Their more active years behind them, Xena and Gabrielle spend some quality time enjoying what they have and preparing for the future.
"Sky’s especially blue today."
"Yes, it is."
"That cloud over there? Off to itself?"
"Think it has your nose."
"You do, do you?"
"Uh huh. Way it’s kinda crinkled up. Reminds me of the time you ate those bugs I crushed for bait. `Member?"
"I thought they were berries." Gabrielle gently massaged the dark head resting in her lap, occasionally caressing one of the many silver strands. "Not the first time I got attracted to something that wasn’t as good as it looked," she added dryly.
Xena squinted at her cloud. "I rather liked that."
"Not the bad taste it left in your mouth, of course," Xena clarified with a lopsided grin at the face above her. "The way you could see the good in just about anything."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "I grew out of that soon enough."
Xena leaned her head back a moment to wander the green of her partner’s eyes. "Maybe. But not before you helped me grow back into it." She resumed her study of the clouds.
"I used to like dark places – holes, caves …. The dingy corners of the blacksmith’s shop, piled with leather and metal and gods know what else that might not see the light of day again. I’d crawl around pretending I was in some exotic land that hadn’t been explored yet." She snickered. "I’d come home filthy, my hair full of spider webs, probably smelling like a pigsty."
"Bet Cyrene loved that."
"Oh yeah, not that her punishments stopped me."
Gabrielle patted Xena’s head. "A rebel even then, eh?"
The warrior closed her eyes, reminiscing. "It was more that I always found something worthwhile. A hidden spring. A fancy buckle. Stones that turned out to be tiny eggs. I liked discovering things, and that usually happened in places you couldn’t see into at first." Xena’s eyes blinked open. She looked up at Gabrielle. "You know?"
"Yes," Gabrielle answered softly, bending down to kiss Xena’s forehead. "I do."
She leaned against the tree behind her, a nice breeze cooling her skin. They’d chosen one of their favorite spots. A crystal lake mirrored a meadow of wildflowers on one side, the shimmering curtain of a mountainous waterfall on the other. So peaceful, save for the natural sounds of a world innocent of human touch. She recalled a time long ago when she lay in a field much like this, dreaming of escape. A day some years later when – now old enough to seek out the nooks and crannies of the vast beyond – she gave herself up to the dangerous wind that magically blew in to sweep her away.
"Do you miss that?"
"Do you miss seeing the good in everything?"
Gabrielle lost herself in the open blue eyes, vulnerable as they would ever be, acknowledging that nothing in the surrounding beauty could equal what she’d already found in their depths.
"Not as long as I had you."
Xena snorted softly. "Took me long enough."
Gabrielle lightly brushed a thin line on her soulmate’s brow. "Maybe. But long enough for me to learn there’s not much new under the sun. That’s where I used to look. You taught me to find treasure in places I couldn’t see into at first." She gazed out into the distance. "I didn’t know to be afraid. Once I did, it was reassuring to find out that getting covered in cobwebs didn’t necessarily mean the end of the world."
Xena reached up to stroke the upturned corner of Gabrielle’s mouth. "Even if somebody wore them like the latest Athenian fashion?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "On you, just about anything looks good. I rather liked that."
Xena snorted again. "Now you tell me."
"Well, not so much the moldy, ‘I’ve got one foot in the grave of my past’ cobwebs. The ‘tried and true’ ones. You didn’t flinch at anything except what you thought might pop out from inside. I learned not to be afraid of that either." Gabrielle looked fondly down at her partner. "You know?"
"Yeah. With you around I do."
Gabrielle grinned wryly. "I can just imagine what Cyrene must be thinking. ‘All this time, everywhere they’ve been, and they haven’t gotten farther than two kids playing Hide & Seek. In the dark.’"
"Works for me, considering what I found in there with me."
The companions basked in each other’s gaze, warmed by the glow that emanated from their very souls.
"Wind’s died down," Xena observed softly.
The warrior rolled her head to face the lake. She clasped her partner’s hand. "Water’s calm."
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed, continuing to regard her partner. "No ripples or churning that I can see."
"Me neither. Rocks all settled?"
"They are from where I sit."
"Here too." Xena held her partner’s eyes again. "You know I –."
"I know you’ve said all I ever dreamed about the blessings of a beautiful day."
The warrior smiled gratefully and relaxed in Gabrielle’s embrace, releasing old cares. "Love you," she murmured, her view filling, brimming and blurring with the beauty of her days. "Ready?"
Gabrielle squeezed fingers slightly swollen at the joints. She let them go, to rub shoulders aching from countless injuries, to lay her hand against a sure heart weakened by too many hard seasons, to rest her palms on a forehead etched with the worries of the world, to brush the lids closed over eyes that had seen more than even the most fearless child should. She resumed holding Xena’s hand.
"Yes. Open up." When Xena’s lips parted, Gabrielle leaned down so they could take each other’s breath away one more time. She prolonged her kiss even after she ceased to feel the puffs of life-giving air, then raised up to study the still ageless face with dry eyes. Her only regret was breaking the vow she’d made to herself never to deceive her soulmate again.
Gabrielle lowered Xena to the blanket. She’d been expecting the reluctant admission that her time was near. Despite remarkably little change in the legendary physique, the warrior’s jaunty stride had long ago exhibited the stiff resoluteness of someone weary but too proud to show it. Her lungs labored from illnesses that followed rescue missions anyone a third her age would’ve scoffed at. Even riding brought barely suppressed grimaces to the stoic face. They both knew she survived on sheer will.
They’d discussed what to do if one of them was ready to pass over. Naturally, Xena assumed she would go first. She’d said she didn’t want any fuss. Just one more beautiful day out in the open, relaxing like two normal people with all the time in the world. They’d exchanged sheepish smiles, knowing how extraordinarily lucky they actually were to anticipate being together again, no undone hopes holding them back.
They’d dug a shallow hole nearby and filled it with kindling. Xena – practical to the end – had fashioned a cage of wood that set levered at an angle, held by a piece of twine anchored in the ground. She’d also made a litter on rollers, which Gabrielle could use to transport Xena the few feet to the pyre. Gabrielle laid the warrior to rest on the kindling and let the wooden top down over the tall, quiet form. So far, everything had gone as planned.
Xena observed the scene below with mixed emotions. Despite assurances that she would be reunited with her soulmate in many lives, leaving this one brought a special twinge. The foundation for who they were had been built here. It had served as "home" to many firsts. Whatever memories they might carry forever, the essence of their trials and achievements was something she hoped never to forget.
Gabrielle appeared to be lingering in the past as well, continuing to cradle her partner’s body. The warrior studied her soulmate with some concern – glad Gabrielle could go on enjoying what they'd made together, regretting she’d left the bard to do it alone. Gabrielle seemed to be taking her loss well. "Maybe it hasn’t hit her yet," Xena mused. But, then, her partner had always been stronger than she looked.
Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s quiet dignity. In her opinion, the younger woman was as beautiful as ever, moved with the same athletic grace she’d developed shortly after they began traveling together. As Gabrielle rose and started her sad task, Xena admired the small, trim body and sure stride. Gabrielle suffered from some of the usual assorted ailments that came with age, but they hadn’t affected her exuberance or energetic dedication to the greater good. Xena suddenly longed to hear that girlish laugh, resigned to the possibility that it too could be a thing of the past for a while.
She wondered what must be going through Gabrielle’s mind. "Huh. Maybe I haven’t been dead long enough to hear her thoughts." Xena shrugged, then congratulated herself for devising the rolling litter and levered pyre cover. Gabrielle was using them with no problem. So far things had gone as planned.
She glanced at the lit torch, prepared to watch Gabrielle set the pyre aflame. "Third time must be the charm," she chuckled darkly, recalling the aborted attempt on Amazon lands not long after they’d met and her own efforts to come back. And later in Japa, when Gabrielle had actually burned the warrior’s body. Xena sighed. Not one of their happier experiences. If Gabrielle hadn’t been so determined, they might still be in separate realms.
Xena rolled her eyes, remembering their current situation. "Duh, Princess Senility. Better get used to that again." She shook her head and wryly refocused on Gabrielle. Her eyes widened.
"What the …?"
Gabrielle glanced at the torch they’d lit earlier, but didn’t take it yet from its stand. Instead, she walked over to the bushes and pulled out some wood she’d hidden, which she arranged in a circle near Xena’s pyre, with the litter in the middle. She distributed kindling around and under the litter and layered it with dry vegetation. She went over to the wagon they’d borrowed, unhitched the horse and spanked its butt.
The mare cantered off in the direction of Lycom’s farm. Gabrielle knew their neighbor would take care of any loose ends, once he’d ventured out to see what had become of his wagon. She had only one more thing left to do.
She pulled a vial from the pouch at her waist and drank the contents. After one last look at the body inside the wooden cage, she set the pyre aflame. She stretched out on the litter, still holding the torch. When her eyelids grew heavy, she propped the torch on a log at her feet. Soon dark smoke mingled with that from where Xena lay.
"I see you decided to tinker with the script."
"I’m a bard. You sure did that enough as a warrior."
"I promised not to go before my time. My choice, just like you got yours. You sayin’ you’re not happy to see me?"
"Little late to ask, don’t you think?"
Gabrielle checked out her burning body. She crinkled her nose. "Eewww, that was my favorite outfit."
"I oughtta …. If I could …. " The warrior growled in exasperation at the apparition who was a few minutes past strangling sense into.
"I know, dear. It’ll pass."
"Gabrielle, this isn’t right. We agreed. You said you were okay with it."
"I was. Can I help it if I was so preoccupied with your last wishes, I forgot to mention I wasn’t feeling so good myself?"
Xena raised a skeptical brow. "What are you saying?"
"My headaches were worse. I had pains in my chest. My body parts felt like they might turn to dust. It wouldn’t have been worth the struggle, without you around to nag."
"Plenty of folks go on anyway. If it was so bad, why didn’t you say something?"
"Because you’d’ve said, ‘Plenty of folks go on anyway.’ I know you, Xena. You would’ve kept your sorry butt around, just to make sure I didn’t go first or ‘too soon.’" Gabrielle shook her head. "Some things never change."
"What am I supposed to do now?" Xena groused. "I had plans."
Gabrielle stared at her in disbelief. "What?! What plans?"
"Lots of plans. Admiring you from afar. Haunting you when you didn’t take care of yourself. Seeing if I could tickle you in your sleep. Making old Lycom’s hair stand on end if he tried to flirt with you."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"What’s wrong with that? Before when I was dead, I was too busy to have much fun."
Gabrielle glowered down at the pyres. "Any other time, the timber would’ve been too damp. Or I wouldn’t have put enough herbs in the vial. But nooooo, not this time. This time it works just fine, and see the thanks I get."
"I have to give it to you, you outdid yourself. Sure had me fooled." Xena chuckled. "I mean, I expected a little emotion. Wailing would’ve been nice. I’d’ve settled for a couple of tears."
"Oh, so you’re putting me in the mood now?"
"Almost looked like you were glad to get rid of me."
"Well, that part didn’t work out, did it?"
"When I realized what you were up to, I couldn’t believe all the advanced planning you did." Xena grinned appreciatively. "The timing alone was a thing of beauty."
"I’ll try to do worse the next go-round."
"Kinda nervy of you to use my litter like that, though I suppose that’s better than wasting it on old Lycom." Xena wrinkled her nose. "Or squeezing yourself in the cage with me."
Gabrielle raised a brow. "There are some occasions where even endless love needs space."
"On the other hand, you had me blathering on about all that sensitive stuff for nothing."
Gabrielle perked up. "I did, didn’t I?" She sighed happily. "It was even better than I hoped."
Xena pursed her lips.
"Oh, come on. If you had your way, it would’ve been ‘slam, bam, light the fire.’ We deserved a ‘final, good, right thing’ for ourselves, didn’t we?"
Xena grudgingly relented. "Yeah, I suppose so."
"We needed to say some things, make sure we left that life without baggage. Gods know we could use a little less of it wherever we go next."
Xena thought about that. "Got a point there."
Gabrielle glanced around. "Speaking of which …. You’d think we’ve been dead long enough to…. Huh. No Elysia, no heaven."
"No Tartarus, no hell."
"More like right after we died on those crosses. You suppose we’re in some middle state? Suspended between realms?"
Xena shrugged. "Don’t know. At least we’re both in the same whatever this is." She reached over to touch Gabrielle’s ghostly cheek. "And can sense each other like before."
"Hmmm, maybe we earned a vacation of some sort. Just the two of us." Gabrielle zoomed off, testing her mobility. "Oooo, and can go anywhere we want!"
Xena floated lazily over to join her soulmate. "That would be nice. But you know what I think about things that’re too good to be true."
Gabrielle smirked. "You mean things you used to think were too good to be true."
Xena smirked. "You can’t believe everything a dying person says."
"Hey, I’m in transition, remember? Judging from this, that’ll never change either."
Gabrielle gazed fondly at the woman she seemed stuck with for eternity. "Then I guess I can look forward to an exciting future."
Xena gazed fondly at the woman she seemed stuck with for eternity. "Ditto."
"So, you okay now? I’m forgiven?"
"I’ll put it this way …." Xena glanced down once more at the remnants of their first and latest life together, then gently cradled her soulmate’s face. "Even if you’re early, it’s right on time."
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