Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and all other characters that originally appeared in Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television program Xena: Warrior Princess. This piece of fan fiction is not for profit and is not intended to infringe on that copyright.
Violence: Although this story is generally light-hearted and (I hope) humorous, the story contains scenes of violence - mostly recounted and originally portrayed in the television program. (You'll understand what I mean when you read the story.)
Hurt/Comfort: There are moments of hurt/comfort scattered in this story, but for the most part the characters try to be brave soldiers.
FIN Warning: In a very bizarre and roundabout way, this is a post-FIN story and the situations that occurred in the final episode of Xena are referred to in this story. If you are trying to pretend that that episode never happened, you may want to avoid this story.
Love/Sex: This story depicts a loving, sexual relationship between two women (although they're too busy to do the wild thang). If you are under 18 or such a thing is illegal in your neck of the woods, then please shut the door behind you when you leave.
Language: Yes. Lots of it, and a lot of it is stuff you wouldn't say in front of your mother unless you liked the taste of soap.
Feedback: Please! Any and all. Non-constructive, negative feedback will not be ignored, but it will hurt my feelings.
Special Thanks: As always, thanks to my beta-reader Jane (XetG). Without her, this story would be a complete disaster. You're the best, buddy!
"It is impossible to experience one's death objectively and still carry a tune" Woody Allen
I died last Wednesday at 6:01 pm. It was like going to sleep but with a lot more pain. I awoke in the arms of a beautiful woman.
"Get up," she said with a smile. "We have work to do."
The afterlife isn't at all what I expected.
OK, OK, I know you have a lot of questions. Like how did I know it was 6:01? What exactly did I think the afterlife was going to be like? And, most importantly, who was the beautiful woman?
Whoa. Let's start at the beginning.
I knew it was 6:01 because the last thing I did before dying was look at the clock. No, I take that back the last thing I did was try to insert my new Ani DiFranco CD into the CD player. I took my eyes off the road to see where the slot was, then I saw it was 6:01 and I realized I was late, then I put the CD in the player, then bam!
I never wanted my last words to be "oh fuck, how could I have been so stupid?" But I'm ashamed to admit that's exactly what they were. Not literally, of course. I didn't really have time to say that much.
As to the question of what I expected the afterlife to be like, well I certainly expected the whole tunnel and bright light thing. I was ready for it. There was no way I was going to get trapped between this world and the next, haunting the scene of my death especially when the scene of my death ended up being the friggin' Eastshore Freeway. I was going to find that light and march right toward it. I had it all planned out.
But the only light I found upon waking up was an intense blue one, coming from the beautiful woman's eyes. I got lost in them. It was like floating in a swimming pool on a hot summer afternoon. She smiled down at me and I returned the smile. Sure, I was dead. But she was beautiful. Did I mention that already?
Yeah, I know, you're wondering who she was. Hold your horses. Who she was is complicated. You'll have to let me tell the story in my own time.
I guess I should describe her before I get too far along. I won't say she was beautiful again, I think that's been established. Her hair was obsidian a shiny black, but with hints of mahogany when you got close. She had amazing, high cheekbones that gave her a regal bearing. Her smile was so bright it warmed me right down to my toes. Her skin was flawless. It was the color of a latte mostly milky white, but with a rich brown undertone.
I knew, as I lay floating in her arms, that she was an angel. Screw that Roma Downey chick - this was the genuine article.
"Come on, Gabrielle, we have to get out of here," she murmured, helping me stand. I felt my knees tremble and I clutched a bit frantically at her arm. Oh no, this wasn't possible. My angel had come and it was all a case of mistaken identity?
"I I'm uh...not Gabrielle," I stuttered. What the heck, might as well admit it right up front.
She looked at me for a moment with the most scrutinizing stare I'd ever been graced with. She was like an art appraiser trying to estimate my worth. I was ready for her to pronounce me a cheap forgery and walk away in disgust.
"My name is Allison Peckham," I said, as if that would help the situation.
"It's all right, sweetheart," she said with a dazzling smile. "Let's get away from here."
I suppose people had called me "sweetheart" before. Well, there was my mom and dad. When they called me sweetheart, it was like a pat on the head nice. And maybe my ex-girlfriend Emily had called me "sweetheart". That was more like a peck on the cheek, an arm around the shoulders. Also nice.
But when this woman this beautiful stranger said "sweetheart" I was an apple dunked in warm caramel love and home surrounded me.
My knees were wobbling and the rest of my body decided to join in. I turned into a quivering mess. Just as I was sure my legs would complete their transformation into Jell-O, she picked me up in her arms. The best course, at this point, would have been to lay my head against her chest and let her take me anywhere she wanted. Bed would have been good. Heaven would also be high on my list. A bed in heaven would have been perfect.
Instead, continuing my pattern of bad decisions for the day, I turned around and looked at the wreckage that was my car. Enough time had passed between my death and waking up in the woman's arms, that the rescue workers had arrived. I watched as the Jaws of Life opened my car like a can of Spam, and I had the odd experience of watching my lifeless body being pulled from the mangled metal.
You don't want to know the gory details, do you? Well, even for you sick people who do, I'm not going to share. Let's just say the ick-factor was off the scale. If I'd still been standing, I would have crumpled to the ground in a lady-like fashion: my eyes would have rolled back in my head, I would have turned in a slightly clockwise direction, and I would have landed elegantly on my ass so that I didn't break anything. But if you remember, I was in her arms. The only thing I managed was the eyes rolling back in my head part. When I asked her much later, she confirmed that it was very, very ladylike.
I dreamt that I was flying. With her. In the dream, I knew how she flew there really was some wild explanation that made sense in a dream logic kind of way. Oh, and I was reciting a poem by Sappho. It was actually quite normal as far as my dreams usually go.
I woke up in my own bed. I just lay there for a while, taking in my surroundings. It was dark, but the moon was full and the streetlights were bright, so I could see everything in my room. Yep, it was definitely my bed. My dirty clothes were in a pile on the floor, just where I'd left them that morning. My copy of The Best Lesbian Erotica 2001 was shoved under my pillow, all of my favorite parts still dog-eared.
"I knew it was all a dream," I said joyfully, as I sat up. I reached for the bottle of water that always sat on the bedside table, but instead of grasping it firmly, my hand passed right through.
OK, ghost story cliché alert. You'd think I'd have been expecting that. It was all her fault; she set me up. I guess she was trying to be nice, putting me in familiar surroundings. It caught me off guard.
"I'm really dead?" I waited for someone to laugh at me and tell me I was being silly. It didn't happen.
"Shit," I said, drawing my legs up and letting my head fall on my knees.
I had planned on being a lot of things when I was twenty-eight. Being dead wasn't one of them. I was hit by the most complicated combination of emotions I'd ever felt. Anger, confusion, frustration, hope, amazement, jealousy, excitement, and a thousand other feelings whizzed inside my head like ping-pong balls being shot from a cannon.
Her voice soothed the storm inside of me and I looked up. She was sitting quietly on the floor in the corner. She smiled, but looked worried and slowly stood up, coming to sit down next to me. I didn't feel the bed dip or hear the bedsprings squeak.
"I know your death was a shock, Gabrielle. Are you feeling better now?" She reached up and with the tip of her index finger she tucked a stray lock of my hair behind my ear. I tried to formulate an answer to her question, but my whole head was tingling from the simple gesture.
"I'm sorry," I said, "you have absolutely no idea how sorry I am. But I'm not this Gabrielle person. My name is Allison Peckham."
She looked confused and frustrated. "I know you're Allison Peckham." She blew out a breath and it made her bangs fly up. "This is going to be a lot harder than I expected."
Maybe it's just me, but hearing an angel say those words was a bit disconcerting. I had enough emotions zinging around inside of me, and one more wasn't welcome. I looked at her, my eyes begging for an explanation.
She took a deep breath and began. "You are Allison Peckham. You are also Gabrielle. Allison Peckham is simply your latest incarnation. You've lived many lives we've lived many lives. Together."
She paused, with her mouth open slightly, ready to say more. At least I hope she was ready to say more because her opening shot went way wide.
"I don't understand," I finally said, hoping she'd try again in English this time.
The minute I said the words, a memory popped into my mind. I was standing next to her. Her hair was longer and wilder, she was wearing a leather dress and bronze chest armor, but it was definitely her.
I don't know how it was possible, but my confusion was raised even higher to astronomical levels of perplexity. She must have seen something cross my eyes, and she grasped my wrist.
"Do you remember, Gabrielle?" she asked. Her eyes searched my face. I felt like one of those drawings in kid's books "there are five faeries hiding in this picture, can you find them?"
"My name is Xena," she said.
"Zeena?" I echoed, feeling like I was failing a very important exam.
"With an X," she said.
It took me awhile to figure that one out. Hey, I was dead.
"What do you know about Karma?" she asked.
The abrupt change of subject made me a little woozy. I sucked in a lungful of air before answering.
"The belief, held by Hindus and Buddhists, that there is a force generated by a person's actions which, in its ethical consequences, determines the nature of a person's next existence." I grinned, proud of myself for proving yet again that I wasn't just a pretty face.
Xena looked impressed. She smiled, stroking my wrist with her thumb. That was nice.
"Your existence as Allison Peckham is just your latest turn of the karmic wheel. We have shared many lives together." She paused, as if trying to decide whether to continue. "We're soulmates, Gabrielle."
For her sake, I tried to remember. Shit, I tried to remember for my sake. But it was no good.
"I'm sorry," I said, shaking my head.
"It's OK," she said with a sad grin. "I'm sure you'll remember. It's probably just the shock of dying - again."
Her words triggered another memory. I was speaking to my mother, who was dressed in strange clothes. "And when Xena died the last time," I said. Not surprisingly, Mom was giving me a very strange look.
How could I remember telling my mother about Xena? I was tired of being confused, and I was starting to get pissed. I savored the warmth of my anger. It was a familiar feeling, and comforting in a way. I didn't deal well with confusion, but I was a master at being pissed off.
"I don't remember being this Gabrielle person," I said, pulling my arm from Xena's grasp. "None of this makes any sense. Even if I believe you, then why are you sitting here, in my bedroom, telling me this? Let's just review my life and get on with the next one. That's how things work, right?"
"No," she said, sitting back a little. She probably felt the heat starting to rise from me. "I mean, yes. Usually, that's how things work, but not this time. This time we have a job to do."
I looked at her, waiting for the bad news. Somehow, I knew it was going to be bad news.
"It's about your friend Derek," she began. "I know this is going to be hard for you to believe "
She trailed off, obviously searching for the right way to say what she needed to say. I nearly laughed at her choice of words as if everything else she'd told me was easy to believe.
"Derek is really an entity known as the Deliverer. He's helping an evil god called Dahak." She pronounced the words very slowly and distinctly.
I answered with a guffaw that burst from my chest. "Derek? An evil entity?"
"Yes," she said, nodding firmly. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. He was using you, setting you up in exactly the same way that he set you up millennia ago. Through you, Dahak was going to gain entrance into this world. He would have destroyed humanity. And he still will, unless we stop him. We must do this."
I was still trying to get over the picture of Derek as the embodiment of evil. But when I heard the words "we must do this," I snapped.
"What do you mean? Who the hell has the right to tell me that I have to turn into Supergirl now that I'm dead? I don't see why I have to do anything."
That struck her speechless, and she stared at me. Her mouth opened again. I decided that it really wasn't a good look for her.
"We have to do this because it's what we do." She said it as if I'd asked her the color of the sky. As if I should just know, and if I didn't know, I could just look for myself. Well, it didn't seem so obvious to me.
"It may be what you do, but it's sure as hell not what I do," I said, a little irritably OK, a lot irritably.
She raised a single eyebrow at that statement. I can never figure out how people do that.
"Anyway," I continued. "I'm sure there are lots of people who died recently who would gladly help you fight evil entities. Why not go find one of them?"
"Because we're partners," she said. This time she said it like a mother telling her child not to pick her nose in public - just don't do it, and don't ask questions. She stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. "So, let's go."
"Where are we going?" I asked. I crossed my arms too, but didn't stand.
"You don't believe what I'm telling you about Derek, so I'll just have to prove it to you," she replied. It was her turn to be irritable.
I stood up reluctantly and faced her. She watched as my face reflected my decision-making process.
I thought of a story that I'd once heard about an elderly woman who was traveling by air from Los Angeles to Oakland. She asked for help at LAX and a friendly skycap escorted her onto her plane and all the way to her seat. Soon after taking off, she fell asleep and woke a few hours later, wondering why they hadn't landed. She asked a stewardess and soon discovered that she was on a flight not to Oakland but to Auckland.
I suddenly realized I was that woman on the way to Auckland. It certainly wasn't what I had planned, but I might as well sit back, order some free cocktails, and watch the in-flight movie. There was nothing else I could do except wait until the authorities sorted everything out.
"OK," I said with a sigh, motioning ahead of me with a fling of my hand. "Lead on."
She took my hand and smiled at me. Did I mention how beautiful she was?
We approached the front door of my apartment and I paused as Xena walked right through. OK, back to the ghost story clichés. Would it feel strange? Would I get all tingly? Did I need to concentrate really hard and Xena reached back to grab me and pull me unceremoniously behind her. I didn't feel anything at all. It was really disappointing.
We walked silently down to the sidewalk. Xena led the way, which was a definite advantage, since I could watch her firm ass. She wore tight black jeans with a crisp, white oxford shirt and black work boots, polished until they shone. It was a perfect combination of raw sexuality and refinement. I could look at that view for eternity.
"I would offer to drive," I said, to break the silence and not make it too obvious that I was ogling her ass. "But I'm afraid the PT in my PT Cruiser stands for 'perfectly trashed.'"
She glanced back and I think she grinned at my attempt at levity. Well, the movement around her lips may have been a nervous twitch, but let's just say it was a grin.
As we walked down the block, I snuck glimpses of her, trying to remember. There did seem to be something vaguely familiar, but it wasn't her walk or her broad shoulders or her breasts. Umm...did I say breasts? She turned to focus those crystal blue eyes on me, and a memory tweaked me those eyes and that ebony hair, but somehow different.
"You know, I do seem to remember you," I said. "But I don't think it was from a previous life. Have we met? I mean, in this lifetime?" I felt really stupid saying those words, but I was going with the flow.
"Think second grade," she said cryptically.
I looked at her and thought about Mrs. Austin's second grade class. I pictured myself sitting at my desk in the back row. Sitting next to me was a little girl with crystal blue eyes and ebony hair, pulled into uneven pigtails.
"Oh my god, you're the brat who stole my lunch money."
Her eyes flashed with irritation, and I think a little regret.
"Well, you got back at me," she replied defensively. "You gave me a bloody nose."
"You were a nasty, spoiled, little brat; I hated you."
Blunt and accurate are my two middle names.
"You were supposed to see through my rough exterior and love me anyway. We're soulmates; why couldn't you understand that?"
"You were mean," I explained.
"Yeah well ." She was starting to sound frustrated. Good, that made two of us.
"Then you disappeared one day and we weren't allowed to ask where you were. Months later my mom told me you had died leukemia, right?" It was all coming back to me.
"Did you feel anything at all?"
"Scared that I'd die too. What do you expect?"
She didn't say anything, just looked disappointed. I was used to that look, I'd grown up with it. It could be flashed at any time, though it was usually reserved for the C minus on the report card or the speeding tickets.
"For god's sake, Xena," I snapped, "I was eight years old. How the hell was I supposed to know about this karmic cycle crap?"
She didn't answer and we kept walking in uncomfortable silence.
"Which way to Derek's apartment?" Xena asked gruffly when we reached the end of the block.
"Don't you know?" I asked just as gruffly. "You seem very sure that he's the embodiment of evil, I assumed you knew where he lived."
She put her hands on her hips and looked at me. Her eyes shone through the darkness, like little searchlights. I couldn't hide.
"He lives in the flats," I replied, lowering my eyes from the unnerving look. "We've got to go all the way down University to Sixth Street, and then hang a left. The hostel is about three blocks down. He lives above it."
She didn't say anything, just turned in the right direction and started walking faster. I hustled to catch up.
We'd gone about a block when I realized that ghosts shouldn't have to walk.
"Hey, is there a reason we're walking to Derek's?" I asked. "I mean, we didn't walk to my apartment from the freeway. Did we?" I had an image of Xena carrying me in her arms for three miles, and felt a twinge of guilt.
"No," she replied, looking back at me over her shoulder. I was having trouble keeping up. "If you want to be somewhere badly enough, you can sort of pop there. You wanted to be home in bed, and I went along for the ride."
"Oh. OK. So how do we pop to Derek's? Do I twitch my nose and say tinkle, tinkle, tee?"
"Let's just walk; we have things to discuss," she said.
Now usually, when someone says they have things to discuss, they well discuss. But Xena just kept walking and didn't say a word. I never really got on with the strong, silent types, so I decided to ignore her.
OK, I couldn't ignore her.
"Well?" I said exactly four seconds later.
"Well what?" she asked, maintaining her steady stride.
I was tired of talking to her back, so I hurried my steps until I was beside her, taking two steps for each of hers. I grabbed her elbow and slowed her down. "The discussion," I said, rolling my eyes. "I'm waiting."
In hindsight, I suppose I should have been a teensy bit less confrontational. But I didn't remember that Xena doesn't respond well to confrontation. Let me rephrase that, I didn't remember that Xena responds too well to confrontation she always wins.
She looked me in the eye, then down at my hand holding her elbow, then back at my face. She pulled her arm out of my grip and turned away, continuing to stride down the sidewalk. OK, she wasn't ready to discuss. I made a mental note: Xena will discuss when she's ready.
I knew she was getting pissed at my lack of memory, but there wasn't anything I could do about that. It wasn't my fault and it was making me just as crazy. If we completed the mission, maybe my memory would come back.
"The mission"? Jesus, I was beginning to sound like a CIA operative.
"I really think you're wrong about Derek," I said after a couple more blocks. I decided that if I initiated the conversation, Xena might jump in. It felt right to do it that way.
"You don't understand," she snapped.
Well, no one said it was going to be easy.
"Of course I don't understand." I tried not to snap back, I really did. "Haven't I said that about a million times? I don't understand any of this. I thought the afterlife was going to be straightforward, but I have no idea what's going on. And I'm pretty sure you don't either."
"I know that Dahak needs to be stopped," she said firmly, "and destroyed once and for all, if possible."
"OK then, explain to me how Derek, the sweet, wonderful man that I know, is actually some evil entity called 'The Deliverer' and how he's helping this Dahak. I really need to understand."
She looked at me and saw by my expression that I honestly wanted to understand. Did I mention how testy I get when I don't understand?
"Tell me what you know about Derek," she requested, slowing her pace so I didn't have to work so hard to keep up. Being able to breathe when I talk is always appreciated.
"I met Derek about six months ago," I began. "My ex was doing an article on him for the local paper. She introduced us at a party, and I ended up talking to him for hours.
"He was starting a foundation that would provide all sorts of services for those in need," I continued. I'm sure my eyes were starting to light up. They usually did when I told people about Derek. "He was really into having people volunteer; and whatever skills the volunteers had, he could tailor to the hostel. If you were a cook, you could come to the hostel to cook; if you were a businessperson, you could help with job-seeking skills. He concentrated his work on the volunteers because he felt that they would be self-perpetuating."
"Sounds like a real saint," Xena said sarcastically.
I was taken aback and stopped talking. It was definitely the first time anyone had questioned Derek's motivations.
"His family were killed by a drunk driver three years ago," I said, defending him. "He went through a really bad time drugs, alcohol, a suicide attempt. Then, someone helped him turn his life around. He's just trying to give back by helping others."
"And you believe all that?" Xena said, her mouth twisting into a sneer.
"He wasn't lying, I'm sure of it," I replied vehemently. "I didn't go back and check his story, if that's what you mean."
"You're still falling for the smooth talkers, huh?" Xena said. There was a condescending tone in her voice. This woman was seriously starting to annoy me.
"Xena, the entire Bay Area is enamored with him. The mayor gave him the fucking key to the city."
"I tried to make you realize the mistake you were making these past few months." Xena shook her head sadly.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I was watching you," she explained. "I tried to get through to you. But you've got walls a mile high and a mile thick."
"Hey," I said with a laugh, "I've worked my whole life building those walls."
"I know," she said. She looked at me and I saw intense sadness in her eyes.
I had tried to be flip I'm usually good at flip. But her response, and the way she looked at me, stopped me in my tracks. I didn't know what to say. I decided to stick with flip.
"So, you tried to send me a psychic message?" I said with a grin. "Too bad I wasn't in the studio audience of 'Crossing Over'."
"I was trying to get through to you in your dreams," she said, ignoring my flipness.
"Oh, is that why I kept having nightmares? I thought I was just eating too much cheese before bed."
She smiled just a little. To say I breathed a sigh of relief would be an understatement a huge understatement, similar to the time Magellan said the Pacific Ocean was big.
"Let's get back to the 'you watching me' thing," I said. "How long has this been going on, exactly?"
"Since I died, more or less," she replied.
"Since we were eight?" I was so shocked I stubbed my toe.
"Yep," she said, smiling at me fondly. "I had to wait until you uh joined me. So I watched you and tried to help you if I could."
"Wow, like a guardian angel?" I appreciated the fact that she didn't use the word "death". It was a sore subject.
"Not exactly," she said. "Just someone waiting for her friend to catch up."
I smiled, thinking about the beauty of that statement. Then I thought of all the things I did in my life that no one was ever meant to see. My smile turned upside down and I could feel the heat rising up my face. I knew that I was blushing. Oh yeah, flaming red-hot blush, glowing brighter than Rudolf's nose. She didn't seem to notice. I decided it was a good time for a subject change.
"So, how 'bout those Raiders?"
I was never any good at subject changing.
"This would be so much easier if you remembered your life as Gabrielle," she said with a sigh. Her face reflected so much disappointment. My stomach tensed. It felt just like dinner with my parents.
"Why don't you tell me something about Gabrielle something that'll trigger my memory," I suggested.
"OK," she said, tapping her chin with a long forefinger as she thought. "Well, you were Queen of the Amazons."
"I was Queen of the Amazons?" I asked, grinning at the thought.
"Yep," she said with an answering grin.
"Oh my god, that's so cool. Wait a minute, though. Did I have to cut off my left breast?" I automatically grabbed the appendage in question.
"No, that's just something men made up to make Amazons sound crazy," Xena explained.
"What a relief." I sighed. "That's my lucky boob. I can't imagine being without it."
"I'm not even going to ask," she said, shaking her head. As if she didn't have a lucky boob.
"So was it just one big lesbian orgy?" I asked, starting to think about the possibilities. "Did everyone get their periods at the same time? Did we kill men every full moon and drink their blood? Did we drown all boy children? Were we the ones to invent artificial insemination?"
She reached out and grabbed my shoulder, stopping my forward progress and my mouth at the same time.
"No, yes, no, of course not, and yes."
"Um can we do that one at a time?" My brain started frantically trying to match answers with questions.
"Do you remember it at all, Gab-Allison?" Oh, now I was going to be called Gab-Allison?
I closed my eyes and tried to remember. I thought about orgies and drinking blood I couldn't remember if those were yes's or no's. A memory came to me. I tried to focus, but it was just a jumble.
"Well, that can't be right," I mumbled.
"What did you see?" she prodded.
"I think I was painted blue and I was howling at the full moon," I replied vaguely.
"Yes!" she cried. "That's my girl." She pulled me into a hug and kissed my head with a loud smack.
I began to wonder where I could buy some blue body paint.
I spent the rest of the walk to Derek's trying to remember things, and Xena kept looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I'm sure she was waiting for a light bulb to appear above my head.
"I'm not going to remember anything if you keep staring at me," I finally snapped.
"I wasn't staring at you," she answered in a very petulant tone.
"Oh yes, you most certainly were staring at me," I said in a very patronizing tone.
"Was not." Still petulant.
"Were too." Still patronizing.
Then, without trying, I remembered Xena holding two fish on the end of her fists.
'You want me to fist a fish? Xena, I can barely say it, much less do it.'
I smiled at the memory, and she saw my smile and guessed what it meant. She grinned back at me.
I would have been happy if we'd stood there all night, the two of us grinning like a couple of pinheads waiting for the freak show to start. But I still had to prove to her that she was wrong about Derek, so we continued walking until we finally arrived at the hostel.
"This is it," I announced, gesturing toward the large building like Vanna White presenting a "W".
The hostel had once been two separate Victorians that had been remodeled to make one massive building. Derek lived in a small studio apartment in what had once been an attic.
I was ready for my second experience of walking through a door when a woman passed us on the sidewalk and climbed the front steps. We followed her into the house before the door closed.
"Excuse me," I mumbled as I moved around her toward the stairs to Derek's place.
"Why did you say excuse me?" Xena laughed. "She can't hear you or see you."
"Sorry if I don't have the ghost etiquette down yet," I groused. "I've been dead for less than eight hours. Cut me some slack."
She just rolled her eyes and we headed up the rickety staircase. I reached for the banister to steady myself and my hand went right through.
"Goddamn it," I said as I stopped. "I assume if I fall I won't break my neck, but it would still be inconvenient."
"The stairs are only as steep as you want them to be," Xena explained patiently. "Just walk up steadily and you'll be fine."
I did as she suggested, and it seemed to work. I didn't tell her she was right. Seemed like her ego was in pretty good shape she didn't need any boosts.
"So if I can't hold things or touch them "
"You can hold me," Xena interrupted, waggling her eyebrows.
"Yes, and that's very nice, thank you," I said impatiently, "But my point is: why was I sleeping on my bed? Why don't we sink through the stairs? In fact, why don't we just sink into the ground or float into space?
"There are certain rules that govern us," she answered in a mystical voice. "Those rules, combined with our perception of reality, dictate what we can and can't do."
She sounded just like a girl I met once who belonged to some weird cult. They believed that aliens, who looked like large bipedal gerbils, would come one day and take the true believers to their planet which sounded a lot like Oompa Loompa Land in Willie Wonka's chocolate factory.
I smiled and nodded vaguely. I appreciated that Xena was trying to get me on the same page. I just misplaced my library card.
I heard the clatter of footsteps coming toward us and tried to move to the right on the narrow staircase, but Xena was in the way. A woman clumped down the stairs and barreled into me. Instead of bouncing off and sending us both tumbling, I felt a strange sensation like a thousand tiny fists pummeling me. It hurt for an instant and then it was gone. I took stock of myself and realized that I was still standing and appeared unscathed. The woman continued down the stairs, oblivious to her ghostly encounter.
"Christ on a fucking bike that felt terrible," I groaned.
"Well move out of the way next time," Xena suggested.
"You could have warned me. I thought it would work the other way around they'd walk through me and feel a strange shiver or something."
"If you hang around for another century or two, that might start happening."
"I guess I have to wait that long to be able to move shit and rattle chains and stuff like that," I said, disappointed that I couldn't be The Ghost of Christmas Past for someone.
"That'll take more like a millennium," she replied.
"Man, the afterlife blows."
We reached the top of the stairs and then ascended another, even smaller set of steps to the attic apartment. At the top, we walked through Derek's front door. The apartment was small, and I could see in an instant that he wasn't home. However, a young woman was sitting on his futon, her back to us. She was talking loudly into a cellular phone. I wondered if talking loudly on a cell phone was some sort of universal rule. I could have asked Mystic Xena, but decided to listen to the girl instead.
"So he gets this phone call that some girl he knows is dead," the young woman was saying. "And he just goes like white. He was like a fucking ghost."
She obviously hadn't seen any ghosts recently. My complexion was still quite rosy, I'm happy to report.
"And when he hung up the phone, he says something like 'that's not possible' and runs outta here like his hair was on fire. I shouted out to him and he was all, 'I'm going to the hospital' as he's running down the stairs like a fucking maniac."
"I suppose we need to go to the hospital," I said with a moan. We'd have to walk all the way back up University and across campus to get there. Not that I was tired. Hmm, maybe there were some upsides to being dead.
"Hang on a minute," Xena said. She stared at the girl, who acted like she heard something and turned around quickly, looking in our general direction.
Xena drew in a sharp breath. "Oh no," she whispered.
I tried to figure out what had upset her. The girl had obviously decided she was hearing things, but remained turned toward us. She was young, maybe seventeen or eighteen, but her height and build made her look older. She was tall and broad shouldered, built exactly like Xena. She also had the same hair color as Xena black with mahogany highlights. She didn't have Xena's eyes or facial structure, though. Her eyes were blue-green, the color shifting as you looked at them. She smiled at something the other person said, and her nose crinkled in a very adorable way.
"Does she look familiar?" Xena asked.
Oh, not another memory puzzle. I was ready to complain when that adorable nose finally sunk in.
"That's my nose," I said in amazement.
"Your nose, your eyes, and my hair and body," Xena added. "She's ours all right."
"What do you mean by that?" I squawked.
"One of our descendents," she casually replied. A confused look crossed her face. "But it's too much of a coincidence."
"Maybe Dahak wanted to wipe out as much of our line as he could. She's probably the purest one in existence."
"Oh no which means they have a contingency plan. She'll most likely do in a pinch. I'm sure once Derek has confirmed you're dead, he'll come back and implement Plan B."
"It's a given that she hasn't killed anyone, so she's definitely a blood innocent. Too bad she didnt inherit my mental acuity. If she had, she'd be as far away from him as possible. She also wouldn't say 'like' so often."
"Xena!" I shouted to get her attention.
"What?!" she shouted back.
"If she's our descendent," I said, pointing to the girl who was still chattering away. "And she looks just like both of us, then what I mean how did we I mean ."
"I have many skills," she purred.
Oh, I remembered that all right.
As we walked back up University, I became downright pensive. We passed the video store, and I thought about all the movies I'd never see. We passed Taco Bell and Foster's Freeze, and I thought about all the food I would never eat. We passed my favorite lesbian bar, and I thought about all of the Saturday nights I'd never experience.
OK, my life was shit and I wouldn't miss it in the least.
I stared at the back of the woman striding in front of me, who was still walking way too fast. Xena was in silent mode again, and it was driving me crazy. What can I say? I'm an oral person. Many have been amazed at what I can do with my mouth.
"Xena?" I said, and was happy to see her slow down a little. "Was the life when we were Xena and Gabrielle our first life together?"
"No, we had several before that," she replied over her shoulder.
"Then why do you call me Gabrielle? Didn't I have a more exotic name before or after?" This was my roundabout way of saying that I really didn't like the name Gabrielle.
"You'd rather be called Ralph?"
"I was a man?"
Maybe I was a woman with a peculiar name.
"Oh, yeah," she said with a smirk. "Several times."
"That's weird." I tried to get my head around it, and felt the thought tumbling around up there like one of those bugs in a Mexican jumping bean.
"I prefer you as Gabrielle," Xena said, waiting for me to catch up. "In that lifetime our souls really met for the first time. We had a connection, a bond unlike any other."
"Was it the first lifetime we made love?"
"Well, technically "
"We didn't make love?"
"Of course we did; you didn't let me finish."
"Well, what the hell does 'technically' mean?" I tried to attach "technically" to the start of different sentences. None of them made sense.
"Sorry. It was a poor choice of words," Xena said with a shrug.
"Fucking lousy choice of words, if you ask me," I growled.
"What is the deal with your mouth?" She growled back. "When you were a bard, you never relied on foul language to get your point across."
I was ready to reply with a colorful comeback, when I was suddenly struck with a memory; I could picture her looking guilty about some indiscretion her mouth was opened as an apology struggled to come out but I wouldn't let it, as my ancient Greek potty mouth spewed uncontrollably.
"You're lying or you've got selective memory," I said with a knowing smile. She recognized my look and shrugged, grinning because I'd gotten another glimpse of my past life, even if it caught her in a lie.
I grinned back and we walked a while, in a more comfortable silence. After a few blocks, I again caught her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. This time, though, I saw something I hadn't noticed before. Well, I'd noticed it, but I hadn't recognized it. It was a wistful look, as if she was a poor, hungry child looking into the window of a candy store.
The word "clue" written in neon suddenly began to flash in my brain.
I remembered all that she'd said about soulmates and karma and love shit, I had even asked her if we'd made love in a previous life, and I joked about it. "Insensitive" and "clod" were also two of my middle names. I'd like to use the now familiar excuse that I was newly deceased, but I'm afraid I was just born that way. Well, maybe not born that way, but years of surviving my parents had certainly contributed to my emotional deficiencies.
OK, Al, I thought, she loves you. No, she adores you, she is besotted with you, she what's another word for "worships the ground you walk on"? Fuck, she thinks you're the other half of her soul. No wonder she's hurt that you can't remember.
She expected you to throw yourself into her arms and whisper words of devotion while you nibbled her earlobe a bit, I continued berating myself. Wait, can you whisper and nibble at the same time? See, there you go joking again. Stop it!
After chewing myself out for a while, I decided that instead of trying to remember particular occasions of my ancient Greek life, I should try to remember my emotions my feelings toward Xena. I'd fallen behind again and I looked toward her, watching the shift of muscles under her shirt and the movement of her ass in the tight black jeans. I tried to open my mind.
Nothing. Other than thinking that her ass was mighty fine, my mind drew a complete blank. Aside from a physical attraction, I couldn't feel any deeper emotions. Was I that shallow? No, I had depths. Really.
I spent the rest of the journey to the hospital pondering my depths. Xena managed to restrain herself from giving me that wistful look again, thank god. When we reached the doors to the emergency room, she turned to me. Her jaw was set and her eyes burned with a steady, blazing light.
"You ready?" she asked.
I gulped. It was time to focus. When the mission was over, we could have a nice long talk. Maybe if I put my hands on her ass
"Well?" she prodded.
"Yes," I said, my voice cracking.
"Good." She nodded her head once very commando. "Let's go."
We walked through the glass doors of the emergency room into a reception and waiting area. I spotted a clock and saw that it was just past four in the morning. There were a few people sitting around the area, holding stomachs, heads, and various bleeding body parts.
I realized that I hated hospitals the minute I saw blood and smelled that horrible hospital smell. I turned around to ask Xena if I could sit this one out, but she was dashing around, looking for Derek. I didn't see him, but I did recognize a curly blonde, sitting off in a corner.
I walked over and approached my ex, Emily. A doctor was sitting next to her. She was sniffling, holding a crumpled Kleenex to her face. She always had a problem with snot coming out of her nose when she cried.
"I'm sorry it took so long for us to get everything sorted out," I heard the doctor say as I approached. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of procedures and red tape that we need to take care of."
"That's OK," Emily said with a sniff. "I understand." She was always understanding until you pissed her off.
"Has her family been notified?" The doctor asked hesitantly. He seemed to be judging Emily's mental state ready to have a nurse take over if things got too weepy.
"I called them. They should be here by now." She wiped the Kleenex ineffectually across her nose.
"I'm sure they'll be here soon. The coroner will need to see them as soon as possible."
The word 'coroner' triggered a few more intense sniffles from Em.
"I can assure you that she died instantly," the doctor said, patting Emily's knee. "She didn't feel any pain."
"That's a crock of shit!" I said loudly.
"You OK?" Xena had walked up behind me. She put her hand on my shoulder and began to softly knead the muscle near my neck.
"Why do doctors always say that?" I continued angrily. "Do they think we don't know they're lying? I sure as hell felt pain. A lot of it."
I walked up and stood a foot away from the doctor and Emily. "Tell him to shut the fuck up, Em." I said to my ex.
"There was massive head trauma," the doctor was continuing. I tried to ignore him, but wasn't successful. I remembered the truck in front of me, bright red brake lights, gripping the steering wheel, the air bag, the rear of the truck smashing the windshield, and I started to feel a little unwell, and Xena grabbed my arm, dragging me away. I followed her, shaking the images from my mind.
I had been going with the flow, but at that point I wondered if it was all just a dream. It was simply too preposterous, wasn't it? I was probably in a coma or having a life-saving operation. People have really weird dreams under those conditions, don't they?
Then again, I felt like I did when my cousin Timmy told me what men and women did to make babies. It was ridiculous, preposterous, and completely incomprehensible. Both sex and the afterlife were so crazy they had to be true.
"I can't find Derek anywhere," Xena said as she continued to pull me away from Emily.
Right, I thought, shifting my brain out of neutral, the mission. Focus, Al.
"If he came here at all, then he left again," Xena continued. She looked at me, concern showing in her eyes. "You OK?"
"Yeah, I I'm good."
Xena grinned at me, and I could tell that she was remembering something, but when I tried, all I saw was a fuzzy image of a cave with huge stalagmites.
"We need to get back to Derek's," she said urgently. "I was stupid. One of us should have stayed with the girl. Hang on to me."
Her words sent a tingle of adrenaline up my spine and I had fleeting memories of hanging onto crumbling cliff edges and clutching the final strands of rope bridges. And then, Pop!
Can you imagine what a piece of sock fuzz feels like when it gets sucked up by the vacuum cleaner? I mean, there it is, minding its own business, becoming really tight with the carpet fibers, when whoosh, suck, it's suddenly in a bag full of yuck. Well, I guess it's not yuck to the sock fuzz, but it still must be a shock.
Why am I telling you a story about sock fuzz? Because when I popped with Xena, I was that sock fuzz. The walking through doors thing had been hugely anticlimactic. But the popping thing? Ho boy.
"Sweet mother of god!" I squealed when we landed at Derek's apartment. Is landing the right word? Well, whatever you call it when you pop in.
"You'll get used to it," Xena murmured.
"Get used to it?" I said, feeling to make sure all my body parts were in place. "I don't want to get used to it. Xena, that was icky."
"Damn it, she's gone," Xena growled. She really was very good at growling. Her growl distracted me from the ickiness of popping. "We should have stayed with her." The growl had become a snarl. "He was bound to come back for her at some point. How could I have been so stupid?"
"Xena, come on, don't beat yourself up about it," I said, trying to soothe the savage beast did I say breast again? Oh, no, beast.
"Don't you see? It's just like before." She turned pain-filled eyes to me. "I lost focus then too let my pride drive my brain."
I had no idea what she was talking about, and didn't seem able to focus on what she was saying. Someone was yelling in my head.
Xena left the apartment and kept talking. I followed and tried to listen to her instead of the voice in my brain. We began to search the hostel looking for the girl. After twenty minutes of fruitless searching, Xena said something and turned to me for a reaction.
"What?" I asked.
"Are you even listening to me?" Xena asked with an annoyed scowl.
"I'm trying, but she's so friggin' loud," I growled. I'm not bad at growling myself, if properly motivated.
"Who? What are you talking about?"
"My mother she won't shut up." I put my hands over my ears. Not surprisingly, it did no good whatsoever.
"Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you." Xena waited for me to move my hands and then continued. "The dead can hear the thoughts of the living when they talk directly to you."
"Well, as usual, my mom won't leave me the fuck alone."
"Listen, if you want some time, I can "
"No, don't leave me," I said, reaching out to clutch Xena's arm like a three year old facing her first day at preschool.
I listened for a while and then rolled my eyes. "Not surprisingly, she's nagging me. Can you believe it, even after I'm dead, she can't stop complaining."
"Are you serious?" Xena obviously hadn't been watching my life very closely. This was very typical behavior for my mother.
"Oh yeah," I said. "She says I was driving too fast. I shouldn't have been driving such a flimsy car as if it was made out of cardboard and duct tape. I shouldn't be living in the Bay Area, it's the epicenter of evil."
"Well, she's right about that."
"So you say" suddenly, my mom's words were cut off and I could hear her crying. Then, I heard my father, crying and telling me he loved me. Xena looked at me as I went very still and tried to maintain my composure. In other words, I started to completely fall apart.
"Go to them," she whispered. "I'll wait for you."
I nodded and then found myself next to my parents. It was my first solo popping, and it felt absolutely icky. Was I ever going to get used to that?
My parents were in a small room with a dying ivy plant in one corner, and broken toys in another. They sat next to each other in chairs covered in some sort of ugly yellow material. Pictures of cornfields and windmills covered the walls. I realized immediately that this was the "grieving family room" in the hospital. You'd think they could have piped in some uplifting music. A Souza march would have been nice.
My mom was leaning into my dad. He had his arm around her shoulders and she was sobbing into his polyester golf shirt. My dad had tears in his eyes. I watched the tears accumulate and finally fall down his cheeks. I realized I'd never seen him cry before.
That was wrong. In fact, everything was wrong. That's all I could think. My death was wrong. Does that sound selfish? Shit, of course it was selfish. I wanted to be alive. I wanted my parents to be happy again. I wanted my mom to be nagging me because I still had a chance to do things differently, not because I'd wasted my life. I wanted my dad to be proud of me. I wanted to be happy and with Xena. That realization snuck up on me and I felt that horrible sucking feeling. This time, I was relieved. I popped next to Xena. We were back in my bedroom in my apartment. I fell into her arms, and she held me while I cried.
"I'm so tired," I mumbled, when the tears finally slowed down.
"Sleep now," she said, and I felt the vibration of her words through my cheek, which was pressed tightly against her chest. "It'll be better in the morning."
I believed her; she never lied to me before. I remembered that at the same time I remembered what it felt like to have her strong, warm arms hold me tight.
Remember that sock fuzz I was telling you about before? Well, when I woke up some time later, I felt like my mouth was full of it. I just have to say that it is completely unfair to wake up with a dry mouth and not be able to drink the water that's sitting on the table next to you. I decided that whoever organized the afterlife needed to rethink a few things. I started a list. Number one: either allow the dead the ability to eat and drink, or don't make them hungry and thirsty.
Thinking about drinking made me think about coffee, and I started whimpering. I looked out through my bedroom door and could see my coffee maker in the kitchen. It was sitting there, patiently waiting to be of service. All I would have to do was grind the beans, put a filter in, pour in the coffee, pour in the water, and hit that beautiful red button.
I whimpered again, then finally realized that something was missing. OK, someone was missing. One tall, dark, deadly, grumpy, monosyllabic, beautiful, ex-warrior princess was nowhere to be found.
Maybe my emotions were a little on edge because of the whole coffee thing. But once I realized Xena was missing, I panicked.
Had she realized that I wasn't really this Gabrielle person after all? Or was I this Gabrielle person, but did she think I would never get my memory back? Had she decided to cut her losses and find some cute blonde bimbo who would carry her sword and wash her feet every night? Was she leaving me in a safe place so that she could risk her neck while I kept the fire blazing and cooked the fish?
Or was she dead? I mean, of course she was dead. But had she gone up against this evil god on her own and gotten her soul eaten - or whatever evil gods do?
My head started spinning and my palms got sweaty. I quickly added "The dead shouldn't have panic attacks" to my list as I listened to my breath coming in gasps like it belonged to someone else. Just as the spots starting dancing in my vision, I felt a presence beside me and I sank into a familiar embrace.
"You weren't here," I said, trying to get my breath under control. "And I thought you were I didn't."
Actually, I may have been a little less coherent than that.
"It's OK," Xena said, running her fingers through my hair. "I'm here now. I'm sorry I left you alone."
I sat there for a while, enjoying the warmth and comfort. I thought about how safe and secure I felt when she held me in her arms.
"Can we stay like this for eternity?" I asked when I got my breath back.
"No," she said softly, continuing to stroke my head. "Because my arm is going to sleep."
"Oh, sorry." I reluctantly pulled out of her embrace.
She smiled warmly, but then frowned and started shaking her arm. "Ow, pins and needles, pins and needles, ow, ow, ow."
"So what have you been up to?" I asked as she continued to wave her arm and then rub it vigorously. "Did you find Derek? Did you find the girl? What time is it anyway? Is there really no way I can have coffee?"
I'm always like that when I wake up. I think it's because I haven't had a chance to talk for a while. It backs up.
"It's around noon," Xena replied, finally tucking her arm beside her.
I waited for more information, but she obviously hadn't heard my fifty other questions. I tried again. One at a time might work better.
"So, you've had eight hours. What have you been doing?"
"I didn't find Derek or the girl, but I've been gathering information. I can't believe you slept for eight hours." Xena seemed a little preoccupied with the time. Yes, we were on a mission, but I would have appreciated a little more detail on the information she'd gathered. We were partners, right?
I started to feel pissed off and then a memory hit me. I was talking to Xena about not sharing "The Plan". It couldn't have been a real memory, since we were in a modern movie back lot. But my feelings were definitely authentic.
"Spill it, warrior princess, or I'm going to sleep for another eight hours and then find my own way to the Pearly Gates."
"Just slow down," she said, holding her hands out in a placating motion. Then she looked up at the ceiling. "Is it too much to ask that in just one lifetime she could be a morning person?"
"Who are you talking to?" I asked, looking up at my bedroom ceiling and only seeing a few cobwebs.
"No one," Xena replied. I didn't need any memories to know she was hiding something. Everyone who's ever lied to me has had that exact same look.
"Is there some kind of divine being who's watching this whole shebang? Does she look just like Martha Stewart? Can I meet her? Why can't I have a direct line to God?"
"Gabrielle " Xena's hands were still placating. "Do you want to know what I found out or not?"
"I just want to understand the politics of the afterlife. You know, who to make friends with, who I can snub. Let's say I'm at some big soiree in heaven. I'm standing at the buffet table and there's only one crab leg left. Someone who looks like Martha Stewart is standing next to me, reaching for it. Do I hold back or make a quick grab?"
"Do you lie awake at night thinking of this stuff?" Xena asked.
She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. Obviously, she didn't need to worry; she had God's cell phone number and God took her calls.
"Fine. Let me commit the ultimate social faux pas."
"Allison " Xena grumbled.
"OK," I replied with a sigh. "Why don't you just tell me what you discovered about Derek 'Mr. Evil Personified'?" I made little quote marks with my fingers.
Xena rolled her eyes at my little quote marks.
"Well, I hung around at the hostel," she said when her eyes returned to their proper position. "I learned how to make lentil soup, how to pad your resume, and the best places in Berkeley to panhandle."
"That's nice," I said sarcastically.
"I also learned that Derek's having some big party on Saturday night." She looked at me and titled her head forward, raising her eyebrows.
"Oh, yeah," I said with an off-hand shrug. "It's the social event of the season. It's going to be at some rich philanthropist's mansion in the Oakland hills."
"And you forgot to mention this because?" Xena drawled.
"I didn't think " I began.
"Obviously you didn't think," Xena said, cutting off my explanation.
I don't like to be interrupted, even in the middle of a lame excuse.
"Xena, I had a few other things on my mind. Like dying."
She didn't like that excuse either.
"Gab-Allison, I told you that Dahak was planning to ascend into this world with Derek's help. We've been trying to figure out what he's up to. You couldn't just mention this party? What did you need me to do, draw pictures?"
"OK, I should have told you!" I snapped. "Excuse me, all right? You know about the party now, so let's just drop it."
"Fine!" she snapped back.
"Good!" I don't always need the last word, but in this situation it was required.
She opened her mouth as if to challenge my last word stake, when we both heard the front door of my apartment opening.
I was being burgled posthumously? Well, I thought, that just takes the cake.
Xena reached for her hip (though she swears now that she didn't). Fortunately, her chakram wasn't there. There was also no six-shooter or any other deadly weapon that I'm sure she wielded in previous lives. I say "fortunately" because after a few seconds, Emily walked through the door. I'm not sure if Xena could have harmed Emily with her ghostly chakram, but I'm glad I didn't have to find out.
I watched Emily curiously as Xena unbent from her defensive crouch. Em carried an empty box. It was actually an empty Duraflame log box, but that has no bearing to the story, so I don't know why I'm bothering to tell you.
Em paused in the living room and looked around like she didn't know where she was. You could tell she'd been crying and hadn't slept. To be blunt, she looked like shit. She took a deep breath, and then came into the bedroom.
"Hi, Em," I said. I couldn't stand the silence, and it seemed so strange to be in full view yet not be seen.
She picked up my pillow and hugged it, taking a deep sniff. She started crying again. I wanted to hand her a tissue you know, the snot problem.
"You stupid little shit," Emily said through her tears.
It was a term of endearment really. Xena snorted and I gave her a dirty look. She decided it might be better to leave us alone, and skirted around Emily, leaving the bedroom.
"You know I promised you I'd do this," Emily said. She began looking around my room. She spotted my erotic calendar and unpinned it from the wall.
That's when I realized why she was there. One night, after a few too many vodka and red bulls, we'd made a pact. If either of us died unexpectedly, the other would get to her apartment before the family could and remove all embarrassing items. We were both out to our families, but telling your mom and dad that you're a lesbian is a lot different than having them find your strap on in your underwear drawer.
"Thanks, Emily; you're a real pal," I said.
"I thought it was funny at the time," Emily said, as she pulled out my back issues of On Our Backs magazine.
"It's important, Em," I replied as if she could hear me.
"I just can't believe this happened." She started pulling some of the more tawdry books from my bookshelf.
"I know, Em. I'm a moron. By the way, my mom bought me The Guide to Lesbian Sex, so you can leave that one."
Emily looked at the book in her hand, and then put it back on the shelf. Maybe, on some level, she could hear me.
She picked up the dog-eared copy of Best Lesbian Erotica 2001 and threw it in the box, then opened the drawer on my bedside table and removed all my vibrators. Finally, she sat on the bed beside me.
"Under the bed, Emily," I said. "Don't forget the stuff under the bed."
"Well, that's it, I guess," Emily said with another deep sigh.
"No, no, under the bed!" I shouted. Now she doesn't hear me. Does God hate me?
"Oh yeah," Emily said, bending over and pulling the box out from under my bed.
Emily sat on the bed, staring off into space.
"I'm sorry, Em," I said. I was sorry that I couldn't love her as much as she needed as much as she loved me. I was sorry that I couldn't talk to her and explain.
"I'll never forgive you for this, you little shit," Emily said.
"Yes you will," I replied. I reached my hand up to her face and touched the tear that trailed down her cheek. For just a second, I could feel it, and her head jerked. She turned and looked directly at me.
"Love you," she whispered, and then grabbed the boxes and hurried out of the apartment.
Xena wandered back in just as I stood up.
"Let's go," I said, brushing past her. I didn't wait to see if she was following.
I got down to the sidewalk and then realized I had no idea where I was going. Xena quickly caught up. I swore that if she asked me if I was all right, I was going to deck her.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
I decided not to deck her.
"I'm fine. What's the plan?" I asked briskly.
Most people would have realized that I was avoiding talking about certain subjects like Emily, my death, that kind of thing. Xena wasn't most people.
"She really loved you, you know," Xena said.
I glared at her. Most people would have recognized that my glare meant "drop it". Did I mention that Xena wasn't most people?
"She's always loved you," Xena continued. I kept glaring. "She's loved you in all our lives, although sometimes she's been your sister or mother."
My glare became a look of curiosity.
"Do you remember her?" Xena asked.
And I did. I remembered an Amazon with curly ash blonde hair giving me her mother's fighting staff.
An Amazon Princess doesn't refuse a gift from another Amazon.
"Ephiny," I whispered.
"I thought you and Emily were good together. Why did you break up with her?" Xena asked. Man, she just wouldn't let this go, would she?
"She smothered me, I needed breathing room," I replied with a non-committal shrug.
"She loved you and you broke her heart," Xena said, looking searchingly into my face. I felt my jaw clenching.
"Can you be any more melodramatic?" I asked coldly.
Xena kept searching my face. I felt like her eyes were crystal blue darts and my face was a balloon. I couldn't stand it any more and turned away. I walked rapidly down the sidewalk.
"I'm going to need dynamite to break through those walls," Xena said sadly as she followed behind me. "Hopefully I'll find a real heart beating somewhere and not a cold piece of ice."
I really wanted to come up with a witty comeback, but I just couldn't. I sniffed loudly, jammed my hands into my pockets, and continued to stride down the sidewalk.
I walked back toward the hostel, because I had no better idea of where to go. Maybe we'd luck out and find the girl with my nose. I don't mean use my nose to find the girl; I meant the girl, who had my nose, we would find. Or something like that. Anyway, like Xena said, where the girl was, Derek was sure to be eventually.
I spent the entire walk thinking about what Xena had said, yet pretending that I wasn't thinking about what Xena had said. Finally, she stopped talking, but I could hear her steps behind me and feel her eyes boring into the back of my head.
I wondered if I really was a cold, heartless bitch. Maybe I broke up with Emily because I knew she wasn't my true soulmate. Wasn't that what Xena should believe? Speaking of Xena, she certainly had a lot of nerve. She wasn't exactly going to win Miss Congeniality, was she? Some would even say she put the "ice" in Ice Princess.
She was just pissed, so she was taking it out on me. It all came down to me having no memory of being Gabrielle. Well, I couldn't do anything about that, could I? I was trying my best. All things considered, I think I was doing a damn fine job dealing with being dead. How many people have you heard say those words? Not many, I'll bet. So, Xena wasn't going to get away with hassling me about it. She could shove her "cold piece of ice" comments up her
"I'm sorry," I heard myself say. I thought there was an echo, but realized that Xena said the same words at the same time.
"I shouldn't have said you had a cold piece of ice for a heart," she said.
"I'm sorry I'm being such a bitch," I answered.
"You have every right to be upset with what's going on," Xena said. "You're coping very well considering you died last night."
I winced at the "d" word.
"I think it's just the lack of coffee," I mused. "If you do have a hotline to God, could you see if you could arrange something? I'll even take instant at this point."
Xena grinned. "I'll see what I can do."
I almost said, "There is a God" but realized that I hadn't seen her yet.
"So, what's the plan?" I asked, trying to look raring to go, sans coffee.
"You seem to know where you're going," Xena said, moving to stride beside me.
"Well, OK." I grinned at being put in charge however short my rule might be. I took a deep, commanding breath. "If the big party is only two nights away, Derek may be at the place getting things ready."
"Exactly!" Xena exclaimed. "He'll be readying the site, preparing an altar, making sure it's easily defended."
"Well, I was thinking more in terms of making sure the crystal was polished and the champagne was chilling," I replied. "Anyway, we need to get up to the house. Unfortunately, my invitation with the map was in the glove compartment of my car."
"Ah." Xena said.
"'Ah' is right," I agreed. "But I'm thinking there must be something lying around the hostel. I know you were hanging around there all morning, but now we know what we're looking for. At the same time, there's always the chance we'll run into the girl with my nose."
"You don't mean run your nose into the girl."
"No, I meant the girl, who has my nose, may be run into by us." I clarified unclearly.
"So, sound like a plan?" I looked up at her, suddenly feeling unsure.
"Sounds like a great plan," she said, throwing her arm across my shoulders.
Things were looking up.
After three hours of looking in every room of the hostel for an invitation or a map, and finding neither, things were looking down.
"It was a good plan," Xena said, trying to sound encouraging. Unfortunately, it reminded me of an adult telling a three year old that they'd drawn a great picture when it was really just a mess of squiggly lines in primary colors.
We'd gone into every room of the hostel and listened in on way too many conversations. There were no maps posted to notice boards, and no excited whispers about the big soiree.
We ended up sitting in an empty corner in the TV room, still hoping someone would say something about the party. Xena seemed to be paying more attention to Judge Judy.
"I guess no one here's been invited," I finally admitted.
"Of course not," Xena said. "Why invite the people who are actually supposed to benefit from the fund-raising? I'm sure there'll be a few token homeless, as long as they're photogenic enough. But they'll be brought in the back door and then quickly taken out again when the cameras are turned off."
I wanted to tell her that she was being far too cynical, but I wasn't exactly "Miss Glass is Half Full" myself.
"You're right, but I'm sure if Derek knew "
"Don't you dare sing Derek's praises. Can't you remember what happened with Khrafstar?" Xena asked angrily.
"No," I replied just as angrily. I can't help it when someone snaps at me I snap back. It's a defense mechanism.
"You didn't try to remember," Xena prodded, her forehead furrowing with frustration. "Maybe if you closed your eyes "
"I can't remember, OK?"
"But you remembered other things, didn't you?" She had that wistful look in her eyes again. This time, it was directed right at me. How could you say "no" to that?
"No," I said coldly. I heard the words "cold piece of ice" echoing in my head and decided to rephrase my response. "Maybe I remembered something I don't know. Sometimes I see pictures, but I I'm not sure."
She kept looking at me so I closed my eyes and tried to remember. Nothing, just the backs of my eyelids.
"Well?" she asked hopefully when I opened my eyes again.
"I'm sorry," I said.
I didn't lie to Xena. I hadn't seen anything. But I'd felt something, just for a moment. As if a hand was pushing me away. I looked at the disappointment in Xena's face and my hands started shaking. I crossed my arms, hiding my hands in my armpits. She noticed, but pretended that she hadn't.
"That's OK," she said, trying but not quite achieving an encouraging smile. "It'll come."
I felt like I was standing on a train platform, waiting for the 5:15 express. The train was late, but Xena was standing beside me, reassuring me that it was on its way. There was a tingle in the pit of my stomach. The problem was, I couldn't decide if it was joyous anticipation or terrible dread.
I didn't have much time to consider my tingly stomach before we heard the words we'd been waiting for most of the afternoon.
"Can some of you guys pick up the boxes from the storage room and load them in the van? They need them for the party at the mansion."
We turned to see a large man leaning into the TV room. He had a bent nose that had obviously been broken a few too many times and no right ear lobe. He cast a belligerent eye on two teenagers sitting on the sofa. For a minute, they looked like they were going to ignore him, but then wisely changed their minds and got up. We followed them outside.
It was simple, really. All we had to do was wait for them to load the boxes, and then hitch a lift.
"That was a great plan I had, huh Xena?" I said as the van sped toward the hills with us in the back.
"Yes, Gabrielle, it was a great plan," Xena agreed. I decided not to quibble about the use of that other name.
"So, how can we be sitting in this van, and not sink through?" I asked as we merged onto the freeway.
"I told you before, it's all about perception," Xena said. She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall of the van.
I was interrupted by a snore. I realized a little shamefully that I'd had eight hours of sleep while she'd been information gathering. I stayed quiet for the rest of the trip and tried not to think about oozing out the bottom of the van.
I started to feel carsick the minute the van headed up the winding roads of the hills. Getting carsick when you're dead was one more thing to add to my list.
Luckily, we reached our destination just as my tongue began to stick to the roof of my mouth. That was dangerously close to the point of no return. I swallowed a few times as the van slowed, and then put my hand on Xena's knee to wake her. I turned and found her already alert and ready for action. She was in commando mode again.
The minute the back doors of the van opened, we jumped out. Well, Xena jumped out. I stumbled, nearly twisted my ankle, and then knocked my elbow through the guy with no ear lobe.
"Fucking shit goddamn cocksuckers!" I shouted vehemently. I didn't really need to say "vehemently", did I?
"Graceful as ever," Xena drawled.
I glared at her and tried to pick up the pieces of my scattered dignity.
"I'll have you know I studied ballet for six years," I said as I tried to walk gracefully up the path.
"And you hated it," Xena replied. "The only reason you kept going was because you liked looking up the other girls' tutus."
I'd forgotten that Xena had been spying on me most of my life. This was so not fair.
"You know," I replied, "all those times you were watching me, you could have sent me a sign or told me something useful."
"Yeah like 'Becky Foster's a lying bitch' or 'don't take that blue pill, you'll be tripping for a week'. Shit, the winning numbers to the lottery would have been nice."
"You didn't need to win the lottery," Xena claimed ludicrously.
"Are you crazy? Never mind, I already know the answer to that."
She smiled at me indulgently, like a parent smiles at a child who has just finished a piano recital. I rolled my eyes and sighed, like a child who has just been smiled at indulgently by her parent after her piano recital.
"Why don't you stop thinking about my mental state, and take a look around you," Xena said. "Do you notice anything strange?"
I did as instructed. We were high in the hills actually on top of the ridge. It was a clear day, and the entire Bay Area was laid out below us. It looked like an alien landscape all blue and silver and green. It was beautiful. If I had an extra hundred million dollars or so, I'd have to build my mansion on this very spot. Too bad I never won the lottery.
"Wow," I said, struck into monosyllable by the view.
"Look closer," Xena said, turning me gently to the left.
I was looking at the mansion now. It looked more like a castle. There was a high stone wall and an actual iron gate topped with vicious-looking spikes. The gate was open, and what we could see of the mansion revealed a gothic structure with a massive tower at one end. I imagined a young virgin being locked inside by her evil stepfather. The mansion appeared to be made of stone and it appeared to be hundreds of years old as old as any similar castle in Europe. But all of that was impossible. First of all, that much stone couldn't possibly have been hauled all the way up the hills to build the castle the expense would have been astronomical. Second of all, the oldest houses on the ridge couldn't be more than a hundred years old and even that was stretching it.
"Wow," I repeated, still stuck in my favorite monosyllable.
"Did you notice the trees?" Xena asked.
I looked. There were huge trees ringing the castle walls, providing even more seclusion to the property. They were mainly thick fir trees, their dark branches tangling together and wrapping around the tops of the stone walls.
"They look menacing," I said, proud that I managed to get beyond "wow".
"They shouldn't be here," Xena stated.
OK, that one flew over my head. I looked at her in confusion as it fluttered away.
"Look at the area around us," Xena said, pointing up and then down the hill. "Notice something?"
I looked around at the denuded hills and new homes all around us. In 1991, a fire started in a box canyon and quickly turned into a firestorm. The fire had swept this area, consuming everything in its path. No house, tree, or blade of grass was left. That is, no house, tree, or blade of grass besides the house and trees and blades of grass I was standing next to.
"I don't understand," I said, looking again at the trees for signs of the fire. "Maybe the castle survived because it was made of stone or the fire didn't jump the walls, but the trees "
"Let's go inside and see what other interesting things we can discover." Xena was grinning like a kid on her way to the ice cream parlor. She was easily amused.
We walked past the men from the van, who were setting up outdoor lights, lining the drive toward the castle.
Right, I mused, that really cheers it up. Add a few balloons and the partygoers will never think they're approaching Count Dracula's castle.
We passed through the iron gates. It was absolutely quiet in the forecourt. At first, I thought it was because there was no one around. Then I realized that all the noises I'd heard outside the gates the birdsong, the men working, the ambient sounds of the Bay Area were gone.
"It's quiet," I said astutely.
"As the grave," Xena replied. I winced and she made a face halfway between a grimace and a grin. "Sorry."
I guess when you've been dead for nearly twenty years, you can joke about it. It was still a bit difficult for me.
The front doors were heavy oak with wrought iron hinges. Like the rest of the castle, they were obviously hundreds of years old. You just can't fake that.
We walked through the doors and entered a huge entry hall. Several people were cleaning and decorating. A man was on a ladder polishing a huge chandelier. A woman was wrapping a garland of realistic looking ivy around the banister of a great stairway. The stairs wound up and away from us for at least forty feet.
I had that feeling you get when you're somewhere you're not supposed to be. I instinctively crouched down behind Xena and began to follow her on my tiptoes through the entry hall.
"They can't see you, remember?" Xena said loudly as she strode forward.
"Sorry," I said, forcing myself to stand a little taller. "The creep factor in this place threw me off."
The entry hall led to a large banquet room, where more people were setting up massive tables for the buffet. There were small tables and chairs around a large dance floor. The furnishings were all impeccable. It was obvious that no expense was being spared.
"Wow," I said, back to my favorite monosyllable, "now I'm sorry I'm going to miss the party."
"I don't think you would have seen much of it, even if you attended," Xena said, moving to a small door set unobtrusively in a corner of the room.
"What do you mean? And where are you going?" I said, jogging a little to catch up.
"We're going down," Xena replied. "And I think you'll understand the rest when we get there."
We walked through the door and headed down the rickety wooden steps that started immediately past the doorway. Wood gave way to stone after awhile, and still we moved downward.
"Tell me it's my imagination and it's not getting warmer," I requested.
"I don't want to lie to you," Xena replied.
Finally the stairs stopped. There was a roaring sound, like a high wind. It was pitch dark, but from the feel of the air and the echo of sound, I could tell we were on the edge of a large open space. I heard Xena fumble with something, and suddenly torches, which ringed the huge space, illuminated the cavernous room.
"Holy shit!" I cried, moving closer to Xena. I was already pretty damn close, but now you wouldn't be able to slip a piece of toilet paper between us.
"There's definitely some shit involved," Xena said, "but it sure as hell ain't holy."
The room was the size of a football field. A massive stone edifice had been erected in the center. It was obviously an altar and was ornately carved with scenes of death and torture. The roaring sound I had heard, as well as the heat, was emanating from behind this altar.
Xena walked casually toward it. She was like a little kid that fell into the lion's cage at the zoo toddling toward the animal and shouting, "Here kitty!"
I was torn between sticking to Xena like glue and trusting her to protect us, or staying at the foot of the stairs the only visible means of escape. It wasn't much of a choice; I stayed where I was. What can I say? I've got trust issues.
Xena stopped in front of the structure and gazed at it, her hands on her hips.
"Gab-Allison, come here, you've got to see this," she said, turning toward me.
"Do the words 'no fucking way in hell' mean anything to you?" I asked.
"It's OK," she said reassuringly. "At least for the moment," she added losing her reassurance points immediately.
"I'm good right here, thanks. I'll just pick up a postcard on the way out. The pictures are always better than the real thing anyway."
"I really think you'll want to see this," Xena said.
Curiosity is a powerful emotion. For some people, it's stronger than fear. I'm one of those people. And Xena knows me way too well.
I walked hesitantly toward her, waiting for someone or something to jump out at us. When I got close enough, I discovered that the altar was built around a gaping hole in the ground. The tremendous heat was coming from this fissure, as well as a smell like rotten eggs. Brimstone, I thought to myself, and then pretended I hadn't thought it. The carvings in the stone were gruesome and horribly realistic; they appeared to be ancient. There were dark marks in some places, and I pretended that I wasn't seeing bloodstains. There sure was a lot of pretending going on.
"It's horrible," I said. I grabbed Xena's arm. "But it's just some multi-millionaire's idea of art. He probably brings his dates down here to scare the shit out of them. So, let's go, yeah?"
I pulled at Xena's sleeve, but she didn't move.
"You didn't notice the display?" she said, nodding her head toward an alcove in the altar.
I looked over and saw a strange collection of items sitting there. I edged forward a little to get a better look. There was a wooden staff, two three-pronged daggers, a wooden lamb, and a metal disc with sharpened edges.
"Some kind of collection of weapons," I said. "Except the lamb. Of course, you could probably bludgeon someone with it."
"They're all things of yours, Gabrielle," Xena said, shaking her head. "Don't you remember?"
I remembered that it was the same staff that Emily I mean Ephiny had given me. And then another memory came to me. "I think I remember throwing that staff into a wide river."
"Dahak must have watched it and kept tabs on it," Xena mused.
"What about the other stuff?" I asked.
"Your sais, your lamb," Xena replied. "It's a shrine to you."
"What's that metal disc?" I asked, reaching out and touching the cold metal.
"Careful," Xena said, pulling my hand back. "It's sharp. That's my chakram."
"So it's not just a shrine to Gabrielle," I pointed out.
Xena looked pensive for a moment. "No, I didn't mean my chakram. It became yours." She looked like she was going to say more, but she clenched her jaw. A jumble of emotions flickered quickly through her eyes anger, sorrow, shame. Then they were gone.
"There's something else," she said, moving closer to the items. She leaned over and then pointed behind the lamb. I moved cautiously toward her and looked where she was pointing.
"Hey, that's my fountain pen," I cried indignantly. "My dad bought that for me when I told him I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I was eight. I thought I'd lost that forever."
"Dahak has collected everything that's important to you everything that defines you," Xena explained.
"Creep me out!" I exclaimed. "This is just like TV, when the cops find the psycho stalker's hidden room and there are pictures of the leading lady plastered all over the walls."
"All he needed for the collection was you."
I still didn't want to believe any of this. Yes, I was in denial. But it was a much more comfortable place to be than at the scene of my planned sacrifice.
"OK, Xena, look," I began. "So someone has a little obsessive-compulsive disorder. This someone may or may not be Derek."
"Shh," I said, holding up my hand. "Let me finish." Xena sighed, but remained silent. "I'm just suggesting that we shouldn't jump to any conclusions here."
"Gab " I looked at her sharply. She started again, "Allison what do you need me to do to convince you that we're fighting the ultimate evil?"
"All I see is some kind of old stone altar that was probably purchased on the black market and smuggled into the country, a little collection of junk that may or may not be associated with Gabrielle, and my fountain pen."
"You're forgetting the opening to Dahak's realm," Xena said.
"Xena, I find it hard to believe that the gateway to hell is in the basement of a mansion in the Oakland hills. Now, if it was in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese, I might believe you."
I suppose it's not a good idea to make fun of evil entities when you're standing right next to their front door. No sooner had my joke about Chuck E. Cheese escaped from my lips than an ominous rumbling began, and the ground beneath my feet began to move. We were having an earthquake at a very inconvenient moment. The words "what a fucking coincidence" sprang to mind, but before I could voice them, a red glow began to emanate from the hole.
"Run!" Xena shouted.
I felt the heat building and a pressure growing with it, as if something was squeezing my head. I tried to breathe, but the air was being sucked forcefully from my lungs.
I heard someone say, in a strangled, helpless voice, "I can't, I can't". It took me a moment to realize that it had been me. I wanted to move, but my feet refused to obey orders. I screamed at them, but they stuck to their treasonous ways.
I felt an immense jerk and my arm was nearly pulled out of its socket. I was moving in the right direction away from the altar so I didn't protest. Xena half dragged and half carried me across the floor and on to the stairs. I'm sure she would have continued to haul my ass up the steps, but I knew, in a panicked, barely coherent way, that it would have slowed us down. I thrashed a bit, and she lowered me enough that I could get my feet under me. My momentum kept me moving upwards, and she followed.
We finally reached the top and fell through the door. I could feel the energy from the basement withdraw, and I knew we were safe for the moment, but my body was still shaking with the sudden fear. I took fast, panting breaths. I felt the need to say something, but the only things that came out of my mouth were groans and single syllables like "ga" and "bu" and "shi".
Xena's eyes were wide and I could see her body twitch as the adrenaline slowly left her system.
"Are you all right?" she asked. She ran hands over my arms and shoulders and stroked the side of my head and face, reassuring herself that I was OK.
I nodded and took a deep breath, letting it out as slowly as I could manage which was about a millisecond. "Fuck," I said. My first discernable word - it seemed appropriate.
"Wh why didn't you pop?" I stuttered.
"Why didn't you pop?" she asked. She was just managing to catch her breath.
"Too busy doing the Shaggy and Scooby-Doo impression, I suppose," I said. "Shit."
"That's what we're up against," Xena explained unnecessarily.
"Evil," I said. "Got it."
"He wants to take over the universe," she continued.
"Not a good thing," I said, still trying to breathe. "Also understood."
"We can't let that happen," Xena said.
"Whoa. That's where you start to get a little fuzzy," I said, waving my hand to stop her. "It's the 'we' part of that equation."
I realized we were still uncomfortably close to the door to the basement and began to move away and across the room.
"Gabrielle, no one else can do this," Xena said, following me.
"You seem to have missed my performance down there," I said. I didn't particularly want to relive it, but I had to make my point. "I froze and turned into a blithering idiot. This doesn't bode well for our success."
"Your reaction was understandable. He hurt you Gabrielle, he " she stopped herself and I could see in her eyes the decision not to say more. "You may not remember everything, but a part of you obviously does."
"And whatever part that is, it obviously controls my legs. I don't function very well without moveable legs. I think you'd better tell God that she's made a horrible mistake. You need to find another assistant. I know it's short notice and all, but unemployment is quite high in the Bay Area right now. I'm sure you could find someone more suitable. Admittedly, it's a specialized profession "
"Allison," Xena said, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Take it easy."
Her hand felt nice there, and it calmed me a little at least enough to stop my insane diatribe.
"All we have to do is stop Derek," Xena said. "If we can manage that, we won't ever have to go near that altar again."
"That would be a good thing," I said with an encouraged smile.
"So let's concentrate on that," she said decisively.
"Right. Brain ready to concentrate on Derek," I reported. I would have girded my loins, but I didn't know how.
Xena looked around indecisively, and I felt my resolve crumble a bit.
I was about to tell her where to place her help wanted ad, when two men walked past us. One of them carried a clipboard and looked disgruntled.
"So Derek hears about some antique and just drops everything and hops on a plane to LA," the disgruntled man said. "Leaves me in the shit. Everything's going wrong the caterers claim we ordered food for twice as many people as we did, the champagne won't arrive until the last minute, and won't be properly chilled, the string quartet cancelled "
"When will Derek be back?" the other man asked, trying to look sympathetic, but obviously not caring.
"Tomorrow sometime. He has to pick up another big shipment at some point in the day, I'm not sure when. I do know that he still won't be around here to help me."
The man continued to grumble as he walked away with his companion.
"Well, that was convenient," I said with a smile.
"We know that Derek isn't around tonight, but we'll need to figure out how to find him tomorrow," Xena replied.
"At least it means we can get out of 'Transylvania'. And hopefully never come back again."
I moved quickly toward the front doors.
"Right behind you," Xena said, following on my heels.
I didn't start breathing properly until we were half a mile down the road. I spotted a discarded McDonald's Happy Meal container and felt strangely comforted. That was the kind of evil I was used to.
"So where are we headed?" I asked, turning to Xena, who had paused and stood silently next to me.
She was looking west, where the sun was setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge. The sky was a breathtaking explosion of pink and red and orange. The light seemed to bathe Xena and she glowed like the angel I originally thought she was.
"Beautiful," I whispered in awe.
She glanced down at me and a look of regret crossed her features. She quickly replaced it with a reassuring smile, but for a moment I felt a strange sensation like when something hits that dangling thing at the back of your throat. I nearly gagged, but the feeling disappeared before I could figure out what the hell was going on.
"Did you say something?" Xena asked.
She must have meant before "beautiful". I tried to remember.
"Oh, yeah um where are we headed?"
"Well " she said, considering. "I suppose we should go to Derek's apartment. He'll have to come home eventually."
"At the very least, he'll have to change his underwear," I agreed.
Xena did the eyebrow lift.
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing." She lowered the eyebrow. "Anyway, after spending most of the afternoon at that hostel, I sure don't look forward to spending the night there."
I groaned when I pictured us watching infomercials all night.
Xena peered around, and then a lazy grin spread across her face. She nodded down the hill. I looked in the direction she indicated with her head and saw a large house with a balcony and several comfortable looking pieces of patio furniture.
"Fancy sleeping under the stars tonight?" she asked.
"Won't we get cold?"
"Well, are you cold now?"
I pondered this, and realized that I was quite comfortable. "No," I replied.
"So you haven't drawn any conclusions from the fact that everyone is walking around in winter coats and you're just wearing a t-shirt?"
I looked down. I still had on what I'd been wearing when I had the accident sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt that read, "La, La, La - I can't hear you - La, La, La."
"You mean I won't be cold ever again? I won't have to wear socks to bed? I won't have to wear sweaters ten months of the year? I won't have girlfriends shout, 'Get those freezing hands away from me, you freak of nature'?"
"Um no," Xena said, trying to figure out if they were rhetorical questions.
"Yes! God finally gets something right," I said, pumping my fist in the air.
We moved down the hill. I managed to stub my toe and Xena grabbed my arm to steady me. I was hoping that I'd start floating ethereally, but I still seemed to clamber as much as I did when I was alive. I kept my hand on her arm. Xena seemed to be the only thing I could actually grab and hold on to, so I found myself touching her more than I normally would. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. It had nothing to do with her warm, supple, strong, luscious erm, yeah, anyway .
On the patio were two chaise lounges made of sturdy redwood with nice thick cushions. I claimed one and Xena pulled the other one right up next to me. They had no arms, so when they came together we were only inches apart with no barrier between us. I guess she wanted to be close enough to talk. I wasn't going to object to the arrangement.
"So what's our plan for tomorrow?" I asked, putting my interlocked fingers behind my head and watching the last of the light leave the sky.
"We need to get an early start," Xena explained. She paused and gave me a quirky smile. "Waking you up will be our first challenge of the day."
"Not a problem," I said firmly. "I'm on a mission."
"Uh huh we'll see."
"Yes we will," I said with a confident smile. "So, first thing at Derek's apartment. Then what?"
"Well, he's got to show up eventually. Then we follow him."
"Right, good plan so far," I said, nodding my head. "I can do following. Being invisible helps a lot. And then ?"
"And then " Xena's voice faded away. This was not good. The plan crashed to the ground, making a pathetic squawking sound.
"You have no plan," I accused.
"I just haven't worked out the details," Xena protested.
"OK, give me the Reader's Digest version."
Xena raised an ebony eyebrow and narrowed her crystal blue eyes.
"Oh no, Xena, you can't distract me with your intimidating facial expressions. I'm immune." I sighed dramatically. "You don't have a plan. Admit it."
"I'll figure it out as I go along," Xena grumbled.
"That is just so comforting," I grumbled back sarcastically.
"Look, he had the girl our descendent but to complete the sacrifice, he obviously needs these things he's collecting."
"You mean the Gabrobilia?"
Some of the grumble left Xena's face.
"Yes," she said. "With you out of the picture, it must be important that he set up the shrine to you."
"With me 'out of the picture'? Nice euphemism."
All of the grumble left Xena's face and the corner of her mouth twitched.
"So," Xena continued, "since the girl is probably safely tucked away somewhere now, what we need to do is focus on Derek and his collection. We need to somehow distract him, or get some of the pieces away from him, or something. I should have thought and grabbed the stuff we saw already on the altar."
"I don't think that would have been a very good idea," I said, shivering at the memory of the basement. "All I did was make a crack about the gateway to hell and look what happened."
"Well, what's done is done. We'll have to concentrate on the stuff Derek is going to pick up tomorrow."
"What kinds of things do you think he's getting? What's left that has any meaning?" I asked. I was curious about the life I was trying so hard to remember.
"Hmmm," Xena pondered, "let's see a frying pan, a pink nightie, a kite, every rock and seashell you decided to pick up for no apparent reason, a couple of small green bras"
"Whoa green bras?" I had a quick memory of dressing, pulling on a bilious green-colored object. I closed my eyes and tried to shake the memory away. "No, I don't want to know."
"I thought they were kind of cute," Xena said with a broad grin.
I gave her a baleful look and changed the subject. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see what new Gabrielle souvenirs Derek brings home."
"Mmm," Xena murmured. "We'll figure everything out, don't worry."
She tilted her head back against the cushion and looked up at the stars, which were just beginning to show in the twilight.
"It's a beautiful night," she said, a dreamy smile crossing her face.
"Yeah, it's really clear," I agreed. There was no fog and only a few clouds at the horizon, which had made the sunset so amazing. A wind had cleaned the air and was making the stars twinkle. We lay there in comfortable silence as night fell and the constellations became discernable.
"I can see Orion," I said, pointing to the star pattern. Xena drew in a startled breath and I looked over at her in confusion.
She appeared disconcerted for a moment, but then grinned broadly. "The hunter, my favorite," she said. She pointed to a cluster to Orion's right. "What do you think that bunch looks like?"
I peered at it and tilted my head in different directions. "A woman's breasts." I finally declared. "What do you think it looks like?"
"A cannon," Xena replied with a twinkle in her eye.
"Well, that about sums up our world views," I said, chuckling. Xena joined in.
"Do you remember when " her words abruptly stopped. She looked at me with such a heartrending expression it left me breathless. I looked down at my hands and fiddled with a thread on my t-shirt.
"I'm sorry," she whispered miserably. "It just reminded me of how it used to be; I forgot."
"You don't need to apologize," I said, still pulling at the thread. "I'm the one at fault. I should be apologizing to you."
"You are not at fault, Gabrielle," Xena said forcefully. She reached over and ran her hand up and down my forearm. Her warm palm caused goose bumps to cover my arm. "You're trying. I know this isn't easy for you."
I forced myself to meet her eyes. "Xena, are you sure absolutely sure that I am who you think I am?"
"Of course," she said, sounding horrified that I'd doubt it.
"I just don't know "
"You have remembered some things, haven't you?" Xena asked, a glimmer of suspicion in her eyes.
"Yeah I think so," I replied hesitantly. "I mean maybe."
The memories had been so vague, though. They say that dreams are really just flashes of color and sound, and our brains put them together into a logical pattern. I wondered if maybe my brain was creating these memories from suggestions things that Xena was saying, things that I wanted to be true.
I looked at the misery on Xena's face. She had lost her best friend, her soulmate. Best-case scenario: I was Gabrielle but didn't have her memories. Worst case: I just bore a striking resemblance to Gabrielle. Either way, I walked in Xena's lover's body but I wasn't her lover, and I reminded her of that nearly every moment I was near her.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. I could feel tears fill my eyes and I hoped it was dark enough that she wouldn't see.
"Please don't cry," she whispered back. I should have known she had preternatural vision.
I tried to sniff the tears back, but that only managed to dislodge one, and it dribbled down my cheek. Xena reached out and caught it, letting her hand linger on my face, stroking with her thumb. Her thumb was callused, and the hard, rough skin felt wonderful against the softness of my cheek.
"Come here," she said, reaching her arm around my shoulders and pulling me gently toward her. I didn't need any prompting; I quickly scooted over until I was on her lounge chair. I snuggled close, tucking my head against her shoulder and wrapping an arm around her middle. She leaned her head on top of mine and I could feel her breath moving my hair slightly.
It felt wonderful. Like I was in a warm room, sitting in front of an open fire, drinking a glass of brandy. I closed my eyes and let the feeling wash over me and fill me with comfort.
I looked up and dove into her clear blue eyes. It felt like swimming in the Caribbean. She looked back at me and slowly leaned down. I held my breath while she brushed her lips softly against mine.
The most beautiful woman I had ever known was kissing me. But there was something wrong. Something was nagging me at the back of my mind. I felt as if I was in that cozy room, but off to the side of the room was a closed door. I knew that there was something horrible behind that door something that I didn't want to face, something that I'd locked up a long time ago. I tried to ignore it, to turn away, but it stayed in my field of vision. As I held tighter to Xena, the door began to shake in its frame, and the handle began to turn.
I stifled a gasp and pulled out of Xena's embrace. The warmth disappeared immediately, and an icy breeze blew over me. So much for not feeling cold.
"I can't," I said morosely. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Xena said, holding onto my arm. "Just sleep. Don't think about Gabrielle or Derek or me. Just close your eyes."
Her voice was hypnotic and I desperately missed the warmth that I had found in her arms. I allowed myself to be pulled back into her embrace. Quickly, I felt my eyelids grow heavy.
"I love you," I heard Xena whisper, as I drifted off to sleep.
I was having the strangest dream. I was a mermaid, with a tail and everything. Except, when I was out of the water I had legs. And I had three fishy children who tried to kill me. And a husband who looked just like a guy who had a crush on me in high school.
It wasn't a happy dream but it was strangely fascinating, and when I felt something poking my side, I tried to ignore it and stay in the dream world.
It didn't work.
Warrior Princesses have very nasty, pointy fingers.
"Come on, wake up," Xena growled.
I moaned and rolled over. I thought I was out of finger-poking range. I was wrong.
"Hey, Allison, don't you remember The Mission?" She shouted the last two words very loudly in my ear.
I mumbled something that I hoped sounded like "yes, I'm awake" but probably sounded more like "yish em uhwik".
"Come on Allison. Jeez, it's like trying to wake the dead." She chortled. "Get it wake the dead?"
I pried open one eyelid and glared at her. "You know, Xena, your little quips about being dead are not amusing."
"I thought it was hilarious."
I sat up and ran my fingers through my short red-blonde hair. "God, I need a shower."
"No you don't. You can't really get dirty when you're dead. Oops, I used the 'd' word again."
I scowled at her, even though I was pleased that I wasn't starting to stink. "It's not all about dirt; it's about getting all warm and soapy."
Xena raised her eyebrows lasciviously. I ignored her and decided to put "no showers" on my list of things to talk to God about.
"Get up, we're burning daylight," Xena said, clapping her hands together loudly.
"Xena, there's no daylight to burn. It's still the middle of the night." I moaned and tried to get my body to follow basic instructions. My hands seemed to have a strange fascination with rubbing my face, and my legs seemed to want to go in different directions. I was suspicious of them due to their mutiny the day before.
"If Derek is flying back today, and he's got things to do," Xena explained, "then he'll probably be on the earliest flight."
"Which, I would assume, is not dark o'clock in the friggin' morning," I growled.
"Well, we can't risk that." She reached down and grabbed an arm, hoisting me up. She took hold of my other arm, her fingers warm around my wrist.
"Let's pop," she said abruptly.
"No, Xena, I"
Popping was a horrendous experience. It made you feel like you were turned inside out for a moment. You were taken apart and put back together, and afterward you hoped that all of the pieces were where they should be. Under the best of circumstances, popping was unpleasant. Popping right after waking up was hell.
"Fucking goddamn shit!" I cried when we'd popped in the middle of Derek's apartment. "You could have warned me."
"It's like pulling a Band-Aid off," Xena declared. "You've got to do it fast or it'll hurt worse."
"It hurt enough, thanks," I said, rubbing my jaw and making sure my teeth were all there. I swore I heard my organs squelch into place. I sat down on Derek's futon and thought about going back to sleep.
Xena began to pace. She was ready for action. I had a feeling it was going to be a long morning, and if I had to watch her pacing for another five minutes I'd go insane. I decided to go for a diversionary tactic.
"So, Xena, I've been thinking " She didn't stop her pacing, but she turned to listen.
"Maybe if I tried to remember some of my other lives," I continued, "I might make more progress in the whole memory department."
That stopped her in her tracks. She pondered that for a while.
"Tell me about my other lives," I prompted.
"Well," she said slowly, "you were always a fighter."
"Like a soldier?" I asked, picturing myself carrying a crossbow or a musket.
"Sometimes," Xena said. "But usually just a scrappy, mouthy, fighter for justice and freedom and the greater good."
Now she had a brilliant smile on her face.
"So was I Catherine the Great, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie?"
"No, you weren't anyone that you've read about in history books. But they should have written about you."
I grinned. I couldn't remember my past lives, but her pride sent a shot of warmth through me, like drinking hot chocolate on a cold winter's day.
"What about you?" I asked. "I suppose you were Joan of Arc or something."
Xena smiled and blushed slightly.
"Get out!" I cried. "You were fucking Joan of Arc?"
"I wasn't fucking Joan of Arc, I was Joan of Arc," she admitted.
I got a mental picture of Xena in chain mail fasting and praying to the Virgin Mary. "Forgive me, but I just don't see you as the visionary type."
"It's a long story," Xena said, blushing even more. "Things didn't go exactly as I had planned."
"I guess not," I said. "You were burned at the stake. That had to hurt."
"I'd rather not talk about it," Xena said, looking away in embarrassment.
"You mean you'd rather not talk about your DEATH?" I said, grinning gleefully. "Gee, why wouldn't you want to talk about DYING?"
"OK, point taken," Xena said with a pout.
"Sorry, I won't mention DEATH any more."
"I wouldn't want to bore you to DEATH with the topic."
"Allison." She gave me a look that meant if I said another word I might be facing my second death, so I decided to change the subject.
"Did we know each other in every lifetime?" I asked.
Xena waited for the "d" word, and when she didn't hear it, she finally relaxed.
"Not every one, but most," she replied, growing pensive. "Our lives are like two strings braided together to form a rope. I don't know why; it's just the way it is."
"Have we spoken together before, between lives? You know compared notes, asked why we did stuff, bitched at each other?"
"No, never," Xena replied. "This is a special circumstance."
I sighed, thinking about the "special circumstance." I still didn't feel up to the task of destroying this evil entity.
"Don't worry," Xena said, apparently reading my mind. "You'll do fine. You always do."
"I wish I was as confident as you are."
"Just remember to never lock your knees and always roll when you fall," Xena advised.
"Are those your top pointers for surviving a fight?" I asked, trying to memorize her words.
"No, my advice for skiing," Xena said with a straight face.
We spent the morning playing word games. Xena had a fondness for Twenty Questions. I urged her to play Charades, but she said she always hated the game.
By noon there was no Derek, and I felt our plan crumble like a stale Ritz cracker.
"I don't think he's going to show," I finally said.
Xena looked around dismayed.
"I thought my underwear-changing theory was sound, but I guess not," I said glumly.
"Damn!" she cried, standing up and moving to the closet. She flung open the doors. There was one shirt and one pair of pants hanging neatly from two hangers. She moved to the dresser and pulled open the drawers, examining the contents. I came up next to her and looked as well one pair of socks and one pair of underwear.
"That's weird," I commented. "Derek always seemed so clean. No one can live with just one extra pair of underwear."
"We'll discuss your obsession with Derek's underwear in a minute," Xena said. "Look over here."
She started opening up cupboards and the refrigerator. We did a quick inventory: one can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, half a box of Chips Ahoy cookies, two rubbery carrots, a yam, and a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke.
"Well, he is a bachelor," I mused.
Xena ran off toward the bathroom. She opened the cupboard under the sink. It was empty.
"No toilet paper," she said triumphantly.
"Maybe it was time for a shopping trip."
"Gab-Allison," Xena stuttered, "he doesn't live here. He just has a few things here to make it look like he does."
"I don't get it," I said, trying to capture the theory that Xena was throwing around haphazardly.
"He probably lives in some plush penthouse somewhere. He wanted the world to think he was this poor guy living like a monk using all of his money to save those less fortunate. And the whole time he was living it up somewhere. I should have guessed. I was so stupid."
She started pacing again this time much more frantically.
"Xena, calm down," I said, catching her and holding on. She took me with her for a few steps, before my added weight dragged her to a halt. "We'll just have to figure out Plan B."
"I've lost my touch," she said with an anguished expression. "I used to be able to defeat the bad guys with no plan at all. Now I have to resort to B planning."
"You're just a little rusty," I said, patting her arm. "You'll get back into the swing of it."
"I've got to think, got to figure this out." Xena buried her fingers in her long ebony hair and started to tug.
"Hey, you're gonna end up looking like a banshee, for goodness sake."
She looked at me with a curious expression on her face and then shook her head. She pulled her fingers out of her hair reluctantly.
"We just need to calm down and think this through," I continued. It was time to try on my scrappy, mouthy, fighter persona.
"We have to figure out where Derek is," Xena said. Her eyes narrowed as she concentrated fiercely. It was kind of scary.
"Those guys yesterday said he needed to pick up a big shipment today," I said. I narrowed my eyes too, but I knew from experience and the mirror that I didn't look scary. More like constipated.
"Exactly!" Xena exclaimed. "So if he's expecting a shipment, we need to get to the docks."
"Xena, hello," I said. "We're in the twenty first century here. Shipments don't come on ships any more. I think the airport is a better bet."
"Oh great, so we have to figure out which airport, and even then he may not actually go to the airport to pick it up." She paused and looked at me. "You know where we have to go."
"Don't say what I think you're going to say." I groaned and put my hands over my ears. She waited, doing the single eyebrow lift. Reluctantly, I lowered my hands.
"He's got to deliver his stuff to the altar. It's better if we wait there for him."
"I knew you were going to say that."
I needed chocolate. Badly.
"Allison, stop it," Xena said, her eyes narrowing in warning.
I finally realized that Xena called me Allison when she was pissed off or when I was screwing up.
Xena had grabbed my forearms and was attempting to pop back to the mansion. So far, except for a few seconds of a strange lurching feeling, we'd gone nowhere.
"Whatever you're doing, it's preventing us from popping," Xena explained, her voice brittle with irritation. "So stop it, and let's go. We don't have time to mess around."
"I'm not doing anything," I snapped. "Why does everything always have to be my fault?"
I felt a little bad about saying that, since Xena had never accused me of anything before, but I was in a bad mood. I didn't want to go anywhere near that friggin' castle again.
"Everything is not your fault," Xena snapped back. "Quit acting like a petulant teenager."
"Quit treating me like one then," I said. Again, she hadn't really been treating me like a petulant teenager. I was beginning to think that some unresolved angst was leaking from someone else's psyche.
Xena glared for a moment, and then took a deep breath.
"Allison," she said, maintaining a calm, steady tone, "we can't pop if one of us doesn't want to go where we need to go. I have a feeling that might be you."
She waited for my grudging nod. Sometimes it's hard to admit you're scared shitless.
"I know you're frightened," she said. "But I swear I won't let anything happen to you. Trust me."
I looked at her, letting my eyes roam over her body. She had obvious strength well-defined muscles in her arms, legs, and abdomen. But there was an inner power as well. I knew that even if her body failed, her sheer willpower would conquer all obstacles.
"I trust you," I said, taking her arms again.
We popped into the forecourt of the castle. I bit down on the oogey feeling and managed not to squeal obscenities.
"How close do we need to get?" I asked, dreading the answer. I was already peering over my shoulder to make sure nothing was sneaking up behind me.
"Closer than this," Xena replied. "There may be a back way in."
I followed her into the castle reluctantly. There were even more people around than there had been the day before. The preparations for the social event of the year had become even more frenetic. We made our way to the large banquet hall, where several technicians were working on the lights.
Xena started across the floor, and I grabbed her hand to stop her.
"This is close enough, isn't it?" I asked, trying to sound reasonable rather than desperately terrified.
"I didn't get a good look around last time," Xena said, her eyes conveying an apology. "There might be another way into the basement that I didn't see the first time."
I wanted to argue with her, but I realized I couldn't be sure either.
"We can't afford to miss Derek now," she said. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."
She hadn't called me "sweetheart" since the night of my accident, before she realized I didn't have Gabrielle's memories. I felt the same tingle I felt then. It gave me just enough strength to let her hand go. She ran her fingers softly down my arm and I felt as if a current of electricity had shot through my body. She led the way through the little door, and I followed her carefully down the steps.
"You're going to have to give me enough space to lift my feet," she said. OK, I was latched onto her as tight as a barnacle on a derelict ship. Did I mention I was a little scared?
"Sorry," I whispered, backing off a millimeter. I still held onto the belt loops of her Levi's. "Where are we going?"
Please don't say "all the way down", I screamed in my head.
"All the way down," Xena whispered back.
Shit! I screamed even louder.
"We'll stay right by the stairs," Xena added.
"Oh, you bet your sweet, tight ass we will," I replied. I could feel her hips move with her soft chuckle. Joking in the face of terror was one of my specialties. Of course, I couldn't remember ever being quite that terrified before. Even my ninth grade math teacher didn't scare me as much and that's saying a lot.
When we reached the bottom, Xena moved around the base of the steps. She couldn't turn the lights on, or Derek would become suspicious when he arrived. It didn't really matter, because this time there was a red glow coming from the hole behind the altar, faintly lighting the huge space. The reflections of flames danced on the walls. I had always been so comforted by firelight. Now, I'd never look at a Duraflame log the same way again.
We sat down on the floor to wait. I was glad I couldn't feel the cold stone beneath my butt. My insides were already cold enough. I leaned against Xena, and sucked her warmth like a leech. She didn't seem to mind.
"How long do you think" I stopped when I heard the door opening far above us.
"To wait?" Xena asked. "I'm guessing not long."
I somehow managed to smile. God, I was a tough cookie.
We listened to the sound of footsteps clumping down the stairs. It sounded like more than one set, and that theory was soon proved right when several voices drifted down.
"Slow down, shithead," a man's voice said loudly.
"I can't go any slower unless I stop," another voice said.
"Whatever you do, don't drop it." That was Derek's voice.
I know that Xena had told me over and over that Derek was the embodiment of evil. But at that moment, hearing his voice, I was sure she was making a huge mistake. It was just Derek getting ready for his big party. He would raise lots of money for a very worthy cause, and then spend the rest of his life doing more very worthy things in a generally worthy manner. He wasn't evil; he was the most genuinely good person I'd ever known.
The men soon came into view. Derek led the way, carrying a small wooden box. He cradled it under his arm, taking great care with it. Two men followed, holding a larger cardboard box between them. Their box didn't appear heavy, but it was an awkward size, and one of the men had to walk backward down the steps.
Derek was good looking in a sort of "I've been through hell, and I need someone to take care of me" kind of way. He had gentle eyes, which could sparkle with happiness but held an inner pain. His hair was tawny, and slightly longer than was fashionable. It gave him a mysterious, timeless look. He was tall and muscular. He'd once told me that he kept his body so fit because he owed it for years of abuse. I thought that was very noble.
Xena and I watched as Derek and the two men walked toward the altar. The men didn't seem intimidated by the stone structure, so they must have already been down there. You just couldn't walk straight up to the thing for the first time without at least standing and staring for a little bit.
Derek put the smaller box down and then went to the larger one. He motioned the men aside and pulled out a box cutter. He slit the cardboard and pushed the flaps back, then reached in and started pulling things out.
"Scrolls," Xena whispered. "I should have guessed."
She was right; they appeared to be rolled pieces of parchment. I'd once attended a wedding where the bride and groom read their vows from scrolls tied with pink silk ribbon. The silk ribbon matched the bridesmaids' dresses. But that's neither here nor there.
Derek pulled out about a dozen scrolls and laid them carefully on the altar.
"Now go," he said, waving his hand at the men, who had been standing around doing nothing. "Take that." He kicked the empty box toward them.
I thought it would have been easier to just throw the box into the hole behind the altar, but I guess it would have been disrespectful to treat the gateway to hell as a giant incinerator.
The men hustled away quickly, apparently relieved to be released. I heard their footsteps clattering back up the steps and, after awhile, the door close. But my attention was firmly fixed on Derek.
He had an intense look on his face. It reminded me of the times he spoke about his mission his hopes and dreams to save those less fortunate. When he had that expression on his face, he looked like he could make anything possible. His intensity had always filled me with resolve with a feeling that I could also make a difference.
He turned to the small wooden box and opened it. He took something out, lifting it to his lips and kissing it reverently. I peered closer. It was a dagger. I wasn't close enough to make out details, but the firelight reflected off the blade.
I took two steps forward. I'm not sure why. Those damn treasonous legs again. I heard a strange buzz in my head, like a million bees singing to their queen. Suddenly, I seemed to be above my body, watching myself walking forward like a marionette.
Derek turned around slowly, still holding the dagger. It caught the light again, and this time I thought I saw blood dripping from it. I seemed to snap back into my body just as his eyes locked on mine. I froze.
"Allison," he said. He flashed what I had always thought of as a sweet smile; now, it was menacing - like a cat that had cornered a mouse. "I can see you, you know."
I heard Xena whisper "No", and out of the corner of my eye I saw her lunge toward me. There was a split second to wonder why she was pouncing on me before visions exploded in my brain.
A neighbor kid had once shot me with a b-b gun. It hurt a lot. The images hit me with that same vicious sting. They came fast, and they were sharp and clear, like looking at pictures through a viewfinder.
Blood and gore covering my hands.
Fire penetrating my soul.
Screaming in childbirth.
A child dying by my hand.
Falling into a burning pit.
I didn't feel Xena's arms around my waist, and I don't remember popping. But I do remember Derek's laughter. It wasn't human.
The first thing I was conscious of was Xena's hand stroking sweaty hair off my forehead. My head hurt and I felt sick. That sounds so innocuous, doesn't it? It could have been the answer to a lot of different questions like: how did you feel after you drank eleven shots of tequila? Or, how did you feel after you rode the teacups at Disneyland five times in a row?
"Can you throw up when you're dead?" I mumbled. She didn't say anything, but quickly moved a large bowl under my head. I answered my own question in a truly spectacular manner.
"Just take it easy," Xena murmured. "I've got you."
She held me from behind and let my head hang down, as another spasm gripped my insides and I sold some more Buicks.
"How is this possible, if I can't eat or drink?" I moaned.
"It's not, actually," she said, rubbing my back in soft circles.
"This is just a figment of my imagination?"
"No, it's a psychic reaction. It's real for you."
"Hang on, I think it's time for some psychic dry heaves now."
"Well, that could have gone better," I said some time later, when my stomach had finally decided to play quietly in the corner.
"I'm so sorry," Xena said.
I looked up and winced at the misery on her face.
"It wasn't your fault," I said. "Besides, it could have been worse. At least we weren't burned at the stake."
She jerked with a half-chuckle.
"How do you do that?" she asked
"Keep your sense of humor even when you feel so bad."
"I don't know; it's just the way I am." I paused. "See, I don't always keep my sense of humor. That wasn't funny at all." I tried to smile, but it took too much effort, so I gave up halfway through.
"You don't have to be brave all the time, you know." She ran her fingers through my hair, scratching my scalp lightly. It was heaven.
"I'm never brave," I grumbled. "That's the problem."
"Oh, you're wrong my bard. You're so very, very wrong."
I closed my eyes and remembered standing in a grove of trees. A group of dirty, smelly men were standing in front of me. To my rear, my mom, sister, and several other people stood cowering.
The leader was saying something about hacking us to pieces. I jumped forward.
Take me; let the others go.
"You're the bravest person I've ever known," Xena said, massaging the muscles in my shoulders. I relaxed into her touch and let sleep take me away for a while.
I woke up in Xena's arms. That was the bright spot in my otherwise horrendous existence. I felt like I had a fifty-pound hard hat on my head, and men were hitting it with ball-peen hammers. I swallowed and felt the rawness of my throat ravaged by my psychic puking. Every muscle ached even the one that makes your thumb go around in a circle.
Christ, I needed a vacation. I wondered whether God was powerful enough to stop time for a week or so in order for me to go somewhere tropical. I was sure I'd feel much better about facing pure evil when I was relaxed and had a nice tan.
I sighed and looked around. It was the middle of the night and we were in my bedroom again. But it was different. The room was filled with boxes. I peered at the one nearest. Printed on the top in black magic marker was the word "Linens." The box next to it read "Books Fiction." Thank god Emily had cleared out my stuff or there'd be a box labeled "Paraphernalia - Lesbian".
Jeez, my parents didn't waste any time. I'm sure my mom was already organizing the garage sale. She'd be trying to get some of the other neighbors in on it. She said you always got more customers if the little cardboard sign said "Eight Family Garage Sale". Maybe one of the other neighbors had a dead daughter with a nice set of dishes and a few good pieces of crystal.
I snorted, but it turned into a groan. I felt Xena's arms tighten around me.
"Hey," she whispered. "You OK?"
I nodded once. It was all I could manage.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Like leftover Chinese food limp, soggy, and all congealed together. But stick me in the microwave for a few minutes, and I'll be as good as new."
She smiled and brushed the hair out of my eyes. Her touch worked better than the microwave.
"What time is it?" I asked. I looked for my clock, but realized that it was packed away.
"The middle of the night," Xena replied.
"Shouldn't we be doing something?" I asked. Moving from Xena's arms was the last thing I wanted to do, but I felt like I should sound enthused.
"We have all day to stop the ascension," Xena replied.
"Speaking of which," I said, "you can say 'I told you so' now if you want."
"OK. I told you so."
"You weren't really supposed to say it." I glared at her.
"Why did you tell me I could?" She teased back.
"Xena, I can't handle feisty." I closed my eyes and let me head loll against her shoulder.
"Oh, Christ, I can't handle pity either. I'd rather go back to feisty."
"How about resolute?" I peeked at her. She clenched her jaw and focused her eyes at a point in the distance. It was very impressive.
"The 'now you've gone too far, it's time to show you what we're really made of' attitude?" I attempted to nod again, without much success.
"It's more like the 'let's just get this over with, I've got better things to do with my spare time' attitude," she replied.
"That'll work." I sighed.
"It'll be daylight in a few hours," Xena said, maintaining her resolve. "Try to get some more sleep."
I felt like I should argue, but there wasn't much we could do at that point anyway. Plans A, B, and probably C were shot to hell. We had less than twenty-four hours to use a few more letters. Sleep was probably a good idea. I hoped when I woke up I might actually be able to move my thumb in a circle again.
When I next woke, the faint light of a foggy dawn was shining through the window. I was alone in the bed and I looked around for Xena. I couldn't see her or hear her, and I felt instant, chilling panic. I pushed myself up just as she popped in front of me.
"Xena!" I cried, trying to slow my panting breaths. "You weren't here and I thought you were that it had that I was ."
"Shh," Xena said, sitting on the bed next to me. "I had to take care of some business. Someone was watching. They told me when you woke up."
"Uh what?" This was a new development.
"In most ways, we're alone in this fight," Xena explained. "But we do have some friends."
"Friends in high places?" I asked.
"Exactly." She smiled. "Anyway, I needed to have a word with them. We should be able to hide a little better now."
"That's good," I said, running my fingers through my hair. "But next time you talk to God, could you ask her a few things for me? I have this list."
"I think that can wait," Xena said with a grin. She held out her hand and I grabbed it, allowing myself to be pulled into a standing position. I swayed a bit and the world went fuzzy and gray, but after a few deep breaths, I was better.
"Let's go," she said. "I have an idea of where Derek is headed this morning."
I think it was the mention of the name that turned my legs to rubber and started my hands shaking. I suppose all of the blood drained from my face as well, because Xena's eyes widened, and she immediately grabbed my arm and helped me sit down again.
"Whoa, take it easy," she said, her forehead furrowing with worry.
"Sorry. Let's try that one again." I tried to stand up, but she held me down.
"Just give yourself a minute."
I took a few deep breaths, and then felt on the verge of hyperventilating.
"Sorry." I apologized again. I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
I wanted to say no. I was "Queen of Avoidance" it's how I dealt with all of the problems in my life. But when I put my tongue behind my teeth to start saying the word, I couldn't. I needed to talk about it, and Xena was willing to listen. That was a damn rare thing for me, so I couldn't miss the opportunity.
"When he looked at me, I saw things," I started to explain. I couldn't say his name. "He forced visions into my head and I could remember things."
"They were horrible." I felt the bile rise in my throat again.
"You don't have to tell me any more."
Oh, that was tempting. I smiled my thanks. But it was too late now; I'd started and I had to finish.
"It's strange, though," I continued. "They're like moments in time, but I don't have the rest of my memories to give them context."
I thought about one vision in particular and swallowed painfully.
"Xena did I murder a child?"
She went very still and I could see her body vibrate. I could almost hear it hum.
"No." It was an anguished whisper. "It wasn't like that."
I wanted to scream "what was it like?" but the words froze on my lips when I looked into her eyes. I had never seen such grief, such agony.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
"It's not your fault," she said, taking hold of my shoulders and staring intently into my eyes. "None of this is your fault, Gabrielle. Dahak is to blame. And we're going to stop him once and for all."
I nodded, feeding off her intensity. "Let's go kick Derek's ass," I hissed. Hey, I could do resolute too.
Xena led the way and I soon discovered that for Xena, resolute meant focused and focused meant silent. She was as silent as I almost said "the grave", but I won't go there. She was as silent as my high school library which was silent not because of a strict librarian but because no one ever went in there no one, that is, except Becky Foster and me when we wanted to neck. Shit, I'm digressing again, aren't I?
Anyway, Xena was silent. And I didnt like it. It meant she wasnt sharing The Plan. It also meant that I was left alone with my brain, which kept torturing me with those damn images. It was very unfair of my brain to turn on me like that. What was it with my body? I had taken pretty good care of it, after all on the whole all things considered better than some oh, forget it.
"So, where are we headed?" I asked to break the silence.
"West," the Human Compass responded.
I had a quick, almost uncontrollable urge to turn into a punching, kicking, clawing Tasmanian devil kind of creature and just turn on her. She really could be so annoying at times. But I maintained my composure.
"Right, thanks," I said pleasantly. "I had figured that out by the location of the sun and the fact we were headed downhill." I took a cleansing breath. "Any particular place in the west?"
She turned to me and actually looked contrite.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't know how much you wanted to talk about things. I should have told you the plan."
Good Lord Almighty! Xena apologizing for not sharing The Plan. Why don't you ever have a digital recorder when you need one?
"While you were asleep," she continued, ignoring the triumphant look on my face, "I started thinking about what we've been doing the past couple of days. We've been spending all of our time reacting. We need to start being proactive."
"Right," I agreed. "Act, don't react. I learned all about that in a management symposium once. Or maybe it was Girl Scouts."
"It all comes down to the Gabrielle collection."
"Coming to a museum near you. Replica items are available online at www.gabsrus.com."
She smiled. I love it when I can make Xena smile.
"He's obviously been searching the world for Gabrielle artifacts," Xena said. "So, I thought, why couldn't I do the same? He's after one final piece. I got a little help from our friends upstairs to figure out what it might be, and I located it. It's in an antique store on Fourth Street. We just need to get there ahead of him today."
"And this final piece is so important that it really matters?" I asked.
"It's the key to everything," she replied. "Without it, there will be no ascension."
It seemed odd that one thing could have that much power, but Xena seemed to know what she was talking about.
"And you're sure it's in this shop?" I asked, not wanting to waste our final opportunity.
"Yes," Xena replied. "I found the store last night and hacked into their computer."
"You're a hacker?"
"It's been 20 years since I died," Xena said with an enigmatic smile. "I had to do something to pass the time."
"You mean watching me wasn't entertaining enough?" I smirked.
"You had your moments, sweetheart."
I hadn't blushed since I was eight and my zipper broke in the middle of a spelling bee. But by golly, her words made me blush scarlet. My face felt like the George Foreman grill.
"Anyway," I said with a croak, then cleared my throat and started over. "Anyway, you hacked into the store's computer wait a minute, how did you manage that if you can't touch anything?"
"I didn't need to. I could just use my mental energy to enter the commands. Our friends helped with that as well."
"Hey, that's not fair! I want a little help too. When we're all done today, can they help me drink a cup of coffee?"
"Allison, this is serious."
"I'm being serious. Look this is my serious face." I pursed my lips, jutted out my jaw, and squinted my eyes. She didn't look moved. I decided to try begging. "Xena, please, I'm desperate."
"OK." She caved. "Tomorrow we'll have a word with them."
"Yes!" I did an abbreviated version of the cabbage patch dance. Xena waited.
"So," I finally said after I'd composed myself, "getting back to the store."
"Right," Xena said with an exaggerated sigh. "Derek has purchased this piece and they're holding it for him. He picks it up this afternoon."
"But we're going to get there first," I said.
"And then we're going to " I realized I still wasn't quite sure of The Plan. "We're going to do what, Xena?"
"Gabrielle, yesterday when Derek looked at you, he gave away something." She paused, gazing at me.
I tried not to jerk at the mention of his name, or tremble when I thought about what had happened, or let sweat break out on my upper lip. I failed miserably at all three.
"I'm sorry," Xena said. Her eyes held anguish, as if she was the one who was hurting me.
"It's OK," I said, taking a deep breath. "It's not your fault. I can deal."
She stroked my arm. "Are you sure?"
I nodded. "What did he give away?"
"I thought we were dealing with a normal living person," Xena explained. "That he would only change at the time of Dahak's ascension."
"You mean he's not normal and living?" I was a touch confused.
"Not if he can see us, not if he can do what he did to you."
"I suppose so " I was having trouble seeing the big picture. I couldn't even make out the lower left-hand corner of it.
"If he can see us, he must be like us in some way," Xena added.
"Which means I'm going to confront him, overpower him, and pop him somewhere."
"Wh huh bu Are you crazy!" What I lost in coherency I made up for in volume.
"Gab-Allison, relax. I'll be fine."
"No, no, no," I said, shaking my head back and forth.
"No," I added for good measure.
"It'll work. Trust me."
Did I mention I have trust issues?
"He'll hurt you," I said. The fear started eating at my stomach.
I made a mental note: "Self, next time, don't ask about The Plan. It's better that you don't know."
"He won't hurt me," Xena said emphatically. "The worst that can happen is that I'm wrong, and we'll have to rethink the whole thing. But listen, I want you to stay well away from him, do you understand?"
"Oh, loud and clear," I replied, nodding frantically.
Thankfully, I didn't have much time to think about things, since our conversation had brought us to Fourth Street.
"It's just down here, beyond the diner," Xena said, putting her hand on the small of my back and leading me toward the shop.
It was like walking into Aladdin's cave. The store held antiques and curios from around the world, but it seemed to specialize in Asian items there were ornate cabinets, exquisite tea sets, gorgeous jade pieces, beautifully carved dragons. My eyes were drawn to a silk kimono that was encased in glass and hanging on the wall. It was emblazoned with a green dragon. I felt an itch between my shoulder blades, and I jiggled my shoulders.
"Come this way," Xena said, taking my elbow and moving me back into the store. There was a staircase and we took it to an upper level. It was the store's business office, and it provided a clear view of the entire floor below.
"I'll stay up here with you until Derek shows and we make sure he has the piece. Then you stay right here," Xena said. She didn't exactly command it, but it was a strong suggestion. You're thinking I argued. You're wrong. I had absolutely no intention of getting any closer. My belly was yellow, and I was proud of it.
"Xena, please, are you sure you"
"Don't worry about it." Xena dazzled me with a smile and I felt the fear in my stomach release a little. "I've met Derek before when he was the Deliverer. I held my own."
In one of the visions Derek had forced on me, I could see, through the fire and the pain, Xena fighting a demon. She was grinning. Yeah, I'd say she was pretty good at holding her own.
"OK, just be careful," I urged.
"I always am." I knew she was lying about that, but I grinned anyway. Her confidence was contagious. Maybe we'd make it after all.
We watched the small Japanese woman behind the counter sip her tea. Other than moving the teacup to her lips, and pouring herself a fresh cup twice, she didn't move. After about fifteen minutes, the door chimed and a young couple wandered in. They browsed through the store, commenting on a few of the pieces. I could feel Xena tense. She didn't want anyone getting hurt. She calmed down when they left.
After thirty interminable minutes, the door opened. As Derek walked into the store, I froze and stopped breathing. I probably could have stayed that way, since I was already dead, but Xena squeezed my arm reassuringly and I managed to suck in some superfluous air.
I looked at her and tried to make my eyes tell her everything be careful, don't take stupid risks, kick his ass, come back up here in one piece, don't forget the coffee when we're done, and a hundred other things. She smiled. She understood.
We watched Derek walked up to the counter. Without speaking, the woman stood and bowed to him, and then leaned down and pulled out a package. She carefully unwrapped the brown paper and held out the object. Derek took it and held it up in the light.
It was a Japanese sword gorgeous and obviously very, very old.
And then I felt as if my brain was tearing in two pieces.
The memories that Derek had forced on me the day before had been painful, but this time I felt like a giant fist had reached through my chest and was squeezing my heart. It hurt worse than I can possibly describe.
The images were quick and blurry: mud and blood standing in the rain a flash of thunder illuminating Xena's headless body.
I felt the rain pelting me. I could feel Xena's hand on my shoulder. But that was impossible. She was dead.
It was bitterly cold and the sun was setting. I was running out of time. I had to hurry.
The pot in my hand reflected on the still water. Then her hand wrapped around mine, stopping me.
I can't come back. I can't.
I sank to my knees, barely feeling the hardwood floors.
"Gabrielle, what is it?" Xena's voice sounded far away.
"You left me," I heard myself reply.
"Don't call me that."
I ran - popped back to the scene of my death. I could see the skid marks on the pavement. Cars whizzed past me. And the images of Japa came back to me.
It was like watching a movie 70 millimeter with Dolby Surround Sound. And I couldn't stop the film. I couldn't get up to buy popcorn or hide in the bathroom. I couldn't even scrunch down in my seat or cover my eyes or turn my head. The movie ran on, and when it was finished, it started up again. I think I screamed. I know I cried. And then I sank into darkness.
I awoke in Xena's arms again just as I had after my death.
"I'm sorry," she said.
I tried to force words into my head true words, better words: I am Allison Peckham. I live at 2251 Rose Street in Berkeley. I grew up in Portland. (I pushed away a memory of a village and a house made of wood and thatch.) I am an assistant editor for the University Press. (I do not write in scrolls with a quill.) I have a sister named Lisa (not Lila) and parents named Howard and Helen (not Heroditus and Hecuba).
I had to get those images out of my head.
"I am Allison Peckham," I mumbled.
"Shh, sweetheart, just rest." She ran fingers through my hair.
"Why did you leave me?"
I remembered asking that question to the wind for years how many was it? Ten, I think, before a fever took me.
"I thought I was doing the right thing," she said, rocking me.
"The right thing for whom?" I couldn't look at her, just stared at the traffic whizzing past.
"The right thing for those souls and for my own redemption."
"What about me?" The words echoed through the millennia. The words I had longed to say to her, to scream at her.
The echo faded slowly, into the silent gulf that had grown between us.
The silence was deafening, and I had to get away from it. I crawled suddenly out of her arms and stood on swaying feet. She began to get up and I stumbled away a few steps, out of her reach. She stood and moved toward me, her arm outstretched. She remained speechless. I wanted her to say something, to explain, to excuse, to deny. Of course, I would accept none of it.
"Gabrielle," she finally said, her voice cracking.
"We've been together for three days. Why didn't you say anything?"
"I didn't know what to say how to say it." She looked down at her fingers, which were twitching with nervous energy.
"All I wanted to do," I cried, "was remember my life so that we could be together again. So that we could love again."
"That's all I wanted as well," she said. Her eyes were filled with tears, and they refracted the light like a prism. Their beauty made me angrier.
"What were you going to do when I remembered Japa?" I sneered.
"I hoped we could talk after this was over, after Dahak was defeated."
"Sit down with our feet up and chat about old times?" I asked bitterly. The anger exploded inside me. "Fuck that! Fuck Dahak and the afterlife and this stupid-ass mission for the greater good.
"And fuck you," I whispered, my rage-fueled energy suddenly spent.
I wanted to be away from her. Away from all that she would say. And so, again, I was somewhere else. It was somewhere quiet and warm and peaceful. I sat down on the ground and pulled my knees up toward my chin. I wrapped my arms around my legs and buried my face in my thighs. I rocked myself and I finally began to cry, as all of my memories began to flow into me.
All of my memories slid into place my life as Gabrielle and all of my other lives. Xena said that the katana was the key to everything. Boy, was she right about that. My lifetimes became a means of trying to understand and learn from what Xena had done in Japa. I became a fighter for the greater good; I was courageous, tenacious, tough.
And now here I sat, at the pinnacle of my karmic cycle, and I still didn't understand why she left me, why she sacrificed our love.
"Don't cry Gabrielle."
I looked up into the face of a sweet, innocent boy.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Lief. Don't you remember me?"
I wiped the tears off my cheeks with shaking hands.
"I'm in Heaven?" Lief was my guardian angel. I had met him in my brief time in Heaven after Xena and I had been crucified.
"I guess you came here because you needed to be somewhere peaceful," Lief said, sitting down beside me.
"I guess I just ran out of places to go," I said, laughing bitterly.
It was ironic really: the last time we were in Heaven, Xena had tried to take me to Hell in order to keep us together for eternity. Just a few years later she ended up leaving me alone in a living hell.
I stood up suddenly, as if there was somewhere in the universe that I could actually go. I was swamped by the memories of Heaven Xena sacrificing her soul for Callisto, my own forgiveness of Callisto, my battle with demon Xena.
"What's going to happen?" Lief asked innocently, as if I could answer. At least it stilled the memories.
"Xena will win," I replied, with an exhausted sigh. "She always does."
"No she won't." He said it with such finality, that I believed him. Do angels lie?
"You think I should go down there and help her," I said, not meeting his eyes. "I should just forget everything? Even if I could, I can't help her. I'm not strong enough."
"You are," he said, rising to stand next to me. "You're stronger and braver than anyone I know."
"I thought you knew Xena," I replied with a scoffing snort.
He looked lost.
"That was supposed to be sarcasm."
"Oh." He still looked lost. He was very innocent.
"Look, Lief, if Xena can't defeat Dahak, then no one can."
"You can. You have to."
He looked at me like I was his hero and I was completely letting him down. His eyes were filling with tears, and if I'd had any left inside of me, I would have cried in reaction.
I was no one's hero. I couldn't be. I was a fuck up. I put myself and my love above everything. Despite that or maybe because of it - those I loved ended up dead Eli, Perdicus, Joxer, Hope. And Xena. The memories of their deaths swam before me and I sat down again, hard all of the pain, and the blood, and the anguish.
Eli, my mentor I stood by and let Ares murder him. Xena's accusing words rang in my mind.
The only reason that people like Eli exist is because people like us defend them when they won't defend themselves.
Perdicus, my husband, whose only crime was to love me. I was too much of a coward to tell him that my life had changed and that knowing me had become dangerous.
Joxer. I treated him like a clown, but he loved me and died for me.
And Hope my child. Was Dahak's claim on her really stronger than my own? I would never know.
I stopped my mental ramblings as something began to tickle the back of my mind. I had an idea. It wasn't a very good one, and I hadn't really thought it through, but it was time to act, not react. Or maybe it was reacting. I didn't really care any more.
"Lief," I said, taking his hand, "I'm going to ask you to do something, but if you don't want to, I won't be mad at you." I winced. In Allison's my lifetime, the worst thing I had ever done to someone was break up with her. Now I was going to ask someone to go to Hell. Actually, it wasn't that different.
"I'll do anything, Gabrielle."
"Don't say that." I paused, but the devoted puppy look didn't fade. I shouldn't have gotten him involved, but it was too late.
"The only person who can defeat Dahak is his own offspring," I stated quickly, hoping that he wouldn't question my audacious assumption. (Wild ass guess is probably a better description.)
"Yeah," Lief replied. Good, he was buying into my theory.
"Well, Dahak had a child. She was called Hope. You know enough about me to know that, right?" He nodded. "If we can get Hope to fight against Dahak, she can destroy him."
I thought about the images that Derek had dumped on me. They were all now a part of my normal memory, but they were no less disturbing. I shivered, and tried not to think of Hope any more than I had to.
"I suppose you're right." Uh oh, my disciple was wavering.
"I'm hoping no pun intended that she's in hell." I looked at him for confirmation, but now he'd fallen a few steps behind me. "Lief, do you know if she's in Hell?"
"What? Oh, yes, she is," he confirmed. "We thought that Dahak would claim her, but once you killed her and her offspring, he didn't want to know."
"Good, this will work then."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand." He was very sweet. I didn't want him to get hurt too many people were hurt already.
"We're going to Hell," I said matter-of-factly. "You don't have to come if you don't want to, but I might need a little help. I mean, my brain remembers how to fight, but my current body certainly doesn't."
"Why are we going to Hell?"
"We're going to get Hope, bring her out, and she's going to kill Derek for us. Hopefully there's that word again he'll let her get close enough. Well let's just cross that bridge when we come to it."
Lief's eyes were very expressive. They held every emotion. At that moment, they were completely lacking in comprehension. I waited. Slowly, he started putting pieces together. When he finally realized what I was proposing, pain filled his eyes.
"No," he said, shaking his head.
"Look, maybe we'll figure out another way once we're down there."
"There is no other way," he said.
"Then it's the way it's going to be." I paused. "Lief, Dahak will destroy the entire human race, but he won't stop there. He'll destroy everything in existence. He'll take over Heaven and Hell we have to do whatever we can to stop that."
I could see my words sink into Lief's brain. Finally, he looked at me and nodded decisively.
"Let's go," he said.
"Where do you think you're going?"
I knew it was Michael before I turned around. His voice was as full of conceit as usual. Lief stopped and cowered a bit. I gave my guardian angel what I hoped was an encouraging smile.
"Michael, I'm glad you're here," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. "I need my wings."
"You'll have to earn them," Michael said, striding towards us. He really was a smug bastard.
"I've already earned them," I said, standing my ground. "Don't you remember? I didn't think it was something that could be taken away again."
"Perhaps not," he said, obviously pondering how to play me. "But why do you need them now?"
"I'm planning on doing a little flying," I replied. "I was going to have Lief carry me, but having my own wings not to mention the sword and armor that goes with them would be much more convenient."
"Are you planning on doing battle?"
"Perhaps," I replied. It was my turn to ponder how much to say. I decided to go for it. "I'm going to Hell to find Hope. Then you're going to send her to earth to help Xena defeat Dahak."
He laughed condescendingly. "Hope is a demon, she won't help you."
"She will help when I've saved her soul. I'm going to trade places with her." I tried to sound decisive, but my voice wavered a bit. I titled my chin up and set my jaw to make up for it.
I actually succeeded in striking Michael speechless, albeit for only a few seconds.
"Gabrielle, that's madness," he finally said.
"No, it isn't. It's what needs to be done," I replied.
"You and Xena can fight together to defeat Dahak"
"No, we can't!" I shouted. "I'm sick of arguing this. You know I'm right, the gods know I'm right, I know I'm right. So if you're not going to give me my wings, then Lief can take me down."
I could feel my knees shaking with a combination of fear and anger. I was operating on pure adrenaline, and I knew it wouldn't last. I didn't have time to prolong this discussion. I turned and grabbed Lief's arm.
"Wait," Michael said, stopping me in my tracks. "You're right, Gabrielle. It may be the only way. And it's your choice to make. Stand away from Lief."
I took a few steps to the side and closed my eyes. I felt a tingling sensation up my spine, and then I opened my eyes. I felt my wings unfold and looked down at my uniform. I looked hot, if I do say so myself. It was too bad I wouldn't have time to enjoy it.
"Thank you," I said, nodding to Michael.
"What do I tell Xena?" he asked as I turned away.
Maybe he wanted me to say something mushy like "tell her I love her" or something heroic like "I did it so that all men could live free."
"Nothing," I replied, not turning around to look at him. "I have nothing to say to her."
"Lief, Hope is in the cavern next to the lake of fire," Michael instructed, not commenting on my statement.
Lief nodded and jumped off the cliff edge. I squared my shoulders and leapt after him.
Some of you might think what I was planning to do was incredibly noble. Others might think I was a heartless bitch. You're both wrong. I was tired, I was hurting, and I wanted the hurting to stop.
I decided what I was about to do would be best for everyone.
Lief seemed to know exactly where he was going, and I followed behind, taking a moment to enjoy the feeling of flying. I felt like I was in a dream, but I shook myself and bit the inside of my cheek, forcing my mind to focus on the task ahead.
It got darker as we descended, and the air became hot. It smelled of rotten food and shit and dead things, and my eyes watered. I wiped them with my palms and tried not to gag.
We entered a dark cavern and Lief glanced back. I could see the fear in his eyes.
Please don't let him get hurt, I murmured to whomever was in charge. Then I realized that She was watching this unfold, and I became angry. Certainly She had the power to defeat Dahak. Why were Xena and I constantly forced to do the gods' dirty work?
We landed in the middle of what appeared to be an empty cavern. Lief looked around nervously. It was dark and misty, and I tried to see more than a few feet around me. Suddenly, forms started to drift toward us out of the mist.
"Go back now, Lief," I said, pushing him gently.
"No," he replied, planting his feet. "I need to help you."
"You have no weapon. I just needed a guide." The beings were getting closer. Some were human, or seemed to be; others were demons, with leathery wings and the faces of gargoyles. "Please go, Lief."
I drew my sword. It whispered as it slipped through the sheath. The sound was met by answering growls. A demon rushed me and I swung my weapon, taking its head off neatly. My fighting reflexes were better than I expected.
Two more beings slunk toward me, and I prepared to do battle, but a voice rose above the grunts and growls.
"Hello, Mother." It was my voice, but pitched lower. I felt bile at the back of my throat. "What a pleasant surprise. Hey, everyone, I want you to meet my mom." The phony conversational tone set my teeth on edge.
Hope walked out of the dark mist and stood before me. She looked exactly like me, except for the leathery wings of a demon, and two small horns sprouting from her forehead. The beings around us didn't seem to know how to react, so they stood, snarling and pawing the ground.
"So, what brings you to Hell, Mother?" Hope asked, smiling and showing her fangs. "Just wanted to catch up on old times?"
"I need your help to defeat your father," I replied, keeping my voice steady. I have to admit, it sure as hell wasnt easy.
"Defeat my father, now why would I want to help you do that?" She laughed. It was the sound of a needle scratching a record.
"Because it's the right thing to do."
"Oh, Mother, you seem to have forgotten, I don't do the right thing. I'm evil, remember?"
"You did evil things, Hope, but now it's time to do something good."
She stared at me as if I was the one who had grown horns in my forehead. For a moment, I saw something in her eyes. Could it have been remorse? Whatever it was, it was quickly extinguished.
"You've come to kill me again," she said, stepping within arm's reach. I could smell her foul breath, hot on my face. "How many times have you killed me, Mother? At least three, I think. When you gave me the poison, did you laugh when I went into convulsions?"
It was a slap to my face, and the sting brought tears to my eyes. I remembered holding her small hand as she died, and telling her I loved her.
"You gave me no choice," I said, feeling a hot tear slide down my cheek.
"I was a child!" she shouted, leaning in toward me. "I needed love and understanding. You gave me hatred and death."
"I did love you," I whispered. I reached out my hand and she froze. I felt heat flowing through my arm. I placed my open palm against her chest. "I still love you. I still have hope."
I focused my energy toward her and I felt all of my warmth and kindness, all of my hopes and dreams, flow out of me. I was like a teapot and she was a cup. My soul was poured into her until I was an empty vessel. All that was left behind was a cold, dark, empty husk.
Well, you know that's not the end of the story. I can't tell you much of what happened in Hell after that. I was left a demon and Hope was redeemed. Soon after the exchange occurred, Lief grabbed Hope and they flew away as quickly as they could. Hope's little demon friends were too confused and stunned to follow before it was too late. Lief and Hope were intercepted by Michael, who was conveniently standing by, and he sent her to Xena.
Lief told me all of that later. As for my own memory of my time in h-e-double hockey sticks, it's just static like when the cable wire falls out of the back of the TV. You pound the remote against the sofa cushions, but it doesn't help. I truly believe that it's better that way.
Unfortunately, in order to tell you the next part of the story, we will have to rely on what Xena told me of the events. It took me hours to wring out even a small amount of detail. If I relate her version word-for-word, it would fill about two paragraphs. And that's only if I add dialogue. So, most of what I'm going to tell you is well enhanced. Hey, I'm the bard here. It's my story. So cut me some slack.
Xena lost Derek when she followed me. After I left her, she remained near the freeway for a long time, reliving her own memories of Japa. My pain-filled face, from past and present, haunted her. She considered just giving up, finding some corner of limbo or something. But Xena's not a quitter. After a while, she realized that she still needed to defeat Dahak. Once she'd completed that task, she'd be able to focus on us.
She returned to the forecourt of the castle, where the final guests were arriving in their limos and sports cars. Women in designer gowns were carefully eyeing each other to make sure that no style was too much like another. Expensive jewels on fingers, throats, and wrists glittered in the flashbulbs of the paparazzi.
Xena followed the guests inside. The theme of the party was "A Midsummer-Night's Dream", which meant there was a lot of greenery to simulate a forest glen and sparkling fairy lights provided the only illumination. Despite the gloom of the low light, it really did look magical. The guests were enthralled. Xena knew better.
She continued to wander, keeping a look out for Derek, since he was the only one who could see her. He wasn't greeting his guests at the front door, so Xena carefully slipped into the main banquet hall. He wasn't there either, and Xena took a position in a dark corner.
Several hours went by with typical charity ball goings-on. There was a lot of buffet nibbling, elbow rubbing, back slapping, glad-handing, speeches, and more elbow rubbing. Men laughed loudly at things that weren't funny and women gossiped in the powder room. Xena's quiet corner was used once for a quick sexual encounter and once for a quick drug purchase. Other than those incidents, the most exciting aspect of the evening for Xena was watching the ice sculpture melt. It started the evening as a giant swan. After a few hours, it still looked like a swan, but only if you closed one eye and tilted your head sideways.
Finally, Derek was called up to the podium to give his big speech of the evening. Xena watched and listened. She didn't have long to wait. Derek's speech started out normally. He opened with a joke that wasn't funny and then segued into helping your fellow man, blah blah blah, patriotism, yadda yadda yadda, the end of the universe as we know it.
Ah, that last line piqued Xena's interest. Yep, that was definitely the cue. In the background, the soft music that had been playing changed to a minor chord and increased in volume. Derek's words became indistinct. Xena watched as the faces around hers went blank.
She felt a faint stirring in the back of her mind, but she was protected from the force of Derek's power. Still, she decided it would be best to take up her new post, so she popped to the basement and hid under the stairs, waiting for the next phase of the party.
That's where Hope and Michael found her.
"Gabrielle," Xena said to the woman who suddenly materialized before her.
"I'm not Gabrielle," Hope said softly, uncertain what to say to Xena and how to say it.
"Allison," Xena said, correcting herself.
"No," Hope said hesitantly.
Xena stopped, confused. She looked at Michael, and then back at the woman.
Xena sprang forward, her eyes flashing blue fire. Michael hastily moved, putting his body between the two women.
"Xena, wait," Michael said sternly.
"It's not what you think," Hope tried to explain. "I'm here to help."
"Go to hell," Xena whispered menacingly.
"I'd be there now if it wasn't for Gabrielle," Hope said sadly.
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you remember your sacrifice for Callisto?" Michael asked.
I can imagine Xena's face as the realization of what I did hit her like a two-by-four. "No " she said, the air sucked from her lungs.
"She knew I was the only one who could get close enough to Derek." Hope's eyes reflected her sympathy.
"She wouldn't do that," Xena said, shaking her head.
"Sacrifice her soul for the greater good?" Michael asked. "Didn't you teach her everything she knew? She learned well."
Xena stood still, contemplating what Hope and Michael were saying. She considered what I had done and why I had done it. Guilt and pain seared her like a brand.
"This can't be happening," Xena gasped. "I need to find her, to save her."
Xena prepared to pop directly into Hell, ready to bring me out or die trying.
"Xena, don't make her sacrifice meaningless," Hope said, reaching out and grabbing Xena's arm. "Help me get close to Derek. If we can defeat him, we won't just stop Dahak's ascension, we will destroy Dahak forever. That's what mother would have wanted."
Xena hesitated. She gathered herself to pop, already calling my name in her mind.
"Please, Xena," Hope said in a hoarse whisper, "we both know that I'm right. This is right."
They were the exact words I'd used to convince Xena to stay and fight the Persians instead of saving me. I don't know if Hope quoted me deliberately, but the combination of her words and my face spoke to Xena, convincing her to focus once again on defeating Dahak.
"All right," Xena said, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
"I can't help you with this fight," Michael said, looking between the two women. "Xena, we've decided to give you the ability to interact with the living. They'll be able to see you and speak to you. That means you'll be able to fight."
"Perfect," Xena replied, her lip turning up in a fierce sneer.
"And you'll need this as well." Michael snapped his fingers and Xena's sword materialized in his hands. He passed it to Xena.
She took it and twirled it, slashing the air in graceful arcs. "Even better," she purred.
Michael nodded and disappeared. Then, Xena turned to Hope.
"I'll help you get to Derek," Xena said. "Then what happens?"
"Leave that to me," Hope replied. Xena looked at her dubiously. "Xena, trust me, please?"
Hope smiled. It was an open, loving smile and Xena suddenly saw the face of the child that we had always wanted.
"I don't want you to get hurt," Xena said. "Gabrielle sacrificed her soul for you."
"She sacrificed her soul for you too, Xena. I pray that you'll both have an opportunity to understand when this is over."
Xena felt emotion choke her and she forced her feelings down. She had to focus.
"OK," Xena replied. "I'll trust you." She looked up at a sound from high above the basement. "And right on cue, it sounds like the party is about to begin."
She grabbed Hope's wrists and stared into her eyes. "Stay behind me and I'll clear a path to Derek. I'll trust you to pick your own moment."
Hope nodded. She didn't show fear, just acceptance of her fate.
"Your mother would be proud of you," Xena said, letting go of her wrists.
Tears sprang to Hope's eyes and she leaned toward Xena, hugging her tightly.
"Thank you," Hope whispered. Xena returned the hug, and then pulled away, holding her sword high as the sound of marching footsteps rang down the stairs and throughout the basement.
Derek's party was the social event of the year. All of the Bay Area's movers and shakers had been invited. From the looks of the people descending the staircase, few had turned down the invitation. Xena estimated that over a thousand people were filling the basement. Derek led the procession, and his guests marched in step behind him, their eyes empty of life, chanting in a language that no one on earth had ever spoken.
When they reached the floor of the basement, they fanned out around the altar. Derek took his place in the center, on the raised dais. The altar separated into two pieces, moving apart and revealing the huge fissure, which was now belching steam and glowing red. The noxious smell of sulfur filled the basement.
Derek withdrew the katana from the folds of his coat and raised it high above his head.
"With this final piece, I commit to you the soul of She Who Betrayed You, Oh Great Master." Derek's words rang out above the chant. He turned to his left and motioned someone forward. The person was wearing a cloak, and Xena watched as Derek removed the cloak, revealing our descendent the girl we had last seen in Derek's apartment three days before.
"With the death of this innocent, I sacrifice the soul of She Who Betrayed You, Oh Great Master."
He raised the sword. Things were moving far faster than Xena had planned, and she stepped forward, ready to begin the battle.
"Leave her alone, Derek!" Hope's shout rang above the sound of chanting voices.
Xena stepped from her position beneath the stairs, shielding Hope's body from the first attack, which came quickly and savagely from one of the partygoers. Xena soon learned that spiked heels hurt, especially when they were motivated by an evil, unearthly power.
Hope was pure and good what I'd always wanted her to be. Unfortunately, that meant she couldn't fight worth a damn. Luckily, Xena made up for my daughter's shortcomings. Xena's anxiety and anger had reached boiling point. Bashing heads was just what she needed.
Somehow, Xena kept in mind that she was battling innocent strangers. She used the hilt and blunt edge of her sword and managed not to kill anyone. She did, however, break a heck of a lot of noses and jaws. And several arms. And one or two legs. Did I mention the concussions?
It took only moments to cross the floor. Bodies lay in their path. Only a few more stood between Xena and Derek. One of the last remaining was our descendent, who walked calmly and deliberately towards Xena.
"You aren't going to ruin the party are you?" she asked, wrinkling her adorable nose. Xena noticed that her pupils were wide only small rings of her irises were visible. She was totally under Derek's control.
Xena felt Hope move away from her back and glanced quickly to the side to see a man grab Hope by the arm and drag her on to the dais beside Derek.
"No!" Xena cried, keeping up the charade. Our many times great granddaughter laughed, throwing her head back. Then she sprang on Xena, and Xena allowed her sword to be knocked to the ground and her arms to be pinned by two burly men.
"Don't hurt her. Please, Derek, take me instead." Xena's delivery was worthy of an Academy Award.
"When I've finished with the sacrifice, I'll take you as well," Derek said, leering at Hope. "Come, my darling. Dahak has been waiting for you."
He reached out and took Hope's face in his hands. The moment he made contact, his eyes widened as surprise, and then agony, tore through his mind.
"NO!" he screamed, unable to remove his hands. The cry echoed from the glowing hole beneath them.
"Yes," Hope said, reaching out and grabbing his waist. She pushed forward suddenly and twisted, knocking Derek off balance. Xena watched the scene progress in slow motion, just as it had when I knocked Hope into the lava pit those millennia ago.
Xena listened to Derek's screams as they faded into the depths. For a moment, all sound stopped. Then, from miles below them, a rumbling started, quickly rising in intensity and turning into a howl of anger.
Xena felt the hands gripping her arms loosen and she turned to look around. She saw people shaking themselves, freed from Dahak's control. The ground began to move and Xena remembered the temple in Britannia.
"OK, everyone!" she shouted, "Move it! Up the stairs, help those who can't walk. We need to get out of here!"
She turned to our descendent, who was rubbing her temples, her eyes still unfocused. She wrapped an arm around the girl's waist and began to drag her toward the stairs. Once she was sure that the girl was moving in the right direction, she turned to others in the basement.
She grabbed and shoved nearby bodies, pushing them in the direction of a few people who were still semi-conscious or had broken legs. She made sure everyone was mobile in some fashion, and began to herd people back up the stairs.
The altar began to crumble, and Xena turned to watch pieces fall into the pit. She saw my things begin to fall with the altar, and ran over, grabbing a scroll and the chakram. Everything else was already gone.
The earthquake became more intense, and she pushed the last few stragglers up the steps.
"Take your shoes off if you can't run in them!" she cried, watching as $300 pairs of shoes rained over the edges of the stairs.
Once they reached the banquet room, many people stopped and milled around, confused about where they were and where they'd been.
"Keep moving, all the way out of the house!" Xena instructed. Most people didn't need to be told twice, although a few were sheltering under the tables.
"That means everyone!" Xena cried, pulling people by their feet from their hiding places and pushing them toward the exits.
She continued to move the throng of people out of the house, and then out of the grounds. Only when they were on the drive and out onto the road did she stop and turn around. They had only moments to spare before the house fell into pieces, imploding and dropping into the massive fissure.
Within fifteen minutes, nothing remained but a few pieces of foundation, which could have been there originally.
"Is the party over?"
Xena turned to find our multiple-great granddaughter. She looked into the face that was so much like my own. The jade eyes haunted her. The memory of my sacrifice, now coupled with Hope's, dropped back on her shoulders, and she staggered under the weight.
She knew that she should speak to this girl. Explain and instruct and get to know. But she was tired so very, very tired.
"Go home and get some sleep," Xena said, her voice sounding rough and gravelly. "Everything will be fine in the morning."
"'Kay," the girl said, still having trouble focusing her eyes. She turned and began to stumble down the drive.
"Wait a minute," Xena called. "What's your name?"
The girl turned around. "Natasha," she replied.
Natasha Greek for rebirth. Xena managed a smile.
"Here," she said, handing Natasha the scroll that she'd saved. "This was meant for you."
The girl took it and nodded, but looked confused.
Xena paused and looked at the chakram in her hand, and then handed that to the girl as well.
"You'll understand someday," Xena said. She felt a tear fall down her face and hastily brushed it away with the back of her hand.
"Maybe I'll see you around," the girl said. She looked like she wanted to say more, but couldn't find the words.
"Maybe," Xena replied. "Until then, though " She paused, knowing there was so much she should say, but not having the strength to say it.
"Just be good," Xena finally managed. Then she turned and walked away.
Xena walked down the hill, in the same direction that we'd headed the night we first discovered the castle. She had no idea where she was going and didn't bother trying to figure it out. She didn't want to think, so she didn't. She walked.
When she saw the deck where we'd slept, her feet took her there, and she lay down on the chair where we had lain. Sleep was good. It took her away from reality from the reality that no longer had me in it. So she slept.
I've gotta say, if you've been to Hell, literally and figuratively, there's no better way to come back than to wake up in a nice, warm, comfortable bed snuggled up to a nice, warm, comfortable body.
I thought about that dreamily until I started to wonder what nice, warm, comfortable bed I was in and what nice, warm, comfortable body I was snuggled against. I slowly opened my eyes and saw a cave mouth with an angel flying across the sky in the distance. A bed in heaven. That answered the first question. I turned my head and finished the puzzle. Staring back at me, just beginning to focus, was Xena.
We both realized where we were at the same instant, and she let go of me just as I pulled away. I have never felt so many intense emotions in a single moment as I felt then. Love, anger, hate, pain they all rose inside my mind, vying for attention like spoiled children. I watched as Xena's eyes reflected the same mixture of feelings.
"So you saved the universe," I finally murmured. "Again."
"I couldn't have done it without your help," Xena replied softly.
"You mean without Hope's help," I said. I looked down at the comforter, no longer able to meet those piercing blue eyes. They were asking me questions I couldn't answer.
"Hope wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for you," Xena said. She carefully reached out her hand and gently tilted my face up, forcing me to meet her gaze once more. "Why?"
She didn't need to elaborate; I knew what she was asking.
"I thought it would be for the best better for everyone," I answered, my voice quavering.
She nodded, as if I had just told her I believed in aliens from another planet. She didn't necessarily agree with me, but she was willing to consider it if I truly believed.
"Do you still think that?" she asked.
Her face was open and her eyes gentle. I knew she would accept any answer I gave her. I knew it was time for honesty. Of course, I had to be honest with myself first. That was a little trickier. I looked deep into my heart, and she waited.
"No," I finally whispered. And then louder, "No."
She didn't grin triumphantly, as if she'd won a point in a game. She isn't like that, and that's one of the reasons why I love her. She remained quiet, waiting for me to continue. Finally, all of the tumbling emotions inside my head settled down, and I felt everything click into place.
"It may have been the only way to save the universe," I said, my voice firm. "It may have been the best way. But it wasn't better for everyone. I hurt you, and I'm sorry." I reached out a hand and placed it over hers. Her hand was hard yet soft; I rubbed my thumb over the little scar on her middle knuckle. The familiar feelings brought tears to my eyes.
"Gabrielle, what I did in Japa," she hesitated over the word and stared at me intently, gauging my reaction. I struggled to continue breathing. I just managed to keep my lungs moving. "I felt like you did, that what I was doing was the right thing, the best thing for everyone."
My lungs stopped, and I forced them to go again. Damn, it was hard.
"Like you said about your sacrifice," Xena continued, "it might have been the only way and it might have been the best way to save those souls. But I sacrificed our love. That was wrong. Please, please forgive me."
Now it looked like Xena's lungs had stopped. She stilled and waited.
"Of course," I said, feeling my chin turn into wobbly Jell-O. "If you'll forgive me as well."
"Always." It was her smile that made my tears finally pour out. She reached toward me and I crawled into her arms.
She let me cry, rocking me gently, until my tears ran out.
"From now on," she said, when my breathing finally evened out, "we're only allowed to do selfless acts for the greater good together. If you're set on going to Hell, I'm right behind you."
I leaned back and looked into her eyes. "Sounds like a plan. I've got your back."
"And I've got yours," she said with a lopsided grin.
I pushed myself up and captured her lips in mine. It had been such a long, long time. She wrapped her arms around me, pulling me closer. What began as a gentle kiss soon turned heated, as our mouths impatiently tried to get reacquainted.
"Well, I'm glad you guys got that sorted out." Michael's obnoxious voice echoed off the stone walls of the chamber. I stayed where I was.
Until I smelled an unmistakable odor.
"Oh .my .God!" I sprang out of Xena's arms, got my legs tangled in the sheets, elbowed the pillow into Xena's face, and eventually righted myself. "Is that coffee?"
Michael stood before me with a large white mug. He presented it to me with a cocky grin. My own face broke into a rapturous smile when the mug didn't slip through my fingers.
"Just the way you like it," he announced. "It's the least we could do."
I leaned my head over the mug and smelled it, letting the steam tickle my nose. I resisted the urge to stick my face directly into the mug and have a good wallow. Finally, starting to feel dizzy with anticipation, I took a sip.
And it was good.
If God can say that after She created the planet, then I think I'm entitled to the same understatement. OK, let me elaborate: it was great, fabulous, tremendous, extraordinary shall I go on? I think you all understand.
Several long minutes later, I resurfaced. Xena smiled at me indulgently then turned to more important matters.
"So, what happens now?" she asked the head archangel.
"Well, obviously, we're very pleased with how things turned out," Michael replied with his usual smug smile.
"Obviously." Xena could do cocky too. "You even managed to bring Gabrielle out of Hell and restore her soul."
"Yes, we restored the natural balance." Michael looked like he was waiting for a round of applause. We didn't fulfill his wish.
"And " Xena said impatiently.
"And, we're so pleased with how things turned out, we'd like to discuss making some kind of permanent arrangement," Michael continued.
"You mean Xena and I can do 'greater good' kind of stuff for awhile?" I asked. I was a little bouncy from the caffeine; I've got to admit that right up front.
"No," Xena replied, her voice pitched in an irritated burr. "He means he wants us to continue doing their dirty work, putting our own souls in danger so they don't have to get a little grime under their fingernails."
"I like Gabrielle's version better," Michael said, looking a little peeved.
"No way," Xena said, shaking her head once in a decisive negative motion. "We've earned our eternal rest and our place in the afterlife. You can't deny us."
Oops, I guess I'd spoken too soon. I hadn't really considered all the options.
Xena glared. Michael glared. I looked at my empty mug and wondered if I could get a refill.
"All right, Xena," he conceded.
Ha! Xena won the battle of wills again. Tell me you're not surprised.
"So I won't tell you what we had in mind," Michael continued.
Uh oh, he was cheating.
"No," Xena said, staying firm. "We're not interested."
Well, I was interested, but I decided to stay firm right alongside her. We were partners, after all.
"Not even interested in going after Alti?"
Damn! That was hitting below the belt. I could hear Xena's breath hitch.
Michael went back to glaring. Xena went back to glaring. I crawled under the covers. I had a feeling I wasn't going to be able to enjoy the nice, warm, comfortable bed and body for much longer.
"Gabrielle?" Xena looked down at me. I looked up at her, and our eyes carried on a conversation for a minute.
"OK," Xena said to Michael. "But just this one time. Then we get Paradise."
I wanted to say, "Paradise is in your arms, Xena", but that would be too mushy. I'd tell her later.
Michael flashed a smug smile. Xena growled at him. I pulled her head down and kissed her. After all, I was in a bed in heaven with Xena. What would you do?
And so folks, that's the end of my story. But as you probably figured out, it's really just the beginning.
Yeah, I've said it before and I'll say it again: the afterlife isn't at all what I expected
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