Disclaimers: I don't own the characters I just love writing about them. Two of the women in this story are very much in love. There's some cursing as well as perhaps excessive use of alcohol and hashish.

Description: A courtroom comedy set in Illusia just after the end of the series "Xena: Warrior Princess."

Thanks to: The Bardic Circle.

Didja like it?: MiladyCo@aol.com

The Moral Of The Story

by Xena's Little Bitch
aka Julia Noel Goldman
copyright September 2001

Something is poking me in the side repeatedly, and it pulls me into consciousness. It's Xena, of course; I can sense her before I'm fully awake. The poking gets harder, and I unstick my eyes to see that not only is Xena actually lying on the ground next to me, but we're surrounded by soldiers with weapons drawn and aimed at us.

"This isn't good," I mutter. Lying in our bedroll we are at an extreme disadvantage. How did they sneak up on her? It's virtually impossible. "Why can they see you?" I ask.

"We're not in the real world," she says. Then, to the soldiers,

"What do you want?"

"You're under arrest. You need to come with us."

"What for?" I ask.

"Crimes against the people of Greece and so many other places I didn't want to waste the ink writing them down."

"Get up," says another man, "You'll both have a fair trial."

So we get up slowly, allowing them to take us prisoner. We walk along, surrounded by the men, for hours. We're weaponless and our wrists are shackled together. Under other circumstances I might think that was almost romantic.

"What's going on?" I whisper to Xena.

"I think we're in one of those alternate world places. Again."

"Yeah," I say, "it's like Illusia but without the singing."

"And thank the gods for that," she whispers, "So you finally got your wish. Here you are, wanted for atrocities; a warrior just like me."

"Yeah, my childhood dreams come true," I say, laughing and smiling up at her. She still makes me laugh, after all these years. "What's the plan?"

"We play along and nobody gets hurt. It's not real here. It's about something else. We've just gotta remember that."

"I'm sure we have more than enough unresolved issues to fill a thousand little worlds."

"You sound almost proud."

We walk along in the hot sun of the strange place. It smells weird and all the colors are a little too bright. Up ahead in the middle of nowhere is a huge stone building. It's got to be a temple or a courthouse or a jail...

"I figure the best plan is honesty," I say.

"Yeah. That's what worked last time."

The guards push us up the steps into the building. We stumble into a giant room. It is silent, and hundreds of pairs of eyes stare at us both. It's a huge courtroom, stone walls, high ceilings, row upon row of wooden benches. We are forced to walk slowly down the isle. There are all kinds of people here, not all human, and by their dress some appear to come from other times. Some glare at us and some spit as we pass them. Xena is used to this kind of treatment but I don't like it. We pass that horrible old woman who hung Meleager in effigy years ago. Today she holds little Xena and Gabrielle dolls. No, I don't like this at all. I follow Xena's line of sight down the long isle to the end. High up on the judge's dais, in a black robe, sits Ares. Oh this is going to be a fascinating trial, I can see that already.

Finally we reach our destination, our bonds are removed, and we are seated at a wooden table. The crowd is at our back and I can feel the angry energy humming in the air around us. It's unpleasant. It makes me very glad Xena is next to me.

Ares bangs his gavel loudly and speaks, "Welcome to the First Court of Illusia. We are here to try the case of ëXena and Gabrielle vs the People of the Known World.' Representing the known world: Callisto, warrior queen."

Callisto enters, and I can't help but shiver. It's the old Callisto; black leather, long blonde hair, the out of control maniacal gleam in her eye. She looks at us, then pauses to throw back her head and laugh crazily before taking a seat at the table to our left. The crowd goes wild. After a few minutes Ares stops staring at her breasts and bangs the gavel again to quiet the crowd. They're out for our blood and if it's Callisto that will bring it to them, then long live Callisto.

"And the lawyer for the defense, representing Xena and Gabrielle, in a career-destroying move: Gabrielle, the Bard of Poteidaia."

And here she is, me as I was when I met Xena. Fresh-faced and barely eighteen, in that same long brown skirt and the blue top. Oh, this is gonna be a day! The crowd applauds this Gabrielle, and I can't help but join in. Xena shoots me a look.

"Why is it everyone always likes you so much?" she whispers.

"Quiet, you. Can we wake up now?"

"I wish," she says, "You'd really think that now that I'm dead they'd just leave us alone."

"You'd think."

Young Gabrielle looks at me and smiles, she says, "Hi Gabrielle. It's wonderful to finally meet you."

"You better be good," I tell her. Ares pounds the gavel and the show is on.

"Callisto, please begin."

One thing I have to admit, that woman has presence. She grabs the attention of the jury and the crowd immediately, and as they are already predisposed to hate us, in moments they are hers.

"You see before you two women who claim to be heroes," she begins, "Two women who claim to fight for the greater good, to believe that the lives of the many are more important than the few. They would like us to believe that but sadly, it just isn't true. Xena and Gabrielle have proven again and again that they will do the wrong thing if pressed, and that their morals are no better than those of a common weasel. Today I will not only prove that, but I will prove that they are murderers, clear and simple, claiming all the while they do it in the name of love. Their hypocrisy disgusts me."

The crowd cheers. Callisto's words make me uncomfortable, for they come too close to things I've thought myself, late at night when I can't sleep for the fear that I'm not who I pretend to be. But part of me is angry; didn't Xena already make the ultimate sacrifice? Didn't the fact that she gave up her life in Japan mean anything? What do they want from us? Will it ever be enough?

Ares smacks the gavel on the table and invites Gabrielle to make her opening remarks. My young self gets up and rubs her hands together, smiling at the jury of, well, somebody's peers.

"I'm here today to represent Xena and Gabrielle, two badly damaged women who tried to do their best to make the world a better place. Sure, they made terrible mistakes, Xena especially, but they tried, and who among you can truly say that of yourselves? I don't agree that the question is whether or not they are murderers, but more, what is the point of their voyage, the moral of their story, so to speak. I aim to prove that if we look at it that way, we will find our answers."

I can't believe I used to gesticulate like that, but Xena says I did. I push my chair a little closer to her, so our naked thighs touch under the table. Is it wrong to take advantage of this moment?

"Pay attention," whispers Xena, "I know I'm sexy but you're gonna be the one who figures our way out of this so you better be listening."

"Right, right..." Still she is always right. I have to admit I'm almost enjoying the show. I never imagined my life could be so bad Illusia would be an improvement, but I never really believed Xena would die. I'm not even sure I believed she could.

Ares tells Callisto to call her first witness.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I present, Joxer the Mighty," she says, gesturing at the witness chair, and he appears. It's Joxer as we knew him when, a young man in silly-looking armor and a pointed hat. My eyes fill with tears at the sight of him and he waves at me and smiles.

"So Joxer," says Callisto casually, "Xena sure was a hell of a warrior, huh?"

"Uh, yeah, yeah. She was great. The best." I can tell he's nervous. Why wouldn't he be, right?

"What do you base that assessment on?"

"Huh?"

"What makes you think she was a great warrior?" Her patience is going already. It was never one of her strong points.

"Uh, she was a good fighter. She could beat anyone, any number of anyones at once."

"So she killed a lot of people?"

"Uh, sure. Sometimes you... have to." Did we teach him that? Is it true?

"How many people did you see her kill?"

"Uh, I don't know. Lots? I mean, I traveled with them all the time." Suddenly he notices Young Gabrielle, and he starts blushing. He likes her better than he likes me? It amazes me that I'm jealous.

"I understand that you're dead. Tell me, how did you die?"

"I was, uh, trying to save Gabrielle."

"And?"

"And Xena was a little too late to save me."

"Really? And who was it that killed you, then?"

"Livia. I mean, Eve, I mean Livia."

"Were there thousands of soldiers? Was Xena surrounded, tied up, wounded?" I feel Xena's leg tense against mine. We've never talked about this, about how Joxer died.

"N-no." He's looking down at his lap.

"Then......?"

"I...I guess...I don't know."

"Hmmmmm." Callisto pauses to give the jury time to let that sink in. "And when you didn't want to do something they wanted you to do, what happened?"

"I did it anyway."

"Why?"

"Because they wanted me to."

"Did Xena ever make you?"

He pauses but there's something about Illusia that makes a person tell the truth. "Yeah."

"How?"

"She threatened me. I mean, I didn't think she'd really..."

Callisto turns and looks at Young Gabrielle, "Your witness." She flounces back to her seat and Gabrielle rises.

"Joxer," she says, "You traveled with Xena and Gabrielle a great deal."

"Yes. I hung out with them on and off for five years.'

"Why?"

"Uh, because I liked being with them, they made me feel special, like I had a purpose. And they were fun, when they weren't arguing, I mean."

I almost laugh. We must have been hell to travel with.

"What purpose did they make you feel you had?"

"I was part of something, with them. It made me feel like I was helping to make the world a better place."

"So that's what Xena and Gabrielle were doing?"

"Well, yeah. Sure it didn't always work out, but they were trying to help people."

"So if I asked you what you think was the moral of their story, what you learned from them, what would you say?"

"They never backed down from anything. I think I learned to be brave from watching them."

"Thank you Joxer, you may step down."

Young Gabrielle comes and sits back at the table.

I look at Ares and realize he's drinking a mug of ale. It's just not fair.

"My next witness, when living, was known as the King of Thieves," says Callisto, pointing lazily at the witness chair where Autolycus appears. He looks wonderful. We never had been able to find out what happened to him. He waves at us and Xena blows him a kiss. I elbow her. I can't help it.

"So, Autolycus, tell us, how did you first meet the defendants?"

"Xena wanted me to steal something for her."

"Really? How interesting. Tell us more."

"It was a weapon, well, sort of anyway. More of a religious artifact. It belonged to her friends, and she wanted to get it back for them."

"So you're justifying Xena's actions?" The crowd boos.

"Well, I--"

Callisto cuts him off with a gesture and paces up and down in front of the jury. "It sounds as if this man, this thief, is saying that Xena and Gabrielle did the wrong thing but for the right reason."

"Exactly," says Autolycus, falling right into her trap.

"And how, pray tell, would a man of your dubious moral character have any ability to judge right from wrong?"

"In answer to the question I imagine Jail Bait Gabrielle's gonna ask me later, that's what I learned from them. They always tried to do the right thing."

"How much time did you spend with the defendants?"

"I guess I saw them a few times a year those last five years or so before they disappeared."

"And why was it you'd happen to get together?" Callisto asks. She's sipping from Ares' mug of ale. Gods what I wouldn't do for a mug of ale.

"Uh, usually, we'd, uh, steal," said Autolycus, "but always for an important reason. And please take note, dear gentlemen of the jury, that my telling of the truth at this point in the game proves again how they have influenced me for the better."

Callisto heaves a hugely exaggerated sigh. "Your witness."

"I have no questions," says Village Girl Gabrielle smugly.

"What a guy," Xena whispers to me as they wink at each other and he takes a seat next to Joxer.

"Do you think all the witnesses will be dead?" I ask Xena.

"I don't care. Do you think we could get a mug of ale?" she asks a guard who stands next to us. He says he'll check, and he's gone.

Callisto stands in the middle of the courtroom, staring down at her bellybutton as she picks lint out of it. Ares bangs the gavel.

"Hey! People are paying to see this. Knock it off and call the next witness."

Callisto spits on the floor and mumbles, "I call to the stand Jesus-Christ-I-Mean-Eli."

Poof! Eli is there, his long hair tied in four ponytails, two on each side of his head. He's wearing white robes and he pulls his wings in as he sits. He smiles at us and waves. We wave back.

"So you're Eli, the Jesus Guy," says Callisto scornfully.

"You know me, Callisto. We were angels together in the real world."

Callisto makes a horrible gagging sound and says, "Spare me your crap, Eli, and let's get on with it. You're a holy man. Xena and Gabrielle are killers. Explain."

"They are good people. They are my friends." He spreads his hands wide as if there is nothing else to say. His truths were always so simple. Too bad they got him killed.

"But isn't it a sin to--what's it called again, when you kill someone on purpose?" she asks Ares, snapping her fingers as she pretends to look for the word.

"Murder."

"That's it--thanks. They murdered people. They--what's the word where you kill everyone from a certain place?"

"Genocide," says Ares. He's a bit tipsy.

"That's it--thanks. They were responsible for the genocide of the Amazons, the gods, the Centaurs, and even that repulsive cannibal tribe. How can you possibly defend them?"

"I can't defend them," Eli explains, "I can only forgive them."

Callisto rolls her eyes and pretends to stick her finger down her throat.

"Tell me why is it, Eli, that these women aren't in Hell. Don't they deserve to be there, to be punished for their actions, for their multitude of sins?" Her voice is getting a little shrill.

I can feel the audience anticipating Eli's response.

"It is not for me to judge," he pauses. "And Gabrielle's not even dead."

Callisto looks exasperated. She throws her hands up in the air and gives the witness to Young Me.

"Hi, Eli," says Gab respectfully, "I've heard a lot about your teachings of love and forgiveness. They've traveled all over the world and through all different realities. Can you tell us about how you came to them?"

"I was performing magic on the streets of Bangladesh for a living, trying to hide from my destiny while pretending to seek it. I met Xena and Gabrielle. They were so determined to do the right thing, and I was a coward. They taught me to be strong, to reach deep into myself and give what I was to the world, the way they did. But the thing they taught me most about was forgiveness. They did all kinds of terrible things in their lives, and to each other, but always, always, they forgave; I've never seen anything like it, even as an angel. Unconditional love was always an abstract to me, but feeling it through them made me ready to love my god the way I do; absolutely and completely."

"And so the moral of the story is?"

"Love and forgiveness."

"Thank you Eli."

Xena and I are on our second ales as Eli sits down.

I whisper to Xena, "That almost made me cry."

"Maybe you shouldn't have any more to drink."

"My next witness is Hercules, son of Zeus," says Callisto. He appears in the witness chair, obviously uncomfortable. I think it's a little too small for him. I can't believe Xena actually had sex with this guy. More than once, the way she tells it, when I get her drunk enough.

"Hi Callisto," says Hercules. He gives us a shy little wave. Xena smiles at him.

"So Herc, you're this big hero-guy, and Xena is this evil bitch. You made like crazed weasels. That should have been the end of it. What happened?"

"Not my fault if I'm incredible in the sack," he says modestly. I start laughing and he gives me a look.

"What?" he asks.

"That's not what I heard!" I start laughing at the look on his face. The crowd roars.

Ares bangs his gavel and mutters, "Not what I heard either."

"So you take some responsibility for her turning to a so-called Life of Good?" Callisto asks.

"Well, she did it herself, but I think I helped her get there."

"So, from your point of view, if we influence people, we have a certain amount of responsibility for what they do in the future?"

"Yeah," he says.

"So then you figure, Xena must have some responsibility for, say, me," says Callisto, smiling at him.

"Some," he answers shortly.

"Interesting," she pretends to muse, stalking the length of the jury box, "And what of others who helped Xena in her past, those self-sacrificing fools, M'lila and Lao Ma. They tried to help Xena, they both saved her life in fact, but only so she could go forth and do even more damage than she had in the past. What do you think, Hercules? Is Lao Ma responsible for all the people Xena murdered once her legs were healed?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because of free will. You do what you can for people; what they do after that is up to them."

"So you're saying that you think when, say, Xena saved those orphans on Solstice Eve, that was because of your influence, but when she, say, ended up killing off half your family, that probably wasn't your fault?"

"That would be the explanation that makes me look like a hypocrite, anyway."

"Your witness," giggles Callisto.

As Young Gabrielle walks over to the witness box I can tell she's still a little in awe of Hercules. Xena looks at me like it's my fault.

"You had the opportunity to kill Xena soon after you first met, and every excuse to do so. Why didn't you?" asks L'il Gab.

"Because I sensed something in her that was better than the way she was behaving. Part of her longed to be someone else, and I wanted to help her."

"Why?"

"Why? Because I help people. All people, whenever I can. It's just the right thing to do."

"Even bad people?"

"There are no bad people, Gabrielle, only good people gone wrong. Take, say, Bellach, who Xena managed to save. She was trying to do what I did for her; give him another chance."

"And the moral of the story is?"

"To do your best to save people is to live a decent life. How's that?" He asks, winking at Baby Gabby, before taking his seat with the others.

Callisto weaves her fingers together, stretches her arms over her head, and cracks her knuckles explosively. She has everyone's attention when she announces the next witness,

"Aphrodite, Goddess of Love."

Aphrodite appears in the witness chair, all pink gauze and blonde curls, giggling and waving at all her friends in the audience, smiling at both her brothers. She blows me a kiss, little hearts floating on the air towards my face. I sigh. Xena kicks me.

"Love love love love love," says Callisto derisively.

"Well, yeah," says Aphrodite, "It's all about love. Like Eli said. We have some things in common, he and I, you know."

"So, Xena and Gabrielle..." Callisto prompts, making the "continue" hand gesture while tapping her foot.

"Xena and Gabrielle," she says with a smile, gazing at us, "Why, they're Love, pure and simple. Living proof that what I am is truly in the world."

My hand goes under the table and squeezes Xena's thigh. Her hand covers mine and holds it there.

"So," says Callisto, rubbing her hands together as if to warm them by or to start a fire. I bet I can guess which. "Would you posit that Xena and Gabrielle love each other a whole lot?"

"They love each other more than anything else in the world. That's what true love is, you know."

"So they love each other more than their families, their children...the greater good?"

"Well, in theory, yes," says Aphrodite slowly.

"I'm pretty sure I can recall a few occasions where they in fact chose each other over the greater good. Let's see... oh, let's use the first time Xena killed me as an early example! Oh yes! She let me die in that quicksand, because I hurt her precious little Gabrielle by killing her pathetic red shirt husband. What else? Ooh, then there was the time where dear Gabrielle actually destroyed the world ëcause she didn't get to be with her big bad warrior. That's a pretty selfish love, I have to say."

"Love can be selfish," Aphrodite admits, "Love can be all sorts of unattractive things. That's where my kind of love differs from Eli's. Romantic love, well, love by any other name is never quite as twisted."

"See if you can follow this," Callisto says to Aphrodite, taking a long gulp of Ares' ale before continuing, "Okay so we say Xena and Gabrielle, legendary heroes, love each other more than anything in the world," she pauses to wipe her tongue on her arm, presumably to remove the residue of her last sentence, "They would each protect the other no matter the cost. Cost to themselves, cost to whoever else was involved. Hell, once Xena even used the Romans to help her go against the greater good to save Gabrielle! Anyone remember that scroll?"

The audience roars. Hey, at least people are still reading my work. Oh wait, it's not real here. They're just pretending to have read my work... or...

"So my point is this. The main reason Xena doesn't want Gabrielle to die is she knows how much pain she'd be in if she had to live without her. Gabrielle feels the same, don'tcha honey?" She gives me the nastiest look. I snarl at her. "So really, by going against the greater good to save Gabrielle, Xena is actually being selfish and trying to avoid her own pain. In protecting Gabrielle, Xena is really protecting herself, and vice versa. Xena and Gabrielle, two, the greater good, zero. Your witness."

Young Me and Aphrodite stand and grin at each other for a moment. Before I met Xena I used to pray to Aphrodite that some day I might meet my true love. Sometimes prince charmings come in strange packages. Incredibly sexy, powerful, female packages... my hand begins to caress Xena's thigh and she grabs it.

"Pay attention!" she whispers harshly, "I betcha this is gonna be important."

"Aphrodite," says Me, "What do you think?"

"Well," says Aphrodite conspiratorially, leaning forward in the witness chair and focusing on Gab, "Lemme lay this one on you," she says, suddenly producing a smoking pipe from nowhere and taking a long hit. She offers it to Gabs, who declines. Of course, Ares is more than happy to accept, and sits back with his feet up, puffing away. "I've been thinking, about gods and powers and all that for quite some time now. Mortality and hashish will do that to a girl. I'm pretty sure at this point that there's this incredible power; it's just there, no one controls it, but some beings can access it sometimes. It gives one abilities that can only be described as magical. I think that gods are just creatures who figured out how to use that power."

There's laughter in the audience and Teen Gabrielle seems to ponder Aphrodite's words. She gestures for Ares to pass her the hash pipe and inhales deeply of the drug.

"You know what I think?" my little twin asks on the exhale, "I think that love is magic. The way it fills you, lifts you up, makes you feel an ecstasy that surpasses even the sensual. I think that love is as close as most people can get to channeling that kind of power."

Aphrodite giggles and claps her hands. The audience can't help but buzz a little at her excitement. "Exactly the point I was hoping you'd make, Gabby!"

"Yeah?" asks the Youngin', all enthusiastic. I see it now, how I got hooked up with all those religious wackos. And I was sober most of the time too! "So what would you say the point of Xena and Gabrielle's story was?"

"I'd say that simply by loving each other as intensely as they do, they came to access the divine. I'd say that though they are flawed, Xena especially," she gives Xena an apologetic look, "and flawed even in their expression of their love, they are still changed by it. And they change others through it, and with it. In a way they are dedicated to love above all else, and needless to say I believe that's a fine life's work for anyone. That's the moral, honey."

"Thank you, Aphrodite."

Aphrodite steps down and takes a seat with the other witnesses.

I take a peek at Callisto who's compulsively drumming her fingertips on the table in front of her, a dark look on her face.

"No more witnesses," she growls.

"Yo, Bard," a drunken Ares calls, "You got witnesses for us or do you give up already?"

Young Gabrielle puts her hands on her hips and gives him a shocked look, "Give up? You've got to be kidding. I call my first witness, Xena of Amphipolis."

Xena looks as surprised as I feel, and almost as drunk. She staggers towards the witness chair while those around her whisper and point and stare. It's the price you pay for being the most infamous woman of all time, kinda like the price you pay for being that woman's lover: endless.

"Hey, Xena," says the Baby Bard, "Tell me about you and the greater good."

"Well, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a hero. I used to play games with my friends where I'd save the dollies or whatever. It's why I learned to use a sword, to help people. But things happened, pain and loneliness and bad influences. I made thousands of mistakes, or perhaps the same mistake thousands of times, and I did unspeakable things. Eventually I got back on track, fighting for the greater good, but now that I'm dead I'm not sure how to continue it."

"What is it about the greater good that appeals to you?"

"Huh? It's just right. If you can help people, you help people. I can so I do. Simple as that. I just thought it was the opposite for a while."

"What would you do if you were alive now?"

"Probably the same thing I was doing before, fight for the greater good with Gabrielle."

She gives me one of those loving smiles that make my heart beat fast. There are no words for that woman.

"So what would you say is the moral of your story?" Gab Junior asks her.

"To open your heart and your eyes, to love the world through loving one person, to give everything you have to that love."

She's really drunk.

"Thanks, Xena." Gabby sits, Callisto rises. This should be good.

Callisto stands in front of Xena, smiling. Xena looks at her coldly. The two of them. I almost wish they could settle this with their swords. Ah, the way they fight together.....

"Xena, you look well. For a dead person, of course. I really don't see how you can claim to be a hero after everything you've done. By my count, you've killed as many people since becoming ëgood' as you did when you were supposedly evil. I don't really see what the difference is."

"You wouldn't because you're psychotic. The difference is when I was evil I killed people for my own gain, and now when I have to kill people, I do it to try to help others. It's a subtle difference and I don't expect you to pick up on it."

Meow! It takes a lot of ale to make Xena this bitchy. Or maybe there was Evil Callisto residue hanging around already. I know it took me years to get over hating her. Callisto's barely in control at this point, and drunk on top of it, yet she's managing to maintain.

"Oh right. Sure. All you've done the last couple years is kill people to protect the ones you love. I actually lost count of how many people died due to your protection of our precious daughter Evie, and you can imagine how I love to keep count of these things." Callisto counts off on her fingers, "Let's see, you killed all those gods for her, and she killed all those Elijians, plus all the women and children who did nothing except not be Romans, oh and of course Joxer..."

"Look, I gave my life for the damn Japanese souls, okay, whether it was my fault or not. I'll take responsibility. For you and Eve and Alti and Bellach and whoever the hell you want, okay? Does that give you pleasure, Callisto?" She's starting to get angry. "I conquered myself. I gave up my will. I paid my dues, I'll pay them forever. I deserve it. There's little in the world I don't feel responsible for at this point, from who rules the Amazons to the fact that Ares is a god. What more do you want?"

"You could admit you're not and never have been a hero," Callisto says, raising an eyebrow and smiling in anticipation.

"I admit it. I never said I was. Gabrielle just wanted me to be. That's all."

"Ha!" says Callisto, "Thank you, Xena. No more questions."

My youthful double calls her final witness. Guess who that is?

I sit in the witness chair, a full mug of ale in my hand. I stare at the Gabster, at her unlined skin, her soft muscles, her hands that are calloused only in the spots that rub against a quill. That was a long, long time ago, but part of me remembers.

"So Gabrielle, what do you think of this trial so far?" she asks me.

"I don't know. I guess I don't understand the need for this. I thought we'd admitted our failings and faults, that we'd strayed from our path more than once, that we've made mistakes. I thought we'd already paid, with Xena's final and complete sacrifice of her life, I thought we'd ended up with a clean slate."

"So what do you think the moral is?"

"I think our story got too big to have a moral. I think it was about everything everyone said today, even some of the stuff Callisto said. Maybe morals are just unrealistic, convenient ways of not really thinking about the layers of meaning and other points of view. But again, if I had to pick one, it would be ëfollow your heart,' because it's what I've done from the beginning."

"Thank you, Gabrielle," says El Bardo, and she takes her seat.

Callisto does a backflip out of her chair, landing in front of the witness box. I remember how much I used to hate her. Back when I was young and naive, when everything seemed so clear.

"Hypocrite. Murderer," she snarls at me.

"And?" I ask, raising my eyebrows.

"This," she says to the audience, with a huge hand gesture, "Is The Bard, the woman who created the legendary hero Xena warrior princess. It's all her fault, when it comes down to it. If she just hadn't come into the picture, I coulda killed Xena years ago, and we'd all have been spared this. But no no no, instead we get the bard. The little hypocrite who knew who her girlfriend was and yet continued to lie to the general public. Why, Gabrielle?"

"I didn't lie. Well, no more so to my readers than to myself. I think Korah was right--"

"Korah.... Isn't that the boy who worshipped you that you ended up murdering?"

"Thanks for bringing that up, Callisto. Yes, it was a terrible accident, maybe the thing in my life that hurts the most, so as always, thanks. As I was saying, I was naive. I didn't see the dark side of anything, I saw her as a bright shining hero so that's what I wrote. As time went by I think realized she'd always had selective morals. I think maybe both of us did."

Callisto looks pissed off. Like I made her point for her. I drink the rest of my ale and a full mug is put before me. This is service!

"You would have let those forty thousand Japanese souls suffer for eternity just so you could be with her."

"Yup," I agree, grinning at Xena.

"For years you've been consistently motivated by jealousy to do terrible things, to her and others."

"And?" I love the look on Callisto's face. She wants to kill me. I'm glad she can't.

"I hate you. No more questions," she growls and sits back down. I go back and sit next to Xena.

Ares bangs the gavel, clears his throat, and downs a full mug of beer. He burps loudly and snaps his fingers at the jury box; the jury disappears. The rest of the crowd hushes. "That's enough of this."

Xena says to him, "You're as real as we are, aren't you?"

"Yep," says Ares, wiping foam from his lips onto the sleeve of his robe, "I'm as real as real, whatever real is, ya know? Aphrodite, I'll take a couple ounces of what you're smoking!" She winks at him. "But back to business. This Illusia thing was called up, and I heard about it and figured I wouldn't miss this for anything. Defendants please rise for the verdict."

We rise. Suddenly the rules have changed, surprise surprise.

"But what about my closing remarks?" asks Callisto angrily, "I had this great speech planned!"

"I don't have time for this," he says, dismissing her with a hand gesture.

Callisto begins to scream "It's not fair. I hate her! I want to see her be punished! I want her dead!"

"She is dead," says Ares harshly, "Now sit the hell down."

Callisto picks up an empty chair and throws it across the courtroom where it smashes against the wall. Then she sits down.

"Okay," says Ares, "Pay attention all of you, ëcause I'm only going through this once. Point one: Xena is not a hero. Never has been, never will be. The Gabster comes close but that's another story. Point two: the question of her guilt is immaterial. She's been punished more than enough over time, particularly by herself, and the gods know there's no way to make up for past deeds. Point three: shut up Callisto," he says, noticing her fuming out of the corner of his eye, "Point four: it's clear the moral of their story depends on one's point of view. Now, point five is an important one. I need one of you to tell me how you ended up in Illusia this time."

My hand shoots up before I can stop myself. "It's my fault. My doubts about our journey, have we really been as righteous as I thought we were at the time, have I told the world a story that isn't really true, that I interpreted incorrectly? These questions keep me up at night sometimes. I guess they were more powerful than I thought."

"Good girl," says Ares, "I really always have underestimated you."

"Thanks, I guess."

Ares clears his throat, "As king of the Greek Gods, I have the power to do pretty much anything I want. I am not happy with the way this story ended. And I have learned more than I'd like to admit about love from some of the people in this room," he takes another huge gulp of ale. He bangs the gavel. "The final punishment of Xena and Gabrielle is that one of them must choose what point in her life to go back to, and I will turn the world back to that moment. Nothing that happened after that point will have happened, though they will remember everything, so they'll have the opportunity to change the way things went, both knowing what they know now."

I look at Xena with excitement. I know it's her choice.

"What about the Japanese souls?" she asks.

"I'll give Sisyphus your job there. There's no need for him to keep pushing that rock up the hill."

"I choose to go back to the moment before I betrayed Lao Ma," she says, looking first at Ares in challenge, then at me with apology.

"But I'll be twelve!" I say as Callisto screams and lunges at Ares. He snaps his fingers.


Epilogue: a month later

The sun will set soon and I'm almost at the campsite we stayed at the time I had that terrible fever. I walk the horse off the road; I named him Argo ëcause I couldn't help it. He's big and black and sleek and no one messes with me when I'm riding him. I may be the best armed twelve year old girl traveling the back roads east across the continent, but I'm still a twelve year old girl after all. It's been a hell of a month, suddenly waking up in my bed in my parent's house, them being alive, Lila still a kid. And it's real, I mean, the world has gone backwards about thirty-five years and I remember everything. So many mistakes I plan on not making twice! Of course, another woman might think better than to do what I'm doing now, perhaps choose a safer path this time. But not me, of course. My path is with Xena; I belong with her. I have to believe Ares went through with the rest of his promise, and that she is alive, memories in tact, on her way to me. And she better not be taking her time making amends in Chin, ëcause I'd really rather run into her before I have to get on a boat.

I set up camp tonight as I have since I left Poteidaia. Of course I couldn't tell them what had happened; it was any other day for my family. I left a note that said I'd run away to find love. I set out in the middle of the night and I've been on the road since. A twig cracks in the forest and I grab my small metal crossbow.

"Who's there?" my voice calls out, sounding almost like my voice again.

"That's not you, is it?" Xena yells.

"Yeah, it's me, where are you?"

I jump up from my bedroll as Xena walks out of the forest. She's so young and even more beautiful than I remembered. It's like the first time I saw her all over again.

"You really are twelve!"

"You asked for it, I didn't."

She pulls me into her arms and we hold each other tightly.

"I didn't betray Lao Ma this time," she whispers into my hair.

"I'm so glad. You have to tell me all about it." My eyes tear up. I don't care if I look like I'm twelve, Xena's alive again and we're together. "I can't believe he let us start over like this."

"I guess the punishment is that we retain all our memories," she says.

"Or maybe," I suggest with a smile, "that's the prize."


The End
(yet, obviously, the beginning, because the story of Xena and Gabrielle never, ever ends.)
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