In this follow-up to “Twenty-Thousand Winters Ahead” and set after “Something New, Something Old,” a middle-aged Gabrielle finds herself threatened by the immature Xena destined to become Destroyer of Nations. Based heavily on events in the ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE eps.
DONE THERE, BEEN THAT
“Xena, do you ever get the feeling that sometimes nothing is really over? It just keeps coming back around, but it’s wearing a different face. It’s the same underneath. You know what I mean?” -- Gabrielle at the end of A FAMILY AFFAIR
“You know, one of these days we’ll look back on all this and have a really good laugh.”
“Mm.” Xena shifted on the wagon bench. “My butt can hardly wait.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Yeah, mine too. You’d think our extra padding would help more.”
“If we try this again ….” Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Say, in another 25 years ….”
“Whatever. I’m paddin’ this sucker too – wheels, seat, bed. That way, if we end up in India –.”
“Xeenaa.” Gabrielle bumped her head against Xena’s shoulder. “We didn’t go that far.”
“Maybe not in distance. Sure managed to cram in enough adventures for two lifetimes.” Xena snorted. “Three, if you count our ice-cave years.”
“Oooo, maybe four. Don’t forget running into Alex and Nikki. They count as our future selves. Sort of.”
“What counts now is my present butt. That rocking chair at home is looking better and better.”
Gabrielle reared back. “Why, Xena, is that an apology? You saying the big, fat pillow I put on it wasn’t so silly after all?”
“Possibly. In my defense, I didn’t anticipate premature aging due to a certain bard, who tricked me into believing I’d live out my days in peace and quiet.”
“Ha. These latest adventures? You loved every moment. Well, almost. Certainly bashing heads. Battle strategy.” Gabrielle smirked. “Parading around in a cape and helmet.” She noted the smug grin on her partner’s face. “Okay, so I enjoyed it too. Watching you, I mean. I could’ve done without my own roles, thank you very much.”
“Hey, not my fault my imagination’s developed over the years.” Xena smiled sweetly. “Your influence, no doubt.”
“Humph. We’ll see what happens when we finally get home. I give you a week before you …. What is it?”
“Hear that?” Xena reined in the wagon team. She peered around the side. “Rider. Coming fast. Shouting something.”
Gabrielle peered around the other side. When the rider got closer, she gasped. “Xena! That looks like …. ”
The two stared at each other, then at the blonde who could’ve been Gabrielle 25 years younger.
“It can’t be! Not again!”
“What’d I tell ya?” Xena raised a brow at yet another Gabrielle. “First Hope, now this one. Premature aging. Nobody causes it better’n you.”
“Nikki?” Gabrielle asked the newcomer, simultaneously pinching Xena’s arm.
“Yes, Abby,” Nikki answered breathlessly as she dismounted. “I’m so glad I found you and Zema!”
“Nice to see you again too. Surprising though. You and Alex still exploring your roots?”
“You could say that.” Nikki let out a long breath. “More than we ever dreamed. Or wanted.”
“Ah.” Xena nodded. “Problems getting back to your century?”
“And then some. I’m afraid …. ” Nikki swallowed. “I’m afraid something terrible may happen.” Her pained eyes searched those of the older women. “And you’re probably our only chance.”
The three sat in the shade not far from the road. Nikki described the adventures she, Alex and Joxer-wannabe Gregoreus had embarked upon after leaving the older women. For the most part the clones enjoyed experiencing firsthand the world they knew only as memories. It hadn’t bothered them that many of those they encountered assumed them impersonators of the legendary Xena and Gabrielle. It was enough to feel the gratitude of those they helped or the fear of bad guys they fought. They also appreciated the relative simplicity of this “time long ago” depicted in the TV show about them. Despite a ton of inaccuracies, the dramatizations captured the essence of what the clones longed for in their 21st century lives.
Alex understood the desire for weapons that could kill at a distance, minimize casualties to one’s own forces, enable conquest of huge territories with the pull or push of a finger. Yet she derived a greater sense of honor and satisfaction in the close-up battles of ancient warriors, in knowing the immediate consequences of her own hands. Nikki appreciated the benefits of technology that allowed people to communicate across the globe to millions at a time. Somehow that didn’t evoke the same thrill of witnessing the power her words had for audiences sitting at her feet.
Still, they began to miss the modern conveniences they’d come to take for granted in the world they’d been delivered to through Alti’s machine. Motorcycle rides to new places in hours rather than days. Devices communicating information instantly. Meals you didn’t have to grow or wrestle to the ground. They’d been sitting at their campfire one evening when suddenly they yearned to phone for a pizza and cuddle on their sofa, perhaps to watch the TV series starring the same woman who had played Njara in Xena: Warrior Princess.
The next morning they informed Gregoreus they’d be heading back to their time. He’d been so excited when Alex gathered them together and pulled out the little box that would whisk them to the future. “Ready?” They’d closed their eyes. “Okay, here goes.”
“Nikki?” Gabrielle scooted over to put an arm around the younger woman, who’d paused in her recounting with bowed head. “Take your time. We’re in no rush.”
Nikki nodded. “I’ll be all right.” She gathered herself to continue. “There was the barest ‘whoosh.’ A puff of air across my skin. I opened my eyes. Everything was the same. Except for Jox … Gregoreus.”
“Not all bad news,” Xena mumbled.
“Xena!” Gabrielle’s scowl turned to chagrin when she realized what name she’d used.
“It’s okay.” Nikki patted Gabrielle’s hand. “We knew.”
Gabrielle smiled. She moved back to sit beside Xena. “We figured as much. Less complicated pretending we weren’t all talking to ourselves, eh?”
“Yeah,” Nikki acknowledged with a small grin. “Alex took a little convincing – you know, leaving things as they were. Pride mostly. She thought ‘Scabrielle’ was funny, of course. Not so much ‘Eczema.’ Too undignified at any age.” She ducked her head. “Especially yours,” she said, peering up at Xena.
Xena chuckled. “Give `er a few years. She’ll lighten up.”
“Yeah, 25 oughtta do it,” Gabrielle muttered.
“Twenty-four.” Smirking, Xena cleared her throat. “Humor aside, we’ve got a bigger problem than funny names.” She frowned. “Speaking of which, exactly where is my less care-free version?”
Nikki chewed her lip. “I’m not sure. I mean, she’s here physically, but ….”
“In her mind, it’s like she’s … regressed.”
Xena’s heart skipped a beat. “What are you saying?”
“She didn’t notice Gregoreus was gone. Didn’t even remember Joxer.”
Xena bit back her initial response. “Maybe shocked she was still there?”
“She didn’t notice that either. Only that she wasn’t somewhere … colder.” Nikki’s eyes closed. “She transformed into a wild thing. Posture. Attitude. Eyes cunning and cruel. This … grin … that scared me even more. I snuck off the next day, while she was hunting, hoping to catch up to you.”
“Nikki?” Gabrielle leaned toward her. “Are you saying she wasn’t herself? Another person?”
“Probably not.” Xena’s head lolled back. “That would be too easy.” She lifted Nikki’s chin. “Did she recognize you?”
Nikki’s mouth seemed to tremble between “yes” and “no.” Her eyes brimmed. “She answered to ‘Xena.’ Said I was her only friend. And then she called me ….” A tear slid down Nikki’s cheek. “She called me ‘Anokin.’”
“Poor thing.” Gabrielle pulled the furs up around a fitfully sleeping Nikki. “She’s wiped out.”
“Uh huh.” Xena lifted her arms to give Gabrielle access to her lap. She got a bad feeling when her soulmate instead sat on the other side of their fire.
“I’d like to hear more about Anokin, O Warrior Princess of Many Secret Little Pals I Breezed Past in Chats With My So-Called Bestest Pal.”
“I’m sure I mentioned her. After that whole mess with Hope and the Destroyer? Maybe not by name.” Xena waved a dismissive hand. “Long story. What’s important is – .”
“Make it short. You’re good at that, wouldn’t you agree?”
Xena winced. “Gabriellle …. It’s a period I’d rather not go back to. Like I told Nikki, I was at my worst. If that’s who Alex is now, we’ve got trouble on our hands.”
“Anokin could be a clue to our strategy.”
“How? Only knew her a few weeks. A passing fancy.”
“It was after you and Borias left Chin, right? When you met Alti? Killed Cyane along with the other leaders of the Northern Amazons?”
Xena let out a resigned sigh. “I was feeling invincible. Full of myself. I’d escaped Ming Tsu’s hounds. Lao Ma’d healed my legs, introduced me to spiritual forces I’d never known. I hungered for more. Saw it in Alti and Cyane. All these powerful women likewise drawn to me.” She gazed into the fire, her mind drifting back to conversations imbedded in her brain like permanent markers of who she was and might’ve been.
“‘You don’t know it yet, Xena, but you’re capable of greatness. You’ll be my Warrior Princess.’ ‘Imagine conquering the spiritual world as you can the physical. Help me, Xena, and I’ll make you Destroyer of Nations.’ Cyane, even after witnessing my evil, telling me, ‘At heart you’re an Amazon, Xena. You have the potential to be the greatest of women warriors.’”
“Greatness is a heavy burden at any age, Xena. Must’ve been hard so young, pulled in so many directions.”
“Not really. They reinforced the only purpose I cared about – satisfying my need for whatever I didn’t yet have. My arrogant disregard for anyone else.” Xena smiled sadly. “Their perceptions meant little compared to what I sensed in them. Mindlessly leeching on to each until a stronger source attracted me.”
“You said Cyane was stronger than Alti before ….”
“Alti had a better sales pitch. They all saw a spark. The others focused on it as a sign of hope, developing one day to blaze for good. Alti reveled in the darkness of its reality. Honed in on that tiny bit of light as a ‘weakness’ in my otherwise empty soul. She appealed to it, ironically enough.” Xena swallowed. “With something that passed for … love.”
Gabrielle blinked. “Love?! Alti?”
“I was like a child. A damaged child. Mistrustful of affection. Unconsciously craving it. I rejected it from Borias. Didn’t want to feel it for the child he gave me, growing inside.” Xena’s jaw clenched. “Alti seduced me with an easy substitute. Her apprentice. Someone my age I didn’t have to compete with or conquer or lead. Who looked up to me despite what I was. Shared my moments of carefree abandon. No strings or worries about image or betrayal.”
“Kind of like M’Lila?”
“Um … yeah, maybe so. I was surrounded again by men. No one else I could be myself with. Nothing deep though. More like somebody to pass the time with between battles. Still, as close to a friend as I expected at the time.”
Gabrielle got up and lowered herself next to Xena. “What happened between you?” she asked softly.
“Alti.” Xena was silent a moment. “At first I thought it was because Anokin died. Somehow killed during one of our campaigns. That’s when Alti showed me how to enter the Land of the Dead. I was so happy to see Anokin.” Xena bit her lip. “The sentiment wasn’t mutual. She wanted no part of me. Blamed me for corrupting her soul.”
“Oh, Xena. Why would she say that?”
“Same answer as usual. Alti. She meant to foul whatever vestige of innocence I had left. Turn me bitter and cynical about even the most superficial care for somebody beside myself. Prove her ‘heart of darkness’ stronger than Cyane’s or Lao Ma’s powers for good. Use me to make it so.” Xena shook her head. “And I did, with Cyane’s blood.”
The two sat silently wrapped in their thoughts. Xena once more reliving a past she would always carry as she did the son she’d lost to the darkness inside. Gabrielle once more discovering she’d need an eternity to hear the “long story” of another life she bore as her own.
“Always another wrinkle, eh?”
“And you call me the culprit of premature aging?”
“Gotta blame somebody. Filled my quota of guilt barely out of diapers.”
“Eeeewww. Now there’s an image I could do without.”
Xena chuckled. “Sorry. Kinda …came out on its own.”
“Oooo, double eeewww!” Gabrielle swatted Xena’s arm.
“Which brings us back to Alex. Can’t say I’m lookin’ forward to meeting up with her again. Not in that state.”
“Hmmm. Haven’t quite made up my mind about that.” Gabrielle cocked her head. “Part of me is curious about the delinquent you. The sensible part says the current you is bad enough.”
“Yeah, well, what’s scarier is being stuck with both. What do we know about a time machine from the future? Assuming we find out what Alex did with that little box.” Xena growled her frustration. “Why couldn’t they use gods or sorcery like reasonable people?”
Yawning, Gabrielle gave Xena a squeeze. “I’m thinking Nikki’s got the right idea for now. Sleep on it. Figure something out in the morning.”
Xena snorted. “That’ll be the easy part – find Alex. It’s what happens after that’ll probably add gray hair to the wrinkles.”
The three rode in the wagon, Nikki’s horse tethered behind. They headed toward the area she’d last seen Alex – the opposite direction from her two companions’ original destination. Neither of them thought twice about delaying their return home. In truth, each secretly felt relieved this was a mission they had an undeniably good excuse for accepting.
Despite the profuse gratitude she expressed, Nikki never doubted the older women’s aid. It was as if she knew them like herself. Well, as much as a clone could understand herself based on a past she hadn’t really experienced. Or might understand another self who lived millennia ago and could now be her mother. And they were indeed different.
Alex had perceived more of an “edge” in Abby, less evident in the ever-idealistic and ebullient Nikki. Zema struck Nikki as a bit harder than Alex, but also mellower. More passionate than driven. Both older women seemed haunted at times, yet more comfortable in their skin. More accustomed to laughing in the dark, rolling gracefully with the punches life threw at them. The younger women had drawn solace from thoughts they might grow into a similar resolution with the vagaries of their existence.
Now that they’d acknowledged being the same people, Nikki wondered how things might change between them. Just that morning, they’d discussed what to call each other. She’d had no problem keeping her same name. Zema had declared she would henceforth be “Xena” and preferred to call Abby “Gabrielle.” Nikki admitted to herself she felt weirder about that than she let on. She and Alex had gotten used to referring to each other by their new names, but she realized now they’d also taken for granted they were the “real” legendary duo inside.
“Nikki? Everything okay?”
Gabrielle studied the young woman sitting in the middle. “You seem troubled. Worried about Alex?”
“Oh. Um …. No. Well, yes, a little. But I’m okay.” Nikki smiled. “Now that I’ve got you two on our side.”
“Always.” Gabrielle patted Nikki’s hand. She chuckled wryly. “We couldn’t abandon you if we wanted.”
Nikki grinned. “True.” She gazed deeply into eyes she knew were hers but seldom got to see. “May I ask a favor?”
Gabrielle smiled knowingly. “Long as it doesn’t involve a wig or floppy hat,” she said in reference to the disguise she’d been wearing when they first met.
“You looked cute,” Xena interjected. “Don’t you think she looked cute?” she asked Nikki.
“Um, yes?” Nikki shifted her eyes between the ends of the sandwich she found herself in. She saw Xena smirk. “But not necessarily cuter than usual?” she added with a glance to the other side.
“Oooo, good answer!” Gabrielle beamed proudly at Nikki and triumphantly at Xena. “I forget sometimes how I eased my way into the fortress of a certain Warrior Princess.”
“Still doin’ it,” Xena muttered. “Slower, but just as hard to pin down.”
“In keeping with what I’ve got to work with.” Gabrielle reached across to thump her soulmate’s shoulder before turning back to Nikki. “You wanted to ask me a favor?”
“Um ….” Nikki blushed. “It’s kinda silly, now that I think of it. I mean –.”
“No.” Gabrielle’s eyes softened and became serious at the same time. “Ask.”
“I …. Would you mind if I still call you Abby? It’s not so weird with Xena. But with you ….” Nikki ducked her head. “Not sure why …. It just seems ….”
“Of course.” Gabrielle squeezed Nikki’s hand. “Took me awhile to find myself. Some of it was being around a strong personality. Being part of an important quest.” She gave Xena a reassuring smile. “A lot of it was because I felt pulled in so many directions – interests, philosophies, curiosity about people and cultures. After all this time, I’m often reminded I’ll always be searching. Always encountering a ‘me’ from a different time or place. Know what?”
Enthralled, Nikki shook her head.
“I’ve become pretty secure with who I am. I own me now, even though I share myself with Xena and others. I’m realizing how possessive I’ve become of me. What made me – the good and the bad. I guess I’m saying I don’t mind calling you Nikki either.”
Nikki let out a long breath. “It’s been tough enough finding myself in a whole new world. Being around you is so fascinating. It’s like a short cut to so much I have to learn about myself or who I might become.”
“You could lose yourself in that? Skip past what you need to experience on your own?”
“Exactly! Keeping some way to separate us ….”
“I’ll be Abby as long as you want.”
Nikki swallowed. “Thank you.” She searched Gabrielle’s face. “Was I …. Were you always this …. So ….”
“Gracious? Understanding?” Xena peered around Nikki to capture Gabrielle’s eyes. “Yes.” She flicked the reins and resumed staring ahead. “Lucky for you, Alti’s machine worked as well as it did. Could’ve switched you with a less agreeable body.”
Stops along the main road revealed a woman fitting Alex’s description had passed through. In one village, she’d been accused of stealing a horse. In others, she’d inquired about her warlord mentor Borias. Somehow she’d gotten the dinars to pay for warmer clothes. Xena surmised Alex had her sights on Northern Amazon territory. And Alti. They left the wagon behind so all three could travel on horseback. Nikki thought she glimpsed a slight wince on her older companions’ faces, but they mounted and dashed off without complaint.
“I think we’re catching up,” Xena concluded on the third day. “Seems to be doubling back a lot.”
Nikki crouched beside the stream where they’d stopped to rest. “Maybe she’s disoriented? I imagine things’ve changed in 60 years.”
“I suppose.” Xena leaned against a tree, squinting at the horizon. “Lots of new settlements. A few more routes north. Could be retracing her steps, trying to go the same way as before.”
“Or maybe changing her mind for some reason?” Gabrielle cocked her head. “Maybe because of Nikki … um … Anokin? Could be she’s torn between seeing where Nikki went or going on to find Alti.”
“Yeah. Could be. How was she before you left? I mean, did she seem surprised to see you? Happy you weren’t mad? Or dead?”
Nikki finished filling a water skin and got comfortable on the ground. “She acted … surprised. Pleasantly so, but not like it was a big deal. More that it was unexpected. Out of place for where we were.”
“Good. Means she might not know about the Land of the Dead yet. Or had that talk with Alti about being Destroyer of Nations.”
“Or turned bitter about Anokin?”
“Right. Or met Cyane.”
“So she wouldn’t have become her worst yet.” Nikki looked hopefully at Xena. “You know – slaughtering the Amazons?”
“Mm.” Xena’s eyes closed briefly. “I suppose on the ‘monster’ scale, that tops about everything.”
Nikki noticed the wordless exchange between the older women. It dawned on her how much the favor she’d asked might cost them. She really did think of them as separate people, despite the kinship she felt. Yes, she’d called on them precisely because of their personal experiences, their insights into Alex’s possible thoughts or emotions. She hadn’t really considered it could mean reliving what they’d most wanted to put behind them.
Was that right? Too selfish? Hadn’t these heroes earned some peace, some freedom from a time they’d left long ago? From a future she and Alex were responsible for now?
Nikki glanced up to see Abby smiling at her with empathetic eyes. “Oh. Sorry. Guess I drifted off there. I …. I was wondering if this was such a good idea. I mean, Alex and I have been in jams before. We did okay. Maybe dragging you into – .”
“It’s all right.” Gabrielle checked with Xena and received a confirming nod. “We’ve been in jams before too. We did okay, long as we got through them together.” She grinned. “That doesn’t change, just because there’s more of our selves to go around.”
“I see a certain spirit hasn’t changed either.” The corner of Xena’s mouth quirked. “Lovely, but a tendency to worry too much.”
Gabrielle cut her eyes at her partner before addressing Nikki. “Zema,” she said, emphasizing the third letter of the name, “has a quaint way of paying compliments. Let’s just say we’re with you, even when you’re not with us. At the moment, you are.”
“But aren’t supposed to be.”
Gabrielle scowled at Xena. “Did I mention ‘tactful’ in addition to ‘quaint?’ Be that as it may, she has as usual hit upon the crux of the situation.” She got up and knelt next to Nikki. “You’re right to ask this of us. Who better to count on? We’d feel dishonored if you didn’t.”
Nikki’s eyes glistened. “Thank you.” She shook her head. “I do feel a bit foolish.”
“Listen, we may be long in the tooth, but we still – .”
“It’s not that. I’m proud and grateful to have you.” Nikki grinned sheepishly at Gabrielle. “What’s odd is, it’s like feeling that way about … myself.”
If Xena’s hunch was correct, they’d find Alex camping somewhere north of the Strymon River and south of Mt. Nestos. The latter site had served as the springboard for her spiral into destructiveness after Caesar’s betrayal and M’Lila’s death. Perhaps a twisted source of comfort for someone feeling lost, needing to hold on to what was familiar and she knew best.
Gabrielle and Nikki lay sleeping. Xena had quietly eased away to climb a few feet up the craggy sides of Strymon Pass. Despite the darkness, she had little difficulty. Her hands and feet hadn’t forgotten she’d been there before. She lifted herself on to a large ledge that allowed access to the other side. She closed her eyes. Filtered out the wind, rustling leaves and night creatures. Concentrated on the air, on the energy flowing from and to her. She tilted her head to the right. Sensing something familiar, which she knew very well. Her eyes opened to squint at a tiny bit of light at the edge of the valley below. A fire? Alex?
Xena’s mouth quirked. Aged though her body might be, the blood remembered. Exhilaration. Liberties. Omnipotence. Unbridled lust for power to conquer life. Unquenchable thirst for knowledge to defy death. Like breathing the essence of both gods on Olympus – used to exerting their will – and animals unconscious of their share in the universe.
Hard to believe she’d given that up. To walk among her enemies a troubled mortal aware of her limitations. Burdened by the gifts that made her “great.” She wondered what would challenge her more in strategizing a way to fix her earlier self. Plumbing the recesses of her dark strengths? Or peeling away the layers shielding her vulnerabilities.
“If it’s really Alex, shouldn’t we get moving?” Nikki anxiously scanned the early morning sky. “Knowing her, she’s already saddling up.”
“Patience. First we need a plan.”
Gabrielle crooked her head. “I assume you have one?”
“Sure, for getting there. It’s the rest of it I’m still workin’ on.”
“I can buy us some time.”
Xena narrowed her eyes at Nikki. “And how is that?”
“We get close enough for you to study the situation. I’ll go on ahead. Tell her I got lost or something. Convince her I need to rest. You can give me a signal when you’re ready.”
“What makes you think she won’t tell you to go to Tartarus?” Xena’s lip curled. “Or send you there herself?”
“She won’t. She might be angry, but she won’t hurt me.”
“You’re ‘Anokin,’ remember? A toy Alti threw her way. You’re together in some strange place for a day and suddenly you vanish. Who she thought you were to her might’ve changed while you were gone. It’s too risky.”
“Xena, however shallow her feelings, she connected with Nikki as a friend. Didn’t you say that’s how you saw Anokin?”
Xena shook her head. “Neither of you has any idea how I was back then. I’d toss somebody aside in a minute if I didn’t find them useful anymore. Like Cyane or Borias. Like Anokin when I thought she’d betrayed me. Who’s to say Alex isn’t thinking that?”
Nikki stuck out her chin. “I do. Deep inside, she’ll sense she needs me. That I mean her no harm. You said yourself Alti probably hasn’t ruined things between us yet.”
“Nikki …. We’re not talking the Alex you know. I admire your loyalty, but – .”
“Xena?” Gabrielle grabbed her soulmate’s arm and pulled her up. “Come with me,” she ordered, pushing the taller woman to the edge of their camp. “What’re you doing?”
“Whaddya think? Talkin’ sense into `er. Like you oughtta be doing.” Xena’s lips pursed. “Instead of undermining the one person who has a clue.”
“Undermining?” Gabrielle gaped at Xena. “Maybe Alex isn’t the only one who’s regressed.”
“Listen to yourself. You act like Nikki’s the naïve little girl from Poteidaia you rescued. Like you’re the irredeemable monster you wanted to shelter her from. You forget, even then I saw you better than you did yourself. Nikki’s much more experienced. Why’re you so sure you’re the best authority on Alex now?”
Xena’s mouth dropped. She blinked a few times. “I ….” She suddenly recognized the tension in her neck. The rigid back she summoned during command. The stubborn superiority she’d assumed when protecting a certain runaway who’d decided to tag along.
Gabrielle put her hands on Xena’s shoulders. “Amazing, huh?” She smiled in understanding. “Some things’re just like yesterday.”
Nikki grinned as the older women embraced. She figured herself the cause of their disagreement. She should’ve felt guilty. Yet how could she not see the humor in watching herself defend herself against the only person whose opinion mattered? The warmth of witnessing how much she was loved? The reassurance those who knew her most could still be wrong, yet right in the important ways? She relaxed, confident that however her companions resolved things, they’d have her best interests at heart.
“That’s some outfit,” Nikki observed as they lay on their stomachs peering through the tall grass. “Never known her to wear a cap.”
“Interesting choice for your delinquent phase.” Gabrielle snorted. “Surprisingly modest, considering your later battle wear.”
Xena chewed the insides of her cheeks. “Quite practical actually. Long skirt made me look more mature. Later, hid my crippled legs. Gave warmth when I went to colder climes.”
“Ah. Sometimes wish I hadn’t turned mine in so soon.” Gabrielle glanced at her younger counterpart. “Nikki had the good sense to get breeches.”
“Women wear `em all the time in the modern world. Could use a good pair of jeans right now.”
“Uh huh. What we call …. Oh! Is she packing to leave?”
“Seems so.” Xena sighed. “Time to do your thing.” She cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Against my better judgment.”
Nikki patted Xena’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine. If not, I’ll be the one riding toward you like a bat out of hell.” She rose, jogged to where they’d left the horses and soon cantered toward Alex.
“You’d better be right. Put a lot of work in this re-creation process. At this point, I’d hate to have to strangle ‘me.’”
“A little faith. m’dear. I haven’t strangled you after all these years.”
“You pushed me off a cliff.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Deservedly so. You survived, didn’t you? Lucky I wasn’t in my right mind. Won’t be any Illusia to save you next time.”
“We’ll see. I have many lives.” Xena snorted. “Let’s hope I can keep up with that one,” she said, pointing her chin at Alex.
They watched Nikki dismount and stroll towards Alex as if back from picking berries. Alex stood with her arms crossed, apparently reluctant to make up. Nikki gestured awhile and then started to slump. Alex rushed to help lower her to the ground. She got a water skin and wetted the younger woman’s face. Nikki weakly pointed to her mount. Alex went over to take the bedroll off the horse. She spread it on the ground. Nikki stretched out, propped on her side and continued to talk as Alex began setting up the camp again. Gabrielle smirked. Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. Satisfied with what they saw, they crawled away.
“Mmmm.” Gabrielle started to straighten her legs. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” Her eyes flew open as joints long past enduring the cruelty of the hard ground cracked and popped. “Oh, right,” she muttered. She glowered at the makeshift tent they’d fashioned over a drooping tree limb, not wanting to risk a fire so close to Alex. She ran her hand across the spot where her source of heat lay last night. Cold. Trust Xena to be roaming about before the forest creatures barely stirred.
Gabrielle gingerly pushed up. She parted the flaps and peered out. Only the chilly dawn haze greeted her. She hoped Xena would hurry back from whatever “preparations” she was tending to. Naturally she’d given the usual, “Been workin’ on an idea. You’ll see in the morning.” Gabrielle hadn’t detected much enthusiasm, nor did she herself feel it. She pulled her blanket up around her shoulders, frowning.
This latest adventure might just be too much for them. Figuring out Alex’s problem would be tough enough. What about getting her and Nikki back to their world? Why had their time machine apparently worked for Gregoreus? Gabrielle winced, picturing the Joxer devotee wandering about in some civilization far removed from the one he’d barely gotten to know in his 17 years. And which might not appreciate someone pretending to be the bumbling “sidekick” of an ancient female hero.
Gabrielle poked her head out the tent. “Xena?” She crawled through and searched for the familiar figure. “Where are you?”
Gabrielle caught movement behind a huge oak tree. “I can’t see you. Why’re you ….”
A tall form emerged. It resembled a deer standing on its hind legs. Encased in buckskin, antlers sprouting from its head. When it approached, Gabrielle’s blood froze. Lips shaped a crevice in the dust-colored face, eyes like pits hollowed out in the dark circles around them. The loose gait of a skeleton shrouded in a ghost. No, not a deer. An unearthly predator whose guise might lull potential victims into getting within range. Gabrielle couldn’t imagine anything she’d ever wanted to encounter less.
“So it worked.”
Gabrielle winced at the unctuously gravelly voice. “You’ll understand if I don’t clap.”
“Yeah.” Xena walked over to sit across from her partner. She snorted when Gabrielle unconsciously cringed. “If it helps, I scare myself too.”
Gabrielle studied her soulmate warily. “I’m not quite sharing your vision yet. Thought you were tired of playing roles. ‘I wanna be Xena from here on out,’ remember?”
“Believe me, I’d rather be anybody else than this. Callisto was a snap in comparison. Thing is, Alex doesn’t know she’s a clone. She won’t relate to me anymore as myself. Only way I can get close is as somebody she believes has power.”
“She mistook Nikki for Anokin. Why should she recognize you as Alti?”
Xena’s lip curled in a classic Alti sneer. “Is this a face you could ever confuse? Or forget?”
Staring into those sunken eyes, listening to that awful voice, feeling the twisted energy Xena’d managed to summon convinced Gabrielle her partner could pull off this best – or worst – role of all. She shuddered at the prospect. No, it wouldn’t be one she’d easily forget.
“Gabrielle?” Xena gave her soulmate a reassuring pat. “We’ll be okay. Naima warned us Alti’s spirit would survive. That our reincarnations would be fighting her for centuries to come. Nikki and Alex are proof. We hadn’t expected it would be in this lifetime, but we’ll handle her like before.”
“You believe she’s behind all this?” Gabrielle glanced around. “She’s somehow … here?”
“I don’t know.” Xena fingered the shells on her shaman vest. “I sense she’s the key to what’s wrong with Alex. That’s our first step. We can’t let her go back to the future as she is. We’ll worry about what’s keeping them here when – if – we fix her.”
Gabrielle sighed. “So you pop in chanting? Promising to make her Destroyer of Nations if she siphons off somebody’s blood?”
“Mm. Have to play it by ear.” Xena got a gleam in her eye. “You’ve given me another idea though.”
“Yeah. I’ve been wondering how to get you in the mix. You know – who you could be?” Xena smirked. “Besides Anokin’s mum?”
“What?! Her mother?!”
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. “Who then?”
“You’ll be pleased. No wig or floppy hat.” Xena ducked her head. “Well, except for the blood-letting part.”
“Okay, okay.” Xena’s expression grew serious. “You’ll play yourself in a way. Someone bent on reforming a wayward warrior. An Amazon queen. The one I killed after Anokin died.”
Xena sauntered into Alex’s camp. The two occupants rose in surprise. Noting the horror on Nikki’s face, Xena walked quickly over to drape her arm around the younger woman’s shoulders. She whispered, “It’s Zema,” before turning to Alex. “So, Xena, you been enjoying your little friend?”
Alex stared at their visitor, obviously disconcerted. “Alti?”
“What’s the matter? Thought you’d be happier to see me.”
“Where ….” Alex cocked her head. “You do this?” She waved her hand at their surroundings. “Bring us here?”
“Tsk tsk tsk. You don’t remember?” Xena went over to grasp Alex’s chin. “You wanted this.” She squinted into Alex’s eyes. “Must be a vestige of those rituals we practiced.”
Alex shrugged off Xena’s hand. “This? What ‘this?’”
Sighing, Xena found a tree stump and eased down with exaggerated patience. She looked at Nikki. “You didn’t tell her? Or the rituals affect you too.”
Nikki hesitated a moment. She sat on the ground, deciding to follow Zema’s lead. “Um … guess so. We were in Xena’s command tent. Up north. A few days ago we … woke up … here. We’ve been trying to get back.”
“Ah. Bored already? You young things …. Such trouble making up your minds.”
“Know what I’m gettin’ tired of?” Alex’s nostrils flared. “I’m gettin’ tired of all this double talk. We’re someplace different. I wanna know why and how. And I wanna know now!”
Xena crossed her legs with a patronizing smile. “Save the attitude for Borias. You said you needed space from him. Him being so fond of me and all,” she said sarcastically. “You wanted time for your studies with me.” She smirked at Nikki. “With Anokin. We left to do that.”
Frowning, Alex squatted next to Nikki. “The rituals. Is that how we got here?”
Xena snorted. “I’m good. Not that good. We traveled the usual ways. Nothing magical about it.” She casually examined her fingernails. “I’d been helping you develop your spiritual powers. To go inside, use your darkness to travel outside yourself. Maybe it worked better than I thought. Confused you.”
“What about Anokin?”
“She’s assisted me before. This time she wanted to go through it herself.” Xena shrugged. “With you.”
Alex gave Nikki a pleased grin. Nikki grinned back.
“I had other business. Figured you wouldn’t mind if I left you alone a couple days. Seems I was wrong.” Xena gazed wryly at Nikki. “Anokin may have a talent for the shaman trade, but can be remarkably dull in other ways.”
“I’m not complainin’,” Alex retorted huffily. “Like you said, I was confused.” Somewhat satisfied she understood the situation better, she relaxed into her customary “I’m it” bravado. “Borias could be making treaties with cows, for all I care. You say you taught me stuff I don’t recall. How about we resume our lessons?”
“I would, except ….” Xena stiffened and jumped up. “You!” she snarled, pointing behind Alex.
Alex turned to see a blond woman gazing at them some distance away. “What the .…”
“That meddling Amazon! I thought I’d ….” Xena walked up beside Alex. “Stay back, if you know what’s good for you!” she hurled at the blonde. “Your spiritual powers can’t beat me this time! Not against the three of us!”
“Spiritual powers?” Alex squinted at the woman. “Who is she?”
“Queen Cyane,” Xena spat out. “Fool followed us. Probably wants to sway you into her sisterhood.” Her lip curled. “Can you imagine? Making crafts in straw huts? Prancing around ceremonial fires? Wasting your destiny in the middle of nowhere?”
“She knows of me, eh? Another one wants to take me under her wing?” Smirking, Alex walked a few steps toward the woman. She backed up.
“See?” Xena chortled triumphantly. “Afraid. What can she give you compared to me?”
Alex didn’t sense fear. Nor did she sense the usual curiosity about herself. She thumbed her nose and swaggered over to lean an elbow on Nikki’s shoulder. “Alti’s right. I’m not cut out for your life. I’m fine with mine as it is.” She threw a rebellious look Xena’s way. “Doesn’t mean I’m not open to better offers. You got one?”
The blonde held Alex’s gaze a moment, nodded and turned to disappear into the trees.
“Not sure she got the message,” Alex said, intrigued by the Amazon’s confidence and Alti’s less than convincing bluster.
“We’ll see about that.” Xena started after the interloper.
“What’re you gonna do? Another spiritual duel?” Alex eagerly prepared to join Xena. “I wanna see that! Didn’t you say you need us?”
“No. I have other plans for her, since she insists on interfering. Stay here.” Xena smirked. “Unless Anokin’s not so exciting after all?”
“Funny. When you come back, it better be to show me more’n your wit.”
“Patience. I can taste power greater than you ever dreamed. Keep your hunger for it in check awhile longer.” Without waiting for a response, Xena stalked off into the forest.
“Good gods. I see now why you gave Tara so much slack. I assumed you exaggerated your youthful obnoxiousness. You know, to make her feel better. I couldn’t imagine you worse than the mischievous streak I’ve seen. Well, and the occasional pomposity. Maybe that swagger and evil grin when …. But this? Boy, was I wrong.”
“You quite finished?” Xena scowled at her partner. “Or you think we got time for more pithy hindsight?”
Gabrielle made herself as comfortable as she could in their makeshift tent. “I’m just saying, it’s no wonder Alti saw a kindred spirit.” She glanced at Xena out the corner of her eye. “Was Anokin really as dull as you let on?”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “I told you, my standards weren’t that high at the time.”
Gabrielle clucked. “Our early conversations were scintillating compared to what Nikki must be going through. At least I had myself for entertainment. If she takes your hint, she’s stuck passively enduring Alex’s one-note posturing.”
“Glad we got jealously out the way.”
“Jealous? Of Anokin? Please. More like curiosity about your tastes. Sure knew how to pick `em.”
“And leave `em.” Xena raised a brow. “Until the one time I waited too late.”
“You mean, until the many times your best pick kept trailing after you.”
“Fine. You win. Can we focus on more pressing issues?”
“I thought I was. Getting inside our subjects’ heads.” Gabrielle smiled sweetly. “I learned that from you.”
Xena dropped her head in her hands. “I’m too old for this.”
“Nah.” Gabrielle rubbed Xena’s shoulder. “A little slow is all. Stick with me another 25 years. You’ll catch up eventually.” She sat back attentively. “So. On to what you are quick at. What’s next?”
“Whatcha think of that?” Alex glanced up casually at Nikki before resuming work on her weapons. “Weird, huh?”
Nikki continued drying herbs she hoped wouldn’t actually be required to demonstrate her purported shaman skills. She’d been acting much like the dullard “Alti” suggested. Not particularly difficult since Alex hogged their few conversations with rants about Borias. How he’d become soft and sentimental. Why she resented his overbearing leadership, now that she considered herself his equal. Her stupidity in letting him “knock me up.” Nikki hadn’t needed to respond with much more than “uh huh” or a giggle every now and then.
“Um, yeah. Weird.”
“Wouldn’t mind gettin’ a peek at what she can do. Cyane, I mean. Must be somethin’, if she can go toe to toe with Alti.”
“Uh huh. Think she rattled Alti a little. Never saw that before.”
“Yeah?” Alex gazed thoughtfully at Nikki. “You seem … close. Were you …you know ….”
“No! Definitely not.” Nikki realized she’d rejected the unthinkable a little too vehemently. “I mean, Alti only cares about her ‘work.’ I’m grateful she let me tag along, see more of the world.”
“She ‘introduce’ you to others who could help her? Like me?”
Nikki smiled at the rare opportunity to hint she had a brain. “We didn’t meet anybody else like you. The men warlords were mostly brutes. Even better ones like Borias weren’t interested in spiritual stuff. You combined the battle skills with a thirst for knowledge. A woman not afraid to explore her dark side.”
“And you? You liked that too?”
Nikki shrugged. “I just wanted to help at first. I didn’t know we’d … connect … like we did.”
Alex toyed with the knife she’d been sharpening. “Been a long time since I had a friend. Last one died. Saving me.” Chewing her lip, she studied Nikki. “Not sure how things’ll work out with Alti. If we split, what side’ll you be on?”
Nikki sighed, very glad she wasn’t really Anokin or had to worry about Alti. “I owe her a lot,” she answered carefully. “Being with you serves a purpose for her. I make you both happy. Can’t that be enough for now?”
“Yeah. I’m kind of a ‘live in the moment’ gal myself.” Alex shyly tweaked Nikki’s nose. “Thanks for the update. Most I’ve heard you talk. I enjoyed it. See, you’re not so dull.” Antsy now that she’d had her chitchat for the week, she stood and began pacing. “Wonder what Alti’s up to? Maybe I should go see.”
“I can tell you about other experiences,” Nikki offered quickly. She dropped her head. “Um, I mean, if you’re interested.”
Alex paused, torn between her curiosity and being attentive to the friend she’d gotten to know better. She blew out a long breath. “You run into any warlords? Alti use her powers on `em?”
“What about when she traveled through time to another life?”
“Really?” Alex plopped down. “Traveled through time? Where’d she learn that? Could she teach me?”
“Uh huh, you could probably do it. Let me tell you about a faraway land where your mind can take you almost anywhere you want.”
About an hour had passed, Alex still engrossed in Nikki’s tales. Neither of them heard the quiet tread. They whirled at the softly commanding voice.
“Cyane.” Alex took her time getting up. Wouldn’t do to look caught off guard. She assumed a cocky pose. “You lost?”
Gabrielle stood in a wide-legged stance and crossed her arms. “No, but you are.”
“What would you know about that? You and Alti have a chat?”
“She’s lost too.” Gabrielle smiled. “For an ex-Amazon, she sucks at recognizing false trails.”
“You come to offer me something better?”
“Only you can determine that. Depends on how much you value honor and a cleaner soul. Whether you wish to fulfill your potential as the greatest of women warriors.”
Alex’s eyes hardened. “I’m already well on my way. Easier doin’ it as a ruthless killer.”
“You’re a murderer because you think and act like one. You mistakenly believe you need that to achieve power.”
“You sayin’ you’re an Amazon who’s never killed? A queen who hasn’t sent her troops to die?”
“We do it for each other. Our power comes from our collective courage and spirit. The goal is life and peace. If you follow Alti, all you’ll end up with is death and torment.”
Alex snorted. “Pretty words. Not much I can do with that. Sure don’t see how it beats what Alti’s got.”
“And it’s time we proved it once and for all!” Xena suddenly rushed in to stand with Alex and Nikki. “Summon up the darkness inside you. Focus it on her. We’ll crush her where she stands!”
Gabrielle and Xena stared at each other, eyes and veins bulging as in a struggle against some invisible force. Alex tried to do as ordered, to little avail. She became more interested in which woman would win on her own.
Xena gasped and clutched her throat. “Focus, I said! We can’t let her win!” She began to slump. She sunk to her knees, eyes still locked on Gabrielle. Finally she sprawled in exhaustion on the ground.
Gabrielle’s head jerked back. She wiped her brow. “That’s how it beats what Alti’s got.” With that, she left as unceremoniously as she’d come.
It was all Alex could do not to run after such an amazing new source of power. The alternative lay like a sack of dust, but Alex understood, and therefore trusted more, the dark force inside. She joined Nikki in tending the defeated shaman.
“You fools,” Xena croaked out, struggling to sit. “You didn’t even try!”
“She beat you!” Alex grabbed Xena’s shoulders. “How is that possible, if evil always wins?”
“It would, with the right ingredient. We had it in our grasp. We’ll have to get it another way.” Xena pointed at Alex. “You.”
“Me?!” Alex rocked back on her heels. “I can’t will a vase to crack anymore, let alone Cyane.”
“Not with spiritual powers. Physical. Pretend you want to join her. When she turns her back, kill her. That shouldn’t be too hard for you.”
Alex felt a surge of resentment. She didn’t know why, given the truth in Alti’s words. She focused on the practical. “What good will it do? We can’t learn from a dead woman.”
“Her blood is all we need. To reach a whole new plane. Harness the darkness of the universe. Tap into souls, enslave them with their own fears.” Xena bestowed on Alex a cunning smile. “Bring me her essence in a bowl. I’ll help you fulfill your wildest dreams. To become Destroyer of Nations.”
“Yeah?” Alex glanced between Xena and an expressionless Nikki. She squared her shoulders. “On my way.”
Gabrielle rested on a blanket in a clearing not far from Alex’s camp. Easy enough to find. Sufficiently open to avoid surprise and allow concealed observation. She raised her head when she heard Alex approaching.
“Have you come to listen? Or to kill me.”
Alex smirked. “Haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“Have a seat.” Gabrielle gestured to another blanket. “Either way, that should be close enough.”
Alex sauntered over and sat. “You oughtta be more afraid. Thought you’d heard – I’m a dangerous woman.”
“Amazons eat danger for breakfast. That’s partly why I invited you in.”
Alex raised a brow. “Yeah? Why else?”
“You’re too dangerous for me not to at least try.” Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest. “Borias sent word he wanted to make a treaty. I’d heard he was a man of some honor. My scouts had their doubts about yours. I needed to see for myself.”
“Well, here I am.” Alex swept an arm out in a mock bow. “Still think I’ll fit into your ‘dangerous girls’ club?”
Gabrielle studied Alex a moment. “What I think is that Borias feels a spark of light in you, whereas Alti counts on your darkness. And that they’re both right.”
“Pfft. Borias is a sap. He’s changed. Deluded that I might too. Alti understands what makes me tick. She’s promised to satisfy it.” Alex’s eyes bore into Gabrielle. “And her power tops his.”
Gabrielle smiled. “While mine tops hers.”
Alex leaned forward. “I wanna learn that. I could hang around with you Amazons. See how we get along. Who knows? Might wanna hook up after all.”
Gabrielle leaned back on her hands. “I can see into the future, Xena. I see you at a crossroads. I already told you what’s at the end of each way. I doubt your friend will survive Alti’s.”
“Anokin? What’s she got to do with this?”
“She’s a line to your humanity. Cutting it sets you adrift in your darkness. For Alti to reel in.”
“What’re you talking about?” Alex propped on her hands and knees, agitation rippling through her like an animal about to strike. “Alti gave her to me!”
Gabrielle leaned forward. “And she can take her away.”
Alex’s face contorted. “I’m through listenin’.” She jumped to her feet. “I shoulda killed you first. Drained your blood like Alti said.”
Gabrielle rose. “What’s stopping you?”
The two gazed at each other, blue eyes blazing into calm green ones. They wrenched apart at the sound of running feet.
“Xena!” Nikki stumbled toward them. “Thank the gods!” She bent over, looking with relief at Gabrielle. “I’m not too late.” She turned pleading eyes to Alex. “Alti told me she had a plan. In the beginning. That I was the key. ‘Befriend Xena,’ she said. ‘She’ll help us gain great powers.’ I didn’t know she meant to hurt you, Xena. I swear!”
Alex backed away, regarding Nikki as one might a strange creature that mysteriously appeared. “A set-up. I knew it. All your talk about ‘connections’ – .”
“It’s true! Alti even saw it. She liked it was genuine. I didn’t know why until …. “ Nikki’s head dropped. “She wants me to betray you. When I refused, she came at me, saying it would work just fine if … if I was dead.”
“Shhh.” Gabrielle put her hand up. “I think we’re about to have company.”
Xena strolled across the clearing. “Well, well, well. The gang’s all here.” She halted a few yards away. “My jealous little apprentice been putting on a show for you?” She smirked at Alex. “Didn’t realize Anokin had grown so fond of me. Seems she resents you’ve become the apple of my eye. ‘How come Xena gets to kill Cyane? I’ll fix it so she wants nothing to do with you again!’” She shook her head at Nikki. “Guess I was wrong about you. Sly hiding behind the dull.”
“Cut the crap, Alti.” Gabrielle folded her arms. “You don’t expect us to believe you over Anokin? Over a snake, for that matter.”
“Think, Xena. What do the rest offer? Denial. Of yourself and your potential. The pleasures that come with omnipotence and conquest. Would you really throw that away? For the pitiful life of an Amazon? For a simpering fool with less brains than you have in your little finger?” Xena sneered. “That brat Borias saddled you with so he can take your power?”
“Show her, Xena. Challenge her to a spiritual duel.”
Xena looked with disbelief at Gabrielle, then threw her head back with an evil laugh. “Oh, this is priceless. Against me? Why would ….” She watched Gabrielle walk over to Alex and beckon Anokin to join them. “Oh, I get it. A threesome?”
“We’re simply here for support. I’m betting Xena can defeat you on her own.”
“Hey!” Alex had been shifting her attention between the two women like a child caught between parents. She now arched a brow at Gabrielle, wondering if the Amazon had gone prematurely senile. “So Alti’s story smells. It’s not like she promised me roses for being such a good girl. Maybe I’ll wring her neck before it’s over. Doesn’t change what I am inside. Or that she’s better at it than me.”
“Not if you summon your spiritual powers from a different source.”
Alex snorted. “Like where? That ‘spark’ you talk about? Alti’d snuff it out in a heartbeat. What choice do I have, with the soul of a killer?”
“Stop thinking and acting like one.” Gabrielle pulled Alex around to face her. “You are a true warrior, Xena. Choose to defend the part of you that needs it most.”
“Don’t listen to her! She knows nothing! I’m the future you’ll never escape. Seize it before it’s too late!”
“You can do this, Xena.” Gabrielle put her hand on one of Alex’s shoulders and had Nikki do the same. “We’re with you, just like your child. Let us burn inside you so strong it sweeps away the shadows.” She turned Alex’s face toward Xena. “Channel it against Alti. I promise, you can defeat her.”
As if in a trance, Alex leveled her eyes to bore into the ones in front of her. Sweat soon drenched her forehead. Her body shook. The body across from her also shook. It teetered and finally slumped to the ground. Alex’s eyelids fluttered. She too would have fallen, if not for the hands easing her down.
Nikki anxiously grasped Alex’s pale face. “Wow, she really got into it,” she whispered to Gabrielle. “You think it worked?”
“We’ll see.” Gabrielle wrapped a blanket around Alex. She glanced at the still prone Xena. “Tell ‘Alti’ she can get up. Nothing more we can do for now.”
Nikki walked over to Xena. “Zema? Gabrielle says it’s okay.” When the body didn’t move, Nikki knelt to check further. “Gabrielle? I think you’d better come.”
Gabrielle looked over with a wry smile. “Not to worry. My partner tends to go overboard. Puts her whole self into her roles, so to speak. Snatch out one of those gray hairs, I’ll bet she – .”
“Um, I don’t think she’s pretending anymore. Unless it includes making her nose bleed?”
Part 4 (Conclusion)
Xena shuddered at the evil inside her. The monstrous force ripping out the soul of her unborn baby. Solan? No. A girl. Alti meant to curse this second child as she had the first! Xena’s eyes clenched. No! Not again! She couldn’t face life …. Wait. Voices. Amazons? Gabrielle? Humming inside her head. Their hands supporting her. Lending her strength in a rematch of the winner take all spiritual duel.
The two of them stripped to bare bones. Skeletons kicking and punching, slashing and tumbling. She could do this! She had to! She focused on her child’s light, snatched it out of Alti’s chest and smashed the witch to bits.
That voice. Those hands. Was it time already? Time for the cycle to begin again?
“Xena, it’s over. Come back to me.”
Xena’s eyes blinked open. “Gabrielle? Where ….” She tried to sit up. An arm steadied her.
“Hey, not so fast. Take it easy on those old bones.”
Xena struggled up anyway. She glanced around. Her eyes widened at the sight of herself on a blanket, Gabrielle hovering as usual. What the …? “Alex!” she exclaimed, suddenly remembering. “Is she –.”
“She’s okay. Physically at least. We don’t know yet if our strategy worked.” Gabrielle brushed Xena’s furrowed brow. “What happened?”
“I felt something … light. Good. More like when I was with Lao Ma. And you. I felt your love. I felt the power of innocence. The weird thing is, it wasn’t coming from Alex. It was coming from … me.”
“Remember when I fought Alti in those dreamscapes? When I was pregnant with Eve?” Xena shuddered. “I felt my determination to defeat her. Something in Alex summoned it up.” Xena studied her clone a moment. “Something dark. Destructive. Evil.”
“Maybe.” Xena let out a long breath. “Maybe not. All I know is, it was real – the spiritual duel. Except, we’d switched bodies in a way.” She swallowed. “And I’m not sure which of us won.”
The slight breeze tickled Alex’s nose. She didn’t move though. Her senses told her it might not be safe. Her body ached. Must’ve been a Tartarus of a battle. Her ears tuned in to voices nearby. Female. Familiar. She turned her head toward them ever so slightly.
The others turned to see Alex shakily rising, her lips curled in a snarl.
“Xena?” Nikki watched her partner advance. “Alex?” No change. She jumped up with her arms out. “No! Stop! That’s not Alti!”
Alex blinked. “What?”
Xena stood and removed her antler headdress. She rubbed away a bit of the dark circles around her eyes. “See these?” she asked, smiling benignly, pointing to the crinkles around her mouth. “And this?” She brushed the gray at her temples.
Alex squinted into eyes she suddenly recognized as hers but seldom got to see. “Zema?”
Xena chuckled. “Apparently.”
All three realized what this must mean. “Alex?” they asked simultaneously.
“Oh, Alex!” Nikki ran to throw her arms around her soulmate. “You’re back!”
“Uh, glad to see you too.” Alex glanced in confusion at that other women. She stared at Nikki. “You saying I went to the future but ended up here again?”
The others sat Alex down and brought her up to date. She listened with a touch of skepticism. Last she remembered, she’d been pushing a button to return to the 21st century.
“Alex! Remember where you put it?”
“The time machine box.”
“Um ….” Alex glanced at her hands. “I ….”
“You don’t remember anything? After Gregoreus left us?”
Alex shook her head. “Problem, huh?”
Nikki sighed. “Only if you still have an appetite for pizza.”
The party decided they’d set out the next day in hopes of finding the spot where the clones had attempted their return to the future. They relaxed around their evening fire, slightly uncomfortable with their new relationships.
“A little strange, eh?”
Xena chuckled at her clone’s knack for understatement. “More for you. We’ve had a chance to adjust.”
Nikki snorted. “Riiiight. If you call me posing as Anokin, Abby as Cyane and Zema as Alti ‘adjusting.’”
Alex shook her head. “I’d give anything to remember that. Well, except the Alti part.” She gave Xena an apologetic smile. “Sorry I wanted to kill you.”
“Nah, good sign actually. Kinda worried you might wake up as ….”
“We weren’t sure about the aftermath of your spiritual duel.” Gabrielle patted Xena’s leg. “Xena felt something dark coming from you. Whatever it was, she must’ve purged it.”
“As if my past wasn’t complicated enough.” Alex gazed into the fire. “I remember the real scenario. Anokin dying. Hating me. I remember ambushing those Amazons. Giving Cyane’s blood to Alti. Now you say my mind got transported to a time before that. Had the chance to avoid it.” She looked with puzzlement at the others. “It didn’t change my fate. Yet I feel somehow … different … inside.”
“Yeah.” Xena nodded. “Who I am today fought the darkness I had long ago. Like giving you … myself … two tracks to the same destiny.”
“Even so, which is true? What I remember doing? Or how we changed what I don’t recall?”
“Both?” Gabrielle snuggled up to her partner. “You had the potential for either. Alti cheated you out of one. Did everything to push you toward the other. This time you had love on your side.”
“Um, we kinda cheated too, with our little drama. Nikki was sure a lot more nurturing than the real Anokin.”
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Xena, there’s such a thing as seeing the mug half full. We’ve had that discussion before. Many, many times before.”
“Please tell me she’s made some progress by now?” Nikki scowled at Alex. “I’d hate to resort to accelerating the process with Oprah.”
“Oprah?” Gabrielle searched her memory. “Some miracle herb from your century?”
Nikki laughed. “More like a miracle healer. Reaches millions of people through her moving-pictures show.”
“Ah. Well, yes, Xena has gotten better about that over the years. I’m afraid it’s an area she’ll need 25 more to master.”
“They got room for another Oprah?” Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “I’m thinkin’ you could take Scabrielle with ya. She’s been itchin’ to expand that mug of hers.”
Alex snorted. “We’re not sure we can go ourselves yet.”
Xena stretched out her legs. “Got any ideas what went wrong?”
“You know, I’ve been thinking about that.” Nikki described how friends had salvaged pieces of Alti’s equipment after her lab blew up. They’d used some parts in hopes of reversing the process, so the clones could have a taste of their ancient life.
“Gods. Alti cursed anything she touched.”
“Uh huh. I forgot Alti’s contraption filled Alex’s head with her at her worst. A lot of it involved a certain evil shaman. Could’ve become part of the new machine”
Gabrielle nodded. “But when Xena won the spiritual duel, seems she broke the spell.”
“That’s ….” Alex stared at Xena and Gabrielle in wonder. “Have you any idea how complicated that machine is? All the things that could malfunction? How did –.”
“Simple.” Xena smirked. “And I mean that.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “She’s saying our world is simpler. Gods and sorcerers and the like can do some amazing things. But we can pretty much figure out who’s behind it. They usually leave a particular stamp.”
“Whereas our technology can have a life of its own. Even though it’s not really alive.” Alex frowned. “Once something’s built, just about anybody can use it. Sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. No wonder I have such a hard time pinning down the bad guys.”
Xena cleared her throat. “I meant more ‘simple’ than my friend here. There’s one evil we know can travel in time, hates my guts and will haunt our incarnations for a long time. Once I heard the name Anokin, saw what Alex was wearing, I pretty much knew Alti had to be in there somehow.”
“Accident or intent, it was a pivotal moment. We couldn’t predict if our idea might affect the future.” Gabrielle rested her head on Xena’s shoulder. “We just knew we had a chance to give Alex a better past.”
“Or, if she was stuck here, a better present.”
Alex smiled appreciatively. “`First things first?’”
“Keeps things simple. One good step at a time usually leads in the right direction.”
“Kinda hard to say this, but ….” Alex squared her shoulders and extended her hand. “Thanks.”
Xena grasped the younger woman’s arm in a warrior’s greeting. “No problem. Believe me, I know how pride – .”
“No. If I’m proud, it’s because I’ve got you behind me. So to speak.” Alex smiled wryly. “What’s strange is how it’s like feeling that way about … myself.”
Successful in finding the spot they sought, the four set about searching for the little black box. Alex still couldn’t recall anything that happened during her Evil Xena flashback.
“Wait a minute. Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way. With the wrong Xena.”
“Oh boy.” Xena propped against a tree. “My dear soulmate has that ‘let’s analyze the inner workings of a Warrior Princess’ expression.”
“Oooo, you are sooo perceptive sometimes.” Gabrielle gestured for the others to get comfortable. “Nikki, would you say Alex has a thing for gadgets?”
Nikki snorted. “I’ve never seen anybody turn the simplest object into something that makes her faster, smarter or deadlier.”
“Uh huh. Same with Xena. So, here we have a wild young warrior who suddenly discovers herself holding a mysterious black box. Does she yell, ‘Yikes!’ and toss it away like a normal person?”
“Of course not.” Alex leaned forward, a hunter scoping her prey. “She looks around.”
“Wants to know how it got there?”
“No.” Xena stroked her throat. “How she got there. Remember, she’s not where she’s supposed to be. The box is secondary at that point.”
“Okay. Does she put it away for later? Hide it somewhere?”
“Not until I know I’m safe. Why am I there? Somebody send me somehow? Maybe it’s a trap?”
Xena nodded. “If she doesn’t sense danger, she’ll check herself out. Head injury. Strange taste in her mouth. Signs of a struggle.”
Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her thigh. “So, nobody hiding in the bushes. No evident clues about what happened. Now is she interested in the box?”
“Hey! Aren’t you forgetting something?” Nikki pointed to herself with mock indignation. “First she checks me out, like she did herself. Then the box. I asked her for it.” Nikki cut her eyes at Alex. “She didn’t want me to worry my pretty little … dull … head. I was so worried about how she was acting, I didn’t pay much attention to the box.”
“You soon disappear. Alex is by herself. Still confused. Maybe mad at you for leaving. Drawn to the place she thinks she should be.” Gabrielle glanced between Alex and Xena. “Where does the box figure in?”
“Could be the key to my situation.”
“A source of power, if it somehow got her there.” Xena gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Probably man made. The gods or folks like Alti aren’t usually into crafts.”
“Nobody on the horizon to explain it. With everything else on my mind, I’d file it away.”
“File?” Gabrielle frowned.
“Mentally. Make note of it for later,” Nikki explained.
“She wouldn’t want it in anyone else’s hands. Wouldn’t risk leaving it behind, in case she stumbled on the answer.”
“Right. I’d keep it with me. Not in the way, but near.” Alex patted herself down for the umpteenth time. “I’ve checked my scabbard, my healing pouch, bed roll. My carry bag of course.”
Xena narrowed her eyes at Alex. “You changed clothes.”
“You got that outfit later. You had your leathers on when it happened.”
Four sets of eyes began widening. Alex jumped up and got her bag. She pulled out her battledress. They all held their breath while she shook it out. Their faces fell when nothing dropped to the ground. She inspected the top more closely. Suddenly she grinned.
“Seems I made a secret pocket.” Alex stuck her fingers into the crevice of the bodice bra. “Ta da,” she said, holding up the black box.
Gabrielle laughed. “Of course! Xena’s ‘treasure chest.’”
Xena snorted. “So much for analysis. Should’ve asked, ‘Where does Xena put everything from breast daggers to ambrosia?’ See? Simple.”
As before, Xena and Gabrielle felt the loss of their otherworldly selves. At least last time they’d gotten to watch the younger women ride away. They could imagine the two exploring ancient Greece before heading back to the future. This time the clones vanished as if donning Hades’ Helmet of Invisibility, but to a place the originals could never dream. Except for a slight “whoosh,” it was if the time travelers had never been there.
“Think they made it okay?”
Xena snuggled their furs around them. “I do. If we can beat Alti, they can overcome anything.”
“Funny how she tripped herself with her own predictions. She believed in them, but tried to change some anyway. And failed. Like Caesar.”
“However it happened, Alex got returned to a time when Alti had the strongest hold over her. Doing so allowed us to break that hold.” Gabrielle gave Xena a squeeze. “Must’ve been hard for you saying some of those things. Being the witch who caused you such pain.”
Xena squeezed back. “The distance helped. It was … freeing … in a way. Getting those words out. Realizing they’d lost their power because of all the love I’ve felt since. The very love she cursed. It filled me. Neutralized my ‘Alti’ part, kinda like it did for Alex.”
“I hope you learned something about yourself in the process.”
“You might’ve listened to Cyane, if things’d played out differently. The potential was there even then.”
“Mm. Actually, I learned something else about that ‘spark.’ It hit me after the spiritual duel with Alex.”
“I always figured Alti cursed Solan because she feared a child would ultimately turn me from darkness.”
“Like the baby you saved before joining Hercules?”
“Uh huh. Now I’m thinking she pegged it differently.”
“How so?” Gabrielle positioned herself in their bedrolls to see Xena better.
“I didn’t find out about the curse on Solan until much later. Too late for Alti’s plans. I’d long before changed my ways, when I experienced either of my children’s love. This thing with Anokin reminded me of all the other times somebody else meant the difference. ‘Friends’ – whether I was aware or right.” Xena gazed up at the stars. “In the Land of the Dead? When I went looking for you? Alti knew about you. She came to me in a trance. ‘Who is she?! Tell me who the blond one is!’ She was more afraid of you than anyone.”
“Her joy at showing me that vision of you crucified …. I thought it was at my agony. But it was a lot like when Anokin rejected me. You’re similar, you know – you and her. In appearance. In being open to me. I’m not sure that was a coincidence. Maybe Alti foresaw who would ultimately determine whether that spark in me won out for the long haul. Not a baby. A friend.” Xena kissed the top of her soulmate’s head. “`The blond one.’”
Gabrielle’s heart swelled at the idea of her present and future selves giving support to Xena’s present and future selves, as well as to a Xena from the past she hadn’t touched before. After all these years – everything they’d been and done together – she never imagined her mug this full. “Xena, that is so ….”
“Simple?” Xena smiled. “Nikki and Alex wanted to recapture some of that. Hopefully they took its essence with them inside.”
“Sure left me feeling 25 years younger.”
“Mm. Doesn’t change what’s important though.”
“Our ageless, tried-and-true, eternal love?”
“My aged, tired and mortal butt. Finally landing on that padded rocker.”
“Awwww. Would a massage help in the meantime?”
Xena’s eyes gleamed. “Ah, simplicity at its best.” She rolled to her stomach. “Not sure what ‘pizza’ is, but I’d bet this is quicker, more satisfying and lasts a whole lot longer.”
“Sure. I was trapped in a cycle of violence and hatred. And no matter how I tried to break free, something always pulled me back. Until you.” -- Xena’s response to Gabrielle at the end of A FAMILY AFFAIR
Return to the Academy