"So It Goes"

By Jody Leak

Disclaimers:

All of these characters belong to someone else (Universal Renaissance Pictures, etc.). No harm or infrigement intended.

Time Period: Immediately following A Friend In Need

Revised: 10.14.01


Gabrielle felt a slight tingle chase up her spine. At once familiar but... squinting her eyes, she turned on her heels, scanning the surrounding forest. Her eyes closed and her face relaxed, a smirk began to form on her lips as her brow furrowed... “Ares...”

“It seems Xena has left you more than just her Chakram...” the God of War chided as he materialized with his arms crossed, leaning against a tree.

“Ugh...” Gabrielle spat out in frustration at the sight. “What ever little game you're...”

“No Games...” Ares said, cocking his head and raising his hands. “I know what happened. I just thought you could use a friend.”

“A friend...?” Gabrielle said, mocking him and trying to peer around his body for the aforementioned friend. “Do you really qualify?” she stated, straightening up, hands on hips.

Before he could answer, she cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Look, I know that you and Xena had this...thing...between you. She always seemed to know what was going on behind those beady little eyes of yours...”

“Beady...?” he muttered to himself, looking slightly hurt.

“But I'm not her...I don't know what you're thinking...” she continued, “...and I'm really not up to dealing with...whatever...” gesturing towards him with her hands, “...you're up to, right now.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa...” he spat back, as he began to move towards her. “What's with all of the aggression? I'm the guy who saved your life not too long ago, remember?” He was face to face with the bard now, hands on her shoulders.

“Ares...” she growled, in a tone that at once told him she was no longer the gullible little girl from Poteidaia.

“Ok, look...” he began calmly, removing his hands from her shoulders, but not backing off. “Let's start again. I know that you've had a rough time...” Gabrielle gave him a suspicious glance, “...but I just thought, maybe you'd want to talk to someone who understands what you're going through. Someone who knew you...both.” His tone was serious and sincere. “Someone who knows everything that you two went through together.” He paused. “How much you meant to each other...” He swallowed and looked away. “I feel your pain...I do.” His jaw clenched.

Gabrielle could feel a black hole of emotion opening up in her as she realized the truth of his words. She was alone now. For all of his faults...he was truly one of the very few, still alive, that knew their history intimately, and could genuinely understand the pain she was feeling.

Not now, she urged silently, trying desperately to get a hold of herself, for fear she would fall apart. She pushed her emotions back to the place she'd been keeping them and regarded his face in silence, considering his words.

“I know you loved her too...” she embraced him gently, “…in your own twisted way,” under her breath.

“What if I told you we could bring her back...?” he whispered in her ear.

“Ugh...Ares!” the bard shouted, shoving him away from her. She turned her back and threw her arms in the air in disgust before turning to face him again.

“Just when I think you're becoming a stand up guy...” planting her hands on her hips.

“What?!...” he said, throwing his hands out. “Are you going to stand there and tell me you wouldn't do anything you could, to bring her back?”

“That's not my decision to make, Ares...” Gabrielle looked away.

“Of course it's your decision...and who better to make it. Think of all of the good you two could do...” he pleaded, innocently.

Gabrielle let out a humorless chuckle. “That's almost funny coming from you, Ares...I say almost, because what it really makes me want to do is throw up!” She turned and began to walk away.

“She lied to you...” he called out, his voice deep and ominous.

Gabrielle stopped in her tracks. She pursed her lips, bowed her head, and turned in place with one fluid movement. She marched back up to where Ares was standing until they were face to face. Ares crossed his arms as intense green eyes bored into him.

“I know...” she stated flatly.

He dropped his arms and blinked back with a look somewhere between disbelief and confusion.

“Wh...What do you mean...you know...? I'm talking about that whole gotta have vengeance for the lost souls crap...!” He was gesturing vaguely with his hands.

“I know what you're talking about, Ares.” Gabrielle's calm demeanor was a stark contrast to the increasing agitation being displayed by the God of War.

“She didn't have to stay dead for them! Don't you get it?!!” he shouted.

“Yeah, I got that Ares.” She noticed his eyes beginning to dart around. She smiled. “What's the matter? Is your little plan falling apart? What was it going to be...the grief, or the anger that would render me putty in your hands.”

He glared at her. Then a smile crept across his face as his body relaxed and he let out a defeated breath. “And you say you don't know what I'm thinking...” He smirked and began to pace.

“If you knew...” he started, “...then why didn't you...” He stopped as Gabrielle tilted her head and gave him a blank stare. He shook his head, “I'll never understand you Gabrielle...”

“Hmph...” the bard snorted, “...I'll take that as a compliment.”

“She should have been brought back...YOU should have brought her back.” His tone was accusatory now.

“You just don't get it, do you Ares?” she countered. “It isn't about me, and it certainly isn't about you. This was Xena's decision, her choice...”

“To what?!” he snapped, “Be a martyr...? Break your heart...?”

“Break your heart...” Gabrielle added.

He stared at her for a moment and then looked away. “You have no idea. You talk of this great love...yet you let her die.”

“I didn't let her die, Ares...she was already dead when I found her…” the bard corrected him.

“Don't break my balls over the details little girl...you had the chance to bring her back and you let it slip away!” his anger rising once again.

Gabrielle shook her head. “She had a tortured soul, Ares, and she couldn't live with it any longer... something you'd never understand… because the more tortured she was, the better she suited your purpose. It doesn't matter who lied to whom. I may never fully understand her reasons, but I have enough faith in her to know that she believed she was doing the right thing. She has redemption at last. And as much as it hurts me to lose her, I know that even if I spent a lifetime by her side, I could never have given to her what she's finally given to herself. Forgiveness. She is at peace...I love her...enough to let her go.”

“Argh...Mortals!” Ares threw his hands in the air. “You have no clue! No vision of the bigger picture...” he glared at her. “Enough of this! Where are her ashes?!”

“I scattered them in the Sea of Japa...”

“You wha...FOOL!” He was frantically pacing now. He stopped and glared at the young woman again, “You think that ends it, do you?” His eyes suddenly lit up with a cool, devilish glint. “Big picture, Gabrielle...I'm a God...I'll find her in every lifetime...she will be mine.”

“We're soul mates, Ares...” Gabrielle boasted. “You know we'll find each other every time...you won't ever win.”

“Yeah, but you see...I'm OK with that...” Ares countered. “But you...” he began to taunt the bard, “...You will spend every single lifetime trying to put her pieces back together again. And they're never going to fit. And you know why...? Because I will always get there first...”

“You're sick!” Gabrielle spat.

That brought a chuckle from Ares. “And you'll always wind up feeling like you do now...” he continued, “...defeated, alone, and not quite good enough to save her. Not realizing until it was too late, that she was a lost cause before you ever met her. You really thought you were winning that war, didn't you? Poor Gabrielle, not even your precious 'love' was enough to make her want to stay."

Son of a bloodsucking Bacchae, the bard growled to herself. Clenching her jaw against the anger rising in her gut.

"But on the bright side..." Ares continued with delight. "you only wasted six years this time. Be thankful you don't remember your previous lifetime... ew... he said, wrinkling his nose. "long and nasty. You were quite bitter about it, you know. You kept muttering something about your wasted youth..."

The pressure made her head throb, and her hearing dimmed as the blood rushed to her head. Outwardly she remained calm. He will not get that satisfaction today, she told herself.

"You're wrong, Ares..." the bard lifted her chin in confidence. "I didn't fail. You destroyed her soul. My love healed it. It gave her hope until she could find herself again. And if that's how it's going to be forever... so be it." A broad grin suddenly appeared across her face. "I've gotta tell you Ares, I get a perverse thrill from the knowledge that I'll be a thorn in your side for all of eternity".

"You would..." he snorted.

He let out a sigh. "Gabrielle..." he stated with a note of capitulation. "I've always admired your spunk."

"Tsst... please..." Gabrielle rolled her eyes in disgust.

"Don't worry..." he said patting her on the head like a child. "One day you'll know who you are... and then, won't we have fun..."

"I know who I am, Ares!" She shouted angrily, as she ducked and swiped his hand from her head.

Ares let out a hearty laugh. "Ooooooh..." he said, stepping back in mock fear."Look at you..." he began walking towards her again. "Let's see... you've got your sais... nice katana there... pretty chakram..." he raised an eyebrow.

Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably as she regarded the small arsenal she wore.

"Gabrielle...Warrior Bard..." he mocked. "Oh yeah..." he cocked his head. "going to be fun."

He let out a snicker and disappeared.

"ARGH! Bastard..." she swore under her breath.



***

The bard continued on the path, muttering to herself. He knows all of the buttons, she sighed in disgust. In the span of a few minutes, he had found every insecurity she'd secretly held.

Should she have brought Xena back? Had their life together been nothing more than a futile attempt at redemption? Was the bard herself now the warrior? Was she merely picking up where Xena had left off?

No... no... no... and no, she said to herself, pushing her insecurities down.

Darkness was beginning to fall, and Gabrielle decided to settle down for the night. As she gazed into the flickering campfire, a welcome familiar presence settled next to her. She closed her eyes as the feeling brought a warm smile to her face. She turned her head and opened her eyes to take in the vision of her soul mate, her posture mimicking her own... forearms resting on her knees, hands clasped.

"Interesting day..." Xena calmly remarked.

"Yeah... and where were you when I needed you?" Gabrielle answered with a smirk.

"You did all right..." Xena leaned into the bard's shoulder.

Gabrielle stared into the fire for a long moment before she spoke.

"Um... you gave me something didn't you?" she asked, rubbing her chin.

"I'm not sure I know what you mean..." the warrior said, with a tinge of confusion.

"Uh... you know... sensing Ares like that... really hearing the sounds behind the sounds... my fighting skills seem to have... um... arrived... and the chakram... whoa! What's up with that?"

"I didn't give you anything you didn't already have, Gabrielle."

"I think that's a load of Centaur dung, Xena..."

Xena just shrugged and continued to gaze into the fire.

Gabrielle shifted nervously and spared a shy glance around the campsite.

"You... you're..." she cleared her throat. "you're not really... here... are you?" She glanced at Xena, then back to the fire. "You're just... me... talking to myself... and you're never going to tell me anything that I don't already know... right?"

"I'll always be here... and I'm anything you want me to be, Gabrielle..." the warrior said seriously.

"Ugh..." the bard groaned as she buried her head in her hands.

"Do you have to be so cryptic all of the time! I never got a straight answer when you were alive, and now that you're dead, I still..." the bard stopped in mid sentence and blinked. "I'm sorry... I can't believe I said that..."

"S'alright..." Xena put her arms around the bard. "I always will be here... and I am anything you want me to be... nothing cryptic there..."

Gabrielle paused as she let the words filter through her mind.

"Maybe I'm just insane..." the bard's eyes stared blankly into the fire.

The warrior smiled. "You're not insane, just grieving. It's perfectly natural. When the grief is gone, you'll be left with the love... and the strength of that love..."

"I don't know whether I want that grief to go away..." Gabrielle interrupted. "in an odd way, I feel like the more grief I have, the deeper the love was that caused it. If the grief fades, will the love fade as well?" She turned to regard the warrior. "Because I don't want to lose a moment of that love."

Xena merely smiled a knowing smile. "It's the love that gives us the strength to survive the grief, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle felt a wave of emotion begin to rise as a tear fell and she turned her gaze once more to the fire. The Warrior sensed the doubt filling her soul mate. She gently stroked the bard's cheek, letting her hand come to rest under her chin. She eased Gabrielle's face towards her own and waited for the bard to raise her eyes.

Green met blue, and for an instant, it seemed to Gabrielle... time stood still. The intensity of Xena's gaze was urgently willing Gabrielle to know the words she'd spoken to be the truth.

"You will get through this..." Xena implored. "you... are the strongest person I have ever known... stronger than I ever was, or could ever have hoped to be."

More tears. Gabrielle tried to look away, but a gentle squeeze from Xena's hand brought her gaze back to the warrior's eyes.

"Hey..." Xena breathed, voice full of hope. "this is a beginning. You have your whole life ahead of you to become..."

"To become what, Xena?" Gabrielle interrupted impatiently.

The warrior released the bard's face and paused... considering the question.

"Anything you want." She said with a grin.

"Hmph..." snorted the bard. "saw that coming. Talking to you is like chasing my own tail, Xena... you know that?" Gabrielle wiped her eyes.

"If you say so..." shrugged the warrior with a wry smile.

The bard chuckled and shook her head.

They sat in silence, both lost in the trance of the fire. Gabrielle shifted and straightened.

"I think I'm going to take your ashes home, to Amphipolis..."

"Took a lot of nerve to lie to Ares..." the warrior stated proudly.

"Tsst... He pisses me off..." the bard grumbled. "I don't know what to do about him. He intends to ruin our lives indefinitely."

More silence.

"Do you think he really knows a way to bring you back?"

Xena shrugged.

"Oh... of course... you don't know either... duh..." Gabrielle said with a soft chuckle, poking herself in the head.

"What happened to the Land of the Pharaoh?" the warrior inquired.

"Um... ach..." Gabrielle waved her hand. "it'll be there... I don't think I need to go out looking for trouble..."

That brought out a loud snort of laughter from the warrior.

"Hey now..." the bard furrowed her brow in Xena's direction. "besides... I think I should try to find Eve. I don't want her hearing about you from someone else. And I hope to Hades, Ares stays away from her. I can't imagine the spin he'd put on it. It's going to be tough enough as it is."

"You'll do fine, Gabrielle. Eve loves you." Xena rubbed the bard's back in comfort.

"Yeah, but you were her mother, Xena, and you were lost to her for so long... and now..."

"You're her mother too Gabrielle... don't forget that." Xena stated, as a matter of fact.

The bard responded with a slight nod.

"After I bring you home, you don't mind if I call you out for a chat now and again... do you?" The bard asked shyly.

"Not if you don't..." the warrior said with a devilish grin.

That got an eye roll and a snort from the bard. "knew you'd say that."

Gabrielle settled into her bedroll and closed her eyes as the night took her into sleep.



***

The sky is an odd color this evening, the bard remarked silently. She'd been preparing for this meeting for weeks, ever since she'd located Eve. She saw Eve's lone figure coming towards her. The distance between them seemed to grow further apart, even though she was moving forward. Must be a trick of the light, the bard mused to herself...or lack of sleep. Suddenly Eve was only a few steps away. She was close enough to see her face.

"Hades!" Gabrielle swore under her breath.

Eve's face was distorted with hatred and anger. A Roman short sword now presented itself from beneath her cloak. Gabrielle began to step back unconsciously in sheer survival mode. Eve increased her stride until her steps over matched the bard's and they were face to face. With a quick flick of her wrist, Eve relieved the chakram from its place at the bard's hip. She held it up between their faces and peered through its openings. If looks could kill... the bard shuddered.

"Are you happy now!?" Eve growled.

Gabrielle backed up a few more steps, Eve did not pursue.

"Eve..." the bard began, raising her hands to show she had no intention of returning the aggression. "what...are you doing..." her heart was racing from the unexpected attack. "I... I have news..." she stammered. This is not quite how I imagined I'd tell you, the bard thought to herself...

"Eeeeve... I have neeeews..." Eve mocked. "I know all about your news, Bard..." she growled.

"Look, Eve..." Gabrielle tried to reason. "I don't know what you've heard..."

"Sweet, innocent, Gabrielle... hah!" Eve snorted. "My Mother could really pick them... that manipulative little bitch, Akemi set her up... and you come along for the final kill..." Eve spat.

"I didn't kill her, Eve!" Gabrielle insisted. "She was already dead when I found her..." this Gabrielle said urgently, with more than just a little irritation. She was growing weary of having to point out that fact.

"Weave the tale however you like, Bard..." she said with venom. "Whatever lets you sleep at night, eh?"

"Stop it Eve... please... Let me explain..." Gabrielle implored.

"You don't need to explain... it's all been made very clear to me..."

It suddenly dawned on Gabrielle; this conversation had a familiar theme.

"Has Ares been here?" she asked in a hushed tone.

"Ares? What does he have..." Eve broke off in mid sentence. An even angrier shadow fell across her face as a revolting notion swam in her head. "I should have known..." her voice had dropped to it's lowest register. "He couldn't have her... he couldn't have me... but you?!"she questioned, enraged.

"It wasn't enough that she took you in... saved you from a life of stagnation in that dirt patch you call a village... she felt sorry for you... she trusted you!"

Gabrielle shook her head, pleading with her eyes for Eve to understand this is all just a terrible misunderstanding...

"Eve..." Gabrielle started, her voice beginning to waver. I can't believe where this is going, she thought to herself. This is not happening.

"I knew you wanted to be just like her..." Eve accused. "I just never knew you wanted to be her... enough to betray her when she was at her most vulnerable... the one time she needed your good judgment..."

"It was Xena's choice, Eve... for the greater good... for herself..." the bard said weakly, not sure at that moment whether she really believed that to be true.

Eve relaxed her stance and tilted her head. "Oh... the greater good..." she stated flatly. "hmmmm...didn't she recently disregard the greater good for someone?" she mocked. "Oh... yes... that was you Gabrielle!" now she was shouting. "...after you murdered that boy in cold blood!"

"That was a horrible accident!" she warned Eve. Gabrielle could feel her world beginning to unravel.

"Because... what did she say?" Eve continued, questioning the air. "Some things are just more important?... YOU..." she aimed her finger at the bard . "were more important to her." Sternly. "Too bad she didn't have someone by her side that felt the same for her."

The words formed an arrow that seemed to rip through the bard's heart. Was that the truth? She didn't know anymore. The confidence of the day before had somehow been swallowed up by an overwhelming wave of guilt. She suddenly felt sick.

"Truth hurts... doesn't it, Gabrielle..." Eve taunted.

"Please just stop talking, Eve..." Gabrielle closed her eyes and put her hands to her head. She just wanted to make it all stop. The hurting, the confusion...

"Yes... good idea..." Eve stormed away. Then she turned.

"Payback's a bitch..." she shouted. "...and today her name is Eve!"

She sensed the weapon before she ever heard it, but her feet were suddenly as clay, and Gabrielle only had time to look up before the shining glare of the razor edged chakram filled her vision.

"NO! no...." the bard exhaled, her breathing quick and shallow. She was bathed in sweat and her heart felt as if it would explode. She sat up, grabbed her chest and blinked frantically in confusion. "Ugh... Gods..." Her breathing began to even out as she took in her environment. The campfire merely embers now, the night sounds of the forest muffled by the sounds of her still quickly beating heart, echoing in her ears.

"Ugh..." she laid back down. "One night... just one night of peaceful sleep..." she pleaded with the stars.

***

The easy part was finding Eve. There weren't too many "Messengers of Eli" traveling in the land of Chin. Gabrielle sent word ahead asking Eve to wait for her. The hard part was going to be telling her about her Mother.

Gabrielle was thankful for the few weeks that it would take for her to travel to Chin from Japa. Time to find a way to prepare someone else for something she could hardly accept herself. As if that weren't enough to think about, she was still haunted by her nightmare.

Finally, she arrived at her destination. It was a small village... peaceful, except for a few villagers milling about. The setting sun was throwing an eerie orange glow across the landscape. A small boy saw her and darted into a nearby hut. Gabrielle's body tensed as she saw Eve duck out of the hut and begin the walk towards her with purposeful strides. At that distance, her grace of movement so resembled her mother's... Gabrielle was frozen to her spot. Time seemed to slow down as Eve approached in silhouette, her dark hair blowing in the soft evening breeze, her long cloak gracefully flowing, dancing in time with her step.

She knew... something, Gabrielle realized. Her mind flashed back to her nightmare, which had unfolded not unlike this scene. Her heartbeat quickened as she peered into the oncoming dusk, trying to get an early indication of Eve's state of mind. Her fingers tensed as she rested them on the chakram at her waist... it was just a dream, Gabrielle, the bard scolded herself. She dropped her hand to her side. Finally, she could see Eve's face. No anger, no hatred... just love and sorrow and understanding. Then the walls came down.

After weeks of holding herself together, it was all about to come undone for the bard. Her throat so tight, she couldn't have spoken if she wanted to. What came out instead was a wounded groan as she and Eve embraced. Then came the sobbing.

"I'm so sorry, Eve..." Gabrielle finally managed, burying her head into Eve's shoulder.

"I know, me too..." through tears. "I love you... come on..." Eve wrapped one side of her cloak around the bard and led her back across the courtyard and into the hut.

They sat down at a table, across from one another, an awkward silence settling around them. Gabrielle wiped her eyes and shifted uncomfortably, trying to look anywhere but at Eve's face. She so resembled her Mother... even more so now, it seemed, than she had ever noticed before. She gathered up her courage and spread both hands palms down on the table in front of her.

"So..." she began, finally looking up into Eve's face. Eve was a study in compassion, despite her own loss. The sight brought a comforting feeling, calming the nervousness that had been rumbling in her gut. She smiled.

"How much do you know?" the bard tentatively continued.

Eve hesitated for a moment and furrowed her brow. "I know she died in battle..." Gabrielle gave a short nod in agreement.

Eve continued slowly. "I know they cut off her head... desecrated her body... and strung her up... displayed like a prized cow." She spat, with disgust and hatred.

The cold calculated words brought the memory of the horrific image flooding back to the bard. She swallowed hard, trying to keep down the rising bile. She looked up to see Eve's stern face, her eyes looking through her. A single tear lined her angular face. Behind her blank eyes and clenched jaw, the bard could see the anger Eve felt at the thought of what had been done to her mother. And then, as she swallowed and her eyes closed, the realization that she had done the same to so many... as Livia.

"Eve..." the bard reached over and touched her arm.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle..." Eve began, blinking. "that you had to see her like that." regaining her composure.

"Yeah... me too..." she rubbed Eve's arm, still swallowing.

"Ok..." Eve lifted her chin and patted Gabrielle's hand. "tell me the rest..." Emotions under control... back to the business at hand. So like her mother, the bard mused.

She cleared her throat and began retelling the tale.

"Wait a minute..." Eve broke in. "She stopped you from putting the ashes in the fountain?"

"Yes..." simply.

"And you let her?! Gab..."

"Just... wait..." Gabrielle interrupted with a raised hand. She repeated, word for word, Xena's explanation.

"That's not right, Gabrielle..." Eve broke in, again.

"That's what I said, Eve..." the bard commented.

"No... I mean, she wasn't right..." Eve clarified. "who told her that?"

Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Um... she wasn't really clear on that..."

Eve didn't say anything, but neither did her face betray which emotion she was feeling.

Gabrielle's expression was now showing concern, as a chilling realization was beginning to dawn on her.

"What are you saying, Eve?"

"Well..." Eve tried to be calm and nonchalant, noticing the bard's rising concern. "Since we've been here, we've gained some extensive knowledge of the different customs and religions in Chin and Japa, as well as some of the surrounding areas... and from what I understand... as it pertains to your story... once Yodoshi had been destroyed..."

"Uhhhh..." murmured Gabrielle under her breath, putting one hand on her forehead, and the other across her mouth. She shifted a bit to the side in a vain attempt to shield herself from the coming knowledge.

"those souls were free..." Eve continued. "I don't know why she thought that they wouldn't find grace. I mean, since when has vengeance equaled salvation?"

Since that's the way Xena sometimes viewed her behavior in the scheme of her past, the bard thought to herself. She was looking at Eve, but didn't see her. She was lost in her own thoughts, trying desperately not to give in to the realization that she may have made a tragic miscalculation.

"Gabrielle..." Eve reached over and touched her shoulder.

She blinked Eve back into focus and shook her head slightly to clear her mind.

"I knew that couldn't be right..." Gabrielle replied almost apologetically, lifting one hand. "I... I just thought... she was making up an excuse that I would buy into..." the bard looked off. "How many times have I used the 'greater good' reasoning?" she asked the air.

"But why? Eve queried.

Gabrielle hesitated. "Because she didn't want to come back..." Simply.

Eve shot the bard an innocent, but doubting look.

"I know, it's hard to imagine... but... by then..." the bard let out a breath and wet her lips. "I could see that she was already..." Gabrielle paused, searching for the right word.

"Free..." Eve supplied, in a defeated breath.

The bard looked up in agreement. "Yes... free." She pondered the concept. "You should have seen her, Eve... so peaceful... so beautiful..." her mind paused on the image. "wow." she agreed with herself. "uhm... beautiful." Nodding.

She took in and released a breath, breaking her own trance. "At that point... it didn't seem like the souls were even the issue anymore. It was what Xena wanted..." she looked away, doubting her own logic upon hearing it out loud. "for... whatever reason." She threw away with a slight wave of her hand.

"The pull of that kind of peace is very strong..." Eve commented with some authority, then offered a questioning glance at Gabrielle. "But..."

"But what?" the bard said slowly.

"I'm ... I'm just..." Eve hesitated. She could see Gabrielle's discomfort with the direction that the conversation was taking.

"Eve! ...what!?" the bard spat, the rising panic evident in her voice.

Eve thought carefully about her approach, and then, began. "She loved you very much, Gabrielle." Pause. She touched the bard's hand, and then withdrew. "I'm just surprised that she gave in to that peace so easily."

She was probably tired of fighting the never-ending battle with herself over her past deeds, the bard thought to herself.

" Surprised that... she had the courage... to leave you." Eve continued. " Especially when her return was... right there... in your hands".

Gabrielle looked hard into Eve's eyes to see if the last remark was accusatory, or merely a statement of fact. After a moment she decided... merely a statement of fact. Then a scene began to replay itself in her mind...

"Gabrielle-- if I only had 30 seconds to live-- this is how I'd want to live them-- looking into your eyes."

"Always remember, I love you."

Gabrielle's heart rate began to increase as she recalled the panic she'd felt when she feared the warrior would let herself expire right then and there... in her arms. But the bard pleaded with her to stop it... and she had.

"She didn't..." Gabrielle's face was ashen.

"Didn't what.?"

"Have the courage..." Gabrielle looked up. "She knew I'd try to stop her... and she knew she'd let me... Oh Gods! What have I done?" the bard said weakly, burying her head in her hands.

Scene after scene began replaying in her mind. How many times had Xena told her she was the most important thing in her life? How many times had she promised she'd never leave her?

"Even in death Gabrielle... I will never leave you..."

Then she recalled a scene that had taken place not too long ago...

"Hm-m-m-- you saved me today, Xena, against the greater good. Why? Isn't that what we've been fighting for?"

"Gabrielle, in everyone's life, there's something that goes beyond the greater good. That's what you are in my life. I wasn't about to let you die out there if there was something I could do about it."

"What if it was my choice?"

"Especially if it was your choice."

"Gabrielle..." Eve reached out with concern.

The bard's whole body was shaking, and the pounding of her heart was so loud, she was sure Eve could hear it. There was nothing she could do about her rebelling stomach.

"Uh...Gods...I'm going to be sick..." the bard groaned as she darted out the door and collapsed to the ground. She came up with nothing but dry heaves on her empty stomach.

"Gabrielle..." Eve was at her side now, one hand stroking her back. "You didn't know...come on..." trying to urge the bard up. "She's at peace now..."

"Is that going to give you comfort, Eve?!" the bard snapped, as she struggled to her feet. "Because that's really not working for me right now!"

Eve stepped back in shock. "Gabrielle..."

Gabrielle reached for Eve's arm, giving it a light squeeze in apology. "I'm sorry Eve, but don't you get it?" regaining her composure.

"Uh... I guess not..." Eve replied.

"Have you ever been dead, Eve?" A simple question.

Eve furrowed her brow, surprised at the question, then pondered. "Are we talking metaphorically... or..."

"Physically..." A wry chuckle. "What do the dead want?" Gabrielle continued in earnest.

"I don't know, Gabrielle... I've never been dead..." she said with a hint of sarcasm, wondering where in Hades this was leading.

"Well, I have..." the bard continued, raising her brow.

"And what did you want, Gabrielle?" now with interest.

"That's the whole point... I didn't want anything!" the excitement was evident in the bard's voice, as if she'd remembered the key the universe. Perhaps she had. "There was just... this surreal calm..." The key to her universe, anyway.

"I had no sense of future... no needs, no desires... I only knew the past, and I only sensed the present through the eyes of the living!" Eve could almost see the gears working behind darting green eyes, as the pieces slowly came together for the bard. "Don't you see?"

Eve gave the bard a slightly confused look.

"Xena's decision, in life..." Gabrielle began methodically. "was to kill Yodoshi, and free the souls. But the only way she could do that, was to die and enter the spirit world... you follow?"

"Okaaay..." Eve drew out.

"All of Xena's decisions and reactions as a spirit, were based on knowledge of her past up until her death... she had no sense of her future, because before she died she didn't think she had a future... and once she was a spirit... she had no desire for a future..."

"So when she asked you not to put her ashes into the fountain..." Eve added, getting the gist of where Gabrielle was going. "She really did think the souls wouldn't be saved if she was returned to her body..."

"Exactly..." the bard stated proudly. "But nobody told her that... that's all she knew... Xena dies, Yodoshi dies, the souls are free..."

"The solution to restore her didn't come to light until after she had died..." Eve offered. "and as a spirit... she had no desire to want that, or understand that you needed her."

"Which I mistook as a conscience decision on her part, not to return. I thought she was so blissfully happy that her struggle was finally over." The bard reasoned.

"Maybe she was..." Eve said solemnly.

"Of course she was... that's what being a free spirit will give you." The bard was on a roll now... "But I should have..."

"Hey Gabrielle?"

"Hm?"

"Are you sure she would want to come back... I mean, her struggle is over." Eve offered in a small voice.

The bard could almost hear wishful thinking coming from Eve. Which surprised her, but then not, as she remembered how much alike the two most important women in her life were... both battling brutal pasts, both trying desperately to seek the path of atonement. Xena had Gabrielle. Eve had the God of Eli.

Returning her thoughts to Eve's question, Gabrielle briefly entertained the thought that her reasoning was strictly selfishly motivated, but a warm rush of happy memories flooded her mind. Her soul mate had come so far from the dour, ex-warlord she'd met so many years ago. They both had.

"She wanted to live, Eve... She was just counting on me to remember that for her. I should have listened to my heart."

The bard's excitement and self-congratulation at her discovery was quickly replaced by the realization she had, indeed, made a tragic mistake. Anger was now setting in. "Ugh! Idiot!" she smacked herself in the head. "When will you learn to think, Gabrielle!" the bard scolded herself.

"Gabrielle..." Eve tried to comfort. "This wasn't your fault..."

"No, it wasn't my fault, but your Mother trusted me to watch her back..." She wiped an angry tear. "I had her life in my hands, Eve! I was right there!" She looked at her hands and thrust them down in exasperation.

"It's over, Gabrielle... there's nothing you can do now... look, I'm glad you figured all of this out... understanding is a positive step towards healing... but... you've got to move on, you must forgive yourself before you ..."

Gabrielle raised her hand and turned her head, stopping Eve before she could really get started. The bard was not in the mood to endure one of Eli's speeches about forgiveness.

"There'd better be something I can do about it, because I don't think I can live with this... " the bard warned, as she stormed back into the hut and began collecting her things.

Eve followed. "Gab... stop... where are you going?"

Gabrielle gave her an earnest, though impatient hug. "I'm sorry, Eve... I've got to go... I love you"

"I love you, too... what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to bring her back." The bard said with confidence.

Eve stared in disbelief. Then went with it. If anyone could, it would be Gabrielle. "Wait... let me get my..."

"No... honey..." she gave Eve a warm hug. "I'm going to fix this..." she whispered close to her ear.

Eve watched her leave. "Do you really think you can bring her back?" she called after her.

"I've got to try..." and with that, Gabrielle disappeared into the night.



***

"You look like you've been run over by a chariot on the fast track to Tartarus..." Xena called up ahead as she quickened her pace to catch up with her soul mate.

Gabrielle shot her a glance of mock appreciation. "Nice."

Xena glared back. "You should get some sleep."

"I'm busy right now..." she mumbled.

"You want me to leave?"

"I didn't say that."

Her soul mate was unusually quiet, Xena noticed. As they walked, she craned her head around so that she could see Gabrielle's face. Hmmm... she recognized the mood by the clipped tones, furrowed brow and the set of her determined chin.

"Mad at me?"

"Nooo..." she grumbled. "Yes..." Sharply. Gabrielle offered a sideways glance at the warrior, then stopped in mid stride, turned and made a negative wave with her hand. "no..." softly. She bowed her head, put her hands on her hips and exhaled a long breath.

"What a mess, Xena." She said nudging a stick on the ground with her foot, and looking off.

The warrior pursed her lips in agreement. "And?"

"And I'm not mad at you. I'm just... ugh..." she threw her hands up in frustration and walked in a small circle. "Frustrated!" Returning to her spot in front of the warrior.

That got a sympathetic look from her soul mate.

"I've got to fix this and I don't know where to start..." she paused. "and this whole thing..." she threw her arms up. "it just never should have happened!" Exasperated.

"You're right, Gabrielle... it never should have happened." Xena said, solemnly. She knew the game of shoulda, coulda, woulda never really solved anything. But, it may help her soul mate feel better.

"That fire, the village, those people... that was not your fault, Xena!" she said, irritated.

The warrior stared at the bard through half lidded eyes, her face suddenly like a stone mask. "Then whose fault would it be, Gabrielle?" she said in a low growl.

Gabrielle stared at her soul mate, then off into the night, then back to her soul mate. Her jaw clenched a few times and she bit the inside of her lip. Don't go there, she warned herself.

The warrior intensified her glare.

"She manipulated you, Xena..." the bard finally spat out. "From the very beginning..." Oops. Went there.

Ahhh, I see. The warrior thought to herself. Her face eased from glare to understanding. "Akemi saw through me, Gabrielle... into my soul."

"She told you what you wanted to hear, Xena... it's Mind Healer 101... who doesn't want to hear that they're loved and understood?" It tumbled out of her mouth as if she'd been holding it in for months. Maybe she had.

"It wasn't like that, Gabrielle..." the warrior said sympathetically.

The bard was already sorry she'd started this thread, and this was not going to help her get Xena back.

"Um... Xena..." she waved her hand in the air. "I can't talk about this right now..."

"All right..." Xena said flatly.

Gabrielle began to walk again, then stopped and put a hand to her forehead. "Ugh... no... it's not all right..." she turned to face her soul mate and gave her an apologetic look. The warrior gave her an understanding smile in return.

Slowly, she began to walk again, shaking her head and mentally scolding herself. "Jealous of a Gods be damned spirit...how pathetic am I." She continued walking, and without looking at her, put a hand to Xena's shoulder. "I'm sorry..."

"Don't ever apologize for loving me, Gabrielle." She put her arm around the younger woman, and pulled her close.

They walked along like that, in silence for a while until the warrior finally spoke. "This whole thing started because I wanted to kidnap Akemi for the ransom, Gabrielle." The bard was quiet. "I know you love me and you're trying to defend me, but please don't forget how this started."
Gabrielle thought about protesting, but saw the truth of it and merely nodded in acknowledgement as she walked, staring at the ground.
"Feeling better?" The warrior asked after a while.

"Much, actually... but I'm still no closer to a solution."

Xena just smiled. "Got any ideas?

Gabrielle scrunched up her face, and shrugged her shoulders. "Ares said he could bring you back..." she cast a glance at her soul mate for any hint of approval. Xena stuck her lip out and lowered her brow.

"Yeah, I don't like that idea either. Besides, I think he may have been lying..."

"Not his style, Gabrielle."

"You're kidding right?" the bard snorted.

"He gets his way by deception and manipulation... Outright lies? No sport in that." Xena said as a matter of fact.

"Tssst..." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Warlords..."

That brought a chuckle from Xena.

"But..." Gabrielle chirped with excitement. "What Ares can do..." Her eyes lit up and she began walking in earnest. "Yes!" she pumped her fists in delight.

"That's my girl..." Xena smiled proudly as she watched her soul mate bound down the road.



***

The pleasant smell of spices filled her nostrils, and the coolness of the temple interior was a welcome relief from the heat of the noonday sun.

"Gabby!" the goddess appeared, arms outstretched in a warm welcome.

"Aphrodite..." Gabrielle smiled a huge genuine smile, for the first time in ages it seemed, as the Goddess of Love enveloped her in a heartfelt hug. Her mood had changed considerably. She had hope now.

Seeing Aphrodite was always a welcome treat, even more so now. Not only because she may be the answer to her problem, but because they had become such good friends. She bathed in the warmth of the hug, taking in the Goddess' sweet smell, the fringe on her absurd negligee tickling her nose.

Aphrodite released her hug and took a step back. She took the bard's face in her cupped hands.

"Ooooh..." she cooed, giving Gabrielle an exaggerated, but sincere look of sympathy. "Are you all right, sweetie?"

"I think I will be... and I'm hoping you can help me with that."

"I'll do my best, little one... shoot..." throwing back her shoulders and putting her hands on her hips.

"You know what happened... right?" Gabrielle began. The Goddess gave a solemn nod. "I think it was a mistake..." she glanced at Aphrodite's face for confirmation, or denial. Nothing. "Aphrodite, I need to be sure. Was it a mistake?

"That depends on whose point of view you take..." Gabrielle cringed slightly at the answer. More puzzles, she sighed to herself.

"Specifically, if I had returned Xena to her body... would those souls have been lost?"

"Um... no."

"You're sure."

"Yes." Definitively.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and let out a breath. Ok, that's settled. On to the next hurdle.

"Aphrodite... I... I need to ask something of you..." she began tentatively as they sat down.

"If I can help you Gabby, you know I will." She reached out and put a hand on Gabrielle's knee. Her usually animated manner was now absolutely serious.

Gabrielle smiled and nodded silent, heartfelt thanks. She fidgeted a little nervously and then began.

"Ares seemed to think he could bring Xena back..."

"Has he been giving you any trouble?" Aphrodite leaned in close, with a gentle, menacing look.

"Uh... well, no... not really... not yet anyway... and I just didn't want to owe him any favors... if you know what I mean." she smiled.

Aphrodite gave an understanding grin.

"Well, good." Aphrodite beamed, then paused. "You may not know it, but he is quite fond of both you and Xena. He just has a difficult time... um... expressing himself." The goddess informed her.

"Oh... is that it?" the bard chuckled.

"Well... he is the God of War, Gabrielle..." That brought a truthful nod.

"Well, anyway..." Gabrielle continued. "he seemed pretty anxious to get her ashes..." rummaging in her pack and producing the urn.

Aphrodite looked slightly confused. "And what did he think he was going to do with those? Sheesh... I swear... if there's a hard way to do something, my brother will find it." She rolled her eyes and then wrinkled up her nose. "I think it's a boy thing." Patting Gabrielle's knee.

That brought an embarrassed chuckle from the bard.

"You don't need them to resurrect her?"

Aphrodite's gaze was suddenly serious again, and she took Gabrielle's hand. "I can't resurrect her, sweetie."

Ok. Plan B.

"But... when we were in Athena's temple... Ares gave Eve and I... a wonderful gift..." she cast a cautious glance at the Goddess. "and... I...umm... was just..." Gabrielle stammered.

"I can't Gabrielle..." relieving the bard of the rest of her sentence.

"I know..." squeezing Aphrodite's hand. "It's too much to ask..." the bard bowed her head and closed her eyes, her hope fading now.

Aphrodite gently lifted her face with her hand. "It's not that, little one... I owe you my life, and my godhood... I'd give that to Xena if it would help... but I need her body, Gabby, ashes won't do."

Gabrielle couldn't keep the tears at bay. She had come so close. She couldn't even blame the fates for their cruelty.

"Hey..." the goddess said brushing a tear from the bard's cheek. "Cheer up Gabby, I said I couldn't resurrect her... I didn't say there was nothing I could do..." she got up, resumed her usual bubbly persona and offered out her hand. "Come on..."

The next thing she knew, Gabrielle was standing in the middle of a dimly lit cave. Aphrodite began poking around, lifting objects and tossing them aside, and commenting with an occasional humph, or snort.

"What is this place? The bard asked. "It looks like a warehouse for Gods-R-Us in here."

"Well..." Aphrodite replied, still rummaging around. "just some 'toys' for the Gods not to play with... not much action in here since most of the Gods are gone..."

Gabrielle felt a pang of sadness for her friend. "I'm sorry Aphrodite..."

She looked up briefly at the bard. "They brought it on themselves, little one." In a serious tone, then she continued her search.

"Still..." the bard said softly. "Family is family, and I know you must miss them."

Aphrodite didn't respond, just kept at her search. Gabrielle scanned the room with interest. It was a little too dark to really make anything out, but a shiny object with a glowing stone caught her eye. She inched closer, squinting against the dim light. She reached out to pick it up.

"NO! Gab..." the goddess barked. "Don't touch that, honey." Gabrielle jerked her hand back and stood straight up, tucking her arms to her chest.

"Sorry..." she backed up slightly, casting an inquisitive glance back at the object. She swore it had winked at her.

"Did you see that?"

Aphrodite didn't respond.

"I know it's got to be here some where..." she peeked at Gabrielle, who held her hands out innocently. "Come on, come on..." Aphrodite murmured as she continued her search. "Ew... yuck..." she whined, shaking her hands of cobwebs and dirt. "Doesn't any one clean in here... ugh!"

"Can I help? What are you looking for?" the bard asked, feeling a little useless just standing there.

"The Kronos stone..."

Ahhh... the bard thought to herself. That's the plan. Then her heart sank, as she realized that wasn't going to work.

"Um... Aphrodite..."

"It's alright, sweet pea... I know it's here. This is where Zeus used to keep all of the things he didn't trust us with. What he didn't know was that we used to play in here all the time... parents..." she mused, waving a hand in front of her face. "Clueless!"

"Didn't Hercules destroy that?" Gabrielle queried.

"Did he?" the Goddess whirled around to face the bard, putting her hands on her hips.

"Yeah, he did." Gabrielle replied in a disappointed tone. "Twice, actually." She said, holding up two fingers. Then she thought for a moment, mumbling to herself "Let's see... Quallas, Autolocus, Hercules... one... Autolocus again... Hercules... two... and..." Pause. "no... before that... oh, yeah... Xena... Iolaus... Callisto... three..." counting in the air. " Yep..." with confidence. "Hercules twice and Callisto once."

"I am SO out of the loop!" Aphrodite protested.

"Don't worry about it... you wouldn't remember..." the bard consoled. "It's a temporal manipulation thing."

"Huh?" the goddess blinked, hands on hips.

"The timeline was altered." The bard clarified.

"And what do you know about altered timelines, Gabby?" Aphrodite said with interest.

"Only what Hercules, Autolocus and Iolaus have told me."

"Guess it pays to know the right people..." the goddess mused.

"Now what?"

"Never fear, little one... there's more than one way to skin a Harpie."

"Ew... there's a picture..." Gabrielle muttered.

Aphrodite motioned the bard to follow her to the center of the room. "Are you ready?"

"What are we going to do?"

"We aren't going to do anything... you are going to go back and do a little temporal manipulating yourself. Here are my rules... what you change can only affect your life and Xena's in that time, at that moment, no one else's. Agreed?" A nod. "Do you have your moment?"

Gabrielle thought carefully for a minute. "Yes... But how can I do that without the Kro..."

Her speech was cut off by the appearance of a swirling vortex of images in mid air, a few paces from where they were standing. "Whoa..." she said in awe. "Aphrodite..."

"Zeus forbade us time travel... it made him nervous... even the Gods are not immune to its effects."

"Yeah... I could see how that could get out of hand...Will I remember what's happened?"

The goddess smiled. "How can you change the future if you can't remember your past, Gabrielle?"

The bard chuckled. "Yeah, but my past will be my future once I get to the past..."

"Don't go there..." Aphrodite put up her hand.

"Will you get in trouble for this?"

Aphrodite merely shrugged. "I guess it's time I start living outside the box." That's funny coming from a God, Gabrielle mused to herself. "Besides... it's for love, isn't it? And that's my dept."

Gabrielle agreed and watched her past swirl by until it came close to the moment she had chosen. "There." She pointed.

"Excellent choice... Ready?"

"Yes... Thank you, Aphrodite... I won't forget this..." she hugged her.

"But I will..." the goddess whispered in her ear. They both smiled.

"Good luck."

***

Time stood still for one brief instant. Gabrielle blinked, to find herself perched on the edge of a cliff, urn in hand. Over her shoulder, she could hear the great struggle between Xena and Yodoshi. The warrior's distinctive yell was being answered with deep-throated growls from Yodoshi. It took a few moments for her to get her bearings.

"Right..." she said under her breath, as she glanced at the progression of the setting sun. "Just one little detour..." She bounded down the mountain pass to where her now dead horse lay. She touched it's head with a sorry hand, and removed a small bundle from it's back, sparing another glance at the rapidly falling sun. She scurried back up the pass, wincing with regret as she passed the body of the warrior she'd slain. Sounds from the struggle had silenced, and the only sound she heard was her hurried boots crunching on rock and snow. "Go..." she urged herself, checking on the sun.

When she got to the fountain, Xena was nowhere to be seen. "Good..." she thought to herself. "Let's get this over with." She put her small bundle down and brought the ashes over the fountain. Suddenly, Xena was at her side.

"No, Gabrielle... no" The warrior's hand encircled the bard's.

Gabrielle tightened her grip on the urn and brought it protectively to her chest. She glanced over her shoulder at the shrinking sun.

"Gab..." Xena began to protest.

Gabrielle smiled and put two fingers to Xena's lips, silencing her.

"Do you trust me?" she asked her soul mate.

"Yes... But..." she reached for the urn. Gabrielle caught her wrist with her free hand.

"Do you trust that I'll do what's right... for the greater good?

"Always..." Xena replied lowering her hand.

Gabrielle nodded in appreciation and poured the ashes into the fountain. Xena's spirit disappeared, as did the orange orb that had been floating on the horizon.

She turned her attention now to the swirling gray dust on the surface of the water.

Nothing.

Slowly the dust disappeared as it surrendered to the water.

Nothing.

Gabrielle looked intently into the fountain, leaning on the edge, eyes wide with hope and anticipation. "Come on... COME ON..." she pleaded under her breath, as she furrowed her brow.

Nothing.

"Don't do this to me, Xena..." she begged the air. Her heart was racing... she scrutinized the now still water, looking for... anything. The light was fading, quickly, leaving behind a faint pink-orange hue to the surrounding landscape.

"Please..." She implored weakly, falling to her knees, and resting her cheek against the cold stone of the fountain. She closed her eyes. "Please..." In a small whisper.

She kept her eyes closed, listening for any sound that would indicate her soul mate's return.

Nothing.

A tear of defeat fell, as she rested her head on her arm and stared into the dark water.

Through the darkness, she thought she saw a slight ripple, then another, until the whole surface seemed to vibrate with life. She leapt to her feet and leaned over the water's surface, desperately trying to peer through the darkness for any sign...

"Xena?"

A splash of water, a gasp of air, and Xena's unclothed body jerked from the dark depths of the fountain.

The sudden movement shocked Gabrielle. Her surprise threw her to the ground and she landed sprawled on her back.

"Gods!" Xena gasped, as her lungs filled with life and the cold night air attacked her body.

"XENA!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she leapt to her feet, and rushed towards the fountain and towards her shivering soul mate.

"Bru... ghhh..." Xena exhaled through chattering teeth, looking quite disoriented. Her whole body was shaking, and her arms were wrapped tightly around her dripping body in a futile attempt to warm herself.

"Here, honey..." Gabrielle said anxiously, reaching out her hand. The almost overwhelming excitement and relief she felt at her soul mate's return held in check for now, her immediate concern was getting her warm. And making sure she was all right.

She helped the warrior out of the water, and wrapped her in the heavy, hooded cloak she'd retrieved from the bundle at her feet. She sat her down at the foot of the fountain, holding her close and trying to rub warmth into her shivering body. She stopped momentarily to encircle Xena's face with her hands.

"Xena..." she said softly, searching the warrior's eyes. "are you all right?" Spoken with worry.

Xena's vague gaze was suddenly drawn to intensely searching green eyes. She blinked and her brow twitched as she focused on her concerned soul mate. A small, weak grin began to grow.

"I dreamt you'd come..." Xena said in a frail voice.

Gabrielle let out a small groan of relief and cradled Xena's head to her chest. She held her in silence for a long instant and finally kissed the top her head.

"I've got to build you a fire." She rubbed the warrior's back. She began to pull away, but her soul mate held fast to her retreating hand.

"Thank you, Gabrielle..." with a small squeeze, her eyes were spilling over with appreciation.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and clenched her jaw as a tear fell. "You have no idea how much that means to me."

"Not as much as it means to me..." the warrior said with a smile.

Gabrielle returned the smile and the gentle squeeze, and began putting together a fire.

The flickering shadows cast by the flames, accompanied by the soft crackling was beginning to lull the bard into a drowsy state. Never the less, Gabrielle continued to gently rub her soul mate's hands returning warmth to her cold fingers. A thought occurred to Gabrielle and she began to stare intently at her partner, her brow beginning to furrow.

"Gabrielle?"

"Tell me something I don't know..." the bard asked suspiciously.

"What?"

"Humor me..."

"Hmmm..." Xena pondered the question. "Ah... you see this sca?" she loosened her heavy cloak to reveal a small scar over her right breast. "Got that in the fight to liberate my first Katana." She stated proudly.

Gabrielle peered closer, seeing the small scar by the firelight. "I didn't know that..."

"I thought that was point..."

Gabrielle smirked and arranged the warrior's cloak. "Cover that up... I just spent all night getting you warm."

"What was that about?"

"Just checking." That drew a confused look. "I'll tell you about it later." She got up began arranging their bedrolls. "How about we get some sleep. We'll go find your stuff in the morning."

Xena gave a nod of agreement, as her soul mate settled in behind her draping one arm protectively over her body. They drifted into a tranquil sleep. Welcome home.

***

"Are you all right there?" Gabrielle asked as they walked along the path. Xena seemed uncomfortable in her own skin.

"I don't think I'll ever get the dirt out of these leathers..." the warrior grumbled, tugging at her attire and hopping up and down.

"I would have thought you'd learned your lesson the first time, Xena." Gabrielle teased.

"Well that's the problem Gabrielle, in each case, I didn't think I'd be needing them again..." she said with a light-hearted chuckle. No response from her soul mate made her look over to see Gabrielle clenching her jaw. Oops. Not funny. She put her arm over the bard's shoulder and gave a little squeeze. "Sorry."

Gabrielle shrugged off the cloud the comment had sent her way, and just nodded. "Well, since you know that never works out..." she said. "how about you just not do it again." her mood brightening.

"Deal." Xena put out her hand. Gabrielle responded with a smile and a single firm handshake.

They walked along, joking and nudging each other, enjoying the day, and each other.

"So are you going to tell me now?" the warrior queried.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle had a puzzled look on her face.

"Last night? Something you didn't know?" Another blank look. "The question?"

"Oh..." the drift dawned on the bard, and she shook her head slightly and smiled.

She began to tell the warrior of her side of their adventure. Xena listened intently, stopping the bard periodically to apologize, praise or thank her, depending on where she was in her story.

"So... how did you come to realize that the souls were truly free?" Xena asked.

"Well... I had a theory..." Gabrielle began to explain. Smiling occasionally, because some of Xena's comments were the same as her daughter's. She finished. "Simple... ya?"

"Wow... you really put some thought into that, Gabrielle..."

"Don't look so surprised!!" she poked the warrior. Then thought for a moment. "Did you really think the souls wouldn't find grace, Xena?"

The warrior took a moment to reflect. "You know... I think I really did..."

"You think... you're not sure?"

"It was so odd, Gabrielle... the spirit world seemed like the real world... and the real world seemed like a dream... I... just... knew what I knew... it just seemed wrong for me to return, and then..." she motioned vaguely in the air. "you were there, and I remembered everything you've taught me... and well... there you go...does that make any sense?

"Perfect sense." Gabrielle grinned.

"You know me too well, Gabrielle..." Xena gave her a squeeze.

"Scary, isn't it?" the bard said with an evil grin.

"Mmmmm..." Xena muttered, faking concern.

"I almost didn't realize how well..." Gabrielle said seriously, after a few minutes.

Her soul mate squeezed her shoulder. They walked along in silence for a few paces. Xena knew her partner had something on her mind. And she wasn't talking. Bad sign.

"Dinar for your thoughts..." Xena prodded.

"I'm just glad you're back..." Gabrielle smiled and rubbed the hand still resting on her shoulder. "and glad you're happy to be back."

"Why wouldn't I be?" the warrior asked, in genuine confusion.

"I thought you might have... well... been contented to stay... there." Not quite able to wrap her tongue around the word, dead. Her soul mate's expression didn't register any particular emotion about the statement. That's familiar. Dig deeper Gabrielle.

"I mean, the more I think about it... the dead can hear our thoughts, right? So how could you not know how much I needed you? Spirit or not, Xena... I was right in front of you practically begging you to come back to me..." Gabrielle's hands were becoming more animated as she spoke. A trait her soul mate was especially fond of. Gotta love her passion, Xena thought to herself.

"You didn't need me to come back, Gabrielle... I knew that before I died."

"Xe..." the bard began in protest.

Xena put up a finger. "You wanted me to come back. You didn't need me to come back." She clarified. "There's a difference. And wanting someone is a much healthier place to be than needing someone." She paused briefly, put her arm around her soul mate, and began walking again. "And someday, I'll find that place." She said thoughtfully.

"I think you've all ready found that place, Xena." She glanced up at her partner for a hint of agreement. Unreadable... figures. The last bit of Xena's comment had surprised the bard, and she decided it might just be true, her soul mate not only wanted her with her, she needed her. And even if she didn't, Gabrielle decided to let her own ego think she did.

"I don't want you to think that I don't need you, Xena..." she offered, tightening her grip around her soul mate's waist. Because Warrior Princesses have egos too...

Xena chuckled and leaned into her partner. "Don't worry Gabrielle, needing someone is not an indication of how much you love them. Just an insecurity of mine..."

Gabrielle smiled brightly and shook her head. "You never cease to amaze me."

"Come on now..." Xena shook the bard's shoulder. "What's all this about?"

Gabrielle exhaled. "I just need to know I did the right thing... for you, Xena."

"What do you mean?"

"Well... umm... you put a lot of trust in me, Xena. How could you be sure I'd do the right thing?"

Xena stopped walking and put both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "I knew you'd follow your heart Gabrielle."

"But I didn't..."

"Didn't you? Here I am."

"But..."

Xena put one hand under Gabrielle's chin. "Either way Gabrielle, you followed your heart. And when you do that, I know I'll be all right... and I was."

"Either way?"

"Either way. And you would've been all right too." She said with assurance.

The bard didn't like the "either way" part of that statement, hoping for a more definitive answer, but her soul mate was here, and she was happy. That was her answer.

"I'd rather not test that last part again, if that's all right with you Xena."

"You don't ask for much, do you Gabrielle?" She chuckled, as they began walking again.

"Nope... Just a lifetime with you by my side."

"And every lifetime after that..." The warrior correctly predicted.

That got huge grins from both women.

"Oh!..." Gabrielle chirped. "Speaking of which..." there go those hands again, the warrior mused to herself. "we've got a problem with Ares..."

"Huh... that's new..." Xena snorted. "What's he done now?"

"It's not what he's done now... it's what he intends to do..."

So they walked. The bard gesturing, the warrior rolling her eyes and shaking her head at her soul mate's description of Ares' master plan for their lives. Suddenly, they heard some muffled shouts coming from the hill in front of them. They jogged to the top to see a band of raiders harassing a caravan of travelers at the edge of the tree line. The two women simultaneously tilted their heads and glanced at each other in understanding. Gabrielle reached to her waist and held up the chakram.

"I guess you'll be needing this back..." offering it to the warrior. She sighed an audible breath when Xena's fingers closed around the weapon and took it from her hand. The memory of the last time she'd offered it, still close to the surface. She glanced at the melee below them.

"I tell you what..." Xena said, separating the chakram. "One for you, one for me." She offered a piece to her partner.

"Will that work?" Gabrielle asked, examining her half.

"Let's see..." Xena tossed her half at the conflict. Tree. Rock. Sword from a raider's hand. Crossbow. Rock. Tree. Gabrielle's eyes widened as the chakram half careened back, at a frightening speed, level with her head. From the corner of her eye, she could see her partner had no intention of catching it. The bard swiped it out of the air split seconds before it would have impacted her head.

"Yep." Said Xena.

Gabrielle glared at the warrior, her eyes still wide with shock. "This could have killed me, Xena!" she growled, more stunned than angry, shaking the half that she had just caught.

Xena smiled a huge smile. Then a quick glance of apology, which made the bard laugh. "Nah." drawled the warrior. "That half's yours," she said, pointing and grabbing the other half from the bard's trailing hand. "I think it likes you." with a wink. That got a big laugh and a headshake from Gabrielle.

"Shall we..." Gabrielle indicated in the direction of the raiders.

"After you..." The warrior extended her arm and bowed to the bard.

They grinned and bounded down the hill stride for stride, with the warrior's distinctive battle cry floating through the trees.

fin

Thanks for reading. I can be reached at ogwen@aol.com.


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