Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and any other characters or text mentioned from the original series are owned by Renaissance Pictures, Studio USA, or whoever has the rights now. No copyright infringement is intended. This is fan fiction just for fun. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. Some of the characters may be theirs but the story is mine. Copyright May 2002.
Rated as adult material for violence and a loving relationship between two consenting adults and because anything can happen in my stories. If you are easily offended please read something else.
Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Constructive comments and criticisms or just plain chats good or bad are most welcome. No flames please.
Suggestion: If you haven't seen 'The Last Battleground: A Friend in Need you may want to wait to read this as it contains spoilers!
Lost Soul, 8 -- Immortal Fear
Continued from Lost Soul 7 - Strained Relations
By Ken Rogers
Gabrielle opened her eyes and moved her head slightly to look into her favorite blue eyes.
"Don't you ever sleep?" she asked.
"I don't have to sleep, Gabrielle."
"I know, but you must get tired of just laying there all night long, waiting for me to wake up."
"No. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be," Xena answered.
Gabrielle lifted up then stretched forward and gave her a soft kiss. "You're too good to me, Xena."
"I know. It's my penance."
"Hey!" Gabrielle said, giving her a swat. "That wasn't nice!"
Xena chuckled and rumpled her hair. "Time you got a move on, lazy girl."
Gabrielle sat up and stretched. "Yeah, I know. It's been nice though." She stood and went to the outer door and slid it back slightly. Beyond the overhang, steps led down to the stone path leading through the beautiful garden where they had spent many lovely afternoons in deep, often difficult conversation. Gabrielle's recovery had been slow and they had time to enjoy the beautiful gardens. Now a soft rain shrouded the gardens in pale light. She watched the rains for a little while. Xena came up behind her and wrapped her arms around her. They were staying in Tanaga's home, the traditional residence of his family. He had left it to his youngest brother to take care of and opened the inn because he needed to be doing something among people. The main house and gardens were sedately elegant.
"Even in the rain it's beautiful, Xena."
Xena gave her a little squeeze. "You should wait another day, Gabrielle."
"I've waited too long as it is, Xena. It won't take long."
"All right. Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No. I should do this myself."
"I understand. I'll be here when you get back."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's. "I know. Thank you."
"For waiting for me. For understanding. For being patient even when I seemed to turn away from you."
Xena leaned forward and gently kissed the top of her head. "I told you I'd never leave you, Gabrielle."
"I know, but I left you. When I realized what I had done, I was terrified you wouldn't be here. Thanks for waiting."
Xena didn't answer; she just gave her a gentle squeeze.
Gabrielle turned in her arms and looked up into her eyes, then caught the tear as it fell. She kissed her gently. "I love you, Xena. I promise not to ever leave you again."
Xena smiled, though another tear fell from her eyes. "I love you too, Gabrielle. Thank you for coming back."
Gabrielle pulled her into a tight embrace for a moment then let her go. "I won't be long."
She dressed quickly, pushed her sai into her boots, hooked her katana, and the chakram to her belt, then left.
Xena went to the front of the house and watched her ride down the narrow path into the woods.
Gabrielle stepped down from the magnificent horse and turned to the teahouse. It looked the same, nearly falling in on itself. She walked across the little wooden path to the entrance, the soft hiss of gentle rain deadening any other sound. Akemi sat in exactly the same spot, her head bowed and her hands in her lap, hidden in her sleeves.
Gabrielle stood at the entrance for a moment then she sighed and moved slowly forward. She stopped and knelt down in front of her, lifting her chin. Akemi's dark almond eyes were bright with tears and full of despair. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "I know, Akemi. I understand, and I forgive you."
"How can you, Gabrielle? I took your soulmate from you."
"You didn't take her from me, Akemi. She's still with me."
"But I prevented you from returning her to life."
Gabrielle reached and took her hands. "You did, and for a long time I was lost because of it, but Xena will always be with me, and I will always be with her. We're soulmates, Akemi. That's not just a word. It means we are part of each other forever. No matter what happens, we will always be together. No one can take that from us, not you, or anyone else. Xena may be on the other side, but she is still with me and always will be. It took me a while to understand that, but it took me longer to forgive her for leaving me out of her decisions. I think she finally realizes that we are one. She can't leave me out and I don't think she will again. I can forgive you because I have done something even tougher. I have forgiven her and I have forgiven myself."
"Why would you have to forgive yourself, Gabrielle?" she asked, thoroughly confused.
"Because I blamed myself for Xena's death. I knew Xena was acting strangely but I let her lull me into believing what she told me. When I looked back, I could see plainly that she was up to something, yet I let it go. I deferred to her even though I was uncomfortable about it."
"But you didn't know for sure, Gabrielle. You can't blame yourself for her death just because you had doubts."
"You don't understand, Akemi. I know Xena, probably better than I know myself. I know her better than she does sometimes. All the pieces were there, Akemi. I just refused to believe Xena could do something like that to me, but all the facts were there, and I know how single minded and determined she can become. I blinded myself to what, with a little thought, was the only way things could happen. I blamed myself because I should have stopped her. I didn't because I didn't believe she would do that to me. I turned a blind eye to the inevitable. Knowing Xena, there was nothing else she could do and I didn't stop her or make her change her plans to include me. So you see, in a way I'm as guilty for Xena's death as you are."
"No, Gabrielle, that can't be," she said shaking her head in denial.
"But it is, Akemi. I failed to protect half of my soul and I will pay for it for the rest of my life. Every time I look at her, I see my failure, but that's my problem, not yours." Gabrielle smiled down at her. "You are forgiven, Akemi. I release you from your punishment. Go seek your destiny in peace."
Akemi sat as if carved in stone for a moment.
"Gabrielle, would you wait here for me, for a little while?"
Akemi smiled. "If I succeed, I'll tell you when I get back." She disappeared, leaving Gabrielle sitting alone in confusion. After several minutes, she stood and wandered around the cluttered floor of the teahouse staring out at the rain. There was no sound but the gentle hiss of the rain. The forest was subdued, shadowed, and indistinct behind a curtain of rain. Nearly half an hour passed and Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if Akemi had been taken on to her destiny.
She turned to find Akemi standing behind her.
"Where did you go, Akemi? I was beginning to think you weren't coming back."
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. It took me a little longer than I thought it would."
"I was looking for a way to help you, to try to make up a little for the wrong I have done you. My father had some very powerful tools and knew of many others. I had to search some of his records to find what I wanted, but I had seen it once before. He wasn't sure what it was. He thought it was just a pretty trinket. I wasn't sure either until I held it, then I knew."
"I don't understand."
Akemi stepped towards her and held out her closed right hand, opening it. "I may have found a way. I'm not sure it will be useful to you but it's worth a try."
A dancing line of fire writhed on her palm.
"What is that?" Gabrielle asked staring at the golden thread of light in fascination.
"It's a source of power and protection against spirits and… gods. It will combine with the dragon to give you more protection."
"I don't understand, Akemi."
"Gabrielle, part of my punishment was to experience the torment I put you and Xena through. I lived the hardships and felt the pain of both of you. I suffered with you."
"You mean you were with me?"
"And with Xena, yes. I lived your whole trip with you, everything that happened to you and Xena, though I was really right here."
"Where is this leading?"
"Xena, and then you, were visited by one of your gods. He offered to return Xena to you if you would give him a child. You both turned him down. I experienced the pain that encounter caused you both."
Just the memory of her encounter with Ares made her feel queasy. "It wasn't one of my better days," she admitted, "but I don't see what it has to do with us, here, now."
"Gabrielle. Your god said he has the power to bring Xena back."
She nodded. "I remember, but his price is too high, Akemi. You can't think I would give in to him."
"No, Gabrielle, but I do think there is an opportunity there. Look, I'm not sure he can return her, and I have no idea how you can get him to do it, but this should be able to help you. Please take it, Gabrielle. Allow me to try to make up just a little for what I have done." She held her hand forward, the golden light weaving a mesmerizing pattern of scintillating motion.
Gabrielle studied her face and eyes and the pleading there. Her warrior caution screamed at her not to trust this most vile deceiver. Her eyes dropped to the dancing light and she reached her hand slowly forward. When her hand was over Akemi's, the dancing light spiraled around her fingers. She turned her hand over and the dancing light gathered in her palm, pulsating from a soft gold to bright silver and back again. Then it struck her hand; she screamed at the pain that coursed through her body, backing away from Akemi. Her whole body went rigid and she felt the serpent writhing on her back. She felt like she was growing and changing although she was unable to move, and the pain became unbearable. She caught a glimpse of green scales. Suddenly she was released and felt herself falling, the pain so intense she screamed in agony. Akemi looked on in horror, helpless to do anything. Gabrielle's scream deepened into a roaring bellow and she blacked out.
The pain was gone. She was standing in the center of the teahouse facing Akemi.
"What have you done to me, Akemi?" she gasped.
Akemi was shaking with sobs, tears running down her face.
"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle! I didn't know it would hurt you!"
Akemi's eyes flicked past her in fear and Gabrielle turned. She froze, stunned. She lay crumpled on the teahouse floor. She turned back, her eyes blazing.
"You killed me!" she screamed.
"No, Gabrielle, I…"
Gabrielle had her by the throat, lifting her off the floor, scaled green claws wrapped around her neck until the bone white talons clacked together.
"You killed me, Akemi!" she bellowed, her voice shaking the unstable teahouse.
"No… stop," she choked out. Gabrielle let up on her throat, loosening her fingers but didn't let go.
"Why did you do it, Akemi?" she asked, her voice almost normal.
"Not… dead…" she gagged out.
"What?" Gabrielle released her throat but got a hold of her hair to prevent her from leaving. "Talk to me, Akemi! What do you mean, not dead? If I'm not dead why am I standing here with you when my body is over there in a heap?"
"You're not dead, Gabrielle," she said rubbing her neck. "It's the power I gave you. You can cross over whenever you wish, until the power leaves you."
"It's part of the power I gave you. You can cross over and appear to be dead, but you aren't."
"What good will that do me?"
Akemi dropped her eyes. "I'm not sure. You need to talk to Tanaga. Tell him about your encounter with your god, and of Xena's encounter as well. Tell him about the power I gave you. Maybe he can help you figure out how to use it to get your god to return Xena."
Gabrielle studied her skeptically. "This better not be a trick, Akemi. If it is, I will track you through eternity and make your existence hell."
"Please, Gabrielle, check for yourself. Your body is still alive and you can return any time you want."
Gabrielle turned and walked towards her body. She lay crumpled on her left side with her legs drawn up. Her right arm was flung out pulling her shoulder almost to the floor so she lay on her back. Close up she could see the rise and fall of her chest. She appeared to be sleeping. She turned back to Akemi.
"All right, I'm beginning to believe you, but I still have a few questions."
"I'll try my best to answer them, Gabrielle," she said, still looking shaken.
"What was the bellow I heard, and the deep voice, and why did I see green scales and talons when I grabbed you?"
"The power again. When you are on this side, you can change to almost anything you wish. You can also become the dragon. That's what you saw and heard. Your anger caused you to partially change into the dragon, so did your pain."
"You mean I'm a shape changer over here?"
"Yes. You can become anything or anyone."
"How long will this power last, Akemi? It may take months to get to my god if I have to go to Greece," she asked. She didn't say his name for fear of summoning him. She hoped he wasn't still watching her.
"I think it will last until you release it, Gabrielle, but I'm not sure. Tanaga should know. You are right not to say his name until you are ready."
"You know what I was thinking?" she asked incredulous.
Akemi bowed her head. "Yes, I'm sorry. I'm still linked to both of you. Xena is worried about you, more now because you didn't immediately return like you said you would."
"Then help me figure this power out so I can get back."
Xena was standing, arms crossed, on the porch looking relieved as she rode out of the rain and stopped before her.
"That took a while," she remarked casually.
Gabrielle swung down and handed the reins to the stable boy that always seemed to appear out of nowhere.
"I'm sorry, Xena. It was… more complicated than I thought." She stepped onto the porch and stopped in front of the warrior. Xena moved forward and wrapped her arms around her. "I'm soaked, Xena."
"I see that. You're shivering too. Let's get you warmed up." She turned to the house, guiding Gabrielle to her room.
Gabrielle found a towel and dried herself off.
She turned to the door. "Yes? Come in Noriko."
The door slid back and Noriko entered, bowing to her. "I have prepared a bath for you, Gabrielle. Father said you would be cold when you returned, and a bath would warm you."
"Thank you, Noriko. Please tell your father that I would like to see him later, after I clean up."
She bowed again. "Father asked us to hold his noon meal until you could join him."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said. "Your father knows me too well. Tell him I won't be very long."
Noriko bowed again then left, pulling the door silently closed.
Gabrielle slipped out of her wet clothes and wrapped the towel around herself while talking to Xena.
"So what happened that took you so long?"
"A lot happened, Xena. I need to sort it out in my mind before I talk about it."
"Are you okay? You sound, tense."
Gabrielle turned to her as she tucked the towel in at her side. She looked up into those startling blue eyes seeing the concern there. She reached out, brushed her hand along Xena's arm, and smiled. "I'm fine, Xena. I just need to sort a few things out in my mind, then we'll talk, I promise. I need to talk to you and Tanaga both, okay?"
Xena reached out and brushed her cheek lightly with her fingers, smiling, love, and concern showing on her face. "Okay. I just… I worry about you. It really hurts not being there to protect you, to watch your back. I'm so afraid you'll need me and I won't be there, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled and kissed her lightly. "Hey, I'm a big girl now, mom. I can take care of myself."
Xena grinned slightly and mussed her already unkempt hair. "Yeah, but you're still a trouble collector. Everywhere you go trouble shows up."
"Well, never fear. This really ferocious warrior taught me everything she knows," she remarked as she turned to the door and slid it back, "and, I've learned a few tricks of my own." She started down the hall.
"Oh yeah? Think you're pretty tough, huh?" Xena growled behind her.
"I could kick your sorry butt." Gabrielle said, then squealed as Xena grabbed her from behind.
Gabrielle entered the room to find Tanaga already seated. Here at home he had reverted to western style, preferring a high table and chairs to favor his injured knee. Most of his family still took many of their meals in the traditional manner, seated at a low table. Now Noriko and her slightly older sister Kishi would serve them; Ikuyo had a husband and would be with him. Tanaga looked up and smiled at her.
"Ah, Gabrielle, you look lovely. I'm glad you could join me."
Gabrielle was wearing a white silk kimono patterned with delicate flowers. She bowed slightly. "Thank you, Tanaga."
"Come, be seated. You must be starving."
She seated herself across from him and his two daughters immediately began serving her. Xena sat in the chair pulled back from the table for her. Tanaga's family was used to her being there, although they had no evidence of her existence, except the word of Gabrielle and Tanaga.
"Kishi saw you leave early this morning. It is not a good day to be out, Gabrielle," he said. His tone was neutral, but it was evident he thought she should not be about in this weather so soon after her recovery.
"Perhaps not, but I had something to do and I had already put it off too long."
"Ah, well, I hope you succeeded and it turned out satisfactorily," he remarked.
"Thank you. I need to talk to you and Xena about it after our meal, if you have the time."
"Of course, Gabrielle. I always have time for you and Xena."
They finished their meal in relative silence. Gabrielle could tell that her soulmate was not happy with the wait. She knew something had happened and being put off was driving her crazy. When it came to problems concerning her, Xena was not a patient person.
At last, the meal was cleared away and Kishi poured more tea, then returned to the corner of the room and sat quietly, waiting to attend to them. Noriko returned and seated herself beside her.
"Now, Gabrielle. What is it you wish to speak to me about?" Tanaga asked.
Gabrielle nervously sipped her tea then set the little bowl down, looking up at Xena, then Tanaga.
"I went to the teahouse where Yodoshi had kept Akemi and a few others to trap unsuspecting souls. Akemi was Yodoshi's daughter in life and his slave in the afterlife. She is the one that sent for Xena, to help her destroy Yodoshi. She is also the one that used Xena so long ago to kill her father and then caused the situation that resulted in the fire that destroyed Higuchi and killed forty thousand souls." She held up her hand to stop Xena, who was about to protest. "Just listen, Xena. I know you don't agree with some of this and it will be hard for you, but I want Tanaga and you to know what I think about it and why."
"All right," she answered softly as she settled back into the chair, clearly unhappy.
Gabrielle turned back to Tanaga. "As you probably know, the fire I'm talking about happened more than thirty years ago." At his nod she continued. "When we returned to Higuchi it was under siege and on fire again. Xena and I doused most of the fires and helped drive off the army. We met ghost killer and he accused Xena of destroying his town. He had been there as a child when Xena tried to take Akemi's ashes to be placed with her family, and the people of Higuchi tried to stop her." She glanced to Xena then back to Tanaga. "Xena accepted that blame and set out to destroy Yodoshi and free the souls he had entrapped."
Gabrielle sipped her tea to wet her throat.
"You know of the battle Xena fought, destroying most of Yodoshi's army. What you may not know is that Xena deceived me into believing that part of the attack was somewhere else. Then she defeated the army, but when the army's back was broken, she allowed herself to be killed so she could enter the afterlife to fight Yodoshi."
Gabrielle's eyes dropped to her tea, not really seeing it.
"I blame myself for her death…"
"No, Gabrielle!" Xena cried, stunned.
Gabrielle looked up and there were tears in her eyes.
"Yes, Xena. I should have stopped you. I should have made you find another way or gone with you."
"Gabrielle, no! You didn't know what I was doing," Xena cried in anguish. "Please don't blame yourself. You didn't know."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I didn't know because I refused to believe it, Xena. I couldn't believe you would do that to us, that you would deceive me. I convinced myself we would deal with Yodoshi after the battle with his army. I deceived myself into believing what you told me, but I had all the facts. I know how you work, Xena. It bothered me all that morning but I pushed it down, telling myself I was worrying too much. Even when I found the chakram, I refused to believe my eyes and accept the truth. I didn't ever believe you would do that until you tried to take the chakram. Then I knew immediately what you had done and why. It was all there but I… I trusted you too much."
"No, Gabrielle, please don't do this to yourself…" Xena said, sobbing almost hysterically. She rose from her chair and Gabrielle rose with her, taking her in her arms.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but that's how I see it. I've lived with that for over a year. That's what drove me away as much as your death, though I didn't understand it at the time. I failed you, Xena. I failed both of us."
"No, Gabrielle, don't say that. It's not true," she sobbed.
"Hey, it's okay," she said gently, squeezing her tightly. "I've had time to work it out and deal with most of it. You did what you thought was right for me and for the forty thousand souls. I understand that, but you have to understand that we're partners and we both did something wrong. You deceived me and I let you. I know you well enough I should have stopped you and I didn't."
Xena leaned back and looked into her eyes. "Gabrielle, I…"
"Hush. Let me have my say. You can argue all you want later, but let's not bore poor Tanaga with our domestic problems."
Gabrielle put her hand to her lips. "Xena, please. Later. I'm sorry this is hurting you but I have to get it out and you need to listen. I want you to know what I was thinking, and why I punished you and myself by leaving. Parts of it may be wrong, and you can correct me later, but I have to get it out now. There is a much more important issue here. Please."
Xena studied her soulmate, seeing new depths in her that she had barely seen before.
"Please, Xena," she whispered, her eyes pleading.
Xena nodded. "All right," she said, barely trusting her voice.
She returned to her chair and so did Gabrielle. Kishi was there and handed her a cloth to wipe her eyes then replaced her cold tea.
"Gabrielle, perhaps you would like to continue later. I can see that you are both upset," Tanaga said gently.
Gabrielle wiped her eyes then took up the little tea bowl. Thank you, Tanaga, but I would like to continue. I know this is upsetting to Xena, and to me, but I have something very important to talk to you about. All of this is just sort of setting the stage for what I have to discuss with you, so you'll understand. Please just give me a moment. I'll be fine."
"Very well, Gabrielle. But we can stop at any time."
They sat in silence listening to the soft rainfall outside. Tanaga sat patiently while Gabrielle stared into her tea and seemed far away. He was startled when she spoke without having moved.
"After Yodoshi was destroyed and the souls freed, I had the means to bring Xena back to life, but she stopped me. She said she had to stay dead to avenge the forty thousand souls. I was so stunned my mind just went blank. I know I pleaded with her and even argued with her but I don't really remember what I said or her answers, except that she continued to refuse me." Gabrielle sniffled and wiped her eyes again. "With the setting of the sun, the chance to return Xena to life was lost forever. She disappeared, leaving me alone on Mount Fuji. I spent the most horrible night of my life there, alone. In the predawn light, I started down the mountain hardly aware of what I was doing. Somewhere Xena caught up to me. I was shocked to see her again but couldn't really deal with her as a ghost. My thoughts were very confused, and at that time I was angry with her for stopping me from bringing her back. I was hurt and more upset than I have ever been. We came down the mountain together, but I would hardly speak to her and ignored her most of the time." She glanced at Xena seeing large tears rolling down her cheeks, then looked back to Tanaga, again wiping at her eyes.
"I know I hurt her, but I was hurting too much to be thinking straight." She sniffled again and wiped her eyes. "You pretty much know the rest. I met you and a few days later, I left Japa, fleeing from my problems, fleeing from Xena. I couldn't face her." She sipped at her tea and tried to smile a little without much success.
"I don't remember much of the trip to Chin, except that I could hardly function most of the time. Raiders tried to take the ship and I took my anger out on them. None survived. When I reached Chin, I left the coast, looking for a place to get away from everyone and everything. I traveled through the mountains, trapped for several days in a raging storm, but finally made it to a small mountain village."
She stopped and drained her tea. Kishi was right there to refill it and her father's.
"On the second day, I was in the stable with my horse. I was really down, just talking to her, and crying a little. I was trying to understand why, without having much success, I was so angry with Xena and why she had lied to me and."
She looked to Xena again.
"I had a visitor. Let me call him Shunji because I fear to say his name right now. Xena, please don't say his name. I'm afraid of summoning him and I don't want him to hear this." She turned back to Tanaga.
"In Greece, Shunji is our god of war, Tanaga." She almost giggled at the look on Tanaga's face.
"Why would he come to you in Chin, Gabrielle?" he asked.
"Let me first tell you this. As you already know from the people of Higuchi, when Xena was younger -- her first trip here -- she was a force for evil. She was Shunji's chosen, his tool for destruction."
His face was unreadable again but his eyes were hard.
"I don't tell you this to turn you against her, Tanaga. Xena changed. She became a force for good, but Shunji could never accept that. He has tried everything to get her back, without success. He thinks he loves her, but he doesn't. If he did, we wouldn't be having this conversation because he would have already brought her back. Shunji loves what she could do for him as a force for destruction."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Xena's eyebrow raise.
"Anyway, the point is he has always had what he calls a thing for her. With the death of the other gods," this time it was Tanaga's eyebrows that raised. "Shunji discovered his mortality was possible and the force that was killing the gods was his chosen, Xena."
"What?" he blurted, obviously shocked.
"It's a long story, Tanaga, but for a time Xena had the power to kill gods. She did so only because they were attacking her and her child. They believed Xena's child heralded the twilight of the gods. It turned out to be true, but only because of their determination to kill Xena's child. She lost that power but Shunji had tasted mortality and didn't like it. He became obsessed with insuring his immortality through a child and he wanted Xena to be the mother. She refused him. He even visited her after her death and promised to return her to life if she would give him a child."
She saw the startled look on Xena's face. "She refused him again but I imagine the pain of that refusal was great." Xena simply nodded, then bowed her head, the tears flowing again.
"I know it was painful because when she turned him down he came to me."
Xena's head came up and Gabrielle could tell that she had known he would try it with her, too.
"He waited until I was very low and crying my sorrows to my horse, then he came to me and offered to return Xena immediately, right then, if I would promise him a child." Tears fell from her eyes again at the memory. "I turned him down. He told me that all I had to do was call and he would answer, any time, and as soon as I gave him my word, he would bring Xena back to life."
Her sobs were met with shocked silence on Tanaga's part, and a look of painful understanding on Xena's.
"His offer made me sick, just thinking of a child under his power, his influence. I turned him down but it was hard because he offered me what I wanted most, right then. Just one word, a little promise, and he would return her." She wiped her eyes again.
"It backfired on him. The thought that he would sell Xena's life for a child and the thought that I even considered it for an instant so angered me that I attacked him."
Again, she could see the surprise on Tanaga's face.
"My sword was ineffective against him. He thought it was funny, but my words angered him and he nearly killed me. I'm afraid I goaded him into it, not afraid to die because in a way it would have solved many of my problems."
"No, Gabrielle," Xena said in a choked whisper, tears again running down her face.
"It didn't happen because he decided that's what I wanted and he wasn't about to give me anything I wanted."
She sipped her tea, wiping her own eyes then straightened in her chair.
"I needed you to know this and understand, Tanaga. The whole point of this is that Shunji has the power to return Xena to life and I want to figure out how to get him to do it without granting him what he wants, from either of us. I would die many times before I would ever give a child to him and I know Xena feels the same way."
"How can you think of forcing a god to do your will, Gabrielle? It is impossible," he said. "Gods do only what they want, no matter the cost."
"I know that, Tanaga, but I have a weapon. I just don't know how best to use it."
"A weapon? What sort of weapon would work against a god, Gabrielle?"
"A weapon of power, given me by Akemi."
Xena gasped. "Gabrielle…"
"Just wait, Xena. Akemi gave it to me to try to right some of the wrong she has done."
"You shouldn't trust her, Gabrielle," Xena warned."
"I know, she deceived me." Gabrielle spit out vehemently, looking directly at Xena, before she thought. She might as well have struck Xena a physical blow; the pain she caused was so intense. "I'm sorry, Xena," she said immediately and went to her. "That was a horrible thing to say. I'm so sorry."
Xena pushed away from her, looking as if she had been beaten. "It's all right, Gabrielle, I deserved it, it's true."
Gabrielle leaned down and took Xena's head in her hands, forcing her to look at her. "No, Xena, you didn't deserve that, but as you can see there is still some anger hidden away. There are still things we need to talk about, but I had to deal with Akemi first. I'm very sorry for saying that. I love you, Xena. I don't want to hurt you. Please bear with me." She pulled Xena's head against her chest stroking her hair. "You're my life, Xena, my soulmate. When I hurt you, I hurt myself. I'm sorry."
Tanaga felt awkward,
like an intruder in a very intimate moment, but all he could do was wait. It
amazed him that Xena seemed so real to Gabrielle when all he could see was a
tenuous wraith. Then he remembered. His daughters could not see her at all.
Gabrielle must look very strange indeed to them. He knew that her one-sided
conversations with Xena must seem bizarre. They were very unsettling to him
and he could see Xena respond, though he couldn't hear her either.
Gabrielle returned to her seat but still had hold of Xena's hand.
"I'm sorry, Tanaga. I'll try not to embarrass you any further. Like I said; Akemi gave me a weapon but neither of us is sure if it will be useful or not. She suggested I tell you our story and about her weapon. She thought maybe you could help us figure out what to do."
"I will try, Gabrielle. What is this weapon? Can I see it?"
"Yes. First I'll show it to you and then I'll show you some of what it can do." At his alarmed look, she smiled. "I promise not to destroy your house, Tanaga."
Gabrielle released Xena's hand and turned it palm upwards, opening her fingers. The golden spiral of light appeared in her hand and danced there silently. After a moment, she made it disappear and closed her hand.
"That's a weapon?" he asked.
"In a way, yes, but not here. Here it adds to the power of the dragon to protect me from spirit and god. Here it gives me illusion.
"If it doesn't work here, then where?"
"I'll show you. What you are about to see is an illusion," she said then turned to Xena. "Don't panic, Xena. I won't be hurt but it will look like I am. Trust me?"
"Yes." Xena answered obviously puzzled.
"All right, be prepared because this can be scary." She picked up her cold tea and took a drink. They heard the sound of tearing paper as something tore through the wall then the sound of an arrow as it imbedded itself in Gabrielle's chest. She gasped, slammed back against the chair, her hand going to her chest. Blood spurted from the wound, between her fingers, running over her chest and across her stomach. She gasped again; her eyes wide open in pain, then choked, coughing blood. Her head fell back against the chair and she sagged sideways, her eyes and mouth open.
They were horrorstricken, stunned into immobility. Kishi screamed and Noriko fainted.
Xena spun around and Tanaga followed her turn. Gabrielle stood near the wall. Xena looked back at her body then back to her, then rose on shaky legs. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle walked over to her and touched her and Xena flinched. "You're dead!"
"No, Xena. It's an illusion. I'm not dead but I am on the other side with you."
"I don't know, but it works. All I have to do is decide to do it and I'm here. I can also do this."
Xena was staring at herself. "Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle's dead girl, get over it." The voice and mannerisms were Xena's.
"That's not funny, Gabrielle."
Suddenly she looked angry and started to grow. Her eyes went red and her skin green, then scaly. She became the dragon on her back, towering over Xena. She roared and Xena felt scaly claws grip her neck.
"You think I'm not funny?" she bellowed. In the blink of an eye, Gabrielle stood in front of her again.
Gabrielle stood on the stern deck watching Japa disappear into the sea. It had been a month since her demonstration of the strange gift Akemi had given her and quite a lot had happened. After her little display, Xena had been very upset, afraid that the gift boded ill for Gabrielle, convinced Akemi was up to no good again. Xena may have forgiven Akemi, but she no longer trusted her in anything, especially when it came to Gabrielle. That night they had a serious argument and the following day Xena had gone to the teahouse and found Akemi still there. After a mostly one-sided argument, because Akemi wouldn't participate, a very frustrated Xena had returned, still not trusting Akemi's motives.
Tanaga had taken a different tack. He had asked many questions about Ares with a few about Akemi and her gift. He was hardly seen again for two weeks, except when he had questions. When he did appear, he would say very little except that he was still studying the matter, ask his questions, and then disappear again.
For most of that two weeks, Xena was all but intolerable, trying Gabrielle's patience until she had all she could do to be civil to her.
Finally, Tanaga had called them into a meeting and explained the results of his research. The golden spiral was ancient, hidden and vaguely mentioned in several tomes Tanaga tracked down at a monastery. It was called several different names; golden deceiver, sacred bridge, penetrator of the vale, and most insidiously, curtain of death. There were holes in what he knew and a lot of supposition, much too much to satisfy Xena, but Gabrielle absorbed his words and accepted them, thanking him deeply for helping her make a plan. She admitted the plan was only half formed and the fact that she would try to act on Tanaga's suppositions really irritated Xena. The name 'curtain of death' was more than Xena could tolerate. More arguments followed until Gabrielle got mad and demanded an end to it. She had made up her mind about what she was going to do and not even Xena was going to change her plans.
In their final argument, Xena had threatened to leave her for her own safety, to protect her from her folly. Gabrielle turned to her and said, "If that's what you have to do, Xena, then do it." She calmly slid one of her knives into her hand and pressed the blade against her chest, then told Xena if she left and prevented her from bringing her back, she would follow her into the afterlife. Xena was horrified and after more pleas for her to give up her crazy and dangerous plan, without result, had given in.
Just before they left, Gabrielle returned to the teahouse in defiance of Xena's pleas. She had to know why Akemi was still there. Akemi refused to tell her. After a bitter argument, she reluctantly explained that though both of them had released her, she could not leave unless the wrong she had done was made right. If they could not return Xena to life, then Akemi would be there forever.
They were leaving Japa for the final time and Gabrielle watched it disappear into the sea, still wishing she had never set eyes on the enchanting but deadly land. Contrary to what she admitted to Xena she was not sure her plan would work and knew it was very dangerous for her. Ares was still a god, and like most of them, without compassion or mercy. He may not be the brightest, something she was counting on, but he was dedicated. Privately she admitted it was more likely he would kill her than return Xena to life, but she had to try. Either way they would be together. Although she would prefer to grow old with Xena in this life, she would take what she could get. Being together with Xena in the afterlife or the next life was not something she feared and in some ways seemed preferable to her present existence, even with Xena's ghost.
A light pressure on her shoulder, with no other sensation, no warmth, or actual feeling of soft fingers, let her know Xena had joined her. Her soulmate was silent, waiting for her to speak and she delayed acknowledging her, except by a slight movement closer to her. Finally, she sighed as the top of Mt. Fuji disappeared beneath the waves.
"It's such a beautiful land, Xena, with so many enchanting things about it, but I have a request."
The pressure strengthened on her shoulder. "What's that?"
"When we make our travel plans in the future, can we skip Japa?"
Xena chuckled softly. "I think that can be arranged."
"I'll miss Tanaga," she continued softly.
"Me too, Gabrielle."
"Can I add to that list?" she asked, watching the surge and ebb of the sea as they rode the swells.
"The one we just put Japa on."
"There is a fantastic old gentleman I wish you had met in Chin, but I'd like to put Chin and Mongol on that list. I have more than enough unpleasant memories there."
Xena put her arms around her from behind and squeezed her. "That shouldn't be a problem either. I'll make a deal with you. You tell me about that trip and I promise to try my best to ensure we never have to go there again, okay?"
"Good, I like my stories best at bedtime. I miss you reading your scrolls."
"Bedtime stories, huh?"
"I think I can arrange that."
Gabrielle lifted her belongings and stepped ashore looking along the waterfront. It looked familiar but somehow older, shabbier and even smaller than she remembered. What had it been, two years since they had left Athens? Had it even been that long? She started along the waterfront and entered the Broken Mast, one of the many taverns along the piers. It was a rough place but not as rough as some of the others. She glanced over the dimly lit room. It looked just the way she remembered it, even to some of the people. She took a table in the corner, isolated from everyone else.
All eyes followed her to her table, noting first the beautiful face and graceful figure, then the lithe movements, the abundance of weapons, and the sinister dragon on her back. They decided this one was best if left alone. Few had ever seen a beautiful woman that radiated so much confidence in her abilities. She wasn't tall or particularly strong looking but her movements reminded them of a stalking panther. None doubted she knew how to use her weapons.
A young lad of maybe seven or eight summers came to her table.
"What's for ya, then?" he asked.
Gabrielle smiled at him. "Do you think I could get a bite of lunch and some cold cider?"
"Aye, it's a bit late for lunch but we'll find something."
He left and returned shortly with the cider then headed for the kitchen.
As she lifted the mug, the conversations in the room resumed. She took a long drink to wash out some of the sea from her dry mouth then set it down smiling at Xena. "I've missed this," she whispered, sighing.
Xena smiled at her obvious pleasure. "Doesn't take much to make you happy."
The boy brought a trencher with some meat, cheese, and bread.
Gabrielle dug right in. "Oh, Xena, this is heaven after two years of strange foods!" she said, again in a whisper. She sliced off another piece of meat and a bit of cheese then went to work on them.
Two brawny men entered the room and glanced around. The larger one elbowed the smaller when he saw Gabrielle alone.
"Looks like you're going to have company, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, I see them," she said, still working on a piece of cheese and apparently not paying attention.
They swaggered over to her table. "Push over blondie, we're joining ya," the bigger man said.
Gabrielle pushed the little bit of cheese she was still holding into her mouth, licked her fingers, then looked up at him as she lay her dagger down on the table. "I don't think so. If you're smart you'll let a girl finish her meal in peace."
He laughed and took a step towards her. "I said mov…"
She was standing and there was a wicked looking curved sword jabbing his neck. Cold green eyes looked up at him.
"If your friend doesn't drop that knife I'll have to slit your throat," she said, then looked to his friend. "I'd be quick. My blade is very sharp. I might get nervous and lean on it a little too hard and your poor friend's head would just come right off."
"Do as she says, Cleon!" the bigger man said in a quaking voice. He could swear she had become taller and her voice had deepened but the thing that frightened him the most was a sudden red glow to her eyes.
"Hurry, Cleon," Gabrielle said. "Already he's bleeding."
Cleon dropped the knife and her eyes turned to the big man in front of her. "Drop your own knife, very carefully."
He did as she asked.
"Cleon, get the door for your friend. He's leaving," Gabrielle said. The smaller man hurried to the door and opened it. The entire room was watching this new entertainment.
"All right, very slowly start backing up." He took a step backwards. "Good boy, keep going." He backed again and in that manner, she walked him backwards to the door. "Okay. There is a little drop as you go through the door. After you get through you can turn around. Then if I were you, I would become very scarce. If you bother me again I might forget my manners, understand?"
"Yes," he said in a subdued voice.
"Don't forget to take your little friend with you. Now step back carefully." He did so. "Now turn around and run." She watched them run down the pier and into a nearby alley then returned to her table to the sound of applause. Her audience had quite enjoyed her performance.
Xena was still sitting in her place across from Gabrielle, grinning.
"It's so good to be back home," Gabrielle murmured.
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, where the slime just oozes out of the woodwork."
The boy brought her another cider, then refused her money saying she had paid amply for her meal by running that bully Scopas off.
When she stepped out of the inn, her horse was tethered near the ship with one of the seamen watching her and her tack.
Gabrielle handed the man a coin for watching her stuff then went to her horse and rubbed her nose. "How you doing, girl? Glad to be off that ship I'll bet." The horse playfully pushed her nose into Gabrielle's belly then snorted.
"Hey, watch it, Aphra, that's not nice," she said, but she was grinning.
"You never did tell me how you came to name her Aphra."
"I didn't?" Gabrielle asked as she rubbed the horse's neck.
"Nope. You name her after a long lost grandmother or something?"
"No, actually I named her after a friend I kind of missed."
"I don't recall any friend named Aphra, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle turned to her. "There isn't one. It's short for Aphrodite. I thought it sounded better than Aphro."
"Aphrodite? You named her after Aphrodite?"
"Yeah. I thought it was kind of cute."
Xena shook her head. "That could be bad."
"Because, if she hates it she might turn you into a frog or something and if she likes it you'll never get rid of her."
"She doesn't do frogs, Xena," Gabrielle remarked, as she picked up her horse blanket and tossed it on Aphra.
"Yeah well, in your case she might make an exception."
Gabrielle settled the saddle and cinched it down. "Aphrodite's not like that, Xena and you know it. She's sweet and she's a good friend."
"She's a pain in the…"
"Xena, stop it! That isn't nice," Gabrielle chided. "If she hears you she'll turn you into a frog."
"Well, that's got me shaking in my boots." Xena remarked sarcastically. "Besides, didn't you just say she doesn't do frogs?"
Gabrielle placed her waterskin on the saddle, then climbed aboard, looking down at Xena. "You coming, or are you going to just stand here all day and smear my friends?"
"Hum, tough choice," Xena answered, then grinned. "Right behind you." She vaulted into the saddle behind Gabrielle. Gabrielle turned to the main way and started off at a slow walk because of the heavy traffic.
It was a cool dry evening and they had camped beside a small stream. Gabrielle had taken care of her horse, done her practices then had a small dinner and a bath. Now she was sitting on her bedroll in her nightshift mending a tear in her skirt. She really needed a new outfit but there was no sense doing that yet. Xena sat on a nearby log watching her sew up the little tear.
A pink mist appeared in front of Gabrielle and Aphrodite appeared, clad in next to nothing as usual, hands on hips glaring down at Gabrielle.
"Aphrodite, what's wrong?" Gabrielle asked as she stood up.
"Where is she? I heard what that mean spirited tramp you travel with called me! I was just too busy to get away or I would have turned her into a frog! Where is she!"
"She's right behind you, Aphrodite."
Aphrodite spun around. "Where? I don't see her, she's hid…." She gasped. "Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry! I didn't know!" she said and took Xena in her arms, hugging her. "I'm sorry. I'm really really sorry, Xena!"
Xena was rigid with embarrassment but Aphrodite didn't seem to notice. She released Xena and ran to Gabrielle, hugging her. "I'm so sorry, little one! You must be devastated."
"Thank you, Aphrodite."
"What happened?" she asked looking from one to the other.
"Xena gave her life to rescue some people, Aphrodite."
Aphrodite led Gabrielle to a log and sat down with her, keeping her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "You have to tell me everything, Gabrielle, I insist. It's just horrible, I can't bear it!" she rambled on and Gabrielle knew it would be a long night, unless she got lucky. "Okay, but can you do something for me?"
"Oh, absolutely, little one, what is it?"
"Can you kind of hide us from other gods and spirits while we talk. There's someone I don't want to hear this story."
"No problem," she said then pressed her finger to her cheek. "Let's see, how did that go?" Xena's eyes rolled and Gabrielle smiled sheepishly at her, shrugging her shoulders. "Oh, yes, That's it… I think." She said something strange then turned back to Gabrielle. "Okay, that should do it. Now, tell me how tall, dark, and deadly screwed up, then I want to see my namesake."
Although Gabrielle cut the story to just the essentials, she got very little sleep. Aphrodite kept asking questions that required further details, which resulted in more questions.
Aphrodite had lost her pique at Xena the instant she discovered she was on the wrong side of the curtain of death. She then became irate with Ares when she found out he had known for a long time. She explained that she had been so busy in the future, where her influence needed a boost, that she hadn't thought to check on them.
When Gabrielle was through, Aphrodite was going to confront Ares and let him know she didn't approve of his meanness or his keeping her friend's problems from her. Gabrielle spent nearly an hour calming the goddess down and convincing her that Ares couldn't know any of this and shouldn't even know they were in Greece yet, if possible. It took her another half-hour to get her to agree not to tell anyone what was going on. Then she wanted to help put that selfish man in his place and they had to convince her to stay out of it and away from Ares altogether so he didn't suspect. That offended her and Gabrielle had to spend more time massaging her ego, convincing her that her time would be better spent spreading love in the world. By the time she had met Aphra, cooed over her, then said her good-byes, Gabrielle was exhausted. She slumped down on her bedroll.
"Finally," she moaned.
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, well don't get too comfortable. The sun will be up shortly."
Gabrielle cracked an eye open. "Why do I detect a note of smugness in your voice, Xena?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't go all innocent on me. I know you better than that."
"Well, since you know me so well, why ask me? You should already know."
Gabrielle rose to her feet and approached her. "You're thinking she'll blab everything and I'll have to call it off, aren't you?"
Xena shrugged, but couldn't suppress a slight grin. "She means well, Gabrielle, but we both know she's just a little scatterbrained and irresponsible. She's probably already blurted it out to someone."
"I don't think so, miss smarty. She promised me."
"Oh, come on, Gabrielle. Aphrodite couldn't keep a promise in a metal box."
"Oh! You are so mean sometimes, Xena. Aphrodite is a good friend of mine and she promised me. She'll keep her word, wait and see."
Xena studied her for a minute. "Look, can we change the subject? You're getting upset."
"If you don't like me getting upset, then don't pick on my friends when they aren't here to protect themselves," she answered.
Xena sighed. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I don't mean to upset you. I actually like Aphrodite. I just think you know how she is, and you can't trust her. I know she wouldn't do it intentionally, Gabrielle. It's just the way she is. Just don't count on her. You'll be disappointed."
"We'll see," Gabrielle answered. "In the meantime, it's time we started getting in character, just in case you know who shows up.
"I still don't like this, Gabrielle," Xena said.
"So you've told me, more than once. Just do your part and I'll do mine. Let it play out, Xena."
Xena sighed. "You're the boss."
"Good. Now that that's settled. Give me a minute to get packed then come after me."
"We've got a ways to go yet. Are you sure you can keep up the illusions that long?"
"This is where we find out. Look, I've been worried since we landed. Now that we're this close, he's bound to find out sooner or later. He's always had a way of knowing when you're around. I just want to be ready when he shows up."
"All right. It's your game."
Gabrielle whirled back to her, her eyes hard.
"This isn't a game, Xena. It's for your life. There is nothing more serious to me."
"At the risk of your life and there's nothing more serious to me," Xena retorted.
"Then do your part and give me the best chance, because I'm going to do this," she answered, getting right in her face.
Xena nodded reluctantly. "All right. We do it your way, but if I'm going to play the bitch again you better be on your toes, little girl."
Gabrielle grinned. "Just you be on yours."
"Get going. I need to chase you for a while. You look much too good, to convince anyone you are being chased by that monster."
Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed her. "Good luck to both of us."
"Yeah, Just you be extra careful. I don't need him bringing me back to find you dead."
"Hey. Have a little faith. We've been in worse situations."
"I don't think so, Gabrielle. Shunji may not be the smartest sometimes, but he's not a fool. We're going to have to make this brutally real and I'm afraid for you." A pink cloud appeared near them. "Oh, great. Just what we need."
"I heard that, Xena!" Aphrodite said staring daggers at her, though with her disposition they probably had hearts on them.
"Sorry, Aphrodite," Xena mumbled as her eyes rolled back in her head.
"You should be. I just came to help."
"Aphrodite, I thought we had this all settled," Gabrielle said.
Aphrodite turned to Gabrielle looking worried. "Well, uh, yeah. Oh, Gabrielle, I couldn't leave without helping you!"
"This'll be good," Xena mumbled.
"You be quiet, Xena, or I will turn you into a frog, no, a toad. A warty old toad."
"Xena shook her head and walked away."
"Aphrodite, what have you done?" Gabrielle asked, afraid of the answer.
The goddess turned back to her. "Oh. Um. Oh, Gabrielle, I just thought, well, ah…"
"Aphrodite! What did you do!" she growled.
Aphrodite winced. "Well, I ah," she sighed. "You know who was away stirring up trouble so I sort of made his temple more amenable to love, is all."
Gabrielle groaned. "Aphrodite I don't want him to fall in love with me! And what if he gets wind of what you've done, then he will know something is up!"
"Oh, no, little one. He won't fall in love with you, but he's going to be even more wacko over miss sweet and light over there. Don't worry. He won't find what I did. I can be subtle."
Aphrodite turned on her. "You know I've had just about enough of you, blue eyes! If it wasn't for my good friend being in so much pain over you -- though I'll never understand why -- I'd sic cupid on you and have him make you fall in love with an ass. That's donkey to you, warrior bitch. I came to help you too, but I've half a mind to forget it."
Xena had to bite her tongue at the retort that popped into her head and she did feel kind of bad. She did like Aphrodite; she was good intentioned and she always tried to do something nice. She couldn't help it if she was forgetful. "I'm sorry, Aphrodite. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," she said.
"Yeah well just you remember who your friends are, Xena. Now, I brought you something to help you."
"I hesitate to ask what," Xena remarked.
Aphrodite frowned at her, but ignored her remark. After all, she was helping her friend, Gabrielle, not this ingrate. "Well, if you are going to do this I thought it would be more realistic without you limping along behind Gabrielle. I mean how are you ever supposed to catch her without a horse, so…." A horse appeared between them and Xena's jaw dropped as her eyes watered up.
The horse turned to her and whinnied, nodding her head.
"Oh, Argo!" Xena wrapped her arms around the horse's neck.
Aphrodite beamed and turned to an amazed Gabrielle and winked. "I knew that tough old hide had a soft heart in there," she said.
Gabrielle hugged her. "Thank you, Aphrodite! You have no idea what this means to her."
"Of course I do, little one. I'm in the love business, remember?"
Gabrielle!" Xena screamed then flipped into a summersault off the little hill pulling her sword.
Gabrielle scrambled from her blanket grabbing up her katana. "Xena, stop it!"
Xena grinned, her eyes feral slits. "Oh, I'll stop. Right after I carve your traitorous hide into fish food!" She attacked her and Gabrielle defended herself, backing away.
"Xena! I didn't do it!"
"Yeah, it was some other little blonde bitch warrior!" she shouted as she attacked her again. After a moment, Xena broke it off glaring at her. "Come on blondie, give it up. You can't win. You can't hurt me, you know that."
"I don't want to hurt you, Xena. I love you," Gabrielle gasped out as she tried to catch her breath.
Xena's laugh was cruel. "Oh yeah, right. That's why I've got this knife in my back, right?"
"I didn't betray you, Xena. You have to believe me," Gabrielle pleaded.
"Oh I do, Gabrielle," she said, then laughed. "I just thought I should repay you for getting me killed!" She attacked her again. "Akemi told me all the sweet things you've done for me. She was very cooperative, with a little persuasion and since she's on this side, I get a new chance to carve her up every day. After I kill you and get you on this side, I'm gonna peel you like a grape, daily, just to hear you scream. I don't like people that betray me!"
"I didn't, Xena!" Gabrielle said, tears flowing down her face as she fought her off.
Xena's sword sliced through her left arm and across her chest and Gabrielle screamed. "So nice of her to give you that dragon, Gabrielle. Makes it easier for me to get to you!' Her blade drew a red line across Gabrielle's stomach and Xena laughed. "You bleed nicely, bitch!" She struck out with her fist and Gabrielle was thrown backwards. She landed on her back and rolled away from Xena, getting to her feet and leaping onto her saddled and waiting horse. All she left behind was her blanket.
Xena laughed and sent her war cry after her. "You can run, Gabrielle, but you can't hide!" she yelled after her, then laughed again. She watched her ride off into the distance. Suddenly she sniffed the air and chuckled as she turned. "Now there's a stink I haven't smelled in a while. Show yourself, Ares!"
Ares appeared in his usual dramatic flash of light, clapping his hands. "Well, well. That's the best entertainment I've seen in a long time. I don't know how you do it, Xena, but if anyone could find a way to fight from the other side, it had to be you!" He grinned. "So she betrayed you, huh? Now there's poetic justice. I told you long ago she was an irritating little blonde and you shouldn't trust her."
Xena lowered her sword, then slid into back into her scabbard.
"Yeah, so you're a prophet. Fat lot of good it did me."
"So what happened? Last I saw you, you were all weepy over little miss innocent."
"She betrayed me!"
"Yeah, yeah, I got that part. How'd you catch her out?"
Xena growled, clenching her fists in anger. "I caught her accomplice in a lie. After a little friendly persuasion, she spilled her guts, metaphorically speaking since I'd already done the real thing for her. Did you know that pain hurts just as much over here only you get to do it again the next day?"
"Yeah. I've passed out a little pain to the dead myself," he admitted. "So how come that little blonde piece of fluff is still alive, Xena? You losing your touch?"
Xena growled and looked daggers at him. "Watch it, Ares. I'm not in the mood."
"Oh my, touchy aren't we?"
She growled again and he held up his hands.
"Okay, okay. Hey, I'm on your side. I never liked that little slut anyway. She was always messing up my plans."
"Yeah, whatever. I feel for you, but I got a traitor to catch. Take off." She turned away from him.
"Whoa, Xena. Hold up a minute!" he said.
She turned back to him. "I don't have time for your games, Ares."
"No games, Xena. I just thought, you know, you scratch my back, I scratch yours."
She snorted. "You don't have anything I want, Ares."
"I could deliver the blonde to you, nice and easy, Xena."
"Oh, aren't we generous all of a sudden. Which leg do you want for this little favor? Let me guess. Couple of brats, maybe? Thanks, but no thanks, Ares. I've got big plans and they don't include waddling around like a fat brood mare for you. Besides, chasing that little bitch down and carving her up bit by bit is half the fun."
"Xena, come back to me," he said, "I'll make you a god. I'll fix it so you can torture her forever, if you want. I'll give you armies and anything else you want, just come back," he said in his smoothest voice.
"Oh, right. You'll do all this for me and I don't have to give anything back. Come on, Ares. We've been over all this. Besides, I really don't need you. I'm working out how to get all that myself. Once I gut that little traitor I'm gonna get back to the business of taking over some territory. Go back to your dismal little temple and play god, Ares. I have serious stuff to do." She turned away again and disappeared into the brush, emerging a moment later on Argo.
"Nice horse, Xena." He called. "I could bring her and you back. Just say the word.
"Thanks, Ares. That's real big of you."
She nudged Argo into a gallop after Gabrielle.
Ares watched her go. "Yes!" he shouted when she was gone. His warrior was back. He could sense it. He grinned. Time to lay a few traps for her to fall into. He'd get her back. He disappeared in a blue flash.
Gabrielle squatted by the stream, filling her waterskin and splashing water on her face. It had been two days and Xena was relentless. She had had very little sleep, and hardly any food. She splashed her face once more and closed her waterskin then climbed wearily into the saddle. Her senses warned her and she dodged the sword, kicking her horse. Afra jumped her away from Xena and she made it up the other side of the ridge and into the open. She was near her limit and stumbled then went gamely on. The exhausted horse didn't have it in her anymore and Argo caught up to her easily. Xena dove across and knocked Gabrielle from the saddle.
Gabrielle rolled to her feet and so did Xena. Gabrielle's katana deflected her sword and Xena backed off grinning. They both saw the bright blue light that heralded Ares arrival.
"I gotta hand it to you blondie. You learned well." Xena said.
"Can we please stop this, Xena, and talk about it," Gabrielle pleaded. "I didn't betray you,"
"Right, and I didn't die from your betrayal either. This is all just a pleasant little dream." She attacked her again and her sword gashed Gabrielle's cheek.
"Oh, I like that," Xena said. She attacked her again and when she got a chance hit her hard on the jaw. As Gabrielle spun Xena's sword sliced across her back laying her open to the bone. Gabrielle screamed, managing to get away and block her next blow.
"Ouch," Ares winced. "That's gotta hurt, blondie!"
Suddenly Xena kicked her in the stomach then kneed her in the face and Gabrielle landed hard on her back, her face a bloody mess. She lay there gasping, looking up at Xena.
"I can't do this anymore, Xena," she gasped.
"I can!" Xena said and kicked her in the ribs. "Get up blondie. I want to be eye to eye with you when I cut your heart out." She kicked her again and backed off. "Get up!"
Slowly Gabrielle got up and faced Xena. Then she tossed her katana down. "I won't fight you anymore, Xena."
"That's okay. I was getting bored anyway," she said, then drove her sword into Gabrielle's chest up to the hilt. "Time for you to die, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle groaned and shuddered, doubling over against Xena's arm. Tears streamed down her face as she looked up at the warrior. Blood ran from her mouth onto Xena's hand.
"I love you, Xena," she gasped out.
"Yeah, me too, kid. Let me show you how much." She grabbed her by the hair, jerked her sword free, and slit her throat, still holding her by the hair. "See you on this side, bitch. That's when the fun begins," she said then shoved her away.
Gabrielle landed on her back and Xena stood over her grinning as she died.
Xena kicked her.
Ares applauded. "I love to watch you work, Xena."
Xena looked up as if just realizing he was here. "Don't you have some godly things to do, Ares?" She sheathed her sword then picked Gabrielle up and tossed her over Aphra's back. She picked up the katana and slid it into its sheath.
"What are you doing, Xena?"
"Mementos. I promised myself I'd feed her to the fishes on the way back to Japa."
"Why are you going back and how do you propose to get there?"
Xena leaned on Aphra's hindquarters and looked over at him. "You're beginning to bore me with all these questions, Ares."
"Sorry. Uh, why don't you come over to my place and I'll fix you a meal fit for a queen?"
"Ares, are you denser than usual? In case you missed it, I'm dead. You know, like cold meat, a stiff, like this one here." She smacked Gabrielle's backside "As you should know, on this side of the curtain food isn't an issue."
"Come on, Xena. I'm a god, remember. I can make that meal happen for you, while we talk. Do you even remember what a nice leg of lamb is like? How about bread, and cheese, or the old standby, rabbit? Maybe some strawberries? You always liked strawberries. How about some ale? I know you liked ale." He could see the hunger growing in her eyes. "Maybe some nice wines." She groaned at the ale and gave in at the wines. He had her.
"All right! Stop!" She leveled a finger at him. "This doesn't mean I'm committing to anything!"
"No, of course not. Just a nice meal and some conversation for old times sake."
"I said all right. Grab the reins of this nag."
"Xena, I don't do horses," he said.
"Look, Ares. If you want my company for a little while you need to be more receptive to my needs. I need this load of garbage where I can keep an eye on it. Now there are things I can do and things I can't. Dragging this nag around isn't on the list of things that are easy for me to do, okay. I can do it, but I won't be happy, and neither will the horse, which means I'm probably just going to point this flea bitten beast towards the coast. Your choice."
"All right! I'll pull it." He took the reins as if they might bite him.
Xena snorted. "Big old tough god, we have here." She went and got Argo. "Lead off Ares. If I remember right we don't have far to go."
He pulled on the reins rather timidly and Aphra stepped towards him. He nearly tripped over his own feet trying to get out of her way, looking up sheepishly at Xena. She rolled her eyes and snorted. "Oh yeah, I can see where you'd be a real asset as a partner,"
When they got to the entrance of the temple, he stopped and turned to her. "The hay burners stay outside, Xena."
"Yeah, yeah. Afraid they'll clash with your skull and bones décor, Ares?"
"Very funny, Xena. I'll have you know I've fixed the place up for you."
"Well, I hope you don't have any white rugs or anything."
"Because blondie here is bleeding all over everything." She hoisted Gabrielle onto her shoulder.
"Why are you taking her with you? I'm not feeding her. In case you didn't notice you skewered her."
"Right. I leave her out here and either wolves drag her off or you get rid of her. She's mine. She's my entertainment for a few weeks of a very boring trip back to Japa." She started walking towards the cave and he followed.
"So how does a ghost, even a lovely one like you, manage to get passage on a boat, with accommodations for dead bodies?" he asked.
"I have friends, on both sides of the curtain. It was arranged for me in Japa."
"Why go back there?"
She snorted then turned around to face him. "You know that growth on your shoulders?"
"Yeah, well most people, and I assumed gods, but I could be wrong on that; most of them have a brain in there. They use it for stuff like thinking. You should try it sometime. I already told you. I'm dead. Now in case you weren't paying attention for most of your life, there aren't a whole lot of countries over here for me to conquer. I sort of have to be over there." She turned away from him and entered his temple.
This was his temple of temples, hidden in the desolate canyon and known only to a very few of his minions. Xena had been here several times, but usually he just transported her. She had actually ridden up to the front door only once before. She stopped inside the door and looked around.
"Very nice, Ares. What do you call it, dusty decay? Where's the food?"
"Follow me, this way," he answered, ignoring her sarcasm. He led her down a short corridor and into a dining room with a long table already set with food, just waiting for her.
She looked around and smiled. "Oh look, over there. A white rug." She walked over to it and dumped Gabrielle's body on it. "Oops. The girl has no respect, Ares. She bled on your rug." She turned back to him and rubbed her hands together. "You mentioned food? I get really hungry after I kill traitors." She looked down at Gabrielle. Gabrielle's open eyes stared back at her sightlessly. "You know, she got off lucky. I should have taken much longer to kill her."
Ares sat with a goblet of wine, leaning back in his chair, one foot propped on the edge of the table, watching his chosen gorge herself with appropriate moans and groans as she enjoyed the sensations of taste again. She swallowed and picked up her goblet draining it, then grabbed the mug of ale and took a large drink.
"Oh, gods! I'd forgotten what a pleasure food and drink can be!"
Ares chuckled. "Slow down and enjoy it, Xena."
"Um, I can't! It's so good!" She bit into a succulent strawberry and closed her eyes moaning in pleasure.
"I could do this for you all the time, Xena. Just join me as my warrior queen and you can have anything you want."
"Not while I'm eating, Ares."
He grinned at her. "You know you want to, Xena."
"Okay, I'll admit it's attractive, especially with a feast like this for persuasion, but…." she shook her head after biting into another strawberry. "You're too stifling, Ares. No, I have a better Idea. I'll take my boring little trip back to Japa, feeding the fishes along the way. I'll go back to my little mystic, the one that gave me the ability to kill my little traitor. Then we proceed with our plans to return me to the living, like we were going to do before I discovered blondie had stuck a knife in my back." She leaned forward conspiratorially. " He's kind of like you, he thinks he can control me. We won't tell him he's wrong. Not right away anyway."
"But I can return you to life right now, Xena. You're practically there as it is; how do you think you're enjoying that food? Think of all the time that would save."
"What's time to me, Ares? I'm dead remember, condemned to eternity in this dreary existence. A few months won't matter to me."
Ares saw the movement and his eyes flicked to the body in the corner. It was still there but Gabrielle was right behind Xena. He started to speak but it was too late. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hair from behind and pulled her head back hard then drove her dagger through the chair into Xena's back. Gabrielle looked at Ares and grinned, her green eyes flashed red. Then she stepped around where Xena could see her, still holding her head back.
"Rude of you to start without me, Xena."
"Gabrielle," Xena said through gritted teeth.
"Good guess. Goodbye, Xena. She leaned down and kissed her then drove her knife into Xena's side, twisting it cruelly. Xena gasped, and pain filled her eyes with tears. Gabrielle stood up and backed away from her. "Sweet dreams, love."
"I'll be back… tomorrow." Xena managed, in a gurgling whisper as blood ran from the corner of her mouth.
Gabrielle smiled. I'm counting on it, Xena. I owe you big time."
Xena's head fell forward against her chest and she sagged in the chair. Gabrielle turned to Ares.
"What do you think of your Chosen now, Ares?"
Ares stood up shaking his head. "I wish you hadn't done that, Gabrielle. I like her much more than I like you."
"Oh, big surprise there, Ares."
"Now I'm gonna have to kill you."
"I'm already dead, in case your memory is worse that I thought it was. Look for yourself. White rug. Dead body."
"No, I mean like permanently. Snuff you out of existence." He raised his hand and it began to glow, then he tossed a bolt of fire at her.
She caught it, looked it over, and then tossed it back. "I don't think so, Ares," she said scornfully. "Little gods like you don't have a chance against me. I'm much too powerful for you!" Her eyes turned red and she started to grow."
"You did betray her!" Ares shouted.
"Well, of course I did! Gods, Ares, you are so dumb sometimes! Who wouldn't for power like this?" she said, laughing. She started to grow and began to turn green and scaly.
"You can't hurt me, Gabrielle!" he said, backing away from her.
"Well now, see, that's where you're wrong, Ares. As that heap of rags over there in the corner I couldn't hurt you, but this sweet little innocent you see growing up right before your eyes is going to become the dragon you may have noticed on my back. That lovely creature is very powerful in the spirit world, and will tear you apart with its sparkling white teeth and beautiful long talons." Her voice deepened as she continued to grow. "I can taste you already, little god."
He tried to leave and she laughed.
"No, no, not nice. No popping out and hiding. I control this place now, and even though you are not on the list of people I plan to keep around, I'll arrange your exit myself. This 'irritating little blonde' is fed up with you and your nasty comments. You, my dearly, nearly departed god, are about to be history. The only one that could have saved you is bleeding all over your furniture. By the time she comes back tomorrow you will be history and I will have her under complete control. Oh, uh, Ares? If you have a god you pray to, now is the appropriate time."
She completed her transformation then reared back on her hind legs, her wings beating slightly. She reached long bone white talons towards him, her head dropped towards him on her sinewy neck as she opened her mouth to reveal razor sharp teeth then roared at him.
He dodged around the table. When he got to Xena, he pulled her into his arms and placed his hand on her forehead. "Come on, Xena. I need you!"
White light flared and Xena gasped. Gabrielle roared, knocking over his chair, crushing the end of the table, and starting around it towards him.
"Xena!" Ares cried, dragging her backwards with him.
"Huh? What?" Xena said, shaking her head. "Stop shouting."
"Stop her, Xena!" he said, backing further away from the stalking dragon.
" Who? What are you talking about?"
"The dragon, Xena. Stop the dragon!"
Gabrielle bellowed for emphasis.
"Oh, yeah, um, okay. Let me go."
Ares released her and backed away. "Stop her, Xena!"
Xena was standing as if dazed, rubbing her temples. The huge dragon was suddenly right in front of her. Burning red eyes lowered to look her right in the eye. The dragon wrapped its talons around her waist and lifted her into the air.
"Um, what's happening?" Xena asked, shaking her head. The dragon roared. "Ooh, hold it down, Gabrielle. I have a splitting headache. The dragon roared softer. "What? Oh, yeah, I'm okay. Put me down."
To Ares amazement, the dragon complied, setting her gently back on the floor. She made her shaky way to the table and drained a mug of ale, plopping into a chair. "Wow, this being reborn stuff really takes it out of you. Hey, Ares, what about my horse? Did you bring her back, too?"
"Let's just worry about the important stuff, Xena, like this dragon that's got me trapped in the corner!" He tried to sink into the rock as she slid closer, her long forked tongue slithering in and out.
Xena turned her head to look in his direction. "Oh, yeah. Gabrielle, I told you not to play with your food." The dragon roared and Ares closed his eyes as those frightening teeth got closer. "Let him go, if you're gonna be a tease."
Red eyes studied him and she roared again.
"Ares, she said she'll trade your worthless carcass for Argo, what do you think? You want to let her have her way or not?"
"What happens if I refuse?" he asked staring back at those red eyes.
"Oh, well, I should think that's pretty obvious, even to someone like you. Dragons are always hungry and so hard to fill up." She lifted a wine cup and took a long drink as Gabrielle bellowed again, closer so he could get a good look at her teeth.
"All right! Make her back off!"
"Give the man some room to work, Gabrielle," Xena said. Gabrielle roared again but backed up a bit. "Hold it down, Gabrielle. The headache, remember?"
"All right Xena, you've got your horse back." There was no answer. The dragon still stood before him. "Xena, I said I returned your horse! Get this… thing out of my face!"
To his amazement, the dragon began to dissolve. He blinked and it was gone. Xena was still seated in the chair. Gabrielle was in her lap her arms wrapped tightly around the warrior kissing her. Ares looked over in the corner. No body, no blood, just a nice white rug.
"Xena! You tricked me!"
Xena broke the kiss and looked over at him. "No, I didn't. The irritating blonde did."
"I'll kill her!" he shouted and started towards them.
Suddenly he was off the ground, his face inches from a row of razor teeth, the roar of the dragon nearly deafening him.
"Okay, okay," he said in a strained voice. "I got the message. Take it easy, Gabrielle."
A pink glow suffused the air of the temple and Aphrodite appeared. "Oh, Gabrielle, please don't hurt him! He isn't much, but he's all the family I have left."
"Am I the only one that sees a dragon here?" Ares asked as she gently lowered him to the floor.
The sounds of wood striking wood filled the little glade as the warriors fought in the golden sunlight of early morning. Glistening sweat covered their bodies, plastering their hair against their heads. Sweat stung their eyes; their chests heaved as they gasped for breath and their muscles trembled, with the exertion, as they maneuvered for advantage. Neither seemed able to best the other, their wooden staffs a blur as they battled. It seemed to go on forever, an intense yet graceful conflict; a deadly dance.
Suddenly the taller warrior stepped back. "Enough, Gabrielle," she said, and the battle was over. They both dropped their staffs and rested their hands on their knees, gasping for air.
"Are you sure you've finally had enough, Xena?" Gabrielle asked as she moved away slightly, leaned over and snagged a waterskin. She pitched it through the air to her soulmate.
Xena absentmindedly caught it. "Yeah, I've had enough, Gabrielle, thanks. I've really missed our sparring."
"I think you're out of shape, Xena," she remarked, her breathing still fast and her heart still pounding.
"You seem to be better than I remember you were, Gabrielle."
"I doubt it, Xena. Maybe you're just getting old."
"Oh!" she exclaimed glaring at her soulmate. "That wasn't nice! Just for that I want my chakram back."
"Not a problem, grandma. You probably need all the help you can get."
"Gabrielle, I'm warning you."
"Oh, that's got me scared. Here, careful you don't hurt yourself." She tossed the chakram to her.
Xena reached for it and seemed to just barely miss it. It dropped to the ground.
"Eyesight's going too, I see," Gabrielle remarked.
Xena growled threateningly, as she leaned over and scooped up the chakram. She hooked it to her skirt. The chakram rang slightly as it hit a stone. She looked down at it strangely.
"Are you okay, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly concerned, the banter forgotten. Xena never dropped anything.
She slowly bent down and picked up the chakram, looking at it oddly but holding out her hand to stop Gabrielle.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, starting towards her, then stopping at her raised hand.
Xena looked up. "Here, catch." She tossed the chakram. It landed at Gabrielle's feet. They both looked down at it in surprise. Gabrielle squatted down and picked it up, starting to hook in on her belt.
"No, throw it back," Xena said.
Gabrielle looked up at her uncertainly. "You sure?"
"Yes. Throw it."
Gabrielle hesitated, then sighed, and carefully tossed it to her. She missed it.
"Xena, this isn't funny."
"Yeah," she said absently. She stooped and picked it up, running her hand along the flat side of the weapon. Suddenly she turned and hurled it with all her strength towards a tree. It curved away from the tree and dropped into the dirt."
"Xena? What is it?" Gabrielle asked as she came up beside her.
"I can't control it," she said, then turned slowly to her soulmate at the undertone of mirth in her voice.
"Gabrielle," she said in a threatening tone.
Gabrielle backed away from her a little. "What?" she asked, her face radiating innocence.
"Give me the chakram," Xena growled
"Get it yourself. You threw it over there."
Xena reached for her and Gabrielle dodged aside.
"I'm gonna have to hurt you, you little rat," Xena growled. She jumped at her and Gabrielle managed to avoid her, squealing.
"Okay! I give!" Gabrielle squawked as she dodged her again. "Here, take it!" She held out the chakram and Xena grabbed it, giving her a dangerous glare.
"That's not funny, Gabrielle!" She carefully dropped it on the hook at her hip and it stayed there. She glared back at Gabrielle. "This better not be a habit I'm going to have to put up with."
"Oh, come on, Xena. It was just a little prank, and from my perspective it was kind of funny."
Xena growled at her and she bit her lip, walking timidly up to the frowning warrior. "Okay, no more pranks. Come on grumpy, let's get something to eat. Your little sparing match made me hungry." She turned her towards camp and threw her arm around her, resting her hand on her shoulder. "Come on, Xena. I was just having some fun, trying to lighten the mood here." She squeezed her shoulder. "How about I scare up some trout to make up for it."
Xena relented, smiling affectionately down at her soulmate, her mouth already watering at the thought of trout as her first real meal. "You haven't changed as much as you let on. Still a scoundrel at heart."
"Always, as long as you're with me."
"Thanks," she answered softly and gave her a little squeeze.
They walked slowly towards their camp.
"You know, I was actually thinking maybe we could share the chakram. It looks kind of good on your hip, Gabrielle."
"Thanks. That might be fun."
"Okay, but no more pranks, right?"
Xena heard a tick, ticking as they walked. She looked down.
"Get your claws off my chest armor."
"Oh, yeah, sorry."