Ares closed his eyes when the crash of thunder and the flash of lightning rocked the world. And when he opened them, Xena and Gabrielle were no longer in his sights.
"NOOOOOOOO!!!" he screamed in frustration, before his own world began to vortex and he disappeared into the center of it. When sound and motion stopped, the only thing left on the prairie were a fox and a panther curled up together near a small hillock and a cream colored mustang leading a herd towards the stream.
The fire had burned low, though there was still a little bit of heat and light coming from it. Lying side by side on a fur bedroll were two women - one with eyes closed contentedly and the other with her hands under her head looking up at the night sky.
Gabrielle sat up, leaning back on her elbows and studying the vast expanse of stars overhead. "Looking out at the cosmos makes you think - about where we are - where we've been - where we're going now."
Xena rolled onto her side and leaned up on one elbow. "Yeah - and like the bigger now. I mean, Gabrielle, what are we gonna do? Wander around Greece our whole lives looking for trouble? Why don't we go away? Far away? Whaddya say?"
Bright pink sparkles and a shower of rose petals put an abrupt halt to the conversation. Gabrielle smiled. Xena just rolled her eyes and smirked.
"How's about a totally rocking time at the kick-ass vacation spot in the Aegean?" She looked around at the crude outdoor accommodations and popped a chaise lounge into place, then dropped onto it gracefully. "Hey, hot babes! What's shakin'? Did I hear you two discussing some radical travel plans? I have a gnarly idea for that."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "You know there is someone else out there."
Xena nodded. "Yeah... has been for the last half candlemark. I'll go...."
Suddenly there was dead silence - no sound at all... not from the breeze or the animals or the water that trickled in the tiny stream behind them. The fire froze unmoving, as did Gabrielle. Xena turned her focus to Aphrodite and raised an eyebrow in question.
"We need to talk." Dite said gravely and leaned forward on the edge of her chair, resting her arms on her knees.
Xena agreed, seeing clearly the serious intent in the goddess's blue eyes. "What's up?"
"Xena, how much do you love Gabrielle?" Dite paused, knowing she'd flustered the normally reticent warrior. "I want you to think about something, all right?" She waited for Xena to consent. "I want you to think about how you would feel if you had to spend eternity alive without Gabrielle."
Xena's eyes widened and she swallowed hard, but she didn't say a word. That was a possibility she'd never honestly contemplated. She had her own distinct impressions of just how long their lives together were really going to be and pondering anything less... especially if it meant eternity alone, was simply too painful to bear up under scrutiny.
"Why are you asking me this?" came the hoarse whisper when Xena could no longer bear the silence.
"Xena, you have one chance here... one chance to choose YOUR greater good. Sometimes... sometimes you have to make a commitment," glancing pointedly at Gabrielle's still form, "and stick with it." Dite hesitated, then continued more harshly. "But I warn you to choose wisely, because you won't get another chance at this. And I guarantee you I won't let her be alone this time."
"You know something," the warrior accused flatly.
"Yeah, I do," Aphrodite responded candidly, thinking of the journals she'd found in her private library and the tears she had cried when she'd read them. She wondered, but some things were better left as mysteries. "But she doesn't and you can't. You're gonna have to live for a very long time to learn what I know... I've given you all the warning I can. What you do next is up to you... and it will determine your eternal fate."
Xena sat thoughtfully silent for a bit before sighing and dipping her head in acknowledgement. She squirmed uncomfortably, not wanting to be beholden, but needing to know. "Dite, when this is all over...." When not if, because she was determined to do right by Gabrielle and herself this time. She had a gut instinct telling her that this was no ploy, no joke of the gods and a misjudgment on her part would cost her everything she held dear.
Aphrodite waited, but Xena seemed unable or unwilling to put her thoughts into words.
"Look, babe... I'll tell ya what. You do whatever it is you feel ya need to do with Kimchi boy toy out there and then if you're up to it, I'll see about that rockin' vacation on Lesbos. A couple weeks time-out maybe, to you know, like, put the priorities in order, get a few things totally settled between ya." She gave Xena another meaningful look. "Then when you're ready, you and the Gabster can come on up to Olympus. We could have a bitchin' girl fest and I could, you know, let you in on a couple things you like, need to know... answer whatever questions I can."
"Like our immortality?"
Dite blinked in surprise and cleared her throat. "Uh, among other things, yeah." She raised her hand to move time along again when Xena stopped her.
"You're doing this for her, aren't you?" Xena asked softly.
Dite had the grace to blush, but she never broke eye contact with the warrior. "I've got my reasons," she answered, laying a hand on Xena's chest. Xena gasped at the momentary emptiness she felt. "But I meant what I said. You won't get another chance." Dite removed her hand and Xena struggled to breathe.
The warrior looked at Gabrielle, trying to get her mind back in the game. "Huh?"
"You all right? You kinda faded out on me."
Xena rubbed a hand across her eyes. "Sorry... what were we talking about?"
"Well, you mentioned going away and Aphrodite popped in and volunteered Lesbos as a great getaway."
"Lesbos, huh?" Xena smiled engagingly. "Might actually get a chance to finally meet Sappho. Whaddya think?"
"Oooh, I think you know what I think. But we've gotta get rid of whoever is roaming around out there first," she added under her breath.
"Well, you girls remember what I said. Lesbos is hoppin' and I think you would have a totally wicked time. Just lemme know, 'kay? Toodles!" And Dite left in a shower of sparkles and rose petals before either Xena or Gabrielle could get a word in edgewise."
Gabrielle shook her head. "She is so blonde sometimes!"
"Careful there, my bard," Xena chuckled. "So are you."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the warrior. "Are you calling me ditzy?"
Xena riffled her fingers through the pale locks then kissed the fair hair. "Nope, I'm calling you blonde." She shrugged though there was a twinkle in her eye. "You are blonde this week."
"Why you...." Gabrielle sputtered before she pounced on Xena and began a tickle fight which ended abruptly when a slight Japanese monk stumbled into their campsite, only to stop when the edge of Xena's chakram touched his throat.
"I search for Xena."
"You've found her," the warrior said casually. "Whaddya want?"
"I bring a message from Akemi. She seeks your help."
Xena got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that matched the emptiness in her heart when Dite had touched her. The girl had lied to her and used her before. She wasn't going to let it happen again, especially with Aphrodite's warning floating around in her mind.
"But...." stammered the monk.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said at the same time.
"No, Gabrielle. He can tell me her problem and I'll advise him to the best of my ability, but I am not getting mixed up with her again. She caused way more trouble than she's worth and I'm not cleaning up behind her any more."
"But Xena...." Gabrielle turned perplexed green eyes towards the warrior and found nothing but love and compassion in the blue eyes that met hers. "What about the greater good?" said on a whispered breath.
Xena cupped the bard's cheek in her hand, heedless of their audience. "Gabrielle, sometimes *WE* have to be the greater good. We can't solve the world's problems and I'm tired of everyone from my past thinking I owe them something. Akemi, especially, I don't owe her a thing and I'm not gonna be fooled by her again. I've paid my dues already. It's time to focus on us for a while."
Gabrielle examined the truth she saw in Xena's eyes. "You'll tell me the story?"
"On our way to Lesbos, I promise."
Xena dropped her hand and turned her attention back to the monk. "Talk."
"Akemi is dead."
"Yeah and...? She's been that way for a while now."
"I've seen her."
"Great, a freak who sees dead people. You got anything else or you gonna keep wasting my time?" Xena muttered harshly, still feeling the emptiness in her soul now that she was no longer touching Gabrielle. The monk looked taken aback by her attitude.
"You are not what I expected."
"Yeah, well, you don't know the whole story either. So either talk or don't, but make a decision. Gabrielle and I have somewhere else to be and surprisingly, you're not invited."
"Xena...." Gabrielle chided softly.
Xena sighed and motioned him to take a seat. Gabrielle stirred the embers and fixed tea for everyone, then took a seat beside Xena, stunned when the warrior leaned over and casually clasped her hand. Not that she doubted Xena's feelings for her, but she had never been overly demonstrative, especially in public.
The monk haltingly began to talk. It took him a good candlemark to falter through his story and Xena's patience was stretched to the snapping point by the time he stopped speaking. But her mind had been working as he talked and she already had most of the details worked out.
She jerked her dark head at him. "Get some sleep. I'll have something for you in the morning."
He looked at her doubtfully, but the expression in those ice blue eyes didn't change. He finally nodded and moved to the opposite side of the fire, curling into the blanket Gabrielle gave him.
"Trust me, Gabrielle. This is the best solution for everyone concerned. I'm not... I won't...." She drew a deep breath. "I know I don't say it enough, my bard, but I love you. You are still what gives my life meaning and joy and I'm gonna do a better job of showing you that. You deserve that... we both do."
Gabrielle gave Xena a gently sweet smile. "I love you too and I think I'd really like that."
Xena pulled the bard close for an intensely passionate kiss. She took her time, tracing Gabrielle's lips with her tongue and accepting the invitation when Gabrielle opened her mouth. For long minutes they tasted one another, exploring and teasing until they were both a bit breathless.
"G'wan," Xena said, though her darkened eyes had another message altogether. "May as well get some sleep. This is gonna take me a while."
Instead, Gabrielle poured them each another cup of tea and settled in beside the warrior. "I'd rather keep you company," curling an arm around Xena's bicep and leaning her head on the warrior's shoulder.
Xena smiled and kissed the blonde head. "I'd like that," she said tenderly, before turning her attention to the parchment in front of her, trying valiantly to remember how to write the characters of the monk's language correctly.
When morning came, the man left with the parchment in hand, though he was still disgruntled. Akemi was going to be most displeased that he'd failed to convince the warrior to return with him. She'd been so sure Xena would do anything for her....
Ares looked into his scrying bowl and watched Xena send the monk away with instructions, but not accompanying him herself. "Now I wonder," he muttered, "what exactly is up with that?" watching the monk walk off mumbling to himself. It was totally unlike Xena to refuse to help someone in need since she became a do-gooder. His eyes went unfocused and he had to wonder what he'd missed while he'd been busy with those lovely little skirmishes in Persia and Sparta. Ares shook his dark head to clear his mind of the past and focus on the puzzle the present had just handed him. But when he turned his attention back to Xena and Gabrielle, they were gone.
Xena and Gabrielle headed out towards the sea, hoping to find passage to Lesbos from the nearest port. When Mt. Olympus came into view, however....
"Gabrielle, would you mind terribly if we stopped by to see Aphrodite on the way out?"
The bard felt of Xena's forehead then pulled back with a puzzled look. "You feel cool. What's up?"
Xena shrugged. "I just wanted to say thanks. She's been a good friend and we really don't have many of those left. I thought we could just...."
Gabrielle jumped into Xena's arms and kissed her soundly. "I think that is a fabulous idea."
Aphrodite saw them coming and popped them into her boudoir. "Well, this is a totally unexpected, but radically bitchin' surprise. But I'm glad you girls stopped by. We've got tons of gnarly stuff to catch up on and you're in for a bacchae of a bombshell! C'mon in."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then followed Dite further into her quarters, stepping into a new unknown future together and closing the door to the past firmly behind them.
10/03 & 02/04 - 10/04