~The New World~
Title: The New World
Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess is the property of Renaissance and Universal Pictures. All I own is a copy of the DVD boxed sets.
Pairing: Xena/Gabrielle Annie/Mattie Mel/Janice
Rating: PG 15
Author's note: This story was born of a feeling that the three "modern" versions of the Xena and Gabrielle story were left unresolved in general, and the bad taste that "Soul Possession" left in my mouth in particular. So, think of it as an attempt to provide some closure. Also, let it be known that I don't speak French; I can only hope that the translations in here are at least close.
Challenge: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
Summary: Xena and Gabrielle's story has spanned continents and millennia; but now, as the threads of their various modern incarnations intertwine for one final adventure, their love could meet the greatest test of all.
Archiving: Only with the permission of the author.
~The New World~
"To a new beginning."
Xena dutifully hefted her glass and clicked it gently against the rim of Gabrielle's, then set it back down as she watched her friend's glittering eyes, still locked on her even as Gabrielle drank.
Gabrielle grinned. "What?"
Gabrielle threw her lover a wry shake of the head before settling back to look at the rustic, smoky interior. The place was quiet, but with the lower-class undercurrent that promised it would get more interesting as the night wore on. More than anything, though, it had the distinction of being the first bar they had happened upon after Gabrielle had sprung her good news.
The job wasn't much, a junior copy editing position for the local newspaper, but it paid well enough and offered a tug of nostalgia for her bard days. More importantly, it meant that after a year and a half of wandering around the country, living like the indigents she had to admit they used to be—back in the days when such things weren't as big a deal as they were in this new world—Fountainhead, Arizona might finally have presented a place they could settle down.
"I really think it'll work out this time." The sound of Gabrielle's voice drew Xena back from her casual inspection of the bar's apparent 'cowboys enjoy baseball' motif. "I mean, I realize things haven't exactly gone…it's been hard to get used to." Xena couldn't help but nod her assent. "But, I think that we can make it work here. And I mean, maybe you can…get a job bartending, or…look into a position with the sheriff's department…" As she trailed off, Gabrielle looked up to Xena's expression of patient attention, and sighed. "I just really want us to have a…a real life together, you know?"
Xena's hand slid across the pockmarked surface of the table, fingertips brushing lightly over the back of Gabrielle's hand. "I know." Xena smiled slightly. "And you're right. This town seems like a nice place. Actually, it reminds me a little of North Africa in the summertime."
Gabrielle grimaced. "And that's supposed to be a good thing?"
The quiet chuckles attendant to any inside joke faded slowly with the realization that someone was standing over their table. The two women looked up expectantly at the pair of smiling men silhouetted by the fluorescent lights flickering over the bar, the establishment's only real worthwhile light source.
The shorter man nodded, a thin smile splitting his rugged face. "Evening, ladies. We ain't seen you in here before, thought it'd be polite t'come over and introduce ourselves. I'm Rick, this here's Tony." He slapped the taller man enthusiastically on the chest; Tony winced, but continued to smile with mild embarrassment.
Gabrielle nodded good-naturedly. "I'm Helen, this is Nikki. It's nice to meet you both."
Xena said nothing, merely nodding. Even if the brunette were inclined to talk, Gabrielle had gotten used to the aliases on the counterfeit birth certificates and licenses faster than she had; even after a year and a half, Xena was still afraid of slipping up. And that would only have led to the kind of confusion and medical and law enforcement presence that Gabrielle had mercifully agreed to refer to from now on only as 'the Chicago incident.'
Xena lazily honed back in on Rick's voice, which was still addressing Gabrielle. "…passing through?"
"No, actually, we're settling down. I got a job with the Tribune, so…"
"Well, congratulations." Rick leaned over the table, his hand dangerously close to Gabrielle's. "So, uh, notice there's no boyfriend here sharin' your success…"
Gabrielle forced a smile. "Okay, look, I'm—"
"'Cause you know, I love a woman with a brain…"
Xena had to fight a low growl as the man leered lasciviously at something that was decidedly not Gabrielle's brain. "I'm really not interested."
"Aw, come on, sweetheart…"
Xena hissed through clenched teeth; it was only Gabrielle's continued pleading looks that kept her in her chair at all. "She's taken."
The reclusive Tony looked like he was going to die; Rick's grin wavered as he looked between them, then returned stronger than ever as his gaze fixed on Xena, raking slowly up and down her body. "Well now, that don't mean we can't have a little fun. You too, if you're interested. 'S okay, I'm open minded. 'Sides, a body like that's a hell of a thing to waste on a d—"
Rick grunted in pain as his head slammed into the table, but, to Xena's surprise, she found herself still in her seat.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, pressed his head harder against the table, her lips set in a thin line. "We are not interested. And I can say it as many different ways as you want."
"Ah, Jesus Christ, what the fu—"
Gabrielle pushed her hand down harder, then pulled it back and let the man's already puffy face lift shakily from the table. "Get the hell out of here."
As Gabrielle righted her overturned chair and Tony muttered something that sounded like 'real sorry,' Xena just stared at Gabrielle, eyebrows raised. The blonde let out an angry breath. "What?"
"So it's not okay when I get irrational and possessive…"
Gabrielle glared into Xena's smirk. "Don't start with me, Warri—" Her eyes went wide, and she stopped with an embarrassed cough.
Xena's hand sought out hers under the table and squeezed. "It's okay. I still do it too."
As the silence settled, Gabrielle glanced around the sparsely populated bar and noted the anxious looks from the patrons—who, she admitted wearily, were probably all locals. Like it or not, they'd certainly made a hell of a first impression. She stood as the sheepish bar-goers slowly turned back to their own conversations, and tugged Xena to her feet.
"Come on. Let's get out of here."
Knuckles turning white the harder she gripped the mug of rapidly cooling tea, Mattie let out a slow, steady breath and watched it crystalize on the air. The lights were hypnotic; it seemed like the detached blinking of the city sprawling out below her was the only thing that bothered to occupy her thoughts anymore. The redhead blushed—well, not the only thing.
Now that that line of thought was open, Mattie couldn't help but think about her. They had seen each other twice since Ares…well, since the CHAKRAM conference. The first time, they'd just run into each other out shopping and gotten together for coffee, like they were old friends. Which, in a way, she guessed they were. But that meeting had ended as soon as Annie's hand touched hers, and an electric surge of unwanted—what? Memories? Images? Feelings?—had coursed through her. They'd both apologized profusely, painfully, and gone their separate ways. The second time, when they stumbled upon one another in a book store, they'd barely managed to say two words to each other before they each found something vitally important they needed to take care of.
The tea had gone cold.
Sighing, Mattie hefted the mug off the balcony's brick lip and turned back into the house. As she neared the kitchen, her gaze couldn't help but be drawn to the steady red light of the answering machine in the darkness; her hand twitched. With a heavy sigh, she set down the mug and picked up the phone. Harry'd still had her number; as Mattie dialed, a nagging question crossed her mind as to why she would've remembered it.
On the third ring, the phone clicked and a sleepy, gravelly voice greeted her. "Hello?"
Mattie hadn't realized until that point that she didn't know what she was planning to say.
"Hello? Someone there?"
Mattie jumped as the sound of Harry's car pulling up the driveway reached her; with a disgusted shake of her head, she set the phone back down.
He flipped on the hall light when he came in; Mattie squinted against it, and Harry looked up in surprise. "Oh…uh, hey, honey. Sorry, I didn't know you'd still be up."
Mattie just nodded. "How was work?"
Harry shrugged. "Not bad."
After a few more seconds, Mattie sniffed and cleared her throat. "Well, uh, I'm going to go to bed."
"Oh. Okay. I have some paperwork to finish, so I won't be in until later."
His wife shuffled toward their bedroom, and Harry flipped the hall light back off. When the click of the bedroom door had faded, he let out a long sigh. "Okay."
Gabrielle lay sprawled across the bed that took up most of their "glorified stable stall," as Xena had colorfully termed the tiny apartment the day they moved in, surrounded by newspaper pages. Xena let the door click shut softly, and effortlessly tossed her keys into the candy dish on the corner counter. When Gabrielle looked up, the brunette had her eyebrows raised. Gabrielle smiled thinly.
"Don't start. I'm just trying to get a feel for their style, so I can do my job more effectively."
Xena pursed her lips. "Right…and it has nothing to do with your mission to, and I quote, 'read every word written since we've been gone'."
"Nothing at all," Gabrielle muttered innocently. She flipped a page. "Hey, the dinner theater's doing Shakespeare…oh." Gabrielle's face contorted. "Antony and Cleopatra."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Pass."
"Could be worse. Could be Julius Caesar."
Xena gave a mock shudder. "I still can't believe how badly these hacks mess their history up."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Wait until you read about Beowulf."
As Xena rooted around in the woefully under-stocked refrigerator, the occasional sound of Gabrielle turning pages or scribbling notes continued in the background. "Do we have any more oranges?" When no response was forthcoming, Xena poked her head out. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle's face was riveted to the page. "Xena?" She looked up as the brunette moved closer. "I think we have a problem."
Mattie's eyes drifted open, and she lazily stretched out in bed. She didn't have to look to know that, though they'd both started out on their backs, she and Harry had drifted to curled positions on opposite sides of the bed over the course of the night, like every night. She cast a glance over her shoulder; he was still snoring.
Mattie didn't realize what had woken her until the phone rang again. With a groan, she rolled herself into a sitting position and scooped up the receiver. "Hello?"
She waited, and was about to repeat herself when she heard a timid "Hi."
Mattie's throat felt dry. "Annie?"
"I, uh…" Mattie waited for the other woman to continue; she wouldn't have known what to say if she'd been physically able to. "…did I wake you up?"
"No. I mean, yes, but…what do you want? I mean, what is it?"
"I need to talk to you."
Mattie took a deep breath. "Annie, I—"
"You and Harry," Annie mercifully added before Mattie had to decide how she was going to finish that particular sentence.
Mattie blinked. "What?"
Annie took a deep breath. "I think we have a problem."
"Did she say what it was?"
Mattie shrugged and tried her best to keep her eyes on the road ahead of them. "I didn't have time to ask. But, I mean, what else could it be about?"
"You think we're gonna have to fight Ares again? 'Cause you know, last time, I was kinda off my game, but I bet I could take him if…" He trailed off as he caught his wife's look. "Sorry."
Mattie nodded in detachment and sighed. That over-inflated sense of pride was just one of the symptoms that had crept up since the conference. Pride, irresponsibility, gullibility, a sudden clumsiness; more importantly, the bond they'd felt since the day they met was just…gone. She knew it was a clich... to think that he wasn't the same man she'd married, but when a malevolent god had been switching people's…souls, or whatever exactly it was that Ares had done, maybe it held some truth.
Mattie hopped over the lip of the jeep, then glanced back as Harry's foot caught and he went tumbling to the pavement. She moved to help him, but he sprung to his feet as if nothing had happened. "I'm okay, I'm okay." Was this what that…Joxer…was like? She really needed to start watching that show.
Harry stepped ahead of her, and the redhead's mind was drawn back to the situation at hand. Mattie wasn't sure whether she wanted to run full speed into the caf... or tiptoe as quietly as possible back to the car; on the one hand, her feelings surrounding Annie were complicated enough as it was, and any more life-or-death situations could only complicate that further. On the other—
"There she is!" Mattie effused, then cleared her throat and dropped her wildly pointing hand back to her side with a blush. Harry didn't seem to notice any of it; he just grinned and waved.
Annie didn't look at her as they sat down; her gaze alternated between Harry and the beaten tabletop. "Annie, it's good to see you," Harry drawled a little too loudly and enthusiastically for either woman's taste.
"Good to see you both too," Annie muttered.
"Oh hey, listen, I really gotta go to the bathroom. Be right back." And just like that, he was gone. Mattie glanced around at the barren white walls, and the sunlight streaming through the diner windows seemed hot and oppressive all of a sudden; Mattie wished they could have met somewhere else.
Her fingers worked nervously at the chipped covering of the booth seat. "I mea…thought about calling you."
Annie's eyes finally flickered up to meet hers. "How have you been?"
Mattie shrugged. "Not bad. The clinic's doing pretty well, considering." Annie nodded. "How have you been?"
"I've kept busy."
Mattie's eyes strayed to the slender hand resting on the tabletop; her fingers itched to reach out and brush against Annie's, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which, she thought with a grimace, it probably was.
"Annie…" The brunette looked up into her eyes, and Mattie took a deep breath. "Do you think that—"
Harry plopped down beside her with a groan. "Sorry about that. Now then, Annie, what did you want to talk to us about?"
Annie held Mattie's eyes for a moment longer, then nodded brusquely and lifted a folded newspaper up from the spot on the bench beside her.
Harry leaned in toward the small headline circled in black permanent marker: ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEAM ZEROES IN ON GROUNDBREAKING DISCOVERY.
"A team of experts led by Doctor Moira Levy is entering the final phase of what some in the archaeological community are calling the most important and potentially devastating find of the century; according to Levy, the team is close to finding and excavating the final resting place of legendary ancient Greek warriors…Xena, Warrior Princess of Amphipolis and…Gabrielle of Poteidia." Harry blinked and looked up from the paper. "Wow. That's great!"
Mattie caught Annie's worried look, and frowned. "Isn't it?"
Annie stared down at the paper, then looked up. "I remember things, sometimes. From the…dreams, memories, whatever. Not always concrete, just…flashes." The couple across from her just nodded; they'd all had them.
"I recognize this woman. This…Dr. Levy." Annie spun the paper around, pointing to the photo of a middle-aged, hawk-nosed woman accompanying the article.
"Her name's Alti."
Xena threw another collapsible chair into the bed of the rust-covered but surprisingly functional pickup they'd stolen from that junkyard in Vegas. Everything they owned was now in the truck; since they didn't know how long they were going to be on the road, it didn't make sense to…Xena sighed. Just when they were finally getting settled in.
Gabrielle jumped the last two stairs down from the decrepit apartment complex's second floor. "All right, this is the last of everything." She tossed the under-filled duffel through the truck's open passenger door, then took a deep breath. "I'm ready when you are."
Xena took a step toward her and laid a careful hand on her shoulder. "Look, Gabrielle…I'm sorry. I wish there was some—"
"It's fine." Gabrielle laid her hand on top of Xena's. "A little road trip, a little adventure. Sleeping under the stars. Be just like old times." The blonde looked carefully around the parking lot, already beginning to fill up with dog walkers and a cadre of smoking teenagers barely silhouetted by the pre-dawn light. "And…we're in public."
Xena winced. "Sorry. Helen." Her hand pulled free from Gabrielle's and traced a gentle path down the shorter woman's cheek. "And I am sorry. You had the job, and I know you were looking forward to—"
Gabrielle's hand sought out Xena's again. "I'm fine. Really, I mean it." With no thought for the teenagers or the dog walkers bathed in the increasingly orange morning, she pushed up into the brunette for a slow, lingering kiss. When she pulled back, her thumb stroked down Xena's cheek.
"Ready to hit the road, Nikki?"
Xena grinned. "Ready when you are, Helen."
"So what are we supposed to do?" Harry leaned over the table conspiratorially. "I mean, do we just go in and ask if she'll please explain what she wants with the bodies of her eternal arch-nemes…nema—"
"Nemeses?" Harry smiled at his wife for the assist, but she was frowning down at the paper.
"He has a point, Annie. I mean, even if we knew what she was planning, how are we supposed to stop it? She's got a team of highly-trained archaeologists who do stuff like this for a living. How are we even going to close the gap, much less outsmart them?"
"She might have a team, but what she doesn't have is us." That got both husband and wife looking at her; Annie's eyes were shining. "Mattie, can you still do that past-life hypnosis?"
The doctor blinked. "Uh, sure, of course. But…" Her eyes widened. "Oh!"
Harry squinted, gaze ping-ponging back and forth between the two women. "What? What did we figure out?"
"Annie wants me to hypnotize us again, to try to find out about Xena and Gabrielle's past." When her questioning look to the brunette was met with a nod, Mattie continued. "We can find clues to where they might be buried."
"And how to fight Alti, if we have to."
Harry grinned. "Wow, Annie, that's really smart!"
Mattie frowned, though not just at her husband's exuberance. "But even if we do, we still need to find out where they're going. And we need a way to follow them."
Annie nodded. "I know. I'm still working on that."
"Wait, why don't we go to the authorities?"
Mattie sighed. "And say what? 'A two-thousand year old Siberian shamaness is trying to dig up our karmic ancestors? Please don't throw us in the loony bin?'"
Harry blinked. "Well, no…something else."
Annie shook her head. "If we try anything, she might find out we're on to her. And from what I remember, Alti is not someone whose attention you want to attract."
Mattie alternated between the two pairs of eyes looking at her and, with a sigh, nodded. "All right. When do you want to start?"
The biker at the counter set down his coffee cup with a smile as he listened. So predictable.
"As soon as possible."
"Excuse me, sir, can I get you anything else?" The waitress—Pam, her nametag read—was leaning over him.
The biker's grin widened. "No, I think I have everything I need." He lifted himself from his stool, a five dollar bill floating to the counter, and the waitress jumped in surprise as she felt a sharp slap on her backside. She spun around, but the tall, dark man was already gone, the insatiable, predatory roar of a motorcycle fading in the distance.
"All right, just relax."
Mattie's soothing voice carried across the small office cluttered with trinkets ostensibly from every corner of the world. Annie reclined on the patient's couch, Mattie fidgeted in the chair beside it, and Harry perched awkwardly on a beanbag chair across from them, eyes all expectantly closed.
"As I count to ten, your eyelids are going to grow heavy. You're going to find yourself in another time. Another place. Another body. One…two…three…"
Harry's head tilted back.
Annie squinted as a fleeting image flashed before her eyes: fire? Why was she surrounded by fire?
Knowing it was her only chance, Annie leapt through the flames, their magic rippling against her skin. When she landed, the first thing she saw was the girl: dressed in white, blonde tresses cascading down her face onto the rock where she lay, face frozen in perfect serenity. And suddenly, she knew what she had to do.
With great care, she used the weapon Beowulf had given her to cut away the vines, her hands inescapably brushing up against the soft skin of the blonde's shoulder as she did. Why did she feel so drawn to this woman? Why was the only thing she could think of doing to lean in taste those immaculate lips with her own?
Why did it feel so right?
In the moment before she pulled back, before the waves crashed over her and the memories came rushing back, she knew she could feel Gabrielle kiss her back. No, wait…Mattie?
Annie's eyes opened with a gasp; she turned immediately to Mattie, then just as quickly snapped back when their eyes met, breathing still heavy. God, she could still feel her lips against—
"Nope, I didn't even feel anything that time." Harry opened his eyes and swung his head up toward the two women. "Did you two feel anything?"
Mattie choked on a breath; Annie leapt up from the couch. "We need to try something else!"
Xena squinted into the distance; the highway, indeed the entire landscape, was empty as far as she could see. She turned to the blonde with the stack of archaeological journals in her lap. "Are we still in New Mexico?"
Gabrielle shook her head absently, the harsh sunlight cutting bold shadows from her hair against her face. "We crossed the state line an hour ago. Remember the last rest stop."
Still not looking up, Gabrielle smiled. "Whatever happened to the master tracker?"
"That was back when it meant something. These people have cut up the territory so much, given everything so many different names and numbers, it's a wonder they can find their way anywhere." Gabrielle just kept smiling; Xena sighed. "What are you reading?"
"About us, actually. It seems there's been quite a bit of archaeological research about us, especially since my scrolls reappeared."
Xena smiled wanly. "Your scrolls. You never get tired of that, do you?"
"No, never," the bard clucked with a grin. Gabrielle pushed the stack off her lap and took the opportunity to shift her seatbelt into a more comfortable position. "Actually, a lot of the recent articles have footnotes referencing the same person; uh, Doctor Janice Covington. Seems she was the one responsible for finding the scrolls over half a century ago."
"So that's where we're going? To pay her a visit?"
Gabrielle shifted to a different pile, letting the remains of the first cascade onto the floor in front of the passenger seat. "No, she died on a dig in 1962. The woman we're going to see is an associate of hers…"
"…Doctor Melinda Pappas." Harry crowded closer to the computer screen, inadvertently shoving a glaring Mattie aside. "You think she could help us?"
Annie shrugged. "She's the closest thing to an expert on the scrolls, and all the archaeology stuff about Xena and Gabrielle."
Mattie squinted. "I'm surprised Levy's group didn't already tap her."
"I imagine they tried." Annie brought up another window. " But she's been living alone in South Carolina for decades; she won't see anyone, especially about that."
"So how do we get in to see her?"
"Well…" Annie faltered. "We are Xena and Gabrielle—"
"And Joxer. That's got to count for something." The couple behind her shared a skeptical glance. "Look, we can worry about it once we get there. Even if she won't see us, we need to be on the east coast anyway if we're ever going to get to Greece."
The brunette held both their gazes for a moment more, then Harry sighed and nodded. "I've got the tickets lined up." He beamed. "Got a great deal on 'em, too, actually…it turns out all—"
He cleared his throat. "Right. They're for Saturday morning. Is that enough time? I didn't know if…"
"It should be fine." Annie let out a sigh. "Not like it'll take long to get everything in order."
"I've already lined up contacts for my patients." Mattie dragged a hand through her hair. "I guess I'm ready."
Harry nodded. "Yeah, I've got a lot of vacation time saved up, haven't really used any since the honeym…" He cleared his throat as his voice trailed off.
Annie just nodded. "Okay." She took a deep breath. "Right."
Gabrielle stretched stiffly, trying to find a comfortable position on the rigid motel mattress. In a way, it was worse than camping out: no stars, no fire, no pile of furs, just the garish oil painting hanging over the bed and the whir of the ice machine from the far end of the hall (damn that superior hearing Xena had taught her!).
Xena rolled closer to her with a contented sigh, and Gabrielle urged the larger woman's hand around her waist, smiling slightly; at least this part was the same.
Gabrielle stared at the ugly pebbled texture of the ceiling, breathing as slowly and shallowly as she could in the night. Nonetheless, she heard Xena's breathing shift as the brunette subconsciously responded to something in her own. "Gabrielle, you still awake?"
There was no point in trying to fake it; Xena wouldn't have woken up if she hadn't sensed it somehow. "Yeah. I'm just thinking."
Xena disengaged herself from the blonde to prop herself up on an elbow and focus on her supine partner. "What about?"
Gabrielle shrugged, her shoulders hitting the mattress with an audible creak. "Just this latest adventure." She closed her eyes.
"I mean, whenever we think we're done with someone, they just…show up again. Ming T'ien died, then he came back. Caesar died, then he made that other world. Callisto came back more times than I can remember, and Alti…" The blonde cut herself off and opened her eyes with a sharp exhalation. "I guess I just figured that…I don't know, after two thousand years things would be different. We wouldn't have to…"
Xena let herself drop back to the bed with a soft sigh. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault."
Xena shrugged. "Maybe. But I know how hard it can be." She spent another moment looking down at her lover, then smiled mischievously and traced a finger idly up Gabrielle's side. "But, you know, if it is my fault, I have an obligation to find some way to apologize…"
Gabrielle's hand gripped Xena's wandering finger lightly, guiding it up to the gentle swelling of her breast under her nightshirt. "Well, if it'll make you feel better…"
Xena grinned and rolled over, her arms bracing her inches above the blonde's body. "You're so understanding."
"Shut up." Xena chuckled throatily as Gabrielle's head shot up from the pillow and their lips crushed together.
After five years—or thirty, or two thousand, or whatever—they still hadn't lost their fire for each other's touch. Xena breathed in the smell of the smaller woman's hair ravenously, lips descending to nibble provocatively on an exposed earlobe and feeling an undeniable and familiar shot of heat at Gabrielle's answering moan. She could feel Gabrielle's hands sliding against her stomach, pushing the edge of her t-shirt up until her fingers reached…Xena groaned.
The brunette leaned back, quickly peeling off her shirt while a panting Gabrielle took advantage of the short window to do the same; it was still caught around her hands when Xena leaned back down, making the most of her lover's momentarily pinned arms to dedicate her hands and lips to exploring Gabrielle's unprotected skin.
Gabrielle arched, flinging the shirt across the motel room floor as her spine lit up with the delicious sensation of Xena's thigh sliding against the thin material of her panties. The thought of the lacy garment made her grin lasciviously; one thing she could definitely say for this time, the underwear certainly had a lot more potential.
Her thoughts derailed as Xena slipped a hand under the material, caressing Gabrielle and seizing her lips with a renewed passion. "Oh, Xena…"
The blonde felt Xena's wetness grind against her own thigh, and massaged the full weight of her breasts hanging between them, smiling as she elicited a moan from deep in the warrior's throat. Xena's rhythm increased with the passion of her kisses, until Gabrielle felt her hips buck and her body freeze as the waves of pleasure broke over her; she could tell from Xena's moaning and shuddering that the warrior hadn't been far behind. The brunette collapsed atop her, breathing ragged in the sudden quiet.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's fingers rolled delicately through a lock of rich, dark hair, brushing it against the side of her cheek. "Gods, I love you, Xena."
The brunette rolled slowly off of her perch, eyes turning from the ceiling to Gabrielle's once again pensive expression. She spoke gently. "Once this is over, we'll find somewhere. I swear it." She leaned in, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle's stomach as the blonde spooned back into her. "This is just one last adventure."
Gabrielle snuggled back into Xena's arms and listened as the rhythm of her breathing slowly faded back into sleep. She let out a quiet sigh. "One last adventure."
"What is it?" Harry rolled over to face his wife; Mattie's sudden leap up had jolted him awake as well.
"Nothing. I don't know, I just had this feeling, kind of like I was havi…" She blushed. "I guess it was just a dream."
Harry nodded sedately. As Mattie shook her head and slid back down into bed, he looked over at her increasingly drawn face in the moonlight. "So are you all packed for Saturday?"
Mattie nodded. "Yep." She always made preparations like that way in advance. But then, he knew that.
Harry took another breath. "Things are getting really complicated, aren't they?"
Mattie had to stifle a laugh. "Yeah. I guess they are."
"I think Annie can get us through this, though. I mean, maybe not the old Annie, but the new Annie, you know?" He sighed. "It's like…she's not the same as when…when I knew her. Things are different."
Mattie squeezed her eyes shut. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
After another pause, Harry shook his head and lay back down. "Well, anyway. Goodnight."
Mattie stared up at the texture of the ceiling. "Goodnight."
Mattie sat, back straight, hands folded in her lap, eyes glued to the headrest of the seat in front of her. She tried to block out the sound of Harry's snoring from the seat between them; she hated flying as it was, and it certainly didn't help when…she scoffed. She didn't even know how to finish that thought.
What she did know was that for almost—she glanced down at her watch—two hours—she'd been trying not to look past Harry, to the window seat where Annie sat with much the same nervous restraint that she did.
Whenever her gaze did stray in that direction, she'd notice little things. Like how Annie's hair, no matter how dark it looked, could be almost red in the right light; how she chewed her lower lip when she was nervous, which just made it stick out more; the fine hairs on the back of her neck when she fidgetingly brushed her hair aside, visible only now in the harsh, high-altitude sunlight. She watched Annie's thin, tapered fingers slide back down her neck, nearly glowing with warmth.
When Annie turned to look at her, Mattie's head snapped back every time, like a scolded child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. When it almost seemed they had settled into some sort of pattern in it, a thought occurred to her: was this what the rest of their lives were going to be like? Was she just going to keep falling further and further out of love with Harry, while occasionally getting thrown into a life-or-death struggle at the side of a woman she was finding it harder and harder to deny she had feelings for?
Mattie blinked, then sunk back in her chair as her train of thought caught up to her. She wasn't in love with Harry any more.
It wasn't anyone's fault; not hers and certainly not his. It wasn't even the changes, the awkward pauses and misunderstandings, that had gradually crept into their marriage over the last year. Whatever it was that had made them cling to each other, made him leave Annie for her, made her beg him to marry her two weeks after they met…it was gone.
She glanced sidelong at Harry and Annie seated beside her. But what did that mean?
When the plane finally rolled into the airport in Columbia three hours later and they made the preparations to check into their three single motel rooms for the night before heading over to beg, plead, and cajole Doctor Pappas tomorrow, she was still no closer to an answer.
Gabrielle leaned against the tailgate of the pickup, licking contentedly at her fingers. As they were somewhere in the middle of backwoods Georgia, they hadn't been able to find a motel, so tonight they were actually doing what Gabrielle hadn't done with Xena in millennia: camping out, sleeping under the stars, and eating something they'd caught themselves. Granted, the wild rabbit was a little gamy compared to what she remembered back in Greece—something to do with modern air quality, she reasoned—but some part of her was almost glad to be on a real adventure again.
She looked down at the pile of maps on the bed beside her, and sighed. Almost.
"Okay, we should get there sometime tomorrow afternoon. That is, if she'll agree to see us."
Xena smirked. "Somehow, I imagine you'll be able to work it out." The warrior fidgeted against the patch of bare ground—she wasn't used to sitting around a camp fire and not having a sword to sharpen. "To tell the truth, I'm kind of looking forward to meeting her. Without her, no one would even know we exist. Er, existed."
"Yeah, remind me to thank her for that."
"Actually, without her, we wouldn't be here."
Gabrielle squinted, momentarily looking up from the maps. "I guess that's true. If she hadn't helped find my scrolls, they never would have made that TV show, and Alti never would have bothered bringing us here."
Xena nodded, poking the fire and sending embers scattering. "Have you ever watched it?"
"The show? No, not since the ones Alti showed us. I can't stand what they've done to my stories." The blonde looked up from her work laying out their final day's route. "Have you?"
Xena shrugged sheepishly. "I've caught a little here and there." She wrinkled her nose. "I saw this one episode…remember that thing with Odin and the golden apples?"
Gabrielle shuddered. "Yeah, sure. Not exactly my most pleasant memory."
"Well, you wouldn't know it the way they did it. They made it into a comedy, for gods' sakes. Had some idiot prancing around interviewing people…" Xena squinted. "As a matter of fact, I think it was the same guy they had play Iolaus. Same thing with Borias and Khrafstar, of all people. And, Caesar and Cupid!"
Gabrielle shook her head. "That's just lazy."
"Woman they got to play Aphrodite was uncanny, though."
Gabrielle looked up at the brunette, a glint in her eye. Xena shrugged. "Okay, maybe I've seen a few episodes…"
Harry stopped the jeep at the head of a long, winding driveway that was currently separated from them by a wrought-iron gate. "Now what?"
Annie took a deep breath. "Now we ask nicely."
"Doctor Pappas, there's someone at the gates."
Mel sighed. Probably that shrew again, trying to pressure her into coming out of retirement. She'd told them before, the Xena Scrolls had never brought her anything but heartache, and she certainly wasn't interested in any more of that. Nonetheless, she made her way to the security monitors.
The young couple staring up into the security camera surprised her—they didn't seem like either the overzealous TV fans or the equally overzealous archaeologists who usually tried to gain admittance. In fact, they almost looked like…she blinked. They bore a striking resemblance to her and old Jack. She pressed down on the button for the intercom. "Yes?"
It was the woman who spoke. "Doctor Pappas, this is an honor. We…we'd like to speak to you please."
The brunette on the monitor took a deep breath. "Regarding the tomb of Xena and Gabrielle."
Mel sighed. "I want nothing to do with the tomb of Xena and Gabrielle. I would have thought that was perfectly obvious by now."
"Doctor Pappas, please, if you'd just let me explain…"
"I have no desire for visitors. Good day."
"Doctor, please…" As the brunette continued to argue her case, another woman stepped into view of the cameras. And Mel's breath caught in her throat.
"Doctor, should I go out and make sure they—"
"Let them in." Mel looked up at her security guard, eyes shining. "Now."
"Wow." Harry continued to look around the richly appointed parlor of the plantation home. "I mean, this is…wow. I love these carpets."
Mattie was no less fascinated, but infinitely more nervous. "Why did she decide to let us in?"
"I don't know. Maybe…"
The door to the parlor creaked open, a nondescript man in a stern, old-fashioned suit appearing in the crack. "Doctor Pappas will see you now."
The three turned expectantly toward the door as the butler pushed it further open. The soft creak of the wheels against the carpet preceded her, but then she appeared, another servant pushing her along from behind. The wheelchair-bound archaeologist nodded to her attendants, and they slid quietly from the room, the solid door clicking shut behind them.
For minutes, the four just watched each other; the visitors' eyes were fixed upon the good doctor—and her eyes were fixed upon Mattie.
Eventually, the redhead began to squirm under the appraisal. "Doctor Pappas?"
Mel rolled herself forward and, with a delicate hand, gestured for her guests to sit. When they had, she leaned forward. "Tell me everything."
Annie cast a nervous glance at her partners, who shrugged. So she did.
She offered everything she could remember, both from her own life and from Xena's. Harry or Mattie spoke up only occasionally, tossing in whatever seemed pertinent: Harry's experience when Xena possessed his body, Mattie's hypnosis techniques…as they spoke, a thin smile spread gradually across Mel's face.
When they finished, Annie took a deep breath. "I realize it's a lot to take in, and you have no reason to believe us, but it's the truth." She straightened in her seat, drawing up impressively from the depths of the gilded sofa. "I am Xena, Warrior Princess."
Mel's enigmatic smile reached its apex and, very slowly, the aging linguist leaned forward, meeting the brunette's eyes, so like her own, dead on.
"So am I."
Annie blinked, trying to take it all in. "You mean you and Doctor Covington were actually…descended from Xena and Gabrielle?" The brunette furrowed her brow. "I didn't even know Gabrielle had surviving children."
Mattie blinked; she hadn't even known Gabrielle had any children. Apparently, no matter whose soul…karma…whatever it was, it didn't change how much Annie watched that show.
"I never understood it completely myself." The Southerner leaned back in her chair, a newly-arrived cup of tea cradled delicately in her hands. "And to be honest it's been a while since I really even thought about it."
"Why did you?" Harry piped up. "Stop working on it, I mean?"
The linguist's eyes misted over, distant words drifting back through her consciousness. Nobody's fault, Mel. You couldnt'a helped me, and if it was you you'd be tellin' me the same thing. Right?
Mel cleared her throat. "Many reasons."
Mattie opened her mouth gingerly, but was interrupted by the gentle creak of the door as the security guard peeked his head through the door. "Sorry to disturb you, Doctor, but there's someone else at the gate."
Mel blinked in surprise while her guests shared a tense look. "You'll excuse me for a moment, won't you?" The older woman set down her teacup and wheeled herself out of the room after the guard, leaving stunned silence in her wake.
"You sure this is going to work?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Why wouldn't it?"
"You mean why would there be a problem with someone walking up to a heavily secured compound and saying 'Hi, I'm a dead superhero, can I have a minute of your time?'"
"'Superhero'? My, we do think a lot of ourselves don't we?"
Xena glared down at her companion; the blonde smiled back up at her innocently. "Just press the thing."
Gabrielle was reaching out toward the button when the box above it emitted a curt buzz and the gate in front of them swung open. The two shared an alarmed glance, then Xena shrugged and stepped onto the paved driveway. Gabrielle looked back as the gate swung shut behind them.
"That was a little creepy."
"Yeah, well in case you haven't noticed, rich people don't really seem to have changed much in the last couple millennia."
They reached the door, Gabrielle preparing to knock and Xena twitchily fingering the loyal and thoroughly de-rusted chakram concealed at the small of her back under her jacket, when the door slid open and a long-faced man with graying temples appeared before them. "Doctor Pappas is expecting you in the parlor."
As the butler stepped aside, leading them onward into the cavernous house, Gabrielle shot Xena a look; the brunette just shrugged and followed in the man's footsteps.
It took a good—Mattie glanced down at her watch—seven minutes before anyone was able to say anything.
Harry blinked twice. "I don't believe any of this."
Xena crossed her arms. "I don't either."
"I do." When all the eyes in the room turned to her, Annie shyly put her hand back down.
Harry frowned. "Okay, so tell us something only Xena and Gabrielle would know."
"How would that prove anything?" Gabrielle's nose crinkled. "Even if you three were telling the truth, you wouldn't have all our memories so you wouldn't know whether we were the only ones who knew it or not." The blonde blinked, then turned to her companion. "Did that make any sense?" she whispered.
"To me?" Xena muttered.
"This is crazy."
Mattie turned to Harry. "Oh, so reincarnation is all right, but human cloning is too far-fetched?"
"Enough!" The slick sound of sliding metal resounded through the room, and all eyes turned toward Xena—who was now brandishing a rather familiar-looking weapon.
Annie's face lit up. "That's…" she turned toward her partners, glancing at her uncomprehending. "That's the chakram!"
"The one and only."
Mel finally rolled forward into the middle of the group arrayed around the parlor. "No, that's impossible. Ja…Doctor Covington and I found the chakram in the Tomb of Ares."
"No, that was a fake." The excited chatter was sucked from the room, and all eyes turned toward Gabrielle. The blonde cleared her throat. "Well, we needed a way to lure Ares into the tomb, and what better way than to make him think that the Chakram of Light was back?"
Of all the confused gazes being directed at her, Xena's was the most crucial for her to address. "It was after…Varia and Virgil helped me. Once Aphrodite helped us get our hands on the Eye of Hephaestus…"
"You entombed Ares?" Gabrielle couldn't tell if the look in Xena's eyes was admiration or pain.
"Wait…you're the one who let Ares out?"
Mel spun quickly towards Mattie, shaking her head. "No, no. We sealed him back in."
Mattie chuckled. "Yeah, that makes six of us."
Mel sighed and cleared her throat in a polite, lady-like manner than left absolutely no doubt as to what would happen to the next person who shared their oh-so-brilliant opinion.
"Once more, from the top."
The sun was setting by the time the group had come to something bordering on a consensus. Gabrielle's suggestion that for now, they all assume that every word everyone else said was true had won out, just barely beating Harry's proposal that they were all crazy.
The blonde spoke slowly, afraid of unraveling any of the delicate work they'd managed to set up. "All right. Assuming that we all are who we say we are…and that it is indeed Alti who's trying to find the tomb for whatever reason…then we all have a stake in, at least, finding out what she's up to and, at most, stopping her. Agreed?"
Everyone nodded once. Gabrielle allowed herself a short smile.
"Right. So that means we need to get to Greece; if Virgil came through, Xena and I were buried in her family's tomb."
Xena glanced up at her partner; since coming back, they'd never talked about what had happened after Xena's spirit had finally no longer been able to walk at Gabrielle's side. The warrior admitted an amount of wonder and no small swelling of pride that Gabrielle had still fulfilled her—their—last request. She slid her hand toward the blonde's and squeezed affectionately. Gabrielle smiled.
Annie's voice drew them back. "I read up on Lev…Alit's work. They thought it was at Amphipolis, but there are only a couple fragmented maps surviving from that era, and even then the terrain's changed enough over the past two millennia to make them next to useless."
Xena nodded. "Yeah, but you got us now."
Mattie looked across the room at the worn face of the only true archaeologist present; Melinda Pappas hadn't said a word in almost four hours. "Doctor?"
Mel continued to stare past her guests, past the darkening sky outside the picture window. Promise me, Mel. You promise me, goddammit. She took a deep breath, and picked up the telephone.
"Avery, I need you to arrange for five tickets to Athens via Paris, three hotel rooms for…let's start with a week. As soon as possible. I know, however much it costs. Thank you."
The linguist turned back toward the eyes of the group. "It'll be easier to just contract for equipment once you're in Greece."
"You mean once we're in Greece." Mattie blinked. "And you mean six tickets."
Mel shook her head. "I can't go with you. I can get you there, I've been sittin' on my father's money for fifty years, but I can't go with you."
Goddammit, Mel, you get out while you can. I couldn't stand it if this happened to you too...promise me, Mel. You promise me, goddammit.
"I…I just can't."
"Doctor Pappas, we need you." Mattie's words were backed up by a subtle wave of nods from around the room. "You're the only one with any experience. Without you, we'll never be able to catch up to a team of trained archaeologists." The younger woman caught her gaze. "Please."
Mel shut her eyes. Please, Mel. She bit back a tear, exhaled, and picked up the phone with a steady hand.
"Avery. Make that six."
Xena eyed the guard suspiciously as she passed through the metal detector; their first experience with the world of twenty-first century law enforcement had left her understandably edgy about guns. The agent gave an unenthusiastic nod and waved her through, and Xena admitted grudgingly that Gabrielle's insisting—an outside observer might have called it threatening—that they put the chakram in one of the checked bags had probably been worth it after all.
The brunette's eyes darted around the arching white interior of the airport as the rest of the group filtered through the checkpoint one by one.
Mel was the first, rolling up beside her with a cordial nod bred of decades of training in Southern hospitality designed to remain with her in even the most trying circumstances. And, the aging translator mused, she would be hard pressed to find circumstances more trying than these.
Xena glanced down at the other woman, a hint of curiosity in her eyes. "So you're my great-great…however many greats…granddaughter?"
Mel glanced up at the statuesque brunette, and nodded. "I suppose I am."
"And you're a scholar? A…what is it…scientist?"
Mel nodded simply. "I suppose a historian, as much as anything. A bard, if you will."
Xena smiled gently, as Gabrielle cleared the row of metal detectors. "Speak of the Bacchae…"
Mel watched the two women glide toward one another, as if magnetized, and Xena's hand slid effortlessly into the blonde's. Somewhere in the part of her memory she tried the very least to think about, she felt a twinge.
You look beautiful.
I...thank you. You look rugged as always.
So, what's up? What did you want to tell me?
I, uh...Arthur. Arthur asked me to marry him. Last week.
Oh. Oh, that's...that's great, Mel. I mean...that's great, congratulations.
I haven't decided whether...
I mean, I'm real happy for you. I'm sure you'll...I'm sure he'll give you everything you want.
Well, I...right. Got to keep the Xena line alive, don't I?
Yeah. Guess I should get started on that myself. Don't want Gabrielle's restless ghost givin' me a hard
Mel blinked to find herself looking up into Harry's concerned face. "You okay?"
She pulled as genuine a smile as she could manage. "Yes, I'm fine. Are we all accounted for?"
"Yep. We're all here."
Mel sniffed, cleared her throat, and nodded briskly. "All right. Let's get underway, shall we?"
The biker pulled up to the edge of the pier, wheels screeching against the wood as he swung around to gaze over the Atlantic rolling out before him. Slowly bringing the bike back around to face the sea, he revved the engine, tightened his grip, and gritted his teeth.
Without warning, the bike shot forward, careening over the pier and landing front wheel first in the water. The rider pulled back on the handlebars, straining against the force of the falling vehicle, until the tires rose back up to glide just at the top of the water.
Foam spraying out behind him as the motorcycle began to plough east, Ares knitted his eyebrows in concentration, and sighed to himself. It used to be so much easier when he could just teleport…
Gabrielle leaned against the seat-back, Xena sloped over her shoulder and snoring gently. Since before they were lovers, even before she'd even figured out what exactly her feelings were for the dark warrior, she'd loved to watch Xena sleep; the pain and fire and hardness that were so much a part of their lives melted away and, just for a moment, Gabrielle could see the woman underneath, the tenderness the Warrior Princess let out only in her most unguarded moments. Gabrielle's hand slowly lifted up to sift through the shock of the warrior's black mane that had fallen across her chest, each strand brushing against the pads of her fingers.
Gabrielle turned sharply to find Mel watching them from the facing seat of the charter plane. "What's wrong?"
"Forgive me if I'm prying but…you two. You're…"
Gabrielle blushed only slightly. "Yes. We're…"
"Has…how long have you been…has it just been since you came here?"
"No." Gabrielle smiled, a distant look in her eyes as the memories came pouring back in. "We were…together…for about three and a half years before…" She met the archaeologist's eyes straight on. "Before Xena died."
Mel nodded in understanding. "You're lucky to have a second chance." The doctor leaned back in her seat, unaware until that point that she had been hunching forward. "Most people, when they lose someone they l…they don't get a second chance."
Gabrielle blinked. "Forgive me if I'm prying but…why do you ask?"
"Oh, no. No reason. I mean…the accounts in the scrolls were fairly open to interpretation, I just always wanted to know."
A tiny smile lifted the corner of the blonde's mouth. "I thought you weren't interested in our story anymore."
Mel's shoulders tensed. "I said I stopped looking. That doesn't mean I ever stopped being interested," she whispered. Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond, but Mel turned brusquely toward the window. "We should be landing in Paris in about forty-five minutes. We'll stay there overnight then fly to Athens in the morning. We'll make arrangements there."
Gabrielle nodded. "Right."
The valet dropped their bags to the floor, and Harry handed him a tip while thanking him slowly and painfully in what he probably thought of as French.
Mattie's eyes darted around the suite, which she quickly decided to be the most extravagant room she'd seen short of Doctor Pappas' parlor. Golden fixtures and satin shimmered in the late afternoon sun, swathes of deep red and cream surrounded her, and the view! She gazed through the window out onto the streets of Paris. Hadn't she and Harry originally planned to honeymoon in Paris? But then there'd been that business with the airlines, and…
Mattie's thoughts began to wander back to the honeymoon. They'd been insatiable then: all over each, like they'd been denied something before, subjected to a thirst they were waiting their entire lives to quench. Mattie raked her fingers through her hair, steadfastly refusing to notice where it was going gray at the temples. Just a few years ago, she'd been young and in love. Now?
"All right, we're all set up. Should we try to find somewhere to—"
"I need a drink."
It had seemed somehow wrong not to invite Annie—Mattie wasn't sure she wanted to dwell too long on that one—and as they were leaving they'd passed by Gabrielle and Xena's open door, and then Gabrielle had been concerned about Doctor Pappas; in the end, the six of them ended up together outside the door to the nightclub the concierge had recommended with glowing praise. The gaudily out-of-place neon sign lit the entire block around them in strokes of pink and yellow: La Venus.
Mattie cast a glance around at the lush planters and spangled signage covering the façade, vaguely wondering why the place had no bouncer if it was indeed as popular as the concierge had insisted. As she did so, Xena looped her arm neatly into Gabrielle's and pulled past her, slipping through the door and emitting a short-lived blast of pulsing music as it opened and shut. She cast a glance at Harry, who smiled appreciatively, then across from him at Annie.
The brunette's eyes were alive with wonder, taking in not only the club's face, but the bustling Parisian nightlife all around them. Annie's lips parted slightly, her breath coming in short gasps as her head darted excitedly from one focus to another, hair drifting lazily around the sharp lines of her cheeks…
Mattie inhaled sharply and pushed herself toward the door. "I definitely need a drink."
Xena watched Gabrielle and Annie from the edge of the dance floor, more than a little amazed at the two women's seemingly unique ability to forget the mortal danger of the situation and unwind for a night, spinning and gyrating to sounds that Xena still had a hard time accepting were considered "music" now. Sounded more like a griffin in heat to her.
Gabrielle chuckled and touched Annie's shoulder companionably, and unwittingly Xena felt her jealous hackles rise. it didn't matter that she knew the feeling was unfounded—that someone who had turned down warlords, Amazons, farm boys, and one incredibly persistent Valkyrie for you probably had a reason—the protective urge had been there since the day they'd first met. Before Xena had even understood what her feelings were for Gabrielle, she hadn't been able to stand the thought of anyone else touching her.
Xena let her eyes snake to the right, at the redhead leaning against a column a few paces away from her. Mattie was watching the dancers with the same focus, the same look. Xena smirked. "I think I'm going to go cut in. Want to come?"
Mattie snapped out of her glassy-eyed daze, blushing furiously. "No, no, I…I should go find Harry and the Doctor."
Gabrielle's smile brightened when she saw Xena's lank, dark form meander onto the floor. "Excuse me." Annie blushed, nodded, and headed off toward the bar.
Gabrielle eased her hands around Xena's neck while the brunette's fingers intertwined behind her back. "This was a good idea." Xena just nodded. "Kind of reminds me of the Amazons, dancing before going into battle."
"Well, with any luck, there won't be that much battle this time."
Gabrielle's face fell. "Come on, Xena, who are you trying to kid?"
Xena stopped swaying. "What?"
The blonde sighed and looked up to meet her gaze…then, suddenly, looked past her. Her eyes went wide. "Gabrielle?"
Xena turned around to follow her partner's gaze to the bar at the opposite side of the club, where a shapely blonde woman was serving drinks. Xena squinted. In this light, she actually looked a little like…
Gabrielle shuffled inexorably toward the bar, eyes locked on the energetic bartender who bounced shamelessly between her patrons, curly blonde hair bobbing merrily as she went.
The eyes went past hers with barely a second to take her in. "Yeah, I'll be right with you, hon…" Then the bartender's eyes snapped back to hers; Gabrielle smiled.
And suddenly, the other woman was standing on top of the bar, shouting at the top of her lungs. "Maury, arrêtez-le!"
The music screeched to a halt as the startled DJ complied and a crowd of confused patrons turned toward the bar. "D...sol...s, nous sommes fermeture tôt ce soir." The crowd looked around at each other, murmuring in bemusement at the abrupt announcement of dismissal. "Il est temps pour vous de partir. Bon soir!"
The buxom woman hopped down from the bar as the club-goers finished their drinks and slowly drifted toward the exit, muttering under their breath all the while; Harry appeared at the edge of the retreating crowd pushing Mel's wheelchair, and shot Xena a questioning glance; the brunette shook her head.
When the seven of them were the only ones left in the club, the blonde let out a squeal of delight nearly loud enough to shatter the bar crystal, and before anyone could react she was physically lifting Xena and Gabrielle off the ground, one wrapped ingloriously in each arm.
It took a while for Mattie to get over the shock of wondering what the hell was going on, and even longer after that before the near-light-speed babbling of the bartender slowed down enough for her to even have a hope of understanding.
"And how are you two even here? I mean, I know I talked about you guys living forever, but it was a freakin' metaphor, hello?"
Before either woman could speak, they were wrapped in another bone-crushing embrace. "It doesn't matter. I mean, if you knew what happened since…or maybe you do, I mean here you are so you've got to—"
"EXCUSE ME!" Mattie felt a short-lived swelling of pride; Harry's voice came very close to sounding authoritative. "What the hell is going on here?"
The three women pulled apart—Xena a little more readily than either of the blondes—and turned with awkward smiles to their audience. Xena cleared her throat. "Aphrodite, this is Harry, Mattie, Annie, and Doctor Pappas. Everyone, this is Aphrodite. The Goddess of Love."
Gabrielle turned for their companions' reactions only to find them all staring, speechless, and as good as paralyzed, then back at the goddess to find her practically vibrating with curiosity. The bard sighed. "All right. We'll go over this one…more…time."
Of all the witnesses to her latest efficiently condensed recap, the most surprised was Aphrodite. Gabrielle figured that made some sense; after all, the others had all met a god before, and Aphrodite was taking on the most new information.
"So…don't help me." Aphrodite bit her lip as she pointed to each person down the line gathered at the bar. "Reincarnation, reincarnation, descendant, reincarnation, clone, clone?" Everyone nodded in turn, and Aphrodite pouted. "This is too weird."
"Tell me about it," Xena muttered.
"What's weird is seeing you here. I didn't know if…" Gabrielle mercifully let the sentence go unfinished, but Aphrodite beamed.
"Are you kidding? City of Love, hello, where else am I gonna go?" The goddess' face took on a more pensive look. "After the worship dried up, I just sort of…wandered around for a few centuries. I mean, better than sitting up on Olympus all alone, right?"
Gabrielle felt a brief twinge of guilt, though she didn't know what exactly she was feeling that she should have done.
"Anywho, I came here during the Revolution, started a rowdy little tavern, and it just…grew."
Harry squinted. "You mean, you've run this same place since the 1700's?"
"1791, to be precise," the blonde goddess effused. "Isn't it just so radical?" She rolled her eyes. "I was so glad when someone finally invented jazz, though, 'cause up 'til then, not exactly the best musical scene for a place like this. Course those lounge singers during the War were always fun. Even if half of them did end up shacking up with the Nazis, and trust me when I say that when you're passing secret messages for the Maquis that's a tiny little problemo."
The babbling deity stopped herself short, as if suddenly realizing the import of the fact that these people had all come here together. "So wait…how did you all meet up?"
Mattie cast a questioning glance at Xena, who shrugged and nodded. The redhead stepped forward. "It's Alti. She's gotten an expedition together to try and find Xena and Gabrielle's remains, and we don't know why."
The goddess' eyes went wide with something that was definitely not horror. She cast a hopefully glance at Gabrielle, who cast a wry glance at Xena, who rolled her head back with a soft groan. "Aphrodite, would you like to come with us?" she muttered with exactly as much enthusiasm as she felt. Not that seeing the goddess of love again after so long wasn't a good thing—but it hadn't been nearly as long for Xena as it had for her.
Oblivious as always to the tone, Aphrodite just shrieked joyously and recaptured Xena and Gabrielle in her viselike embrace. "Awesome! I've just got to—"
"No teleporting!" As soon as the goddess let them go and raised her hands, Xena and Gabrielle had shouted at once with enough panic to make Harry jump backwards in fear.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, I haven't been able to do that for a millennium. Nobody believes in me anymore, remember? And I was gonna say 'pack'."
The goddess turned to the assembled—still moderately speechless—crowd before them. "I mean, if it's okay with you guys…"
The four remaining members of the expedition exchanged looks of varying levels of confusion. When she realized even Doctor Pappas was looking at her, Annie cleared her throat. "Uh, sure."
The goddess beamed. Xena sighed.
In the morning, the six of them stood crammed into the foyer of the apartment above La Venus, watching as the occasional frilly but undefinable article of clothing flew past the open bedroom door.
Mattie leaned closer to Xena as another flash of pink accompanied the goddess' low mutterings from the other room. "So that's really…the goddess of love."
"She seems a little…"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it."
Mattie opened her mouth again, but Aphrodite chose that moment to stick her head through the doorway. "Okay! I'm all packed! Let's get this show on the road."
Harry's eyebrows went up. "You mean you just finished packing? I thought you started last night."
Aphrodite shrugged nonchalantly. "Well yeah, I had a lot of cutbacks to make. These days I can only carry around so much."
At the mention of carrying, the goddess hooked each arm around a huge pink suitcase, gesturing for Xena to take the other two—when the warrior didn't move, Harry started and hurried to tackle with the luggage. As he led the charge out of the apartment, Annie took a moment to look around the space, then back at the suitcases. "How can an apartment so small hold so much stuff? Uh, no offense."
Aphrodite gestured airily. "Oh, none taken. You get used to it. I mean, it's just so cute and…romantic."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but couldn't help but smile. Of course, those would be the goddess' two biggest concerns when buying property. She and Xena followed Annie and Harry out into the narrow hallway, Xena pushing Mel's chair. That left Mattie and Aphrodite bringing up the rear. Aphrodite glanced sidelong at the silent redhead.
"So…what's up with you and Harry?"
Mattie flushed. "Uh, we're married."
Aphrodite rolled her eyes patiently. "Yeah, I remember. What I mean is…why, I guess? If it's not too personal."
Mattie cleared her throat as they fell further behind. "Xena's soul wasn't always in Annie. It…it used to be in Harry. Ares switched them…somehow. After we were married." Mattie stopped on the stairs, shaking her head in amazement. "I can't believe I just said all that with a straight face." She glanced sidelong at the attentive blonde. "To a Greek god."
"So now it's like…the person you married isn't that person any more, and now someone else is." All trace of mirth was gone from Aphrodite's voice. "Wow. Heavy."
Mattie sighed. "Yeah."
"So, are you gonna…" The goddess shuffled her feet.
"I, uh…" Before Mattie had to answer, they emerged on the street where Harry was already trying spastically to attract a taxi, Gabrielle trying a much more sedate approach a few paces ahead of him. Aphrodite's gaze turned speculatively to Annie.
"So you're in charge of all this?"
Annie looked around distractedly then, when it was obvious that no one else either had been addressed or was protesting, she coughed. "I, um, I guess. I mean, I got our little group coming here, and…"
"It's just, Xena usually has a whole big warlord-battlefield-command thing about stuff like this."
Annie glanced nervously at the warrior, who merely offered a wry smile and a sweeping 'after you' gesture. Aphrodite nodded her approval. "I think she's grown."
Annie just shrugged. Mel looked up at her. "Well, I think you're doing a fine job, child."
"Me too, Annie. We couldn't do this without you." It earned Mattie a moment of eye contact, a shy smile, and a blush. When the other woman looked away just as quickly, Aphrodite couldn't help nudging Mattie with her elbow—the redhead blushed harder.
"Okay, we're ready." Gabrielle shouted over her shoulder. "Think we can fit everybody in two cabs?" The group began to file toward the street, Aphrodite casting one last meaningful look at Mattie.
The redhead, eyes still fixed on Annie's back, didn't see.
With the exception of a stint sitting behind a particularly cocky British aviator in the late 1930s in exchange for…well, in exchange, Aphrodite had never been in an airplane before, and certainly never in one meant to hold more than two people or do anything other than fight the Germans. That alone made the experience beyond exciting for her, and near purgatorial for anyone unlucky enough to sit beside her.
At the moment, that meant Gabrielle.
As she listened to the goddess jabber on, Gabrielle cast a cold stare a few rows behind them, to where Xena sat snoring between Annie and Harry. You just wait, Warrior Princess. When she turned back, she realized Aphrodite had stopped talking and was focused on her.
"Gabby? Are you okay?"
Gabrielle made to shrug off the question…then sighed. "No. No, I'm not."
Aphrodite crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair, doing the best to adopt her 'helpful therapist' pose in the cramped seating. "Well, I don't have to be a god to know it's got something to do with Tall, Dark and Repressed. So?"
Gabrielle sighed, casting one last glance at Xena—this time, eyes filled not with playful spite, but with fear. "I don't want to lose her."
"Oh, honey, you know that's never going to happen."
"Sure, in the grand scheme of things, we're always going to be together. I've heard it all before." Gabrielle shut her eyes and took a careful breath. "But in the short term…I guess I just wonder if we're ever going to have a normal life."
Aphrodite shrugged. "What's normal?"
"Normal is not being sacrificed to avenge forty thousand restless souls then being brought back two thousand years later to do battle with your body-hijacking karmic arch-nemesis alongside your own descendants."
Aphrodite blinked. "Okay, point." She placed her hand on top of the young blonde's. "Have you talked about this with Xena?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "It's nothing. I don't want to distract her."
"It sounds like something."
"No, it'll be fine. Please don't tell her."
Aphrodite sighed. "All right."
Mel blinked as the archaeologist turned and fastened an intense gaze on her, promptly forgetting what she was going to say. "Mel? You okay?"
Mel tightened her fingers around the edge of the glass, and focused her attention on watching the wine swish hypnotically.
"How long have we known each other, Janice?"
The look on the archaeologist's face was as she thought Mel was actually afraid she didn't remember. "Twelve years."
Mel nodded to herself, then finally looked up to meet Janice's eyes. The archaeologist stared back. "You look beautiful."
The comment, so unlike the taciturn redhead, came out of nowhere, but Mel's speechlessness had nothing to do with surprise. She cleared her throat. "I...thank you. You look rugged as always."
Janice chuckled, and Mel beat back the little part of her mind that melted at the sound. "So, what's up?" Janice leaned back in her chair, as if she were in her tent on a dig site and not in the middle of a four-star restaurant even Mel had barely been able to snag reservations for. "What did you want to tell me?"
"I, uh..." Mel took a deep breath. "Arthur asked me to marry him. Last week," she blurted. If she hadn't been concentrating so hard on not meeting Janice's eyes, she would have seen the transcendently sickened look that passed over the redhead's face.
"Oh. Oh, that's...that's great, Mel." By the time Mel had managed to look back up, Janice had plastered on an enthusiastic smile. "I mean...that's great, congratulations."
"I haven't decided whether..."
"I mean, I'm real happy for you. I'm sure you'll...I'm sure he'll give you everything you want."
Mel blinked, refusing to believe that Janice was taking this as easily as she appeared to be. But then, what had she been expecting? 'No, please, marry me instead?' 'Run away with me, to hell what anyone else thinks?'
Of course, that was exactly what she had been expecting. And instead of pressing the issue, instead of trying to provoke Janice, to make her angry or jealous, to get her to say what Mel knew she wanted to...Mel just smiled.
"Well, I...right. Got to keep the Xena line alive, don't I?"
Janice smiled weakly. "Yeah. Guess I should get started on that myself. Don't want Gabrielle's restless ghost givin' me a hard time if I don't keep up the family, right?"
"I just..." Mel took a deep breath. "I don't want you to be lonely, Janice."
Janice laid her hand chastely on top of of Mel's, like a friend would. Like just a friend would. "I'm not."
With a long sigh, Mel opened her eyes and glanced down at her watch; less than an hour before they arrived in Greece. She turned to make polite conversation with Mattie to pass the time, only to find the redhead's eyes locked on the shock of dark hair in the aisle seat two rows ahead of them. After a moment of silence, Annie shifted in her seat, causing Mattie's eyes to dart back to her own row, where she was met with Mel's expectant gaze. Mattie tried not to blush.
Mel was about to break the awkward silence when the redhead cleared her throat. "Doctor Pappas, can I ask you something?"
Mattie licked her lips. "When we first came to your house, you looked at me like…"
Mattie let the sentence trail off, and Mel averted her eyes. "Yes, well, it was just…a shock. Seeing you." Mattie opened her mouth to press further, but Mel needed no prompting. "You look just like her." Mel looked up into Mattie's eyes. "Jan…Doctor Covington. My old…partner. I thought it was odd that Annie and Harry looked a bit like me and an old friend named Jack Kleinman at their age, but you…you're the spitting image."
Mattie didn't know what to say, so she just nodded shyly.
"I've seen the way you look at Annie."
That made Mattie's head snap up and her mouth twitch in confused stammers. "Oh, I…"
"It's all right," the linguist intoned soothingly, "I mean, I wasn't always a crusty old Southern belle." Mel squinted and thought idly back to the first time she'd met Janice. "Well…I suppose I was. But I've lived." Mattie waited guardedly to see where the older woman was headed; Mel smiled sadly. "You should tell her."
"No, I…I can't," Mattie stammered. "I mean what…what if she doesn't feel…"
"But you know she does."
Mattie blinked and looked longingly at Annie's seat, and thought over the last year. "Yeah. But what if she doesn't?"
"If you live with a lie," Mel whispered, "you're never going to be happy." She held Mattie's questioning gaze a moment longer, then turned to stare out the plane's window, effectively ending the conversation.
The hawk-nosed brunette spun toward the sound of one of her research assistants shuffling nervously into the tent. "Yes, David, what is it?"
"Ma'am, Lisa was talking to one of the guides. He said this part of the open country's too dangerous. He still maintains that local legend places Amphipolis in this area, but he wants more money."
Sharp, dangerous eyes considered him for a moment, blinking lazily and making the graduate student shift anxiously; then she looked back down at the haphazard pile of maps and charts arrayed before her. "Send him in. I'll try to negotiate."
A few minutes later, the brunette looked up from her attempts at extrapolating the ancient village's location as the giant Greek who had guided her team this far into the wilderness stepped into the tent with far more authority than he had any right to. She scowled. "Come in, Niklos."
The Greek puffed out his chest and hissed through his teeth in badly broken English. "We come take Amphipolis. Too bad, too many thieves on country. We was more money for take Amphipolis. Or go out."
A finely manicured finger tapped on the bare plywood of the makeshift table thoughtfully, then his business partner looked up at him. "All right. I can see you're an honest businessman."
The Greek opened his mouth to respond. When no sound came out, his eyes widened. He clutched his throat and backed himself unwittingly into the wall of the tent in an attempt to scramble away from the feral woman who was now snaking her way toward him. "Normally, I'd take great pleasure in the sound of your screams. Your begging. But sadly, I have a cover to maintain."
The Greek lifted a meaty paw to swing at her, but her thin arm swatted it away seemingly without effort; the other hand clenched around his flabby, quivering chin. "So I'll just have to find out everything you know the old-fashioned way."
As the guide felt his mind being torn apart from the inside, his lips stretched wide in one final desperate—silent—scream.
Mel rolled back onto the tarmac where the rest of the party still stood waiting with armfuls of each other's luggage. "I've arranged to rent some trucks and a little equipment. I decided against any local help, I imagine we'll want to keep this as discreet as possible." Xena and—when she realized everyone was looking at her—Annie nodded appreciatively. "That means I'll also have to act as your translator if we need anything else."
"But don't you and Xena both speak Greek?"
Gabrielle glared at Harry. "We haven't spoken it in two thousand years. I imagine it's changed a little."
Xena bristled a little at the tone, but Harry just shrugged.
As they group filtered down toward the vehicles Mel had secured, Xena leaned in towards Gabrielle. "Are you all right?" she whispered.
Gabrielle didn't turn to look at her. "I'm fine. Let's just get started."
Xena watched in confusion as the blonde picked up her pace, forcing the warrior to trail after. Aphrodite, watching from the end of the procession, couldn't help but bite her lip in worry.
None of them paid any attention to the roar of a motorcycle fading in the distance.
"Gabrielle, come here a minute." The blonde, who had spent the time it took them to reach the general area of their search poring over maps in the back of the jeep, desperately looking for any formations that seemed familiar, crawled forward between the front seats at the sound of Xena's voice. "Gabrielle, take a look at that ridge. Does that look like the one outside Archestos to you? You know, with the two smaller rises on either side?"
Gabrielle squinted. She'd know that little canyon anywhere; they'd certainly passed through it enough times. "Yeah, but it's shorter. And…it was all rock. There was nothing growing on it."
"It's probably eroded over time," Mel shouted over the wind. "Once a few types of lichen put down roots in the rock, they could break it down and let other plants start to grow."
"Was a village ever excavated near here?"
The archaeologist shook her head. "I don't think so. But this area's completely undeveloped, I don't think anyone's ever tried."
Xena slowed the truck and cast a long, skeptical look at the craggy rocks. "I'm sure that's it."
"So all we have to do is follow the river north to get to the road to Amphipolis," Gabrielle muttered mostly to herself.
Xena squinted. "But it should be running right past here."
Gabrielle pushed herself back off the seats, digging through the pile of maps splayed out under her. "Here!" She vaulted back to the front of the vehicle and held out the tourist map sprinkled with historical facts. "It looks like it was dammed and diverted almost a century ago."
Xena shook her head. "The bed must be totally overgrown by now."
Mel peered over at the map. "But we can still follow it?"
Xena and Gabrielle shared an uneasy glance.
"There! They're slowing down. Should I slow down?"
"For the last time, Harry, just do what they do!"
Mattie turned back to the maps laid out in the back of the jeep with Annie already kneeling over them. "Anything looking familiar?"
The brunette shook her head without looking up. "I was hoping this would jog my Xena-ness, but no such luck." After studying the maps for a moment more, Annie looked shyly up into Mattie's eyes. "We could always try the hypnosis again."
"I'm not sure I could get it working while we're moving. Anyway, you're in charge. I'm not sure you'd want to risk—"
"I trust you."
The perfectly innocent admission made Mattie break eye contact and blindly grope for another map; when her hand inadvertently came to rest on top of Annie's, she froze.
The brunette looked as if she was about to pull her hand away, but Mattie let hers rest where it was. Neither one could bear to look at the other, letting their eyes rest instead on the spaces between their casually splayed fingers.
Aphrodite, convinced the two were completely unaware of her, or indeed, of anything, smiled smugly before turning back toward the front of the vehicle.
Harry sat still in the driver's seat, staring blankly at the road ahead.
Lisa hacked through another tangle of undergrowth as the trucks containing their equipment and the rest of their crew rolled along single-file behind them.
"So did she even say what happened?"
David shrugged. "Apparently she wouldn't give him more money, so he walked. But she convinced him to at least tell her how to get there."
The blonde grad student shook her head. "That seems a little weird to me." David shrugged. "You're telling me it doesn't bother you?"
He brought his machete down on another clump of vegetation. "What bothers me is the thought that without the credit from this trip, I'll never finish my thesis."
The blonde shook her head dismissively, then looked up at the surrounding woodland. "Hey, did you hear that?"
David stopped cutting. "What?"
"What, you mean like an animal?"
"No, it sounded like…a motorcycle."
David stood listening for a moment, but the forest was silent around them. They both jumped when the driver of the lead truck honked his horn. "Guys, what's the holdup?"
David fixed her with a final glance. Lisa shrugged sheepishly, shook her head, and went back to cutting.
Gabrielle brought the machete down in a wide arc, clearing the path for the jeeps to move ahead while Xena sweated along beside her. She cast a baleful glance at the other, noticeably less miserable, blonde perched in the passenger seat of the first vehicle. "You know, Aphrodite, you are still immortal. You technically have inexhaustible strength and endurance. You think you could…?"
The horrified look the goddess directed at her said it all. "You know what, you're right. Forget I asked."
The blonde turned toward Xena. "Still know where we're going?"
Xena nodded distractedly. "See that basin with the raised part in the middle?" Gabrielle followed the tilt of Xena's head. "I think that used to be…"
"…that island," Gabrielle finished for her, a vulnerable, far-away tone in her voice. "Where we stayed when I had the fever."
The fever had been growing worse since the previous morning until finally, against Gabrielle's fervent protests that she was fine, Xena called for a stop.
"Really, Xena, it's nothing," the redhead muttered. "I just need a little water."
"Good," Xena groaned as she lifted the bard into her arms, "you're about to get all the water you can handle."
With Argo's reigns looped around her waist, Xena stepped gingerly into the slow-moving river, careful not to upset her passenger. As soon as she'd seen the island sandwiched in the river delta, she'd made up her mind; with Cargon's troops still looking for them, it was too dangerous to stay put, but she knew Gabrielle wouldn't get better without a few days of uninterrupted rest.
Xena made up the campsite quickly and efficiently, and before Gabrielle had drifted completely back into consciousness, she was at the bard's side with a cloth soaked in cold river water. Gabrielle blinked, and glanced around at their surroundings.
"Nice inn. How much is this gonna cost?"
Xena smiled softly, not quite sure whether she was joking or delirious. "You just let me worry about that."
Gabrielle ran a tongue across her increasingly dry lips. "Xena?"
"I think it's possible that I might be a little sick."
"You let me worry about that, too."
Gabrielle furrowed her eyebrows as if giving the prospect a great deal of thought, then nodded. "Okay. I think I'm gonna try to sleep a little."
Green eyes looked up at her shyly, like they had that first night when Gabrielle had begged to share her fire. "Stay with me?"
Gabrielle dozed off with Xena still holding loosely onto her hand. With great care, the warrior lay down next to her on the skins, taking the smaller woman into her comforting arms. "Always."
Gabrielle chanced a look at Xena, fully aware that the same memory was playing through her mind as well; the brunette was giving her the same loving, vaguely worried look she had been ever since they got off the plane from Paris. The blonde shook her head curtly and turned back toward the wild tangle of the greenery. "So we're getting close to where the main road ran through. We should pick up the pace."
Xena watched the blonde go on, hacking violently at the underbrush, speechless.
The ancient cover stone blew inward, thin beams of yellow sunlight throwing the interior of the tomb into stark relief. Brown stone gilded with moss and long-dead roots framed the entry chamber, the door into the burial chamber still engulfed in shadow.
The two research assistants stepped through first, flashlight beams piercing the darkness. David let out a low whistle. "This is incredible." His light meandered over every detail of the interior, eventually falling on the dual inscriptions carved in the archway leading into the burial chamber. "Lisa, can you read this?"
The blonde added her own light to his, and squinted at the worn characters. "The first one says…'Here is laid to rest the lineage of Cretos the Innkeeper, First of Amphipolis.' The second one doesn't look as old…it says…
"'Here lie not Xena, Warrior Princess of Amphipolis and Gabrielle, Battling Bard of Poteidia; only their bodies lie here, for they shall never die.'"
David turned, flabbergasted, toward the open portal. "This is really it."
Alti stepped through the stream of sunlight into the murky interior, grinning. "Perfect."
As soon as Xena broke through the vegetation to look down on what had once been her home valley, she froze. "Kill the engines, now! Everybody get down!"
Mattie pressed down in her seat, leaning forward to try to hear Xena and Gabrielle's hushed words.
"What is it?"
"Damn it, they got here first."
Finally, Mattie's curiosity got the better of her and, with a nod from Annie, they crept forward to peek between the two women at the front of the caravan. "What's going on?"
Xena gestured sharply with her head, and Mattie's eyes were drawn to the row of canvas trucks gathered around a fresh-looking hole in the rocky hillside, hired hands swarming around the entrance to the tomb. "What do we do now?"
Harry and Aphrodite had climbed forward to join them, and Mel was straining forward in her seat to join the conversation. Xena cast a glance at the group, now focused on her. "There was another way into the tomb, through the older caves under it. Gabrielle and I can go around the back way."
"I'm going with you." All eyes turned at the sudden resoluteness in the normally quiet Annie's voice. "Two Xenas are better than one, right?"
"I'm going too." It wasn't until Annie cast a hopeful glance in her direction and Xena rolled her eyes that Mattie realized she had even spoken. She started to open her mouth, but for better or worse it was already too late to take it back.
"I'll direct you from up here as much as I can," Mel muttered from her position under the front seat. With a triumphant cry, she emerged with a set of miniature walkie talkies, tossing one to Xena. "I doubt I'll be able to get down into that tomb like in the good old days."
Harry glanced at the women around him, his gaze finally drifting between his wife and his ex-girlfriend. He pressed his lips into a thin line. "I'll stay here and help the Doc."
Xena nodded. "Aphrodite, can you stay and keep them safe?"
"Absolutely." All traces of frivolity were gone from the goddess' voice.
"All right." Xena stood, picking up the radio with one hand and fingering the reassuring weight of the concealed chakram with the other. "Let's do this."
The three explorers stepped gingerly over the threshold of the burial chamber, careful not to dislodge any of the millennia-old dust that coated the room. The two grad students flitted around the room excitedly, barely able to register all the remains and artifacts that lay ensconced around them. Their superior, however, only had eyes for the long, black sarcophagus situated between two smaller gray ones in the center of the chamber. By the time David or Lisa registered what the sound was, and could get up the nerve to object, Alti had already pulled open the monument singlehandedly.
Inside, as the white dust drifted clear, lay a perfectly preserved skeleton arrayed in what no modern archaeologist would have been able to identify as the full regalia of an Amazon Queen: disintegrating leather, faded feathers and well-polished topaz wreathing the body.
But Alti cared nothing for the body of the girl; she was concerned only with the smooth black urn clutched reverently, even lovingly, in the skeleton's hands.
She tugged the urn free, barely paying attention when Gabrielle's bones slid aside with a groan, and lifted it to her face with a grin.
David and Lisa shared a horrified glance. "Doc, you…you can't just…are you sure you should just be pulling stuff out?"
"You know he's right," a smooth voice purred from the shadow-wreathed stairs at the far end of the chamber. Xena stepped forward with a sneer. "You have no idea where it's been."
Alti's face twisted into a scowl. "Xena! I so hoped you'd come."
Xena shrugged coolly. "I live to serve."
Alti chuckled. "Not yet, you don't."
"Doc, what the hell is going—" David's words were cut off as Alti's hand lashed out, the lifetime of pain transmitted in the simple slap enough to throw him across the room.
Before Alti could move on her other assistant, Xena let the chakram fly with a triumphant warcry. To the warrior's horror, Alti raised the polished urn directly into the weapon's path; sparks flew as the disk ricocheted off the surface and lodged unceremoniously in the wall above the prostrate grad student's head. Xena stared on in horror, and Alti just grinned.
"I might have expended most of my spiritual power to hijack this body, but it's all going to be worth it."
Xena charged with a snarl, but stopped short mere inches from impact with Alti; her muscles strained, but the warrior was frozen to the spot. "Honestly, Xena, you should know as well as anyone what power a person's remains can give to a shamaness. And when those remains are as concentrated as ashes, well…"
Alti ducked as Xena's tackle resumed without warning, and Alti's fist snaked up to drive into the warrior's stomach. Xena collapsed with a grunt as Alti spun on Annie and Mattie trying to make their way around the side of the chamber. "I wonder how much control I could have over your whiny, reincarnated soul, Xena? Shall we find out?"
"Let's not." Alti turned toward the sound just as Gabrielle's palm snapped against her nose. The shamaness cried out, but rolled back artfully, arm still securely around Xena's ashes.
"Nice try little girl. But it's only a matter of time before I can do anything to Xena and her adorable little doppleganger I want."
Alti barely looked as Mattie shrieked and jumped at her, stepping to the side and sending the redhead slamming arm first against the opposite wall with a single well-placed kick.
Xena was beginning to regain her footing and, with a furtive glance around the room, Alti retreated down the stairs into the dark solace of the caves. "You can fight me if you want, Xena! But every minute brings you more under my control!" And she was gone.
Annie was by Mattie's side instantly, breathing growing more frantic every moment she was unable to rouse the redhead.
Xena stood with a groan and, after making sure Mattie and the terrified research assistant were being seen to, scooped up the chakram and began to stride toward the stairs.
"I have to get to Alti before she regains any more power."
"Wait! I'm going."
Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, it's not safe. With the amount of control Alti could have over me—"
"She'll kill you."
Xena stopped short, sighing. "Gabrielle, this is something I have to do. Alti is my responsibility, and I have to see this through, no matter the cost."
"I know." Xena barely heard the telltale rush of wind in time; in the end, she only noticed soon enough to turn her face directly into Gabrielle's punch.
Xena spun from the force of the blow, landing face down against the cold stone. Her eyes snapped up almost instantly. "What are you doing?"
Xena got to her feet, desperately trying to parry the blonde's efficient blows. "You're wasting your energy, Xena; I'm a better fighter than you ever were."
The confused and increasingly angry warrior charged, only to find herself in a headlock. "Remember? You taught me everything you knew." Gabrielle squeezed, Xena's struggles slowing as her air supply began to dwindle. The blonde leaned in to her ear. "And I had ten lonely, agonizing years to practice."
When Xena went limp in her arms, Gabrielle relaxed her grip and brought the warrior lightly to the floor. She leaned over her lover, lips tight as she brushed a string of hair that had come free in the fight out of the brunette's eyes. Gods, she looked so peaceful again.
Annie, still crouched by Mattie's side, watched the blonde with horror and confusion. "Wait!" Gabrielle turned, and the empty yet resolute look in her eyes made Annie gulp. "What…what am I supposed to tell her? When she wakes up?"
Gabrielle, close to tears, picked up the discarded chakram from the stone and cast one last, longing look at Xena's unconscious form.
"Tell her I'm never going to watch her die again."
Gabrielle padded carefully through the darkened caves, the thin beam of her flashlight her only guide. But then, with what Xena had taught her about hearing, it wasn't much of a disadvantage anyway. Gabrielle gripped the chakram a little tighter.
Xena had dumped everything on her at once—trained her to take her place so she could abandon her in Jappa—and then suddenly, two thousand years later, she'd been back, exactly like Gabrielle had remembered her; and now after over a year of something had looked like it was about to become the life she'd always wanted them to have, Xena had dropped everything to do…this. To go off and get herself killed again.
That was why she had to do it; because there was no way she could survive losing Xena to her own stubborn, selfish, sense of honor anymore.
Gabrielle shook her head. Now she just had to find Alti before she managed to get out of the caves…
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that." Gabrielle spun around, every muscle in her body tensed as the dark figure melted out of the shadows. "She's not going anywhere."
Ares grinned. "Hiya, blondie."
Gabrielle's fingers tightened around the chakram until they ached, but Ares just smiled. "You know, it occurs to me I never did congratulate you on binding me in that tomb." He smiled conspiratorially. "Who would have thought that your own ancestor would be the one to let me out again?"
"Ares, don't get in my way. Whatever you might think Alti's going to—"
"Cut the posturing, blondie." The god's smile was gone. "I'm here to help."
Gabrielle scowled, but then her eyes widened. "You know exactly what Alti's doing."
"That woman's always been a wild card. With Xena's only earthly remains, she'll have total control over Xena; the clone, the reincarnation, probably even that archaeologist."
Gabrielle smirked. "Meaning you'd lose your chance."
Ares simply shrugged. "At least I'm consistent."
"Yeah, and why should I trust you?"
"Well who else do you have left?" Gabrielle averted her eyes, and Ares grinned. "That's what I thought. Xena wouldn't let you come down here all by yourself."
"It's for the best."
"You'd think she'd know that, number of times she's sacrificed herself for you." The blonde glared at him, but Ares just chuckled.
"You want to help me, do it. I'm going to find Alti."
Gabrielle turned and walked deeper into the darkness, leaving Ares shaking his head as, finally, he began to follow.
Xena groaned, lifting her head slowly from the cold stone of the tomb floor. Tomb? She sat up with a start as memories began to funnel back in to place. She scanned the chamber frantically; Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen, nor were the two young assistants who had been with Alti. A quiet moan from the far wall caught her attention, and she turned to find Annie kneeling over Mattie's crumpled form.
Annie heard the skittering of footsteps on the stone just in time to turn toward Xena looming over her. "Where is she?"
The fury in the warrior's eyes was so palpable, Annie could barely breathe. When Xena opened her mouth to ask again, Annie cleared her throat. "She said…
"She said she was never going to watch you die again."
Annie winced, but Xena merely slumped against the wall of the burial chamber, pain, sorrow, and confusion playing across her face. When Annie was about to try to say…something…anything…the warrior sniffed, clenched her fists, and stood. Without a word, Xena turned and disappeared down the stairs.
The brunette was about to follow when she heard a soft groan beneath her; she turned down to find Mattie's warm eyes looking back up at her. The redhead smiled. "Hey. Are you okay?"
Annie's palm slammed against her shoulder. Mattie blinked at the brunette's suddenly furious face leaning over her. "Am I okay? Are you stupid or something?" Mattie winced and tried to block feebly as Annie slapped her arm again. "You're a shrink, Mattie, what were you going to do, regress her to death? I was afraid you were really hurt!"
Mattie looked up at the face above her, flushed with anger, hair drifting nimbly around the soft features, blue eyes almost gray in the half-light. She felt her heart skip. "You were really worried about me?"
"Of course I was worried about you, you…quack, I—"
Annie melted as soon as Mattie's lips met hers. The redhead was forceful, but soft, and Annie couldn't help but moan lightly. The sound made Mattie pull back.
From the look on her face, it seemed Mattie was afraid Annie was about to slap her properly, but the glazed look in the brunette's eyes told her otherwise. She cleared her throat. "Sorry. I know, I'm supposed to like…have some kind of speech or someth—"
Mattie's head practically slammed against the cold stone of the chamber wall when Annie dove back toward her, but the redhead didn't notice the pain. All she noticed was the feel of Annie's lips, like velvet sliding over her skin. Her hand snaked up to run delicately through the brunette's hair, and Annie purred. Suddenly, a memory welled up in her mind: their first kiss.
They were laid out on the furs, breathing still heavy as the hoofbeats of the Persian army retreated into the distance. Gabrielle was on the edge of sleep, exhausted from the battle and the poison, when she felt Xena shift next to her. She cracked open her eyes to find Xena looking down at her. The warrior's eyes were still full of fear, relief, and something else—something that she hadn't been able to see there before. Gabrielle took a deep breath; after today, there could be no secrets between them.
Leaning up into Xena's lips was almost instinctual; when the warrior kissed back, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Gabrielle pulled back, looking up into eyes that held a look of wonder that matched her own. "I love you, Xena."
The warrior swallowed the lump in her throat. "I love you, Gabrielle."
Almost too weak to move, Gabrielle pulled the warrior's arms tight around her, her own lips resting just a hair's breadth from Xena's. She felt caught half way between laughing and crying. "Gods, we've wasted so much time."
Xena pulled the bard tighter, their lips brushing together like a whisper. "No. Never."
"Hey, are you in there? The guys with the trucks cleared out as soon as those research assistants came out all hysterical. Doctor Pappas tried to radio—"
The two women were so focused on each other that they didn't notice Harry's words until they suddenly stopped. Annie flinched back, Mattie trying vainly to make eye contact with her husband. "Harry! Harry, wait…"
The injured redhead tried to lift herself to her feet, but Harry was already out the door.
Alti stumbled over a rock in the darkness, fighting the urge to curse out loud; until she regained her strength, the girl could still be a danger to her, and she had no intention of doing anything stupid when she was so close. She just needed a little time: time to re-gather her power, to gain greater control over the vast field of abilities Xena' ashes would give her. But until then—
The sound of the blow reverberated through the cavern, sending Alti sprawling on her back and the precious urn rolling away into the darkness. "No!"
The shamaness barely vaulted to her feet in time to block Gabrielle's next attack. "Stupid little girl! You really think you can defeat me?"
The blonde didn't answer, merely continuing her seemingly tireless assault in the darkness. With a screech, Alti lashed out with a slender hand; the remembered pain that coursed through Gabrielle sent her tumbling to the ground. The blonde groaned as she tried to right herself, only to have Alti kick her sharply in her exposed back. "No…"
"Oh, yes." The shamaness leaned over her, lips twisted into a cruel sneer. "I beat you before, little girl. And now, without your precious Xena to come to the rescue, what chance do you have?"
"Only divine intervention."
Alti turned directly into Ares' fist; the impact threw her clear of the prostrate blonde, who forced herself to her feet; she hadn't expected Ares to offer her a hand up anyway.
"If you're just going to help me get my ass kicked, I can do that all by myself."
"Well, excuse me. After two thousand years locked in a crypt," the god glared at her balefully, "I'm not exactly as the top of my game."
Gabrielle sighed, and nodded grudgingly.
The blonde returned his glare, then turned to focus on Alti, who was climbing shakily to her feet, clutching—
Gabrielle and Ares followed Alti's footsteps disappearing into the darkness, only to stop short when the path through the winding caves diverged in front of them; the echoing of Alti's footsteps through the stone corridors made it impossible to tell which way she had gone.
Gabrielle sighed. "You take the right."
"Wow, you've got that 'do-as-I-say-or-I'll-break-your-knees' tone. Xena would be proud."
Gabrielle fixed Ares with a smoldering glare, then turned and walked down the left path without a glance back. Ares shook his head ruefully then, after a moment of simply watching the blonde disappear into the darkness, headed down the other tunnel.
Aphrodite leaned back in the front seat, surveying the tangled wilderness around them almost casually. Since Harry'd left, there hadn't really been a whole lot to talk about.
"I wish I'd met Doctor Covington." Mel started out of her concentration on nothing in particular and turned to face the blonde goddess, blinking. "I mean, was she like her?"
"Lord, no. More like Xena, I suppose. That was always quite the irony."
"I would have liked to meet her."
Mel cleared her throat. "She…well, she has a son in New York. Harry. Named after her father."
"I was wondering…how did she die? Ooh, sorry, that's one of those things mortals don't…"
"No. It's fine." It had taken decades, but Mel could think about it without crying now. "We were excavating a temple that was supposed to hold more scrolls. A section of ceiling collapsed on top of her. She held on for almost two days, but…"
"That legacy she was so concerned with got her killed," she murmured.
Aphrodite stared at the aging belle's carefully-schooled profile for a moment, then wet her lips. "Why didn't you ever tell her?" she asked as gently as she could.
The linguist turned to her with a look of mingled surprise, relief, and panic, against which Aphrodite couldn't help but break out her most delightful grin. "What…how…"
"Hello, goddess of love, remember? Besides, blonde notwithstanding, I can put two and two together as well as the next girl."
Mel couldn't meet her eyes. "I…it wasn't done."
"In the forties? Please, I got more…" Aphrodite cleared her throat. "Which isn't the point."
"It just…it would have been too complicated." Aphrodite watched patiently as a single tear charted its course down the woman's cheek. "I was terrified," she whispered.
"Of what people would say about us. Of what it said about me." She sighed. "I knew she felt the same way."
"That's a shame. 'Cause, you know, Xena and Gabrielle, sort of supposed to be together. Even when they act like idiots, when they don't talk out their problems like a normal, functional couple would, when they wait until they're on the verge of a breakdown and stick me in the middle like…"
Aphrodite cut herself off and turned toward Mel, who was staring at her with eyes wide. "Sorry. Unrelated crisis." The goddess sighed. "My point is, Xena and Gabrielle belong together. Like, in the cosmic sense. Body, mind, soul, past, present, future…and this isn't making you feel better, is it?"
Mel's lips curled primly. "It is a bit ambivalent."
Aphrodite scooted closer, genially bumping Mel's arm with her elbow. "My point is, at least know that she was in love with you. Trust me, I know these things."
Mel smiled lightly.
"And you'll be together forever. That's part of the Xena and Gabrielle legacy too; nothing can keep 'em apart for long."
Harry's self-pitying approach toward the ersatz camp had slowed as he'd listened to the women talk. Now, he leaned against a tree a few yards away from the jeeps, deep in thought.
Gabrielle picked carefully over the rocks in her path; the preponderance of debris made it unlikely that Alti had managed to come this way without Gabrielle hearing her, but fortunately the curve of the wall seemed to suggest that the corridors bent back on one another at some point; if she didn't find Alti, she would at least find her trail and, possibly, Ares.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?"
Gabrielle jerked around; though the darkness concealed all but the approaching figure's silhouette, the voice was unmistakable as anyone else's. "Xena, please…"
"This was my fight, Gabrielle." Xena was trying to keep her voice level, stepping forward at a measured pace so as to avoid either embracing Gabrielle or decking her. "It's too dangerous, I don't want to put you at risk—"
Gabrielle's voice was low and dangerous, enough to make Xena stop in her tracks and cut her speech short.
"You don't want to put me at risk? Well, that's really big of you, Xena." Gabrielle approached, strafing toward Xena's side as the warrior's usually cool blue eyes followed her nervously. "So instead you put yourself at risk. Just run off to do your duty without thinking that it might effect me."
"Gabrielle, it's all about you!" Xena pressed forward, desperate to make her understand. "Keeping you safe. I don't know what I'd do if anything ever happened to you…"
"Well you weren't the one who had to find out!" It wasn't until the echo reached her ears that Gabrielle realized she'd screamed it. She took a breath. "Were you? You didn't have to live ten long years without me, did you?"
Xena shrank back a step. "If this is about Japan…"
"It isn't just about Japan. It's not what you did there, Xena," she hissed, "it's that you keep doing it."
"Sacrificing yourself! You find some cause, and you let yourself die for the greater good, and then you come back, and instead of letting it be enough, you do it all over again!"
Gabrielle stopped, fighting the urge to lean against the cold stone as she shook with sobs. "And I can't take it anymore. You know, I thought that after two thousand years, you wouldn't have to atone anymore. I thought we could have a normal life together, like real people." She looked up into the warrior's sapphire eyes, barely visible in the darkness. "And then the universe throws some new disaster at our feet and you don't even think about it. You dive in, just like always. You don't even think about what it'll mean when you get yourself killed 'for me' again right when I thought…I thought that we'd finally have a chance to just…be together."
The blonde straightened, staring defiantly into her lover's eyes. "That maybe just this once you wouldn't leave."
Xena was speechless; though she couldn't see them in the dark, she could picture the tears rolling down Gabrielle's face.
"What good is forever if we can't be together now, Xena?"
Xena slouched against the wall of the tunnel, barely able to think.
"Xena?" The sound of Xena's ragged breathing was the only evidence that the warrior was still with her. "Xena."
Gabrielle, momentarily disoriented by her pacing around the tunnel, turned towards the sound. "What?"
"Gods, I'm so sorry…" Gabrielle could hear the hitch in her breath. Was Xena…crying?
"You're right. You're right…"
Gabrielle sought out the voice in the darkness and, as soon as she touched the sleeve of Xena's jacket, felt warm arms encircling her. "I didn't even think…Gabrielle, you're more important to me than anything, you have to believe that…"
The bard sighed. "I know."
"I just didn't want you to get hurt…"
Gabrielle's hand slid gently through Xena's warm hair. "The only thing that hurts me is not being with you," she whispered.
"I wanted you to be proud of me," the warrior whispered, practically sobbing.
Gabrielle pulled back to look into Xena's eyes as best she could in the near-pitch blackness. "What?"
"Gabrielle, every sacrifice I ever made was…was to feel like I deserved your love. To prove it to you. To prove myself worthy of you."
Gabrielle felt fresh tears streaming down her face. "You never had to." She sniffed. "Look, Xena, I know you don't just want an ordinary life…"
"Of course I do. That night…before we left for Japan…that was all I wanted."
"But then you left." Gabrielle let her embrace loosen. "And I knew it was the right thing to do, and that I couldn't have stopped you, and that maybe it would finally give you some peace, but I didn't care."
"I'm so sorry…"
"And now we have a second chance. No history, no obligations, no enemies. I just want to take it."
"We will. We'll go away somewhere, I swear. When this is over, we'll…move to the country and…breed horses, or something."
Gabrielle couldn't help but crack a smile through her tears. "I'm not going to lose you again."
Gabrielle pulled back slowly, the familiar warmth of Xena's arms receding into the cold dampness of the cave. "I can finish this. But you have to trust me."
Xena leaned in, her lips hesitantly seeking out the shorter woman's, then growing more bold as Gabrielle responded to the kiss. "Gabrielle, I trust you. With my life."
Gabrielle smiled, and stared resolutely into the barely-visible face of the only woman she had ever loved.
Ares hadn't been difficult to find; whatever else might be said about him, the war god did tend to reappear abruptly on cue. In fact, Gabrielle was more than a little suspicious as to how long he might have been eavesdropping on them. She shook her head.
"So you know the plan?" Gabrielle asked him without looking back; the three of the them were perched at the edge of a deeper chamber from which telltale scuttling signs were emanating.
"Think I can pull it off. But I don't know if I'll be able to keep it up once I start—"
"That won't be an issue. We just need the element of surprise." She turned slightly to her left, and felt a warm and familiar arm brush up against hers. "Xena, are you ready?"
"Not much to be ready for."
"I trust you." Slim fingers gripped Gabrielle's reassuringly. "I just don't like sitting on my hands."
Gabrielle's fingers squeezed back. "It'll be fine." She turned to her other side just in time to catch the sly glance Ares shot in Xena's direction. No, he would never stop trying.
Gabrielle tightened her grip on Xena's hand. "Let's move out."
Alti sat, legs crossed, as the trickle of energy running into her body slowed. These caverns had seen life and death, enough for her to recoup her lost strength, but nothing compared to the power she sought. At least she still had the urn, clutched protectively in her lap; as long as she had that, Xena couldn't touch her. And without Xena to worry about, it was only a matter of time before—
The shamaness spun her head around; she couldn't see much more than an outline, but the tone of the bard's voice was familiar enough. She scowled.
"Time to finish what we started!"
Alti sneered. "Fine with me."
Without warning, Alti was on her feet, closing to deliver a vicious punch to Gabrielle's jaw. The blonde barely drew back in time, the blow just grazing her chin, and she followed up with a curt kick to Alti's ribs.
The shamaness grunted in pain, but rolled with the kick and hefted the urn with both hands, bringing the iron vessel down against the side of Gabrielle's face with enough force to crush the blonde's head.
Instead, Gabrielle just smiled. When Alti looked at her in confusion and panic, the blonde let out a throaty laugh. "You might be hot for a mortal, honey…" The illusion disappeared, and Ares stood over her, grinning. "But you've got a lot to learn about real power!"
By the time the distracted shamaness registered the sharp whine in her ears, the chakram had already closed the distance from the shadows; the urn, still held unprotected in Alti's outstretched arms, split in two, spilling its dusty contents on the cave floor.
"No!" Alti scream, dropping to the ground to scrape at the scattered ashes in vain as the chakram completed its arc and returned to the waiting hand of the real Gabrielle.
Alti looked up just in time to meet the toe of Xena's boot.
Gabrielle moved in, helping Xena keep Alti off balance. "Ares, get ready!"
The god cackled evilly, his hands beginning to glow a flaring red. No mortal attack would be able to destroy Alti permanently; but Ares was hardly mortal.
Alti let out an inhuman shriek, her hands on Xena and Gabrielle's arms sending pain coursing through the two women's bodies. As they fell, she clenched her fists and felt her strength begin to build; if nothing else was left, she could at least take out two of her own creations and one pathetically depleted has-been god.
Alti spun around to meet Ares just as he began to bellow; as their outstretched, coursing hands met and the flash of light filled the cavern, Xena used her final ounce of strength to throw herself over Gabrielle's prostrate body. She winced as she felt the light hit, waves of heat, and pain…then nothing.
Xena blinked. Before she could wonder what had happened, Gabrielle groaned beneath her. Somehow, the faint glow from the tunnel leading out to the surface where the rest of the team waited had been supplanted; there was enough light to watch Gabrielle's eyes flutter open and a tiny smile crack her face. "Xena. Did we win?"
"We're about to, if you don't mind!" Ares grunted from somewhere behind them. It was only then that Xena turned to see the source of the light bathing the room; her jaw dropped open.
Ares and Alti still stood toe to toe, frozen in their strain against each other as ribbons of red and black twisted and snapped around them.
"You're wasting your time, war god! Even if this doesn't kill you, I still have enough energy to toss you through time and space like a doll!"
Ares chuckled. "Don't worry, sweetheart, I could keep this up for centuries." He met Gabrielle's gaze at the other end of the cavern. "But I won't have to."
Alti half-turned toward the exchange; but when Gabrielle did nothing but stare evenly back, Ares' confident smirk began to falter. "Gabrielle! Do it, use the chakram!"
Gabrielle stood slowly, casually letting the weapon come to rest on her belt-loop.
"A god has the power to kill any mortal with one blow, but he hasn't been worshipped in a while, so he might not have anything else left to defend himself."
Gabrielle turned slowly to consider Alti. "She, on the other hand, can't necessarily kill a god, but I imagine she's got at least enough power to make good on her threat."
She slowly pirouetted away from the increasingly anxious duelists toward the dark-haired woman staring blankly at her. "Who's your money on, Xena?"
As Xena watched the scene unfold, and the reality of Gabrielle's plan settled over her, she wasn't sure whether to feel amazed or afraid. The rest of what she was feeling, though, was unmistakable for anything but love.
"We'll be leaving now. Either one of you can let go at any time. As long as you don't mind letting the other destroy you."
As Xena and Gabrielle backed toward the distant cave entrance and Alti began to shriek in growing fury, Ares just started to laugh. "I always did underestimate you, blondie!" he shouted over the crackling of energy and the frustrated wailing of his—now eternal—opponent.
Gabrielle smiled. "I'd expect nothing less."
As they walked into the light, Ares' laughter and Alti's screams reaching a crescendo, Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers.
Harry and Annie stopped the trucks at the mouth of the cave, the remaining members of the team rushing forward to bombard Xena and Gabrielle with questions as they pulled themselves clear.
Gabrielle waved her hands softly. "It's all right. Ares and Alti are both down there, and neither one of them's getting out for a long, long, long time." She turned toward the amazed, almost worshipful gaze of the aging woman in the second jeep. "Doctor Pappas, I think it would be best if we sealed the tomb and all the entrances to these caves."
"Yes, I had a feeling. That does seem to be the norm in these situations," Mel replied with admirable smoothness. "I have everything we'll need in the supplies."
"Good." As the situation finally caught up to her, Gabrielle began to feel weak. She slouched, only to have Xena's strong arms catch her up from behind. "Thanks."
"One of them will get out eventually, you know," Xena murmured as she lifted the blonde into her embrace.
"I know. But not in this lifetime." She turned shyly up toward Xena. "That's more than we've ever had."
Xena bent down toward Gabrielle, intent on showing her that she has no desire to waste it.
"Hey, hey, you two, knock that out! There's a time and a place!"
Gabrielle looked up, cheeks flushed, at a grinning Aphrodite. "You're one to talk."
As the three eldest members of the group closed in on Doctor Pappas to discuss explosives, Annie and Mattie stepped clear of the other truck, sharing a long, desolate look. Mattie would have to talk to Harry sooner rather than later. And when she did, well…she looked away from the brunette's eyes.
Mattie walked slowly toward the other jeep, eyes locked on her husband as he pensively swung out and rose to meet her. Mattie swallowed; whatever he was about to say, it was no more than she deserved. "Harry…"
"Mattie, I've got some bad news." When the redhead opened her eyes, Harry was smiling down at her, sadly. "It's not meant to be."
Mattie blinked, trying and failing to hide her shock.
"I don't remember a lot from when I was…Xena, or, you know…" He scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. "But some of it I remember perfectly. Like that Gabrielle'd do anything to be with Xena, and Xena'd do anything to be with her." He looked up, finally meeting her eyes again. "And that no one should ever come between them," he added softly.
Speechless, tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, Mattie leaned up and pulled her husband—her ex-husband, she suddenly realized with a bittersweet twinge—into a grateful embrace.
Harry squeezed back gently, then let her go.
As the group near the cave broke up, Aphrodite strode languidly back toward his position, smiling frankly. "You're a nice guy, Harry."
He cast a final glance at Mattie and Annie sitting close, heads together, against the hood of the other jeep. "Yeah, remind me again where they finish, 'cause I seem to have forgotten."
The goddess draped an arm around his shoulder. "Come on, let's go set some high-powered explosives."
As the blonde led him off, he looked over at her incredulously. "You know how to do that?"
"Oh, totally. I mean, during the Liberation of Paris I…well, that's kind of a story."
"Well, I guess I got the time."
Aphrodite grinned. "You just hang with me, sweetie. If anyone can find that one special girl out there for you, it's me."
"Oh, trust me. It's what I do, remember?"
Harry took a deep breath, eyes fixed on the wide-open landscape before him, and smiled. "'Dite, I think this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."
"Are you ready to do this?"
Mattie considered the question in earnest. Six weeks had passed since they'd come back to the States, Doctor Pappas having insisted rather adamantly on paying for their flights home. Since then, and since the utter disbelief of their trip had been shaken off, both she and Annie had been uncertain how to proceed; there still seemed to be too many unanswered questions.
Then, two weeks ago, Annie had asked her out. On a date, the kind she hadn't really been on since college. They'd eaten, and they'd danced, and they'd gone to movies, then home to make out on the couch. And in a way that she never had even in her whirlwind courtship with Harry, Mattie felt young again.
And now they were kneeling on the bed in Annie's apartment, the lights turned down and some unidentifiable soft tune echoing in the background.
And the answer—even after everything she had been through, every step they had taken along the way—was yes.
Mattie leaned gently in toward Annie, letting the brunette meet her lips at her own pace. She opened her mouth tentatively, letting Annie's tongue shyly explore on its own. And slowly, she brought her hands up to undo the top button of Annie's blouse.
When the cold evening air met the bare skin of her stomach, Annie sucked in a breath, but pushed the kiss forward, leaning Mattie back against the mattress and working at the clasp of her own bra.
Mattie began to peel her own shirt up but, when Annie's chest was bared, she froze. Annie looked down in concern, but Mattie was staring back up at her with wonder. "You're beautiful."
Annie smiled tightly, trying not to either cry or laugh in delight. Her fingers wound with Mattie's, helping the redhead ease her own shirt over her head, then leaning back as the smaller woman let her bra fall by the bedside. Mattie slid her hands tentatively up Annie's sides, but bit her lip.
"I don't know what to do," she murmured. She knew Annie had experimented in college, but she had never even—
"You do." Annie drew down to her for another unhurried kiss. "You know exactly what to do."
Mattie couldn't tell how much time they spent gently exploring the rises and valleys of each other's skin, only that, eventually, Annie's hands tugged at the hem of her skirt and that after that they could only stare at each other, naked and panting.
Mattie leaned down, gently pressing her lips against Annie's tan navel, the brunette gasping as her tongue darted out to wash over the soft skin. Annie's hands cradled her breasts lovingly, every caress making Mattie press forward deeper into the skin of Annie's stomach, then up to her chest, lapping and sucking with curious wonder. The brunette's breathing grew faster and shallower until, without warning, Annie's control snapped. She guided Mattie down toward the bed and began her own assault, her lips and fingers leaving a trail of fire as they traveled down Mattie's body. The redhead felt a familiar spark building inside her and, when Annie's ravening lips disappeared between her thighs, the spike of heat that ran up her spine drove all conscious thoughts from her mind save one; I've got to try that!
As the night air and the gently weary aftermath of their lovemaking settled over them, Mattie pulled Annie close and pressed a chaste, tender kiss to her forehead. Annie smiled, the look in her eyes taking what little remained of Mattie's breath away, and they could do nothing but hold each other's eyes until Annie finally drifted into sleep.
In the beginning, Mattie had blamed Ares for ruining things; for interfering with the way her life—their life—was supposed to be. But in the end, everything—soul-switching, reincarnation, fights, recriminations, jealousy—had happened exactly as it was meant to.
In the end, Mattie knew she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
The sun had finally gone behind a cloud, casting the green hills and rows of black and gray stone in a soft, white light. Mel rolled to a stop at a nondescript granite marker set into the ground, polished and plain.
Nothing fancy. For Christ's sake, Mel, I'm an archaeologist. I spend all my time around expensive tombs already.
She smiled sadly, letting the neatly hand-tied bundle of lilies drop to the dewy grass at the base of the memorial.
"I know I haven't visited in a while, but I've been…busy." Mel swallowed the lump in her throat.
The linguist dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, keeping at bay the tears that threatened to spill over uncontrollably. "And I've had some time to think. About everything we had together…and everything we didn't.
"I love you, Janice Covington. I'm in love with you. And I never told you because…because I was scared. Of what might happen, of what might not. You were always so brave but…I should have been brave too. And I'm sorry for everything we never had because I wasn't."
Mel leaned down, planting a single, desperate kiss on a gloved hand, then down to the polished granite. "We'll be together again soon, my love."
Mel leaned back in her wheelchair, eyes taking in the slope of the hills, rolling gradually away to the west, and thought back to the day that she had cleared a similar rise into the bustling camp of a famous archaeologist, sporting an old telegram, silly girlhood dreams of adventure, and a garment bag full of textbooks.
And finally, she left herself cry.
Xena lifted herself from bed, careful not to disturb Gabrielle still snoring lightly by her side, and pulled on her jeans and boots. It was going to be a long day; but then, that wasn't something she much seemed to mind anymore.
As she stood on the front porch of the farmhouse, gazing out through the cloudy morning over the corrals and pastures where they would soon release their stable for the day, she couldn't help but smile.
Her smile widened as warm hands clasped around her stomach from behind. "Good morning."
Xena luxuriated in the hum of Gabrielle's voice against the back of her neck. "Good morning."
Gabrielle followed her gaze, eyes sweeping over the expanse of green Montana countryside before them. "You know I thought you were kidding back in that cave."
"Mm, no. If there's one thing I know that's not two thousand years out of date, it's horses."
"Doctor Pappas was really very generous. This place is…"
"It was a loan. Which I fully intend to pay back as soon as we start to turn a profit."
Gabrielle just smiled; she knew Doctor Pappas would never accept the money; 'Gotta look out for my own, don't I?" she'd chided when she'd made arrangements with them to buy the land. The blonde pressed closer to Xena's back.
"I love you, Xena."
"I love you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle allowed herself another moment's reverie, then shook her head. "Well, we better get to work."
Xena spun her around, looking earnestly into her eyes; Gabrielle's heart skipped just as it had the first time, so long ago—an eternity ago. "We have all the time in the world."
As Xena leaned down to kiss her, a kiss so warm and needy and full of the promise of a life she'd been waiting an eternity for, Gabrielle concluded that maybe this new world wasn't such a bad place to be after all.
|< Précédent||Suivant >|