean, really... it serves a woman right, walking around in the clothes you do. Teasing men. You deserve what you get." he flicked a dismissive hand at her.
Gabrielle gripped her staff tightly, struggling mightily against the intense urge to beat him with it. "That isn't true. I don't believe women deserve to e raped because they aren't locked up like prisoners any more than I believe men are uncontrollable animals."
"Uncontrollable animals... no, no, you obviously don't understand the true nature of human beings." he was in front of her again, standing in her way. "Maybe I'll show you." He gave her a shove, knocking her into the muck, and took advantage of her surprise by stomping on her wrist and kicking away her staff. Loosening his belt he added, "You'll find it enlightening."
But Gabrielle wasn't the stunned and still battle inexperienced woman she had been then. She wasn't going to freeze, and feel the shame later of knowing only luck had saved her, and she had been too frightened to defend herself. Solidly kicking his feet out from under him, she wasted no time knocking Caesar out with a well-placed fist.
"No way." she declared fiercely. "This may be just illusions, and tests, and learning I don't know quite what yet, but I won't go through that again." Gabrielle retrieved her staff. "In the end, that's why I accepted I'd have to be a warrior of some kind, no matter what I chose to do. Otherwise the fear imprisons you."
Xena padded through what seemed to be miles of caves. She had been alone since she stepped through the veil. Gradually she had learned to handle being alone, and the silence. It was no longer necessary to crowd her life with raucious people repeating how great she was, nor was it necessary to drown out her thoughts with alchohol, or sex. Her conscience still bothered her. Some days she couldn't stop thinking about all the things she had done wrong. But most times, Xena reflected, she just did her best to do right wherever she would once have done wrong. Redemption, if it happened, didn't happen overnight, she realized. No one was going to come along, sprinkle her with dust and say, 'Hey, it's as if you never did anything wrong.' She'd been thinking lately, and she wasn't even sure she'd wind up in Tartarus. Logically, it seemed pretty dumb. Altogether, it seemed a lot harder living with what she had done, and trying to make up for it some way. She stopped.
Sweat trickled down her back. Unless of course, it turned out her punishment was to be separated from Gabrielle, and go back to doing good. "I can't," she whispered hoarsely, startled by how panicked the idea made her feel. "I don't know if I could do it, then. Every time I feel like backsliding, or just chucking it all, just seeing her keeps me from doing that."
"So what?" the voice asked from right beside her. Xena nearly leapt out of her skin, and managed to slam herself into the wall. The speaker was a tall, thin woman. Thin as in gaunt. Her hair was deep black like Xena's own, but slicked straight back, highlighting her strong widow's peak. Her face was painted white, her lips blood red. "What difference should that make to those who decide? Who cares what you need? You're being punished. Besides, why should the bard suffer with you, if you love her so much?"
Who was this? Holy crap, was she losing it? And then Xena caught herself as her memory, temporarily stunned silent by her panick began to reassert itself. She knew who this was. In the old religious plays favoured by the Thrakians that Greeks din't understand, coming from a different sensibility as they did, this was the Doubter. The Doubter's job in the plays was to sap the strength and resolve of the hero, channeling their energy into inaction or even helping the villain. Truly skillful players of the part knew how to pick questions that picked out things that were true, but wrapped them in assumptions and conclusions that were not. And they were scary, especially because their costumes and looks deliberately evoked the much more benign Clown, who eased the tension at appropriate times.
"Okay, hang on." Gods, a word fight. Who would have thought it? Xena hoped she could hold her own. "You actually have got at least one good point..." she raised her face and looked the Doubter in the eye. "If Gabrielle should decided she doesn't want to be with me anymore, that's different. I'd have to keep going even then. Even though it'd be really hard. Otherwise, there'd never be a chance she'd come back."
"What if there is no chance? Hmmm? What then? Then what about your plans for redemption?" sneered the Doubter.
The warrior stood still, considering that. "I'll have to take it day by day then." she said simply. Just the way she had when she had realized during her time in Chin she had become somehow dependent on the opium. The dependence had scared her. She had quit entirely, and taken herself to the wilderness to clean herself out. It had been the worst experience she had ever had. Everything had hurt. She had felt cold, and then hot. She had seen things, and knowing they were hallucinations and would go away still hadn't helped. Curled up in an agonized ball, she had wished she was dead. And the wish had made her angry. So much so, she had determined to survive, no matter what.
Did she depend on Gabrielle like that? Gods, to be sure that wouldn't be healthy...
"You see? What's the point?"
"Be quiet, I'm thinking!" Xena ordered. It rather surprised her when the Doubter seemed to obey. "No, you're wrong." Xena straightened up again. "I don't have plans for redemption, and I could go on without Gabrielle, if I had to. But that's because I've got better reasons than just what I want to help people now. Now it's just the right thing to do. I can't do better than that." Squaring her shoulders, she walked determinedly away. She knew the Doubter would follow. In the plays the Doubter always had three tries. Right now probably wasn't going to be different.
"Oh, so now you're oh so noble and bright. No one believes that Xena, not even you." sneered the Doubter, who was in front of her now.
"Noble?" Xena actually laughed. "Not me. Just trying to be realistic. And less selfish, maybe." the Doubter's final trick was usually to swear and then disappear. Of course, not this one. Xena was almost into the next section of corridor when a wiry, bony body tackled her around the ankles and pinned her flat.
"You've got nowhere to go, Xena... and tere's no point to trying when you will wind up in Tartarus anyway." snarled the Doubter, raising a bony fist.
"You know what," Xena replied thoughtfully. "I just realized I don't believe that." She threw the Doubter off of her and hurried further down the corridor. "Damn," she muttered, glancing back and then ahead to see if she should expect another visitation. "Is this a weird set up or what. I hope Gabrielle is all right."
The bard in question was staring in utter horror at the slender bridge she had to cross to go forward. It stretched over a huge chasm she couldn't even see the bottom of. "Oh my gods," she breathed. "I can't do it, I can't get across this thing." Amy hadn't reappeared, and Gabrielle fervently wished the doppelganger would turn up and offer some moral support. Her grip on her staff tightened. Then again, she wasn't feeling wishywashy in quite the way she had when she first started this whole thing. Maybe that was why. This didn't help her move to deal with the bridge at all. She felt as if she had fused to the rocks she was laying on, a position allowing her to examine the apparent depth of the chasm, without being at risk of plunging in headlong. Sweat trickled down her forehead. "But I can't stay here." she muttered. "And I can't seem to leave..."
Xena had told her once, sometimes the choices were so awful, the only way left was to go forward.
"Hey, why can't I go back the way I came?" Gabrielle wondered aloud. "I can do that, sure..." she hurried back, and sure enough, the way was quite open. No one there to stop her. She could deal with the slime, and Caesar. Not like she was losing anything. Her feet stilled.
Marrying Perdicus wouldn't lose her anything. She'd still be able to write. Still able to tell stories, and defend herself if need be. In fact, now she could defend her family, and they wouldn't be completely at the mercy of the next warlord anymore. She'd have a nice home. Eventually kids too, she guessed. She'd still be friends with Xena, and Xena was always welcome. They were best friends, Xena would visit just like she said.
Except... except after Perdicus' death, she had been eaten up with guilt for her feelings of relief, such an odd combination with grief. Barely able to understand herself, she had taken refuge in the anger instead. Slowly, it had become clear, she would have lost something. Everything. The person she really loved. The passion that fueled her art.The independence that had saved her from a thousand and one worse fates. The pursuit of the dreams and ideals she believed in. Until she was no more than a bitter, furious old woman, another miserable, albeit female version of her father.
She turned her back on the way she had come, slipped her scrollcase around so it hung at the centre of her body, tightening the strap so it wouldn't bounce. Using her staff as a balancing pole, Gabrielle headed for the bridge.
She had picked her way half across it when an oily voice she knew too well spoke ahead of her. "Well, isn't this charming." Ares smiled from his spot, seated arrogantly in her way.
"Somehow, I knew it would be you." Gabrielle sighed. Her legs were trembling with exhaustion, and she wanted desperately off the bridge.
"Aren't you tired?" he stood up. "Sore? Bet those legs are pretty shaky, especially the one you got speared in." He moved behind her, somehow, and settled his chin on her shoulder. "So, as I understand it, you're going to try and win yourself some immortality to stay with Xena. After all, you and I both know, she must be immortal now. I can't help but wonder if that's really a good idea." he ran a long finger along the outside of her arm, where the tunic left it bare. "Your values are already so compromised... I mean, every moral law, you wind up having to find some exception for her. Anyone else would be executed. Who knows how far this could go. Where does it stop? Will you be a warlord yourself before you realize what's happened?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. Hadn't she just dealt with some issue already? She loosened her hands, then resettled her fingers. Okay, well, somebody wasn't counting or didn't care. "Actually, I've just come to understand, the world isn't black and white, and everyone deserves a chance."
He actually shoved her a little. "What about someone who hurts children, Gabrielle?"
"What does that have to do with Xena?"
"Nothing. It has to do with you. What would you do if faced with someone who hurts children. Would you give them another chance?"
"Not the chance to hurt children again. We're not talking about the same thing." she moved ahead, hoping to get off this damned bridge before she fell off of it.
"Xena has the chance to hurt adults every day."
"Adults can defend themselves." And with that, Gabrielle left him behind. She was actually shaking. Stopping, she sat down a moment. "Gods, the whole thing is such a morass. And the arguments seem more like semantics than anything else." she leaned her head on her drawn up knees. Najara had been very enticing, precisely because, to her, all the questions had simple answers, and she could answer them simply for you. "Wow." the bard took a long deep breath. "I think dealing with Caesar was easier."
The way seemed easy after that, quiet, peaceful. Gabrielle was thankful, but she was sure it wouldn't last. The information the Moira had said she and Xena should know seemed to be truths about the self. She chuckled wryly. "Not sure I can handle too much more soul searching, just at the moment." Not sure. But sure she was going to keep going.
The scene shifted so suddenly she nearly tripped over her own feet. Her original tunic and leggings were gone, replaced by a touch, half thigh length wool tunic, dyed burgundy. A heavy breastplate with a hardened leather back piece was strapped to her torso. A short, rough brown wool cloak hung from her shoulders. In her right hand she gripped a short sword, the hand guard a bulbous chunk of polished hard wood. A second such bulb pressed against the bottom of her fist, and she realized the hilts of the sword were meant to be used as a weapon as much as the blade. The helmet had a horse hair crest, she could hear it swishing back and forth as she ran, and the nose and cheek pieces dug into her face a bit. Her left arm was weighed down severely by a huge, heavy round shield. All the same, she could maneuvre with ease, and it was heavy, not exhausting.
All around her were other people... men, of course... and they were all apparently charging at some target. 'Why?' the bard wondered in bewilderment. She kept yup because chances were good she'd be trampled otherwise, but she hoped desperately she figured out what was going on before she had to do something vaguely independent.
"Caius, take your men through the pass." the order was directed at her, and Gabrielle bewilderedly turned and headed for the pass, a hundred men following her lead. Seeing her reflection in a puddle just before she stomped in it with one of her sandaled feet, she saw she was a man herself. 'Oh, Hades' balls. What is going on here?' A wild group of half naked, blue tinted men spilled out of the pass, and she found herself knee deep in the fighting. The attack was short lived, and soon the signal horns began to blare. The enemy was retreating. The Alps stretched away in front of her, and Gabrielle began to see they were defending... Rome, from Gallic raiders?
"They'll be back. And there'll be far more of them. My heart misgives me." the man who had given her the order earlier.
"You think they will overwhelm us?" Gabrielle asked, the question coming as naturally as if she knew exactly what was going on.
"Ah, Caius. I wish it weren't so. It will be terrible. But look at what we have for fighters. Mercenaries. People who have no loyalty. Sick, weakling emperors. Caligula was a dreadful omen. Rome is in tatters, and the Empire goes where Rome leads. Our dilemma is whether to stay loyal ourselves, or..."
"You don'yt mean it, Lucius? To just give up!" finally, Lucius turned around. This would have been the second time Gabrielle dropped her jaw in the dirt that day, if it hadn't been attached. Warm blue eyes she knew as well as her own and dark hair plastered down by sweat and mussed by removing his helmet.
"I just don't want what we do to be futile." Lucius exploded in frustration. He stopped short, blinking. "Caius, that helmet looks ridiculous. Hasn't anyone found you one that fits yet? You're a centurion now, for Juno's sake!" Gabrielle grinned.
"Not in the budget." She pulled off her helmet, and grimaced. Now she knew why the nosepiece was so uncomfortable. The helmet was only just small enough not to cover her eyes. "Well, going without a helmet didn't seem wise." Lucius laughed.
"And since when are a couple of men like us wise?" he dropped an arm familiarly about her shoulders. "Gay men are never wise. It's against the code. We're only smartasses." Gabrielle blinked, and laughed herself, though for different reasons. 'Looks like we're lovers no matter what.' she laughed inwardly. 'Or else I am having the bizzarrist, but neatest dream.' Glancing at the hand on her shoulder made her notice a distinctive silver ring on her partner's smallest finger. A glance at her own hands revealed she wore an identical ring, but smaller, of course, since even now she was short.
"You really think the fight will be lost."
"Yes. I'm sorry." Lucius sighed.
"For what? Do you rule Rome? Are you a god? No, no... I have an idea." Gabrielle suspected Rome's relation to the rest of Italy hadn't changed much.
"Oh hoh... there's a diabolical grin. And what does my scheming friend have in mind?" they were walking to where the men had set up an impromptu triage station now, and Lucius accepted a waterskin from one of the footsoldiers.
"These people will target Rome. We can't defend the place effectively, not with the army in tatters. Instead, we warn Rome. We tell them, the best chance is to evacuate, let the barbarians have the damned city. We must concentrate on defending the provinces. The towns. The divisions wmay not be loyal to Rome, but they are loyal to their own homes."
Lucius nodded slowly. "I like it. I don't like that a bunch of people will be idiots." he sighed. "You know what I really wanted to be?"
"You won't believe me."
"Oh, then I have to hear this." Gabrielle laughed.
"I wanted to be a tailor." Gabrielle laughed harder. "Stop it... I'm good at sewing... but please don't tell my mother... and it would have been a great job. Most of the workday would have involved looking at half naked men. Of course, I'd have to make a reputation for myself so I could insist on only seeing the nice looking ones..."
Xena sighed. This walk had gone on a long time. All alone again. But before, there had been no branches from her original path. Now there were. Everynow and again she would glance down one. Most seemed empty, or to just be long corridors. A few had piles of treasure in them, but the warrior passed these by without interest. Treasure was pretty heavy to lug on your back, whether you were a human being or a horse. Others had scrolls, or clothes. One even had a skeleton. Xena just passed them by. The Moira hadn't said anything about takings tuff, so she left well enough alone. Until one particular branch forcibly caught her attention. Emanating from it was an absoluetly horrific groan.
The sound came again, and now Xena was sure it wasn't a trick of the wind moaning through the caves, but an actual person. "Hello?" Xena shouted. She refrained from asking if the mysterious person was all right. Groaning like that, they couldn't be. "Hello?" she called again, and was answered by another groan.
"Please, release me." Xena stood absolutely still for a moment. The way ahead beckoned. But she couldn't just go on. Not without checking this out. Maybe the person was where they were for a reason, but she just didn't know. Using her chakram to mark the path she took, just to be on the safe side, she made her way towards the voice.
"You're here... I knew you'd come. You've got a good heart." Xena couldn't imagine what it cost this individual to speak. They were hanging by their chained wrists from the ceiling of the cave. The chain ends were far enough apart, the person's arms were stretched out. Similar chains on the floor held... her, Xena could see with a start... effectively spread eagled. The woman wasn't naked, though her clothing was mostly in tatters. She had been brutally whipped, and someone had beaten her as well.
"What happened? Why are you here?" Xena's first instinct was to just let the poor woman down, but this was the Moira's place, and she didn't know what was happening. Except... the Moira was one of the Old Ones. The Old Ones were deities who preceded the Olympians, and they despised torture, didn't they?
"Got caught... by Zeus. I'm, a messenger, a psychopomp. I serve Artemis. Was carrying a message from Hera to her. He wanted it. I destroyed it when I realized I wasn't going to get away."
"You're here because?"
"He had me tortured, he wanted to know what the message said. I don't read the message sI carry, I truly didn't know. Then he chained me up here, because he knows the Moira cannot break the chains he has put me in. It's not her fault, she really can't help me much."
"You must think I'm a bastard, making you explain." Xena sighed ruefully, and began examining the chains. She still wasn't sure, but she could formulate a plan based on the belief the woman was speakng the truth, then implement it when she was sure.
"Not really... you must be wondering if I deserve to be here." the messenger managed a weak smile. "A reasonable question. I am telling the truth..." She quieted, trying to think of something that would be convincing. "Maybe look at my arms, I do't think my tattoos are invisible."
Xena straightened, and did so. Biceps marked with the distinctive sigil of the psychopomp. She had seen those on Hermes the time she and Gabrielle had had to take his helmet back to him. On the woman's forearms, snakes... a sign of allegiance to Hera.
"You're one of Hera's buddies?" Xena asked sharply. She had only Hercules' word to go on about her, and it was all bad.
The messenger twitched. "Yes... she is not evil!"
"Oh?" Xena took half a step back.
"She isn't!" the messenger tried to get one of her swollen eyes opne further. "Artemis wouldn't deal with her otherwise. As daughter of Themis her wisdom and justice are recognized implicitly." She tried to twist around her own arm to see Xena better and groaned in pain. "I bet most of what you heard comes from Hercules. He originally thought she destroyed his family. He needed to believe that. And if that were true, that would most certainly make her evil."
"So who did? Why would Hercules want to believe she did it if she's innocent?"
The messenger sighed. "Did you know, about Hercules' drinking problem?"
Xena stiffened. "He quit drinking."
"He had to. His family died in a fire."
"I know that."
"He was in the town inn, drinking himself nearly blind. He doesn't handle what he is as well as you do."
Xena thought back to her short lived affair with opium. "I'm not sure about that. Go on."
"The fire was started by a lightning strike... just a normal storm, so this isn't leading up to me claiming Zeus did it either. His family was asleep. The house was burning full out before he realized what was happening, and he was so drunk he couldn't help put it out. Even if he hadn't been, the smoke..."
"I get it. What then?"
"He was guiltstricken, horrified when he sobred up. It is horrible, it is a vicious, awful tragedy. I know about it because I had to guide them to the fields." the messenger shifted. For a few moments she didn't speak. "I'm sorry, I just... my arms... okay... he sort of lost ot for a bit. He would have been okay if Iolaus had been there for him to lean on, but he wasn't. He never drank another drop, but the way things were was so bad, he couldn't handle it. He came up with another, more palatable version of the story. That's the only one most folks know."
For several long moments, Xena stood still. Once, she had asked Hercules about his family, not knowing when she asked what had happened. It had been hard for him to explain. And his insistence that Hera musthave done it had been odd. It wasn't like him, to put it in those terms. "Godsbedamned." Xena breathed. "You really do seem to be telling the truth. And if you aren't, somehow I think the Moira will be able to lock you up again. Since you're in her domain, right?"
"Right." the messenger didn't let herself get excited. There had been a few people before Xena. Among them, Hercules. he hadn't wanted to hear the truth, he had furiously left her behind. But on the bright side, the meeting had been a catharsis. Three moons later, he finally acknowledged the truth. Then he'd been able to go home.
The chakram easily smashed apart the chains, and Xena carefully lowered the injured woman to the floor. "Thank you, Xena." the Moira stood quietly, letting the warrior adjust to her presence. Considering her strange appearance, and what Xena had just been told, she knew this was necessary. "There was no way for me to break these particular chains, because they were stolen from my sister Ananke. I cannot undo what my sister creates. It has been very frustrating, she carefully stroked the injured messeger's hair.
"Can you heal her?" Xena asked.
"Can you?" The warrior hesitated. "If you end up having to keep your powers, Xena, you must be willing to use them. It is power unused and unguided that hurts. First it hurts you. Then it begins to hurt others."
"I think I understand." Xena took a deep breath. "It's like Gabrielle, when she doesn't write. Writing is one of her powers, and when she ignores it, and doesn't do something with it, she gets miserable and out of sorts."
"And then you get the backlash." pointed out the Moira.
"Damn." then, Xena concentrated on the injured woman. How had she done it before? She wasn't sure.. She had just felt an honest sorrow for the person, and she had wanted to be able to heal him, not just because Amphipolis needed saving. Because it was so cruel, to accidentally invoke such belief, and not be able to do what she had, indirectly claimed she could. She opened her eyes abruptly. "Hey, how..." she stopped short. The messenger was gazing at here with clear, silvery green eyes.
"Gosh, you're impressively beautiful." she sounded honestly surprised.
"Oh, thanks." Xena replied faintly.
"Come with me, Kai. Xena has a little further to go, yet." the Moira gently picked the hapless messenger up. It would be awhile before her body would tolerate walking.
"But won't she be awfully tired? I mean, that was a lot of bumps and bruises she just fixed..." protested Kai. The Moira smiled.
"She'll be okay just this once." and then they were gone.
Xena slowly got to her feet. It was true. She was starving, but beyond that she was okay. Hard to say what else could be ahead.
Gabrielle sat quietly. To her amazement, she had come out of the long, interminable seeming path made of far too many caves, and found herselfback in the room with the Moira's loom. The Goddess wasn't there. Curious, she set aside her staff, carefuly clasped her hands behind her back, and stepped over to look. It had all of her and Xena's lives on it so far, and she found herself really curious about her partner's childhood. Getting her to tell was so hard. Automatically, her eyes tracked to the familiar, their meeting in Potidaea. Her rescue of the warrior in turn at Amphipolis. And so on, until the trip up the mountain, and then it stopped, because the Moirae wasn't there, presumably. A stray thought got caught. Maybe... maybe, Gabrielle could make some nice stuff happen in the future, create a little certainty. She glanced at the big basket of thread. Her fingers itched. It was so tempting. Why, she could even do something around her jealousy issues, as she tended to call them in an effort to make them feel smaller and less industrial strength. The technique didn't work, she had noticed only talking with Xena did.
Talking with Xena.
Taking a long step back, Gabrielle returned to her seat. And that'd be how she found out about Xena's childhood too. And the future, well. Best not to know what was coming. "But I do think it's cruel and unusual punishment to have a story there I can't read," she muttered rebelliously.
The Moira, having just returned from ensconcing Kai in another room, laughed softly. "That could be debated."
"Ummm, could you tell me... there was... I was a Roman centurion, and..."
"That was one possible future, yes."
"A possible future."
"As things stand at the moment. It shifts like the images in the clouds until it has been your present, and becomes fixed only once it has become the past." the Moira explained. She sat down at the loom, and began weaving again.
"Where is Xena?" Gabrielle asked anxiously.
"Almost here." the Moira set aside her shuttle. "She is not immortal. But then you gathered that from the little glimpse you were granted... of possibility."
"I'm a little chagrined we were defending Rome."
"Rome, in itself, is not bad. Even an empire, in itself, is not bad."
"Hmmmph." Gabrielle frowned. Then, seeing the Moira had gone back to work, pulled out a scroll, her quill and some ink, and went to work.
Xena stumbled a little.
Now she was tired. The corridor had grown dark and musty, bringing back rather
unpleasant memories. A rat ran by, and she sighed. She hated rats. It was bad
enough they bit. If they ran over some part of you the chances
were disgustingly good they'd shit on you. She kept trudging forward, head down, plugging on determinedly. So she walked into the closed door when she got to it. Rubbing her forehead, she peered at it, finding it was marked with an inscription, good old fashioned Greek this time.
If you wish to who your other parent is, take the left fork.
If you do not, take the right.
Neither choice is right or wrong apart from the way you feel yourself.'
"Well," Xena breathed. "How about that." She considered. Ares wasn't her father. They were undeniably alike. They understood each other far too well. But that didn't make him her father. A determined, worried, trapped deity hovered before her mind's eye. A being who couldn't even tell what they had to do with her mother, for fear of destroying any chance they had for escape. Was ignorance preferable? She thought of her lonely mother, whose faith was considered naive and wrong, and was treated with bitter cruelty by people who meant well, or so they said. Maybe the thing didn't matter much to her. But it could give her a chance to cancel out some of the unhappiness she had caused her mother with some joy. Damn if that didn't sound good. Decision made, Xena threw open the door, and took the left fork.
Waiting for her, was the Clown. Dressed in bright, particoloured gear, dark hair half stuck up in merry disordered. Built solid like a well fed, but hard working person. Face painted white, with a red smiley mouth and a red tipped nose. "I thought you'd never get here!" the clown mock complained.
"I was worried about that myself." Xena replied wryly. "Can you answer questions?"
"No." The warrior raised an eyebrow. "Well I can't!" protested the Clown. "I do have to follow some rules."
"The person trapped in the stone in Amphipolis?"
"They're it, yup."
"Are they going to be safe there? Even if Mother isn't there?" Xena had a sneaking suspicion the two things went together.
"The stone will be moved."
"How is it that my mother being in the same general area matters?"
"Evryone needs hope, Xena. If your mother wasn't where our poor trapped buddy could go watch her once in awhile well... they'd just give up, and fade away. That's what destroys immortals, you know. not death of the body, but whatever kills the soul."
"You're an awfully serious clown."
"Hey, it was this costume or the bear suit. The bear suit smells."
"Bear suit?" Xena blurted incredulously.
"A joke, a joke as in hah hah? Whoo boy. Never mind. I'll stick to glum philosophy." the Clown shook her head.
"Okay, seriously, why the clown suit?"
"Well, the story of how your other parent got trapped is kind of grim. I figured the gentle distraction value was worth it, for the times it got to be much and you needed a break."
"That bad, huh?" sighed Xena.
"Yes and no. Yes, because anybody with a heart would get upset. No, because thankfully, it isn't worse. This whole being trapped thing doesn't need to be permanent. And your mother is a truly loved lady. She gets to pick whether she wants to stick with the immortal individual or not of course..."
"Life, is a curious thing.
You would think, after a point,
There would be no more wonders.
No more new things.
That sight would inevitably be tinted
With unwanted jade.
Instead, there are tiny fish,
Carved like fossils into blue stone.
Handfuls of wild flowers,
And belts made of odds and ends.
According to what most say,
I should tire.
Of you and I.
Of your struggles, your attacks of
Rage, of self pity. Sometimes even
But I have those too.
And afterwards, there you are.
With a smile, and a kiss.
It's a cliche, to say,
I would give all my tomorrows,
To spend a day with you.
A small price, for time which to me,
Perhaps I can do a little better.
All my tomorrows, I give them to
Feel free to refuse to give me the use
Of them if they are not spent with you.
I know this.
I wouldn't want them."
Gabrielle leaned back in her seat a moment, twirling the quill in her fingers to relax them. Leaning forward again to blow on the newly formed words, she decided she rather liked the work. She felt it hit all the right spots. For her, anyway. The Moira's hands were still flashing over the loom, deftly weaving the cloth. "Did you weave al of the tapestries hanging on the walls here?" she asked.
"Not quite," replied the Moira. "The ones closest to the entrance are generally made by my priestesses. They typically tell legends and myths. Poetry sometimes, but this is done rarely. Few poems lend themselves directly to a few static images. Among the ones you saw further on, Athena helped with some of those. Most of the Fates she weaves are of course hung about the place she lives. A very few we both must work on, because the life of that person is extraordinarily complex. When so much by way of possibility flies around them, it is best if two of us, or even three do the work, so as to avoid making mistakes." She stopped again. "Now," she turned and smiled at Gabrielle. "I must send this back to Athena for awhile."
The bard shook her head in disbelief. "For those willing to take the risk, all possibility is open." the Moira carefully disassembled the loom, placing the parts into the basket of thread. Finally, she wound up the cloth, taking care to prevent the loom weights from twisting the threads together. Then she deposited the result in the basket as well. Tying a basket lid on top she looked up past Gabrielle. "Hello, Iris. I'm just ready for you."
"Excellent." smiled the other Goddess. "How is Kai?"
"Well on her way to full recovery. She'll have to stay abed for a time, and work her way slowly back to her busy schedule, of course."
"Just so." Iris saluted. "Athena sends her regards, and claims you have begun usiing the wrong shade of blue for Xena's eyes. This one is too light, she says."
"Tell her she should look more closely at Xena. See for yourself." the Moira motioned to the warrior, who had just walked into the room, and been engulfed in a delighted hug from Gabrielle.
"Hmmph. Well, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. I will bring her your message." bowing slightly from the waist, Iris took the basket, and was gone.
"You made it, I see." declared the Moira, smiling again.
"Yeah. Not like anything was gonna stop me." drawled Xena.
"So, are you keeping your powers, then? You know now you are not immortal, and I will certainly see to it you two stay together. Honestly, you'd find your way to each other anyway, even if it turned the very world upside down."
"I know now!" Xena shook her head in disbelief. "What do you think, bard? You're the one who has to live with me."
"If you can be happy with them, then I will be quite content. If you're going to be a basketcase over them however, I say they go." Gabrielle grinned broadly.
"Oh, well... my powers aren't something I'm likely to be a basketcase over."
"The others I'm already used to, so that's fine."
"Gee thanks." snorted Xena, giving the bard a poke.
"Excellent!" the Moira declared. "Now I can give you the best part of the news. And now i can leave behind the super serious, three-eyed thing." the two women turned in each other's arms and stared at her.
"The Tartarus gig is like, cancelled, babes." the tall Goddess laughed merrily at their shocked faces, and allowed her appearance to shift to the one they were far more used to, pink frills, goofy hairstyle, and two eyes. "Don't look so whacked out... like, I am the main, numero uno Fate, girls, that's what love and desire do. Desire drives the world a bit too much relative to the love siide of things... like, if the some of these war types at least thought about having sex more often than desiring money or power... well..." she jiggled her boobs a bit. "Sorry, this outfit doesn't sit the way the other one does. And you guys are such slowpokes... I mean, I really had to work hard to supress the natural coolness in my jive, you know? But I figured I'd better use it, to make sure you two could see I was totally on the serious side of the spectrum." She bustled up to them. "Come on."
They reappeared in a large, ridiculously luxurious room, one corner of which was full of pink pillows. Xena and Gabrielle waved their arms, trying to get the very strong scent of the Goddess' perfume off of themselves. Aphrodite flopped onto her pillows and continued, "I know my girls... that's Klotho, Atropos, and Lachesis... they don't seem much like me. But like, they insisted I had to let them be their own people... own persons?" she paused, momentarily caught by the question of grammar. "Ooh... I need a drink, grammatical correctness is not my gig. Athena's been getting to me. Would you two sit down already!"
"So we went through all of this stuff because..." Xena said.
"Well, cuz you two had some issues, babe. I can't like, give you things, you don't want to carry them around, and like, I can't get you to stop thinking gifts of the divine aren't cursed." Aphrodite threw up her hands. "It was worse than trying to find things to give people for Solstice. Trust me, you have no idea how hard that can be until you have to find a gift for somebody like Gaea... she's like, got everything!" Finally a priestess came in, carrying wine and cups. "Thanks, Chloe." The young woman beamed, blushed, bowed, and fled. Noticing the raised eyebrows across from her Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "No they don't wait on me hand and foot, like, how boring is that? I have the young ones do goofy things like this once in awhile because they get really excited. they think it's tubular to the max at that age." She took a healthy swig of wine. "So, I had to give you something else, because of course, I can't make life all easy for you either. So I helped clear up some issues, a surefire good thing for lovemaking." she waggled her eyebrows suggestively. then her expression sobred.
"And I wanted you to understand not every deity out there is a jerk. Just some of these really new ones are. I don't know what's up with that. Maybe if lots of jerks worship you it's catching."
"A germ theory of evil. Now I've heard everything." snorted Xena.
"Not quite, I can do this neat thing with my armpits..." Aphrodite began.
"No, please." the warrior and the bard managed to say in unision.
"So we're going to see your Mom." Gabrielle murmured groggily into Xena's back. The road was muddy, she was still kind of tired from the whole climb the mountain, talk to the three-eyed Goddess, find out it's Aphrodite thing. And cuddling up to Xena on horseback was one of the more highly rated experiences on Gabrielle's list.
"Yup. And then we're going texplain where her lover is. Then we're gonna set her lover free." Xena peered as far over as she could, trying to see the bard properly out of the corner of one eye without turning her head. It wasn't working well, it made her eyes hurt.
"Okay. I like that idea. It's actually sweet and romantic. Of course, it's also something else."
"Yeah, it's business as usual."
"Anything else, and you'd be bored."
"So would you."
"I have an excuse. My early life was very exciting." Xena grinned.
"Uh huh. And I'm busy escaping a thoroughly boring early life. So there."
"You wanna stop in that nice clearing by the spring, before we deal with a gutful of cold shoulder from most of Amphipolis?"
Gabrielle considered that. "Actually, yeah. I want a nice night under the stars with you."
"Okay." Xena agreed cheerfully.
"Reeaallly with you." A beat.
"Oookay!" Xena grinned so hard her face hurt.
"You sound like you won a prize."
"I feel like I did." Xena replied honestly. "You're quite happy to sleep with me, look forward to it, have lost of fun, and give me lots of fun. Sounds like a huge win to me. I'm not exactly a spring chicken."
"You're not an old crone, either." Gabrielle bumped Xena's shoulder with her head... carefully. The warrior did have armour on.
"No. But I'm still older. You make me feel special, Gabrielle, don't sell that short." The bard blinked, surprised to feel her eyes prick with tears.
"I hope you realize you make me feel special, too." A gentle squeeze to her hands where they were clasped around Xena's waist acknowledged the words, and all the feeling behind them.
The spring gurgled gently, and the pot of stew gurgled counterpoint. Gabrielle was looking through one of her 'silly scrolls' as she had begun to refer to the ones she wrote more light hearted stuff on. Often she wasn't too inclined to share what was on them, but she tended to bump into really good story ideas when she worked on them, and it was one of these she was hunting for now. She paused, pushing the smaller wrapped bundle of vegetables, boiled grains and nuts over to heat evenly in the coals. This evening just seemed like reason for a bit of a celebration, although she wasn't too sure why. There seemed no reason not to go with it, though, so Gabrielle gave the stew another stir and looked around for Xena.
"Xena, it's gonna get cold."
"Just a moment."
"Don't you just a moment me..." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. No wonder Xena was such a lousy cook. Either she wanted to eat yesterday or she wanted to delay just a little longer. Pulling the stew and the vegetables out of the main part of the fire, she set them near enough to stay warm and went back to her parchment.
Xena hesitated just out of sight, and forced herself to catch her breath. 'Come on now, who's the warrior around here? Okay, okay, Gabrielle is a warrior too...' She hopped up and down a couple of times. Gods, why was she so nervous? She glanced over herself. Black leather pants? Check. Polished boots? Check. Red shirt she knew Gabrielle was going to drool over... check. Xena had started towards the campsite when she remembered they had eaten figs at lunch. "Damn, what if something is stuck in my teeth..." a quick run back to a still part of the pool adjoining the spring to check. All clear. She sighed in relief. Then, she dug a hunk of parchment out of her pocket. The effort it had taken to get this so she could copy it... even with goofy powers it had still been hard. Gabrielle just about slept on top of that scrollcase. Okay. Dressed to the nines in stuff Gabrielle would just about melt in a puddle over. All scrubbed within an inch of her life besides, and Xena had just about done in her small supply of sandalwood oil. "Okay." She walked into the campsite.
"There you are. What took..." Gabrielle's eyes got very large.
"Hi." Xena grinned, and actually blushed a little. "Wanted to do something nice for you.... it's not much, I mean, I dragged up and down a damned mountain, but, hey."
"My brain is stuck." blurted Gabrielle.
"S'okay. So's mine." the reply bore no resemblance to what Gabrielle actually expected, and they both burst out laughing.
"Okay, okay... put those things away for a minute, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle sat up straight. Her partner was charmingly nervous. What was going on?
"I know you love this poem... it's not really a singing poem, but I figured, I could get away with reciting, just this once. i know I'm not a bard, but I think you'll like it." Gabrielle smiled encouragingly. Xena glanced at her piece of parchment. "Actually, I sort of memorized it." she stuck the parchment in her pocket again. "'Kay..."
"Equal to a god, that person
seems to me.
That is, whoever sits across from you,
So close, savouring your sweet voice...
and your thrilling laugh,
that makes my heart reel inside my breast.
For when I look at you, even for an instant,
Speech becomes impossible.
Words desert me, my tongue broken,
As a swift, subtle flame spreads throughout my skin.
My eyes are blinded,
Roaring fills my ears,
Cold sweat cascades over me,
and trembling assaults me.
I am greener than the grass,
and in my desperation,
I seem to have come to the very threshold
For I am dying, of such love.
But still I must endure all of this..."
Gabrielle silenced her with a kiss. "You just gave me palpatations. The good ones."
"Yes. Now hold still, while I get these pants off of you. Have I told you how much I love the leather pants?"
"Oh! Repeatedly... I wore them because you like them."
"And this colour.... where did you find this shirt?"
"Ummm... could I answer that later... my brain is good only for one poem or one question under these conditions."
"How about these ones?" A very long pause. "No questions, no poems?" the bard mock pouted.
"Not the usual kind of
poem." growled Xena. "C'mere."
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