She could have been there for days, weeks, even months, and wouldn't have known the difference. Every second felt like a new birth, as though she had just arrived there and, despite being left to herself, she was unable to really concentrate. Faces, voices, and images ran through her mind of their own accord. Memories shook her violently with both emotion and pain as if she were experiencing each event in the present. These were so much like the terrible experiences Alti had forced her to relive in India that she wondered if Alti could have had a hand in her misery. If she could have thought beyond her suffering, she would have sworn to hunt down every last reincarnation of Alti and kill her in the most terrible way she could imagine. But, at the moment, there was nothing else on her mind other than the unimaginable pain coursing through her, down to her soul. It seemed that nothing could help her concentrate, to send the pain elsewhere. Her mind was spinning, trying to stop the pain by any means necessary, but she couldn't even put the pinch on herself to end it. She screamed out into the void over and over again, trying to find an outlet for the pain until she could find a way out. As terrible as it all was, somehow she knew in her heart that this was not her end; this was not the end. When compared to everything she had survived, this was nothing to her. She would find a way out.
There had to be something. There had to be a way. There was something, she could sense it, getting closer. She was sure that there was something she was about to reach, like she was moving towards it with every inhuman wail. She cried out until her intangible lungs scrapped to the point of tearing apart in the hopes that someone was listening. Someone had to be listening. Thoughts of her last sights ran through her, primarily of Gabrielle, and she swore each tear in her memories was burning through her bones like acid. The pain was devastating and she wanted to move, thrash against her invisible assailant, but all she could do was scream. As she ravaged her throat, she began to sense an increase in the frantic pace of her memories. Images became flashes of color and light, voices merged into a roar in her head, and emotions throttled her one after another ranging from deep, sorrowful tears to angry stabs in every part of her body. The strange feeling of nearing the end was becoming stronger. Even these discernable ideas soon became nothing but a blur and she felt on the verge of fainting, finally escaping the pain. A white light seared her eye lids and she became unable to control herself in any way.
"Gab . . . Gabrielle . . . " Speaking proved to be more painful than simply trying to exist, and she could no longer hold onto consciousness. She collapsed and let the light envelope her, hoping as she passed out that she would at last be free of the tormenting mental chaos.
There was finally total stillness. She saw nothing, felt nothing, and could not even think. She was nothing; there was nothing. Just an emptiness that floated with her consciousness like a river down a winding underground tunnel with the end leading into the light. She was sitting up. She knew it. She couldn't feel it, but she knew it. She reached up to touch her head and spoke, not knowing if she was really saying anything at all.
"Oh . . . I feel like I've been kicked by a centaur . . . " She rubbed her head but, still, the airy feeling lingered. In the back of her mind, she prepared for the worst in case she had to again defend herself against her own relentless memories, but there was something happening that made her think her defensiveness wasn't quite necessary. The floating sensation was slowly drifting away from her like sand from an open hand. Light was pouring in from somewhere across her lap. Her lap. She could see her lap.
She could see.
Her half-open eyes told her that she was sitting up in a bed. The room was small, and had two square windows and two doors, one in front of her and one to her left. She began to open her eyes with conscious effort, trying to understand where she was though she had never seen anything like what her eyes were telling her was there. Wherever she was, it was certainly better than the void she had come from. The light was low but she could see; it appeared to be midday. Nothing about the room seemed special to her but, in thinking more on what she was seeing, she really wasn't sure what was in the room at all. She recognized the shape of a dresser and a few paintings hung on the pale pink walls, but an odd little object was projecting light from atop the night stand and a small, black box was bright with slowly changing figures that looked like letters or numbers of a language she did not understand. Nothing was so bizarre as to make her wish she could go back into the darkness, but something about the room made her wary. It was all too... normal.
A light was reflecting from beyond the western door distracted ger and she oriented toward it. There, obscured slightly by the doorway, was a large mirror above something that looked like a small water pump. Tinted light played across Xena's hands as she rose cautiously, in case there were still lingering effects from being in that torturous state. Her legs and arms felt fine, but the pain in her head was still prominent. It made her temples throb softly, even when she rubbed them with the pads of her fingers and jabbed at the familiar spots to reduce the pain. She tried hitting a few lines of blood flow on her neck, but nothing would lessen the swelling or the ringing sensation, so she headed toward the mirror to see if some sort of head wound had been inflicted at some point. She expected a fair amount of damage but as she wobbled toward the large, silvery square, she realized there was something much more serious about her condition then a few scraps or cuts. She blinked rapidly, staring straight ahead. Over and over she looked, closed her eyes, and looked again. It could not be as she saw it. But there it was. She opened her eyes widely and tried to gather in what it meant.
The face in the mirror was not Xena's.
The image in the mirror was that of a slightly younger woman, perhaps Gabrielle's age. Xena ran her hands over the sloping contours of the angelic face and marveled at the long, light brown hair and charming, blue-green eyes. She dabbed her fingertips on the thin, naturally pink lips, and matching flushed cheeks, gently letting her hands run the length of the small, square-ish nose. As she watched, she realized that the hands doing the exploring were equally insubstantial, barely able to hold the simple diamond ring on the left ring finger. In fact, her entire body felt, and appeared, as lithe as a child's; nothing at all like the body she remembered. Her eyes were small and framed by lashes as faint as moth wings, her hips were simple and not nearly as womanly as she had considered hers to be, and her limbs were meek in comparison to the strong calves and biceps she recalled toning through exercise and an innumerable sum of battles. It was impossible for such a body to be hers; she was certain she was hallucinating, that the gods were toying with her in some new sort of afterlife punishment. She began to fear that the black abyss she had been released from was just a waiting room that who ever was controlling her would return her to when they'd had enough fun from her anguish. But there was something very different about this place. There was someone else there with her; she could hear footsteps. Someone was heading towards her very quickly from above the bathroom she stood in and they were going to reach her any second. She spun around and saw that there was no where to hide except behind a curtain that would offer her little protection if she were found. However, as the footsteps raced toward her and panic began to take over, she threw herself behind the curtain and stood as best she could, preparing to fight with what ever strength the body she inhabited possessed.
The footsteps stopped just outside the door in the room she had woken in and progressed slowly into the bathroom. "Honey?" A deep, sweet voice drifted from the man who had apparently come looking for her, "Are you in here?" He stepped onto the slick flooring, and peered about as though waiting for an attacker and, through the side of the curtain, Xena could see a look of fear and concern written across the man's face. She started to think that she didn't need to hide from this person at all. She looked him over a few times and decided that she could kill him if she had to, even in the smaller, unquestionably weaker body. So she stepped out form behind the curtain and smiled broadly, hoping that she was correct in assuming that, who ever she had become, this man knew her well.
"Oh, there you are!" He went towards her and she couldn't bring herself to even think of fighting him as he wrapped his arms gently around her with a tender squeeze. He bent to kiss her forehead and fawned over her, stroking her hair and gently touching her cheek with the sides of his fingers. "The kids just got home," he said softly, "They want to come down and see you, but if you aren't up to it, I'm sure they'll understand." She rested her head on his chest, very quickly becoming sure that she could trust him. "Kids?" She said, in spite of herself. "Yes, your kids!" He laughed heartily and held the small of her back with folded hands, "I know they can be little demons, but I swear they're ours." She straightened herself and looked into his dark brown eyes with an expression of both lighthearted surprise and intense curiosity that made him laugh aloud again. "Oh, yes, our kids! Don't you pretend that those little monsters are just my fault!" He seemed to find it all so funny that she couldn't help but get swept up, laughing herself, yet still wondering why he would worry about this woman so much.
"Am I up to it?" she asked, more thinking aloud than looking for a response, "Of course." Though it sounded firm, she was less than convinced. If he was concerned enough to come searching for her, then there might be something going on that she had not realized yet. He cradled her for several more seconds, apparently as dubious about her condition as Xena was of the entire situation. He looked into her eyes and thought that he saw the woman that he loved, the mother of his children, but the eyes that seemed to be intently observing him were not as he imagined. Xena looked down, away from his gaze. It pained her to lie to such an obviously devoted man and, judging by the ring on his finger, she was sure that he was much more than just a sweet man to this young woman. He tilted her chin up with his index finger and quirked his head.
"Are you sure?" He asked, in the most sincere voice she had heard from any man. She nodded, and he relented, though seemingly with concerned reluctance. "Alright," he said, slipping out of their embrace, "I'll bring ‘em down then." His fingers lingered in her own; even as he headed out of the room, his eyes were still locked on her as though she were going to disappear at any moment if he were to look away. She touched her fingers tips to her lips before she could get a hold on herself and realize what it was she was doing. As she laid her fingers on her mouth, she thought that the emotions of this person might be interfering with her own, though she had never experienced any such effects in any re-incarnations. His footsteps drifted upwards as she stared at the floor, trying to gather her thoughts. Or, at least, try to organize whoever's thoughts they were. The tile flooring appeared to almost swirl with words and thoughts, many concerning the tall, dark-haired man, who was so enchanting to her. The more she thought of him, the more she certain she became that there was something more to this man than met her bright, young eyes; she just couldn't place what that something was just yet.
"MOMMY, MOMMY, MOMMY!!!" A child's voice bounded in from the room Xena had woken in, along with the clattering of tiny shoes on the wooden stairs. Two more sets of feet, one of which she assumed were that of this woman's husband, or fiancé, the other she could not easily place while there was so much noise.
A little girl, barely of walking age, burst into the bathroom and threw her arms around the highest part of Xena's body that she could reach. Her miniature fingers dug into the back of her mother's leg and she rested her chin on Xena's knee. "Hi Mommy." As the child peered up at her, Xena was sure that she was looking into a mirror of this woman she embodied. Those same eyes she discovered just moments before watched her with a smile as warm as the toothy grin below. "Hello..."she said, staring dreamily into the enchanting face of her apparent daughter. She sifted her fingers through the light blonde locks and worried that all of the members of the woman's family were so entrancing. Yet, even as she touched the delicate strands atop the beautiful little girl's head, she was painfully reminded of where she truly wanted to be, and whom she wanted to be with. It was not the little girl, curled up about her knee, that would keep her heart for long. She shut her eyes and tried to push the thoughts from her head.
"Hey, mum." Thankful for the distraction, she looked up from the girl and found herself looking into the eyes of a young boy with a full, soft face that reminded her so much of her own son's, that she suddenly wished that she were still fighting to forget Gabrielle's light blonde hair. The only difference class=Section2>
she could find between Solan and that boy was the rich, black hair, cut crisply above his ears. His hands rested in his pockets as she surveyed him, and a smile crept onto his thin lips, even as he noticed that something was a little odd about her. She continued to stare at him even while tears began to well up in her eyes, but she still said nothing and probably would have gone on staring in that fashion for some time if the children's father hadn't slipped in quietly behind the boy.
"Katie, aren't you going to tell mommy about the special star Ms. Carmichael gave you?"
The young girl leaned backward, without letting go of Xena's leg, and held up the corner of her button-up sweater. Xena took the chance to divert her attention from the boy and looked down at the girl with excess enthusiasm. "A star?!?"she said with childish mockery, "You must be pretty special to get your own star!" Katie tried comically to turn her head in order to look down at the blue star stuck on her sweater, smiling all the while. As content as she was to watch the little girl and stomach thoughts of Gabrielle, the young man seemed to have other plans.
"Mum, are you hungry?" She looked up at him with a sadness already apparent in her eyes, but he looked on as though he didn't notice. "Dad and I were going to cut some apple slices and make popcorn to eat while we watch ‘The Little Princess'..." His voice trailed off, but she was certain that she could hear him say something like "for the three hundredth time" as he lowered his head to his chest. His father seemed to take no notice, but, none the less, grabbed his son's shoulder and turned him towards the door. "We'll only be a few minutes, Amy. You and Katie can start up the movie while Peter and I," he said, rubbing the boys head with a devilish grin, "Rustle up some grub! Isn't that right, Pete?" He smiled and Peter gave a half-hearted grin that made Xena momentarily forget that he was identical to Solan. For the time of that smile, he was simply someone's son.
"Mommy, come on!" Katie grabbed Xena's hand, and all but dragged her towards the door while Peter and his father headed upstairs. Her little hand was hardly enough to anchor her to her mother's comparatively large one, but Xena felt like there was a clothe tied firmly around their wrists, leading her behind the child as though she were her own. The girl seemed to know exactly what she was doing, and didn't even pay attention to her mother as she raced over to the far wall and pressed a few buttons that Xena hadn't even noticed when she'd woken up. A large rectangle in the wall slid open and Xena thought that she was taking her into a secret room until a thick sheet that looked like a mirror of dark water appeared in the space. "Mommy, will you turn it on while I get the movie?" It took her several seconds to realize that the girl was even talking to her but, when she did, she wished she hadn't. "Turn on?" She said, confused. The girl giggled and rushed past her mother again to tap another button on the wall behind Xena. It opened much in the same way as the other had, but much lower and without the black object. The little girl touched a few things, that Xena could not even see, and hit the button again before Xena could even begin to understand what Katie was doing. In her little hand was a small disk that looked much like a small, thin chakram that reflected what little light was in the room.
"Oh, mommy, you're so..." She tapped the wall under the thick mirror and a very tiny slot opened, into which she popped the disk. "So-o-o-o silly!" She promptly jumped on the bed and turned to her mother. "Come on, mommy, it's about to start!" The dark image of herself and the girl vanished and was suddenly filled with images of a castle; it reminded her of the way the Fates had shown her images from her life when she had returned to her past. "Princess ca-astle, Princess castle!" Katie swayed back and forth on the bed, singing the same song that was coming from the screen. Mesmerized, Xena stared as intently at the movie as the child and, consequently, she didn't even notice Peter and Amy's apparent spouse step back into the room. She slowly sat down next to Katie and folded her legs under herself, staring even as Peter sat down next to her.
"I don't remember you liking the movie that much, mom." His voice in her ear made her jump, but Katie didn't look away from screen. Xena looked at him, blushing, and tried to come up with some sort of answer that wouldn't require her to use any words that she didn't understand. "I, well..." "She's always loved this movie, Pete." She turned to see Peter's father, on the other side of his daughter, with the bowl of popcorn in his hands. He was tilting his head in the direction of the girl and lowered his tone a bit. "We all love this movie, don't we guys?" Xena nodded, not really understanding any of what was going on, and eventually found herself saying "Yes, yes" without actually knowing what she was saying yes to. Peter picked up the plate of apple slices and put one in his mouth like one would a rather small piece of candy, despite the fact that the piece of apple it was about the size of his entire hand. As he ate happily, Xena couldn't help but stare at him. He looked so much like Solan. His eyes were a murky shade, like his father's, and disappeared behind the hair that fell in his face like dark jewels in a sea of burnt wheat. They even flickered with that same intensity she had seen enough times before, though fewer times than she would have liked, and she was again totally incapable of turning away. Amy's husband wrapped his hand around hers, yet she still stared unceasingly at the boy. He pulled on the corner of her shirt, trying to gently get her attention, but Xena continued to watch the boy with unchanging interest. It took a full palm on her face, turning her from those dark eyes and rounded cheeks, to break the trance.
"Honey, are you feeling alright? Have you taken your medicine?" Her eyes finally focused on him and she shook her head, once again not understanding what he meant. "Medicine?" She said, waiting for him to say something so that she could work off him, pretend that she understood, but he simply smiled meekly with an expression that reminded her so much of pity that it worried her. He cupped her cheek and gave her another smile before getting up from the bed and going into the bathroom. "I'll get it for you, honey." She watched, as covertly as she could, as he pulled the mirror aside like a little door and pulled out a few odd-looking, wide bottles. She could hear something clatter inside the containers as he tipped each one over, one by one, dropping bright colored objects into his hand. As he closed the mirror door, he caught a glimpse of her in the mirror, staring worriedly at him. She reluctantly turned away, but the image lasted in her mind: He smiled. That same, weak smile. Like he was so deeply saddened, but was trying, not so successfully, to hide it. She could hear him step off the hard flooring and onto the soft rug and within seconds he was on the bed again. "Oh, I'll get you some water." He set the tiny objects, five in all, on the bed and went right back into the bathroom. He opened the mirror again and pulled out a glass, glancing into the mirror as his wife picked up the pills, turned each one over, and set them back down again. It looked as though she had never seen them before.
"Here were are." Peter turned to see his dad hand her the glass but turned back to watch the movie before he could see his father's strange expression. "Go on," he said, picking up three of the pills, "I guess I'll have to start giving them to you myself since you aren't remembering on your own anymore." There was so much sadness in his words that Xena forgot that he was talking to her at all. She still felt disconnected; she had yet to realize that she really wasn't Xena anymore. She was his wife.
"Whatever you need to do, honey." She took the medicine and gulped down some of the water before putting one pill into her mouth and letting it float around her tongue. As much as she didn't want to, she knew that she would have to swallow it sooner or later and if there were ever a moment she needed to decide if she trusted this reality, it was then. She looked into the eyes of the man before her for some sign that he was not who he appeared to be; that he was pretending to care so deeply for her. She turned and watched Katie and Peter, but neither gave her any sign that something was amiss. Peter turned to her and smiled, melting what little resolve she had against thinking it all wasn't real. She threw back her head and swallowed.
"There we go." Her husband smiled and took the glass from her momentarily. "Just four more." He handed her the remaining pills and she rolled them about between her fingers as if deciding which of the four would bring the end slowest. She looked up at him again, looking for that same reassurance as before, but, this time, there was something odd about him. Looking at his recently shaven face made her a little dizzy, and his eyes didn't seem as deep as she had first thought them to be. His entire face seemed to be getting a little hazy and his patience seemed less sincere. As she drank down the water and took a second pill, it felt like time was slowing down. Her vision was fading and the room was getting darker. Her eyes eventually fell on his dark eyes again and she fell betrayed. She had trusted him, and had apparently been wrong too. But even as she looked around the room and fear over took her, she felt sure that this man was not bad. She felt like she knew him; she knew that he loved her. Not Amy; her. She felt like there was something about the reality that was being revealed to her then, but she was going back to that dark place, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
"Mom, are you okay?" Peter turned towards her and set his hand on her back. There was worry on his face, as well as his father's. "Mom? Mom, say something." He shook her, but she couldn't find her voice. It felt like her throat was being closed up, and her breath was being taken from her so rapidly that her eyes were beginning to roll back in her head. "Amy, honey, look at me. Amy!"
"MOMMY!!!" Katie had turned around and was screaming as loudly as any little girl her size had ever managed to scream, but all Xena could hear was a muffled squealing like she were in the bottom of a bottle. Her eyes were moving rapidly and completely beyond her control; she could only see when they managed to roll towards one of the people in the room. Peter was shaking her, yelling increasingly more loudly at her to say something, but all she could do was let her body be moved back and forth as the three people that loved her most looked on, as helpless to aid her as she was to help herself.
"Amy, if you can hear me, hold on." Her eyes pulled painfully away from him and her body went limp. She knew that she was going back to that angry, dark place and, mentally, she struggled to stay in the safe arms of the man that had welcomed her into that warm reality. He was slowly fading from her, along with the tears she had been able to feel on her cheeks. The darkness was over taking her and she could feel the same floating again.
"No...no... Jim, please..." His name came out of her mouth and the thought made her stop thinking of anything else. The thoughts of this woman were becoming her own and that scared her, though not nearly as much as what lay ahead of her. She was just beginning to understand who he was and she was being torn away from what she felt could be a revelation. As the last sensations faded from her, she tried not to think about him, not wanting to add to the pain her memories already generously afforded her. She was ready for it all to start again. But as she opened her eyes again, she realized that she had prepared herself for the wrong thing. She strained to see and did all she could to focus on what looked like a rather familiar face. Someone was standing just a few feet away from her, and she thought it might be Jim but, as her vision began to clear, she thought herself completely wrong. She didn't know if she had control over her voice, or if it was just another illusion sent to torment her, but she wasn't about to pass up the chance that it was real. She took a deep breath, reached out her hand, and spoke.