The Edge of Nowhere
Thalia froze as the first outcry pierced the air. She and Dorian had been lead away from the square and were now being dragged through a deserted street towards the palace. Another scream sounded and the redhead choked out a sob, her composure falling to shatters as the complete failure of her rescue attempt became evident. "No..." She breathed. "No!" The rage that had been building in her exploded and she started struggling again, twisting and turning, trying to get away from the two men that were holding her down.
"Hey, watch it!" Brutus called out, from his spot next to an equally struggling Dorian, who was surrounded by four soldiers.
Her despair gave Thalia strength though and she somehow managed to smack her elbow into one guard's jaw, sending him staggering back, freeing one hand. She kicked out, managing to nail the second guard in the knee. She staggered back as he let go, but before she could regain her balance a fist impacted with the side of her face, sending her tumbling to the ground. A body came down on top of her, pinning her to the ground. "You are not going anywhere," Brutus stated, reaching for his dagger with one hand. "Pompey wants him alive," he nodded his head towards Dorian. "But he didn't say anything about you..." He tightened his hand on the dagger, then pushed it down.
But before it could touch skin, a kick to his wrist sent the metal flying off.
"How about you get your stinking body off of my friend?" A voice growled, then a knee jabbed into his face, sending him sprawling back.
Thalia blinked up, then a helplessly relieved breath escaped her as she recognised the person who'd come to her aid. "Ephiny."
"Hey, red." The Amazon shot her a smile over her shoulder. "I thought I told you to stay out of trouble."
From the corner of her eye she spotted Brutus rising back to his feet and she hastily unsheathed her sword, blocking Brutus's strike, then using her strength to push the lieutenant's weapon out of the way, before smacking her hilt against his nose. Brutus staggered back a few paces, swiping his arms over his face, smearing some blood over his skin. "You're good..." He complimented her, before trying a jab at her left, which she easily diverted. "One of the best fighters I've met."
Ephiny shot him a charming smile. "Why thank you... Coincidence is..." She saw her opening, plunging her sword forward, the weapon slicing through skin and flesh. "... I'll also be the last fighter you'll ever meet."
Brutus gazed down at the blade sticking out of his chest, then back up in shock at the Amazon in front of him, before his knees gave out on him and he thudded on the ground...
Ephiny towered over him for a moment, cocking her head. "Ya know..." She murmured to herself. "That felt oddly satisfying..."
Dorian used the confusion created to kick a guard in the shin, then he head butted another, freeing his right side. He grabbed onto a collar on his left, pulling a man up over his held arm and then letting him fall down again, bringing up his knee into the guy's path. A vicious crack followed. "Better start saying your prayers, fellows..." He hissed, elbowing another across the jaw. "Cause I'm in a really bad mood..."
Meanwhile Thalia had scrambled back to her feet. "They got her, Eph..." She choked, having lost all hold on her emotions now. "I tried to stop... b... but I... I couldn't..."
Ephiny laid a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. "Thal, listen me. It's not too late. There's still time. "
Thalia sucked in a breath, managing a nod.
"We'll have to hurry though..." Dorian came running up to them, holding a bloody sword in his hand.
"Solari is meeting me at the Agora." Ephiny informed them. "I need to meet her there. How long before you two can get your people ready?"
"They are ready." Dorian stated. "I just need to give them the signal."
Ephiny nodded. "OK... That just leaves us with one more problem..."
Thalia frowned. "What?"
"Iona." Ephiny sighed. "I managed to hold back the other two, but... when Iona heard the scream she sped up. I lost sight of her." The Amazon glanced from one to the other. "She'll be at the Agora by now."
Iona rushed onto the square, sliding to a halt as she spotted the huge crowd blocking her path. The yells she'd heard had stopped moments ago, so whatever Alti had been doing to hurt Xena and Gabrielle, it must have ende...
Her breathing caught then, as with a croaking of wood two crosses were pulled upright, towering over the crowd.
It was like the world around her dropped away. All sounds. All sights. Everything turned to black, whirlpooling around her, leaving only the two crosses in focus. Xena's face. The agony there. Gabrielle. The blood.
"No!" Iona felt her feet moving forward and she plunged herself into the crowd, roughly pushing people aside, skimming by others until she'd moved through the masses and past the fences that were placed to hold the people back. She staggered onto the square, ending up on her knees in the centre, slowly lifting her head to look up at the two crosses towering over her. A helpless sob racked through her body, her eyes filling with tears.
Xena's eyes widened as she saw the girl stumble onto the square. "Iona..."
Gabrielle pulled her head up in alarm, spotting the girl herself. Then her eyes darted up, past the girl to the podium a little way off, where Ares was sitting.
"Iona, go!" Xena called out. "There is nothing you can do. Go!"
"You said you'd come with me!" Iona choked out. "You said you'd be right behind!"
"I know I did," Xena responded, tears forming in her own eyes now. "But I couldn't... I couldn't... Now, please... Please, leave..."
"No!" Iona shook her head frantically. "Don't tell me to go... I won't go..."
"Iona, listen to me..." Xena continued her pleading. "Listen..."
But Iona wasn't listening. She just gazed up at the nails embedded in Xena's hands and feet. In Gabrielle's...
If they would only move. Xena could get off if they would only move. She could come down and hold her and they could go home... If they would only move. She narrowed her eyes at one of the nails, willing them all away, willing them to move. With every fibre of her body she wanted them to move...
And then they moved.
Xena gasped as the metal slid from her skin and flew across the square. She blinked, then gazed at her hand, down at her feet, before she turned to Gabrielle, who gazed back at her with an equally stunned expression.
A nail embedded itself in a wooden pole of the platform, making both Alti and Ares jump to their feet. "What did just happen?!" The shamaness growled.
"I don't know..." Callisto stepped up behind her, peeking over her shoulder. "But it looks like this crucifixion thing might turn out to be more fun than I thought."
Meanwhile Ares had walked over and wrapped his hand over the nail, pulling it from the wood. He held it in his hand palm, looking down at the bloody bit of metal. "Hmm..." He murmured, intrigued, before looking out onto the square again, at the blonde who'd scrambled to her feet now and was staring up hard at Xena's left hand. Ares could see the bit of rope around Xena's wrist slowly starting to unwind...
A grin tugged at his lips, growing slowly until it had become a feral smirk. "Oh, Xena... You sneaky, conniving little mother of a half god..." He chortled then.
Xena's stunned eyes darted from the unwinding rope to Gabrielle.
"It's Iona..." The warrior whispered on a pained breath. "Look..."
Her gaze shifted and she looked down at the girl, who was staring at her wrist with great intensity. "No..." She uttered. "No, Iona... Don't!" She glanced up, seeing Ares descending down the few steps of the platform, grinning broadly. "Iona, stop it!" She called out, desperately. "You have to run! Run, now!"
Iona didn't hear her though. She was completely focused on her task. The rope was nearly untied now. Just a little bit further and she could...
"Well, hello little girl..."
The dark voice drifting up right behind her made her jump and she spun around. Dark leather filled her vision. Her gaze drifted up, until she was staring right into the face of the King of the Gods. She hastily staggered back a few paces.
Ares chuckled softly. "Ow, come now..." He drawled, taking a step closer. "You don't have to be afraid of me..."
"Ares, you leave her the Hades alone!" Xena growled, tugging at her ropes.
"Shh, now you be quiet..." Ares scolded the Empress with a smirk. "I think you should allow us this bit of quality time, after all you've done..." His gaze turned back to Iona. "Don't you agree?"
Iona swallowed, taking another step back. "I... I d...don't...
"Now, I just came over to get a better look at you..." Ares said, reaching out and grabbing onto her arm, pulling her closer to him. "Let me get a better look at you..."
With a growl Xena pulled her right wrist free from its half untied binding. She grabbed onto the ropes holding down her other wrist, closing her hand around them and pulling with all her strength. The ropes snapped and came loose, soon followed by the one holding down her ankles.
With a yell she pushed herself off, flipping through the air and landing right next to Iona, slamming her elbow at Ares' face, sending him staggering back. She stood, slightly shaky, but she stood, pain searing through her as her injured feet pressed down in the tiles. The pain was irrelevant though as arms wrapped around her, hugging her mindlessly.
She wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulders, pulling her closer. Iona buried her face in the fabric of her bloodstained tunic.
Soldiers rushed forward, but Ares lifted a hand, stopping them in their tracks. "No, no, boys. Back up..." He turned back then, looking at Xena. "This is family business..."
Blue eyes shifted up and met his. "You are not getting near her. You'll have to kill me to get to her."
The god chuckled. "And kill you I will, but first..." He clapped his hands together. "I want to applaud you for this... brilliant... act of yours... Brilliant..." He tossed up a hand. "The whole thing with the baby slaying... Stroke of genius... Could have sworn you'd actually killed her..."
Xena narrowed her eyes at him. "Shut up, Ares..."
"But now here she is... Years later..." The god crossed his arms, eyeing them both. "She looks like you, Xena... The shape of her face, the blue eyes... All except for the hair..." A smirk. "Bet you dyed it, hmm? Too keep her hidden from me? Smart... Very smart..."
Iona blinked, looking at the god, then up at Xena. "What is he talking about?"
"Oh ho..." Ares chortled. "You didn't tell her?" He wagged a finger at her. "Oh, Xena, Xena, Xena... You've been keeping your secrets well..." He glanced past the Empress to the girl hiding behind her. "You didn't really believe that boring old Advisor of hers was your daddy, did you?" A wicked chuckle. "No, no... You, my dear, are divine... Semi-divine anyway... You could have been the real thing, but your mommie never took an interest in ambrosia for some reason..." He glanced up at Xena, his eyes twinkling. "Or have you changed your mind, Xena? A bit of ambrosia would come in mighty handy right now, wouldn't it? Get rid of all those pesky wounds for you?"
Iona frowned. "Xena, wh..." Then her eyes widened as she understood what he was getting at.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, then she glanced down, meeting Iona's questioning gaze. She reached out, cupping the girl's cheek. "I couldn't tell you..."
The girl stared back up at her, breathlessly. "You're..."
Xena gently stroked her cheek. "I'm so sorry." Her voice broke. "I wanted to tell you. But I couldn't..."
"Well, this is all very touching," Ares drawled, lifting a hand, a fireball forming on his palm. "But I'm afraid the part where I kill you to get to her has just begun..."
When Xena tore her gaze from Iona's the ball of fire was already on its way, speeding towards her. There was no time to get out of its path by then and Xena realised that, instinctively pushing Iona behind her. She watched it as it soared closer and closer and then...
The flamey orb hovered in front of her for a moment, suspended in thin air.
Ares blinked. "What the...?"
Suddenly it reversed course and soared back, hitting the god square in the chest, sending him flying back.
Xena looked at the whole scene, then she half turned and looked at Iona inquisitively.
"Wasn't me." The girl said honestly, clearly as confused by the recent events as she herself was.
Xena frowned. "If it wasn't you, then who...?"
Her thoughts stopped suddenly, and her gaze tracked up, up to the cross on which Gabrielle was still hanging. The warrior's eyes were staring ahead of her, calmly, straight at Ares who at that moment was scrambling back to his feet. As Xena watched, the warrior moved her hands forward as far as she was able, and a gust of wind shot from her palms, straight towards Ares, knocking him off his feet a second time. "Lao Ma's powers..." Xena mumbled, amazed. "She's got Lao Ma's powers..."
Pompey rushed over, helping the King of the Gods back to his feet. "Are you all right, great Ares?"
"What is going on here?" Alti demanded to know, stepping up behind him.
Ares dusted his pants off. "Just uhm... Family squabbles," he muttered, squaring his shoulders and heading forward again. "Let me deal with this..."
A sound alerted her, a shifting, and Xena looked up to see something soaring through the air, bounce off a building, then head straight towards her. She reached out, snatching the chakram from its course. She looked at the weapon, then back up at Gabrielle. Green eyes turned and locked with hers. 'Is this...?' she mouthed, recieving a nod from the warrior before she could finish
"All right, Xena, I've had about enough of this..."
Xena turned her head to see Ares approaching again, his dark eyes blazing now.
"Give me the girl," the god demanded. "Just give her to me and I'll leave you be, OK? How's that?"
Blue eyes narrowed at him, as Xena lifted the chakram, tightening her hold on the metal. "Not a chance..."
Ares looked at her, raising both eyebrows. "Oh, you're gonna toss your little ring at me?" A laugh. "You know that thing can't hurt me, Xena... You can't..."
A gasped in a breath as metal pierced his skin, stuck in his chest. He glanced down slowly, seeing the metal had embedded itself in his chest.
He felt pain. He blinked. Why could he feel pain?
Slowly his eyes tracked back up, now wide in shock, meeting Xena's calm gaze. "... hurt me..." he finished, before his knees gave way and he clattered to the ground.
A stunned silence fell over the square, as everyone gazed at the still body of the King of Gods.
Then a giggle pierced the silence. "Wicked!" Callisto chortled in delight, smacking Alti on the back enthusiastically. "I take it all back. Crucifixions rock!"
Alti growled, slapping her hand away. "Pompey!" She snapped. "Get her!"
Pompey nodded, waving a hand at the soldiers around him. "Attack!"
The soldiers ran forward, but as they did several other screams filled the air. Before they realised what was happening, dozens of arrows came raining down on top of them.
Xena looked up to see a group of Amazons standing on a nearby rooftop, laying arrows over their bows for a second attack. Another yell behind her, then from all directions people started to pour closer, jumping over the fences or just knocking them over all together.
Callisto leaned her chin on Alti's shoulder, grinning wickedly. "Chaos... Don't you just love it..."
"Not particularly, no," Alti growled, gritting her teeth. She watched her troops being stormed from all sides, then she half turned and looked at Callisto. "Get out there."
The blonde's eyes turned to her, glinting wickedly. "What's the magic word?"
"Now!" Alti snapped.
"Nope, that's not it."
A grave sigh. "Please?"
Callisto smirked, then straightened. "Of course, dear... I'd love to..." She pulled her sword from her scabbard delicately. "But, if you don't mind me asking... While I'm out there slaying to save your butt... What will you be doing? Cause if you're just gonna run off and hide..."
"I'm not running anywhere..." Alti's eyes narrowed, then slowly tracked up, gazing at the cross towering over them. "I prophesied Gabrielle's death... And I'm not going anywhere before that prophesy has been fulfilled."
Several men and women ran up to Xena, hastily forming a circle around her, and the Empress soon recognised them as her soldiers.
"Empress!" The next moment Dorian was at her side, grabbing onto her shoulder. "Are you all right, Empress?"
Xena didn't respond to his question, simply reaching behind her and picking Iona up, then handing her to the lieutenant. "Get her out of here. Now."
"No!" Iona reached out to her. "I don't wanna go! Don't make me go!"
Xena raised an eyebrow, meeting blue eyes identical to hers in a battle of wills. Finally Iona released a breath, dropping her gaze and Xena managed a small smile, lifting her eyes to meet Dorian. "Go."
The lieutenant gave her a firm nod, handing her his sword before he turned and ran off, carrying Iona away from the battlefield.
Xena watched the two take off, then yelling from nearby made her focus on the battle being waged around her. The soldiers, rebels and Amazons had formed a line and were trying to push Alti's troops back. The untrained rebels were having a much harder time at this than her men or the Amazon warriors though and they were being driven back slowly.
Xena ran closer, tightening the hold on her sword. A few feet away an attacker broke through the line, grabbing onto one of the rebels as he stumbled through and dragging the woman to her knees, raising up his sword.
Two long strides and Xena was on top of him, smacking her hilt against the side of his head, making him topple over to reveal the person kneeling in front of him.
It was Thalia.
Their gazes met for a moment, then Xena reached down a hand, and Thalia took it, allowing the Empress to help her up.
Yelling came from right behind them as more soldiers stood on the brink of flooding through the lines. Xena glanced at the battle, then shot a look over her shoulder, up at the crosses. A breath, then she turned back to Thalia. "I'll worry about the fighting." She told her then, tightening her hold on her sword. "You get Gabrielle."
Thalia glanced at her for a moment, then she nodded, darting off.
Another burst of power shot from her palms, and Gabrielle watched it lift up several attacking soldiers and blow them up against the wall of a nearby building. Gabrielle sucked in a breath, then slowly released it.
Things were getting fuzzy. Her eyes were growing tired. She could still recognise some of the people below though. She'd seen Dorian carry Iona off, she'd spotted Xena throwing herself into the battle, Thalia smacking up some guy to get to a ladder...
Gabrielle watched the ongoings below. Pompey was pushing through the battling masses, on his way over to Xena by the looks of it. Xena could handle him though. She spotted Callisto, but the immortal was looking far from serious, skipping around through the ranks. Gabrielle's hearing could vaguely pick up some song about coconuts in a row.
Alti seemed to have vanished from the centre of the battle. Gabrielle managed a small smile. But that didn't surprise her, really... She closed her eyes for a moment, searching deep inside of her for a bit of leftover strength.
"Xena's little pawn..." A growl sounded from below, and Gabrielle glanced down to see the shamaness standing at the foot of the cross. "You know, you keep messing up my plans..."
Gabrielle met her gaze calmly. "It's what I do..."
Alti smirked, then the shamaness spread out her arms, mumbling a few words in a language unknown to the warrior. The next moment the shamaness was soaring up, higher and higher, until they were at eye level. "The woman Xena met in Chin..." Alti spoke up, her eyes drilling into hers. "You knew her, didn't you?"
"She was my teacher." Gabrielle acknowledged.
A smirk took over Alti's face. "Well... Your teacher should have told you then... It would foolish to take me on... Our powers come from opposite sources... And mine are far greater than yours..."
Gabrielle smiled calmly. "The greatest of trees may look invincible... But in the end they too will turn to dust..."
Alti shot her a bored look. "We'll see who of us will become dust..." She growled, then reached out in a flash and grabbed onto the warrior's neck.
Calm green eyes met hers, gazing back at her, and Alti found herself unable to probe into the warrior memories. Alti growled, intensifying her gaze.
Xena looked up, spotting Pompey making his way towards her. She glanced around, then spotted Ares' body a few feet away. She fought her way over then reached down, pulling the white chakram from his chest, before straightening to await Pompey's arrival
The lieutenant elbowed another soldier out of the way, then folded both of his hands over the hilt of his sword, his eyes narrowing at Xena. "You know, I'm glad you didn't die at that cross..." He growled, as he started to circle her. "Because now I get to kill you myself..."
The Empress chuckled deep in her throat, letting the darkness inside of her surface, vanquishing the pain and replacing it with pure bloodlust. Her fingers clenched and unclenched around her swordhilt and the metal of the chakram, quietly waiting for him to strike.
And he did, lunging out his sword towards her, aiming right for her wounded side. She caught the blow with her own sword though, pushing him back, then starting an attack of her own.
They parried each other's blows for a moment, used as they were to each other's techniques from endless sessions of drilling. Xena had proven superior in every fight though, and today was not going to be any different, Xena decided as she ducked under one of his slashes, then came up fast, slamming her hilt against his chin.
Pompey staggered back several paces from the force of the blow. Before he could recuperate a hard object impacted with his chest.
He blinked, then glanced down at the chakram Xena had thrown into his ribcage. His fingers hesitantly reached out and touched the object, then he looked back up, meeting Xena's eyes.
A wicked grin took over his face as he pulled the chakram from his chest. "Your little weapon can't kill me, Xena!" he chortled in triumph, raising the chakram and his sword up in the air. "I'm invincib..."
Xena's sword cut through the tight collar he was wearing, then a smack against the side of his head send his skull flying off. He winced as he thudded on the ground, rolling on the sand for a few times until he ended up upside down. Moments later a severed arm, which looked remarkably like his arm, fell into his line of sight, soon followed by a foot. Pompey released a breath. "Oh... bugger that..."
She could feel the currents of power shifting between them. It was like a ball of energy that they were pushing with just their minds, back and forth. "The life is flowing out of you..." Alti's breath was coming in heavy rasps. "I can feel it... It won't be much longer..."
Gabrielle smiled calmly. "I won't need much longer. Your strength is nearly exhausted from fighting. Mine isn't, cause I haven't fought."
Alti sucked in a breath as she felt the current shift in Gabrielle's favour. "No..." She growled, as the energy ball got closer and closer and then suddenly shot forward and impacted with her chest. With a scream her powers failed her and gravity got a grasp on her again, sending her falling back down. As she fell, the energy consumed her from within.
All that hit the ground were ashes.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the wooden beam. Slowly she opened her eyelids again, gazing up at the skies that had been blue only moments before. But now the shades of blue were darkening, the sky turning grey.
Someone called out her name. She could vaguely hear the sound of wood scraping on wood, the light shiver of the cross as something was placed against it.
Her name was called again and she recognised the voice this time. She forced herself to turn her head. She smiled. "Thalia..."
"Hey, you..." The redhead managed a smile for her. "Hang on, OK?"
Gabrielle chuckled weakly. "Bad pun."
The redhead snorted softly. "You are so horrible, ya know that?"
The warrior smiled, then her eyes widened a trifle and the muscles in her neck tightened. "Thal?"
"Easy now," the redhead murmured, starting to untie the ropes around her wrist.
Gabrielle swallowed, gazing up. The grey had turned to black. "Tell Xena..." She whispered, almost inaudibly. "S...she can be... the hero."
Thalia frowned. "What do you mean?" A pause, then she looked up. "Gab?" Her eyes widened as Gabrielle head fell forward, limply.
Xena smacked the hilt of her sword against Callisto's forehead, sending the immortal staggering back several paces. "Give it up, Callisto." She said, swinging her sword towards the blonde's head. "It's over..."
Callisto giggled, ducking under the lunge, then straightened and blocked a second attack with her sword. "No, it's not..."
A pained cry called out over the Agora then. Xena's head shot up as it did, her eyes lifting to look up at the cross, to see Thalia hanging half over Gabrielle's body, her face buried in the warrior's shoulder. The woman was sobbing uncontrollably.
"Then again..." Callisto stated, her voice a mixture of wonder and thoughtfulness. "Maybe it is..."
With a clatter of metal, Xena's sword dropped onto the ground, the battle having become completely irrelevant.
A grin worked it's way onto Callisto's face at the sudden opportunity and the immortal raised her sword, tightening the hold on her hilt.
But before she could take advantage of the situation a form jumped her, pulling her down to the ground. "Hey!" Callisto called out indignantly, casting an annoyed glance at Dorian, who had a knee placed on her wrist, so she couldn't use her sword. Before she could shake him off though, more bodies started piling on top of her, pinning her down. "Hey, no fair!"
Xena's feet moved forward of their own accord, careful steps at first but soon the pace increased and she was running, the thuds of her boots impacting with stone deafeningly loud.
Agenor had climbed up the ladder behind Thalia, and was now carefully prying lose the redhead's hold on Gabrielle. A second ladder had been placed against the cross, on the other side, and another man had climbed up and was untying Gabrielle's left wrist. As the last binding fell away the warrior's body fell forward limply and the man hastily leaned over to catch her before she could fall, lifting her onto his shoulder before he started moving back down.
People had gathered around, staring up in shocked silence. Xena forced her way through, roughly pushing away those that blocked her path. When she'd finally passed through the crowd, the man who was carrying the warrior had reached the bottom of the ladder and was gently laying Gabrielle down on the ground.
Xena dropped down to her knees beside the warrior. "Gabrielle?" She cupped the blonde's face between her hands. "Hey? Hey, talk to me..."
Agenor managed to half carry, half drag Thalia back down the ladder and as soon as she hit the ground the redhead sagged to her knees, wrapping her arms around her head and hiding herself in the darkness.
"Gabrielle, c'mon..." Xena wrapped an arm around the woman's shoulders, pulling her closer, into her lap. "C'mon... Wake up now..." She ran her fingers over the pale skin. "You gotta wake up..."
The crowd split again as Ephiny forced her way through. "Thalia? What's...?" Then the hazel eyes shifted down, taking in the scene before her. "Oh gods..." She took a shaky step forward, kneeling down besides the warrior, across from Xena. "She's dead."
"Of course she's not dead!" Blue eyes snapped up at her, raging. "She's just..." Xena swallowed, looking back down at the still face. "She's just tired... She's...asleep... But she'll wake up soon..." She stroked a lock of blond hair out of the warrior's face. "C'mon, Gabrielle... Show her... Open your eyes." She hugged the warrior closer, laying her cheek against the pale hair. "Open your eyes."
Gabrielle opened her eyes.
She found herself standing in a corridor, which appeared to have been cut out of the solid rock around her. There were a few torches shedding their light over parts of the corridor, but she couldn't see where it was leading to. She could hear the soft trickling of water in the distance though.
She moved forward, sliding from light into darkness and then back into the light as she past torch after torch, until finally the corridor ended in a cave of sorts. The source of the trickling water turned out to be a river, which was flowing through the centre of the cave. Gabrielle walked closer and kneeled at the river's edge, peering down. The liquid was a pitch black.
A soft stirring of water made her look up, to see something coming towards her. It was a small boat, which was being pushed across by a cloaked man.
A moment, then the man looked up and spotted her. "Oh great!" He tossed up a hand. "Another one!" He shook his head, muttering. "Back, forth, back, forth... My arm is killing me... If I keep this up I'll have to row myself across in a moment...." A sigh. "This job is way underpaid..."
Gabrielle straightened, waiting. The boat slid over the water, final hitting the embankment, skidding to a halt on the sand.
The man looked up, glancing at the warrior from head to toe. Gabrielle could see now that he wasn't actually a man, but more of an... uhm... a... pale, bumpy sorta...
He stuck out his hand, palm up. "Pay me."
Gabrielle blinked at him. "You uhm..." A pause. "You're Charon?"
The rower of the dead produced a fake smile. "What clued you in? Was it the classy outfit or the great tan, hmm?" He wiggled the fingers of his outstretched palm. "Now pay me."
"I..." Gabrielle glanced down, then back up at him. "I don't have a coin."
Charon rolled his eyes. "Figures..." He muttered crossing his arms. "So what's your excuse, hmm? Left it at home? Dog ate it?"
"Uhm..." Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. "I was busy fighting a powerful shamaness in a spiritual duel and forgot?"
Charon shot her a look, then snorted. "Well, that's a new one..." He cocked his head a little. "So you lost, huh?"
"No." The warrior shook her head. "I won."
An eyebrow raised. "But you're here, cause...?"
"I got a sword pushed through my gut and I got crucified."
"Ouch..." Charon winced. "Nasty life..."
A wry smile. "You're telling me..."
"Hey, wait a sec..." Charon straightened, looking her over once again. "Crucified, you said? You that Gabrielle girl then?"
Charon tossed up both his hands. "Well, why didn't you say so then?" He took a step back, motioning for her to get into the boat. "You mortals always have to make things so damn confusing..."
Gabrielle blinked at him. "I don't need a coin?"
The rower of the dead looked up at her. "You killed Ares, didn't ya?"
A light shrug. "I helped..."
"Yeah well, we have this policy down here in Hades. People who help kill obnoxious gods who've been suppressing the rest of the Olympians don't need to pay the fee..." Charon told her. "So hop on in..."
Gabrielle smiled at him, walking closer. "Thank you."
"Damn policy ain't my idea. If it were up to me you'd be paying double cause of your lousy timing." Charon muttered, stretching his arm a bit, some bones popping back into place as he did. "Now get in already... Ain't got all day..."
Gabrielle stepped up to the boat, then placed one foot inside, feeling the wood gently sway under her weight.
Before she could fully step into the vessel though, a voice drifted up from behind her, softly whispering her name. The warrior spun around as she recognised it, to see a form materialise in a twinkle of light.
Her eyes widened and for a moment she just stared at the figure in disbelief.
The spirit chuckled softly. "After all these years, don't I even get a hello?"
Gabrielle slowly took a shaky pace towards the figure. "Naxos?"
The young rebel smiled.
"Naxos!" The warrior jumped forward, wrapping both her arms around her friend, who returned the hug happily.
Charon crossed his arms, looking at the newcomer. "Hate to break up this lovely reunion, but what the Hades are you doing on this side of the Styx?!" The rower of the dead tossed up his hands. "I've got enough work as it is, OK?! I don't need people coming back for a second ride!"
Naxos ignored him, pulling back a little from Gabrielle's embrace, to see tears on the warrior's cheeks. "Hey..." He wiped them away with the back of his hand. "Seeing me again isn't that horrible, now is it?"
"No, no..." Gabrielle hastily shook her head. "No, it's just..." A shaky breath. "I... I'm so sorry, Naxos."
The rebel smiled. "You have nothing to be sorry about."
"I do, I... I wasn't there... I wasn't there when... when you needed me..."
"Gabrielle, you were there..." Naxos told her gently. "On that day, when I died, you were in here..." He placed a hand over his heart. "And I wasn't afraid... Because I knew that you were still out there somewhere... And that you would come back, and finish what we started together..."
Gabrielle sniffled, resting her forehead against his. "I still wish I'd have been there."
"That was not your destiny." Naxos said softly. "We all know that... Gabrielle, no one ever blamed you... Please believe that..."
The warrior managed a small smile. "That... means a lot to me..."
Her friend squeezed her shoulder gently. "You gotta stop dwelling in the past. What's done can't be undone... It's the future that matters..."
Gabrielle frowned at him. "What future? Naxos, I'm dead..."
The rebel grinned. "You don't have to be..."
"Gabrielle?" Xena let her hand graze over the pulse point in the warrior's neck. There was no heartbeat. She held a shaking hand above the warrior's lips. No breath. "Gabrielle, c'mon..." She laid the warrior back on the ground, lightly shaking her shoulders. "Come on, breathe..."
A hand gently touched her shoulder. "Empress..." Dorian's voice drifted down, softly. "She's gone..."
Xena shrugged him off angrily. "No!" She cupped the warrior's head in her hands. "Gabrielle, I know you're in there..." A pause as she waited. Nothing happened. She felt tears brimming in her eyes but she wiped a hand at them angrily. Crying meant excepting Gabrielle was... And she wasn't going to accept that. She was not going to...
"Air..." She muttered to herself. "She... she needs air..." Xena pushed down the warrior's chin with shaking fingers and closed the warrior's nose with the thumb and forefinger of her other hand, before leaning down and gently blowing air into the woman's lungs.
"The rebels, the Amazons, the Imperial forces... They fought today, together, because of you..."
Gabrielle dropped her head, shaking her head. "Alti..."
"They fought against Alti. They fought for you." Naxos cut her short firmly. "They fought because you asked them to, or because they love you. Gabrielle, you've accomplished something that we could only dream of before. You've united the fractured parties. You've laid the foundations for peace." He touched her cheek. "But you... You're the glue... The glue that's holding everything together out there. And if you leave them..."
Gabrielle released a breath. "Naxos, I'm tired." She told him, honestly. "I've lived two lives already. Filled with so much... hurt and pain and anger..." She dropped her eyes. "I found peace now... I knew I was going to die and I accepted it... And I found peace..."
Naxos was silent for a moment, considering this. "After we'd just arrived here..." He started then, thoughtfully. "After our execution... We were restless. Angry. So to give us peace, Hades let us listen to Xena's thoughts."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "You heard Xena's thoughts?"
Naxos nodded. "We heard her thoughts... We felt her pain... And we understood..." He managed a small smile. "Close your eyes."
The warrior frowned. "What...?"
"Close your eyes..." Naxos repeated softly, reaching over and covering each of her eyelids with a finger, gently pushing them down. "And now listen..."
Gabrielle obeyed, focusing on her hearing, on the soft rippling of the river Styx, on Charon's annoyed muttering, on the sand beneath her feet that was...
The warrior sucked in a breath as a sudden wave of intense pain flooded over her, clenching at her chest.
Gabrielle, please... Please breathe... The words were a choked whisper. C'mon, you have to breathe... You have to wake up... Gabrielle? I can't... I can't do this without you... Please... I need you... Don't leave me...
Gabrielle's eyes shot open.
I love you...
Naxos smiled at her. "Do you understand now?"
Gabrielle swallowed, gazing at him for a long silent moment. Then she softly nodded.
The young man touched her shoulder, squeezing gently. "Gabrielle, part of me wants you to just... forget them... and come with me... Cause I've missed you..." He swallowed. "But the Fields will always be there... And I will always be there waiting for you..." He leaned closer, placing a kiss on her forehead. "Go."
Charon watched the two converse, then hug, then the warrior turned and headed back for the corridor she'd come from. "Hey!" He called after her. "Where do you think you're going?"
Gabrielle shot a look over her shoulder, a smile crossing her lips. "Home." She told him, before turning around again and continuing on her way.
The ghost on the shore chuckled happily, then he disappeared again in a twinkle of lights.
Charon glanced from the corridor Gabrielle had disappeared into, to the empty spot where the ghost had been and back to the corridor. Then he tossed up his hands. "I have had it!" He stepped from his boat, dragging the pole he used to push the vessel across with along behind him. "People walking in and out, ghost popping up out of nowhere... This place is turning into a mad house!"
A soldier walked into the cave at that moment, looking around quite dazedly. He spotted the cloaked Charon and hastily dug into his pocket, pulling out a gold coin and holding it out. "I think I'm supposed to give this to..."
Charon took the coin, then handed the pole to the soldier. "Here, row yourself across... I quit!"
A white light consumed her and she felt her feet leave the ground. It was like a whirlwind had picked her up, dragging her away, sucking her back, the whiteness twirling around her uncontrollably.
And suddenly it ended and she was lying, silently, cold stones pressing against her back. The pain was excruciating. The numbness she'd felt just before death had faded away and the damage caused to her body became known to her with a deafening intensity. And for a moment, she tinkered on the brink of life and death once more, the hurt challenging her resolve to come back.
But the hurt was no match for the warm arms wrapped around her, or for the pained voice pleading for her to return, or for the soft lips that pressed against hers and breathed life back into her.
She responded without so much as a though, gently capturing the lips so close to hers, weakly lifting a hand and sliding it up around the nearby neck.
There was a soft intake of breath, then those lips backed away just a little. Gabrielle blinked open her eyes, looking up into wide, watery blue ones. She absently stroked her thumb over the woman's cheek. "Hi."
Xena stared at her, breathlessly, for a long moment of complete silence, then the Empress uttered a small incoherent sound and the arms around her tightened, pulling her closer into a warm, wonderful embrace. "Don't you ever leave me again..." Xena whispered hoarsely, before a gentle kiss was pressed against her cheek. "Not ever..."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and sucked in a breath, filling her lungs with the smell of wood and battle and Xena. The scents seemed more vivid for some reason, like she was experiencing them for the first time. But then again, she was in a way, wasn't she?
The warrior looked up to see Thalia dropping down next to her, pushing aside a wide eyed Ephiny. "Thal..." She managed a smile, lifting her free hand and finding the redhead's hand, curling her fingers around it.
Thalia gazed at her, her face a mixture of delight and utter disbelief. "You're back..." She breathed. "You came back..."
"Had to..." The warrior murmured softly, shifting a little. "I..."
She gasped in a breath then as the wound in her stomach roared up in pain.
The gasp brought Xena back to her senses. She pulled back a bit, looking at the pale face distorted in pain. "We... We need to get you out of here..." She murmured, before looking up. "Dorian..."
The lieutenant nodded, then half turned and brought two fingers up to his lips, whistling loudly and catching the attention of two men who were tending to the wounded a little way off.
"Hold on..." Xena murmured soothingly, running her fingers through the blond hair. "Stay with me..."
It felt like... Like they'd come full circle in a way. The person who'd sent her to her death three years ago, had brought her back. And as Gabrielle felt herself drown in the seas of blue above her, she felt the past had suddenly become... just that...
Hands wrapped around her shoulders and legs, gently lifting her up and moving her onto a stretcher that had been placed beside her. The movement jarred the wound in her stomach painfully and she winced in pain, closing her eyes and biting back to keep from crying out.
"Careful!" Xena warned, watching as the warrior was transferred onto the stretcher, which was then lifted up.
Thalia quickly straightened, clinging to Gabrielle's side, placing a hand on the warrior's shoulder.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, shooting a reassuring smile up at her friend, then she turned her head. "Xena?"
The Empress was at her side within seconds, a hand reaching out and touching hers. "I'm here... Are you OK?" She inquired, her eyes anxious.
Gabrielle squeezed the hand holding hers gently. "Xena, you need to go..."
The Empress shook her head feverishly. "I'm not leaving you..."
"I'll be fine..." A small smile from the warrior. "Go. Go see your daughter..."
Xena blinked, her eyes darting up at Thalia instinctively, wondering why Gabrielle would just talk about her secret in front of...
Then through the chaos of her brain came the realisation that her secret wasn't a secret anymore. Her eyes tracked up glancing around to see countless faces focused on her, eyes watching her in intrigue.
Athens knew. Which meant the rest of the world would soon follow.
In just one day the image people had had of her for years, of the heartless, stoic Empress, had tumbled down and been replaced by this flawed one, with countless weaknesses...
Xena's eyes tracked down again, meeting green eyes looking back up at her warmly. A smile worked itself onto her face instantly in response, and she lifted their entwined hands.
Let them know, she decided, placing a kiss on the back of the warrior's hand. She'd just defeated a shamaness, an immortal, an undead and a god... She was in a serious state of not caring about petty mortals coming after her throne. "We'll... talk later... right?"
Gabrielle nodded softly. "Definitely..."
The soldiers started moving forward then, carrying Gabrielle off. Xena slowly let the fingers she held slip from her grasp, holding the warrior's gaze as long as she could manage.
Someone stepped up behind her and she finally turned and looked at her lieutenant.
"You're wounded..." Dorian said quietly. "You should rest..."
Xena considered this for a moment, feeling her exhausted body eagerly agreeing with her lieutenant. She shook her head though. "Not yet..." She told him, placing a hand on his shoulder for support. "Status?"
Dorian looked like he was about to argue for a moment, but then he conceded. "Callisto has been captured. Pompey's been..." A faint grin. "...collected. The remaining traitors surrendered... They're being escorted to the prisons as we speak..."
Xena nodded a little. "Good... We'll deal with 'm later... Now, focus on the wounded." She ordered. "Find them and take them to the palace."
Dorian glanced up at her. "All the wounded, Empress?"
"If it fought on our team and it's bleeding, help." Xena clarified for him, them reached over, taking his sword from his hand. "Now... there's just one more thing I have to do..."
The lieutenant frowned. "What's that, Empress?"
Xena didn't answer him, simply walking forward, until she was standing at the foot of the cross Gabrielle had been hanging from.
It only took one powerful swing. In one clean stroke she cut through the wood. The cross balanced for another moment, then it tumbled over, people skidding out of the way hastily as it fell, finally thudding on the stones of the Agora, croaking.
Xena dropped the sword again, then turned around and walking off without looking back. "Chop that thing into bits." She instructed as she passed Dorian. "Then burn it. Then take the ashes and toss them in the Aegean."
Dorian managed a small smile. "That would be my pleasure, Empress."
Callisto scowled as the cell doors were shut behind her with a clatter of metal. "No fun..." She muttered, unhappily sagging down on the small stretcher. She glanced across the bare cell in boredom. "This is even worse than my pit..." She complained. "No rats here..."
Her hearing detected a muted murmuring then and her eyes slid across the area she was in, finally spotting a burlap sack leaning against the bars. Curiously she walked, pulling the sack open and peering inside.
Her face creased into a delighted smile. "Oeeeeh..." She giggled, sticking both her hands inside and pulling out a head by its hair and an arm by its pinkyfinger. "It's a Pompey Puzzle... 3D no less..."
Pompey narrowed his eyes at her. "This is all your fault!" He called angrily, the index finger of the arm Callisto was holding pointing at her accusingly. "If you would have just stopped playing around..."
The blonde ignored him, placing the severed arm on top of the lieutenant's head. "Much better than rats..." She placed the arm against his ear, giggling in delight. "Much, much better..."
Xena slowly stepped up the stairs, giving the guards at the door a small nod. They both saluted her, then swung open the doors and allowed her entrance.
The halls of the palace were quiet. Xena walked inside, then stopped as the door thudded closed behind her again, just gazing at her surroundings in silence. She touched a marble pillar, letting her hand trail down the cold polished stone, before she moved on again, heading towards her chambers.
The corridor had been cleaned. There wasn't a single trail left to remind of the battle that had been fought here the previous night, and she was happy for it, since she really didn't need a reminder of that particular fight right now. She really didn't need any more chaotic memories, her head was already spinning with today's happenings as it was.
Xena glanced up, at the door up ahead on the right, leading into Pyrron's quarters. The kids were there, Dorian had told her.
Iona was there.
Xena sucked in a shaky breath, then glanced down at herself, at the torn fabric of her tunic and the blood liberally staining the larger part of herself.
She couldn't just walk in like this, right?
She grasped onto the little delay with both hands, turning and walking into her study, pushing open the door and stepping inside. Another door led her into her private bathroom and she walked up to the sink, pulling a stop from the tap and letting it fill with water.
She watched the water trickle down, listening mutely to the hypnotical splatter, until the bowl was filled.
She stuck both her hands in the cold water and held them there for a moment, gazing at the clouds of red that drifted up in the liquid. She lifted one hand finally and picked up a bar of soap lying nearby, running it between her hands.
She only managed to hold on to it for a moment though before it slipped from her fingers and splashed into the sink, sending a spray of water up.
Xena released a breath, closing her eyes for a moment, then opening them again, lifting her hands and holding them up in front of her.
They were shaking uncontrollably.
She lowered her hands again, letting them fall back into the cold water in search of the soap. It was ridiculous really. She'd just been faced with death, had fought off innumerable opponents, killed a god, defeated an undead... And now she was standing here, shaking, because she was afraid to face a twelve year old girl.
She'd led Iona on for twelve years. Had lied to her, had made her believe her mother had died, her father had died...
Iona had her spirit, Xena knew that all too well, and if she imagined how she would feel if someone had done that to her...
Xena swallowed, closing her eyes. Would Iona hate her? Would the girl even want to talk to her now that she had a few moments to think about everything, had realised exactly what it was that Xena had done to her?
The Empress lifted her lathered hands and pressed them against her face, rubbing at the skin there. A few small wounds stung as the soap slipped in, but Xena hardly even noticed the pain.
What if the girl never wanted to see her again? What if she couldn't accept this? What if...
Xena shook her head wildly, discarding the thoughts. She scooped up a bit of water with her hands and then tossed it into her face, before blindly reaching for a towel, drying herself off again.
She turned and walked into her bedroom. The place was still in chaos and her garments lay tossed across the room, some half slung over the upturned bed. She walked across the space, collecting several bits of clothing and some bandages.
A few moments later her most prominent wounds were tended to and she was dressed in a pair of leather pants and a long sleeved, dark blue shirt, which covered all the remaining blood stains and her wounds. She absently smoothed the fabric a little, fiddling with the edge of her shirt.
She released a tired breath as she realized what she was doing. "Stop being such a wuss, Xena..." She muttered to herself. "Just... Just... get this over with." She swallowed again, but squared her shoulders, then walked out of the bedroom and headed straight for the door to the Advisor's quarters, pushing it open before she could change her mind.
"Sena!" A delighted voice called out as she was spotted. Niobe came toddling over and threw herself at the Empress happily
"Ugh..." Xena uttered as the air was squeezed out of her by tiny arms. She returned the hug wholeheartedly though, closing her eyes and enjoying the comfort the toddler was providing. "Hey, shorty..."
"Sena, Sena, Sena..." Niobe warbled, placing a kiss on her cheek and then laying her head on the Empress's shoulder. "Love ya. No go no more. Kay?"
Xena smiled, placing a kiss on top of the small head. "OK."
"Good," Niobe murmured, then she pointed a finger forward. "Go. Go play with wocks."
Xena glanced up to look at the pile of stones in the centre of the room, under which she'd buried Callisto the night before. Some of the rocks were now piled on top of each other to create shaky looking towers. "You thinking about getting into construction, short stuff?"
Niobe giggled. "Fun!"
"Xena!" Caspar came running from his room and into the living room. "Are you all right?" He skidded to a halt beside her, looking up. "I heard all this screaming and then Ephiny told us to stay back and..."
"I'm fine..." Xena cut him off, placing a hand on the top of his head and ruffling his hair. "Don't worry."
Xena managed a small smile at the mention of the warrior's name. "Gabrielle's... going to be fine too..."
Caspar released a breath, apparently very relieved. "It was just all so confusing..."
"Cofusi..." Niobe agreed seriously, sucking on her thumb.
"The soldiers that took us here wouldn't say anything..." Caspar continued. "And then Iona came back and she was acting real weird..."
Xena swallowed. "Did she uhm..." She cleared her throat. "Did she... say anything to you?"
Caspar shook his head. "She just walked to her room and closed the door behind her. Dorian said we had to leave her be and then he ran off again..."
Xena nodded a little, then lowered Niobe back down to the ground, which got her a very disgruntled look from the toddler. "I uhm... I need to talk with her for a moment... You two just stay here." She hastily continued as she saw Caspar open his mouth. "I'll explain everything later...OK?"
Caspar released a breath. "Fine..." He muttered, then reached out a hand to his little sister. "C'mon, Niobe... Let's go... uhm..."
"Play wocks!" Niobe immediately suggested, wobbling off and dragging her brother along.
Xena left the two be, heading in the opposite direction, ending up in front of the door to Iona's room.
She stopped there, closing her eyes for a moment and sucking in a shaky breath, trying to get rid of the queasy feeling in her stomach. She had to force herself to lift a hand and push the doorknob down.
Iona was curled up in a corner of the bed, her arms wrapped around her stuffed horse, her face buried in its soft fur. As the door opened her eyes shot up and met those of the woman standing in the doorway.
Xena winced internally as she saw the girl's eyes were blood-streaked and puffy. She swallowed, forcing herself to stay calm as she stepped inside fully, softly closing the door behind her.
It was only a few paces to the bed, but they were for certain the hardest steps she'd ever taken. She felt Iona's eyes on her, but she couldn't bring herself to look up again, afraid of what she might see, now that the surprise at her arrival had worn off. Carefully she settled down on the edge of the bed, keeping a respectful distance between herself and the young girl.
She folded her hands and placed them in her lap, staring down at her entwined fingers. "I uhm..." The muscles in her fingers tensed, in an attempt to kept the shaking under control. "I know you're probably... mad and me... And I just..." She swallowed as she heard Iona shift next to her. "I just..."
The breath left her then as Iona crawled into her lap, arms wrapping around her tightly as the girl buried her face in her shoulder.
For a moment there Xena froze. Then her arms folded themselves around the small body and she pulled the girl closer, hugging her as tightly as she could.
She closed her eyes, laying her chin on top of the blond hair, and she soaked in the moment, which was, most likely, one of the best moments of her life.
A tear trickling down her cheek. "I'm so sorry..." She managed in a thick voice, filled with dozens of emotions. "So very sorry..."
Iona released a shuddering breath. "Why didn't you tell me?" She asked in a whisper.
Xena gently ran her fingers through the tangled blond locks. "I... I was so afraid..."
Iona sniffled. "Afraid that... that Ares would find out?"
The Empress nodded softly.
They were both silent for a moment. "He..." Iona took a breath. "He wanted to kill me..."
"He would have never gotten to you." Xena murmured, gently rubbing the girl's back. "I wouldn't have let him..."
"I know that," Iona said. "I just..." Another pause. "Why?" She swallowed. "Did I... Did I do something wrong?"
Xena pulled back a bit, cupping the girl's cheek. "No... No, sweetheart, you did nothing wrong." She pushed a stray lock from her daughter's face. "Ares just... He's a jerk and he... He wanted to use you to get to me... That's why I had to hide you from him."
Iona considered this for a moment, sorting through all of this information. "So I..." She peered down, staring at the dark blue of Xena's shirt. "I was an accident?"
"An ac...?" Xena frowned, but then she understood what the girl was getting at. "No!" She blurted, lifting the girl's chin up so she was forced to make eye contact. "You were so not an accident..."
"But..." Iona swallowed. "You didn't want me... I mean, I was..."
"Now, you listen to me..." Xena cut her off, her voice just a bit shaky. "Iona, when I... When I first saw you..." A smile at the memory. "I loved you from the first second... You were so small and... and I held you and I..." Xena closed her eyes for a moment, trying to find the words she wanted to say. "Back then, I was... I was really tired... A lot of bad stuff had happened to me, and... And there were so many moments, that... that I wanted to quit..." She gently stroked the girl's cheek. "But when I saw you, I realized I had something to live for again... That there was someone out there who... who needed me... Someone who I needed..." She pulled the blond head closer, placing a kiss on top of the dishevelled locks. "You weren't an accident... You were destiny."
Iona laid her head against Xena's shoulder. "But... But I'm part of him... A... And..."
"You are nothing like him," Xena assured her softly. "The only thing he gave you was... a bit of godly blood. Nothing more."
Iona closed her eyes, contentedly snuggling closer, smiling as she felt the Empress's arms close around her.
There was another long moment of silence. Then finally Iona spoke up again. "Mom?"
Xena felt a lump formed in her throat at the word, joined by a silly little smile. "Yeah?"
"If... If Ares was the king of the gods..." Iona started, pensively. "And I'm his daughter, and he's dead... Does that mean I'm the queen of the gods now?"
Gabrielle stirred a little, then winced, dazedly opening her eyes. "Ugh..."
"Hey," a voice drifted over as Thalia hastily settled down beside her. "Lay still... You'll tear the stitches..."
Gabrielle blinked. "I fell asleep..."
"You did..." Thalia confirmed, pushing a lock of dishevel blond hair out of her face. "You sorta drifted off when the healer came in." A wry smile. "Scared the Hades out of me... Thought you'd gone and left me again..."
Gabrielle met her friend's gaze, pursing her lips. "Sorry..."
"Pff..." Thalia waved her off. "Just me being stupid..."
Gabrielle managed a smile. "Don't try that with me, Thal... Doesn't work, remember?"
The redhead met the green eyes for a moment, then she dropped her head. "I uhm... I was... really scared..." She peeked up. "Don't ever die on me again, OK?"
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "OK." She took her friend's hand in her own, gently squeezing it. Thalia squeezed back.
A moment, then the redhead straightened. "So... You need anything? Some food, water maybe?"
Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "Water would be nice..." She stated. "But I'm not up for food yet, I think..."
"OK." Thalia walked over to a nearby table, taking hold of a pitcher and pouring a bit of water in an empty mug.
Meanwhile Gabrielle glanced up at her surroundings. She was in the palace, in one of the guest rooms, the one she'd stayed in before from the looks of it. She was lying on the right half of the king sized bed. A look out the window showed her that dusk had fallen. She'd been asleep for quite a while apparently.
"Here you go..." Thalia handed her the mug.
Gabrielle pushed herself up just a bit, then took it and lifted it to her lips, carefully taking a sip. Her stomach wasn't too happy with this first bit of intake, but after a moment of rebelling it settled down and she could take another sip.
"If there's anything else you need, just tell me, OK?" Thalia said, circling the bed and then finding a seat on the other side. "Solari felt so bad about everything she went into the kitchen and cooked all sorts of stuff for you..." She waved a hand at a nearby table, which was loaded with several bowls and plates. "She's really good, you know? Her Caesar Salad's great... There's these tiny flakes of meat in there that are..."
Gabrielle chuckled softly, lifting a hand. "Don't go there..."
Thalia shrugged negligently. "OK."
Gabrielle took another sip of her water, then put the mug down on the sheets, leaving her hands folded around it for balance. "Did uhm... Did Xena... stop by... while I slept?"
Thalia leaned back against the bed's wooden frame. "Yep. She came by to check on you, took a look at the stitching. We had a bit of a chat."
The warrior nearly sent a spurt of water flying across the room. She hastily swallowed. "Excuse me?"
The redhead rolled her eyes. "Hey, I'm not saying I like the woman, OK? I still think she's a bitch with a lust for the lethal... But, she saved me and, more importantly, she saved you... So..." A shrug. "Besides, it wasn't a heart-to-heart or anything. We talked business."
A blond eyebrow raised at her. "Really?"
"We discussed democracy." Thalia informed her. "She told me a bit about how the Empire works and why she thinks a democracy won't cut it..."
Gabrielle considered this for a moment, knowing from what she'd learned during her stay in the palace that Xena was most likely right to a large extent. "Can we compromise?"
"She's open to the idea of a council, with a limited amount of power..." Thalia said. "But there's one condition..."
"What?" Gabrielle mumbled, lifting her glass for another sip.
"You have to lead the council and take on the position of her advisor."
This time water actually did fly across the room.
Thalia chuckled, reaching over and gently dabbing at the liquid with the edge of her sleeve.
Gabrielle took a breath. "You are kidding, right?"
"Nope." The redhead shook her head. "She thinks you're the best one for the job..." She peeked up at her friend, with a small twinkle in her eyes. "We actually found something we agree on there... A day filled with miracles, this is..."
Gabrielle released a breath, slightly shaking her head. "I'm not a politician, Thal..."
"No, you're not..." Thalia agreed. "But you're smart, and a good public speaker and the people out there worship you... Besides, you need to be the link, you're the only one who can get along with the Empress..." The redhead glanced at her. "Getting along is probably an understatement actually, after this afternoon..."
Gabrielle felt a blush creep up her cheeks. "Uhm..." She cleared her throat. "You noticed that, did you?"
Thalia chuckled wryly. "Gab, the entire Athenian population was crowding around watching you, and then you go and come back from the dead and start smooching the woman giving you mouth to mouth..."
"Urg..." Gabrielle turned a deeper shade of red and attempted to cover it up by burying her face in her hands. "I didn't... I mean, I didn't really realize that..." A breath, then she peeked up at her friend through her fingers. "The uhm... entire Athenian population?"
Thalia smirked at her. "Give or take a few..."
"Oh gods..." Gabrielle moaned softly, hiding her face in the darkness again.
The redhead chuckled, reaching out and wrapping an arm around her shoulder amicably.
Gabrielle released a breath, dropping her hands on her lap, peeking up at her friend hesitantly. "So uhm... does this mean you're not mad at me?"
Thalia smirked. "I'm your friend, Gab. Not your mother... I'm not gonna wag my finger at you and tell you you're too good for her..." The redhead waved a finger at her. "You are... But I'm not gonna tell you that..."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Thanks..."
"I'm not gonna say I'm thrilled about it..." Thalia continued on quietly. "I don't like her, Gab, and I don't think I ever will..."
The warrior released a breath, nodding a little in understanding.
"But... If being with her makes you happy, then..." A shrug. "Then I'm OK with that..."
Gabrielle smiled at this, leaning her head against Thalia's shoulder. "You are the best friend in the known world."
Thalia grinned. "Flattery will get you everywhere. Keep it up..."
Gabrielle chuckled, then they both fell silent for a moment. "So..." Thalia spoke up finally. "Now that we've talked politics and had our mushy chat... You wanna tell me what happened out there? I am sorta curious to find out how you managed to stop that fireball and how you made Alti blow up."
Gabrielle grinned. "That was pretty cool, huh?"
"Heck yeah..." Thalia's eyes twinkled enthusiastically. "I was standing below and saw her looking all evil and narrow eyed and all that. And you just looked at her calmly and then... pow..." The redhead tossed up a hand. "Alti goes kapoof..."
Gabrielle laughed softly. "It was actually a bit more complicated than that." She told her friend. "It was more like this..." The warrior took on a pensive look, finding the right words. "This fight between primeval forces of good and evil..."
Thalia smirked. "Sounds like a good story..."
Gabrielle smiled, releasing a happy breath. "It is..."
"That's amazing..." Thalia murmured, shaking her head a little.
"It was," Gabrielle agreed with a small nod. "I didn't really think about it when I was making fireballs float or anything, but... it was..."
"Do you think you could do it again?" The redhead inquired curiously.
The warrior considered this for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't know..." She admitted honestly. "I think I could, but... I'd have to be in a certain state of mind..."
Thalia nodded at this in understanding, pulling up her knees and folding her arms around them. "So.. then what happened?"
"Well," Gabrielle continued. "I was trying to keep some people down below out of trouble, right? And then this voice drifted up and I looked down to see Alti standing there. And she just looked back at me and she said..."
Gabrielle couldn't quite supress a smirk as she spotted an enthusiastic toddler running towards her. "Hey, you..."
"Abby!" Niobe repeated again, placing her hands on the bed and pulling herself up, trying to clamber on top.
"Niobe..." A deep voice burred and the toddler stopped in mid motion. "Did or did I not just tell you to be careful around, Gabrielle?"
Niobe scowled, then turned her head to look at the tall figure leaning in the doorway. "Am caful."
Gabrielle chuckled, wrapping an arm around the small body and helping the toddler fully onto the bed. "It's OK..." She stated, darting a look up at Xena, before returning her attention to Niobe. "Just don't go jumping on my stomach or anything."
"Kay," Niobe eagerly agreed, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle's neck and placing a kiss on her cheek. "Love ya."
Thalia watched the whole exchange in amusment, glancing up to Xena, then back to Gabrielle. Then she leaned over, placing a kiss on the warrior's other cheek. "Love ya too." She drawled, before skidding off the bed and rising back to her feed. "But I think I'm gonna take off now."
Gabrielle glanced up at her friend. "Thal, you don't..."
Thalia hastily lifted a hand. "I need to go see Eph anyway, I promised I'd let her know how you're doing..." A smirk. "Besides, I heard the Amazons are having a party downstairs and if what I've heard about Amazon celebrations is true, I definitely wanna be there for part of it..."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Tell them I said hi..."
"Will do..." The redhead wiggled her fingers at her friend, then managed a somewhat polite nod for Xena, before she exited the room.
Meanwhile Caspar had found his way over to the warrior's bedside and was looking at the blonde's bandaged hand with a frown. "Did you get hurt bad?"
Gabrielle produced a reassuring smile. "Nah... Just a scratch..."
Xena snorted, shaking her head a little. "Right..."
Gabrielle glanced up, shooting the Empress a look, which was met by twinkling blue eyes.
"Hey, Gabrielle," Iona crawled onto the bed on the left side. "Mom says you got a hole in your stomach..."
Gabrielle's eyes took on a twinkle of her own. "Does she now?" She responded, watching Xena drop her head to hide the stupid little smile that was tugging at her lips.
"Uhuh." Iona nodded enthusiastically. "Can I see?"
Gabrielle chuckled softly, turning her attention to the girl. "Not much to see right now. It's bandaged."
"Ah..." Iona nodded at this. "But it'll leave a cool scar, right?"
"Oh yeah," the warrior grinned at her. "Very cool..."
"All right," Xena pushed herself from the door sill. "I think you've bored Gabrielle enough now... Bedtime..."
Niobe pouted unhappily, having just found a really comfortable spot tucked in the warrior's arms. "No good."
"Nuhuh..." Xena waved a finger at her. "No whining. Now say goodnight..."
Niobe released a sad breath, then placed another kiss on the warrior's cheek. "Night."
"Goodnight." Gabrielle patted her back, then gently lowered her down off the bed again.
Caspar hesitated for a moment, then took a step closer and placed a kiss on her cheek as well. "I uhm..." He glanced down, scuffling his feet. "I hope you feel better soon."
Gabrielle smiled, reaching over and ruffling his hair. "Good night, Caspar."
The boy scuffled his feet some more.
Gabrielle straightened again as a hand touched her shoulder. She smiled as Iona crawled closer, then wrapped both her arms around the warrior's neck, giving her a heartfelt hug. "Thank you." The girl whispered softly.
Gabrielle smiled, gently rubbing the girl's back. "You OK?"
Iona leaned back a little, a huge smile on her face. "I'm great."
The warrior reached out and patted her cheek affectionately.
"Hey," Xena warned, having walked over to the left side of the bed. "No stalling..." She crooked a finger at the girl. "C'mon..."
Iona crawled back over the bed again, giggling as she was lifted up when she reached the edge and tossed into the air just a bit, before strong arms caught her again and placed her back on the ground. She gave Xena a hug.
"You're stalling again..." Xena growled playfully, but she ruffled her hair though, then patted her back. "Now go on..."
"Why?" Iona smirked up at her. "Want some privacy?"
Xena shot her an indignant look, then poked a finger at her forehead. "Out." Another poke. "Now."
Iona giggled, but obeyed, skipping out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Xena rolled her eyes. "She is such a brat..."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Wonder where she gets that from..."
Xena raised a eyebrow at the warrior, but the huge grin on her face sort of took the threat out of the gesture.
"So... You told 'm, huh?"
Xena sucked in a breath, then released it again. "Yeah..." She settled down on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, I did..."
"Iona is handling it pretty well obviously." Gabrielle smirked as the giddy smile returned to Xena's face again. "What about Caspar?"
Xena chuckled softly. "He uhm... He started bouncing across the room chanting 'I knew it! I knew it! We're not related!'"
Gabrielle laughed at this, shaking her head. "Maybe they'll get along better now, huh?"
Xena snorted. "I doubt that for some reason..."
They both fell silent then, glancing down and avoiding each other's gazes. "You uhm..." Xena cleared her throat. "How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle considered this question seriously for a moment. "Like the Athenian cavalry just trotted over me..." She finally replied honestly. "Which is on the way up from being crucified, so I guess I'm doing better..."
Xena lips quirked up at this, then she sobered again, fumbling with the blankets a little. "You uhm... You saved her. And me..." She peeked up. "I owe you... big..."
"Yup," Gabrielle agreed, her green eyes twinkling. "And you are so gonna be in trouble when I cash in, Empress..."
Xena chuckled at this, shaking her head a little. "I was trying to be serious..." She accused gently.
Gabrielle smiled, then reached over, placing her hand on top of the Empress's. "I think we've had enough seriousness for today... Don't you?"
Xena glanced down at their hands for another moment, then up at her with a small smile. "You're right..."
"Of course I'm right..." Gabrielle drawled, watching the Empress's smile increase. "And I have this feeling I'm also right about you not having had any sleep today..." She added, having noticed the exhaustion in the woman's body language and the bags under her eyes.
Xena grinned sheepishly. "I uhm..." she shifted her fingers a little, absently entwining them with Gabrielle's. "First there was the whole thing with the kids and then I had to talk business for a while, and after that..." She swallowed. "I just sorta sat around and worried about the talk we were gonna have..."
The warrior studied the dark profile quietly. "You scared?" She asked, half jokingly.
Blue eyes lifted, open and honest. "Terrified." Xena admitted softly.
Gabrielle held the gaze quietly. "You wanna talk about it?"
Xena managed a small smile, then shook her head softly. "I uhm..." A breath. "I've been having sensitive chats all day... I don't think I'm up for another."
Gabrielle grinned softly at the words. "Me neither..." She murmured.
The blue eyes searched hers in a long palpable silence, then Xena's free hand trailed up and laid itself against her cheek. Gabrielle smiled against the touch, then tightened her hold on Xena's other hand, gently tugging her closer. The Empress responded, sliding nearer until their faces were just inches apart.
Xena held her gaze for another moment, then almost hesitantly leaned closer. Gabrielle's eyes fluttered shut her eyes as lips brushed hers, a feather light touch at first, but soon it grew more confident and the kiss deepened. Gabrielle let her free hand drift up, finding a spot at the base of the Empress's neck.
There was no awkwardness between them. Gabrielle would have thought there would be, considering their history, but... there just wasn't. It was nice, and warm, and comfortable and she felt her battered soul soaking up the moment like a dry sponge.
After a long moment they broke off and Xena released a breath, leaning her forehead against Gabrielle's. "You OK?" She asked softly.
"Fine," Gabrielle murmured, feeling Xena's heartbeat drumming against her fingertips. "You?"
"Great." Xena responded, smiling.
Gabrielle carefully shifted a little, wrapping her arm around Xena's shoulders and pulling her closer. The Empress returned the hug happily, burying her face in the blond hair.
They ended up with Gabrielle half reclining against the pillows. Xena rested her head on the warrior's shoulder and had an arm slung over her waist, careful to avoid the blonde's wound. Gabrielle gently let her fingers run through the hairs at the base of the other woman's neck.
Xena hummed deep in her throat. "Don't do that..." She objected feebly.
Gabrielle glanced down at her, stopping the motion. "Why not?"
The Empress yawned. "Puts me to sleep... Don't wanna fall asleep and squash you..."
The warrior smirked, then gently continued the previous motion of her fingers. "This puts you to sleep, huh?"
Xena mumbled something incoherent.
Gabrielle chuckled warmly, her fingers gently scratching Xena's neck. "Sleep... It's OK..."
Xena tried another protesting murmur, but this one trailed off slowly and ended up with the Empress's breathing deepening as the dark-haired woman slipped into a deep sleep.
Gabrielle smiled softly, gently reordering the dark locks scattered over her shoulder. She faintly realized she'd just let herself tumble into something that was way too powerful for her to control in any way... She could almost feel the bond between them now and it was getting stronger with every heartbeat.
Gabrielle smirked as Xena nuzzled a bit of bare skin at the base of her neck. She found herself seriously not caring about the concequences of their relationship though. She felt happy here. Happy and loved and... And complete...
Gabrielle smiled, resting her cheek against Xena's head and closing her eyes, letting sleep claim her as well...
It was a crevice. A deep, gaping crevice. Xena stood on the edge of it and quietly glanced down, watching the steep cliffs disappear into a pool of darkness.
A soft scraping of boots on sand alerted her of another presence. She lifted her head and looked to her right, to see Gabrielle standing beside her, peering into the endless depths as well. Xena faced forward again. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you."
The Empress released a breath, shaking her head a little. "You shouldn't have come..." She whispered. "This is not a nice place..."
Gabrielle peeked up at her, studying the dark profile. "So why don't you leave then?"
Xena lifted a hand, faintly motioning towards the abyss. "This is the end of the line... There's no more road..."
The warrior faced forward again, gazing at the precipice pensively. "You can't go forward, no..." She then agreed. "But you can go back."
Xena shook her head feverishly.
"Why not?" Gabrielle inquired gently.
"Cause..." Xena swallowed. "It's... It's a really long way back..."
"Does that matter?"
The Empress dropped her head, absently kicking at a small pebble and sending it flying into the crevice. Xena found herself waiting for the sound of the rock hitting the bottom of the abyss, but it never came... "It..." A breath. "It wasn't much fun, getting here..." Xena mumbled softly then. "A lot of bad stuff happened."
She heard the warrior take a step closer. "You were alone then," Gabrielle's voice drifted up, then fingers curled around her hand. "You're not alone anymore."
Xena swallowed, then she glanced down, meeting warm green eyes gazing back up at her. "I'm not?" She asked, hesitantly, her hand gently closing around the warrior's fingers.
Gabrielle smiled up at her, a smile that melted the doubts lingering in Xena's heart. "C'mon." the blonde said softly, then she turned around, her hand still clasped around Xena's, gently tugging her along.
Xena glanced down at the crevice one more time, then she took a breath and turned around.
A long road stretched out before her, twirling its way through the landscape. She stood for a moment, just staring at it, then she glanced down at the woman by her side. "We have a long way to go."
"We do..." Gabrielle looked up at her, a gentle twinkle in her eyes. "But we'll get there."
"Yeah..." Xena found herself returning the smile, gently squeezing the hand she held in hers. "We'll get there..."