Summary: Faced with a heartbroken Gabrielle post-"A Friend in Need," Aphrodite comes clean about the large part she played in the bard's life behind the scenes.
Chapter 1: Downpour
Gabrielle collapsed to her knees. She had been running for days. Her eyes closed to try and shut out the memories swirling around her head, the demons that had chased her to the place her feet had carried her.
Eve’s stunned, heartbroken expression upon learning of the death of her mother, Sarah’s retreat behind her mask after the crib death of her and Gurkhan’s son, Lila’s pain at being unable to get through to her daughter, the remnants of the Greek Amazons leaping from the trees in their ill-fated last stand, the images of the previous year and more crushed the bard into the dirt.
“I am so sorry for all you have suffered, little one.”
Gabrielle turned her face from the gentle hand trying to uplift it. “Where were you?” she asked through gritted teeth.
The mortal batted aside the hand reaching for her chest. “Don’t,” she warned at the edge of tears. “I’m not in the mood for-”
“So, no hot tub this time?” Aphrodite smiled hopefully through the pain in her eyes.
“Where. Were. You?”
“Little one, I was with you.”
“No, you weren’t. You’re never- Just like-”
“I was,” the goddess of love said just the tiniest bit more firmly. “I haven’t left you, Gabrielle.”
Wanting nothing more and nothing less, Gabrielle let her old friend pull her into a hug. Every bit as warm and comforting as she needed it to be, she hated it. The heart she had tried so hard for so long to keep together shattered into a million pieces, and she cried as if she would never stop.
“That’s right, sweet pea. Just let it out. Let it all out. I’m here.”
And for the first time in a very long time, Gabrielle did.
“Why weren’t you here before?” she asked dully many hours later.
Aphrodite pressed her lips tighter together.
“Why won’t you answer me?” Before the immortal could respond, Gabrielle let out a tearless sob. “You never answer me when I really need you!”
“You’re just like Eli!”
The blond goddess fell backward when Gabrielle shoved her away. She did not try to get up.
“I thought you were my friend!” the bard continued as she paced and gestured wildly. “I thought he was my friend. I thought—” Her voice caught on the name but she forced it out anyway— “Xena was my friend! But none of you are! I’m just yours! I have to accept whatever you guys say while you all disregard me! ‘Gabrielle, have faith in me! ‘But if there is a reason for our travels together, it’s because I had to learn from you.’
“Yeah, ‘Screw you, Gabrielle! The only thing that matters about our time together is what I got out of it! You’re nothing!’ ‘It's for the greater good!’ How many times did I hear that? Everything was for the greater good unless it was inconvenient for them! ‘Let Ares kill me, Gabrielle!’ ‘Kill your baby, Gabrielle!’ But also, ‘I’ll lead you to your cross but won’t let you stay there because the pain and guilt is too much for me! I’ll bring you back from the dead because- I, can! So, there!’ And, ‘Well, my mother and child are suffering! The whole world, Heaven and Hell, can go screw themselves, and so can you, Gabrielle! That’s my greater good! We make our own destiny in this family.’
“Or, what about this one? ‘My son is dead, because of you! It doesn’t matter that you would never hurt him but had in fact just risked your life in exchange for his, against the immortal who killed your husband, as she threw fire at you! So what if I tried to run your child through with a sword before your eyes and then chased you hurt, heartbroken, exhausted, and t-terrified across a foreign country with that baby in tow? Yes, I made you run, ride a horse, and paddle a canoe, though aching and bleeding from an instant pregnancy and childbirth, all night and day, just to keep me, your best friend, from killing the child! But that’s okay! And I stabbed your infant grandson in the back while he embraced you, but that’s okay too! But WOE TO YOU for even thinking to send your daughter to the safest place in the village! I’ll drag you through fire for that! Yes, fire again, Gabrielle! Your greatest fear after being r- being with Dahak! Then I’ll throw your sorry carcass off a cliff!”
Aphrodite breathed the woman’s name but continued to go unheard. She flinched when Gabrielle wheeled around and stalked toward her, but the bard charged right past the goddess without even noticing her presence.
“‘Your newborn child might have killed a man; evil! Evil! Put her to death! Think of the greater good! Oh, my child? My sweet little, full-grown Evie who killed Joxer right in front of us and hundreds, if not thousands, of other people too? She can be saved, Gabrielle! Cheer me up about her, Gabrielle! I’m so sad! Never mind that I never had a kind or sympathetic word for you when you were a scared teenager trying to save your baby or mourn her; poor me! I can’t kill my daughter, Gabrielle! How could you just give up on her? How could you think that’s the greater good? Oh, you’ll do it for me? Spare me the everlasting guilt and pain of killing her myself, thus condemning yourself to that a second time, for me, of all people? Well, chakram through your skull, Gabrielle! Die, Gabrielle! Again!’”
All at once, the little tornado in human form stopped her rampage. Green-blue eyes stared at the round weapon that had seemingly magically appeared between her hands. “Chakram,”she breathed in awe. Absently, she glanced up at the sturdy mirror across from her.
“No!” Aphrodite cried when the bard let the death-bringer fly. Snapping her fingers, she made it disappear in a shimmer of gold sparks.
“Give it back!” Gabrielle shrieked in a crazed rage as she spun around quicker than the weapon could and launched herself at the goddess. “Give it back right now!” she screamed over and over as she pummeled her friend. “Now, Aphrodite!”
The immortal refused with a sulky tremble in her voice. “…I’m sorry,” she whispered too as she went limp.
“No!” the human echoed. “Fight back! Fight back, damn you! …F-fight back,” Gabrielle pleaded and commanded at the same time as she shook her friend by the shoulders, weeping bitterly. “You can’t feel this, can you?” she asked sometime later.
“I can,” Aphrodite said simply.
“No, you can’t! You’re not mortal! You don’t understand! You’ll never understand! Look!” she indicted the goddess, shoving her partly away while still holding onto her. “I said, look!” Gabrielle shouted louder when Aphrodite closed her eyes in expectation of another blow.
Hesitantly, her friend obeyed. She could not even smile, let alone smirk, when Gabrielle lay a hand on her chest instead.
“All my snot and tears, and yet, there’s not a drop on you. Just like the rain! Nor are you bruised. Why? Because nothing touches you! Nothing phases you! You can’t be hurt!”
“I can,” she repeated.
“No, you can’t! It’d be too much for you! Why don’t you just disappear, huh? Leave me here all alone! That’s what you’re good at! That’s what you’re all good at! How many times did Xena leave me behind without thought of what could happen to me? It didn’t matter if I got r- attacked, kidnapped, nearly killed; she couldn’t get rid of me fast enough! Any time it was convenient- And any- Every time someone came around looking to make her pay for a crime, whether she was guilty or not, she was all for it. I gave up everything for her! Everything! Everything, and it meant nothing! M-my life, my family, my child, my blood innocence, virtue, heart and soul, my- my everything- a-and one, one stupid little riddle from some unknown entity she hadn’t mentioned once in all our time together-” A rising sob cut the bard off momentarily. “And she tells me straight to my face that none of my sacrifice could compare! I’d just sent my baby down the river, abandoned my last h-hope, for her- But- What did she owe Lao Ma? She- How- Why? …Why am I so worthless, Aphrodite?”
“Gabrielle, you’re not!”
Knocked into and crushed in an ardent embrace, Gabrielle felt nothing. “I am,” she insisted lowly. “It’s all I’ll ever be. I wasn’t anything to Xena when she was with me. What can I be without her? It’s true,” the bard whined in lieu of letting Aphrodite interrupt. “Even to Eli. I was his first follower; I was his friend. …I thought. But he preferred Xena. He gave her g- …special powers– answered her prayers and saved her daughter. Refused to acknowledge me ever again after he forced me to- let your brother kill him, not even after I stayed up all night with his ashes, begging for his help! Xena had just rejected me yet again too, then.” She broke off before whispering, “M-Michael, who told me I had a beautiful spirit and that Xena had to spend eternity in pieces, later deciding she had to become ruler of Hell… He- only spoke to her after Eli resurrected us. Or Eve. It was like I wasn’t even there to him anymore. The archangel was even ready to slash me in two to get to you. Do you… remember that?” she whimpered.
Aphrodite paused to think about it. Shadowy memories of the day she lost her godhood caused her head to hurt. Heart already in considerable pain, she shook herself. “Not really…”
“I do,” Gabrielle grunted. “I was so worried about you. I kept trying to get through to you, to help and comfort you. Know what you called me? A butt-kissing parasite, a-”
“I didn’t remember you, Gabrielle. I forgot you on purpose.”
The bard finally fell silent as shock zapped across her features. Then a dark satisfaction spread across her face. “Well, ain’t that a kick in the head? No, a chakram in the head. You going to give mine back anytime soon?”
“Of course not. Why would anyone ever do anything for me?”
“You are what drove me to Rome in the first place, Gabrielle,” Aphrodite admitted for the first time ever. “And I did lots of things for you,” she added too softly to be heard.
“What are you talking about?” Tickled by a strange, unexpected feeling, from such a strange, unexpected source, Gabrielle almost smiled.
“I thought I’d lost you again.”
“What are you talking about?” the bard shrieked in hollow mirth.
Turning as pink as the gauzy shawl around her shoulders was, Aphrodite shook her head. “Stupid things. Ditzy Aphrodite; that’s me, right? …I’ll just go like you wanted, okay? I’m sorry I-” Her spirit leapt when a soft hand squeezed her arm, and her friend gave her the smile she had missed for more than a year.
“Tell me, Aphrodite,” that sweet voice urged her.
The goddess stared at Gabrielle and felt happy tears well up in her eyes. “Gab-”
Then that light dimmed.
Smile turning wry, the mortal shook her head. “If for no other reason, I could use the laugh.”
“No, I think I’ll go,” Aphrodite choked as her tears began to sting her eyes. “I-”
“Fine. Go. I can’t stop you. I can’t stop-” Breathing out in a shuddering sigh, Gabrielle fell into unconsciousness.
Aphrodite leaned over her to hold her close and teleport them far away from her temple.
Chapter 2: Breakthrough
“Mornin’, sunshine!” Aphrodite perked as Gabrielle blinked into bleary wakefulness. The goddess giggled. “You’re so cute in the morning!” With that, she set a small table over her friend’s lap.
The mortal held up a hand to block the streaming sunlight from her eyes. By feel, she noticed the luxurious bed under her and that her body had been propped up in a half-sitting position with fluffy pillows. “Where am I?” she asked though she had a sneaking feeling that she knew the answer.
“The Mighty Aphrodite Hospice for Beloved Bards!” came the pert response.
Gabrielle frowned. Even the ridiculous name sounded familiar. Then her breath caught in her chest. “Th-thanks, Aphrodite,” she murmured as her eyes took in the daisies in a little glass on her tray.
“Smell ’em!” the goddess all but cheered.
Unsure of the wisdom of following the directions of such a trickster, Gabrielle still obeyed. “Potadeia, m-mother,” she gasped as the scent of the little garden Hecuba had maintained in her daughters’ childhood stirred the bard’s heart and memory. She was surprised to find that fond nostalgia rather than grief filled her. “What- How-”
“Hello! Goddess!” Aphrodite answered, displaying jazz hands and spirit fingers. “Eat up, little one. Don’t let all my hard work go to waste!”
Even less certain that obeying was a good idea, Gabrielle eyed the food dubiously.
“Please, sweetie? I had one of my best priestesses make it up for you.”
The bard chuckled and didn’t find that strange. “Hard work, huh?” she wondered aloud as she picked up a hunk of warm, brown bread.
“Oh, you’re smiling again!” Aphrodite reached out a hand to rub her knuckles and thumb against her friend’s cheek. “So, what do you think? Bath first or- What?”
“What’s going on, Aphrodite?”
Though the bard was frowning in confusion rather than anger, the goddess felt a thrill of fear shoot through her. “Just pampering my little one!” she said, injecting more lightness into her face and voice. Then she gave a playful pout. “Is that so wrong? …Aw, come on, Gabs! Can’t we play pretend just a little longer? I can braid your hair!” she suggested before snapping her fingers and causing hip-length locks to sprout from Gabrielle’s scalp. “Or you can braid mine!” Another snap caused her own hair to come out of its ringlets and flow in waves around her. “No? We can paint our nails!”
Instantly, salon kits took residence between her mug and vase.
“Why are you doing this?” Gabrielle asked, becoming slightly annoyed but still mostly puzzled by the goddess’s behavior.
Aphrodite sighed. Eyes lowered, she admitted, “Because you’ve been so sad. Because you need a friend, and the way I was wasn’t cutting it for you.”
“Aphrodite…” The bard’s tone hovered between mild reproof and disbelief.
“Believe it or not, I do care about you, Gabrielle. You’re… really very important to me.”
The deity did not find her friend’s laughing tone encouraging. “I don't know. A long time now.” Blue eyes flitted up to greenish ones before lowering once more. “Probably since the first time we met.”
“But you thought I was a clumsy goody two shoes.”
Aphrodite shrugged uncomfortably. “I was jealous.”
“You’re messing with me!” ‘Stunned’ could not even begin to cover what Gabrielle felt, nor was ‘vulnerable’ a word she associated with the goddess, and yet there was no other way to describe her friend’s disposition at that moment.
“I’m not. I- You’re- …I wasn’t used to caring for a mortal. I’m still not.” Those eyes lifted again. “But I am trying. You can see that, can’t you?”
Gabrielle lost her breath a second time. “Y-yeah… I just don’t understand why.”
Aphrodite gave her a half-smile. “There doesn’t have to be a why with love, sweet pea.”
“You love me?” The mortal openly gaped at her friend.
Frowning and turning away in a sort of flinch, Aphrodite retorted, “Or I am love…”
Moments of silence passed between them.
“Well, I guess I’m still doing it wrong. I’ll leave you be for now,” the deity announced before disappearing in a cascade of golden sparks. The nail-styling pouches and magically enhanced locks of hair went with her.
Gabrielle chewed her lip rather than the scrumptious meal that a selfish goddess of all people had commissioned for her.
Aphrodite reappeared in the evening. Arms crossed and head down, she said, “You had a late breakfast, but you’re probably hungry by now, right?” She looked up when she heard her name said in a welcoming tone. “H-hey…” A nervous smile lit her face. “Feeling better?”
“Yeah…” Gabrielle answered just as uncertainly. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
The goddess let out a dramatic groan-scoff as she unfolded her arms and slumped her shoulders. “You live to humiliate me, don’t you?”
“No…” Green-blue eyes stared up at the statuesque figure towering over her.
“How could you not know what you mean to me?” Aphrodite asked as she sat on the bed near Gabrielle’s knees. “So, did you remember this place yet?” she changed the subject quickly.
“Kind of… It’s strange. I-”
The goddess stared deep into the mortal. “I brought you here from the lava pit,” she admitted at long last.
“You? What? But-”
“Air lies. He does that a lot, actually! Such a-”
“I couldn’t let you die for my mistake. Again.”
“Your mistake?” Gabrielle echoed in bafflement that was fast solidifying into both craving and misgiving.
Aphrodite once again forced herself to be uncharacteristically forthcoming, “I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t want to lose you. …But I fear I will either way.”
Both people jumped when tears dripped down the goddess’s beautiful face.
“Tell me, Aphrodite. Whatever it is …I need to know.”
“It’s- I-” All at once, the immortal became completely transparent. “I don’t want you to hate me. …More than you already do.” Voice becoming very small, she whispered, “And I don’t want you to hit me again. No one ever did that before, and- …It hurt very much.” Sniffling, Aphrodite added, “I really didn’t mean for everything to happen like it did! I- I was trying-”
“I won’t blame you, Aphrodite.”
Attitude flaring in an instant, she sassed, “Really? Because you did yesterday, and you didn’t even really have a case!”
“I was wrong. Aphrodite, I was wrong. I shouldn’t have treated you like that. You didn’t do anything to deserve my wrath, but I took it out on you anyway. That- It- I’m sorry.”
Aphrodite recoiled from the hand coming to caress her cheek. “You said I wasn’t there for you all those times you were hurting, but I was. I was!” she cried, still stung by the accusations. “I just didn’t barge into your moments of need uninvited. I figured that was the last thing you’d want a god to do after D- It’s not my fault you rarely think of me! You don’t turn to me! You’ve never asked me for help if I wasn’t already there; or the one who screwed things up in the first place. …E-except when—” Silver-blond curls bobbed when Aphrodite snapped her chin to her chest— “when I really screwed things up,” she mumbled. “…No wonder you-”
“I’m really sorry for how I acted, Aphrodite,” Gabrielle reiterated as she pulled the deity into a hug for once. “Truly, I am. I’d give anything to take it back.”
Her friend grinned tearfully. “Really? You mean it?”
Gabrielle pushed her away only to look her in the eyes. “I do.”
Aphrodite rolled her with another scoff-groan. “How cloyingly sentimental,” she said with a weak chuckle.
“But still very much appreciated?”
She beamed; her friend remembered. “But very much appreciated.”
The pair shared a moment of contentment before Aphrodite’s little gray cloud reappeared.
“Now I want to tell you even less!” she whined.
“Please tell me, Aphrodite. …I’ve always wondered what happened …back then.”
Aphrodite took a fortifying breath.
Chapter 3: Fulfillment
“You- It all started when…” Aphrodite glanced to her right and found Gabrielle looking at her without pressing her or retreating. A grimace darkened her visage when she knew she had to keep talking. “You prayed to me in Brittania.”
Gabrielle’s stomach dropped as the long-forgotten memory stirred in her mind’s eye.
“I was like, ‘No way!’ you know? Little Miss Goody Two Shoes praying to me? That I had to check out!”
\\Nineteen-year-old Gabrielle’s broken heart lit in a flicker as she crouched on a muddy riverbank. It’s worth a shot. Anything is. “Aphrodite, please keep my baby safe. Teach her love, goddess. Let her be filled with it.” An impassible lump formed in her throat and cut off her plea when she let go of the basket carrying her Hope. Then she turned and ran for the rocks, hearing the echoes of her soul’s cries get fainter and fainter.//
“And then I was like, ‘What baby?’ I-” Aphrodite tried to smile and hoped Gabrielle would too. “I thought you had been naughty and was so going to lord that over you. Xena too. I-” The goddess choked on a sob. “I never thought-”
Gabrielle too hissed a sharp intake of air. “Y-yeah…” Her hands fisted the silken sheets under her.
“No,” Aphrodite told her both firmly and gently, cupping Gabrielle’s face to lock gazes with her. “I never got to tell you how sorry I am about what happened to you. That was a terrible thing no mortal- no anyone should ever have to experience.” Her hands fell into her lap and wrestled there as she looked away from her friend and began to rock. “Oh, I was angry when I found out what D- that god did. But I couldn’t do anything against him. Not even Ares could, obviously… So I helped you forget,” she divulged yet another one of her secrets. A small smile lifted her cheekbones when she continued, “And expended quite a bit of energy keeping him from being able to gain access to you again too; cloaked you in my love and protection. That’s why his presence mostly left you after I got involved.” Humbly, she shrugged. “I couldn’t always keep you safe. He broke through when you were most distressed, and sometimes while you slept, but I did the best I could. …Then big-brother Herc defeated him, I guess.”
“And you took care of Hope,” Gabrielle finished in a detached tone of awe.
Aphrodite flinched again, seeming almost sullen as she spread her feet and slouched her shoulders to her ears. “And I took care of Hope. You almost k- uh, lost her with that basket of yours. But I kept it afloat. Dahak– sorry– thought I might be an ally. As if! …But, um, anyway. I didn’t know the whole story at the time, of course, and- I’m sorry, Gabrielle, but I sent her to people who wanted her. Her fa- The cult who-”
Gabrielle took her turn flinching even though her half-smile remained. “The cult who …took me too. So they were the ones who raised her.” Then she whipped around to look at the goddess beside her. “Did they-”
“No, they didn’t touch her… like that. They- wouldn’t…” Remorse weighed so heavily on Aphrodite that she caved even deeper into herself. “But I was so selfish. I- I never imagined-”
Concerned for her friend and her child, along with becoming ever more confused, the mortal lay a hesitant hand on a gauze-covered shoulder. “What do you mean, Aphrodite?”
“I thought you meant to make her love you, once I got a better picture of things, a-and she got a little older,” the immortal said in a rush into her own cleavage as if it were the most shameful secret in the world. Her eyes clamped shut when her friend shifted beside her. In a tremulous whisper, she elaborated, “It’s what I would have wanted, so I automatically thought you’d want the same thing.”
“Hope… couldn’t love on her own, could she? You made her more human.”
“Not intentionally!” Aphrodite cried as if she had been accused of something terrible. “And …I don’t know. She might have been able to love without my help. After all, she was half-you, and you are the most loving mortal— anything!— I’ve ever met.”
“Thank you, Aphrodite,” the bard answered by rote, unable to process the compliment or catch up with her own thoughts. “But the way Hope loved me …it wasn’t natural. It wasn’t real,” she said after a long pause, trying to work things out but not sure she was getting anywhere.
“Real love can’t be created with a spell,” the pair said at the same time.
“Did she love her son?” Gabrielle gave voice to something she had been wondering for years.
Aphrodite put an arm around her. “I don’t know, sweet pea. …But not like she loved you, either way. I… did sense a great lacking in her and so gave her a double dose-” Her arm fell to the bed. “But I was just trying to do as you asked! I really-”
“Aphrodite, you didn’t do anything wrong.” Mixed tears blurred the bard’s vision. “The fault was mine…”
Aphrodite sucked in another harsh breath and waited, cringing, for whatever would come out of Gabrielle’s mouth next.
“I am glad that Hope got to experience some sort of love. …She’s still my child. And I still- I still love her,” the human whimpered, her own tiny voice disappearing by the end of her admission. In sniffling, she lifted her face. “Did you-”
“No, little one. Your sweet heart did that all on its own. And no matter what anyone else might say, I think it’s incredible that you loved her, still love her! You’re a very strong person, Gabrielle, and an undeniably good one.” Wanting to look away for both their sakes, she held steady eye contact with the bard, nevertheless. “I know you’ve struggled with that ever since- what happened to you in Brittania, with Hope, with- all of it. And it …set you back, or made you lose sight of your goodness, but never your goodness itself, Gabrielle. You’ve always had it. And you always will. That, I know for sure!”
The second time in as many days, Gabrielle fell onto Aphrodite weeping. That night, the goddess shared in her tears.
“Aphrodite?” Gabrielle asked, muffled against skimpy lingerie in the very late evening.
Her friend jolted away from her. “Sorry; sorry! I didn’t mean- Hey…” she grumbled as she rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. “I didn’t even have my hands somewhere they shouldn’t be. What gives?”
“We’re cuddled,” Gabrielle said with a child-like giggle, confused but happy at the same time.
The goddess puffed out a breath in relief. “Is that problem?”
Aphrodite positively beamed. “Good!” she declared as she hugged the mortal once more, snuggling her tight as they lay on the large bed facing each other.
“Ask it later, little one. Don’t ruin the moment.”
“…Alright.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and fell back into a more peaceful sleep than she had long thought possible.
Chapter 4: Cost and Worth
“Can’t we cuddle for this part too?” Aphrodite whined in the pale early morning light. “I don’t want to look at you when I say it, and I don’t want you to be able to look at me! Or hit me!” she added petulantly.
Gabrielle smiled wanly. “But I think I know what you’re going to say. And I still don’t blame you.”
“But you might! You could change your mind and decide I am a rash where the sun don’t shine! Then I’ll be really, really sad. I’ll probably cry forever!”
That same scolding, near-laughing tone both soothed and irked the goddess. “You sound like my mother. And I don’t even have a mother! I …um, ew. Suffice it to say, I emerged of the sea, okay?”
“Suffice? My, mighty Aphrodite; that’s a mighty big word!”
“Shut it, goody two shoes.” She punctuated her retort with a swish of her hand against the bard’s back, not even patting it.
Gabrielle laughed. “Mighty Aphrodite is not so mighty.”
The pair winced at the same time. “Nevermind-” and “I’m sorry,” they said as one.
“Whatever; moving on! No, wait! Let’s go back-”
A deep sigh followed the name. “Yes, mom. …So; well… But it’s obvious. isn’t it? No?” Ever more distressed eyes found green-blue ones before darting away. “Hope’s overpowering love- well, desire, for you brought her to Greece.” Once more curled into herself and speaking into her bosom, Aphrodite muttered, “Please don’t tell me I need to tell you what happened after that.”
“No.” Gabrielle shivered. “I remember that quite well.”
Several minutes of unbroken silence spanned between the pair but did not distance them.
“But Aphrodite, why didn’t you …I don’t know, warn me that she was coming?”
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to bring all that up to you. You didn’t even know I knew about Hope; and I… was kind of hoping she wouldn’t find you.”
“And once she did?”
The goddess shuddered. “Dahak caught me off-guard and banished me somewhere else for a while. I didn’t know where I was or how to get out, not for a long time.”
“By the- Aphrodite, I never knew…”
“I know you didn’t. I didn’t want you to. It wasn’t your problem, and that …god had done more than enough to upset you. …Hope actually let me out, like she did with Callisto. But after her, um, activities with Iolaus and all.”
“Hope slept with Iolaus too?” Gabrielle all but shrieked.
“Oh, no! No, no, no! She sent Callisto back in time to kill Hercules before he was born, something, something; Ares sent Iolaus after Callisto as vengeance for Strife, or whatnot… The little guy saved the day, if I remember what he told me right. Anyway!” Aphrodite was surprised to find herself blushing and so diverted her attention into plowing ahead with her confession. “Hope let me out as a last resort since I intervened for her on the river. I didn’t want to help her, but I …had to. She got the idea and power to make her first cocoon from me. Her… father got their cult and then Callisto to make her a new one, but- …That was my fault too. I’m so sorry, Gabrielle.”
“It doesn’t matter,” her friend told her though it did, rubbing her chilled arm to soothe her. Then the bard changed her mind to support her words. “Really, it doesn’t. Dahak had already resurrected her. They would have found a way for her to be reborn no matter what.”
“Thank you, sweet pea. That… means a lot.” Bright blue eyes stared into the distance. “But yeah. By the time I got away from Hope, Xena had already- You were both headed to the seafloor.” A haunted look came over Aphrodite’s angular facial features. “You were dead, Gabrielle. You and Xena, because of my mistake. I never thought I’d cause one, let alone, four, deaths, and certainly not one I so-” She shook her head hard. “I begged the Fates to help me, same as I begged Morpheus to help me keep Dahak out of your dreams.”
Aphrodite hissed and flinched as if struck in the stomach for the innumerable time. “Really died because of me, yes. That’s why- well, part of why I couldn’t kill Eve. I-I didn’t try to stop Ares, but I couldn’t … take another child from Xena. Not from either one of you.”
“O-oh. …Well, what I was going to say was that Solan didn’t create Illusia for us like I thought he did.”
“No, he didn’t.” The goddess gave her friend a less than half-hearted attempt at a smirk. “The boy knew next to nothing about you. How could he have-”
“But you did. You knew everything, and I never knew that.” Gabrielle stared through Aphrodite.
“I did not! Not everything! But the Fates did, and they wove a little temporary world for you like they did for Xena after she protected their temple. I tried to get them to- But they said I had to let it play out. I couldn’t intervene, couldn’t protect you from being hurt there.”
“But you did play a part in making it a reality. As painful and upsetting as parts of that experience were, it brought us back together, Aphrodite. You brought us back together. We wouldn’t have made it otherwise; even if we hadn’t …fallen off that cliff.”
“‘Fallen,’” Aphrodite repeated in the same teasing tone the mortal had used on her.
“You saved us, Aphrodite. Me and Xena.”
“You,” the goddess stressed unnecessarily, “I did it for you. You’re… a little wrong. Xena can- could- um, well; survive quite easily on hatred alone. You couldn’t. Even if she hadn’t …done all that to you. You would have died in Amazonia without her.”
“Like I’ll die now,” Gabrielle whispered without thought, soon realizing that she was telling the truth. “I don’t know how to live without her anymore.”
“You’ll learn to get through it! You forget how strong you’ve become. And this time… if you’ll let me; Gabrielle, I’ll be with you. You don’t have to go through it by yourself.”
The bard smiled deep within her soul.
“I thought you hated me,” Gabrielle mused to herself in the afternoon.
“Never, little one.”
“All these years…”
“I played it cool. I …reeled from how much you meant to me, how much I put myself through for you. And I thought we were bad for each other. So, I tried to stay out of your life after you made it through Illusia. …But I couldn’t stay away for too long. I missed you.” The curly-haired deity shrugged self-consciously. “And worried about you. But I couldn’t let on about that! I had to pretend like you were just any other mortal. So, I played tricks on you and hassled you, per usual. …But you still saw me as a friend.” The goddess got lost in her musings. “You have no idea what that means to me. I’d never had a friend before you, Gabrielle. Haven’t had another since either.”
“It’s fun. I like to tease you so you smile.” she rubbed the back of her own neck, feeling it and her chest begin to heat. “That obsession thing; you know I never really cared about the diamond, right? I just wanted you to be able to see yourself as you truly are. Plus, Xena took you for granted too much! And you just let-” The goddess held up her hands to calm herself. “I digress. Mostly, I wanted to give you a nice vacation after …everything.” Pink crept up into her cheeks too, first in greater embarrassment, then in pleasure when Gabrielle broke into a big grin similarly tinged with shyness around the edges. “Being able to bring joy back into your life, however briefly, that makes me really happy for some reason.” Aphrodite rolled onto her back and laced her fingers behind her head. “So, did it work?” she asked a long time later.
“Did what work?” Gabrielle echoed, close to sleep.
“Did my crazy made-up story make you happy?”
The bard gasped, her drowsy mind scrambling to figure out if her friend had been playing another trick on her. Then she knew in her heart that the tale was true. “Nah,” she joked. “Too cloyingly sentimental.”
“But appreciated?” Aphrodite asked as she finally looked somewhere other than the stars, a wide grin forming on her own face.
“Very much appreciated.”
The deity rolled over onto her friend to make her yelp and was pleased when her wish came true. Then she tickled the mortal to the point of tears. Nuzzling her forehead against Gabrielle’s temple as the human tried to catch her breath, Aphrodite asked more seriously, “No, but really. Did it work?”
Gabrielle did a quick series of double takes to try and ascertain what her friend was getting at but couldn’t help but giggle the first few times. “Did what work, Aphrodite?”
“Um, hello! The whole point of all this,” the goddess answered with an audible eyeroll and grand hand gesture. “Ugh, fine.” Capturing Gabrielle’s face and forcing sustained eye contact with her, she asked, “Do you see how you were wrong? You called yourself worthless. I’m telling you how very much you are worth, to me.” Aphrodite surprised the bard yet again by looking away and blinking fast to disperse her welling tears. “You say you gave up your family for Xena, and in a lot of ways you did, but I gave up my family for you. Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, Artemis, Athena, Poseidon, Hades, Deimos, …ew, grody Discord—but who needs her, right? Though I do kind of miss her too sometimes— all of them died in the fight against you guys.
“I put on mourning clothes for my husband, but as soon as I could after you got hit, I went to you. I stayed with you while my uncle, brothers, and sisters fought for their lives in the next room. I didn’t even try to do anything to Eve, thus putting an end to the slaughter— not to mention, ensuring my own survival!— after Xena left her with us, because I could not divert my attention from you. Then, I transported you three into my sacred home even though I knew doing so could mean the deaths of the rest of my family, all so that you might live. I chose you over them, same as Air chose you over them.” Rare sternness smoldered in cobalt-blue eyes. “So please do not tell me that we, I, did all that for nothing, that our sacrifices too were without worth.”
Solemn green-blue eyes stared into the goddess. “Thank you, Aphrodite,” Gabrielle whispered as if in prayer.
“You’re welcome, little one.”
“By the gods!” the deity imitated Gabrielle in her prissiest voice. “…What, little one?” she groused. “You’re totally killing the vibe here, you know!” Still, the fact that the bard had consented to taking a bubble bath with her made her smile.
The pair reclined across from each other in a large, square hot basin, much like the one Gabrielle and Xena had shared in north Africa, since Aphrodite’s envious little heart desired it so.
“You said you went to Rome because of me?”
“Whoa, way harsh!” Aphrodite fixed the mortal with a glare after jolting upright. “Well, what’d you expect? I thought you were dead, again!”
Gabrielle fought down some more poorly stifled giggles, averting her gaze from the bubble beard and unicorn horn that had exploded into place due to the goddess’s flailing.
“Well, I did! Do you know how traumatizing the idea of death is to someone who can’t die? Not to mention- That’s why we don’t get attached to mortals. But I did! To one who has an epic on-again, off-again affair with Auntie Celesta, too! You almost died countless before I ever even met you! There were whole years of your life where you couldn’t go a single week without ending up with someone’s knife at your throat or wandering into some other form of mortal peril! Then you got more street smarts and combat skills, and I thought, ‘Finally, my sweet pea will be safe!’ But nooo; you gotta go cliff-jumping with Xena in Amazonia! Then you try to break your neck by flipping without your staff. Aw, just the ankle this time? Bummer. But oh, look! Here comes a poisoned arrow! Better get right in front of that thing! Oh, goody, it got you! Well, shucks, you lived through that too? That’s okay; you’ll just go lava-diving! Whee! Then you get yourself hanged. But not to worry! You’ll get out of that the same way you got off your first cross! By falling, of course! Where? Into the middle of a bloody battle, of course!– What’s with the giggles?– Then you go and fall down another giant pit! Then you go, and get crucified! A second time!
“But, whoa, nuh-uh! That’s not enough for Miss Thing!– Why are you laughing? It’s not funny!– Then you decide, ‘Even death will not stop my love of falling from great heights! Woo, I’m in Hell!’ Stop giggling! ‘But, wait! For my next trick, I’m gonna spirit-battle some psycho shamaness without a lick of knowledge-’ IT’S NOT FUNNY, GABRIELLE!”
The bard had never appreciated the absurdity of her life’s path before hearing her friend rant about it. “You’re the best, Aphrodite,” she managed to get out between bouts of uncontrollable laughter.
“I am!” the goddess sulked. “But unfortunately for me, you’re the worst!”
“Oh, you love me!” Gabrielle cried in her merriment, pressing her hands to her sore abdominal muscles and leaning back against smooth tiles.
“I do! Why, I DON’T know!”
Then the bard was beaming under teary eyes. “You do!”
“I do. So what?” Overjoyed and yet gruntled at having amused Gabrielle so, Aphrodite could not enjoy the moment. “That’s why it messed me up so bad when you disappeared from my radar again. I had just gotten you back after having lost you for a quarter-century too—” her lower lip stuck out further than ever— “paid with the lives of almost everyone I ever knew– people who were never supposed to die in the first place– for the sole thanks of you continuing to gamble with that life every chance you got, per usual!” The vigor left her voice when she breathed, “And you were just gone. For a whole extra year, Gabrielle. I didn’t feel your presence for so long…
“So, I made myself forget you after most of that time had gone by. I couldn’t afford the high cost of …feeling that way anymore. For all I knew, you were never coming back from the Norse lands. No family, no friends; the goddess of love had no one to love and no one to love her. Is it any wonder that I lost my identity?”
Far past laughing, the bard could only shake her head. “No… I’m sorry…”
More silence passed between the two friends.
The goddess snorted, groaned, and sighed all at once. “What, little one?”
Gabrielle reached for her under the water. “Thank you. For everything. Truly-”
Aphrodite smiled before squeezing Gabrielle’s hand once and then letting go to swipe the bubbles off of her own head and blow them at her friend. “You’re very welcome, little one. Always!”
Chapter 5: Secret Treasure
“Aphrodite? When I came here before… what happened?”
The goddess released yet another heavy sigh. “Just what I told you. I got you out of that pit and brought you here, to my most favorite place in all creation. A place of my own creation.” Proudly, briefly, Aphrodite lifted her chin. “It is!” she insisted though Gabrielle made no effort to refute her claim about the sparkling oasis around them.
The bard’s misunderstanding rose from another source. “But- Xena said-”
“Air manipulated the image she saw so she’d think you were dead for sure. He figured I rescued you to keep you here as a plaything. That left him free and clear to trick Xena into marrying him in exchange for your soul, which he never really had, of course.
“I. Couldn’t do that kind of thing to you. I didn’t even want to. I just wanted to help. …After trying so hard to stay away, knowing the danger Dahak posed to- all of us, really, I put myself on the line for you, again. I saw you fall and knew I couldn’t take the chance of you getting hurt again, no matter what that beast might do to me.” Aphrodite grabbed her own arms and hunched over them as she shivered at the memory. “He was there with us. …Thankfully, he was preoccupied with Hope and his unborn Destroyer, so I was able to snatch you from his clutches before he could stop us.”
A wry smile lit her face. “Hey! Come to think of it, we’re related because of Air’s… whatever you want it call it. Since he, you know- uh, fathered your grandson, that makes me your daughter-in-law. So, I guess you really are my mom!” Aphrodite laughed.
“That- Augh, Aphrodite! I try not to think about Ares and Hope! He- with my child! In a copy of my body! And Hope wasn’t even a year old yet! Then he had the nerve to proposition me, multiple times, even without all he had put Xena through-”
“My bro is something else, huh?”
“Something else,” Gabrielle echoed with a shiver of her own. Eager to turn her thoughts from that unpleasantness, she prompted, “So…”
“So… you were really messed up for a while. You weren’t hurt physically- But. Well, we both know that things don’t have to leave a mark to be sore.”
The bard flinched from dueling memories of Khrafstar’s touch burning her in spirit rather than body, Dahak’s similar assault on her, and herself striking Aphrodite. “I’m s-”
“I don’t care. I’m not important right now,” slipped from glossed lips before the goddess could help it. She let a feeling that both was and wasn’t shock roll over her without giving it any attention. “You couldn’t speak. Or wouldn’t.” Aphrodite shrugged but could not free herself from the weight on her shoulders. “Maybe you just didn’t want to talk to me.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried harder to remember, drawing on the deity’s words to construct mental images. “I don’t think I could.” Then her separate recollections took over and she was left nearly breathless though she too tried to skim over her unchained memories and the emotions and implications attached to them. Dully, she concluded, “I was too busy trying to get back to Hope somehow. Dahak said he’d kill her. And I- I don’t know why that upset me so much considering what I’d just done myself. Again. …But at the time, I thought I’d done the right thing.”
“You did!” her friend rushed to her defense. “That was very a brave thing you did, leaping into fire for Xena like that! Fire that not only reminded you of Dahak but-”
“Was Dahak. I knew what I had to do,” the bard whispered. “Even without Ares’s meddling, I couldn’t- I promised Hope when she was a baby; I told her I’d die before I let Xena hurt her. …I meant it. That never really changed for me. Never…”
“Oh, little one-”
“Xena’d already done it too. The second she sliced Hope’s arm with her chakram, she cut my heart in two. Hope didn’t really care, didn’t think much of it, but I- I did. And when I saw Xena backing her toward that pit, coming at her- my, my Hope with that dagger…” Disquieted, she admitted, “I saw my little baby and Xena about to run her through in Brittania. But I wasn’t there behind Hope to grab her up and whisk her away. …I had to go to her. I’d already decided when Ares added more- …fuel to the fire by reminding me that Xena would die too if she killed Hope. So, I saved them both. Or at least I thought I did.” Tears dripped down on either side of her nose. “Of course, I didn’t…”
“Little one!” Aphrodite mourned with Gabrielle, holding her as if the strength of her grip could keep her friend from falling to pieces.
“I’d already sent Hope off on her own twice, you know? I put her basket into churning waters and had to leave her there without looking back, to lead Xena as far away from her as I could, s-so she’d have a chance! Then I gave her over to the night with poison… And even though I held a-and rocked her the; the first time she died… I didn’t accompany her to the underworld to make sure she’d be okay. I almost did but was too scared. Too selfish. So, I had to go into the pit with her, Aphrodite! …I couldn’t let her fall into darkness alone. Not again.”
“I know; I know,” the goddess repeated as she held and rocked Gabrielle much like the bard had just described doing for her child. “I know,” Aphrodite said again though she really didn’t.
“Then why- Why did you rip me from her?” came out in pained whimpers.
“I didn’t! Her father did! I only-”
“I know. I’m sorry,” Gabrielle said in Aphrodite’s place. “It’s just that it hurts so much. Still. …I could never talk to anyone about it. Nor write it down.”
“I know, little one. You’ve carried around far greater pain than anyone should have to bear, for far too long. Do you think you can let it go now? Can you at least try?” she amended in an instant. “Gabrielle, I’ll do everything I can to help you, supernatural or otherwise. You don’t have to suffer by yourself ever again if-”
“Thank you,” the woman answered shakily.
“Don’t mention it. …Please.” Aphrodite entwined herself even more intricately with her friend.
The pair once more lay in bed together, the smaller half with her ear to the other’s chest and the taller rubbing her back.
“So, I was here for a while, right? What’d we do all day?”
Aphrodite beamed. “This. Lots of this.”
“Yeah.” Mixed nostalgia suffused the goddess’s face and voice. “You liked listening to my heartbeat. I don’t usually have one, you know. But that …upset you. You would, like, really freak out to hear nothing. I didn’t know what in Tartarus you were doing at first, smashing your squishy little cheek into my ta-tas so insistently all the time. …But, oh, little one! It made you cry… You still wouldn’t make much noise, but tears would spill down your face like a waterfall. And you’d look up at me and touch my face, looking; just so sad and scared, for me, I think. Concerned or something… Then I got it and made myself a beating heart. Really, it just echoed yours. But you loved that. I guess it reminded you of Ho- uh, your real mother. Or Xena. I don’t know.”
“I didn’t want H- any of them- you, to be dead,” Gabrielle realized belatedly. After another few moments of silence, she asked, “But was I really content-”
“Oh.” The goddess squeezed the mortal all the tighter. “No. Not at first. For the first few days, you were- what’s the word? Catatonic. You just stared off into the distance with …such a haunted look on your sweet little face. Nothing I did or said made it go away. I finally just waited, like Theenie told me to. Then you slowly started coming back to life. I-” Aphrodite grunted. “I guess you were confused; naturally, of course. It’s to be expected!”
The bard pouted in thought. As she had often done with Xena in the past, she offered up an observation without intonation or expectation of a response. “You sound sad.”
She smiled at how her old technique still worked. Then she listened closely.
“You… You were scared of me, okay? You couldn’t recognize me and didn’t understand what I wanted from you. But I didn’t want anything! Not for myself! I just wanted you to know you were safe and to be happy.”
Aphrodite smiled once more. “Did then too. It just took us a little while to get there. Then…” A huge grin spread across her face, and she got lost in reminiscence.
“Then, what, Aphrodite?” Gabrielle asked, half-smiling herself.
“Then you were my sweet pea. Oh!” The deity released her friend with one arm to grab at her own chest. “You were the cutest little thing! I’d gotten used to having to find something else to do for a lot of the day, either because you didn’t notice I was with you or didn’t want me there—” she rushed past the painful part— “but you suddenly didn’t like that anymore. You followed me everywhere I went, usually holding onto me in some way. Conga line!” Again, the jazz hands came out. “Okay, okay! You were just like—” a throb from her heart caused one in her voice at the thought of her lost loved ones, but she pushed past that too— “Baby Bliss and Cupid for a while, but even sweeter. And I was your mommy. I spent the night in here with you; even though I had better things to do, you know! Because you were still human and needed to sleep, of course, I’d tell you a bedtime story or sing you a song, and you’d start to drift off. You’d smile so sweetly when I kissed your forehead, totally at peace. But the second I got to the door, those pretty green eyes would pop open, you’d throw off the covers, and you’d run to me with your arms out. Every night!
“How could I ever walk away after that? I’d try to put you back to bed, but you wouldn’t have it. Wouldn’t even let go of me.” A slow smile spread from her soul outward, bathing the pair in a luminous glow. “So I stayed with you. What else could I do?”
The bard didn’t know what to say. Her eyes slipped closed as she tried to picture the scene in her mind.
“You still didn’t talk to me– you never did then– but we had a lot of fun, you know? I got to reintroduce you to the world. And I made it grand, okay, girlfriend? Nothing but the best for my little one! I took you riding on my seashell, fly- Oh, the first time you saw a dolphin! Oh, little one! You were giggling and skimming the still water with your hand as we cruised along under the sun. Then you saw a dark shape rising below us. You yanked your hand back, shot up, and came toddling back to me for a hug– you always did that when you got scared, by the way– But my sweet pea could never stop being brave and curious for long. So, not letting go of my hand, you returned to the water’s edge to learn more about the creature. You squealed with laughter when a fountain came out of its blow horn and splashed us.
“So many things gave you …such, joy! That made it all worth it in the end, all the sadness, all the fear- Oh, to relive those days! We made snow angels on the tallest mountains, played into giant piles of autumn leaves, danced around under falling cherry blossoms. I ended up having to recreate a lot of things here, though, of course.” A smirk twisted the goddess’s face as she tapped Gabrielle on the nose. “As we talked about before, you are incredibly disaster-prone. And you get that weird motion-sickness thing. So, I had to make safe versions for you here. But I didn’t mind. Anything for my sweet pea,” she reiterated with another, bigger grin. “Plus, artificial things are a lot easier to manage. You wanted to do all that outdoorsy stuff— camping under the stars, following trails, sitting around a fire, you know, all the things I’m not really into. But I did it for you. I just kept the really grody stuff out, like mud and bugs and all that. But the rest, I conjured reality for you– flowers, dew drops, swans, anything your little heart desired.
“And you were happy to do things my way once a day too! Really, you were! You loved when I did stuff like brush your hair and paint your nails. You even picked out ribbons and bath scents and nail polish colors and pajama fashions-”
Gabrielle rolled away from Aphrodite to look her in the eye. “Is that why those were your go-to when I had writer’s block and then, a couple of days ago?”
Mild embarrassment warmed the goddess’s face. “Yeah. It came naturally. I- Bath time was your favorite. Like in real life, I guess…”
“My time with you here was real life, Aphrodite! It was probably the happiest I’d been- for a long time and would be for an even longer time after that. Right?” The bard smiled softly as she jostled her friend to try and lift her spirits again.
“It was,” Aphrodite agreed, misty-eyed. “I was so glad I could give that to you. …But it wasn’t enough in the end,” she trailed off, losing her smile and drawing invisible patterns on the silken sheets between them with her forefinger.
“You missed Xena.” She shrugged, melancholic and a bit awkward. “And you were getting better. There wasn’t much reason for you to stay anymore. And I- couldn’t keep you here. I mean, I could. But I couldn’t, you know?”
“I know. …But Aphrodite, how come I didn’t remember?”
“I let you forget. I…” Yet again, Aphrodite shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t want you to feel like you owed me or something. You didn’t! The memories alone were enough for me.”
“Yes. No. …I did get to be a little selfish at the end!”
“I sensed you were ready to move on, so I gave you a complete spa treatment. Gift-wrapped you for Xena with a full-body mud bath and oil finish—” The goddess put up a hand in self-defense although the human had not moved— “Nothing… untoward, of course! You weren’t mentally a little girl anymore, but things aren’t like that between us, Gabs. I could have any number of mortal and immortal lovers, but you are my one and only friend.” Shaking off the distraction bodily, she circumvented whatever Gabrielle might have to say with, “Anyway, I brushed your hair ’til it shone, buffed your nails, all that! What can I say? I love pampering my little one. …No matter how much it hurt then because I knew it was the last time.”
“But that still doesn’t explain-”
“I put a charm on this place when I first created it so that whenever anyone not me crosses the threshold of it for good, they forget everything about it. Gods gotta keep up their security, you know.” Aphrodite chuckled forlornly.
“You could have lifted that for me.”
“I could have tried. But you know how bad I am at reversing my spells; you sure made fun of me for that enough times! I didn’t want to risk messing you up again. And I just didn’t want to, for the principle of it, like I said. …Our time together was a private treasure, my most valuable and that no one could ever take from me. And it was really shared, the best kind, but only I knew that.” The deity half-smiled at the frilly pajamas she had provided for her friend. “You know, it’s funny. I thought I’d been given another chance when that little Alessia girl wandered into my temple. Tried to recapture what you and I had. But she wasn’t you. No one’s you, Gabrielle.” Feeling the weight of the woman’s stare, Aphrodite mumbled, “I dunno. It’s like I keep telling you. You’re special to me. You make me different. Someone I never thought I could be and didn’t even know I wanted to be.”
Gabrielle smiled as teary-eyed as her friend had earlier. “Now you sound like Xena.”
The goddess flailed over-dramatically. “Whoa! Way, way harsh! Why you gotta insult me like that?”
“Aphrodite!” The mortal shoved her friend and tickled her for the first time that she could remember, hard. She got tickled in return.
The two friends took their time calming down.
A half-smile, half-pout twisted Aphrodite’s lips. “So judgmental, little one. Always. Especially of me. …Remember what you said to me about her?”
Gabrielle blinked, hints of a frown dimming her shining smile. “Who, Xena?”
“No! Alessia; duh!”
“O-oh.” The bard gave a half-shrug and placating smile. “I-”
Aphrodite waved aside the apology before it could be fully formed. “You always called me on my crap. No one else did that, you know? Well, except maybe C- Nevermind.” Again, she rolled onto her back to gaze upon the stars that her sweet pea had mutely requested always be visible from their bed. Nearly thirty years later, and she still hadn’t reinstalled the roof; the thought made her smile. Then she shook her head at her friend’s prodding. “Huh? What? Sorry…”
Giving Aphrodite a scoff-groan for a change, Gabrielle said, “I apologized. And asked if you wanted me to change my scrolls. I …mischaracterized you so badly in them.”
The deity giggled. “Nah, let’s keep it our little secret.”
“I’m sure.” Once more, she tapped her friend’s nose. “I like when you’re wrong. Especially when it’s because I’m right.” She stuck her tongue out at Gabrielle. “Besides, even though I was a little sad that you …said those things to me. I was happy too. Proud.”
Gabrielle matched the goddess’s ambivalent grin even as she shook her head. “Of me?”
Aphrodite squealed. “Hee! As if! Of me, you dope! The lesson you ‘taught’ me with her, I’d already done with you. And you didn’t even know it.” Her wistfulness returned her to her story. “Our goodbye was a sad moment, but a sweet one too. You- we both cried a little. Then I gave you a final hug and dropped you off in that forest where Xena was… Well, I hung around a while longer, invisible, just to be sure you were safe, and we walked together in silence. Then Xena found you. I almost blew her away for raising her sword at you like that, but then it became clear why.”
“Why…” the bard repeated. “Why did I lie to her? Why didn’t I know I was lying?”
Long lashes fluttered over royal blue orbs. “What do you mean?”
“I told her I woke up in a hospice-”
“You did! The finest in all the land, too! The Mighty Aph-”
“Okay, but I also said I remembered falling, fire, rocks… Hope dying; sending word to Xena… Was there something else?”
“You did remember falling, fire, and rocks! You still dove into the lava pit! Something happened for a while—” the goddess sped up suddenly— “but ended when Dahak consumed Hope, like he …did to you; in Brittania. But he didn’t- She was already pregnant- Well, you knew that. I took you away when their uh, shield lapsed, and you started screaming for her; I thought she was dying too and didn’t want you to have to see that again. But obviously, I was too late …I don't know where you came up with sending-word-to-Xena thing, though. I never promised that, and you never asked for it. I just-”
“Took care of me. …Really, really good care of me.”
“I did.” A delicate hand cupped Gabrielle’s cheek. “Because you’re my friend, and that’s what friends do, according to you. And I’ll take care of you like that again! As long as you want.” Aphrodite leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle on the forehead. When she pulled back, her sweet pea was grinning up at her. “Oh, little one!”
Chapter 6: Highs and Lows
“Hey, Gabby?” Aphrodite broke the companionable silence between the two friends for once days later.
“Can I ask you something?”
The amusement on Gabrielle’s face faded at the sight of the tension in her friend’s. “Uh, sure!”
“It’s about the lava pit-”
“Oh!” She sucked in a stricken breath. “I don’t-”
The goddess’s mouth began to work a mile a minute. “You don’t have to answer! And if you don’t remember, that’s okay too! I-”
A low exhale interrupted her. “Ask, Aphrodite. It’s fine.”
“It- It’s really not my business- I just. …I really worried about you. It took me a while to catch on, per usual, but…”
“What is it, Aphrodite?”
“Did Dahak …hurt you again in there? Was I too late twice in one move?”
Gabrielle turned away from her friend with a strangled scoff. “What makes you ask that?” She filled the uncomfortable silence by muttering into her knees. “By the way you tell it, I was only in there a few seconds-”
“It was a few minutes, actually. He and Hope- …did something that I couldn’t stop or see. They held you in some sort of a bubble- But, uh- anyway, that monster obviously didn’t impregnate you a second time, though that possibility kept me on edge for a while too, but- you were just so traumatized a-at first… Theenie made me worry about- that. Then she told me to shut up about it,” Aphrodite admitted.
Her friend didn’t respond, so she too kept talking to try and defeat the silence.
“I didn’t tell you earlier, but that was the only thing you responded to. You didn’t sleep or move the whole first night or next day, so I sought Theenie’s counsel. She suggested Dahak might have …done it you again, even had me bring you to her to check you herself, but you …flipped; out! You let me lay you down a-and hold your hand without a problem, but when she started pushing up your skirt- She took that as a ‘yes.’ I guess I kinda did too, but I was really hoping it was just a leftover reaction from being so close to him again!
“I- Couldn’t stop thinking about it. That was the hardest part of you not talking to me, especially those first few days when you were like a doll. I even tried to broach checking you a myself once or twice, but- …I guess that’s why you came to fear me, but I never meant to hurt you or do anything bad to you, Gabby! Never! I just- I couldn’t stand the thought that I let that happen to you on my watch. And that I couldn’t do anything to make it better if it did.”
“Neither one of you would have found anything,” the bard mumbled dully as she rolled over onto her back. “Dahak made sure to never leave a mark on me. He even removed the wounds Khrafstar gave me and scars I’d had from childhood, my travels with Xena when he; took everything from me.”
Tears burned Aphrodite’s eyes and solidified into a hard lump in her throat. “‘Never’ sounds like he did it more than once…”
Gabrielle kept her gaze steadfastly on the wall. “You really want to know?”
The goddess braced herself. “I really wanna know.”
“Whether he did it to me in the lava pit or not, though that’s pretty much a surefire yes… and whether it was really him or just my imagination; he’s done it to me more times than I can count, Aphrodite. Any time I get stuck in fire or, like you said, too scared or upset, I feel him on and in me. His foul laughter echoes in my ears as he takes me from all sides all at once– tearing me to pieces, raking my insides with his claws, burning me inside and out; all of it– every chance he gets, even if it only lasts a moment… Trapped in the tavern by that mob; giving birth to Hope; abandoning her; watching her die, all three times; each anniversary of those five days; f-facing Callisto in Solan’s place; w-when Xena dragged me out of the Amazon village; in Illusia; shot with that poison arrow and slowly suffocating… What else?
“Ah, yes, the Rivers of Memory, without a doubt, and when Tataka and Mephistopheles possessed me and I got turned into a demon, for sure; every time Alti showed up; on any battlefield with explosions; when- your family hit our cart and sent it over the cliff with that blaze of glory; twice with the cannibals and Higuchi. …I let him and my feelings about him overtake me at Helicon, and Brunhilda surrounding me as eternal flame panicked me just as much as it did you, you know; before I blacked out. Whenever I dream of those things now… Over and over. Dahak can even reach into my past. He joins me in King Solus’s crematorium and-” Her breath shuddered. “That’s why I hate burning the dead. But Xena asked me to… for her. To save her, even though she must have already known- …And Amazon law demands it. But if we never burned Hope and I- then her father might not have been able to- Please, when I die-”
Shaking just as badly with suppressed tears as Gabrielle was, Aphrodite interjected with a perky, “Oh, don’t worry! I’ll put you a nice ice cave like Air did! And fire is banned in this place from here on out! All sad, scary stuff too! I-”
Two hearts joined into one when the friends crushed each other in an embrace strong enough to meld their spirits.
“I’ll never let anything like that happen to you again, Gabrielle. I stayed away before o-out of respect for your privacy, and your relationship with Xena, but now-”
Bright blue eyes looked away from sea-like ones. “Little one, I’m so sorry.”
“Not just for not being with you before, but. But… I really thought…”
Quizzical and not, the mortal regarded the deity. “Thought what?”
“I thought I’d kept you safe from him. Put you out of his reach-”
“Ah.” She smiled wanly. “You probably did, Aphrodite. It’s probably all in my mind.”
“But- That-” Aphrodite grabbed her friend’s face in both hands. “Let me- fix it!”
“I dunno! …I bet I could conjure your bowl from Mnemosyne’s temple, like I did with your mother’s flowers!”
Agitation slipping over into anger, the goddess sprung to her feet. “Yes, I could!”
Gabrielle reached for her, squeezing her forearms. “Aphrodite, no. You don’t have to. And I don’t want you to.” Her quarter-smile became even more wistful as she looked away from her friend. “It’s like I decided back then, you know? If I give up my bad memories, then I lose the good ones too. And I lose all the inner strength I got from coping with the hard stuff.”
Tears glistened in her friend’s eyes. “My little one is so wise. Just like- Theenie was so proud of you that day. Me too, of course, but …yeah. She helped me a lot after you first got here. I was freaking out! So, she gave me her blessing to heal you, just in case. I didn’t even have to ask. And it wasn’t the first time. Do you remember—” Aphrodite shook her head to try and focus — “She liked you a lot, you know. We all did… You should’ve heard us girls arguing over who got to be your patron goddess, the keeper of the darling of Mount Olympus.”
She chuckled. “’Meter said you were hers because you’re the earthy, home-n-hearth typ like here. She almost won too after you played house with Xena and baby Eve in the Northern Steppes. ’Liope lay claim to you because you’re a bard, and your scrolls are what kept you and Xena together there and after. Of course, Art had rights to you as Queen of her Amazons. And Theenie said you showed great wisdom all your life. But I won without even trying ’cuz you’re such a lovey dove. …I really miss my sisters sometimes, you know?” Her lips turned up in a sad smile. “Of course, Air was really pulling for Auntie Celesta to win. He was steamed ’cuz none pf us would let him kill you so he could get Xena back. That’s why he was so stoked and went a little crazy when I brought you here…”
Lips twitching into a full smile, Gabrielle said, “I’m glad to have disappointed him.”
Aphrodite giggled. “Me too,” she agreed before flopping back down onto the bed. “But if there’d’ve been a goddess of falling, she’d’ve won for sure!”
“It’s true! Hey! Remember when Xena was Miss Amphipolis?”
Bewildered yet again, Gabrielle asked, “Uh, yeah?”
“You should’ve been a contestant in that pageant too! Your talent would’ve been falling really, really far down everywhere you go! No, really, it’s amazing! The judges would’ve been mondo impressed! Ten out of ten for consistency, drama, and execution, for sure! Not to mention, creativity! You al-”
The goddess squealed and squirmed under the furious tickle attack launched against her. “Really! You know what I’m gonna get you for your next birthday?”
“No, and I don’t want to!”
“Yes, you do! ’Cuz I’m gonna get you a parachute!”
Gabrielle blinked and cocked her head to the side as she leaned over her friend. “A what?”
“Hee!” Aphrodite squealed louder. “So, so cute!” Close to cackling, she turned her friend’s face side-to-side in small, rapid movements between her palms. “A-goo-goo-goo!”
“Ugh!” The mortal all but clawed at the alabaster hands on her face to pull them off.
“Ain’t that the word of the day?” The goddess chuckled. “Ugh, right! Non-goddess! It’s like…” Pouting in thought, she reached for the words. “That parchment thing Xena made to catch that fish at the lake you- Oh! Wait for it! Fell into—” her giggles interrupted her for a moment— “trying to kiss your reflection!”
Gabrielle puffed out her breath. “And whose fault was that?”
Aphrodite’s grin only widened. “Gee, who could it be? Ooh! I just remembered; I think she also used one to catch daddy’s lightning and hit that giant.”
“I remember it. I don’t think she’d call it a …parachute, though.”
“It’ll be called a kite in the future. But a parachute is kinda like that. Only it stays folded up in a bag you carry on your back until you need it. Then you pull a cord so it bursts out of the bag to catch the wind and keep you from falling to your doom. It could be very useful to you! Really!”
Mildly pink, Gabrielle scoffed and rolled her eyes. She unwittingly echoed her friend’s when her skin heated and her hand lifted to rub the back of her neck. “Whatever, Aphrodite.”
“You need one!”
“I’m not that bad!”
“Yes, you are! You wanna know the real reason I didn’t recognize you in Rome? You weren’t flailing and clawing at the air with a dopey look on your face! You didn’t actually fall! How was I supposed to know it was you? Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but your …uh, performance made me sit up. I was like, ‘That little weirdo is gonna fall off those shields! Wait, fall? Gabby?!’ before Caligula- …made me sleep.”
All at once, the brightness of the atmosphere faded, the air seeming to go with it.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Put that down right now, young lady!”
Gabrielle jumped and dropped her quill. “Aw, Aphrodite!” she complained, trying to mop up the splotch of ink before it could settle too deeply into her parchment. “I was just-”
“Directly disobeying mommy! Leave it, little one!”
“No way am I letting you have this over on me! My goddess stock would plummet even more if the story got out! Plus, it’d make my actual worshippers jealous!”
Aphrodite fixed her friend with a faux-intimidating look, glowering at her and putting her hands on her hips. “No way does the world get to know that I’m totally whipped for a total dork! Besides! You like eating, right? Who’s gonna make your meals if you offend all my priestesses? They don’t get special treatment like my little one does.”
Gabrielle took her turn putting on an incredulous, mocking expression. “Your love for me knows no bounds.”
“Go on. Keep talking,” she said, lowering her head and waving her fingers in a beckoning gesture. “Tell me more about this special mortal.”
“Nuh-uh. No way! And just for that!” The deity waved her hand and made all of the bard’s writing supplies disappear.
“No!” Gabrielle cried in not-so-feigned outrage. “Aphrodite!” Tossing aside the sheets she’d draped over her lap, she took a flying leap out of bed.
Eyes going wide to accommodate the real fear blooming within them, Aphrodite took multiple steps back as she threw up her hands to fend the bard off. “Whoa, whoa! It was just a joke!” she said anxiously. She conjured the scrolls, quill, and ink jar into her own hands and then shoved them at Gabrielle. “Here!”
The human received them with rising regret. “Aphrodite…”
“Gotta fly!” The goddess too disappeared in a shimmer of gold sparks.
Gabrielle wandered along a nature trail to a waterfall. Leaning over the array of flowers in her arms and smelling them deeply, she found that the scent of the daisies newly reminded her of her friend in addition to her mother.
“They’re pretty. But not as pretty as my little one,” a warm voice caressed her with the light breeze.
She leaned into both. “You’re pretty, Aphrodite.”
“Tell me something I don’t know!”
“I couldn’t,” she answered. “This place is pretty too…” A smile lit her face when her friend wrapped her in an embrace from behind. She leaned even further back.
“Was that a wiggle?” The goddess laughed. “My little one is getting way too comfortable!”
“Pft. Is that a problem?”
A strange bird cry lifted the bard’s head and opened her eyes as a technicolor animal flew over the pair.
“Kooky too.” Gabrielle giggled, thinking back to the puff-ball bunnies and bubble-encircled butterflies she’d found in the meadow where she picked her bouquet a while ago. “I should have known you had something to do with Illusia. It was so wacky.” A chuckle fell from her lips. “Like that place I got sent to when you knocked me in the head with that pulley on the dock. But of course!”
“I’ve got style!”
“You’ve got something…”
Soft, hesitant, and hopeful, Aphrodite asked, “Do I have you?”
The mortal grinned. “You have me.”
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