Various generations offer clues to Gabrielle’s concerns about the long-term impact of her scrolls. The following makes reference to events in my stories "Suns of The Passed," "Fifty Winters Ago" and "Two Thousand Winters Ahead."
PART I(Ca. 2025)
"In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage will change the world."
"Watching Xena eps again?"
"Mm. You know me. I get the bug every now and then."
Sharon shook her head. It was tough enough being Activities Director at the Mansion Retirement Complex without having to deal with residents who insisted on living in the past. "The talent competition starts in a few minutes. Real, live friends and neighbors. Why not give them a shot instead?"
"Maybe later." Gail’s eyes remained glued to the screen. In 30 minutes or so, the Persian soldiers would knock Xena to the floor. She’d rise up all sweaty and ferocious, decimate the enemy and manage to give Gabrielle the antidote in time. The two would casually exchange a few words and fall asleep side by side as though they hadn’t saved their world or themselves from certain demise. Though Gail had watched "One Against An Army" some 200 times over three decades, she doubted it would be less inspiring than the goings on being staged down the hall.
"That’s one of my favorites too."
"Mm." It took Gail a moment to realize someone else had entered the room. She was about to shush the intruder until the words seeped in. She glanced over to see a woman perched on the arm of the other end of the sofa, staring at the television. "A fan, huh."
"Oh, yes. Since the beginning."
Gail generally didn’t interact much with fellow residents, especially during Xena. She watched it in the common room when she figured the others would be occupied elsewhere, leaving that big screen all to herself. But something in the woman’s voice piqued her interest. She positioned herself so she could see both the TV and the woman. "Yeah? Same here."
"About the only show I couldn’t miss. Except for the old Avengers, of course."
"Uh huh. Loved that Emma Peel."
"But Xena …. It made me feel like a schoolgirl again. Learning about VCRs, CDs, DVDs. Finally motivated to conquer the computer and Internet. My family thought I was crazy. Middle-aged woman obsessed with a ‘cheesy’ fantasyland. Thank the gods I found like-minded spirits in cyberspace."
Gail smiled fondly at the familiar "thank the gods." She hit the pause button on the remote control and squinted at the other woman. "You new? Don’t recall seeing you before."
"A couple months. I’m in another wing." The woman sighed. "My kids decided I shouldn’t live alone anymore."
Gail snorted. "Couldn’t get rid of mine. Not kids. Don’t have any. Other relatives moochin’ off me like I was runnin’ a hotel. Always tellin’ me what I should be doing when I got ‘up in age.’ In my own house! Figured this was the only way to have peace." She snorted again. "The pretty pictures of private rooms and gardens sucked me in. Now I got strangers thinkin’ they’re my parents."
The other woman chuckled. "Yes, you struck me as someone who knows her own mind."
"Heh, since a baby. Even worse, now I’m a crusty crone."
"You certainly don’t look like one."
Gail shrugged. "I keep in shape. Use the fitness room. Not that silly stuff for ‘seniors’ though. The real equipment. Weights. Golf and tennis. Ride my bike to the martial-arts school on Chesterton Avenue." Gail grinned proudly. "I’ll be testin’ for my brown belt soon."
"Oh, how wonderful! I used to do Yoga. Take long walks in the park. Now …." The woman glanced at the TV screen. "I do it vicariously."
"How come?" Gail studied the small, somewhat delicate woman whose short silver-blond curls framed a still attractive face. "You’re a spring chicken yet. Compared to me anyway. A little strength training, light aerobics, you’ll be zippin’ around the grounds in no time."
"More likely creeping," the woman murmured. "I’m Judith, by the way."
"Gail. Pleased to meet you." She rolled her eyes at sounds emanating from the small auditorium. Sharon was announcing the various contestants over a microphone. "Senior karaoke, bless `em. Not my cup of tea."
"Actually, I was on my way there. I’ve always enjoyed the arts, meeting people." Judith’s smiled faded. "I kind of … lost my nerve. I was about to turn back when I heard the TV."
Gail frowned. "Lost your nerve?"
"I’m a little … self-conscious. Health problems." Judith took a deep breath before sliding slowly off the sofa arm. She unfolded a walker resting against the side, shuffled around to the front and eased down. "These people in Independent Living are still pretty spry. Afraid I’m doomed forever to the wonderful world of Assisted Living. Not exactly how I’d pictured my retirement years." Her chin dropped. "So, you see why I won’t be ‘zipping’ anywhere."
"Hey …." Gail scooted closer to Judith. "Even the ones walking on their own might have a bad heart, can’t hear, or maybe think they’re still in the 1960s. They’re happy to be alive in whatever shape. Got enough of their own battles, than to worry about someone else’s. ‘Tolerate and ye too shall be tolerated’ is the motto around here."
Judith allowed a small smile. "Nice to know."
"Your ‘health problems.’ Permanent? Progressive?"
"Probably yes to both. A degenerative disease. They say physical therapy will help, but I haven’t felt like …." Judith raised pain-filled eyes. "These legs once danced until the sun came up. These hands made intricate designs. Tottering a few steps further than yesterday? Doesn’t seem worth the trouble."
"Listen, like I said, you’re not the only one around here with faulty parts. See these?" Gail pushed up the pant leg covering one long limb to reveal her kneecap. She brushed back the graying dark hair over her forehead. "Got another scar on my lower back. Not to mention some others not fit for polite company."
"I was quite the hell raiser in my day." Gail relaxed back against her arm of the sofa. "Drank like a sailor. Smoked like a chimney. Did dare-devil stunts that would make your hair turn gray." She grinned. "Grayer."
"You seem so strong. Limber. Your exercise regimen must be working."
Gail’s brow rose. "What? You can tell all that from how I handle the remote?" She tossed, caught, blew on, and stuck it against her side as though it were a weapon.
Judith laughed. "I could almost hear a ‘whoosh.’ Anyway, I was outside in the hall a while. You moved pret-ty smoothly when you grabbed that remote off the top shelf. Nearly skipped back to the sofa. Hard to believe you’ve been as gimpy as you suggest."
"Yeah, well, my insides were practically shot. I didn’t mind patchwork like the knee job from a cycle injury. But I got tired of folks cuttin’ on me for stuff I wasn’t really getting enjoyment from. They said I’d most likely be dead by 50. I took it as a challenge. Changed my diet. Quit doing what made me sick. Got into the fitness craze. It was hard. Tiny steps, lots of backsliding. Was it worth it? I’m sitting here talking to you. You be the judge."
Judith sat quietly a moment. "You’re quite inspirational, you know."
"Yeah, right. The belle of the Mansion. Just ask Sharon, the activities guru."
"It’s true. You have a … a presence. Such confidence. Listening to you, I have hope. Confidence maybe I don’t have to accept that things won’t get better."
"Huh. Not usually praised for my charm." Gail patted the space between them. "But if it works for you, who’m I to disagree?"
Judith briefly covered Gail’s hand with her own. "You have no idea how much I appreciate this. It’s the first time since I’ve been here I don’t feel like I fell into Tartarus."
"What’s it like in Assisted Living? I … um … haven’t felt the need to check it out."
"I hope you never do." Judith shuddered. "Glorified nursing home. Not much privacy, even though we each have a room. There’s a medical station in the center. They dispense drugs, do quickie scans of vital signs. Of course, most of us there need the care. Between the drugs and depression, not much excitement for Bingo or puzzles. "
"Oy." Gail shuddered. "I see what you mean."
"And then there’s the …." Judith swallowed. "Never mind." She waved a hand dismissively. "I’ve taken up enough of your time with gloom."
"No." Sensing something important, Gail turned off the TV. "Tell me. Maybe I can help."
"It’s more … administrative. I’ve complained to the supervisor. She thinks I’m imagining things." Judith sighed. "Probably attributes it to early dementia."
"Is it about cleanliness? Bad food? What?"
"Staff … behavior. Really, it’s nothing you –."
"Judith, I’m not known for my patience. ‘Inspirational’ qualities notwithstanding. I wouldn’t’ve asked, if I didn’t mean it."
Chewing her lip, Judith searched the clear blue eyes across from her. She saw honesty and concern. More than that, they communicated empathy that made her feel she and the other woman had been friends far longer than a mere 10 minutes or so. She folded her hands in her lap and stared at them.
"One of the attendants. He has a habit of coming in while I’m ‘spot’ bathing. We have washbowls, but need to use a communal bathing room for more than that. He says it’s no big deal, that he’s used to old people." Her eyes closed briefly. "We’re simply a different form of wrinkles to take care of, far as he’s concerned. Except more trouble."
Gail’s teeth ground together. The anger she’d worked so long to control began to heat her blood. She responded as calmly as she could, "He’s gotta be stopped."
Judith looked up, surprised at the edge in Gail’s voice. She started to demur, instead found herself agreeing. "Yes. He’s been more … considerate since my complaints. I do worry about the others. Many quite vulnerable. Probably not even aware if he … takes liberties."
Gail’s eyes had turned to ice. "We’re going to the director." She got up.
"Now? B-but it’s Sunday. She won’t be in until tomorrow."
Gail seemed rooted to the floor, the tension around her almost palpable. "What about the jerk? He work weekends?"
"No, the morning shift, Monday through Friday. And .… And they need proof. There’s a disciplinary process they have to follow."
Gail took in a long breath and let it out before plumping back down. "I’ll follow him myself, if I have to," she muttered. "Catch him fooling around, take a bed pan to his head."
"Surely it won’t come to that. We’ll make them understand. Besides, we can’t …. Who knows what he might do?"
Gail’s lip curled. "I don’t need a brown belt to handle his kind. Nothin’ scarier than an old bat out of hell comin’ for ya. Worse they can do is try throwing me in your wing. Let’s just say they’d be fools if they do."
"Oh, Gail." Judith held tears back. "I’m so sorry. I came in here to gather my nerve. Maybe hide. I never meant to drag you into my personal problems. I had no business – ."
"It’s my business too now. Trouble is like a cancer. It can spread while you’re pretending it isn’t there. Not in my nature to sit by while others’re hurting. Certainly not a … friend."
Judith blinked. She wiped her nose, staring at Gail as if she’d become someone else. Someone she really did know. Trust. Someone truly worth coming to this place, looking forward to the future. "That is so …. I ... I don’t know what to say. ‘Thank you’ doesn’t begin to express what you’ve done for me."
"Eh." Gail got up and headed for the TV. "It’s nothin’." She ejected her disk and picked up its case. "Gave me some real-life drama for a change," she said gruffly, not entirely hiding a hint of bashful embarrassment. "Wanna see how the other half lives?" she asked over her shoulder.
"Beg your pardon?"
Gail returned to the sofa. "I grouse, but my unit is actually pretty nice. Full bath, thank the gods. Living and dining area. Kitchenette, though most of us use the meal plan and in-house restaurant. I can give you a tour." She grinned. "Maybe you’ll decide to trade up."
"You mean … move?" Judith frowned. "I’m not sure I can. Where I am has all that special assistance. You know, ramps, rails, on-site medical help. My physical therapist – ."
"We’ve got access to that here on two of the six floors. Elevators. Not like PT is miles away."
"My family considered all that. They researched a lot of places. They chose what seemed best for my –."
"Whose money is it?"
"Whose money pays for your bit of Elysium?"
"Well … mine. I taught back when they still gave decent pensions and benefits. Plus my modest savings. Enough for …." Judith chuckled. "For my ‘bit of Elysium.’ Maybe more than you pay, since mine covers `round the clock care."
"So what’s to stop you from at least considering another option?"
"I suppose …." Judith thought a moment. "I believe there’s a contract involved. Not sure of the terms. My kids handled all that. They’ve had papers drawn up so I wouldn’t have to worry about any of it."
"Papers?" Gail scowled. "You sign anything yet?"
"Nothing significant. I resisted things like power of attorney until I saw how this worked out. The kids’ve been bugging me about –."
"Good. Don’t sign a thing without your own legal advice."
"Oh, Gail, my kids only want what’s best for me. Truly. Besides, where am I going to find a lawyer, cooped up in here?"
"Maybe right under your nose." Gail smiled smugly. "Not practicing anymore, but I keep current. Still the best I’ve come across."
Laughing, Judith shook her head. "Is there anything you can’t do?"
"Absolutely. Tolerate senior karaoke for starters." Gail studied her hands a moment, pondering why she felt so forthcoming with someone she’d met less than a half hour before. "I got in the Mansion when it opened about 10 years ago. Negotiated a pretty good deal for one of the few two-bedroom units. I have a niece who’s like my own daughter. The only relative I wanted in my space when she felt like it."
"Does she still visit?"
"If she’s in town. She’s grown now, living in California. Dreams of having a family soon. For now, still trying to decide what she wants to do. Got talent galore. Smart. Athletic. Fearless. Good heart too."
"She sounds very special."
"Uh huh. Her folks had four boys first. Figured they might as well give up trying for a girl. I said I had a premonition they should give it one more shot."
"Did you really? Have a premonition?"
Gail chuckled. "I saw her plain as day. Who’s to say it was more wishful thinking? Anyway, I sweetened the pot by promising to pay college tuition regardless. But if they had a girl, I extracted a promise from them."
Judith smirked. "They had to raise her to be like you?"
"Noooo. Something even better. They had to name her ‘Xena.’"
Judith fell back against the sofa, face beaming a combination of awe and delight. "I love it!"
"I made ‘her’ room into a den last year."
"You must miss her."
"Yes and no. I have plenty of reminders. Photos of her, large as life images of her namesake."
Judith gasped. "A standee?!"
"Three. One in the black outfit. Two in traditional leathers. The second one ‘speaks’ when you pass by." Gail snickered. "I gave up self-consciousness when I realized the advantages of a 'crazy old bat' rep. Helps ward off unwanted guests."
"Unbelievable. Yes, I must indeed see this. I couldn’t possibly put Xena in that sterile cubicle where I live now."
Gail fiddled with her DVD case. "Like I said, you have options. There’s my spare room." She cleared her throat. "You know, to get a feel for life over here, if you decide to move." She shrugged. "Or maybe just to get away sometimes."
Judith’s breath caught. "Seriously? You’d do that?"
"Don’t get too excited. Might not be the favor you think. I’m not exactly the easiest person to be around. Cranky. Moody. Fidgety. Sharon says my ‘people’ skills could use –."
"She obviously doesn’t know you." Judith steeled herself, surprised at the risk she was about to take. She held Gail’s eyes. "Like I do."
Gail bit her lip. "Yeah?"
"I see someone different. Familiar in a funny way. Certainly better company than my neighbor who only talks to plants," Judith teased. She smiled shyly. "And can possibly tolerate the litany of flaws that make me ... me."
Gail searched the other woman’s welcoming hazel eyes. "You know, I’m having a premonition you just might be right." She stood. "I say we start testing. Got some wine I’ve been saving for a special occasion."
"Sounds good to me." Judith reached for her walker, startled when Gail took it to fold. "Gail, I need that. I thought …. Did I misunderstand?"
"Nope." Gail came in front of Judith, reached down, grasped the other woman’s arms and carefully helped her to her feet. "Lean on me."
"B-but …." Judith took a few faltering steps, Gail’s arms supporting her. "It’ll take us forever!"
"S’all right. Look how far we’ve come already." Gail playfully squeezed Judith’s arm. "And that was just the teaser. An eternity oughtta be sufficient."
PART II(Ca. 2030)
Liz pushed against the front door. It didn’t budge.
"O-open." Still nothing. "Oh, for the love of …. Open!" She glared at the discrete housing for the monitor and voice-recognition equipment. "Of all the times to …." Huffing, she braced her packages to free up a hand, pushed the buzzer, and stared at the small grill from which she expected to hear a voice. Silence. She poked again, this time long enough to wake the dead. No response.
She took in a few deep breaths, set the bags down and fished in her pockets for the key fob she seldom carried any more, not surprised this time was no exception. Now thoroughly exasperated, she started to walk away, then hit herself in the head. "D’uh," she muttered, pulling out her com box.
"Hi there. We’re off doing what we do. Please leave a message at –."
Liz momentarily considered breaking a window. Fortunately she stomped her foot first, jogging her memory about the emergency remote hidden in a fake brick in the walkway. Shortly thereafter, she stood in the front hall wiping sweat from her brow, surrounded by the day’s purchases. She resisted the temptation to tear through the house, instead forcing herself to walk calmly to the kitchen to put away perishable items.
Halfway up the stairs to the second level, she caught strains of muffled music, tracing it to the main bedroom. She swung open the door to behold her partner lying blissfully on the bed, eyes closed.
"Xena." Liz waited with folded arms. "Xena!" When it became apparent she might remain unnoticed, Liz strode over to discover why it seemed nobody was home.
Xena’s eyes popped open as she felt the music buds snatched from her ears. "What the …. Liz! Whew! You nearly scared me half to death!" She sat up and scooted back against the headboard. "I didn’t hear …. Um, something wrong?"
"Wrong? Gee, whatever could be wrong?" Liz rolled her tongue in her cheek. "I arrive laden with bags, only to find I can’t get in my own house? Because someone is napping?" She glowered at the entertainment console. "Or, more precisely, submerged in a sea of … of …."
Liz’s brow creased at the vaguely familiar music flooding the room – thumping drums and some weird instrument that sounded like a cat wailing. Where had she heard that before? Her eyes narrowed. "Oh, for the love of …. Please tell me that’s not –."
"Uh huh. A soundtrack from the Warrior Princess."
Liz stared at the slim figure she’d lived with for five years. Though they shared key values, their personalities were like night and day. Liz considered herself a normal person – comfortable using what life gave her, manipulating "the system" to accomplish her goals, satisfied working behind the scenes and mistrustful of the limelight.
Xena, on the other hand, treated earth as merely a way station – a laboratory or studio or playpen for whatever interested her. Thought nothing of posing defiantly for photos while carted off to jail during some protest, yet shunned typical social gatherings as too intrusive to her privacy. Thanks to a holistic practitioner, she'd begun taking some herbal compound that helped balance her often mercurial moods. Liz couldn’t help wondering if this apparent resurgence of the Warrior Princess obsession meant Xena had forgotten to take her meds.
"Liz? I’m okay. Really," Xena assured, indicating a small bottle of capsules on the nightstand. "I felt the need to celebrate life." She smiled sheepishly. "This music fit perfectly."
Liz glowered at the entertainment console. "Lower volume." She seated herself on their rocking chair, eyes glued to Xena. "I’m not understanding the need to drown yourself in it."
"Speakers, fine. Ear buds, fine. Both? Kinda overkill, wouldn’t you say?"
Xena bit her lip, eyes gleaming. "It wasn’t just for me."
Liz snorted. "I appreciate the thought, but in case it slipped your mind –."
"I didn't mean you." Xena chuckled. "Although I do harbor hopes you'll become a fan one day."
Liz glanced around the room. "Somebody else here I’m not seeing? But you do?" She looked pointedly at the small bottle. "Maybe a green somebody with antennae and one eye in the middle of its forehead?"
Liz’s breath caught. Humor drained from her face. "Um, Xena? This isn’t funny anymore. Are you sure you took –."
"The results came back today."
"Dr. Adeyemi had them do it again. They were wrong the first time." Xena swallowed, her eyes brimming. "We’re pregnant."
Liz felt as if reality had merged with one of those dreamscapes in a Warrior Princess episode. Suddenly the music playing in the background didn’t sound so strange. "They’re sure?"
"Uh huh." Xena looked down at her stomach and covered it with her hand. "We’re finally gonna be mommies."
Later, Liz would say she couldn’t remember anything between those words and finding herself next to Xena, holding each other and crying tears of joy. Finally she swatted Xena’s arm. "Helluva way to break the news."
"Sorry." Sniffing, Xena bumped heads with Liz. "Wanted to do it face to face. Wasn’t sure when you’d be back. I was so …. I had to calm myself before I burst."
"And the first thing that came to mind was a butt-kicking psychopath?"
"A reformed butt-kicking psychopath. You always leave that part out."
"Whatever. A sane person would’ve picked something more –."
"No, it was more like it picked me. I didn’t even know I had it."
Liz pulled away. "Okay, you’re starting to scare me again."
Xena chuckled. "I’d think you’d be used to that by now." She pulled Liz in again. "See, a package came. Before I could open it, Adeyemi called. After, I remembered it had come from –."
"Let me guess. Good old Auntie Gail."
"Not sure I like your tone, Lizless, but yes. They were Warrior Princess soundtracks."
"As if the whole series of DVDs wasn’t enough."
"You wanna hear this or not?"
"My bad. Lovin’ every moment."
"Good. You know those studies about music and babies? How it can help them be smarter? Even in the womb?"
Liz resisted the temptation to express her doubts the studies included the current fare. "Mmhm."
"I figured I’d kill …. Um, I’d satisfy two birds with one stone. Me and the baby. I put the music on, lay back and relaxed. Let my imagination fill the time before you came."
Liz snickered. "Can’t get more peaceful than that."
"Grrrrr. Anyway, it occurred to me the earphones might work even better. You know, be a more direct route to the baby."
"Did it also occur to you I should have a say in that? In the influences we inflict on our child? Maybe I don’t want her popping out screaming, ‘yiyiyiyi.’ Kicking everybody’s butts." Liz glanced at Xena’s nether region. "Not to mention other body parts."
"Such a cynic. It’ll be a kinder, gentler warrior spirit. I can already sense it. Our Gabrielle will be …." Xena winced. "I meant, our as yet unnamed baby, since my lovely partner and I haven’t mutually agreed –."
"Save your breath. I’ve given up on a ‘Hillary’ or ‘Melissa.’ At least for a first name. Some battles simply aren’t worth sleeping alone."
"Really? You’ll go along with ‘Gabrielle?’" Xena kissed the top of Liz’s head. "I’m not sure why, but I really feel good about that. Sort of like keeping their line going."
"Um, didn’t she birth a demon baby in one of those stories?"
"Liz!" Xena rapped Liz’s forehead. "All that grumbling. You paid attention after all!"
"As if I had a choice."
"True. Kinda came with choosing me."
The two relaxed quietly, both gazing at Xena’s belly. They’d decided this would be the last of several attempts to have a child carrying both their genes. Advances in fertility science had made that increasingly more possible, including full-term development outside the womb. But they’d wanted a "natural" delivery. Tests indicated they’d have a better chance with Xena as the birth mother. Faced now with that probability, they realized how much they enjoyed their current life, as they prepared to embark on a new one.
"When I was born, everybody treated me like a porcelain doll."
Liz snorted. "Little did they know they could’ve bounced you on your head and you’d’ve cried for more."
"Nah, they’d already done that with my brothers. After all those males in the family, I was supposed to be a whole new experience. Aunt Gail was my oasis."
"Riiiight. Crusty old bear must’ve been quite the ‘security blankey.’"
"Yep. Talked to me like I had a brain. Listened to my ‘flights of fancy’ about being an interplanetary explorer or something else not suitable for a ‘sweet little thing’ like me. She’d been everywhere. Done so many things. Was quite the power broker during the height of her legal career."
"Heh, a 21st century Warrior Princess."
"She did love that show. We’d sit for hours talking about particular episodes. I learned to appreciate simplicity, the natural environment. Depending on your wit, rather than all this fancy technology. How change has to start with each person – that what’s inside determines what we see around us." Xena’s eyes wandered to a faded poster of a dark-haired woman menacingly thrusting a sword.
"Everyone saw the Warrior Princess differently – a psychopath, hero, enemy, friend. To herself she was the same person, with the same talents and impulses. Doing some of the same things as always, but with different motivations or priorities. Her biggest fight was with herself, against what might defeat the good inside her. Taking responsibility for the air she breathed. I came to believe that was much more important than blaming evil on everyone else."
"Wow." Liz reflected on the qualities that had attracted her to Xena. Not just her energy or desire to explore new territory, but her sense of honor and tolerance for human flaws that drove Liz nuts. "Maybe I should thank batty old Gail." She grinned. "I never was into dolls. Probably wouldn’t’ve kept you around this long if that’s what I had to play with."
"Such a mush ball. My eyes’re tearing." Which, despite Xena’s sarcasm, was true.
"You’ll be a great mother," Liz said with absolute seriousness.
Xena swallowed. "If so, Gabrielle will be doubly blessed." She gave her partner a heartfelt squeeze.
"Mm. Wait’ll she finds out she’s actually a ‘descendant’ of fantasy women. And that the lowly surrogates raising her can barely do their taxes. let alone throw circular or pointy weapons to vanquish evil doers."
"We’re talking qualities, m’dear. Courage. Passion. Following your heart, maybe doing some good along the way. Having the good sense to stay grounded despite many skills." Xena tweaked Liz’s nose. "You probably don’t realize it, but in nearly every episode of the Warrior Princess an ordinary person changed the course of events. Sometimes even kids. I want ours to discover the power inside her. Be whatever she imagines. Hopefully even more. We don’t have to be superheroes to help her do that."
Liz considered that. She cleared her throat and gazed at the ceiling. "Good thing I bought all those health-packed veggies. We’ve got a lot of thinking to do. What our kid’s gonna call each of her mommies being a critical topic."
Xena chuckled. "The others being more minor things like budgeting for her arrival, her domicile, education. Negotiating care-taking arrangements." She turned to Liz with concern. "What about insurance? Does your company still cover – ."
"Hold on a sec." Liz raised her voice. "Increase volume." Music once again flooded the room. "If we’re gonna chat about this new journey, might as well do it to the right soundtrack."
PART III(Ca. 2045)
Two polar icecaps glistened against the blue sky. Seals floated nearby on large jagged chunks of white. A figure appeared above, tucked in a somersault. A woman in brown leather, dark hair swirling as she turned over and over. Suddenly she froze. Her clothing became a full diving suit, including breathing apparatus. One revolution later, the figure stretched out. Her previous gear disappeared, replaced with metallic skin, wings and fins. She hovered, motionless, as everything around her continued to flow.
"Hello? Anybody here?"
Mary cautiously opened the door and squinted inside. The large, cool room hummed with electricity. Vague shapes of equipment and furniture lined the floor in neat rows. A faint glow emanated from behind a tall, wide partition. Other than that, the darkness gave away little else. Hearing no response, she ventured a few steps toward the partition.
She rounded it to behold a … vision … of some sort, shimmering on a gray screen. It looked like a typical scene of the Antarctic, except for the nude dark-haired woman suspended in the center. Mary traced the projection to a roundish object set atop a small mass some 10 or so feet in front. When her eyes adjusted, she recognized the object as a kind of helmet and the mass as a figure sitting upright on an adjustable recliner.
Whoever it was appeared to be doing an experiment – not unusual in the Science Wing of the university. Mary had been heading to another lab. She'd noticed the "In Use" light on outside the door of this one. Her curiosity grew, now that she'd witnessed the mysterious goings on inside. She took a few steps forward.
The figure jumped. The scene on the screen vanished. Some overhead lights suddenly came on.
"Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you." Mary walked closer. "I was surprised anybody’d be here this late. Just checking it out."
The figure removed the helmet to reveal the face of a teen-aged girl. She grinned at the expression on Mary’s face. "Didn’t mean to startle you either."
"I … expected someone a little …. You a student?"
The girl’s chair turned toward Mary. "At the Lab School. I’ll enroll here after I graduate next year. I’ve been taking advanced studies since I was a kid."
"Mm. Whatever you were doing sure seems to qualify as ‘advanced.’"
"Um …." The girl ducked her head. "It’s not exactly … official." She gestured toward the screen. "More of a hobby. Sort of keeping it to myself for now." She snorted. "They already think I’m a little ‘off the wall.’" She rubbed her nose. "You’re not, like, the lab police or somethin’ are ya?"
"Uh, no." Mary rolled a chair close to the girl. "May I?"
"Well, I’m pretty much through for the night. Seem to be at an impasse."
Mary sat anyway. "Mind giving me a hint about your … hobby? I haven’t seen anything like it."
The girl shrugged. "Projecting images from the mind."
Mary blew out a long breath. "Figured as much. From what I’ve read, no one’s perfected it yet." She gazed at the girl in amazement. "From what I saw, you have."
"Mmmm, not to my standards."
"Oh? How come?"
"Well, I'm satisfied with the technical part of it." The girl held up the helmet. "I
programmed this so I can direct it to read certain brain waves, send them through this opening. It translates and illuminates what I want to project. I can save images, manipulate or delete them, insert new ones."
Mary gasped. "That’s incredible! Do you realize how …." She shook her head. "You’ve replaced layers of technology. Made it possible to go directly from thought to execution."
"Well, yeah." The girl snorted. "You can imagine how happy that’d make some manufacturers. They don’t fund research to put themselves out of business." She chuckled. "Or so I was informed when I expressed interest in pursuing this line of study."
"Too bad. The university should love being on the cutting edge like this. Proclaim it to the world. Is that your concern? Figuring how to make it palatable for Neanderthals?"
"Nah. Like I said, I’ve got my own agenda." The girl studied the helmet, rubbing it as she seemed to ponder something. She looked up, her expression vulnerable and shy. "You promise not to tell? I don’t mind so much if you think I’m nuts. Might be kinda nice finally sharing this with somebody." She cocked her head. "Dunno why, but I trust you. Got a good aura, I think."
Mary laughed. "Well, that’s a first. I’ve heard either ‘hard to read’ or just ‘hard.’ But ‘good’? Usually my finer points don’t get the most attention."
"Huh. Same thing with my hero."
"Your … hero?"
"Ever hear of Xena?"
"The Warrior Princess?"
The girl’s eyes lit up. "You have?! Few my age seem to know about her."
Mary shrugged. "Don’t know many my age who do either. Apparently it’s in my blood."
"I did one of those genealogical traces a few years ago. A woman on the family tree had the same name as me." She smiled. "Mary, by the way. It’s not that common among my generation. I wondered if maybe it got passed on to me. I discovered she devoted most of her life to Xena, beginning about the time the series started. She created an incredibly comprehensive Web site. Almost anything related to the show, the cast and crew. Fans even. Their activities, fiction, photos –."
"I know that site!" The girl jumped up and began pacing excitedly. "The Australian Xena Information Page, right?"
"That would be it."
"Oh, it’s like a treasure trove! A fascinating history of a special period. Of a … a movement almost." The girl stopped and beamed proudly. "My great aunt was a part of it. Participated in discussion groups. Went to conventions. Had episodes, magazines, photos, soundtracks, the whole deal. Got my Momma Xena interested."
"Momma … Xena."
The girl laughed. "Aunt Gail was responsible for that. In fact, I got my name from the show too."
"And that would be …." Mary smiled wryly.
"Oh!" The girl slapped her cheek. "I didn’t introduce myself, did I?" She stuck out her chest. "I’m Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle. Of course. Nice meeting you."
"This is so … like fate, huh? Two fans meeting decades later? Out of the blue? Realizing they were related to the show somehow?"
"Mm. I suspect I’m not quite in the same category as you. Sure, I ended up watching quite a few episodes. Perused Ausxip. I liked what I saw, but it was mainly a way to understand my namesake’s obsession. Once I got a clue …." Mary shrugged. "I’ve only dabbled in it from time to time." She winked. "When my warrior spirit needs rejuvenating."
Gabrielle perched on the recliner, eyes focused on something beyond the room. "It opened up a whole new world for me. The fanfic especially added so much to what I saw on those old DVDs. Made the themes so timeless, so universal – like that warrior spirit you mentioned. I love examining issues from different perspectives. Discovering which ones affect nearly everyone. Seeing how the imagination can push or zap boundaries."
"Probably why you succeeded with your mind projection. Wish more of our so-called scientists were like you."
"Thing is, I don’t really see myself as a scientist. This," Gabrielle explained, picking up the helmet, "was a means to what I really love – storytelling."
"Ah. The Gabrielle in the show was kind of a bard, if I recall."
"Yes! See why all this feels like destiny to me?"
"So that’s what I saw? A story you were creating? The woman in it was Xena?"
Mary frowned. "I still don’t understand your disappointment. You’re … composing … with the actual images. That’s not what you were after?"
Gabrielle snorted. "The images aren’t the problem. Well, they are in a way, but more because of the ideas they represent. That’s a lot harder than I thought. You saw that, right? How I couldn’t decide how to portray Xena?"
"Pfft. She looked pretty good to me."
"Yeah? Which one?"
"Which one? You referring to her many physical assets? I’d say portraying her in the ‘altogether’ captured the full extent quite satisfactorily."
"Her ‘all too’ what?"
"Old term for nekkid."
"Oh." Gabrielle blushed. "I wasn’t happy with my other tries. You must’ve come in after those."
"Did you save them?"
"Um, yeah. I usually do. Made sure to build in lots of memory." Gabrielle grinned. "As smart as I am, I have enough sense to admit when I don’t know what I’m doing."
"Mind showing me the part I missed? If it’s not too inconvenient, of course."
Gabrielle chewed her lip. "It's only about a minute. Maybe an objective eye would help." She swiveled her chair to face the screen, pushed a button in the arm and put on her helmet as the lights dimmed. She projected the last session, turned the lights back on, took off the helmet, and faced Mary. "So, whaddya think?"
"Um …. I recall Xena wore quite a few outfits besides the traditional battledress. Are you saying your problem was deciding on her wardrobe for this particular mission? Which is apparently set in the Antarctic?"
"Oh, boy. Guess I’d better give you some back story." Gabrielle got comfortable on the recliner. "Basically, it’s about environmental threats – the Arctic Wars, radiation, global warming. My dark-haired hero’s gonna fight forces behind such threats – some natural, some because of evil beings." She chuckled. "Haven’t decided if they’re human, gods, biorobots, or from another planet."
"Ah. Or which time period to pick?"
"Uh huh. Xena in her original setting gives it that same timeless quality. Makes it more allegorical. I can pretty much make up what I want. The diving suit would be if I’m commenting on contemporary scenarios. Could be a Xena descendent, clone or uber. Then I thought, if it’s set in the future, maybe she developed the ability to morph her body to fit the circumstances."
"Hence the wings and fins."
"Exactly. But I’m not sure I want that, just like I was glad they didn’t make her Ares’ daughter. Yeah, she had super-mortal abilities, but a big part of her appeal was going through some of the same trials as the rest of us. Issues with friends, loyalty, when to take a stand, and so forth. Even if was about gods or wars between nations, you felt her humanity. Heart." Gabrielle sighed. "I’m afraid I won’t get that in this story."
"Isn’t that where her soulmate comes in?" Mary smiled wryly. "I’m a little surprised you haven’t mentioned her."
"Oh, absolutely! No way I could dis my namesake. Guess I wanted to do a modern spin on Xena’s internal battles. That’s where it all started. Why Gabrielle was so important. Why she ended up experiencing such inner turmoil herself. Where’s the angst, the self-responsibility, if the enemy’s greedy corporations or corrupt leaders? Or weather patterns?"
Mary rubbed her chin, pondering that question. "What about the average individual’s role? We still make choices every day that can hurt the environment. People in ‘advanced’ countries believe easier is better. We substitute one ill for another, as long as it’s a way to keep doing what we want, when we want, how we want. It’s called ‘freedom,’ ‘progress,’ even if it’s killing us. On the other hand, you have people eking out an existence, who have more immediate concerns than why they shouldn’t feed on endangered species."
"But see, Xena wasn’t ordinary in that sense. Her share of the impact was a gazillion times greater. I wanted to explore the same kind of moral dilemmas. Magnify them so maybe people would pay attention. Be forced to look at it from different sides. Care about it because maybe they can identify with some of the questions and choices."
"Mm. I see." Mary got up and ran her hand across the top of a lab table before propping herself against the side. "What if she was or is in cahoots with the major perpetrators?"
Gabrielle leaned forward. "In ancient times? Now?"
Mary shrugged. "Didn’t she try to suppress knowledge about the formula for dynamite? What if she’d done the opposite? When she first heard about it? Instead it could be a substance she used to clear land for her army, unconcerned about long-term damage. Years later she discovers people routinely using the substance because they don’t know about the dangers."
"Oooo, and now it may mean relocating or finding another way of life besides farming." Gabrielle hopped down from the recliner and began pacing as she talked. "Or maybe she’s found a remedy. Like an antidote. There’s not yet enough for all the areas affected. Does she try to warn the unaffected villages first? Take the stuff to the affected areas? Which ones? How will the villagers receive her? Will they believe she’s not out to harm them again?" She nodded. "Something like that could work."
"Even a version set in modern times. As to what she’d wear …." Mary studied her hands. "I envision something fairly ordinary. Maybe denim pants, shirt. Leather jacket. All-terrain work boots." She lifted her chin, eyes boring into Gabrielle’s. "Kinda like I have on now."
Gabrielle stared at the confidante of a moment ago, who now seemed like a stranger. Suddenly understanding why some people considered Mary’s aura "hard to read" or "just hard." She took a shaky breath. "Are you really a student? Somebody I’m gonna be sorry I ran into?"
Mary gazed at her hands again. When she looked up, it was with regret in her eyes. "You’ve heard of the Olympic Corporation?"
"The one at the top of the 10 Worst Enemies of the Environment list?"
"Among other things, they developed SG128. It was supposed to increase the yield and quality of various crops. Help countries experiencing famine. For years the users blamed their problems on too little rain at the right time and too much at the wrong time." Gabrielle recalled Olympic’s initial silence. "Somebody inside leaked a memo. It told of employee warnings early on. Independent studies confirmed the dangers. It was banned, except stockpiles of it still exist in certain parts of the world."
Gabrielle bit her lip. "You’re … associated … with them?"
Mary made a fist of one hand and squeezed it with the other. "Not sure how to answer that." She moved back to her chair and dropped down. "I left. Wasn’t fired. Didn’t resign. Sent a memo saying I was taking a leave for a special project."
"That’s why you’re here? At the university?"
Mary nodded. "A research team developed a natural-based … antidote … for SG128. At least, it’s been successful on samples from our area. It has to be slightly reformulated for different soils, which means a lot of field tests. I volunteered to be involved."
"Olympic’s okay with that?"
"If it works and receives good press, they’ll probably get on board. Subsidize the cost of trial runs, manufacture, general logistics."
"And if they don’t? Where does that leave you? Hope you have friends in high places. They say the top dog at Olympic is as ruthless as they come."
"Not sure about the ‘friend’ part right now, but I do have a long relationship with the ‘top dog.’" Mary pursed her lips. "My father."
"Your f-f-father?! By the gods!"
"You wanted a ‘personal’ touch, right? Examples of modern angst? Who’d have thought mine would be fodder for a bard?" Mary’s lip curled. "Maybe this is a … spoiler … for my destiny, hmmm?"
Gabrielle’s mind was spinning again. And not in its characteristically sunny direction. She frowned, not at all reassured by Mary’s attempt at humor, stunned that figments of her imagination would become so real. Or this close. "Your father won’t try to stop you? What about the dictators profiting off SG128? The distributors?" She shuddered, picturing Mary vanishing in a mysterious plane crash.
Mary gazed at the screen, replaying a childhood dominated by a man driven to protect and lift his family. Her father had come from a humble background, left his war-torn native land to pursue his ambitions. Married a woman who died birthing their first child. Groomed the girl to be heir to the fortune he saw in their future. Slowly built a company producing chemicals designed to improve agricultural processes. Finally struck gold with SG128 – which indeed grew an empire stretching across continents, earning him acclaim and a seat among the powerful. Nothing could convince him his accomplishments deserved to shrivel on the vine because a few doomsayers accused him of doing more harm than good.
"He’d bounce me on his knee when he came home. Vow the two of us would conquer the world. Take me to places where other men brought their sons. They’d make jokes about his ‘little princess.’ Bet which one of their boys would win my hand. My father would laugh and say, ‘Whichever one she leaves standing.’"
Mary blinked, the soft snort she heard in the room aborting reveries of a heady time she’d never expected to end. She turned back to Gabrielle. "He wasn’t a bad man. I believed in what we were doing. Spent summers during high school and college traveling with Dad, learning how to sell various clients on the benefits of our products. When I finished my graduate work a couple years ago, he put me in charge of international sales."
"Must’ve had a lot of confidence in you, huh."
"And pride." Mary caressed the wedding ring on her right hand. It had been her mother’s. Her father had it modified to suit his daughter. "On the up side, I probably know most of those dictators and dealers. They found me ‘charming’ when I was a girl. There’s a chance they’ll give me the courtesy of a chat before bringing out the guns."
Gabrielle slid off the recliner. She got a chair and sat in front of Mary. "You’re going alone? Soon?"
"A few from the team here are taking sabbaticals. It’s still pretty hush-hush. I’m funding them myself." Mary patted a pouch at her waist. "They’re down the hall. We’re finalizing the plan tonight. I leave tomorrow for the initial site. The others’ll join me over the next couple weeks."
"I feel like I’m dreaming," Gabrielle murmured after a few moments. "Like I’ve got my helmet on." She swallowed. "But you’re real. Somebody I didn’t know existed before a little while ago. It’s so weird." She gazed at Mary with pained puzzlement. "It’s like I’m losing a … friend."
"No." Mary leaned forward. "Not with that wonderful imagination." She swallowed. "I kinda like the idea of being fodder for it. Maybe popping up in that helmet of yours." She snorted. "The accidental hero who happened to sneak in before anything better."
Gabrielle scooted closer and rapped Mary’s knee. "Nuh uh. You’re ‘it’ for now because … well, because you are. Fate. I only wish …."
"You’re doing something real, not goofing off in a dark room fantasizing about it. I need to get out. Do real stuff, even if it’s to write about it." Gabrielle hunched over, excited by an idea forming in her head. "You know, I really am a ‘whiz kid.’ I can learn almost anything faster than most people eat a breakfast bar. Don’t you need an intern? A drone to fetch things or take notes? Ooo, I could program –."
"Gabrielllle. It’s a lovely thought. Maybe in a few years, after you’ve – ."
"Hey! I’m very mature for my age. No younger than when you traveled with your dad, I bet. Of course, my moms may not be as – ."
"Exactly. Nor should they. You’re right about the dangers. There’s no way I’d be responsible for bringing you into that. Not now." Mary put up her hand at Gabrielle’s attempt to speak. "Besides, we need people doing what you are now. Really thinking about the big stuff. Presenting it in a way people can see it, noodle it for themselves, without it being like propaganda or a lecture." She smiled. "Doing it so people can project themselves into situations that seem frozen. Pretend they’re big enough to melt the ice a little."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle chewed her lip. "You really think so?"
"I do." Mary relaxed back. "Before I came in here, I did feel like a biorobot. I knew what I had to do. I’d seen the devastation for myself, in a remote village I visited as a child. People were crowded together on the one parcel of land not affected. No room to play or commune. Fights breaking out over the littlest thing, because that’s all there was. Knowing I had a hand in that …. Betraying all my father’d worked for …." She closed her eyes a moment.
"I shut off my emotions. Focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Checking off items on my ‘to do’ list by rote. I’ll leave here with a smile on my face. Wondering what on earth you’ll make of this mess." Mary smirked. "What your protagonist will be wearing. Cheering myself up at thoughts maybe there’ll be something of me in your visions. It’s the best ‘bon voyage’ gift I could ask for. One as durable as the soul who gave it to me."
"Wow." Gabrielle’s eyes brimmed. "I never thought …. Nobody’s ever put it that way. My mothers are great. They’ve always supported me, expected big things. But this? Momma Xena would …." Her eyes widened. "Would you mind if I told them? About you? Not everything, of course. You know, about your distant relation. How you gave me an idea for –."
"Sure. I trust you to tell them everything if you want. As long as it stays there."
"I promise." Gabrielle shook her head in wonderment. "You changed me too. It’s not just a hobby any more. I have a plan, a purpose. Motivation to zip through my courses." She smirked. "So I’m eligible to study abroad as soon as I can, in a place of my choosing."
Mary chuckled. "It’s no wonder you’ve come so far so soon."
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. "You’ll keep in touch? Send me updates? I swear, if you disappear, I won’t stop until –."
"I promise. Cross my heart and hope to …. Um, cross my heart." Mary stood and ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. "I’m late. Much as I’ve enjoyed the detour, don’t want my associates worrying I had second thoughts." She grinned. "Or was attacked by a Polar bear."
Gabrielle got up, gathering Mary in for a big hug. "Thank you for coming in. And … um … for letting me in. Be well."
"Ditto." Mary reluctantly pulled away and headed out.
"See you when I see you!"
Mary turned and smiled. "See you when I see you."
Gabrielle watched the door close quietly behind her surprising new friend. Instead of preparing to leave herself, she took out her com box. "Hi, Mom …. I know. Sorry. Got sidetracked." She chuckled. "Okay, more than usual. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home…. Oh, I’m pretty sure you’ll want to hear this. Here’s a hint: your Aunt Gail is probably dancing in … um … wherever folks like her go when they … go …. Uh huh. About 20 minutes, tops …. Okay. See you soon." She clicked off, strode to the recliner and quickly set things up for resuming her projection session.
She decided to leave the saved image as it was, except for the nude figure, which she dressed in denim and leather. For the time being she focused on only one major revision. She added a smaller figure in similar garb, quill in one hand, pick ax in the other, seated cross-legged on an ice patch. She nodded. "Yep, that’s what was missing." She cocked her head. "Huh," she murmured, surprised but pleased at the new character’s appearance, feeling she’d gotten it right in this first draft without even trying. "She could be me! Imagine that." She giggled. "D’uh. I just did!"
PART IV(Ca. Pre-Mycenae)
"In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage will change the world."
Gabrielle twirled the quill between her fingers, reviewing the words she’d written so far. They seemed fresh, even though she’d copied them from her very first scroll. She grinned. Hindsight was a wonderful advantage – especially for those who’d lived, died, slept through, gained, and lost so many years. Not to mention running into future selves – "clones," according to Nikki and Alex – who had seen her stories portrayed centuries from now. Apparently her introductory lines would ring true no matter when or where.
"Mighty nice today."
"What’s got you tied to your desk? Any other time you’d be soaking up the sun."
Gabrielle peered over her shoulder. "In other words, the fish’re biting."
"Well, yeah, but they’re not as good company as you."
"Company?" Gabrielle turned around. "Since when did you need more than bait?" She narrowed her eyes. "What’re you up to?"
"Tsk tsk tsk." Xena looked aggrieved. "I’m loooong past being ‘up to’ something. Will you ever see me as simply the innocent, rickety crone I am?"
Gabrielle snorted. "You’ve got a ways to go before you’re 100. Maybe then." She rolled her tongue in her cheek. "So. I repeat, what’re you up to?"
"Grrrr. For someone who loves the sun, you sure know how to rain on parades." Xena plumped down in their rocker. "You know what day this is?"
Gabrielle’s mouth dropped. "You do?"
"Yeah." Xena sucked in her cheeks. "The day I run off with some young thing who appreciates my social skills."
"Heh. Good luck with that." Grinning, Gabrielle folded her hands in her lap. "I’m sorry. Forgive me. I’m sorry," she sang, reprising Xena’s long ago apology to Solan in Illusia. "I was wrong to underestimate you. Never a smart thing. Please, what wonderful surprise did you have in mind?"
Xena folded her arms. "I’m not tellin’. You’ll just have to see."
Gabrielle grimaced. "Right now? I was … kinda busy."
"So I noticed. Been awhile since you had that particular expression on your face. Used to mean your muse was calling."
"It was in honor of today. I figured – mistakenly, wrongly, stupidly –."
"Yeah, yeah. Apology accepted. You figured you’d have to celebrate it by yourself. Since I’m too insensitive, forgetful, unsentimental, not to mention –."
"Xena? Let it go."
"I won this round, right?"
"Yes, you did. Keep pressing, I assure you you’ll lose the next."
"Okay then." Xena gestured toward Gabrielle’s scroll. "So what were you up to?"
"Mm. Good question." Gabrielle absently rubbed the feathers of her quill. "Maybe it’s realizing how long it’s been. Wondering again about our legacy. Sure, my scrolls of our early years survived. Your trip to the future to stop Ares proved that. Nikki and Alex confirmed it. We’ve done so much since then. I’m wiser. You’re wiser. I wanted to write something that captures the essence of your journey. Our journey together. So people understand the timelessness of it all. You know?"
"I’d love to read it. Might learn a thing or two." Xena snorted. "It’s true I’m not as introspective or retrospective as my better half."
"Oooo, good one."
"I win again?"
"Seriously, it might be nice for us, but I don’t think the world’ll need it." Xena shrugged. "I think you already captured what’s important. In your old scrolls. Didn’t Nikki say they’d been preserved any number of ways? That groups discuss them like they were new?"
"Alex claims folks dress up like the Warrior Princess. Do my battle yell. Form groups that do good in our name. What more can you ask than that?"
"True. I like to think there’ll be bards passing our story from generation to generation."
"Mm. Let’s hope they’re more accurate than what Nikki and Alex saw." Xena snorted. "Highest I ever jumped was to the top of a big oak tree. Flinging myself across nearly an ocean? I wish."
"They got the courage and honor right. Your inner battle to turn yourself in a new direction." Gabrielle smiled. "Our love."
"The last being the most important."
"My. You’re firing on all canons today."
Xena smirked. "I have many skills."
"Speaking of which, guess I’m ready for your surprise. I can finish this scroll later."
Xena jumped up an extended her hand. "Come with me, m’lady. First …." Xena tied a scarf around Gabrielle’s eyes and led the way to one of their favorite spots. "Ta da," she said, whipping off the scarf.
Gabrielle scowled at the stream running by. "Thought this wasn’t about fishing."
"Such a cynic." Xena walked over to move a collection of tree limbs – camouflage for a colorful spread of flowers, wine, cheese, fruit, pastries, and ham. "See any fish here?"
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle murmured, pressing her hands to her chest. "It’s perfect. Just like for the first 25 years."
Xena frowned. "First 25 years?"
"The anniversary picnic that got interrupted by that King Cleades affair. Well, we argued over the 26 years we lost to comas and amnesia. I thought we agreed the five during your ghosthood should count." Gabrielle swept her hand toward the spread of goodies. "You weren’t recreating it for our 50th?"
"Um …." Xena winced. "Guess I didn’t expect I’d do it so well."
Gabrielle raised a brow. "You forgot, didn’t you?"
"Pfft. Whaddya think all this is for?" Xena asked, going over to the blanket and busying herself preparing plates.
Gabrielle walked up behind Xena to put her arms around the broad shoulders. "It’s okay. What did you have in mind? Tell me."
Xena leaned her head back. She checked her soulmate’s eyes to make sure this wasn’t a trap of some kind, where she’d be damned whatever she said. She saw a twinkle, but mostly genuine interest. "Okay. Might as well get comfortable."
"Oh? Something you can’t cover in your usual 10 words?"
Xena snorted. "Have a feeling I’d better do the bard version."
They positioned the pillows Xena had thoughtfully brought, stretched out and enjoyed a few appetizers.
Considering Xena a little too slow on the draw, Gabrielle got things going with, "So … once upon a time in …."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Japa." She smirked at the surprised look this evoked. "Seems I won again, hmmm?"
"Hat tricks don’t count. Nothing new for some crusty crones who shall remain nameless."
Xena shrugged. "S’okay. I got a few points to give." She took a deep breath. "I know I talk about being reborn like it’s a habit or something." She snorted. "Not that it isn’t. But the one that really counts was in Japa." She shook her head, remembering. "You, risking everything to bring me back in the flesh. Almost 45 years, still have to pinch myself sometimes."
Gabrielle nodded. "Excellent choice. Definitely worth celebrating."
"Um, yeah. But that’s not it. I mean, it did mark a fresh start like I’d never had before. Feeling cleaner. Committed to life, more than resigned to dying for the sins of my past." Xena reached over to ruffle Gabrielle’s hair. "Letting you domesticate me in your Village of Dreams."
Gabrielle’s eyes widened. "It’s been about 40 years, hasn’t it? Truly a milestone." She chuckled. "Never thought I’d see the day you’d settle down like a … somewhat … normal person."
"Mm. Technically, it was home. In practice, we spent half the time on the road. You know, seeing the country. On missions. Making visits that turned out to be missions." Xena rubbed her chin. "Sticking around the house more? Probably only in the last 10 years."
Gabrielle suppressed a low growl. "I take it that’s not what you had in mind, either?"
Xena inserted a fingernail between her teeth, as if picking something wedged there. She hadn’t intended to toy with Gabrielle. All these ‘milestones’ were simply blurs preceding something more recent. Memorable, yes, but not quite as remarkable for an "in the moment" kinda gal. How was she to know Gabrielle would jump to so many conclusions before the end? That this drawn-out version would encourage the pursed lips and reddening cheeks Xena so loved and couldn’t help but prolong? Still, she was wise enough to be discrete.
"Sorry, what was that? You asking if this has to do with achieving domestic bliss?" Xena batted her eyes innocently.
Gabrielle drummed her fingers on the blanket. "At the moment I’m asking myself when will I ever learn."
"Being careful what I wish for when it comes to you."
"Thought my ‘terseness’ made you nuts. You implying my long chats’re worse?"
Gabrielle could hear "Xena wins again" as clearly as if the wind had shouted it in her ear. She resigned herself to accepting this just wasn’t her day for besting the warrior on any level. She summoned the will to control her pique and force her lips into a semblance of a smile.
"No, Xena. Not worse. Unpredictable. I’m adjusting. Perhaps a bit … impatient … in the process. Bear with me. Please, go on. I’ll try to limit my interruptions."
"You sure? I mean, if this is too –."
"I … said. Go … on."
Xena judged that tone as a degree away from boiling. For someone so acquainted with victory, she prided herself on recognizing imminent defeat. "Okay." She poured wine into a mug and handed it to Gabrielle, holding it long enough to capture the green eyes and silently acknowledge how lucky she was to be alive. She drew her knees up, arms circling them.
"In Japa, after you brought me back? You accepted what I did because I’d finally achieved some peace. You said maybe that would free me to move on. To replace my picture of dying on some battlefield, with one of you and me facing the sunset together. Alive. Remember?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I’ve carried that picture almost from the beginning."
"Very powerful. Huge shift in focus. From wanting the end in sight, to looking ahead for what was timeless. Endless." Xena smiled wryly. "Talk about adjusting. I felt caught between two worlds. So used to the old one. Wanting so badly to experience the new one. Just when it started to feel comfortable, I’d trip over something from the past." She looked at Gabrielle with resignation. "I couldn’t leave it there."
"No, you couldn’t. I wouldn’t’ve wanted you to."
Xena nodded. "The emotions were hardest. Guilt, anger. Grief. Littering my way. Stretching into the distance like the deeds that ruined so many other lives. Endless. Each time tempting me back into wanting to see the end. Reminding me I couldn’t live with myself if I did."
Gabrielle scooted over, pushed Xena’s knees apart and nestled against her partner’s chest. "I’d watch you afterwards. I hoped it was getting easier. You know, seeing the good as well. Getting accustomed to the smiles and gratitude. Being surrounded by people who love you and care most about the Xena you are now."
"It has. To the point where I realized a lot of it was mainly habit."
Gabrielle smiled. "Yeah?"
"Uh huh. Got a kick in the butt from a certain party. Nothin’ scarier than an old bat from Tartarus comin’ at ya."
"Not sure I know anyone like that. Enlighten me."
"Remember Argus? Descendant of some folks from the Parthenon Valley?"
"How could I forget? He came all the way to exact vengeance on the Destroyer of Nations and had to be convinced it was really you. As if those 25 years you didn’t age had magically almost doubled." Gabrielle growled in exasperation. "I couldn’t believe I saw your old angst creeping in. Acting like he deserved to be in the same room with you. All he seemed good for was whining and strutting."
"Which you made very clear. Scared him as much as you did me."
"Humph. Exaggeration must be one of those many skills."
"Exaggeration? You grabbed my hair and swung it in his face. Demanded to know if the villain he wished to fight should have that much gray. Waved a broom at him, saying that’s the most dangerous weapon I’d wielded of late. Told him the cobwebs in the corner should be more important to him than my long ago days as a juvenile delinquent. Swept the cobwebs with the broom and warned he’d be treated the same if he ever darkened our door again."
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "I may have scolded him a little. Your embellishments notwithstanding."
"After you threw him out, you lit into me. Basically called me a twit. I promised I wouldn’t let something like that get under my skin again. You didn’t believe me. Stormed out, implying I was full of sheep dung."
"Xena, you were laughing so hard you could barely talk. You expected me to take you seriously?"
"I’d never seen anything so ridiculous."
Gabrielle reared back. "Excuse me?"
Xena chuckled. "You gonna let me tell this story or not?" She rested her head against Gabrielle’s. "My life has been better than I ever dreamed. Longer than I ever expected. Long enough to make amends nearly equal to my misdeeds. Not erasing them, but reforming some so they’re not as ugly. Even though I’m in my dotage, I still have the skills and reputation of a great warrior. Yet there I was acting like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar. Standing with my mouth open while my petite sidekick vanquished an idiotic challenger. Couldn’t get any more ridiculous than that."
"Except for the petite sidekick, right?"
"Absolutely. Serious as they come. That broom she shook at the idiot? Cleared away some of my cobwebs for good."
"Oh? How so?"
"Every time I’ve felt angsty since, I see that broom and start laughing."
Gabrielle chuckled. "The way you tell it, guess it was kinda funny."
"Feels good, being able to laugh it off. Reminds me what a waste it is clinging to cobwebs, when I could be in a place so fresh and clean. And I have you to thank."
"My pleasure. Always."
"Thing is, you owe me now."
"Beg your pardon?"
"For the bet you made that day."
"About my promise not to be so angsty. I believe your exact words were, ‘You couldn’t keep that vow for five years, assuming I let you live that long.’" Xena kissed Gabrielle’s forehead. "Guess what? Happy angst-free anniversary."
"That’s it?" Gabrielle stared up at her partner. "What you wanted to celebrate? The culmination of your retrospective since Japa?"
Xena ducked her head. "Not worth the fuss, huh?"
Gabrielle scooted away. She plucked a few grapes and lay on her side, contemplating her never-endingly intriguing companion. "Let me get this straight. Everything you’ve endured. The battles. The triumphs. All these years of memories, and it all comes down to a laughable moment five years ago?"
Xena shrugged. "I like short-range goals. Something I can get my hands around. Sure, a lot of it’s related to old stuff. Kinda fun finding new challenges in it." She grinned. "Not what you had in mind for the ‘essence’ scroll, eh?"
"Hmmm." Gabrielle popped another grape in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "I did imagine more … provocative … fodder for my old ladies."
Xena squinted at her partner. Amazed as always that Gabrielle continued to amaze. Wondering for the umpteenth time if the younger woman had finally lost her mind. "Fodder? Your old ladies?"
"Fodder, Xena. Grist. Something to ponder. You know, like you do about which worm to hook on your line?" Gabrielle tossed Xena a superior smile. "The ladies are my fans in the distant future. I imagine them sitting around a fire debating the concepts dramatized through our adventures."
"Maturity usually brings more appreciation for philosophical issues. For the gray areas. Younger ones have less patience. Prefer plowing into black or white. You being a prime example."
Xena smirked. "I wasn’t the only one."
"I may have gone a bit overboard on the sunny side in my youth."
Gabrielle’s lips pursed. "My point, Xena, is that we’re more prone to reflection the more we have to reflect upon."
"We still kick butt. Why wouldn’t old ladies in the future? Doesn’t have to stop `em from ‘reflecting’ in between. Like we’re doing now. "
Gabrielle glanced around their idyllic setting, regretting she saw no broom to wipe the smug grin off the face across from her. "How often did you read my scrolls? I mean, before your thighs decided they wanted to meet each other."
"Oooo." Xena’s brow rose. "Wanna play rough, eh?"
"Noooo," Gabrielle responded sincerely, reminding herself she was mighty close to trespassing on Warrior Smarty Pants territory. "Sorry if the truth hurts. Now, answer my question."
"I was kinda busy back then. Or you havin’ trouble remembering that far?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. Better to pay her toll and retreat to the high road. "I appreciate your concern, but no, my memory hasn’t slipped that much. Getting back to my point, I doubt young women in the future will be as … busy … as you. Which means they probably won’t be as concerned with the finer points of good vs. evil. Hence my focus on old ladies."
"Mm." Xena stretched, hopefully disguising her growing boredom with the reading habits of various generations. "It’s your audience." She smirked. "You win."
"Gracious of you to concede." Gabrielle pretended to flick a bug off her lap. "Especially a battle you weren’t interested in anyway," she muttered under her breath.
"What’s that? What am I interested in?" Smirking, Xena broke off some bread and a chunk of cheese. "Since you ask, I’m interested in makin’ this anniversary a little more festive. We’ve done way more sensitive chatting than I had in mind. Besides," she added, offering Gabrielle some bread, "probably best you save these great ideas for your scroll. Wouldn’t wanna disappoint your old ladies."
Gabrielle took the bread. She cocked her head. "You think I’m being silly? Wasting my time on nonsense there’s a good chance nobody’ll read anyway?"
"I’m an old lady. I’ll read it." Xena shrugged. "Never underestimate the potential for … fodder. I got faith there’ll always be forces of darkness to occupy folks at any age, in any time. There’ll be somebody like you tryin’ to make sense of it." Xena grinned. "If there’re folks in the future parading around as me, there’s bound to be a Gabrielle or two. So, yeah, finish your scroll if you want." She waved a sweet roll in front of Gabrielle’s nose. "After we finish our festivities."
"I already had the intro. Figured it would be easy enough picking the highlights." Gabrielle sighed. "As usual, you changed all that. Now I’m not sure about the middle, let alone where it should end."
"My dear, sweet Gabrielle. You have such vision, but sometimes fail to see what’s right in front of your nose."
"Uh huh. According to you, the future belongs to youngsters who don’t have the sense to pay attention and old ladies who do. They’ll keep your story going in some form or fashion. Maybe through your words, maybe through their own. You wrote a good start, right?"
Gabrielle snorted softly. "It seemed good enough the first time around."
"There ya go. The finish’ll take care of itself like usual."
Gabrielle frowned. "Sounds to me you believe I shouldn’t worry about adding any more about us. The rest of our life."
"I say, take it one day at a time. Like now." Xena waved her hand across their spread of food. "Consider this the middle." She cleared a path on the blanket and, eyes smoldering, crawled panther-like toward Gabrielle. "I got a strong premonition exactly how this day’s gonna end."
Gabrielle’s heart raced at the power, passion and danger headed her way. Appreciating the benefits of those Yoga sessions on its strong, lithe form. "Mmm. An even better way to start tomorrow."
"I win again?"
"It’s your story." Gabrielle lay down in grateful surrender. "Lucky for you, I’m in it the whole way." She closed her eyes. "And evidently won’t ever get enough."
"You’re the storyteller. How’s this going to end?"
"I haven’t written it yet."
– Gabrielle’s answer to Lin Qui in BACK IN THE BOTTLE
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