Season Five Previsited
(Specific Disclaimer: These characters belong to Reniassance Pictures and MCA Universal. I'm taking a break from my usually scheduled smut again. There's no sex in this one. A friend of mine said stories like this were like mental enemas; you have to get them out of your system before the good stuff can kick in. My apologies for her vulgarity. But she is right -- this is the most tackily florid writing I've ever done. If you're in the mood for that kind of excessive sweetness, you might like this -- otherwise you're going to need insulin stat. Just get them down off those crosses. That's all I'm saying. No one asked me whether it was okay to tack them up there in the first place.)
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Gabrielle laughed, relishing the ease of drawing a chestful of clean, fresh air.
The bard could have saved herself reams of parchment trying to describe the Elysian Fields -- being able to breathe freely was all anyone needed of heaven. Air gushed out of her lungs, and her neck arched as she drew in another deep breath.
The suffocation had been hideous. Worse than the pain, of course, in the end. She hadn't anticipated that final horror, at least not as clearly as she'd dreaded the agony of the spikes through her hands and feet, or the soul-shriveling pain of hearing them pounded through Xena's. And throughout, the numbing, breath-robbing cold . . .
Gabrielle shook her head sharply, to dispel the memories. And that motion opened her eyes, which she'd been holding tightly shut. Her vision was abruptly swamped with swaths of emerald green and a blue wash of sky.
"Where is she?"
Gabrielle didn't realize she'd spoken the words aloud. She spun in a circle, taking in her surroundings in one quick sweep. The flowing white garment warming her shoulders twirled with her movement. She didn't see the warrior -- only rolling green hills, and a distant forest.
The bard noticed she was alone even before registering the vibrant beauty of the meadow she found herself in. Her bare toes clenched in lush green grass that reached her ankles as she squinted up into a flawlessly azure sky. Gabrielle stood on a hillside so glorious it could only have been created by the most benevolent of deities.
"This is yours," Gabrielle murmured to her goddess. "Artemis. These are your hunting grounds." She felt her eyes filling with tears, and she shook them aside impatiently, scattering shining droplets in the sunlight. Gabrielle had just passed through darkness -- she wanted to see again.
Xena was near. Gabrielle did know that, with certainty. She felt it, through the pores of her skin -- Xena's nearness, and that they both were safe now. So she took a few steps, her lips curling irresistibly as her eyes soaked up the beauty and warmth of the day. Her hands crept up her sides, and over her breasts. Gabrielle's last hours in the world had been a nightmare of physical suffering, and now she blessed her restored, perfect body as the holy gift it was.
The air was so clear, sound carried further and faster than on the earthly plane. Gabrielle froze when the bell-like tone of a warcry split the birdsong peace of the meadow. A chain of trilling chimes followed, a new signature cry both more fearsome, and somehow more womanly, than Gabrielle had ever heard raised. Apparently there was goose-flesh in the after-life, because it was rising on the bard's bare upper arms.
A lithe figure began a tight, vaulting spin up over the ridge behind her. Gabrielle didn't crane her neck to see the woman hurtling above her -- the bard knew who it was, even before the familiar boots landed in the grass at her feet. She had recognized the voice.
"What do you think?" Ephiny's doe-soft brown eyes sparkled with delight. "Better than Xena's? I've been practicing."
"Ephiny -- S-Sweet Artemis -- "
Luckily, Ephiny was as adept at handling stuttering young queens in this world as she'd been in the last. She grinned and opened her arms. "I've missed you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smacked into the Amazon's arms hard enough to topple them both, but Ephiny side-stepped and managed not to loose her footing as they embraced.
"I thought of you." Gabrielle's arms were fierce around Ephiny's neck. "Back there. When it got bad, and I had to find courage somewhere. Your image came to me, Eph."
"You're second to no one in courage, Gabrielle." Ephiny eased the bard out of her arms, beaming, and held her at arms-length. "Other Amazons might be deadlier in battle, but our queen has the heart of a lion. We all know that."
Gabrielle's cradled Ephiny's face in her hands, grinning like an idiot. "You're different, aren't you?"
Ephiny nodded. "Tell me what you see."
"Your face -- the worry lines are gone -- and you're stronger." Gabrielle's gaze swept over the lean form of her regent. "Hey, that knife scar on your thigh is -- "
"All the scars are gone." Ephiny glanced toward the bank of distant trees and perched her hands on her hips. "Hear that?"
Gabrielle had -- she looked around carefully, like a deer alerted to the sudden presence of its mate. Her face began to fill with color.
There was no mistaking the owner of the warcry that echoed from the other side of the trees. Gabrielle clenched Ephiny's wrist. She might be a ghost, but her hands had gone as cold at hearing Xena's clarion call here, as they had when they'd both had a pulse.
The haunting trill sounded again, nearer.
"Ephiny -- "
"Oh, go on." The Amazon nudged her young queen with her shoulder. "I was hoping I'd be here for this."
Gabrielle's green eyes flashed at Ephiny, and then she turned and bolted down the gentle rise sloping toward the trees. The fact that she had to snatch the flowing white fabric of her garment around her waist, so her strong thighs could pump freely, should have rendered the young woman comic, but it didn't -- she was beautiful as she ran, her short blonde hair dancing around her face.
Xena emerged from the trees in the same moment. The tall warrior ran with the grace of a stag, covering ground with long, gliding strides, her arms moving easily at her sides. She targeted instantly on Gabrielle, and her blistering pace increased as she streaked down into the grassy meadow. Her long legs propelled her in a flipping leap over a hollowed dip in the meadow that was as light and free as child's play.
If they had maintained their trajectories, the two women would have slammed into each other with explosive impact. Which would have been acceptable to both, actually. But as Xena drew near her, Gabrielle trotted to a stop, and lifted one hand. Xena slowed to a walk, and then just stood there, her hands on her hips, one corner of her mouth lifting in a smile of deep pleasure. The sun sent glinting sparks across her kind blue eyes.
"You're so young," Gabrielle said. Xena's image blurred as her eyes filled again, but it was no illusion.
This was the beautiful, spirited, innocent young woman Cyrene of Amphipolis prayed her daughter would become when she was still in her womb. Xena's face was glowing with the healthy flush of youth -- the lines of strain and grief were gone, replaced by vigor, and a radiating aura of joy. She did, in fact, look years younger -- still strong, still amazingly powerful -- but hardly older than Gabrielle herself.
The blue eyes drank in the sight of her lover as if quenching a parched thirst. Xena took a step toward her, and her head lifted as she registered the changes in her lover's body. She touched the bard's face with the tips of her fingers, very lightly.
"Oh, Bri," Xena murmured, her fingers skating gently over her soft cheek. "You're a queen. You always have been."
The tears coursing down Gabrielle's face didn't alter the new maturity and solemnity of her beauty. No longer a girl on this ethereal plane, Gabrielle's body now personified the physical majesty of an Amazon queen. Her form had not changed in size, but there was something unmistakably regal now in her carriage, some new assurance that rendered this woman from a farming village undeniably elegant. Her features were both more angular and more fluid, reflecting Gabrielle's gentle brand of wisdom more truly than her earthly form had.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, her head turning slightly into Xena's palm as the warrior cradled her face. "I was wrong," she murmured. "Heaven is this touch."
Lovers have embraced since the dawn of time, but never have two come together with such an intensity of longing. It stood to reason that later they could enjoy more delicate touching, the smoothing of hair and the feather-sweet brushing of lips -- but first, they needed this visceral joining of arms and legs, bodies surging together in the primal relief of reunion. The warrior and the bard connected and fused again in that moment, and on the hillside, Ephiny closed her eyes in grief.
"Xena -- "
"It's all gone." The warrior cradled Gabrielle in her arms. "All of it -- suffering, hatred, war. We made it, we're here. Now there's just this."
"Promise me we'll be together."
"Yes, always, Bri."
"Nothing can take you from me again."
Xena was able to unwind her arms and release Gabrielle enough to see her face. They were content to hold on and look at each other for awhile.
"Want me to come back in the morning?" Behind Xena, Ephiny shrugged apologetically at Gabrielle.
Xena's eyes sharpened with recognition, and Gabrielle grinned. The bard's arms tightened around her briefly, then let her go. Xena turned and looked at Ephiny, and pleasure spread over her face like a sun rising.
The two warriors clasped forearms, and then embraced. Their feelings for each other had always been complex, but when all had been said, Gabrielle's champion and her regent were good friends.
"Well met, Xena."
"Well met." Xena straightened, and smiled down at the Amazon. "I didn't expect to see you again, Ephiny -- at least not here. In fact, I didn't . . . would you excuse me for a moment?"
Ephiny's eyebrows rose. "Sure."
Xena turned and went back to Gabrielle, took her in her arms, and kissed her with a profound passion. Gabrielle returned her ardor instantly, and the two women fused together in a floridly erotic pose that would have sent Argo screaming.
It went on for quite some time. If wristwatches had been invented, Ephiny would have checked hers twice before Xena finally lifted her head.
"I hadn't kissed you yet," Xena explained to Gabrielle.
"Oh, I'm there," Gabrielle agreed, stumbling a little.
Xena looked up over Gabrielle's shoulder. Her gaze swept over the hill behind them, searchingly.
"I'm sorry, Xena," Ephiny called. "He's not here."
"He wouldn't be, Xena." Gabrielle touched her cheek, and waited until the warrior met her eyes. "You'll see Solan in the Elysian Fields. These are the Fields of Artemis -- only Amazons, and women warriors, find themselves here, at first. But we can travel freely through the Fields -- we'll find him soon."
"Forgive me, Gabrielle, but that's not true."
Xena knew it then, when she heard the regret in Ephiny's voice. She'd been wrong, when she told Gabrielle they had left all suffering behind. She didn't understand how, yet, but a part of her despaired when she turned to look at her friend.
"We need to talk." Ephiny gestured, and they realized there was a lavish feast spread at their feet.
A haunch of venison, seasoned potatoes, sweet corn, and a dozen kinds of fruit lay on platters resting on a silk cloth spread over the lush grass. A large pitcher, looking as if it were carved of ivory, sloshed with wine as Ephiny settled cross-legged on the ground and lifted it.
Xena felt Gabrielle's gaze on her face, and she pressed her hand. They sat at the edge of the blanket, their fingers entwined, and waited silently while Ephiny poured wine into three silver cups.
"There are things I need to tell you both, and we don't have much time." Ephiny's eyes held new gravity as she handed her queen a chilled goblet. "To begin with, I can pass beyond the Fields of Artemis, Gabrielle, but neither of you can, not right now. And you can't remain here. Or at least, Xena can't."
Gabrielle said nothing, but her grip on Xena's hand tightened.
Ephiny kept her eyes on the pitcher. "You're here now because I asked Artemis for this meeting."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked.
"Because she owed me that much."
"And much more, Ephiny," Gabrielle said quietly. "You know that's not what I meant."
"I know, Gabrielle. I'm stalling." Ephiny sat back on her heels and flattened her hands on her thighs. "Artemis agreed to this. . .because her Amazons will die out without your help. Both of you."
"We aren't dead." Xena made it a flat statement. "We're still on that mountain, aren't we, Ephiny? Still on those crosses."
Xena felt Gabrielle's hand go cold in hers, and she looked down at her young wife with concern in her newly-young eyes.
"You're far along." There was a strain of sadness in Ephiny's voice. "You especially, Xena. You're getting quite weak. But yes, you're both alive. You're unconscious, and the suffocation has begun. That's how it was possible for Artemis to bring you here."
"What does she want from us?" Gabrielle seemed to be issuing a challenge rather than asking a question, and she was squeezing Xena's hand tightly enough to be painful.
"This is all I've been able to learn." Ephiny pulled in a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. "Amazon Nation is fated to fall, unless our way of life is preserved by the coming of a special queen. I don't know if it's you, Gabrielle, I honestly don't. But even if our tribe survives the Roman invasion, we're fated to die out unless this queen dons the feathered mask. Whoever she is. And she is not Chilapa."
"You know all this?" Gabrielle's lips were numb.
Ephiny nodded. "That much, yes, I'm positive. Chilapa must not lead the Amazons; the queen that was fated to rule must take her place, and soon." She turned her solemn eyes on Xena. "But first, the Amazons must turn back the Roman legions if they are to survive long enough for this queen to ascend her throne."
"Artemis wants to send us back." Gabrielle's green eyes were expressionless. "She wants Xena to help the Amazons defeat Caesar. She wants me to denounce my selection of Chilapa as queen. Then she either wants me to rule, or find this other queen, and help her take up the mask. We don't know which, yet. Is that correct?"
"Yes," Ephiny answered. She had forgotten about the food; they all had.
"I want to see her."
Ephiny shook her head. "Artemis won't see you, Gabrielle. You abdicated, you can't command her presence any longer. No offense, she says." The corner of Ephiny's mouth lifted, and then fell again. "She wants you to make your decisions based on this information alone."
Gabrielle nodded. "So -- Xena and I do have a choice, here?"
"You do, yeah." Ephiny cleared her throat. "Gabrielle, you were healthy going to the cross. You're hours from death, perhaps even days. Xena -- your spine's been shattered. You were in shock, even before the crucifixion began, so your time may be shorter. But you were strong going in, too, to say the least -- and you can still live."
"If help arrives in time," Gabrielle said, woodenly.
"It will," Ephiny nodded. "Artemis will see to it."
They were silent for awhile.
"So we can agree to go back." Something in Xena's voice -- perhaps the absence of anger -- chilled Gabrielle. "We can reinhabit our bodies. And we'll both be rescued, somehow. That's a guarantee."
"The only one you have." Ephiny made herself return Xena's gaze. "Artemis can't promise that you'll ever walk again, Xena. You might -- gods never know with you -- but that's not part of the deal. And there's no guarantee either of you will succeed in your missions -- the Amazons might fall, in spite of your best efforts. There's not even any assurance that you both won't end up nailed to Roman crosses again someday -- "
Gabrielle threw her wine into Ephiny's face with a vicious splash. She jumped to her feet and stalked off toward the far ridge of trees.
Ephiny coughed, blinked, palmed the cold liquid out of her eyes, and then looked at Xena questioningly. Xena lifted her hand, and the two warriors sat quietly for awhile, giving their queen a moment to collect herself.
Finally Xena rose and walked slowly after Gabrielle, letting her young wife hear the rustle of her boots in the high grass. She stood with her back to them, at the top of a small rise that opened onto a pleasing vista of Artemis' field. Gabrielle's green eyes were focused on a messy cloud of birds sweeping down over the valley. She stood quietly, her arms folded, relatively calm again.
She felt Xena come up behind her, and then the warmth of the warrior's body touched her back. The warrior's hands cupped her broad shoulders, and then gently slipped the silky fabric off the top of her left one. Xena's lips brushed the firm skin at the base of Gabrielle's neck.
"It might just be the Amazon's time, Gabrielle." Xena's voice was low and kind. "It's what I thought, when Ephiny died. I couldn't admit it, even to you. Ephiny died young, but she died fighting. It was an honorable death, and she'll be remembered. So will your Amazons. They may simply have reached the end of their history."
"Maybe they have." Gabrielle sounded thoughtful, but Xena could feel her shoulders trembling under her hands. "I'd just taken that first pull, Xena. That's the last thing I remember, before I woke up here. I needed air badly enough that I finally tried to lift myself on my hands and feet, so I could take a breath."
"Stop it, Bri." Xena's hands slipped off her shoulders, and Gabrielle turned and looked up at her.
"It was after midnight, and you were unconscious by then. At least I wanted to believe you couldn't feel anymore. I watched you whenever I could. I called you a couple of times, but you stopped answering. You looked so cold, Xena."
"I understand what Artemis is asking as well as you, Gabrielle." Thunderheads were gathering in Xena's eyes. "I know the agony that's in store for both of us, if we go back. Do you think I want to watch you have the holes in your hands and feet packed by some stranger, passing for a healer? I won't be able to tend you myself. What are the odds they'll have anything to give you for pain?"
"Oh, no, Xena, you're not getting off that easy." Gabrielle sounded equally angry now. "This isn't just about me. You wake up paralyzed, have you forgotten that? Your spine was crushed. And if by some miracle we can restore feeling to your legs, the agony of the healing will be more than even you -- "
"I'm better equipped to handle pain than you are, Gabrielle." Xena took the bard's arms again, urgently. "Listen. I have to go back, I don't have any choice."
"Without me," Gabrielle said dully.
"I can carry Ephiny's message to Chilapa, and your Amazons. I can lead them in battle, and I can look for this new queen. Gabrielle, there's no reason for you to come. Wait here. Look out for me, as well as you can, you and Ephiny."
"Xena, you don't owe us this." Gabrielle pulled Xena's hands off of her shoulders and grasped them in her own. "Gaia's blood, you're not even Amazon! You have done enough -- no, it's your turn to listen!. You've done enough for the Amazons, Xena. Would you think about yourself, about us -- you and me -- just once?"
"She is, Gabrielle. Xena, tell her."
Sound did carry farther in this world. Ephiny still sat beside the wine pitcher below them, her gaze discreetly on the far hills.
Gabrielle looked back into Xena's eyes, and suddenly she was as afraid as she had been when she saw Callisto smash the warrior's spine in the Roman yard.
"Ephiny told us you could stay here, in the Field of Artemis." Xena spoke gently. "But she said I couldn't. You remember that?"
Gabrielle nodded. Her lips parted to respond, but then she subsided, and waited for Xena to go on.
"You said I've done enough for the Amazons, Gabrielle, and maybe you're right." Xena swallowed. "But I haven't done enough with my life. I spent four years trying to help innocent people -- and more than ten trying to slit their throats. It isn't enough. You won the Elysian Fields a dozen times over, Bri. But If I die now, I'm going to Tartarus."
Gabrielle exhaled a denial. "That can't be true. I don't believe that, Xena. We spend -- "
"Gabrielle -- "
"Xena, we spend lifetimes together!" Gabrielle pushed the warrior away and walked past her, trying to keep her rising fear in check. "We saw it in India, we know we're going to be together again!"
"I do know that." Xena's voice was growing strained. "But we don't know when that lifetime happens, Gabrielle. It could be generations from now. Shut up and listen."
Xena went to Gabrielle and stood close to her, emphasizing the difference in their height. She looked down into the sea-green eyes with an assurance that was almost cruel. "In this life, I've been given the power to do great good. If I don't use it, as well and as long as I possibly can, I can't atone for my crimes. And until I atone, I can't be with you again. Your kind of love has to be earned, Bri. You're worth it, I have to go back."
Ephiny stood, her eyes fastened on the distant figures, facing each other, motionless. It was quiet for awhile.
Finally Gabrielle nodded. "I'm going with you."
Xena's eyes filled with tears. Even here the warrior couldn't bring herself to beg, but it wouldn't have mattered if she had.
"No, not for you." A dimple appeared in Gabrielle's cheek and vanished. "Not entirely for you. You go back for your way, Xena, I'll go back for mine. The way of the warrior, the way of friendship."
Gabrielle glanced down the hill at Ephiny's still form, watching them. "You've given the Amazons enough, but I haven't. I'm their queen, and enough is everything I have. I promised them."
"You are everything I have."
Gabrielle reached up and cupped Xena's face in her hand, and then she hugged her, hard. "I love you. Be strong for me, please."
Xena released Gabrielle, and brushed her thumb beneath her eye to catch the only tear. She turned and looked down the hill toward Ephiny. She lifted her hand and let it fall, her other arm wrapping warmly around Gabrielle's waist.
"Forgive me, Gabrielle." Even from the bottom of the hill, Ephiny didn't have to raise her voice to be heard. "You're my friends, and I love you both. But I love our sisters, too . . . and there are thousands of them."
"I know. It's for the greater good, Ephiny." Gabrielle knew her regent needed to hear the words, and she meant them. "Yeah, you're forgiven. But I get to outrank you in our next three lives. And next time around, I expect some bloody deference!"
Ephiny smiled through her tears. "The heart of a lion," she murmured.
The Amazon queen and her champion faced each other and clasped hands. The searing blue of Xena's eyes were imprinted on the back of Gabrielle's eyelids as they slid shut. Gabrielle felt her chest tighten. The warrior murmured an endearment as the terrible cold began to sneak back through their bones.
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Ephiny watched the two distant figures fade into the rising mist. First their bodies grew transparent, then so faint the Amazon might have imagined they'd ever been there. Then the hilltop stood empty. A songbird in the trees behind Ephiny let out a sudden, mournful trill.
Ephiny sat down and folded her legs. She stared blankly into empty space until she was sure the tears had finished. Then she straightened, closed her eyes, and began praying for all of her sisters.
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