The Edge of Nowhere
A flash of dark blue lit up the throne room. Alti looked up, studying the new-comer for a moment, then she returned her attention to the scroll she held balanced on a knee.
"Enjoying your new seat?" Ares drawled smugly.
"It's not uncomfortable," Alti retorted in a mutter, not looking up.
"Well, it's good to know your standards aren't too high." Ares folded his hands behind his back and strolled closer, ascending the few steps to come to stand in front of the throne. "So..." He tapped the toe of his boot on the stone. "I'm waiting..."
The shamaness frowned, then looked up. "Waiting for what?"
"For your endless outpour of gratitude."
Alti snorted. "Can I get you something to drink in that case? Eternity can last awfully long without refreshments."
Ares raised an eyebrow at her. "You do realise you would have never gotten this far without my help..."
"Oh, you're absolutely right." Alti rolled up the scroll and placed it next to the throne. "I'm sure I wouldn't be here without your worthless excuses or your tendency to hide from Xena... you proved so useful..."
"Hey, I don't hide from Xena, OK?" Ares shot back. "I just... avoid her when I can..."
"Uhuh..." Alti drawled, looking up at him calmly as she rested her elbows on the armrests and folded her hands together, clearly unconvinced.
The god narrowed his eyes at her. "Next time you ask for my help, I am so not giving you any more dead people..."
The shamaness rolled her eyes. "I admit Pompey proved his worth..."
"See, there you go..." The King of the Gods crossed his arms. "Now, where's my 'thank you'? You can toss in some bowing and grovelling if you feel like it..."
"It should be you thanking me," Alti stated, leaning back in her throne. "If I hadn't taken action, Xena and her blond girlfriend would be well on their way turning this nice little dictatorship we've been working so hard for into a democracy."
"Xena has a girlfriend?" Ares frowned in obvious dismay. "The blonde chick I saw in the visions?"
Alti rolled her eyes. "Your Xena obsessed brain is neglecting the essentials, Ares."
The god shot her a bored look. "Democracy, bla bla, I heard ya..."
"I'd thank the gods, but I don't like wasting my time..." The shamaness muttered, then rose from her throne. "We have an issue... Xena escaped."
"She escaped?" The King of the Gods tossed up his hands. "Mortals... Can't even lock people up right..."
"Gabrielle took out the soldiers, then led them to freedom through a hidden passage in the dungeon floor," Alti continued on while she took a few paces, ignoring his comments. "I've got the army out looking for them, but Athens is a big city and the imperial forces have been seriously downsized..."
"Gabrielle again, huh? She took out those guards while she was locked in a cell?"
Ares stroked his goatee. "Interesting... "
"No, she's not.." Alti stated in a growl. "She's obnoxious and righteous and she keeps getting in my way..."
"She annoying you, is she?" The King of the Gods chuckled. "I like her already..."
Alti shot him a bored look. "Well, we'll see how much you like her when she and Xena stab a hind's blood dagger in your chest, won't we?"
Ares blinked. "She took the dagger?" His shock turned to anger and he rushed forward, grabbing onto Alti's neck and lifting the woman straight off the ground. "You let her get away with my dagger! You imbecile!"
Alti gasped for air. "I think one headless corps is enough in this partnership, don't you?"
Ares glowered at her for a long moment, then released his hold on her, dropping the shamaness back to the ground. Alti sucked in a breath, rubbing her painful throat. "Xena's not stupid. She's seen Pompey, she'll have realised by now he didn't just pop up from the Underworld by his own doing..."
Ares' nostrils flared as he gazed angrily at the nothing for a moment, then angrily slammed his fist onto the armrest of the throne. "Damn it!" Another impact of his fist on the wood. "Damn it, damn it, damn it..." He turned briskly, taking a few paces, then turning and pacing back. "Why does she ALWAYS have to get in my WAY!" He glanced up at Alti. "We were great together, you know? We had this... this... fire going on... She was all fire." He grasped at the empty air. "It was that stupid dagger... That dagger and the kid and... Urgh..." He tossed up his hands. "I'm never going to find anyone like her again..." A melancholic sigh. "I miss her sometimes, ya know? I miss that little devilish laugh and the way she'd..."
Alti cleared her throat.
"Oh, don't tell me you didn't love it..." Ares shot her a look. "She did the worst things when she pulled out that little laugh of hers." He raised a finger. "Do you know, she still eats Caesar salad at least once a week?"
The shamaness shot him a bored look. "I want Xena. You want the dagger." She stated point blank, crossing her arms. "You feel like joining the Xena fan club, be my guest... But that's not going to get you what you want, and you know it..."
Ares considered this for a long moment. "All right..." He finally nodded a consent. "If I find Xena you'll be the first one to know..." Then he snapped his fingers and disappeared in a flash of light.
"...and then there it was..."
"Hmm," Xena frowned, considering. "And you've just been carrying it along all this time?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I considered getting rid of it a few times, during the traveling it was really just in my way, but..." A shrug. "I couldn't bring myself to dump it... It proved useful in the end, It's great for cleaning fish..."
Xena snorted softly. "She gets handed the most powerful weapon in the known world and cleans fish with it..." She traced the decorations on the metal ring lovingly. "Poor thing..."
"Hey, how was I supposed to know what it was?" the warrior muttered, shooting her companion a look. "Weapons don't tend to be circular..."
"Warrior don't tend to be short and blond," Xena retorted easily, which got her an outraged look from the warrior in question. She chuckled. "That was a compliment," she amended hastily. "It's what makes you special..." A small smile. "Among other things..."
Gabrielle shot her another look, but then returned to the topic at hand. "You said Ares gave you your chakram?"
"Do you think he gave me mine?"
Xena shook her head determinedly. "No. If he'd been capable of taking it, he would have kept it for himself for sure. Used it to kill off his family in one quick toss..."
Blond brows frowned. "Kill his..." Her eyes widened. "These chakrams can kill gods?"
"The white one can, or so I've heard," Xena corrected her calmly. "There's just two of these... It's sort of a... a yin yang sorta thing... One dark, one light... The dark one can only be picked up by someone who's got a dark soul and I guess Ares qualified... And the light one..."
"...can only be picked up by someone with a pure heart..." Gabrielle finished in a murmur.
"Exactly. That way whoever made these could be sure the more powerful of the two would land in good hands..." The Empress stared at the chakram balancing on her own fingertips. "...and it could defeat its dark twin, no matter who was wielding it, mortal or god..." She looked up, then lifted the chakram and held it out to the warrior. "You'd better keep this in a safe place. If Ares finds out you have this, he'll hunt you down until he gets his hands on it."
Gabrielle glanced at the weapon, then up at Xena. "I... I'm not too sure I'm the right one..." She murmured, not taking the ring.
The Empress studied her. "Apparently Lao Ma thought so..."
The warrior bit her lip, looking quite insecure. "You think it was Lao Ma?" She asked in a whisper.
Xena leaned back against the wall, considering all the options for a moment. "There's not a lot of people who'd be capable of picking this thing up. Ares sent loads of people in there, the most pious monks, innocent little girls... They all got toasted."
"They walked on there on Ares' behalf. No wonder." Gabrielle concluded.
"Hmm, good point," the Empress allowed. "But, still... There's not a lot of people out there with a pure heart, a clean soul... But Lao Ma..." A tiny shake of the dark head. "Everything she did was for the benefit of others. All the laws she wrote to help the inhabitants of the kingdom of Lao, her piece offers to Ming Tzu... Even that book of hers she was so proud of, she wrote in her husband's name..." Blue eyes peeked up at Gabrielle. "If there's anyone who'd be capable of picking this weapon up, it'd be her." Xena held the weapon out to Gabrielle again. "And if she gave it to you just before she died she must have had her reasons. And I know better than to criticize her ways."
Gabrielle stared at the dark-haired woman, then dropped her eyes to the weapon she was holding. A moment, then she reached out and took the chakram from Xena's hands, holding it up to her eyes and staring at the sharp edges and the decorations in the dim light of the flickering candle. "I..." She swallowed. "I don't understand... She saw what I was becoming...A warrior, a fighter..." A pause. "A killer..." She glanced up. "Why would she give it to me? If she knew I was going to end up like..." A breath. "Like this..."
Xena managed a small smile. "I think she gave it to you because she knew you'd end up like this... Because she saw the potential for good inside of you..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "How could she...?"
Xena snorted softly. "She could see the goodness in me, Gabrielle... Seeing good in someone like you is a piece of cake compared to that..."
Green eyes glanced up at her for a long moment, then dropped away again, staring at the floor intently. "She uhm... She talked about you a lot..." A wry smile. "We'd always get into a fight because of that... Because she kept defending you and I kept yelling at her, asking how she could possibly do that. How she could defend a spawn from Tartarus like you..."
Xena glanced down at the floor.
"You were right..." The warrior murmured, as she fumbled the edge of her tunic uncomfortably. "When you said I wanted to hate you, because it suited my purposes... You were right..."
Blue eyes peeked up and studied the warrior's profile. "You have a right to hate me..."
"Hate is not a right... It's a curse..." Gabrielle murmured, shaking her head softly. "It's why I could never... never do what she did... Her powers... I tried real hard, studied her writings day in, day out... I wanted so badly to be like her... To make her proud... But I kept failing again and again..."
"And she'd try to hide the disappointment before I looked up, but I'd always catch a trace of it and... and it tore up my soul..." Xena added reflectively. "And the next day I'd try harder, for her sake, but... It seemed like the harder I tried, the further I strayed..."
Gabrielle managed a small smile. "Yeah... Exactly..."
Xena folded her hands together and leaned her chin on top. "Guess we were willing too hard, huh?"
"Hmm," Gabrielle nodded. "Hating too much."
Xena managed a half smile. "Desiring..."
The blonde dropped her head, sporting a small smile as well. "Yeah..."
They sat in companionable silence for a while, both reminiscing on past affairs. Suddenly Xena's head shot up, the blue eyes flashing attentively. Gabrielle frowned, her senses trying to focus on whatever it was the warrior was sensing, but she didn't hear or feel anything. "What is it?"
Xena's eyes widened, then she scrambled to her feet. "Iona..." She managed in a whisper, then she ran out the door.
Within moments she was standing in the room across from Gabrielle's and had fallen to her knees beside the young girl who was lying half against the wall, the left side of her body wrapped up in a blanket. She was tossing and turning restlessly, murmuring, sounds of pain mixed with whimpered pleas. "Iona?" Xena gently placed a hand on her shoulder. "Iona, wake up."
The girl shook her head wildly. "No, please... Not daddy... Not my daddy..."
The Empress bit her lip. "Iona, sweetie, you need to wake up." She touched the girl's cheek, gently patting it. "Hey, come on..."
Iona was jerked from her dream then, her blue eyes shooting open. She froze for a moment, her gaze darting around the room she was in. Slowly it dawned on her why she was in these strange surroundings and her eyes filled with tears, the girl failing to choke back a sob.
Xena felt a lump forming in her own throat, then she just did what came natural and wrapped her arms around the young blonde, wrapping her up in a hug. "It's gonna be OK..." She stroked the blond hair tenderly. "It's all going to be OK..."
For a moment, Iona didn't resist, then the sleepy fog drifting in her brain lifted and she started struggling, worming her way out of Xena's arms and hastily crawling back until she was pressed up against the wall. "Get away from me!"
Xena swallowed. "Iona, please..."
The girl pressed her hands against her ears and curled up into a tight ball, not sparing the dark-haired woman a single look.
Xena hesitated for a moment, then she reached out a hand, fingertips carefully touching the girl's face. "Iona, you can't ju..."
In a flash Iona lunged out, her sharp nails digging into Xena's left cheek viciously. The Empress jumped back, her eyes wide as she instinctively lifted a hand to her cheek, feeling drops of warm liquid touch her palm.
"Get out!" Iona hissed, her eyes narrowed to slits. "I don't want you near me!"
The pang of hurt in the Empress's eyes at the words was almost audible. "But..."
Xena sucked in a breath, then squared her shoulders and made an attempt to put a unaffected expression on her face, as she straightened and turned, heading back towards the door. Gabrielle could see the hurt though, from her spot in the doorway and as the woman brushed by her on the way out she could feel the tension in her body, as she struggled with her emotions.
The warrior hesitated for a moment, glancing from the girl huddled on the floor to the woman who slipped back into her own room soundlessly. Then she took a few paces into the room, kneeling at Iona's side. Watery blue eyes blinked up at her, then Iona hid her face in her arms again. "Go away."
Gabrielle released a breath, reaching out and gently pushing a blond lock from the girl's face. "She loves you."
"I hate her." Iona's muted voice drifted up.
"No, you don't..." Gabrielle informed her sternly. "You're just upset, and that's understandable, but you can't keep hurting her like this..."
Angry blue eyes blinked up at her. "She's not your friend. What do you care? "
Good question. The warrior released a breath. "No, she's not... But you are." She stroked a teardrop from the girl's cheek. "Iona, if you just let her in..."
"No!" The young blonde pulled away from her touch and huddled back into a ball. "Just go away... I wanna be alone..."
Gabrielle gazed at her doubtfully, but then rose up. "OK." She placed a comforting hand on top of the girl's head for just a moment. "Call me if you change your mind."
She quietly exited the room, closing the door behind her and then leaning against the wood. The door to her own room was still open, and she could spot Xena sitting against the wall in the shadows, her arms wrapped around her legs and her forehead resting on her knees. Gabrielle gazed at the huddled form quietly, several thoughts drifting up at the sight of the Empress. Several concerning hatred, anger, the thoughts that had been there for years now. But she noticed now that those thoughts were becoming outnumbered by ones of understanding, compassion even.
Slowly she walked closer, kneeling down at Xena's side. "Hey? You OK?"
The warrior produced a wry smile. "You know, sometimes I wonder why it took me so long to figure out the connection between you two, the similarities being so obvious and all."
She could hear Xena exhale, then the Empress glanced up and Gabrielle could see the beginnings of tears brimming in her eyes. "Sorry..." Xena muttered as she wiped the back of her hand at her eyes. "It's just that... I'm afraid."
Gabrielle could see admitting to fear, dropping her fa┴ade of control, was tough on the other woman. "This is just temporary..." She assured her softly. "She just needs someone to blame and she picked you... She'll come around..."
A shake of the dark head. "That's not what I'm afraid of, it's..." The Empress closed her eyes, trying to put her thoughts to words in the chaos that was her brain. "I can't watch her head down this road, Gabrielle. This road of hatred and violence..." A breath. "I know she wants to. I can see it in her eyes, there's this fire there..." She glanced up. "She's strong and she's smart... And if she goes after them and she kills..."
"She's not going to. We're not going to let her..." Gabrielle stated firmly, making sure her words were clear, before rising to her feet and crossing over to her bag, digging inside and retrieving the small jar filled with Xena's herb mixture.
Xena followed her movements quietly, looking far from surprised when Gabrielle pulled the jar from her bag. "You know, any sane person would think you've gone crazy... Helping me, the person who you've fought against all this time."
"I told you before, I wasn't fighting you." Gabrielle said as she settled down on her knees in front of the other woman. "I was fighting tyranny. And that's what I'm doing now. I'm fighting Alti. And so are you. So..." A shrug, as she twisted the top off the jar, then dipped her finger in the mixture. "We might as well fight her together..."
Xena managed a wry smile. "The enemy of my enemy, huh?"
"Something like that," Gabrielle nodded, then carefully spread some of the salve on the Empress's wounds. She could feel the skin under her touch flinch lightly. "Does this hurt?"
"No," Xena's voice drifted up softly. "No, it doesn't hurt at all..." She cleared her throat. "So you uhm... You're just doing this for the greater good, huh?"
"Yes," the warrior confirmed, as she continued treating the scratches. "And I know what it's like to lose a friend..."
A moment of silence, then Xena snorted softly. "Ironic... If I could just use one word to describe my life, it'd be ironic..."
"I..." Gabrielle looked up, suddenly realizing what she'd said. "I didn't mean that as an insult or anything, I just meant..."
"I know..." Xena cut her short. "I know..."
The warrior inclined her head, spreading some salve on the last scratch, before twisting the top back on the jar and putting it aside.
Xena placed her elbows on her knees and folded her hands, pensively staring ahead of her. "My life's just been so insane... I helped Caesar, he nearly destroyed me. Lao Ma helped me, I nearly destroy her... I destroy your life and you come back to help me out..." A slight shake of the dark head. " I wish the Fates would finally decide what they want from me, cause I have to say this is really, really starting to piss me off..."
Gabrielle managed a small smile. "Yeah..." She found a spot beside the Empress, sitting down and leaning her back against the wall. "Yeah, I know what you mean." A pause. "Lao Ma once told me, life is like a river. And that I was fighting so hard to peddle upstream, but someday I'd figure out how much easier it was to just turn the boat around and let myself be pushed along by the current."
Xena smirked. "Well, that's Lao Ma for ya... There's a metaphor for everything..."
The warrior let a grin cross her face. "She was usually right though..."
"No denying that..." Xena agreed. A pensive silence followed. "So where are we going from here? Where is this river taking us?"
Gabrielle released a breath. "I'm not sure... But I guess the first thing on our path will be another confrontation with Alti, Callisto and Pompey."
Xena nodded, deeply in thought. "We might even be dealing with more than just them."
The warrior groaned, tipping her head back and gazing up at the ceiling. "What? Three isn't enough for you?"
A wry grin. "Pompey came back from the dead. And I know Alti is capable of a lot of things, but last time I checked dragging people from the Underworld was not one of them."
"Are we thinking divine assistance?"
Xena shrugged. "Not sure... I don't like wild guesses. But it's a possibility, yes..."
"Good thing we've got a round god-killing thing in our possession then, huh?" The warrior muttered.
"That and a hind's blood dagger."
Green eyes peeked up at her inquisitively. "You took it with you?"
A nod from the Empress. "Not the hilt, just the blade. It's stuck in a special compartment I made into my boot. I keep it in there at all times, especially now..."
Gabrielle nodded pensively. "Smart..." She muttered, then yawned, hastily lifting a hand to her mouth to stifle it.
Xena glanced up at her. "Tired?"
"No, I'm fine..." Gabrielle hastily assured, rubbing a hand over her eyes.
The Empress studied her quietly, a hint of sadness taking over her expressive face. "I'm not going to try anything, if that's what you're worried about."
Green eyes flicked up at her, then the warrior smirked. "Of course you're not... You know I'd kick your butt if you did..."
A small snort. "Think you can still beat me, do you?"
"I know I can."
Xena chuckled. "Well, you're definitely sure of yourself."
"Nothing wrong with that..." Gabrielle drawled.
"True enough," Xena admitted. "And since you're so sure of yourself, you might as well just get some sleep, right?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Nice try, but it's not working..." She faced forward again, staring at the empty space on front of her. "I'm just not a big fan of sleeping. I uhm... I tend to wake up being more tired then I was the night before..."
Xena nodded in understanding. "Yeah, I know what you mean..." She leaned back against the wall. "Guess we're staying up then..."
Gabrielle nodded. "Guess so..."
The sun was pleasantly warming the skin on her back. She felt drowsy and seriously unwilling to get up and move, though she knew she should. The smell of fresh spring flowers was lingering in the air and she could hear the trickling of water from a nearby stream. She lazily pried open an eye, stalks of grass filling her vision. She closed the eye again, since watching grass was hardly worth the effort to keep the eyelid raised. She rolled back, humming in delight as her cold bare abdomen was exposed to the warm sunlight.
A low chuckle drifted up from right beside her. "You are so lazy..."
A small smile spread across her face. "I don't see you moving..."
"That's because you have your eyes closed."
Gabrielle sighed in disgust at the smug response, then turned her head, taking the effort to open her eye once more and look at the dark-haired woman lying beside her, her head popped up on an elbow. "Still don't see you moving..."
"I was running around not a moment ago. You just missed it..."
A soft snort. "Sure..."
A dark eyebrow raised at her. "Are you calling me a liar?"
Gabrielle gazed back competitively. "And what if I am?"
"Then I guess I'll have to prove you wrong," Xena stated, then pushed herself up a little, crawling closer to the blonde. "See... Lots of moving there..."
Gabrielle placed her hands under her head, looking up at the bright blue sky above. "That's all you can manage? I was expecting a nice flip or something... This is a bit disappointing..."
"Disappointing, huh?" Xena drawled, stretching her body out beside the warrior's, their skin lightly touching. "You think I'm disappointing?"
The edges of Gabrielle's lips quirked up as she felt fingers lightly caress her cheek. She turned her head slightly, looking up at her companion and letting herself float around in the current of emotions that was flowing between them. "And what if I do?"
Blue eyes twinkled back at her mischievously. "Then I guess I'll have to prove you wrong," Xena murmured, leaning over and closing the remaining bit of space between them, capturing the warrior's lips...
Some small sound nudged her out of her slumber, and Gabrielle blinked open her eyes. The candle had nearly burned down by now and the room was being bathed in the softest of lights. Her muscles were sore, and Gabrielle chastised herself for having fallen asleep like this, sitting up with her back resting against the wall, her head pillowed lightly on Xena's shoulder and...
Within seconds she was on her feet and pressed against the opposite wall, her eyes wide. Somehow she'd managed this action without waking Xena, who continued sleeping peacefully, still wrapped up in some pleasant dream.
Her eyes widened even further, her eyebrows disappearing into her hairline. Dream... She'd had a dream too... A dream about...
"Oh gods..." She breathed, her throat having gone completely dry. Instinctively she lifted a hand and touched her lips, then she closed her eyes, exhaling. "Didn't happen... Didn't happen, didn't happen, didn't happen..." she mantra-ed softly. "It did not happen... It was just a dream... Nightmare..." She hastily corrected herself. "Nightmare... It was just a nightmare..." Her eyes tracked up and gazed at the sleeping form resting against the wall. "One heck of a nightmare..."
The same sound that had woken her up nudged at her senses again and she now realized it was Caspar, weakly clawing at the covers. She dropped her own thoughts and quickly made her way over to the bed, carefully settling down on the edge and touching the boy's shoulder. "Hey?"
Another moment, then Caspar's eyes opened and met Gabrielle's. He blinked, then allowed his foggy gaze to drift across the room, his brows frowning at the odd surroundings. Slowly, though, realization of what had happened started to dawn and when his eyes finally tracked back and met compassionate green ones again they were filled with unshed tears. He sniffled, then just fell forward and wrapped his arms around Gabrielle, burying his face the warrior's chest.
Gabrielle's defenses flared up at the sudden move, but she pushed them down and wrapped her arms around the boy's shaking form, gently rubbing his back. "It's OK... Easy..."
More movements, then Niobe poked her head out from under the blankets, her hair mussed and her gaze questioning as she looked at her crying brother. "Abby?" She looked inquisitively at the warrior, while she made an attempt to escape from the grasp of the blankets.
Gabrielle managed a smile for her. "Hey there..." She watched the toddler tug at the fabric of the shirt she was wearing, which Gabrielle recognized as one of her own. "Nice outfit."
Niobe looked up at her, then giggled. "Abby shirt." She stated, wobbling towards the warrior. "Love Abby..."
"Hey, shorty," a sleepy voice drifted up and Xena poked her head over the edge of the bed. "You're not switching sides on me, are ya?"
The toddler immediately changed directions and charged towards her playmate, who rose to her feet and quickly lifted the girl up before she could trip over the edge of her new shirt. "Sena!" She wrapped her arms around the Empress's neck, hugging her happily. "Love ya..."
"That's more like it," Xena produced a smile for her. "How's my girl?"
Niobe shot a glance over her shoulder at the still sobbing Caspar, then turned back to Xena, leaning a little closer and dropping her voice. "Sena, Caspie cry."
"He got owie?"
A breath. "Yeah... he's got an owie..." She placed a hand over the girl's heart. "Right here... So, just let him be sad for a while, OK?"
"OK." Niobe nodded seriously, then she frowned and roughly pushed at Xena's chin, turning the Empress's injured cheek towards her. "You got owie."
Xena managed a wry smile. "It doesn't hurt anymore... It's good..." The toddler shot her a disbelieving look, sharply raising a single eyebrow, which made Xena chuckle. "Really, I swear..."
Niobe seemed contented with this, and laid her head on Xena's shoulder. Xena stroked the girl's hair, shooting a look over the top of her head and peeking at Caspar, who seemed to have calmed down a little, aided by Gabrielle's soothing words. "So..." Realising the boy was in good hands she turned her attention back to the toddler she was holding. "You had nice dreams, short stuff?"
Niobe nodded frantically. "We go-ed fish. Abby, Caspie, Jona. Daddy cum too. All good."
"Sounds nice," Xena went along.
"You dream nice?" The toddler inquired in return, sticking her thumb in her mouth as she peeked up at her playmate.
A moment as Xena tried to recollect her dream, images of some peacefull meadow drifting up. "Yeah..." She murmured almost wonderingly. "Yeah, I had nice dreams..."
The Empress probed a little deeper into her memories, then her eyes widened a trifle and she shot a hasty glance at Gabrielle, before clearing her throat. "No, uhm... No fishing..."
Niobe scowled at this. "No good."
"Oh, it was good," Xena corrected her quickly. "It was... all good..." She glanced up, watching the dim flecks of light which the crystal was casting over the ceiling. "Shorty, when this is over, we need to get ourselves on of those, OK?"
The toddler glanced up, staring at the crystal for a moment, then she looked back down at the Empress, slowly raising a single eyebrow.
"Here you go..." Gabrielle pulled a chair back and motioned Caspar forward. "Have a seat."
Caspar sat down, his brown eyes studying the kitchen interior carefully. It was early, a candle mark before dawn at least and the house was still quiet. The area was only illuminated by the two candles Gabrielle had lit just a moment ago, which were bathing the small kitchen in a deep yellow light. It was a nice place, Caspar decided, much smaller than what he was used to in the way of kitchens, but cosy and... And it just had a good feel to it, sorta...
He glanced up as Xena settled into a seat across from him, with Niobe clinging onto her, babbling on about something that the Empress was patiently listening to. Behind him Gabrielle rummaged about the cabinets in search of something edible, mumbling to herself a little as she did so.
It was... a little like home... Which made him sad, because he knew this wasn't home and he also knew they probably wouldn't be going home for quite some time...
He released a little gloomy breath. He missed home. He missed dad.
But then, dad had always told him he shouldn't be sad about what he didn't have, but glad for what he did have. And he had Xena, and Gabrielle and Niobe and... A scowl. He had Iona, which was more of a downside really.
The thought of his sister did bring up a bit of a question though, and he looked up at Xena inquisitively. "Is Iona still mad?"
Blue eyes tore away from the toddler and focussed on him. He could see the hint of sadness there. Xena always tried to hide when she was sad, but he'd always been able to see right through that. Xena always had sparkles in her eyes, but when she was sad, she didn't... Just like Iona, Iona had sparkles too...
"Yeah," the Empress answered his question. "Yeah, she's still mad."
"Do you want me to go talk to her?"
Both dark eyebrows lifted at him. "Excuse me? Did you just offer to voluntarily speak with your sister?"
This got a weak chuckle out of the boy. "Shocking, huh?"
"Quite," Xena grinned at him, and Caspar grinned back, happy to see a hint of those sparkles again.
"Here you go," Gabrielle's voice drifted in as the warrior placed two plates in the centre of the table, one with bits of buttered bread and cheese and one with four mugs of milk. "Eat up..."
Caspar really wasn't hungry, but he took a slice out of politeness and bit off a tiny bite.
Xena picked one of the slices up too, producing a smile for the warrior. "Thanks."
Green eyes peeked up, then hastily diverted again, as Gabrielle focused on obtaining her own breakfast. "You're welcome..."
Xena frowned at the warrior's uneasy behaviour, but then she realised Gabrielle had to be worried about the conflicts the approaching day was bound to bring. The argument with her friends had upset the warrior, Xena could easily see that. There was a lot of tension in her face, twitching muscles, lines around the eyes. She seemed tired. But then again, if Xena thought back to that road in Macedonia where they'd faced off a few weeks ago, she remembered the same twitching and the same lines dominating the warrior's features.
Gabrielle was tired. Of life, of the hurt it caused and the worries and the fights. Xena recognised the signs easily, since she'd been seeing them reflected back to her in a mirror for the bigger part of her life.
She'd tried to smother the lines, had changed her lifestyle around several times, diving into extremes, planning long trips to distant parts of her Empire in an attempt to cheer herself up, but... No luck. And now she'd just sorta settled in her fate.
She had no hopes of changing anymore. She'd been standing at the edge of nowhere for so long, she wouldn't even know where to look for the way leading back.
Gabrielle however... There was hope for Gabrielle. The last years had made her bitter and hateful, but there was still that spark Xena had seen the first time she'd met the girl. On that village square. Where she'd ordered her crucifixion.
Xena winced at the thought, at the memories drifting up. She'd done it for a reason. A good reason, or so she'd thought at the time. To smother the resistance. Her realm was in enough chaos back then, having to adjust to her rule. If this uproar would gather enough of a following it would bring everything she'd built up over the last few years into disarray. Thousands, hundreds of thousands would get killed in the struggle.
She'd made a mathematical decision back then. Running the risk of letting thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers die in a struggle for her rule, or taking out one measly rebel. And she'd made her decision, ironically enough, because it seemed like the right thing to do.
Had it been? Xena had to wonder now. She'd always looked at her actions back then from an elevated point of view, seeing the bigger picture, the peace that had settled over her land, the riots that had settled down because of her actions in Athens. But she'd never looked closer and seen how it affected the people personally. And back then, honestly, she hadn't cared...
Everything was different now though. She was different. And with the new knowledge she had, of Gabrielle, of her obviously tight friendship with the other rebels... The memories of her actions three years ago were now... painful to revisit.
Would she change things? If she could go back in time, would she undo what she did? Spare the young blonde? Her friends? At the risk of losing her Empire?
Xena considered this seriously for a long moment, then a wry grin crept onto her face. Wasn't that what she'd just done only yesterday? Hand her Empire over to Alti without a fight, because she didn't want to lose Gabrielle? She glanced at the quiet blonde. She couldn't kill Gabrielle again. She just couldn't...
"So, do you want me to talk to her?"
Xena blinked. "Sorry?"
Caspar took another nibble of his slice of bread. "Talk to Iona? Do you want me to try?"
"Oh uhm..." Xena took a breath. "No... I uhm... Thanks for offering, but I think we should just give her a bit more time... If she hasn't come round by tonight I'll talk some sense into her..." A sip of her milk. "One way or the other..."
She wanted to take another bite of her bread, but frowned as she noticed her cheese had mysteriously vanished of its surface. Then she noticed the toddler sitting in her lap was chewing contently.
Xena shot the girl a look. "Niobe, that's not nice..." She scolded the toddler gently. "Remember, you should always be polite when we're a guest in someone else's home?"
"Plite?" Brown eyes looked up innocently. "'kay..." She then agreed, snatching the remaining bit of bread from the Empress's grasp and breaking it in half before offering the smaller half back to her playmate. "Wanna share?"
Gabrielle chuckled softly as she watched Xena as she attempted to plaster a condescending look on her face, but the Empress really wasn't a match for Niobe's childish charms. Beside her, Caspar giggled as well.
Blue eyes looked up in mock annoyance. "You're all against me, aren't ya?"
Gabrielle smirked. "We just like to stick with the winning team..."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Beaten by a three year old... Gods, my rep's in shatters now..."
"Hey, don't you start with me, young lady," Xena placed a finger on the toddler's nose. "I'll have you know, I'll... Mph!" Her sentence stopped abruptly as a dry piece of bread was shoved into her mouth. The rest of the room's occupants immediately burst out in laughter, and the toddler sitting in her lap giggled in delight. Xena shook her head in defeat. "Phunny. Werry phunny."
Thalia yawned, then foggily blinked open her eyes. Slowly the lines between dreams and reality, which were always blurry right after sleep, started to focus and the redhead groaned as she remembered the events of the previous day.
She pushed herself upright and swung her legs out of bed, while ruffling her hair back and into a pretty disordered form of order. She got to her feet, several vertebrae popping back into their spots with an audible crack. She retrieved the sea green tunic she'd been wearing the previous day off the chair she'd flung it over and started to dress, very slowly, since she had no desire to leave her room anytime soon really. Unfortunately dressing didn't take all that long and she soon stepped into the hallway and headed towards the stairs.
A noise stopped her halfway there though, a rustling, coming from... A frown. Naxos's old room... Thalia narrowed her eyes. If that bitch had set a foot in that place, she was going to kick her butt... Or attempt to do so anyway before dying some brutal death...
She spun around and paced towards the door, pushed it open and was just getting ready to launch into some serious yelling and name calling, when she spotted a child curled up on the floor, shivering and pawing at the sheets that were half covering her body. She was suffering from a serious case of nightmare, from the looks of it.
The redhead hesitated for a moment, but then she caved in, not wanting to let the youngster suffer just for being part of the Conqueror's entourage. So she walked further into the room and up to the girl. The child murmured something incoherent, tossing her head back and forth. "Hey?" Thalia hesitantly poked the toe of her boot at the girl's shoulder. "Kid?"
The blonde's eyes shot open and she half pushed herself up, before noticing the redhead looming over her. When she did she hastily scrambled back, right up against the wall, her blue eyes studying the other woman suspiciously. "Who are you?"
Thalia placed her hands on her hips. "Never taught you politeness in that fortress of doom, did they?"
Iona wrapped her arms around herself, narrowing her eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about..."
"That's what I mean," Thalia muttered, then took in the girl at her feet for a moment. "You're... Iona, right?"
"Yes," Iona admitted reluctantly. "Now, you are?"
Iona cocked her head a little at the name. "Gabrielle's friend?"
The redhead snorted softly. "Friend's a big word under the current circumstances."
The girl frowned at this. "How come? Is she mad at you?"
Thalia crossed her arms. "No, it's more that I'm made at her..."
Iona looked up at her for another moment, seemingly in disbelief, then she shook her head. "That's stupid..."
Both red eyebrows lifted. "Excuse me?"
"Gabrielle's nice. No one's mad at Gabrielle. Not even Xena, and Gabrielle tried to kill Xena... Several times..."
"Yeah, well, that's just the issue right there isn't it..." Thalia drawled. "She tried to kill her, but she didn't... No, that... that double-crosser led her here of all pla... Yow!!!" Thalia hopped back on one leg to keep the weight off the other, which had just suffered a vicious kick to the shins.
"Don't you say bad stuff about her!" Iona, who had scrambled to her feet, warned angrily.
The redhead gazed back at her in disbelief, then she tossed up her hands. "That's just typical! Solving everything with violence... You're clearly part of the Conqueror's posse, aren't y... Tartarus!!" She stumbled back as her second leg nearly collapsed on her from the impact of Iona's foot with her kneecap.
Blue eyes flashed at her. "I have nothing to do with her! I hate her!!"
Thalia blinked, forgetting her aching bones for a moment. "You hate her? I thought you were one of those kids of hers..."
"I'm not her anything," Iona growled back. "She did nothing, she just stood there while..." Her eyes went a little watery for a moment, but she just put an angry scowl on her face and pushed them back. "And... and I hate her! I hate her, I hate her, I hate her!"
"Hmm," Thalia found some support in a nearby chair, carefully lowering herself down onto the seat. "For some mysterious reason, I think I'm starting to like ya, kid..."
"So... What's the plan for today?" Gabrielle inquired as they finished their breakfast.
Xena looked up, a wry smile on her face. "You're asking me? I'm the dethroned Empress, Gabrielle. You're in charge here, not me... "
The warrior shook her head. "No one's in charge... In this house we've got a democracy going on..."
Xena shot her a look. "Right..." She drawled. "So you're telling me when you brought the news about Alti, all eyes didn't turn to you? There was absolutely no one asking you what to do? And everybody gave his opinion on the matter after which you discussed what was the best course of action?"
The warrior released a breath. "It's... complicated..."
"I don't doubt that..."
Gabrielle pushed herself up from her seat. "OK, just... advise me then... What do you think we should do?"
A dark eyebrow raised. "You want my advise?"
"Anyone's advise." Gabrielle muttered, as she started collecting the plates and cups off the table.
Xena studied the warrior for a moment, then she lifted Niobe, who was still chewing on a chunk of bread, off her lap and placed the toddler on the ground, darting a look at Caspar and pointing a finger at the girl. Caspar nodded in understanding, sliding off his seat and walking over to Niobe, sitting down on the ground beside her. Meanwhile Xena had gotten up and circled the table, taking the dishes from Gabrielle's hands. "Let me get that for you..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "You don't have to..."
"There's a lower risk of me dropping things if I do the washing... Drying was never my forte." Xena cut her off, walking to the sink and pulling the stop from the tap, letting the basin fill with water. Xena stuck a finger under the stream, then winced at the coolness. "No warm water tap here?"
"Nope," Gabrielle shook her head, resigning in the fact the Empress of the known world was helping her with the dishes. "We've got a fire to heat it on..." She pointed to the small chimney in the corner. "But you can just clean these with cold water, it's just breadcrumbs and milk..."
"Ok," Xena replugged the tap again, then added a bit of soap to the water before deposited the plates and cups in the liquid. She scrubbed the first plate clean with a sponge, then handed it to Gabrielle, who dried it off with a teacloth.
They worked in silence for a few moments, then Xena spoke up. "You don't like this being in charge much, do you?"
Gabrielle shook her head quietly.
"Didn't think so..."
The warrior glanced up at her. "You didn't, huh? And why's that?"
"Cause you came to visit me and the kids twice since I let you go," Xena handed her a mug. "Visiting your nemesis without just cause is a clear sign of escapism."
Gabrielle managed a faint chuckle. "Busted." A short silence, as she pensively rubbed at the wooden mug. "It's been hard... People keep... looking at me... like I have all the answers... But I don't... I don't have a clue what to do next..." She put the cup aside then picked up a second. "Before there was a group of us. Thalia, Naxos, Kimon, me... We talked about things, made decisions together... Now, it's just me..."
"Solitude is the price that comes with leadership..." Xena told her.
Gabrielle sighed gravely. "I don't think I want to be a leader anymore..."
The dark-haired woman beside her chuckled softly. " There's no wanting involved... You're either a leader or you're not..."
"And I'm not..."
"You are," Xena corrected her, cleaning the last mug. "Look, I'm not going to tell you it's easy. It's not. The foul looks, the expectations, the threats... It gets old after a while..." She handed the cleaned item to Gabrielle. "But in the end you'll just accept it, cause you have no other choice." Xena pulled the plug from the sink, watching the water circle down the drain. "For the bigger part Caesar was just a egocentric little boy with big dreams, but he did teach me one thing... Some things are meant be. Destined... And in the end, no matter how hard you fight it, destiny's gonna catch up with you."
Gabrielle considered this carefully. "So, do you believe you were destined to conqueror the world?"
Xena shrugged. "Don't know... Maybe my destiny was to meet Pyrron and his kids, or to give birth to Iona..."
Gabrielle placed the cup back in the cupboard. "And Conquering the world was just a side effect?"
A wry chuckle. "Yeah..."
"Interesting theory..." Gabrielle turned and leaned her back against the slab, crossing her arms.
Xena took on a similar position, glancing down at the blonde beside her. "For what it's worth... I think you're doing great..."
Green eyes glanced up at her, then Gabrielle faced forward again. "Thank you..."
At that moment the door opened and Thalia stepped inside, then stopping dead as she spotted Xena and Gabrielle standing shoulder to shoulder. Her eyes narrowed hatefully. "It doesn't feel too great for some reason though..." Gabrielle murmured softly.
"Well, well..." Thalia crossed her arms. "Think I need to call an exterminator... Seems there's rats in my kitchen..."
Xena opening her mouth to speak, but Gabrielle lifted a hand, stopping her motions. "Don't... You'll just make things worse..."
"Worse?" The redhead laughed sarcastically. "The person I've always considered to be my best friend is making merry with my worst enemy in our kitchen. Can't get worse than this, Gabrielle."
"Hey, cut her some slack." Xena straightened, taking a step forward and positioning herself slightly in front of Gabrielle. "This isn't easy for her, you know?"
"You shut up!" Thalia pointed a shaking finger at the Conqueror. "You just shut the Hades up and don't ever talk to me again cause I'll..."
A large chunk of bread smacked against Thalia's forehead. "Bad lady!" Niobe said, her brown eyes narrowing at redhead angrily. "No yell at Sena! 's Bad!"
"What in the name of...?" Thalia lifted a hand to her forehead, glancing down at the toddler with wide eyes, then she tossed up her hands. "Oh, this is just starting out to be a wonderful morning, isn't it? First I get smacked up by a twelve year old and now a toddler is throwing food at me... What is wrong with these children?!"
"Nothing wrong with 'm," Xena stated calmly, crooking a finger at Niobe, who hastily came toddling over and giggled as she was lifted onto the Empress's shoulder. "They're just doing what they are trained to do..."She ruffled the girl's bangs affectionately. "They will defeat all who oppose me with extreme violence or stunning charms... It's all part of my plan to take over the world..." She glanced up, meeting Thalia's gaze steadily. "...again..."
Gabrielle bit back a chuckle, doing her best to keep a serious expression on her face.
Thalia gazed at the Conqueror in disbelief. "You're insane... You are absolutely insane..."
Niobe looked at the redhead, then back up at Xena. She giggled. "No sane... All good..."
Xena chuckled. "You said it, short stuff..."
Gabrielle shot the duo a look, then she took a few steps towards her friend. "Thalia..." Grey eyes turned towards her, more confused than hateful now. "Could we go outside for a moment... and talk?"
The redhead blinked at her, doubtfully for a moment, then she nodded faintly. "OK..." She shot another look at the Conqueror, then headed towards the back door that led into the small backyard, circling around Xena with a wide arch, then hastily ducking outside.
Gabrielle watched her go, then she glanced up at Xena, raising an eyebrow at her. The woman grinned back sheepishly. "I was trying to help..." She offered.
The warrior slightly shook her head, then she pushed herself off the slab, patting Xena's arm on her way towards the door.
Blue eyes followed her until the door fell shut behind her, then tracked down to her arm. A tiny smile crossed her lips.
The early morning light filtered weakly through the hedge surrounding the small garden, throwing an orange haze over the secluded area. A drop of dew slid of its leaf, crashing onto a small rock with a splat. Gabrielle sucked in a breath, the scents of the flowers mixed with the humid air. Her eyes followed Thalia as the woman strode over to a small wooden bench at the other end of the garden and sat down. Grey eyes studied the ground for a moment, then lifted and Gabrielle winced internally as she saw Thalia had found a moment to compose herself and all the barriers were back up.
"Talk." The redhead crossed her arms and waited.
"Can I sit down?" The warrior inquired softly, waving a hand at the empty spot next to the redhead.
Thalia looked at her for another moment, then shrugged negligently, diverting her gaze and finding something else to stare at.
Gabrielle squared her shoulders, then walked over quietly, settling down next to her friend, keeping a respectable distance.
Thalia pulled a leaf off the hedge behind her, studying it for a moment, before tearing it in half.
Gabrielle folded her hands together and rested them in her lap. "I'm sorry."
Her companion placed the two halves on top of each other and then tore them in half again.
"I shouldn't have just brought her here... That was... thoughtless of me..."
Thalia selected one quarter of a leaf and rolled it to a ball between her thumb and forefinger.
"I should have talked to you first... But I just..." A breath. "So much happened so fast... I just didn't have time to stop and think, so I just reacted..."
The ball of leaf was launched into the air, landing on the small stone path, bouncing a few times before it rolled to a halt.
Gabrielle released a breath, then looked up at the dark profile. "What do you want me to say?"
Thalia's fingers fumbled with the bits of green, then grey eyes lifted and met hers for a long silent moment. "I don't know..." Thalia said finally, before glancing down again. "I don't know..."
The warrior bit her lip. "I never meant to hurt you... I'm so sorry if I hurt you..."
Thalia closed her eyes, then nodded softly. "I know..."
Gabrielle unfolded her hands, resting her fingers on her legs for a moment, then refolded her hands again. "If... If you want me to send her away, I will... But... I made a promise I'd protect Iona and... I'll need some time to find them a spot somewhere to hide and..."
"It's not that..." Thalia cut her off quietly. "Her being here is not just..." A breath, then the redhead re-seated herself a little so she was facing her friend. "Seeing her... triggered stuff... Not just stuff about how much I hate her and how badly I wanna stick a knife in her chest, but... also... what it was like, losing everybody... all in one day..."
Gabrielle swallowed, but remained quiet.
"I..." A pause as Thalia considered her words. "You're all I've got left, Gab."
A shake of the blond head. "That's not true..."
"Yes, it is," the redhead insisted. "I mean, there's Fay, and Agenor, but... that's different... We knew them, but... It was different... You know?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah..."
"And... that you brought her here seriously ticked me off..."
The warrior glanced down.
"But... what I was more angry about was that you were risking your life... Are risking your life..." Thalia tossed up a hand. "I mean, what if she'd turned on you? What if all of this was one big hoax to find out where we hid so she could round us all up?"
"This isn't a hoax..."
"I know, but there was a chance it was..." A breath. "And you got hurt helping her before and... And the only reason this Alti is after you in the first place is because of this... this weird connection you have with her..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Thalia, there isn't..."
"Yes, there is..." The redhead cut her off firmly. "She has this thing... and.. and you have this thing.. and it's the same freaking thing..." A breath. "The point is... You could get hurt... And..." Grey eyes peeked up, openly. "And I can't lose you, Gab."
The warrior managed a small smile at this, then reached out and took Thalia's hand, squeezing it gently. "Everything's going to be fine..."
"Yeah? Then what about that vision of yours, huh? The one where you die..." Thalia sounded just a tad hoarse.
Gabrielle blinked, having forgotten about the flashes of crucifixion Alti had shown her in all the chaos of the last day. "It could be Alti just... picked some random image and showed it to me, to frighten me... Thal, we don't even know that it was a vision..."
"We don't know that it wasn't either..." Thalia countered softly. "And I'm sick and tired of taking chances and losing."
"We're not going to lose," Gabrielle assured her firmly.
The redhead looked at her hesitantly for another moment, then she released a breath. "Could... could this Alti do that... Just... pick a random nightmare and give you the leading role to freak you out?"
Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "I don't know..." She admitted finally.
Thalia frowned a little. "You didn't talk to... her..." She vaguely motioned her head towards the kitchen. "...about this?"
Thalia crossed her arms. "Well, I hate to encourage you to be anywhere near the beast, but... don't you think you should? Since she's also starring in this little piece?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "What am I supposed to say, Thal? 'Hey, sorry your friend died. Guess you're taking care of the three grieving children from here on. Oh, by the way, did I mention Alti showed me us getting crucified together?' "
Thalia managed a wry smile. "Don't tell me you're worried about hurting her delicate feelings?"
Gabrielle leaned against the backrest. "I think I am actually..." She stared ahead of her pensively. "It's that... that part of me that understands where she's coming from sometimes... Cause... I've been there too, ya know?"
Thalia nodded softly, turning her head and looking at her friend. "It's the thing..."
Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "Yeah... The thing..."
Gabrielle held the door open, allowing Thalia to enter the kitchen before she did. Her eyes flicked around, spotting Caspar and Niobe sitting on the kitchen floor, but no one else. Gabrielle frowned, wondering where...
"She's gone to see Iona," Caspar said, as he noticed the warrior looking.
"Ah..."Gabrielle released a wry breath. "Think she's in for a bruising then..."
"Hey, if she feels like getting kicked in the shins that's perfectly all right by me..." Thalia muttered, walking to a cabinet and fishing out a loaf of bread, breaking off a chunk. She spread some butter on it, then headed back towards the table. "Saves me the trouble of...Ah! For the love of..." She only just managed to hold onto her breakfast as two tiny fists come down hard on her already bruised knee. She staggered back a few steps, glancing down to see a furious toddler closing in on her again.
Before Niobe could reach the redhead again though, she was intercepted and swooped up.
"Oh no, you don't..." Gabrielle placed a finger on the toddler's chin and turned the head to face her. "Niobe, Thalia is my friend, OK? I don't want you hurting her."
Niobe looked at her with angry eyes. "Bad lady."
"No, she's not."
"Bad lady," Niobe repeated sternly. "Not nice to Xena. 's Bad."
"I wasn't nice at first either, remember. Am I bad?"
Niobe scowled. "No..."
"Well, Thalia isn't bad either," the warrior told the child as she walked over to the table and sat down, settling the toddler in her lap. "So please be nice to her, OK?"
Niobe gazed doubtfully into the green eyes for a moment, then she glanced across the table, to where the redhead had taken up a seat and was now gently probing her knee, wincing as she touched some sore spots. The toddler sighed in defeat, laying her head against Gabrielle's shoulder. "'kay..."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled, gently ruffling the dark brown hair.
Meanwhile Caspar had gotten up and walked over, peering at Thalia's knee, which had turned a nice shade of purple by now. "You uhm... You should put something cold on that. That'll help bring the swelling down..."
Thalia glanced down. "Something cold?"
Caspar nodded. "I think it'll help..."
A frown. "So... you're not going to kick me?"
"Or punch me?"
"Or toss food at me?"
"No," Caspar shook his head vigorously. "Of course not..."
Thalia gazed down at him for another moment, then turned to look up at Gabrielle. "You sure he's related to those other two?"
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "He's the sweet one..."
Caspar blushed a deep red in response.
"Ah, I see..." Thalia turned back to Caspar. "So you're the white sheep in a family of black ones, are ya?"
"I think they're all white sheep, Thal," Gabrielle argued, then looked down as her hair was tugged.
"Hey!" Niobe looked at her indignantly. "Not sheeps."
Gabrielle chuckled warmly. "That was a metaphor. I just said you were nice."
Niobe considered this for a moment, then snuggled back down again. "'kay... Love ya."
Gabrielle wrapped an arm around the girl affectionately, then glanced up at Thalia. "See? They're just very defensive of the people they like."
"So I've noticed..." Thalia muttered, rubbing her knee gently. "Kid downstairs must really love you then, considering the damage she did to me for saying something bad about you."
Gabrielle smiled wryly. " She's nice... in her own special way..."
"Oh yeah, she's a dear," Thalia said, before taking the wet cloth Caspar held out to her and placing it on her knee. She released a blissful sigh as the coolness soothed her aching skin. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Caspar murmured shyly.
Thalia enjoyed the coldness of the cloth covering her knee for another few moments, then looked up. "So... We having a meeting today?"
Gabrielle nodded. " We need to start counterattacks as soon as we can, get Alti off balance..."
"And if we do get her off balance?" Thalia flipped the cloth over. "So off balance she topples off the throne even? Then what?"
Gabrielle studied the table's surface pensively , tracking the grains in the wood absently with a finger. "I... I don't know..."
Thalia studied her friend calmly. "We have a lot working in out favour, Gab..." She leaned over the table's surface, dropping her voice. "We can go all the way... Take over... We have a shot at doing things our way around this place... You know that, don't you?"
Gabrielle absently stroked Niobe's hair. "I know..." she murmured softly, a hint of unhappiness lingering in her voice.
Thalia picked up on it easily. "You don't sound too enthusiastic..."
"That's probably cause I'm not..." Gabrielle looked up and met the redhead's gaze. "I'm tired of the bloodshed..."
Thalia nodded. "So am I, but... But if we don't act things'll just go back to the way they were..."
Gabrielle managed a wry smile. "Trust me, Thal... Things will never be the way they were..."
Iona pressed her palms against her ears, staring at the ground between her feet.
Xena tossed up her hands in defeat. She'd tried to reach the girl, tried soothing words and plain logic, but Iona kept moving away, kept shutting her out and Xena was running out of ideas, not to mention patience. "Iona, just listen to me..."
The girl pressed against her ears even tighter.
Xena released a breath, then stalked over and grabbed onto Iona's wrists and pulled them away from her head. "I said listen!"
"I am not listening to you!" Iona snapped back, her blue eyes flashing dangerously. "Get away!"
"I am not going anywhere," Xena stepped up to the challenge this time, hoping maybe this direct approach would have some effect. "I'm not going to leave you here brooding by yourself any longer, understood?" Iona tried to struggle free and twist away, but Xena held on firmly. "Stop it and listen to me!"
Xena met the blue eyes straight on. "Iona, this attitude of yours is not going to do you any good, you hear? And I'm speaking from experience here... You're just going to start hating everything and everyone and grow cold and..." Xena released one of Iona's wrist, reaching out to touch her cheek. "I don't want you to end up like that... Like me... My mother let me be after my brother died and I am not going to do that to you..."
Iona huffed out a breath. "You are not my mother, are you?"
Her heart pressed the self destruct button and blew itself to shatters. Gods it hurt... Even though Iona didn't know, was stating a mere truth in her view... Xena sucked in a breath, working on keeping her face passive. "No... No, I'm not..." She said, her voice slightly husky.
"My mother's dead..." Iona continued on, her eyes icy. "Cause you were too late... And now daddy...." The girl swallowed, biting her lip to keep her emotions under control. "You always save everybody, but you couldn't save them... not the people I... need."
Xena dropped her head, loosening her hold on Iona's other wrist a little. "I'm sorry..."
Iona immediately pulled her hand free, pressing herself up against the back wall and wrapping her arms around her knees. "You should be..."
Xena sucked in a breath, keeping her head bent while she worked on wiping any signs of emotions off of her face. Finally she looked up. "I know you need someone to blame... and... And if that's me, then fine..." A breath. "And if you don't wanna talk to me I... I'll understand that...But... Please, Iona..." She stroked a blond lock back with tentative fingers. "Just... Just talk to somebody. Anybody... Please... Don't just keep sitting here..."
She waited for another moment, hoping against hope for any sort of response. But Iona just kept sitting quietly, huddled against the wall. So Xena pushed herself up and turned towards the door, walking off in silence.
Iona listened mutely to the receding footsteps, to the sound of the door falling into its lock. Only then did she look up, gazing at the door. "Don't worry," she murmured softly at the empty air. "I won't..."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, running a hand through her hair. She walked through the corridor slowly, allowing herself some time to let the whirlwind of emotions settle down a little so her rational side could resurface. She hated not having things worked out with Iona, she wanted to help the girl so badly, but... But she just didn't have time to deal with the stubborn twelve year old right now. Right now, she had evil shamanesses to fight and immortal sidekicks to vanquish... Xena released a tired breath. Well, on the positive side, things couldn't possibly get any worse could they?
Xena stopped, then cast a look upward. "I'm sorry, I take that back..." She pleaded to the Fates, hoping they would undo this recent event.
"You're a tough one to track, sweetheart," Ares said cheerfully, walking over and wrapping an arm around Xena's shoulders amicably, hugging her to him. "So... Don't I get a kiss after all this time?"
"No," Xena growled, shrugging off his arm and turning around to face him.
"Hey, it was worth a shot, right?" Ares shot her a charming smile, then took a moment to let his gaze travel down and then back up the Empress's body. "How do you do that? Manage to look fantastic after all you've been through these last few days... Ya know, getting your ass kicked by a little blonde, getting tossed off your throne, locked up in your own dungeons..."
Xena shot him a bored look. "If you've come to gloat, Ares, just save it, OK? I'm not in the mood..."
"Gloat?" Ares pointed at his own chest innocently. "Me? Now why would I do that?"
"Cause you enjoy it," the Empress deadpanned.
"Well, yes, that's true..." The King of the Gods admitted with a smirk. "That's not why I'm here though..."
"Then why are you here?" Xena asked bluntly, crossing her arms. "Doing Alti's bidding these days? Tracking me down?"
Ares produced a sad pout. "Is that what you think of me? That I'd just... " A sniffle. "Just switch sides at the first sign of trouble?"
"Well, you're absolutely right," Ares agreed cheerfully, taking a step closer. "However..." He reached out and trailed his index finger down her cheek. "I have this special fondness for you."
"Really?" Xena drawled, clearly not buying a word of what he was saying.
"Well, duh..." Ares chuckled softly, then turned serious, locking eyes with her, letting the currents that drifted between them grow palpable in the air. "We're connected, Xena... No matter how much we fight, how far we stray from each other, we'll always be part of the same whole... You know that..."
Xena gazed at him quietly, not backing away an inch. "I know."
Ares let a small grin quirk the edges of his lips. "We were good together before... Unstoppable..." He pushed a lock off dark hair off of her face. "We can be unstoppable again, Xena... Alti is no match for us together..."
Xena regarded him for another moment, then a small grin tugged on the corner of her lips. "Unstoppable..."
"Yes..." Ares' smile grew, his eyes lighting up at the fire smouldering in hers. "You remember what it was like, Xena... The thrill of battle, of conquest... " He leaned a bit closer, until they were breathing the same air. "The passion..."
"I remember," Xena murmured, her eyes locked with his, her fingers trailing a path up his neck. "How could I forget..."
Ares produced a sexy grin. "I agree, those were memorable mom... Argh!"
He cried out in pain as his head was jerked back, fingers tugging at his hair savagely. A low chuckle tickled in his ear. "Nice try, Ares... But I'm not giving you the hind's blood dagger..."
Ares growled, worming himself free of her hold and backing up a few paces. His eyes were thundering now, narrowing at her. "I'm offering you a way out of this mess... Don't be a fool..."
"Aligning myself with you would be far more foolish, Ares... I learned that the hard way..."
The King of the Gods rolled his eyes. "You were the one messing things up, Xena... After you kept that dagger for yourself I had to react, you know that... And you were the one who killed our child, not me..."
Xena gazed back at him calmly. "I did what I had to do..."
"Right...Well, you just believe whatever you want..." Ares crossed his arms. "I'm just gonna lay out some facts for you, OK? You're stuck in this dump, with no place to run, your little blond friend is cornered right here with you and you're outnumbered big time... You are both going to die... And all your little friends are going to die with you. Is that what you want? Is that little dagger worth that to you?" Ares held her gaze for a long moment, then he waved his hand, disappearing in a flash of blue. "Think about it..."
Xena stared at the vacant air for a long moment, then she released a grave breath, rubbing a hand over her face. "Great... Just great..." She turned, heading for the stairs. "That's just what I needed..."
She climbed up the stairs and entered the livingroom, her eyes darting to the right as she spotted familiar colours. Dorian, still dressed in his armour, hastily jumped to his feet, then bowed deeply. "Empress..."
Xena absently waved a hand at him. "Save the titles, Dorian... They're hardly appropriate at the moment..."
"You will always be the Empress to me, Empress" the lieutenant stated simply, folding his hands behind his back. "No matter what happens..."
Xena managed a small smile at this, reaching out a hand and patting the lieutenant's shoulder, then heading towards the kitchen.
Dorian smiled happily, squaring his shoulders proudly, then hastily following her. "I uhm... I have news from your troops..."
Xena lifted a hand. "Save it for the kitchen... Saves you the trouble of telling everything twice..."
Dorian raised an eyebrow. "Twice, Empress?"
A glance over her shoulder. "We're playing open card with these people, Dorian..."
The lieutenant frowned a little at this. "You uhm... I don't wish to challenge your decisions, Empress, but... do you think that is wise?"
"Nope, I don't... But I'd just like one thing in this whole mess to be straightforward..." Xena muttered, then pushed open the door to the kitchen.
Several faces shot up. Thalia she recognised, and the woman who'd been screaming at her last night, Fay. There was an older man and a young one present too, both of whom she hadn't met before. Gabrielle, who was sitting at the head of the table, didn't look up, the warrior had heard her approach long before she entered after all, but just pulled the seat on her right out from under the table. Xena ignored the glances and hateful looks and headed for the chair, sitting down next to Gabrielle. Dorian followed close behind, sitting down on her right, so they were facing the rebel delegation.
"Sena!" Niobe toddled over happily.
Xena managed a smile. "Hey, shorty," she lifted the child up onto her lap. "You okay?"
"Yes," Niobe murmured, laying her head on the Empress's shoulder. "All good."
A genuine smile at this as Xena wrapped an arm around the tiny body, feeling comforted by the toddler's presence. "Did you behave while I was gone?"
Niobe bit her lip, then glanced at Gabrielle quickly before leaning closer to Xena's ear. "Hit bad lady," she whispered softly. "But Abby says not bad lady..."
Xena managed a soft chuckle at this. "Well, you listen to Gabrielle, OK? She tends to be right about these sorta things..." She looked up and met Gabrielle's eyes for a split second, then she turned her attention back to the child, lifting her off her lap again, under loud protest from the toddler of course. "I just need to speak with these people here for a moment, OK? We'll talk later, promise."
Niobe didn't seem happy with the deal, and produced one of her most convincing pouts, but it was to no avail, since Xena just countered the gaze with a look of her own. Niobe sighed gravely, but then turned and walked to her brother, tugging at the leg of his pants. "Gotta go..." She muttered.
Caspar managed a half smile at this, then motioned his sister towards the door.
Xena watched them go, then leaned a little closer to Dorian. "I want someone looking over them. Is there a soldier nearby who could..."
"Don't want no more soldiers in my house..." Fay cut in firmly, then pushed herself to her feet. "I'll look in on them kids..." She looked up at Gabrielle. "I'm not much for the chit chat anyway... Agenor can do the yelling for me..." She leaned over and placed a kiss on her husband's head, then followed the children out of the door, closing it behind her with a soft thud.
They were all silent as they regarded each other wearily while the echoes of the thud drifted around them. Xena let her eyes slide from Thalia, to the older man named Agenor, to the younger man and her gaze settled there, meeting his eyes calmly. "I wouldn't do it if I were you, Mentius."
His eyes widened.
"Killing me is not the way to protect your people," Xena went on blankly.
"B..." His eyes narrowed. "How do you know...?"
"Your name?" Xena folded her hands together quietly. "Spies. I know where you grew up, when you joined the resistance, when you started leading it... Had chances to arrest you several times, but fortunately for you, you weren't worthy of my attention..."
Gabrielle looked from one to the other, then rose up from her chair slowly, staring at Mentius. "You brought a weapon here?"
Mentius's eyes tracked from Xena's up to Gabrielle's, the confusion still eminent in his gaze. "I... I just wanted to..."
"...end it." Xena finished for him, with a half smile. "I wish it was that easy..."
Gabrielle stared at Mentius for another moment, then extended her hand, palm down. "Give it to me. Now."
"I..." The young man swallowed at the intensity of her gaze, then reached a hand down his sleeve and pulled a dagger from its hiding place.
Gabrielle took the weapon quietly, looking at it for a moment. Then she half turned and flung it backwards, watching it embed itself in the back door firmly. "Get out."
Mentius blinked. "But... Gabrielle..."
The warrior's eyes snapped back to him. "You don't seem to have any idea of what's at stake here!" She braced her hands on the table's surface, leaning closer to him. "This is not about our grudges, about vengeance... This is about the world we know falling to shatters... Chaos... We're talking about millions of lives! And you nearly risked that for your one selfish moment of glory!"
"He didn't..." Xena leaned back in her chair. "He didn't have a shot."
Gabrielle released a breath. "That's not the point..."
Xena shrugged negligently. "Guess not... But the thing is... I need you..."
Green eyes blinked.
"I don't have enough power to take Alti and company down by myself... I need the support of the resistance..." Xena continued on, her gaze trailing over the people on the other side of the table.
"And what if we don't need you?" Mentius spit out, having regained his voice.
Xena chuckled softly. "You do. You don't see that..." She glanced up to her left. "But she does..." Her gaze trailed down to meet Thalia's. "And I think you do too."
Thalia met the blue eyes quietly. "I don't believe in the Greater Good anymore... I did once... but it cost me too much... And I'm unwilling to pay any more..."
Xena digested this calmly. "You're here though..."
"I believe in Gabrielle."
This got her a half smile from the dark-haired woman across the table. "I guess we have something in common after all then..."
Thalia crossed her arms. "You crucified her."
Xena nodded. "I did." She admitted. "I needed to protect my Empire. I had to." She broke her gaze with Thalia and glanced at Gabrielle, who'd settled back in her seat again and was glancing from one to the other as she followed the discussion. "But I honestly wish... things could have been different... for both of us."
Gabrielle held her gaze for a long moment, then she nodded slightly. "I know."
Agenor cleared his throat, speaking up for the first time. "My wife wanted me to yell at you, but I won't... Since I think you know how we feel about you being here...And your previous actions..." Xena inclined her head at this in acknowledgement. "I don't see the point in wasting our time when there's so much on the line..."
Xena nodded at this. "Agreed."
Agenor folded his hands together. "I've spoken to some of our people. Soldiers are combing through the forest and they started searching the streets of Athens last night. Forcefully. People are being thrown from their homes, their houses are turned upside down, some were burned to the ground..." His eyes glanced over to Gabrielle. "They are heading this way. If we don't do something soon..."
Gabrielle nodded, her brows frowning. "I could create a distraction maybe... Somewhere away from here..."
Xena shook her head. "You can't defeat an entire army by yourself, Gabrielle..."
"I wouldn't have to defeat them... Just show my face... Toss them off the scent..."
"They're not after you..." Xena countered. "They're after me..." She took a breath. "I think we have to focus on the source."
Xena nodded. "We'll only lose people with small raids and distractions. We need one big assault, as soon as possible to surprise her."
"Seven cohorts are hiding south of the city," Dorian informed them. "My messengers reached them last night and told them to stay out of sight until there are direct orders from the Empress to do otherwise." He glanced down, his face sad now. "Unfortunately, Alti's soldiers reached the other cohorts before we could... They were slaughtered..."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, then looked back up again. "Seven cohorts... That and the few soldiers that escaped... It's not a lot..."
"The Amazons should arrive somewhere midday tomorrow, assuming Ephiny convinced them to come." Gabrielle added.
"We can be counting fighters all we want, but there's still one big issue..." Thalia dropped in, crossing her arms. "Callisto is immortal. And this Pompey fellow is undead. No matter how many people we send after them, they'll survive..."
"Immortals can be killed..." Xena stated calmly, then pulled a weapon from her boot and laid it flat on the table. "You just need the right equipment..."
Mentius frowned at the weapon with a blade. "This is our secret weapon? A dagger covered in dried blood?"
Xena shook her head. "Not just blood. Hind's blood..."
Mentius opened his mouth to comment, but realised just in time exactly what sort of hind they were talking about and closed his mouth again with a soft click of teeth.
There was a long moment of silence, then Agenor spoke up. "I can see how that would take care of Callisto... But what about Pompey? Can that thing kill the undead?"
Xena shrugged. "Not sure..." She admitted. "But if it's powerful enough to kill gods and immortals, it's worth a try... If it doesn't work I can always chop him into pieces... He won't be much of a threat without arms and legs.
Thalia looked pensively. "It seems to me you're holding a lot of cards here..." She then stated bluntly. "You have an army, you have the weapon to destroy the larger part of this... triumvirate. And we all know the stories of your conquests... You've faced odds like these before... So where do we come in? How do we know you won't betray us?"
Blue eyes lifted and met hers for a long moment, then Xena reached out and took the dagger by the hilt, then flipped it over in her hand and caught the blade between her thumb and forefinger before holding the weapon out to Thalia.
The redhead's eyebrows lifted, but she reached over and took the blade silently.
"I can give you my word, but I don't think that holds much meaning for you..." Xena stated. "Maybe this will..."
Thalia glanced down at the weapon, then back up again. "But... won't you need it to...?"
Xena leaned back in her chair. "I don't care about Callisto... I'm not interested in just killing Pompey... And I don't need hind's blood for Alti... I can get rid of her the old fashioned way..."
Thalia studied the blade in her hands in silence.
"I know you are taking a risk... Trusting me..." Xena continued. "But so am I... Cause if my calculations are correct and everyone we're planning on shows up, you will outnumber me... And you have the one warrior on your team that's ever defeated me..." She glanced at Gabrielle, then back again. "We need each other, for the time being, but when this is over with... You could turn on me... take my throne... Start your little democracy..." A wry grin. "I know the risks. I accept them. I have no other options..." She waved a hand at the dagger. "If me handing you one of the most powerful weapons is not enough proof of that, then I don't know what is..."
Thalia considered this for a moment, then nodded, tugging the weapon into her belt. "I guess it'll do..."
Xena took a sip of her water quietly, watching the last of her new reluctant allies exit the kitchen. "Well..." She murmured, placing the mug back on the table. "That didn't go half as bad as I thought it would..."
"No, it didn't..." Gabrielle agreed softly, folding her hands together and staring at the closed door for a long moment. "It would have gone a lot worse if you hadn't figured out Mentius's plans..." She glanced sideways, up at the Empress seated beside her. "I didn't... I mean... If I'd heard him, I would have..."
"You couldn't have heard. There was nothing to hear."
Gabrielle blinked at her for a moment. "There wasn't?" She asked, almost hopefully.
"No." Xena managed a half smile. "Don't worry, Gabrielle... You're not losing your touch..."
"I wasn't w..." Gabrielle stopped herself from going on the defensive, biting her lip. "That's uhm... a relief..."
Xena chuckled softly.
The warrior frowned a little. "But... if you didn't hear... Then how...?"
"Over the years I've developed this knack for spotting assassins." Xena explained off-handedly. "You get faced with enough of 'm you start learning the way they move, think... They get this look... He had this look..." A shrug. "So I knew..."
Gabrielle digested this for a moment. "I see..." She murmured, then fell silent again, absently tracing the lines on her hand palm with the fingers of her other hand. "Did I have the look?"
Xena smiled softly. "You are not an assassin. You're a warrior. There's a big difference."
Gabrielle glanced up for a moment, then back down, studying the table's surface. "I wanted to kill you."
Xena cocked her head a little, studying the warrior. "Wanted?"
"I..." Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment. "I don't know if I still..." A breath. "I'm not sure what I want these days..."
Xena considered this for a moment. "So, I've climbed my way up from intense hatred to... not so intense hatred?"
Gabrielle managed a weak chuckle. "Guess so..."
"Yay for me..." Xena drawled with a grin. "I think I like it better here..."
The warrior peeked up, meeting the smirking blue eyes. "I think I like it better too..." She admitted softly. "It's... not as cold..."
Thalia dropped down onto her bed ungracefully, ending up stretched out on her back, gazing up at the ceiling.
The meeting had been... very different than she'd expected. She'd thought it'd turn out a scream fest, especially with Mentius there... But the Conqueror had caught the young man completely off guard at the start and he'd been very quiet the rest of the time, just listening.
The Conqueror had been quite different herself... She wasn't getting all forgiving on the woman or anything, far from, but you could tell Xena did know what she was talking about. She knew the palace, she knew the best ways to get around, she knew the right strategy, the way to position soldiers... No matter how she looked at things, Xena was a very powerful ally. Gabrielle had been right all along, the decisions she'd made were the right ones considering the current circumstances, no matter how uncomfortable...
She didn't much like the plans that had been made in the last candlemark. Gabrielle's role was far too prominent and far too dangerous for her tastes. But the weight on Gabrielle's shoulders had been placed there by the warrior herself and Thalia knew better then to argue with the blonde about these things. She didn't feel like arguing with Gabrielle now anyway. They'd done far too much of that lately. She was tired of it...
A sound caught her ear and she turned her head and looked to her right, to see a young blonde standing in the doorway. "Well... Hello again..."
"Hi," Iona said softly, not moving from her spot. "I uhm... I heard you come back... from that meeting..."
Thalia pushed herself up, swinging her legs off the bed again. "You did, huh?"
A nod from the blond head. "I was wondering... what's going to happen?"
"Well..." Thalia placed her hands on her knees. "I can't tell you all the details, but... In essence it's mostly Gab and the Conqueror kicking people's butts and us tracking along to knock down any leftovers."
"Oh..." Iona nodded a little in understanding.
"Everybody's gone off now, to spread the word and collect nice accessories for the big fight." Thalia informed her, leaning back on her hands.
"Oh..." Iona said again, digesting all this. She glanced up at the redhead. "But then, shouldn't you be...?"
Thalia waved a hand at her. "Kid, I got all the accessories I need..." She pushed herself to her feet, strolling over the girl, since the child didn't seem inclined to walk further into the room. "Look..." She leaned against the edge of the open door and pulled the dagger from its spot, holding it up for the girl to see.
Iona cocked her head, studying the weapon. "That's Xena's dagger..." She concluded after a moment.
"Uhuh..." Thalia agreed. "Fancy little thing... can kill gods, ya know? Cause of the hind's blood... See?" She pointed at the red streaks on the blade.
Iona gazed at the dried blood. "Really?" She murmured thoughtfully.
"Yup," Thalia touched the edge, then hastily jerked her hand back as the sharp metal cut skin. "This thing is quite essential, since we have to get rid of Callisto and Pompey."
Iona lifted her gaze and met Thalia's, and the redhead frowned as she saw a curious shifting going on in the back of the girl's eyes, which reminded her of clouds rolling in before a thunderstorm. "Will this kill him?" Iona asked, her tone calm and reserved.
Thalia shrugged. "We uhm... We're not sure... But there's a good chance it can..."
"That'll do..." Iona said softly, then she reached for the doorknob in a flash, yanking the door back. Thalia, who'd been leaning against the wood, stumbled, trying to regain her balance. But before she could, Iona shoved against the door with all her strength, the wood moving forward again and smacking up against Thalia's forehead with a harsh thud. The redhead instantly sagged onto the ground, limply.
The dagger clattered to the floor beside her, the metal rattling loudly through the dense silence.
To Be Continued (and probably concluded) in part XI
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