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Summary: After Xena's death in FIN, Gabrielle tries to go home.
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It had been a field once. A wide plain of yellow wheat all the way from the village to the forest that started at the hills, with the wind chasing ripples across it. The dark forest at its end veiled in blue morning mist; the sky a bright dome overhead. Girls used to come and sing harvest songs here in the golden wheat, watching it sway, swaying with it in dances as old as the land, holding each other's hands. She had been one of those girls once, when this had been a field. Her hair had been gold then, brighter than the wheat, filled with sunlight. Her eyes had been clear, green as the forest. They were still green now the colour of death, moss, time passing. Her hair was paler also, burnt by time until it was almost white, hacked and shorn so that it could no longer catch the breeze or move with the air. No part of life would have a hold on her. She had cut it in a distant land, for mourning. Cut it again after that, and again, again, the grief always new, blunt like a knife. It was a season since she lost Xena. More now, a day passing, a week... She should have kept count.
There had been warnings, Gabrielle thought, walking. The wheat was trampled down, heavy stalks broken and the grain spilling on the ground. What a waste. Twisted metal littered the field; sword hilts and daggers and the shaft of an arrow protruding from an empty eye socket. Gabrielle stepped over something; a shield, a helmet, a corpse. Another battlefield. A battle just outside her hometown this time, in the fields of Potadeia where she had danced with the other girls many years ago. They would not gather this harvest.
She should be crying. Crying, or burying the dead, screaming helplessly because she was too late to make any difference. But she had done that in Jappa. Had screamed and killed over Xena's mangled body, and cried, and buried the dead. Let her go, let her die. Here, walking though a field she knew from her childhood, she had no rage left, no grief. It was even fitting that blood should be soaking into the ungathered wheat, that black crows should be crying, circling overhead. The birds could cry.
There had been warnings, she thought again. Things Xena had said, done; a restlessness in her, a consuming fire behind her blue, blue eyes. Those eyes used to be clear, too, though Gabrielle had never seen it. Never would, now. She should have stopped it, made Xena talk, made her open her heart. Something had to have happened! Something more than the remembered pain that had made Xena lower her head and close her eyes. The ghosts of the past were always there, haunting her... Had been there. Xena had always carried her own pain, Gabrielle remembered. She had hated Xena for it, at first, for leaving. Had spent nights and days wondering if the last thing Xena had said to her had been a lie, if she could have returned to life after all and just did not want to. Her death to redeem forty thousand souls. It seemed too cold a bargain. Xena would have died for one, Gabrielle knew; Xena would have died for her. But even for her she would not live.
She stopped in the battlefield and stood, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun, from the unwanted warmth of it on her skin. The stench that rose from the corpses had nothing human in it; just rotting meat. There was a sickness at the back of her throat that brought with it the memory of burnt meat, of Xena's body on the pyre. Xena's beautiful hair shrivelling suddenly with a gasp, the smell of sulphur, smoke. Her fingers curling. She shouldn't have watched. Had to watch. "Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you." She had thought those words a promise years ago, had clung to it like a child, never knowing it for what it was: a curse. Because how could Xena leave her? How could she ever, ever leave her when even now, when she thought she would come home, she had come to a field of death instead? When every fallen warrior was Xena, and every blade of grass beneath them, and every breath of the wind?
She had realised it, understood it, just when she thought she would break. And she didn't break, because Xena was with her, within her. In the way she thought, in the things she remembered in dreams. That was when she had decided to come home.
Someone moved among the fallen bodies and stood up. Gabrielle squinted. It was a black shape against the afternoon sun, against the forest. A woman in a wispy black dress. She shimmered like an apparition; not an apparition, a goddess.
"Gabrielle!" Aphrodite called, and Gabrielle went to her, ran through the wheat. A familiar face, a voice that knew her name.
They embraced, Aphrodite's soft cheek cool against Gabrielle's damp skin, her hands ruffling the pale stubble of Gabrielle's hair. The time of the gods had passed, leaving an empty Olympus with two gods who had been human; Love and War, war and love, Aphrodite and Ares. Gabrielle thought she would have written a scroll about this years ago. She had lived too much for writing, now.
"You look awful," Aphrodite said, holding Gabrielle's shoulders in her hands, standing back appraisingly.
Gabrielle managed a weak grin. Her face hurt from the unaccustomed movement. She shook her close-shorn head. "I would've done my hair if I thought I'd find you here."
She gestured around the battlefield, all attempts at humour gone. So much death.
Aphrodite had turned to follow that gesture and when she turned back, Gabrielle saw tears in her eyes; they glittered like dew on her curling lashes, pretty in her sadness. "Do you know how many of them had lovers?" Her voice quivered, like a hurt child's. "All those stupid battles! Stupid kids running off to war. What's the point of being a love goddess when there's no one left to fall in love? And my brother won't stop it. He's supposed to control them!"
"Ares," Gabrielle said softly. "He's ... grieving."
"He's flipped!" Aphrodite snapped, then looked upset. "He won't listen. It's not like he can bring her back, you know?"
"He loved her." Strange how she felt no anger, no doubts. Ares loved Xena, and Xena was dead. Who'd have ever thought that she'd understand the God of War? At least she'd had a chance to say good-bye. Or maybe that was worse. Ares hadn't seen Xena's black hair burn to grey ash.
"Gabrielle!" Aphrodite took her hands urgently, pleading. "You've got to do something."
No, Gabrielle almost said then saw the hopeless look in Aphrodite's face. So much death here. So many lives. Xena would have felt responsible for them all. Forty thousand souls, one death. Xena would have died for her. Would she have to live for Xena?
"All right," she said aloud. "What can I do?"
Gabrielle turned. Ares was walking towards her, not looking at Aphordite, sliding his sword back into the scabbard at his hip. Blood on the blade, Gabrielle saw. A flash of afternoon sunlight but no warmth in his face.
"Nothing," he repeated "which was exactly what you did. Just like your precious Eli taught, right, Bardie? Bet he didn't tell you the best part: you killed her. When she was dying and you did nothing."
"Ares!" Aphrodite exclaimed in horror.
Gabrielle yanked her sais from her boots. Her hands were at his throat, blades crossed, shaking. "Don't you dare," she hissed, "Don't you dare say that again! I would have died for her!"
"Yet you're still here."
Ares stepped back from her weapons, useless against him. He glanced at the sais as she took them back, then at Xena's chakram at her belt. "That was hers."
His voice changed as he said it, his eyes changed. Two kinds of tears, Gabrielle remembered, tears for those who are gone and for those whom you never let go. He wasn't crying.
"She wanted me to to have it."
"Of course she did." His eyes mocked her again. "You think you're a little warrior now, because you carry her things? You're not a warrior, Blondie, never will be. You can't kill you only murder. Because you love them all, right? Love and war, Gabrielle, they don't mix. Trust me."
"Argh!" Aphrodite said, and disappeared. The gold sparkles faded away, melting soundlessly.
Gabrielle said nothing. Then she nodded. "I love her, too."
Ares turned away. After a moment his shoulders sagged a bit and he sat down in the crushed wheat. A man again. The sun was bright in his hair, a rim of gold over all the black. There had been grey at his temples once, when he'd been a man on a farm with them. A scene came back to Gabrielle, clear as air Ares and Xena laughing, their eyes on each other, Xena's dishtowel snapping against him in mock rebuke, herding him into the house. They should have stayed in that house. Xena would still be here then.
She came up to Ares hesitantly and laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn't move, stone-like. She sat beside him, took her hand back. Listened to the birds keening overhead. So much death, and she could not hurt him, hate him for it.
"How do you go on?" He turned his head, and she saw that his eyes were red and dry.
"I don't know." An honest reply, nothing less for this god who had become a man for her friend. Xena had loved him. "A day, then a week. You go on."
He nodded. "I tried to find her."
They were silent for a while. No need to say it. He hadn't found Xena; nowhere to look, no way into the worlds beyond worlds now that the time of the gods had passed. Maybe nothing remaining beyond this life. An eternal life for him, alone.
"Aphrodite is angry. At you."
"Her problem," Ares shrugged, grim-faced.
Not hers, Gabrielle wanted to say. All these dead, what about them? And then she knew she didn't need to say it, not to him. Murder, he had called it, when love is enmeshed with war. Can't kill, only murder. It was breaking him, too.
"Did she say anything? Before you know. About me."
A stab of pain in Gabrielle's chest, for him. Xena should have said good-bye. Should have lived.
"Yes," she lied. "She said good-bye."
He made a bitter noise. "Liar. You were never any good at telling tales."
Gabrielle lowered her eyes, said nothing. Knew better than to speak about comfort. Ares stood up and disappeared without warning.
Gabrielle sat a while longer, watching a string of ants by her feet. They seemed to know where they were going, what to do. It seemed odd now that she had thought to come home to Potadeia. Her home had been everywhere but here, everywhere with Xena. When a village burns down, the people mourn and then they rebuild, slowly, painfully, filling the place with life until the grief fades. But she had burnt her own home; burnt it on a pyre in Jappa and buried the ashes in Amphipolis, the way Xena had wanted it... There was nothing left to rebuild. She watched the ants working.
When she looked up it was sunset, and the field was empty. Just wheat swaying in the breeze, gold shadows wavering. No bodies, no blood. No crows overhead. Ares... He had become a man for Xena and for her now, because they had remembered together. Gabrielle shivered. She too would be gone one day and there would be no one left to remember with him that's what eternity meant. She would die, be with Xena again, maybe. He would keep living. He would not be a man then, not ever again. Xena was dead.
"Aphrodite!" Gabrielle called, lifting her head. A burst of gold left her friend standing before her, all in black, unsmiling.
"So you'll help?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied, and felt something hot and wet on her face. Tears, but not for Xena this time; she had no more of those. Tears for herself.
"Is this what love is?" she asked Aphrodite, but the answer came from within her. "I never knew. I would have died for her gladly, when I wanted to live... I thought that was love. Now when all I want is to be with her again I have to live."
"Yes," the goddess replied, and the sun shone in her eyes. Her voice became sombre as prayer: "Finding someone worth living for that is love."
At her words, a rose glow enveloped her like a translucent veil, and Gabrielle caught her breath at its beauty. Aphrodite reached with one shining hand and moved her fingers to Gabrielle's lips. Her touch was pure love, distilled and gathered into her, and Gabrielle gave a hoarse cry when she felt it pouring into her. She remembered too well the touch of Ares' immortality when he had given it in the same way, for Xena's sake; remembered her body healing and breath rushing into her lungs; but this was more than that even, more than Gabrielle had thought possible. Aphrodite was giving her her godhood.
"Wait!" The cry died in her chest, did nothing to stop the transformation.
When it was over, Gabrielle fell to her knees, sobbing. She looked up at the goddess who was a goddess no more. "What have you done to me? I don't want to be a god!"
Aphrodite gazed back at her gently, and Gabrielle understood. Slowly, she climbed to her feet. "For Xena," she said softly. "Only for Xena."
"Don't be sad." Aphrodite touched her face. "It's not so bad, being a love goddess. I was never very good at it, really. I didn't know how to love."
"You didn't have Xena."
Aphrodite smiled, a little wistfully. "I didn't have you, little one."
Gabrielle turned her face aside, looking at the clean field, at the sky. "Even if this means I can help Ares "
"...I will never see Xena again." It came out as a half-question. Aphrodite did not reply. How could she know the way of things, if the gods could not?
"I'll forget her," Gabrielle said, ripping the fear from her heart. "Not tomorrow, not a month from now, but she'll fade away from me like her body did, like her ghost. I'll forget her voice, the smell of her hair, the way she walked, her laugh... I will forget how to love."
"Never. That much I can promise you you'll never forget love."
"Because now I'm a god?"
"No. Because you will always be human. Like my brother." Aphrodite shook herself, as if recognising the wind for the first time, surprised by it. She raised a hand. "Good-bye, Gabrielle."
"Wait!" Gabrielle cried and the echo came back from the sky, a god's voice, leashed power like the chakram she could not use. "How will you live, down here?"
Aphrodite raised her eyes like a child, the world reflecting in them, blue sunlight. Then she laughed. "I think I'll start with a bath."
She turned and walked away through wheat that brushed her legs, her hands held out from her, skimming the soft tufts of the stalks.
Gabrielle could not help a small smile, remembering Aphrodite's first mortal experience and her horror at the way people wrinkled their noses at her, before she had discovered that as one of them she needed to bathe. It occurred to her that this was Aphrodite's parting gift, this fond memory, this smile. It was a thankyou and a goodbye. Gabrielle watched her go. Then she waved a hand and thought of Olympus.