The air was cool and still as Gabrielle leaned back against her bedroll, looking up at the indigo sky hovering above. Night had begun a slow descent and pushed the last remnants of daylight below the horizon. She watched the fading colors of the sunset as they disappeared, quietly plunging her into the muted darkness she had come to find as familiar as her own heartbeat. Staring into the fire, she watched the flames tangle up in blue and orange tendrils. Shadows flickered around her from all sides, teasing her into thinking that maybe she wasn't alone. But she was alone. She had been alone for almost eight months. It had been that long since Xena's spirit had last visited her, whispering the words 'I'll love you forever'. They were words that Gabrielle had heard before, but until that moment, she hadn't felt their finality. With her thoughts turning to that last night, she knew she would never be able to erase those final images of Xena from her mind. Even though she had tried, Xena couldn't hide the sadness in her eyes as she faded from Gabrielle's life one last time. And that was how it had ended, on a night not much different than any other night they had spent together. How many nights had she spent with Xena by her side as they traveled from place to place? How many nights had she taken for granted thinking that they had all the time in the world to be together? With Xena's spirit as her companion, there had been a hopefulness that guided Gabrielle with the light of each new day. But without Xena, darkness now seeped into Gabrielle's bones seeking a permanent place to hide deep within her broken heart. And now, with each passing night, her loneliness had become almost unbearable leaving her to face the coming days without her soulmate.
She let out a heavy sigh when a star streaked across the dark sky, painting a trail of light before finally disappearing. The urge to make a wish almost overwhelmed her as the wish in her heart fought to escape. And escape it did because even though she couldn't bring herself to say it out loud, her heart could never deny it. As the moment passed, she couldn't help but compare Xena's life to the shooting star she had just bared witness to. Like that star, Xena's life had seared a trail of light wherever she had gone before it had burned out right before Gabrielle's eyes.
"Why?" The single word came out as a sob as she raked her fingers down her face. She had uttered that word countless times and each time she had been met with a deafening silence. "Why did I let you go?" Her voice was harsh as she tried to hold back the tears that threatened to overcome her. Pain took her breath away as it pierced through the armor of indifference she had painstakingly built around herself. But that pain remained ever present even though she had tried to run away from it. After three long years she was still running away, hiding from anyone that offered her sympathy. Three years and the wounds to her heart and soul were still fresh. It had been hard enough to tell everyone about Xena's death, but she couldn't stand to see the pity in the eyes of her friends and family. And that had been why she had disappeared, cutting ties with everyone she had known. She told herself that she had been 'fighting for the greater good' but even she no longer believed the lie she had used to try to convince herself. It wasn't enough anymore, she could no longer find the good within herself and she certainly couldn't find anything left to fight for. When Xena had disappeared eight months earlier, it had been the final straw.
Every day had become a struggle to continue and with each new day, Gabrielle had thought about ending it all. Perhaps she would give up and end it in a blaze of glory or maybe she would just slip away into the darkness she had found to be her only solace. The only reason she hadn't given up yet had been the memory of Xena begging her not to, reminding her that there was still so much left undone but her heart was the only thing left undone now. It was a memory that still stung at the edges of her conscious and had prevented her from following through. But that was before, before she found herself all alone.
Propping herself up on her elbows, she looked over towards the slowly dying embers of the fire she had built earlier and for a brief moment she thought she could see Xena sitting across from her, sharpening her sword. It had been a mundane task that Gabrielle had watched a hundred times over, one she now wished she could see again. She blinked a few times to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light that cast far too many shadows on a night when there shouldn't be any.
"I miss you…" She said aloud, but there was no one there to hear. "Sometimes so much, it hurts…"
Staring into the now red and orange flames of the struggling fire, Gabrielle realized she was ready to give up. She hadn't really been living her life over the last few years and she wondered what she was holding onto anymore. She was tired, so very tired of struggling to just breathe each and every day. She couldn't decide if the worse part of it had been the sadness or the anger, but neither could compare to the fact that she just didn't feel anything anymore.
As she contemplated her options, she noticed a distinct and familiar shimmer in the low light cast by the fire. The shimmer distorted the air around her and with a frustrated sigh she laid back down on her back.
"What do you want Dite?" She couldn't stop herself from sounding irritated.
"You know she wouldn't like the direction your thoughts are taking…" Aphrodite's voice filled the empty spaces that Gabrielle had grown accustomed to.
"Well, she's not here right now…is she?" The anger in Gabrielle's voice held a sharp edge that cut into the already raw wounds she had failed to keep hidden.
"Aw, Sweet Pea…" Aphrodite's voice floated to Gabrielle as she started to appear in a flourish of flickering light. "It's not her fault…"
Gabrielle was quiet as she waited for Aphrodite to finish materializing in a show of color and light. It wasn't enough that the Goddess of Love had decided to ruin her solitude but she had to make a production out of it.
"I want to be alone…" Gabrielle grumbled with a frown.
"And therein lies the problem." Aphrodite crossed her arms and did her best to glare down at the sulking expression on Gabrielle's face. "This isn't like you Gabrielle, wallowing in self-pity, feeling sorry for yourself."
"Yeah, well forgive me but I haven't quite been myself for…oh, I don't know…the last three years or so." Gabrielle punctuated the last words with a scowl.
"Well whatever this is…" Aphrodite waved her hands over Gabrielle's prone figure. "You don't wear it well." She couldn't quell the hurt in her voice.
"What do you want?" Gabrielle softened her tone when she heard the hurt in Aphrodite's voice.
"I'm here to ask you to do something for me…" Aphrodite pushed some of her flyaway platinum blonde curls behind an ear.
Gabrielle let out a heavy exhale of breath as she impatiently ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. She had had her suspicions the minute Aphrodite made her presence known but hearing it did little to temper the anger she was trying to keep under control. Looking away, she clenched her jaw as she pondered whether or not she had any energy left to help.
"I won't make any promises, but I'll hear you out." She turned back to look at Aphrodite who still hovered above her. When their eyes met, she couldn't help but wonder if she may have seen something sparkling in the depths of blue that gazed back at her briefly unguarded.
"That's all I ask." Aphrodite took a seat next to Gabrielle and let out a heavy sigh. "You know I love you Gabrielle…" She looked over at Gabrielle to see that she was staring up at the sky, having broken eye contact much too soon. "If I thought I could help you forget the Warrior Babe…you know I would."
Slowly, with what seemed like great effort, Gabrielle turned to regard the Goddess of Love. It had been no secret that they shared a special bond, something similar to what Ares and Xena had shared. Even though she was Artemis' chosen, she and Aphrodite had danced around an attraction that neither of them had been willing to act upon.
"If I thought you could help; I'd gladly let you." Gabrielle blew out a puff of air causing her bangs to float up before settling back over her eyebrows. "But when she left me…she left me with nothing left to give. There's a hole in my heart where her love once filled me…I just don't think I can go on without her."
Aphrodite leaned back and laid her head next to Gabrielle's. For what seemed like a long time, they stayed like that, quiet until the silence became too heavy.
"What about Eve?" Aphrodite asked as she studied the once strong, vibrant profile of the blonde bard. She could see the pain etched in the fine lines that now marred the once peaceful edges of Gabrielle's eyes.
"I'm nothing but a source of pain for her…a reminder that her mother's gone…" Gabrielle started to say.
"Has she told you that?" Aphrodite interrupted.
"She doesn't have to. I can see it in her eyes every time she looks at me…with those eyes that are so like her mother's." Gabrielle tried to push down the pain that the thought of Eve evoked.
"Maybe you stay away because she reminds you too much of Xena…" Aphrodite tried to reason. "Hasn't she lost enough Gabrielle, without having to lose you too?"
"She's not my daughter…" Gabrielle cleared her throat in an attempt to push back the emotions that bubbled to the surface, threatening to break free.
"You don't believe that…" Aphrodite pushed herself up so she could look down at the pained expression on Gabrielle's face. "By the Gods, please tell me you don't believe that Eve isn't your daughter…"
Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to stem the flow of tears that had started leaking from her eyes. Angrily she swiped at the moisture that now painted her cheeks, but the effort only caused the tears to fall faster.
"No, I don't believe that…at least not in my heart." Gabrielle shook her head back and forth. "She reminds me so much of Xena that sometimes I can't breathe when I'm around her."
"Hence the whole staying away for years on end…" Aphrodite reached out to wipe some stray tears from Gabrielle's cheek. She couldn't stop herself from shivering at the coolness she found when she touched Gabrielle's skin.
"Yeah…I guess so…" Gabrielle gave a self-depreciating laugh.
"You know you're right, Eve is a lot like Xena but she is so much more like you." The statement caused Gabrielle to raise a questioning eyebrow. "She might not look like you Sweet Pea, but she has your heart…your integrity for life and love. Don't sell yourself short…everything that is good within her is because of you. You are all she has left…"
Gabrielle let out a shaky breath as she listened to Aphrodite, knowing she was speaking the truth. She closed her eyes and conjured up an image of Eve, the smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth was involuntary. But she wasn't sure if she was ready to accept the truth yet, the truth that Eve truly was her daughter as much as she had been Xena's.
"Didn't you have a favor to ask me?" Gabrielle's quick change of subject had Aphrodite shaking her head.
"Um…yes, I did." Aphrodite sat up and crossed her legs. "I need you to go home Gabrielle."
"Why? There's nothing left for me in Potidaea…" Gabrielle huffed as she sat up as well.
"Not Potidaea…" Aphrodite tilted her head to watch as Gabrielle settled beside her.
"What are you talking about Dite?" Gabrielle's impatience was evident in the tone of her voice.
"Go home to the Amazons…your sisters need you." Aphrodite finally said.
"I'm not their queen anymore…I don't have anything to offer them." Gabrielle leaned her head back to look up at the sky again, taking comfort in the darkness. She strained to see the stars through the canopy of trees that hung over them in an almost protective way. For some reason she hadn't noticed them earlier.
"Perhaps you could share some of your diplomatic skills…" Aphrodite started to say but was interrupted when Gabrielle started to laugh out loud.
"You might want to rethink my diplomatic prowess Dite, I ended up in a fist fight the last time I tried to be 'diplomatic'." The memory of her last attempt at diplomacy floated to the forefront of her mind causing her to reach up to touch the fading bruise on her cheek. "But then again it may have been the overabundance of wine I consumed…"
"Look, I can't say much…but what I can tell you is that they need you Gabrielle." Aphrodite couldn't stop herself from touching the yellowish mark under Gabrielle's right eye. "Fist fight…huh?"
Gabrielle's only response was the shrug of her shoulders, followed by a sheepish grin. She couldn't stop herself from turning into the comfort that Aphrodite offered but her need was soon replaced by anger.
"Why do I get the feeling that I'm not going to like what you're about to tell me." Gabrielle tried not to frown again.
"Okay, you're right, you aren't going to like what I'm about to tell you…but that doesn't change the fact that you are the only one who can stop him." Aphrodite stopped herself from saying the name.
"Stop who Aphrodite?" Gabrielle asked even though she didn't need Aphrodite to confirm what she already knew.
"Ares…" The name came out on a defeated exhale as Aphrodite gave Gabrielle a pleading look.
"Why didn't Artemis come ask me herself?" Gabrielle hissed through gritted teeth.
"Because she knows you and I have a special relationship…" Aphrodite started to explain.
"No, it's because she knows I'd refuse." Gabrielle dropped her head down so her chin rested on her chest.
"Are you refusing Gabrielle?"
"Not yet, but so far things aren't looking good for you." Gabrielle continued to look down.
"Ares is up to something…we haven't seen him this giddy since…" Aphrodite hesitated. "Well, since before Xena…"
Gabrielle's head snapped up in surprise at the mention of her soulmate and Ares in the same sentence. "Explain…" Her voice held an edge of uncertainty.
"It has something to do with one of your own…she is fighting the same darkness that lead Xena to Ares…and he is encouraging her to give in, to join him. What he intends to do with her, I don't know for sure, but whatever it is, it can't be good." Aphrodite's shoulders slumped under the weight of concern she was feeling.
"What do you want me to do?" The question hung in the air as Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably under Aphrodite's steady gaze.
"Help us keep Ares from winning…" It was a statement meant to convince as much as it was a question in and of itself.
"Let me guess…you want me to guide this young warrior to the path of light and love…" Gabrielle couldn't hide the distaste she was experiencing as she began to realize the full extent of what Aphrodite was asking her.
"Something like that…" Aphrodite sighed.
"I don't think I have it in me to go through that again." The finality of the words caused Gabrielle to shiver slightly.
"Please Gabrielle, they need you. I fear all will be lost if Ares gets his way." It was the best that Aphrodite could do as she struggled not to say more.
"No, I can't…I won't…" Gabrielle turned away from Aphrodite so she couldn't see the hurt she knew what be etched on her face.
"Eve is already on her way…if you don't get there first…it will end badly." Aphrodite threw in her last card.
"You know more than you're telling me."
"Yes, I do…and damn you for not trusting me enough when I tell you that the Amazon's need you or all is lost." The anger that laced her words was uncharacteristic for Aphrodite, so much so that Gabrielle found herself gazing into steel blue eyes filled with the slightest hint of fury.
Gabrielle was quiet for a minute as she tried to decide what she should do. She already knew what her answer was going to be, but for some reason she wasn't ready to concede. "I have one condition…" She held up her hand to stop Aphrodite from interrupting. "When I arrive at the Amazon village and ensure that Eve is safe, I want full disclosure from you and Artemis."
"Okay, okay..." The Goddess of Love surrendered as she watched Gabrielle lay back down. "So, does that mean you'll go?"
"Yes…I'll go." Gabrielle let out a tired sigh as she put an arm across her eyes to block out what was left of the fire light.
"Do you want me to stay until you fall asleep?" Aphrodite tried to sound hopeful.
"Nope…I feel like being alone." Gabrielle settled back against her bed roll.
"Um…okay…sweet dreams Sweet Pea." Aphrodite leaned down to place a feather light kiss to Gabrielle's forehead before quickly and quietly disappearing.
"Did you tell her?" Artemis asked when Aphrodite appeared next to her.
"No, but when she finds out, I have no doubt she'll be mad at us." Aphrodite couldn't stop herself from twisting her hands nervously.
"It needed to be done Dite…we both know that this game Ares is playing has no rules. But if she finds out too soon, all could be lost." Artemis tried to reason.
"I know; I know Artie…but she's so broken. I hate to put her through any more heartache." Aphrodite couldn't stop the tears from filling her eyes.
"Well, with any luck…she'll come out of this with the other half of her soul…" Artemis tried to smile, but even she wasn't sure their plan would work.
"I don't think she'll survive if it goes any other way." Aphrodite gave up and allowed the tears to fall. It was a big risk that they were taking but she hoped beyond hope that it would be worth it in the end.