Against the Dying of the Light

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, et al, belong to Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and whoever else happens to own a piece of them. I'm just borrowing them for a bit, but I promise to return them in better condition than I found them. The title of this story is taken from a poem by Dylan Thomas.

Violence:Pretty mild, though it really wouldn't be Xena if a few punches didn't get thrown.

Subtext: Yep. However, there is absolutely nothing graphic in that department here.

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light
                                   ---Dylan Thomas

Xena woke alone in an unfamiliar place, unsure if she was alive or dead. She was engulfed by absolute nothingness. No light. No sounds. No sense of anything solid beneath her feet. Just an emptiness that chilled her to the very depths of her soul. She tried to cry out, desperate to shatter the oppressive silence, but nothing emerged from her throat. In fact, she wasn't entirely sure if she had opened her mouth at all.

Panic set in, tying her guts into knots. Was it her fate to spend an eternity in this void? Then, gradually, the veil of darkness lifted, giving way to a swirling white mist that clung to the warrior's body. Xena spun in a slow circle, taking in her newly-visible surroundings. Thick, lazy tendrils of vapor prevented her from seeing more than a few feet in any direction. Clear blue eyes narrowed as she listened to the wind rushing past her. She felt that she wasn't alone. Suddenly, as her reawakened senses sharpened, Xena realized that it wasn't the wind that she was hearing. Rather, it was the incessant whispering of thousands of souls.

"Well, that answers one question," Xena said aloud, adding her voice to the multitude. "I guess I'm still dead."

Briefly, she closed her eyes, remembering the events that had led to her untimely demise. She'd been summoned to Japan by the ghost of an old friend, and though Akemi had never spoken the words, the girl had led Xena to believe that she had to sacrifice herself to save the 40,000 souls she had unwittingly doomed so many years ago. So Xena had crossed an ocean, and she had allowed a samurai to take her life so that she might defeat Yodoshi, the eater of souls. She thought of the final battle on the slopes of Mt. Fuji. Her eyes flew open abruptly. Gabrielle. Where was Gabrielle? She had to know what had become of her beloved partner.

Squaring her shoulders resolutely, she moved forward, gliding noiselessly across the ground as she forged a path through the dense fog. Around her, the sibilant whispering rose and fell, and sometimes, a tormented wail reached her sensitive ears. Every so often, ghostly fingers brushed against her skin, but Xena simply shrugged them aside and grimly continued on.

She slowed as a familiar sensation coursed through her and the air crackled and hummed around her. She looked around suspiciously, waiting. She knew this feeling all too well.

"Ares," she hissed through clenched teeth, pinning the god of war with an irritable glare as he appeared in a bright flash.

He grinned at herm oozing insincere charm. "Tsk, tsk. Just look at what you did. Went and got yourself killed and left poor Gabrielle all alone. Somebody's gonna have to look out for her, now that you're gone."

Ares always knew exactly how to get under Xena skin, and this was no exception. She started towards him, fists clenching and unclenching in reflex.

"You stay the hell away from Gabrielle," Xena warned menacingly.

Ares burst into mocking laughter. "Or what? You'll kill me? News flash, babe. You lost that gift when you tried to drown Michael, remember?" His face twisted into a derisive sneer. "You're powerless here in the world between worlds," the god informed her smugly before vanishing in another burst of light.

Xena's mind whirled. She had heard of this place, the world between worlds. It was neither Tartarus, nor the Elysian Fields; neither Heaven, nor Hell. It was a place where lost souls walked in limbo for an eternity. Why had she ended up here? Why hadn't she crossed over? She'd met death twice before, and both times she had crossed to the other side. What was holding her back now?

As if on cue, the air stirred around her, creating a small breach in the blanket of mist that enveloped her. Xena stepped up to the opening and peered through curiously. Her breath caught at the sight of a solitary figure standing on the deck of a ship.

"Gabrielle," she whispered.

Gabrielle leaned over the rail of the fast-moving ship and stared sightlessly at the water below. In her hands, she held a small ceramic jar and she caressed it lovingly, barely aware of her actions. It was all she had left of her best friend and the love of her life. . . that and the shiny metal circle hanging from her belt. Xena was gone. Gabrielle's lips whispered the words out loud, her heart refusing to believe what her mind already knew.

She straightened her shoulders, grimacing as her clothing rubbed against the still-raw tattoo that covered her back. To the west, the sun was setting and the sky glowed with burnt purples and oranges. It was a breathtaking scene that normally would have inspired the bard in her. Today though, Gabrielle felt nothing except for an aching loneliness that tore at her heart. She lifted her face towards the fading light and tears leaked from her tightly shut eyes, trickling unchecked down her cheeks.

"They say the dead can hear your thoughts. Can you hear mine, Xena? It's only been a day, but I feel so lost already. It's like half my soul is missing. Can you hear me?"

From her strange, unseen vantage point, Xena reached a hand out towards her heartbroken soulmate. The air seemed to shimmer slightly as an invisible barrier blocked her comforting gesture. Gritting her teeth and growling in frustration, Xena pounded both fists against it. It wasn't fair. Gabrielle seemed to be mere feet away, and all Xena wanted to do was gather the young woman in her arms and tell her that everything would be alright.

"Gabrielle, I'm here. I can hear you," Xena said, hoping that her friend would sense her presence somehow.

Gabrielle gasped as a warm, tingling sensation crawled across her skin, making the fine hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stand on end. Frowning slightly, she chewed her bottom lip and examined the odd feeling. It almost felt like. . . .Xena. She shook herself angrily.

"Get a grip, Gabrielle. She's dead. You lit the funeral pyre yourself, remember?" Gabrielle muttered darkly, getting a few curious looks from the crew.

She knew they thought she was crazy. Maybe she was. She had stumbled aboard their ship just before dawn, nearly out of her mind with exhaustion and grief, and she had demanded passage to Egypt. She should have been there now, at Xena's side where she belonged, alive, happy and deeply in love. Instead, she was here, alone, trapped in this nightmare that wouldn't end. She stared at the jar in her hands as if it held all the answers. It wasn't enough time together. Green eyes the color of the sea flashed in outrage as anger flared within her, and she cried out bitterly.

"Why, Xena? Why did you leave me? I don't understand this! There had to have been some other way to rescue those souls. Why did you choose Akemi over me?"

Xena inhaled sharply, stung by her soulmate's angry words. "It wasn't like that," she tried to explain, though she knew Gabrielle couldn't hear her. "I didn't do this for Akemi. I was thinking about the greater good. That's why people like us exist, to fight for those who can't fight for themselves."

"We should have never come to Japan," Gabrielle continued her tirade. "I wish I hadn't done as you asked. I should've spilled your ashes into the sacred fountain anyway. All I want is you, Xena, I don't give a damn about those 40,000 souls."

A dazzling flash nearly blinded her, and Gabrielle threw her hands up to shield her eyes. When she lowered them again, the arrogantly smirking god of war stood before her. Amusement glinting in his dark eyes, Ares shook his head and wagged a finger at her in mock-disapproval.

"Gabrielle, I'm shocked! Did I just hear you say you would have condemned all those innocent souls just so you could have your lovemuffin back? That's so not like you." Ares grinned at her impudently, exposing gleaming white teeth.

Disgusted with him, Gabrielle turned and tried to walk away, but Ares popped up in front of her again and put a sympathetic hand on her upper arm. She jerked back and glared at him.

"Go away, Ares. I'm really not in the mood for one of your games."

Ares sighed and managed a suitably mournful expression. "I know. It's such a tragedy. I can't believe she's gone either," he glanced up slyly. Gabrielle wasn't looking at him, and a predatory gleam entered the war god's eyes. "You know, Gabrielle, she would want you to go on. Follow in her noble, self-sacrificing footsteps. Fight for truth, justice, and whatever other syrupy platitude you guys fight for."

Xena seethed with fury as she watched this little exchange. Like a caged tiger, she paced back and forth in front of the small window between their two worlds. Ares was up to his usual, no good self, that was pretty clear. He was trying to lead Gabrielle down his path of destruction, the same way he had manipulated Xena, Eve and so many others. Xena's eyes hardened into brilliant blue ice chips. She'd be damned if she was going to let Ares get his hooks into Gabrielle.

Ares seemed to sense Xena's presence. His eyes darted to a point beyond Gabrielle's shoulder, and he seemed to look right at the angrily watching warrior. He grinned, enjoying the game. Ares moved a little closer to the grieving bard, and he fingered the chakram dangling at her hip. He whispered into Gabrielle's ear, his voice soft and seductive.

"Think about it, Gabrielle. Think about all the good you could do in her name."

Gabrielle shivered as his breath tickled her ear. Having planted the seed in her mind, Ares vanished, leaving her to ponder his words. The light had nearly disappeared, and a thin sliver of a moon hung low in the sky. Gabrielle looked around. No one from the crew seemed to have witnessed her conversation with the god. Walking right past the spot where her soulmate watched, unseen, Gabrielle headed down to her bunk where another long, sleepless night awaited her. She hadn't slept since Xena died; couldn't bear the thought of not having those strong arms wrapped around her throughout the night.

Her bunk was spartan in its furnishings, consisting only of a single, narrow cot and a small wooden table that leaned to the left. She set Xena's ashes on the table carefully and lit the stubby candle that had been provided for her. Gabrielle sat on the edge of her cot and buried her face in her hands, exhaling deeply. She was so tired. Too tired to cry, too tired to think, even. Turning her face to the wall, she curled up on her side and stared blankly at the flickering shadows that played across the walls and ceiling of the cabin.

"I love you, Xena," she said sadly.

Up in the ether, Xena paced furiously. She'd been calling for Ares, but so far the infuriating god of war had failed to appear. Around her, the torrent of ghostly voices continued to rise and fall like the tide, and the sound was beginning to get on her nerves.

"Will you all just shut up!" Xena bellowed, silencing the multitude for a split second.

The faint sound of a familiar voice filtered through to her, and she cocked her dark head, straining to hear it. Someone was calling her name.

"Xena," Akemi called in her high, child-like voice.

Flickering slightly around the edges, her insubstantial form appeared before the startled warrior. A tiny, smooth hand reached out towards Xena's cheek and it felt like a cool breath of air brushed her face, lifting her hair. She stared incredulously at Akemi, wondering why the girl was still here in this limbo. Akemi should have crossed over; she should have been freed when Xena defeated Yodoshi.

"Akemi, what are you doing here?" Xena asked.

A smile spread across the wraith-like girl's face.

"I came here for you, Xena. To lead you into eternity," Akemi told her.

Xena shook her head sadly. She couldn't go, not yet, not while Gabrielle still needed her. Before she could cross over, she had to make sure that her beloved soulmate was safe from Ares' manipulations.

"I can't," she said simply, shrugging her shoulders as if that was all the explanation needed.

Akemi's angelic face transformed into a petulant pout and she stamped her foot irritably. Xena frowned, hearing the tinkling of bells, and she looked down at Akemi's feet. The mist swirled, obstructing her view. Impatiently, she plunged her hand down into the fog and seized the girl's foot, pulling it up where she could see it. Akemi cried out and tried to hop away, but Xena hung on doggedly. The warrior stared at the intricate gold chain encircling the girl's slim ankle. She sucked in a sharp breath, as if someone had punched her in the gut. It was the same anklet that had been used to summon Yodoshi. Xena stared at Akemi, aghast. Akemi thrust her foot into the warrior's face with a swift kick, snapping Xena's head back. Freeing herself, the girl moved out of the angry warrior's reach.

"What's going on here, Akemi?" Xena demanded.

Light flashed and Ares stepped out of the ether, looking more smug than ever. He stood beside Akemi and leaned over to whisper to her conspiratorially.

"Better tell her. Xena tends to get a little testy," Ares advised, speaking from experience.

Xena's mind whirled as understanding dawned on her. Ares and Akemi were working together, that much was obvious. The question was, why? Blue eyes narrowed into thin slits as she surveyed the pair, trying to figure out their angle. Ares wanted Gabrielle; she'd known that since that whole test thing with Mavican. But what was Akemi's reason for joining forces with the manipulative god?

"You loved me once, Xena. You will love me again, and we will spend eternity together," Akemi answered, reading the warrior's thoughts.

"Like hell we will," Xena shot back, eyes flashing angry sparks at the both of them. "Is that what this is about? Did you lure me back to Higuchi for this?"

Akemi laughed then, and the high-pitched sound shifted and changed, becoming deeper and more guttural. The girl's features melted and reformed before Xena's wide, incredulous eyes. Where the sweet, angelic girl had been a moment before, now there was a hideously twisted demon with mottled purple and black bruises covering its face. Ares looked at Xena and shrugged, grinning broadly.

"Yodoshi wasn't holding those souls prisoner, you were!" Xena cried out, finally comprehending.

The demon Akemi continued to laugh mockingly. Ares joined in and the two of them began to fade from view. Xena lunged forward to grab them, but her hands passed through their insubstantial forms as they vanished.

"Too late, Xena. You're destined to spend forever with me," the demon's disembodied voice floated down to her.

Xena whirled, trying to locate the source of the voice, but Ares and Akemi had disappeared. She cursed loudly and turned back towards the window where she had been watching Gabrielle, but it, too, was gone. Xena cursed again as she raked her fingers through her hair. Now that she knew about Akemi's deception, there was no reason for her to stay dead. There had to be a way out of this. She chewed her thumbnail absently as she began to work on a plan.

Days went by, but Gabrielle was oblivious to the passing of time. She'd finally managed to sleep for a few hours, collapsing from pure exhaustion, but she hadn't felt any better when she reawakened. She was drawn and pale, and dark shadows had taken up residence under her eyes. The crew whispered to each other when they thought she wasn't listening, calling her the walking dead. She didn't care.

Standing on the deck of the ship, staring out at the endless sea, Gabrielle unhooked the chakram from her belt. She held it up in front of her eyes, examining it, tilting it so that the sun bounced off its shiny edges. It had caught her by surprise the first time she had successfully thrown and caught Xena's signature weapon, there on the rocky slopes of Mt. Fuji. She turned the disc over in her hands, and then cocked her wrist back and flung it as hard as she could. The chakram embedded itself in the mast with a satisfying thud.

Ares popped into view. He yanked the chakram out of the mast and rubbed the deep scar in the wood with his thumb. He grinned and hiked his eyebrows at the startled young woman.

"Impressive. You've got quite an arm," he complimented her, ignoring the disgusted roll of her eyes. "So, have you given any thought to my offer?"

Gabrielle stared at him, having no idea what he was talking about.

"What offer?"

Ares waved his hands impatiently. "Take Xena's place as humanity's champion. Be my right-hand gal."

Gabrielle laughed, a hollow, broken sound. "Okay, first of all, Xena was notyour 'right-hand gal,' not for a long time. And second, I could never replace her. Never," she shook her head. "Besides, I'm not a warrior."

Ares moved until he was standing directly in front of her, and he put his hands on her shoulders. She inhaled sharply as she could feel his energy coursing through her body. It was a powerful, intoxicating feeling, and her resolve started to slip. Shaking herself, Gabrielle jerked away from the god's seductive touch.

"Who are you trying to kid, Gabrielle?" Ares asked, clearly annoyed. "You're not a warrior? Yeah, right. Let's go over your body count, shall we?"

"Stop it," Gabrielle whispered.

Ares continued as if he hadn't heard her. "Let's see, first there was Meridian, right? They say you never forget your first. Then there were the Romans in the prison courtyard. Nasty bit of business there. Oh, and some more Romans in Egypt. I think you took out half a legion all by yourself. And of course, we can't forget Brutus. Nice form on that one, very well executed, if you don't mind the pun."
Gabrielle had squeezed her eyes shut and clamped her hands over her ears, trying to block out his words. The images of all the people she'd killed flooded her mind.

"Stop it! Stopitstopitstopit!" she screamed.

Ares broke off his list abruptly. He lifted her chin with one finger and stared intently into her eyes.

"Just making a point, Gabrielle," he said solemnly.

She stared at him uncertainly. "I can't do it," she confessed. "I can't follow in her path. I can't be her." Her voice broke on the last word and her shoulders heaved with restrained sobs.

Ares smiled and pulled her into a comforting embrace. He stroked her hair soothingly, and her skin tingled from his awesome power.

"Gabrielle, you don't have to be her," Ares told her reasonably. "Xena had her way. You had yours. But you both wanted the same thing, right?" He looked down at Gabrielle, and she nodded hesitantly. "Right. All I'm suggesting is that you continue on. There's a pharaoh in Egypt named Ramses, despicable guy, enslaved thousands. You could start with him."

He was sure she was going to give in. He could feel it. Gabrielle freed herself from his embrace and went to lean on the rail. She stared at the water, watching the foam-tipped waves crash against the sides of the ship. When she turned around again, her face was set and determined.

"No, Ares. I've learned a lot through the years, and one of the lessons I learned best is that you don't do anything that doesn't directly benefit you. So, your answer is no."

Ares pressed his hand to his chest, pretending to be offended.

"Gabrielle, I'm hurt. After all the times I saved your life, this is how you treat me?"

Gabrielle shot him a dirty look. "Oh, please, Ares. You only saved my life to make yourself look good in Xena's eyes. Otherwise, I was just an annoyance to you."

"That's not true," Ares said, serious now. "Yes, at first I thought you were just an irritating pest. But you proved your worth to me. I see great potential in you, Gabrielle. All you need is a little guidance."

"From you? No thanks, not if my life depended on it," Gabrielle turned to walk away, but she was stopped short by Ares' next words.

"What if Xena's life depended on it?"

Gabrielle turned back, staring at him. Had she heard him right? Was Ares suggesting that he could bring Xena back? Ares folded his arms across his chest and looked at her expectantly.

"What are you saying?" Gabrielle asked when she could get her tongue to work.

"Xena hasn't crossed over yet," Ares informed her, playing his trump card. "She walks the world between worlds. If you and I reached a mutually beneficial agreement, I might be persuaded to bring her back. Yeah, yeah, I know. You need time to think," he paused. "Don't take too long, 'cause this is a limited time offer. I want an answer by sunset tomorrow." He vanished.

Xena had a plan. She went over her strategy in her mind, carefully searching for holes. There was always something that could go wrong, but as far she could tell, her plan was fairly sound. Killing Yodoshi was supposed to have freed Higuchi's condemned souls, but it hadn't worked because he hadn't been the true evil. Now that she knew Akemi was the real soul stealer, Xena figure she should stick to the same basic premise. Defeat Akemi in battle, set the souls free. It sounded pretty simple.

The rest of the plan, the part that got her back to the land of the living, was a little fuzzier. Xena shrugged. She would worry about that when the time came. First things first. She focused on the more immediate task.

"Akemi? I've given it some thought, and you were right. We're destined to be together." Xena called out.

Gradually, a shape coalesced out of the mist and Akemi hovered before her. The demon was hidden, and the angelic face beamed happily at Xena. Fighting down a wave of revulsion, Xena smiled back.

"I knew you'd understand, Xena. You and I are alike. We know what we want and we'll do whatever it takes to get it," Akemi said in her childish voice.

"Whatever it takes," Xena agreed, nodding gravely.

"Follow me, Xena. I'll lead you to eternity," Akemi beckoned with a ghostly, translucent finger.

Xena shook her head. "No. Be solid, like you were before. I want to feel your hand in mine."

Akemi hesitated, but Xena delivered her most disarming grin, charming her way past the girl's suspicion. Akemi smiled in delight, and as Xena watched breathlessly, she began to solidify. After a moment, the tiny girl stood before the tall warrior, looking just as substantial as Xena herself. Akemi reached out for Xena's hand.
Xena seized the offered hand it jerked it towards herself, pulling Akemi into her closed fist, hearing the satisfying smack as her knuckles collided with the girl's nose. Before the girl could react, Xena yanked the anklet away, breaking the delicate chain. Akemi's face changed and the monster inside her snarled at Xena once more, baring its dripping fangs. Howling with rage, the demon launched itself at the warrior.

Xena caught the demon in mid-air and rolled with it, pummeling its face with her fists. Bones crunched as she slammed an elbow into its jaw. She leaped to her feet, searching around for something to use as a weapon, but there was nothing. The demon stood, rising out of the mist, and its face had changed again, returning to Akemi's delicate features.

"Why do you fight me, Xena?" Akemi asked, pleading with the warrior. "Our souls are bound to each other. We must travel together into eternity."

"Sorry. My soul is spoken for," Xena scowled back, and with a familiar cry, she launched a flying kick that landed squarely against Akemi's chest.

The girl flew backwards, and her features contorted with rage. Screaming with fury, she flung herself at Xena, and her fingernails raked the warrior's shoulder. A hard backhand knocked the tall warrior to the ground, and Akemi fell on her, blows raining down upon Xena's unprotected head. Xena's eyes blurred and her vision dimmed around the edges; she was losing the fight.

Suddenly, a bright flash illuminated the space around them, dispelling the swirling fog. Xena turned her head, expecting to see Ares smirking at her, but instead, the archangel Michael and two of his warrior angels appeared before her. Michael extended his hand and made a twisting gesture, and the air seemed to shimmer and split. A tear in the fabric of space opened, and Xena could smell sulfurous flames beyond the blackness.

"Here, Xena! You must throw her through the doorway!" Michael shouted.

With extreme effort, Xena brought her knees up, creating a bit of space between her and Akemi. She pushed, breaking the girl's stranglehold on her, and Xena bounced to her feet, feeling a sudden surge of energy. Growling angrily, the tall warrior seized Akemi by the back of her neck and lifted the tiny girl as if she was weightless. Akemi shrieked and struggled, but Xena held her fast. Michael made a motion for her to hurry, and Xena could see that he was straining to keep the doorway to Hell open. With a triumphant cry, Xena flung Akemi through the portal, and Michael sealed it behind the screaming girl. The archangel turned to face the warrior.

"Sorry about that," he gave her a thin smile. "Sometimes they get away from us."

"What wasthat?" Xena asked, examining the shallow scratches on her shoulder.

Michael stepped forward and laid his hand on her flesh. She felt an oddly warm prickling as the wound began to heal under his touch.
"Akemi was simply the mortal face of an ancient demon. She has eluded our capture for quite some time. We only located her because she was so distracted by you that she forgot to hide her presence from us," he explained smoothly.

Xena blinked, taking it all in. She hated demons, and angels, and gods; they always made everything so complicated. She preferred a nice, simple, bloodthirsty warlord, any day. A thought occurred to her, and she opened her mouth to speak.

"The souls of Higuchi are released," Michael said, anticipating her question. "They were freed when Akemi returned to Hell."

"Ah." Xena replied.

Stepping around the blond archangel, she began to search for a window or a doorway leading out of the world between worlds. Now that Akemi was gone, she knew she had to get back to Gabrielle before Ares won his sick little game. Michael moved in front of her, blocking her path and she glared at him irritably.

"Xena, it's time," he told her gravely.

Xena cocked her head to one side and stared at him. "Time for what?"

"To cross over to the other side, so your soul can be at peace. That's partly why we came, Xena. You belong with us now."

Xena looked over her shoulder where a bright light was shining, drawing her inexorably towards it. She thought of Gabrielle.

"I don't want to go into the light, Michael. I want to go back. Akemi, or whatever that thing was, deceived me. I should be allowed to go back, that's where I belong," Xena pleaded.

Michael shook his blond head. "That isn't my decision to make. Either go into the light, or risk becoming one of these lost souls," he gestured around him at the thousands of wailing souls.

Xena set her jaw stubbornly and folded her arms across her chest. "I'll take my chances. There has to be a way back and I won't rest until I find it."

"So be it," Michael shrugged. He called to his brethren, and they vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Almost as soon as they had left, a golden shower of light drifted down out of the ether, revealing Aphrodite's presence. Xena stared at her, stunned.

"How long have you been there?" she asked.

The goddess of love made an apologetic face. "For awhile. I was waiting until you and the boys were done playing. You know that I'm no good in a fight. I might break a nail."

Aphrodite paused, a mischievous grin on her lips. "Besides, I was having fun watching. That blond one with the big wings was kinda cute," she giggled.

Xena rolled her eyes in exasperation and Aphrodite held up her hands in protest.

"Okay, okay, chill out! I get the picture, you're not in the mood for girl talk," she said. "So, I'll get to the point. There's a really adorable, heartbroken blonde out there who misses you like crazy."

Xena started to speak up, hope glimmering in her eyes, but Aphrodite shushed her impatiently.

"Let me finish, sheesh! Anyway, like I was saying, Gabrielle is pretty much lost without you. And I have a soft spot for the bard, so I was thinking. . . ."

"You can send me back?" Xena asked, interrupting.

Ares suddenly appeared, glowering furiously. "Hey! No fair playing with another god's toys!"

Aphrodite shot him a dirty look and leaned over to whisper to Xena. She giggled behind her hand.

"Pay no attention to baby brother. Zeus dropped him on his head one too many times," the goddess confided.

Xena's lips twitched into a faint grin, and she blithely ignored the indignant look that Ares was directing towards her.

"Hey? Hello? Goddess with something important to say over here," Aphrodite waved her arms, getting their attention. "Of course, if you two would rather scowl at each other, I could always go get a pedicure or something," she lifted her hand as if she was going to snap her fingers and vanish.

"No, wait. I'm listening," Xena stopped her.

Aphrodite beamed at her. "Okay, as I was tryingto say before we were so rudelyinterrupted," she glared at her dark, brooding brother. "As one of only two remaining Olympians, I have certain abilities that I didn't have before. Like I can cast this really cool spell to make it rain wherever I want to."

Xena drummed her fingers against her arm impatiently.

"Anyway, to make a long story short. . ."

"Too late for that," Ares muttered under his breath.

Aphrodite shot him a look and went on. "I can send you back to Gabrielle. I figured, hey, I have to do something before Ares turns her into an icky old warrior. No offense, Xena."

"None taken," Xena returned, grinning broadly. Aphrodite was going to reunite her with the other half of her soul. "So, how do we do this?"

"Click your heels together and chant 'there's no place like home'?" Ares suggested sarcastically.

The goddess and the warrior chose to ignore him. Aphrodite shut her eyes and concentrated intently, and when she opened them again, she was surrounded by an iridescent circle of light. She reached out to Xena.

"Take my hand. I'll take you to her."

Putting her faith in the goddess, Xena took Aphrodite's hand and felt a strange tingling sensation envelop her. Everything darkened around her, and she felt like she was falling. She could no longer sense Aphrodite's hand in hers, and she began to fear that the sometimes flighty goddess had accidentally let go.

A faint, ruddy glow appeared in the distance, and as Xena stared at it, it began to grow closer and brighter. She focused on it, willing herself to move towards it. A rush of light and sound invaded her eyes and ears, and the next thing she knew, she was standing on the deck of a ship. Wild-eyed crew members scrambled to get away from the apparition in their midst. Footsteps were ascending the ladder that connected the upper deck with the lower, and Xena recognized their familiar cadence. She turned toward the sound.

A blond head appeared and green eyes widened in shock. Slowly, Gabrielle emerged from her bunk and stared at the sight before her, not daring to breathe. It couldn't be. She was seeing things; she had to be. Xena was dead.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered, tears unexpectedly springing to her eyes.

The warrior took a step forward, and the movement snapped Gabrielle out of her trance. A low moan escaped the bard's throat, and she put her hand to her mouth as she felt her knees beginning to buckle. Xena grabbed her and steadied her, and Gabrielle almost swore she could feel the solid weight of the warrior's hands on her shoulders.

"Gabrielle, it's me. Really," Xena said gently.

"Xena? But, how? I saw you. . ." Gabrielle trailed off, still not quite believing.

"Aphrodite sent me back to you," Xena began to explain. She stopped; there would be time for that later.

She cupped Gabrielle's cheek in her hand, stroking the soft skin with her thumb as the bard instinctively leaned in to her caress. Leaning down, Xena tasted her soulmate's lips, gently at first, then more passionately as she sought to reaffirm their bond. They parted, slightly breathless.

"It is you," Gabrielle cried, tears streaming down her face.

The bard threw her arms around Xena's neck and hugged her as if she feared the warrior would disappear if she let go. Disentangling one arm, she pressed her palm flat against Xena's chest, feeling the strong, vibrant heartbeat. Xena was alive. How could this be? Gabrielle shook her head firmly and buried her face against the warrior's neck, breathing in her distinctive scent. It didn't matter how. All that mattered was that Xena was alive and they were together.

Gabrielle tilted her head up and got hopelessly lost in two deep pools of brilliant blue. She blinked, feeling the faint splash of tears on her eyelashes, and she smiled up at her warrior.

"I love you."

Xena kissed her again, taking her time. "I love you too, my heart. Let's go home."

"Uh, okay, but it might take awhile. This ship is heading for Egypt," Gabrielle informed her apologetically.

Xena glanced behind Gabrielle at the goddess of love, who was happily waiting, unseen by anyone else on board the ship. She grinned devilishly at Gabrielle and winked.

"That's okay. I arranged for alternate transportation."

A month later, two figures sat atop a gentle hill, contentedly wrapped in each other's embrace. They were seated in the middle of a small vineyard, still in its infancy, and a cool, crisp sea breeze ruffled their hair. The frame of their unfinished house waited behind them, bathed in the rays of the setting sun.

Gabrielle leaned her head back against her soulmate's unarmored chest. She sighed happily. Since their return to Greece, Xena had decided to give up her sword. You live by the sword, you die by the sword, Gabrielle, she had said, and I intend to live to a ripe old age with you. The bard made a small, delighted noise as Xena nuzzled her hair and the strong arms tightened around her waist.
"You know something, Xena? For most of my life, I've been searching for my true path. Then I realized that the answer has been right in front of me for a long time. Xena, you are my path."

Lips brushed her ear lightly, and Gabrielle shivered with the thrilling jolt. Xena whispered to her in a voice filled with love.

"And you're mine, Gabrielle."

The end.

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