Part Twenty Two (Conclusion)

Once I have you, your soul is forfeit. There is no going back, Xena. Zeus whispers this finality into Xena's mind, watching her body crumble to the stone floor and twist with pain.
The shouting makes his eyes slide to the right, to Gabrielle rushing forward and wrapping her arms about Xena's waist.

"Let her go!" Gabrielle yells, trying to meet Zeus and his glare head-on. She is not afraid. Death has taken her, there is nothing to fear for her body is gone, it is just an illusion.
But the soul... It is the soul that she fights for now. Mine and Xena's.
"Artemis! Help me, help me get Xena away from him!"

And the surge of energy is strong, it is more powerful than anything Gabrielle has ever felt. But even with that, even with all the pulling and the force radiating in her arms... Gabrielle watches in mute agony as Zeus draws closer to the fallen body of Xena, his blackness coating the warrior's skin.

"Xena, please fight... help me... c'mon, wake up... wake up, dammit! Wake up!" Gabrielle shouts over and over, pulling and straining. She dares a look to the front of the temple, to Aphrodite and Ares frozen in place.
"Help her, please!" She cries to them, real tears falling down her ghostly face.

Ares lifts the stone upward only to find Aphrodite's hand on his arm, her grip surprisingly strong.
"What will it do to them if we smash it? To us?"
"Too late to think about that, sis."
They look at each other for an endless moment, sizing up that this might be the end of not only Zeus and his soul, but maybe more than that. The scroll certainly didn't give any ideas as to what might happen if the stone was destroyed.
But they had come this far, for the love of two mortals.

"I told you I wouldn't let the woman you love suffer. At least, not much." Ares joked, his eyes telling a different tale than one of humor. Aphrodite decides not to correct him.
"And I wouldn't let Xena suffer either." She responds, letting go of his arm, then turning to Gabrielle's anguished face and the almost-taken over form of Xena.

"Gabrielle! Just hold on for dear life... or dear death as the case may be..." Aphrodite shouts.

Zeus rears back suddenly, shifting his focus toward the altar. It causes a weakening of his hold over Xena and the woman wails out in sudden release, her body limp and useless. Gabrielle cradles the warrior, all the while her grip never lessens and her eyes latched onto the stone.
It looks like... in my dream, I found that in my dream and it gave me strength. It gave me Zeus.

No! Zeus shouts, the sound of his voice rocking the foundation of the temple. Ares and Aphrodite grant their father one last look, sorrow and determination mixed together in their eyes.

There will be no going back, children... He says, reaching out with everything to stop them.

"We..." Ares starts.
"...know." Aphrodite finishes.

And they bring the stone down.

It is quick. The moment the stone splits open... the world changes.

Ares shouts out his sisterís name, finding her hand thrust outward and grabs it. No sooner than that happens, they are flying back. His back registers the hard impact against the wall and then they are past the wall, the cool air rushing against their skin.
He can see the blue of the sky flying above him and the flutter of pink, Aphrodite's dress like some wild bird.
Her grip is tight, is shaking.
That is what jolts him into reaching out, finding the surface of a tree and digging his fingers into it, turning cypress to splinters and tossing them to the ground.
The dust flies up around them and, then, silence.

"Did you see it?" Aphrodite's voice asks quietly. Ares looks over at her, notices that they are still holding hands. He tightens the hold for just a moment and then letís go completely.
"Yes." He replies just as quietly.

They saw, for just a second, the end of their father. They saw a shaft of white light run through his spectral form and then... an explosion, an energy fallout unlike anything Ares had ever seen on a battlefield or with any godly power.
And he saw Xena, her body listless, held by Gabrielle. He saw them and then he was flying backwards.

Xena... His thoughts were interrupted by the strong tug on his upper arm. Aphrodite was standing above him.

"They are together now."
Ares gets up and crosses him arms over his chest.
"Don't rub it in."
Aphrodite wraps him up in a hug and Ares returns it.
"They've got this soul thing going on, bro. We can't fight it... but, at least, we did right by them. That counts for something."
Ares pulls back, a smirk on his lips.
"I was right."
Aphrodite looks at him blankly. "Right about what?"
"You loved her." Ares states, waiting to be shot down or smacked or one of the many ways that Aphrodite likes to reprimand someone. But it never comes.
Instead he gets the smallest of smiles and then he is being pulled along through the forest. His voice finally catches up with his mind and he stops walking, bringing Aphrodite to a stop.

"You... loved her?" It is a question, a sincere one for once. Aphrodite allows a sigh to pass her lips, glancing back briefly at her brother.
"Don't rub it in." She says with a smirk.

And, for once, Ares lets it slide. He walks beside his sister, keeping his hand with hers.

"So, what now? We are it, the only immortals left. Gonna keep trying to turn the world into your own love-fest?"
"Only if you keep trying to turn the world into your own battle-ground."
"It's a deal then."

And the last immortals of the known universe smile at each other, deciding to walk instead of use their powers.
After all, they have all the time in the world to get back home.

*

Artemis felt the power first, felt it push against her so hard that she lost sight of Gabrielle and Xena, lost sight of everything. And then... she opened her eyes.
The temple was gone. It was dust. But more than that, the very ground seemed to be... gone.
It was as if the very world had disappeared.

"Where am I?" Artemis asks aloud, her voice sounding almost foreign to her ears. It had been a long time since the goddess used her voice.
Then, slowly, as if water soaking a cloth... the world comes back into a blurred focus, the colors there but muted and hazy.
As the vision starts to sharpen, Artemis sees a figure coming close to her. And the closer this entity comes, the more shocked Artemis feels.
For it is herself. A younger version, no less wise or timeless, but still... the child she once was, the child who begged a father for gifts and freedom.
Artemis reaches out and is startled to feel the softness of her youthful hair slip past her fingertips.

"Through me, you will save them."
"Through... me? What do you mean? Them?"
"The Amazons. The queen needs an heir."

But how is this possible? This is me... or a part of me... How can I be there and here? What of my soul?

"You will preside over them, guide them in times of peril. But the queen needs an heir."
"You and I are the same. This makes no sense!"

And the child steps closer still, pulling the adult Artemis down and stroking her face tenderly.

"Do you recall the story of the six wishes?" The child asks and Artemis is struck dumb, sadness unwittingly filling up her eyes.
"We asked for more than just the hunt. And we got more than just free reign. Our father gave us everything."
Our father, Zeus. Our father... a tyrant and a curse... a giver of wishes...
"He told me the hunt would never end." The adult Artemis says softly.

"And so it shall not. I've only been waiting." The child Artemis states.

You protect. The child intones.
You hunt. The adult informs.

"And together, we will save them." They say in unison. The adult Artemis takes the child in her arms, she fingers the bow and the arrows, blessing all three with a kiss.

"And what of my Chosen? Have you seen her?" Artemis asks the child. The girl turns her face upward, gazing at the still pastel sky.

"They go where gods cannot reach them." The child answers.

And Artemis sends out a prayer of thanks to whoever may hear it. The promise was not broken, no matter the odds. They are together.

"I must go. The queen must find me and take me in." The girl steps back. Artemis watches her walk off, back the direction from which she came. The scenery shifts once more, looking more familiar with each glance.
The Amazon land of the dead greets her, the mountains and the fields, the forest and the throne from which Artemis used to sit, used to judge and live.

"Home." She says, feeling a contentment long missing for these past moons.

*

It had been weeks since Athens. And Varia still found a nightmare or two of all the carnage she witnessed. It was worse than Helicon. But the days grew longer, the Amazons pulled together and set about rebuilding their nation. Again.
Perhaps, one day, we will get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of these repetitive labors...Varia mused.

The numbers were small as they trekked back to the lands of their foremothers. And while there would always be woman eager to become warriors, it seemed as though a permanent dent had been made.
Varia wondered if they would ever be as strong as they once were.
She didn't know if there was a goddess to pray to anymore, but Varia found herself whispering to Artemis anyway.
The queen decided that even if no one heard her pleas, it at least made her feel better.

It was during the morning, a full moon beyond Athens and all that went with that battle that Anteris came into Varia's hut. The queen tensed immediately, wary of the out-of-breath Amazon before her.
Please. Do not be trouble. Varia begged silently.

"We found a child wandering the woods during patrol. Varia, I am not sure... but I think she may be a gift..."
"What do you mean, Anteris?"
"It is her bow, made of the finest wood, sleek and polished. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. And the child can use it!"

Varia did not trust this scenario. A gift? What could she mean by that comment? Like a child with a bow could be anything other than a someone's lost daughter... or a trap of some kind...

Anteris waits for Varia to say something, wishing the queen would be as eager. Of course, the Amazon guesses that the story might not sound as amazing with fresh ears. But Anteris saw the girl, saw the precision with which the arrow shot and hit the target. Anteris was always teased as a child about believing others, of being 'gullible'.
But something about this girl-child, something about this felt... good to Anteris.

And as an Amazon, she had to trust her instincts.

"Why do you call this child a gift, Anteris?" Varia finally asks.
"I wonder if she might be from Artemis."
"We do not even know if there is an Artemis anymore." Varia says, noting that her own voice sounds distinctly harsh. But it has been hard, watching many of my sistersí die, having to let go of friends... and then trying to save this nation,mynation, not knowing if even our goddess is there to watch over us, much less assist us!

"Varia, my Queen. Just... meet her. And then you can tell me if I am wrong, if I am crazy. I will gladly do double-duty up in those trees if I am wrong."

And Varia looks at Anteris, judging the woman's words. Anteris is to be trusted, despite my misgivings. Besides... helping a lost child is not wrong, a lost girl.
Varia sighs and stands up.
"Take me to her or bring her to me."

Anteris ducks out and is back within mere moments. The child is at first behind the bigger woman, but then she steps forward. The bow is over her shoulder and she is clutching six arrows in her hand.
There are smudges of dirt along her body, scuffed up knees and bare feet. Varia glances at the knotted hair, the wide eyes that look around quickly.

They then settle on Varia. They stare at each other for a long time, so long that Anteris begins to shift nervously on her feet. Something in those eyes, though, give Varia pause.
Something disturbingly familiar.
Varia looks the child over again, this time her mind latching on to the arrows.
Six arrows to be exact. Six arrows and a bow...
Varia doesn't want to believe, she is fighting the impulse tooth and nail, but... her own heart starts pounding erratically in her chest.

"Where are you from?" Varia asks. The girl furrows her brow.
"I... do not know. I woke up in the forest days ago."
"What is your name?"
The furrowing melts into something harder, a scowl is firm on the girl's mouth.
"Do you not know that as well?" Varia prompts. The girl grips the arrows tighter and looks away.
"I don't know anything. I just woke up and then I used this to catch food."

She is a little insolent... Varia thinks, starting to lose patience with not only the child but with herself as well. I must be mad to entertain the thought of this girl being anything more than just that!

Not mad. Fearful. But she is not to be turned away. A voice echoes in Varia's mind, causing the woman to stagger back and hit painfully against her table.
Anteris steps forward quickly and places her hands to the queen's shoulders.

"My queen?" The Amazon questions. Varia looks at Anteris.
"Did you hear that?" She whispers and Anteris looks at her strangely.
"Hear what, my queen?"

And Varia pushes past Anteris to look at the child. The child with no name and no past, with a bow... and with six arrows. Dear Artemis, that was you, was it not? Is it true, that you speak to me after so long and bring this child to us?

There is no answer, but Varia finds the doubts falling from her eyes. And she kneels down in front of the child, noting the girl's anxiousness and her shyness and her strength. Varia composes herself, clearing her throat in the process.

"Since you know not your name or how you came to be here... I am willing to offer you a home here, until such time you may want to leave. A girl should not wander alone, with no family. So... consider us, the Amazons, your home and your family." Varia states, watching the child for a response.

It is subtle, a softening to her eyes that is then covered up with adolescent bravado. Varia tries to gauge the girl's age, finding it probably somewhere between the twelfth and fourteenth summer.

"I could stay here. For a while." The girl says, looking to the floor and to Varia in rapid succession.

I knew you'd make a good queen... The voice rumbles in Varia's mind, fading as quickly as it came. The queen stands up and turns to Anteris.

"Take her and let her clean up. She can sit with me when it is time for evening meal. And then tomorrow... we can teach her of this nation."
Anteris smiles at Varia, walking to the girl and pushing aside the hut flap-entrance.
"Come on. The baths are nice, you'll like them." Anteris tells the girl as they both start to walk out.

And Varia sits down, her breathing coming back to a normal speed. The words from Anteris coming back, calling the child a gift.
A gift from Artemis... And I will not squander this gift, goddess. This child must be special for you to send her to us. I will protect her with my life if it is her wish.

"Perhaps I'll even see if she would like to be named after you?" Varia questions aloud, waiting to see if there is any reaction, a smile on her face for the first time in a long while.

And Varia swears she hears a laugh in the distance.

*

Gabrielle held on tightly.
And then everything went black, but she could feel the wind around her... she could feel it coast through her as well. It was as if the only thing that was tangible were her thoughts.
And Xena.
She could feel Xena in her arms, could feel her weight and feel the warrior's hair against her cheek.
And Gabrielle would not let go, not this time. No amount of grief or guilt could sway her this time.

The moment Aphrodite's words hit Gabrielle's ears, the woman pulled Xena closer. And she kissed the warrior's face, telling her not to drift off yet. Just hold on, Xena. I've got you.

And the darkness took them, to where Gabrielle did not know. It didn't matter to her anymore.
All that mattered was that wherever they went, it was the two of them.
As it should be, as it will always be... Oh Xena, all the time we've missed and all the time we've wasted. It used to control me, the thought of what we could have done. But not now. Now, I care for nothing but you and me, for us. I'm not sure where we will end up. But I've got you in my arms. I've got you and I won't let go.

That was the mantra Gabrielle kept repeating to herself, even as her body slowly laid down, even as all recollections seemed to fade away, even as whatever or whoever she was holding onto seemed to be just a figment of her imagination...

*

She must have passed out, because when Xena opens her eyes... it felt like the whole world was gone.
Shoving aside the notion that she merely slept through the end of the world, Xena blinks several times.

Her first thought is that it is dark. Not an empty darkness, but like nighttime without a moon above.
And Xena then notices that she is quite warm, not overly so. Comfortably so.
Like someone is wrapped around me.
Xena starts to turn over, feeling the arms around her tighten minutely. It is a strong hold that Xena finds herself in, one that seems to not want to loosen.
Once Xena is fully turned toward her unseen companion, the warrior narrows her gaze to see better.
It is a woman, I think. I wish there was some light...

And as if her commands meant something, there was a faint light from above now. Not like the moon, but nothing too out of the ordinary either. Now Xena could see this woman who holds her so securely.
I think I know her. She looks really familiar.
Xena studies the woman before her, the soft lips in a faint sleep smile and the smooth skin.
She is very beautiful.
And that is when Xena notices that they are both naked. Though it seems a little improper, Xena allows her eyes to glance downward.
Verybeautiful. I wish you would wake up.

Gabrielle was having a wonderful dream, full of sunshine and her feet in a cool stream. She felt content and happy. Then strong hands kneading her shoulders, bringing about the soft sigh of pleasure.
Before she knew it, Gabrielle felt those hands go from a sure massage to a lengthy caress. It was bliss, pure and unadulterated.
She leaned back and tilted her head, aching to get a glance at this cause of such wonderful feelings in her body.

Green eyes opened and found blue ones staring back.

And they talked, for hours or days. Every time Gabrielle started a story, Xena seemed to finish it. Every time Xena smiled, Gabrielle seemed to remember seeing that smile a million times before.
If one of them cried, the other seemed to understand... as if they too had experienced the pain.
They didn't move from their position, still wrapped about each other. The light above didn't change, not fading away nor getting brighter.

They fell asleep once more, Xena's head resting lightly against Gabrielle's shoulder. Quite without meaning to, Xena let her fingers slide up and down Gabrielle's side, slowly moving her palm along the soft skin.
And she feels Gabrielle shudder, feels that reaction all the way to her very bones, her soul recognizing something in that response.

"We've done this before." Gabrielle says, her voice strained, not from agony but from quite the opposite.
"I know." Xena murmurs, moving her hand further up and into Gabrielle's hair.

And they are moving in tandem, touching and grazing each other with fingers and lips.
Gabrielle notes that with each bit of contact the light above gets steadily brighter, but really... she could care less about that. All she can feel is Xena, this woman she knows so well and yet just met, surrounding her with love.

Xena feels the heat along her exposed back and it is is lovely. Almost as lovely as the sensation of Gabrielle against her, supple and responsive and breathtaking. She makes her way up this body, this woman that she knows like the back of her own hand and yet who is just recently met, and brings her lips finally to Gabrielle's mouth.

And they kiss for the first time. Again.

Green eyes open and find blue ones staring back.

"Thank you for coming back to me." Gabrielle whispers.
"Thank you for not letting me go." Xena whispers in return.

The sun is out. And the grass is fragrant, covering them up in a breeze-blown embrace.

"Is this paradise?" Gabrielle questions, looking skyward and seeing fanciful clouds in the bright blue.
And any of the old doubts that Xena knows guided her flesh and blood life seem to not be there anymore. The feeling is a good one, as if the slate is finally wiped clean.

"I think so. I think this is our paradise." Xena replies and Gabrielle looks back to the woman holding her, to the woman she is holding as well.
She looks at the woman who has been everything - a teacher, a friend, an adventure, a lesson, a soulmate, a lover... and Gabrielle finally sees forever looking back.

"I think you are right." Gabrielle says with a smile. Xena smiles as well, dipping her head down and kissing Gabrielle's cheek, her forehead, her chin, her nose and her eyelids.
And then she repeats it, over and over until Gabrielle shifts her face and Xena finds lips against her own.

And they kiss for the first time. Again.

And this time, it is forever.

END

Return to the Academy