This story takes place after the events of the 5th season finale 'Motherhood'. In fact, quite some considerable time after.
It might also help to have seen the episode 'Surprise' from the 'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' series, also from Renaissance Pictures. But then again, you wouldn't be reading this if you weren't a Xena fan and you'd probably know these things already. :)
The woman carried a large heavy-looking leather bag with apparent ease, as she strode into the clearing in the forest. She stopped and looked around. Satisfied that the place was deserted she set the bag down and opened it. A casual observer might have been surprised to see a samurai sword, still in its distinctive scabbard, withdrawn from the depths of the bag.
Scanning the area again, to make certain of her privacy, the woman moved into a series of slow exercises. Though it was summer, the chilled mountain air prevented the woman from breaking out into much of a sweat as she increased the tempo.
She moved from some formal, ornate movements, to a series of quick kicks, punches, rolls and even some acrobatic flips, all performed with a physical grace and dexterity. Finally the sword was withdrawn from its scabbard and the potentially lethal drills began.
That same casual observer would now most likely be astonished at the virtuosity on display. The blur of the blade as it sliced and sang through the air was almost beyond human perception.
After twenty minutes of punishing drills the woman sheathed the sword in one fluid motion and calmly replaced it in the bag. Only now was she beginning to breath slightly harder, and small bands of perspiration had formed on her upper lip and forehead.
Next she withdrew a pair of sais, ancient three pronged extended daggers, and went through an elaborate series of manoeuvres fending off phantom assailants. After another twenty minutes the sais were also returned to the bag.
A set of five throwing daggers next saw the light of day. She placed one in her teeth and fanned the others into two vees, one in each hand. Suddenly spinning on her heel she whipped both her left and right wrists and released a knife from each hand. The two knives embedded themselves into a large tree thirty feet away. Going into a forward roll she again flicked both wrists and released the two remaining daggers. The two knives thudded into the tree, barely inches away from the first pair. With an almighty back flip she grabbed the knife from her teeth and flung it towards the tree at the peak of her aerial ascent. Landing back on her feet like a cat, she was satisfied to see that the last knife had joined its four companions in the tree. The entire group was less than five inches apart.
"I see you've still got it in for trees, Gabrielle," said an unmistakable voice, using an ancient Greek dialect.
The woman whipped round to see a tall, dark-haired figure standing close by, leaning against a tree, her arms folded nonchalantly across her chest.
"Xena!... how... where... when?" she spluttered.
Xena raised an eyebrow and just smiled. "So what else've you got tucked in that bag of yours?" she said, stooping down to examine the contents of the holdall. She pulled out one of the sais, and without even looking up flung it away with her left hand. The dagger embedded itself into the tree, right in the middle of the group of knives.
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head in resignation. No matter how good she got, her warrior would always be just that little bit better. Who was she kidding? A whole lot better!
Gabrielle withdrew the samurai sword and slid it from its scabbard with a smooth sweep of her arm.
"There can be only one!" she said solemnly, holding the tip of the blade a few centimetres from Xena's face. The warrior regarded her companion for a moment, staring intently into the green eyes she knew so well. A broad smile spread across her face and she chuckled.
"So, which one are you, a Scottish Spaniard, or a French Scot?"
"Oh, I rather liked the hunky fellah in the TV series, actually, or the little blonde thief."
Xena's eyebrows raised.
"Little blonde thief?"
"Yeah, she's just your type," the bard said, laughing, snapping the blade away from Xena's face and returning the sword to its scabbard in another fluid motion. Xena rolled her eyes in mock exasperation then returned her attention to the bag of weaponry at their feet.
"Ooh, what have we here?" Xena said, pulling a large handgun from the holdall.
"It's a... " she stopped when it occurred to her that there was little chance that Xena didn't know exactly what it was, right down to which factory it came from, and quite possibly the name of machinist who actually made it.
"Nice... may I?" Xena asked, admiring the gleaming dark blue finish. Gabrielle nodded her consent. Up here in the middle of her vast ranch there would be no one to disturb, except the wild life, and they were used to the target practice that regularly went on here.
Xena cocked the gun and took aim at a silhouette of a charging man some thirty yards away. Xena slowly squeezed the trigger, shattering the serenity of the countryside by the enormous blast of a magnum round discharging.
Gabrielle moved her hands away from her ears and looked to the target. A hole had appeared in the middle of the target's head.
"Not bad... for an old timer," Gabrielle grinned.
"Nice weapon," Xena said, handing her the gun and pointedly ignoring Gabrielle's comment.
Gabrielle lifted the gun in a two-handed grip and fired twice in rapid succession. Xena nodded in approval. Both eyes had been shot out of the target.
"I see my bard's kept up her martial skills. It's good to see." She tucked her hand inside her leather jacket and withdrew a very large automatic pistol.
"Some Israeli spook's been giving you toys again?" Gabrielle asked, grinning at the huge pistol in Xena's hand and shaking her head. The warrior took aim at the target and fired five times as fast as she could pull the trigger, the spent cases flying over her shoulder with alarming speed. Her arm barely moved as the five rounds tore into the target and formed a smiley mouth to match the previous hits.
Xena re-engaged the safety before returning the gun to its holster under her left shoulder.
"Still can't resist trying to impress a girl, huh, Xena?" Gabrielle said, uncovering her ears, and brushing her dishevelled hair back into place with her hands.
Grinning, the warrior pulled Gabrielle into her arms and gave her a strong squeeze. The bard relaxed into the hug and closed her eyes. 'Gods, how long has it been since the last time we did this? ' she thought. She knew the answer exactly, of course: twenty-four years, seven months and two days. Time may not have quite the same meaning to an immortal, but being without the other half of her soul for that amount of time had been... taxing.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle... please forgive me for leaving like that," was all Xena could manage, as her throat constricted.
The bard felt a multitude of emotions flooding through her. Anger, immense anger, followed by an unreserved joy that swept aside all the initial resentment. Her beautiful warrior had come back, that was all that mattered.
"Gods Xe, it's been too long this time." She too found her voice closing down against her will. But that was okay for the time being, words would come later. Now there were only emotions and physical contact. It was more than enough for a starving soul.
"You like it?" Gabrielle asked as she showed Xena her home in the mountains. They looked down the valley to the palatial building, Xena's black Harley casually parked outside the front gate.
"Writing still paying well I see."
"I do okay."
Xena turned to her soulmate and smiled. "Yeah, I bet you do. And still giving most of your money to worthy causes?"
"I continue to support many worthwhile projects, if that's what you mean."
"Got any more degrees?" the bard asked in return.
"A few more of the sciences, couple of engineering ones."
'Well, that's filled in all the blanks nicely' the bard thought dryly.
They walked in companionable silence down towards her home. As they neared it Gabrielle pulled a small remote from her jacket pocket and pressed a button. Electronic locks could be heard snapping open on the outer gates leading to the front yard.
Xena studied the expensive security fencing as they passed through it. "Wouldn't have kept me out," she said.
"Ah, but what would, warrior mine, what would?"
Xena grinned "Not much, I guess."
As they neared the front door Gabrielle placed her finger in a slot on the top of a keypad next to the doorframe. It beeped once and she entered a four digit code. The door motored open.
"It should be for the money it cost," Gabrielle grumbled.
"Still minding the dinars too, huh?"
"No," Gabrielle replied, already feeling a sense of deja vu as she could plainly remember many such conversations between them before. "I just don't see wasting resources when they could be used better else... " she broke off as she saw the huge grin on Xena's face. "Damn it, I can't believe you got me so easy!" she growled, as she backhanded the warrior on her flat stomach.
"Yeah, you'd think after two thousand years you'd be getting better at it, wouldn't you?" Xena smirked.
"Don't start with me, woman, else you can get back on that ugly motorbike of yours and disappear for another quarter century."
Xena's grin dropped from her face at the apparent sincerity of her bard's voice. "I'm... I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I was only joking, you know me, I... " she too broke off her apology when she saw the glee in Gabrielle's face. "Okay, that's fair, I guess, let's call it quits, huh?" a note of pleading in her voice. She knew the bard would best in her in a battle of words.
"Not on your life, warrior," Gabrielle giggled impishly and gave Xena a sudden shove, turned and dashed off down the corridor. "The last one in the tub gets to scrub the other's back," she shouted over her shoulder, as she ran.
Xena grinned and set off after her. In six strides she was within grasping distance, and would have caught the fleeing bard had she not feinted left and then scooted right at the last moment, leaving Xena clutching air and skidding to a halt on the polished wooden floor. Picking up speed again she crashed through a set of doors only to find Gabrielle serenely sitting in a huge sunken bath, splashing happily in the water.
"The tub fills at the press of a remote. Don't you just love modern technology?"
"It would have been more impressive if you'd taken your clothes off first, don't you think?" Xena said dryly.
Gabrielle just shrugged, standing up and spreading her arms out wide. "Come now, warrior mine, where's these fabled skills of yours?"
Xena smiled and went to help her soulmate out of her wet clothes and fulfil her debt of back scrubbing.
Gabrielle proudly showed Xena around her luxurious home. The tour took quite a while due to the size of the place. In the trophy room Xena picked up one of the fifteen Oscars neatly displayed on one shelf. "I see you've added some more since I last saw them." She read the engraving on the plate. "So you wrote that one too, huh?"
Gabrielle shrugged and nodded. "Yeah," she sighed.
Xena was only too aware of the regret that underlay Gabrielle's tone. There were several more literary awards, many of which Xena had never heard of. She did however recognise the two Nobel awards, both in different names of course, neither of them the Bard's.
Her genius with words would most likely never be known outside of a handful of people. Many of the great works of literature that were revered throughout the civilised world down through the ages had in fact come from the mind and pen of this one unassuming woman, either directly or in collaboration with some other author of the time.
"Do you think William finds it funny how things turned out, wherever he is now," Xena asked, still holding the golden statue.
"Probably, he always did have a wicked sense of humour," Gabrielle murmured, her mind drifting back over four hundred years to England, and a certain very well known playwright.
Xena carefully replaced the Oscar back on the shelf and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. "Come on, genius, you know we could never have taken the chance of our immortality becoming public knowledge. They'd keep on trying to kill us till they found a way to make it stick. It wouldn't be a pleasant way to spend a couple of years."
"I know, Xe, I know. It's just that sometimes I wish I could trade it all for just one lifetime's happiness and some recognition."
Xena held her beloved firmly and kissed the top of her head in sympathy. "Maybe one day, my love, maybe one day."
Gabrielle took in a deep breath and pulled away smiling, her moment of regret shrugged off. "Hey, how's your sweet tooth these days, would you like something to eat?"
"Lead on, chef."
Gabrielle waved a hand over the plate by the door and the room was plunged into darkness, its contents shoved to the back of Gabrielle's mind.
Xena sat at the kitchen bar drinking some tea and eating a piece of chocolate cake. Neither of them had spoken for the last fifteen minutes, each apparently lost in thought.
Finally they both chose the same moment to speak. "So," they both said, and immediately stopped to let the other speak. "No, you first," they both said simultaneously. Xena put down her cup and held her hand up, slowly turned it and pointed to Gabrielle and mouthed 'you first'. Gabrielle smiled and nodded.
"So, what've you been up to since I saw you last?"
"Oh, this and that. Nothing much, you know how it is," Xena shrugged. Gabrielle shook her head. 'Nothing changes much with you, my tight-lipped friend, that's for sure' she sighed inwardly.
"I know, but what exactly have you been doing... besides nothing much?"
"Well, let's see, I did a bit of trouble-shooting for some acquaintances, did quite a bit of that, actually. I did some gold mining in the Oz outback, picked some grapes on the Rhine, spent a year in Canada studying, did some wild sports in New Zealand. Just kicked around and chilled really."
"Any 'special' acquaintances along the way?" Gabrielle asked lightly, but mentally tensing at the prospect of an answer she wouldn't like. Xena smiled a sad smile.
"There's only ever been one keeper of my heart, you know that," she said quietly.
"I know," Gabrielle said softly, placing her hand on the back of Xena's. "It's just I like confirmation of that every quarter century, or so," she said smiling gently.
"Seen anything of her... Aphrodite, I mean?" Now it was Xena's turn to be hesitant.
"Every now and then she pops in, though it's been getting less and less. I think she's found her spiritual home down in California," Gabrielle said, grinning.
"You think her powers are finally waning?"
"Dunno," Gabrielle shrugged. "It was always hard to tell just what was going on with her. I do know that behind that ditzy facade there was always a powerful and wilful mind at work."
"Yeah, I know. It's just that sometimes it was hard not to play up to it."
"Did you ever really forgive her for what she did to us?"
"I suppose so. I do know that had she done it to just me I really would have got mad at her. Let's just say there would have been one less Olympian to worry about."
Gabrielle smiled to herself. How many times had they had this conversation over the centuries? It didn't matter really. Each of them had entered into an unspoken agreement that they wouldn't keep reminding each other that they knew what the other one was thinking, or that they'd said something before. Two millennia was a long time never to have repeated yourself. Just treat each new day like the past had never happened. To do otherwise would have been to begin the long slide into a permanent separation, something neither of them wanted. In many ways Xena's occasional departures were precisely what they needed, but by the Gods it hurt.
Gabrielle thought back to that fateful day, so long, long ago when Aphrodite, the Olympian Goddess of Love, had tricked them both into eating fruit from the Tree Of Life.
Aphrodite had gone back in time to before the insane Callisto had burned down the tree, and had picked two of its fruits. Bringing them back to the present she'd placed them in Gabrielle's shoulder bag, disguised as plain apples. It was only a matter of time before Xena called for a rest and a bite to eat, and their lives were changed forever.
After they'd both eaten the fruit they gasped at each other in confusion as a glowing surge of power flowed through them, which made them both stumble momentarily. Xena soon guessed what had happened and, brandishing her chakram, screamed for Aphrodite to show herself. The Goddess materialised behind the still shaken bard and immediately begged Xena for her forgiveness. The cowering Goddess cried and pleaded with them to still be her friends, fully aware of what Xena was capable of, having only recently killed most of her brothers and sisters, and even her husband. She broke down crying, sobbing that she was so lonely and couldn't stand the thought of going through life alone.
Gabrielle, of course, was the first to forgive Aphrodite, but Xena took a long time to be even able to converse in any sort of civil manner to the distraught Goddess.
Aphrodite cowered behind Gabrielle trying desperately to keep the enraged warrior from getting a clean shot at her. She knew that while Eve, Xena's daughter, still lived, Xena could end her immortal life right then and there.
"Xena, put that away and calm down!" Gabrielle demanded. "What's done is done. Killing Aphrodite won't put things right."
Xena glowered at her a moment but lowered her chakram and angrily clipped it to her belt. "That stupid, selfish bitch has robbed us of our humanity, Gabrielle, how can you stand there and be so calm about this?" Xena demanded through gritted teeth.
"It's not something I ever wanted, but don't you see, Xena, this could be a great opportunity for us. Just think how many people we can now help. We aren't getting any younger, sooner or later we would have had to stop and settle down."
Xena still bristled. "Speak for yourself!" To have had such a thing done to her without her consent was just unthinkable. She stomped off to brush down her horse. The Goddess and the bard could still hear her muttering and grumbling from across the campsite.
"D'you think she'll ever forgive me?" the Goddess asked, hesitantly.
Gabrielle turned and gave the frightened Goddess a harsh look, one that she hoped was as intimidating as anything Xena could produce.
"What makes you think I'll ever forgive you?" she said icily.
"Aw, now come on Gabby, sweetheart, it was the best I could come up with. I gave the last of the Ambrosia I had to Ares. If I'd've had anymore I'd've given you guys some, I promise," she whined.
"So what happens to us now, can this be reversed in anyway?"
"Beats me, darlin'," she said shrugging, smiling for the first time since Xena had summoned her.
"But you must know, you're a Godd..." She didn't get the chance to finish as the Goddess mouthed 'Later' and disappeared in a cloud of golden sparkles.
"I hate it when she does that!" Gabrielle said angrily to no one in particular.
'Funny, I haven't thought of that in a long time. Must be Xena's return that's triggering old memories, ' Gabrielle mused.
"So, what brings you back to seek out an old soulmate?" she said.
Xena looked across at Gabrielle. 'How could I have been so stupid to have missed one minute of her time, let alone so many years? ' the warrior thought sadly.
"Can't I just have wanted to see you?"
Gabrielle nodded, but smiled her 'I can read you like a book, warrior, so don't try to play the innocent with me!' smile.
"Okay, okay, you win. I... I need your help," Xena said, almost apologetically.
"The great Xena, former Destroyer of Nations and Warrior Princess needs little old me's help?"
Xena looked into the deep green eyes across the table and melted. How many times over the centuries had the little bard so easily reminded her who was really the strong one in this relationship. Gabrielle tilted her head slightly and grinned at Xena's contrition.
"Hey," was all she said and slid her hand to cover the warrior's.
Xena smiled back. "Hey yourself."
She stood up, still holding the bard's hand. "We'll talk later, lets... do some catching up," she said softly.
"Thought you'd never ask," Gabrielle replied, standing up and reaching for her soulmate.
Xena lay on the bed watching Gabrielle dry her hair. It was something she'd never tired of. Over the centuries Gabrielle had grown it long, cut it short, changed its colour, tried many different styles, but none of them had ever looked anything but beautiful to the warrior. Now she was wearing it short and blond again. Xena herself had never been interested in such things. Her long wild black mane was the same as it had ever been.
"So, wanna tell me what you need me for, now?" asked Gabrielle, pleased to see that Xena still seemed to like simply watching her.
Xena frowned at being brought back to the reality of the present.
"I think she's back" she said.
Gabrielle sighed and put her hair brush and dryer back on the dressing table. She knew Xena could only be talking about one person. The evil witch who'd plagued them for over two thousand years. The wicked spirit that was Alti.
"I suppose she was about due to resurface sometime soon."
Gabrielle thought back to their last meeting in the devastated bunker in Berlin. Xena and Gabrielle, both disguised as Russian infantry, had finally tracked her down in the ruins of the city. It had taken them five years through the most horrific bloodshed the world had yet seen before they could get close enough to her and put an end to it.
The world saw a pathetic little Austrian dictator with a moustache and a swagger, but not the warrior and her bard, they pretty well knew who they were really dealing with. As soon as they had fought their way into the underground concrete shelter, dispatching guards and guard dogs as they went, they knew for sure. That gravelly voice, those dark, piercing eyes were unmistakable.
"I'm so glad you've finally made it, Xena. It's been so much fun this time around. I nearly made it this time, didn't I?" the witch mocked.
Gabrielle shuddered as the evil woman shrugged off her male persona and sat before them recognisable once again as the woman they had come to know so well.
"Don't you ever get tired of this?" Gabrielle asked.
Alti shrugged. "And miss the chance of seeing your pretty, uncomprehending face? I think not," she rasped and smiled wickedly.
"You talk too much!" Xena said and calmly shot the shamaness in the knee with a revolver. Alti screamed in pain and slumped to the floor clutching her shattered leg.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted. "Now is not the time for petty vengeance. Just get it over with." Xena scowled, but raised the revolver, this time aimed at Alti's head.
"See you again, my pretties," the witch gasped.
"We'll be along a little sooner next time," Xena replied, as she pulled the trigger and put an end to the world's most hated person. They looked down at the dead Fuhrer, the dead body having resumed its former state.
"Any rituals you wanna try?"
Gabrielle grimaced at the warrior. "Just burn the bastard and we can go home, I've had enough killing in the last five years to last me for another two thousand."
"The next one will be worse. They always get... worse," the warrior said sadly. She absentmindedly opened the revolver and replaced the spent cartridges, and tucked it back into her holster. She dragged a jerry can of petrol that they'd brought with them over to the dead body. She liberally doused the corpse and the surrounding area then stepped back. Pulling a match from her jacket pocket she paused a moment. "We let it get way out of hand this time. So many people died because we didn't get to her sooner. Next time we must be ready."
Gabrielle simply nodded in acceptance. They walked to the door and looked back.
"Just do it."
Xena lit the match and threw it into the pool of gasoline. The room erupted in flames and they had to run to avoid being caught in the conflagration.
"So, where to now?"
Xena thought a moment. "England. Home, I guess" she said shrugging.
"I thought about that. For a while there I wasn't sure which one was Alti, Uncle Joe or the Austrian. Looks like Stalin's just your run of mill thug. I'm too tired to care about him at the moment. Maybe next year we'll pay him a visit."
"Still for the greater good?"
Xena nodded "Oh yeah."
"How's your Japanese?" asked Gabrielle, grinning.
"Let the Americans deal with them," Xena answered in perfect Japanese. "They seem to be doing okay without us," she smiled. Gabrielle nodded in agreement, her language skills equally as fluent as the warrior's.
"I wonder how the garden's doing?" Gabrielle said, thinking of their country cottage back in England.
"Let's go find out," Xena said, as she began to unbuckle the uncomfortable uniform she was wearing.
"Ares must have been enjoying himself for the last four years."
"I don't even want to go there," Xena said, holding out her hand. "Come on, let's go home."
"So, where has she turned up this time?"
"I think she's given up on the straightforward approach. I did wonder about Sadham and the Gulf War, but he's just another wannabe. No, I think she's trying her hand at a bit of terrorism and political manipulation behind the scenes, probably here in America."
"You're not serious. You mean one of the presidential candidates?" Gabrielle asked, disbelief evident in her expression. The country was gearing itself up for a presidential election next year and the campaigning was already well under way.
"You're not certain?"
"No, not yet."
"What makes you think this?"
Xena looked down at her lap and looked uncomfortable. "I... I had a dream. It was about things I didn't understand. Normally I wouldn't have given it a second thought. I mean, I've got many skills, but I've never been a sayer. And I would have forgotten about it entirely were it not for that same day he finally paid me a visit."
"He?... " Gabrielle frowned, then gasped "You mean Ares! After all this time?"
"Yeah, I know. It was a hell of a shock. It'd been so long I almost didn't recognise him at first. He was wearing a business suit. He didn't just arrive in a puff of smoke, he actually drove up in a black sports car and stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of me. Just said 'Hello, Xena long time no see.'"
"Where was this?"
"Seoul, five days ago."
"What did he want?"
"He didn't say. All he said was that I should watch out for an old adversary and that she'd be back this time in my soulmate's present homeland," she said, looking at Gabrielle.
"Did he say what she was doing, who she was, how we could find her?"
"Nope, just grinned, got back in his car and disappeared back into the traffic. Nice car though," Xena said distractedly.
"Can we trust him?"
Xena shrugged. "Damned if I know. You know what he's like, always playing his own games." After the God of War had regained his immortality from Aphrodite's gift of ambrosia he'd apparently lost interest in demanding a child from Xena. And he'd obviously not wanted to be around the only person who could put an end to his life.
"Why has he waited all this time to see you?"
"I've no idea," Xena sighed, suddenly feeling her great age. She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes. "Gods, I really hoped we'd seen the last of him, and that damned witch too."
"Xena, we can't keep doing this. Sooner or later she's going to get lucky. Hell, she had three quarters of the world at each other's throats for nearly a decade last time. She got twenty million people killed. We have to put a stop to her once and for all!"
"D'you think I don't know that!" Xena exclaimed emphatically, fire glistening in her deep blue eyes.
"Of course... I'm sorry. Forgot who I was talking to for a moment. You know it's been over twenty years since we last... talked."
Xena's scowl lessened and finally slipped away altogether changing to a broad smile. "Oh, Gabrielle, only you can make me mad and make me laugh all in one go. Why do I never learn?"
Gabrielle smiled sadly. Their relationship had been an eternity, and yet here they were still. Sure, they'd had their ups and downs, and there had been quite a few separations, some long ones, many of them over another person, but they'd always come back to each other. They'd agreed long ago that occasional separations would be good for them. Ordinary partnerships only had to last as long as eighty years at most, if they were lucky. Forever was a different timescale when it came to relationships. Both had found that watching mortal loved ones grow old and die was harrowingly painful. There really could only be each other.
Neither objected to passing dalliances after all this time. In the early days it had hurt, but once again the great leveller, time, really did heal any emotional wounds that such flings might have incurred.
"Were you truly that upset with Aph', Xena, or was there something else?"
Xena looked uncomfortable and wouldn't meet Gabrielle's eyes.
Xena cleared her throat "It's... just that I can deal with mortals... but.... "
"Another immortal was too much. I know, I thought about it afterwards and I tried to imagine how I would have felt if Aph had cornered you drunk, instead of me."
Xena was silent for a long time. "So, how would you have felt?"
Gabrielle sighed "Angry, hurt, resentful, jealous... you know, the usual stuff."
"Why'd you do it?" Xena asked quietly.
"I've no real excuse, Xena, other than I was drunk, full of self pity, and bored with Brazil. I wanted to try something new. She was there with a pretty boy on each arm. A foursome just seemed like it'd be fun at the time. I know saying sorry sounds so pathetic, but... Xena, I really am truly sorry. I never meant to hurt you, I shoud've known how you felt about gods."
Xena grinned ruefully and reached over to hold the bard's hands. "Gabrielle, I was hurt and angry, but it was a long time ago now. Hey, there aren't too many of us about, it was really only a matter of time. It was bound to happen sooner or later to one of us. If you're gonna do it with a god, Aph's as good as any. How many are there of us that we know, huh? Aph, Herc, Ares, Apollo?"
"Don't forget Cupid, Psyche and Bliss, but it's not much of a list is it?" Gabrielle agreed.
"You seen anything of Herc lately?" asked the bard, deftly changing the subject.
"Nope, not since before the opium wars in China. Last I heard he'd gone of to meditate in a Tibetan monastery. Imagine that, the son of Zeus getting religion!" Xena chuckled at the thought.
"I hope he's happy wherever he is."
"He never really was the same guy after Iolaus died. I remember Kayla holding onto Herc, and him crying his big ol' heart out. Even Kayla seemed to be able to handle it better, and she'd been married to Iolaus for twenty years."
"Amazons; tough breed," Gabrielle said, grinning.
"Gods, I haven't thought about them in ages," groaned Xena. "You ever wanted to go back and look around the old country?"
"No, not really," Gabrielle said quietly. She inwardly sighed again. Whenever they got back together after a long separation she knew they'd have the nostalgia conversation. And it never failed to bring up sad memories in amongst the good ones. All her sister Amazons were gone, the nation wiped from the planet liked they'd never existed. All the centaurs, the bachae, the Cyclops' and the giants. All the magic seemed to have drained away as the ordinary mortals expanded to cover the Earth. Gabrielle tried not to dwell too much on the past. It only left her aching and sad. She realised that Xena was still reminiscing to herself.
"... and there was our castle in the Spanish mountains. Man that was a time, wasn't it my bard, hey?"
"Er, yeah, it was a time alright," she said, trying to sound bright and responsive.
Xena looked at her and knew the truth of the matter. "It's okay, Gabs, I'll shut about the past. I know it hurts. I'm sorry," she said, squeezing Gabrielle's hand affectionately.
"Oh, talking of the past, that reminds me, I've got something for you," Gabrielle said, getting up and leaving the room for a moment. Xena watched her departing back and sighed 'How could I keep leaving this woman? Am I insane? ' she brooded. Two thousand years had done nothing to diminish the occasional feelings of low self esteem that plagued her. The passage of time had gradually managed to remove much of the guilt she had once felt so keenly for her ten year reign of evil and wanton slaughter, but the bouts of unworthiness still haunted her from time to time.
Xena was so wrapped in her thoughts she didn't notice Gabrielle return. The bard paused and observed her friend sadly. No matter how often, nor how much, she'd tried over the centuries to rid Xena of her demons she knew that this complex woman would probably always be something of a manic-depressive. What was it that Winston had said about the Russians? A 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. He could so easily have been describing the brooding warrior sat before her.
"Here, this is something I had made for you," she said, sliding a leather-bound book across the breakfast bar towards Xena. She picked up the large book and lightly ran her fingers over the tooled leather, tracing the gold embossed word in the middle of the cover. 'Memories' it said.
Xena looked over to Gabrielle slightly alarmed at what she might have in her hands. Gabrielle smiled comfortingly and nodded. "Go ahead, my love. I'll go and make us some tea." With that she turned and walked to the far end of the room. Swallowing nervously Xena slowly opened the book and gazed at the first page. On expensive parchment the single phrase 'Early Days' was written in the bard's exquisite script.
Turning the page she was greeted with a photograph of her mother, Cyrene, her two brothers, Torris and Lyceus, and herself as a young teenager, all gangly and awkward. Her eyes immediately watered and she touched the precious photograph, delicately tracing her fingertips over the four faces.
"But how... when... how is this possible?" she croaked through a constricted throat.
"I had 'Dite go back and take some pictures for us, simple really. I don't know why I never thought of it before," Gabrielle smiled, passing Xena a cup of strong tea.
Xena turned the page and there before her was a large photograph of her son Solan, standing proudly next to his adoptive father, Kaleipus the centaur. Tears were beginning to trickle down her face.
"Careful, there, warrior, you'll damage the leather," Gabrielle said softly, leaning over and offering Xena a tissue. Xena accepted the tissue blindly and dabbed her face as she turned the page again. There was a group picture of Gabrielle's Greek Amazons, with Ephany standing at the front proudly holding her sword aloft, shouting something at the camera. Eponin and Solari by her side looked slightly puzzled.
On the next page was another group photo this time of Salmonius, Autolycus and Joxer, his slightly dopey face grinning as he hugged the obviously annoyed King of Thieves and the used chariot salesman to him. Over the page she briefly saw a picture of a smiling woman stood by an altar, shafts of sunlight illuminating her in a soft haze. It was her long-dead daughter, Eve.
"I... I don't think I can look at any more of this for the moment," she said, closing the book and taking a long sip of her tea.
"That's okay, the one thing we've got is time."
Xena smiled again, wiping away the last of her unbidden tears. She could always rely on her soulmate to say just the right thing at the right moment.
"Yeah, we do at that," Xena chuckled, oblivious to the many thousands of times that both of them had said it to each other before.
"If 'Dite can still hop backwards and forwards in time, why didn't we ever get her to go back and prevent us eating those damn fruits?"
"Would you have wanted her to?"
Xena thought a moment, remembering all the good things she'd managed to achieve over the centuries with her soulmate.
"Nah, I guess not. I suppose we have to acknowledge what a gift it was for us."
"Actually, I did ask her once if she'd do it. She refused, of course." Gabrielle shrugged and sipped her tea.
"You got one of these?" Xena asked, touching the album.
"Yeah, my family, the village, all the people we knew. 'Dite went a bit crazy once she got into it. I've warned her about showing them to anyone, but you know her. There were dozens and dozens of views of Olympus, and all of her family. I didn't bother putting any of them in yours, didn't think you'd wanna see 'em."
"No, I don't s'pose I do," she growled, never having forgotten the Olympian's ruthless pursuit of herself, Gabrielle and Eve. "I'm surprised she's never gone back and tried to stop me killing them all."
"She knows better than anyone that messing with time could have devastating consequences. I think she accepts what happened and doesn't want to change anything anymore."
Xena said nothing and stared into her nearly empty cup.
"So, where do we start?" asked Gabrielle.
"I've got a contact in the CIA that my friends in Mossad gave me. I figure we can start there. I don't come to the States much, it's... it's too new for my taste." The bard knew of Xena's preference for Europe and the Middle East, with their long histories, which both of them had first hand experience of. But Gabrielle liked America. It was a land of so many opportunities and still had such potential for growth. Its countryside was breathtakingly beautiful and she'd fallen in love with it from the moment she first set foot in the new world.
Both of them retained many homes throughout the world, both having made great fortunes over the years in their different ways. It wasn't difficult when you had centuries to do it in. But Xena had never been comfortable in America. Its cities were too big and brash, the pace of life too hectic for her to be at ease. And much to her dismay the great cities of Europe were going the same way. The only places she really liked were the wildernesses of the countryside, and fortunately America still had plenty of them.
"What exactly are we looking for?" the bard asked.
"I wish I knew," was all Xena could say.
Gabrielle drove them to Denver. They booked into a hotel near the airport, in the morning they hired a car and headed for a unassuming office block in the business district of the city.
The security guard on the front desk looked at their IDs.
"We have an appointment with Mr Trevellion," she said. He checked his computer screen and nodded. He issued them with visitors passes which they hung around their necks.
"You got any concealed weapons on you?" he asked, almost bored.
"You can't enter the building with any weapons. They've gotta be handed in here," he said, opening a metal drawer in front of them.
Xena grumbled but reached into her jacket and withdrew the large pistol and dropped it into the drawer.
"Nice weapon" the man said. He raised his eyebrows when Gabrielle reached behind her and pulled out three throwing knives and put them into the drawer next to Xena's weapon.
"You two mean business, huh?" Gabrielle shrugged and smiled.
"Okay, would you ladies please pass through the barrier."
Xena held up her hand and reached down to her boot. Pulling up her jeans leg she revealed a holster and a small automatic pistol. Unclipping it from its holster she dropped the gun into the drawer, pulled out three knives from various hiding places and dropped them into the tray. Gabrielle did the same with two more knives.
"Finished?" he asked sarcastically.
"Nearly," Xena replied, extracting a telescopic metal baton from her left sleeve. Gabrielle held up her hands to show she was out of weapons.
He pressed a button and the drawer slid shut. "Twelfth floor, you'll be met at the elevator."
They travelled up in silence. At the twelfth floor they were greeted by a business-suited woman with a grim expression.
"Follow me please," she said and stalked off down the corridor, her body language anything but friendly.
"Don't mind her, most of these organisations look down upon freelancers like us," Xena whispered to Gabrielle. The bard shook her head. "Why am I not surprised that you know so much about this kind of place?" she whispered back. Xena put on her best 'Who, me?' expression and fluttered her eye lashes.
They were shown into an office. There was nothing to suggest that this was one of the many buildings owned by the CIA, but that was probably the point.
The man looked up from behind his desk and rose, his hand held out towards them. Xena gripped his hand and shook it, Gabrielle followed. The woman who'd shown them in left and closed the door behind her.
"I've just had a telephone conversation with a colleague in another organisation similar to ours, and she tells me that I should be treating you with the utmost respect, and that I should give you all the help I can. Care to tell me why I should?"
"Isn't it normal to offer us a seat before we get down to business?" Xena asked. He smiled and waved at the chairs in front of his desk. "Please, take a seat."
They settled themselves into the chairs and stared at the man. After an uncomfortable silence he cleared his throat. "So, what's your line of work? I'd say hired killers, from the arsenal you two left down at the front desk." he said conversationally, as if such matters were entirely mundane.
"Not exactly, I... solve problems. When the problems get too big for me I get help from my friend here. Between us we can usually get the job done," replied Xena.
"And you 'problem solve' too, huh?" he said, turning to Gabrielle.
"Mostly I write, actually, I'm a writer," she said, smiling.
"I see... " he said, frowning at the unexpected answer.
"We're trying to locate an individual who we believe may be in this country and trying to cause trouble," Xena said.
"Who is this person, and what are they trying to do?"
"That's the problem, they change their appearance all the time, we have no idea what they look like this time."
"They... is there more than one of them?"
"No, I used they because, well... we don't know what gender they will appear as this time."
"Gender?" the man said, suddenly intrigued.
"Yes, well... let's just say that 'she' is a master of disguise, and leave it at that."
"I see... and do you have a name for this person?"
"Is that a first or second name?" the agent asked, his fingers hovering over the keys of his computer keyboard, ready to type.
"Only... talking of which, may I ask your name?" Xena asked.
"You may," he replied and smirked slightly.
Xena sighed "Okay, we'll do it your way. What's your name?"
"Just call me Bob."
"Okay, Bob, what does your database say about Alti?"
"Before I answer that I want you to understand that I'm only doing this a favour to our mutual aquaintance."
"Fine by me," Xena said, through a fixed smile that didn't reach her eyes.
"Er, no items match that name. And funnily enough there's very little on a Xena either. And this has access to every major security database in the country, and quite a few other nation's security systems too. What do you think that means?" he asked turning away from his screen and looking pointedly at the warrior.
"I think it means that you shouldn't believe everything you read off a computer screen."
They stared at each other for a moment, neither speaking, but Gabrielle could feel the tension in the room begin to rise.
"Perhaps you're asking it the wrong questions?" the bard stepped in, in a hasty attempt to defuse the situation.
Bob's finally broke eye contact with Xena and turned to the bard. "What do you suggest, Gabrielle?" he said, almost sneering, almost turning the words into an insult.
"Well, how about any unexplained acts of terrorism or major crimes, over say the last six months, ones that you have no idea who was behind it, something that you can't pin on the usual suspects."
He considered her words for a moment and nodding slightly, returned to his keyboard and began to type.
"Twenty seven major crimes, and two acts of terrorism."
"May I see?" asked the warrior. Bob turned the monitor towards her without saying a word.
"Can I have a printout of these please?" Again nothing was said as he swung the monitor back and moved the mouse. A moment later a printer whirred and ejected two sheets of paper. He handed them over to Xena.
"If you find out anything, you will let us know won't you. Sharing information goes two ways."
"I'll be sure to do that... Bob." Xena said, returning the compliment by making Bob sound like an insult.
"Pretty cocky for someone who's had all her weapons removed aren't you?" Bob said as he rose from his seat. Xena slowly stood up and placed her two hands on the desk and leaned forward till there wasn't much space between them.
"You see, the thing is.... Bob... they missed my most lethal weapons, so I feel perfectly safe in your office." Xena was smiling, but there was no warmth to the smile. Gabrielle recognised the signs.
"Er, Xena, we've got what we came for, I think we've taken up enough of Bob's valuable time, don't you?"
Xena slowly turned to her partner. "Yeah, I guess so." Turning back to the agent she nodded. "You've been most helpful... Bob... and you're also a very lucky man."
Bob's expression remained unchanged, but a single bead of perspiration ran down his cheek. He'd seen something in her eyes that told him that he'd just had a very close brush with his own destiny. He had no doubt that she could kill him where he stood, and there wouldn't be the slightest thing he could do about it. Such controlled power came rolling off her that he had a desperate urge to step back and run away. Luckily his years of training kept him rooted to the spot, his face a mask hiding his true feelings. But Xena didn't miss it, and he knew she knew.
He swallowed loudly and tentatively held out his hand to shake. Xena grasped it in a vice-like grip.
"Till the next time," he managed, lamely though gritted teeth. He was a strong man, but he could feel a strength in her hand that simply dwarfed his own. 'My God' he thought 'she ain't natural'.
"Count on it!" she said, squeezing a touch harder, almost to the point of breaking bone, and abruptly let go. He sighed in relief as he pressed a button on the desk, shaking his hand and flexing his fingers.
"My secretary will see you out. I hope you've got what you came for and that word of our co-operation will get back to our mutual friends?"
"Oh yeah, I'll tell 'em all about you, don't you worry about that... Bob."
Gabrielle stepped around the warrior and guided her to the door. "Come on Xena, we're done here." she said, pulling the deadly serious warrior with her.
When they'd left he sighed in relief again and picked up the telephone. "Get me all you can on a Xena and a Gabrielle. Both foreign nationals. Free lancers, probably killers for hire. Try Interpol, MI6, anyone you can think of, and David, do it sooner rather than later please." He replaced the receiver and silently rubbed his damaged hand, contemplating the stunning woman with the deadly eyes and the strength of an angry polar bear.
Xena didn't say anything as they drove back to their hotel.
"Still the same old Xena, huh?" the bard said. "Can't resist locking horns with anyone who has the temerity not to roll over and play dead."
"He... annoyed me." was all the warrior could manage, but even she realised how lame that sounded. They drove along in silence for another ten minutes.
"So, what've we got on the printout?"
"I dunno yet, we'll study it back in our room."
"Okay." The bard knew that Xena was in one of her 'I'm not talking' moods and decided to let things go for the time being. Her Xena hadn't changed a bit in the intervening twenty five years since they were last together, She shook her head and smiled to herself.
Gabrielle sat at the table, typing on her portable computer, while Xena studied the list of unexplained crimes. The warrior mumbled to herself and took the pen from between her teeth crossing out entries on the list and ticking others.
"Xena, does it worry you that we're now probably both on several databases around the globe. Sooner or later someone's going to realise what we are."
Xena looked up from her lists and pursed her lips. "Yeah, damn computers. It was so much easier to keep in the shadows before they came along. I guess we'll have to change names completely and move somewhere quiet for a couple of decades."
"Where did you have in mind?"
Xena shrugged. "Solitary places are getting pretty scarce, my bard." She was silent for a moment. "Perhaps we should go somewhere and come clean about what we are? Somewhere where they'll appreciate us and keep us for our unique talents. Somewhere where they'll protect us and not try for a front cover of 'Time' or 'New Scientist'".
"Do you think that's possible?"
"Probably not. I doubt many places are ready to accept the reality of the Olympians and the trouble they caused the world, even if it was two thousand years ago."
"Have anywhere in mind?"
"It would have to be one of the security organisations. Some place where they step outside the law and society."
"Spooks, you mean," Gabrielle said, curling up her top lip in disdain.
"'Fraid so, my bard."
"Would they look after us, and not try to find out what makes us immortal?"
"Don't know, it'd be a big risk telling them, and they wouldn't believe is till we proved it. I know Callisto was a lunatic, but I for one don't relish sticking a sword through my guts to prove I'm immortal. Still hurts like hell. She was one screwed up bitch back then," Xena said, chuckling to herself.
"Yeah, it still hurts." Gabrielle thought back to the hundreds of times she'd been on the receiving end of a weapon that would have killed an ordinary mortal. Recovering from being run through with a sword was painful enough, but getting your arm to knit itself back on after it had been severed was not an experience she wished to repeat too often. And with modern weapons likely to blow you to pieces, well, it didn't bear thinking about.
"They will never be able to find out how we tick, the magic left this earth a long, long time ago, and it doesn't look like it's coming back any time soon. As all the lesser gods have remained hidden for the last two thousand years, there's really only Aph' and Ares left with any power that I know of, and who knows how they can do what they do?" the warrior said almost sadly.
"Well, unless there's some catastrophic event that plunges the world back into the dark ages, I don't see that it's viable for us to continue trying to hide in this computer age, there's just too many of them to evade or alter. On the other hand, I have no wish to become a pet warrior beholden to some faceless civil servant. Even the so called western democracies are run by ruthless, spineless cowards behind the scenes. I wouldn't trust any of them as far as we could throw them. And that's taking in to account the fact that you could throw them a pretty long way!" the bard laughed.
"So, what do we do?" asked Xena, knowing there was no easy answer.
"First things first, we track down Alti and put her out of this generation's misery. Then, warrior mine, we worry about our future. Agreed?"
Gabrielle parked the rented car under some trees a mile from the pharmaceuticals company. It was two thirty in the morning and the lack of any worthwhile moon left the landscape shrouded in darkness. They had visited the place the day before but were politely but firmly shown the door. Their attempts to investigate one of the items on the CIA's list, the kidnapping of a scientist in the company's car lot two weeks earlier, had come up against a brick wall. The bard knew that Xena wouldn't accept it so here they were getting ready to break in and find out for themselves what the scientist had been involved in.
"You know that the likelihood is that this crime has nothing to do with Alti, don't you?"
Xena sat still, ignoring her partner's comment for the moment, busy scanning the outer perimeter of the complex through powerful nightsight binoculars.
"I can feel her involvement. She's behind this, I know it." she said quietly, her mind really focusing on the mission ahead.
"Warrior's intuition, huh?"
"Something like that."
Gabrielle knew better than to question it. Xena was very rarely wrong in such circumstances. She remembered hundreds of such occasions over the centuries, such as the start of the revolution in Paris, where Xena's sixth sense had given them enough warning to leave the city before they got caught up in the violence. Then there was the time in Turkey when Vlad and his merry men had tried a second time to cause his particular brand of mayhem before Xena warned the Turkish leaders what was about to happen.
Gabrielle jumped slightly, snapped from her reveries. It was strange how memories worked sometimes. Things she'd totally forgotten about would come back to her with crystal clarity, as something in the present triggered their return. She wondered how her brain could hold over two thousand years worth of memories, but it seemed to. She looked at Xena and studied her face. How many times had she seen that look of total concentration. Her eyes were like searchlights carefully traversing the terrain, missing nothing in their powerful sweeps.
Gabrielle locked the car and slung the small backpack over her shoulders. She pulled a black woollen hat down over her blonde hair and followed the warrior, who had already set off at a steady lope across the intervening ground towards the complex's perimeter.
She caught up with Xena who was squatting down studying the chain link fence. She held up her hand, warning Gabrielle to stay put and not touch anything.
"Something's odd here," the warrior whispered.
"What's the problem?"
"We can't touch this fence, it's wired. Anything touching it will set off the alarms and bring security running. And have a look through these," she said, handing the bard what looked like a pair of ordinary sunglasses. She put them on and looked through the fence. The ground between them to the nearest building was criss-crossed with sweeping narrow beams of light. She lifted up the glasses and the beams disappeared. Dropping them down again she watched the lights move for a moment, studying their sweep patterns. She wasn't surprised that Xena always seemed to have the latest in counterespionage gadgetry. After all, she'd spent over two thousand years writing most of the manuals that those people played by.
"The security here is far in excess of any normal commercial organisation. I think they've got something to hide," she said with a wicked grin. Gabrielle smiled to herself. It was good to see Xena's eyes glowing with such enthusiasm. A challenge was what the warrior always craved, and here was one for her to sink her teeth into.
"So what do we do? Even if we got through the fence we'd never get past the beams."
"We find another way in," Xena replied shrugging.
They scouted around the entire perimeter. The fence had no breaks other than the manned main gate and another goods entrance at the back. Nowhere along the fence were there any convenient overhanging trees or other structures they could climb and jump from.
"Now what?" a frustrated bard asked. "We're running out of time, damnit!" Xena looked at her watch, it was already three thirty, they'd been at this for an hour and were still not inside.
"I can see why Alti took the Doc outside the fence now."
"Yeah," the bard replied sullenly.
"Okay, time for Plan B."
"A frontal assault!"
"Why am I not surprised to hear that?" the bard said, shaking her head.
Xena swung her own backpack off her shoulders and delved inside it. She pulled out an odd-looking pistol and box of small- calibre shells. Refastening the backpack she settled it on her back.
"More toys?" the bard asked, arching her brow.
Xena raised her eyebrows and grinned. She pulled the back of the pistol till it clicked and stayed open. She extracted a single round from the box of bullets and slid it into the open chamber and pushed the mechanism closed.
They crept along the tree line until they were by the rear gate, as close as they could get without being easily seen.
"I thought you said this was going to be a full frontal attack?"
"All right... so it's a full rear attack," the warrior whispered in exasperation.
"Sounds fun," the bard responded, with a cheeky grin.
"Yeah, right!" Xena was terse, but internally she was pleased to see that her bard had lost none of her joviality. Two thousand years and she was still essentially the same positive, happy go lucky soul that Xena had fallen in love with so long ago.
Raising the gun she took careful aim at one of the cameras that swung back and forth scanning the gate. There was a quiet click and a puff of smoke from the barrel, but that was all. The front of the camera tinkled and shattered across the courtyard leading to the loading bays at the back of the complex.
"Silenced, single shot, huh? Very fancy."
"It does the job."
"Where'd you get it, or shouldn't I ask?"
"I have many friends in the weapons industry."
"Yeah, I bet you do." The bard paused a moment. "Doesn't it ever concern you that these people trade in human misery? And if you come out with some dumb platitude about 'guns don't hurt people, people hurt people', or that they're 'simply tools', so help me I'll shove that gun up your... nose!" the bard hissed angrily.
Xena knew when not to get involved with one of Gabrielle's tirades. The weapons industry had always been one of her pet targets, despite the bard being highly proficient in their use, and owning a room full of things herself.
"I... don't think now is the time to be getting into this, Gabrielle... do you?" she said as calmly as possible, not wishing to stir the bard into a heated discussion.
Gabrielle frowned for a moment, and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Xe... touchy subject."
"I know, forget it, Ge" the warrior said, smiling warmly at her partner. She pulled another bullet from its box and reset the pistol. Taking aim again, she shot a second camera. It still surprised the bard that the noisiest part of the whole procedure was the camera lens and electronics shattering down onto the tarmac.
After resetting the gun a third time the warrior licked her finger and held it up, nodding to herself.
"Now what?" the bard asked.
A short while later a guard appeared and looked up at the disabled cameras. Looking around he unhooked the torch from his belt and walked slowly towards the gate, peering out towards the trees.
Xena took careful aim.
"You're not going to shoot him, are you?" a shocked bard hissed through clenched teeth.
"Have faith," the warrior barely whispered, not wanting to disturb her aim in any way. The gun clicked and the guard grunted, collapsed to his knees and pitched forward onto his face, dropping his torch with a clatter.
"Don't worry, Ge, he's not dead, only sleeping," 'I hope,' the warrior thought. "Shouldn't need this anymore," she said, putting the gun away. She stood up and holding her hand out to the squatting bard pulled her to her feet.
"Let's go see what we can see."
When they reached the gates Xena carefully ran her fingers along their edges. Satisfied that there was no more surprises she turned her attention to the lock.
"I guess a dagger's not going to do the job, huh," the bard said, grinning.
"Nope. It's electric and remote controlled. Gonna have to send it an 'open' signal."
"And where do we do that from?"
"My guess is that metal box over there," the warrior said, pointing to a large metal enclosure concreted into the floor the other side of the unmanned gate box.
Gabrielle frowned. "So how do we do that?"
"We don't," Xena said with a grin, pulling an item from her backpack and putting it in the thigh pocket of her dark combat trousers. With that she turned to the gate and started to climb. When she neared the top she stopped and took out the tool.
"You might wanna stand back," she called down quietly to her partner.
She ran the cutting disc of the small battery powered grinder along the fittings that held the razor wire to the top of the gate. A shower of sparks rained down on the bard who hastily stepped out of the line of fire. Within moments a section of the razor wire fell off the top of the gate and bounced down onto the road. Shutting off the grinder Xena returned the tool to her pocket and gracefully launched up and over the top, landing like a cat on the other side.
"You coming?" she asked the bard nonchalantly through the chain links. Gabrielle grimaced and put on a mock sneer, but started to climb anyway. She soon joined Xena on the other side of the gate.
"Now we make sure out friendly guard is still breathing." Xena knelt down over the fallen guard and rolled him carefully over onto his back. She touched his neck and silently breathed a sigh of relief as she felt his pulse beating strongly. Gabrielle would not have been pleased if her aim had been off a fraction. A still bleeding gash across the man's temple showed the path the silent bullet had travelled as it knocked him out. Few people would have tried such an unlikely shot, but then, few people had many of the skills that Xena possessed. Pulling a small medikit from her pack she sprayed an antiseptic onto the wound and covered it with a plaster.
He began to groan and regain consciousness at the warrior's administrations. He didn't get the chance to wake completely as she jabbed the side of his neck with two rigid fingers.
"He'll be out for an hour at least. Should be plenty of time for us to get in and out and get what we need." The bard nodded.
"Are we going to have to climb back over again to get out?" she asked, nodding to the gate.
Xena shrugged. "Unless you can open that lock, sure looks that way."
"What we need is a inverse tachyon beam."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Xena said, frowning.
Gabrielle grinned "It always seems to work for Captain Janeway," she explained. Xena's frown deepened.
"You don't watch much TV, do you?" the bard asked, grinning still.
"Sure I do," the warrior said defensively.
"Don't tell me... sport, sport and um... more sport."
"I like sport!" the warrior whispered. "And I watch Discovery sometimes... and the History channel too... I like to see if they get it right."
Gabrielle barely managed to stifle a laugh.
"What? What?" the tense warrior hissed.
Sensing that Xena was getting cross Gabrielle held up her hand and to silence the warrior. Leaning forward she gently kissed Xena on the forehead.
"Promise me you'll never change, warrior mine," she whispered in Xena's ear.
Xena's anger left as fast as it had come. Smiling ruefully she ran the back of her hand down Gabrielle's cheek. "I don't think I can, my bard."
They made their way to the entrance that the guard had come from. Standing either side the two pressed their backs to the wall. Xena carefully pushed the door open a few inches with her foot and peered inside. Seeing nothing to worry her she pushed the door all the way and went inside. Gabrielle followed her into the dimly lit corridor.
Xena pondered a moment and and pointed to the stairs. Once up on the next floor they were greeted by a row of offices running along the right side of a corridor that disappeared around a corner.
"The security room must be around here somewhere, it wasn't long before he showed up after you knocked out the cameras."
"Not necessarily, didn't you see he had a throat mike and an ear piece. He could have been ordered to look remotely."
"Won't they have heard him go down?"
"Nah, I made sure he wasn't speaking before I dropped him."
"How could you... " the bard stopped. Of course Xena could see and hear from that distance. Living with ordinary mortals for the last twenty five years had momentarily dulled her memory of the warrior's phenomenal physical abilities. Xena's face broke into a wide grin. Even after all these years it still pleased her a great deal to have her ego stroked by the recognition of her 'many skills', especially by the bard.
"What exactly are we looking for, anyway?" the bard growled, trying vainly to cover up her mistake.
"Personnel records of the kidnapped scientist would be a good start. Try and find out what she was working on that makes her so valuable."
"They'll be on computer these days, there won't be a filing cabinet anywhere."
"So why didn't we hack in from outside."
"Looks like you watch too much TV, Ge."
The bard scowled and muttered, but didn't reply. All the offices were locked and they were all heavy steel lined doors. Now it was Xena's turn to scowl.
"This is getting ridiculous!" she growled. "What the hell have they got here to warrant this kind of security?"
Leaning back she kicked the door. It was partly to dissipate her anger and partly to test the locks. The door shuddered but remained steadfastly shut.
Xena locked her fingers together and cracked all the knuckles simultaneously, a feral smile crossing her face.
"Xena, now you're not going to do anything rash are you?" The bard recognised the look. It meant Xena's patience was running out and she was moving to more extreme measures.
"If that's the way they want to play it... " she muttered to herself, regretting that they'd not had time to properly scout the complex before they broke in. "Right, Gabrielle, new plan. We find the control room. They'll have keys or the ability to unlock doors for us. But we've got to move fast now, time's running out and we'll only get one chance. Once they know someone's trying to break in they'll step up security even more.
They took off down the corridor at a fast lope, stopping briefly at every corner for a quick look before they charged on. The buildings were interconnected with the central section being a series of laboratories. They quickly established that the first building was empty but all the internal doors were securely locked. The next building proved the same, but had the added complication of a second guard patrolling. Xena pulled down her dark woollen hat into a ski mask. Stepping out from the shadows she jabbed the guard in the neck before he was even aware of her presence.
Dropping her voice to a low growl she informed him he only had thirty seconds to live unless he told them of the location of the control room. He stuttered out the answer, his eyes bulging in fear and pain. Xena thanked him and knocked him out with another strategically placed jab to his neck.
They cautiously made their way to the control room in the next building. Xena counted two more guards watching multiple monitors.
"So, how does plan Beta handle this, Xe, they'll have a clear view of us before we can reach the door?"
Xena carefully studied the various desks and panels that they could see through the room's large windows. She pursed her lips, considering her options.
"I figure they know something's up, what with the cameras being out and two men down, so I think we've no choice but to go in hard and fast. Let's hope there aren't too many more out there," the warrior said waving her arm to the rest of the complex. She pulled out her large pistol from her shoulder holster and flipped out the magazine, deftly flicking out the top bullet with her thumb.
"You gonna throw them at the guards?" Gabrielle asked, grinning.
"Not quite," Xena replied digging her hand into another of the many small pockets that covered her combats. She pulled out another bullet and pressed it into the magazine, then inserted the magazine back into the gun she releasing the slide to push the new bullet into the firing chamber.
"Magic bullets now?"
"No, just armour piercing. I'm going to look a bit silly if I stand up and shoot that window and the bullets bounce off, now aren't I?"
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and nodded at the simple logic of the statement.
" I want to get their attention and get them away from the consoles before one of them tries to be a hero."
Xena stepped out from their hiding place and took aim at the light above the two security men. The huge pistol roared. The concussive boom shocked Gabrielle even though she knew it was coming. Xena didn't seem to even be aware of it. The glass window didn't shatter as the bard had expected but a fist sized chunk had blown inward. The combined effect of the overhead light exploding and the glass smashing in stunned the two guards, their shocked faces staring back at the warrior casually aiming her monster handgun at them.
"Okay boys, you get the score, this here baby'll go straight through your bullet proof glass like it ain't there. So be good and back away from any buttons you might suddenly wanna press. C'mon back up now, and if one of you gentlemen would be so kind as to release the door lock I'd appreciate it."
For a moment neither moved. Xena lifted the gun to take precise aim at the man nearest the door.
"You, open the door, NOW!" He didn't need telling twice. Xena's commanding voice had lost none of its ability to make lesser beings do anything she wanted them to do. He scuttled to the door and pressed a button by the door handle. There was a click and Gabrielle pushed the door open. Nodding to Xena she entered the control room and ordered the two men to return to their chairs. Once seated she tied their hands to the back of the chairs with cable ties. Xena returned the gun to its holster and stood menacingly over one of the bound guards.
"How many more out there?"
"Two," he almost shouted in panic.
"Only two?" asked Xena, surprised at the lack of man power.
"They think all this junk keeps them safe," the other one answered in disgust, looking at the monitors. "I've told them often enough we need more men, but they don't listen!"
"Your story has touched my heart fellahs, but I'm on a tight schedule here so help me out. I need to find out some things about your missing scientist, so where are the personnel files?"
The two men looked at each other and shrugged. They weren't paid enough to stand up to this kind of thing.
"Administration is the first building you come to from the rear gate. I expect you'll find something there," one of the men said warily.
"Been there, all the doors are locked."
"The access computer over there," the man said nodding his head in the direction of a PC in the corner of the room. "You can lock and unlock anything you want from there."
Xena strolled over to the PC and sat down in front of the screen. She studied it for a moment and called for Gabrielle to bring the talkative captive to her. The bard pushed the man, still tied to his chair, over to where Xena sat.
"Okay, unlock the doors," she ordered him. He hesitated and nodded to his tied hands. Xena looked into the man's eyes, giving him her most intimidating glare. Gabrielle had to try very hard to keep the grin from her face. Xena pulled an enormous combat knife from a sheath on her right hip.
"Don't make me have to use this!" she growled, as she cut the ties holding his hands. "Because I won't hesitate to remove bits of you, and I'll start with your most offensive part," she continued, tapping the razor sharp blade on the top of his thigh. The man blanched and nodded.
Xena winked to the bard, who promptly turned and looked the other way, knowing that to look Xena in the eye would start her laughing, which would ruin the whole effect.
The man's fingers flew over the keyboard, his acute agitation spurring him on.
"There, they're all unlocked everywhere, all the doors, all the alarms disabled, all the cameras disabled," he babbled in a rising panic.
"That's mighty nice of you," Xena said as she jabbed him in the neck, rendering him unconscious. She stood up and walked over to the other man, who was trying his best to push backwards through the wall.
"Relax, sonny, he ain't dead and I ain't gonna kill you either, just put you to sleep, so quit struggling or I might miss and explode your brain for ya," she said smiling maliciously. The man closed his eyes, held his breath and slowly turned his head offering his exposed neck to her.
"Good boy," she whispered huskily in his ear. As he let out his breath in panic her hand shot forward and connected perfectly with his neck. He slumped down unconscious.
"What about the last two?"
Xena thought a moment. "I think he means the two we've already met, but if he means two more and we meet them on the way, then we deal with them."
They jogged back to the administration building, neither of them out of breath. The first office they tried had a PC but it was just a normal workstation and didn't have what they were looking for. The next office contained what they wanted. It was a stand alone machine, not connected to a network. Xena nodded in approval, networks meant increased security risks. She turned on the machine and was not surprised to see heavy encryption and password protection.
"We're not going to do much with this, in the time we've got, so it comes with us."
"All of it?"
"Nah, only the good bits," Xena said with a grin. She pulled a small kit from her pack and picked the lock on the back of the PC and the drawers of the desk underneath it. She quickly and expertly removed the machine's hard disk and all the writable CDs she found in the top drawer.
"I thought you hated computers?" the bard said.
"Oh, I do. Doesn't mean to say I don't know how they work!"
"Figures. Know thine enemy, huh?"
"Something like that."
Carefully packing away the stolen items they left the office. Waiting at the end of the hallway were two guards, both armed with shotguns.
"Don't do anything stupid. Just put your hands behind your heads," one of them ordered.
"We don't have time for anything subtle, Ge, just pick up the pieces and get us out of here," Xena whispered to her partner.
Xena's battle cry erupted as she launched into a standing jump that would have easily won an Olympic gold medal. She grabbed the barrel of the nearest guard's weapon and ripped it from his hand, elbowing him in the face at the same time. She swung the shotgun at the second guard but even as she swung she knew she wouldn't make it.
The deafening roar of a shotgun firing filled the corridor. The full impact of the blast hit Xena in the chest, cancelling all the momentum from her jump and dropping her to the floor with a thump.
At the same moment Gabrielle threw one of her knives at the guard still left standing. The butt hit him in the forehead, collapsing him to the ground. As he hit the floor his weapon fired, spraying the corridor with buckshot. The bard shut her eyes instinctively twisting away from the shot, but it peppered her left side from head to foot, causing her to gasp in pain and stagger backwards a pace.
The bard carefully opened her eyes and turned back to look at the three bodies lying on the floor. She ran to Xena and dropped down beside her. The warrior looked up and coughed, her face contorting in pain.
"Bloody hell, that hurts," Xena said through gritted teeth.
"Can you stand?"
"I'll give a damn good try," she said, struggling to sit upright. The front of her jacket was ripped open, exposing a large, ugly crater where her left breast should have been. Gabrielle helped the fallen warrior to her feet and pulled her arm across her shoulder, taking her friend's weight. Gabrielle kicked the two shotguns down the corridor away from the fallen guards. Both were still breathing but would have dreadful headaches when they woke up. She put the toe of her boot under her knife and flipped it up into her hand, returning it to its sheath in one fluid movement.
"Hey, did I ever tell you, you're pretty handy to have around?" the warrior mumbled.
"A few times, but one more won't hurt," the bard said, smiling. She staggered a bit as Xena's legs began to give out. The pain of being damaged so badly was beginning to overwhelm the warrior's ability to remain conscious. Even being immortal couldn't prevent her from going into shock. Gabrielle sighed and started walking Xena to the exit.
Back out by the rear gate Gabrielle was pleased to see the first guard was still sleeping and, even better, the rear gate had unlocked. Five minutes later, with Xena slumped unconcious on the back seat, they were driving back to their hotel.
A washed and stripped, but still sleeping, Xena lay on the bed recovering, the flesh of her ruptured chest miraculously reforming and reknitting. Gabrielle spent the time, waiting for Xena to awake, squeezing lead shot from her own many punctures, silently cursing Xena and her off-the-cuff sorties. 'We'll just go in and have a look around. Yeah, yeah, yeah, ya big dumb... warrior! I've heard it all before, ' though she grinned as she worked. Her Xena would never change.
The next day Xena, fully recovered, went out and bought a similar PC to the one they'd taken the parts from, and brought it back to the hotel room. There she connected up the stolen drive and attempted to read the contents. After an hour of both of them trying everything they knew they gave up defeated. Modern computer encryption systems required massive resources to overcome and they just didn't have them.
"What now?" asked the bard.
"I've got some friends who might be able to help."
"Thought you might."
Xena dropped the parcelled up drive and disks off at the nearest UPS depot. Returning to the car and the bard she slid in behind the wheel.
"Who knows?" Xena answered, "Gods I hate computers!"
"What about some of the other things on Bob's list?" asked Gabrielle, hoping to take Xena's mind of the present stalemate.
Xena pulled the list from her jacket pocket and read it once more, though she knew it intimately already.
"The only other one that doesn't feel right is this one," she said pointing to the seventh item on the list.
"The murder of a wealthy playboy, Sunny Appolonius, in his house in Beverly Hills," Gabrielle read out loud. "What's so odd about that?"
"I'm not sure, but something's setting off my sixth sense."
"Do we have to wait for the hard disk to come back, or can we take a trip to California?" asked the bard, not able to hide her sudden interest.
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Before you ask, no, I don't want to drop in on Aphrodite!" she said more loudly than she intended.
Gabrielle's smile disappeared as quickly as it had come.
"You're still holding a grudge, aren't you?" she said accusingly.
Xena frowned and shuffled in her seat, staring rigidly forward refusing to turn and look at the bard. "It's not that... we... we haven't got time," she said gruffly.
Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "Please, Xena, please can we go see her," she pleaded. Xena turned to her about to say no when she made the fatal mistake of looking into two big green eyes pleading with her. All resolve disappeared and she knew she was beaten. All she could do was nod and grunt a quiet "okay, if you really want."
Gabrielle whooped and leaned over to kiss the startled warrior. "Thank you, Xena, thank you." she whispered in Xena's ear.
The flight had been uneventful. They hired a car and drove to Aphrodite's beachfront home. Their only detour had been to pick up a large metal suitcase from a storage locker. Gabrielle sat silently as she watched Xena arm herself from the case. She offered the bard a small 9mm pistol but Gabrielle declined the offer, though she did accept a couple of throwing knives. The rest of the contents were locked in the trunk of the car.
Not surprisingly Aphrodite's home was impressive. Not as well guarded as Gabrielle's mountain retreat, but Xena noted the cameras mounted strategically about the structure, leaving no obvious hiding places.
Xena walked up the drive to the front entrance, removing her sunglasses. Before she could knock a large muscular man opened the door.
"Come in, you're expected." He stood back and waved them in. "Through there, to the pool," he pointed.
The two rooms they wandered through were opulently appointed, full of works of art and expensive furniture.
"I wonder what a retired Goddess of Love does for a living?" Xena asked quietly.
"I think we just met him," Gabrielle whispered, grinning. Xena smiled back. They walked out onto the patio and around the pool to a set of sun loungers.
"I wondered when you two would show up," the morose Goddess said, sipping a cocktail. She was wearing a black bikini and still looked the perfect representation of womanhood that Xena remembered.
"You're looking well," Xena commented without emotion.
Gabrielle leant down and kissed Aphrodite and gave her a hug.
"What's the matter 'Dite?" she asked.
"You mean you don't know?" the Goddess said in a pained voice. Gabrielle shook her head and looked up to Xena in confusion. "What's she talking about Xena?"
"I think she's recently lost a half-brother," the warrior said, an item on the CIA's list suddenly springing into focus.
Gabrielle spun back to the Goddess just as Aphrodite burst out crying and grabbed the bard for comfort, tears streaming down her face.
The three of them sat in the large dining room overlooking the ocean, one wall of the room an unbroken expanse of glass. Under other circumstances the view would have been breathtaking, but at the moment none of the women could take any joy from it.
"We never met Apollo, what was he like?" the bard asked gently. Xena looked at the floor and sighed. Even after all the trouble the gods put them through, Gabrielle could still only respond with love and kindness. 'I guess not much has really rubbed off on me over the years,' she thought ruefully. 'Still the same murderous bitch I always was.'
"He was fun, had the brains of a Twinkie, but he was usually amiable. Though I remember Hera used to goad him about Herc a lot. You know once he..."
"How did he die?" Xena interrupted, before the Goddess got too far into her reminiscences. Xena ignored the angry glare from Gabrielle.
"I don't really know. I felt a sudden pain and then it was gone. I knew something real bad had happened. My first thought was my Cupid, but he's okay. But if someone's hunting us, God knows how long that'll last," she said miserably.
"Did you go and see the body?" Xena asked, as bit less brusquely after Gabrielle had kicked her under the table.
"Yeah, I popped into the morgue after they'd all gone."
"Still can do that, then?"
"Beam in and out, stay invisible, all that stuff."
"Yeah, when I want, it just takes a lot out of me these days, with so few people still believing." Her bottom lip trembled. Gabrielle leant over and put her arm around the shoulder of the sad Goddess.
"Hey, 'Dite, it's okay, we're here now. We'll make sure nothing more bad happens, won't we, Xena," she said, staring at the warrior, daring Xena to contradict her.
Xena took the Goddess' hand, hoping this display of concern would appease the bard.
"How did he die?" she asked gently.
"Some son of a bitch cut his throat. Tied his hands behind his back and executed him!" she said with rising anger.
"How... how is that possible," Xena asked.
"How the hell should I know, you're the killer here, you tell me!" she fumed. Xena let go of her hand and pulled back as if slapped.
"Hey, come on 'Dite, there's no need to be nasty to Xe, we're here to help you remember," the bard said, looking up at Xena and nodding for her to sit down again.
Aphrodite, reached for a tissue and blew her nose. Her face remained passive for a moment but then screwed up into an anguished scowl and she burst into tears again.
"I'm sorry, Xena, I didn't mean that... it's been so long since... since I lost any of my family. I've forgotten how rotten it is."
Xena swallowed and looked up from the floor. Even after all this time it still hurt that she'd had to kill nearly all the Olympians. Some of them had been almost her friends before the trouble with Eve had started. It was a time of deep regret, not rejoicing at a battle won. Though she didn't have the same feelings for the Goddess that Gabrielle did, she nevertheless was pleased that she'd been able to spare Aphrodite on that fateful day of carnage. And what had all that killing achieved? Nothing as far as she could tell. The world had carried on regardless, with new indifferent gods to replace the old indifferent ones.
And there was the small matter of that brief infidelity between the Goddess and Gabrielle. But Xena had understood, if not being particularly overjoyed about it.
Taking Aphrodite's hand she smiled sadly at her
"It's okay, Aph', I know you didn't mean it," 'Much' she added to herself, her guilt still riding her.
"I don't understand, Xena, how could they kill an immortal like that?" the bard asked.
Xena shrugged and shook her head. "I guess they found a way to make him mortal, just so they could kill him. Maybe... maybe they wanted to send a message."
"You mean someone did this just to send a message!" the Goddess shrieked.
Xena shrugged again, "I don't know Aph, it's a possibility."
The Goddess' anger subsided and she sank down into herself, resting her head on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Jesus, you warriors piss me off so much," she mumbled, closing her eyes and began to weep. The bard continued to hold her and stroke her hair, whispering gently, her calm voice soothing the Goddess.
The bard picked up Aphrodite, who was surprisingly heavy, and carried her to her bedroom where she gently laid her on the bed, pulling up the silk sheets to cover her. She kissed the Goddess on the cheek and brushed her hair from her eyes.
Standing up she looked across the bedroom to see the warrior watching her, her face its usual stoic mask. Without a word Xena turned and walked back to the dining room.
'Great, an angry warrior and a wrecked Goddess. This should be fun' the bard thought morosely to herself, as she followed Xena from the room.
Xena's mobile rang. Gabrielle didn't bother listening in to the conversation, she was too busy examining all the wonderful ornaments and works of art that graced the room. Aphrodite's gaudy taste seemed to have improved over the centuries, she mused.
"The hard drive confirmed what I suspected. Dr Geller, the kidnapped employee of the pharmaceuticals company, was working on a genetic manipulation project. I've had my... er, friends send the drive and the CDs back anonymously, with some money to cover the damage we did," Xena said.
"What do you mean 'we', my Warrior? I don't recall breaking anything except a slight sweat." Xena looked at Gabrielle and grinned.
"So, how do you turn a god mortal?" Xena pondered out loud. She and Gabrielle sat in the dining room watching the waves roll up the shore towards them.
"Ain't much of that about anymore, other than a few has-been gods, and I can't see any of them wanting to kill off one of their own."
"So it must be some technology then?"
"I guess it comes down to that, but what sort of technology, and who would create such a thing, and more importantly, why?" pondered Xena.
"Someone who wants to get rid of immortals, obviously"
"Yeah, but how many of them do you know of? People who even know that we exist?"
The bard shrugged. "Not many, that's for sure."
"One person's at the top of my list of suspects."
"That'd be my best guess?" said Xena, grimacing.
"So, this time she's not after world domination and turmoil, she just wants us out of the way."
"Sure looks like it."
"Why kill Apollo, he was basically harmless?"
"Perhaps it was a test. She wanted to see if it would work. And there aren't too many immortal lab rats to test it out on."
Gabrielle shook her head and sighed. She'd been hunted many times in her long life, but for the first time in two thousand years it looked like someone had finally found a way to make it stick.
"How do you think it works?"
Xena was silent for a long time, obviously thinking hard about the problem.
"I'm not sure, but from my own studies about what makes us immortal, I reckon that it must be some sort of modified virus that is doing something down at the cellular level."
"How is that possible, and why a virus?"
"Do you really want a lecture on the low level workings of human cells?" Xena asked, grinning at the bard, knowing her disinterest in science.
"No, I guess not," she smiled back.
"They're doing some pretty amazing things with genetics these days. The sort of thing that a leading scientist working for a large pharmaceuticals company might be engaged in. And, to answer your question, a modified virus is one of the best ways of getting genetic material into the body."
"You think Alti needed her for making, or modifying, this virus thing?"
"How would she apply it, a needle, an aerosol, drink, food, through the skin?"
"Whoa, you've been thinking about this too, haven't you?" Xena grinned.
"Well, it's just that if I have to go up against her I don't want to be humiliated again by being made mortal in the middle of a fight."
"Yeah, that'd be... unfortunate. I'm only guessing here, but I reckon any or all of those is a possibility, so we have to be very careful."
"Yeah, right. I'm being lectured by Xena, The Destroyer Of Nations, to be careful. Just like you'll be I suppose?" Gabrielle was smiling, but there was a hint of sadness in her voice that Xena recognised.
"I haven't destroyed any nations in a long time. In fact, I don't recall ever having destroyed an entire nation," Xena said defensively.
Gabrielle laughed out loud.
"What's so funny?" a slightly dishevelled Goddess of Love said from the doorway.
"Oh nothing, Aph. How are you feeling now?"
"Lousy!" she said, slouching into the room and dropping down heavily on a leather sofa. "Depression is so... depressing." she said, pouting.
"Can't you just click your fingers and enchant yourself happy?" the warrior asked, genuinely interested. It wasn't very often you saw the Goddess in a slump like this.
"Yeah, but it's a bit like drugs, it never lasts and it always leaves you feeling worse afterward."
"You've taken drugs?" asked the astonished bard.
"Well, no, but it's what I think it must be like," she shrugged.
"Aph, can I ask a favour?"
"Sure, Xena, shoot."
"Can you sense where Alti is?"
"That old hagster. Is she behind this?"
"We believe so. Can't think of anyone else, to be honest," the warrior admitted reluctantly.
"Damn, it's been a long time, but wish me luck... " So saying she disappeared in a flash of sparkling lights.
The warrior and the bard looked at each other, both raising their eyebrows.
"Oh, the things I could have done if I'd had that power," the warrior said.
"I think the world is only too glad that you didn't!"
"Whad'ya mean!" said Xena with mock indignation. Gabrielle just laughed again.
For five hours they waited and still there was no sign of Aphrodite. Xena had begun to pace, and Gabrielle was worried that Xena would do something drastic. When the phone rang they both jumped.
Seeing Gabrielle's hesitation Xena answered it.
"Well, I do believe I'm talking to the Warrior Princess herself. I'm honoured."
"Who is this?"
"Now, Xena, I'm hurt that you don't recognise me after all the great times we've had together."
"Who else, my pretty?" The voice changed to a low gravelly rasp.
"Have you done anything to Aphrodite?"
"Why would I want to do anything to that brainless slut?"
"Because you obviously can, and you're sick enough to do it."
"She's my... guest... for the time being."
"And when her welcome runs out?"
"Well, that depends on you, my sweet."
"What do you want from me?"
"Don't be dense, my dear, it doesn't become you. You know very well I'll have my revenge one day, and you'll suffer beyond even your vivid imaginings. But for the time being, the simpering Goddess has something I want. And until I get it, she stays with me. I might run a few experiments, while I have her at my disposal."
"If you hurt her, I'll see to it that you suffer so much..." Alti cut her off before Xena could get too descriptive.
"Don't threaten me, Xena, you've got nothing to threaten me with that you haven't done many times already. So quit with the childish posturing." Xena's grip on the phone tightened in impotent fury.
"I'll hunt you down, Alti, and break every f..." The line went dead.
Xena stared at the silent phone for several seconds, willing her rage to subside.
"Should I answer it the next time?" Gabrielle asked, gently removing the handset from the warrior's tense grip.
"No... no, I'll get it," the angry warrior grunted, sucking in a couple of great lungfuls of air, her rigid control asserting itself.
The phone rang again.
"Have you calmed down now, Princess?"
"Good. Now I want you to send that cute little sidekick of yours with the Persian necklace that you'll find in the Goddess' safe. She was kind enough to give me the combination."
"I will not send Gabrielle into danger, not even for the Aphrodite. If you want a courier you'll have to put up with me."
"You'd walk into the lion's den for the Goddess, I'm touched?"
"If that's what it takes."
"Oh, Xena, your sense of righteousness will be your undoing."
"Don't count on it, Alti. I'll see you in hell first!"
Alti laughed. "It will be a shame to finally see you dead, Xena, it really will."
"If I'm to do this you must promise to leave Gabrielle alone."
"Sorry, Xena, it's nothing personal against your pet, but I'm on a mission to rid the world of immortals, it can't be helped, the bard must go. Besides, I think you've both had more than your fair share, it's time both of you gave up the ghost."
"Why should we help you, if you're going to kill us and Aphrodite anyway?"
"I'll let her go in exchange for the necklace. I think it's worth a few more years for her, don't you think?"
"I can't trust you, Alti. You'll kill Aphrodite if I give you the necklace, so what's in it for me?"
"I won't kill either the Goddess or your pet, just remove their immortality. Let them live out their lives naturally."
"What does this necklace do that you need it so badly?"
"Ah, now only the Goddess knows that, and I'm afraid she can't come to the phone at the moment to explain."
Xena sighed, Alti was holding all the cards and she knew it.
"Where do you want it delivered?"
"Stonehenge at three A.M. in two days time."
"I'll be there."
"If you value your pet's mortality keep her away." The connection broke again. Xena put the phone down and scowled. She picked up a cup and threw it at the wall where it shattered into hundreds of pieces.
"I think you got it."
"The wall, I think you got it."
Xena sat down with a thump next to the bard.
"Looks like Aph' found her. That was Alti on the phone. Wants me to meet her in two days time if we want to see the Goddess again, and bring her some stupid necklace. Damn her, couldn't she just pop in and out and not get into trouble?" Xena raged, clenching and unclenching her fists.
"Where does she want to meet?"
"Oh, someplace in England."
"Wow, I haven't been back there since the sixties. Where in England?"
"You ain't missed much, and besides, this ain't gonna be no tourist trip, Ge. Alti wants us dead. And if it means sacrificing 'Dite to save you... er, us, I won't hesitate to do it."
"I know, Xena," the bard said quietly. "And you didn't answer my question."
"Well, just so you understand," the warrior said, still angery at the situation.
Gabrielle waited for Xena's anger to lessen. "We can't abandon her, Xena" she said. "We owe her a great deal."
Xena looked at her soulmate and sighed, "I know Ge. Trouble is Alti knows that too, the bitch! The place is Stonehenge," she added gently, and placed a hand on the bard's shoulder for reassurance.
Gabrielle went quiet and sat down. Two thousand years is a long time to remember, but some things were not possible to forget. Stonehenge was the site of Gabrielle's defilement by the malicious fire god, Dahak. The start of one of the most terrible periods in Gabrielle's and Xena's mortal lives. It had once been a temple, but the explosion Xena had wrought, after subduing the god and his disciple, The Deliverer, had reduced it to the remnants that the world knew as Stonehenge.
Xena gave Gabrielle a final squeeze of the shoulder and left for the bedroom. The bard sighed and got up to follow her. Xena found the safe and extracted the necklace. She held the impressive piece of jewellery up to the light, and examined it carefully, scowled and dropped it on the bed in disgust.
"I can't see anything special about it, but it must be, for Alti to want it so badly," she growled.
"Maybe if you rub the gems a genie will appear?"
"Yeah, very good, " Xena said, though she looked thoughtfully at it for a few moments before shaking her head.
"Maybe they're shards of the Kronos stone?"
Xena picked up the necklace again and carefully examined each jewel.
"Nope, not the Kronos stone," she announced flatly. Gabrielle smiled.
"That was meant as a joke, my angry warrior."
Xena wasn't laughing, but she was glad that Gabrielle still could.
"Why there, of all places?" the bard asked.
"She's just trying to screw with our minds, Ge, don't give the sadistic bitch the satisfaction. You know as well as I do that Dahak's long gone, Herc did for him ages ago. He isn't involved here, my love, I'm certain."
Gabrielle turned to look out the window, apparently lost in thought.
The jumbo jet circled down towards Heathrow airport.
"I'm kinda impressed that 'Dite could still beam herself across the Atlantic like that. Her powers must still be quite significant," Gabrielle whispered to Xena.
"Not enough to stop herself getting caught," the warrior growled back.
"You don't know what technology, or magic for that matter, Alti has at her disposal."
"If she had personal magic she wouldn't be hiding in the shadows like this, she'd be out there on the Whitehouse lawn wreaking havoc."
Gabrielle giggled at the vision.
"Now that I would pay to see!" she laughed.
They drove away from the airport, in a hire car, but only after they'd stopped at the luggage lockers and Xena had recovered an aluminium suitcase and deposited it in the back of the vehicle. When they reached a suitably quiet spot they stopped and Xena opened the case.
"Is there anywhere in the world where you don't have a stash of weaponry?" the bard asked.
"Nope," the warrior said matter-of-factly, handing Gabrielle some throwing knives. She removed her jacket and slipped on a shoulder holster. She ran her hands over the various guns and finally selected a stainless steel Baretta 9mm.
"Not quite an Eagle, but it does the job," she said caressing the weapon like it was a work of art.
"You love all this, don't you?
"Yep," she said with an evil grin as she lifted up the upper shelf of the case, revealing some foam cut-outs underneath.
"How's your marksmanship these days?"
"I'd say probably second best in the world," the bard replied, grinning. Xena smiled back as she pulled out a dismantled sniper's rifle. She snapped the parts together in a few moments, finishing off with a nightsight and a laser spotting device.
"This should be accurate to half an inch at a mile or so."
She handed Gabrielle a small plastic ear piece.
"This has a skull resonance microphone, so just talk as normal and I'll hear you. These are good for about five miles. If she shows, and I say 'strike', take the top of her head off. We may not get a second chance so don't miss, and don't try anything but a killing shot, okay?"
The bard grimaced, but nodded in agreement. She took the rifle and hefted it to her shoulder, sighting through the scope at a far set of trees. Flicking the laser on she could easily see the bright red spot on the side of the tree, which looked like she could reach out and touch it, though it was several hundred yards away.
She stilled her breathing and gently pulled the trigger. The gun clicked as the firing pin hit an empty chamber.
"It works better with these," Xena said dryly, holding up some high velocity rounds.
"How long have we got to get there and get set-up?" Xena looked at her watch.
"Six and half hours. Should be plenty of time. This time of year it's not too overrun with tourists, and at three in the morning it should be quiet as the grave.
"Nice imagery, Xe, keep it up."
Xena looked at the landscape morosely. Alti had been clever in picking the ancient monument. There was no significant cover for some distance in any direction and once inside the inner ring of stones, there would be no easy lines of sight for Gabrielle. It wasn't looking good.
They sat in the car trying to keep warm. Xena scanned the area with her image amplified binoculars.
"Anything?" Gabrielle asked.
"No change." Xena answered impassively. It was past midnight and the place was deserted, save for the odd vehicle that passed along the main road nearby. No one had stopped and no one had even got close to the monument since their surveillance had begun.
Xena checked her watch again. It was two thirty in the morning. The rendezvous was supposed to be in only thirty minutes. She rechecked her gun and the necklace. Shaking her head and drawing in a deep breath she shrugged off any doubts. Now was the time for action, and action was what she was good at.
"Wish me luck," she said as she opened the car door.
"Hey, c'mere," Gabrielle said, holding out her hand. Xena ducked back down into the car and leant into the bard's hand. She gently pulled the warrior into an embrace.
"Come back to me, Xe, promise," she said softly.
"I promise, Ge." She kissed the bard and, pulling back slightly, touched her on the nose affectionately. "See you in an hour or so. Better switch on your mic." and with that was gone, running off into the darkness towards the stones in the distance.
Gabrielle squeezed her ear piece until it beeped, and put it in her ear.
"Xena, can you hear me?" she whispered.
"Loud and clear," a ghostly voice whispered back inside her head. 'Ooh, creepy' the bard thought, 'but effective'.
Gabrielle swung the rifle up to her shoulder and followed Xena as she loped effortlessly across the open land.
"Fifty yards to the outer fencing, still no sign of anything. I'm still fifteen minutes early so I'll walk from now on.
"Be careful," Gabrielle couldn't help whispering, though she knew it was a silly thing to say under the circumstances.
"Always, my bard," the voice whispered back in her head.
Gabrielle swung the rifle along the monument but could see nothing. As she swung it back in an arc something flickered at the edge of her sight.
"Xena, I see something moving inside the central ring. At one o'clock to your position."
"Can you see what it is?"
"Hold on, I'll zoom in, stay where you are." she swung the rifle back to Xena and for a moment lost her. Then she realised that Xena had hunched down and gone very still. Had she not known where Xena had been she would have missed her. 'Six foot tall and very imposing, yet she can still disappear in the middle of an open field' Gabrielle smiled to herself.
Moving the gun back up to the movement she zoomed the optics to their limit and opened up the light amplification till the view before her looked more like broad daylight than three in the morning. Nothing was moving that she could see, but a gentle gust of wind caught something lightweight and gauzy.
"I think it's a piece of 'Dite's clothing. It's attached to one of the big centre stones."
Gabrielle pulled back the zoom and saw the warrior approaching the rings. Gabrielle rapidly swung the rifle back and forth looking for any signs of trouble, but the stones appeared deserted.
Xena crouched by one of the large stones, her gun drawn, and checked for any sounds, her keen senses in overdrive. But she could hear nothing untoward.
"Anything?" she whispered.
"Nothing, nothing at all," came back the bard's instant reply.
Xena eased around the stone and checked the inner space. The only thing there that shouldn't have been was a pink scarf. Turning round and round in slow deliberate circles, scanning intently all around her, Xena advanced on the item of clothing. She removed a plastic bag and some thin rubber gloves from her pocket. Looking around one last time she put away her gun and donned the gloves. Gingerly she reached out and tugged the scarf from the niche in the rock where it had been wedged and examined it for any bloodstains or other clues, but it seemed perfectly normal.
Xena looked down at the scarf in her hand and frowned.
"I don't get it, Ge. There's nothing here except this scarf." She shrugged and poked the garment inside the bag and sealed it. Knowing what Alti was capable of, she wasn't about to touch the scarf with her bare hands. "I'll take another look around and wait fifteen minutes, then I'm coming back, okay."
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. They hadn't found what they wanted, but at least Xena wasn't in any immediate danger.
"Okay, Xe, see you in fifteen."
Xena edged around another of the major stones and looked about, her pupils fully dilated to see in the dark. She flinched as her mobile phone rang.
"Damn these things!" she snarled ripping the offending item from her pocket and furiously pressing the answer button.
"Now Xena, don't be like that," the gravelly voice rasped.
"I suppose you think this is funny having me screwing around in the dead of night around a bunch of old stones?" she fumed into the phone.
Gabrielle could hear both sides of the conversation, thanks to the ear piece. The sound of Alti's distinctive voice sent shivers down her back and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Hearing the shameness normally was bad enough, but to have her whispering inside your head was almost more than the bard could stomach.
"Well, it served my purpose. I must say that I was generally disappointed by the bard's security systems. Very easy to overcome I thought."
Had Xena had any free circulating blood it would have run cold. They'd been suckered, Alti's real target was Gabrielle's Colorado home.
"What do you want of Gabrielle's?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, nothing much, a few hair samples here, a few nail clippings there. You know the usual sort of thing you need for a genetic work up. And guess what, it's sort of cosy that you share so much, in amongst the short blonde ones I've found some nice long black ones."
Xena clenched her teeth and scowled, her mind racing.
"I'll leave her here I think. A nice welcome home present for you both when you get back from your little vacation."
"Is she dead?"
"Poor dear's not looking well, if that's what you mean. I suggest you hurry back if you want to play nurse."
"What about the necklace?" asked Xena.
"Keep it my pretty, I think it will look nice on your mug shot."
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't I tell you? An anonymous caller telephoned the local police. Told them that there was a mad woman running around Stonehenge with lots of guns and a stolen necklace. I gather the Brits don't care for people to have firearms. You do have lots of guns on you, don't you Xena?" Alti laughed as the connection terminated.
Gabrielle hastily pulled out her ear piece as Xena shouted angrily to herself at her own stupidity. She could hear Xena's rant echoing across the rolling British countryside. The bard flicked off the optics on the rifle and tossed it forlornly into the backseat of the car. She turned and rubbed her face angrily and expelled a large breath into the chilly night air and slumped down into the front seat and closed her eyes, lolling her head back onto the headrest.
Xena was going to be so angry when she got back, and right now she really didn't want to listen to Xena berating the world. 'What a mess' she sighed. Alti had played them for fools and they'd fallen for it every step of the way. And worse, it had now probably cost Aphrodite her life.
She could see a flashing blue light in the far distance but it was rapidly getting closer.
"Damn it!" she cursed as she punched the dashboard, breaking the plastic fascia. She squeezed her eyes shut and a single tear rolled down her cheek for a lost friend.
Xena broke the world record for the mile by several seconds as she charged across the fields back to the car. They had to get clean away if they were to avoid any local complications in their dash back to Collorado. That Alti had played them so easily rankled the warrior so much it hurt. She was determined to turn the game their way and have Alti on the defensive, but at the moment all she could do was run, and run fast.
Gabrielle had the engine running as Xena leapt into the passenger seat. They were miles away from Stonehenge before either of them spoke. Xena kept looking back but eventually decided they'd managed to get away.
"Damn, that was close. If she'd phoned any later they'd have been onto us."
"Which means that she was doing it blindly without local help, so we've got a short while before she knows if we're still free or not."
"Won't do us any good, Ge, all the advantage we've got will be lost crossing the Atlantic. She'll know we've boarded a plane and we can do nothing but sit tight for six hours. It's why she sent us on this wild goose chase instead of leaving us in California."
"What if we get Concorde?"
Xena considered it for a moment. "It'll get us there faster, but I can't see it making much difference. She'll be long gone, and god knows what she's done to Aph' in the mean time."
"I hesitate to suggest this... but do you think her brother will be interested in helping?"
Xena scowled. The thought of asking for Ares' help was almost more than she could stomach. But even Concorde could be too late to save the Goddess of Love if she was in the sort of trouble that Xena could so easily envisage.
She rubbed her face in tired resignation. Neither of them had slept properly for nearly three days and the thought of instantly beaming to Colorado was suddenly very appealing.
"He probably won't be interested," she mumbled.
"Gotta be worth a try, don't you think. But if you're going to do it we better get this car back first."
"Yeah, we'll drop this and the weapons back at Heathrow first before we do anything else.
"Xena, it's so nice to see you again," the God Of War purred, his arrogant poise having diminished little over the centuries. He looked around him and laughed. "We really must stop meeting like this!"
They were in one of the ladies rooms at the airport. Gabrielle stood at the door making sure they kept their privacy.
"Are you aware of the situation with Aphrodite?"
"I take it she's got herself embroiled in your petty conflict with the Amazon witch. I warned her that you were trouble, but she's always had a soft spot for Blondie."
"Cut the crap, Ares, are you gonna help or not?"
"What would you like, and how much will it cost?"
"It always costs me in some way when you ask for a 'favour'."
"How about it'll not only not cost you anything, but I'll leave you alone for another thousand years?"
"Come on, Ares, what harm can it do you?"
"Well, I sure as hell don't want to end up with my throat cut, if that's what you mean."
"So, you know about Apollo?"
"Couldn't miss it really, sudden pain in guts, that sort of thing."
"Why haven't you done something about Alti yourself?"
"Oh, she's kind of amused me over the centuries, ya know. I actually sort of like the mad old dear. But on the other hand, she's gone too far this time, and I guess it's only a matter of time before she turns her science loose on me."
"Does this mean you'll help?"
"Only for 'Dite's sake, and only because I owe her. So, what is it you want?"
"We want you to take us to Gabrielle's home in Colorado, now!"
"Is that all?"
He shrugged and grinned "Not a problem."
The three immortals stood overlooking Gabrielle's ranch house from a small rise.
"That sure beats airport queues!" the bard said with conviction.
"If I remember you once had a chance of such power, but declined it," the war god said.
Gabrielle turned to Ares. "Don't remind me."
"Much as it's nice to go over old times we've got work to do," the warrior reminded them.
"Whoa, what's this 'we'? I'm just the taxi service around here. This is as far as I go."
"Well, ain't that just so typical," Xena said, unable to hide the contempt in her voice.
"It was nice seeing you again, Ares," the bard said softly, and before he could move she leant in and kissed him on the cheek.
"Hey, cut that out, Blondie!," but despite the tone he grinned, before disappearing in a blue flash.
"What was all that about?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I hadn't seen him in a long time, and he did save my life once."
"Don't tell me you've forgotten all the crap he put us through?" said an exasperated warrior.
"No... not really. But it was a long time ago. I dunno, it was just nice to see someone from the old days, is all."
Xena rolled her eyes. "C'mon, we've got to see what the witch has left us."
They stealthily made their way down to the perimeter of the security fence surrounding the property. Everything seemed normal and there were no signs of a forced entry.
"I should have asked Ares to drop us off at the airport first so that I could pick up some weapons. I was so concerned about getting here I forgot neither of us have any weapons."
"Did someone mention my name?" Ares said, materialising.
"We don't have any weapons, and would you get down" Xena hissed, pulling the god into a squat next to the two women and trying to maintain a degree of stealth that a materialising god had more or less made a mockery of.
"Oh, so you won't be wanting this then?" he said, holding out Xena's prized Desert Eagle and shoulder holster.
"Thank you," she said through clenched teeth and snatched the proffered weapon. "Now either stay and help, or buzz off and start a war someplace else."
"Nice. Remind me to help you some more sometime. See ya, Blondie," he grinned at the bard and disappeared again.
"Xena, he was trying to help. You could have been a bit nicer."
"Don't start with me, Gabrielle."
"You've never forgiven him for saving me and Eve, have you?"
"Don't be ridiculous, he saved your lives, there was nothing to forgive."
"But he put you where you never wanted to be again, and that was in his debt."
"I... I don't wanna talk about it now, and this is not the time, or place, for such reminiscences."
Gabrielle touched the warrior's arm. "Let it go, Xe, it doesn't help you any."
Xena looked at the bard for a second, her face passive. She took off her jacket and slipped into the shoulder holster. She dropped the magazine out the pistol and checked the bullets. Satisfied she snapped it back into the gun and racked the slide to chamber a bullet.
"Time's wasting," she grunted and moved towards the main gate.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. 'The more things change, the more they stay the same' she thought to herself sadly. She rose to follow the warrior.
"Do we break in somehow and try to surprise her, or do we just walk in as if nothing was wrong?" she whispered to Xena, as they stood by the locked gate.
"I think we go in as normal. I doubt she's still here, she seems to have second guessed us every step of the way. No reason to doubt she's hasn't done the same this time."
"Xe, she won't beat us."
"Yeah, I know," the warrior replied, but she couldn't hide the despondency creeping into her voice.
Gabrielle pressed the button on her remote and the gate unlocked.
"Nice of her to lock up after she left," Xena said.
"You don't suppose that maybe she was never really here, like she was never really in England?"
"The thought had crossed my mind."
"Only one way to find out I guess."
"Unless you've learned to see through walls, Ge," Xena said, smiling.
"Careful, Xe, someone might think you're happy."
"Not a chance."
They made their way carefully to the front door and listened for any sign of life, but the place seemed deserted, save for some horses ambling about in a nearby paddock.
Xena nodded. Gabrielle pressed the remote again and the door unlocked. Xena thrust the door open and rolled in, coming up into a crouch, rapidly looking about, gun held out in front of her.
Seeing nothing untoward she rose and crept along the corridor till she reached the main living space. Pushing the sliding door open with her foot she dived into the room and rolled up into a crouch, rapidly surveying the room for any dangers.
There was nothing out of place. She signalled the bard to follow and they both crept towards the kitchen, Xena leading the way. All was as they'd left it. Holding up her hand Xena signalled that they were to check out the bedrooms next.
The first bedroom was undisturbed. Sliding down the corridor to the next bedroom Xena stopped and listened. The bard tensed and waited for her to move again. Looking at Xena she mouthed a silent "What?". Xena shook her head and shrugged, but something was bothering her and the warrior could tell it wasn't good, whatever it was.
She reached down and silently turned the door handle, easing open the door. Aphrodite lay on the bed, her head lolling back over the edge. Blood drenched the bed covers and ran down onto the carpet. Her hands grasped a wooden stake protruding from her stomach, skewering her to the bed.
"Oh Gods no!" the bard cried, running over to her.
Xena quickly scanned the room for any danger before she dropped the gun on the bed and examined the goddess, feeling her neck for a pulse.
"I don't know how but she's still alive, I can feel a faint pulse, she's gonna need medical attention immediately if she's to survive.
Xena knelt by the goddess and gently lifted her head into her lap. Aphrodite's eyes flickered open and slowly focussed on the warrior.
"Jesus, this is a bummer," she croaked.
"Shsssh, don't talk, we'll get you to a hostpital. Just hang in there, we're with you, you're gonna be okay."
"Bullshit, the bitch has killed me," she smiled and coughed up some blood which dribbled down the side of her face.
She shakily held out a hand to the bard. "C'mere, little one," she said softly.
Gabrielle took the Goddess' hand and brought it to her lips, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Please, 'Dite, hang in there, stay with us."
"Hey, you're making me cry, stop it will ya," the dying goddess gasped.
"'Dite you'll soon be sitting up in bed eating hospital food."
The Goddess remained silent a moment. With a sigh she began to speak again.
"I'm sorry I got in between you two, I... I never meant to upset the greatest romance I've ever seen. Tell you the truth, I was more than a little bit jealous." She paused, gasping for breath. "Imagine that, the Goddess Of Love jealous." She paused for breath again. "Goodbye, Little One," she said stroking Gabrielle's cheek. She turned to Xena. "And you, you take good care of my little friend here." She laughed and coughed one final time before her eyes fluttered shut and her head rolled to one side.
"Nooooooo!" cried the bard and buried her head in the Goddess' shoulder, great sobs racking her body.
Xena stood and watched Gabrielle's pickup as it disappeared down the road, and was soon swallowed up by the enclosing forest. She knew that it wouldn't be long before the police took an interest. It wasn't everyday that a body was brought into a hospital with a large stake pushed through their stomach. She had to act quickly.
As she turned to begin her preparations her mobile phone rang.
"Very good, Xena, you're improving."
"What do you want?"
"What I always wanted; you."
"Last time we made a deal you broke it."
"Oh, Xena, are you telling me you didn't have that pretty little sidekick ready to kill me if I'd have shown up?"
"Gabrielle doesn't kill unnecessarily, she never has."
"I'm sure she doesn't, but you didn't answer my question."
"Quit screwing around, Alti, what do you really want?"
"I've told you, I'll spare the blonde, and I might even throw in the good Doctor Geller, now that our... testing phase is at an end."
"Why should I walk willingly to my certain death?"
"To save at least two women, one of them entirely innocent of any wrong doing, and one your little pet."
Xena snorted "You'll kill us all anyway."
"Maybe, maybe not. But, can you afford to take the chance?"
"You'll never let me get close enough to you. There's no incentive for me to risk it."
"Wanna make a deal?"
Xena knew there was no way that she could trust the shamaness, but she had to try anything to keep her away from Gabrielle.
"First, why didn't you go with your pet to the hospital with the unfortunate ex-goddess?"
Xena spun round scanning the surrounding area intently. Alti had to be close to know such a detail.
"Still hiding in the shadows?" Xena taunted, trying desperately to gain any sort of edge.
"You'll make yourself dizzy, spinning round and round like that."
Xena scowled and ignored the smugness in Alti's voice.
"Give me a sign of your sincerity."
"What would you suggest?"
"Send down the Doctor. I'm assuming you have her with you."
"Hmmm, interesting idea. I'll think about it." The connection ceased abruptly. Xena flipped the lid of her mobile and slipped it back into her jacket pocket. She sprinted back to the house, hoping against hope that Gabrielle had some long range weapons.
It hadn't taken Xena long to find a hunting rifle and several boxes of ammunition. Gabrielle's study had proved to have several hidden panels that neatly slid out of the way to reveal a small arsenal of weapons and other useful bits of survival equipment. Taking some binoculars and a coil of rope she left the house and, keeping low, ran to the nearby stable and garage complex. She considered her Harley but dismissed it as entirely inappropriate for travel in the heavily wooded mountains surrounding Gabrielle's ranch.
It has been quite a while but what she needed now was a good horse. Picking out a good looking palomino she quickly saddled it and walked it to the door. Taking a good look with the binoculars she scanned the area, but could see nothing of Alti or her captive. Climbing into the saddle she dug her heals into the horse's flanks and set it off at a furious gallop towards the tree line, several hundred yards away.
They arrived with no incident and Xena let out a sigh of relief. She was sure that Alti would have tried to ambush her before she reached the cover of the forest. She slowed the horse to a walk and finally a halt.
Looking all around her she could still see no signs of trouble. On the other hand it was a vast forest and she had no real idea of which way to go. Nudging the mare towards a tree she unhooked her feet from the stirrups and stood up on the saddle. Reaching out she grabbed a branch and swung up into the canopy. Rapidly climbing higher, she soon reached the height she needed and swept the surrounding area with the binoculars.
There was still nothing to see, but her acute hearing picked up something in the distance. Swinging her head slowly in an arc she narrowed down the angle where the faint sound was coming from and, unconsciously filtering out all the background noise of the forest, identified the source. It was a woman crying. She still couldn't see anything clearly, but at least she had a direction to head in. Swinging down through the branches she gently dropped back into the saddle of her horse and urged her in the direction of the sound.
As the crying became louder she eased her leg over the back of the horse and dropped silently to the ground. She tied the mare to a low branch to allow her to graze unrestricted and unslung the rifle from her back, sliding it into a sleeve on the saddle. She pulled her pistol from its holster and crept forward.
The woman was tied, kneeling down, with her back to a tree, her head dropped forward. There was a trickle of blood running from the corner of her mouth and from her nose.
'A tethered goat', Xena thought. Ignoring the woman for the moment, she scanned the area intently for where Alti would undoubtedly be hiding and waiting to spring a trap. There didn't appear to be any sign of her, or anyone else for that matter.
Re-holstering her pistol Xena silently sprang up and into the low branches of a nearby tree. She climbed to its crown and scanned the area, but still there was no sign of Alti.
'She must want me to get the doctor, ' she mused. 'But why? To slow me down? Doesn't seem likely. But why would she just leave this woman abandoned here? ' Xena frowned. Something was definitely not right, but she couldn't work out what it was. Her sixth sense was yammering, which added to her natural caution, but still she decided to act. She descended to the lower branches and hopped from limb to limb, till she was in the tree that the woman was tied to. She could hear the Doctor sobbing and begging for someone to help her.
Checking again that the place was deserted Xena dropped down beside the crying woman, making her flinch. Xena knelt down and put her hand over the doctor's mouth, quietly urging her to be quiet. She checked the woman over for any signs of a bomb or some other trap. Seeing nothing she pulled a knife from her boot and sliced the rope holding the woman captive.
"Who... who are you?"
"My name is Xena, I'm here to help."
"That horrible woman, she kidnapped me... perverted all my work."
"I know, and much as I'd like to sit and chat we've got to get you out of here before she comes back." Pulling the woman to her feet she held her chin and angled her face to the light.
"Doesn't look like she did any real damage."
"She slapped me a few times for no reason at all. She's crazy."
"Mad as they come," Xena agreed, grinning. The woman smiled tentatively back.
"Did she say anything to you?"
"She said I was... bait. I don't know what she meant."
"I do. Now follow me, I've got a horse back through the trees."
As they neared the tethered horse Xena sixth sense kicked in suddenly. She held up her hand to warn the doctor to stay still. Looking intently around she could neither see nor hear anything untoward. Still worried, she motioned the doctor to follow her.
Xena felt two small stings in her back. She twisted around instantly trying to identify the source of the attack but even as she was turning her whole world jerked and spun as tens of thousands of volts passed through her body. Her jaw locked and her eyes rolled back but she refused to acknowledge her body's seizure and on nothing more than raw willpower, grasped the two thin cables that had been fired from the taser gun held in the doctor's hand, and wrenched the barbed tips from her body.
Dropping to her knees in momentary relief she gasped as the shock wore off and staggered to her feet, just in time to see the doctor fire a second taser into her, sending another high voltage shock into the warrior. Xena dropped the cables from the first taser and stumbled towards the doctor like a broken puppet.
One or two blasts would have been enough to drop even the most drug crazed human, but Xena was no ordinary human. The doctor calmly rewound the cables of the first taser and shot them back into Xena and fired its deadly charge a fourth time into the warrior. Xena sagged to her knees and fell to the ground, twitching and shaking.
"I'm impressed, Xena. I thought two of these toys might be required, but I had no idea it would take this long to drop you."
Xena couldn't speak, but still she tried to pull her gun from its holster. Her limbs refused to obey her and the pistol dropped impotently to the ground, her fingers shuddering and twitching out of control. The doctor stepped close enough to retrieve it and then stepped back.
"My, what a big gun you've got. I'm really impressed now." The doctor's voice had dropped back into a gravely timbre, revealing the doctor's true identity.
"It... it w...w...was... you... all al... ong?" Xena tried to grunt between tremors.
"Yes, I staged my own kidnapping. I knew you'd eventually get on my case. I've spent this lifetime learning all I need to know to reverse your damned immortality. And now I have you at my mercy."
"Don't... c... c... count... on it!"
"Ah, that's my Xena, still trying to threaten, even when your lying defenceless and quivering like a virgin bride on her honeymoon night. You know, I do so admire your audacity."
"Sc... sc... screw... y... you!"
"Charming to the end. Now, let me see, do you remember the last time we met?"
Xena tried to roll on her back but couldn't quite make it. Alti moved closer and pushed her with her foot. With a grunt at the sudden assistance Xena landed on her back with a thud. She looked up at the doctor grinning wildly down at her, holding Xena's gun pointed down at her legs. Xena groaned, she knew what was coming.
There was a load bang as the magnum round shattered her right knee. Gritting her teeth Xena refused to cry out at the staggering pain screaming up her leg.
"Playing tough gal, eh?"
Alti shot again, shattering Xena's ankle on the same leg. This time Xena couldn't stop herself from crying out with the pain.
"Now, before you regain enough of your mobility I think it's time for my special gift to you."
Xena tried to move her head out of the way but Alti gripped it firmly. She felt something being pushed up her nose, forcing its way into her nasal cavity. There was a puffing noise as Alti fired the aerosol into Xena's head. She squeezed Xena's nose shut and held it closed for nearly a minute, preventing Xena from trying to blow out whatever it was that had been squirted in.
"You're probably wondering what I've just done to you."
"I... ca... can... g... g... guess."
"Yes, I suppose I have left some of my test subjects lying around for you to stumble across, haven't I? It's quite simple really. It's a genetically modified retro virus that I've piggy-backed onto a strain of the common cold. Rather clever really, if I do say so myself. It will take about three hours to begin to break down all those replicating cells of yours that give you your immortality. In about six hours you'll be fully mortal again."
Xena couldn't help it. Tears began to form in her eyes and roll down her cheeks.
"Aw, the great Destroyer Of Nations crying with self pity. If only your many victims could see you now."
"Th... they're... n... not f... for me." Xena stuttered out through shear will power. "It's... th... the th.. thought... of... l... lea...leaving Gab... rielle... b... b... behind."
"Don't worry, my pretty, she won't be far behind you."
"Y... you prom... ised y... y... you w... would... n't h... hurt her."
"I see your knee's healing already. I think I'll leave it a couple of hours and see if we can't get some blood next time. In the meantime I can't have you recovering sufficiently to try anything."
Alti fired the taser into Xena and filled her again with thousands of volts. Xena's eyes fluttered shut and she slipped into unconsciousness.
Xena gradually woke. She groaned, her whole body ached, and her leg throbbed with unaccustomed pain. She wondered how far it had recovered before Alti's genetically modified virus kicked in. Opening her eyes slowly she realised she was indoors, and not still in the forest. She tried to move her hands and feet but they were securely tied to the corners of a bed. It was Gabrielle's bed, she recognised the ceiling. Smiling momentarily at the recognition she closed her eyes and wished she was with her beloved bard now, instead of at the mercy of a psycho like Alti.
"Back in the land of the living, I see. But not for long," the gravelly voice chuckled in her ear.
"How long have I been out?"
"Nearly six hours."
"Give me some water"
"I don't think you'll be needing that where you're going. Now shall we see if you've got any blood flowing in your veins yet?"
"Do we have to?"
"Going soft in your old age, Xena?"
"Just get it over with, I'm sick of having to listen to you," the warrior rasped.
"Don't be in such a hurry, my pretty. I want you to watch me gutting your pet before you die. I want the last thing you see on this earth to be me cutting off her head."
"Gee, and I thought Callisto was mad," Xena said dismissively, dropping her head back on the pillow.
"We'll see if we can amuse ourselves waiting for the little bitch to get back shall we?" Alti growled, and whipped Xena across the face with her gun.
Stars shot though Xena's vision as the heavy metal object smashed into the side of her face. She groaned involuntarily as she spat out blood, the first blood she'd seen coming from herself in over two millennia.
Panting for breath and trying to will away the pain, she looked at Alti, who was gloating over the pain she'd caused the helpless warrior.
"You hit like a girl," Xena managed between spits.
"Really, I guess I'll have to try a little harder won't I, if I'm not to disappoint you."
She placed the barrel of the gun against Xena's captive left elbow and pulled the trigger. Xena screamed in agony as her elbow exploded in a mist of blood and bone.
"Still think I hit like a girl?"
Xena felt her control letting go as her dark side finally erupted. With a scream she wrenched the metal bedpost clean off the bed with her good right arm, at the same time as her feet kicked out and broke the two bed posts at the foot of the bed. Launching up from the bed she grabbed Alti and threw her across the room.
Stunned by Xena's sudden ferocity, Alti dropped the pistol and lay semi-concious on the other side of the room. Xena's adrenaline surge was wearing off rapidly as she staggered across to finish her off. She slumped down next to the shamaness and tried to throttle her, only then realising that she was missing her left arm below the elbow, splashing torrents of blood down onto the floor and over the dazed woman.
Xena felt a strange prickling sensation at the back of her neck. Unconsciousness was steadily overtaking her from the massive blood loss, but she was still sufficiently aware that a god had just materialised behind her.
"Stay back whoever the hell you are, this bitch is mine," she slurred, pulling back her fist for a killing blow. A shriek of "Xena!" stopped her before she could release the punch. Turning round she saw Gabrielle holding her hands to her mouth in shock and next to her a pale looking Aphrodite and a golden- haired man she didn't recognise.
Alti stirred and looked up at the new arrivals. "You're both dead, I killed you. I don't understand."
"Not yet, Honey," said Aphrodite.
The goddess raised a finger and pointed it at the gun lying on the floor. It flew to her hand.
"Would you like to do the honours?" she said, turning to Gabrielle.
"Just do it one of you, quickly. I've got a dying warrior to tend to."
Aphrodite shrugged. "Oh well, I guess it's down to me." She stepped over to Alti and pointed the gun at her head.
"How?" the shamaness groaned.
"Guess our magic's more powerful than your bugs. If you'd have left Apollo for another couple of hours before you slit his throat you'd have seen his magical cells begining to recover. He woke up in a coffin and had to beam out of there" She giggled at the vision. Her laughter was replaced by a scowl. "Treat me like a goddamned pincushion would ya! See you next time around, haggy," and pulled the trigger.
"No!" Alti cried as her forehead shattered and her life was ripped away in an instant.
"And this time stay dead, you f? " Xena trailed away as she fell down unconscious over the lifeless body of her nemesis.
"That's my warrior, always had a way with words," said Gabrielle, grimacing as she held a pillow over the bloody stump of Xena's left arm.
Once more Xena awoke in a fog of pain. But this time she wasn't tied to a bed. She rolled her head to one side and opened her eyes.
"Now that's a sight for sore eyes," she croaked.
Gabrielle was immediately out of her chair and kneeling beside the warrior.
"How do you feel?"
"Yeah, well if you'll let me help you sit up, I'll get you something for that."
Xena groaned and tried to sit up but everything hurt, especially her arm, which was wrapped in a massive bandage. She tried wiggling her fingers but nothing happened.
"Guess I screwed up there."
"Xena, you weren't to know that Doctor Geller and Alti were the same person."
"I should have suspected something was wrong. And it cost me my arm and? and my immortality? I'm sorry Gabrielle, if you can't stand to see me get old and die, I'll understand. When I'm better I'll leave you in peace."
Gabrielle looked at the distraught woman sitting up in the bed, tears threatening to run down the warrior's anguished face.
"One, I will never leave you and I hope you will never leave me. And two, if you'll just let me get you something for the pain I'm sure you'll feel much better."
She held out a tall glass of thick liquid.
"What is it?" asked the warrior suspiciously.
"Some herbs, some fruit juice, some pain killers. Come on, drink it all up, be a good girl for once."
Xena took a swallow. "Hey this isn't bad, you'll have to give me the recipe."
"Oh, so it's 'Xena: The Collector of Recipes' now, is it?" the bard said grinning.
Xena gulped down the rest of the drink and smacked her lips in appreciation. After a brief pause her eyelids shot open and a look a surprise came over her face. Her head rolled back and she gasped as pleasurable thrills shot through her body, rejuvenating her and eliminating all her pain. She sat panting for a moment.
"Whoa, that was good, whatever you put in there sure makes me feel? hey, wait a minute. You did it to me again, didn't you?"
Gabrielle laughed and jumped off the bed.
"Sure did, and there ain't nothing you can do about it!" she said as she ran out of the room.
Xena jumped up out of bed, pulling bandages off her now fully functioning arm, as she went. Entering the main living room she found Gabrielle, Aphrodite and the man she now knew to be Apollo smiling at her rapid recovery.
"Okay, which one of you went back and got me one of those damn fruits this time?"
Apollo and Aphrodite looked at each other and shrugged.
"Neither of us, actually." Apollo finally said.
"Then how?" Xena trailed off. "Ares?" she said uncertainly.
"The one and only."
"Well, I'll be damned," the astonished warrior said.
"We didn't think you'd accept it from him, so we made the bard give it to you. She suggested blending it into a drink. We didn't know if it would work, but it seems to have done the trick," said Aphrodite.
Xena flexed her left arm and clenched and unclenched her fist.
"Being mortal's okay, but being immortal's way better. I'd forgotten how much I dislike the sight of my own blood."
"Come and wrap those gorgeous arms around me," the bard said.
"Time for you to leave, I think," Xena said pointedly to the two gods.
"Till the next time," the goddess said and hugged the two soulmates to her, giving each of them a kiss. "And don't make it so long next time!" she said, before the two gods disappeared.
Gabrielle slid her arm around the warrior's waist.
"You know you owe me a new bed."
"I'll see what I can do." said Xena, with a broad smile.
Gabrielle was silent for a moment.
"Do you think Alti had other plans, or were we all that interested her this time?" she finally asked.
"Who knows, maybe next time around we'll find out?"
"This isn't over is it?"
The warrior looked out of the window for a moment, her thoughts apparently far away.
"I guess nothing ever really ends."
My thanks to my girlfriend for proofing, and to Rose for adding a bit of needed polish, even though I stupidly ignored some of her good advice. So any of the bad bits are my fault, not hers! :)