A Queen’s Tale
Gabrielle saw the stern face and the fancy toga just as she was finishing up her story and she made a point of catching the man’s eyes and folding her arms as he drew a breath and showed every sign of wanting to shout at them.
He paused, and clasped his hands in front of him instead, though his face was profoundly disapproving.
Next to her, Xena chuckled soundlessly, the faint vibration translating through the hand she had resting casually on her partner’s leg.
“So that’s how that happened. “ The bard concluded, to a round of enthusiastic applause. “Glad you enjoyed it.” She kicked her heels against the edge of the window she was seated in, pleased with the response.
Now, the man in the toga clapped his hands. “You are expected.” He said, loudly, as the crowd started to move and those who had seated themselves hurriedly stood up. He waited for them to begin walking towards the road again before he started through the crowd towards where Gabrielle and Xena were sitting.
“Alain.” Xena called out, as their old friend hesitated. “C’mere.”
Grinning gladly, he trotted over with out hesitation ignoring the scowl from the man in the toga. “Hey!”
It was a hard mixture of emotion to take. Gabrielle slipped off the window and opened her arms as he approached, giving him a big hug. Part of her was remembering that silent, broken form in Xena’s arms as she carried him to his pyre, with a sting of remembered grief at war with the honest joy she felt at seeing him again. “Hey there!”
She remembered Xena standing, watching the fire and shaking her head, tears rolling down her cheeks in silence.
“I’m glad to see you guys here!” Alain said, as he released her and was hugged by Xena in her turn. “I knew I would.”
So many meanings to those words. “We’re glad to see you too.” Gabrielle said. “Do you like it here?”
“Sure.” Alain gave her a sunny smile. “I was in the other place too. It was all right.” He told her. “But I like it here better. More stuff to do.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, I bet.”
The man in the toga was hovering in the background. Xena looked past Alain’s shoulder and met his eyes. “You want something?”
The man warily came over. “I’m not sure who you are.” He said. “But..”
“I’m Gabrielle.” Gabrielle promptly supplied. “And this is my partner, Xena.”
He fell silent.
“Doesn’t she tell great stories?” Alain seemed unaware of any tension. “She’s from my hometown. Potadiea. I used to listen to her when I was little.”
Xena watched his face, catching both fear and envy there. He seemed to be some sort of major domo for the gods, and as such, she figured Alain was under his charge. “Scram.” She told him. “We’ll send him over when we’re done talking to him.”
The man stared at her hard, and Xena stared right back. He averted his eyes after a few seconds of this, and nodded. “As you wish.” He turned and started back towards the road, not without a look at the wagon Alain had left sitting there.
“He’s gonna be mad.” Alain said. “He yells a lot.”
“If he does, tell him he doesn’t want to hear me yell.” Xena smiled. “And he sure doesn’t want to get me mad.”
Alain grinned back at her. “It’s okay.” He sat down on the window edge between them. “He jus yells. Nothing else.”
“Ahh, all talk huh.” Gabrielle said. “It’s really great to see you, Alain.” She hesitated. “I was sorry we didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “It was bad. I heard a noise, then I was somewheres else.” He looked at Xena. “I could sorta see stuff but like it was through a glass.” He added. “I saw the bad guys, and I saw you comin.”
They were all briefly silent. “Yeah.” Xena said. “That was a bad day.”
“I was sorry to leave pa.” Alain said. “I miss him.”
Gabrielle felt tears sting her eyes. “I know he misses you too.” She said. “But you’ll see him some time again, here or in the other place.”
Alain nodded. “Yeah I figure.” Then he looked at Xena again. “Did you beat up the bad guys?”
Xena’s hand clenched, a little. “Yes, I did.” She said. “I beat up a lot of bad guys that day. “ She looked past him. “They paid for what they did to you.”
“I just saw a little. Then I had to go.” Alain said. “I told ever’body you’d beat up the bad guys but they all wanted to go in the door and then.. “ He turned to Gabrielle. ‘Then your papa came over and he said..”
Gabrielle reached out and clasped his wrist. “My father?”
Alain nodded. “He came right after me.” He said. “He said we should go fore Xena sent all the bad guys out. We went in the door.” He blinked a few times. “It was nice there. Pretty.”
It was a little hard to breathe. Gabrielle felt Xena’s hand touch her back, her partner’s thumb rubbing the edge of her spine lightly. “That’s wonderful, Alain.” She murmured.
“Anyhow. I should go help.” Alain stood up. “I’ll see you guys lots now, huh? You going to tell stories in the big room?”
Gabrielle looked up at him. “Maybe.” She said. “We’ll see.”
He waved, and trotted off, going over to the wagon and taking hold of the bridle of the white oxen pulling it, whispering into the animal’s ear and pointing his thumb over his shoulder at the still seated women.
“You okay?” Xena asked, after a long moment of silence.
The bard shook her head a little. “Wow.” She sighed. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Xena swung her legs inside the room and caught Gabrielle’s hand. “C’mon.” She led her back over to the long couch and they sat down together on it, leaning back.
Gabrielle half turned and wrapped her arm around her partner’s waist. Then she put her head down on Xena’s shoulder and exhaled. “What do you think of that, Xe?”
“What do I think of that?” Xena mused. “I think we were way too worried about me getting into Elysia, that’s what I think.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and peered at her partner.
“You asked.” Xena said, bluntly.
The bard put her head back down. “I don’t know whether to be really happy, because I think in the end he was okay and because he and my mother will be reunited or really angry because what he did to me, and to Lila just..”
“Wasn’t that important?” Xena put her arms around her.
“Something like that, yeah.” The bard murmured. She thought for a few minutes more. “I guess I’m going to be glad. There’s nothing I can do about it anyway.” She snuggled closer. “Did you like my story?”
“Don’t I always.”
Xena smiled. “Yes, I did.” She admitted. “Was there a particular reason you told a story where the gods were at a disadvantage in front of everyone on Mount Olympus?”
“Takes one to know one.” The bard relaxed. “I’m glad we saw Alain, Xe. I felt so bad about what happened to him. It’s nice he’s having a good time here.”
“Yeah, me too.” Xena agreed. “He’s a good kid.” She rubbed Gabrielle’s back idly. “Wonder how long the’yre gonna keep us waiting here?” She craned her neck and looked at the inner doorway. “Maybe we should go back there and poke them a little.”
Gabrielle buried her face into Xena’s chest. “And she calls me a troublemaker.” She muttered.
Xena laughed. Then her ears twitched and she turned her head, spotting a figure standing in the window. “Something we can help you with?”
Gabrielle stayed where she was, savoring the sound of her partner’s heartbeat under her ear. Things seemed to be getting strange and random again, after a bit of normality she’d gained telling the crowd her story.
Strange. Just like hearing her father was in Elysia was strange and gut twisting and made her feel upset and uncomfortable.
She just wasn’t sure if that was because she still had hard feelings about him, or if she was pissed off he got to be there.
Gabrielle thought she’d forgiven him.
“I am a messenger.”
Gabrielle opened one green eye and lifted her head, to observe the man cloaked in a soft, white fabric like theirs. “Never liked that saying.” She shifted and sat up, as Xena also sat up and parked her elbow on the back of the couch, watching the man warily.
He didn’t seem scary. He had a rugged, honest face and the cloak hood was down around his neck, not framing his head. “I have been sent by the watcher of the portal to Elysia. He wants you to know there are those within who wish speech with you.”
Xena’s eyes narrowed. “With who?”
“With you, Xena of the Sword.” The man replied in a courteous tone. “They are known to you.”
Xena’s nape hairs lifted. She could think of any number of good souls who might be there who would want to have a word or two with her. “Like who?”
She felt Gabrielle’s hand, startlingly warm, come to rest on her stomach.
“It is not mine to say.” The man said. “Come, or do not. I merely bring the message.”
“Can I come too?” Gabrielle asked.
“You may go.” The man answered. “But you will not return. Once you pass into the realm of Elysia, you must stay there.”
“Must?” Xena frowned a little. “Can I stay there too?”
The man remained silent.
“Can I?” The warrior demanded, as the man merely stared at her with gentle impassivity.
“Maybe we better not take a cha… but what if you don..” Gabrielle put a slightly shaking hand to her head. “Sorry Xe.” She murmured, after a moment. “I’m sure it’s okay.”
Xena rested her head against her partner’s shoulder, and exhaled slowly. “Scares the leather off me to separate right now.” She admitted . “I just don’t know what the rules are here. I could walk through that gate and never see you again.”
Gabrielle stared mutely at the dark head pressed against her, shocked to hear her own thoughts so exactly echoed in Xena’s deep tones.
“Dying’s always made me afraid of that.” The warrior went on, then sighed wearily. “Wears on you. Y’know?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle stroked the side of her face. “It’ll be okay. Maybe… maybe it’s your brother.”
Xena inhaled sharply.
“I wish I could meet him.” The bard went on. “Let me walk you to the gate, okay?” She gently kissed her partner’s forehead. “We’ve lost so many friends over the years. It would be cool to know they were okay.”
Xena lifted her head up and tilted it so she could kiss Gabrielle on the lips. Then she got up off the couch and waited for the bard to join her. They walked over to the window where the man was standing. “All right.”
The man nodded and backed up to let them exit into the garden, then he quietly led them up the slop across the soft green grass towards the road the workers had come down.
The wind seemed a little cooler, and the light seemed a little dimmer, with a faint purple tinge to it. Gabrielle and Xena walked along side by side and looked around as they made their way over a small rise and then down a slope.
Faintly, they heard a bell ring. “What’s that?” Xena asked.
“The great ones call to join for dinner.” The guide said. “The great Zeus gathers his family.”
“Dinner.” Gabrielle looked around. “Does it get dark here?”
“It does.” The man’s eyes flicked his eyes at her. “But the gods have commanded the heavens to light up with such brilliance, you wouldn’t think it.” He moved a little to the left, where the slope seemed to end abruptly and there was a stone gateway there.
It was much smaller than the one they’d seen from the path up the mountain. This was barely large enough for a man on horseback to pass through it, and there were so many glyphs carved into it’s surface it seemed ready to crumble.
“Who made that?” Gabrielle asked. “It’s beautiful.”
“The gods may know. I do not.” The guide paused in front of the gateway. Between it, they could see a thick swirl of fog, impossible to look through. “You may both pass, though it was only one who was called.” He said. “But it is true, mortal, that you will not return through it. Go to Elysia if your heart wishes it. There is much beauty there.”
Gabrielle gazed at the portal. “Only if Xena can stay there with me.”
“That is not for me to say. Hades judges here.” The man said. “Make of that what you will.”
He stood aside and waited in silence.
Xena turned to Gabrielle and took her hands. Then she turned her head towards the guide. “But I can come back through there, right?”
“Yes. The law allows for you to cross between.” The man said.
“Can we trust him?” Gabrielle whispered. “This feels like such a trap.”
Xena chuckled wryly. “If I don’t come back, just come after me.” She said. “We’ll figure it out from there.” She kissed Gabrielle again. “I hope it’s Ly. I really would like to see him.”
Gabrielle smiled, but after a second, it faltered. “If … if you see Solon.”
Xena squeezed her hands. “I’ll give him a hug for you.”
“Tell him I’m sorry.” Gabrielle got the words out in a rush. “Please.”
Xena gave her a hug, then she patted Gabrielle’s cheek and released her, turning and heading for the gateway. About to step through it,s he paused and regarded the guide. “If this’s a trap.” She said. “There aren’t enough levels in Hades to keep me from getting back here and finding you.”
The man blinked benignly at her. “Safe passage.” He said. “There is no deception here.”
Ah heh. If she had a dinar for every tie she’d heard that… Taking a breath to steady the nervousness in her gut, Xena stepped forward between the arches, and disappeared into the fog.
Gabrielle sat down on the grass, glad to feel it soft and dry underneath her. She pulled up a blade of it and split it in half, putting one half in her mouth and chewing it.
She could no longer sense Xena. It was hard to realize that, and still keep her breathing even, and her body where it was instead of plunging into the fog after her partner.
But it wasn’t the soul rending grief she’d known before. This was just a quiet emptiness that made her uneasy rather than insane.
She hoped it was over quickly.
“Don’t you wish to go with your friend?” The doorwarden asked.
“Sure.” Gabrielle glanced up at him. “But if I get stuck there, and she gets stuck here, we’re both going to be really unhappy.”
‘Why?” His face was open and curious. “Do you not want to spend your eternity in Elysia? It’s beautiful there.” He looked around. “And to be taken into the immortals.. your friend should be so honored.”
The bard chewed her grass bit. “If I told you we’d both rather stay together in Tartarus than be here apart, you’d probably think I was nuts.”
“Yes, I would.” The man said honestly.
“Maybe we are.” Gabrielle smiled briefly. “But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere without her.”
The doorwarden studied her. “We all have left loved ones behind.” He said. “It’s hard, at first. I remember it. I missed my wife, and my children very much and I know they missed me as well.”
“Mm.” The bard looked past him. “Yeah, I miss my little girl a lot.”
“But after a bit, that fades.” The man said. “Their lives go on, and you find other things to think about, and soon you feel the peace of Elysia and it is good.” He met her eyes. “You don’t seem like someone who has known much peace, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “I don’t think that’s true.” She said. “I’ve known many times of peace, they just don’t usually last too long.” She added. “That makes them all the sweeter though. You can’t appreciate the good times if you don’t know what the bad ones are like.”
The man started to answer, then he stiffened and knelt, averting his gaze. “My lady.”
Gabrielle half turned to see a beautiful winged horse approaching, it’s delicate features almost glowing in the fading light. On his back was Artemis, her expression frosty and taut with displeasure. The bard decided to stay where she was, but she turned to face the patron of the Amazons with her legs pulled up crossed under her.
Artemis here looked different than she had in the forest. Gabrielle watched as the goddess guided the halterless horse to a halt and stared down at her. Draped in silvery white fabric with gilded threads she also wore a belt with a golden hilted knife and a sword on her back.
She had a fine boned face, and reminded the bard of Hera but she had a strong, uncompromising brow that looked more like Zeus.
“Mortal scum.” The goddess addressed her.
“Hi.” Gabrielle felt she was simply too freaked out to be scared. “My name’s Gabrielle, by the way. It’s nice to meet you when you’re not trying to kill me or my friends.”
Artemis stared at her. “My father has sent for you to be judged.” She said. “ Though were it up to me, I wouldn’t have him bother with you. I would judge you myself.”
Gabrielle didn’t get up. “I”ll be happy to come with you as soon as Xena gets back.” She said. “Though for someone who is supposed to protect the Amazons, you do a pretty lousy job.”
The doorwarden had frozen in place, staring at the grass.
“You dare.” Artemis said.
‘Yeah.” Gabrielle hiked up one knee and rested her arm on it. “That’s how I ended up with Xena as my soulmate.”
Artemis dismounted and walked over to stand over her, one hand resting on her golden knife.
“Amazons were being pulled into this to be offered for bait.” Gabrielle met her eyes steadily. “Why weren’t you protecting them? Why did you let Athena do it?”
The goddesses head cocked to one side slightly. “Because we knew it would draw you and your creature out.” She said. “They live for war. It would be a honor for them to die in one.”
Gabrielle’s jaw moved, the muscles bunching and relaxing. “Even though they worship you?”
The bard nodded slowly.
“But what matter to you?” The goddess went on. “You are no Amazon.”
At one time, it would have stung. But now, Gabrielle merely smiled. “That’s true.” She agreed. “But I love some of them dearly, and I care about what happens to them.”
“I don’t.” Artemis said. “Now, you will come with me to face my father, willing or not.”
“Soon as Xena comes back.” Gabrielle said.
“She’s not coming back.” The goddess smiled unpleasantly. “She’s gone to Elysia. May they have joy of her.”
“She’ll be back.”
“You little fool.” Artemis lifted her hand. “Do you really believe she would give up paradise for you?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle replied with utmost certainty. “Because I have for her.” She slowly stood up. “Is that why you separated us? Get her over there, so you could bring me to be judged without her?” She put her hands on her hips. “That would be like you guys. You never have been fair.”
Artemis stared at her. “Every word you say makes your doom more certain, mortal.”
“Story of my life.” Gabrielle lifted her chin a little. She saw Artemis’s hand twitch, and a blue glow appear. “Go on. Demonstrate your courage there. Blast someone who can’t defend themselves.”
Artemis’ eyes narrowed.
“You want to know why we mortals have started to not believe in you?” Gabrielle glared right back. “You’re not worth it.” She took a step forward. “So as soon as Xena gets back, we’ll come over there and see how this judging thing works out.”
“They only reason I don’t turn you into nothing, is my father wishes to speak to you.” The goddess said. “You refuse him? Very well. Wait then. You can take no step away from this place unless your creature returns, and she will not.” She lifted her hand and a second later, a searing red line encircled Gabrielle. ‘When the dark, and your hunger comes, remember your rudeness to your betters.”
She turned and snapped her fingers, disappearing in a flash of purple light.
Gabrielle let out a held breath, and licked her lips. “I think that was stupid.”
“You are very stupid.” The watchman informed her. “What did you hope to accomplish?”
The bard held her hand near the glowing red, and then moved it back when she felt the itchy pain start along her skin. She moved back from the line and settled in the grass again. “Personal satisfaction.”
“I don’t’ understand you.”
Gabrielle pulled her legs up crossed under her again and rested her elbows on her knees. She sighed, as the light slowly started to fade around them. “I’m not sure I understand me sometimes.” She admitted. “Maybe it’s just that I’ve lived with Xena long enough to make me refused to accept anyone thinking they’re better than I am.”
The watchman blinked. “The lady Artemis is a goddess. She is the daughter of Zeus.” He said. “She is better than you are, and me as well.” He added. “How can you even say those things?”
How could she? Gabrielle plucked another stem of grass. “Not that long ago.” She mused. “I was climbing up a cliff, with her brother’s dying body strapped to me trying to keep him alive long enough to get him back his godhood.”
She looked up after a few minutes, getting no answer. The man was staring at her. “I guess I just have a different perspective on them.”
The light faded further, and above them the dome of the sky started to display a scattering of stars. The watchman glanced up, then he turned and started to walk towards the palace. “It is time to go to my rest.” He said. “It will be a long darkness for you. Your mind may break before the dawn.”
“Xena’ll be back before then.” Gabrielle said.
He stopped and turned, giving her a pitying look. “I am sorry.” He said. “But those that go into Elysia, don’t return.”
“But you said..” Gabrielle sat up.
“Those such as your friend, they can cross between. They just choose not to. “
A faint smile appeared on the bard’s face. “She won’t make that choice.” Gabrielle said, confidently. “She’ll be back.”
The man shook his head, and then turned and went on his way, walking up the slope and getting smaller and smaller as Gabrielle watched him go.
In a minute, he was gone, and she was utterly alone there in her ring, in the gathering dark, at the edge of Mount Olympus. For a few minutes, Gabrielle just listened to the silence around her, more profound than any she’d ever experienced.
There wasn’t even the sound of wind. Just a stillness as the light faded and the stars came out over her head.
She lay down on her back and looked up at them, awed by the clarity and how dense they seemed here with no tree leaves or clouds to block them. They spread completely over the sky and as she let her eyes wander over them, the patterns of her old friends became clear.
She traced them. No matter how terrible her life had been at times, there had always been these stars to keep her company. To give her dreams.
To remind her of the good times, spent on long winter nights playing the game with Xena and trying to figure out how her friend could see such different things than she did – not to mention cherishing the few times they’d seen the very same thing.
She remembered the night – their night – in the tree, when she’d looked up on a canopy of stars not that different from this one, in that unobstructed view from the top of their mountain surrounded by the magic of their union.
How beautiful that night had been. Gabrielle traced the pattern of the Warrior. How wondrous that moment even though she hadn’t known then what it had really meant to both of them.
Gabrielle took a breath. Xena not come back? Xena stay in Elysia and not return for her?
They really didn’t know much about Xena, did they?
Of course she’d come back. Then they’d find a way home.
Halfway through the foggy entrance, Xena almost turned around and went back. The further she went the fainter her sense of Gabrielle was, and that was making her throat dry and her hands twitch in reaction.
Did she really want to go talk to someone in Elysia? She could easily count handfuls of people who’d have a thing or two to say to her she probably didn’t want to hear.
The fog was lightening though, and she could see warm sunlight ahead so she reluctantly kept going, moving through the end of the gateway and emerging into a beautiful valley full of wildflowers and a soft, almost unheard music she caught just at the edge of her ears.
As she stepped clear of the stone portal she was aware first of a sense of peace – stunning enough for her to stop in her tracks and just experience it.
A soft, sweet breeze blew in her face and she felt her entire body relax, aware that for the first time in her life she was in a place where anger, and hatred, and strife just didn’t exist.
Here there would be no ambushes, no one would attack her or come after her in revenge. Even the souls she’d put here would smile at her and knowing that Xena felt somberly humbled. She walked over to a boulder and sat down on it, feeling the warmth of the rock’s surface against her skin.
She let out a held breath and rested her hands on her knees, wishing Gabrielle were next to her to enjoy the experience. The colorful wildflowers spread to the horizon and she could almost taste the contentment on the back of her tongue.
No one was around, at least within her vision. But off to the left she could hear hoof beats approaching and she half turned on the rock, watching in that direction. A moving figure rounded a curve in the grass and her heart nearly stopped, as she took in the golden coat of the horse running towards her.
Then she stood as the animal approached, kicking up it’s heels and shaking it’s head in evident, joyous recognition.
Xena reached out to him as he got to her side. “Hey boy.” She felt a smile stretch the muscles of her face. “How are ya?”
Long lost to her, the stallion nuzzled her chest, ears flicking back and forth. Iolaus’s brother, cut from under her in the war and killed as he tried to defend her. “Herc. It’s good to see you.” Xena gave him a hug, knowing a moment of unexpected joy that he had been brought here as a reward for his short but courageous life.
This was good. Xena scratched his ears, and gave him a kiss on the nose. This was very good. “You having a good time here, huh?”
Hercules snorted and bobbed his head.
“You always did love horses.”
Xena started, as she heard a voice from the dimmest of her memories. “Hello, Ly.” She half turned to face her brother. “I was kind of hoping it was you that wanted to talk.”
Lyceus moved through the wildflowers, parting them with gentle hands as he approached. “Thanks for coming through.” He stopped just short of her. “I guess everything makes a lot more sense to you now, huh?”
Xena leaned back against the stallion’s body, regarding him. “Nothing makes sense to me, except seeing you here.” She answered honestly.
He nodded, taking another step forward and opening his arms. “I didn’t really have much to say.” He said. “I just wanted to give you the goodbye hug we missed that day.”
Without hesitation Xena enfolded him in her arms. “Sorry about that day, Ly.”
“Don’t be.” Her brother answered. “The thing I’ve learned here is, when it’s your time, it is. I’m glad I didn’t have to go though what you did in life.”
Xena closed her eyes and sighed. “Hasn’t been the easiest, no.”
He released her and leaned back a little so he could meet her eyes. “Would you trade with me?”
They studied each other seriously for a long moment. “No.” Xena finally said. “Hard a life as I’ve had, I’ll keep it.”
Lyceus nodded, almost in relief. “It’s beautiful here, Xe. Everythings nice, and you hear laughter all the time. But you know what? Nothing touches your heart here. I had to stop watching what went on the other side because I couldn’t feel any of it. Couldn’t feel for you.”
Xena’s brows contracted, and she frowned a little.
“I’d watch, and I’d want to be upset, and I couldn’t. You can’t here.” Her brother explained. “And I wanted to. I wanted to cry when you hurt and I couldn’t.”
“Oh.” Xena murmured. ‘I never thought about that.”
“People try at first.” Lyceus said. “But after a while, the people they love on the other side forget about them and go on with their lives, and we don’t. Then you just let go.” He studied his sisters face. “But I couldn’t let you go. I always worried about you.”
Xena felt a sudden wash of comprehension. “I guess no place is perfect.”
“No.” Her brother agreed. “But it’s all right here, and I’m happy.”
“I’m glad.” Xena touched his face. “I missed you.”
Lyceus reached up to cover her hand with his own. “Same here.” He said. “There’s a lot of people here, but none of them are like you.”
“C’mon.” Xena consciously tried to lighten the conversation. “Don’t tell me you don’t have girls running after you.”
He watched her face intently. “It’s not like that here.” He said. “ We really enjoy each other’s company – but not that kind of passion. Not love like that. Just.. “ He looked around. “We love everyone.”
“But I’m happy.” Lyceus concluded. “Come with me? There’s a lot of people who want to talk to you.” He pointed into the distance. “There’s a place we meet at, over there. It’s pretty. Spend some time with us.”
“I can’t.” Xena said, in a gentle tone. “I need to go back.”
Lyceus turned and took her hands again, this time there was a strange visible relief in his eyes. “Back to Gabrielle?”
“Yes.” Xena said.
“I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you stayed a little.”
No, Gabrielle wouldn’t if she knew. Xena acknowledged. Gabrielle would probably be heading there right now, tugging her after. But Gabrielle didn’t know. Gabrielle was back beyond that portal, in a scary place, waiting. “I know. But I can’t.”
Now, Lyceus smiled. “Okay, I understand.” He said. “Boy you ended up tall.”
That brought a smile to Xena’s face. “Yeah, took a while to get used to it. I banged my head on a lot of stuff until I did.”
Lyceus pulled her into a hug again. “Go on.” He said. “Thanks for being here.”
“No problem.” Xena returned the hug.
“Xe.” He whispered, cocking his head a little to get close to her ear. “Be careful.”
For an answer, she lifted him up off his feet and squeezed him hard before she let him back down and let go. “Take care, bro.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “You’ll always be a part of my heart and soul, Ly. Never forget that.”
“Never.” He smiled through sudden, startling tears. “Never.”
Xena released him and backed away. “Take care of my friend Hercules here.” She gave the stallion a pat as she moved past him. “He’s got a good heart.” She kissed the horse on the nose, then she turned and walked towards the portal, her senses suddenly prickling as she did.
She sensed motion to her right, but before she could turn Hercules thundered past, neighing loudly.
“Go!” Lyceus yelled behind her. “Xe! Go!”
And she did, obeying her instincts and plunging into the portal, picking up speed and bounding across the space that was suddenly dark as pitch in front of her.
She wasn’t expecting the night sky as she bolted out the other side of the portal, hauling herself up as she looked around in consternation.
Instead of the afternoon sunlight she’d left in, now the area was dark and full of silvery shadows, lit only by the brilliant stars arching overhead.
Far off, she could see the walls of Zeus’s palace, but she ignored them as she turned in a circle, looking for Gabrielle, convinced she was as near as her senses told her she was.
A cry alerted her, and she turned away from the path to the palace and started searching around the side of it.
A moment later, she spotted her partner, lying on the ground and writhing in silent agony. With an incoherent yell, she hurled herself in that direction, diving to her knees at Gabrielle’s side and reaching for her as she let out a howl of anguish of her own.
Gabrielle’s body arched in agony.
“Gabrielle!” Xena grabbed the bard’s shoulders and was nearly knocked back off her feet as Gabrielle reacted and grabbed for her back.
“No!! No!! Stop!” Gabrielle yelled, her hands tangling with her partner’s clothes. “No ! NO!” She lunged forward and bowled Xena over, landing on top of her. “NOOOO!!!!
Xena only just kept herself from reacting automatically. She got hold of Gabrielle’s hands as she landed on top of her to hold her still. “Gabrielle!”
“NOOOOO!!!! “ Gabrielle yelled hoarsely. Then the bard’s eyes finally popped open and she stared down with both anger and terror showing.
“Hey!” Xena barked. “It’s me!”
Gabrielle froze in place, blinking rapidly. Then her arms collapsed and she dropped down on top of her partner with a groan.
“Oof.” Xena grunted, as the breath was knocked out of her by her partner’s solid form. “Glad to see you too.”
Xena could feel Gabrielle's heart hammering against her skin and feel the short, panicked breaths as her partners entire body shook in reaction. “Easy.” She rubbed Gabrielle's back. “Easy hon.”
After a long moment, Gabrielle inhaled deeply, then exhaled. “Damn.”
Xena slid her hand up the bard's back and felt the sweat
dampening the hair over her neck. She riffled it a little, and then kneaded the
rigid muscles at the top of her spine. “Breathe. Take it easy.”
Slowly, she could feel the heartbeat easing where Gabrielle was pressed against her, and the bards breathing was becoming deeper and more regular.
As were her own.
Xena could remember a time when she'd have been shaking the bard impatiently to find out what had happened to her. Sometimes, the urge was still there, but life experience had painfully taught her that letting Gabrielle talk in her own time was a lot better for both of them.
Especially when there was so much emotion involved.
Finally, she felt the tension go out of her partner's body. “You okay?”
“Don't look at the stars, Xe.” Gabrielle whispered finally. “They start talking to you.”
Xena blinked, having been caught doing exactly that. The pinpoints of light seemed bright and vivid, but had shown no signs of being communicative so far. “Okay.” She murmured. “Is that what happened? Did they scare you?”
Gabrielle exhaled slowly. “They've always been such good friends.” She said. “You know they have, Xe. How many times did we lay there looking up and playing that game?”
“I can't count how many.” Xena studied the points of light with a frown. “Years and years worth. They look the same here. Brighter maybe.”
“They started telling me... “ The bard paused. “They told me what an awful person I was. All the stuff I've ever done.” She got the last out in a rush. “Whispering. Xe it was horrible. They were accusing me..” She stopped talking.
Xena's eyes narrowed and her thoughtful expression turned into something darker. “They did, did they?”
“Everything.. with Hope.. Solon… “ Gabrielle was crying now. “It felt like I was getting stung by wasps… everywhere I looked it was another one.. saying… “
“It’s okay, hon.” Xena cradled her partner’s head against her chest. “Easy.”
“All the things I've done to you.” Gabrielle's whisper sounded forlorn, and Xena could feel the warmth of tears soaking through the light fabric on her chest. “How selfish I’ve been.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena kept her voice soft and gentle. “C’mon now. You know that’s all not true.”
“They said I was keeping you from staying in Elysia.” Gabrielle whispered. “That if I really loved you I’d go after you and let you stay there.”
Xena glared up at the stars. “Oh yeah?” She addressed them. “You wanna try that with me, you little bastards?” She could feel the anger ignite inside her, cold and clean and curiously welcome. “Or do you only have the guts to do that to innocent souls like her?”
“Xena, I'm not..” Gabrielle started to protest in a whisper.
“Compared to me you are, kiddo.” Xena informed her. “Gonna contest that?”
The bard fell silent.
“So?” Xena addressed the heavens again. “Gonna come mess with me?” She asked. “Or are you cowards just like the rest of the losers that live here?”
Gabrielle's eyes popped wide open and she lifted her head to peer up at her partner in astonishment. “Xena!”
“Gutless bastards!” The warrior yelled, at the top of her voice. “C”mere and try that again!”
Not even a whisper of the wind answered here. Only silence.
Wild blue eyes dropped to meet hers in the silvery light. “They were trying to separate us.” She said. “Ly met me in there. He warned me.”
“Wh.. Why?” Gabrielle seemed to be recovering her composure. “They told me... Artemis came here after you went through and said you wouldn't come back. The door guy said it too.”
“Ly asked me to go with him to a meeting place there.” Xena said. “To spend time with him, and some others.”
Gabrielle studied her face. “But you didn't.”
“No.” A smile unexpectedly appeared. “He made a feeble attempt to change my mind, but it was like something was making him do it.” She said. “I was afraid if I moved away from the portal, they'd never let me find my way back.”
Gabrielle put her hand on her partner's ribs and rubbed them slightly with her thumb. “Then.. I did keep you from staying in Elysia, didn't I?”
Xena laughed. “If you want to look at it like that, sure.” She agreed. “I was glad to see Ly. I saw Hercules too.”
“Hercules? I thought he was on Mount Olympus.” Gabrielle frowned.
“No not... Io's brother.”
“Oh!” Gabrielle murmured. “I didn't know animals went there.”
“Me either. Glad he did.” Xena rubbed her back. “Don't feel bad about it. These bastards were just trying to get to you.”
Gabrielle exhaled. “They did.” She raised a slightly shaking hand to her head. “Not sure how much of it was them and how much was my own conscience.” She looked off past Xena’s shoulder. “They sure knew where to hit me though.”
Xena eased her over and turned onto her side so they were facing each other. She could see the weary misery in her partner's face and it made the anger inside her burn a little more brightly. “Sorry.” She reached up and wiped the tears from Gabrielle's cheeks. “You could have gone back to the palace and waited.. no?”
Gabrielle was shaking her head. “Like I said, Artemis showed up. I mouthed off to her and she put a..” The bard looked around. “It's gone now. Anyway. A circle I couldn't get past. She said I'd have to stay out here until you got back.. but she said you wouldn't.”
That brought a smile, however faint, to the bard's face. “Well, I said you would. I pissed her off.”
“I would never have left you here.” Xena said, after a moments silence.
“I know that.” Gabrielle replied. “But it was almost like she was trying to make me think that. She wanted me to go with her and be judged by Zeus.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I told her I wasn't going anywhere without you.”
Xena gently brushed the pale hair back from her partner's face. She could see the reddened rims of her eyes and now regretted even the few minutes she'd spent on the other side of the portal. “Bastards.”
Gabrielle reached over and touched her fingertips to her partner’s lips. “For a minute… until you woke me up I felt like I was back in that purging hut. “ She admitted softly. “They just wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t even find a place to hide from them.”
“You weren’t trying.” Xena gently traced one of her ears. “You were fighting them.”
“No.. no I wasn’t.” Gabrielle shook her head. “Was I?”
“Well, you grabbed me and threw me on my ass.” The warrior informed her. “You were fighting someone.”
Gabrielle’s face took on a thoughtful expression. “Hm.” She turned her head and kissed Xena’s palm. “Maybe I was. I think I might have finally gotten mad, there at the end of it.”
Xena smiled. “So we're supposed to go there now?” She indicated the palace with a thumb over her shoulder “To get judged?”
The bard nodded. “That’s what Artemis said.”
Xena leaned closer and kissed her. “I say let them wait.” She murmured, sliding her hand up Gabrielle's bare arm until she reached the knot holding her tunic on. “It's too pretty a night to waste on them.”
The bard looked into her eyes, a faint smile twitching at her lips. “Xe, wont' that get us in trouble?”
“Maybe.” Xena loosened the knot, kissing her again. “But we're on the edge of Mount Olympus, we're dead, and I just told the gods to kiss my ass. How much more trouble you think we can get into?'
She felt Gabrielle move closer, and the pressure of the bard's hand on her thigh in answer. Deliberately she shut out all the anger, and focused entirely on the woman next to her, thinking about the love between them and how much she cherished that. “I love you.”
A rush of gratitude enveloped her as Gabrielle responded to the kiss and pressed her body against her soulmates. “I love you too.” She whispered, as she slid her hand under the soft fabric and loosened it. “No matter where we damned are.”
Xena chuckled softly. She untied the knot and eased the cloth away, exposing Gabrielle's lithe body to the starlight. She cupped her partner's breast in one hand, and felt the soft inhale of breath at her touch, matched to the teasing brush of Gabrielle's fingers against her hip.
It felt right, to do this here on the edge of the unknown. Right to experience this most personal manifestation of their love when everything around them seemed to be working against it.
She kissed Gabrielle deeply, then moved her attentions further down her partner's body as the bard's knee slid between hers and their focus turned completely inward, oblivous of their surroundings.
Brash. Insanely carnal. Xena felt her now bare body brush against Gabrielle's and a surge of heat washed over her.
It felt wonderful. Gabrielle's knowing touch on her felt wonderful. The bard's teeth and lips nibbled their way down the centerline of her body and she heard the low growl as she eased Gabrielle over onto her back and slid her hand up the inside of her thigh.
Their passion built.
It became all about the two of them. Xena felt her breathing shorten as an irresistible pressure grew inside of her and she had to pause as Gabrielle took possession of her in a rare way and sensation ramped up so quickly she barely had time to grab hold of the bard before her entire body felt like it was turning inside out.
Eye popping, and Xena's did, riding a crest of pulsing waves that made her vision blur before she was rolling Gabrielle over to return the favor. The intensity made her shiver. She could feel Gabrielle in her and around her and as she felt strong hands grip her shoulders the bard arched against her and let out a wild howl.
Then they were rolling into each other's arms, out of breath and sweating, savoring the passion and the love that was so evident Xena was sure they were both glowing.
She could smell the grass now and the earth beneath it as though they'd pulled a bit of the real world back into Olympus with them. Gabrielle's head came to rest against her collarbone, and the bard licked a bit of sweat off her skin and looked up at her with knowing, frank passion.
Gorgeous. Xena kissed her on the head. “Feel better now?”
Gabrielle's nose wrinkled up and she grinned. “Do you?”
Xena hugged her. “You know something?” She felt the bard's hands start to gently wander over her. “You and I... we'd never survive in Elysia.”
Gabrielle's hands stopped, and she glanced up in puzzled inquiry.
Xena kissed her on the lips, then tilted her head to look back at her. “There's love there, but not this kind.”
The bard cocked her head, her brows knitting. “Not what kind?” She asked. “Two women you mean?”
“No.” Xena nibbled her ear. “Two anything.”
“Huh?” Gabrielle reached up and cupped Xena's cheek. “You mean... what do you mean, Xena?”
The warrior rubbed noses with her. “They don't make love, hon.”
“What?” Gabrielle almost sat up. “In Elysia? Are you kidding me?”
“That's what Ly told me.” Her partner confirmed. “Weird, huh?”
“Weird? Xena that's nuts.” The bard protested. “How in the world can it be Elysia if you don't do this?” She stroked Xena's face and their eyes met. “If you don't know this.” She added, in a much softer tone. “You mean they have all those souls there, and they can't share what we have?”
The warrior shrugged.
“Wow.” Gabrielle wrapped herself around Xena's body and hugged her fiercely. “That never crossed my mind.” She said. “You're right. We'd never survive there.”
Xena laced her fingers along the back of Gabrielle's neck and kissed her with casual passion. The darkness around them was now a friendly cloak and even the stars seemed to have dimmed overhead. She felt her partner's fingertips stroking her and surrendered again to the craving for the touch.
It filled her with a rich warmth and a happiness she hadn't really expected, lightening her spirit as she took a moment to appreciate this one, greatest gift in her life.
Did the gods understand love? Xena felt her guts start to clench again. Well, she understood it. So if that put a stamp of mortality on her, she’d take it.
They watched it get light from the edge of the portal, Xena’s back leaning against it as Gabrielle curled up in relative comfort in her arms. It wasn’t as if the sun came up – the sky just faded from black to gray, and then to that indeterminate golden color she’d noticed the prior day.
It was quiet. Far off, Xena could hear soft sounds of work going on, and at the edge of her vision she spotted the door warden heading back down to the portal.
Xena was almost sad to see the light. The dark time had been full of passion and she knew the day would only bring unpleasant confrontation to them.
Gabrielle stirred, and opened her eyes, glancing up before she looked around at the newly bright surroundings. “That was weird.”
Her partner’s brow quirked. “What was weird?” She asked cautiously.
“It’s not really sleeping.” The bard said. “It’s just sort of like day dreaming.” She clarified. “I just kept thinking of you, and all the happy times we’ve had.” She grinned. “It was nice.”
Xena responded to the grin with one of her own. Then she took one of her partner’s hands in her own. “Ready to go face the music?”
Gabrielle lifted their linked hands and kissed Xena’s. “Yes.” She said. “Whatever that fate turns out to be, I’m ready to go share it with you.” She said. ‘Thank you for coming back last night and saving me.”
Gabrielle smiled. “You know you did.” She uncurled herself from Xena’s arms and stretched, both of them glancing around as the doorwarden arrived, clearly very surprised to see them. “Good morning.”
The man blinked at her. “You came back.” He stared at Xena. “You came back, from Elysia.”
Xena stood up and likewise stretched, flexing her hands. “Sure I did.” She said. “I said I would. Don’cha remember? I told you if this was a trap I’d come back and find ya.”
He blinked again. “You did.”
With no warning, Xena pounced on him and grabbed his tunic, turning and shoving him against the portal. “So I’m back. And it was a trap.”
The man’s eyes grew wide. “W..”
“They tried to keep me there.” Xena lifted him up easily. “So now I’m gonna take it out on you.”
Gabrielle folded her arms and watched her partner with a bemused expression. She knew Xena’s body language more than well enough to know the warrior wasn’t really going to hurt the guy – and anyway, how do you hurt people who were already dead?
“N… no. I told the truth!” The man said. “There was nothing to keep you from coming back!”
“Then why did you tell me she wouldn’t?” Gabrielle asked. “Remember? Before it got dark? You told me she’d stay there.”
“They all do.” The man was swinging in Xena’s grasp. “No one comes back, who goes there!”
“But the workers here all came from there.” The bard said.
Xena let them man down. “Why is it different? They came through the portal.”
The door warden tugged his tunic straight. “They are called.” He said. “They must come when they are called, then we let them through here. It’s not the same thing! They’re coming here. Those of us who belong here… if we go through, we stay.”
“So you’re not from there?” Xena asked.
“NO.” The man said. “Those who work, come from there. That is all.” He straightened. “I was brought here by the lady Athena.” He said. “ I never came through there.” He pointed at the portal.
Gabrielle walked over to stand next to her partner, giving the portal a thoughtful look. “It sounds like Elysia’s there for the purpose of getting people to serve the gods.”
“Of course.” The door warden looked at her like she was simpleton. “Those who are obedient, and who worship the gods well go there to wait, until they are called. Their reward is to serve.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged long, silent looks.
“Learn something new every day, huh?” The bard finally said.
“Uh huh.” Xena grunted. “I guess all the grumpy rebellious types go somewhere else.”
“Why are you here?
The lady Artemis said you were wanted by the great lord Zeus.” The man
“Didn’t you go to him? You said you would do that when this one got back.” He edged away from Xena.
“We’re going now.” Gabrielle fit her hand in Xena’s. “We just had something better to do last night. C”mon, Xe.”
They left the man gaping.
They walked up the slope towards Zeus’ s temple, the fresh, gentle breeze lightly fluttering the cloth they were wearing. No one was in sight and they strolled across the grass back towards the low marble building in silence.
When they were almost there, Gabrielle sighed. “You know something, Xe?”
“What?” Xena thought she heard the sound of thunder.
“I wish sometimes we didn’t learn about stuff.” The bard said. “I don’t think I wanted to know that about Elyisia. I wanted to be happy for everyone who went there.”
The silence was almost eerie. Gabrielle craned her neck as they walked across the grass, looking for signs of the people from the day before. Where there had been men and women walking in the distance, now there was nothing but emptiness, save a soft rumble in the background.
Where was everyone? They hadn't gone back through the portal, they would have seen them unless... Gabrielle felt a faint blush. Unless they'd gone back the night before, passing the two of them in their oblivious ardor.
And it had been oblivious. They'd been so involved in each other she was pretty well convinced that whole Spartan army they'd left back outside Therma could have marched by and she wouldn't have noticed.
Wow. What a night. Gabrielle felt a flush coming to her skin just thinking about it. They hadn't been that wrapped up in each other for that long since.... She paused, and thought. Since that night in the tree, matter of fact.
It felt a little like that had. Like she was going through a crossroads in her life as surely that night had been before both of them. Except they were no longer in life, were they? Or were they? What really was life and death, considering what she'd seen here? Was death just a door into some other place, and if it was, and they were.. where would they go from here?
Had they really left all they'd ever known behind? All their friends, and family... would she truly never see Dori again?
Was she a ghost? Or something else? What was Xena?
Xena was a demigod. Gabrielle glanced at her partner, who was extending a hand to her as they came to the windowsill they'd left through. Xena was.. part god. But hearing how Hera and the others spoke of her... did she belong here? “Thanks.” Gabrielle allowed herself to be guided over the wide sill and they crossed from the mild sunlight into the dimmer recesses of the room.
She went over to the couch and sat down on it, watching Xena roam around the room. As she passed through the sunlight from the windows it was easy for the watching bard's imagination to put a glow around her.
The warrior stopped at the inside door, where they'd seen the servant come in the day prior. She opened the panel and peered inside, then backed out and closed it. “What are you looking for?” Gabrielle finally asked.
Xena turned and gave her an appealingly sheepish grin. “I'm just stalling.” She admitted. “I feel like when I did when I was five, and broke mom's mixing dish. Didn't want to face her.”
Aw. Thoughts of glows and godhoods evaporated, and Gabrielle stood up. “I guess we should get it over with though, huh?” She glanced up as they heard another rumble of thunder.
“Yeah.” But Xena continued her wandering, ending up over near the shelf where there were new trays that had pitchers and a covered plate on them.
She went over to it and uncovered a plate of the small cakes. “You could get bored of this stuff pretty fast.” She offered one to Gabrielle.
“Shouldn’t we go into the temple?” Gabrielle accepted the cake anyway, taking a bite of it. “We can only delay this so long, hon.”
Xena poured a cup of the golden liquid and handed it to her. “All the more reason we should get something to eat and drink first.” She said. “No telling where we’ll end up after.”
They finished the tray and then faced each other. Xena rested her arms on Gabrielle’s shoulders and paused, just as they heard a distinct rumble of thunder. “Listen.”
Gabrielle let her hands rest on her partners waist. “I’m listening.”
The thunder rumbled again.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen now.” Xena looked into Gabrielle’s eyes. “But if it turns out bad, I’m sorry.”
Gabrielle smiled briefly. ‘Whatever happens, happens.” She said. “And if it is bad, just know I’ve savored every single minute of my life with you.”
“Every single one?” Xena’s brows lifted wryly.
“Every single one.” Gabrielle replied firmly. “Even the rotten ones.
Xena leaned forward and gave her a kiss. “All right. Let’s go.”
They went back down the long corridor that led to Zeus’s palace, as the walls started to echo with loud rumbles. “Whats that?” Gabrielle asked, after a moment. “Are there storms up here? Or is that down below?”
“Don’t now. Xena rubbed her ear. “Getting louder?”
It was. As they got closer and closer to the temple, the sound got progressively louder, until Xena was holding her hands over her ears in true discomfort.
“It s coming from the temple.” Gabrielle got a few steps ahead of her partner, gaining a curve in the corridor that let her see into the room. “Oh my gosh!”
Xena bolted to her side and peered over her shoulder, eyes widening as she saw what appeared to be a thunderstorm happening inside. Bolts of fire were criss crossing the vast stepped opening and every few seconds thunder boomed in counterpoint.
“What are they doing?” Gabrielle edged forward. She couldn’t see the inside of the temple due to the tunnels roof and she flinched, as a blast hit the edge of that making her skin tingle. “Yow!”
Xena dodged in front of her and took a few steps forward, trying to peer past the corner to see what was going on. She could hear laughter, and between the booms she suddenly caught the sound of someone running.
Hands touched her back and she felt Gabrielle press against her, the bard’s head peeking around from behind her shoulder. “Hear that?”
“Xena, I hear all sorts of things that sound like spring rains near our cabin.” Gabrielle said. “What the heck’s going on?”
“Someones running. Looks like they’re having some fun blasting something.”
They both edged forward again and a moment later, the flash from the room lit them both as they got to the end of the tunnel and were able to see the expanse of the temple.
Xena swept her head back and forth rapidly, seeing bolts flashing from at least four spots . From Zeus’s pedestal, and from the right hand side set of seats they’d seen on the way in. The bright flashes made spots in her vision, but she blinked fast, and finally spotted a moving object running across the floor.
“Xena!” Gabrielle had spotted the same thing. “It’s
“I see him.” Xena inhaled sharply as a bolt hit their friend, and he tumbled to the ground. Without a lot of thought she took off running towards him, with Gabrielle right at her heels, the bard having started moving actually a whisker before she had.
She dodged a blast, her senses warning her before it came close and bounced off one of the steps, diving over Hercules just as another blast caught up with them.
“Xena!” Gabrielle’s alert cut through the thunder and she grabbed the dazed demigod and pulled him to one side behind a step just as the marble where he lay was blasted by godsfire.
Gabrielle jumped over the step and dove to her knees behind the step also, ducking as a blast hit the top of the marble and sent chips flying. “Hey!”
“Xena.” Hercules rubbed his head. “Get out. Get out of here.”
“And go where?” Xena shoved him back against the marble wall and examined him. “I got my ass dragged up here against my will in case you didn’t hear.”
“Where are you – spineless half mortal!” A woman’s voice thundered, with a laugh behind it. “Hiding?”
“Artemis.” Gabrielle said. She dodged over to the next step and carefully peeked over it. “What a bitch!”
Hercules glanced at her, sandy eyebrows rising.
“Why are they chasing you?” Xena asked, aware that the blasting had stopped.
He exhaled. “Finally got tired of me arguing I guess.” He said. “Listen, there’s a gate I can take you through.. let’s go.”
“Both of us?” Xena said, in a soft voice.
“Hercules!” Zeus’s voice thundered. “Your cowardice shames me!”
Hercules sighed. “No.” He started to get to his knees. “Damn it. “ He stood up. “You mean you aren’t bored yet?” He put his hands on his hips.
Xena stood up next to him. She found herself looking at two goddesses, dressed for battle whose hands were lit with godsfire. “I think we know who the cowards are here.”
“You.” Athena’s eyes narrowed.
“Us.” Gabrielle distracted her, getting up on top of the step and making herself the most obvious target. “You look surprised. Did you really think Xena wouldn’t come back?”
“Back from where?” Hercules whispered.
“Tell you later.” Xena walked out into the open, catching sight of Zeus and Hera in her peripheral vision as she crossed in front of Gabrielle and stopped, putting herself between the goddesses and her partner.
To their credit, they did look surprised. Artemis lowered her arms a little, a wary look on her face. “You should be trapped.” She said. “I thought…” The words trailed away after a moment.
Xena smiled. “If that’s the best you can do for a trap, you need to go back to school, kid.” She heard Hercules made a sucking in sound and heard a slight grunt. “Did you really think my brother would sell me out?”
Artemis glared at her.
Xena took a few steps closer to the two goddesses. “So.”
Gabrielle hopped off her step and walked over to Xena’s side. ‘So here we are.” She said. “Now that you badgered and threatened and put so many people in harms way just to have your fun. Here we are.”
Xena glanced quickly around. She could see stern figures lounging on the chairs to the left, but the ones on the right were empty. She couldn’t see either Ares or Aphrodite anywhere.
“You insolent..” Athena raised her hands. “I’ll turn you into a coal!”
“STOP IT!” Gabrielle let out a yell, surprising everyone. "For goodness sakes! You’re gods! Not unfeathered Amazon children!” She balled her fists and planted them on her hips. “We dare? I dare? You maneuvered two armies to go to war with each other and forced us into it for what? A bet? “
She took a step towards Athena. “You were going to slaughter the Amazons.” She pointed at the goddess.
“And?” Athena gave her a haughty look. “What are a bunch of ugly mortals to me?”
“And you were going to let her.” Gabrielle looked at Artemis. “After how many generations of them worshipped you?”
“That is not your affair.” Artemis said. “This is be..”
Gabrielle headed for her. “Not my affair?” She growled. “Not MY affair? “ She looked around as though searching for something. “Where’s a damn staff. I’m going to beat the …”
“Gabrielle.” Xena caught up with her and circled her with both arms. “Don’t waste your breath. They don’t give a damn.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle gripped her arms.
“They don’t.” The warrior said, aware of motion to her left from the tall pedestal that held Zeus’s throne. “We’re play toys.” She looked up and met Artemis’ venomous glance. “They’re not patrons anymore. They’re bored and we’re entertainment.”
Athena laughed. “You’re smarter than you look.”
Gabrielle was briefly silent. “If you don’t care about us, why should we care about you?” She asked, finally. “Why should we worship you?”
“Because you’re sheep.” Artemis told her. “Your creature there is right. You have no purpose. It amuses us to play you on a board, like a gamepiece. Does that bother you mortal?”
Gabrielle blinked. “It makes me sad.” She said.
“Sad?” Hera spoke up and they all turned around, to find the Queen of the Gods standing there. “Why sad, mortal? Are you not on Mount Olympus? You don’t have to worry about the cesspool you came from.”
Gabrielle looked down at the marble for a long moment, then she lifted her head back up. “Sad because those sheep back there are my friends, and my family.” She said. “Sad because Xe and I have given everything we had to make that place better, and protect them from bad things.” She looked Hera in the eye. “Sad because after all the times we helped you when you came asking, after that, after all the grief and horror we’ve been through you call us here and tell us it’s all a game. Yeah. That makes me sad.”
Hera watched her very thoughtfully.
“Knowing I’ll never ever see our daughter again.. just because of some stupid game of yours?” Gabrielle’s voice took on a deep edge. “You stupid bastards.”
“Father” Athena stepped forward. “Let me take care of this insolence… “
“No.” Zeus had been standing by, watching. “Be still.” He gave Artemis a look. “And you, who told me these two were in Elysia. Silence.”
“Father, I thought..” Artemis protested.
“Silence!” Zeus barked.
Hercules came forward, and put his hand on Xena’s shoulder.
“Must you meddle in this too?” Zeus gave him a look.
“Xena’s my friend.” Hercules said simply. “That’s what friends do. They stand up for each other.”
‘You have spent far too much time with mortals if you believe that.” His father said. “But nevermind.” He turned to Xena. “The realms of my brother Hades are closed to you, as they are to my son here.” He said. “But you intrigue me.”
Hera made a sound like a spitting cat.
“So I will make this offer to you.” Zeus ignored his wife. “You may join us here on Mount Olympus.”
Xena felt Hercules hand squeeze her shoulder. “I see.”
“Your companion I will return to her life.” Zeus regarded Gabrielle, who was standing very still in the circle of Xena’s arms. “Back to her friends, such as they are, and her family.” He looked back at Xena. “She will go to my brother’s kingdom when her life ends.”
Xena felt like time had slowed infinitely. She could hear Zeus’s words, and as they penetrated her understanding, she drew in a slow breath, feeling the jolt from Gabrielle as the bard, too, realized what they meant.
“You will only get this chance once.” Zeus said. “If you decide otherwise, you will wander in the outlands for eternity. Alone.”
Xena remained silent, watching his face.
“You returned my son’s godhood to him.” Zeus said, apparently feeling there was some explanation required. “And did not take what wasn’t yours. For this, I make you this offer.”
Gabrielle stayed completely still. She could feel the warm hold of Xena’s arms and almost sense the racing thoughts, but she knew in the depths of her heart there was nothing she could say her partner didn’t already know.
What could she say? What could she really say and not be lying? Tell Xena to take the offer? It was okay?
Yeah. Sure. Gabrielle let her eyes close, and simply waited.
When Xena did speak, it was almost anticlimactic. “Send me back with Gabrielle.” She replied. “I want no part of Olympus.”
Zeus gazed coolly at her. “You would give up immortality so easily? “
Xena nodded. “I’d rather spend the rest of my mortal life with her.” She clarified, looking him right in the eye. “Than eternity with you.”
For a frozen moment nothing moved. Nothing breathed. Gabrielle felt every hair on her body prickle and she got lightheaded, her heart thundering in her chest as she felt the gentle squeeze of Xena’s arms.
It was all happening too fast. Xena should have had time to think…. To think… Gabrielle felt overwhelmed. To think about what? Xena probably hadn’t spared more than a half breath on it.
“Why?” Zeus asked, in a mild tone. “Here you would have great power. Perhaps that which you gave up before? That has worth to you.”
“Why?” Xena mused. “Because I love her.”
To one side, Athena screamed.
Zeus smiled. “As you wish then. Stay here. I have a matter to attend to, then I will return you to your cesspool.” He turned and looked at his daughters and raised his hands. “Perhaps you will both learn something.”
They both screamed. “Father no!” Artemis begged, just as she disappeared in a blue flash., with Athena a breath behind her.
“What’s going on?” Gabrielle whispered.
“Not a clue.” Xena whispered back. “Herc?”
Hercules sighed. “Long story.”
Zeus turned and clapped his hands. “Summon the banished ones.” He ordered. “This tiresome affair is over.” He turned and faced Xena, Gabrielle and Hercules. “With no help from you.” He gave Hercules a dour look.
His son didn’t react. “Just send me back with them.” He said quietly. “I miss my friends and family too.”
Zeus raised his hands, then paused as a horn sounded. Then he smiled.