"Does someone want to explain to me why *I* am considered the ditzy one?" Aphrodite muttered to herself when Ares was done speaking. She scrubbed her hands over her face and turned to look at him.
"So you don't know where she is? Or when she is? Or if she is alive or dead?"
"Um, no?" Ares hurried on with his explanation when Aphrodite sighed loudly. "Look, I just wanted to bring her back to life. It should have worked. No muss, no fuss."
"And you thought they woulda owed you something, right? A favor you could collect later?"
Ares didn't even get to start explaining when he felt the smack rock the back of his head. "C'mon, bro. That is way uncool and so not true and you know it. Xena would never have paid a debt like that." Dite looked at him as the truth dawned. "But Gabrielle might have, huh?" She raised her hand to strike him again, but stopped at his warning glare. "That is dirty, Ares."
He shrugged. "It would have been fine if it had worked. It should have brought her right to us. Instead... I don't know what I did wrong."
"I have spent these last moons going over and over everything that happened. It should have worked."
Ares snapped his jaws together so quickly he almost bit his tongue. "It doesn't matter right now. What matters is Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle. What *is* it with her?"
Serious blue eyes seared into his deep brown ones. "Tread lightly, Ares. She's a good person and she is my friend."
He raised his hands in surrender. "All right. All right. I won't mess with the irritating blonde. Look, I got things to do. I'll catch up with you later, okay?" Ares disappeared before Aphrodite could answer.
"Grrrr... he makes me so totally nuts sometimes." She waved her hand and the food and wine disappeared. The she picked up the wire-rimmed glasses she'd developed an affinity for and slid them on her face while searching for her little remote box.
"All right, Gabrielle," she mumbled, clicking on the worldwide god web. "Let's see how long you'll have to suffer alone, my friend."
Gabrielle reached the sea and was able to arrange passage on a small merchant ship headed to Greece. She still didn't speak much, but the men on board quickly learned that she was not to be trifled with.
Every morning she spent time in meditation and drills and in the afternoon she would take a turn at the wheel, or in the crow's nest. By the fifth day, they were making good time and the captain was pleased with their progress. In the late afternoon, however, their luck took a turn for the worse.
Gabrielle had been sitting in the crow's nest, when a thin, dark line at the horizon captured her attention. She wouldn't have given it much thought, except the stirring in her gut made her uneasy and she shimmied down the mast to find the captain.
Archus took one look at the band of clouds and cursed. "All hands, man your stations. She's gonna be blowin' rough tonight. Raise the sails and angle us away from its path. I don't wanna be caught in the middle of this 'un."
Archus turned to Gabrielle. "Best if you get below decks, warrior. This be a sailor's battle."
A smile almost reached Gabrielle's eyes as she looked down at her hands. Then she walked to the mainsail and began helping the men hoist it in an effort to outrun the coming storm. The captain shook his head and turned to steer them away from the dark clouds.
Candlemarks passed and darkness fell and still the crew rushed feverishly to keep the ship afloat. The storm had moved in quicker than expected and they'd had to scramble to get things tied down. The waves were rolling the ship sickeningly from side to side, enough to make it necessary to work tied to ropes. It meant each person could only work a very small area of the ship, but there was far less likelihood of anyone falling overboard either.
All night they fought and struggled and with the daybreak came exhaustion and a calm that was almost unnerving. There was no sun, no rain, no wind and no waves and for a little while, everyone was grateful for the chance to rest. It wasn't long though, before it made the crew restless and the captain was the first to stir, with Gabrielle right behind him. The eeriness was making her jaw ache and her hair stand on end and all she wanted at that moment was a bit of a breeze and the sight of home.
The captain kept looking at the water beneath the ship and back up at the sky, searching for answers. Then the man who'd taken his turn in the crow's nest hollered down to them and they looked out to see what was causing him such concern. The captain's eyes widened and he shook his head in disbelief. Then he ran to get his maps and charts from his cabin.
He spread them out, his large hands tracing the paths and patterns on the parchment. "This isn't possible."
"What isn't?" Gabrielle whispered behind him. Archus turned and looked at her, seeing her strength of mind and will in the green eyes now boring into his. He made his decision and nodded to himself.
"Our position." Archus watched her brow furrow and hastened to explain. "Look... this was where we left Assyria headed for Greece," he said, pointing to the first map. "But the storm blew us off course. I expected that. It was a nasty storm."
Gabrielle nodded her understanding and waited for him to continue.
"What I didn't expect was to get blown to here," Archus added, indicating a spot on another chart. "If I am reading the land indicators right, we are close to Pompeii." Gabrielle's eyes widened and Archus bobbed his head. "Exactly. There is no way we should have come this far that quickly. And something peculiar is happening with the tide... we are being drawn towards land... almost dragged there."
Gabrielle turned her eyes toward the water, then chanced a look at the land that was coming closer. "Oh my gods," she whispered to herself, then tugged on the Captain's sleeve. "Look!"
Her whisper was more unnerving than a shout would have been and Archus glanced up to follow the direction her arm was pointing. His eyes grew large and he looked down at Gabrielle. "Is that…?"
She nodded. "Vesuvius," she whispered again, her eyes never leaving the horizon. Even from this distance, they could see the fire spewing and spitting toward the sky, filling the air around with the darkness of ash and smoke.
"Raise the sails, lads and man the oars. We've got to make time away from here now." Even as he spoke, day became like night and the air was stifling with ash and the scent of sulfur. Without warning, the ship was pushed away from the landmass and Gabrielle began searching for the cause, knowing what she would find.
Her voice was rough from lack of use and she took Archus by surprise when she screamed. "Pull in the oars!!" He looked at her, then past her to see exactly what caused the almost silent warrior to issue such a forceful command.
"Merda dell'OH!! he muttered, staring for a long moment at the fifteen foot wall of water rapidly approaching the ship. Gabrielle's shove caused him to come out of his trance and moved him towards the stairwell to repeat the order. Archus motioned to his first mate, but before the man could move towards the mainsail, Gabrielle had unhooked the chakram from her waist and hurled it at the lines, slicing them all neatly and causing the sails to drop.
"Tie everythin' off and hang on down there, boys! This 'un's gonna be nasty."
The four people left topside tied themselves to the ship and the first mate began praying to Neptune. Gabrielle closed her eyes and whispered her own prayer to Aphrodite. It was enough to pull the goddess away from her frenzied research.
"Oh, this is so radically uncool... it's creepy. She died... they both did. So when did...? How...?" Aphrodite continued to mumble to herself. She'd been skimming Gabrielle's lifeline, looking for her death. It wasn't something the goddess normally did, especially about a friend. But she felt the need to know how long Gabrielle would have to suffer alone and she didn't like the way things looked.
In all honesty, she'd expected to see Gabrielle's lifeline end shortly after her return to Greece. For all the talk of the 'greater good', Aphrodite understood better than most that Xena and Gabrielle were each other's greater good. Without her soulmate, Gabrielle would be merely existing and Dite wouldn't wish that on anyone, especially someone as sensitive as Gabrielle. What she found however, was that Gabrielle's lifeline extended far past a normal lifetime.
Gabrielle was an immortal.
So now Aphrodite's mission, in addition to her usual love gigs, was to find out exactly what had caused the change and when it had happened. She started with their crucifixion and ascension into the heaven of Eli's god. It made the most logical sense. She was in the middle of her review of that time when a whispered plea from Gabrielle caught her attention.
Dite changed the view on her scrying bowl, bringing Gabrielle and the present sharply into focus. "Gnarly wave, man!" was her initial response. Then she saw the tiny boat being lifted in the wall's not-so-tender embrace and realized what Gabrielle's prayer was about. "Oh, that totally sucks!"
Closing her eyes, Aphrodite sent a wave of comfort to the bard that cascaded through Gabrielle's veins like warm wine. Dite felt the change in Gabrielle and smiled, then turned her attention back to her research, keeping one eye on the tiny ship.
She wondered if Gabrielle would one day turn this adventure into a story.
Gabrielle felt herself surrounded by love and she unconsciously relaxed, even as the wall of water grew ominously closer. Suddenly, it lifted them up and pushed the small ship forward with great velocity and strength.
Ash was inches thick on the deck and coated the four people still standing topside. Gabrielle found herself wishing for a way to rid herself of the itchy, smelly mess, then rescinding that wish as the wave began to cascade over the ship.
She heard men screaming in terror and closed her eyes, willing it to be over quickly. I'm sorry, Xena, she said in her mind, but I'm not gonna make it to Amphipolis. I did try though. I'm so tired, Xena. I just want a little bit of peace for us, but that's never really been our destiny, has it? I love you.
Those were her final thoughts, before the pressure of the water forced her into unconsciousness.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes, the first thing she saw wasn't the Elysian Fields or Tartarus or heaven or hell and it certainly wasn't Xena's face looking back at her. The pain of her reality both physical and emotional hit her so hard she almost crumpled to her knees. Her first sight was of a sludge covered ship and a captain who was seemingly unconscious. There was no sign of the first mate or the steersman.
The boat was gently rocking, aimlessly drifting in what she hoped was the right direction. Slowly Gabrielle loosened herself from the bonds that had secured her to the mizzenmast. Her body ached as though it had been beaten and the stench from the sulfuric ash was indescribable.
She trudged through the sludge, loosening the ropes tied around Archus and easing him to the deck. She patted his face, pleased when his eyelids began to flutter.
"Oh my gods... I feel like a chariot ran over me, repeatedly," the captain mumbled as he rolled over and sat up. He looked around and smiled at Gabrielle. Then his face fell when he realized they were alone on the deck. "C'mon, warrior, lemme go see what's left of the crew and get ourselves to Greece. I'm in the mood for dry land, a hot bath, an ale and a woman."
Gabrielle nodded and walked back to the mainsail and began sorting through the lines. It was going to take a bit of work to run the ropes again, but the chakram had seemed the most expedient way of dealing with the problem at the time. She sighed soundlessly. Given how far the storm had blown them off course and the fact that they were now in the middle of only-gods-knew-where, she figured they had plenty of time to clean, fix and repair and still be done well before they arrived in Greece. A lot would depend on how far the tsunami had pushed them, but she didn't expect to see land anytime soon.
Her shoulders slumped. She really was tired, right down to her very soul. Gabrielle had been selfishly hoping that the storm would be then end for her. Was it wrong to feel that way, she pondered. She decided it probably was and she really didn't care. Being unselfish was what had gotten her in this predicament in the first damn place.
The crew came bounding up the stairwell, glad to be alive and out of the hold and Gabrielle smiled in sympathy. She could well remember the times she'd been thrilled to set foot on deck, breathing in the fresh, salty air with relish.
Without much ado, the men fell to work with a will, each one anxious to reach Greece and dry land.
Nightfall enabled the captain to study the stars and his charts and he did so enthusiastically. He was glad to note that the wave had done little physical damage and had actually pushed them as good ways back towards Greece.
He noticed Gabrielle come up beside him and he motioned to her. "Ah warrior. The gods were kind to us. If the winds continue to be favorable, we should see the shores of Greece in less than a quarter moon."
Gabrielle nodded and turned her attention to the vast darkness of the sky and sea.
Aphrodite was biting her nails, frantically searching through Gabrielle's history on the worldwide god web. Her research had shown her that they had not actually died on the cross. They were already immortal by that point and their physical bodies were using that time to regenerate. Dite debated briefly on whether she would tell Gabrielle on just how Eli's god had manipulated them into doing his dirty work.
In fairness, he had offered them absolution for their sins. But it seemed a moot point, especially since Xena rejected that forgiveness in lieu of sacrificing herself yet again on Mt. Fuji.
Not that it mattered at this juncture. The questions now were when had Gabrielle become immortal and what about Xena? If she shared Gabrielle's immortality, then she was alive out there... somewhere. Aphrodite went back to her research. She was fairly sure that at least part of this news was going to be an unwelcome surprise.
She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, then scrubbed her hands through her hair. "This is soooo not cool." Then she clicked the remote box and watched the screen fly backwards through time, looking for the moment when Gabrielle crossed into immortality.
Katerina von Lihp guided her ship into the dock with easy skill and blew out a sigh of relief. They had been almost a year at sea coming around Africa to get to Greece and she was glad to see what had become home for her. She and the crew immediately began unloading the hold.
"Hey, Cap'n... what 'bout all this stuff?" The mate indicated the crates still neatly stacked and sealed boxes that had traveled with them from Higuchi.
Katerina scratched her head thoughtfully. "Leave them for now. I will see if I can find out where they need to go. Go enjoy some time ashore. I know where to find you when I need you."
The Captain left a small contingent of guards on the ship, then made her way to the nearest temple of love. She really didn't know who else to turn to and hoped the goddess might have some answers for her.
Aphrodite wasn't surprised to find worshippers in her temple. She was one of the few remaining active gods in Greece and love was the strongest force in the world, after all. What caught her attention was the mention of Gabrielle's name and her new moniker, Little Dragon Warrior.
She listened to the plea of this sea captain who had befriended Gabrielle and who showed such concern for her. Then she decided a break from her research was in order and popped down to have a chat with Captain Lihp.
"Yo, babe! Whassup?"
The Captain spun on her heels in surprise, not expecting such a personal greeting from the goddess. She swallowed hard a couple times before she could speak.
"I beg pardon, Aphrodite, but I have a dilemma you might be able to help me with."
"Oh yeah? Wha... I mean, what's that?"
"You know of the Little Dragon Warrior, the bard named Gabrielle, hä?" Katerina saw the truth in the blue eyes facing her. "I have a favor to ask."
"Lay it on me, babe," Aphrodite said.
Katerina told Aphrodite the bit of Gabrielle's story she knew from her own point of view, winding up with the things still locked in the hold of her ship. "I didn't know what else to do with her things. I thought perhaps you...."
Aphrodite looked at the Captain seriously for a long moment. "Why did you come to me? Why not some other god?"
Katerina shrugged. "I do not know. You seemed like the best choice."
Aphrodite chuckled. "Of course I am the best choice, babe. Love is totally a good choice. It just takes some people a lifetime to figure it out." She chuckled again. "Tell ya what... I'll make a place for it and pop it in, 'k? I'll hang onto it until Gabrielle is ready for it."
"Thank you, Aphrodite."
"Ya done good, Captain Lihp. Totally gnarly job."
Katerina wasn't exactly sure how to take that, so she nodded and smiled and headed out to have a bit of fun.
Aphrodite was as good as her word and with a wave of her hand the crates were moved into a storage area of the temple. She briefly considered moving them directly to Olympus, then decided Gabrielle might not appreciate the assumption. She tapped her nails on her teeth, then disappeared in a cascade of flower petals.
Gabrielle was happy to see land again, though surprisingly it wasn't seasickness that made her ready to walk on flat earth. She glanced again at the ring Aphrodite had given her and wondered if that was the reason behind her lack of seasickness.
Gabrielle shrugged. Whatever the reason, she was glad for it. It had made this part of her voyage at least bearable. She shuddered when she thought about how intolerable the trip would have been if she'd been physically ill on top of everything else.
Now they were pulling into port and Gabrielle sighed. She had finally reached the last leg of her journey and she was anxious to be done with it. The crew lowered the gangway into place and waited for permission to disembark. Archus turned to Gabrielle.
"Thank you," he said sincerely. "Without your help, I'm not sure we'd have survived."
She smiled at him and squeezed his arm, then stepped off the ship and headed north without a backwards glance.
Katerina spotted her as Gabrielle set foot on solid ground and raced to catch her before she disappeared in the crowd. "Little Dragon!" she called, hoping to be heard above the din of the marketplace.
Gabrielle looked around, knowing no one here knew of that particular title. When she spotted Captain Lihp, she stopped and waited for the other woman to approach.
Katerina was appalled at the harsh changes the year of travel had wrought in the younger woman. There was still no light in her eyes and her body was all hard muscle and bone. Her hair was still short, though carelessly cut, as though it was kept short because it was easier to manage and not for the way it looked. Gabrielle's skin was a deep bronze and she bore a few more scars than she'd worn in Higuchi.
"I am glad to see you, Little Dragon. I have something that belongs to you." Gabrielle held up a hand, but the Captain continued speaking. "Not the crates and boxes. I have stored those with a friend until you want them."
She extended the arm she'd held behind her and Gabrielle could not contain the sharp gasp that rose from her lips, nor the stab of pain that accompanied it. Hesitantly, she reached forward to take the object from Katerina. Xena's sword. It would make the final journey with her.
"Thank you," she whispered, but the words and the tone spoke volumes to the Captain. She nodded to Gabrielle.
"Gods speed you on your journey, warrior." Then she disappeared into the crowd, leaving Gabrielle alone with her private grief.
Gabrielle began making her way towards Amphipolis at a fast, steady place. So near her goal, she was ready to be done with it. So each day she was up before the sun and she walked with very few breaks until the sun had set. Nights were used for sparring and meditation and the rare bit of sleep she could get before waking in a cold sweat. Time was supposed to make it better... make it hurt less, but still all she felt was emptiness.
Occasionally she encountered the odd roving band of thugs, but after decimating the first few of them, they began to steer clear of her. She wondered if they had some sort of relay system to let others know of her and smirked. Then it occurred to her that they should have had one of those full cycles ago. It would have saved her and Xena a lot of trouble. Her smile faded at that thought.
Days passed and after nearly a moon of steady travel, she entered the outskirts of what had once been the thriving town of Amphipolis. Gabrielle shuddered a little, remembering the last time they had been there. Not much was left. The inn was in ruins and empty shacks that had once been living households now toppled in on themselves in decrepitude. Gabrielle followed the road past the inn, to where the family crypt stood silent sentinel.
She took a deep breath and opened her pouch, removing her flint and striker. She found several small torches at the entrance and lit one carefully. She moved around the room lighting the others, before coming to stand next to Lyceus.
"Hello, Lyceus," came her whispered voice. "You probably don't remember me, but this is Gabrielle. I've come to keep a promise to your sister." She waited a moment, until she felt like she had his blessing to continue, then moved to where Solan's ashes had been placed.
"Hi, Solan. It's your turn to look after your mom, since I can't do it anymore, okay? Make sure she eats her vegetables." She wiped the dust off his urn and moved to Cyrene. "I'm sorry, Mom. I did my best, but it wasn't enough. Take care of her, Cyrene. She'll need you to keep an eye on her."
Gabrielle wiped the tears from her face before moving to an empty slab. She laid the sword across the top then gently placed the chakram on its hilt. She set her bag down and removed the pot, tenderly unwrapping it from its cloth covering. Gabrielle set it in the middle of the slab and took a step back.
"Goodbye, Xena. I don't think we will meet as soulmates again. I haven't felt you since that day and I think that is our punishment. This wasn't your destiny and your choice to stay with Akemi has thrown our karmic cycles out of kilter. Perhaps one day, we will cross paths, but I don't think the gods will be that kind. Good rest, my love... you've earned it."
The rending of her soul as she surrendered to the inescapable made her keen in agony. She welcomed the darkness when it came.
Gabrielle was curled into a tiny ball beside Xena's remains when Aphrodite found her.
The goddess reached out a hand to touch her, then recoiled at the pain that emanated from the bard in waves. Dite steeled herself, then scooped Gabrielle into her arms.
"C'mon, girlfriend. We gotta talk."
Gabrielle came back to herself slowly, fully expecting the emptiness of an afterlife alone. It really didn't matter where she ended up. It couldn't be worse than the tortures she'd already lived through.
She blinked her eyes open, trying to focus enough to understand where she was. Her first impression was pink. She was surrounded by pink. Her brow furrowed, trying to recall this much pink in any afterlife she'd seen.
Gabrielle raised a hand to rub her forehead and noted that she was clean and encased in some familiar pink pajamas. "Aphrodite?" in a bare whisper.
Sparkles and rose petals fell on the bed as Dite popped into being beside her. "Hiya, sweet pea." She combed gentle hands through the short blonde hair. "How ya doin'?" Her blue eyes filled with tears at the aching emptiness she saw reflected in the dull green eyes facing her.
Gabrielle fell into Aphrodite's open arms and her slight frame shook with silent sobs. Aphrodite felt tears of sympathy slide down her own face while Gabrielle clung to her. How long they stayed in this embrace, Gabrielle couldn't have said. But finally her crying slowed and she eased back.
"Sorry," she said softly, wiping her eyes.
"Why, sweetie?" Aphrodite rubbed the muscular arm, doing her best to offer comfort. She wasn't sure how Gabrielle was going to take the news she had to give her and she had already been through so much.
"I should be out of tears by now," came the answer, accompanied by a watery smile.
"Oh babe... your heart is a lot like mine. You'll always have tears to shed. Some happy, some sad, some angry, some relieved. It's the way of love."
Gabrielle pulled away and her eyes became cold and distant. Even her whisper went flat. "Well, no offense, Aphrodite, but they way of love doesn't work for me anymore. The price is too high." She slipped from the bed and went to stand at the window. "I appreciate your bringing me here, but I need to go."
"Go where?" Dite asked softly, stepping up behind Gabrielle, but not touching her.
"It doesn't matter now. I've done what I set out to do."
"Then will you do me a favor? Please?"
Gabrielle turned, intrigued by the request. "If I can, sure."
"Stay and talk to me a little while. I get lonely here with just me and Ares and when I'm in Rome, I have so much work to do that I rarely get to visit with the other gods. I'd just like a little girl talk between friends."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm not sure how much talking I will do, but I can sure listen while you tell on about things. And you can start with that 'other gods' comment. I thought they were killed in the twilight."
"No, that is what Eli's radical new god wanted everyone to think, so he could get a better foothold here in Greece. Most of the family has like, moved on under different names in Rome, though a few of us still work both gigs. Let me tell ya, sister, it ain't easy either. Why just the other day...."
Aphrodite talked until Gabrielle fell asleep again and she tucked the bard into bed. "Tomorrow, Little One, we have to have some serious conversation." And she twinkled out of the bedroom, leaving Gabrielle soundly sleeping without dreams for the first time in over a year.
"Rest well, my friend. Tomorrow is soon enough for this news."
When Gabrielle woke the second time, she wasn't surprised to see pink. She was surprised to note she was almost hungry and she noticed a trencher of food on a table near the bed. Propped next to the still warm loaf of bread was a note.
Come see me in the scrying room before you leave. We have something to talk about.
The note wasn't signed, but the little hearts and curlicues would have been a dead giveaway regardless. Gabrielle took a portion of the bread and spread some of the soft cheese on it, then took a bite. It was good and she took a second.
She finished the bread and changed her clothes, then wandered out the hall towards the only sound she heard. Strangely, it sounded as though Dite was talking to herself, but Gabrielle shrugged. She'd find out soon enough.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, Aphrodite jumped and tittered nervously. "Oh, hi Gab!" a little too brightly. She pulled the glasses of her face and chewed on an earpiece. "Um, why don't you have a seat? You're lookin' totally fab today. Love the tat. Did ya sleep well? How was your breakfast? Andbythewayyou'reanimmortal."
Gabrielle sank into the chair Aphrodite pushed at her, trying to dissimilate the conversation the goddess had just thrown at her. She shook her head. "Good morning, Aphrodite. Would you repeat everything you just said very slowly, please? I'm pretty sure I missed something important."
Aphrodite dropped the glasses on her desk and rubbed her face. Then she sat down and took Gabrielle's hands in her own.
"Okay, look. You're an immortal...." She didn't get to say any more. Gabrielle jerked her hands free and stormed out of the room.
Aphrodite scratched her head and blew out a breath. "Well, that went well," she commented to herself, before popping out to find the woman she called friend.
Aphrodite stood in the archway, just watching Gabrielle. The bard sat hunched over on a bench in the rose garden, hands loosely clasped between her knees. Finally, the goddess walked over to Gabrielle and sat down next to her. She didn't speak or touch Gabrielle, but waited for her to make the first move.
Dite lost track of the time they sat together silent and unmoving before Gabrielle took a deep breath. And it was only because she was listening that she heard the bare whisper when Gabrielle finally spoke.
"Aphrodite, we have been friends for a lot of full cycles and never have I seen you be deliberately cruel... until now." Gabrielle lifted her face to the sky and Dite tried not to take offense when she saw the depth of pain Gabrielle still carried. She knew the reaction came from the shock as much as grief, but the words still cut deeply.
"Gabrielle," Dite said softly. "Have I ever lied to you?"
Gabrielle dropped her head and closed her eyes. Aphrodite reached up and took her chin, gently turning the bard's face towards her own. "Gabrielle," she repeated. "Have I ever lied to you? Especially when it was this important?"
Gabrielle raised a hand and wiped the tears from her face, then shook her head and opened her eyes. "No," she whispered and cleared her throat. "No," she said again more firmly and just a little louder. "But Aphrodite, I'm not immortal. I can't be. I... I died." She closed her eyes and swallowed hard before meeting Dite's sympathetic blue eyes. "Xena had a better shot at immortality..." she swallowed, "And we know that didn't happen."
"But it did." A simple statement that fell into a wellspring of silence.
"What are you saying?" Gabrielle grasped Aphrodite arms so hard that the goddess winced, knowing it would have left bruises had she been human.
She eased one arm from Gabrielle's grip, allowing Gabrielle to retain a firm hold on her other wrist and hand. She noted that Gabrielle was shaking and stood up. Aphrodite gazed into the tear-filled green eyes, seeing a spark of hope for the first time in over a year and she smiled.
"C'mon, babe. I got a totally wicked story to share."
They settled into the scrying room, which was actually part of Aphrodite's chambers and Dite eased Gabrielle down onto the bed. She snapped her fingers and instantly Gabrielle found herself neatly encased in more pink silk and tucked into the big bed holding a cup of something that smelled rich and sweet.
The goddess could tell Gabrielle was still in shock and motioned to her with a little wave. "Try it. It'll make you feel radically better. I gotta hook this in to the big screen for ya."
Gabrielle took a sniff of the beverage, then took a tiny sip. A brief smile crossed her face and she took a larger swallow. Aphrodite caught the change in her expression and smiled in return. "Great stuff, huh? Nothing comforts like good hot chocolate. Ah, there we go. Now," she wiggled into place beside Gabrielle and lifted her own cup to her lips. "I'm gonna give ya the highlights. Ya know, show ya what happened and explain a few things. Then we can talk and I'll try to answer any questions you've still got, k?"
Gabrielle nodded, then watched a much younger version of herself dance into view. She felt the seductive rhythm of the music and her mind went back to that cool fall Festival. She remembered clearly now the moment she'd been bitten, though it was nothing but a blur at the time.
"You remember this, right?" Aphrodite looked at Gabrielle when she'd paused the god web. The blonde head nodded. "Okay, do you remember drinking the blood from the chalice?"
Gabrielle turned her gaze inward and she started shaking as her memory cleared. Aphrodite took the cup from her hands and started the scrying bowl again.
"Xena knocked the chalice from your hands, but only after you'd had your first drink. It was so intoxicating you were actually taking your second swallow when the chakram knocked the cup away from your lips."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and Dite stopped the picture once more. "Yes," she whispered.
Aphrodite took Gabrielle's hands in her own and gently chafed them. "And even though you and Xena weren't lovers yet, you wanted to share that feeling and when she commanded you...." Aphrodite trailed off then continued. "How many times once you were lovers did you draw blood?"
Abruptly Gabrielle jerked away and stalked from the bed. "Gabrielle," Dite said softly from her place on the bed. "I wasn't spying on you. It's taken me moons of research to put all this together."
Gabrielle hugged her arms around herself. "It wasn't often. And never deliberate. It wasn't something we talked about." She turned back to Aphrodite. "But that wouldn't have made Xena immortal. She didn't drink from the chalice."
"No, but she did eat ambrosia shortly thereafter and that pretty much sealed the deal for her. Your bite gave her the burning and the ambrosia did the rest."
It was quiet for a while after that, as Gabrielle pondered the truth of Aphrodite's words. Finally she turned and went back to the bed, sitting down gingerly. Her head ached from the thoughts running through it, her throat hurt from the now unaccustomed conversation and her eyes burned from both shed and unshed tears. Aphrodite looked at her sympathetically.
"I'm sorry, Gab. If there was an easier way to get you through this, you know I would."
"I know," Gabrielle whispered. "It's just a little overwhelming and so many things still don't make sense. Especially since I haven't felt Xena's presence...."
"I know, babe, believe me. Here," handing the hot chocolate back to the bard. "I added marshmallows. I think you're due all the comfort you can get at this point."
Gabrielle's eyebrow rose, wondering what a marshmallow was, then seeing the tiny white islands floating in her cup. She tasted one and gave Aphrodite a small smile. "Perks of being a goddess, huh?"
Dite chuckled. "One of them, yeah. You feeling any better? Ready to move on?"
Gabrielle rubbed her face with her hands. "I don't know if I'll ever be ready for this, but there are things I need to know. So let's do it."
Aphrodite nodded and slipped the glasses back on her face, consulting the notes she had written. "I guess your first question is about your lack of bacchae behavior, huh?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Well, that'd be one of them, yeah."
Dite looked at her notes again. "Well, babe... what can I tell ya? Love conquers all." She sighed at Gabrielle's blank look. "The strength of the love you and Xena shared eliminated a lot of the need for blood. Your passion was focused in other directions." Aphrodite smiled at the blush that suffused the bard's features.
"Be glad, babe. The bond you two have is totally, radically, one hundred percent the real deal and so rare that most spend their entire lives never having seen it... much less lived it."
"And now you're asking me to spend eternity without it??" Gabrielle clasped an arm to her chest trying to ease the pain to breathe. "Gods... it would have been better to have never had it."
"No sweet pea. Gimme a chance here, 'kay? Your story will have a happy ending, promise." Gabrielle had to smile just the tiniest bit at Aphrodite's vehemence. She'd never promised the bard anything without delivering. Gabrielle nodded her agreement and the goddess sighed in relief.
"Okay, where was I?" She ran a finger down the page. "Oh yeah... your focused passion. Anyway, there was still plenty of fighting to satisfy any lingering bloodlust." She looked at Gabrielle seriously. "Didn't you ever noticed that the fighting was always more violent and intense when you two were at odds? There was a while there... girlfriend, even I had to look to find the love."
She waved her hands. "Anyway, it doesn't matter now. We have the present to worry about. You with me so far?"
"I think so. Our soul bond took care of a lot of the lust and our fighting took care of the rest."
"Okay, I can accept that, I guess. But it doesn't explain why we died... why Xena is dead."
"Here, finish your hot chocolate and let me tuck you back into bed. This is gonna take a little while and we may as well be, like, comfortable."
Aphrodite settled Gabrielle into the big bed and fussed about pouring up more chocolate. Gabrielle absently wondered why she was making such a physical effort instead of merely snapping her fingers. For her part, Aphrodite puttered until she ran out of things to do. Then she took a deep breath. This was the hard part.
"The first time you died after you became immortal was when you took Hope into the pit. Do you remember what happened?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Her memories of that time were blurred and she focused on the tightly. "I remember running," she whispered, "looking into Xena's eyes... taking Hope over the edge of the pit and then... searing pain. I hit a ledge, I think. I.... Ares said he...."
"Ares would have said anything to convince Xena to return to him, you know that. Let me show you what really happened." Aphrodite turned back to the worldwide god web and started the picture just as the bard and Hope toppled into the steaming fissure.
Gabrielle forced her eyes to watch, though she cringed to hear herself scream. About halfway down, she did hit a ledge and her bones shattered with a nauseating crunch. Hope was swallowed up by the flame and they both disappeared and for several days, Gabrielle remained unmoving on the ledge.
Finally, healed enough to move, she forced herself to climb from the pit. She hadn't had enough time to recover her strength though and when she reached the edge, she fell out onto the floor near the altar.
A band of gypsies found her there and took her to the nearest hospice, where she spent almost another seven days unconscious. When she came around the second time, she immediately left to find her agonized soulmate.
"You okay?" Aphrodite asked kindly. Gabrielle held her fist to her mouth and the goddess wasn't sure it if it was to keep from screaming or throwing up. Gabrielle nodded once curtly.
"Yeah. I was just remembering...." she got out before bolting for the bathing room. Aphrodite sighed and popped in behind her. She ran a cool cloth on Gabrielle's neck and held her when she was done.
"You wanna hear the rest, or you wanna wait 'til later? It's not gonna get any easier 'til we're done. "
Bloodshot green eyes looked at Aphrodite. "Let's get it over with." Gabrielle rinsed her mouth and Dite gave her some mint to settle her stomach. Then they moved back to the bedroom and the goddess moved the timeframe on the screen.
"The next death I have for you both is your crucifixion on the Ides of March. This was a fubar all the way around."
"How so? Heaven wouldn't have been a bad place to spend eternity."
"Yeah, if you coulda stayed there, but that's not why Eli's god brought you there and he had no intention of letting you stay. He was using your souls to fight his battle while your bodies healed. Unfortunately, Eli pulled you souls back into your bodies before they were ready and you KNOW the fiasco that caused." She gave Gabrielle a meaningful look.
Gabrielle gave her a rueful chuckle. "Uh, yeah. I think that was the start of our 'make war, not love' stage. We fought everything and everyone, including and especially each other." She snickered softly. "When we finally made up though...." Her face flushed bright red at the memories.
"Mmm hmm... no kidding. I *felt* that reunion. Talk about rocking the world!" She grinned at Gabrielle. "You two were just so good together... and you will be again." Gabrielle sobered.
"How, Aphrodite? How can you say that? Xena is dead and even her spirit is gone. She promised me she would always be there for me... that even death wouldn't separate us, but I have not seen her or felt her presence since that day."
"Whoa! Hold on! Slow down just a little there, hot shot! I'll explain it to you if you'll give me a minute."
Gabrielle scrubbed her face with her hands. "I'm sorry. I...."
Aphrodite embraced the bard, kissing the top of her blonde head lightly. "No worries, babe. I really do understand."
Gabrielle gently returned the hug. "Thank you," she whispered.
"Now remember... in every instance so far, you and Xena have had a body to return to. It has simply been a matter of letting the body regenerate and once it was restored, your soul returned."
"Right...." Gabrielle trailed off, trying to follow Aphrodite's train of thought.
"When Xena had you burn her body, it was with the intention of restoring it on Mt. Fuji. But it just made it impossible for her spirit to rejoin her body when you missed the sunset. Because there is no body to renew, there is no place for the spirit to live in."
"Okay, so her spirit just disappeared?? I'm not seeing that happy ending you promised me Aphrodite!"
"Shh... shh... calm down, babe. I'm getting to that." She stroked her hands through Gabrielle's hair, willing her to peace. "Now, calm down and just listen, 'kay? This is where things get kinda screwy." She took a deep breath.
"What Ares did, or tried to do, was to call her back... restore her body and spirit. But it obviously didn't work... for a couple reasons, I think."
"Well, yeah," Aphrodite answered defensively. "Nothing like this has ever happened before and I'm not totally sure what incantation he spoke." She held up her hands. "Wait and let me finish, 'kay?" Gabrielle nodded and settled back down. Dite got up to pace.
The goddess pulled her glasses off and set them down, running her hands through her hair in frustration. "From what I can figure out, it didn't work for two main reasons... first, our power in Japa is negligible. He didn't have the strength to pull it off. The second reason would be that he wasn't totally prepared to perform the ritual correctly. Considering his frame of mind that day, I'm surprised he actually made it to you."
"Can you fix it?"
Aphrodite shook her head. "It's fixable, but I can't do it by myself. But we might be able to together... you and me."
Gabrielle flung back the cover and stood on wobbly legs. "Let's go."
Aphrodite shook her head again and Gabrielle wanted to stomp her feet in sheer frustration. "No. Not yet. You are not strong enough and I need to do a little more research. So you get back in that bed and go to sleep like a good girl and let Dite finish up the work I have to do, 'kay? Then we'll see about getting that totally radical warrior babe back in your arms where she belongs."
Gabrielle stared at the goddess for what seemed like candlemarks before acknowledging the wisdom of this course of action. Ares had been unprepared to do whatever it was he had done and Xena had ended up who-knew-where with their bond broken. Besides, she was exhausted in her very soul and was ready to collapse.
Gabriele emitted a small sigh and closed her eyes. "All right, Aphrodite," she said softly as she crawled back into bed. "Thank you."
Dite looked surprised. "For what, sweet pea?"
"Caring," came the mumbled answer before Gabrielle's breathing deepened into sleep.
"No worries, babe. I always have." She smoothed Gabrielle's hair away from her face and let her touch linger on the bard's soft skin before disappearing, leaving only a trace of rose petals behind.
It could have been candlemarks; it could have been days. Gabrielle couldn't tell how much time had passed when she awoke from her sleep. But for the first time since Xena's death, she felt hope. She was still trying to process the information Aphrodite had given her, but what stood out in her mind was the fact that Xena's spirit was still alive and looking for a way to come home.
She pushed the covers back and wandered out of the room, following the muttering to another room in Aphrodite's chamber. The goddess sat at a huge desk, hidden by scrolls. The floor was littered with discarded notes and even as she stood there, a wad of parchment came flying over the top of the pile.
"She shoots! She...."
"... misses!" Gabrielle answered, as the paper ball hit the tip of the overflowing basket and fell to the floor. Dite's blonde curls popped up from the top of her desk.
"Oh, hiya, cutie. How'd ya sleep?"
"Very well. Morpheus was kind."
"Yeah, I asked him to be. He's a good god." Gabrielle didn't reply, though she looked skeptical, remembering her first run-in with the god of dreams. "Anyway, ya look way better and I think I have everything like, figured out." She lifted up several scrolls, rummaging through them. "Soon's I find my notes. I know they're in here. I just had... ah hah!"
"C'mon, Gab. We can go over this stuff in the hot tub. I so need to soak after all this. I haven't worked this hard in like, ages."
Gabrielle didn't get a chance to respond before she found herself up to her neck in warm bubbles. She closed her eyes, relishing the comfort. It was only when Aphrodite popped in right next to her that her green orbs opened reluctantly.
"Ooooh," she groaned as she settled back into the water and closed her eyes. "This is just what the goddess ordered. I feel better already." Dite stayed that way for a few minutes before sitting up and reaching for her notes.
"Okay. I got good news and I got bad news."
Gabrielle ran her wet hands through her hair, then covered her eyes. "Of course you do. Give me the bad news first."
Aphrodite chewed her lip. "Well, the bad news is I don't know where Xena is."
"Then how can we return her? We still don't have a body and now you're telling me we don't have a spirit either!"
"Take a chill pill, babe. I think I've found the solution to your little problem."
"YOU THINK?!? Whaddya mean you THINK??"
"Hey, I'm doing my best here Gab! Cut me some slack, all right? I wasn't the one who got you into this mess!"
Gabrielle's head dropped. "I'm sorry, Aphrodite. I know you're doing me a huge favor and here I am being a bitch. Go ahead."
The goddess took Gabrielle's chin in her hand and lifted Gabrielle's face until their eyes met. "No worries, 'kay?" She smiled, hoping to get one in return. She wasn't disappointed.
"You're a good friend, Aphrodite."
"That's probably the nicest real compliment I've ever gotten."
"It is also the truth." Gabrielle paused. "So what's the plan?"
"Well, we have Xena's ashes. You have immortal blood. I found a ritual that will allow you to use your blood to re-form her body. The fact that you're soul bound to one another should call her soul to you and once her body has regenerated, you'll be a rockin' couple again."
"So when can we do this?"
"I think we need to go to Macedonia. We don't want Ares finding out about this and totally screwing it up."
"You really think he would?"
"Gab, I think he's a little... um...."
"Well, um... blind, maybe... where she is concerned."
Gabriele snorted. "Okay. Why Macedonia?"
"Couple reasons. Ares won't look for us there for one thing. And Hephie had a radical hideaway there for another."
Gabrielle chewed her nails. "Okay, when can we go?"
Aphrodite smile sympathetically. "Anxious, huh?" Gabrielle just nodded. "Lemme finish my bath and get a bite of something to eat and we'll go." She pointed a bubbly finger at the bard. "You have to eat too. This is gonna take a lot out of ya."
They had stopped briefly at Xena's family crypt and Aphrodite had offered to go in to fetch Xena's ashes and weapons alone. Gabrielle had shaken her head and smiled.
"Thank you, Aphrodite, but it's my responsibility. Wait here. I'll be right back." And she ducked inside before the goddess could answer. She sat down, pondering the fortitude of her immortal friend.
Gabrielle lit the torch, looking around with new eyes. Hope had replaced despair and she moved with a light step towards where Xena remains had been placed. Reverently she lifted the ashes, re-wrapping them before placing them in the bottom of her bag. She picked up the sword and chakram, looking around her once more.
"If this works... *when* this works, we will come back and clean up here. You're all family and you deserve better than to be forgotten. So wish us luck, okay?" The bard felt her optimism returning and it was with a light heart and a lighter step that she exited the crypt.
"All righty, Aphrodite. Let's do this."
Aphrodite chuckled, hearing herself reflected in Gabrielle's speech. Then she waved her hand and the two of them disappeared.
Hephaestus' hideaway was, well... a little creepy in Gabrielle's opinion. They'd had to walk from the hidden entrance and there had been a maze of hallways and corridors to traverse before they'd reached their destination. Aphrodite had been careful to mark each passageway and booby trap so they wouldn't have difficulties getting back out. She didn't figure Xena would be in the mood to play games then.
"I asked Hephie about making a shortcut, but it was a total no go," Dite said as they walked through the maze. "He said the whole point was some radical privacy," Aphrodite blushed, "which was a really good thing sometimes. Ahem, anyway... we do have to be careful though. There are some wicked triggers in here that could trap even a god."
Aphrodite chewed her nail for a minute before facing Gabrielle. "I don't think Hephie was being completely honest with me about this place though."
Gabrielle turned to face the goddess, careful to keep her eyes on the route they were taking. "How so?"
"Well, a lot of the surprises will lock you *in* here, not just keep ya out, ya know. The Eye makes it impossible to pop in and out, which is why were walking through this grody part. And Hephie didn't start building this place 'til AFTER that whole thing with Dahok. You know."
Gabrielle most certainly did know and she paled at the memories that name elicited.
"So anyway," the goddess continued. "I've always kinda wondered, in the back of my mind, what the real story was. Turn left. Ah... here we are."
Gabrielle looked around the austere room, finding the Eye with no trouble and taking in the rest slowly. There were sconces around the room and one wall that seemed to double as a door. A large, flat altar sat beneath the Eye and a few more traps were scattered randomly. There was no furniture to speak of and Aphrodite gestured to the altar. She got out her notes.
"Okay, you need to scatter Xena's ashes on the altar. Carefully, though it's not like there is any wind here to blow them away."
Gabrielle hesitated, then lifted the lid. The scent almost made her gag in reflex and she stood very still clenching her jaw until the urge passed. "Does it matter? I mean, do I need to form them into a pattern, spread them evenly, what?"
Aphrodite ran her finger down the scroll. "Doesn't say. I'd have to say spread them evenly though. Not like you can tell what ashes go where, ya know?" She turned her attention back to her notes, missing Gabrielle's shiver.
Gabrielle gingerly shook the pot, trying for even distribution of the ashes on the stone. It took a while and Aphrodite was sitting on the floor in meditation. When she was finished, Gabrielle walked back to the goddess and placed a tentative hand on her shoulder. Dite's eyes slowly opened and she smiled up at the bard.
"All done, sweetie?" Gabrielle nodded. "'Kay, then, let's see. Hmm, put the sword here," gesturing, "and the chakram here," pointing to another spot. "Oh wait... you're gonna need to use the chakram to spill the blood." She wrinkled her face in distaste.
Gabrielle complied, putting the sword into place and separating the chakram. She laid one piece on the altar and kept the other in her right hand. She looked back at Aphrodite, waiting for further instruction.
"Okay, um... this is the gross part. You've got to... ew... um, make a cut deep enough to bleed really well." She shuddered. "You're gonna have to share about half your body's blood to make this work."
Gabrielle's eyes got big, but she nodded her acceptance.
"Don't worry, babe. I'll be here to keep an eye on you." Dite took a deep breath. "You ready?"
Gabrielle raised the chakram and Aphrodite took the bard's left hand in her own. With her right hand, she stroked the inside of Gabrielle's left wrist. "Here," she said quietly. "This one leads from your heart."
Gabrielle bit her lip and closed her eyes, then lifted the chakram and sliced neatly without a flinch. Blood began running slowly and green eyes opened and focused on Aphrodite for a minute, then she turned her attention to the ashes that were very slowly becoming soaked red.
Ashes that were forming into the ghostly outline of a well-known shape. Gabrielle felt her heart clench at the sight of the familiar form that she had missed with aching intensity for more than twelve moons. She felt the tears flow and watched as they fell unhindered to the altar and mixed with the blood and ash.
At that moment, Ares burst in on them, disrupting the ritual causing everything to halt. The ashes were scattered and Gabrielle screamed in agony when the blood tried to reinsert itself into her being.
Aphrodite touched a spot on Gabrielle's neck, rendering her mercifully unconscious. Then the goddess got up and slapped Ares, furious at this final interference.
"Gods damn you to Tartarus, Ares! We nearly had her!"
"What? Nearly had who??"
"Xena, you idiot. We were bringing Xena home and you just totally screwed it up!"
"Well how was *I* supposed to know?? Not like you told me!"
"Exactly... I didn't tell you because I didn't want you here... for this very reason. You have no sense where Xena is concerned and everything you've done lately has simply made things worse!"
"Go away, Ares. I don't want you here when Gabrielle wakes up. She doesn't deserve the kind of pain you've inflicted and I don't think we can fix this. There aren't enough of Xena's ashes left to work with." She hesitated as a look of pain crossed his face. "Please Ares," she said quietly. "Just go."
He looked at Gabrielle, still lying mercifully unconscious near the altar. He sealed the wound on her wrist, then leaned forward to brush a kiss across her temple. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. You were a worthy opponent, but you didn't deserve this. Neither of you did."
He didn't even glance at Aphrodite whose jaw was hanging open. He simply turned on his heel and left the way he'd come.