General: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Ares belong to Renaissance Pictures/MCA/Universal. Their use is intended for no commercial purpose, and no infringement of copyright is intended. This is all for good, clean fun (and sleep deprivation).
Subtext: This story is based on the premise that Xena and Gabrielle (or later incarnations thereof) are two women in love, who will act on it. If that concept gives you the heebies, then don't even bother reading this.
Violence: There could be some, yeah. But I don't expect to attract any Congressional hearings over it.
Misc: In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that this story was inspired by Sword-n-Quill's The Stranger In Your Eyes. I liked the premise, and thought I could do something a bit different with it. No offense nor toe-stepping was intended. I hope you all enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed hers.
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She sat still, a dark figure silhouetted against a sky brilliant with the hues of the sunset she intently watched. How many had it been? Had to be approaching ten thousand, if not already there. She had stopped keeping track centuries ago.
Anyone caring to glance upward as they passed by on the street below would doubtless have wondered why someone was sitting perched on a seventh-story rooftop, legs dangling over the edge, staring unmoving toward the west. But this was New York City, so of course no one even thought to look. And that suited her just fine. The anonymity of this place still fascinated her, even after all this time. She clearly recalled the first time she had set foot in this land, stepping off the boat just in from Dover, surrounded by a horde of people desperate to start a new life in the New World, every one of them clinging to the hope that they would be able to make something of themselves over here. Fully half of them ended up on the other side of the customs house with a different name than when they entered. She too had been hoping for a renewal of sorts, though not a new life per se. She was irrevocably stuck with this one, until the end of time. Or until she could destroy the one who had cursed her, whichever came first. But that was proving annoyingly difficult to do.
The sun dipped below the western skyline, and she knew it was time to go in. One thing she would never get used to was the lack of a proper sunset in this town. There was still at least a quarter-hour of the day left when the sun disappeared from her view, here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She wasn't able to get out of the city far enough to see it hit the actual horizon nearly enough for her tastes, nowadays. Gotta do something about that sometime.
She got to her feet and made her way to the stairwell door. Found it shut, closed by the wind, because she had forgotten to push the doorstop all the way in, and therefore locked. Damn. She took a breath, and yanked with all her might. The door burst open, with only a small chunk of the doorframe flying past her ear. She glanced down the stairs -- no one around to see or hear. She slipped inside and made her way down to the fourth floor, and what she now called her home.
Apartment 4C was a far cry from a castle in Ireland, or a manor house in Tuscany, or a mercenary's barracks in Constantinople. But it was home to her, as much as those other places had been. "Home" hadn't had much meaning for her in a very, very long time. It was four walls, a roof that didn't leak, and if she was lucky, nothing crawling in her bedding. When you had lived as many millenia as she had, you came to appreciate the little things, and not expect much more. You were only in for pleasant surprises that way.
She had enough money for a much bigger and better abode -- hell, she could have bought every building in Alphabet City if she had the time or inclination -- but this more modest place suited her just fine. There were no rats, she hadn't seen a cockroach since she made that rather convincing argument to the super that one time, and the landlord knew better than to ignore her requests to fix a leaky faucet or repair the intercom system on the main entrance door downstairs. People tended to cross her only when they were very, very stupid. This guy had enough brains to know to stay out of her way, and she admired him for it.
Of course, the badge and gun didn't hurt her cause in that department, either. For the past nine years she had been a proud member of the NYPD, New York's Finest, first walking the beat and now as a detective in their gang activities division. It was an acceptable living, and it kept her busy. But even a cop with the best of work ethics still needed a vacation. She was at the front end of a week off duty, taking the first week of October for herself as she always did. This year she didn't have a specific trip planned: she figured she would play it by ear, see if the desire to ramble outvoted the desire to be couch potato for a little while. So far, the couch was winning.
She flopped down on the soft cushions of the couch, grabbed the remote, and turned on the TV. She had allowed herself a few little luxuries, like the mini satellite dish up on the roof. The other residents of the building had appreciated it too. She flipped past the Weather Channel, paused long enough to determine that there would be no viewable sunset tomorrow unless she took a trip at least as far south as Delaware, then continued through the lineup looking for interesting sporting events. She considered the online program guide to be cheating, so much of her evening, when she did choose to spend it this way was taken up by clicking the channel-up and channel-down buttons over and over, until she found a compelling reason to stop. Click, click, click.
She stopped, frozen, on CSPAN-2. There, standing at a podium hovering over a graphic proclaiming this to be BookTV, was a face as familiar to her as the one she saw staring out the mirror at her in the morning. The last time she'd seen him he hadn't been attired in casual tweed and J-Crew button-down, with stylish wire-rimmed spectacles perched on a nose which arched over a neatly trimmed goatee, but there was absolutely no question it was he. Her blood tingled with that feeling she always got when he was near, and her breathing quickened so she could barely hiss, "Ares."
There he was, that rat bastard. Nine frustrating years she had spent combing the underbelly of New York City hoping to find a sign of him, and now out of the blue there he was, standing behind a podium at some Borders store, in -- where was that? -- Aberdeen, Maryland, eruditely answering questions about his latest publication, a dual biography of both Machiavelli and Hitler, comparing and contrasting the ideals and methodologies of both. Figures you'd make some gravy off your boys, she thought bitterly. Neither of them would've gotten anywhere without you.
She took a good look at the name stuck to the bottom of the screen. "Dr. Jose Arias". Ah, so he had gone Latin in his spare time. She stalked over to her desk and booted up her laptop, foot tapping impatiently while the infernal process oozed forward. After I get rid of that bastard Ares, I'm going to devote my remaining days to making Bill Gates' life a living hell. Finally she had it, dialed up, logged in, and launched a search on Dr. Jose Arias.
Within ten minutes she had everything she needed. The esteemed Dr. Arias was on the History faculty at Yale University, specializing in military history. He had been on the faculty for eight years already, long enough to gain tenure, which made her hiss again in annoyance. He had been so close for so long, and she had had no idea. She had been patrolling the streets of New York, convinced he had to be lurking there somewhere, perhaps with his own Mafia family or molding a cartel of street gangs to be his latest army. She would have wagered her entire life's savings that she would eventually find him here: that was why she had become a cop, to make the process easier.
Through the centuries she had traveled far and wide, finding him and then losing him again, sometimes managing a confrontation and coming close to her goal, but never quite being able to land that final killing blow. And each time he would just laugh at her. "Come on, Xena," he would chortle. "Immortality was my gift to you! What would the greatest warrior the world has ever known ever want to do with death? You would be bored to tears in the afterlife, my dear. What do they say - don't look a gift horse in the mouth?" Then he would disappear, and it would be perhaps another generation before she found him again.
And so it had been the last time, after their meeting in that bunker in Berlin that had resulted in nothing more constructive than that annoying asshole with the preposterous little mustache getting shot in the head. She had spent the intervening 50-plus years having a worse time than usual tracking him down. He had been particularly elusive lately, and come to find out he hadn't been more than a two-hour train ride away, wearing tweed and corrupting the minds of the leaders of tomorrow, doubtless also while getting it on with several of his prettier students. Son of a bitch.
She felt her annoyance bubbling over and punched the wall over the desk, the crack reverberating through the room and causing a small rain of plaster down on the books piled on the tabletop. Three full seconds passed before the picture frame hanging on that wall crashed to the floor, sending shards of glass skittering in all directions.
What would I do with death? What would I do in the afterlife? I'd be perfectly happy, that's what. I'd be with Gabrielle, and then I'd be content for all eternity.
Gabrielle. She sucked her stinging knuckles and dropped to the couch with a groan. Not a sunset went by when she didn't think of her soulmate, now dead almost three thousand years. She had managed to forget practically everyone else she had ever known from what she called her first life, because it was easier that way. But she could no more forget Gabrielle than she could forget how to dream. A succession of lives after, lovers and husbands and yes, even children ... she had forgotten most of them, had to really stop and think to recall the details of her lives prior to what they were calling the 18th century nowadays. But Gabrielle she could remember as clearly as if she had just left the room: the way the sun shone on her blonde hair early in the morning, how her sea-green eyes sparkled as she told a story, how she smelled, the way her nose crinkled when she laughed. How she had retained her youthful exuberance into advanced middle age, unperturbed by Xena's unchanging youth. How she had recited her stories even at the end, unable to see well enough to write any more, dictating to Xena as the warrior fastidiously copied each one down in her crabbed hand. How peaceful she had looked, that morning when Xena had awakened from a dream of Gabrielle as she had been in her prime, the greatest Queen the Amazon Nation had ever known, kissing her solemnly and saying "I will always be waiting for you," to find her beloved had passed over during the night. Xena had kept her promise and buried her soulmate in her own family's tomb in Amphipolis, next to Cyrene her mother and Lyceus and Toris, her brothers. The tomb was big enough to hold one more, but that space had never been filled.
Enough. Time to focus on the task at hand. Xena strode to the closet, produced the satchel she always kept ready for this moment, made sure she had cash in her wallet, and made her way to the door. She had a train to catch.
* * * * * * * *
The train pulled into the New Haven station at an excruciatingly slow pace. She stood right in the doorway, foot tapping impatiently, ignoring the bemused expressions of the exhausted commuters around her. As soon as the doors slid open she was on the platform and down the stairs, covering the considerable distance of the tunnel to the main station in far faster time than any of her fellow travelers. Thus she had her pick of cabs at the taxi stand. "396 Livingston Street," she said curtly to the Pakistani man behind the wheel, and they were on their way.
Less than ten minutes later the cab pulled up in front of an impressive, yet not too ostentatious home on a quiet, tree-lined street across from a large, now deserted park. She paid the driver with an added hefty tip, and waited until he had turned the corner before entering a stand of trees at the edge of the park, checking to make sure she was out of sight and alone before opening her satchel. She produced and donned a pair of black leather gloves, then loaded the semiautomatic pistol -- intentionally not her service weapon -- contained within. She fitted on the silencer and tested the balance. Perfect. She had to make sure not to waste her shot: the one bullet was specially filled with Hind's blood, a precious artifact she had managed to procure in the time since her last meeting with the former God of War. The bullet contained some of the material from the blade of the original dagger she had obtained from Hercules all those millenia ago, unearthed on a dig in present-day Macedonia in the 1950's, and purchased by her for a not-inconsiderable sum at auction about twenty years later. It had been her most triumphant moment of recent memory, as it now provided her with the one weapon she knew could best Ares.
Xena stifled a smile as she thought of the original dagger. She had always been tempted to become a teacher of what they now called "ancient history", just so she could set the record straight on some things. Gods, but the texts they forced upon the youth of this age were boring. They left out every single one of the good parts.
She concealed the pistol in the ample pocket of her overcoat, left the satchel under a bush out of sight, and crossed the street to her destination. There was a light burning by the front door, and another illuminated a window on the second floor. A late-model Saab sat in the driveway, alarm light blinking steadily into the night. It looked like the worm was home. She took a deep breath, and rang the doorbell.
There was a sophisticated progression of bongs, then a full count of twenty before she detected at the base of her hearing movement upstairs. Footsteps quickly descended a flight of stairs within and grew louder. Xena tensed her grip on the pistol in her pocket, preparing to draw, aim, and fire in a smooth motion she had practiced countless times. This was it. After all these years, this was her best chance to -
The door opened, and her world dropped out from under her. She just barely stopped her firing motion as her mind registered that the compact figure standing in front of her was emphatically not Ares.
The last time she had experienced a shock that profound, she had likewise been on an assassin's mission, having traveled halfway across the world and made her way into her intended victim's bedchamber only to pull the covers back ...
.... and find the same face that looked up at her now.
"Gabrielle?" Xena gasped. Her knees felt weak, and she could hardly breathe. It was all she could do to remain standing even as she heard the reply from the blonde woman in the doorway. "I'm sorry? Can I help you?"
Xena forced herself to focus. "Uh, I'm ... I mean ... is Ar -- is Dr. Arias in?"
The woman who looked painfully like Gabrielle adjusted her spectacles and pushed a lock of shoulder-length blonde hair back behind her ear. "No, I'm afraid he's still out of town. Are you one of his advisees?"
"Uh, no." Things were starting to right themselves now. She could breathe, for one thing, which was a definite improvement over a few seconds ago. "I'm ... an old friend of his. We go way back."
The woman's eyebrows rose. "Oh! Well, he's at a conference in Berkeley until Thursday." She took a step back. "Would you like to come in? I'm guessing you're in from out of town."
Xena figured she could teach her feet how to move. "You're right. But I don't want to impose-"
"Oh, not at all. I needed a break anyway." Not-Gabrielle smiled. Xena's feet forgot their task, and she stumbled over the landing, just managed to catch herself. Good gods, Xena. Get a grip on yourself.
"I'm Alison, Jose's wife. You are...?"
Wife. This woman, who looked so much like Gabrielle it was a physical torment, was that son of a bitch's wife. Fortunately, there was a small table by the door to catch herself on unobtrusively. "My name is Xena."
"Xena. That's a very unusual name."
"I thought so. It's quite an old one, too, isn't it? Come into the living room, have a seat. Can I get you something to drink? I've got beer, wine, Coke ..."
"Just some water would be fine, please."
Alison-not-Gabrielle indicated the couch along the far wall. "Okay. Make yourself comfortable, I'll be right back."
Xena settled back into the soft leather cushions of the couch, scrubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. Back in that first life, she and Gabrielle used to talk about what they had learned about their souls' common path. They had expected to encounter versions of one another until the end of time. But then came Ares' curse, and in the intervening thousands of years Xena had never met anyone who could possibly have been a latter-day Gabrielle. She had come across women who outwardly resembled her, and women who had a similarly beautiful and fierce soul, but not one of them had struck that chord in her heart reserved for her soulmate alone.
Until now. This was it, she knew it to the depths of her own exhausted soul. And Ares had her in his bed.
The thought awakened a rage within her that she hadn't felt in years. It was all she could do to paste a smile on her face as she looked up when Alison returned, a glass of ice water in one hand and a bottle of microbrew in the other. "Thanks."
Alison settled in an easy chair that matched the couch, and sipped her beer. "So what brings you to New Haven, Xena? Are you just looking Jose up, or do you have some business in town?"
"A bit of both, actually." Xena set her water down on the glass coffee table, noting the L.L. Bean mallard motif on the waiting coaster. "There's something I think Jose could help me with. We've been out of touch for a while, and I didn't even realize he was at Yale until this afternoon."
Alison nodded as though she were feigning interest. "Where do you know him from?"
"Ah, you could say we grew up together."
Xena took a swallow of water. Cuba. That figures. "In and around."
"Hm," Alison said again, and sipped her beer. "You look really familiar. Have we met?"
Xena kept her smile alive by sheer force of will. "No, I don't believe so. Truth be told, I wasn't even aware Jose had married."
Alison laughed. Xena noted the crinkle in the nose behind the spectacles, then saw for the first time (how she could have missed this was beyond her) that Alison's eyes were the green of a spring field. She was more thankful than ever that she was sitting down. "Don't feel bad. We sort of ran off to Vegas - sometimes I don't think all of his colleagues know yet, and it's been almost two years. Not exactly the type of thing two academics are supposed to stoop to, but I guess we were just inspired."
Xena had an overwhelming need to find out more about this woman who was so much like Gabrielle. "So you're a professor too?"
That laugh again. "No -- not yet, anyway. I'm still working on my thesis. Jose says I'm never going to finish, but I refuse to be one of those people who has to repeat the phrase 'I'm almost done' at parties for the rest of her life. There are way too many of those in this town."
It was getting easier to breathe once more. Xena manufactured a knowing chuckle. "What field are you in?"
"Classics. Specifically, ancient Greek literature and the fall of the oral tradition. Figures I'd find myself with a historian."
Classics. Oral tradition. This was getting even more overwhelming. Despite her better judgement, Xena asked, "How did you and Jose meet?"
"I was taking a class with him on ancient military history. I needed to be able to put the works I was studying better into context, so I thought it would be useful. I have to admit it was rather embarrassing to become one of those teacher/student cliches. But I found it's true that when you meet the one who's right for you, you just know it from the start."
The smile was getting harder and harder to maintain. She had to get out of here before she did something truly stupid, something that could be mistaken for kidnapping. She drained her water glass and stood up. "I don't want to take up too much of your time. Thanks for the drink. You said Jose will be back on Thursday?"
Alison rose in turn. "Yes, in the morning. Where are you staying? I can have Jose call you when he gets back."
Xena suddenly wished she had done a bit more research in that department, despite her haste to complete her task. This was completely not going according to plan. "Downtown."
"At the Omni, or the Holiday Inn?"
The decision was quick, and easy. "The Omni."
Alison stuck out her hand. "Well, it was nice to meet you. I really wish I could think of where I might have seen you before. You look so familiar."
"Nice to meet you too." Xena took Alison's hand to shake it goodbye. And almost fell over again. A flood of memories, images she had long attempted to forget but couldn't. They were all in that hand, which fit into her own with such familiarity it literally took her breath away. "I ... have to go. I can let myself out."
She abruptly turned and escaped out the door, leaving a stunned Alison Arias staring after her in disbelief. "What the hell was that all about??" She looked down at her hand, still tingling from the strange woman's touch. She had never experienced anything like that before. The moment Xena grasped her hand, she had had such a strong feeling of deja-vu, she was still reeling from it. She stumbled back to the chair and dropped down, taking a long gulp of her beer. She had a feeling the Greek bards were done with her for the evening. All she could concentrate on was that tingling in her palm, and the memory of jet-black hair and ice-blue eyes that she recognized for no good reason.
* * * * * * * *
The Omni Hotel was surprisingly more posh than Xena expected, having lived in New York City long enough to cultivate a snobbish attitude toward the suburbs. She had had to wait an annoyingly long time for a cab, but it had given her enough time to retrieve her satchel, safely stow the pistol, and get herself together enough to function. It had been a long, long time since she'd last been rattled like that. Never would she have expected to run into Gabrielle in Ares' house.
This changed everything. Her plan had been so simple: show up, nail him with the one weapon he couldn't deflect, deny, nor dismiss, then find someplace nice and quiet to live out the rest of her days until she could finally be with Gabrielle again on the other side. But she couldn't tear Alison away from her husband that way, no matter how despicable he really was. Xena had no doubt that to Alison, Ares -- Jose -- had been every bit the suave suitor and loving husband. Everything the young woman wanted him to be, he would be. That way he could get what he wanted from her. I'm surprised they don't have four kids running around already.
She turned on the TV on mute, and started flipping through the channels. The other wrinkle was, by murdering her husband Xena would completely alienate Alison, and destroy any chance she would ever have of getting to know her, this woman who was the reincarnation of Gabrielle. She dared not think any further than that. No, she would have to proceed on a different track. Somehow she would have to show Alison her husband's true colors. That wouldn't be easy, and she didn't have much time. Ares would know she was in town and after him, and while she knew he wouldn't run, he wouldn't make things easy for her. He never did.
She paused on an Irish Games tape delay broadcast on ESPN2. It was Tuesday. Ares would be back in town on Thursday, unless Alison mentioned something to him about her strange visitor and he decided to come back early. In that case, he could appear any moment. She knew his godly attributes weren't what they once were, but he could still manage to teleport once in a while when the situation required it. She wagered he might just consider this one of those emergency situations. And he would know where she was staying.
She reached under her pillow, patted the pistol hidden there. That's fine. I'm ready for you. Despite her resolve not to make this hard on Alison, she was prepared to do the deed now if it came to that. She had been ready for three thousand years.
Xena switched off the light, and turned up the sound on the tv, desperately hoping the Irish boys flinging a ball around on the screen in front of her would drown out the images of Alison and Gabrielle that were chasing around her brain.
* * * * * * * *
She sat in an ornate chair on a raised platform, looking out into a large bonfire around which several dozen women clad in leather and wearing feathered masks danced to a primal, driving drumbeat. She was wearing a mask of her own, and somehow she knew that the dancing, this celebration was for her.
She turned to look up at the owner of the hand she clasped in her own. A tall woman with black hair, dressed in gleaming armor, who glanced down to meet her gaze with twinkling, ice-blue eyes. There was love there, and she was completely, blissfully happy.
The sound of the telephone shattered the moment, and jerked Alison abruptly awake. For a moment she didn't know where she was; then she realized that she had fallen asleep in the easy chair, and she had a horrible crick in her neck. Rubbing her neck to ease the pain, she stumbled toward the kitchen and grabbed up the phone just before the answering machine switched on. "Hello?"
"Hey, girl. Did I wake you?"
Alison smiled at the lightly accented voice crackling across the line. "Jose. Yeah, I guess I fell asleep in the chair. What time is it?"
"10 o'clock Pacific time. Kind of late for you. I'm sorry, love. But I just couldn't go to sleep without hearing your voice."
"That's all right. I'm glad you called." She shook her head to clear the cobwebs, trying to dispel the memory of that so vivid dream.
"Is everything all right?"
"Oh yeah, everything's fine. I actually made quite a bit of progress on the latest chapter today. The end might finally be nigh."
She could hear his smile. "That's wonderful, darling."
"Hey, the strangest thing happened tonight."
She drew breath to tell her husband the story of the beautiful stranger who had appeared out of the blue on their doorstep, but then something made her stop short. She just couldn't bring herself to pass on the message that an old friend of his had stopped by. Her mouth closed with an audible click of teeth as she realized that the warrior woman in her dream was the same one she had met that night.
"Darling, what is it?"
She shook herself. "Uh, well, it wasn't all that strange, really. A cop pulled a car over right in front of the house. It was just weird because I've never seen that on this street before."
"Ah. Well, you never know in this city. They do say not to go into East Rock Park after dark, and that's just across the street. Speaking of which, did you arm the alarm?"
She realized with a start that she had not. "Yes, of course."
"Well, I'll let you get your beauty sleep. Just one more day and then I'll be through with this damned conference. What a crashing bore these historians are. Remind me to pick a more exciting field next time."
Alison giggled. Jose was always making up wild stories about what he had done in his "last life", and talking about what he was going to do in his "next life". It was silly, but endearing in its way. "I'll do that. I love you, Jose."
"Sleep well. I love you, dear."
She hung up the phone and hugged herself, leaning back against the countertop. What on earth had gotten into her, that she couldn't tell him about the mysterious visitor? And what was she doing having a dream like that? Ah, well. It was probably just sleep deprivation. She would tell him tomorrow. It's not like he Jose could do anything about the visitor tonight anyway.
She made her way into the hallway to arm the alarm system and head off to bed. Later, as she lay alone and exhausted in the king-sized waterbed she and Jose shared, she found herself wide awake, haunted by an image of black hair and ice-blue eyes. She realized that her palm was still tingling.
* * * * * * * *
Xena awoke at what the clock claimed was 8 am, though one would never know it by the pitch darkness of the room. It was later than she had intended to sleep, but hey, she was still technically on vacation. She arose and flung open the curtains on a dreary day, just as the Weather Channel had predicted. So much for checking out the sunset from the top of that cliff over there, she mused. Too bad - there was probably nothing but horizon to see from up there.
Ares had not appeared at her bedside during the night. Alison mustn't have talked to him. The old boy was probably having too much fun out there at his "conference" anyway. Xena snorted, idly picturing what San Francisco would have to offer a frisky god. Best not to go there so early in the morning.
As she watched out her window, she ordered her thoughts and came up with a game plan. The best-case scenario was that Ares would stick to his planned schedule, which meant she had at most just over 24 hours. She needed to talk to Alison again, try to figure out the best way to convince her that her husband was not who he claimed to be. A plan formed, and she flipped through her notebook to the page where she had recorded the Arias' address and phone number.
There were three rings before Alison's voice came on the line. "Hello?"
"Hi Alison, it's Xena. I hope I didn't wake you."
"No, no. I've been up for a while, actually."
"Good. Hey, I wanted to apologize for taking off so abruptly last night. I get kind of weird when I'm tired, and it was a long trip. I'm sorry to just show up, gulp down a glass of water, and run off."
"Oh, that's all right. I know what travel can do to a person, believe me. Did you get to your hotel all right?"
"Yes, thanks. Listen, I know you're busy with your thesis and all, but I was wondering if you'd like to join me for breakfast? Consider it payback for barging in on your evening."
A chuckle. Xena forcibly prevented her heart from skipping a beat. "Sure. You're at the Omni ... how about I meet you at 9, and we can go grab something at Claire's? It's vegetarian, but even if that's not your thing it's great. It's just up the street."
"That sounds great. See you then."
Xena glanced at the clock. Plenty of time to shower and get ready. She went back to the window and looked down at the scene below. Young people she could only assume were Yale students mingled with professionals making their way across the Green to class and to work, huddled under multicolored umbrellas that each displayed the telltale signs of a difficult life in a city where rain was almost always accompanied by gusting wind. As if to prove the point, a bright blue umbrella turned inside-out as it crossed the street almost directly below. Life went on, as it always did. Xena found herself smiling. If she played her cards right, after all this time hers might finally have an expiration date. It's about damned time.
* * * * * * * *
At 9:20 am, Xena and Alison were sitting in a corner table in Claire's Corner Copia restaurant, digging into Spanish omelets while their coats dripped dry on the chairs next to them. Xena was proud of herself for having retained her composure when she first caught sight of Alison, who was wearing a pale green raincoat that perfectly accented the vivid color of her eyes.
"I meant to ask you last night. What is the subject of your thesis?"
Alison shrugged shyly and sipped her tea. "Nothing you'd be interested in, I'm sure. Sometimes it's not even something I'm interested in."
"You might be surprised. Try me."
"I'm studying the writings of an ancient Greek storyteller who lived in the time of thriving oral tradition -- she's thought to have been a contemporary of Homer -- yet she wrote down every single one of her stories. It's very much an anomaly, and I'm trying to present a plausible theory of why that was."
Xena had to take a long swallow of coffee before she could respond. "That sounds fascinating. What was this storyteller's name?"
"Well, we really don't know for sure, because the scrolls as they were found weren't very well preserved and all we have are scattered fragments. But she's known generally as the Bard of Potadeia."
Oh, gods. "Were those scrolls found in Macedonia during the Second World War?"
Alison's eyebrows shot up. "Yes, actually. How did you know that?"
Xena shrugged. "I keep up on those things. Greek history has been kind of a hobby of mine. I subscribe to Archaeology magazine and everything."
Alison laughed. "That makes you a professional, then." She settled back in her chair. "So, tell me more about yourself, Xena. Where are you from?"
Xena took a moment to swallow, while she considered her options. The truth, or the story she had been using for the past 20 years or so? She opted for safety. "I'm from New York City."
"Oh! I thought you'd say you're from Cuba, since you said you grew up with Jose."
"Well, I've lived other places, but I've lived in New York the longest in the aggregate, so that's what I call my hometown. I knew Jose a really long time ago."
Alison smiled. "Yeah, you keep saying that. How long ago?"
Xena flashed a brilliant smile in return. "Long. We were in school together. College."
Alison took a few bites of her omelet before answering. That smile had disarmed her. "Ah, so you met him at the University of Miami?"
She nodded, apparently satisfied. "He doesn't talk much about his school days. It's like his life didn't really begin until he got the position at Yale. It's all he ever wanted."
"Really? But we had so much fun. You should ask him about it sometime."
A snort. "To be honest, I'm not sure I want to know." Alison looked up. "I'm not as stupid as you may think I am. Sure, I may have married my professor, but I'm not so naive as to think that I'm not the first student he ever got involved with. I just figure I'm lucky because I'm the one he decided to settle down with."
"Well, Alison," Xena said, folding her napkin, "then I guess it's only fair to let you know that Jose and I were involved in the past."
No reaction. "I guess that's not surprising."
"It was a very long time ago. And I promise you that I'm not here to rekindle anything with your husband. Though I do feel I have a responsibility to let you know that he may not be all that he seems."
That got a reaction. An all-too-familiar spark flashed in Alison's eyes as she set down her fork. "Excuse me?"
"How much do you know about Jose's family? Where he comes from, where he trained, what he did before getting to Yale?"
"What kind of a question is that, and what right have you to ask it?"
"None, apparently. But you seem like a very nice woman, and I'd hate to see you get hurt. I've seen the aftermath of what Jose is capable of, and it's never pretty."
That hit a mark. Xena could see the indecision in her breakfast companion's face, then a set of the jaw. "So you're back in town to get a little bit of revenge, huh? Ruin his happiness because he messed up yours?"
"Not at all. I have some unfinished business with him, true, but we've both gotten way past our petty youthful differences. I just believe in full disclosure, and it sounds like you're not getting that from him. That's a pattern with him, and I'm afraid the pattern might continue to its usual end."
Alison drained her tea mug and gathered her coat. "Well, this has been fun, Xena. Let me give you Jose's office number, so you can contact him directly tomorrow."
Xena reached out involuntarily and grasped Alison's wrist to stop her. The sensation wasn't as overwhelming as last night, but it was still there, and it set her just a bit off-balance. But this time she could see that it was having the same effect on Alison. She seized her opportunity. "Do those scrolls you're studying say anything about Ares, the God of War?"
That caught Alison completely off guard. "What?!"
"You heard me. Do those scrolls say anything about the God of War?"
"Yes. What on earth does that have to do with what we were just talking about?"
Alison shrugged on her coat, shaking her head in disbelief. "I don't know what game you're trying to play, but I don't have time for this, I'm sorry."
"Then at least answer me one question -- did you tell Jose I'm here?"
"No. I haven't talked to him. Thanks for breakfast."
Xena just sat and watched her go. Good job, Xena. Even after all this time, you still can't handle the sensitive chats.
She checked her watch and got to her feet. Well, at least Ares didn't yet know she was here. Time for Plan B.
* * * * * * * *
Xena got back to her apartment just at noon. The answering machine light was blinking, and she let the tape play while she rummaged around in the living room closet.
"Hey Xe, it's Deb. We met a couple weeks back at Meow Mix? Yeah, so I hadn't heard from you and I've never been one to give up easy, so I thought I'd give you a ring and see what you're up to. Maybe we can get together at Meow Mix again? They've got a cool show going on this Saturday, some Canadian woman, I saw her there last time she was in town and she's really cute, in a kickass, pink-haired kind of way. She makes really cool music too. Anyhow, I'm rambling. Give me a call, ok? 555-1972. Talk to you soon."
"You abbreviated my name, so you automatically lose, my friend." Xena hauled out a large strongbox from the back of the closet and popped the lock. "Besides, I've got other things on my mind right now."
She drew a deep breath and eased the box open, revealing a sealed clear plastic tube. She held it in her hands for a moment. It had been a while since she had opened this box - in fact, she didn't think she had since she'd placed the scroll in its new protective case. It was the one scroll of Gabrielle's she'd held onto, the last the bard had been able to complete in her own hand.
She shook herself, and placed the tube carefully in her satchel. Then she put the box back in the closet, and from the top shelf produced a large scrapbook. That went into the satchel too. A quick trip into the bedroom to retrieve an extra change of clothes, and she was ready to go.
Not for the first time, she wished that Ares' gift had included another godlike perk: instant mobility. She had never desired any other attribute of godhood but that one. It saved just so much time. Ah well. Thank the gods, the human race had eventually come up with the express train.
* * * * * * * *
At 3 pm, Xena found herself at New Haven's Union Station once again. She produced her cell phone and dialed the Arias' number. Alison answered almost immediately.
"Alison, it's Xena. Please don't hang up - I know you want to, but please, just listen to me for one second, ok?"
An exasperated sigh. "All right."
"I have something you're going to be really, really interested in."
"What. Naked photos of Jose?"
Xena bit the inside of her lip. "No. It's something you will probably find useful for your thesis. Please, can I come by and show it to you?"
There was a pause. "All right. But I don't have a lot of time. I have plans this evening."
"That's fine. It won't take long. I'm at the train station now - it'll take what, 10 minutes to get to your house from here?"
"Yes. See you then."
It did indeed take ten minutes. Alison took her time answering the door. "Come on in."
Xena realized she hadn't been able to pay much attention to the decor the previous night. It was very New England Colonial, matching the vintage and outward appearance of the house. Polished hardwood floors were covered by plush Oriental rugs and hallway runners. Prints of various styles adorned the walls at appropriate intervals. Somehow, she guessed Alison was in charge of the decorating.
Alison led her toward the back of the house, past the modern kitchen and into a comfortable room dominated on one side by a big screen TV. On the other side of the room was a pine work table, upon which were stacked several piles of books. Alison indicated a chair on one side of the table, and sat herself down in the other. "So. What've you got?"
Xena smiled, and removed the tube containing the scroll from her satchel. "Nothing much. Just this."
She knew she had scored the moment Alison caught sight of the scroll. Her eyes widened, and she fumbled for her spectacles. "Is that ..."
"A complete scroll of Potadeia, yes."
Alison took the tube into her hands and held it reverently, dumbfounded. "But ... there are no complete scrolls! All the Covington dig unearthed were fragments."
"This isn't from the Covington dig."
"Then where is it from?"
"It's a ... family heirloom."
The doubt and scorn that had clouded Alison's face was gone, replaced by an expression of pure academic awe. "Do you have any idea how important this is?? This could change everything we know about the scrolls, completely alter their significance!"
"Do you want to take a look at it?"
"Of course! But not here. We can't risk damaging it." Alison jumped to her feet. "Wait here. I need to call my advisor - he can arrange something." She ran to the kitchen to grab the phone.
Xena allowed herself a satisfied smile. That was almost too easy. So much for her plans this evening.
Alison returned a few moments later, grinning like a child on Christmas morning. "Dr. Bornstein, my advisor can get us some emergency research space at the Beinecke Rare Book Library this afternoon. Do you mind going down there with me?"
"No, of course not. It's been a long time since I've taken a look at it, myself."
"Are you sure it's authentic? I mean, there are ways to determine that, but they take time, and I'd hate to waste -"
Xena looked directly into Alison's eyes. "It's authentic."
Their gazes held for a long moment, until Alison finally flushed and looked away. "I hope so. Let's go."
They took Alison's car across town, the late-model Saab Xena had seen in the driveway the night before. She was sure it didn't fit into a graduate student's budget. The rain of that morning had stopped, and as they found a parking spot in a University lot and headed into campus, the sun started peeking through the clouds. Xena found that they were approaching a very odd building, a cube made out of inset alabaster panels where one would expect windows to be. "This the library?"
"Yeah. It won all sorts of architecture awards when it was built. It's good the weather's clearing up - it's always best in there when the sun is out."
Once they entered the building, Xena could see why. The alabaster panels filtered the sunlight and glowed like they were lit from within, necessitating very little artificial light in the reading room itself. "It's beautiful."
Alison nodded in agreement. "I love coming in here. It's so peaceful." She led them toward a middle-aged man who in Xena's eyes reeked of academia. "Dr. Bornstein!"
The professor, a squat man with a scraggly white beard, grinned in their direction. Alison indicated her companion. "This is Xena. She's an old friend of Jose's."
He pumped Xena's hand. "Very pleased to meet you. It's not every day someone brings in a discovery like this! Come on in, we've got a room set up so we can examine the scroll."
They followed him past a security checkpoint and down a set of stairs into the basement, past offices and into a small room at the end of the hall. The room was temperature and humidity-controlled, with a door that sealed tightly shut. Xena could hear the ventilation system conscientiously filtering dust and recirculating clean air throughout the building. There were three pairs of gloves on the table in the center of the room. Following the professor's lead, Xena and Alison each donned gloves, then at a nod from Alison Xena placed the tube on the table and unscrewed the cap.
Dr. Bornstein carefully removed the scroll from the tube, and unrolled it slowly across the table. Xena's breath caught. It had been so long since she had seen that handwriting, and telling that story, no less.
"I sing the song of Ares, God of War, and how he gave the gift of eternal life to the Warrior Princess of Amphipolis, a gift which was at the same time a curse..." Alison read the Greek slowly, puzzling out the syllables, sounding like Xena thought Gabrielle might have sounded when she was first learning to read as a child. Only Gabrielle wouldn't have had that atrocious accent.
"... for while one may wish never to die, one may only hope for peace in eternal life if the ones she loves can spend eternity with her. Alas this was not to be, and in this way was the Warrior Princess cursed to know the death of her loved ones while she would always live on to see another sunset."
It had been so long since Xena had spoken her native tongue, the sounds felt as foreign to her as she was sure they felt to the scholar. She looked up from the scroll to see both the professor and Alison staring at her in wonder. "That's beautiful. You make it sound like I imagine the ancient Greeks must have spoken it."
Actually, the Athenians told me I had a horrible Thracian accent. "I've always had a gift for languages."
Xena took a seat in the corner while the professor and his student pored over the scroll, muttering to themselves and making excited excalamations from time to time. After several minutes of this Alison looked up at her. "According to this, the Warrior Princess' name was Xena. You said the scroll is a family heirloom - is that where your name comes from?"
"You could say that."
A few moments later: "Ah, and this looks like it says the name of the Bard of Potedeia was - "
Alison removed her spectacles, and turned to face Xena full-on. "Gabrielle. But that's not a Greek name."
"It was her name. That was enough."
Dr. Bornstein cleared his throat. "I'd like to scan this, so we can study the text without risking damage to the scroll itself. I'll be right back with the equipment." He slipped out of the room.
Alison turned back to the scroll. "This is a pretty far-out story. But based on the fragments of the other scrolls that we have, it's pretty much in line with the rest of them."
"What are some of the other stories you have?"
"Well, just thinking about the stories I'm studying, we have one about how the Warrior Princess -- Xena -- and the Bard -- Gabrielle -- met. There's another about an insane warrior named Callisto, and how Xena defeated her in a spectacular battle in Callisto's stronghold. And another about how Gabrielle became Queen of the Amazons even as she prepared for Xena's funeral. But we also have a story that has to be set at a later time, even though in it Xena is alive and well and possesses the power to kill the Greek gods. There's been a lot of back-and-forth among the scholars of the scrolls as to what's going on there. The stories would indicate that Xena somehow came back from the dead, which of course is impossible. How much of the stories is myth, and how much, if any, is a chronicle?"
Xena smiled enigmatically. "I think you might be surprised."
The door opened again, and the professor appeared toting a hand-held scanning unit and laptop computer. Several moments of setting up equipment ensued, while Xena just sat back and tried not to let her memories overwhelm her. It had been so long since she had even thought of the stories Alison had listed ... every one of them true, very few details exaggerated for artistic effect. Gabrielle hadn't had to embellish much. Somewhere along the way, humankind had lost its ability to see the non-empirical parts of the world. The magic had gone, right around the time the ancient gods had departed the scene. Of the old gods only Ares still remained on earth, too enamored with mere mortals to pass over with the rest of his kind.
Alison's voice interrupted her reverie. "This is going to take a little while. If you're bored, I can meet you later with the scroll once we're done. I promise we'll take good care of it."
Xena checked her watch. Not too much longer until sunset. "Now that you mention it, a walk might do me good. Should I just stop by your house later?"
"Sure. Hey listen, I think I owe you something now. I don't know if you're aware of this, but New Haven has the best pizza in the world. I can order up some of that for us if you want."
Lunch had somehow fallen by the wayside today. "That sounds great. When do you think you'll be done and home?"
Alison glanced over at Dr. Bornstein, who nodded assent as she replied, "I should be home by seven."
"Great. See you later then. Nice meeting you, Dr. Bornstein."
The professor grinned up at her. "The pleasure's all mine. I can't tell you how glad I am that you brought this find to us. Its importance is immeasurable."
"Glad I could help." Xena made her way out the door and back up to the reading room of the library. She pulled up in front of the security station, realizing that the elderly man sitting there would want to look into her bag. She mentally reviewed the state of the bag, and hoped he wouldn't notice the lump of the pistol hidden in the inside pocket. Fortunately, he proved more interested in making sure her scrapbook wasn't the library's copy of the Gutenberg Bible than anything else, and he let her proceed with a smile that she gratefully returned.
She emerged blinking into the late afternoon sun. The breeze still blew on an unseasonably chill day, but the brightness of the autumn leaves warmed her as she got her bearings and headed for the street. By luck, she happened to hail a cab before too long. "Can you drive to the top of that cliff over there?" she asked the driver.
Even luckier, the driver spoke English. "East Rock, you mean? Sure."
"Then please do."
It didn't take very long to get to the top. "You want me to wait, ma'am?"
Xena gave the driver a generous tip. "No, that's okay. I'll walk down. Thanks."
The breeze blew more stiffly on top of the crag that dominated the city, but the view delivered everything she had hoped for. The observation area faced south, with a clear view of the westering sun. A few joggers and sightseers were scattered about taking in the view, from the harbor to the downtown skyline to the Gothic spires of the university, and beyond them all the cliff on the other side of town that the driver had identified as the creatively named West Rock. She claimed a park bench, and settled in to clear her mind and enjoy the sunset from start to finish.
* * * * * * * *
Alison took the Zip disk her advisor held out to her and reached for her coat. "Thanks for your help, Dr. Bornstein. I don't think I'm going to be getting much sleep tonight going over this."
He grinned. "You and me both. It's incredible how this just dropped into our laps. How did you find out that your friend had the scroll?"
"I had mentioned the subject of my thesis, and she just called me and told me she had something I might be interested in." She shrugged into her coat. "And she's not my friend. She's Jose's friend."
The professor noted the change in Alison's tone at that last, and elected not to pursue it further. He didn't know Jose Arias well, but he had heard the stories. "Ah, well, the important thing is she was generous enough to share it with us. Let's plan to talk later on in the week, once we've both had a chance to go over the text in depth. There's a paper here, and I want to make sure you can get it published as soon as possible."
Alison stopped short. "You mean, you want me to be the one to publish this? I thought you would - "
"Nonsense. It was your find. You deserve the credit." He switched off the computer and gathered it up, opening the door for her. "Have fun with the text. I know I will."
Alison checked her watch as she made her way out of the building. 6:15. She pulled out her cell phone and selected a speed-dial, hoping she wouldn't get the busy signal that indicated Pepe's Pizza had taken all the orders they could handle for the night. Thankfully, the phone rang. She ordered a medium white clam pie, and was told to pick it up at 7:30. Xena was due at 7:00. Oh, well. She could probably find something to converse with the still-mysterious stranger about that wasn't Jose.
She reached her car and auto-unlocked the door. She had been so annoyed by Xena this morning, making those off-the-wall comments about Jose. What had happened? Was she so focused on her work that the scroll instantly erased whatever negative feelings she had for the stranger? Or was it Xena herself? As she thought of the woman she couldn't help but remember her dream of the night before, quite possibly the most vivid dream she had ever had. She had felt so happy in the company of the warrior who had looked so much like Xena, she wondered if she could remain angry at the woman in real life.
She pictured Xena in her mind's eye, her hair that hung halfway down her back and was so black that the fluorescent lighting of the library's research room had brought out blue highlights in it. Her stunning blue eyes, which held a hint of deep sadness even as that brilliant smile lit up her beautiful face... Whoa. Alison shook her head to clear it. What is this? You haven't had a crush on another woman since college. You're happily married to a gorgeous man. Moreover, this woman clearly has an agenda that involves your husband in what you're sure is not a nice way. Get a grip on yourself, girl.
With a start she realized she had come to her house, having driven across town on autopilot. She sun was down, the twilight deepening. Even as she turned in to the driveway, the street light on the corner blinked to life.
She hurried into the house, saw that there were no messages on the machine, and made a beeline for her office upstairs. Firing up the computer, she inserted the disk containing the scanned images of Xena's scroll into the Zip drive and formatted them for printing. She printed the first five pages, and set to work deciphering the text. At the bottom of page one, she gasped aloud.
The Warrior Princess of Amphipolis, whom they called
Stood on a bluff overlooking the sea, watching the downward progress of the sun.
She stood a full three cubits tall, clad in gleaming armor of bronze.
Her hair was black as a raven's wing, her eyes were as blue as sapphires.
Black hair, blue eyes. Three cubits .... Alison did some quick calculating in her head. Depending on the exact measure of a cubit in that area at that time, that would measure somewhere around six feet. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Xena, the woman who had brought her this scroll had to be around six feet tall. And the warrior in her dream had been wearing bronze armor.
This was getting weird.
The doorbell almost startled her heart to a standstill. She checked the clock -- 7:00 on the dot. She ran her hands through her hair and headed for the stairs. Maybe over dinner she could get some answers.
* * * * * * * *
The sun disappeared below the western horizon, and Xena let out a satisfied sigh. She had always had a thing for sunsets, from early childhood on. She and her brother Lyceus used to ascend a hill overlooking the river that ran past Amphipolis to watch the sun go down, and later on she had discovered that Gabrielle liked to sit and watch them, too. Whenever they could, they would find a spot to sit in silence and watch the colors spread out across the sky, a different set of hues for each season. Xena found it ironic that the pollutants in the atmosphere in this era made for more beautiful sunsets than she remembered from that ancient time. But Gabrielle's poems, inspired by the sunsets she and Xena had witnessed together made those much more beautiful than anything the modern day could produce.
She got to her feet. A sign stated that the park closed at sunset, so it was time to head down the hill and meet with Alison at her house. The evening was turning chill, and she would be grateful for some food. Even she still had to attend to the basics of life.
The path down the hill was in shadow, running through the woods that covered East Rock away from its sheer red cliff face. Xena had always had sharp night vision, and she was able to make her way through the deepening twilight with ease. About halfway down, in the middle of the third switchback a rustling in the trees behind her made her stop short, all of her senses coming alert. She turned just as a hooded figure emerged from the path's edge, the final vestiges of daylight glinting on the knife in its hand.
"Okay, you know the drill," a boy's voice stated, sounding almost bored. "Gimme your money and I won't have to cut you."
Xena felt that familiar feral thrill at the promise of an approaching battle. "Why don't you go home, kid? I don't have anything you want. Don't you have homework to do or something?"
"Don't get smart with me, lady. I know how to use this." He brandished the knife in what she was sure he thought was a menacing fashion.
"Trust me, you don't want to mess with me. Now just go home, and nobody's gonna get hurt."
"What the fuck's wrong with you, lady? Don't you hear anything I'm sayin?" The boy lunged.
Xena was ready for him. She jumped back, found her balance, and unleashed a kick aimed at the boy's wrist. She heard a snap, and the knife skittered away and into the trees on the other side of the path. The boy screamed in pain. "My wrist! You fuckin' broke my wrist!"
"I told you not to mess with me. That's what happens when you don't pick on somebody your own size. Now go home, and have your mama take you to get that looked at."
He hesitated only a second, long enough to decide the knife wasn't worth looking for, then turned and ran back up the hill. Xena watched him until he was out of sight, then shook her head in disappointment. She really hadn't intended to hurt him, but he shouldn't have come at her like that. Three thousand-plus years hadn't dulled her reflexes one bit. She was just glad he hadn't tried something even more stupid.
She checked her watch. 6:50. She started back down the hill to Alison's house and her appointment, hoping she wouldn't run into any more distractions.
* * * * * * * *
Xena contemplated ringing the doorbell again, then finally heard movement inside the house. Alison opened the door. "Hi. Come on in."
Xena nodded a greeting and complied. "Did you get your scans done?"
"Yes. I'm glad Dr. Bornstein was there - I can never get those stupid hand-held scanners to work, but he didn't have any trouble at all. He got it done in about a tenth of the time it would've taken me. I was just starting to go over the text in detail. Here, let me take your coat."
Xena shrugged out of her coat and handed it over. "I'm glad you'll be able to get something out of the scroll."
Alison hung the coat in a closet by the front door. "Oh, I'll get plenty out of it. I'm not the only one, either. Dr. Bornstein has a copy of the scans, and he wants me to write a paper. I don't know how to thank you for thinking to bring it to me."
"Just some dinner will be enough," Xena said with a smile.
Alison shyly smiled back. "I've ordered us some pizza. It'll be ready to pick up in a few minutes. If you don't mind coming with me to get it? I know it seems weird, but this place tells you when to come pick it up. They get lots of orders."
"That's no problem. I'm sure that just means it's good."
"Very. I hope you don't mind white clam?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Never had it, but it sounds intriguing."
"It's good, trust me." Alison indicated the living room. "Want to have a seat?"
"Sure." Xena sat on the couch, remarking how much different this meeting was than -- was it really only 24 hours ago? She was almost used to this 21st-century Gabrielle, who went by the name of Alison and wore round, wire-rimmed spectacles. Gabrielle would have loved to have had those available to her. Xena wouldn't have had to play scribe for those last years, for one thing. Idly, she wondered how many scroll fragments from the Covington dig had been found in her own handwriting, and how much controvery that had caused in Alison's scholarly circle. Maybe sometime she'd find a tactful way to ask about that.
"So," Alison began. "Did you have a good walk?"
"Yes. I went up to the top of East Rock to watch the sun set."
"Wow. I've lived here going on five years now, and I've never been up there. Sad, isn't it?"
"No, I can understand. I've lived in New York for a lot of years, and I've never been up the Empire State Building. I guess it's just one of those things, if you live in a place with certain attractions you'll end up leaving them to the tourists."
Alison settled back in her chair. "Did you just walk down by yourself? The park's not the safest place after dark."
Xena smiled without humor. "I made it alright."
Alison got the distinct feeling it was time to change the subject. "I don't think you said what it is you do in the City."
"I'm a cop, " Xena replied. "Detective, N.Y.P.D."
Alison wasn't sure what answer she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't that. Her eyebrows shot up. "Really?"
"Yes. I'm in the gang activities division."
"Wow. That's gotta be more exciting than sitting around in a library all day."
"Depends on what you're into. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't get into a quieter line of work, myself."
"Like studying ancient family heirlooms that just happen to be priceless artifacts, perhaps?" Alison got to her feet. "Time to go get the pizza."
They chatted about inconsequential things as they drove through town, Alison pointing out local landmarks along the way. She took a different route home from the pizza parlor, so Xena could see more of the town. "It's not the most exciting place on earth -- it's definitely not New York."
Xena responded, "That's not necessarily a bad thing."
Back in the house, Alison set out plates on the kitchen table as Xena opened the pizza box. A tantalizing smell wafted up at her. "This looks great." She had watched with interest as Pepe's employees pulled steaming pies out of a huge wood-fired brick oven, and couldn't wait to taste the results.
"It is, trust me. New Haven doesn't have much, but when it comes to pizza, we're the champions of the world." Alison switched on a radio on the countertop, and Celtic fiddle music filled the room.
The pizza was indeed incredible. Xena washed down her latest bite with a passable amber ale of local extraction, that Alison had produced from the fridge. "How long have you lived in this house? It's beautiful."
"Thanks. Jose has had the house almost since he came to town -- he happened to be in the right place at the right time to get a good deal on it. I moved in two years ago when we got married."
Xena wondered just how Ares had managed that serendipity, but decided to let it be. "It looks like a nice neighborhood."
"It is. There's a good mix of grad students and Yale professors and people who are just in town. And the park is great. It's a quiet area."
"I'll bet you don't have to worry about traffic interrupting your sleep here, huh?" Xena recalled the many summer nights when sirens under her open window had ripped her out of perfectly good dreams, and how difficult it was to get back to sleep after.
"No, not really." Alison swallowed thoughtfully. "Though you know, last night I did have the strangest dream." Why did she feel compelled to tell Xena about it? Her visitor looked at her expectantly, so she went on. "I was sitting on some throne-thing wearing a kind of ceremonial mask, and in front of me a bunch of women dressed in similar ceremonial dress and masks were dancing around a bonfire."
Xena suddenly had a faraway look on her face. Alison realized with a bit of a shock that though the woman sitting across the table from her didn't look a day over 30, the eyes in that youthful face were impossibly old. "There were two dozen of them, dancing to the beat of four drums. Every five steps they would slap the ground with their hands and turn back toward you, letting out a shout."
Alison could hardly breathe. "That's exactly it. How on earth -"
But Xena went on as though she hadn't heard. "It was night, and you were sitting on a raised platform. And at your right hand was a warrior woman dressed in leather and bronze, with an intricate curlicue pattern on her breastplate."
"How the hell do you know that?"
Xena came back to herself. "That wasn't a dream, Alison. That was a memory."
"Your dream - in your dream, you were the Queen of the Amazons, celebrating your union with your consort."
"Alison, I'm going to tell you something. You're going to think I'm insane, but I just ask you to hear me out. Okay?"
She couldn't utter a sound, so she just nodded, taking a gulp of her beer. Xena took a breath and continued.
"In the scrolls, is there any description of the Warrior Princess that you've found?"
Alison found her voice. "There were a few fragments. I found the most complete description in your scroll just before you got here."
"And what did it say?"
"Black hair, blue eyes, about six feet tall, depending on how you translate the unit of measurement. Bronze armor."
"And you already said the scroll gives the name as Xena. You asked whether I'd been named after the Xena in the scroll. Well, the truth is, I am the Xena in the scroll."
There was a buzzing in Alison's head. She could not have heard that correctly. "Excuse me?"
"The scroll I brought you tells the story of how Ares, the God of War cursed me to live forever. That was over three thousand years ago." Xena had stashed her satchel in the corner, and she retrieved it now, pulling out her scrapbook and laying it on the table. Alison moved the pizza box out of the way in a daze. Xena opened the book to the first page, revealing a page torn from a reference book of a Medieval illumination showing a tall woman with black hair and bright blue eyes, dressed in the garb of a lady but carrying a sword. "This was the earliest remembrance I could find, once I got the notion to start keeping track of my history. In the late 12th century I was living in Normandy. I commissioned a Book of Hours from the monastery on my lands, and as was the custom for those things, one of the monks doing the illuminations put me in it."
She turned the page. Another page from a reference book, this time of a portrait credited in the fine print as one by Van Dyck. It was Xena's likeness, down to the shape of the ear and brow and slightly sardonic half-smile. "I liked England - I stayed there for a very long time."
Another page, yet another portrait torn from a coffee table book, this one showing Xena dressed in 18th-century court clothing. "I went back to France and ended up caught in the Revolution. Not a very fun time."
Yet another page. This was a photograph of very early vintage. The same face that sat across from the table peered out at Alison in sepia tones. More photographs appeared on later pages, each one getting more and more modern, showing the impossible woman in varying situations, and with various other people who were probably family members, judging by the resemblance.
The buzzing in her ears was getting louder. Alison felt the room begin to spin, and closed her eyes against the images in front of her on the table. "So throughout the ages there have been a lot of women who look remarkably like you. Why do you expect me to believe that proves you're three thousand years old?"
"I don't. I just want to you listen to me, and keep an open mind."
Alison kept her eyes screwed shut. "You mean there's more?"
"Yes. A lot more. I know this is crazy, but I have to tell you everything. You don't know how important this is."
"Fine." Alison opened her eyes, focused them past Xena to the fridge. "But first let me get another beer."
Xena waited patiently while Alison retrieved a fresh bottle and opened it, then returned to her seat at the table. Then she went on. "In the scroll, or any of the fragments you've found, does the Bard of Potadeia describe herself at all?"
"I haven't had a chance to get very far into your scroll, but I didn't see one. I don't recall seeing one in any of the fragments, either."
"Well, I can tell you that you will find one in my scroll. And you'll find the description sounds remarkably familiar."
"How do you mean?"
"Blonde hair, green eyes. About your height."
Alison snorted derisively. "Oh, so that makes me some sort of reincarnation, or something?"
Xena nodded solemnly. "Yes."
This was too much. Alison burst out laughing. "I'm sorry, but this is asinine. What psycho ward did you escape from?"
"I didn't. And like I said, I don't expect you to believe me. You just need to listen."
"Okay, fine." Alison took a gulp of her beer and sat back in her chair. "You talk. I'll listen."
"I met Gabrielle when she was just a girl. I rescued her from slavers and she followed me away from Potadeia. At first I couldn't wait for her to give up and go home, but then I realized I couldn't live without her. She was a gifted poet, and chronicled everything about our lives together in her scrolls. The one I brought to you today is the only one I kept. There were just too many of them, and as the years went by it became too painful for me to keep them around anyway. I wasn't thinking that they would eventually become something of interest to scholars.
"There were many stories in the scrolls about the Greek gods. What hardly anyone realizes today is that the gods were real. Gods in general are real, so long as there are enough people who believe in them. I always had a ... special relationship with Ares, the God of War. I had served him faithfully until shortly before I met Gabrielle, and at that time I devoted my life to righting the wrongs I had visited on the world when I was his pawn. Those are the stories Gabrielle chronicled in her scrolls. Ares never wanted to let me go, and I had countless run-ins with him over the years. There was always the temptation to get back together with him again, but always Gabrielle would help bring me back onto the right path.
"Finally, after a series of events I don't have time to go into right now, I ended up with the power to kill the gods. And I did - I took care of the majority of the Greek pantheon over the course of about a year. But in the process Gabrielle got seriously hurt, and Ares sacrificed himself to save her. He ended up giving up his godhood and his immortality for us, and so I was in his debt. I helped him get his godhood back, and as a token of appreciation for helping him, he insisted upon conferring the gift of immortality on me as well. I refused, unless he gave the gift to Gabrielle too. But since he was always a stubborn bastard who wanted me all to himself, he wouldn't do it. So I didn't accept.
"He kept hounding me for years, trying to convince me to take his gift. I kept on turning him down. Finally, one day he tricked me into eating the fruit of the Tree of Life, which confers immortality on any mortal who consumes it. Then he disappeared, but not before sending a messenger to make sure I knew exactly what had happened. I haven't aged a day since. But I had to sit by and watch as first Gabrielle, then everyone else I ever knew and loved in subsequent generations withered and died in front of me. It's been a living hell.
"The only way to break this curse and become mortal again is to kill the one who put it on me. For three thousand years now, I have hunted Ares down. I've found him more times than I can count, but I lost the ability to kill gods long ago, so there's been nothing I could do. But now I have a weapon that will kill a god. I came here to break the curse once and for all."
Xena broke off and finished her now lukewarm beer. Alison blinked. "That's a great story. You should sell the screenplay. What the hell does this have to do with me?"
"It's been over fifty years since I last ran into Ares. But I finally found him again, here. And he's currently going under the name Jose Arias."
The buzzing in Alison's head had subsided, but now it started up again with a vengeance. "You're out of your mind."
Xena opened the scrapbook again, past the last photos of herself. "Please, just look."
These were different pictures, starting with very early photos of the same vintage as the ones on earlier pages. The first appeared to be from the Civil War, showing a Confederate general standing next to a darker man in the same uniform. Alison stared. That did look an awful lot like Jose. On the next page, more military men, though in different uniforms -- the Spanish American war? And again, among them a man who looked just like Jose. World War I -- another Jose lookalike in a Prussian uniform. World War II -- she could barely look -- a man with Jose's face and eyes in a Nazi uniform, sitting at a table with Hitler himself. Something more about that photo caught her eye, and she looked closer.
Oh god. That Nazi had a mole on his cheek in the same spot as Jose.
Alison looked up at Xena. "I would know Jose anywhere. That's him in these photos, isn't it."
Xena nodded. "He wasn't going by the name Jose then. In this picture - " she indicated the Nazi photo - "his name was Franz-Heinrich Kriegesmann. You won't find him in many history books, but documents of the time indicate that he was Adolf Hitler's closest advisor." She closed the scrapbook on the horrible picture. "Basically, throughout history if you look at every major war you'll find him right in the middle of it. It's what he thrives on, the only thing keeping him alive."
"Jose has always talked about past lives. He told me once he had gone through regression therapy, and he had recalled details of many past lives as a soldier. That's why he got interested in military history. Frankly I've always thought him silly for believing in that crap, but I love him so I can look past it." Alison fingered the scrapbook pages. "He has talked about the Civil War, and World War I. I never really want to talk about it much, so when he brings it up I don't ask him questions."
"I bet if you asked him about who he was in his 'past life' in the 1930's and 40's, he'd give you the same name I told you just now."
"So how do you explain his presence here at Yale, teaching history, when there are wars going on all over the planet right now?"
"I can't. It's something I'm curious to know. But to be honest, I don't plan to have much time to talk to him."
Alison rubbed her face. "Because you're here to kill him. You're convinced he's this God of War who cursed you with immortality, and you're going to kill him and get your revenge and break the curse. Of course."
"That's what I had intended to do, yes. But meeting you changed things quite a bit."
"Oh right, because I'm Gabrielle reincarnated."
Alison got to her feet. "Just because I've got blonde hair and green eyes like you claim Gabrielle did, and just because I had some dream you somehow knew the end of, you expect me to believe you."
"I've told you, no I don't. But you have to admit, my knowing your dream has to count for something."
"Yeah. It counts for something. It counts for some story I read in one of the scrolls that you must've read at some point too. You told me yourself they're something of a hobby of yours. I read it somewhere and had a dream about it, and you remembered the story and recited it back to me."
"Believe that if you want. But I can guarantee you that you will never find that story in any of the scroll fragments you have from the Covington dig, or in my scroll, or in any scroll you may ever find on your own. Gabrielle never wrote about it. She told me it was the happiest day of her life, and she couldn't do it justice by putting it into mere words."
"Be that as it may, I still don't see how I could be a reincarnation just based on that."
"You may have a fragment of a scroll telling the story of when Gabrielle and I traveled to India. While there we learned a lot about reincarnation, and we were told by a very wise woman that our souls would always keep finding each other. I didn't really know what to make of that at the time, but it was kind of a comforting thought for the two of us. Then the curse happened, and when I lost Gabrielle it was one of the only hopeful thoughts I had, that someday I would encounter her soul again. But in all this time, I've never met anyone who could possibly have Gabrielle's soul. Until I met you yesterday."
Despite all of her efforts to disbelieve, to try to force herself to stand up and order this crazy woman out of her house, Alison found all of this making more and more sense. She sank back into her chair. "How did you know?"
"Alison, you look so much like her it's frightening. You speak with her voice, just in a different language. You're interested in the very stories she wrote. And you dreamed the happiest moment of her life. Didn't you ask me last night if we had met before?"
Alison couldn't deny that. "You did -- do -- look familiar." She let out an explosive sigh. "This is just so crazy."
Xena decided it was time for one final gambit. She reached out and grasped Alison's hand. "Tell me the truth. What are you feeling right now?"
Alison gasped. Xena's hand was warm, and the touch sent a jolt of fire through her entire body. She closed her eyes, and a tumult of images catapulted through her brain, of sea voyages, and battles, and quiet moments by a campfire, and more intimate moments that made her heart race. And a small baby girl.
She pulled away when she couldn't take it any more. "I -- can't describe it."
"What did you see?"
Alison could hear that Xena was a bit short of breath too. "I saw ... battles. Ships. Campfires. You and I -- Xena and Gabrielle -- whatever -- um..."
Was that a blush creeping up Xena's ears? "Go on."
"And a baby girl. She was cute."
"Eve," Xena breathed. "Our daughter."
Alison got to her feet again unsteadily. Whether it was the beer or this incredibly bizarre conversation, she wasn't sure. "Look. I 've done what you asked. I listened to you, and even though I'm trying not to, I find myself believing you because there's no other way to explain what's going on with me, and with you. But I can't let you kill Jose."
"I understand how you may feel about that."
"I mean it, Xena. I could call the police on you right now, never mind that you're a cop yourself. Even if Jose is what you claim, I've never seen him do anything even remotely warlike or evil as long as I've known him. Assuming that those photos aren't something you just doctored up, maybe he's turned over a new leaf, I don't know. But the fact is that I love him, he is still my husband, and I won't let you kill him. If you have been waiting three thousand years as you said, can't you wait a few more until I'm gone? You've had several lifetimes -- at least let me live the one life I've got happy and in peace."
Xena appeared to consider that. "I don't want you to get hurt. This is between Ares -- Jose -- and myself."
Xena stood, and gathered up her scrapbook. "I do still want to speak to him. I won't do anything untoward, I promise. But there are some questions I have for him. What time is he getting in tomorrow?"
"He's taking the redeye -- his plane lands in New York at seven in the morning. He should be back up here by ten or so. I'll have him call you when he gets in, but I can't promise he'll want to see you right away. I'm sure he'll be tired."
Xena wondered if he really pretended to sleep, but declined to say anything about that. "That's understandable." She shouldered her satchel. "Thanks for not throwing me out on my ear."
Alison smiled sheepishly. "I wanted to, but for some reason I found your story incredibly fascinating." She remembered something suddenly. "Oh, wait here -- I need to give you your scroll back."
Xena stood in the kitchen, looking at the odd assortment of magnets on the refrigerator and flexing her hand where it had taken hold of Alison's. She had once knocked her hand against a live wire, and her arm had felt like this for about an hour afterward, tingly and numb all at once.
Alison reappeared with the scroll tube in hand. "I guess I'll be seeing you again once Jose gets back into town."
Xena tucked the scroll into her satchel carefully. "I guess."
There was an awkward silence. "Do you need a ride back to your hotel?"
"No, that's okay. I can call a cab. I'm sure you have a lot of work to do."
Alison picked up the phone that hung on the wall next to where she stood, and dialed a number. "396 Livingston Street, to the Omni Hotel. .... Five minutes? Great. Thanks." She hung up the receiver. "Done."
"Thanks." Xena indicated the hallway. "You put my coat in there, right?"
"Oh, right." Alison retrieved it from the closet. Another awkward moment ensued. Xena moved toward the door. "I'll just wait outside."
Alison planted herself between Xena and the door. "Why do I believe you?"
Xena blinked. "Because your heart knows that what I've told you is true."
Alison looked up into those old, sad eyes. "Would you say that you and Gabrielle were soulmates?"
Xena had to catch herself before she was lost in green depths she knew so well. "Definitely. We were -- are -- eternal soulmates."
"I used to think Jose and I are soulmates. He's said as much. But now I'm not so sure."
"I'm not going to do anything to come between you and Jose. It's your life, and I have no right to mess with it."
A car horn sounded outside. "That's my cab." Xena took up her satchel and Alison opened the door. "Thanks for the pizza," Xena said. "You were right, it was the best I've ever had."
Alison watched her get into the cab and drive off. It was a long chilly moment before she could rouse herself to close the door. While her mind screamed at her that what she had just heard and experienced couldn't possibly be anything but the ravings of a lunatic with a death wish directed at her husband, deep down Xena's words rang true. She had known Xena before, in a previous life millenia ago. She didn't want to believe that Jose was some ancient war god, though, and indeed she would need more proof before she bought into that. And she had meant it when she told Xena she wouldn't let her kill Jose.
The phone rang. She ran back to the kitchen phone, and on a hunch, answered with "Hey, Jose."
She had guessed right. "Evening, love. I'm just about to head off to the airport for my flight. How are you?"
"I'm fine." She made a decision. "A friend of yours stopped by today. Her name's Xena."
There was silence on the line. She was just about to ask her husband if he was still there when he responded, "Now that's a name I haven't heard in a very long time."
"She said it had been a while. But get this -- she brought me a complete scroll of Potadeia! Can you believe it?"
"Actually, yes I can. She was always into that sort of thing. I'm sure it's going to help you quite a bit with your research."
"Words cannot express. Dr. Bornstein wants me to write the paper."
"That's wonderful. How long is my old friend Xena in town?"
"I'm not sure. She did say she wants to see you when you get back."
"I don't doubt it. Did she regale you with stories of our misspent youth?"
"Not really. I gave her dinner as a thank you for bringing me the scroll, and we mostly just spent the time discussing ancient history."
"She's a very fascinating woman. It'll be good to see her again."
"Well, darling, I was just calling to say good night before I go. Tomorrow morning I'll be back home with you. I've missed you."
"I've missed you too. Call me when you land in New York, okay?"
"I will. Sweet dreams. I love you."
Alison stared at the phone for a long moment after she hung up. She still wasn't sure what to make of Xena's claims, and the evidence she had seen. Maybe if she had the chance to see the two of them in the same room together, it would help her make sense of the situation.
But then again... doubts began to assail her mind. She had never met Jose's family - he had always said they were in Havana and couldn't get out, and he wasn't very inclined to try to go back. And he said he had gone to the University of Miami, but she had never seen a yearbook or a diploma, and none of his other college friends had ever called. She didn't even know how he'd gotten out of Cuba.
She scolded herself for being silly. None of that was necessarily out of the ordinary. Xena was just trying to mess with her mind. Even the scattered fragments of the scrolls left to this age had made it clear that Xena and Gabrielle's had been one of the greatest love stories of ancient times. Regardless of whether or not she really had Gabrielle's soul, the resemblance Xena had claimed might lead to jealousy when it came to Jose.
She glanced at the table, and decided the mess there could wait until the morning. Right now she wanted to get back to that scroll. Maybe concentrating on her work would help clear her mind, and erase the intense feelings Xena's hand clasp had aroused in her. She slapped herself lightly on the cheeks to focus her thoughts, and headed up the stairs.
* * * * * * * *
Xena settled back in the feather pillows on the bed and clicked the remote, her brain not registering what was passing by on the muted television screen. She reviewed the events of the evening on endless loop in her mind. The visit had gone better than she could have hoped. She just hoped Alison didn't call the police on her before she had a chance to talk to Ares. At this point, all she wanted was to talk to him and find out what he was up to. She would let a plan unfold where it may once she had more information.
She thought back to the dinner conversation. On the one hand, giving Alison all of the details before Ares even got back into town was potentially a very stupid thing to do, but on the other, she felt that it had been the right thing to do. Her instincts told her that Alison had believed her, and her instincts had almost never failed her.
So now what? She had promised Alison she wouldn't do anything to hurt her, and she had meant it. But she couldn't wait another lifetime to do in Ares, now that she finally had the right weapon. Maybe if her lucky streak continued, Alison would come to terms with what Jose really was. Xena knew Alison hadn't believed that part of what she had told her, but she hoped that in time she would.
Suddenly she was very tired. Sometimes she swore she could feel every single year in her bones. And it would be a very interesting day tomorrow.
She clicked off the tv, switched off the light, and was asleep almost before she settled back on the pillow.
* * * * * * * *
She was standing on the deck of a ship, shivering and wet. Around her, sailors leered at her, every one of them unwashed and male. Somehow she knew that she could never leave this ship, that she was now cursed to die there like everyone else on board with her. She had never felt so alone in her life.
A cry from the nearby shore caught her ear, and her heart leaped. She ran to the rail and there she caught sight of an armor-clad figure sprinting toward the cliff's edge, a knot of armed men hot on her heels. Joy bubbled up, and she shouted, "Xena!"
The cry sounded again, and although the ship was starting to come about and head further out to sea, the warrior launched herself right off the edge of the cliff and landed with a thud on the deck. She ran into Xena's arms, and she was happy.
Alison came awake with a start, and looked at the clock. 6:47. She rolled over onto her stomach with a groan. Was she going to have these dreams every night now? Was that even a dream, or another so-called memory?
She got up to pee, and had just settled back in the waterbed when the phone rang. Jose had arrived safely at LaGuardia, and would be catching the next limo to New Haven. He should be home by nine.
She marveled at how awake he sounded - redeye flights always killed her, as she could never sleep a wink on a plane. Then something struck her. She had always thought Jose an insomniac, but had she ever seen him sleep? She'd awakened in his arms on many a morning, but he was always awake before she was. Did gods need to sleep?
On an impulse, she picked up the phone and took advantage of Directory Assistance's direct-dial feature to reach the Omni Hotel.
A sleepy voice answered once she was connected to Xena's room. "Hello?"
"Xena, it's Alison. I'm sorry to wake you, but I need to ask you something. I had another dream."
"That's okay. I'm normally an early riser anyway. What was your dream?"
"I was on a ship. Xena -- you -- whoever -- jumped off a cliff and onto the boat."
There was a pause. "Cecrops' ship." Xena sounded fully awake now.
"Cecrops. He was cursed by Athena to live forever, and he could never leave his ship or he would die. Anyone who ever set foot on his ship was likewise cursed to die if ever they left it, though he was the only immortal one of the lot. We -- Gabrielle and I were shipwrecked in a storm and Gabrielle ended up on Cecrops' ship. I couldn't leave her there alone, so I made sure I got on board with her."
"So that was another memory of Gabrielle's, huh?"
"Am I going to keep dreaming these memories now?"
"I don't know. I don't really have any experience with this sort of thing."
"Well, I hope they don't keep coming back every night. I really need to get some sleep."
Alison could hear Xena's smile over the line. "I can understand that."
"Well, I won't keep you. I just needed to know. It seemed so real."
"It was. And I'm glad you called."
"So am I. Oh - there is one more thing. Did the gods sleep?"
"Not that I ever saw. Why?"
"No reason. Sorry to bother you. Have a good day, Xena."
"You too, Alison."
Alison hung up the receiver and stared up at the ceiling. For more reasons than he could possibly imagine, she couldn't wait for Jose to get home.
* * * * * * * *
At 9:30 am, after another delicious breakfast at Claire's, Xena got back to the hotel and asked the concierge for a Yale directory. Settling herself in one of the overstuffed chairs in the lobby, she dialed Jose's office number on her cell phone. After sitting through a voice mail message explaining that he would be out until Thursday afternoon and directing her to press 0 to speak with the department secretary, she pressed 0 and waited. "History Department."
"Is Dr. Arias holding office hours today?"
"He's just getting back from California. He normally holds office hours on Thursday afternoons, but due to his trip I don't believe he'll be making any appointments today."
"Could I get an appointment on the calendar, just in case?"
"I could put you down for one o'clock, but I'll have to ask you to call after eleven to confirm."
"That's fine. The name is Xena. X-E-N-A."
"Your last name?"
"That's not necessary. Jose knows me. Thanks for your help."
Once the secretary was off the line, she dialed the office number again, this time to record a message. "Ares. It's Xena. Y'know it's funny, all these years you've been here in New Haven and I've just been on the other end of the train line in New York, and we've never once done lunch. I figured it's high time we do something about that. I made an appointment with your secretary for one this afternoon. I know you're just getting back from a long trip, but somehow I think you'll be up to it. I really look forward to seeing you again. It's been too long. Oh - and you have a lovely wife. See you soon."
She closed the phone with a smirk. That would ensure her appointment would be kept. She got to her feet. She'd seen that the hotel gym had a pretty good setup, and she figured that would be as good a way as any to kill the time.
* * * * * * * *
Absorbed in the scroll, Alison didn't hear Jose's key in the door, and came to awareness of the outside world with a start when the front door closed behind him. She bounded down the stairs and into his arms. "Jose!"
"Ah, Alison. It's good to be home." He enveloped her into a bear hug that progressed into a kiss.
Standing there, touching him, it seemed completely impossible that he could be anything but a Cuban scholar. "How was your trip?"
"Long and boring, as always. But at least I'm done with the conference thing for this semester." Jose took up his bag and started up the stairs. "Now I'm home, and you won't get so much work done."
"Oh I don't know," Alison said as she followed him up. "I've found a renewed interest in my thesis."
"Is the scroll here?" He dropped the bag on the landing and poked his head into her study.
"No, I gave it back to Xena. I've got scans of it, though. The printouts are on the desk."
He picked up a couple of pages and glanced over them. "Looks like an interesting story."
"It is. It's about the God of War and how he cursed Xena to live forever." She watched him intently, searching for any sort of reaction.
There was none. "I guess that answers the question of whether the scrolls are myth or history, huh?"
"I guess it does."
He placed the pages back on the desk and kissed her again. "I'm happy this found its way to you, darling. A discovery such as this will make your name in your field."
"Yeah, I guess it will."
He tilted her face up to look at him. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine -- just tired. What with the work I had been doing and then this scroll, I haven't gotten much sleep the past couple of nights."
He grunted, and sat down in the desk chair. "I just need to check my calls. Hopefully I can get away with leaving the office until tomorrow."
"Good luck. Oh - Xena does want to see you. I'm not sure how long she's in town. She's staying at the Omni."
He raised an eyebrow. "I'll see if I can pencil her in."
There was a comfortable wicker chair in the corner. Alison sank into it with the scroll page she had been working through before Jose's arrival. She heard the scratching of her husband's pencil as he scribbled notes from his voice mail messages. When he stopped abruptly, she glanced up at him. His entire demeanor had changed - he seemed bigger and darker, somehow menacing. She blinked in surprise, and then he was just Jose, a lithe, dark man dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, listening on the phone.
He hung up. "Well, it does look like I have an appointment after all," he announced. "But it's not until one o'clock." He rose, and in one motion strode toward the chair and gathered her up in his arms. "Plenty of time for us to get ... reacquainted."
Alison couldn't help but giggle. "Sounds good to me."
He carried her into their bedroom, and with his foot shut the door behind him.
* * * * * * * *
Xena double-checked the campus map she had procured from the nearby bookstore, and confirmed that Jose's office was indeed in this building, on the third floor.
A sign at the top of the worn stone stairs announced, "Department of History". Beyond the sign was a small office populated by a desk and a tiny sparrowlike woman, who looked up at her with a completely annoyed expression when she walked in. "Can I help you?"
"I have an appointment with Dr. Arias. Which is his office?"
The woman was just drawing breath to speak with Xena suddenly stiffened, every nerve in her body proclaiming that Ares was near. A very familiar voice with an unfamiliar lilt answered from behind her, "Xena. How wonderful to see you again."
She steeled herself and turned. "Dr. Arias." The name dripped with irony. "A pleasure, as always."
He smiled his most charming smile. "Come into my office -- this way." He led her to the end of the dim hall, into a dusty office filled with books. "Please, have a seat."
Xena settled into the visitor's chair across his desk and crossed her legs casually. "Nice office."
He closed the door and took his seat behind the desk. "Thank you." He leaned back in the leather chair. "You're looking well. Why, you haven't aged a day."
"Funny how that works." Xena idly fingered a green glass paperweight on the edge of the desk. "I gotta say, I'm surprised to find you lurking in the halls of academia. I mean, world peace hasn't exactly been achieved. Why aren't you living in a palace in Baghdad or something?"
Ares snorted. "Come now, Xena. Surely you know what those Arabs are like. They're no more likely to seek out a God of War than they are to get drunk at a pig roast. No, they're doing quite well on their own, with their Koran and their all-merciful Allah mandating Jihad as a prerequisite for admission into Heaven. They don't need any help from me."
"So why not Bosnia, or West Africa, or Chechenya?"
"Contrary to what you might believe, not all wars throughout the history of humankind have required my intervention to thrive. Those situations have nothing to do with me, though I must admit they've all been fun to watch."
"All right, then. Why the Ivy League? Are you getting tired in your old age?"
He laughed. "No, not at all. I've just decided to try a different approach."
Xena merely raised an eyebrow and said nothing, so he went on. "Not too long ago, it occurred to me that the armies of the world are losing their creative edge. With the advent of technology, the art of war has been reduced to nothing more than a video game. I realized that what has been missing from the battlefield is the old-time strategy, the immediacy of knowing your enemy. Being able to see the whites of their eyes. I figured that what the warriors of today need is a sense of history. A good dose of old-time military strategy."
"Hence the specialty in military history."
Ares nodded. "I should give you a copy of my dissertation, comparing and contrasting the methodologies of ancient Greek and Roman generals. Some of it might sound quite familiar to you."
Xena shook her head. "I still don't get it. If you want to influence the 'warriors of today', as you put it, why are you here? Why not at West Point?"
"The leaders of the modern world aren't coming out of the military academies like they used to. Where are they getting their education, no matter what nation they're originally from?" He spread his arms out wide. "Right here. George Bush Senior singlehandedly masterminded the Gulf War, and he's got a Yale diploma hanging on his wall, not a commission from West Point. So does Bill Clinton. So does Benjamin Netanyahu. The list goes on and on."
"I get the point. So instead of bending great armies to your will by force of your irascible charm, you're corrupting the minds of the Ivy League youth who will be commanding the United Nations forces a few years down the line. Very subtle."
Ares just smiled smugly. "So what have you been doing with yourself these past fifty years? I must say I'm surprised it's been so long since our last meeting."
Xena shrugged. "Oh, you know. A little of this, a little of that. I spent a lot of time in Korea and Vietnam. I kept an eye out for you in Hanoi, but no dice. After that insanity ended I found myself back in the States. I had a hunch I'd find you eventually in New York City, so I took a job as a cop. It took a bit longer than expected, but I turned out to be close."
"Ah yes, Vietnam. Jungle warfare is utterly not to my taste, though in the beginning it was a nice change of pace from Havana. Quaint town, but poor old Fidel isn't the brightest light on the string, if you catch my meaning. That whole Bay of Pigs mess was downright pathetic. Cambodia was fun for a while, but that quickly got old too." He chuckled. "You know, the 20th century was a remarkably interesting one. And I thought your original era was bloody."
"Never underestimate the stupidity of the human race." Xena rose and went to the window, which looked out onto what appeared to be a power plant. She could just barely see the walls of a cemetery beyond. "You've made a nice little life for yourself here, Ares." She turned to face him, eyes narrowing. "It was quite a surprise to arrive at your house the other night and have Gabrielle answer the door."
"The resemblance is striking, isn't it?"
"Oh come off it, Ares. You know as well as I do who Alison is. Tell me -- did you know she was in town before you applied for the job, or was it just a happy coincidence that she happened to appear in one of your classes?"
"Well well, you've talked with her more than I knew. But to answer your question, I had no idea she was here. I had already been on the faculty four years at that point. I was quite shocked when I saw her in class that first day."
"So how long did it take for you to get her into bed? A week? Ten days?"
Ares' smile did not reach his eyes. "Considerably longer than that. Do I detect some jealousy here, old friend?"
Xena's lips pressed into a thin line. "A long, long time ago, you made a few attempts to get Gabrielle away from me. Each of them failed. Then you put your damned curse on me, and forced me to lose her slowly, watching her fade away day by day while I stayed just as I was -- as I am now. For the past three thousand years, I have been searching for her soul, which I had been given on very good authority would come back to me. I can't begin to tell you how many nights that proved my only comfort, since I'd been sentenced never to be able to go to her. But for all that searching and waiting, there was nothing. Nothing! Until now, when I find out that she's been in your bed." Her voice had risen steadily throughout this tirade to a shout. Suddenly the shout dropped to a whisper. "Yeah, I guess you could call that jealousy."
"Has it occurred to you, Xena," Ares responded, "that I just might be looking to settle down for a little while? Lie low, relax, try out this traditional family values thing that's all the rage these days?"
Xena's eyes flashed. She covered the space from the window to his desk in one stride, hauled him to his feet, and slammed him against the wall with a thud that rattled the nearby bookcases. "Not with my soulmate, you don't. The world dosn't need any more of your pups running around, and she most certainly doesn't need to be your latest broodmare!"
He dislodged her fists from his shirt with an effort and brushed himself off. "She's much more than -"
Without warning, the office door slammed open. "What are you."
Xena and Ares both turned with a start, to see Alison standing framed in the door, red-faced and eyes blazing. She held a brown paper bag in her hand, which she hurled across the room at her husband. "I said, what are you? Answer me!"
Ares stared. "I'm your husband, darling."
Xena noticed his accent had mysteriously reappeared. "Alison -"
"Shut up!" Alison turned back to Ares. "You are not my husband. I don't know what you are, but you're going to tell me now."
"Alison," Xena tried again. "How much did you hear?"
"Enough. You were telling him something about Vietnam. You called him Ares. Then it just got more and more interesting from there." She turned to Ares. "I was trying to bring you some lunch." To Xena: "I didn't want to believe what you'd told me about him last night. But now..."
Ares' face darkened. "Xena, what did you tell my wife about me?"
"Oh, nothing much. Just that the scroll she's currently studying is a true story. And the little matter of how you're a god."
Alison looked like she was going to lose it at any second. "Please, Jose. Just tell me the truth."
Ares sank into his chair with a sigh. "Fine. No matter what I do, Xena's going to do her best to fuck it up anyway." He looked straight into Alison's eyes. "What she told you is the truth. In ancient times they called me Ares. I was the God of War. Over the years my influence and powers have waned considerably, but I myself remain." Alison drew breath to say something, but he held up a hand. "Please, just let me finish. What's also the truth is that I love you. I want to spend many, many years living in peace with you. I never meant to hurt you in any way."
"Oh, sure. You've been lying to me every day for the past four years, and you never meant to hurt me. That's rich."
"What, would you expect me to introduce myself as an immortal god? I'd have been committed long ago."
"Yeah, well, maybe the world would be a better place if you had been." Alison looked at Xena, who had been doing her best to blend into the wall during this exchange. "Everything you told me really is true, isn't it."
Xena nodded. "I'm afraid so."
"So everything I thought my life was, has been a lie. An illusion dreamed up just so you- " she pointed to Ares - "could fulfill some three thousand year old fantasy."
He shook his head vigorously. "No. I swear to you, Alison, I never meant to hurt you."
"Congratulations, Jose. Or Ares. Or whoever the hell you are. You did." Alison turned toward the door.
"Alison, please -" Ares began.
"No." She remained facing the door. "We have nothing to talk about." She stalked out, slamming the door behind her.
There followed a full minute of stunned silence. Finally, Xena stirred. "Well, this has been fun, but I think it's time for me to go."
"Are you happy now?" Ares growled.
"Not particularly. I won't be happy until she is. Oh yeah, and until you're dead and I've got this damned curse off my back." She paused at the door and fished a card out of her pocket, which she flung back in the direction of the desk. "It's been a pleasure. Look me up the next time you're in the City." She exited into the hall without waiting for a response, leaving Ares sitting mute behind her.
* * * * * * * *
Xena walked across the center of town back to the hotel, debating what to do next. She was of a mind to head back home, but she wanted to make sure Alison would be all right first. This all had to be a terrible shock. Alison's reaction in the office had confirmed that.
As she entered the lobby, she stopped short as she caught sight of a blonde woman sitting slumped in a chair in the corner. Well, I guess I won't have to waste any time looking for her. She walked softly over to the corner. "Hey there."
Alison looked up. Her eyes betrayed recent tears, but they registered relief as she recognized Xena. "Hey. I wasn't sure if you'd be coming straight back here, but I wasn't exactly in the mood to go home."
Xena took a seat in an adjacent chair. "I understand."
"It was a complete fluke that I walked into all that just now. I wasn't spying on you or anything."
"I didn't think you were."
She stared at her feet. "Jose got home this morning and he wasn't intending to go into his office, but then he got a message about an appointment and said he had to go in. That must've been you. He left a little while before the appointment. I was starting to go stir crazy in the house, and since it's such a beautiful day I figured I'd do some reading out behind the library. I realized he hadn't eaten anything, so I decided to pick him up some lunch - the library is practically right across the street from the Hall of Graduate Studies where his office is. I got there and the transom window above the door was open, so I could hear every word."
Xena sighed. "Hey listen, I'm sorry about all this."
Alison shook her head. "Don't be. I'm actually glad this all came out now, and not twenty years down the line at an incredibly awkward high school graduation for one of our kids, or something." She started to smile, then obviously had an unpleasant thought. "Oh. What would one of his kids ... would a child of his really be half a god?"
"Yes. I haven't been able to keep track of all of his get throughout the ages, but there have certainly been plenty of them. Chances are you read about most of them in your military history class. Ares is quite proud of his children."
"Just when I thought this couldn't get any more overwhelming." Alison buried her face in her hands. "I don't know what to do." She looked up again. "Now that I know his secret, is he going to want to kill me?"
Xena started to reach for her, hesitated, then laid a hand on Alison's shoulder. The contact didn't appear to cause a jolt, so she didn't immediately pull away. "I don't know," she said honestly. "I wouldn't put it past him. But on the other hand, he does seem to have genuine feelings for you. He always had a soft spot for Gabrielle, and he wasn't pleased that I never let him lay a hand on her."
Alison's eyes narrowed. "What you and he both seem to be forgetting is that I'm not Gabrielle. My name is Alison Carter. I wasn't born in Potadeia, I was born in Rockford, Illinois. So I just happen to look like someone who lived three thousand years ago. So I happen to have dreams at night that happen to be memories you and she shared. That doesn't subsume who I am, who I've spent the past twenty-eight years becoming."
Xena sat silent for a moment, before she responded. "You're right. I haven't been fair to you." She stood up. "Feel like going for a walk? Showing me who Alison Carter is?"
Alison looked up at her warily. "Why do you want to know?"
"I'm not going to lie and say that Gabrielle, and my feelings for her and your connection to her don't have anything to do with it. But I honestly do care about you. I've come in here and completely fucked up your life, and I want a chance to get to know you better. I want you to trust me."
Alison got to her feet. "I do trust you," she declared, with a hint of amazement in her voice. "I don't know why or how, because by rights I should hate you. But over the past day I've actively tried to get pissed at you, and I just can't."
Xena smiled wryly. "Well, I guess that's a start." She indicated the exit. "Shall we?"
* * * * * * * *
They stood on the summit of East Rock, faces toward the setting sun. "This is an amazing view," Alison breathed. "I can't believe I've never been up here before."
"It is pretty good," Xena allowed.
They had spent the afternoon walking in the direction of the cliff, which lay a couple miles from the center of town, then making their way up the winding road to the summit. Xena listened intently as Alison went through her capsule biography, from her childhood growing up an only child in suburban northern Illinois to her college years at the University of Wisconsin, where she was captain of the women's lacrosse team. Xena raised an eyebrow when she casually mentioned girlfriends as well as boyfriends, but said nothing and let her finish her tale. She had spent a year in Greece on a Fulbright scholarship before starting her graduate studies at Yale, then she had met Jose and the rest of the overview Xena already knew. By the time Alison finished, they were coming up to the observation area at the top of the cliff, and the sun was rapidly descending toward the horizon.
"My entire life, I've been drawn to watching the sun set," Xena said. "There's just something so peaceful about it. Even after all these years, it still amazes me how quickly the sun goes down, once it really gets going. Whenever I can, I go up onto the roof of my building and watch what of it I can see from there. It's a good opportunity to meditate."
"In the middle of New York City, you can meditate?" Alison was astonished.
"Hey, if you can meditate there, you can meditate anywhere."
That got a laugh out of the younger woman. "I guess that'd be true." Alison gazed out at the sky. "I've never paid much attention to sunsets. They're pretty boring in the Midwest. Hell, everything is boring in the Midwest." She glanced over at her companion. "You ever been there?"
"I spent some time in Chicago a while ago -- that was during Prohibition, when it most certainly wasn't boring in that town. But I've seen enough just flying over it lately to know that you're not kidding."
They moved over to a park bench and sat in silence, watching the sky turn various shades of pink and orange as the sun accelerated toward its destination. Finally Alison stirred. "Do you have any idea how valuable you would be to historians? If you could get any of them to believe you, that is."
Xena chuckled. "I've thought about it. It amazes me how much has been left out of the history books, or just been gotten plain wrong. But not enough people would believe me to make it worthwhile."
"You're probably right. Have you ever considered writing down some of your stories and selling them as fiction?"
Xena's smile was wistful. "I was never a writer. Once I had someone to do that for me, and it kind of spoiled me for anything else."
Alison flushed a little. "Yeah ... I guess you did. But only up to a point. You've seen three thousand incredibly important years of human history, Xena. There's got to be something you can do with that."
"Truth be told, I've forgotten a lot of it. There's too much to remember, and lots of it I didn't really want to." The look in Xena's eyes was vacant, as though she were seeing something very far away. "Gabrielle isn't the only person I've loved and lost. I don't know how many of my descendants walk among us ... there have been so many lives, so many relationships, so many children..." she trailed off.
"I ... I'm sorry. I didn't think of that. Your focus in our conversations has been so much on Gabrielle -"
"It certainly has. Don't feel bad about bringing it up. You couldn't have known." The sun dropped below the horizon, leaving a sky that deepened almost to crimson in spots. "This was a good one tonight. Weather must be changing."
Alison spoke as though she hadn't heard that last part. "You know, I wonder if I ever really loved Jose."
Xena turned to her in surprise. "Why do you say that?"
"I don't know if I've ever really loved anyone. How do you know?"
"You know." Xena shifted on the bench. "You can't imagine life without that other person. You can't stop thinking about them. You miss them even when you're with them. Everything you do, everything you are is about them in some way."
Alison was silent for a long moment. "You really loved Gabrielle, didn't you?"
Xena's voice was barely audible as she responded, "Yes, I did. Very much."
Alison nodded. "I don't think I ever loved him. He only made me think that I did." She paused, and Xena didn't know quite how to react so she didn't say anything. Finally Alison set her jaw and turned back to her, green eyes blazing in the encroaching twilight. "I know what you need to do. Don't let me stand in your way. I'll even help, if you need me to."
Xena was stunned. "Just like that? You realize my goal is to kill him."
"Just like that. I know what you need to do. Jose Arias doesn't exist - he never has. But Ares, the God of War has plagued mankind since the dawn of time. The world doesn't need the likes of him. And you need to be free of your curse."
"If you really do feel that way, then that does make things easier for me. But I need to make sure you're absolutely certain. And I can't ask for your help. There will be questions anyway -- the last thing you need is to be implicated in the disappearance of your husband. I'll make sure nothing can be traced back to you."
"I am certain. And I appreciate your concern. But I'll do anything you need me to do. What I may feel personally isn't as important as the greater good."
Xena didn't immediately respond, stunned to silence by Alison's unknowing use of a phrase that was so much older than she was. Then she pondered the implications of what Alison had pledged. The biggest obstacle standing between her and her goal had suddenly been removed, and yet she didn't feel good about it at all. The last thing she wanted, she realized, was for Alison to face any consequences from her actions.
"All right. I'll have to come up with a plan. I'll let you know if I need your help. For the greater good, as you said." With a sigh, she got to her feet. "Come on - it's getting dark, and the park's closing."
They made their way down the hill in silence, Xena grateful that this time they went unaccosted. When they got to the corner of Livingston Street, Alison stopped short. "I don't know if I can go home, with him there. I don't think I can trust him enough to be under the same roof with him any more."
Xena unconsciously placed a hand on Alison's shoulder. "I understand. Do you have any friends in town you can stay with?"
Alison shook her head. "Not really. I kind of alienated everyone in my department when I got involved with Jose, and it's hard to make friends when you've got a thesis to finish. But up until today, that really didn't matter to me."
"I, uh - " Xena cleared her throat, suddenly overcome by what she realized she was going to say. "I know New York is kind of far from here, but I've got room if you'd like to stay with me for a few days, until you can figure things out here."
Alison considered only a moment, glancing down at the hand that rested comfortably on her shoulder. "I'd like that. I can work from pretty much anywhere, and it might be good to get out of town for a little while."
"Great." Xena reclaimed her hand somewhat sheepishly. "It's the least I can do for turning your life upside-down." She started down the street. "Come on, let's see if the coast is clear so we can get your stuff."
It didn't appear as though anyone was home. Xena motioned for Alison to remain at the edge of the walkway, as she cautiously approached the darkened front door. She laid a hand on the doorway and paused, taking a deep breath. No nerves sang, no tingling started crawling up her spine. "He's not here," she called back over her shoulder. "It's all right."
"How do you know that? I mean, all the lights are off, but-"
"I've always been able to sense his presence. Don't ask - I never figured out why or how, either. But it has come in very handy over the years."
Alison unlocked the front door, and at her insistence Xena kept watch there while she ran up the stairs to pack. Within a matter of minutes she tossed a stuffed duffel bag down the stairs, and followed lugging two huge satchels overflowing with books, and a laptop computer case. "I think that's everything."
Xena hefted the duffel, and took one of the book bags. "I don't know if you want to drive into the City - but it's an hour until the next train."
"That's okay. I don't mind driving -- I just want to get out of here before Jose comes back."
"Okay. If you don't mind swinging by the Omni, I'll check out and get my stuff."
They packed up the Saab and backed into the street without any sign of Jose. "He must be working late or something," Alison commented as they headed downtown.
Xena settled back into the leather seat. "You know, I just remembered I gave Ares - Jose - my card today. It's got my home address on it." Alison drew breath to speak, but she held out a hand. "But don't worry. If he shows up, I'll deal with him."
"I don't doubt that you will. Hell, I might just be the bait that lures you to him."
Xena gazed out the window. "Yeah, you just might be."
* * * * * * *
"Wow. This is ..."
"Smaller than you expected?"
Alison stood in the middle of Xena's living room. She turned in a circle, taking in the entertainment center with its 29-inch television, DVD player, VCR, and bookshelf stereo unit; the comfortable-looking couch; the IKEA coffee table strewn with pieces of old copies of the New York Times covering piles of Time Out New York and Archaeology magazines; the small desk in the corner with its neatly folded up laptop computer; and bookshelf overflowing with books, several of which were in languages other than English. Covering the floor was a hand-woven rug that appeared to be of Central American extraction. Framed prints of various styles of modern art hung on the walls, and there was a space over the desk where it looked like something had fallen off. "No, I was going to say this is really nice. It's cozy."
Xena shrugged out of her coat. "Thanks. I don't need much. It's a good building." She nodded toward the couch. "That's the guest room. Sorry I don't have a lot of extra space, but the couch is actually quite comfortable. I've ended up sleeping there lots of times."
The drive down to New York had been rather uneventful, save the obligatory traffic jam on the FDR Drive. Xena's building had an agreement with a parking garage around the corner, so they had been able to stow the Saab in a secure location, much to Alison's relief. Xena had insisted upon paying the parking fee, despite Alison's strenuous objections.
Alison approached the entertainment center and looked over the shelf of DVD's and VHS tapes. "Staying up too late watching movies?"
Xena felt her ears get hot. "Yeah, sometimes. I don't know why, but I love Hong Kong action films."
Alison raised an eyebrow as she noted the preponderance of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh movies sandwiched in between several Jackie Chan tapes. "I can see that. Can't say as I've ever watched one, myself."
"Well, maybe while you're here I can corrupt you." Xena reviewed that phrase and hastily added, "With one of the movies, I mean."
Alison chuckled. "Sure, I'll try anything once."
An awkward silence fell. They hadn't lacked for small talk on the drive into the City, chatting about current events and discovering a similar taste in music as they scanned the radio stations. They both had been obviously avoiding the topics of Ares, Xena's history, and Alison's status as the current incarnation of the bard Gabrielle. But now that they were in Xena's apartment, faced with the reality of what was happening, they both found themselves not knowing what to say or do next.
Finally, Xena jumped into the breach. "Hey, I should probably get to the market. Anything you don't eat? Anything you'd like to have?"
"No, I'm pretty much an omnivore. Want me to go with you?"
"No, I can handle it. Why don't you stay here and relax. I won't be long." Xena was out the door before Alison could object.
Well, so much for paying her back for the parking fee. Alison made her way to a doorway in the far corner of the living room that led into a small, but well-appointed kitchen. A four-cup coffee maker shared counter space with a toaster oven and mini Cuisinart. A small dorm-sized microwave hung suspended from underneath the cabinets over the sink. Alison opened the refrigerator door to reveal a half-gallon container of orange juice, half-gallon Brita jug full of water, four white eggs, various half-empty jars of condiments in the door, and three take-out containers. The tiny freezer boasted a tray of ice cubes and package of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia Peace Pops.
Alison closed the fridge with a sigh, noting the various take-out menus affixed to it with utilitarian magnets. This was the kitchen of someone who was quite accustomed to being alone. She wondered just how many relationships and families Xena had had over the years. She couldn't imagine living a hundred years, never mind three thousand. It boggled her mind, and she started to feel off-balance again, like she had when Xena had first related her tale the previous night. She shook her head to clear it, and continued her exploration of the apartment.
Back in the living room, a small hallway to the immediate right of the front door led to a bathroom just barely big enough for a tub, toilet and sink, and beyond that was a bedroom dominated by a double bed with a dresser squeezed into the corner, and a small night table on which sat a clock radio, telephone, and a lamp. Alison's eyes widened as she realized that there was a gun lying on top of the dresser. But Xena had said she was a cop, after all. The bed was covered with a comfortable-looking featherbed in a rich, burgundy shade. Unbidden, an image of Xena's black hair contrasting with the color of the comforter as the ancient warrior lay upon the bed popped into Alison's mind. She shook her head again, and retreated to the living room, where she flopped down onto the couch. It was indeed quite comfortable.
A universal remote control lay on one of the piles of newspapers on the coffee table. After a moment's puzzling she managed to get the TV on. On a whim she turned on the VCR and found a tape within, and pressed "play". A bunch of Chinese men started getting their asses kicked by a stunningly beautiful Chinese woman on the screen in front of her. It was stupid, but there was something oddly artistic in the choreography of the fight, more like a dance than anything else. She thought back to some of the battles outlined in Gabrielle's scrolls, and wondered if Xena missed that primal way of living and fighting. Was this the only outlet she had now - to watch tightly choreographed, completely over-the-top martial arts contests subtitled on a 29-inch television screen?
Suddenly, she felt sorry for the beautiful, exotic woman who had barged in and managed to completely mess up her life in a span of less than 48 hours. For the first time, she felt she could understand the weight of Ares' curse on Xena - sentenced to spend eternity unchanged, while generations came and went, and new attachments were made and inevitably broken by the ravages of time. More than ever, she hated Jose - Ares- for what he had done, and how he had manipulated her for his own ends. She reviewed the depths of her heart, and discovered with some surprise that she didn't have any positive feelings for Jose at all. She recalled their lovemaking - was it just that morning? - and found that she felt soiled, as though she had awakened in a strange bed after a one-night stand with a hangover and no clue as to the name of the person who lay next to her. It was as though Xena had lifted a spell from her heart, and for the first time in four years she was able to see clearly.
The sound of keys in the multiple locks on the door brought her back to herself. She met Xena at the door, and took custody of three of the plastic grocery bags in Xena's hands. "I am paying you back for this," she declared.
Xena shrugged. "We'll work it out sometime." She glanced bemusedly at the television screen. "Getting a head start on your education, I see."
Alison grinned. "I'm sorry, I just had to check some of that stuff out. It's .... interesting."
Xena lugged her burdens into the kitchen. "Hong Kong cinema isn't known for its plotting, but it does have its entertainment value." She began to remove milk, bread, and cereal boxes from the bags. "I hope I got stuff you'll like."
Alison peered into the bags she had just deposited onto the kitchen floor. "Everything looks fine to me."
"Good." Xena indicated the menus on the refrigerator door. "It's getting kind of late - wanna order in? Everything that delivers in this neighborhood is good. Pick whatever you feel like - I'm game for anything. And if it'll make you feel better, you can pay."
"Great." Alison selected a menu from an Indian restaurant. "Want anything in particular from this place?"
Xena glanced at the menu. "I'm partial to the lamb vindaloo. If they know it's me calling, they'll make it like they do for family. It's positively incendiary, but boy, is it good."
"You're a braver woman than I am." Alison located the phone and dialed, ordered lamb vindaloo, chicken tikka masala, and a double order of garlic nan. Xena nodded in satisfaction at the order. "Oh, tell them it's for Xena and they'll know the address and phone number, " she whispered. Alison complied, and it was done. "Half an hour."
Xena balled up the now-empty plastic bags and shoved them underneath the sink. "Well, that's done. I guess now we just wait for dinner to come to us."
They went back into the living room and sat on opposite ends of the couch. Alison decided she'd had enough of the awkwardness, so she forged ahead. "Xena, listen. I want you to know that I really appreciate everything you're doing for me tonight. And I don't feel an ounce of resentment toward you for what's happened the past couple of days."
Xena took a deep breath, and to Alison it looked like her shoulders were set a little straighter, as though a weight had been lifted from them. "You're welcome. And thank you."
"I don't know why, but while you were gone, I had this realization that I don't have any feelings for Jose whatsoever any more. I think of him and I don't even consider him attractive. Is it - is it possible that he could have laid some sort of a spell on me? That I never really loved him at all?"
"It's possible." Xena looked at her with a profound expression of sympathy. "It's happened before."
Alison clenched her teeth. "So that's it, then. The past four years of my life have been one big manipulation. Everything I felt, everything I lived was built upon a lie."
"Alison, I'm sorry. I can't tell you for sure that that is what was going on, but the fact that you've been able to completely let go in such a short amount of time would indicate that that was indeed the case."
"That fucking bastard."
Xena raised an eyebrow at the unexpected choice of words. "That about covers it, yes."
"I actually hope he does follow me here, Xena. I want to be there when you take him down."
"Are you sure about that?"
"I've never been more sure of anything." Without thinking, Alison reached over and grasped Xena's hand. "I want to-"
She was no longer in an apartment in lower Manhattan. She was sitting by a campfire in a chill night, clasping Xena's hand. The warrior was dressed in a leather tunic and stared back at her, distraught. "You promise me something, Xena," she was saying. "If anything happens to me, you will not become a monster."
With a gasp, Xena pulled away, and Alison came back to herself with a start. "What was that?"
Xena wiped a bead of sweat from her upper lip with a shaky hand. and visibly brought herself under control before she responded. "Another memory. Of a promise I made a very long time ago."
Alison stared at her hand like it belonged to someone else. It was tingling as though it had been asleep. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to - I mean, I didn't know -"
"That's okay. It came as a surprise to me, too." Xena took a deep breath, and reached for the remote control. "How about we watch some mindless television before dinner, huh?"
Alison decided that it might be wise to wait a bit before asking Xena to fill in the details of what they had both seen, so she just nodded and settled back into the cushions of the couch. "Good idea."
They silently took in a few minutes of Must See TV before the phone rang twice in rapid succession. "That's our dinner." Xena picked up and dialed a number to buzz the delivery boy in. Alison met him at the door, and tipped him handsomely.
The food tasted as good as it smelled. Alison wouldn't dare try Xena's vindaloo, the steam of which scorched her nostrils when she took off the lid. They ate in silence, broken only by chuckling at the stupid antics on the screen in front of them.
Eventually dinner was finished, empty containers all that remained of their feast. Xena rose to take the empties to the garbage can in the kitchen. After a moment Alison followed her to get a drink of water. As soon as Alison entered the tiny kitchen, Xena suddenly turned around, startling her. They stood not three inches away from one another, their eyes locked. Alison gazed up into Xena's eyes and saw every one of the three thousand years there. Her heart ached for the darker woman. She could feel her heart rate increase, and on impulse she stood on her tiptoes and with a trembling hand drew Xena's head down so she could reach her lips.
This time no vision overtook them, but the rush of senseation was overwhelming. Every nerve in Alison's body sang, as the most exquisite buzz she had ever felt. A spot of vindaloo sauce on the corner of Xena's mouth stung her tongue as the kiss deepened, but she didn't care. For the first time in her life, she was kissing someone and it felt right. There was no doubt, no sense of guilt, no nagging feeling that she was deviating from some expectation. This was what she had been born to do. This was who she had been born to be with.
Xena felt as though she were falling. She was feeling something she hadn't felt in so long, she thought she'd never be able to remember. No one in all the centuries had tasted like Gabrielle, but Alison did. She fully expected to open her eyes and find herself lying in bed with her entire body on fire, desperately wishing she'd stop having that dream already.
But she wasn't dreaming. Not this time. She opened her eyes to find green ones looking back at her from very close range. Somehow her arms had found their way around Alison's waist and pulled her close. They were both breathing heavily. Alison's eyes widened, and she pulled away. "Oh my god. I have no idea what -- I'm sorry."
Xena could barely speak. "No -- please don't apologize. There's nothing to apologize for." Tentatively, she reached out and stroked Alison's cheek. To her relief, no jolt of memory struck this time either. "You have no idea how long I've waited for that to happen."
Alison covered Xena's hand with her own. "Actually, for some reason I think I do."
Xena smiled. Alison noticed that those blue eyes didn't look quite so old now. "Come on - I don't know about you, but I need to sit down." She led Alison by the hand back to the couch, and they both collapsed onto it.
"So," Alison breathed. "Now what?"
Xena shook her head and squeezed Alison's hand. "I don't know. I never planned for this."
"Let me guess - you always try to have a plan for everything, right?"
"That has been my reputation, yes."
"Well, we can come up with a plan later." Alison moved closer. "For now, don't you think we need to make up for lost time?"
Xena couldn't tear her eyes away from Alison's gaze. "That's a lot of time."
"So let's not waste any more."
In answer, Xena leaned over and kissed Alison again. The sensation this time was no less strong, and she drew her down so they both lay prone on the couch. With her free hand she fumbled for the remote, and switched off the TV.
* * * * * * * *
It was a rich banquet, in a great hall lit by rows of flaming torches. Xena looked around her, to find Gabrielle on her right hand, and Koryos, a portly merchant on her left. She and Gabrielle were the guests of honor. They had saved the flagship of his fleet from a pirate raid a day earlier, and this banquet was to thank them for it.
The wine was excellent. In front of them a troupe of acrobats cavorted for their entertainment. Gabrielle leaned close to tell her something that she couldn't really hear amidst the din of the hall. Xena was about to ask her to repeat what she'd said when Koryos clapped his hands thunderously, three times. The noise of the banquet faded away, and a serving girl appeared in front of the head table bearing a platter laden with fruit.
"Special for our savior and guest," Koryos declared. "Fruit from the farthest reaches of the Orient, more delicious than anything you have ever tasted." He took the platter from the servant, and himself presented it to her. "Please."
To refuse would have been the highest insult. Xena selected a smallish piece from the platter, and with a smile and slight bow toward her host, popped it into her mouth. Chewed, and swallowed.
Later she would recall it as equivalent to a thousand-volt shock coursing through her body. At the time, though, she had nothing to compare it to - she just knew she had never felt anything like that in her life. And instantly, she knew what she had done.
She dove for the back of the dining couch, finger aimed down her throat. A laugh from behind stopped her in mid-motion. She turned to find Ares sitting in Koryos' place, chortling. "That won't change anything, you know. Once you have tasted the fruit of the Tree of Life, nothing can undo it." He stood and bowed. "Congratulations, Xena," he said. "Welcome to the ranks of the immortals."
Xena awoke with a start. The clock on the VCR glowed 7:13 am. Alison lay in her arms, deep in sleep. They were both dressed only in their underwear, and clothing was strewn about the room. They had spent several hours in slow exploration of one another, but with an unspoken agreement they hadn't progressed very far. Xena wasn't ready to experience that yet, and she sensed Alison wasn't either.
She lay for a long moment, forcing her heart rate to slow to its normal pace. She hadn't had that damned dream-remebrance in years.
She was just about to disentangle herself from Alison's warm embrace and head for the bathroom when the phone rang. Alison jumped up and looked around herself wildly. "Wha-"
"Shh," Xena grasped her bare shoulder. "It's just the phone." She stumbled to her feet and found the cordless receiver. "Hello?"
"Good morning, sunshine."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "You are the last person I want to talk to right now. What do you want, Ares?"
"Cordial as always, first thing in the morning. I was just wondering if you might know where my wife is. She didn't come home last night, and that is quite unlike her."
"Sorry, can't help you."
"Can't, or won't?"
"You decide. It's way too early to be calling somebody, Ares. Haven't you picked up any phone manners yet, or is this newfangled technology too much for you?"
She could feel his snarl through the connection. "I don't have time for your bullshit, Xena. Is Alison with you, yes or no?"
"No, she's not. Now leave me alone." Xena punched the "talk" button and tossed the phone onto the coffee table in disgust.
Alison was pulling her shirt over her tousled head. "He's looking for me, isn't he?"
Xena looked down at her own nakedness and reached for her shirt. "Yeah. He wanted to know if you were here. I told him no. I can't deal with him right at this moment."
"I thought you were hoping he'd follow me here."
"I am. Just not before I've had my coffee." She shook her head to clear the last vestiges of her dream out of her mind, and got to her feet. "Hey listen, it's early yet. I want to go to the gym for a little while. Why don't you crash for a while longer? You can use my bed."
Alison ran her fingers through her hair in an attempt to order it. "I think I'll take you up on that. What with one thing and another, I haven't gotten much sleep this week."
Xena leaned down and kissed her. "Get some rest. I'll be back before too long."
Alison crawled underneath the burgundy featherbed, warmed by her recollections of the night before. She considered that she would rather not be alone in Xena's soft bed, but then again, she just might have an opportunity not to be alone later. That thought put a smile on her face and she fell into a deep, and mercifully dreamless sleep.
* * * * * * * *
The ringing of the phone startled Alison awake. For a moment she didn't know where she was, then it all came back to her in a rush. The phone rang again, two rings. Had that meant someone at the door, or someone on the phone? She couldn't remember. She also couldn't remember if Xena had an answering machine. She fumbled for the phone on the nightstand. "Hello?"
"Alison? Is that you?"
It was Ares' voice. With a start, she remembered that two rings meant someone was at the door. She slammed the phone back into its cradle with a gasp, heart pounding. She looked at the clock -- 10:37. Xena should be home soon. She definitely didn't want to face Ares alone. Despite Xena's assurances the day before, she wasn't entirely convinced he wouldn't want to hurt her for what she now knew.
The phone rang again, two short bursts. She stared at it as though it were vermin, and lay frozen until it stopped, seven agonizing rings later. She realized she had forgotten to breathe.
She waited a full ten minutes before she moved. Ares must have given up, because he hadn't rung again. She got out of the bed and made her way cautiously toward the windows in the living room, which looked out over the building's entrance. She couldn't see down to the street well enough to tell if he still lurked there.
She drew a shuddering breath, and returned to the bedroom to be a good guest and reorder the coverlet. Suddenly, there was the sound of a key in the door. Without thinking, she lunged for the gun lying on top of the dresser and ripped it out of its holster, whirling around to point it down the short hallway before the apartment door opened.
Xena stepped into the living room and glanced down the hallway, eyes widening as she spotted Alison pointing her own weapon at her. Her hands reflexively went to her head, dropping her gym bag at her feet. "Hey, easy there."
Alison felt her face go crimson, and she sheepishly lowered the pistol. "I'm sorry. I thought you were Ares. He rang up just a few minutes ago."
Xena sighed in relief, and lowered her hands. "Good thing I don't keep that thing loaded." She shut the door behind her. "How did you know it was Ares buzzing up?"
"I answered the phone. I was asleep, and I forgot that two rings means the door."
"So he knows you're here."
Alison nodded. "He knows I'm here."
Xena kicked her gym bag into the bathroom, then retrieved her satchel from the living room desk. She produced the special pistol, and moved past Alison to place it into her shoulder holster instead of her service weapon. That pistol Alison gingerly handed over to her, and she accepted it with a smile. "Don't worry - I'd have reacted the same way."
She noticed Alison was shaking. She gave off trying to shrug into the holster, and gripped both her shoulders. "Hey, it's okay. He's not going to do anything to you. I'm not going to let that happen."
Alison looked up at her. "I know."
Xena enfolded her in a hug. "Now that we know he's in town, I'm not going to leave you alone again."
Alison burrowed into Xena's warmth. "Thank you." She pulled away slightly, just far enough so Xena could bend down for a kiss.
When the embrace ended, both women were breathing more heavily. Xena kept her arms on Alison's shoulders, playing idly with locks of her soft hair. "I waited three thousand years to find you. I'm not about to lose you now."
Alison ran a finger along Xena's collarbone until it disappeared underneath her t-shirt. "I feel like I've been waiting that long for you, too." She gazed into those impossibly blue eyes. "You know it's funny, now I can touch you without feeling like I've been sucked into somebody else's brain."
Xena was suddenly reminded of a very bizarre movie she had seen a few months earlier. "I can, too." She chuckled softly. "Makes things a bit easier."
Alison smiled. "That it does." She pulled away. "I should shower."
Xena let her go reluctantly. "Help yourself. I took care of that at the gym, so the hot water tank is all yours. Towels are underneath the sink."
While Alison showered, Xena made coffee and tried not to picture the blonde woman's lithe form underneath the water stream. She forced herself to focus on the matter at hand. Ares was in town, and he knew Alison was here. She had fastened on the pistol in its shoulder holster over a clean t-shirt, and she put on a denim shirt to cover it. She was sure he would reappear soon, and she was ready.
Alison emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, wrapped in a towel. "That hit the spot," she remarked as she rummaged through her bag for clothing.
Xena resisted the urge to rip away the towel. "Coffee is ready whenever you want it." She settled on the couch and sipped her own cup, taking up that day's Times.
Alison cocked her head. "So is this what a cop who used to be a Warrior Princess does on her vacation?"
"Yes, usually. Glamorous, isn't it?"
"I guess I wouldn't have expected you to just - "
"Sit around and be boring?" Xena finished with a smile. "I get three weeks off a year. The other two I usually travel. This week I reserve for myself. My job is most certainly not boring, so I think I deserve a few days to be mundane every once in a while."
Alison dropped her towel and stepped into a pair of lavender Victoria's Secret cotton underwear. "So you always take the first week of October off?"
Xena tried not to stare. Alison had a small birthmark just above her navel, just like Gabrielle. "Yes. I try to."
"Anything special about the first week of October, aside from the weather?"
"Not really. My birthday is around now, I think."
Alison had been fumbling with her bra, but she stopped short. "You think?"
"Well, the calendar systems have changed a few times. It's roughly two weeks after the Equinox. The last time I got a birth certificate made up, I picked October 5th."
Alison looked at her curiously. "Of what year?"
Xena stopped and thought about that. "I think it was 1968."
"Well, then. Happy belated birthday."
Alison pulled a t-shirt over her head. "So ... how do you just 'get a birth certificate made up'?"
"Easy. There are people all over this town who can make you whatever documents you need. Usually they're not used to dealing with someone who already speaks English, but they don't care who you are so long as you can show them the money."
Alison shook her head and zipped up her jeans. "I guess you have to know about that sort of thing, huh?"
"Yes. I've had to move around a lot. About every 20 years or so, people start to notice that I'm looking remarkably young for my age. Then I know it's time to pick a new address, get a new birth date and Social Security number."
"But do you always keep your name?"
"The first name, yes. Names have power. I'm not about to give up mine."
Alison pulled on a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with "YALE" across the chest, and reached for the topmost copy of Archaeology on the coffee table. She looked at the address label. "Xena Atreides."
"I always try to keep a Greek surname."
Alison lifted an eyebrow. "Interesting choice, this time around." She moved to the bookshelf in the corner and held up a dog-eared copy of Dune.
Xena shrugged. "So I liked the name. Sue me."
Alison laughed. "No thanks." She replaced the book on the shelf, noting the wide array of volumes there: in Spanish, French, German, Greek, and what appeared to be Chinese. "Do you seriously know all these languages?"
"I've lived in places where I've needed to know them all, yes."
She pulled out a Chinese volume and paged through it curiously. "Even China?"
Xena's eyes were suddenly sad. "Even China."
Alison dropped onto the couch next to her. "I want to hear all of your stories," she declared.
"Even if I don't succeed in my mission against Ares, there won't be enough years in your life to get through them all."
Alison looked into Xena's eyes, and her expression was serious. "You are going to succeed. And as many years as we have, I want to get through as many of your stories as you can tell me." She grasped Xena's hand. "I know we've only known one another for a couple days, but it already seems like much, much longer than that. I know now that everything you've told me is true, and I want to know you as well as Gabrielle did."
"You don't know what that entails. You're not going to like everything you're going to hear."
"That's all right. I've gathered some of it from the scrolls. And the way I figure it, by now you must have more than made up for whatever it was you did in those few years all that time ago."
"I've never stopped trying." Xena squeezed Alison's hand. "And you know what? I want to know you as well as I knew Gabrielle, too."
They sat there in silence for a few moments, hand in hand, just basking in one another's presence. Neither was minded to move. Finally Alison broke the silence. "So - tell me a story."
"Where should I start?"
"The beginning is always good."
Xena chuckled. "All right then. I was born in a small port town in Thrace called Amphipolis..."
* * * * * * * *
Xena glanced at the time displayed on the bottom right corner of her computer screen. 5:25. She stretched in her chair, back stiff from over two hours of Web surfing. She glanced over at the couch, where Alison was deep in study of the scans of Gabrielle's scroll.
It had been a good afternoon. She had filled Alison in on her childhood, while they prepared and ate brunch. Alison had listened intently, occasionally asking a scholarly question, never allowing her to get off track in her story. After telling her about Lyceus, which was no easier to do now than it had been centuries earlier, she had stopped. "From here on in it gets a bit hairy. Might be best to wait for another time."
Alison had nodded. "I understand."
Alison had decided to get some work done, to keep her mind occupied. They were both obviously waiting for Ares to return, but neither of them wanted to state that overtly. Xena had booted up her computer and signed on to the Internet, an invention with which she was utterly and completely fascinated. She who had seen the library of Alexandria with her own eyes could still hardly believe how much information there was available out there, to anyone who cared to take a look. She could -- and did -- very easily lose herself in the Web.
"Hey," Xena called softly to catch the scholar's attention. "Sun's going down. Want to join me upstairs?"
Alison looked up, removing her spectacles and rubbing her eyes. "Sure. I need a break anyway."
They took the stairs to the roof. Xena noted with some bemusement that the doorjamb had been fixed since the last time she was up there. Was that really only four days ago? Unbelievable. It felt like a decade. She kicked the brick she used as a doorstop into place, and checked to make sure the door couldn't blow closed.
The sun was still relatively high in the sky, but the shadows were long and Xena knew the twilight wasn't that far off. Even on top of a seven-story building, the sounds of the city sounded remote below.
Alison turned in a circle. "Wow. Can't say as I've been on top of a roof in New York City before."
"Happy to broaden your horizons a bit." Xena settled in her usual spot on the roof's edge. "Are you afraid of heights?"
"No." Alison perched next to her. "Though I'm not going to look down unless I absolutely have to." She looked out toward the river. "So this is where you meditate, huh?"
"This is it." Xena herself had no compunction about looking down. "It's strangely hypnotic, watching everything go by down there."
"I'll take your word for it."
Xena drew breath to respond, but then abruptly she stiffened, every nerve in her spine prickling.
"What-" Alison began.
Xena chopped her hand in the air to silence her. Very slowly, she got to her feet and turned around, not at all surprised to find Ares standing in front of the stairwell door.
"Lovely evening, isn't it, ladies?"
Xena growled, "Ares."
Alison jumped up in shock, just barely stopping herself from overbalancing. She took a hasty step forward away from the edge, and tried to keep her heart from pounding out of her chest.
Ares nonchalantly kicked the brick away from the door, and watched as it slammed to. "You know, Xena, you really need to have a word with your landlord about your building's security. Some of your neighbors will let simply anyone follow them through the door."
"What, you're too lazy to pop yourself in and out these days?"
"Somewhere along the line, I developed a fondness for walking. It's a weakness, I know." Ares took a step toward them. "I'd like to have a word alone with my wife, if I may."
"I don't think so." Xena placed herself between him and Alison.
He peered around her. "Alison, darling, you haven't even said hello. Did the Warrior Princess here cut out your tongue already?"
"No, she didn't," Alison declared. "I just don't have anything to say to you."
He managed to look genuinely hurt. "Why not?"
"Because I finally figured out that you used me. You messed with my head to make you fall in love with me, and then I wasted four years of my life living a lie. I never loved you. I never could have." Alison raised her hands, removed her wedding ring, and tossed it over the side.
His face darkened. "You didn't have to do that."
"Oh, yes I did. I can't stay married to whatever it is you are."
"I don't know what Xena told you, but there were many times I stood and watched as she went to great lengths to keep Gabrielle under her control. She's convinced you're Gabrielle, so it's obvious she's doing the same thing here again."
"Enough!" Xena cried. She took two long strides toward him.. "I have had enough of you. This ends now, right here." In a flash, the pistol she had carried concealed underneath her shirt was in her hand, pointed at Ares' chest.
He burst out laughing. "Oh, come now, Xena. Are you getting senile in your old age? You know that's not going to hurt me."
Xena's smile was feral. "Two words for you, Ares: Hind's blood."
The color drained from his face. "You can't possibly -"
"Oh, I can possibly. The sands of Macedonia did a wonderful job of preserving Hercules' old dagger. Remember that?"
"You're bluffing." Still, he took a step back.
"Here, let me show you that I'm not." Xena drew a bead between his eyes.
Where Ares' hands had hung empty by his side a scant second before, now they were filled with a blue-orange ball of light. Before Xena could react, he flung the ball at her. It hit Xena square in the chest, and knocked her completely off her feet. She fell back almost at the roof's edge, and the breath expelled from her with a whoof.
Ares strode toward her. "It's been a while, Xena. I've missed this."
Xena waited until he was almost on top of her before she flung her body upright, landing on the balls of her feet in a ready stance. She still had the pistol in her hand, and she leveled it, saying, "Can't say as I have."
Ares' foot shot out with blinding speed, aimed in a roundhouse kick at Xena's head. She just barely ducked out of the way, then let loose with a kick of her own. She connected with his gut, driving him back a step toward the roof's edge. She brought the pistol back up again, desperately wishing she had more than one Hind's blood bullet so she could afford to take a less than sure shot.
He was on her in an instant, raining blows on her upper body that she managed to deflect one for one, still retaining her grip on the pistol. He was moving too fast for her to get a good aim.
She launched herself into the air, turning a somersault over his head and letting loose with a cry she hadn't uttered in a very long time. She landed behind him, facing the setting sun. She aimed the pistol, started to pull the trigger -
- and Ares whirled around to let loose with another ball of energy, this one too fast for her to avoid. It hit her full in the arm, an explosion of numbness that felt like white-hot fire. She fell to her knees, pistol skittering across the roof. He moved in and delivered a swift kick to the side of her head, dropping her like a stone.
"You're slipping, Xena," Ares remarked casually. "The twentieth century made you soft. Too much sitting around watching TV."
Xena's vision started to clear, though everything was still tinged with red and it sounded like the ocean were rushing through her brain. She started to lift herself up, only to get leveled again by another boot to the head. She hoped she hadn't cried out, though she couldn't be sure.
She rolled onto her back, as the roof spun underneath her. Ares looked down at her, an expression of pity on his face. "You'll never get it, will you, Xena? We go through this every time. I gave you a gift. It's really sad that you refuse to see it for what it really is. Do you have any idea how many people desperately cry out for immortality?"
She managed to find her voice. "If they had any clue what hell it is, they'd never bother."
Again, as he always did, he laughed. And that enraged her enough to be able to rise to her knees. Ares was really close to the edge. Somehow, even though it wouldn't end him, she was going to -
The pistol sounded as though it were very far away. Ares looked stunned. He stared down at the redness spreading across his chest, then looked at her in utter disbelief. "You weren't bluffing."
He fell to his left, overbalancing over the roof's edge. Xena managed to drag herself up so she could watch him fall, his body dissolving to dust before it hit the ground, leaving nothing but a few wisps that blew away in the early evening breeze.
She turned to see Alison still standing in the center of the roof, holding the pistol high, looking almost as stunned as Ares had. Xena wanted to go to her, but she couldn't do more than slump against the roof ledge. Seeing that, Alison came to herself and dropped the pistol, stumbling to Xena's side and cupping her chin. "Hey - are you okay?"
Xena managed to nod. "I've had much worse, believe me." She grasped Alison's hand. "Are you okay?"
"I... I guess so." She drew a shuddering breath, and peeked over the ledge. "I don't see him down there."
"Gods don't leave bodies."
Alison stared back at her in horror. "He's really gone, isn't he?"
"And I ... I killed him." Her eyes filled with tears. "I've never even held a gun before, never mind fired one."
Xena pulled Alison into her arms as the tears rolled free. "Shhh. It's all right. You'll never have to do anything like that again."
She held Alison, stroking her back and concentrating on ignoring the pounding in her head until the other woman's sobs subsided. "Listen to me."
Alison sat back on her heels, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her sweatshirt. "What?"
Xena tipped Alison's chin up until she was looking into her green eyes. "What you did was a good thing. You did a good thing for humankind today, Alison. You rid the world of a God of War it most certainly doesn't need. And more importantly for me, you did what I've been trying to do for three thousand years."
Alison's eyes widened. "The curse."
Xena nodded. "The curse. It's done. I'm mortal again. And I have only you to thank for that."
"Are - are you sure it's broken?"
"Yes, very sure. I'd almost forgotten what it's like, but I can feel it." Suddenly, in the absence of the electricity in her bones that had been singing there for so long she had forgotten what it was like to live without it, she felt a surge of joy. Despite the situation, she bubbled over with it, gathering Alison up again and rocking her back and forth as she laughed as heartily as she ever had in her life. "I can feel it. I'm probably the only person on the planet who is happy to be dying right now, but gods, it feels good."
Alison couldn't help it - Xena's joy was so contagious, she found herself grinning too. "I'm happy for you. But I know you wanted to do this yourself -"
Xena placed a finger on Alison's lips. "I don't care about that. The important thing is, it's done. I can finally live out my life like a normal human being. Thank you. I mean that from the bottom of my heart."
Another tear escaped down Alison's cheek. "You're welcome."
Xena glanced over to the west. During all the excitement, the sun had set. "Come on - let's go inside. It's getting dark."
Alison helped her to her feet. The world only spun once before it settled back into place, which was a good sign. She'd be fine by the morning. Still, she leaned on Alison's shoulder as they made their way across the roof. When they got to the stairwell door, she snarled in disgust. "Stand back."
Alison watched wide-eyed as she ripped the door practically off its hinges. Xena grinned wryly back over her shoulder. "I have got to remember to hide a key up here."
* * * * * * * *
Xena emerged from the bathroom, wrapping a towel around her hair. The shower had done her head a world of good, and the pounding had subsided to a dull ache that only flared up when she moved too quickly. She entered the living room to find Alison staring at the blank television screen.
"It's more entertaining if you turn it on," she remarked.
Alison looked up at her. "Sorry - guess I'm still a little bit freaked out. I think the last few days are finally catching up with me."
Xena sat next to her on the couch. "I don't blame you. If you need space, I'll give it to you. If you need a shoulder, I'll be here. Just let me know."
"Thanks. But I don't know what I need, that's the problem." Alison's eyes were haunted. " I just keep thinking -- everyone thinks I was happily married to Jose Arias for the past two years. How am I supposed to tell people he never existed? His colleagues at Yale, my family... none of them are going to believe it. And how am I going to explain the fact that he just disappeared off the face of the earth? I can't just conveniently cover that up."
Xena squeezed her shoulder. "We'll figure something out. I'm a cop, remember? I've seen and heard it all. I know what will work and what won't. But we don't need to worry about it right this minute. You just need some time. Tell you what, I'll leave you alone for a little bit - go out and get us some dinner. That sound all right?"
Alison shook her head. "I just realized I don't want to be alone right now."
"The shoulder it is, then." Xena settled back into the cushions, and Alison laid her head on her shoulder. Xena idly ran her fingers through Alison's soft hair. A moment later, Alison raised herself up and pulled Xena down for a kiss.
The kiss deepened, and Xena shifted on the couch so she was underneath Alison's prone body. She ran her fingers up and down Alison's back underneath her shirt. Alison made a little sound of pleasure, and started exploring Xena's body underneath her damp robe.
Neither one of them was quite sure how it happened, but in a very short period of time there was clothing strewn about the living room. Xena came up for air, fingers memorizing every plane of Alison's face. "We don't have to do this if it's going to be too much for you."
Alison shook her head. "I feel like I need this. Like I need you. Something inside of me ... it's like I haven't been home for my entire life, and I'm just now standing at the driveway for the first time."
Xena kissed her again. "I know exactly how you feel." She stood up, and gathered Alison up in her arms. "Come on - the bed is much more comfortable."
The sensation was overwhelming. It was truly a melding of souls, brought together after thousands of years searching for one another. Xena felt like she were falling down an endless well of memory, focusing on the very first night with Gabrielle, though this was different. Alison was her own person on top of Gabrielle's soul, and that added a new dimension to savor.
Alison had never felt anything even remotely like this before. No one had ever affected her in this way. Certainly no one had known her like this the very first time, but Xena did. She knew exactly what to do, where to touch, like they had already been lovers for years. And in a way, she realized, from Xena's perspective they had.
Much later, they lay in the darkness listening to the sounds of the city and one another's heartbeats. "Xena?" Alison murmured.
"Where do we go from here?"
Xena sighed, idly tracing a pattern on Alison's bare back. There would be repercussions, and they would have to start dealing with them almost immediately. But for now, all she wanted to do was lie here with her soulmate, and forget about everything else. "I don't know. But we've got the rest of our lives to find out, don't we?"
Alison smiled into the curve of Xena's neck. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess we do."
Xena lay listening to the sound of Alison's regular breathing as she slept. The rest of my life. For the first time, the endless twilight of the past three millenia was deepening into darkness. And she was utterly, blissfully happy.
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