Characters and backstory from Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys are property of MCA/Universal/Renaissance. No copyright infringement is intended.
This is an original (I hope) work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
There are depictions of love/sex between consenting adult persons of the same gender. If this is illegal where you live, you are underage, or this isn't your preference, then stop reading here and find something more appropriate to your tastes and/or laws.
A very brief violent spat.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Author's Note: Follow the yellow brick road.
Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At What Cost
Copyright June 29, 1998
She was in no mood to deal with anyone, especially gods, but still, Xena set out to petition each one whom she thought might consider a favor done in the past to be repaid. It had been over a fortnight since Gabrielle had been lost to her, and she was sober enough to realize that she could not continue without the young woman by her side. Her source, the light that guided her through her own darkness, was gone, and she was hopelessly lost.
There had been so many things left unsaid. She had truly believed that both of them would have come out of Dahok's temple relatively unscathed. Ares' threat that she would die should she kill Hope, had seemed to be a bluff on the god's part. She had believed that it was an effort to keep her from murdering the evil goddess to whom the war god had been betrothed.
Ares had known that the only person who could keep her from killing, was Gabrielle. He had used the bard and then had disappeared without a trace after she had served his purposes. The god had played all the angles. And he had lost in the end. There was no position of supreme power for him, no army of child destroyers for him to lead, and there was no way in Tartarus that she was going back to him now. Memories of his attempted seductions left her feeling only a cold anger at the steps he had taken to gain power for himself. And she resolved to correct the wrongs that had committed by his selfish act...she was going to bring Gabrielle back.
The bright afternoon sun glinted off of the still lake's clear waters, dappling the warrior's face with shifting patterns of light. Xena looked over her shoulder at Argo who stood, watching her placidly. "Yeah, I know, Argo. Been here, done this," she muttered. "But Gabrielle's different, and I just have to get her back...no matter what."
Steeling the emotions that threatened her stoic reserve, Xena removed her armor and weapons and stashed them with the saddlebags that had been tucked under a large boulder. "Wish me luck." She took a few deep breaths, readying her lungs for the torture they would have to endure. On the third one, she dove and swam to the murky depths of the lake, searching for the portal that would take her to the Underworld.
The water was colder the deeper she went, but it could not compare to the frigid ache that had consumed her when she realized that the bard was no longer at her side. After two weeks of both waking and sleeping nightmares, not to mention waking up with a monster hangover after a week-long binge, she had decided to take control of the situation and retrieve the woman who had made her life worth living.
At first, it had been a reluctant plan...asking the gods to help her. But she figured that at least a few of them owed her and Gabrielle, and for once, she planned on collecting a debt of her own. Hades had been the first, logical choice. And as such, she was in the process of ignoring the burning ache in her chest, knowing that she would be surfacing soon.
When she finally found the coolness of stale air upon her face, she inhaled with a great painful gasp. With a shake of her head, she realized that she might have to take the swim all over again, and soon.
Pulling herself up onto the bank of the Styx, Xena wrung out her hair and tossed it over her shoulder. She rocked back and forth in her boots a few times to force some of the water out of them. When she was satisfied that her presence would only be heralded by a slight squeak, she continued on her mission.
Xena smirked when the God of the Underworld spun in surprise as she cleared her throat.
"Xena," Hades said with a nod of his head, "what brings you here, again?"
"Oh, I think you know," the warrior replied, forcing a cheer into her tone. "So why don't we consider Gabrielle's return a repayment for favors given, and get on with it?"
Seeing the determined glint in the warrior's eyes, Hades held up a defensive hand and unconsciously took a step backwards. "Now, Xena...you know that when people arrive they cannot go back. That isn't how it's done." The god blanched when the warrior advanced with a sharp cock of her brow.
"Oh, really," she nearly purred. "Shall I start citing examples for you, or should I just play dumb and take your word for it?" The warrior chuckled and took another step towards Hades. "I've been here, Hades. I hung off a cross in Tartarus, for crying out loud. I died. I went back."
"But, Xena...I have to start putting my foot down. What do you think would happen if people started showing up suddenly, demanding that all their loved ones be returned? It would be utter chaos, and the world above would be crowded. Death is a natural part of life. You know that. You've sent enough people here yourself."
Xena winced at the reminder of her past, and she closed her eyes, lest the god see her shame. With a cleansing breath, she looked Hades in the eye once more. "I am asking you to return Gabrielle to me. It isn't that difficult to understand." With a mental grimace, she decided to go for the throat. "I have helped you twice, Hades. I retrieved your helmet for you and I freed Celesta from King Sisyphus. Now, I think that one little bard is truly a worthy payment in return."
Even though he was a god with the power of death, Hades began to sweat nervously. He knew that a wrong movement or word from him, and the warrior before him would do her best to make sure that he regretted it. But he really did have to set an example. "I'm sorry, Xena. I would do anything for you. I did place Marcus in the Elysian Fields for you," he reminded her. "And I would be glad to repay you the second debt in any other way, but that."
Narrowing a feral gaze on the anxious god, Xena considered a few facts. First, Gabrielle would not want her to attack Hades. Second, it would be a futile waste of energy, since he was a god, after all. And third, if she could not go through him directly, perhaps she could use his favor to entice another god.
With a snarl, she spun on her heel and began to leave. She stopped suddenly and looked over her shoulder. "Marcus deserved to be at peace. He was a good man." She smiled in satisfaction when Hades' hand went to his throat when she focused her gaze upon it. "But I think I will consider that other favor. I'll get back to you on that one," she warned as she left as silently as she had arrived.
After about a week's hard travel, she found the temple of the Sun God, high on the hill that she and Gabrielle visited not so long ago. She waited at the back of the room until all of the penitents had received their blessings. A frown of disapproval darkened her face as she remembered her words to the priest...that forgiveness had to come from within, and not from some urn.
Gabrielle had asked for the blessing, consumed with guilt for her role in the events that had led to the rebirth of a vengeful goddess and the death of an innocent boy. That still had not been enough to end the sensitive woman's nightmares. Even her quest at Mnemosyne's temple had not helped that. Up to the day that she died, the bard had been sleeping restlessly. Xena sighed as she watched the last of the remorseful supplicants file out of the temple. She hoped that after Gabrielle's return, her sacrifice would be enough to put her conscious at ease.
The priest smiled warmly at the warrior who approached the front of the temple. He was grateful that she had returned his god's urn to its rightful place. "Xena, so good to see you. Have you come to receive forgiveness?"
The warrior scowled at his expectant tone. "No, I've come to ask for repayment."
In an attempt to protect the young man who had helped him earlier, the priest stepped in front of a smooth-faced acolyte. Whatever the ex-warlord had planned, the look on her face did not bode well. "I'm sorry, Xena, but we have nothing of true value here," he stuttered as his hands began to sweat.
"I know that," the warrior replied with a growl. "The precious jewel I seek is somewhere else, and I need Apollo's help to get her back."
Remembering the sweet bard that had been traveling with Xena the last time he had seen the warrior, the priest straightened and cleared his throat. "Where is Gabrielle?"
"She's who I am talking about, you fool," the warrior hissed, her patience wearing thin. "I helped Apollo, and now I want him to help me get Gabrielle back."
"Back from where," the priest asked, his brow wrinkling in confusion. The woman before him was reputed to be one of the greatest warriors of all the known world. She had fought Titans and gods, and had captured the great Roman Caesar. He wondered where the bard could possibly be, that she would need a god's help.
"The Elysian Fields," Xena said without inflection.
The priest and acolyte gasped at her words and raised their eyes to the ceiling where the sun was falling out of sight of the portal. "I'm sorry, Xena, but I don't think I can help you with that," the priest said as he held a hand to his chest.
"I'm not asking you, old man," the warrior snarled. "I want an audience with your god. Now call to him," she ordered tersely.
The old priest stumbled backwards into the acolyte and held up his hands to beg for mercy. "Please, don't hurt us. Take whatever you want."
Xena ran a hand through her hair in aggravation. "Look, all I want is an audience with Apollo. Now, would you please call him?"
A bright burst of light preceded the deity as called. Xena shielded her eyes until she could look upon the sun god's immortal form. She was shocked by his appearance. Unlike Hades, who was generally somber, and Ares, who was...Ares, Apollo had a cheerful countenance. His golden hair and deep green eyes shone from an internal source.
"For one who is so desperate, warrior, you sure do have a way of asking for help," he said softly as he approached the wary woman. "You wish for me to speak with Hades?"
Xena's eyes widened with shock, and the god chuckled. "Oh, yes, I heard. I can also see into your heart."
Instantly, Xena stiffened as if to shield the god from her innermost feelings.
"You care for the little one a great deal...more than even she knows. Shame, Xena. You seem to me to be a rather forthright person, and yet, a simple peasant girl keeps your tongue stilled, even as your love for her burns brightly."
"Apollo, I really don't have time for this little chit-chat. Can you help me or not?"
The god shrugged. "You ask for repayment for returning my temple's urn."
Xena nodded in confirmation although a sense of dread settled upon her chest.
"Well, if it had been Gabrielle who came to me and asked, I would have granted her wish. However, warrior, your lack of faith in my blessing has made your deed inconsequential." The god smiled to lessen the words that stung Xena harshly. "My priest may thank you, but I know that the mission held no great significance for you." Apollo cocked his head and studied the rigid warrior. "You can always change your opinion, Xena, and accept my blessing of forgiveness."
Fixing a withering glare on the god, Xena fumed. "I will not forsake my own beliefs, Apollo. I still believe that a person can only find true forgiveness within himself."
"So be it, Xena. Until you change your mind, I cannot grant a repayment of this debt."
"Fine," she growled as she turned and left the temple. "Damn gods and their egos," she muttered as she found her way down the sloping trail. On her mental list, she checked off Apollo and considered how to approach her next option.
The handsome god shook his head and played with the feathers on his left wing. "I'm sorry, Xena, but I can't help you."
The warrior softened the fierce lines on her face and batted her eyes. "Come on, Cupid, after that fiasco with Bliss? Surely, you could consider it."
Running a hand through his short blonde hair, the god considered a moment. "Xena, my specialty is love. And I'm a minor god. I don't hold any sway over my uncle."
"Why do you think I'm trying to get Gabrielle back, huh? I love her, damnit, and I can't live without her!"
Cupid winced at the warrior's harsh tone, although he mentally patted himself on the back for a job well-done at the woman's admission.
"What about your mom? Can Aphrodite do anything?"
The god shrugged and blushed. "I don't know. She's still pretty miffed about you throwing a wrench into her whole constellation scheme. I wouldn't count on it."
Biting off a few choice curses, Xena mounted Argo and left the winged god alone in the wooded shrine to love.
The heat was beginning to rub nerves already raw from endless travel and numerous denials. She began to pace, ignoring the angry looks that she was receiving from several Cyclopes.
"Well, warrior, what brings you to my forge?"
Xena turned to face the hulking man that lumbered toward her awkwardly. "I helped to retrieve your metal recipe away Ares and Agathon. In return, I would like you to help me convince Hades to allow my friend to return to the mortal realm."
The smith god rubbed a callused hand over his chin and shook his head. "Look at me, Xena. Do you honestly think that any of my family takes me seriously. In their eyes, I am a freak, an imperfect god. They would sooner spit in my eye than consider my words."
Straws were beginning to look as good as anything for Xena. "What about Aphrodite? Can you talk to her?" Hephaestus began to shake his head again, but Xena put up a hand to still him. "Let me guess, she's still angry at me, and you don't want to be on that same end?"
"I'm sorry, Xena. As much as I would like to help you, she is the only one that I have, and I cannot betray her feelings."
"I thank you for your time, then."
The god watched as the warrior left his forge. The woman's determined step was flawed by the slight falling of her shoulders with every step she took.
Xena paced before the temple, unwilling to face defeat once more. A familiar voice, however, caused her to raise her head and smile helplessly.
"Ah, if it isn't my favowite wawwiah."
"Leah, so good to see you again. How are things with you?"
The priestess smiled brightly and shrugged her shoulders. "You know how it is. A few pwayers, a few blessings. Whewa is Gabwielle?"
The warrior looked sadly into the eyes that mirrored her own. "She died, protecting some people who were going to be sacrificed."
Leah held a trembling hand to her mouth in shock. "No, not another virgin." She found a seat on a bench and shook her head in denial. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Actually...," Xena drawled as she seated herself next to the priestess, "I was wondering if you could put in a good word with Hestia for me...see if she'll talk to Hades on my behalf and have Gabrielle released from the Elysian Fields."
Liquid blue eyes widened as the priestess gasped. "You want me to ask the gweat goddess to alter the will of the gods? It cannot be done, wawwiah." Leah nodded her head as if coming to a great understanding. "You place too much faith in yourself, Xena, and none in the all-mighty gods."
Xena stood with an irrational anger. "I have petitioned every god this side of Olympus, and all of them have turned me down. After all I did for them, and they can't even help me in return."
"Well then, puwhaps a little wespect and humility would take you further." Without another word, the priestess turned her back on the warrior and walked into the temple, closing the door to any other pleas.
Xena's thoughts were so consumed by her remaining options, that she did not hear her attackers until Argo snorted in warning. Blinking her eyes to gain focus, she unsheathed her sword and parried several unskilled attempts at gutting her. With a grimace, a snarl, and a feral hiss, she unleashed her pent-up frustration. She stopped short of killing the five men, for she could almost hear Gabrielle's gentle voice in her head, urging her to spare the vile scum. With a sigh, she led Argo around the heap of human trash in the middle of the road and continued on her mission.
The temple had not been rebuilt after the Goddess of Chaos had destroyed it. Vines and weeds were slowly reclaiming the structure, making it one with the earth once more. Xena had pondered Leah's words and admitted that she had been going about her mission all wrong. She had been arrogant and demanding, expecting the gods to cater to her wishes. Gabrielle had always told her that she lacked the finesse of diplomacy. With a mental sigh and a feeling of helplessness, she removed her weapons and kneeled on the sacred ground, waiting for her last chance.
For Gabrielle, she would lay her life on the line. What was pride compared to that? What was her broken and empty heart, her lost soul? She had never felt another's loss so completely, like she did her bard's. She could not remember the utter loneliness she had felt after losing Lyceus or Solon. She had loved them both during their lives cut so short, but Gabrielle.... The Amazon Queen bard sidekick was everything and more to her. Losing Lyceus and Solon had filled her with rage, but losing Gabrielle had left her totally empty.
Only when she had snapped out of the depression into which she had drank herself, did Xena realize that she was not one to just sit around. She was the one who controlled her own destiny, her own life. And when she herself had died many months before, she had realized that her destiny laid with the gentle woman who had claimed her as friend.
A sudden charge in the air tickled the warrior's sharp senses, and she resisted the urge to lift her head. Waiting humbly on her knees, unarmed and naked of soul, she waited at the goddess' discretion.
Artemis looked upon the woman supplicating herself in front of her ruined temple. She had felt many things for the stoic warrior...rage, disbelief, affection. But never pity. Xena was a warrior of the kind like her Amazons. Fierce, proud, strong. But with the loss of Gabrielle, the warrior had been reduced to a shell of a woman. The goddess' immortal heart wanted to reach out to her, however, the brutal attack on her Chosen One was still raw on her mind.
She was not Athena. She claimed no great wisdom nor understanding of how good balanced with evil. All she knew was that Xena had tried to kill her trusting Queen. "I will not help you, warrior. Find someone else who would sooner aid you than kill you," she warned. "If you had come to me before your attack on Gabrielle, I would have assisted you more than gladly. But since, I can only hope to work through my anger towards you for the sake of Gabrielle's memory."
Xena slumped in total defeat. She could think of nobody else. "You are my last hope, goddess."
A spark of sympathy began to gnaw at the goddess' stomach. She lowered her head and thought of what her Chosen would say if she had been watching the display. Gabrielle would show mercy, she would forgive. "Seek out Hercules. He will have the answers you seek."
"Thank you," Xena whispered as she closed her eyes in gratitude. She had expected the goddess to strike her dead. It would not have been unwelcomed. The way that things were going, death would have been relatively easy compared to living with her loss. When Artemis vanished, Xena rearmed herself and stood. As it had begun to get dark, she began to scout for a campsite, knowing that her search for Hercules would have to wait until the morrow.
The crackling fire gave her no comfort, nor did the rhythmic scraping of the sharpening stone upon her sword. Her strokes were automatic as her mind replayed the events that had happened in Dahok's temple. A thousand different scenarios unfolded as she considered other options she might have had. No matter how much she thought about it, though, nothing changed the facts of what did happen. Gabrielle had sacrificed herself to save a warrior who considered herself unworthy.
"You know, if you keep thinking along those lines, Xena, you should just go back there and toss yourself in, too."
In one fluid, lightning-quick motion, Xena stood and faced her tormentor. "If you knew what was good for you, you'd disappear and never bother me again."
Ares jumped out of the tree in which he had been sitting and studied the woman who was fighting with all of her will to control the vengeful hate that was coursing through her veins. "I know you want to kill me, Xena. Where's that dagger? Maybe I'll even give you a sporting chance."
Xena snarled and spit at the god's feet. "I threw the dagger in after that bitch of yours. Don't want anyone else getting a hold of it now, do we?"
The god clucked his tongue and crossed his arms. "Such fire, such rage. Why do you fight it, Xena? You could be the all-powerful conqueror of the known world. I could give that to you," he promised seductively.
"Forget it, Ares. My time with you has truly come to an end. I don't know what game you're playing, but I'm the one who's going to walk away."
Lifting his head in an arrogant gesture, Ares narrowed his eyes and licked his lips. "She was nothing, Xena. An irritating brat." He chuckled when his former disciple tensed as if to ready an attack. "Oh, I know you wanted her...how you wanted her. It intrigued me, really. I wanted to know what it was about her that swayed you away from me."
"What do you know about her," Xena asked as her hands clenched her sword with impotent fury.
"I know that she loved you, despite your past, your actions. She forgave you every time you hurt her or left her behind. She really was an amazing woman. It's just too bad that she was so damn nice and good, or else I might have found a use for her. Imagine, you could have had her, and I could have had you both."
Xena's anger was dissipating and turning to annoyance. She let memories of her beloved bard soothe her inner turmoil and she relaxed her stance. Lowering her sword, she fixed a stony glare on her adversary. "Why are you here, Ares? It can't be the fact that I loathe your company."
Ares pulled at his beard and shrugged. "I'm hurt, Xena. You've gone to all the other gods, asking for their help. Have you even considered asking me? You know I'd help you."
"At what price, huh? Even if I can't get Gabrielle back, I won't forsake her by consorting with you."
Baring his teeth in the shadow of a smile, the God of War laughed. "Oh, you are worthy of so much, Xena. All you have to do is ride at the head of my army. Everyone who has ever professed allegiance to me...they still wait for my command. They need a strong leader...one who would give them no quarter for failure."
Xena considered the god's offer. "What purpose would this army serve? To wreck havoc? To destroy Greece?" Her eyes narrowed with an enlightening thought. "Or perhaps you would need such an army to protect you? I'm sure your betrayal didn't go over very well with the family...especially Daddy, hmm?"
Ares shifted uncomfortably.
"Yeah, so that's it," the warrior muttered as her lips stretched into an unforgiving snarl. "Forget it, Ares. Find someone else to cover your black hide, because you deserve whatever Zeus has planned for you."
Bowing his head in abject defeat, Ares watched as Xena settled once more on the log before her fire. When she began to sharpen her sword once more, he knew that he had been dismissed, but he could not help getting in the last word.
"I thought I had every possible angle covered," he whispered. "I thought that whatever happened, I would become the most powerful god on Olympus, whether I did that with Dahok and Hope, or whether I did it with you. I thought that with her out of the way, getting you back in my arms would be easy. I should have known that you kept your promises. You promised her that you would not go back to who you were before, when you waged war for the glory of war, when you killed for the fire that made you feel alive. I should have known...to never underestimate you."
Ares turned and began to walk away, but stopped and looked over his shoulder. "I guess I know what you see in her now. With her, you are more powerful and stronger than you ever were with me."
Xena relaxed only when she no longer felt the war god's presence. She pursed her lips and then exhaled in relief. It had been another shallow victory against the god, for Gabrielle was still gone. With a wry smile, she considered how the bard would have been proud of her. The battle of wills with Ares was getting easier and easier, and Xena was actually, for once, able to see a time when the war god inspired in her nothing more than irritation.
With her spirit lightened, if but a bit after the encounter, Xena made short work of sharpening and polishing her weapons before settling down for a restless sleep. Even in the arms of Morpheus, she could not stop her mind from working through the possibilities for rescuing Gabrielle.
Xena finally found the son of Zeus and his companion two days after Artemis' suggestion. She waited quietly, sitting on a log in the middle of their camp, until the two men woke. She wondered if they knew yet of Gabrielle's death. Rumors tended to spread rather quickly if the story was good enough. It had not taken long for stories of her own death to reach the ears of the more unsavory populace of Greece. With a mental sigh, she prepared the words she would use, just in case they had not.
Hercules was the first to open his eyes, as the rays of dawn filtered into their camp. With a groan and a slow stretch, he greeted the morning and then his sleeping friend with a friendly smack on the back of the smaller blonde's head. "Hey, Iolaus, wake up."
The older man grunted and tried to roll over, but the demi-god was insistent and grabbed the edge of his bedroll and dumped him out of it onto the fragrant forest floor. "Damnit, Herc...just let me sleep a little longer."
"Come on, Iolaus," Hercules persisted.
"Let me try."
The demi-god spun and blushed when he realized that there had been a visitor in their camp, and he had not noticed. With a gallant wave of his arm, however, he allowed Xena to try her hand.
"What the...!" Iolaus sputtered and sat up like a bolt. He glowered when he heard Hercules laughing, but the sight of a familiar woman warrior kneeling over him made him stutter. "Xe...Xena...how nice to see you so early in the morning. What brings you here? Where's Gabrielle?"
Hercules cocked a brow and crossed his arms as he waited for the answers.
Xena stood and tossed the half-empty waterskin into Iolaus' lap and willed her walls not to crumble. "I guess you haven't heard then," she muttered so low that both men were straining to hear. "You'd better sit," she suggested to Hercules as she resumed her seat on the log.
Both men turned serious at the woman's ominous tone. Although not generally cheery, Xena was even more morose than usual.
When she saw that her audience was waiting patiently, Xena took a deep breath and began. "Do you remember when Strife was killed, and you told Gabrielle that there was another who was helping Callisto?" When both men nodded uneasily, the warrior continued. "Well, that other...person...was the daughter of an evil god...borne of Gabrielle."
"What," Iolaus asked with a muted shriek, shock evident on his face.
"Let her talk," Hercules urged his friend as he nodded for Xena to continue.
"Well, this person...this goddess...Hope...gathered together some followers. She...cocooned herself, and was reborn more powerful than when you dealt with her." Running a shaking hand through her dull raven hair, Xena took a breath and mentally prepared herself for the rest of the story.
"Ares and Callisto allied themselves to Hope and Dahok...the evil god. When Hope was reborn, her followers began kidnapping people for a mass sacrifice that would bring Dahok into the world. I tried to kill her before she succeeded, but somehow, Ares convinced the Fates to cut my life short if I should do so."
Xena closed her eyes tight in an effort to keep her tears from following, but the battle was fought vainly. Her loss choked the words that tumbled out thickly as she rushed to finish. "I didn't get a chance to kill her because Gabrielle grabbed her and pulled her into this chasm of fire and lava...and...."
The stoic warrior broke down and sagged into the strong arms of the demi-god as they folded over her with sympathy. Iolaus joined them and held her hand until she exhausted the emotions that kept welling within, no matter how much she cried.
When Xena's tears slowed to silent misery, Hercules kissed the top of her head and shared a look with his partner. "Xena? Gabrielle killed her daughter...and herself in the process...to keep you from dying, didn't she?"
The woman could only nod as she was busy sniffling and wiping her nose on a linen that Iolaus had provided. When she felt that she could go on, she took a cleansing breath and eased out of Hercules' arms. "After everything that has happened to us this past year...after what I tried to do to her...." She shook her head in disbelief and hiccuped.
"What are you talking about?" Iolaus had heard a few details from Gabrielle about things that were obviously too painful for her to share, so he had a vague idea, but nothing that would cause the distressed warrior such sorrow.
Xena straightened and looked each of her former lovers in the eye. "I...I tried to kill her." She winced when both gasped and questions stilled on their shocked lips. She shook her head in understanding and bowed her head. "Things were bad," she admitted. "Hope killed my son...Solon, and I blamed Gabrielle because she let her daughter live, she tried to protect her daughter, just as I tried to protect my son. I was so angry, and yet, so empty. Ares came to me afterwards...and I let him sway me. It didn't take much effort," she snorted in self-derision.
"Gabrielle was with the Amazons. I went in there, warlord to the core, and I abducted her, right from under her people's noses. I...I dragged her behind this horse I took...and when we reached the sea...she was unconscious, and...I tried to throw her off a cliff." Lacing her fingers behind her neck, Xena lowered her head even more and began to rock back and forth on the log. "She woke up, and...she threw herself at me...and we both went over."
Remembering her last words of acknowledgement and love to her son, Xena began to cry quietly again. "Solon somehow rescued us and showed us what was wrong...what we had to reconcile between ourselves. He understood that we needed each other. A boy...knew how much Gabrielle meant to me...and for one moment of blind rage...I forgot everything she had done for me...how much I loved her."
Hercules and Iolaus ran over the warrior's story in their minds, and both understood why Gabrielle had been forlorn the last time they had seen the couple. There had been an air of restrained tenseness between them that had not existed earlier.
"So," Iolaus began tentatively, "she died because she wanted to save you, and because she wanted to make up for what had happened to Solon?"
Xena could only shrug, for she had no idea what had been going through the bard's mind at the time. All she could remember was the last look on her friend's face before she fell to be consumed by the fire. It had been a look of utter love and desperate plea...a plea for forgiveness.
Hercules left Xena's side for a moment, and she shuddered with the loss. He returned just as quickly and offered the woman their waterskin.
Straightening, she thanked him with swollen, red-rimmed eyes and a tiny smile. Quenching her throat gone dry with more words than that she was accustomed, she closed her eyes and rolled her neck to ease the tension that had begun to build. She caught the demi-god's eyes again and conveyed her need in her gray-blue eyes.
"What's going on, Xena," Hercules asked as he picked up on her silent message.
"I'm going to get her back," the warrior stated emphatically. "I've already petitioned all of the gods that I thought might owe me a favor, but they all refused."
"So why come to us," the demi-god asked as he cast a look to his partner who only shrugged.
"Artemis said that you would have the answers I seek," Xena shared with a determined glint in her eyes.
Hercules stood and began to pace the small clearing in which they were camped. "Answers? To what?"
Iolaus continued to stroke Xena's back absently as he considered the question. "Xena, how were you going to kill Hope?"
The warrior turned to look at the blonde man and then to the tall man who had stopped, waiting on her answer. "I retrieved the Hind's-blood dagger that he told me about," she said with a jerk of her chin towards the demi-god.
All three thought in silence, contemplating any angle that they might use.
Iolaus looked at Hercules and raised his brow. "What happened to Callisto?"
Xena answered his raised brow with one of her own and she grimaced. "I killed her."
Xena stood and exhaled an exasperated breath. With a mental shake of her head, she realized the effort it took when Gabrielle told a story. "She wanted oblivion. Hope promised to fulfill her wish, but then went back on that promise. Callisto came to me and offered to help me and Gabrielle defeat Dahok and Hope if we used the dagger to end her existence."
"And where's the dagger," Hercules asked, a thread of worry beginning to worm into his chest.
"I threw it in after Gabrielle," the warrior woman answered, relieving the demi-god's trepidation.
"And what about the pendant?"
Xena turned to Iolaus and shook her head. "Callisto wasn't wearing it when I saw her. That's why we were all trying to find the dagger...because it was the only thing available that would meet all of our needs." She stood in agitated helplessness and began to pace.
Iolaus and Hercules shared a silent conversation with their eyes, and Hercules nodded his head as an idea struck. "She must have left it in the vortex," he said as pulled at his bottom lip. "But where? Who knows how many parallel worlds there are in there?"
Xena stopped to avoid running into Hercules when their paths almost collided. Thoughts were chasing each other within her mind, and she was beginning to get a headache from the metal gymnastics as well as a lack of food. When her stomach rumbled in protest, Iolaus jumped up and crossed to their belongings where he uncovered the leftovers from the previous night's meal. With the barest of smiles, Xena thanked him for his attention, and accepted the cooked strips of rabbit meat.
"So...all we have to do is open the vortex...again...and go find the pendant."
Hercules looked at his partner and then crossed to sit next to him on the log. "But then what?"
"I could trade it to another god for Gabrielle," Xena suggested around a mouthful of food.
Hercules nodded but then turned his face upwards in question. "But who has the power to do so, and the need for the pendant. I wouldn't trust just anyone with it."
Iolaus smacked his leg in excitement that a plan was beginning to take shape. "Well, there's Zeus, of course. He'd give his thunderbolts to have that pendant."
Hercules grunted in agreement, but his face clouded in dismay. "After what Ares has done, I wouldn't trust Zeus not to use it against him."
"And as much as we all hate the thought, we need Ares as the God of War. I saw what happened when he lost his godhood," Xena remembered with a grimace.
"Hmm...what about Hades," the blonde man suggested.
Xena shook her head, dismissing the idea. "He isn't too thrilled with Ares, either."
"The body-switch," Hercules mumbled with anger as he remembered his own dealings with Callisto and his role in her quest for immortality.
"The Fates," Xena suddenly blurted, her eyes wide in excitement. "This whole thing would not have happened if Ares and Dahok had not threatened them. If they had the pendant, they would be secure from any more interference from the gods."
"And they are neutral in the events of all realms," Hercules added, getting caught up in Xena's enthusiasm.
Iolaus stood and wiped his hands on his trousers and nodded, his blonde, wavy hair bouncing with the jerky movement. "Okay, now we know who to deal with, but how are we going to open the vortex?"
"Well, considering that Callisto and Ares aren't working together anymore, we've got to find another way."
Both men turned to Xena in silent question. "He said that he would return my favor with anything but returning Gabrielle. I'll ask him to open the vortex."
"Yeah, but both times, it took the power of Zeus or two gods combined," Iolaus said with a frown.
"What if we could get another god to help?"
"I think I've petitioned nearly all of them," Xena muttered as she turned to the forest and cursed herself for approaching all of her chances so brusquely.
Xena smirked and tossed her head to stare at the clear blue sky that denoted the beginning of another day. "She's pretty pissed at me right now. Cupid and Hephaestus were scared to help because of her."
Hercules nodded and shared a grin with Iolaus. "Well, let me have a talk with her, and then we'll see what happens."
Nodding, Xena spared a quizzical glance to Iolaus who had begun to fidget.
"Are we done here," the smaller warrior asked as his hands clenched at his pants. When his two companions shrugged their shoulders in agreement, he took off for the brush on the far side of the camp. An audible sigh caused Xena and Hercules to chuckle.
"Guess we forgot about everything else for a while there," Hercules said as he began to tap his fingers against his hips.
"Uh, huh," Xena agreed with a smirk.
"Um...would you excuse me?"
"Sure," the warrior drawled as she found the waterskin and took a few long pulls. By the time that she stretched out a few morning kinks and cracked her back, the men returned with looks of pure relief on their faces.
"Ex-squeeze-me? You want me to do what?"
"Oh, come on, Aphrodite, think of all the reasons why this is the right thing to do," Hercules cajoled as he tried to disarm his sister with a boyish smile.
"What? Help those two? After all the grief they've given me? When will you guys figure out that I'm not as dumb as I look?"
Hercules held up his hands and shrugged. "What can I say," he said as his mind tried to answer the question. His eyes brightened and he stepped closer to the fuming goddess. "Think of this, Aphrodite. You know all those poems that Sappho wrote about love? Well, imagine if Gabrielle and Xena were to reunite...the bard has a way with words. She would put your name on every listener's tongue."
The Goddess of Love pouted petulantly and refused to budge. "What are you talking about, bro? They are the big-time losers in that department...week after week...one guy after another."
"I'm talking about how they feel about EACH OTHER," Hercules stressed with a wink. "A person can't help but notice the looks that pass between them."
"Hmmph. They're blind fools, if you ask me."
"BUT...a reunion like this...it's bound to generate emotions...feelings...admissions of loss and love," the demi-god purred.
Aphrodite cocked her head and planted her hands on her hips. "Ya think so?"
"Oh, yeah. I would count on some serious action...and afterwards...who knows? It'll be the stuff great love epics are made of," he promised.
Her vanity appealed, the love goddess capitulated. "I'll do it," she said with an affirmative nod, but not for Xena or that little brat of hers," she warned. "Just once, I'd like to stick to Ar...you know...prove that love is stronger than war."
Hercules smiled in victory. "Trust me, sis...these two are the perfect couple for that. You're gonna love it when they see each other again."
"Oh...all right," Aphrodite replied. "Just give me a yell when you are set and ready, and I'll do my thing? Okey-dokey?"
"You won't regret this, Aphrodite."
The love goddess snorted and struck a pose. "It had better be way cooler than Sappho's," she said before she disappeared with a sparkle of glitter.
Xena pulled herself up the bank of the River Styx and grunted with the effort. "Anything, Xena," she chanted to herself. "You'd do anything to get her back."
When she reached Hades' throne room, she found the god on his knees, whispering to his guardian dog Cerebus. When the three-headed beast growled, he looked up in surprise. "Xena, I didn't expect to see you again so soon."
Wringing the water out of her hair, the warrior smirked. "Yeah, well, I came to collect on that debt you owe me."
Hades rose and crossed to the wet woman, his canine companion at his heels. "I can't return Gabrielle," he began, only to be interrupted with a curt wave of Xena's hand.
"I'm not here for that," she said. "I need you up there," she explained with an upward jerk of her thumb.
"I need you to help Aphrodite open a vortex for me. After that, we're even."
The God of Death cocked his head and studied the warrior before him. He had to admit to himself that she was the most determined mortal he had ever met. "That it? And we're even."
"That's what I said, isn't it?" Xena tapped her foot in impatience, as she was eager to go forth with her plan.
"All right, let's go, then," the god agreed as he laid a hand upon the warrior's shoulder and they disappeared from the Underworld.
When they materialized outside of Ares' temple, Hercules, Iolaus and Aphrodite were already waiting. With a few greetings exchanged, Hercules explained to the gods how to combine their powers to open the gateway, while Iolaus told Xena about the Sovereign, who she was likely to meet within the vortex. When everyone understood their roles, Xena stepped away from the group and checked her weapons. With a nod of her head, she conveyed her readiness.
After Hercules and Iolaus found shelter behind a large boulder, Hades and Aphrodite raised their arms. Great bolts of godly power converged on a pre-determined point in space, and a resounding rumble was heard as the vortex was opened. With one last look over her shoulder to her friends, Xena saluted and with a great battlecry, ran and somersaulted into the gateway.
Inside of the vortex, she encountered several different paths. "Well, can't flip a coin on this one, warrior, what are you going to do," she mumbled to herself. Trusting a gut instinct that urged her one way, she conceded and trotted off to her right. When she saw a dim light at the end of the tunnel, she made a long leap and landed with a tuck and roll. Letting her momentum carry her forward, she bounded to her feet and glanced around.
"Well, well, well," a deep voice purred. "Looks like someone's feeling sorry for me."
Xena found the source of the voice sitting atop a stone wall, tossing pebbles into a small pool of water. In response to the insolent malevolence that poured off the man, she smirked in defiance.
The Sovereign jumped from his perch and landed lightly a few paces from the warrior. "Xena, Xena, Xena. I've gotta tell you, you look so damn fine in leather. I wonder why I never thought of it before."
Remembering Iolaus' words about the relationship between the Sovereign and Xena in the other world he had visited, Xena smiled seductively. "A girl's gotta have some secrets, now, doesn't she?"
Tugging at his beard, the Sovereign leered and licked his teeth. "Sweetheart, that outfit doesn't hide much of anything. But I gotta tell ya...I'm glad you're here. Now I have something to do while I spend the rest of miserable eternity in this Tartarus-forsaken place."
Xena's eyes narrowed in recognition when she spied the Hind's-blood pendant resting under a strap of the demi-god's leather attire. "I see you found my bauble," she purred as she advanced slowly with a suggestive sway to her hips. "How can I ever thank you?"
"Uh, uh, uh," the Sovereign warned with a few shakes of his fingers.
Nonplussed, Xena continued her approach until she stood a hand's-breadth from the arrogant man. "Wherever did you find it?"
A shadow of anger passed over the Sovereign's face before it was once more claimed by boredom. "Oh, Priestess Callisto was kind enough to trade it for knowledge on how to get out of here," he answered with a slight shrug. "Then the bitch pushed me off the edge over there and escaped without me," he ground out between clenched teeth. "I can't tell you just how disappointed I was," he pouted.
Xena reached up with a cautious hand and found purchase on a few chest hairs. With a quick tug, she grinned and moved her lips closer. "That's too bad, baby," she crooned before her tongue snaked out to trace the man's angry lips. "What can I do to make you feel better?"
The Sovereign grimaced with pleasure-pain when the warrior tugged again with more strength. Grasping her firmly by the hips, he ground his groin into hers. "I can think of one thing, if you've got the energy," he suggested as he tried to capture Xena's lower lip between his teeth.
With a wicked chuckle, the warrior pulled back a step and shook her head. "Oh, I have plenty of energy," she promised. While part of her mind was concentrating on the Sovereign's bantering foreplay, the other half located the key that Hercules had used to escape the void between realms and noted that ominous clouds were advancing. When she figured how long she would have to play with the Sovereign until the lightning gave her the opportunity she needed, Xena returned her attention to her suitor.
"I've always wanted to do a babe in leather," the Sovereign admitted as he trailed a finger across the top of Xena's armor.
The warrior stifled a shiver of revulsion only by reminding herself of her objective...to reunite with Gabrielle. With a sly grin, she took another half-step back and with a shout, bounded out of the Sovereign's arms, kicking him on the way up before she somersaulted to land on her feet a few paces away.
The exiled demi-god growled in appreciation. "Ooh...you know how rough I like it."
Xena mentally rolled her eyes as she began to play cat and mouse with the pursuing man. Using a minimum of energy, she teased him with quick punches and body flips that only seemed to fire his passion higher. With a sigh of relief, she noted that the lightning had begun in earnest.
It took a moment for the Sovereign to realize that his concubine's love play had turned serious, as the pain became more real and the blows became more calculated. It wasn't until Xena had landed a vicious blow to his groin, that he realized his mistake. "You're not my Xena," he gasped.
"Hercules was wrong," she gloated, "you are a smart guy." Avoiding the demi-god's clutching hands, Xena grabbed the pendant and yanked it off of the Sovereign's neck. With a quick glance to the clouds above, she grinned. "Well, I'd hate to leave you high and dry," she smirked, "but I really gotta go."
"No!" The Sovereign could do nothing more than gasp as the fire radiating from his groin curled his insides into a painful ball of agony. With a shout of disappointment, he watched as the warrior leapt into the gateway that had materialized. He moved to take advantage of the moment, but the pain made his legs sluggish and uncooperative.
He fell to his knees when Xena threw her chakram from within the vortex to destroy the key that Hercules had fashioned. Now, it was no longer a matter of waiting for another storm to arise so that he might gain his freedom. It was the fact that he would never get out. Clenching his fists and cursing his mother and all women, he raised his head to howl, "Disappointed!"
Hercules and Iolaus shielded their eyes and planted their footing firm when the gateway opened outside the temple once again. Long seconds of anticipation passed as they waited to see who would emerge. When a familiar figure in dark leather leapt out and rolled to a stop, they clapped each other on the back.
Xena cast a look back to make sure that no one followed her out of the vortex before it closed in upon itself. When the clearing was once again quiet, she turned to her two companions and held up her hand in victory to reveal the pendant swinging from its gold chain.
"Come on," Hercules urged as he grabbed Iolaus by the arm and pulled him towards Xena. "We've got a date with the Fates."
Feeling more alive than she had since Gabrielle had died, Xena tucked the pendant into her cleavage and whistled for Argo. When the obedient warhorse trotted over to stand at attention, she mounted with a fluid grace marred only by a slight stiffness in her back.
"You feeling all right," Iolaus asked as he noted the slight grimace on her face.
"Oh, yeah," the warrior assured him. "Never better. That other Hercules might also be the son of Zeus, but he knows squat about fighting the likes of me," she explained with a wicked grin.
The three heroes traveled for two days before they finally reached the hidden passage that would lead them to the realm of the Fates. They camped under a clear night sky to rest after a arduous climb up a treacherous path that led to the small cave atop a mountain.
The sounds of a crackling fire and the familiar constellations in the sky overhead, comforted Xena, for it reminded her of similar times when she and Gabrielle had camped and spent the evening doing nothing but talking and stargazing. With a soft smile, she found the bard's bear and Lyceus' fish, and she sent out thoughts to both of them. One was a promise of reunion, the other was a memory of childhood. Willing the excitement she felt to heel, Xena fell asleep, confident in the knowledge that she would find the words to persuade the Fates to her proposed trade.
The next morning, before Apollo had even hitched his horses to his chariot, Xena was awake and pacing silently in the large clearing before the cave. Using three years of traveling with a bard as an example, she practiced the words she had found in the misty shadows of the dream that had wakened her. Even she thought that they were good, as if they had been given to her by Gabrielle herself. By the time that the sun had risen and Hercules and Iolaus had wakened, she had each syllable, nuance, and gesture committed to memory.
"I'm surprised that you waited for us," Hercules mumbled as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Xena shrugged and nodded a morning greeting to Iolaus who was returning from his private communal with nature. "Didn't want to leave without you wishing me luck," she retorted as she felt a nervous excitement well up in her chest.
"Well, good luck, then," Iolaus offered as he grasped her forearm.
She smiled when Hercules repeated the same. Turning to face the yawning mouth in the rock-face, Xena took a deep breath and forced herself to proceed slowly, and not run towards her meeting with fate.
Using a torch that Hercules had given her at the last second, Xena followed the winding passage that led deep down into the mountain. She figured that she had traveled about an hour before she encountered a door with mysterious engravings of ancient symbols. Unsure of whether or not she should knock, she paused, reminding herself to approach the three goddesses with humility and reverence.
The decision to knock was taken from her in the brief span of time that she had taken to remember her purpose, for the door was opened from within by an unseen force. Finding a large crack in the passage wall, Xena wedged her torch into it so that she might retrieve it later. Sure that it would not fall, she lowered her head and entered cautiously into the great weaving room from which all of mankind's destinies were determined.
When the door closed behind her, she bowed to one knee and waited for the Fates to accept her audience.
"The warrior Xena..."
"With her offering."
Rising to her full height once more, the warrior strode into the room. She raised her head only slightly to notice her surroundings before she kneeled once again in respect for the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.
"You seek to trade..."
"Yes," she answered solemnly. "I offer this token with my good faith so that you may need never worry about foreign intervention again," she explained.
"Tell us why..."
"We should accept..."
"My friend and I battled the evil Dahok and his will that all of mankind might suffer under his tyrannical rule. In the course of the battle, my friend sacrificed herself so that mortals and gods alike, might be free of his corrupt influence and terror. I petition you, the great Moirae, the weavers of all destinies, to return my friend's gentle presence to the mortal realm so that she might continue to guide others to the path of righteousness."
"The warrior's soul..."
"In this matter."
With a nod of her head, Xena stood and approached the Fates. She handed the pendant to Lachesis who extended her hand for the offering.
"I thank the great goddesses for their benevolent mercies in this matter," Xena stated as she backed out of the room, her eyes following the crooked lines of the bricks in the floor. She stopped and waited for the door to open once more so that she might leave.
"Where new life once began..."
"You must go..."
"To claim your future."
Pondering the cryptic words with a furrowed brow, Xena stepped back out of the door as it opened. When it closed in front of her, she whispered a thanks to the Fates and retrieved her torch.
When Xena finally entered the clearing once more, shading her eyes against the brilliant glare of the sun, she found herself smothered between two eager men. "Hey, you're denting the armor," she growled as she wiggled free.
"What took you so long," Hercules asked as he studied her face for any clues to her success.
"What are you talking about? I was only gone for a couple of hours."
Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other in confusion.
Xena's eyes narrowed at the exchange before she found a waterskin and slaked her thirst. "What?"
"Um, Xena," Iolaus began hesitantly, "you were gone for three days."
"We were about ready to come after you," Hercules added as he continued to wait expectantly.
"I don't know what to tell you guys," she said with a fleeting smile. "I know I wasn't gone that long."
"Well, then, how about you tell us what they said," Iolaus replied impatiently.
With a teasing smirk, Xena took a long moment for another drink. Seeing that the men were practically holding their breath for her news, she relented. "Well, they accepted the offer...."
"Yes," Iolaus shouted as grabbed the surprised woman and spun her in circles. "I knew you could do it!"
Hercules put out an arm to steady his exuberant friend and motioned for him to silence. "What did they say?"
Xena shrugged and sat on her bedroll to rest her aching thighs. "The usual cryptic stuff," she muttered. "They told me to return where new life began and find my future."
The men found their own seats as they pondered the Fates' advice.
"New life," Hercules mumbled aloud. "Could they have meant Amphipolis?"
"Dunno," Xena replied, considering the suggestion.
"I don't know," Iolaus said as he shook his head. "Have you ever known the gods to be so obvious?"
"True," the demi-god accepted with a nod.
"New life," Xena mumbled as she drummed her fingers on her chin.
"Wonder whose new life they were talking about," Iolaus joined as he plucked at a loose thread on his blanket. "The Sister Peaks...where Hope found new life?"
Both Xena and Hercules stared intensely at the blonde sidekick until he cowed under their glares. "Sorry."
"I don't think this has anything to do with Hope," Hercules explained as he laid a supportive hand on his friend's shoulder. "This is about Gabrielle."
"Well, it could be Potedaia, or even Amazonia, where she started her life as a princess," Xena suggested.
"Do you think they were being literal...as in the beginning of life, you know, being born. Or do you think they meant it metaphorically...as in a new beginning?"
Xena snorted in sudden humor and shook her head. "Whatever do you and Gabrielle talk about...metaphorically?"
"Heh, yeah, well," the blonde man shrugged with a blush.
Hercules raised his head and calculated the time and light left in the day. "You know, guys, if we pack up now and start off, we can make it back down the mountain. We can always split up and cover both places."
"I can't go to the Amazons," Xena stated with a head-shake of denial. "They're still anxious to see me hanging from the highest tree."
"Well, all right then, Iolaus and I will go see them. You can take Potedaia. With Argo, it shouldn't take you too long to get there."
"They don't like me much, either," the warrior muttered as she rose and began to pack the few belongings that she had carried up the trail.
Hercules chuckled at the woman's words. "What cost is a little anger if you find Gabrielle there?"
They camped that night at the bottom of the mountain as dismal clouds of gray foretold of the coming of a storm. Xena's sleep was restless as she was eager to mount Argo and race nonstop for the sleepy village where she had first met her best friend. When she found that no amount of meditation would calm her anticipation, she donned her armor and saddled her horse. Once she was ready for her departure, she kneeled down and shook Hercules' shoulder. The demi-god mumbled his understanding and wished her a safe and successful trip before he rolled over and resumed his slumber.
She let Argo find her way slowly along the rutted road. However, when the first streaks of dawn chased away the shadowy grays of the morning's twilight, she put her heel to the mare's flanks and urged the warhorse to stretch her legs in a ground-eating pace. Traveling east, they stopped only to rest and drink. When the sun was low on their backs, they camped and waited until the restless energy consumed them once more.
By the next afternoon, familiar landmarks heralded territory that had been traveled less than a month ago when Xena had delivered the news of the bard's passing to her family. Her eagerness to return to Gabrielle's birthplace warred with the twisting feeling of trepidation that would have slowed her progress if her need to be reunited with her friend had not been so great.
And so, by evening, she pulled up a lathered Argo in front of the bard's family cottage. A nervous sweat trickled down her neck and under her leathers as she dismounted and approached house. Her firm knocks were answered by Lila opening the door. She felt a momentary relief that it had not been Herodotus who had greeted her, for Gabrielle's father had promised severe retribution should she ever darken his doorstep again.
Before the young girl could raise her voice in alarm, Xena put a finger to her lips and begged her to be quiet. "Please, Lila...I'm not here to cause any problems," she began in an earnest whisper. "I just need to know if Gabrielle is here."
Looking over her shoulder to her parents who were just sitting down to dinner, Lila stepped out into the night and shut the door behind her. She stared in shock at the warrior whose hair was wild and unkempt, as was her attire that had not seen a polishing rag since Gabrielle's death. "Xena? Are you sick or something?"
The warrior could not help but smile warmly at the obvious question. "No," she chuckled low. "But if you haven't seen Gabrielle, then she must have gone to the Amazons."
When the tall woman turned to go, Lila reached out a brave hand to halt her progress. "What are you talking about? What's going on?"
Xena shook her head at the girl's questions, ones that were so like her bard's. "I promise, Lila, I'll bring Gabrielle back for a visit so that she can tell you all about it." She surprised the young girl even more my taking her into a quick hug. "I promise," she swore. "Do me a favor, though?"
"Don't tell you're parents you saw me. The next time I see your dad, I want him to enjoy the visit...all right?"
Lila nodded her head, still unsure whether the warrior had gone insane with grief. "Sure, Xena, whatever you say."
"Thanks," the warrior tossed over her shoulder with a blinding smile. "I'll be back."
Lila watched as the bedraggled warrior and horse moved down the road through the village. When she could no longer see their figures in the growing dusk, she opened the door and formulated a little white lie to explain who had come calling so late at night.
As her route to the Amazons took her out of town through the north, Xena stopped as she came upon the spot where she first met Gabrielle. In her haste to reach the bard's house, she had passed through on her way into Potedaia.
Knowing that Argo was in need of cooling down, she dismounted and unsaddled the mare. While she rubbed the sweat off her slick coat, Xena recalled the exact moment in her life when everything had changed.
She had practically given up on following the path to atonement that Hercules had shown her. The going for her had been hard and paved with reminders that sparked consuming flames of self-hatred and disgust. She had thought it hopeless, and had been ready to meet the world and all its punishments for her past, when she had stumbled across Draco's band of slavers. And there she had been.
Xena turned and found the spot bathed in moonlight where she had first seen Gabrielle. She could still picture the brave little girl in her blue peasant blouse, as she courageously tried to save her townswomen. She had offered herself as a sacrifice for their freedom.
She had known nothing of Gabrielle then, but her courage. It was only later that she became endeared with her habits...the sleeping late, the endless chatter, the outrageous theories. She had watched the bard grow from a naive village girl to a respected Amazon princess to a woman who loved as hard as she fought.
That day, Xena had found the source of her strength, the light that showed her the way, the teacher who showed her how to survive her own darkness, even as she taught Gabrielle how to survive a cruel and heartless world. They had shared many adventures, and gods willing, Xena mused, they would continue to do so until time deemed them too aged to continue.
Patting Argo on the rump so that the mare might find a spot to graze, Xena laid out her bedroll and waited until she could be sure that the warhorse was able to continue. As her internal clock ticked away the seconds, her eyes remained fixed on the moonlit spot, as if willing her bard to appear. And, like a revelation, a product of her fervent wish, a figure materialized.
She jumped to her feet and met the figure half-way. "Hades," she whispered as she clenched her fists in anticipation.
"You continue to amaze me, Xena. Your deal with the Fates is all the talk on Mt. Olympus right now. A stroke of genius, really...now no god may alter the destiny of any mortal. The Fates are once again the most powerful and feared of all."
The god chuckled as he shifted his helmet under his arm. "I believe that belongs to you," he said solemnly.
A choked sob rose from Xena's chest as she watched Gabrielle appear in the moonlight behind the God of the Underworld. Rushing to her side, Xena fell to her knees and drew the unconscious woman into her trembling arms. "You're wrong, Hades," she whispered as she pushed silky-soft hair off of the bard's pale cheek, "she belongs only to herself."
Hades smiled, content that his realm would be free of the warrior's presence, at least until one of them died again. "Until we meet again, Xena," he called as he dissolved into a wisp of smoke.
"Not if I can help it," she muttered against Gabrielle's hair.
She wanted to shake Gabrielle, to bring her friend back to consciousness, and yet, she wanted to never stop holding her.
Hercules and Iolaus stopped and looked around in the darkness for the Goddess of Love. Their faces lit in greeting when they found Aphrodite reclining regally on a velvet sofa in the middle of the road.
"She's not with the Amazons," the goddess revealed as she stood and pressed her body between the two men. "If you're real good, though, I'll take you to see her for a little moment." When both men nodded their agreement, she transported them to the clearing outside of Potedaia.
"Hades just brought her back, and she hasn't awakened yet," Aphrodite explained as she guided Hercules and Iolaus closer. "Don't worry, neither of them can see us, and we're not sticking around for any show," she warned. "I just wanted to let you two know that everything was cool and all."
Eyes began to mist when the bard murmured the warrior's name and began to stir in Xena's strong arms.
"Gabrielle?" Xena began to cry sweet tears of joy when the bard opened her eyes. "Oh gods, Gabrielle, I can't believe you're here."
"Yes, my bard, yes." Xena pulled Gabrielle close for another embrace before releasing the smaller woman to look into her face. "I've missed you."
Gabrielle smiled and raised a hand to catch a tear before it dripped off the warrior's chin. "I missed you, too."
When the bard struggled to sit, Xena obliged and pulled her further onto her lap. "How are you feeling?"
The young woman's face wrinkled in thought and then relaxed. "Fine, considering." She raised her eyes and dove into the crystal blue eyes of the warrior that had delivered her. "How did you get me back?"
Xena shrugged and hung her head. "I made a deal."
Gabrielle started in alarm and cupped Xena's face in her hand. "Not Ares...."
"No," Xena answered as she clasped the bard's hand and raised it to her lips for a gentle kiss. "The Fates."
"The Fates? Xena, you don't deal with gods. What did you do? At what cost was my life?"
Xena shook her head with the delight of hearing Gabrielle's concern for her well-being. "My pride, my arrogance, my anger...all I had to do was let go and humble myself." Trailing a callused thumb over the bard's chin, Xena sighed. "I think it was a bargain of which you would have been proud, my love," she whispered before she lowered her lips.
Any other questions Gabrielle might have had at that moment were forgotten as she melted into the profound love that Xena communicated with the touch of her mouth. Their lips met softly, gently, for the timeless moment that it took for their souls to be joined, for their destinies to be entwined.
Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other and smiled. To them, to see Xena happy, to see Gabrielle's return, was more than a reward for the days of travel and dealings with gods.
"Well, babes, I think we'd better blow this joint, 'cause witnessing something like that," she said with a nod of her head towards the clearing, "is liable to soften your macho hearts...and we all know what a tragedy that would be," she implied with a lewd wink.
Before they had a chance to reply, the two men found themselves back at their campsite where Xena had first found them. With identical shrugs, they settled themselves on their bedrolls and fell back to sleep, their dreams no longer haunted by the vision of a forlorn Warrior Princess.
When they pulled apart, they shared an understanding of the common love that burned between them, a love so great that death was no barrier. Wanting a second taste, Xena lowered her head once more, but was stopped by Gabrielle's hand on her lips.
"Xena, wait...I need to talk to you."
"Now," the warrior asked with amused frustration.
"Yes...it's about what happened."
"All right," the warrior acquiesced, "but can we move over there," she asked, pointing to her bedroll. "I'd rather be comfortable for a long story."
Without waiting for permission, Xena tightened her hold and stood to carry Gabrielle over to the bedroll. Settling the young woman with a few rolled blankets and a small fire, Xena returned to her side and waited patiently.
Clearing her throat, Gabrielle accepted a waterskin and drank deeply. She hoped that this would not take long, for she needed to feel Xena's arms around her to remind her that her resurrection was real.
"First, I want you to listen without interrupting, okay?" When Xena nodded her agreement, the bard started. "I want to thank you for what you did...bringing me back. I never considered what you would have had to go through when I threw myself at Hope. Even if I had the chance to think it through, though, I probably would have done the same. I couldn't let you die, Xena, for something that was my fault. I trusted all the wrong people and ended up hurting the one person I love most in this world.
"What I think you should know, though, is that Ares had been planning everything for a long time. He did it to get you back, at any price. He warned you about that temple in Britannia, knowing that you would ignore him and let the cult reclaim it, if just to scorn him. He knew what would happen, Xena. He used my trust and his knowledge of Khrafstar's true nature, and he allowed me to be sacrificed to Dahok.
"He killed that Warrior in Britannia...in that castle. He wanted to make sure that a wedge was driven between us. I know now, that if I had stayed with Hope, I would have influenced her good. But at the time, I made the decision to stay with you. Looking back, I still don't know if I made the right one, but what's done is done.
"When you left for Chin, Ares goaded me into believing that you no longer cared about me, that I meant nothing to you. I became jealous of a woman who I had never met, who obviously helped you in a time of need.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and a drink from the waterskin before she bowed her head to continue.
"Ares rescued Hope from that river. He gave her to the banshees so that they might prepare her for the second coming. When she had gained enough powers, Ares brought her to Greece, to the Centaur village, so that she might kill our love for one another. And then, Callisto got involved, and Solon died.
The bard shuddered as went to wipe a tear from her eyes. Her eyes rose in question when Xena beat her to it. Instead of finding anger or condemnation, she was met only with love and forgiveness.
"I found out that he went to you when you were mourning Solon. At the same time, Callisto came to me. They got the both of us to release the anger within ourselves while it was so painfully raw.
"Hope was reborn, then, out of the ashes of her funeral pyre. She freed Callisto again, and together, they tried to kill Hercules before he was even born. Ares wanted him out of the way because he was the only one who would dare stand up to him. But that obviously didn't work.
"The time of the third coming was supposed to be the big finale," the bard snorted. "Ares found Seraphin. He saw in her a simpleness that would not question the means to an end. He knew that her parents would ask us to help get her back.
"Ares planned to turn on Dahok and lead his army of children and disciples against all gods to gain supreme power. He knew you so well, Xena...he threatened the Fates with oblivion if they didn't agree to his plan. He knew that you would try to kill Hope...because of what she did to Solon. He knew that your rage would allow nothing else. So, he told the Fates to cut your thread if you succeeded...and then he told me all about it...that you would die.
"And if you died, Xena, the world would have died, because no one would have been strong enough to defend the world against Ares' minions. And then, he knew that I would do anything to keep you from dying...that I would kill Hope myself. He figured to get you back in your grief over me...that you would be too weak to overcome his seduction. He figured that you would lead his army.
"He wanted supreme power because he can see the end...when people no longer have the need for the gods...when they rely on their own skills and cunning to live their lives. He didn't want to fade into nothing. He gambled his struggle for power on your struggle to overcome your darkness.
"But you proved to be the winner, Xena. You are stronger than he is, and you're smarter, because he failed all around. We're both alive, and our love binds us together stronger than any weapon he could devise. You brought me back...because even after all that he's done to us...you still love me."
Xena stared wide-eyed at the bard when she finished her disjointed tale. It all sounded so outlandish and desperate, and yet, it stank of the God of War. Shaking off her surprise, Xena cupped the bard's face in her large hand. "Gabrielle, how do you know all this?"
The bard smiled brightly and sighed. "Xena...you have no idea how much Solon loves to gossip...and he's smart...just like you. He spends so much time just talking to people...and even a few gods, I think. You should see how he charms them."
"You saw Solon?"
"Yeah, he came to me as soon as I crossed over. He said that he wanted to make sure that I didn't forget you because he knew that you would be coming back for me."
Xena lowered her head until it rested upon Gabrielle's. "Remind me to thank him every day that I breath, will you?"
"Definitely," the bard promised. "Um...Xena?"
Gabrielle allowed a moment for the sound of the warrior's voice to tickle nerve endings alive with need. "Could we try that welcoming kiss again? I don't think I did it right."
"Any time, Gabrielle, any time," the warrior chuckled as her lips found her lover's.
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