|Disclaiming the obvious:
Xena and Gabrielle are copyrighted by persons other than me - I do not intend any infringement on the copyright thereto 'em.
Xena and Gabrielle are, like, soulmates and stuff - they're wicked hot for each other. They have never suffered the indignities of lesbian bed-death (not in any of my stories, but I think that pretty much explains the "Gen" genre - just kidding!). So if the thought of two not quite well-adjusted, but especially well built women sharing deep emotional and physical experiences with one another bothers you in any but the most pleasant of ways - this story is not for you. And if you're only interested in the two well built females getting it on part, this story may not be for you either. The rest of y'all can read on...
This is a post FIN story. For the uninitiated, that means this narrative picks up where the X:WP tv series left off. You might be a little lost if you're not up to speed on those events, but then again
you may not be (I'd be curious to hear about that).
Thanks to that ever perplexed beta marvel ("Explain why you write this stuff again..."), Ume. She's rockin' on as ever. And thanks to those fertile minds that thought up Xena and Gabrielle in the first place, because they're a rockin', ass kickin' duo in the leagues of Batman and Robin, Steed and Mrs. Peel, Ren and Stimpy... And, of course, thanks to all of the cracked nuts surfin' in to check out my stories, y'all rock too.
It's A Beautiful Life:
How Xena Got Her Groove Back
by Crème Brûlée
I hated being dead. But Ive got to tell you, out of all the times Id been dead, I hated being dead that time the worst. It was knowing that Id have to stay dead that bothered me most. And knowing that she wouldnt be coming with me. That hurt. Knowing that the touching was for the last time, the smiling was for the last time, the being with her was for the last time. For lack of a better expression, it sucked.
And then they told me thered been some monumental everafter snafu. "Oh sorry, Xena, weve had some trouble processing your Permanently Dead, Eternal Demise, X-22-466 Form. It may be a while." Im not sure I liked the way that glowing postmortal bureaucrat was looking at me. There was a time when Gabrielle looked at me like that; back before life happened all over us and everything got so twisted.
But there I was, stuck in limbo, which I have to tell you, was nothing really special. Its nothing really at all. I mean, its really nothing. I dont even know how I still knew I existed. I couldnt see or feel myself, I could only sense my thoughts. It was like being asleep in a bright fog. I wondered if that was what it was like to be Joxer?
I had a lot of time to mull over the events of my life. Or at least I think I had a lot of time. There was no way of telling. I could sense that there was a bustling energy surrounding me, but I couldnt see anything. I kept trying to move my arms, my legs, but they werent there. I tried scratching an itch once, then remembered that there was nothing to itch or itch with. I wondered if this had something to do with me having been beheaded shortly before Id arrived in that place. The little bureaucrat who visited and asked questions from time to time assured me that the two phenomena were unrelated. Physical presence was unnecessary there, or so she said. When I asked why it was that I could see her she explained, as though I was a child, that she had manifested in a form that I could comprehend. What, I would like to know, is so comprehensible about a fuzzy, brightly colored pixie with no feet?
After being suitably mournful for the mess Id made of my life; for the damage Id done to so many others; for the screwing up Id done in my relationship; for all of the unfinished and untidy aspects of my regrettable character - I started to get restless. Non-corporeality, it seems, hadnt changed me all together. I was sure that after my last great battle, my last heroic stand and self-sacrificing gesture - Id be free of this restlessness. Perhaps the Hell I had to look forward to once theyd fixed my "account" was myself. Now that would be torture. Not that I havent had to contend with worse in my time, but I grate on my nerves.
The glowing pixie, my spirit accountant, returned and asked me a couple more questions. Insignificant, meaningless details - the kinds bureacrats are always after. "Where were you born?" "What was your name?" "Who did you kill?" "How did you die?" That kind of thing. This time she was asking about my childhood. She was an odd specimen. Always flitting about, staring. I wonder if thats what becomes of us after being in limbo a while. You get a bit loose about the fittings. Before she disappeared I asked her if there wasnt something for the non-corporeal to do.
"Do?" she squeaked.
She seemed, for a spirit, to be thinking quick. On her feet. Which she didnt have.
"Well... I thought that while I was processing your case you might be better off staying put. I wouldnt want to lose you." She smiled and giggled a bit.
"Oh yes." She nodded rapidly, the glow that was her head became a blur. "Why, just recently, Agent Bleed lost six cases in a mix up. Ghastly. Those poor souls are wandering around the eternity wing, probably thinking theyre someone else altogether - drifting in, drifting out." she shuddered. "Best to stay put and contained in one consciousness. Much less confusing that way. Theres enough random noise as it is. And youre such a fine energy mass. So clear, so well-defined. When you move on, youll be of one piece... so to speak."
I had plenty of experience recognizing attraction when I saw it. I also had plenty of experience sensing when I wasnt getting the whole story. "So youre saying that I can move from here?"
"Well, no... Yes... But its not a good idea. Like I said, you could be lost and Im close, really close, to finishing your case."
"What is it, exactly, thats wrong with my case?" I asked.
"Theres an anomaly. Well, theres more than one. You led a fascinating life. Its a wonder that you lived as long as you did, given the patterns and disturbances evident in your file. Its not widely known but distinct energy patterns overexposed to specific conditional variances have been known to generate a highly volatile feedback ratio that
No wonder I was trapped in nowhere picking my nonexistent navel for eternity. This little spirit, who was in charge of expediting my eternal statistics, couldnt stick to the subject if it killed her. "What anomaly?"
"Hmm?" She asked. "Oh! That. Well, its odd."
"Anomalies tend to be." I was losing my patience - nothing new for me.
"Yes, well, this one," she seemed to be flustered - I guessed I hadnt lost my edge entirely. It was comforting to know. "This anomaly, Ive been checking against other cases. Im new you see. I havent had more than a few thousand cases. Usually, I wouldnt be given a case like yours, its a big responsibility and an honor." She gushed. I was beginning to think that here, as in my former life, some things were the same. I wondered if I'd forfeited control too soon. Was I still an active participant in my destiny? Was there a destiny in the afterlife? I knew the kind of afterlife I deserved. Was I going to get it? She continued, "And its a great opportunity for me to prove myself after the problem I had processing that virus on Delta 4."
"Problem?" I raised my nonexistent eyebrow in question.
"Well, yes. I dont know how they can expect one Agent to transact that many energy turn-overs in such a short amount of time. I only mixed up a few souls. A couple of hundred. And besides, like there arent enough beetle souls to go around on that planet? Im sure they didnt mind re-entry as mice. Its probably refreshing to them, you know?"
"Re-entry? Whats that?"
"Oh!" she quivered a bit and pulsed. "Um... forget I mentioned that okay? Its um, not protocol. Especially for souls who are slotted for... Hey! Im not supposed to be telling you any of this! Look, dont tell anyone, okay? Im doing the best I can on your case. And if Im right, you might not have to be... Well, they couldnt..." she was giving me what I took for a mournful look.
"Hey, whatever it is Im ready for it. And besides, I already know. Im dead. I have to stay dead in order to keep a whole lot of other souls happy in the afterlife
"Yes, well, thats the situation as you understand it. But with all of the external interference evident in your file, Im not entirely certain that whats been credited to your account is accurate. Your data samples seem to have been corrupted due to an over abundance of extranormal signal wave activity. Its amazing really. Most humans dont have this much feedback in their logs." She frowned at me.
"Is there a translation available for any of that?"
"Um... Im not sure. But it seems, from your record, that in your lifespan you experienced a good deal of interference in your primary wave imprints."
"I experienced plenty of interference alright." Some might call it "divine interference", I thought.
"Um, yes. Well, this energy seems to have disrupted a good deal of our samples on you. So Ive had to do a lot of legwork." she looked down to where her feet would have been had she had them and giggled. "I dont think that your file is accurate."
"Thats not possible," she said.
"Oh believe me, where Im concerned, nothing is impossible."
She smiled and Im sure sighed as well. "But if its true, youve been sent to the wrong section. And anyway, if your energy patterns have that much interference, you, technically, shouldnt have been allowed exit status. Not without the proper notifications appended to your file."
"Which means?" I sighed.
"That you, despite the other souls involved, shouldnt have been given exit status from the material levels. Its simple. I knew Id not seen your kind of energy before. Its life energy. Its... Well, its..."
"Sexy?" I smiled.
"What?" She looked confused.
"Forget it. What is it?"
"Resonant. Vital. Beautiful." she gushed.
"Ill take that." I agreed. "Whats the problem then? Why cant you just give me a pass anyway and send me on to wherever it is that Im supposed to go?" I wanted to get on with it. If I had to suffer the pain of separation from the source of my joy, from the woman who had made my existence bearable - I wanted it to at least proceed...
"Because its not right!" She exclaimed. "They cant just do that to you! Theres an anomaly! An inconsistency!" She moved in an agitated fashion, pulsing and jittery. "You have such potential, your energy can be a great catalyst, it shouldn't be wasted - or worse yet, misapplied!"
"Okay, okay! Calm down, what do you suggest?" I asked.
"I'm going to seek advice from a higher power," she replied.
"No, a caseload supervisor."
It wasn't long after that conversation that I found myself overcome by a feeling of company. I couldn't see anyone, but their presence was unmistakable. It was like being in a room full of people without the smells or visuals. I could, however, make out voices. Several of them, making the sounds that authority figures do when they're mulling over an issue they'd prefer to ignore. It sounded as though I was listening to a village council meeting presiding over an issue that made them uncomfortable in the extreme.
"What then do you suggest we do with this anomalistic interloper?" A voice rang out in question.
"Make use of it?" Someone queried.
"Recycle it." A voice that was assured of itself offered.
"Process it again. Maybe it will come back without an anomaly." A pause followed this suggestion. I got the feeling that this would not be the plan of choice.
"I suggest," a voice spoke and I recognized something about the tone... something familiar. "We incorporate it." A silence followed. If I understood correctly, it was the chilly silence of disapproval. "Why not? Its been done before. Granted the circumstances are unusual. But this seems to me to make the most sense."
"What makes the most sense is to recycle it. Thats standard procedure. I say we follow it." The assured voice wasn't used to arguing but being listened to.
"What is standard about such a unique case? Granted, once processed, this entity could be most useful for various applications, especially in your field, but that isnt procedure." There was an icy edge to the familiar voice.
As far as I could tell, following that comment, something like a fight broke out. This was unbelievably frustrating, because I had no idea how to join in. Take away my armor, my weapons, my body, my life and still, I have the instinct to bust heads. Or energies. Or whatever.
Impulses to violence aside, I found myself standing before a door. When I say standing, I mean standing. Upright. On my own two feet. At least they felt like my feet. I couldnt see them because I was wearing a robe. One in the Chin style. Nice, iridescent blue number. I looked around; I looked at the door - a paper sliding door.
"Come in, Xena." I heard a familiar voice call.
I slid the door open and looked in. It was a tea room. Lao Mas tea room. And Lao Ma was seated at a low table at the other end of it. My mentor hadnt changed much. Which was odd, because Id heard that shed been horribly mutilated by her power hungry and demented son before she died. She, or what looked a whole lot like her, smiled.
"Who are you?" I asked.
She smiled her smile of approval. One she saved for me alone in the privacy of her chambers. The one I got when I was right. "I am Lao Ma, or to be more precise, the energy that once flowed through Lao Ma."
"Youre a spirit?"
"No. I am an energy. I have flowed through you too, on occasion. Lao was unique. As you are unique. But she was unique to me."
"Does everyone speak in riddles here? Is this some echo of my mind? Is any of this real?" I looked down and saw what I knew were my hands - only there were no scars. No fine lines of age.
"Its very real. Only its mostly incomprehensible to you. We manifest to your mind as closely to something that you will comprehend."
"Dont talk to me like I'm an idiot. I get it - youre grand, youre vast. I've dealt with lots of people who thought they were beyond my comprehension in the past. Turns out most of them were beyond their own comprehension as well. Thats what happens when youre psychotic."
She smiled. And then the rich colors of Lao Mas tea room went white, there was a rushing sensation all around me, my body was gone and I was... gone - into nothing. It was different than the white nothingness Id been in before. I wasnt in this nothing. The I that is I, wasnt. I was nothing. But I was also... everything. There was a great rush of pulsing sensation and I found myself sitting across from Lao in her tearoom, staring right into her deep black eyes. "What was that?" I whispered.
She tapped the side of her nose three times gently, winked and bowed slightly.
"Youre not going to tell me?" I blinked.
She shook her head. "No. But that was as close as you can come to comprehending where you are and who I am."
I allowed, given the circumstances, that there might be things beyond my grasp in that place. "So what now?"
She raised both of her arms toward me, palms face up. A sword materialized there, across her hands. She bowed slightly again, indicating that I should take it.
It was a beautiful weapon. I gladly tested its weight. "A fine blade. A superior weapon."
"I have crafted it for you."
"Will I be needing it?" I asked.
"A warrior is always in need of a weapon. Knowing how to use it makes you a good one. Knowing when to use it makes you better still. Creating the atmosphere in which you dont need it at all..."
"Makes me a politician." I grinned.
She laughed. "Makes you a bringer of peace. Of hope."
"Im to be a peacemaker with a sword? Why does this sound familiar?"
"It should." She nodded.
"Whats going on?"
"Im offering you the opportunity to be my Warrior Princess."
"That didnt work out so well the first time. Are you sure you want me to be your Warrior Princess again?"
"You never were. You just kept the title," she chided. "This would be your opportunity to earn it, should you accept."
"Im honored, truly. But what if I were to refuse your offer?"
She was going to answer, but a commotion broke out in the room. Or rather, fell through the paper wall of the room. "No! Take it, take the offer!"
It was my spirit accountant -my agent. Lao gave her a stern look. The agent hit the mat and started bowing for all she was worth.
"I am nothing. I am nothing. I am nothing," she repeated.
Lao interrupted her self-effacing loop. "Sit up."
"You have been of great service to me. Bringing Xenas case to the council and exposing such an irregularity in the system. For that you deserve great praise. But for such an impertinence as this, you too could earn Xenas fate. Why interfere?"
"I... She..." the entity stuttered. "So clear! So vital... not like a dead one, so much life!"
"But she has the choice. A choice that has been taken away from her once. Isnt it fair that she be allowed to make it now?"
"Its no real choice! She cant understand it! And besides, shes chosen death again and again. She seeks it out. You might even say shes been stalking it! Shes not capable of unwinding the threads of the interruptions that have caused the overloads and internal feedback that have clouded her thinking. I mean no offense Xena, youre a highly functional specimen, but youve been damaged. And I think, given this choice, and your pattern up until now, you are predisposed to take an option which, given your extraordinary life force, would be... a tragic loss of a valuable resource."
"What is she talking about?" I was growing weary of a language I did not even wish to comprehend.
"The ultimate freedom." Lao offered.
"No!" The agent pointed at Lao. "Shes talking about recycling! The final dispersion of your energy back into the whole. Or to be more specific, Command Agent Stellars black hole project near Ajax 6. A galaxy far removed from your own and entirely unrelated to your, if I may say so, unique wavelengths."
I looked at her. I looked at Lao. "So what youre saying is Id be dead. Dead, dead. No Hades, no Hell, no whatever your equivalent of that is?"
"There is no equivalent of that here." Lao answered. "Those are material level concerns. You were bypassed through those in an irregular fashion by command Agent Stellar. Hes running late on a project and thought that he could move you through unnoticed as he had many other souls. It's a grave infraction, highly irregular."
I shrugged. "Sounds like business as usual to me. Gods will be gods."
"Were not gods." Lao Ma corrected.
"If you say so." I replied. "So whats the difference between being nonexistent near Ajax 6 and nonexistent anywhere else?"
"It isnt protocol!" My agent exclaimed. "And... well... its irregular!" She was agitated and adamant.
"Life is irregular. Why should death be any different?" I asked her.
"Because youre different! Youre not really dead!" She slapped her hands over her mouth the moment the words had cleared her lips.
"Oh my..." Lao Ma said - she had a regrettable tone to her voice.
The little entity hit the mat, bowing and chanting frantically. "I am nothing. I am nothing..."
"Cease!" Lao snapped.
She did. Her head close to the mat she peeked up. "Sorry?"
"Whats going on here?" I asked.
Lao sighed. "Xena, theres been a mistake."
"I gathered that some time ago."
"As has been said, you were redirected from your lifestream in an unapproved transaction. You should never have been here. We cannot return your energy to the material discharge levels, it isnt possible and even if it was we probably wouldnt. We do our utmost to minimize contacts between levels. Your energy can only be processed properly through the material levels. Its true for all of the energies that populate the material plane. And so, wed have to recycle your energy here. It will not be threaded through the channels that would intermingle it with the wavelengths of your lifetime. You would be integrated and, this may be some consolation to you, of great consequence to the Ajax 6 project. But you wouldnt be intermingled."
"So?" I wasnt caring any more now than I had before Id heard the explanation.
"For some, this is a fate worse than death. It is the ultimate separation." Lao explained.
"But Id be part of the whole, right?"
"Then whats the difference?" I asked.
"To you? Not much. To us?" She shrugged.
"Its irregular." The entity whined quietly, miserably.
"She seems... under duress." I noted.
"She was misassigned. She never should have been an agent responsible for human souls. She was part of Commander Stellars scheme for passing unprocessed energies through unnoticed. He didnt think someone so inexperienced would catch the anomalies in your case. She did an admirable job under the circumstances, but I think the work has been too much for her. She will be reassigned."
"That sounds drastic." I felt my agent deserved a break.
"It would be a relief after this." She said, from her position on the mat. "Im no agent. The processing was killing me anyway. Just take the offer, its my dying request. Youve taken last requests before - take mine! Im not forty thousand souls, but in human terms Im rather large."
"Enough!" Lao scoffed. "Xena, your decision?"
"What would happen to the souls from Japa that I agreed to help if I accept? My death was part of their release from limbo. Will they be damned for eternity?"
Lao smiled. "They've been dispersed. Your obligation, in that respect, has been fulfilled."
"But Im not dead..." I pointed out.
"In this case Xena, its really the thought that counts. Your intentions were enough to fulfill your obligation."
"That seems... oversimplistic."
"And yet, theres such beauty in simplicity." Lao smiled.
"True." I answered. The entity crouched on the mat had begun whining softly.
I shrugged. "Ive always appreciated a good weapon." I hefted and spun the sword before me. It had a beautiful balance. I turned to the little entity, winked and whispered, "I was going to accept anyway."
"Its done then." Lao said. "I suggest you prepare yourself for reentry. It can be uncomfortable."
I could hear the little entity squealing with glee as the room disappeared. I tried to ask, "What is re-entry?" But they were gone. In their place was a lot of something else though. Water. And it was rushing up at me. No, check that, I was rushing down at it.
Reflexes developed over years on the battlefield saved me from the blow that threatened to remove my head from my body. I was surrounded by the deafening roar of a battle in high gear. There were soldiers everywhere doing what soldiers do when they meet and are of opposing views. The great hulk of a man before me swung his weapon back in my direction before I could take further note of my surroundings. As I had learned previously, a head is an essential element to a body and I wanted to hold onto it this time around. I disarmed the soldier - not how I may have once done such a thing. His weapon clattered to the ground, falling onto the breastplate of a fallen soldier. I then rendered him unconscious.
I was disoriented after my fall into the water and my sudden appearance on the battlefield. There was little time to take in the scene. I got my bearings as quickly as possible. Because it would be poor form indeed to appear in the middle of a battle only to watch my beloved vanquished at the hands of some rabble. She was magnificent atop a fully armored war horse. But she was surrounded by several men and one had got a hand on a stirrup and then a leg and managed to unseat her. She took out a couple of them as she fell, but she was on the ground and surrounded. Out-positioned, out numbered - not favorable odds for my Gabrielle - however marvelous she may have been.
With a great leap I managed to land in a not inconsiderably favorable position. The soldier whose neck Id landed on might not have agreed, but I wasnt interested in his opinion. The two men who were crouched over Gabrielle might have had something interesting to say, but after Id knocked their heads together that hard - I'd have to wait a while to hear it. The horse danced closely to Gabrielles head and I reached down to drag her up. As I did a soldier showed an impertinence that I could not forgive, and I was forced to kill her with a reverse kick to her larynx. Several other soldiers got the idea that picking on a woman when she was down wasnt good gamesmanship and retreated. The rush of what must have been friendly soldiers cleared the rest of them away. Gabrielle was shouting to the new arrivals and giving orders before she turned back to me. Her jaw dropped and she stepped back. What stepped forward into the space between us caught my attention. Standing protectively, in a defensive stance, no less, between Gabrielle and me... was me. Only, I was a lot more transparent that Im used to being. I was barely there. Gabrielle stepped forward, through me, or the vision that had been me. She was looking right at me as she took the reigns of the horse and mounted. She was giving me the queerest look.
I couldnt think of much to say so I said. "Thats what? The four hundred and eighth time Ive saved your life? Not that Im counting..."
She looked incredible. She was breathing hard, had a considerable amount of blood and gore all over herself. The hero thing looked good on her. Her hair was a little shorter than it had been. Muscles even more sharply defined, were in evidence, but not as much evidence as they once were - gone were the amazon fatigues. She was wearing something like a cross between my battle dress and Roman armor. Her fine skin had aged slightly. She had a pronounced scar that ran down her left cheek, crossing her bottom lip. She stared down at me, dumbfounded. "I must be dead. What manner of vision is this?"
"Hello, Gabrielle." She was obviously in shock, I tried to reassure her.
She looked around the field from her new vantage point. There were four soldiers standing at the ready near me. Gabrielle gave them orders that no harm should come to me. And before I could say another word she was gone, riding off to another part of the massive battle.
By early dusk the battle was won. The forces that fought under crimson flags bearing the markings of a lion and a crown had been crushed. The victorious army, with whom Gabrielle fought, was a well-trained and outfitted affair, disciplined, with high morale. I learned that this army had fought a series of successful campaigns. There was an ecstatic fervor to the talk of the soldiers around me, despite their fatigue after a day's grueling combat. They spoke of their leader, who had promised them an end to the suffering that had plagued them for countless ages and who had brought peace and fortune to their desperate region. I found it difficult to reconcile the vision they spoke of with the carnage that surrounded us.
"Does this strategic marvel have a name?" I asked.
"How can you not know?" one had asked me. "The Merciful Blade is known throughout this land. She is purity and goodness, and you will be greatly rewarded for saving her as you did."
It takes a lot to surprise me. I've been told that this is an annoying trait around Solstice and my birthday, but it comes in handy in combat situations and the odd social interaction. I ingested this fascinating bit of information as we crossed the battlefield and headed for higher ground.
We cleared a hill; there was a grouping of tents situated before a stand of trees. I spotted her easily, even at a great distance. She was surrounded by what looked to be a group of lieutenants, issuing orders to them. As we approached, I glimpsed the fervor in the eyes of those men and women so eagerly awaiting her commands
The soldiers I was with stopped several paces from the group and when I tried to continue on I found my path barred. A soldier approached a woman on the outskirts of the group who had some flashy fittings on her uniform, she in turn motioned to a man with even more flashy fittings who then indicated my presence to Gabrielle, or the general they all referred to as the Merciful Blade (I needed to have a talk with Gabrielle about her choice of battle names. This one lacked a certain something ...).
The gathering parted, clearing our view of one another. I smiled at the woman whom I hadn't stopped thinking about since I left her side. She didn't smile back. Again, I noticed the scar that ran down her left cheek. The stroke that had caused it must have been severe, but it had long since healed... How long had I been gone, I wondered?
I glanced down and saw my chakram clipped to her belt. She'd kept it in good condition, as she'd kept herself. The farm girl I'd watched grow into a woman, an adult and then a warrior, stood before me with the easy confidence of a leader.
"Who are you?" she asked. By this time I hadn't expected her to jump into my arms and shout with joyous glee, but I admit a small smile or a 'thanks for saving my ass' wouldn't have bothered me overly much.
"Gabrielle, it's me, Xena. Don't you remember me?"
She studied me for a moment. The others around us were quiet, watching intently. "You look like Xena, for all I know you may even think you're Xena. You wouldn't be the first. Guards!"
"Gabrielle! I'm not dead! I've come back." The soldiers who had escorted me into the camp began to crowd into my personal space.
"How can you come back?" Gabrielle asked calmly. "If you never left?"
As she spoke a subtle shifting of the air caught my attention. It was slightly to Gabrielle's side and a few paces behind her. The figure I had seen on the battlefield had materialized there, the eerie transparent one - me.
Gabrielle pointed at me and ordered, "Seize her!"
It's been suggested, by certain persons, that I have intimacy issues. I won't deny it. I keep everyone, even Gabrielle at times, at arm's length. To get near me is a tricky business, requiring tact and (some would say infinite) patience. Anyone who takes the time to notice would see that I'm not a woman who likes being crowded. The soldiers who'd gathered around me were being completely insensitive to my issues. Which was why I felt comfortable excusing myself from their company without much notice.
To be honest, a couple of other factors compelled my early departure as well. Chief among them, I hadn't a damn clue what was going on. I take exception to that kind of thing. I also take exception to being apprehended by anyone, particularly soldiers during wartime - they're not known to be an understanding bunch. And so, with deep regret (for I had not drunk my visual fill of the fair Merciful Blade), I crouched and launched myself into a back flip before the first soldier could lay a hand on me. A small commotion ensued. People ran, yelled and made a good deal of fuss, but it amounted to the same thing it usually does. I vaulted onto the first available horse and made a dash for the woods. The chase seemed half-hearted, but then they'd had a long day and I'd been resting up for several years - or so it seemed.
Time, a phenomenon whose linear consistency is a given for most people, has a way of bending around where I'm concerned. Gabrielle's features having aged somewhat would lead the average person to conclude that I'd returned to Earth several years after having departed it, but for all I knew I'd landed in some alternate reality that had nothing to do with the one I'd left. This wouldn't be an unheard of happenstance- not in my experience anyway.
I put a good distance between Gabrielle's soldiers and myself. What with all of their ecstatic fervor and pointy weapons it seemed like a good idea. I released the horse and continued on foot until I came to a clearing. Night had fallen, but there was a good deal of light from a half moon and I could see a small lake nearby. I decided to stop and gather my thoughts. Since I'd landed ... appeared ... materialized? I hadn't had a moment to reflect. One minute I'm in the sea, the next I'm ducking swords and maces, then running to save the skin that's barely been mine for an afternoon... or had it been mine for more than that? It felt like mine...
The woods were quiet, save the usual cacophonous trilling of insects and other night creatures. I stood at the edge of the clearing looking at the water and enjoying the cool of the evening air and the smell of the earth - I hadn't realized how much I'd missed these simple pleasures.
I was distracted from my musings by a faint cry. At first it was difficult to distinguish it from the sounds of the woods. I couldn't locate the direction from which it came. It grew louder with alarming rapidity. Unsure, I peered into the heavens and glanced a silhouette in the moonlight sky. Something was tumbling towards the earth, a spastic, shouting object - with limbs. It crashed into the lake, causing a great wave to rise up and slap down, spraying the shore. A figure surfaced and splashed about unproductively. I stripped off my armor and dove in. The woman, or so I gathered from the pitch of the hysterical wailing, went under before I could reach her. I dove beneath the surface and did not come up until I had her by the arm. She continued to flail about, despite my attempts to calm her. I was going to take a more drastic measure to subdue her when she turned in my arms and latched onto me even tighter.
"Xena? Xena!" She exclaimed. Then, noting that she was still in the water, she held me tighter still, threatening to break my ribs.
"What is this?! It's... it's... cold! And I can't breathe and..."
"It's alright," I assured her. "It's water. You'll be fine. Just stand up."
"Stand up?" She asked.
"Yes, it's shallow." Strangely, this was true. I wasn't sure how she'd survived the impact with the water or the bottom of the lake - but I knew that I wouldn't have survived her agitated anxiety had we been in deeper water. "You can stand... on your feet."
"I can?" She sounded surprised.
"Yes." I tried to keep the annoyance from creeping into my voice but I was tired, soaking wet and cold as well. Not to mention the fact that I had a rather large woman wrapped around my body.
Tentatively she felt for the bottom and stood, still grasping my arms. She looked at me earnestly and then, as though she were taking a great leap of faith, she let go. She was shaky on her feet. I began to think she was shaky on a couple of other things as well. Who wouldn't be after a fall like that? The one I'd taken into the sea had rattled my head pretty thoroughly...
I peered at the figure in the dim light. "Was that your re-entry?"
"My re-entry? Of course not! You have to have exited to re-enter. It would never do for a first time to be a re-entry. But it's true what they say, it is uncomfortable - an exceptional amount of dissonance."
I peered harder, but couldn't make out much detail in the moonlight. I could make out enough to know that my agent, the entity that had got me back to Earth, back to Gabrielle, wasn't a fuzzy little mass of pulsing energy. She was a full figured woman, dripping wet, with moonbeams glinting off the teeth exposed by the huge smile that threatened to crack her face.
"Look at you!" she exclaimed.
I raised an eyebrow in response.
"Look at me!" she exclaimed as she looked down and tried to turn and look at her self at the same time. "I'm corporeal! Oh, this is too much! Too wonderful! She didn't tell me I'd be corporeal!"
"She kind of skimps on the details, doesn't she?"
"Yes, they can get like that when they've expanded to encompass that degree of any spectrum."
"The more I think about it, the more parallels I see between your realm and my own." I said.
"Oh really? How interesting! You'll have to tell me," she answered earnestly.
"How about when we're on dry land?"
"What's dry land?" she asked.
"That." I pointed to the shore.
I got a fire started as I explained to a deeply enrapt entity why it was that her teeth were chattering. And then I explained why it was that her hands hurt so much after she'd tried to hold a flame closer to her body to warm herself. "Well that's inefficient!" she remarked while staring at the fire warily.
"I'm sure the wonders of my realm are endlessly fascinating to you. But I'm guessing that you're not a simple tourist." I moved closer to the fire. I had a feeling that the comfort I drew from its warmth was not going to shield me from something I was surely not going to want to hear.
"You're right! I'm here to relate your first task as Warrior Princess," she beamed. "It's my new assignment!"
"Ah." I nodded. I had hoped that my tasks would be more metaphorical in nature. Along the lines of 'Go forth and do good.'"
"You are to prevent the death of your beloved Gabrielle in a great battle..."
"Done." I interrupted.
"Yes, I've done that already. I landed in the sea; much like you landed in that lake. Next thing I know I'm on a battlefield. I spotted Gabrielle in a less than favorable position and saved her bossy little rump. Next."
She shifted and let out a little huff. "It seems we're ahead of schedule. Though why I wasn't told that you'd already have performed your first task I can't say. We're out of communication on entry, perhaps there was a mix up."
"Not much of one for improvisation, are you?"
She looked at me aghast. "Chaos? Don't talk to me about chaos management! It's not my line of work! And lucky for you too. If it hadn't been for method, for the beautiful simplicity of a thorough, paralinear examination of your case - poof! You'd have been... Oh Xena! You'd have been improperly recycled!" she began to cry.
"Hey! Hey! Stop crying, I'm right here. I'm fine."
She sniffed and looked at me. She cheered up a little, but was thoroughly perplexed. I had to explain tears and the overwhelming feeling she had to hug me. "Didn't they tell you anything about having a body?"
"She said I should sleep on it and it would all be clear in the morning."
"Well then, maybe we'd better get you some rest." I suggested.
"Where do you go for that?"
I sighed. It was going to be a long night. "What should I call you?"
"Enid. Oh please call me Enid!"
"Is that your name?" I asked.
"No, but I'd love it if you called me that."
"All right then Enid, we're going to try to sleep now."
Explaining and trying to demonstrate sleep to an overzealous entity wasn't anything I wanted to have to do again in this or any other lifetime. I credited this annoying experience with my restlessness as I tried and failed to sleep myself. There are certain things that are best left unexposed to that degree of scrutiny. Each time I felt my conscious mind drifting into sleep I'd say, "Ah, here it is." And I'd be fully awake again. This was not the case for Enid, who after an hour of in-depth inquiry on the topic said, "Ah, I see." And commenced a light snoring.
Tired of chasing elusive slumbers, I rose quietly. Once I'd checked the area for anything that might pose a threat to Enid, I wandered in the wood, hoping to find something that piqued my culinary interest. It was less than an hour before daybreak. I was sure that Enid's exploration of hunger would be easier on everyone concerned if there were something for her to eat.
It wasn't long before I sensed a presence that watched me from the trees. As stealthy as she was, Gabrielle is unmistakable to me. I crossed a stream, moved through a couple of thickets and doubled back on myself several times - shamelessly enjoying the discreet attention.
With great care and patience I stood beneath a tree until I felt the cold edge of a blade at my throat. I don't usually wait around for this sort of thing, but for Gabrielle I make exceptions.
"Good morning, Gabrielle. Or should I call you the Merciful Blade?"
"I'm not interested in exchanging social pleasantries with you. I want to know who you are, and who sent you here?"
"I'm Xen..." I felt the blade press to my throat and hoped that the name Merciful Blade, while a cumbersome battle name that hadn't grown on me anymore than the first time I'd heard it, stood for what I thought it did.
"You're not Xena," she hissed. "You may be deluded or under a spell, I've seen it before, but I can assure you that you're not Xena."
"You sound so certain." And she did. If I didn't know that I was me, I might have doubted myself.
"I am," she said, unwavering.
"And why is that?" I asked.
"Because if you were Xena, you'd have heard me coming a mile away."
I smiled. "You underestimate yourself, Gabrielle. Your tracking skills are much improved, I could only hear you a half of a mile away."
"Then why let me close enough to threaten you?" I could hear the amusement in her voice. She spoke as if I were a brief entertainment of which she would soon grow bored. I admit, I too was eager to move beyond these superficial greetings.
"I can see that you've been considerably hardened," I said, "by whatever fate has befallen you since I saw you last. So I've taken a short cut through the defenses you've built up. The more direct avenues of approach were closed to me. Then again, perhaps I let you close to me because I wanted... this?" Using a combination of techniques (one that I'd picked up from a wrestler in Athens, the other a pickpocket in Thebes), I removed myself from Gabrielle's deadly embrace and stood before her. I held the chakram that I'd lifted from her belt between us.
She almost reached for it. But I suppose, even with her thinking that I may have been someone else, someone who looked like me holding a chakram in front of your face might give you pause. I stepped back. She didn't follow. She kept her blade at the ready. I noticed that it was one of her sais, I'd seen it sheathed in her belt earlier, but its pair was nowhere in evidence.
"It's me Gabrielle. I've come back. I don't fully understand how or even why, but I know that I am me." I held the chakram with both hands and detached its components. This caught her attention - it's not something many people know how to do. I really had her attention when I crossed and then uncrossed my arms, letting the chakram fly in either direction. She assumed a defensive position but observed the trajectory of the pieces soon enough and again, watched. They each flew in a wide arc, out, away and up; they met with a satisfying click-crack noise and spun in place for a moment, directly above my head - before falling straight down. I stood and watched it. A chakram is a beautiful and deadly weapon. Difficult to master, difficult to maintain. I watched it fall, a slit in the dim lit dawn sky, racing toward my face. Oh, how I'd missed this finely crafted instrument of death. I spared a glance at Gabrielle who looked on impassively, but interested. Just as the chakram would have sliced through my skull, I leaned back and let it fall onto the catch on my hip; its former resting place and home of many years. I felt a grin tug at the corners of my mouth as I watched Gabrielle process what she'd seen.
I lifted the chakram from the clip and with some small reluctance, held it out to her.
Without inflection she said, "It's yours."
"But I want you to have it. Take it."
She did, still examining me though clearly not believing what her eyes were telling her.
"I've been given this." I unsheathed the sword Lao Ma had given me. Gabrielle had her sai and chakram at the ready before I had the blade fully withdrawn. She wasn't taking any chances. I reversed the blade and held it out for her to examine. She took the pommel of the sword, then with a good deal of caution, she reclipped the chakram to her belt. I saw her eyebrow jump as the full weight of the weapon rested in her hand.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" I asked.
"Extraordinary," she breathed, testing its balance.
She looked at the blade and then at me. She handed it back. "You're either a madwoman or a fool to stand there defenseless before me."
"What?!" It was my turn to be astounded.
"I'd say fool, but no fool could have done what you just did with the chakram. So my guess is madwoman. Or, more likely, another attempt to disrupt my campaign. I suspect Aphrodite's misguided intentions are to blame. What kind of spell did it take to conjure you up?"
Was there no end to this woman's suspicion? "Look, I saved your life yesterday. I gave you the chakram back just now. I even let you hold my sword! What more do you want? Flowers? It's me, Gabrielle, Xena. Remember?"
Gabrielle's impassive expression gave no clue to her mental process. I couldn't read a damned thing off her as she looked at me. I was impressed. I was annoyed. Was this what it was like for her trying to read me all of those years? I made a mental note to apologize for it later. She stepped forward and before I could say "Damn you Ares", she'd slapped me across the face.
I stood stunned. Not only because it hurt, but because of the intensity of Gabrielle's expression when she'd done it. I thought I ought to get a handle on my feelings and myself before Gabrielle tried to get one on them with her blade. She pushed out viciously with both hands, knocking me right on my ass.
"Hey!" I shouted. Enough was enough. No one knocks me on my ass without some serious repercussions.
And serious they were going to be too, because that pushy little warrior was positioning herself beautifully for my next maneuver. She pounced on me. I couldn't have asked her to do anything more advantageous. I was about to launch her headlong into the nearest tree, but before I was able to shift her weight, she kissed me. And when I say she kissed me, I mean she kissed me. It was a brutal and hungry kiss. No dainty, "Been missing you too, sweetheart, so glad you decided to drop in" kind of kiss. And then, just as I was getting into the feel of the thing, she stopped. And started sobbing great gasping sobs as she lay on me. Her chest heaved as she let out cries of anguish and pain. I held her for about two minutes before I felt the icy cold of her sai against my neck. I was hoping this wasn't going to become a regular occurrence.
She looked at me, tears still streaming down her face and said in a steady voice. "Tell whoever is behind me to move slowly around to where I can see them or I will gut you like a fish."
"Well gee, Gabrielle, I missed you too. Enid, come around so that the great General can get a look at you. And please, move carefully. I'd rather she wasn't startled."
Enid, looking sheepish, came around to where Gabrielle could see her.
"I'm sorry to interrupt. I couldn't wait any longer to see you. Up close, I mean. You have a most fascinating energy." Enid was working herself up into an expressive moment. "It's flowing in so many directions and layered and what's happening between the two of you - I didn't know that was possible. What is that?"
Gabrielle was taking in what to her must have been another madwoman. I was lying on the forest floor, beneath Gabrielle, trying very hard to figure out what was going on myself. I've never had a total grasp on that where Gabrielle was concerned and so I figured I'd have to give up trying altogether and take the situation into hand the only way I knew and understood best. I disarmed her, flipped her and pinned her to the ground. She struggled viciously. She strained, pushed, spit and even growled. Her strength and tactical maneuvers were more developed, but I'd had the benefit of a good rest.
When Gabrielle decided to stop, she glared at me. It took everything I had in the way of restraint not to kiss her just then. I knew that her anger was as much annoyance as it was fear and confusion at finding herself in such a vulnerable position. I know I would have been pissed. Still, she had the most determined expression on her face and I was always a sucker for Gabrielle's ardor in any arena.
"I don't want to hurt you." I explained. Though I thought I'd demonstrated it clearly before by not killing her with the chakram, my sword, or my bare hands. But sometimes it helps to clarify further, and if pushed beyond reason, say things. "We weren't sent by your enemies. I've been restored to life to fight for the greater good. Why is that so hard for you to believe?" It certainly sounded old hat to me.
"Because you never left." She growled the words through clenched teeth.
I glanced up at Enid and back at Gabrielle, "What do you mean?"
"You've been with me since your death in Japa. That or I'm entirely mad. How could you be returning if you never left?!" She tried to struggle free again.
I waited her out, then asked Enid, "Any idea what she's talking about?"
Enid shook her head and looked lamentable.
And then I saw them. My boots. Right in front of my face. Only, they looked transparent. I looked up and saw that they were occupied. By me. The me I'd seen momentarily the day before with Gabrielle.
"Oh my!" Enid gasped.
"Am I that tall?" I asked.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled to the spectral figure. "Xena, who are they?"
"They were sent to distract you, Gabrielle. You will persevere. You will succeed. Don't fear..."
"Gabrielle," Enid said. "That isn't Xena. Well, it is, but it isn't."
All I needed at that point was for Enid to clarify things for me by confusing the hell out of us both. "Enid, that's not helping."
"Well, it's... She's..." Enid walked over to examine spectral me. "Impressively crafted."
I rolled my eyes. "If you can help here, I'd appreciate it, if not, shut it."
"Oh, yes, well, she's a sophisticated replication of your data sample and signal wave imprint. Someone must have copied your file. That's strictly against the law, a major infraction. But Gabrielle I can show you that she isn't real."
"Gabrielle, listen to me," the figure said urgently, as it kneeled down to talk to her.
I was getting perturbed and batted a hand at it. My hand passed right through it and it paid no notice. I had to make my move swiftly because Gabrielle tried to roll me off of her when I shifted my weight.
"They're lying," the specter pleaded. "They mean to kill you."
Enid gasped. "You lie! Extremely irregular." She stepped forward and pushed the figure backward. It fell away as though she had done just that. "Stay back."
It stood and looked on. Enid kneeled and put a hand on Gabrielle's forehead. "Look at it." She pointed at the figure. "What do you see?"
Gabrielle, clearly confused, looked in the direction of the figure. She frowned. Then she looked at me, and then at Enid.
"All life, Gabrielle, has a... a color to it's energy. These colors can be as tangible to you as real things. They flow between things - back and forth. Look around you, you can see it. You know what Xena looks like, what she feels like - these things can be replicated, but not hold the core of what makes up a person. That..." Enid indicated the figure. "That can't have a color. And what color you see around it, comes from you. You're helping to create this vision, albeit unwittingly - projecting it, if you will. That's why so much of your energy surrounds it. But none comes back to you."
"Gabrielle, no! She lies!" the figure pleaded.
"Shush you!" Enid insisted.
"What is this?" Gabrielle asked as she looked toward her chest. She had a slightly awed tone in her voice.
I could have told her what that was. It was encased beneath a tough breastplate, but Gabrielle's chest was unmistakable. To me, at least.
"That is your connection to Xena." Enid answered.
I looked up, confused. Gabrielle's chest was important to me, true, but I didn't consider it the focal point of our entire relationship.
Enid smiled and explained. "She can see your energy."
I felt a bit exposed. Gabrielle looked from me to the figure. She looked back and forth a few times. The figure disappeared again. Enid smiled. Gabrielle looked puzzled.
Continued in Part II