Part 1 of 6
TO STAND TOGETHER THROUGH THE STORM
Disclaimers: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are owned and operated by MCA/RenPic and whomever else wants to make money off of them. I just do this for the fun of it and receive no compensation, monetary or otherwise, from the borrowing of these characters for my own personal use.
Subtext Warning: I continue to hold fast to my belief that Xena and Gabrielle share two halves of a soul, and in sharing that soul, they also share a love that is both spiritual and physical. There are scenes of that physical love scattered throughout this story. If you are under-age or live in a place where this type of reading is illegal, please do not continue with this story.
Violence Warning: Though not chock full of the stuff, this work does contain scenes of graphic violence and its aftermath. If you are adverse to this, please read no further.
Story Disclaimer: This story is a sequel to my first work, "The Stranger In Your Eyes". While there is no bardic law that states that you must read that story first, parts of this one will make very little sense unless you do. Just thought Id warn you. And a further continuity disclaimer: I wrote Stranger before events of the fourth season placed Gabrielle not in the Fields but in the Amazon Land of the Dead. For continuity purposes, this story assumes there is no Amazon Land of the Dead.
EXTRA SPECIAL DO NOT SKIP PAST THIS ONE WARNING: One of the antagonists in this story is what is euphemistically called a white supremacist. The words he uses are really out there in the public, and thats a very scary thing. I have included actual speeches because I believe it is important to the plot of this work. I will use a similar bold print disclaimer before and after each speech of questionable taste to give the reader the chance to skip past the hatred portrayed within. If even having such a person in this story makes the reader uncomfortable, PLEASE READ NO FURTHER.
Dedication: As always, I would like to thank my wonderful beta reader, Mike, for all the time and effort he put into dealing with me in the production of this story. Thanks also go to Mary D for help with disclaimer stuff as well as having one fantastic Xena-site out there for us crazed fans. And, to all the wonderful Xena fans out there who took the time out to send kind words on Stranger, a special Thank You! Your words of support made this one writer very happy. Feedback, as always, is gratefully appreciated. I can be reached at SwordnQuil@aol.com.
TO STAND TOGETHER THROUGH THE STORM
The sun shone in through a lightly tinted window, its fiery tendrils snaking out upon rose colored sheets, staining them the color of newly spilled blood. Spreading its warmth across a lightly tanned face and amber hair, the sun decided that fluttering eyelids would be a good place to rest for awhile and so it did, bestowing a gentle caress to soft skin. The suns resting place uttered a grumbled curse and swung her head away from the brilliant beam, one hand searching the sheets next to her and coming up empty. With a sigh, the young woman opened her jade eyes, pushing sleep tousled tendrils of hair from her face. "Dont see whats so damned special about mornings anyway," she mumbled, sitting up and dry washing her face with one hand while stretching sleep-numbed muscles languidly. With a jaw-cracking yawn, she pushed back the covers and stepped out of bed and onto the sun-warmed bare wood floor, her feet making tiny squeaking sounds against the highly polished grain. Walking over to a large oaken dresser, the young woman pulled out a pair of shorts and an overlarge T-shirt, shrugging into the clothes without thought as the tantalizing smell of breakfast wafted into the room from downstairs. Breaking into her first smile of the day, she finished dressing with alacrity, pulling her hair back into a simple ponytail and heading down the broad wooden stairs to the floor below, making a bee-line for the massive kitchen and the wonderful odors emanating from within.
"Good morning, Manuel," the young woman said enthusiastically, licking her lips as she eyed the collection of pots and pans littering the large stove. "Whatever youre cooking smells delicious!"
"Good morning to you as well, Gabrielle," Manuel replied in a lightly accented voice, smiling and bowing his head slightly. "Huevos Rancheros. One of your favorites, no?"
"One of my favorites yes!"
The tall man grinned, adjusting his glasses on his nose. "Then sit yourself down and Ill fix you up a plate."
Nodding happily, Gabrielle did as she was bade, pulling out a heavy oak chair and sliding into it, flipping out a linen napkin and spreading it out on her lap as she awaited breakfast. "Im guessing Xena ate already?"
"Hours ago. Shes out with the horses now, Id expect." The tall Pima caretaker placed a heaping plate before his charge, smiling as his hands barely had time to escape the flying cutlery as the young woman dove into the meal as if it were her last on this earth. Where does she put it all? he wondered as he returned to the stove. Grinning and shaking his head, the elderly man just thanked the gods that this petite woman had become part of their household. He had been with Xena for almost forty of his sixty years, serving the tall beauty as caretaker, cook, confidant, whatever it was that she needed. He had grieved with her during those times when the death of her beloved bard tore its bloody talons into her the deepest. He had stayed with her during the night, tenderly brushing off sweat-soaked bangs when nightmares of death invaded her sleep. He held her when she cried, which wasnt often, but when she did, his heart broke right along with hers. Xena was the daughter he never had, his wife having borne him six strong sons before succumbing to the plague of Diabetes which continued to decimate his people. The warrior treated Manuel as a much loved uncle, entrusting him with her secrets and with the memory of her beloved. When Xena had returned two weeks ago, a smiling blonde woman on her arm, he had wept tears of joy at the reunion, never bothering to question the seeming miracle, just glad in its occurrence.
Washing down the last of her breakfast with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, Gabrielle pushed herself back from the table, placing her napkin on the plate. "Thanks, Manuel. That was fantastic, as usual." Placing the dishes in the sink, the bard grinned as the caretaker pressed a steaming mug of herbal tea into her hand, winking.
"Go see to your warrior. And if you would, tell her to make sure she takes her boots off before tracking all that damned red rock dust through my freshly washed floors, huh?"
Flashing the man a twinkling smile, Gabrielle sipped her tea and nodded. "Promise." Pressing her hand to his arm, the bard walked through the kitchen door and out into the spectacular sunlight of a new day. Stepping out onto the very edge of the porch, she took in the beauty of the Sedona landscape, its towering red rocks coming alive in a brilliant burst of color as the sun slowly rose over them. The tall pines played a verdant counterpoint to iron red as they threaded their way through and around the rocks, blessing them with shady areas perfect for a romantic picnic or amorous interlude. With a fond smile of remembrance, Gabrielle scanned the desert plain, easily spotting Xena in the near distance, putting young Argo through her paces. All these years and my breath still catches at the sight of her.
As if knowing she was being watched, Xena looked up and spotted Gabrielle leaning against one of the porch support posts, contentedly sipping her tea. A brilliant smile overspread the face of the Warrior Princess as strong thighs nudged her horse into motion toward the house.
Gabrielle watched as Xena came toward her atop the galloping Argo, her raven hair flying off her beautiful face in violent tendrils, her lips split in a beaming smile that reached into the depths of her impossibly blue eyes. The bards heart double thumped in her chest as the vision blurred from the tears springing into her eyes. Its been so long, she thought, closing her eyes against the tears. When she opened them again, the warrior was almost upon her, one long arm flung out away from her body, her large hand extended, beckoning. Gulping slightly, Gabrielle nodded, setting her mug on the porch railing and steeling herself for what was to come. With a gentle tug, the bard was suddenly airborne and twisted slightly as she was placed behind the saddle of the galloping horse. "Fancy meeting you here!" she shouted above the rushing wind, wrapping her arms around Xenas trim waist and resting her head against the warriors broad back.
"Yah!" was Xenas only comment as the young Palomino laid back her ears and lengthened her strides, fairly flying down the desert path towards a forest of fragrant evergreen and towering oak. Within moments, the trio was immersed within the lair of the sheltering trees, the rock-strewn pathway cool and dappled against the surprising high desert January heat. The warrior slowed Argo to a gentle walk as they came to a rushing stream. Sliding off the now lathered horse, Xena helped her companion down and smiled at her, brushing the wind-whipped hair back from Gabrielles face.
"This place is beautiful!" Gabrielle commented, twirling around and taking in the sights.
"Yes, it is. Its called Oak Creek Canyon. I used to come out here a lot when I needed to get away from things. Id do my sword drills, catch some fish." She smile became sad. "Talk to you."
Reaching up, Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on Xenas angled cheek, cupping her face tenderly. "I heard you every time, Xena," she said softly. "You dont know how much I looked forward to it. Your voice was the only thing that made my time in the Fields bearable."
Covering Gabrielles hand with her own, Xena turned her head slightly, kissing the softly callused palm with tender lips. "I love you," she whispered.
Gabrielle beamed. "I love you too."
With a quirky grin, Xena gently removed their clasped hands from her face. "Good. Now that weve got that settled, lets see about getting young Argo here something to drink, hmmm?"
Laughing, the bard walked hand in hand with the warrior as Xena lead the anxious horse to the quickly flowing water, releasing the fillys reins and allowing her to snuffle up the chilled liquid. "Easy girl," Xena murmured, patting the horses withers. "Take it easy. That waters cold."
Argo snorted and stamped indignantly at the suggestion, spraying water over both women. "Hey!" Gabrielle shouted, flicking the water droplets off her arms, scowling. "Stupid horse! Now Im freezing!"
An evil grin and a raised eyebrow were directed in the bards direction. "I might know of a way to warm you up."
The bard returned the grin with one of her own. "Oh you might, might you? Well . . . youre gonna have ta catch me first!" Squealing with laughter, Gabrielle darted into the forest with Xena in hot pursuit.
It only took a few long strides before the warrior caught up with the fleeing, wildly giggling bard, tackling the smaller woman into a nest of fragrant moss and rolling around with her, kicking up pollen with every movement. "Ive gotcha now!" the triumphant warrior crowed, pinning Gabrielle beneath her long frame.
"You sure do," Gabrielle retorted, her grin lighting up her eyes. "What are you gonna do with me?"
"Only this." Ducking her dark head, Xena claimed the bards lips in a gentle kiss that deepened slowly. "And maybe a little of this." Trapping a tender earlobe between her teeth, the warrior drew the succulent flesh into her mouth, suckling gently as her tongue caressed it lovingly. "And maybe, if youre really good, some of this." The warriors husky whisper send sparks of arousal down through the bards body as she slipped lower and clamped her lips around a hardened nipple standing at attention through the thin fabric of Gabrielles shirt.
"With enticement like that, how could I even think about being bad?"
Looking up from her task with a wicked grin, Xena licked her lips. "You know how much I like it when youre bad, Gabrielle." Her voice was like liquid silk as it tripped over the bards nerve endings, pouring molten heat through the smaller body. Grin still firmly in place, the warrior stretched full length onto Gabrielles willing body, claiming the young womans lips yet again in gentle exploration.
Breaking away slightly to breathe, Gabrielle found herself trapped within the passion-fired azure of her lovers crystal gaze. "Ill be good. Ill be bad. Ill be anything you want, Xena, just . . . .ohhhh yes, just like that, love." Her lithe body squirmed under the warriors heavy, solid weight as a large, warm hand cupped her mound over the flannel of her shorts.
"You dont feel chilled anymore, Gabrielle," Xena observed, stroking her fingers lightly over the fabric teasingly.
"Must be . . .all that . . .exercise . . . ."
"Mmmm. Must be."
"Oh gods, Xena." The light, skimming touch was driving the bard to distraction.
Rolling off the bards squirming body to give herself better access, the warrior smirked. "Yes? Something you want, my bard?"
"Urg . . .unn . . .yes, damnit!"
"Would you care to share it with me?"
"Ill share alright you . . .big . . . overgrown . . . ."
"Uh uh uh," Xena said, removing her hand. "Bait the warrior day was yesterday, remember?"
"Oh alright," Xena exclaimed with a mock sigh. "Such impatience from a storyteller." Slipping her hand under the loose fabric of Gabrielles shorts, the warrior skimmed her fingers through the molten honey of her loves desire. "Better?" she asked, eyebrow raised.
"Much," Gabrielle gasped out, thrusting her hips against Xenas questing fingers.
Gabrielle awoke to the sound of Xenas heart beating strongly, comfortingly in her ears beneath the sun-warmed cotton of the warriors T-shirt. She was being held in an all-encompassing grasp what would tighten every few moments, then relax, allowing her to breathe freely once again. She felt sated, completely content in a way she hadnt felt in so many years as to be almost uncountable in her mind. The cheerful chirping of the birds, the sound of the rushing water as it burbled over rocks in the river, the gentle breeze rippling through the grove of oak and pine, her lovers heartbeat and breathing, all these things had she missed terribly. A warm, happy smile broke slowly over the plains of her face, her soul suffused with a joy indescribable to the normally literate bard.
"Xena?" she called out softly.
There was no answer save the tightening of the warriors powerful arms around her body.
"Xena?" she tried again, thinking that her lover was simply dozing, the contraction of her muscles an unconscious response to the sound of Gabrielles soft voice playing through her still simmering senses.
Again, there was no answer, but the grip around her body loosened somewhat, allowing the bard to shift against the warm body beneath her, pulling up to look into her lovers beautiful face. Her eyes widened as she took in Xenas piercing blue eyes, the memory of which had haunted her for eons, their depths magnified by the upwelling of tears the warrior was trying desperately to keep from falling. "Xena? Whats wrong?"
After a long moment, Xena blinked. A single tear sprung forth from the paleness of her eyes, winding its way past her temple to hide in the raven mane of her hair.
Gabrielle traced the trail of wetness with one gentle finger, her brows knit together low over her forehead. "Why are you crying?"
Xenas gaze settled in on her lover as a small smile broke the stony tableau of her face, marking her as human once again. With a gentle hand, she tenderly eased the bards blonde head back onto her chest, stroking her hair with long fingers. "Nothings wrong," she responded after a moment, her voice suspiciously husky. "I was just thinking."
There was a smile in the warriors voice. "You."
Gabrielle snorted softly against the warriors breast. "Thinking about me and crying. That doesnt sound like a good combination."
Xena tangled her fingers in Gabrielles hair, tugging gently. "It sounds wonderful to me."
"But why the tears? Or is it that youve just gotten soft in your old age." What air there was left in her lungs gusted out in a grunt as she was crushed against the muscled body of her partner. "Ok," she gasped out when the pressure eased slightly, "poor choice of words."
There was a long moment of silence, during which Gabrielle was thinking of a way to rephrase her question. Then the warriors voice came rumbling into the bards ears. "I was just thinking how long its been since Ive been able to be with you like this." She squeezed again, more gently this time. "Physically, instead of just in my mind. To be able to hold you, taste you, smell you, touch you. To be able to talk to you and have you answer back." Gabrielles head rose gently, then fell as Xenas chest expanded to expel a long sigh. "I guess it just hit me all at once, thats all." Her voice was aching in its melancholy.
The bard rubbed her cheek against the softness of cotton on Xenas chest. "Im here, Xena," she murmured quietly, hugging the warrior to her strongly.
Xenas fingers gripped her lover convulsively. "I know. But for how long?" came the tortured whisper. "Sooner or later, Im gonna have to give you up again. And I dont know how Im gonna be able to do that."
Gently easing her self out of Xenas grip, Gabrielle rose to sit at the warriors head, crossing her legs and drawing Xena into the warm nest of her lap. Stroking thick, raven hair, the bard looked down into the still, hurting face of her lover. She smiled crookedly, tenderly. "Three thousand years later, and some things still havent changed."
Blue eyes rolled up to gaze at her as an ebony eyebrow arched, conveying perturbation. "Whats that supposed to mean?"
Gabrielle stroked the arched brow of the Warrior Princess, gentling it down to relax back into its natural, dormant position. "It just means that . . .weve had this conversation before. Several times. Remember?"
Xena struggled to sit up, but the bard held her head in its place on her lap, continuing to stroke her hair in soothing patterns. Deciding to give up a fight yet unstarted, the warrior sighed and relaxed back against her muscled, fleshy and ambrosial pillow. "I remember," she acquiesced finally. "But this is different. And we both know it."
"Is it really, Xena?" The bards verdant eyes gazed solemnly into Xenas own, holding them hostage with the urgency of their plea and the depth of their love. "Is it so different from the first year we traveled together? When I was so scared to even look at you wrong for fear youd send me away? Or even the fourth year, when that vision of the cross led you to almost leave me twice? Or the empty months after your immortality came to light, when you were afraid to touch me for fear I would break in your arms?" Jade eyes misted with tears of memories long past. "So many wasted moments," she whispered. A flush of urgency suffused sun-kissed skin as the bards trembling hands moved down to cup the arched planes of the warriors cheeks. "Lets not waste any more. Please."
Xena broke free of the gentle grasp, sitting up quickly and gathering her lover into a comfort-laden embrace, rocking her gently to and fro as she took in a deep breath of clean honey hair, imprinting its scent and rich texture again in her mind. "I promise," she whispered. "Im sorry. Im so sorry."
The living room was huge and sunken low, the darkened grain of its highly polished wooden floors gleaming mellowly in the light of a cheerfully crackling fire which blazed in the large fireplace set into one eggshell wall. Thick, fringed throws, the color of desert hardpan, dotted the polished floor, some providing resting places for tables of mahogany and oak. Black and white pictures of desert still life competed with brightly colored Indian throws for space on the sloping, arched walls. Large, floor to ceiling windows, heavily tinted against the fiery desert sun, framed a breath-taking panorama of red rock country in all its astounding glory.
Xena sat on the floor with her back pressed intimately against the buttery softness of her large, leather couch. Her hands worked deftly, absent mindedly whittling a piece of soft balsa as her eyes split their attentions between the mesmerizing fire and her lover who was engrossed in the spectacle of television, the thin horse-blanket covering her legs tickling against the warriors bare shoulder. A small grin broke over Xenas face as she eyed the raptly staring bard. "Remember to blink, Gabrielle, or your eyesll dry out like a couple of dehydrated figs."
"This is amazing," the bard breathed for what was perhaps the thousandth time. "Its like a play in a box!" Her hands fairly flew over the remote buttons, experts after just two weeks of modern living. "Who could ever have imagined something like this?"
"Someone with a lotta time on their hands," Xena said, smirking as she returned to her whittling. A tendril of warmth seeped through her body as the crown of her head was brushed with gentle, smiling lips.
Gabrielle grinned at her restive lover as she leaned down into the enveloping warmth of the couch, a purr of hedonistic pleasure sounding gently in her chest. Pulling the blanket up to cover one naked shoulder, the bard used the other hand to stroke gentle patterns into her lovers dark bangs, her attention still glued firmly to the television.
With a soft groan at the tender touches, Xena tipped her head back, resting it on the couch and against her lovers abdomen, a soft groan of contentment sounding forth from slightly parted lips.
Gabrielle grinned endearingly at the sound, finally prying her eyes away from the television. "Oh, you like that, do you?"
"Mmmm," came the blissful answer.
"Sure you havent gone soft on me?" Gabrielle asked, a teasing glint in her verdant eyes.
A crystal blue orb rolled up to meet her gaze. "Think again," came the rumbling answer.
The bard trailed her hand through thick ebony hair, coming down to skim across one proud cheekbone. "Soft," she whispered, sliding her hand lower across an elegant neck and the strong, sloping muscles of the warriors shoulders. "Soft." Trailing lightly down one collarbone to rest briefly in the hollow of Xenas throat, feeling the pounding pulse beat in time with her own. Dipping inside the cloth collar of a T-shirt, downward, ever downward, brushing against warm melting curves of the warriors breasts. "So soft."
"Gabrielle," Xena ground out, arching slightly as questing fingers skimmed over a quickly attentive nipple.
Freeing her other arm, the bard joined her hand to its mate, both hands now cupping the fullness of Xenas breasts, stroking and teasing the sensitive skin as it ripened and grew warmer under her attentive palms. Her thumbs drew teasing circles against straining nipples as her hands squeezed and released gently, then more firmly as her lovers breathing deepened and grew increasingly ragged.
Reaching upwards, Xena clasped both hands around the back of Gabrielles neck, bringing the fair head downward against her own, her lips parting as she prepared to taste the sweetness that was her lovers mouth.
Lips melded together in a symphony of sensation, wetness sliding against wetness as teeth nipped and tongues writhed and danced in warm, dark caverns. Gabrielle swallowed Xenas growling moan as she pulled and squeezed the warriors nipples in a way she knew her lover particularly liked, feeling the firmness expand under her hands.
Another growl, this one passion inspired, and Gabrielles hands were freed from their warm haven. Her body was turned insistently, then covered with the best of all possible blankets; six feet of muscled, gorgeous and incredibly aroused Warrior Princess. "Ill show you soft," the warrior purred.
Then proceeded to do exactly that.
The sun decided to play tag with Gabrielles lashes for a second morning in a row, earning it a truly offended scowl brought forth from flashing green eyes. With a half voiced grumble, the petite bard rolled over onto her stomach, thrusting her arms under the down pillow beneath her head and burrowing into the clean, fresh scented cotton. The thin sheet decided to join in the conspiracy by tangling about her legs, which necessitated another annoyed grumble as Gabrielle tried to kick loose, only to find herself tangled up still further. Heaving herself over to her side, the bard reached down and, with a few hearty tugs, tore herself loose from the offending material, tossing it off the bed as she rolled back onto her back, arms and legs akimbo, staring at the ceiling, still scowling.
A slight, warm tingling at the base of her skull heralded the awakening of Sara, the young woman who had so selflessly loaned the use of her body to serve as a vessel for Gabrielles soul. At first, this duality of spirit troubled the young bard because, being who she was, she felt very guilty about just coming in and taking over someone elses rightful life, no matter how urgent the reason behind her actions. She was rather used to the feeling of sharing a body, having experienced it one time before during the quest for ambrosia to save Xena; the action which triggered this entire chain of events and doomed Xena to a life of physical immortality. At the time, she, too, had willingly given up control of her body, reveling in the soul-bound intimacy of the warrior so entwined within her.
This was different, however, and it troubled her no end. Sara had done all she could to soothe the guilt of the ancient soul, assuring Gabrielle that she was a willing participant in the actions. She couldnt put into words the feeling of destiny this sharing had for her. As if all her life had been but a preparation for this sacred duty; to be the willing vessel, as well as the means to rejoin two lost loves, two wandering, tormented souls. It gave her a sense of peace, of simple rightness, the likes of which she had never known, never even suspected even within the realms of her dreams. To share a body with Gabrielle was to share a body with love incarnate. The wisdom, the courage, and a love so pure as to be almost painful to contemplate, flowed out from the bard, providing the most soothing of balms to Saras own wounded essence.
And to have the opportunity to share, even vicariously, in the love that completed Gabrielle, the love of an ancient, immortal warrior from Amphipolis, was more addictive, more powerful than the strongest of drugs. And though Gabrielle often offered, demanded almost, Sara the chance to take control of their shared body, the young woman always demurred. For now and, she suspected for as long as Gabrielle wished to inhabit her body, she would be content to simply bask in what seemed to her to be a perfect world.
"Good morning, Sara."
"Good morning yourself, Gabrielle. I wont ask if you slept well."
"And I wont ask if you enjoyed last nights . . .festivities."
"Hey! You should know me better than that by now. I dont indulge in voyeurism."
"Lets just say that I really enjoyed all of that love washing over you and leave it at that, ok?"
"Lets." Sara normally wasnt this talkative, and Gabrielle felt a blush rising.
"Please, Gabrielle. Dont be embarrassed When I feel things are getting a little intense, I just go real deep inside, into this really neat world Ive created down here. Its amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it. Its like I can totally disconnect myself from my physical body. I still get the emotions, but the rest of it is all yours. So dont worry about it anymore, ok?"
"Really. So just relax and enjoy. I know I am."
"Sorry. Just kidding. So, when are you gonna tell her?"
"Tell her what?"
"The reason why youre here. Beyond getting to see her again, that is."
"I dont know. I havent figured out a way to tell her yet."
"Youre gonna have to think up something soon. From what youve told me, things could get real dangerous real quickly."
"I know. I know. I just have to figure out how to go about it the right way. My powers of persuasion with her are a little out of practice, you know."
"Are you kidding? You have her wrapped around your little finger. And you know it!"
"In some things, Sara. But not in this. Believe me. I know her better than you do."
"Granted. But youre gonna have to get a move on."
"Well, good luck."
"Wait! Where are you going?"
"Getting out of the line of fire. Talk to you later."
And, just like that, Sara was gone, deeply buried within the intricate chasms of her own mind, leaving Gabrielle to face the music alone. The bard huffed out an annoyed sigh, crossed her arms behind her head, and studied the pebbled texture of the ceiling, lost in thought.
A short time later, Xena strode into the huge bedroom, smelling of horses and hard work and wiping a sheen of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. "Damn its hot out there." She looked down at Gabrielles vacant expression with concern. "Gabrielle? Is something wrong?"
Blinking herself back into the present, Gabrielle turned to her tall lover, bestowing upon her a sunny grin that belied the darkness of her thoughts. "Nothing at all. Just thinking."
"Thats supposed to be my line," Xena replied, eyebrow raised.
"Creative license." Reaching out, the bard captured the warriors red streaked hand in her own, tugging. "Cmon down here."
Standing straight, Xena resisted. "I need to take a shower first. One of the stallions kicked over a loose part of the fence and I spent half the morning trying to corral everyone back into the pasture." Lifting one arm, she sniffed at the tough fabric of her denim shirt, then rolled her eyes.
Grinning, Gabrielle tugged again. "You forget, my love, that when I was still alive, that stuff you call deodorant hadnt been invented yet." Her eyes twinkled. "So just get over the fact that I happen to like the way you smell when youve been working and get in this bed with me right now."
Shaking her head, the warrior twisted from the bards tenacious grasp, then jumped over her lover, to land, bouncing, on the bed next to her, a smug grin on her face and her arms crossed over her chest. "Yes, your Majesty?" she teased.
After she had stopped bouncing, Gabrielle turned to Xena, her expression serious. "We need to talk."
Xena paled slightly beneath the bronze tone of her skin, narrowing her eyes slightly. "Why do I get the feeling Im not gonna like this very much?"
Seeing the barely concealed look of panic shooting through her lovers icy eyes, Gabrielle laid one hand tenderly on Xenas wrist, smiling. "Relax. Im not sick. Not dying. Im not going anywhere. So dont worry about that, alright?"
"Okay." Xena drew the word out, though inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Gabrielle drew a long breath in, then let it out, her fingers busily plucking at the soft brushed cotton fabric of the sheet covering her. "Xena, we both know youve always had a very . . .unique . . .relationship with the Greek gods, right? I mean, you always seemed to know when they were around, and they always seemed to come to you to ask for favors."
"Yes . . . ."
The blonde head nodded. "Do you remember when it was that you couldnt, I dont know, feel them anymore? When they stopped coming to you for help? When they stopped coming around at all?"
Xena shrugged. "I dont know. I suppose some time after the Romans conquered Greece. But by that time, I spent very little of my time in Greece anyway." Her heart became heavy. By the time of the Roman invasion, everyone she had ever loved was dead. There was nothing to hold her to the soil of her birth, save for the memories of the times she had walked the length and breadth of the land with Gabrielle by her side. Forcing the maudlin thoughts deep down, she faced the golden haired bard. "Why?"
Gabrielle nodded again. "You were right about the Romans. Their gods just came in and took over, pretty much. And without any worshippers, the Greek gods became pretty much impotent. They lost most of their powers, especially the ones that allowed them to appear to mortals and manipulate their lives."
Xena snorted softly. "Sounds like a good thing to me."
The bard smiled, her attention still on her hands and the sheet she was twisting into new and interesting shapes. "Yeah, it was. Hades is the only one who still has power since he has to look over all the Greek souls in his underworld. The rest just sort of . . .faded away. They dont do much beyond hanging around on Mount Olympus and making each other miserable."
Reaching out, Xena cupped a gentle hand beneath Gabrielles chin, urging her lovers eyes to meet hers. "Why are you telling me this?"
For a long moment, the two womens eyes met steadily, assessing. Then Gabrielle once again averted her gaze, feeling relief as the warriors grip on her chin relaxed, then fell away. "Theres one god whos starting to make a come-back," she said softly. "Cults are starting to spring up in a few of the poorer countries." Turning her head, she looked at her lovers strong profile, knowing that Xena had probably already figured out the gist of the conversation and was just waiting for her confirmation. "Did you notice the increasing number of petty civil wars breaking out lately?"
"Ares," Xena breathed.
"Yes. Ares. Ares-worship started up again in Turkey about ten years or so ago. From there, its slowly spreading to other areas. Poor places, mostly. His power is starting to build again as he finds more worshippers. He hasnt become strong enough to appear physically to any of his followers yet, but Hades believes he may be influencing some of them mentally." Gabrielle smiled mirthlessly. "The Olympians seem to be in a bit of a bind over this. Theyve all been biding their time, waiting for people to recognize them again. Thatll never happen if Ares gains total power. Hell wipe the rest out."
"Why dont they stop him, then?"
"They cant. No one believes in them anymore. They dont have his power. Bad as Ares was, he was always balanced by the others, and he was totally under the control of Zeus. Not anymore." She sighed again, then turned back to Xena. "Xena, do you realize what could happen if he gains enough worshippers to get his full powers back again? Forgetting about wars in third world countries for a moment, could you imagine what would happen if he came to this country, preaching his bloodshed? Especially with the nuclear technology that the television talks about? We could be talking about the end of the world."
For a moment, Xenas heart soared at the sentiment. The end of the world would also mean the end of her immortal existence. If she were lucky enough, it would mean a trip to the Fields, to be with Gabrielle forever.
Gabrielle saw the light flash in the warriors cobalt eyes and her heart tightened, reading her companions thoughts without trouble. A part of her would wish for that too, but not at the cost of humanity. "Xena," she whispered, touching the warriors wrist once again.
The touch dissolved the warriors fantasy and her eyes blinked, bringing her back to the present. She sighed. "Ill ask again. Why are you telling me this?"
"Xena, the Olympian gods cant stop Ares. But they believe that you can."
The warrior stiffened. "Oh no. Let the gods fight their own battles." She looked over into Gabrielles jade eyes, her own eyes brimming with repressed memories struggling to the surface, her fists clenched in despair and rage. "Gabrielle, do you know how many times I prayed to those miserable excuses for gods to take this curse from me? Do you have any idea how many times I got down on my knees and begged for death? Not one of them answered me. Not one of them comforted me." A tear escaped the imprisonment of her eyes, trailing down her sun-bronzed cheek. "Not one," she whispered.
Reaching out, Gabrielle gathered the grieving warrior into a warm, loving embrace. Tucking the raven head beneath her chin, the bard gently stroked Xenas thick hair as she whispered nonsense phrases in her ear.
Xena allowed the comfort for a brief moment before pulling away, wiping at her eyes and smearing rock dust over her face. "They dont deserve my help."
"No," Gabrielle agreed, "they dont. But these people do." She took a deep breath. "Listen, Xena, I didnt come here to be with you to make it easier on those idiots."
Stiffening again, the warrior pulled away, rolling over to get to her feet and stand beside the bed, her eyes hurt and cold. "No? Why did you come back, Gabrielle? Are you Hades errand girl now?"
Gabrielle pulled her head back, stung. Her eyes narrowed as her body also tensed. "Xena, if thats what you truly believe, this conversation is over right now. Ill just find someplace to go where the sight of me wont bother you anymore."
The sound of her lovers anger made Xenas own rage flow away as if from the holes of a sieve. Her proud shoulders slumped as her head bowed. "No," she said finally. "Thats not what I believe."
Gabrielle relaxed, knowing Xenas anger for what it was, rage against the gods and her own unending life. Moving to her knees, she crossed the broad expanse of the bed, reaching up to cup Xenas face in her palm. "Xena, the reason I came back was because I finally had the chance to see you again, and no one was going to stop me from taking it. Whether or not you choose to help has no bearing on that. It wont make me love you any less. And it wont make me leave you. You are why Im here now. As for the rest . . . ." Her free hand flung away from her body, palm up.
Xena relaxed into Gabrielles gentle caress, nuzzling her cheek against the warmth of her lovers palm. Then she straightened, pinning the bard with the power of her eyes. "Gabrielle, even if I wanted to help, I cant. You said yourself that Ares isnt strong enough to appear in the physical realm. He cant come to me, and I cant go to him."
"You cant go to him as you are now, thats true."
The warriors eyes narrowed. "As I am now. What is that supposed to mean?"
Gabrielle swallowed, her throat suddenly achingly dry. This was the part that she had dreaded ever since Hades had come to her with his request. "Xena, please, come over here and sit down, ok?"
"Gabrielle . . . ."
Growling slightly, the warrior eased her rangy frame back down on the bed as the bard scooted away to make room for her. Her body was still tensed as she perched on the very edge of the bed, ready to spring back up again in a heartbeat. "What."
"Hades knows that you cant fight Ares in this plane, and if you wait until he has all his powers back, it might be too late. So he told me . . . ." Her voice trailed off, betraying her nervousness. Gathering her courage, the bard tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear and continued. "He told me where we could find the last known supply of Ambrosia."
Xena sprung up from the bed, whirling to face the bard, her black hair fanning over one shoulder as her piercing eyes glared down at the woman on the bed. "Last known supply of what??? Oh no, Gabrielle. No. No. No. Absolutely not."
"Xena, you can fight him if you become a god. Callisto was an immortal when she took the ambrosia and was able to defeat Velasca. You can do the same thing! You can fight him on his own turf!"
"No, Gabrielle. No way in Tartarus am I gonna become a god. Have you forgotten that that damn ambrosia is what got me into this mess to begin with? And now youre asking me to take some more? No. Im sorry, but no."
"Xena, at least think about it."
"No, Gabrielle. I wont think about it because theres nothing to think about. I refused godhood once when I helped Ares retrieve his sword. And Ill refuse it again. No matter how urgent the reasons are. This discussion is over." With that, Xena turned from the bard and stalked off to the bathroom.
Gabrielle listened to the pictures rattle as the door slammed hard. When the sounds of a shower being turned on full blast hit her ears, the bard slumped against the headboard, the sheet twisted in her damp, sweaty hands. "Well, that went over well," she thought to herself. Scratching the back of her head, she went over the conversation in her mind, thinking of anything she could have said or done to make the situation any better. She slumped further when nothing came to mind. The bard still had a card to play, but being the person she was, she was unsure if shed ever use it. The last thing she wanted to do was to resort to bribery. There just had to be a better way. "Well, youd better come up with one soon, bard. Times running out."
Xena stood under the stinging spray of the scaldingly hot water, soaping her body in short, savage strokes. Red rock dust mixed with water and swirled down the drain looking like fresh blood in a horror movie. The warriors teeth were bared in a snarl as she scrubbed her skin raw, using the pain in an attempt to center an existence suddenly gone awry once again. "Why cant it ever be easy, huh? I wander aimlessly through life for three thousand years, and when things finally start making sense again, the gods come along to fuck it up.
Lathering her long dark hair, Xena ducked underneath the showerhead to rinse, her mind turning at a furious pace, her thoughts red with rage. The dark side of her soul, still present and festering after long eons, rattled the stout bars of its cage, snarling to be let out into the light. They want me to become a god, huh? Maybe thats not such a bad idea. And why stop at Ares? I could just go up to Mount Olympus and kill em all.
With a slightly tremoring hand, Xena reached out and cut off the water, deeply ashamed at the course her thoughts had taken. Its too dangerous to the world for me to become a god. I dont trust myself. Stepping out of the shower, she quickly dried her body, wrapping one towel around her hips as she used another to dry her hair. No. Theres gotta be another way to do this. A way to stop Ares without becoming like him. There has to be. I just need to figure out what it is.
Feeling slightly better about things, the warrior combed her hair into some semblance of order, then opened the door to step back into the bedroom. Gabrielle was still on the bed, her legs drawn up, her arms wrapped around them, rocking slowly. She looked up when Xena entered, her eyes filled with pain. "Im sorry," she whispered.
Xena quickly crossed the room and settled on the bed, gathering her lover up in a warm embrace. "Dont be," she murmured, kissing the bowed blonde head. "Hades gave you a mission and you carried it out. None of this is your fault, Gabrielle."
"I could have refused," the bard said. "I knew what you were going to say, Xena. I shouldnt have put you through this. Youve already been through more than any one person should have to bear."
"Shhhh," Xena said, rocking her. "Dont cry. Itll be alright. Its not that I dont want to help, Gabrielle. I do. Just not at that price. Maybe, together, we can figure out a way to stop him without having to resort to that, hmm?"
Gabrielle pulled away slightly, sniffling and rubbing her eyes. "Maybe." She offered Xena a watery smile.
The warrior returned the smile with a full one of her own. "Thats better." She squeezed Gabrielles shoulder affectionately. "Besides, becoming a god is way too easy. And who ever said I did things the easy way, huh?"
The bard had to laugh as she butted her head against the warriors broad shoulder. "Not me, thats for sure." She looked back up at her partners determined face. "Do you really think we can do it?"
"Gabrielle, together we can do anything."
Nodding, the bard rested her head once more against Xenas warm chest. Her tongue darted out to capture and taste an errant drop of water as she breathed in the spicy, exotic scent of her partner. She smiled slightly, knowingly, as a shiver went through the warriors long frame. Her fingers began a random, wandering path downward over the peaks and valleys of her lovers body, mapping out the territory and claiming it once again as her own. "I almost forgot how much I love seeing you in a towel," she said, her voice slightly husky with rising desire. Her hands moved down over the slightly rough texture of the terrycloth, impudently hooking her fingers beneath it and slithering up one corded thigh toward the heat radiating outward. Xenas body was slick and open and Gabrielle entered without pretext, thrusting two fingers strongly inside the welcoming cavern, feeling the warriors inner walls welcome her in an intimate caress.
She thrust strongly and as Xenas dark head tipped backward, Gabrielle moved up to mouth a pounding pulse, sucking in time to her thrusts. The warriors hips picked up the rhythm of the dance, making her desires known. The bard introduced a third finger, smiling when taut muscles loosened in wanton acceptance of her gift. Thrusting and stroking, she brought her lover higher, listening to the panting moans as they tickled the hair around her face and ears.
Feeling her lover bear down and expand, Gabrielle gripped more tightly and hung on for the ride as Xenas frame tightened and spasmed, pulsing around her fingers and along her body as a gasping hiss of air blew forth from between clenched teeth.
Xena relaxed against the wall, spent for the moment, and reveling in the feelings caused by the woman in her arms. A blissful, sated smile overspread her face as her eyes drifted closed and a contented sigh escaped her lips.
Grinning happily, Gabrielle removed her fingers and eased Xena back down to lie on the bed, then curled up beside her, one arm wrapped securely around a trim, muscled waist. "I love you."
"Mmm. Right back atcha." There was a long moment of silence. "We have a lot to do."
"It can wait."
"Yeah. I sppose it can."
And with that, the two soul bound lovers drifted into a peaceful sleep.
As was her habit, Xena came to full wakefulness quickly, snapping her eyes open, then squinting against the strength of the sun as it filtered into the room, demanding to be noticed. By its position, the warrior judged less than an hour had passed, confirming her guess by checking on the clock that stood sentinel on her cherry bedside stand. Turning her gaze downward, a small smile was allowed to grace her lips as she stared fondly at the blonde limpet which had attached itself to her side during their sleep. Shared body heat and the suns merciless rays had combined to glue the women together with a sheen of sweat. The smile of affection turned to a small frown as Xena observed the sleeping profile of her partner. For some unexplained reason, a desperate need filled her to see those eyes, open and vibrant and alive. Fear stole through her like a chilled specter, raising gooseflesh on the skin of her arms and she tightened her embrace. The bard made a small sound and burrowed closer, causing Xenas momentary panic to shatter and fragment into mist.
Cursing herself inwardly for her foolishness, the warrior gradually loosened her tight hold on her lover, then pulled away completely, rising to stand next to the bed. She stared down at the bard as petite hands reached for and grabbed Xenas pillow, finding it an acceptable substitute and burrowing deeper into sleep. Grinning slightly and shaking her head, Xena turned from the sight lest she be drawn into it for the entire day. Her urge to be at Gabrielles side every moment of every day was almost overwhelming in its intensity and was something she had to work hard at overcoming. Shed been oft accused of smothering the bard in the past. It wasnt something she wanted to do in the present, no matter how short-lived that present might be.
Stalking silently over to the tall cedar chest of drawers, Xena dropped the towel from her hips and slipped into a comfortable pair of shorts and a brief cotton T. With one last look at the other half of her soul, she quietly left the room, closing the door behind her and leaving Gabrielle to her rest.
She padded down the carpeted steps of the quiet house, enjoying, for once, the silence within. Shed given Manuel the day off so he could attend the Native American Rodeo with his sons in Buckeye, so the house was empty of any other habitation save for the lizards she would occasionally see peeping in from darkened corners. She didnt mind the small creatures sharing her home, invited them in in fact. They helped keep the scorpions at bay and for that she was grateful. Being an Immortal, scorpion stings wouldnt kill her, but they still hurt like Tartarus.
Xenas steps carried her through the huge living room, past the equally large den and down a cool, darkened hallway to stop at a small, almost inconspicuous door. It was the one room in the house Gabrielle had not yet seen, and though the warrior didnt want to keep any aspect of her life away from her beloved bard, the later Gabrielle saw this particular room, the better for Xenas dignity. Smiling slightly, she opened the door for the first time in two weeks. The room that had once been her only haven had quickly become unneeded. Warmth and a none too small measure of happiness stole on cats feet through her body as she stepped inside, snapping on the light to illuminate the shuttered darkness.
To say that the large, airy office was a monument to the love of her unending life would be putting it mildly. Recessed lighting gleamed mellowly in the room highlighting the various objects placed with loving care therein. Pale blue carpet, shot through with mauve and the palest of yellows covered the entire floor. The walls were painted the same pale blue, giving the room a sense of peace and quiet introspection. One of the walls was entirely glass, giving the occupant a truly stunning view of Sedonas red rocks, its westward view at sunset was one of the most prized in the area. The window was heavily shuttered now to keep the suns rays from damaging any of the priceless artifacts that decorated the interior. Opposite the glass wall was another, shelves cut directly into the plaster, books filling the spaces left almost to overflowing. Near the back wall, an enormous desk, one most antique experts would give their eye teeth to possess, sat benignly. A powerful computer topped the desk, its monitor staring blindly into nothingness. A large leather chair, well worn from many hours of use, sat empty behind the desk, awaiting the weight of its owner without complaint. The remaining wall was covered in artwork that displayed a masters talents. Sketches done either in charcoal or pen and ink hung proudly, each bathed in the soft glow of a separate light. The central one, the focus of all the others, was an exact representation of Gabrielle, staring off into the distance, her honey hair blown back from shoulders and brow by a long dead wind, her staff standing proud and erect at her side. Though done in shades of black, white and gray, the likeness was so amazing that sometimes Xena swore if she could but step into the rendering, her wanderings would cease and peace would be hers forever. Other drawings of Gabrielle shared space on the wall, together with artistic renderings of Argo, Cyrene, Lyceus and Toris. A finely detailed map of ancient Greece completed the tableau.
Near the center of the room, off to one side just slightly, stood an oblong glass case in which rested Gabrielles actual staff, painstakingly preserved through the eons and lit by its own internal light. Another glass case stood up on an onyx pedestal, containing the bards scroll-case, several carefully preserved scrolls, and one quill. The third of the cases contained the bards Amazon mask and leathers. The fourth, by far the smallest, simply contained a thick hank of Gabrielles hair, tied with a white satin ribbon.
Like a penitent in a shrine, Xena walked past each memory of Gabrielle, trailing gentle fingers just over the glass encasements, smiling sadly to herself. The warm feeling stole over her again as she remembered that, for now at least, her bard was more than just memories. She was a living, flesh and blood human being. Her smile became radiant and she resisted the urge to bolt back up the stairs just to take a peek inside the bedroom. Instead, she shook her head and headed for the desk, sitting down in the comfortable chair, removing the dust covers from the monitor and keyboard, and starting up the powerful P.C. As the computer chittered to life once again, Xena took one last, long look around the room before turning her attention to the Internet and the massive search engine she had at her disposal. Fingers flying over the keyboard, she set about to study as much of the newly-sprung Ares cults as she could.
Gabrielle awoke slowly, sleep giving up its hold on her only with the utmost reluctance. Groaning softly, the bard reached up and dragged a tendril of hair from its resting place between her lips as her eyes roamed around the empty bedroom. Stretching slightly and scratching the taut muscles of her belly beneath her t-shirt, Gabrielle arose from the bed, padding over to the large window and looking outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of her lover. The pasture was bereft of Xenas presence and the bard frowned, running a hand through her hair.
Walking over to the door, she eased it open and stepped into open hallway, once again admiring the arching, flowing lines of the architecture. She slowly descended the steps, the houses quietude slightly eerie. "Xena?" she called out softly when she reached the bottom, looking in all directions but not catching sight of the tall warrior. "Xena?" she tried again, somewhat louder.
"In here," came a muffled voice from the small hallway off the den.
Gabrielle followed the voice to its destination, stopping short as the door opened and Xena stepped out, running a hand through her own hair to settle it. The bard grinned. "Ah, the secret room."
Xena lifted an ebony brow. "Hardly. I have no secrets from you, Gabrielle."
"Oh yeah? Then why havent you shown me whats in there yet?" Putting a hand on her hip, the bard cocked her head. "Let me guess. Its where you practice your secret rooster sacrificing rituals. Am I right?"
Though Xena snorted at the sentiment, Gabrielle swore she could see the faintest tinge of a flush cover her partners olive-hued skin. It made her curiosity spring to life. She looked narrow-eyed at her lover, assessing patiently.
Xena heaved a sigh, rolling her eyes. "Oh alright. Come on in, if you must."
"Oh, I must." A jaunty grin painting her face, the bard stepped past the warrior and into the room. The grin disappeared as she stood frozen just inside. The sudden sting of tears came to her eyes as she stared, motionless. "Oh, Xena," she breathed, covering her mouth with one hand.
Xena moved to stand behind her partner, wrapping her long arms around Gabrielles waist and resting her chin atop the soft blonde hair. She said nothing, content to hold her beloved as the bards jade eyes roamed around the room. Her arms hitched against the sobs building in Gabrielles lithe body. Tears sprinkled gentle patterns on her bare arms.
Gabrielle turned within the circle of Xenas arms, burrowing her head into the warm chest of her lover as she sobbed at the meaning behind the room, the room that stood as a timeless monument to love.
After a long moment, she broke away from the comfort of Xenas embrace, walking around the room to examine the objects close up, tears streaming down her cheeks. She stopped before the far wall, staring in awe and wonder at the drawings displayed there. "Who did these?"
Xena cleared her throat. "I did," she answered softly.
Gabrielle turned her wide eyed gaze to her partner. "You? I never knew you could draw, Xena. These are exquisite!"
Xena gave the bard her lopsided smile. "I have many skills."
The bard uttered a sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh at the familiar phrase. "I guess you do."
Finally tearing her eyes from the drawings, Gabrielle walked over to the case that held her staff and stared into it for long, silent moments, reliving memories of a time long past.
"I could get it out for you if you want to hold it."
"No. Not just yet. This is all so . . . ." She looked up into the pale blue eyes of the warrior. "Xena, this is amazing."
Looking at the ground, Xena nodded her dark head. "I wanted . . .needed . . .something to remember you by. I was so afraid of forgetting, Gabrielle. Forgetting what you looked like, the sound of your voice, your scent." Raising her head, she looked over at the main drawing. "I first drew that about a month after you . . .died. Every time the parchment would get worn, Id redo it." She took in a deep breath. "There was one time, long ago when I was in France, when I thought Id lost it." Shuddering internally, she remembered her frantic search for the icon, tearing through the hovel she used for temporary lodging in an insane rage borne of the fear that her memories of Gabrielle were a lie, scaring the good sense out of her neighbors, who already thought her somewhat crazy. Remembered breaking down in sobbing relief when her fingers finally found purchase on the tattered fragment, unrolling it to gaze once again at the face and form of her lost soulmate.
Her musings were broken by a warm, compassionate hand on her arm. Looking up, she fell into the loving gaze of Gabrielle. "You know, there were times when I thought you would forget me. Well, maybe not entirely. But that youd accept my passing and move on. And Ill tell you right now, Xena. I would never have begrudged you that. You deserve a life filled with happiness and love. Not the sterility of loneliness."
"Gabrielle . . . ."
The bard placed gentle fingers to Xenas lips. "I wanted that for you, Xena. More than anything. I want you to have peace."
"I only have that with you, Gabrielle."
The bard smiled. "I know that. Now." She looked around again. "I heard your thoughts to me. Every day. But seeing all this . . . . It brings those thoughts home to me in a way no words ever could." She looked up at her partner, newly minted determination blazing from the depths of her verdant eyes. "Well find a way, Xena. Well find a way to be together forever. I can see that youre miserable without me, and by the gods, Im miserable without you." Crossing the room quickly, she threw herself into her lovers arms, feeling the warm solidarity of the body against her seep into her soul like a soft, warm blanket driving away the coldness of years spent bereft of the only thing that completed her; the love of her soulmate.
With a fond smile and a final squeeze, Xena released her partner and returned to her place behind the desk, her fingers flying once again over the keyboard as she studied the monitor with rapt attention. Gabrielle cocked her head briefly, then walked over to join the dark warrior behind the desk, also staring at the monitor, fascinated as the images blurred across its glass face. "Is this what you call a computer?"
Xena smiled slightly and nodded. "Yep."
Jade eyes switched from watching Xenas hands to the computer screen, then back down again. "So, you just push those little buttons and scrolls open up in that box?"
The warrior chuckled softly. "More or less," she answered. Deliberately slowing her keystrokes, she attempted to explain to her bard. "Every time I press one of these keys, its corresponding letter goes up on that screen, see?"
"And once Ive written out the words I want to use, I press this button and the computer searches for what Im looking for."
"And what are you looking for?"
"Any information I can find on the cults of Ares."
Gabrielles fair brows lowered in a puzzled frown. "And all the information is stored in this box?" She looked over the monitor carefully. "It doesnt look big enough to store very many scrolls," she said doubtfully.
The warriors grin widened. "No." She sighed. How to explain this. "Right now, Im on the internet."
Oh boy. Hmmmm. "Ok. Do you remember that huge library in Athens? The one with all the scrolls lined up as far as the eye could see?"
Gabrielles answering grin lit up the room. "I definitely remember that! It was one of my favorite places in the world." Her eyes danced with the memories of her times there, sitting in the torch lit rooms, the smell of parchment permeating the air, her mind crammed fair to bursting with all the knowledge contained within.
"Well, imagine if someone made those scrolls available to anyone who asked to see them, whether or not they were in Athens at the time. And imagine that not only were those scrolls available to you, but thousands of others like them, from thousands of other libraries around the world. All at your fingertips for you to read whenever you wanted to." She grinned at the look of absolute bliss that stamped itself over her lovers features. "Thats the internet." Course, I wont tell her about the down sides. Let her think of it as a miracle. Her illusions will be shattered soon enough.
"I think Im gonna like this computer thing," Gabrielle finally responded. "When it is my turn?"
Xena lifted a hand and patted Gabrielles wrist. "Very soon. Just let me finish doing what I need to do here and Ill teach you how to use it." Her grin turned wicked. "Course, then Ill have to move the bed in here and bring my drawings with me since Ill never get to see you again."
The bard slapped her lovers muscled shoulder playfully. "Ha. Ha."
Snorting softly, Xena looked back into the monitor, then frowned at the relative lack of information her query had given her. Some of stories appeared to be more than ten years old with no follow-up attached. There were no official government listings, no newspaper reportings, nothing to base a full search on. Sighing, she rubbed the tips of her fingers against her brow, deep in thought. Either the cult of Ares was virtually unknown except to a select few intimately involved in the worship, or the governments affected kept very tight reins on the information.
"Well, looks like were at a temporary dead end. And I dont feel like hacking my way into governmental files." Sitting back in the chair, she contemplatively steepled her long fingers. "So . . ." An eyebrow rose to hide behind her bangs and a smirk crossed her face, "Ill just let a friend do it for me."
As Gabrielle looked questioningly on, the warrior picked up her cell phone and started to dial a number. Halfway through, she stopped and pressed the cancel button, her brow furrowed in thought. "What is it, Xena? Whats the matter?" She gestured to the phone. "Doesnt your talking thing work?"
Xena half smiled at the term, meeting her lovers worried eyes. "Oh yeah. It works just fine. I just had a thought."
"Gabrielle, did Hades give you enough information about where the ambrosia is hidden for you to be able to point it out on the map up there?" The warrior pointed to the painting of the map which hung on the wall.
The bard followed the direction of Xenas pointing finger, her eyes narrowing. "Im pretty sure I can. Why? Did you change your mind about it?"
Xena rose from the chair and walked over to the painting. "No, nothing like that. It just occurred to me that if Hades knows where the ambrosia is hidden, theres a good chance that Ares does too." She whirled to face her partner. "You remember mentioning something about Hades thinking Ares might be manipulating some of his followers mentally?"
The warrior turned to look back at the map. Her voice, when she spoke, was just above a whisper. "What better way to convince the world of your existence than to create an immortal warrior? One who could hold the entire world hostage unless they bowed down to you?"
"By the gods," Gabrielle breathed.
The bard strode over to the carefully drawn map, studying it intently. "Xena, we need to go there right now."
"No. No, wait a moment. First things first. If that area is empty wilderness, and I think it is, then theres no reason to tip our hand before we have to. If Ares hasnt made a move to claim the Ambrosia yet, were safe for the moment. If we go sneaking around, were bound to draw some unneeded attention. So just tell me where its hidden and let me take care of the rest, alright?"
Gabrielle looked uneasily at the tall warrior for a long moment, then nodded. "Alright." Walking over to the map, the bard cautiously drew her fingers gently over the inked canvas, her eyes squinting in concentration. Near the western edge, she stopped, stared harder, then nodded. "Here. Its hard to be more specific because the map is more general than the picture I have in my mind, but the hiding place is somewhere near here." Removing her hand, she sighed. "Sorry I cant do any better than that."
Xena smiled. "You did just fine. Cmon." Taking the bards hand in her own, the warrior led Gabrielle back to the desk and its attendant computer. Slipping into the padded chair, the warriors long fingers once again flew over the keyboard, accessing the information she needed as her mind triangulated the coordinates to the area Gabrielle had shown her.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked after a long moment of watching words and pictures blur by on the monitor screen.
Hitting the enter key, Xena relaxed into her chair, looking up at her curious partner. "Remember the other night when we were looking up at the stars and you swore there were more of them up there than you remembered?"
Smiling at the fond memory, the bard nodded. "And you said thats because there were."
Xena nodded back, her attention drawn back to the monitor. "Some of those things that look like stars are actually what are called satellites. Theyre man made objects that are shot up into the air so fast that they actually break through into the sky and orbit the earth, much like the moon does. Many of these satellites have equipment on them that takes pictures of the earth, and some of that equipment is so sensitive that it could probably tell what color underwear you had on if it took a picture of you."
"Youre kidding." Gabrielles eyes were wide.
"No, Im not." She drew her partners attention to the screen. "This is a picture of the earth from one of the satellites."
Gabrielle gasped in astonishment. "It really is round."
"Its beautiful. Are those clouds?"
"Yup. And the brownish areas are land, and the blue are the seas."
"Now, based on the information you gave me, I can give directions to the computer to make the pictures become more and more specific. Watch." Xenas fingers again flew over the keyboard, inserting latitudinal and longitudinal degree markings to specify the location of her search. The bard gazed on, wide eyed, as the pictures became more and more detailed. "Ok, now I want you to close your eyes and try to remember as best you can the picture Hades gave to you. When I say now, open your eyes and tell me if theres anything you recognize, alright?"
"Ok." Gabrielle closed her eyes, concentrating on the mental image Hades had given her just before he sent her forward in time. She pictured the green of the trees and the brown of the earth, the smell of distant water as it seemed to filter into her nostrils from some non existent wind. The image firm in her mind, the bard nodded and Xena hit another key.
Green eyes popped open, expectant, peering into the monitor screen with vivid intensity. After a long moment, the bards shoulders slumped. "Im sorry, Xena. Nothing on there looks familiar."
"Thats ok. Let me make it a bit more specific. Ready?" At the bards nod, she hit the enter key. "Anything?"
After studying the screen silently, Gabrielle blew out a breath of frustration. "Still nothing. Im sorry."
"Dont apologize, Gabrielle. Well find it." As Xena moved to reconfigure the pictures, she was stopped by a hand on her arm.
"Wait. I think I recognize something. Those three small hills there. Hades mentioned something he called The Hills of the Fates. They look a little bit familiar. Can you get closer?"
"Sure can." Setting the pointer on the middle of the three small hillocks, Xena clicked the mouse and the area came into sharper relief. "Better?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Much." The picture matched almost exactly with the one Hades had given her. "Thats it!" she crowed triumphantly. Her finger came down on the glass of the monitor, landing in the cleft between the left most hillock and the center one. "Right here. Between these two mounds. He said there was a small cave, and inside that cave was the ambrosia. Its very well hidden in a niche near one of the walls and there are a bunch of traps to keep mortals from getting to it."
"Did he explain anything about the traps?"
The bard frowned. "No. Said he couldnt. Youd have to figure them out for yourself."
"Somehow, that doesnt surprise me."
"So . . .what now?"
"Well, judging by the looks of this picture, its how I thought. There arent any cities or towns of note within twenty miles of the area. I doubt anyone even gives this place a second thought aside from the odd hunter or two. Thats obviously a plus for us." She picked up the phone again. "Remember me telling you about my friend Nigel?"
"The one who named your car Argo?" she teased, knowing full well the answer. She could have sworn that the Warrior Princess blushed at the teasing, but passed it off, instead, as a trick of the light.
"What about him?"
"Im gonna ask him to keep an eye on this area for me. He has some excellent scanning equipment and can set up a satellite perimeter around the area and let us know if someone looks to be taking too much interest in it. He can also do a little more searching for me on the Ares cults. With his equipment, itll take him less time to get into the governmental files and extract any information we might need."
At her partners nod, the warrior finished dialing the phone and within moments, the deal was done with no questions asked. Nigel would keep an eye out on the ambrosias resting place and, if luck held, shed have an inbox full of information on Ares cults by the time the sun set that evening. Turning in her chair, Xena looked over at Gabrielle who was studying the myriad of books lining their shelves. "What now?"
They both grinned as Gabrielles stomach announced its emptiness.
"Lunch it is."
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