Disclaimers: The following story is classified as Fan Fiction. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and others who have appeared in the series, Xena: Warrior Princess, are the property of MCA/Universal Television and Renaissance Pictures. I only borrowed them. The story itself is mine and cannot be redistributed in any form without my consent.

Timeline Notes: Immediately after the close of "Sacrifice II."

Xena's Choice
by LZClotho
(c) July 1998

E-Mail LZClotho at lzclotho@aol.com


Xena dragged herself back from the clearing and sat in the bushes trying to calm her heart rate. Shaking her head, she tried to focus on the dark leafy green around her. That only brought to mind more forcefully a lighter green, sparkling with light, and laughter.

"It's a bear."

"How do you get a bear?"

"There. There's the body. The little ears." There was a low throaty chuckle.

"A bear? Hmmm."

WHAM! Gods, that hurt...

Xena tried so hard to not look at the face that rose in her mind. Concerned green eyes peering past her shoulder, trying to see under her hand. She felt tears threaten and ruthlessly pushed at the image, trying to drive it from her mind.

Gabrielle arrived in the room in time to see Solan duck. A staff... her staff, came flying through the doorway, just missing the blond young man's head. He was struggling with the door, trying to pull it open.

Thinking quickly the bard swept up her staff, and ran to the door. Using it, she forced it between the frame and the handle. The wood staff and the door both squeaked under the pressure.

"Throw whatever you can," she yelled to Solan. "It won't hold for long."

Solan reached behind him and grabbed a small box. Sifting through it, while Gabrielle threw the woven mat out the opening, he came up with a small statue.

"It'll have to do," Gabrielle said, noticing the small intricately carved face. "Throw it." She pushed the staff back down, more firmly bracing the door.

Solan nodded and threw out the small item.

There was a rough growl, followed by a snarling that seemed to vibrate the room around them. Gabrielle pulled her staff free and let the door slam shut.

Xena lay on the ground, eyes fiercely closed, but the images tumbled through her mind anyway. Nervous hands reached out and grasped the tumbling things, bringing them up for her inspection, against every other instinct she had to ignore them.

A small green woven mat. A delicately carved figurine. Why, of all the maelstrom, did these two objects rise in her mind? She'd sensed a lot more carefully sealed away. And then these two things had come flying out of the nothingness.

Curiosity nipped at her and she more closely examined the memories.

The frond mat looked old, worn. Something from her childhood? She'd forgotten the innocence she'd felt back then. Everything was new, a challenge to be mastered, a new experience to be had, controlled and contained. She'd spent hours working on the small 2 foot square mat, and eaten meals on it for months.

She fingered the smooth overlapping ridges. Here's where she'd even messed up the weaving pattern, going under again instead of over the intervening frond. Somehow that made the mat seem worth more. A smile briefly touched her lips and she set it aside, reaching for the figurine.

Her hand closed around the small unpainted wooden statue. A womanly face, only identifiable as such in that it had long hair carved around its head and upper body. Cautiously she studied the face, and examined the slant of the eyes, the small bump of nose, the polished cheeks. The ears were rough hewn, but small and fine.

It was garbed in a flowing blouse and long skirt, carved in frozen flow around small bare feet, without distinguishable toes. Hands were no more than rounded nubs, laid over one another in front of the small waist.

Her eyes were drawn back up to the eyes of the figurine. A small touch of dye, the only color on the whole statue, marked them blue.

It's me, Xena thought. When did I have this?

She fingered the statue and calmly tried to remember.

Finally, what came to mind was a boy giving it to her at Winter Solstice. Then he'd kissed her. She was what? Nine, maybe ten summers old at the time. She remembered the awkward touch of his lips to hers, but remembered she'd thought it perfect at the time. She recalled the festive decorations of Solstice. A faint smile returned to her face. Good memory.

That would be okay to keep she decided. Xena tucked the statue and the frond mat into her heart instead of locking them away. A small measure of happiness nicked at the edges of her emptiness, and the darkness lifted some of its weight from her shoulders.

Slowly, she stood and gathered up her things without thought. For the briefest moment, Xena felt the touch of expectation, of promise. Tomorrow would take care of itself. Tonight, she had a couple of okay memories to curl up with and sleep.

Gabrielle and Solan rejoined Cyrene in Xena's bedroom, as the woman sifted through things from her daughter's childhood. "How did it go?" She looked up when they entered.

Solan shrugged and Gabrielle answered, "She didn't throw any back in. It's a start." She knelt next to Cyrene and opened the small chest. "What have you found?"

Cyrene pointed to three piles she'd been making, by sorting things from boxes. "There's the stuff I think she remembers as happy things. Over there are the definitely bad memories. And here," Cyrene pointed to a large pile between the two smaller ones. "These are things I have no idea how she'll react."

Gabrielle looked at the large pile. "Maybe I can go through some of it, try and figure it out."

Solan stepped forward to the pile of good memories. "Want me to take these out to the door?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Let's give Xena some pleasant dreams."

Cyrene and Solan spent a bit of time moving the pile of things into a box, to make it easier for the youth to carry.

The bard sifted through the chest while trying not to eavesdrop, but ended up listening as the two talked. Cyrene told what stories she knew behind some of the objects and reminisced. Solan busied himself putting the objects in the box as she would finish, but Gabrielle saw he could not hide his interest in the stories. His blue eyes so like his mother's became wistful.

"Sounds like we'll be giving her quite a nice night," he said as the last things went into the box.

Gabrielle nodded. "That's the idea. Maybe she'll relax her defenses."

"But you're a good thing," Cyrene said, looking at Gabrielle. "Why won't she let you out?"

"That's ...not ...a good idea," Gabrielle replied. "Xena... Well, she might not want to face all that bringing me out would let out too."

Cyrene frowned. "You were such good friends to her when she was tormented by the Furies' judgment."

The bard looked up in silence for a moment. "A lot has happened since then," she offered simply. "I'm sorry, but Xena will have to tell you anything more... when we get out of here."

Cyrene looked from Gabrielle to Solan and then back at the collection of things. "I feel like this is all a dream, and I'm going to wake up soon, find myself out of my daughter's life once again."

Gabrielle put her hand over Cyrene's stilling the innkeeper's nervous fingering of a small bowl. "I'm sorry, Cyrene."

"I'm sorry too," Solan echoed, sitting down on the woman's other side. "Come on. I'll take these to the room. We'll get some sleep, and things'll look much better in the morning."

Gabrielle nodded, helped Solan get to his feet with the box. She then reached over and helped Cyrene up. Solan nodded and departed. Cyrene remained, even as Gabrielle settled on the bed. "Something else?" the bard asked, as she started to lie back.

Shaking her head, Cyrene looked out the door. "Gabrielle, you told me Solan was a friend of Xena's." Gabrielle nodded, sitting back up. The older woman remained silent for a moment, then turned to the bard and said simply, "I don't believe you."

"Solan is Xena's friend."

"I'm not sure I can explain it, Gabrielle. There's something so familiar about him. I can't put my finger on it."

Gabrielle nibbled her lip and looked up at Cyrene. "He's a very nice young man."

Absently the older woman nodded again. "I have to think about it some more."

The bard waited until Cyrene left, then left the room quickly, searching out Solan.

The moon was rising as Xena walked back into camp. A soldier met her on the path. "Commander."

"Umm hmmm." Xena paused, wiping the faintest of smiles from her face. "What is it?"

"Lord Ares awaits you in your tent."

She nodded grimly and proceeded alone. Probably wants to go over the battle plans yet again. She could not dredge up any interest in the coming fight. Not even to fake it for the swarthy god. She knew it irritated him, that she was just going through the motions. But honestly, Xena didn't care about it any more. She was there to fight the war he had groomed her to fight. He tried to tantalize her with a future as ruler of all Greece. She mentally pulled out the little statue from her dream. What use was a future without someone to share it with? Steeled for the coming confrontation, Xena ducked into her tent.

He sat on the chair she'd used earlier, and sharpened his own sword, not looking up as she entered.

"Did I scratch your weapon?" It was a question, but her voice was neither humble, nor arrogant, nor even really all that interested in the answer.


"Um hmmm." She dropped her greaves and removed her shin guards, pulling her feet out of her boots as she laid down on her cot.

He watched her curl up within the covers, and stopped working on the blade for a moment. "What happened to you?"

She resolutely closed her eyes. "The past isn't worth anything, so what's it matter? In the morning I'll take Athens for you." She rolled over away from his stare and pushed herself to sleep, clinging to the mental image of a small statue of an innocent girl. Dimly she was aware of Ares' departure. Suddenly she remembered the name of the boy who'd gifted her with it. Kitrick.

She couldn't breathe. The memory assailed her with painful clarity. They were both ten. She'd just outrun him on the sand dunes of the Amphipolis beachhead, as evening fell at the opening of Winter Solstice celebrations. They had both, for different reasons decided to escape, even if only for a short time, the crushing amount of people in Amphipolis' tiny town square. Though he lost, Kitrick had no blustering male-ego-tied excuse, and he had laughed, fishing out the statue.

"I made it for you," he said. "You inspired me."

She took the gift in hand and sat down tiredly on the sand, feeling the gritty stuff catch under her legs. But her eyes were on the statue. "It's really pretty," she told Kitrick, while stroking the statue between her fingers.

Kitrick settled next to her and touched it while it lay in her hands. "You're very good at a lot of things I'm not, Xena. But I like you."

She looked up at his face and asked, "Why?"

Soft blue eyes met hers and his dark hair was windblown around his face. "Because you don't think it's weird that I like to carve pretty things."

Then he kissed her. The waves on the beach were the only sound for the longest space of time, as she felt the funny business of lips to lips for the first time. His lips were salty, like the sea air, and a bit dry. She giggled from nervousness, and pulled away.

Over his shoulder, she saw a figure coming down the cliff path toward them. She stood and pulled Kitrick up with her. Kitrick followed her line of sight and laughed. "It's Ly. Let's go see if he wants to go riding."

Lyceus! Suddenly Xena shuddered with fear, studying the stocky nine-year-old running toward her and Kitrick.

The boy ran up to them, out of breath, but excited to see them. "Hi, Xe... Kit. What's up?" He noticed the statue. "Helping Kit pick out some more wood for his carving?"

Xena pushed her windblown hair behind her ears and shrugged. "Want to go for a ride?" Without waiting for an answer, she ran back up the cliff hollering over her shoulder, "Last one to the stables is a wooly-headed Harpy!"

Xena sat up in bed sweating. "Lyceus?" she whispered into the darkness, feeling very alone.

"I'm here," a voice replied. She turned to see a form step from the shadows.

She felt an anguish push at her chest, trapping the breath. "Ly?"

She fumbled on the small chest next to her cot, finding the tallow wick and sparking it with flint and steel.

"Someone's been trying to reach you, Xe. Why haven't you been listening?" She could now see, sitting at the end of her bed, not the nine-year-old from her dream, but the 17-year-old Lyceus, her brother, her companion through many woodland adventures as children and the one soldier she'd always known would protect her back. He'd never disappointed her. "I'm dreaming."

"Well," he said lightly. "Sort of."

Xena pulled her knees to her chest and hugged them tightly. "Where am I?"

"You're still... in the middle of Ares' army camp... just outside Athens." He shook his head.

"Why are you here?"

"To stop you from making a mistake."

"What mistake? Ares made me. This is my destiny."

Lyceus frowned and then, did something she'd almost never seen him do when they were children... he got angry. Fuming mad actually. She'd seldom seen her brother at a loss for words, but he actually worked his jaw several times, no sounds coming out, before sputtering, "Your destiny?" He stood and paced the room. Taking a deep breath, he spun on her and shrugged. "Yeah, I guess you'd see it that way. But Xe... damn... Haven't you figured it out yet? You, your future. It's what you make of it. Come on. You've learned more than this. More than war. You more than anyone should know there's greater things out there."

She shook her head. "Not for me."

"Damn it! Yes, for you!"

She stood. "Not for me. You are dead! M'Lila's dead! Borias... dead! Lao Ma... dead! Marcus... Solan..." Her voice trailed away as all the deaths in her life piled in upon her, choking off her breath.

Lyceus didn't let her relent. "Solan is what? Dead. Yes, Xena, your son is dead... So are all those you named. But there are some who are not dead. And you're so stubborn they can't get back into your life!"

At Lyceus' charged words, stunning Xena, he grasped her shoulders. In delayed reaction, having fallen numb, Xena sank back to the cot. She lifted a fist, watched her hand squeeze on itself and then weakly released it, placing it back on the covers. "No, you're wrong. She's dead."

Lyceus shook his head. "Listen to yourself, Xena. You've started remembering the good. Yes, I remember Kitrick, too. He loved you a lot. He was heartbroken he'd never properly learned to work a sword, to defend your back." He sat down again, reaching for her hands, but she pulled away. "He confessed once when we were in the field together that he loved you. Had since you were children together." He took a deep breath. "He admired you for what you did... for what we did to save Amphipolis."

Xena shook her head. Lyceus' generous account warring with the vague memories of horrible evil, unspeakable traumas she inflicted on her own kinsmen. "No. No, everyone hated me. Hated what I did, what I caused."

"You're wrong, Xena. Search your memories again. Among them you will find the truth." He stood and walked toward the tent entrance, beginning to fade as he moved. "I promise."

Xena sat staring at the tent flap moving slightly in the night wind for a very long time. Tentatively she laid back down and closed her eyes, feeling bone-aching weariness warring for control of her mind.

Solan pulled on the door handle and felt the other side pull back, and found the tension weaker this time. He still had a few of Lyceus' things to toss out. "If I brace the door with the staff, it'll probably hold," he thought.

Behind him there was a thudding sound. Looking over his shoulder Solan found Gabrielle bounding into the room. "What's the matter?" he asked when he noticed her face, pinched from effort.

"Cyrene suspects I think."

"Then I suggest we find a way to get out of here very quickly."

Gabrielle agreed. The two of them worked through the night, pushing open the door, and it was a little less of a strain each time. They tossed many objects from exile, the forgotten good memories. The protective beast in the darkness beyond seemed asleep. So they kept at it.

After many hours, rays of sunlight started filtering in. The heaviest pall of doom seemed to lift. Soon, Xena would awaken and her mental defenses would return in force.

Gabrielle looked at the stuffed horse doll and sighed. She wondered if Argo was anywhere out there, with Xena right now. What did the warrior think when she looked at the golden mare?

Solan came to her shoulder. "Well, it seems we've sent out all the good memories. What next?"

Gabrielle pulled her staff out of the doorway. "I don't know how much time we have. The door is less difficult to hold open, but she's been sleeping. When she wakes up her defenses will return."

Solan nodded. "So what do we do?"

She leaned against the door and studied the growing light outside. "It'll be harder to hold open the door, but I think it's time we jostled her more recent memories." The blonde looked over to Solan. "Can you find something of yours in here?"

"Something of mine?"

"Yes. Time to remind her of you, Solan. We've got to get her thinking about it."

"She went on a rampage and nearly killed you, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle heard the low growl of a beast as she continued to stand in the doorway. Resolutely she shook her head. "Well... that'll get her thinking about me, won't it?"

Nodding, Solan agreed. While Gabrielle sat, holding the door open with a foot braced against the bottom while she leaned against the wall, he went and searched through the many rooms.

Xena rolled over and rubbed her head. She distinctly felt like she had been drinking. Her head was full of images, disjointed, and hazy. While she washed the sleep from her eyes, the images since seeing Lyceus in her tent slowly paraded past her inner eye.

Childhood memories, some connected to Kitrick and Lyceus, some not, flowed through her mind. She felt contentment and no threat... for the moment. She had a strange urge to find her horse and ride out into the pre-dawn fog, something she had not done... it felt... in ages.

Picking up her sword and the sheath, Xena strapped it onto her back, walking out into the pre-dawn light. Several soldiers looked up at her passing and marveled at the faint smile. Her eyes were still hooded, dark with something unfathomable, but the pall of death around her seemed to have abated somewhat.

Ares looked up from where he stood training the archers, and watched Xena cross the camp to the corral. There was a different character to her step this morning. He watched her draw her mount from among the clustered horses. Going for a ride? He watched her secure the saddle and swing up into the stirrups.

To put it lightly, Ares was astonished. In nearly a fortnight, this was the first time she'd approached her mare. Each battle drawing them nearer Athens gates, she had fought on foot. That she was considering riding again meant something had changed. Suspicious, he gestured one of the men from the ranks. "Finish this for me. I've got somewhere to go."

The man nodded and moved into place to supervise the drills. Ares rolled the tension out of his shoulders, and turned, walking into the ether, vanishing in a sudden billow of fog.

Argo's flanks heaved under Xena's gripping legs. She felt sore and exhilarated all at the same time. The familiar steed answered all of her wordless requests for speed, a jump, or a breath-taking swerve. Xena felt tears prick at her eyes and closed them against the wind in her face.

Gabrielle and Solan pulled open the door and peered out. There, in the shadows, lounged a hulking form. Its eyes, large and luminous, were somnolent as it drowsed.

"She's let down her guard," Solan whispered. "What've we got to throw?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "We cleared out most of it. Lyceus' stuff. Yours is waiting. Are you ready?"

Solan looked back. "Maybe it is time. Come with me, Gabrielle?"

She shook her head. Silence reigned for a long time, as the bard studied the open doorway, and the sleeping beast beyond.

"Good comes with the bad, Gabrielle," the youth urged her again.

Xena leaned close to the mare's neck, the golden mane caressing her face as it flew back in the wind. "Argo, remember?" She kneed the steed and lifted her left leg over so she rode with both legs on Argo's right side. Grabbing the high pommel with her left hand and bracing her right palm on the saddle's seat, she flexed her arms and pressed herself to her feet on the leather saddle.

The mare steadily continued galloping across the open plains, riding toward the rise which separated the camp from the gates of Athens. A road, the thoroughfare into the city, crossed the mad-dashing path Argo made across the high grass. Just at the roadside ditch's edge, Xena leapt up and executed a flip toward Argo's head, but the horse leapt forward as well, and as the mare's hooves hit the dirt of the road, her mistress landed solidly on her feet once again in the saddle.

The sound of clapping hands broke the stillness. "Bravo!"

Xena slid her legs down either side and settled quickly in the saddle, spinning Argo with a quick tug on the reins toward the sound of the voice. "Ares!"

"Just admiring the horsemanship. Don't mind me." The God of War leaned against an olive tree arms crossed against his chest and a smile plastered smugly on his features.

"I wasn't interested in company."

"You haven't been interested or disinterested in much of anything worthwhile, so I thought I'd see what finally had interested you in taking off on your horse."

"Argo hasn't been worked in weeks."

"Actually..." Ares pulled away from the olive tree and started walking in a slow circle around Argo. The mare pawed the ground and Xena's eyes circled with him as he moved. "When it became obvious you were going nowhere near the mare for the duration... about four days into this campaign, I assigned a soldier to work her every morning."

She hooded her eyes and watched him shrug. "I'll relieve him of that duty now."

Ares nodded. "Fine by me. Wanna go for a run?" He snapped his fingers.

Xena flinched as a large black stallion, without a single patch of white anywhere on its muscular frame, appeared next to them. Its withers were at least a hand higher than Argo's, who was not a tiny mount by any stretch of the imagination.

"Where on earth did you get that beast?"

"Not earth," Ares replied nonchalantly.

Argo danced under Xena's light hold and the warrior patted the arched neck echoing her mare's sentiments about wanting to flee. She knew though the god would find her. So she remained as still as she could manage. Her defenses however were back up, at full alert.

Solan stood in the doorway. "I'll block the rest of the area off, Gabrielle."

"You promise?"

"I promise. I'll be right behind you."

Gabrielle sighed and stepped out the door. She looked over her shoulder and saw Solan go block the rear entrance to Xena's locked away memories with a stack of boxes. Then he joined her at the doorway out. "Ready?"

"Ready." He put a hand on her shoulder.

"Can he hurt us? Permanently?"

Solan shrugged. "I don't know. At this point, all deals are off."

She frowned. "Figures." Gabrielle tucked her hair behind her ears and stepped out, focusing on a small spot of light on the other side of the dozing beast. Now, out here, she was able to get a closer look at the form. It looked like a huge dog, with teeth bared, even in sleep, a growl replacing what might have been snoring.

Its coat was leathery, definitely not a typical dog. Gabrielle looked at Solan. "Recognize it?" She gestured slightly with her staff.

Solan shook his head. "Looks like something out of the Underworld though. Probably a Tartarus incarnation. Appropriate, considering her motivation."

Just then, the growl changed tenor and the dog-thing's head shot up, eyes open wide and burning red-hot with anger. The growling escalated and it eyed her and Solan as it lumbered to its feet.

"Do you have something to placate it?" Gabrielle asked nervously. "I didn't bring anything."

"We could head back?"

So decided, they started for the doorway. However, the beast circled around behind them, blocking their ability to return.

"Looks like it's only onward and upward from here," Gabrielle realized, backing up from the fangs being bared in their direction. "Come on."

Solan nodded. "Wish I had my staff."

Gabrielle looked at the staff in her own hands and nudged Solan with an elbow. "Stay behind me." She hefted her staff and kept her body between Solan and the beast. "There's a spot of light over there," she called back toward the youth. "Run for it!"

The beast lunged and Gabrielle found herself batting its muzzle fiercely. "Come on!" Solan pulled her arm.

"No!" Gabrielle jumped aside as the beast's jaws snapped the air very close to her hip. "Xena!" She screamed into the nothingness. She swung the staff around again, this time catching the monster's snout soundly. It yelped then growled more loudly. "Please Xena!"

Ares swept up onto his stallion's back and picked up the reins. "Ready?"

Xena did not answer, but did guide Argo into step behind the stallion as the god and beast moved out. Looking at Ares' broad back, she felt a flash of anger, and tamped it down, then felt a sharp pain in her temple. Blinking hard, she scanned the horizon, trying to ignore the rising ache in her head.

"Let's open them up on this wide path back to camp." Ares turned his stallion's head and glanced at Xena who was slowly turning Argo alongside. "Something wrong?" he asked, noticing her wincing.

"Yeah, fine," she answered dully.

"I really care what happens to you, y'know."

She only raised an eyebrow in his direction.

"I do." He shrugged. "You're the finest warrior I've ever had. It's in my best interest to keep up with what's making you tick."

Xena stroked Argo's mane. Quietly she asked, "Did you make me?" As she voiced the question, she realized she'd been giving the premise a great deal of thought.

He shook his head, but then he smiled. "I made you better."

"But you didn't make me."

Ares fell silent. "Why are you asking?"

"You want to know what makes me tick? Why? What good am I to you if I'm thinking, or feeling anything past the next battle?"

Ares raised a hand. "Fine. Don't answer the question." He swept the plain in front of them. "Let's ride back to camp." He pointed up at the sky. "Full day will be upon us soon. You'll need to ride at the front."

"So will you."

"Oh, I'll be there, don't you worry."

"I'm not worried about anything." She kneed Argo into motion and rode off, leaving Ares and his mount behind both a bit unsettled.

"I wish that made two of us," he murmured, nudging his stallion into motion and watching Xena ride steadily ahead.

She looked around at her surroundings, but something made her shake her head. Then she put a hand to her forehead and shook it carefully, like she was afraid of rattling something loose.

Inside Xena's head a great deal of confusion had ensued. The pains of the headache were back in force. There was a ringing in her head, sounds like stuff was smacking against one another... Closing her eyes, she tried to sort out the sounds and images...

The dark beast bared its teeth, backing Gabrielle and Solan into a corner. The bard swung in a steady rhythm now, barely protecting a small space in front of them from the great snapping teeth. Then the beast swung, claws extended.

The massive paw caught both Solan and the bard in its sweep, and propelled them toward the door of Xena's locked subconscious.

Solan screamed seeing the wall looming in front of them. Gabrielle grabbed his arm and the two of them waited for the impact, unable to stop themselves or slow their flight.

Solan's scream penetrated the fog in Xena's mind and she recognized, as only a mother can, the cry of her child. She'd been fighting Dagnine, who had kidnapped Solan, when she first heard it. She had faced Dagnine in his own camp, chasing down the man to retrieve her son. Xena flashed back to the frantic moments when she saw Solan's cage hovering on the edge of a chasm and the moment she leapt across space and seemingly suspended time, to grab for her son's hand before he could plunge through the hole.

"Hold on, Solan!" She yelled, grasping in the air frantically. The whip wrapped itself around a branch above the hole at the same moment her other hand grasped his wrist. Breathing deeply, Xena heard the branch above them begin to crack. "Do you trust me?" she asked him. He nodded against her side. She looked once to Dagnine's amazed face and let go...

Argo danced beneath her, snapping Xena from her memory. The warrior found the mare dancing to a painfully gripped bit, and immediately slackened her hold.

"Solan?" The name was barely a whisper, but the floodgates had cracked. She had grabbed her son's hand that day. Reflexively she closed her hand, still feeling the soft skin in her own. "Gods... Solan..." Argo rode on, mostly without guidance, as Xena closed her eyes and summoned an image of her son... the first time she saw him.

The babe squalled, held there in the hands of the cook-turned-midwife at the Warrior Princess' winter lodging. Xena had gone to be alone, with only a cook, Mirya, and one trusted soldier, Limnus by name, five months ago, as the first of winter came on the army camped outside Centaur land.

"Give him to me," she told Mirya. "He sounds hungry."

"La, that he is. And stout lungs he has too." Mirya came up alongside the bed, and passed the child to her far arm. Generously she then took a small piece of her apron and wiped at Xena's brow, lifting some of the sweat.

"Thank you."

"'Tis is a beautiful child. What will you name him? After his father?"

Xena looked up at Mirya, saying nothing. Borias? No. She studied the child and felt a warmth swell which she had not enjoyed for many months since the death of the Hun warrior. The warmth... "Solan," she whispered, acknowledging the child with a kiss to his brow. "My little sun."

Mirya nodded. "'Tis a good omen, such a strong name." Then, she uttered the words Xena had known would come, but had not really wanted to hear. "He'll become a strong warrior one day. Fighting in the honor of his mother and father's name."

And that was the moment she'd vowed to give him up.

But even her good intentions, brief flash of kindness they had been, had led to devastating evil. Solan had grown up safely only to be kidnapped by Dagnine and then nearly killed in a fight between Ixion's Evil Centaur and Kaleipus' village.

Xena felt the tears prick at her eyes. She wiped at them gently. There was no rage, only the soft, silent pain of losing a child as she remembered...

"Solan! Solan." Xena swept into Kaleipus' hut and saw the young man crouched over the memorial established to his adoptive father. "Solan?" For the briefest moment she entertained the wild notion that he was sleeping, having cried himself out for tears at the big hearted Centaur's passing. Then she stepped nearer... and noticed his back wasn't moving.

"Gods, Solan." Xena slipped off Argo's back, not sure where the mare had led them, but thankful in a small part of her mind that the place was secluded.

Gabrielle and Solan slammed hard into the wall near the doorway. Both rubbed at aches and bruises. Gabrielle sighed, rubbing her nose, which had smashed quite hard. "Geez, can't the inside be *soft* even if she's got to be tough on the outside."

"I know you're upset! Move over there!" Solan shoved at Gabrielle, pushing her in front of him. "We'll have to try something else!" He yelled to be heard over the snarling, growling noises. He pushed her out of the way of the beast's claw.

Suddenly the beast subsided, and Solan felt a tentative tug on his waist.

"Something's happening."

"What is it?" replied the blonde, clinging to the doorway and barely grasping the youth's hand.

"It's not bad. I think she's remembering me."

Suddenly there was a flood of water which swept through the open area. Solan and Gabrielle were caught up by the current, swept away from the doorway out into the open space. The monster too, was caught in the water, and twice dunked under, struggling itself for breath.

"This isn't bad?!" Gabrielle yelled back, trying to swim against the current and reach Solan. "Are you okay?"

"For the moment." He was splashed in the face as he paddled against the current. Spitting water, he commented, "Tastes salty."

"Great," Gabrielle sighed, using most of her energy to keep herself alongside the youth. "Let's try swimming for the door."


She watched him out of the corner of her eye. "Still feeling a tug?"

Trying to nod, he found he couldn't make his head move easily, so instead Solan offered, "Yeah."

Gabrielle absorbed that then began swimming again. "We're almost there." Reaching out she grabbed hold of the door and looked back. Solan was hard to see against the water, and suddenly Gabrielle realized it wasn't the waves or the mist that caused the problem. The youth was almost see-through. "Solan! What's happening to you?"

His body was fading, the water tossing around them was being seen through the young man. She tried to grab for him. "Solan!"

Solan tread water and pulled a hand up, watching it disappear. He looked back to the blonde young woman. "Good luck. She's let me out." The youth completely faded away. The current in the water began to slow; the waves subsided.

The waters slowly receded. On her hands and knees, Gabrielle found herself panting, back at the doorway. She saw the room beyond had gotten very wet, but Solan's blocking the doorway seemed to have protected the rest of the rooms from the consequences.

The beast, she could see over her shoulder, was panting, catching its breath even as it fell asleep. Resting her head on her arms, Gabrielle kicked the door shut and cried. Happiness mingled with sadness as she considered Solan was once again remembered by his mother, but then too, lost to her as a companion in this dark place.



Continued from Part 3

Xena opened her eyes. Looking around, she sat quietly for a moment, watching Argo crop the grass while next to her in a small glade. She rubbed at her cheeks. Tear tracks had dried while she slept, having cried herself into exhaustion. Pulling her knees to her chin, she hugged herself. The tears were finally over, but the sadness... and a small measure of happiness... remained.

He hadn't become a warrior. She had done the right thing to give him up. Her life was far too dangerous to have subjected him to it. As a result of Kaleipus' devoted, caring attention Solan had grown to be a peace-loving, happy child, with the promise of being a strong, caring man in his future.

That, she realized, was really what ached so badly inside her chest. He'd gotten the future she wanted for him from the beginning and then she lost the chance to share it with him. She felt a lump in her throat, but she was able to calm herself. She'd made the best choice each time. Leave him -- not with someone who could love him -- a phrase she'd used to beat herself up over the years -- but with someone who could keep him safe from the life she couldn't.

When she'd returned to the village to help Kaleipus rout Dagnine's army, then too, she'd been acting in Solan's best interest. She didn't tell him she wouldn't be back; she didn't tell him she could stay. He would be with people who could protect him, while she did the work she needed to do.

When she returned, and everything had gone to Hades, she'd made the best choice then too. Helping Solan when he lost Kaleipus, and listening to him when he needed to talk.
Solan looked up into her face. "I want to go with you," he said.

She briefly touched his arm. "Don't you want to be with people who you care about and who care about you?"

"You said once that family was important. We're friends. That's like family." He stood. "I want to be with you."

Xena felt poleaxed. He wanted to come with her. Really. She couldn't believe it. His face was earnest and so full of love. She let go her disbelief and began considering the future.

"When this is all over, you be packed and we'll go. We have a lot to talk about. We might as well do it on the road."

She rubbed the fern leaves of a bush nearby and sat up. The muscles of her face hovered between a smile and a frown.

Right after that, she remembered, she'd gone to find Gabrielle. To tell the bard she was going to be a mother again. It became the highest moment of her life.

Gabrielle. Xena closed her eyes and remembered the first time she'd seen the young blonde, outside Poteidaia.

The shouts of women reached her ears. She slipped into the bushes and watched as a group of villagers was led through the same clearing. Her mare appeared, also hidden, tossing her head, but otherwise silent.

Xena followed the mare's line of sight as she listened to the exchange going on. A blonde young woman held up her hands and said "Take me with you instead." Xena took in the sight of sunshine bright hair and a soft blue peasant blouse over a long darker skirt. She had a fire in her green eyes, despite the knife at her chin for her ill-advised attack of bravado.

Xena's heart pounded faster as she took stock of the situation. Across the clearing, she exchanged a look with the mare. It was time to come to the rescue. Xena leapt into the clearing to battle a new foe. And seized hold, not only of the slaver's raised whip, but also of her destiny.

She tracked the blonde even as she fought the slavers. When one threatened the girl's throat with his dagger, Xena lost her concentration and the butt of a sword crashed against her skull. In the dirt but a moment, she felt the edges of her chakram and sword beneath the thin layer of dirt. She smiled up at those surrounding her as her fist closed around the round disc.

"Gabrielle," murmured Xena on a sigh. Tired, and seeing the sun full above the horizon, Xena pushed aside further thought, afraid of the pain. Pulling herself to her feet, she remounted Argo and turned the mare toward Ares' camp.

Looking up at the sun, seeing in it the bright golden locks of her son and her friend, Xena felt the lump in her throat. Weakness filled her limbs and she pushed it away, unwilling to go through weakness again. She was not alone, she remembered. Over the hill, Ares waited. He controlled her. He claimed her. And there was no escaping the destiny he controlled for her. So she focused on the coming battle. There was only one escape. Maybe, just maybe, the fighting would see her at the end of the day handing Charon a coin for the ferry. And she'd find Gabrielle somewhere on the other side of the Styx. Even if only for a moment before they went their separate ways.

Xena knew she was Tartarus-bound, especially now, for being Ares' instrument against Athens ... and Athena. The hoot of an owl in the trees returning from his night hunt drew the warrior's attention up and she smiled grimly at the plump bird. Yes, Athena. You can have my soul to torture. I certainly don't have any use for it anymore.

She climbed aboard Argo and pointed the mare toward Ares' camp.
The bard felt something tug her from sleep. Her cheeks itched. Rubbing them she found dried tears tracks. A noise behind her drew her attention. She rolled onto her side and sat up, coming to her feet.

"Gabrielle?" Pushing aside boxes, Cyrene managed to get into the room. "Are you all right? You've been here quite a while."

"I'm sorry."

The older woman stepped close. "You've been crying. What happened?"

Gabrielle looked around and remembered why Solan was not present. "Um, we had a problem with the monster outside."

"Solan?" She looked around obviously noticing the water stains on the walls.

Gabrielle led Cyrene back into the corridor. "Xena remembered him, so he was released." She hoped that the simple explanation would be enough.

"And not you first? Gabrielle, that won't wash. You're more important to her than just some child she helped save once. Unless she knew him before she knew you." The older woman fell silent for a long moment. The bard bit her lip waiting, trying to neither appear upset nor overly interested in the woman's musings. Gabrielle was beginning to understand where Xena got her intuition. Cyrene obviously had been thinking about the situations she'd been in with Solan. The older woman started thinking out loud. Gabrielle's chest tightened a little more with each word. "He moves like her. Even talks a little like her. But more than that, I think now that he reminded me of Lyceus."

"Lyceus? How? Certainly they've never met?"

Cyrene shook her head. "Lyceus was a sun-streaked brown haired boy. Solan's hair's lighter. But that's only the surface... Gabrielle, I'm not sure I can explain it, but... Solan has the same face-shape, even the dimple in his chin." The woman bit her lip. "But wouldn't Xena...?" She stumbled to a halt in her thoughts and looked up into Gabrielle's eyes.

The bard met Cyrene's gaze as calmly as possible, but said nothing.

"Why wouldn't Xena tell me she had a son?" Cyrene sank to a chair at the small table where they'd woven the mats the other morning. "Solan is my grandson, isn't he?" The woman clasped her hands together and looked at the doorway. "Um, was." She swallowed and looked to Gabrielle expectantly.

The bard crouched beside the chair, swallowed and nodded. "Yes."

"Why didn't she tell me?"

After taking a deep breath, Gabrielle shrugged and tried to explain. "She gave him up when he was born. She never expected to see him again. It would only have hurt you to know. She wanted his identity secret." Gabrielle took a deep breath. "All of those reasons. None. Fear. Denial. She wasn't ready to be a mother. Honestly, I don't know."

"Something happened? Were you with her?"

"Yes... I was. It was almost two years ago."

Cyrene closed her eyes against a sheen of tears. "Please tell me?" She took a deep breath. "Was that also when he died?"

"No." Gabrielle also took a deep breath, the memory of seeing Xena cradling Solan's body suddenly rising in her own mind. "It wasn't."

"I'd .. like to hear that story too. Please." Cyrene's blue eyes met Gabrielle's green, and the bard knew she should tell as complete a story as she could manage. Xena's mother deserved the truth, at least as much as Gabrielle knew about it.

When they got out of here, Cyrene would have already guessed about Solan anyway. Better that she have fewer questions to ask Xena when she saw her next.

So, Gabrielle pulled up a chair and quietly began telling Cyrene the story of Dagnine and the Centaurs... And of meeting a young boy who hated the Warrior Princess for killing his father. Even to the point of attacking her when Xena and Gabrielle came to help Kaleipus, the leader of the Centaurs, rout the twisted man who sought the Ixion Stone.

Cyrene was vividly caught up in the drama, watching, through Gabrielle's eyes, the fierce Solan and uncertain Xena during that first exchange.

"Let me kill her, Uncle. She killed my father. She killed the great Borias."

"I will not have you talking like that. Now, go home." Kaleipus, a big bay Centaur pawed the ground, dancing a bit. He kept his one eye on Xena even though he spoke to the blond youth.

"You've just met your greatest enemy," the youth gravely told Xena before running off as the powerful Centaur commanded.

Xena looked from Kaleipus to Solan and then down to Gabrielle, who asked, "Do you know him?"

Xena looked again in the direction the boy had taken off. "Yes." She looked to Kaleipus who nodded briefly. "He's my son."

Cyrene put a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Did she kill his father?"

"No, she didn't. She told me Borias betrayed her. She'd ordered him brought to her... Not killed." Gabrielle swallowed hard, remembering Xena's face, and the brief flash of pain and question which crossed it despite the warrior's upset that Gabrielle was questioning her about this personal chapter of her life. The incident had been relatively early in their relationship. The bard wasn't entirely certain Xena had ever forgiven her for questioning her decisions about Solan; even about Borias, when the Hun's history came up on the road to Bosporus, where Xena caught the boat to Chin.

Gabrielle shook her head, bringing herself back to the present and Cyrene's questioning gaze. "Something went wrong. A zealous soldier or an accident. I don't know. She doesn't either. But Borias was killed. The Centaurs buried him as a hero and friend. Xena called a retreat on her army, and in gaining the stalemate, she gave up Solan, Borias' son, to the people who'd revered him the most. The Centaurs."

"So he was raised by this Kaleipus?"

The bard nodded again.

"This Dagnine. What was he after that Xena went back to the Centaurs to help them?"

"Dagnine was after the Ixion stone." She added, "He learned about Solan though. Something Xena had been hoping to avoid. He kidnapped him. When Xena went to free him, the cage fell, breaking through the ground and both she and Solan fell into the caverns underground.

"Tracking her and Solan, Dagnine found the Ixion stone. Later he attacked the Centaur village."

"Was Solan hurt?"

"He broke his arm falling into the caverns, but Xena set it for him."

"Did she kill Dagnine?" The innkeeper's voice was intent.

Gabrielle wondered where the questions were leading, but she answered. "He'd become the evil Centaur, but yes, she found a way to stop him."

"Good." There was an edge of ferocity to Cyrene's voice. "So would I. No one threatens family."

Gabrielle fell silent. Cyrene too, remained quiet as they both mused on the meeting of mother and son.

Cyrene broke the silence. "Did she leave then? Or did Solan begin traveling with you?"

"No. Well... What I mean is... Solan didn't find out then that she was his mother. See, he believed not only was his father dead, but according to the story Kaleipus told him his mother died of a broken heart." Gabrielle steepled her fingers before her on the table top. "Maybe she was going to tell him. But then, something changed I guess. She'd gone to visit him at the side of a lake. When she came back, she was alone, and told me we needed to go. She never told me exactly what happened."

Cyrene nodded. "She was never one for fully explaining herself. Even as a child she kept a lot inside. Sometimes you could see in her face that something was going on, but getting her to open up was nearly impossible. It would be easier getting a donkey to lay eggs." Caught between an urge to cry and laugh, Gabrielle finally chuckled at the image. Cyrene's solemn voice cut the chuckle off. "But she'd changed a bit by the time she returned under spell of the Furies punishment, didn't she?"

"Yeah, I guess so. We'd started sharing a few more things about ourselves with each other just before she died."

"She died?" Cyrene looked a little startled. "When was this?"
Gabrielle tried to remember. "Oh, no." She sat back a moment, closed her eyes. "I'm sure we..." Pause. "Well, no... I guess we haven't had a chance."

Cyrene studied her face, which Gabrielle knew, despite her best efforts, had gone quite pale. "Another story I ought to hear?"

Gabrielle declined. "Maybe it's time we got back to finding a way out of here. I think I'll leave the explanation to Xena."

Cyrene appeared disappointed at the delay, but when Gabrielle stood, so did she. "What do you suggest we do next?"

Gabrielle led the way to the pile of things Cyrene had sorted. She fingered a small bow in the pile of things Cyrene said would trip bad memories. "What's the story behind this? Looks pretty simple to me."

Cyrene took the bow and ran her fingers over the bending wood. Gabrielle noticed the woman rubbing her finger along a repaired break. "I ... killed Xena's father the night before he could first show her how to use this. Practicing by herself, she snapped the wood trying to string it. Toris found her kicking and screaming in the woods."

Xena's mother sank to the floor next to the pile. "She was only seven. I'd tried to tell her that her father wasn't going to teach it to her whether he got back or not. I wouldn't allow it. I'd been very scared by his insistence that she was meant for Ares. Even though I'd killed her father... Well, gods have their ways. I wanted her to remain unaware of war, battle and weapons as long as possible." Cyrene frowned. "I paid the first person she approached for lessons not to teach her. Xena was devastated when the man, a retired soldier, simply moved out of town without a word."

"So the bow will represent your repression as well as her father's disappearance?" Gabrielle nodded, falling silent a moment. "Are you willing to fight your way out of here?"

Cyrene stood. "What do I have to do?"

"We're going to trip her memories of you."

"What about the battle Ares has her fighting? Will it distract her?"


Cyrene crossed her arms over her chest and drifted around the room in deep thought.

"What's worse, Cyrene?" Gabrielle interjected, sensing the indecision. "That she overruns Greece without caring about anything? Or that we make her face her mistakes?"

"Did Solan tell you that?"

"I'm beginning to learn that we have to face both the good and the bad to get the happiness to mean something. By forgetting that, Xena is hurting herself more than a battle ever could."

The ridge was alive with dark life, huddled and crouched awaiting the signal of their leadership to move forward. The sun illuminated the peak, casting into shadow much of the foliage where they all hid. The city gates of Athens were about to be thrown open for the beginning of the business day.

That would be the signal to move out.

Ares, God of War, dark hair wind-tossed and unruly, guided his stallion's head alongside Xena's light-colored mare. The Warrior Princess sat straight in Argo's saddle, eyes scanning the situation but no smile on her face. A sentry strode up to the two, who pulled up their horses. "The gates are opening, my lord. Commander."

"Excellent. Let's move to the front." Ares nudged his stallion, watching over his shoulder as Xena guided Argo into step behind him.

Stepping their mounts through the ranks, Xena and Ares finally crested the ridge. The God of War raised his right arm, his sword glowing brighter than the fog-dimmed sunlight. "Now!" He yelled, dropping his arm.

A swarm of life rolled over the ridge, descending like locusts on the seat of Greek culture. A din of promises of death and victory, rose to the sky, gaining as much momentum as the mass of soldiers.

The advance Athenian forces noticed their approach from the ramparts and descended from their lookouts to stream from the Athenian gate, surrounding the city with a buffer of steel and determination.

Ares' minions and Athena's defenders met in combat on the grasses, both sides died in the knolls and rolling hills. Ares fell upon the elite mounted defenders, sword raised, hacking and slashing, spilling the blood of the misguided who thought to test their skill against the Olympian.

He fought with his usual abandon, save one. He always kept the Warrior Princess in his line of sight. She slid from Argo, falling with her sword amid a swarm of Athenians. He watched the chakram fly from her hand, circle around, knocking on helmets and bringing soldiers to their knees or simply out cold.

He remembered the night she'd been claimed as his Chosen, so long ago...

Beside Ares, Xena slashed her way through the ranks of Tuminius' troops. The God of War got his wish. The Xena, Destroyer of Nations, was unleashed, bloodlust in her eyes, a sword in her left hand and her newest weapon, a gift from him in her right, which had a bandage of well-worn creases as she'd worked right through the injury from the day before. He forgot for the moment that he was supposed to be just her mortal companion, a soldier who'd chosen to fight by her side. He reveled in the godly feelings of watching her work her own special magic, on the battlefield, his dominion. Where he had first come to see his "competition", Ares now saw, in glorious revelation, his perfect match. The goddess to his godliness. The mortal realm definition of his Olympian dominion.

He reveled in the battle as she did. There were hardly any words spoken save a "Close ranks" here and a "push them" there, but she commanded with every fiber of her willing body. She dove into the fray, leaping from her horse with a stunning height and grace. Her body arched like a hawk diving for dinner over a sparkling river, the clash of swords in the brightening sunlight nothing more to her than a water's surface to be parted, dived beneath and splashed into tiny pieces catching the sun's light on startled faces, unshielded faces, dead faces.

Her new weapon flashed in the sunlight, and Ares watched it pass among her surroundings, cutting men's sword arms, creating belly wounds in others, and knocking helmets, or slicing through the skulls of still more. She smiled at him as she caught the weapon, allowing it to jump briefly in her hand as the sharp edge made her wince. But she walked out from among the carnage unscathed.

Ares yelled, a glorious yell, welling up from his center. It was throaty, it was coarse and it was the most gut-satisfying war cry in his millenium of existence. "Aiyiyiyiyi!"

As Xena thrust her sword between a man's ribs, she caught Ares' eye. He yelled again, and she responded in kind, leaping over her fallen opponent in a graceful somersault, all the while echoing Ares's battle cry, "Aiyiyiyiyi!"

Ares felt his heartbeat pounding in his blood, making his body sing with a battlelust he'd seldom felt in all his years. He watched Xena fell another opponent, this time taking his head off with a single swipe of her broadsword. He cried out his praise. "Aiyiyiyiyi!"

She answered again with the yell and leapt to his side. Bodies converged on them and then fell aside as their blades, too fast for most to follow, cut a swath through blood and bone letting them pass.

Back to back they moved toward Tuminius and the chief lieutenants of his army. The men circled Ares and Xena at his side. Both were smiling an unholy smile, Death considered a comrade in arms, recordkeeper of their deeds. Both aimed to fill up the ledger with more dead than on any other day in recorded history. And their swords swung true.

Ares fell from his reverie to find a soldier running at him. With a glare and a smile, he ran the mortal through the chest on his blade. Looking over he watched Xena. She'd become much more than his Chosen. She was his other half. Until recently, he thought, he'd been proud of that. But the fire, damn... her fire was gone.

Without looking, without a smile, and without the exultant sound of their warcry from her lips, Xena slashed through those standing around her. There was death in her eyes, but not the death of others. The image made her even more terrifying to watch, but disheartening all the same, to a God of War who reveled in the bloodletting, the death, and the screams. Alone for the moment on the ridge, and still for a second as she assessed her next action, her hair billowed from her shoulders, caught in a gust of wind. Ares felt his breath catch at the beauty of the sight. "Athens!" he yelled.

Many other soldiers voices rose to meet his, screaming, "Athens" or "Victory for Ares!" as they ran pell-mell over the Athenian troops. Xena glanced back once over her shoulder at him then turned and walked down the hill toward the gates. Defenders charged. She beat them back with her sword, not even watching as her blade sank into body after body, wrenching it free only to sink into more flesh, taking life.

One soldier was a bit smarter. He stayed away from her sword arm, attacking her instead from the left. She didn't turn to protect that side, but her bracer and the leather on her shoulders and arm protected her from the clumsy hits.

Gabrielle led Cyrene along the corridor. Though the goal was the door, the bard took a moment to pause in each room, studying the contents, until she found the one she wanted. From the room containing things Gabrielle decided were memories of Chin, she picked up a long, carved and painted hairpin. She took a deep breath and put it in her pocket.

"What is that?"

"I'm going to see what I can do. And I need a weapon to do it."

"But Gabrielle -- "

As they walked down the hall, Gabrielle frowned, considered her options. "The beast -- Xena's defenses -- are really strong."

"You have to kill it?" Cyrene looked at her. "Have you ever killed anything before, Gabrielle?"

Feeling guilty for putting Xena through much of the trauma to which the warrior had reacted by locking her emotions up, the bard didn't answer that. Instead she shrugged. "I hope not, but I'm tired of being in here. The life I want is out there. Xena's out there. So I'm going to get out."

"What's the hairpin for?"

"Well, um, Xena told me someone could use it as a weapon -- lethal. If they had to."

"Oh." Cyrene bit her lip.


The world seemed skewed somehow. She knew, and predicted, every action going on around her. Her body was spattered in blood, but detached, the warrior moved this way and that, striking death and crippling blows. Ares was behind her, always near.

The Olympian battled easily, killing with a passion she distantly recognized as familiar, but could no longer feel in herself. Nothing felt right any more. This battle, to which she had consigned herself, what was its purpose?

She fought but this fight was not hers. She fought because she could, because it was what she knew how to do. She knew it better than walking the length and breadth of a country. She breathed deeply. Blood-tainted air was more familiar to her than the sweet smell of honeysuckle...

"Xena, I want you to stop and smell the flowers. Right now."

The voice echoed in her head, firm, angry, familiar but then again, not. It was stronger than she expected, though for the moment Xena could not place the voice. Suddenly though an image flashed in her mind:

Fingers slid over a long, painted wooden stick... no, it was a hairpin. Oh, gods, no! her mind screamed as the connections to her memories exploded in her brain.

Gabrielle advanced through the doorway, brandishing the long, tapered hair clasp. Her fingers slid over the carved surface and she remembered the first time she'd seen the weapon... a harmless hairpin shown to her by Ming T'ien.

If I only hadn't gone, thought Gabrielle. Everything would have been different. No debt to Ares. No Ming T'ien nearly killing Xena. But then she remembered, Xena would have killed Ming T'ien. One life or another... The bard sighed.

The past, the present, the future. All tied together. Change the past, and the rest becomes meaningless. People become different, less the people you thought you knew.

Xena! Gabrielle cried out in her mind, anguished at her own experiences and tired of thinking so much about consequences. Distracted, she stumbled.

A hand grasped her arm holding her upright. "Careful."

"Thanks." The bard paused and looked over her shoulder at Cyrene. "I got lost in a few private thoughts there."

"You've been slipping into your own deep thoughts a lot lately."

"Well, every time I reminded Xena of something we did together, I got a chance to relive it too."

Cyrene nodded. The two women moved slowly into the cavernous area which held the dog-like protector of Xena's consciousness.


The warrior groaned, pulling her hands to her ears and shutting her eyes tightly. "No!"

The motion caused her to break concentration and a soldier came up behind her. Instinct alone, that incredible body sense that was part and parcel of every cell, was the only thing that saved her. When his sword arced downward hers was there to intercept it. The impact however hurt. As the sword recoiled, it fell from her hands. The soldier's eyes gleamed, but then Xena's hands were at his throat. He was choked and falling before his brain could form the celebratory sounds of victory.

When she looked at him though Xena felt neither exhaustion nor elation. But feeling nothing was suddenly very upsetting. She picked up the man's lolling head and looked into his eyes.

She frowned as a familiarity shined out from those brown eyes. A memory pulled at her:
"Well, it looks like you've got your fight to the death." But then someone stumbling toward them drew Xena's attention. Her hand went to her sword until she saw the face.

"Mercer! No! Mercer!" Gabrielle ran to the man as he stumbled and fell at their feet. Xena moved quickly to his side as Gabrielle cradled his head in her lap.

"You were right. I should have headed north first."

The man she had just choked, who's throat now bore the red marks of her own hands, was the same. "Mercer," she whispered, studying his face in a daze. "What are you doing here?"

The soldier did not answer her. Thorough killer that she was, Mercer, who survived the Horde, defending his country's furthest border, now dead at the hands of a woman who had once commanded his every allegiance.

She brushed his hair lightly from his face and pulled his head onto her lap. A rough voice behind her filled with anger, still only elicited a half-curious glance.

"What in Hades' name are you doing?!" Ares grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. The bewildered looked on her face made him let go.

"I can't do this."

"Yes, you can. You are!" Ares scowled. "Xena this is your destiny. Our destiny."

She shook her head, looking down at Mercer's still form. "I fought beside him once." She looked around. "I've fought beside most of them."

"You're fighting for me, this time, Xena!" Ares kicked an Athenian soldier in the throat and shook Xena with his free hand. "What has gotten into you? First, you're walking dead. Fighting like it was something you did in your sleep. Now... Gods, woman, look at you!"

"What's happened to you, Xena? The Xena I know?"

The warrior turned to face the bard, seeing and feeling more alone than ever. "That Xena is gone. And if losing her is the price to pay for getting everyone out of here safely, then I'll do it. She was just a part of me I didn't think I'd need any more."

The bard shivered at the tone of her voice.


Gabrielle and Cyrene found the beast sleeping; the bard took a deep breath, though she was fingering the hairpin in her pouch. "Looks like she's calm for the moment."

"Where now?"

"There's a lighted area over there." The bard pointed. "Let's try it."

Cyrene nodded. The two women edged around the monster, finding it both relieving and unnerving that Xena's guard was down so quiet. The light became more distinct as they neared, discovering it was a small hole in the wall.

"The path back to her conscious mind?" asked Cyrene, laying her hand along the rock wall surrounding the opening. "Up and out?"

Gabrielle nodded. She nudged Cyrene toward the opening, but then had second thoughts. "No," she tugged the woman's skirt. "Let me go first."


"We might have a problem, and I don't want you caught in it."

"Gabrielle, I have handled myself quite well for a long time."

"Please?" Gabrielle put a hand on the innkeeper's arm. "If we're successful we're going to emerge into the middle of a war... If not, we're going to be in real trouble."

Finally Cyrene nodded. Hand over hand, with Gabrielle leading, the two crawled up the long tunnel following the light visible at the other end. Gabrielle wondered what she would find. During the climb in the lessening darkness, the bard found herself remembering the adventures she and Xena had shared. Somewhere in all the recent events were still the good memories of the past, keeping them together. I will not have spent all this time coming back only to find Xena and I cannot recover from this, the bard determined. Almost in response there was a tug in her chest, her heart swelling with something she couldn't identify.

Gabrielle and Cyrene neared the end of the tunnel and the bard looked up, seeing two figures in the darkness.

She helped Cyrene out of the tunnel, only to find the woman fading before she could get a full hold on her arm.

"Guess Xena's working on her other memories herself," the bard murmured. "It's up to you, Gabrielle." She bucked herself up and looked at the dark figures up ahead.

She found the two figures were both Xena.

One, turned and smirked. The eyes were black as pitch, and the smile that smile that look Xena had at the height of battle. That "I'll eat your liver and enjoy it," look she gave the thieves and robbers they ran across every day. However, rather than her familiar leathers, the dark-eyed Xena wore a deep, almost black, royal blue silk caftan. She carried a sword, she swung nonchalantly from her left hand.

"Xena?" Gabrielle looked to the other.

When she turned, it was a blue-eyed Xena looking back. Gabrielle took a deep breath of relief. Xena wore a light-blue caftan, and held her chakram and a big book. "Gabrielle?!"

"By the gods, Xena, what's been happening?"

But there was no answer. The black-eyed Xena took advantage of the distraction and swung her sword at blue-eyed Xena's head.

Gabrielle watched them battle back and forth. One or the other would momentarily gain the upper hand but then it would revert to a stalemate quickly. Gabrielle wondered if there was anything one could do that the other could not counter.

Then blue-eyed Xena pulled out a small bow with a repaired break just below the nock.

Gabrielle gasped, recognizing it as the childhood bow Cyrene had shown her and told her about. She'd forgotten she'd brought it out of Xena's subconscious prison. She watched Xena nock the arrow and lift it to her shoulder.

The warrior looked to Gabrielle and smiled, pulling back on the bowstring and releasing an arrow. The black-eyed Xena raised her sword, to ward off the coming arrow. But this miraculous defensive stunt Gabrielle had seen Xena do time and again in one situation or another was not apparently a skill that black-eyed Xena possessed.

The arrow sank deep into her chest, a pool of crimson blood pouring out over the caftan. She fell to the ground in a heap. "You're no longer a part of me, Ares," whispered blue-eyed Xena as Gabrielle came up to her and studied the fallen black-eyed Xena. "My destiny is now my own."

The bard watched the black-eyed Xena fade away and closed her eyes as a bright light suffused the area, painfully blinding them both. She felt Xena grasp her hand. "I'm glad you're here," came a whisper in the blinding light.

"You did it, Xena," Gabrielle replied. "You did it."

The warrior doubled over in pain, crying out. Gabrielle cried out, "What's happening?!"

Ares backhanded Xena, throwing the warrior for a tumble. "You're softer than you ever were with that bard at your side. Sniveling over a dead soldier. So what if you fought with him once! He's on Athena's side! He's your enemy!"

Xena had begun smiling at the god's mention of Gabrielle, feeling a swell of pride for the first time in what seemed like eons. As she rose to her feet, she felt a brief surge unlike anything she'd ever experienced. "She did. She did it, Ares." She shook her head. "No, no. By the gods, I did it." She fell back to her knees and studied the dark god's bewildered face. "I win," she expressed with all the calm in the world.

An Athenian stepped around the stunned Ares, and walked up to Xena's back. "You lose!" he yelled and thrust his sword through her back, forcing the blade forward until it came out on the other side, protruding from her chest.

"You understand hatred, Gabrielle. But you've never given in to it. You don't know how much I love... that." The bard's green eyes shined up into hers, and the warrior's chest expanded until unbearably she simply took the damp cloth and began cleaning the soldier's wounds herself. The bard's hand slid over her bicep and calm and comfort filled the warrior.

And she too now captured that feeling. No hatred touched her. No thought of striking at the soldier who had struck nor at Ares crossed her mind. Xena moaned and gasped, but the smile, the unearthly peace did not leave her face as she closed her eyes and fell forward. "Gabrielle," she murmured. "I'm free." She took a careful deep breath, inhaling the fresh aroma of damp grass, pungent under her nose. "Thank you."

"No, Xena. Thank you." Shivering as the loss of blood made her cold, Xena nonetheless rolled over as Ares growled. She knew that voice. So did he. For her it was a source of joy. For him, anger.

"What are you doing here?!" He grabbed Gabrielle's arms and Xena felt her stomach leap, though her body could not, at her reaction to pull his stomach out through his mouth for that threatening action to Gabrielle.

But the bard -- Thank the Gods, Xena was never happier to see anyone in her entire life. The bard grabbed Ares' hands and pulled them from her biceps, and in another motion, flipped him over her shoulder, and dropped him to the ground on his back. "It's over."

The air in front of the blonde woman sparkled, coming alive with activity. The air coalesced, first into a shimmering cloud and then into a solid form.

"Athena," she breathed, burying her cheek into the grass.

Things began happening too fast for the warrior or God of War to completely absorb it all. When Ares grabbed Xena's body, trying to lift the warrior to her feet, the heaviness of the woman's weight, which should have been as nothing to him as a god, was instead such that it dropped him to his own knees.

"Brother, you have heedlessly thrown away your Fate." Athena's voice boomed across the surrounding land.

Athenian and Arean warrior alike threw down his arms and turned to find the source of the thunderous voice. There, atop the hill, each saw his commander, either the goddess Athena, bedecked in her golden armor, or Ares, shrouded in black. Fear struck through them and then they noticed two other forms with their gods.

One, dark-haired, on hands and knees, gulped air and tried to stand. Another, golden hair as fine as rays of sunshine, stood in the center of the confrontation between the rival immortal siblings. She bent to the dark-haired one on the ground.

She touched a shoulder. All took a deep breath, expecting Ares' Chosen to stand, lash out and strike down the soft-looking blonde.

Instead she rose slowly to her feet, and took on an impressive glow.

Gabrielle smiled watching Xena, who was finally experiencing all the love she'd been holding back since the bard's passing. When the warrior turned to Ares, he gasped.

Her face, with its clean planes and glowing skin, was still hers. The mesmerizing eyes, which compelled mortal men to do anything -- and a god to promise everything -- were changed.

"By the gods, she's in there!" Ares stumbled backward and felt a ripping sensation in his chest. Looking back at him were not eyes of crystalline blue -- but emerald green, fired with a passion he'd longed to control, enhance and possess for a decade.

"You have lost, Ares," Athena boomed. "You have lost your life as well."

Thunder rumbled and lightning rolled across a sky that moments before had been placid if not clear. The God of War stood ... and trembled. Nodding to Gabrielle, Athena grabbed Ares' arm and vanished with him in the ether.

Gabrielle looked away from the disappearing gods and found Xena staring at her. She grasped the warrior's hands and smiled. "Xena!"

"Gabrielle." The warrior could barely breathe much less speak around the lump in her throat. "How?" She grabbed the bard instead and hugged her tightly. Xena's embrace prevented any response for the moment.

But the warrior seemed more content to simply stand and hold on to the bard. Her eyes were closed, and though there was no sound, tears coursed over her cheeks. Gabrielle's arms circled Xena's waist. A shimmer of the air nearby drew their attention. Xena did not release her hold on the bard, but did allow the woman to turn slightly in her arms to see a regal-looking woman appear.

Gabrielle did not recognize the deity, if indeed the dark-hair woman in flowing robes was a goddess.

She gave a faint nod to Gabrielle, then the woman spoke to Xena. "I am Lachesis. A decade ago, I encumbered Ares with your thread. You and he were dark, a pair of equals, unequaled in devotion to one another."

Gabrielle shivered. Xena rubbed her shoulders. In return, the bard squeezed the warrior's waist.++ E@0@>_фq)Ph"S/kê $ }!1AQa"q2#BR$3br %&'()*456789:CDEFGHIJSTUVWXYZcdefghijstuvwxyz w!1AQaq"2B #3Rbr$4%&'()*56789:CDEFGHIJSTUVWXYZcdefghijstuvwxyz xy Jenna
07/20 -


The warrior looked down into Gabrielle's upturned face as the bard's head rested against her shoulder. "Can the bond only be made with a god?" the warrior asked, while studying Gabrielle's clear green eyes.

Lachesis shook her head. "It is actually uncommon to be bonded with a god."

"May I choose?"

"That power belongs to the Fates alone."

"Then why are you here?"

"To congratulate you on choosing to defy Ares' definition of your destiny. He was wrong, you know. His connection with you blinded him to the fact that bound or not, each of you still had separate fates."

Gabrielle lifted her head and said quietly, "I don't understand."

Lachesis smiled indulgently at the bard. Xena squeezed her shoulders. Athena appeared and nodded to Lachesis. "All is in readiness."

The Fate nodded and produced a small vision in the center of their small circle.

"I don't want to be joined with you, Athena."

"Xena, it's not your choice. Lachesis already told you that."

"Can't I decline then?"

Lachesis shook her head. "Close your eyes, Xena. Gabrielle."

Both women closed their eyes, feeling a shivering of the air around them, and hearing a hum in their ears.

Xena heard a sharp gasp from the bard still nestled in her arms. Then her own chest squeezed, pulled and twisted.

"You know what I'm going to face out there," she said.

"I know."

"Then why are you coming with me?"

"Because that's what friends do. They stand by each other."

"Come on. Friend."

Xena and Gabrielle's eyes opened. Bewildered they nonetheless smiled. When they finally closed their eyes again, each felt less separate.

Gabrielle looked up. Xena looked down. Their hands clasped together on Gabrielle's stomach. "Even in death, Gabrielle. I will never leave you."

Gabrielle's eyes snapped open. Both she and Xena were looking at each of their memories...from the same point of view. "By the gods," she murmured.

Xena's eyes opened and the bard looked up. They noticed something unusual about each other at the same moment.

"Your eyes!" They exclaimed together.

Lachesis nodded. "Of course."

Xena frowned, as did Gabrielle.

"I've only made permanent what you have both been working on since you first met."

Athena stepped from behind Lachesis. "The eyes are the window to the soul." Xena and Gabrielle felt Athena's hands on their shoulders as the warrior-goddess walked up next to them. "Your souls have been joined."

Xena and Gabrielle both flashed to the mountain where Gabrielle's voice told an injured Iolaus a story to keep his flagging spirits up.

"Once long ago, people had two heads and four legs. The gods in a fit of anger, severed them in half so that each person had one head and two legs. In pain, each spent their lifetime trying to find the other. Ever since each mortal wanders the earth looking for the other half of its soul."

Gabrielle ducked her head. "It was only a myth."

Athena shook her head. "In every myth, bard, there is the grain of truth. That one has far more truth than most. It wasn't in anger. It was in jealousy. Cronus was upset that mortals were happy. You see, gods don't have souls." She materialized a short vision then, of Ares chained in a dark cavern. "Though we do have hearts. One without the other can lead to the worst of all the emotions. Jealousy. Possessiveness. Hubris."

"What happens next?" Gabrielle held Xena's hand, feeling the warrior's heartbeat echo in her own wrist.

"We will deal with Ares, for his treachery in siding with Dahak. You and Xena, will likely go on as you have."

"Just like that?" Xena was astonished. Only the fact that she kept feeling Gabrielle's hand in her own, and from time to time found herself drifting into the bard's head to share a thought about their surprising situation, made Xena understand all that was happening was real.

The last weeks, alone, emotionlessly wandering through her life, doing exactly as Ares' bid. They seemed the dream.

"I've got some weaving to do," Lachesis said. "I think your thread has become quite a bit brighter. Time for me to find a new place for you in the larger tapestry, Xena."

Athena waved a casual hand and Lachesis vanished.

Gabrielle voiced the sentiment for both her and Xena. "Thank you, Athena."

"Don't thank me. You did all the work. Both of you. I reward searches for the truth." She looked at the bard and then up at the warrior. "He really would have succeeded this time, Xena."

The warrior nodded. "I realize that."

Athena nodded. "Yes, you do." She stepped back preparing to leave the two women alone on the hill's crest. "Xena, I couldn't claim you for a Chosen all those years ago. I don't want your soul. But I appreciated the offer. You are very special to me."

The warrior said nothing. Gabrielle returned to hugging the warrior's waist, hiding her face as the goddess walked into the ether, disappearing.

Standing in silence for a long time, finally, Xena's mind stopped spinning just a bit and she said, sensibly, "Time to go home."

"Home? No more wandering?"

"Oh, I suspect that I'll be wandering for a few more years yet," remarked the warrior. "You just have wanderlust in your veins."


"But I thought I'd visit Mother. See how she was doing."

The bard smiled. They turned and watched the sun set. A dark backlit form moved closer, finally revealing itself as Argo. The mare trotted up to the hill crest and the bard reached out a hand to pat the muzzle.

"No longer afraid of her?"

"Nope. After all," she replied, noticing Xena's hand too, sliding over the mare's withers and neck. "We are both loved by you." She touched Xena's hand and looked up into the warrior's face. "And we both love you back."

Xena closed her eyes and smiled, putting her arm around the bard's shoulders. "I've been thinking..."

Gabrielle smiled back, buffeting the warrior's shoulder. "Really? Now I've got to hear this."

The warrior smirked. "Funny."

"Storyteller in me thought it was time for a joke."

"Actually, I think it's time for food."

"That's supposed to be my line."

"I guess Athena was right."

"About what?"

"Well, if we're now the same soul, guess that means I've got your appetite."

Gabrielle laughed. "I don't think it works that way."

"How do you suppose it works then?"

"I don't know. But I'm planning to stick around and find out."

The warrior nodded and pointed to Argo's back. "Up?"

Gabrielle nodded. The warrior mounted first then pulled the bard up on the saddle behind her. Together they rode into the forest, to find a campsite.

Above, in the glistening fog-shrouded domain of Olympus, Ares screamed as Xena's threads were ripped from his tapestry. He remained chained on a wall, shackled in Hephaestus-forged manacles. "I swear!" he screamed. "You will be mine again!"

Zeus stepped into the chamber, watching Hephaestus slowly moving around the room. "We can't keep him here."

"I will have a place prepared," replied Hephaestus. "He was born of gods and thus can never lose all of his powers. But I can strip him of his ability to have a mortal form. It will effectively imprison his other powers."

Zeus looked to Athena as the warrior-goddess, his wise daughter walked into the chamber from another entrance. "It will be done."

"Thank you, Father."

Ares screamed again. "You fools! Without me to defend you the other gods will come in and overtake your puny dominion over the mortals. Olympus will be dead."

"I will suffer no traitor within our midst," Zeus replied. "You have gone too far."

"May the Fates have mercy on you... As they have not on me," spat Ares, consuming himself in fire and disappearing from the prison.

"By Cronus' balls!" Zeus' voice thundered. Athena crossed the room to the wall.

Hephaestus stumbled to pick up the manacles, "It should have been enough."

Zeus was behind him. "Where did he go? How by all that exists did he get out?"

Hephaestus shook his head. "I don't know."

The King of the Gods groaned. "May the Fates help us," he whispered, studying the fire-scarred manacles.


Xena and Gabrielle sat up late into the night having set up a campsite in the nearby forest. Ares' army, and the Athenian military had both retreated. Thunder rumbled in the sky.

They laid together on a blanket looking into the fire. The warrior rested her hand in Gabrielle's hair, and the bard laid a hand on Xena's stomach. "I thought I'd lost you."

"But you found me again."

"I'm sorry."

"Good comes with the bad. Just remember that."

"You let me believe there was good still in the world, Gabrielle. When you died... Everything good felt awful. Everything bad just made me numb."

"I didn't die, Xena."

"I know. Now. But it felt... Gods, it hurt so much."

Ominous rumbling filled the sky. The bard looked up. "No rain. Zeus is angry about something."

The warrior nodded. "Probably can't stand it that Ares screwed up."

Gabrielle and Xena laid back. The warrior nestled her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. And the bard stretched out. "I'm glad you chose to let me come back into your life, Xena."

"It turned out to be harder trying to keep you away. Even from the very beginning, Gabrielle. Remember?"

"How could I forget?"

"I can't get a fire started. It's cold, and I couldn't find any food. I won't be any bother, I promise."

The warrior shook her head. And tossed a blanket at the small woman in the blue blouse and the long peasant skirt. "Here. Get some sleep. Over there."

The bard and warrior opened their eyes. The blue-green sea-foam color looking back at each of them made them smile. They nestled down together; Xena adjusted herself and rested a hand in the bard's hair.

The bard retorted out of the blue, "I do not snore."

The warrior chuckled. "Just testing."


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