Heart of The Matter
This is a little story about love. There are many kinds of love that we experience in our lives. Theres the first love with all its wonder and eventual demise. One we know well "never get over." This is just the opening door to a lifetime of exploring, learning, sharing, having and losing. It is through the loves in our lives that we fully become human. Some say they avoid love to avoid the pain of watching it leave. I say give me that journey for to live without love is to live without joy or soul. This story is written for all that believe in that journey and for a woman who is my soul.
The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are used without their permission, but I dont think they will mind. This tale also touches on some of the third and fourth season episodes so I suppose I should include a spoiler alert, but, to tell you the truth, Im just not gonna try to pick out every little thing. This story was a true gift from my muse and I intend to give it you the way she gave it to me. Enjoy. ;)
The noise coming from the stone temple was familiar. Voices of parent to child and child to parent rang from the confines of Aphrodites ornate worship hall. Cupid was trying his best to make a point.
"Oh, and I suppose all those imposed unions " Cupid made sarcastic little quotation marks in the air around the word imposed " are the mark of true love?"
The goddess sighed heavily and shook her head. "Like duh how many times do I have to explain this to you? There is no such animal as true love." This time it was Aphrodite making chicken marks in the air. The woman busied herself with inspecting the mornings array of gifts left by her faithful. She was done with this tired conversation with her son well, almost.
"Look. I know you dont approve of my tactics, but mortals dont have a clue about real love. They wouldnt recognize it if it bit them on the ass. Which brings me to your tactics, Cupie. Whats with that arrow in the behind thing? Hey, if you ask me, youre just as bad in the manipulation category. And on the whole, your method is a lot riskier um remember that mess when your son went on a fly-by-shooting spree? Now that was truly a bummer." The goddess of love smiled remembering the permutations of Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer and Draco. "Ok, so it was amusing, but it was hardly true love even with your arrows." Aphrodite knew there was more to this discussion that met the eye. She crossed her shapely arms, cocked her head and pressed for the truth. "This isnt about the virtues of true love, is it, son?"
Although Cupid was grown with a beautiful wife and adorable child, his mother could make him feel like a little boy at times. It infuriated him. "Why do you always assume I have another agenda? We can never have an adult conversation!" He turned away from Aphrodite in obvious irritation, and in an attempt to hide his flushed face. His wingtips quivered involuntarily a dead giveaway.
Realizing his body had given him away Cupid tentatively began. "Okay, Mom, its like this. We have different ways of doing things in the name of love, and I get the short end of the appreciation stick most of the time."
Aphrodite chuckled. "Why, Cupid, I do believe youre jealous. And you know what happened the last time you went through that emotion."
Cupid remembered the transformation in his angst over his love for the mortal Psyche and jealously of Hercules. It nearly doomed him. No, this was different. "Its not like that, Mom. I see myself bringing people together that are truly destined as lovers, and I think you get the credit for my hard work."
The goddess raised her brow. "And how is that different from jealousy? I dont see the difference and I do too bring people together." This time Aphrodite was feeling defensive.
Cupid rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on. You cant seriously compete with me in the romance department. The thing youre the best at is interfering. Need I bring up that whole "bell" thing with Joxer?"
"Aw I thought it was sweet. You know he has potential... if he werent sooo well you know. Anyway, if it werent for Gabrielle " Aphrodite narrowed her eyes thinking how the bard had made her remove the spell from Joxer ruining her fun. "Besides what does that have to do with anything?"
"It has everything to do with this. In a contest of romance, youd come in last, so why dont you just admit it?" Cupid was pushing Aphrodite, and he knew it.
Aphrodites patience was wearing as short as her attention span. "So, what are you proposing here a contest? Or do you want something more um visible a temple in your honor?"
"Oh, man nothing that lame. I was thinking something a little more permanent." Cupids eyes were beaming with glee. He obviously had something in mind and was counting on his mothers vanity to work in his favor.
"All right, spill it! Im getting tired of this guessing game. What on your mind?" Aphrodite was clearly itching to be done with this chat.
"I propose a little test of time, dear Mother lets say a remembrance of a relationship whose quality is so pure that all will honor it and celebrate the essence of that love in a special day. It must be a love based on the deepest of human feelings and devotion ." Cupid paused to outline the final stipulation. "And it has to be a pairing that neither of us has tried to get together. Agreed?"
"And just what will that prove? Youre dealing with mortals here junior and as such, they cant see into next week. They live for the moment not the long run. Youre gonna lose your own contest before you start. Are you sure you wanna go there with me?"
Aphrodites smugness was exactly what Cupid was hoping for. "Yep Im sure."
The goddess almost felt sorry for her impulsive offspring almost. "Okaaay and whats the payoff?"
"Simple. You admit that pure romance and love is a force to be reckoned with and as the god of romance, Im a force to be reckoned with as well." Cupid was practically floating off the ground thinking about the payoff.
"Um just for clarification you cant use any of those funky arrows, right?" Aphrodite mused.
Cupid returned her sarcasm. "Correct. And you cant use any of your funky spells."
"All right. You dont have to get personal. But surely you must know theres no one who is going to qualify in this search. Anyone worth fooling with has already been touched by you or me. Youve made a serious tactical mistake."
"Not true Mom. I have the perfect couple all lined up. This time youre gonna lose." Cupid winked at Aphrodite and zipped out of the temple.
Hearing his cute little laugh echo in her ears made her furious. She yelled at the empty space before dematerializing to follow him. "Cupid! Dont you dare zip out of here without me!!"
Two figures walked the trail in a slow, easy pace. The taller of the two led the way almost in a protective stance. The smaller woman walked in silence, holding the reins of the golden mare. It was obvious the three of them had traveled many miles together before their steps were comfortable and the silence was almost communication. The harshness of winter had taken a false vacation over the last few weeks. The sun had warmed the days and the still cool nights were warmed in other ways. Although it was barely two moons since the solstice, Gabrielle was certain spring would come early. Her face had taken on a golden hue thanks to the warm rays and she had packed some of her heavier clothing in Argos saddlebag. The warrior was taking a wait and see attitude, as was her way.
"Isnt today just beautiful, Xena?" Gabrielle stopped walking, spread her arms wide and took in the scent of the morning. Argo neighed along with her.
Xena smiled. "Oh, you, too, huh? Well, youd better not pack those winter skins too deep because I will say I told you so."
Gabrielle was used to a certain amount of cynicism from her warrior and found it comforting in a way. "Oh, Xena, you always say that." She playfully swatted the warrior on the arm and barely escaped a well-placed boot to the rear.
There was genuine love that flowed between the two women. They had survived many trials. Some had taken them to the brink of death and back, but it was always the bond of love that kept them together. Even now events that would test them further were in motion, but the two had learned to simply live and love every minute they had. They had finally come to terms with their life together and whatever future was in the offing no longer had power over them. They simply breathed one anothers life force and it was more than sufficient.
The sun was about to start its dip to the horizon. The women rounded a sharp curve in the road and saw an old man trying to pull his wrecked wagon out of the ditch. It was plain to the warrior it was a lost cause, but she admired the mans resolve.
"Hey, you need some help?" She called from a ways back as not to frighten the man. These days bandits would be just as likely to roam the roads.
The old man peered at his supposed helpers. He felt something good in these two. "Uh yes if youve the time and spirit. Im afraid my horse ran off and left me to right the wagon on my own."
"No problem." Xenas terse reply set Gabrielle in motion. She grabbed a length of rope from the saddlebag and tossed it to Xena. "Thanks." Xena replied and turned her attention to the busted wagon. Shaking her head, she gave the old man the bad news. "Well, we can get it out of the ditch, but both axles are goners shell never roll again."
The old man sighed and smiled weakly. "In that case, dont waste the energy. I only have a few possessions worth saving and taking with me. Thank you for stopping anyway."
Gabrielle stepped forward gently grabbing Xenas arm. The warrior knew what her partner was going to say before it left her lips and she was right. "I think he should travel with us at least until the next town. He would be no match for bandits."
Xena took Gabrielles hand, squeezing firmly. "Youre right Gabrielle he travels with us if he wants." She looked at the man and waited for his decision.
He grinned and for a man of his years, he had perfect, white teeth. "That would be wonderful. Heh, Im not as spry as I used to be, and it would nice to have some companionship for a change."
"All right then. It will be dark soon. We should find a place to camp for the night." With that, Xena mounted Argo and moved back on the road, leaving Gabrielle and the old man to salvage his belongings. It didnt take very long and quickly they were following the warrior.
As they walked, the old man made conversation, which pleased the bard to no end. "My, where are my manners? My name is Valentius." He brushed his dirty hands across his tunic and offered Gabrielle a handshake.
She warmly clasped hands with him, returning his introduction. "My name is Gabrielle but you probably already heard that. My friend is Xe.."
Valentius finished her sentence. "Xena, the warrior princess. Yes, Ive heard of her and you. Its my privilege to be traveling with you. Where are you headed?"
Gabrielle raised her brow. "Well, funny you should ask. I um we dont have a clue. For the last year or so we seemed to be directed by destiny, for lack of a better word. So, your guess would be a good as mine." And now it was the bards turn. "Where were you headed?"
"Ah," he sighed, "Seems we are on a similar path. Something told me to take this road today perhaps my destiny."
"Hmmm I like that travelers of destiny. I could write a story about that." The corners of her mouth turned up and she confessed. "Im a bard or at least I used to be a bard. Seems like Im more warrior now, but only because circumstances have put Xena and I in some tight places of late." Gabrielle looked into the distance for a second trying to clear her head of worrisome memories and visions. "So, what sort of work do you do, Valentius?"
"Hmmm I have many skills." He smiled broadly at that statement. "Actually, Im a priest of sorts moving from village to village helping where I can."
"A priest, huh? A priest of which god?" Gabrielles body stiffened at the mention of yet another godly servant.
Valentius sensed her edginess. "Dont worry, Gabrielle, Im not here to convert you or spew forth dogma the title is honorary. Im more of a writer a chronicler of human nature. I observe I dont preach."
His tone was quiet and genuine. For some reason, Gabrielle knew he was telling the truth and she relaxed a bit. Her curiosity overshadowed her reservations. She was, first and foremost, a bard. "Um what sort of stuff do you record?"
Her question would have to wait. The sound of Xenas voice interrupted. "You two get a move on!"
Gabrielle waved and yelled back. "Right were on it." She turned to Valentius and spoke softly. "Id love to hear about your observations, but Id go easy on telling Xena youre a priest of any kind. We dont have a very good track record in that area."
Valentius was in agreement with the bard. "I understand, believe me. There are some real loonies roaming about nowadays. Perhaps we can talk more once we get settled for the evening."
Gabrielle almost laughed out loud. "You can say that again." Regaining her composure, she continued, "Yeah, Id like to hear your take on humanity." Picking up her stride, she led Valentius toward the spot Xena had picked for camp.
Aphrodite and Cupid watched from a spot nearby. Only Argo sensed their presence, as she did with most creatures from other realms.
"Okay, Cupid, whats up with this scene? We all know Xena and the blonde are tight but a love for the ages??? Plu---leeze and whos the old guy?" Aphrodite was incredulous.
Cupid held up a palm to stop the ranting that no doubt ensue. "Hey, just chill, Mom youll see."
Setting up camp was a painless affair. Xena and Gabrielle worked like a well-oiled unit, with hardly a word passing between them. Valentius watched the two women move about the camp like lovers in a dance. They even anticipated each others position in choreographed smoothness. It was fluid poetry mixed with glances and fleeting touches it was pure love and Valentius drank it in. He was taking mental notes to inscribe later.
The evening meal was simple but the conversation lively. Valentius told of his travels, careful not to incite Xena with talk of priestly things and Gabrielle reciprocated with tales of their wanderings stopping short of the most recent, personal events. Xena sat back completely enraptured by Gabrielles voice. Even though shed probably told those stories a hundred a thousand times, Xena paid honest attention as if she were hearing them for the first time. After several hours, the warrior rose from the fireside and made it clear she was ready to retire for the evening. She smiled at Gabrielle as she made her way to get their bedrolls. Even a good bard knew when shed lost her audience. It was plain to Valentius that Gabrielle adored Xena and their bond was eternal.
Gabrielle had one little thing she needed to do before turning in, and she need to be away from the prying eyes of the warrior. "Ill be right there, Xena. I want to help Valentius get settled for the night."
Valentius raised a brow. He hadnt needed someone to tuck him in since childhood. He found Gabrielles ruse amusing. "Get me settled ? Really ?
"Shhh I dont want Xena to see this until tomorrow. Its going to be a surprise." The bard drew her satchel closer and began digging through gods know what. She spoke into her bag like she was looking for someone. "Ah there you are." Carefully she retrieved a small piece of parchment. It was tinted a reddish color and she was obviously very proud of this scrap. Secretively, she unfolded the treasure to show Valentius. "Do you think shell like it?"
Valentius peered at the shape and finally asked, "Im sure she will. Um what is it?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh, right well its a heart, of course not a real heart heh, that would be more Xenas style. Its a symbol. "
"A symbol?" Valentius mused.
"Yeah a gesture of my giving my heart to her" Gabrielle carefully refolded the paper heart, returning it to her bag. She rolled her eyes picturing Xenas response. "Shell probably think it silly, but I think its a sweet thing to do. I might even make it a yearly tradition um during this time of year. Its a promise of warmer days ahead."
Valentius grinned at the bard. "Well, I think its a lovely tradition. Im sure Xena will love it."
Once more, the warrior interrupted. "You gonna yak all night? I dont wanna hear that Ill rise, but I refuse to shine whine from you in the morning."
Valentius smiled at the bard. "She has a way with words, doesnt she?"
Gabrielle returned his smile. "Oh, you have no idea. Goodnight."
Without further talking, Gabrielle joined Xena under the warm pelts and fell into a very sound sleep.
Two invisible gods witnessed the entire scene. Aphrodite was almost taken by emotion, but swallowed hard, forcing her feelings away. "Okay so the two are ga-ga over one another so what!? A paper heart does not a legend make. Youre gonna have to show sumptin a little more um substantial. Jeez whatever happened to precious stones?"
Cupid shook his head. "Mom for the goddess of love, youre such a hard ass. Cmon, this is where it gets interesting."
Cupid raised his hand. An energy bolt sprang from his palm, creating a time portal. Even Aphrodite was impressed by her sons abilities, but would be loath to let him know. It was one of her less than endearing qualities. Cupid could have cared less about a rave review at the moment. He simply took his mothers hand and led her through the portal.
The surroundings were cold even for immortals. It took a minute for Aphrodite to get her bearings. The sight before her was unnerving.
"Whoa Cupie what in Tartarus is going on here? If this is your idea of fun, Im definitely not amused. And whats with the guys with all the attitude?"
Cupid neared his mother, placing a protective arm around her shoulders. Even as a god, this scene would not be easy to view. It was clear the guys with attitude were Roman soldiers. He couldnt be sure exactly how far in the future they had traveled, but he sensed it was soon. On the ground were two figures laid out on rough-hewn crosses. Plainly, the figures were to be crucified. It was when Aphrodite stepped closer, that the intended victims identities clicked it was Xena and Gabrielle. Snow was swirling in the air and the entire scene seemed to move in slow motion. Aphrodite was at a loss for words for once. All she could do was watch.
The Romans prepared to drive spikes through the flesh of the two women. They were very methodical in the execution of their task. It was just another crucifixion for them nothing out of the ordinary. Xena and Gabrielle were completely focused on one another. The impending pain and slow death not apparent in their eyes only love was showing. Their words to one another were warm and comforting.
Xena turned her head toward her love. "Gabrielle, youre the best thing in my life."
Snow dusted Gabrielles short locks. Her eyes were bright. "I love you, Xena."
Aphrodite couldnt watch the soldiers finish their task. She raised a hand to zap them away from the two women but Cupid stopped her. "Dont bother, Mom. This is the future and we have no real power here."
"Then why are you showing me this if we cant stop it?" Aphrodites eyes were stinging. Her normal nonchalance concerning mortal affairs had taken a very personal turn. She blinked hard in an effort to regain control.
"Its okay. There are some things even the gods have no control over. But I want you to see one other thing here." Cupid directed his mother away from the two crosses.
There was an old man talking softly to the Romans next victims. They were in obvious distress and near panic, but the man seemed to have the most caring of soul, and his words were calming even in the face of such terror. It was the old man that had been with Xena and Gabrielle on the road. Over his shoulder was Gabrielles satchel. He was its guardian now keeper of the tales of all their adventures. His most treasured memory of Xena and Gabrielle was the little red parchment heart. He looked toward the raised crosses holding his two friends and a solemn vow escaped his lips. He promised their sacrifice and love would never be forgotten.
Before Aphrodite could regain her composure, Cupid once more opened the time portal. As they stepped into the void, the current scene dissolved and they exited into a dimly lit little room. A priest was in the process of marrying a young couple. It was very odd. There were no other attendees, no flowers, nothing that would indicate this as a joyous occasion.
"Hey, what gives? Are you going to tell me love has gone to Hades? This looks more like a funeral than wedding." The goddess was irked. Seems all her good works had meant nothing.
Cupid explained. "No in fact, love is very much alive and well. That priest is a man named Valentine and hes committing a crime by wedding those two."
Aphrodite was shocked. "Its against the law to get married!? Bummer!"
Cupid shed some more light on the subject. "Uh-huh. You see this is still the Roman Empire and its current ruler, Emperor Claudius II is a real terd. He was having a mondo probs getting young men to join the Roman legions, cuz he thought they didnt want to leave their wives and families. Sooo he just outlawed marriage altogether. Now this Valentine dude thought that was a crock and decided to defend love. And thats why hes marrying those two in this pit."
"Tubular. But wait a sec I know that name. Wasnt that the name of " Sometimes even Aphrodite got a clue.
Cupie continued. "Close. Seems Valentine altered the name a bit, but his mission is the same. The story of Xena and Gabrielle has been passed down in his family for generations. They have become the very expression of pure, unconditional love. Hes doing the family business. Unfortunately, the business will be the death of him, but on the bright side, a day of remembrance will be celebrated from then on Valentines Day and if Im not mistaken, its represented by red hearts. And that dear mother runs rings around your spell thing."
Aphrodite thought for a moment. She conceded defeat. "Okay you win. But you didnt have to actually show me all that other stuff. I would have believed you. Besides, you cheated. You knew all this before our little bet, didnt you?"
Cupid accepted somewhat graciously "Well... I cant divulge all my secrets. Yes, I knew some of it but you needed to see how powerful real love is it cant be faked or dispensed by a spell. What Xena and Gabrielle had is the very fabric that holds the universe together its eternal."
"I understand now. But about Xena and Gabrielle isnt there anything we can do to help them?" Aphrodites concern was heartfelt.
Cupid prepared to return to their time. Before entering the portal, he made an interesting statement. "Well, Mom theyre mortals and you know what that means nothing is etched in stone."
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