A Very Different Dusk
© 2015 Linda Crist aka Texbard
Disclaimers: I’m not sure who owns Xena and Gabrielle anymore. Maybe at this point they belong to the fans who have kept them alive all these years. Regardless, as Xena said at the end of “A Friend in Need,” they live on in our hearts. Whoever they belong to, this story was not written for profit and no copyright infringement is intended.
This is a post FiN story. I know I’m a little late to the party, but this is my take on what happened after the series finale, “A Friend in Need,” which aired almost fourteen years ago. With the final, final, final, (absolutely for sure) final Xena convention approaching, this story is one more part of my own personal catharsis. I don’t desire to re-open old wounds, so if you don’t wish to read about FiN, this story will not be your cup of tea.
Xena and Gabrielle are in love. After the show ended, Lucy Lawless said they were married and Renee O’Connor said that throughout the series, Gabrielle had been searching for the love of her life, which is Xena. I won’t disclaim love.
Once upon a time, let’s just say it was on Valentine’s Day, a seasoned warrior who believed her soul was beyond redemption, met a young storyteller who longed for adventures and life beyond the small village where she was born. Dark and light, war and peace, pragmatism and idealism, defeat and hope, ran headlong into each other in a clearing in the woods. In many ways they were polar opposites, but they found in each other their last, best hope at a second chance to live.
For Xena and Gabrielle, despite everything they went through, from the moment they met they began to fall in love, and with each passing day that love grew. At first they loved each other as friends, then as family, later as lovers, and finally as life partners. That love ebbed and flowed, and was at times severely tested, but no two people would stand beside each other through everything they faced together, unless they loved each other deeply. It was a bond that was greater than blood, defiant of death, stronger than betrayal, loss, and hardship, and eventually held above the greater good of the rest of the world.
They saw in one another so many things to admire and emulate, each wishing to learn how to be like the very best they saw in the other. As they traveled the world together, not only did they have many adventures and grow in their love for each other, one day they looked up and something amazing had happened. Dark had mingled with light, creating shadows dappled with rays of sunshine. War had learned that sometimes battles can be won without lifting a sword, and peace had learned that some things were worth fighting, killing, and dying for. Black and white pragmatism had learned to see all the colors of the rainbow, and idealism had come to value the balance between seeing what is as well as what might be. Defeat, now defeat had latched on to hope, and had come to lean on hope’s shoulder, and dared to believe that losing one small battle did not mean the end of all things, but that tomorrow might be bright with promise.
Somewhere along their shared path, warrior and storyteller had met in the middle, casting a single shadow on the road ahead of them. Each had indeed taken on some of the very best qualities possessed by the other. They shared not just love and life, but a common vision, a common destiny, and a common desire of each to hold and protect the heart of the other. No longer opposites, the lines had blurred and the fibers of two separate lives had woven together, creating the strongest bond of all, that which is shared by soul mates. Yin and Yang became the Dao, the whole created by the joining of their two souls.
And then the unthinkable happened. The terrible hand of deceit swept in with a sharp but invisible blade, and thread by thread, the Dao was ripped asunder. Yin was led astray, and Yang lost its way. Yang began to become Yin as it searched in anguish for its other half, and the happy balance they had shared as the Dao.
A Tavern Somewhere in Greece
A large fire blazed in a sturdy stone fireplace, filling the busy tavern with welcoming warmth. Outside the wind blew fiercely, rattling the eaves, while sheets of rain lashed at thickly shuttered windows. Thunder rumbled overhead in tall, rolling clouds, and lightning crackled across the darkened sky, occasionally reaching fiery fingers down to burn and consume the earth. The scent of venison stew bubbled up from an iron pot that hung over the fire, and the low, almost musical din of conversation rose above it all, as weary townsfolk gathered to share pints of ale and dinner at the close of a hard and waterlogged day of work.
At the end of the bar, a lone hooded figure sat, nursing a pewter mug of ale and ignoring the crowd all around. It was cold ale that smelled of tangy spruce tips and bitter hops. A thick head of foam tickled the nose, and the rich, amber liquid tingled pleasantly on the tongue, then burned in the belly. Slowly, it began to work its magic, numbing senses that had been too long on the road, seen much of the world, and yet found very little to nurture the soul.
A bearded man clad in the simple, often-mended tunic and breeches of a farmer, hesitantly approached, placing a small leather pouch on the bar. He hesitated, shuffling from one foot to the other, back and forth, studying the hooded figure and assessing his reception. “I know what I’ve heard, but I had hoped –” he paused, his expression a mixture of fear and determination, and then he boldly sat down. “I need your help.”
“What did you hear?” A low voice asked.
“That you’re no longer for hire.” He pushed the pouch closer. “This is all I have. I thought maybe –”
“You heard correctly.” The pouch was pushed back in his direction, and the hooded figure turned a shoulder away from him, and took another long draught of ale.
“Please.” He untied stained leather laces and tipped the small bag over, spilling several large gold coins onto the worn wooden surface of the bar.
Slowly, the hood was pushed back, revealing a long blonde braid and the stoic face of a woman. “I said you heard correctly. I’m not for hire,” she stated in quiet anger. With a swipe of her hand, she sent the coins clattering to the floor. She stared at the man pointedly for a few seconds, then turned her back on him and tilted her mug to the side, indicating it was empty. The tavern keeper hurriedly refilled it, and the woman took a deep audible breath, then inhaled from the crisp beverage with pleasure, before taking a sip.
“Please.” The farmer dared to persist and leaned closer, touching her shoulder. “You’re my only hope.”
Before he had time to react, his head was slammed down onto the bar, and a thin, curved blade was pressed against his throat. “If I’m your only hope, then hope is lost.” The woman released her hold on him and kicked the bar stool from beneath him, and he landed ungracefully on the tavern floor. She placed the cool metal chakram back on her belt hook, and quickly drained her mug. “Don’t follow me.” She picked up one of the coins and tossed it at the tavern keeper, then adjusted the katana at her back and stalked out into the stormy night.
She headed for a livery stable across from the tavern, sloshing through deep muddy puddles, then pushed open the heavy door and stepped inside its refuge. After shaking off the rain and removing her cloak, she hung it and the sword on a nail on the wall, and approached a palomino mare in the closest stall. “Hi, Argo.” She gave the mare a pat on the shoulder and then buried her face into a flaxen mane, inhaling the scent of warm horseflesh. “I need to go somewhere and I know you won’t care to be out in this weather, so I’m going to leave you here overnight.”
Argo lipped at her hair and then nuzzled her ear. “Hey, that tickles.” She smiled briefly, then hugged her companion fiercely. “You’re all I have left,” she whispered.
“Miss –” A man entered the barn in a swirl of rain, and quickly barred the door against the howling wind “Gabrielle?” He held up an oil lantern, and she looked up to see the stable hand.
“Yes?” She straightened up, wondering if he’d seen her hugging her horse. Gabrielle had learned that traveling alone meant hiding weakness and showing only the strength of a woman fully capable of defending herself. The truth was that she’d been fully able to take care of herself for a very long time, even before Japa. But before Japa, there had been times when she was afforded the luxury of letting her guard down, and allowing her poet’s heart to run free, safely protected by her now-absent warrior. There were many things now that she categorized as before Japa and after. Poetry and gaiety fell firmly into the before category.
“Didn’t want to startle you. Just came in to check the horses one more time, make sure they have enough hay and water for the night. Be turning in soon. My family and I live right upstairs, so I’m close by.” He placed the lantern on a hook that hung by a rusted chain from the rafters. “You staying at the inn tonight?”
“No.” Gabrielle removed a bedroll and shoulder bag from the corner of the stall where she’d stored them. “I came to check on Argo and get away from the tavern crowd for a little while.”
“Oh, full up are they? Tough luck in this bad weather.” He lifted a pitchfork from where it rested in the corner, and began shuffling back and forth between a bale of hay in the middle of the floor, and each occupied stall, filling the troughs full. “You’re welcome to bunk down in here tonight, no extra charge.”
“Thanks, but I have to be somewhere.” She fished two coins from her bag and handed them over. “I may be a day or so. Will this cover her care?”
“Yes, oh yes.” He flashed a friendly smile and pocketed the money, buttoning it carefully against loss during his labors. “Where are you going on this wretched evening? Surely it can wait until this gale blows over. ‘Twas a time I would’ve blamed such a storm on Zeus, but he was killed by – Xena, the Warrior Princess, wasn’t it?”
“No, Hercules killed Zeus.”
The man peered at her skeptically. “You’re certain it wasn’t Xena? I heard she killed a whole passel of gods.”
“Yes, I’m certain. I was th – never mind.” Gabrielle tried not to sound as cross as she felt. “Listen, I have to go talk to someone, and it can’t wait. If it takes longer than anticipated, I’m good for the balance when I return.”
“Surely, Miss, surely you are.” The man smiled again. “No worries. I wouldn’t dream of providing anything but the best of care for this fine steed until your return.” His lip twitched nervously, and he fumbled with the pitchfork, accidentally dumping a load of hay on the floor.
Gabrielle sighed. “Look. Despite what you’ve heard, I’m not going to hurt you. I try not to fight anymore. You need not fear me.” She re-donned her cloak and slung the bag over her shoulder, then clipped her katana and saya in place. “That is as long as Argo comes to no harm.” She pulled her thick wool hood up and tied it snugly, then left the comfort of the barn.
Cold rain pelted her face, and she ducked her head and trudged resolutely to the edge of the village, then took a trail that led a short way through some woods. The tree branches crashed together overhead and the wind whipped through them, stripping them of their foliage. Bits of leaves and twigs fluttered down around her as she took exaggerated steps through a bed of soggy pine needles, picking her way along the well-known path. After a short journey, the trees gave way to a series of grassy dunes and then to rain-packed sand and a rocky bluff overlooking a raging ocean.
She retrieved a tarp from her bag and tied it between two large boulders, then spread her bedroll out beneath it. After fishing out a small flask, she shoved the bag up under the tarp as well, and then crawled into her bedroll. She rested on her side, propped up on one elbow. It was pitch dark, but out beyond the boulders she could hear waves crashing against the bottom of the cliff where she camped.
There was no sunset, nor moon and stars; only the relentless wind and the rain that pattered hard against her half-hearted shelter. Thunder boomed, and briefly, lightning illuminated both rocks and sea. She uncapped the flask and held it up toward the cliff’s edge. “Here’s to us, Xena. I’ll never forget what we shared, even if you have.” She downed half the flask’s contents, then re-capped it and tossed it to the ground, and burrowed completely under the covers. Soon her shivering subsided, and she fell into the deceptive rest of alcohol-induced sleep.
The crackle of a fire woke her, and the scent of wood smoke tickled her nose. Gabrielle cautiously opened one eye. The rain had stopped, though surely there was not a stick of dry firewood around for miles. She inhaled deeply and took in the fragrance of eggs cooking and tea brewing. The ground beneath her seemed much harder than it had when she first laid down, and she cautiously twisted her body from side to side, feeling the pleasant crack of her spine re-aligning itself. Quietly, she eased her hand outside the bedroll and grasped her chakram, then crawled out from beneath the tarp and stood up. Several feet away, a cook fire blazed, tended by what appeared to be a woman with long, curly blonde hair.
Gabrielle yawned, and rubbed her eyes with her free hand. “Aphrodite?”
“Good morning, sweet pea.” The goddess of love stood up and turned to face her. In deference to the weather, Aphrodite wore a shimmering silver cloak trimmed with bright pink feathers. “I thought you could use a hot breakfast after a grody night roughing it in the wet sand. Gabrielle, why do you do this to yourself when there was a perfectly comfy pile of hay with your name on it?”
“You know why.” Gabrielle untied the tarp and folded it up, then rolled up her bedroll and tucked them next to her bag. “Two years ago last night, we sat here in this spot and she gave me that poem from Sappho. Then we flew off into the sunset. She showed me what seemed like half of Greece that night. Then she brought me back here, built us a warm fire, and showed me just how much she loved me. Afterward, I fell asleep in her arms while we chased star patterns. It was the last, best night of my life.”
“I’m sorry.” Aphrodite handed her a mug of tea, then stooped down and picked up the half-empty flask and unscrewed the cap, taking a whiff and wrinkling her nose. “Ew, rotgut, babe. Next time you want to drown your sorrows, give me a call. We can have a girls’ night. Drink champagne, eat bonbons, soak in the hot tub, do our nails. Much more pleasant than—” she swept an arm around the space. “This.”
“Thanks, but I’m not looking for pleasant.” Gabrielle took a seat next to the fire and stretched out her feet to warm them. “Nice boots.” She nodded at Aphrodite’s pink fur-encased feet.
“Thanks. Then what are you looking for?” The goddess of love sat down across from her and scraped at some nearly cooked eggs in a pan. “Besides Tall, Dark, and Deadly, that is? Gabrielle, you can’t go on like this.”
“I don’t want to go on at all,” Gabrielle snarled through gritted teeth. “But I have to.”
“Not to sound morbid, but if it’s that bad, you don’t have to go on, you know. Not that I wouldn’t try to stop you if you ever did attempt it.” Aphrodite dished up two plates of eggs and handed one across the fire. “But there are worse things than death.”
“Believe me, I know there are worse things than death. Been there, done that, more than once.” Gabrielle stabbed at her eggs and angrily took a bite, chewing and swallowing. “But I’m not ready to die. Not yet.”
“Well, if you’re going to live, why won’t you help people anymore? When you returned from Japa, everywhere I went that first year, I heard about you. What I fighter you were and that you were all over the place, challenging anyone that dared to hurt innocent people. You became this kick-ass warrior in your own right. I’ve missed my bardly babe, but at least as a fighter, in a strange way you were still bringing love into the world. You were giving something back and focusing outward, and I thought maybe that was your way of moving on without Xena. Now, all you do is drink and mope. If you’re going to live, then live. Make sense?”
“I can’t help people anymore. I can’t fight and risk—” Gabrielle trailed off, shaking her head sadly.
“Risk what?” Aphrodite tilted her head in question.
“I can’t die. I can’t risk it.” Gabrielle flung her plate to the ground and stood, then walked over to the cliff and wrapped her arms around herself, facing out to sea. The waves were calm in contrast with the night before, and the sky was mostly clear, with only a few puffy clouds floating by. A pleasant breeze caressed her skin and she could feel the sun at her back, painting the water below in the pink of early dawn.
“Gabrielle.” Aphrodite moved to her side and gently placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I can’t fight anymore.” Gabrielle’s chest rose and fell in a long, shaky breath. “If I fight, I might get killed, and if I die, I’m not certain where I’ll go. We’ve died so many times, and each time we went to a different place. It terrifies me.”
“Seriously, I wouldn’t want to lose you in battle or any other way, but this isn’t like you.” Aphrodite gave her shoulder a squeeze. “You’re one of the bravest people I know. In the past, you’d never let fear of death stop you if you were fighting for a just cause. Even when you first met Xena, you were willing to put your life on the line for her, long before you learned how to fight. And as you said, you’ve died before. What changed?”
“Don’t you see?” Gabrielle wailed. “If I die, I risk going to a different place than her. I don’t know where she is. I’ve looked everywhere I was able to. Tartarus. The Elysian Fields. The Amazon Land of the Dead. Valhalla. There was also that crazy place we went with all the angels and demons, after Caesar crucified us, but I don’t know how to get to it. I can’t die until I know where she is. Sometimes I’m afraid it’s like it was when we were in India, and she’s already moved on to another incarnation without me. Maybe I’m going to have to wait a life or two before I can be with her again. If I die, I risk spending a very long time, or even eternity without her.”
“I looked for her,” Aphrodite replied softly. “Ares and I both did. Wherever she is, we couldn’t get to her. It’s like –“
“Like she’s just gone,” Gabrielle finished for her. “She left me. Her spirit was on that ship talking to me as we left Japa. It was all so nice and normal that it led me to believe we could go on together, almost as if she hadn’t really died. We went to sleep and the next morning, she was gone. She promised me she would always be with me.”
“Oh, sweetie, she is. She’s still with you.” Aphrodite led her back to the fire and poured a fresh cup of tea. “Here, you’re cold.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle held the warm beverage in both hands, staring thoughtfully into the flames. “I wish I could believe you, but I don’t feel her with me anymore.”
“Can I say something?” The goddess of love took a seat next to her.
“Like I could stop you.” Gabrielle smiled for a moment.
“I wish you’d stop searching so hard, and accept that Xena died. The bodacious bod is gone, but she loved you so much. That love still lives in your heart, and it always will. But ever since you returned from Japa, all you seem to feel is anger, and beneath that, this massive grief. It’s so powerful, that sometimes it’s hard for me to be around you. It’s hard on my mojo, you know?”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle glanced over at her friend. “I can’t help what I feel.”
“I know, but maybe you’re drowning so deep in your sorrow that you can’t feel Xena, still living inside you.”
“She was everything to me. That twenty-five years on ice took away almost everyone we’d loved before. Lila was alive, but the rest of our families had died. We missed Eve’s childhood and only had a few years with her before she left. My Amazons were mostly gone, and I never truly felt a part of the tribe that had grown up while we were on ice. Xena and I became the whole world to each other.”
“You were the whole world to each other before twenty-five years on ice.” Aphrodite nudged her affectionately.
“I know, but you know what I mean. Almost everyone familiar was gone and that drove us closer together than we’d ever been. All we had was each other. We had a few more years together after that, and then Xena was gone, too. When she left, she took my heart with her.” Gabrielle set her mug aside and stirred the fire with a stick, rearranging the logs and watching them burn anew. “Thanks, by the way.”
“For what?” Aphrodite held her hands out to the fire.
“For breakfast. And dry wood. I was figuring on eating stale bread and cheese.”
“You’re welcome. Ares and I may not have much power left on a large scale, but I’m still good for a few things. I wish I could help you out in your search for Xena, but for whatever reason, she’s hidden from us. Maybe she messed up her karma with us when she killed all the other gods.”
“Karma.” The word rolled slowly off Gabrielle’s tongue. “I’m so tired of this idea that everything has to even out. Like Xena having to stay dead so that those she accidentally killed could be avenged. Never mind that if it weren’t for her, they’d still be enslaved to Yodoshi. Or that none of it would have happened at all if Akemi hadn’t used and deceived her.”
“Xena always did manage to fall for people that were completely wrong for her,” Aphrodite observed. “Present company excepted, of course.”
“You know what hurts, maybe most of all?” Gabrielle poked viciously at the fire. “Do you know how many times she was willing to leave me and die for someone else? Marcus. Hercules. Lao Ma. Grinhilda. Even Caesar, and she hated him! Every time I thought I knew all her secrets, someone new popped up to haunt us. And every time, I waited for her or went after her. Then just when we were ready to settle down somewhere and live out our lives together, Akemi – another dead girlfriend I’d never heard of – turns up. Xena was willing to leave me and die for someone who did nothing but deceive her. She introduced me to Akemi as her soul mate, but in the end, I guess Akemi got her soul.”
Gabrielle stopped and gasped, then clutched a fist against her chest, as if she’d been stabbed. “That’s it. That has to be it! Why didn’t I think of it before?” She stood abruptly and rushed over to retrieve her bedroll and bag. “I have to go.”
“Go where?” Aphrodite followed after her as Gabrielle hefted up her things and took off at a trot for the trail through the woods.
“Japa.” As she ran, Gabrielle felt her feet leave the ground, and suddenly she was back in the barn with Argo, surrounded by swirling pink dust that slowly settled to the straw-covered floor. “What the –?”
“Thought the least I could do was help.” Aphrodite grinned. “I poofed us here. Why are you going to Japa?”
“Because Akemi is a liar.” Gabrielle quickly saddled Argo and secured her few belongings. “You could come with me,” she offered hopefully.
“I wish, babe, but it doesn’t work that way.” The goddess of love waved an arm around. “Greece and Rome are my domain. I venture too far from home and I start pissing off other gods.”
“Then wish me luck.” Gabrielle held out a hand, and found herself engulfed in Aphrodite’s arms. She felt a gentle kiss to the top of her head.
“Good luck, my friend.” Aphrodite pulled back and looked into her eyes. “Do you think you’ll be gone long?”
“If I don’t find Xena, I don’t think I’ll be coming back.” Gabrielle reached across and fluffed Aphrodite’s hair.
“I won’t let you say goodbye.” Aphrodite’s voice cracked, and she blinked away a few tears.
“Farewell, then.” Gabrielle gave her one last hug, then turned and mounted Argo. With a sad smile, she gave a tug to the reins, and rode out into an uncertain future.
The ship rocked and rolled for many long days. Gabrielle spent those days keeping to herself as much as possible, hanging over the rail at the back of the boat during the day, staring back across the waters. After years of grudgingly occasional travel by water with Xena, she’d developed a fairly sturdy set of sea legs, and the nagging nausea from her early days was quickly abated with a few pinches to the pressure point at her wrist. She’d come to realize that once you could no longer see land, ships could be some of the most boring, desolate places on earth, and she understood why sailors long away often lost their minds to utter craziness.
Nights were spent in the cargo hold, curled up in the hay in a stall with Argo. There was nothing to do but think and write. The stories and poems had left her after Xena died, and so she wrote out her anguish and rage in long letters to her absent lover. She thought about the life they’d shared, and tried to remember who she’d been before they met, but the world-weary woman staring back at her in the mirror was nothing like the idealistic young girl who’d chased a belligerent warrior halfway across Greece.
“You did save me, Xena,” she grudgingly acknowledged. “From slavers. From an unfulfilling life as a farmer’s wife. Most importantly, from a life without ever knowing love. Sometimes lately, I don’t know whether to thank you or curse you for that last part.”
“You have to take me with you. Teach me everything you know. Well, you surely did exactly what I asked, didn’t you?” Gabrielle smiled for a moment in warm memory. The smile faded as she thought on those last few hours before they parted ways and Xena ran off alone into battle, knowing she was going to get herself decapitated. “When we first met, I thought I wanted to be a great warrior like you. In the end, all I really wanted was you. To be with you, and dammit, Xena, to die with you if it came to that. After everything we went through, I deserved to have that choice.”
“This.” She lifted the chakram and twirled it on her fingertip, then laid it back down in the corner of the stall next to the katana. “I never expected or wanted this.”
She flopped back in the hay, crossing her arms behind her head. “Your weapons. Your fighting skills. Your horse. Never wanted any of it.”
Argo snorted in displeasure.
“Oh, don’t get your tail feathers in a twist. You know I love you, but you’re hers. We’re both hers.” She turned to her side, and Argo nudged her belly. She reached up and stroked the velvety-soft muzzle. “And I’d gladly give you and all her things back to her, if she’d come back and live with us again. I’m not sure what’s going to happen when we get to Japa. I have a few ideas, but I don’t know if any of them will help us get her back. I’m going to do my best, though, or die trying.”
She sat up and gave Argo a kiss on the nose, then lay back down and closed her eyes. In those first few weeks after Xena’s death, sleep had been elusive. She’d spent long hours in the darkness, tossing and turning, replaying everything that had happened and trying to determine if she could have done anything differently, and why she’d missed all the obvious clues of Xena’s plan to die. If she did sleep during those first few weeks, she had nightmares, reliving the sight of Xena’s headless body hanging in the rain.
Weeks of nightmares and second-guessing herself gradually became nights of anger and days of acting out that anger in fight after fight. She wanted to believe she was just doing good, helping people who needed a warrior to protect them, but she knew in her heart that when she was fighting, she was forced to focus on the moment at hand. During the heat of battle, she could forget everything else. Forget she was alone. Days of fighting and nights of anger were hard on the body, and during that time, she surprisingly slept – a deep, dreamless slumber that let her forget for a while, even if she never felt fully rested when the sun came up.
She couldn’t remember when those angriest of days finally passed. Oh, she was still plenty furious, but it had become a normal state for her, always there under the surface but manageable most of the time. Increasingly, she just felt empty and hopeless. Once she quit fighting every day, sleep came to her less easily. She discovered a few nips of strong liquor took the edges off long enough for her to find blessed oblivion, if only for a few hours each night.
On this night, the monotony of life aboard ship was all the drug she needed. The captain had told her that in the morning they would reach the shores of Japa. She had a job to do and she needed to be at her best to do it. Resolutely, she closed her eyes and pulled a blanket over herself. Soon the boat and the steady sound of Argo’s breathing rocked her to sleep.
It was a long ride from the harbor and on through the village of Higuchi. She stopped once on her way through, to study the family shrine where Xena had tried to take Akemi’s ashes to rest. “But the good people of this town wouldn’t let you be buried there would they? Because you had no honor.” Gabrielle ticked off one mental box, and re-mounted Argo. At the edge of town she stopped again to fill two water flasks at the well, and replenish a few supplies at a small store. She spoke as little as possible, and kept her face hidden in the recesses of her hooded cloak.
She turned to look back at the street that led to the edge of the foothills. “Come on, Argo. I don’t have time for people who were too ignorant to leave burning buildings. They beat her and when she defended herself, they blamed her for what they started. Oh, Xena.” Her chest felt tight. “Was this where you learned to guard your heart so closely? Is that what Akemi did to you?”
Turning toward the mountains, they rode on, horse and master by default. The foothills grew steeper and gave way to the mountains, and the tall old-growth forest that never allowed the ground below to be touched by the full light of the sun. At mid-day, they came to the fortress where Xena had taught her to listen on many levels. “I heard everything but you, didn’t I?”
It appeared to be deserted, but she didn’t go inside to find out. She got out of the saddle long enough to allow Argo a drink from a nearby stream, while she hastily assembled and consumed a dried fish sandwich, choking it down with swallows from a jug of fresh green tea. Leading Argo by the reins, she reached the outskirts of the fortress grounds and came upon a small shrine. Reaching into her belt pouch, she retrieved a very small lock of Xena’s hair and placed it in the shelter of the shrine, then knelt down in silent meditation for several minutes. “Let this lock of hair find you, my love,” she whispered.
Rising up, she got back on Argo and they rode on, into the woods that had inhabited her nightmares on many a restless night. She closed her eyes, listening. There was a light wind, high in the trees, and a few birds twittering away out of sight, in the shadows. Argo’s hooves crunched through decades of decaying undergrowth, and she could hear her own blood, pounding in her ears.
The pounding became old memories of taiko drums beating, and thousands of feet marching. Flashes of scenes passed across her vision. She was running blindly, heedless of the whoosh of arrows all around her, and the clash of swords off in the distance. There was only the path through the trees, and shafts of sunlight piercing the forest. And there was a chakram lying on the ground in a seemingly endless river of blood. Xena’s blood. “I knew then. What you’d done. How you’d left me. That was when I finally heard everything that was behind your words.”
Ahead of her, the trees began to thin, and a low mist hung over the ground. Her heart began to pound again, remembering this place. Remembering a happy reunion that quickly ended in horror and disbelief. “And yet you allowed me to hope. There’s so much I don’t understand, but that – you allowing me to believe you were going to live at the end of the day. Why? What was the point of sending me after your body? Do you have any idea what finding it did to me?” She angrily swiped a few tears from her eyes. There was still way too much to do, to fall apart.
They came to a footpath lined with river stones, and Gabrielle dismounted. She removed Argo’s saddle and bridle, and her travel bag, and stowed them behind a tree. “I don’t know how long this will take, so you go on and graze and do all your horsey business. No matter what happens, I’ll try my best to come back and get you when I’m done. But if – if I don’t return, know I love you, and she loved you. This will be a good place for you. She’s here, nearby somewhere, whether I find her or not. I know that now.”
A little pat to the rump sent the mare on her way. Gabrielle watched until the cream-colored tail disappeared with a twitch around a bend in the trees. She secured the katana at her back and turned toward the clearing. Nearby a brook babbled, and she made her way down the path, reaching a wooden walkway that she knew led to a bridge. Another turn through the lush gardens, and the teahouse came into view. A trail of smoke rose up from its stovepipe, mingling with the heavy mist that lingered in the early hours after noon.
Gabrielle paused. “In through the front, or sneak in the back way?” With a little nod of her head, she unsheathed the katana and tossed her cloak aside. Beneath the cloak she wore not the clothing of Japa, but the battle armor of an Amazon Queen. Rich rust-hued suede leather leggings covered her from her waist to her feet, which were clad in sturdy leather boots. Her torso was bare, her top a woven suede leather halter, and over the halter was a light layer of the finest, lightest chain mail. At her wrists were leather and metal-studded gauntlets, and the long braid down her back was interwoven in feathers of blue and green. A leather headband circled around her forehead and met in the back in long leather fringe.
Only the katana was of Japa, and she carried it only by necessity. At her belt was the chakram that had been forged by the gods of Greece. She was not of Japa. Xena was not of Japa. She was the Queen of the Greek Amazons, come to claim her consort and take her home.
“Damn the kimonos, full speed ahead.” With the katana in one hand and her other fist around the chakram, she marched down the walkway, over the bridge, and onto the teahouse terrace. Her hands were full, so with a shove of her boot, she slammed open the double doors, shattering its glass panes and the silence within.
Five steps in, she stopped. “Sometimes I hate it when I’m right,” she muttered.
“Hello, Gabrielle, I’ve been expecting you.” Akemi rose from a kneeling position in the middle of the room, and stood, head bowed, hands pressed together against her chest.
“I’ll just bet.” Gabrielle closed the distance, katana outstretched. She pressed the flat side of the tip beneath Akemi’s chin, and lifted it, making eye contact. “Where is she?”
“At peace.” Akemi blinked and smiled sweetly.
“You know, I’m beginning to think that the way to know when you’re lying is when your mouth is moving.” Gabrielle sheathed the katana and lifted the chakram, holding it out between her and Akemi as she slowly circled her.
“You are in great pain. Come, let us have some tea and talk, old friend.” Akemi rotated as Gabrielle moved, keeping her face toward her.
“We were never friends.” Gabrielle wiggled the chakram. “This weapon is from my country. It was given to Xena by Ares, our god of war. It bends to my will now. I’ll bet it can take out a ghost as efficiently as your sacred katana. She moved closer and held the chakram at Akemi’s throat.
“I cannot answer your questions if you kill my spirit.” Akemi swept her arm out, gesturing toward a teapot that sat on a warmer over a candle floating in a clear glass bowl. “Come, sit with me.”
“I got many of the answers as soon as I found you here, right where I expected I would.” Gabrielle began circling again. “You lied to Xena to get her to take you to Japa, so you could kill your father and avenge your family’s death at his hands. You batted those dark eyes and she fell for you. She loved you, and you used her to kill you and restore your honor. But your honor wasn’t restored, and you knew it. It was forever lost when you killed a family member. That’s why the people of Higuchi wouldn’t let your ashes be placed there, and that’s ultimately why those people died. Xena was there because you sent her there on a pointless mission.”
“Xena chose to breath fire on those people. That wasn’t my doing.” Akemi continued to smile, her patient demeanor only increasing Gabrielle’s contained rage.
“Did I ask you to talk? No, I didn’t.” Gabrielle shook a finger at her. “Your soul was banished here because you weren’t allowed to spend the afterlife with those who died with honor. And you’re here now, because once again, you lied to Xena and used her. You used her to kill your father’s soul. She did it at your bidding, and so even after she released you from Yodoshi’s grasp, you still were not allowed into the afterlife with the others.”
Akemi’s patient smile disappeared. “You know nothing of our ways, Gabrielle. Xena did. She understood the honor required in avenging a death.”
“No, you see, I think I do know something about your ways, and one thing I know is that your ways are not our ways. Let’s start with avenging death and restoring honor. Xena isn’t from Japa. Xena lives by her own code, by our code. And our code would dictate that those deaths were avenged and that debt paid in full, when Xena released those souls from Yodoshi’s grasp. The moment those souls were released, Xena’s honor was restored. Therefore, Xena didn’t have to stay dead, did she?’ Gabrielle moved closer until she was nose to nose with Akemi. “Did she!?” she bellowed. The tendons in her neck strained, and her cheeks were red with fury. “Answer me!”
“I thought you didn’t want me to talk,” Akemi replied acidly.
“I bet eternity is a very long time to spend alone in a tea house.” Gabrielle stepped back, but kept the chakram at the ready. “You wanted Xena to stay dead in hope you’d get to keep her with you. I know she’s here somewhere, and I’m not leaving until I find her.” She drew an urn out of a bag she’d slung across her shoulders.
“You brought Xena’s ashes back here?” Akemi’s eyes grew wide and her voice rose to a squeak.
“That frightens you, doesn’t it?” Gabrielle carefully placed the urn back into the bag. “Maybe I don’t need you to tell me where Xena is. Maybe if I go back to that fountain and pour her ashes in, she’ll come to me.”
“No, you shouldn’t do that.” Akemi moved toward her and was stopped by the chakram, an inch from her nose.
“Why not?” Gabrielle watched Akemi’s nostrils flare at the question. “It’s just ashes. If nothing will happen when I dump this urn, why should you care?”
“It would dishonor Xena.” The sickly sweet smile returned. “You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“I’ve had enough of you and your damned talk of honor.” Gabrielle placed the chakram back on her belt hook. “I’m out of here. Next stop, the top of Mount Fujisan.”
“No, Gabrielle, you can’t!” Akemi dropped to her knees and clasped her hands together, pleading.
Akemi lunged for her legs, but Gabrielle leaped over her and kept going. No looking back, no stopping. She raced across the bridge and whistled for Argo. Just as she reached the end of the footpath, the faithful mare arrived. “Go, Argo!” She leaped onto the mare, riding away at breakneck speed. There was no time for saddle and bridle. She could hear Akemi running behind her, screaming for her to stop.
Gabrielle clasped handfuls of Argo’s mane, squeezing tightly to her sides with her legs. She could feel the horse’s muscles moving beneath her, and the changing hardness of the ground, as she guided Argo through the leaf-covered trees and then up a dirt path between large boulders. Up into the mountains they rode, and as they came around an outcropping, the peak of Mount Fujisan came into view.
Overhead, a small hawk flew after her, swooping down from time to time and pecking at her back. “What in hades?” She drew the katana and the bird fell back. It ceased pecking at her, but continued to follow, flying at a steady pace just over her right shoulder.
As they approached the top of Mount Fujisan, the hawk dove down in front of Argo’s legs, but the mare rose up on her back haunches and jumped over the bird. As they landed, Gabrielle’s jaws clicked together hard, and she saw stars. Argo kicked out behind her and clipped the hawk, sending it somersaulting backward through the air before it could steady itself.
It bought Gabrielle precious minutes of time, and at the top of the mountain, she commanded Argo to halt, then leaped to the ground and took off at a run. There was the fountain where she’d been told to pour the ashes two years ago. “But Akemi’s a liar,” she reminded herself quietly. “No.”
There was another water source on Mount Fujisan. Gabrielle had seen what it could do. Restore strength. Regenerate missing limbs. It was the fountain of strength, the water of life. She craned her neck, looking up to its source. It was but a trickle, dripping down into a rocky trough that fed the cistern below it.
She retrieved the urn from her pouch and brought it to her lips, kissing it. “Xena, I hope I’m right about this.” Carefully, she drew a dagger and broke the wax seal she’d applied to the urn two years before. Opening the lid, she placed it just below the dripping water source and watched, as drop by drop, the ashes became damp.
A hawk screeched and Gabrielle turned, just as it landed and Akemi took form once more. She ran at Gabrielle, grabbing at the katana. Gabrielle ducked out of reach and rotated, kicking Akemi in the stomach. As Akemi fought for balance, Gabrielle took the chakram and sent it airborne, flying toward the source of the water. It crashed into the rock with a metallic crunching sound, and the trickle became a flood.
Gabrielle caught the chakram and turned back, ready to continue the fight. “Akemi?” She watched in fascination, as the Japanese woman clutched at her stomach, while at the same time she gagged as if she were choking on something. Light poured out from the ends of her hair and her fingertips, and her eyes looked as if they were about to pop from her skull.
“Gabrielle, use the katana.” It was Akemi’s mouth moving, but Gabrielle gasped, clearly hearing Xena’s voice.
“You, you want me to –?” She drew the katana from its saya.
“Gabrielle, do it!” Xena’s voice sounded desperate.
With some trepidation, Gabrielle approached Akemi and lifted the katana up in both hands. She spun around in a swift arc and twisted her arms, muscles straining as she cleanly took Akemi’s head off at the shoulders. As her head rolled away, Akemi’s body exploded into thousands of pieces, and a swirling ball of light burst forth and flew toward the urn like a comet.
Gabrielle dropped to her knees, tossing the katana away from her. She looked up, chest heaving for breath, and watched as the urn broke apart, and Xena rose up, arms outstretched and head thrown back, her long hair fanning out behind her. She was wearing her leathers and armor, and with a giant leap, she jumped away from the water and raced toward Gabrielle.
“Xena?” Gabrielle reached up, unable to stand. The warrior dropped down next to her and pulled Gabrielle against her in a fierce hug. “Mmphh.” Gabrielle grabbed handfuls of metal and leather, burrowing her face into Xena’s neck.
“I gotcha.” Xena held on tightly, her lips pressed against her lover’s ear. “I gotcha.”
“You’re – not dead?” Gabrielle came up for air, her expression incredulous. Slowly, she removed the chakram from her belt and with a shaking hand, offered it over.
Xena flashed a blinding grin and grabbed it, holding on, fingers wrapped firmly around it, as a hearty laugh bubbled up from her throat. “Mine.” She kissed Gabrielle on the head. “Mine,” she repeated.
“Mine.” Gabrielle grasped Xena’s face in both hands and kissed her passionately, their tongues dancing together with aching familiarity, Xena’s lips sweeter than any honey, soft and warm against her own.
After a while, they reluctantly broke apart, foreheads pressed together as their breath mingled between them. “Xena, how? Why? I don’t understand –” A swift peck to her lips silenced her.
“Shhhh.” Xena cradled Gabrielle’s cheek in the palm of her hand, and with her thumb wiped away the tears that had begun to fall. “I know you have a lot of questions. Gabrielle, I’m so, so sorry. For so many things.” Xena’s own voice was raspy with unshed tears. “I don’t think I could have done so many things so badly, if I had been trying to.”
“You can say that again.” Gabrielle playfully punched her in the stomach.
“Everything you said back there in the tea house to Akemi, you were right. Of everything we were told we needed to do, the only thing they really needed me for was to kill Yodoshi’s spirit and free those souls. The rest – you were right. I didn’t have to stay dead, and Akemi was never going to have her honor restored.
“Where is she now?” Gabrielle looked around and wrinkled her nose. “Other than her head, that is.”
Xena’s disgusted expression matched Gabrielle’s. “We need to burn that thing. The rest, dust, I guess. She’s nowhere now. Nothing.”
“She can’t come back and –”
“Hopefully not without her head.” Xena laughed lightly, then grew sober. “Even if she could, I will kill her as many times as I have to until she stays dead. I will never listen to her or anyone like her again.”
“But you left me. You left me to go die, and then you left me alone on the boat. How can I believe you?” Gabrielle plucked at Xena’s leather skirt, twirling one of the thick pieces of fringe around her finger.
“Oh, my love.” Xena’s voice was shaking, and she cleared her throat. “I don’t think I will ever be able to repay the debt I owe you for what I’ve put you through. I did leave you to go die, but at the time I hadn’t been told I would have to stay dead. Akemi didn’t cook up that lie until she knew you were hell-bent on bringing me back to life. You were already gone on your way to find my body when she laid that one on me.”
“Oh gods.” Gabrielle covered her mouth, feeling her insides trembling as two years of anger began to unwind. “All this time, I thought you knew and just sent me away knowing it was for nothing.”
“I know. Oh, how I know. I’ve thought of that every day for two years, kicking myself for failing to explain that to you when we were sitting up here, waiting for the sun to set.” Xena shook her head sadly. “We were both in shock is all I could come up with.”
“That’s true, and fair enough, but Xena, the boat. You left me again after we went to sleep that night. I fell asleep on your promise to always be with me, and when I woke up, you were gone.” Her face scrunched up in renewed hurt and anger, and she looked up, searching Xena’s sorrow-filled eyes.
“Akemi –” Xena saw Gabrielle’s mouth open and she held up a hand. “Please, just hear me out?” Gabrielle closed her mouth and nodded. “That night after you went to sleep, I was lying there trying to process everything that had happened. I wasn’t even sure if I could sleep, being dead and all. I got up to take a walk on the deck and when I reached the bow, Akemi came to me. She said she wanted to say a proper goodbye. We reached out to hug each other, and I don’t know how exactly, but she somehow sucked me inside of her. I guess kind of like Yodoshi did to all those souls.”
“Like father like daughter,” Gabrielle replied in disgust. “So you were trapped?”
“Yes,” Xena answered, deeply earnest. “For two years. I could hear her, and she could hear my thoughts, but no matter how much I begged, she wouldn’t let me go. She was terrified of being alone forever. I gave up begging her, and prayed to any god that would listen that you would figure it out. She heard that too. I think she would have slapped herself silly if it would have shut me up.”
“So she really was expecting me.” Gabrielle laughed lightly.
“Yes. Everyday.” Xena smiled. “I begged for you to come to me, every single hour. If you think she was crazy before –”
Gabrielle burst out in a full belly laugh. “Who would ever have guess you would be the one to talk someone to death.”
Xena joined in the laughter, and looked around them. “It’ll be dusk soon. We should probably get down from here, find a place to stay.”
“I know a place.” Gabrielle stood, and reached out, helping Xena up with her. She drew the warrior against her and held on, hugging her, eyes closed as they rocked back and forth, their bodies alive with the joy of reconnection. “That fortress from two years ago, it’s not too far, and I think it’s deserted now. I didn’t understand it at the time, but you said goodbye to me there.”
Xena reached up, stroking Gabrielle’s hair and then her face. She ducked her head and they kissed, less fervently than before. This time was slow and full of promise. Hearts mended and the threads of two souls twined together once more. Yin found Yang, and the balance of the Dao began to be restored. “Let’s go there.” Xena drew back and kissed Gabrielle’s forehead. “This time, I’d like to spend the night saying ‘hello’.”
“I think I’d like that very much.” Gabrielle looked past the cliff toward clouds tinted red by the low-hanging sun. Her chest ached and her eyes stung, remembering her last sunset at the top of the mountain. “A very different dusk,” she whispered. She let out a low whistle and Argo trotted over.
“Argo.” Xena smiled in delight and the mare gave her a friendly head-butt. She’d noticed her four-legged companion earlier, but so much had happened, that Argo’s presence hadn’t really registered at first. “You took good care of her.”
“And she of me.” Gabrielle climbed up onto Argo’s back and looked down, raising one eyebrow.
“I could probably get up there behind you.” Xena winked at her. “You’ve got to take me with you, teach me everything you know.”
“You know, where I’m headed there’ll be trouble.” Gabrielle grinned.
“I know.” Xena grinned back.
“Then why would you want to go into that with me?” Gabrielle reached down, offering her hand.
“Because I’m madly in love with you and want to spend eternity with you.” Xena clasped arms with her.
“Works for me.” Gabrielle hauled her up, and felt Xena’s arms wrap around her waist. After a breath, a strong chin came to rest on her shoulder. Gabrielle turned her head to brush lips, and felt a hand creeping up her inner thigh. “Hey! You’ll distract the driver.”
“Just getting a head start on saying ‘hello’.” Xena stole a kiss, and they laughed, as they rode off into the setting sun.
So, so, so, so, so not the end.
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