AN: Yoooo. Hi there folks. Sorry it's been so quiet these last few months. I've been struggling a lot with health and work and writer's block in general, so yeah. It's been a tough couple of months. But I'm going to try and work on this here and there. I can't promise regular updates, but I'm gonna try, ok? I don't want to see this story abandoned any more than you guys do, and my plan is to see it through. Just, life, you know? Anyway, I hope you guys enjoy this extra long chapter to kind of make up for it, and I'll see you around!
Disclaimer: I do not own Xena.
It was dark, too dark to make anything out, even with a sliver of the full moon's light falling through a break in the slates that covered the hut window. How long they had slept she wasn't sure, but it didn't matter, not really. Sliding from the bed, wincing as the movement tugged at the stitches in her back, Gabrielle stood and walked to the window, pushing open the cover to let the moonlight in and stare out into the village's clearing.
There was no mistaking that monstrous form, though how Hope was standing there, in the center of her home, Gabrielle wasn't sure. No one else seemed to catch her, there was no sound of alarm coming from any of the ones that should have been on watch- there was just Hope, standing there, her face cast into shadow but still so clearly staring back, meeting Gabrielle's gaze. For a long moment they just stood there, the yards between them almost insignificant, just standing, staring, waiting.
Finally Hope turned, sliding from the village into the forest, stopping to glance back only once before she was gone. An invitation and a threat. Either come now, or face her here when she came again.
Xena woke without much effort, Gabrielle's touch on her shoulder and her name a quiet whisper enough to have her eyes sliding open, the sleep clearing after just a moment. Glancing between Gabrielle and the open window, all she had to do was raise her eyebrow, a movement that Gabrielle nodded at, and she sat up, grabbing her sword and chakram from where she had dropped them, readjusting her armor from where it had shifted in her sleep. Standing, Xena nodded at Gabrielle to lead the way, her weapons ready for the battle to come.
It was easy to sneak from the village- it was almost like they were alone, the village strangely quiet. Last time they had visited the Amazons, there had always been sounds: the sounds of children crying out for their mothers, the sounds of friends laughing long into the night, the occasional horse as it whickered. And with the extra villagers, the centaurs and the refugees and everyone else who had taken shelter in the village, it should have been louder. But now it was silent, not even the breeze rustling the thatch that covered the rooves. Leaving them alone.
They were just passing the final hut before the end of the village when a thought occurred to her, sending a chill down her spine as she paused. Paused and considered what her mind had just conjured, the likely source of the silence. The reason why her home was as quiet as death.
Ignoring Xena's questioning look, Gabrielle walked back to the door and pressed on it, her heart beginning to pound harder as it easily opened- nothing there to keep it closed. Nothing there to keep the women inside safe, nothing there to keep the darkness that existed outside the confines of their home out. Nothing to keep them alive.
Gabrielle pressed the door all the way open and stood there, waiting, her breath held as the moonlight filtered in and revealed the scene before her.
They were alright. She couldn't tell who they were, not in this darkness, but they were ok. The moonlight didn't show any slashed throats, any puddles of blood that had dripped from soaked mattresses, any sign that Hope had been there at all. They were just sleeping peacefully, lost in a world of dreams, the smaller of the two women's head resting peacefully on the breast of the other.
Almost shaking with relief, Gabrielle pulled the door closed once again, lodging a large rock in the door frame to act as a makeshift barricade. Waving at Xena to follow her, she moved them a few steps away from the hut, into the woods, before she finally spoke.
"It was so quiet," Gabrielle said, her words coming in a shuddery breath, "I was worried that Hope…that she had..."
She didn't need to finish. Xena just put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and shook her head, glancing back towards the town they had officially left.
"Hope wants to finish this as much as you do," Xena pointed out, her voice even and calm, the words almost soothing. "Let's do this."
It was almost easy, figuring out where in the forest Hope was waiting. Gabrielle had passed through the clearing a hundred, possibly even a thousand times, between the two lives, though the handful of hours it took to get there had never fully allowed her to appreciate it. It was calm, peaceful, a beautiful little spot where children often played and those who had finished bathing in the nearby river would sprawl, letting the sun warm and dry their newly clean skin. The grasses were soft, almost blanket like when laid upon, and the sky a perfect circle for those above. It was close to the ocean, near enough that the sound of the waves would lull those who entered to sleep, but far enough that there posed no direct danger, lest one left the forest for the cliffs that loomed ahead.
Physically, at least, it also almost perfectly resembled that clearing. That clearing by the centaurs, where she and Hope had stopped for a rest. Where she had handed her child that waterskin, encouraging her to drink up, they had a long walk ahead. Where she had held Hope as she convulsed, her face turning purple as her airways closed, as her hands turned into desperate claws as she tried to tear at her own skin, someway, anyway, to breathe.
Where she had held Hope as she finally fell still, placing a kiss upon her forehead before laying her down and wondering if there was enough left for her.
It wasn't the same place, no, but it was close enough, and so Gabrielle led the way to where Hope waited.
"I was wondering if you were going to come," Hope's voice said from the shadow as they finally stepped into the moonlit clearing, the familiar circle strange in the night. "I hoped so," Hope added with a chuckle- a deep, disturbing sound, her natural clicking becoming almost a trill as her lipless mouth tried to form the proper shape it needed and failed. "But I couldn't be sure. Why come alone when you can have your entire army at your back?"
A skittering as she moved, the sound of skin and shell scraping against bark, and suddenly Hope's voice came from beside them instead of before.
"Because you're you, Mother," Hope whispered, her scratching voice just loud enough to be heard. "And you enjoy killing me."
Xena didn't give her another chance to speak- instead she threw her chakram hard, the sound of metal ricocheting off of wood interrupting whatever Hope had been about to say. Cutting her off and turning her words into a sharp yelp, the weapon coming back just a moment later with a layer of black blood covering one side. Not a lot, but enough to know they had nicked her.
Just as Xena was about to throw it again, her lip curled up into an angry snarl, Gabrielle grabbed her hand instead and shook her head. Hope was trying to make them angry- trying to make them messy. Trying to make them trip up, get rid of perhaps one of their best weapons against her, the chakram lost in the dark. Trying to make herself win.
Instead Gabrielle pulled out her daggers and moved so she was pressed against Xena's back, Xena pulling her sword free from its scabbard. She gave it a twirl before holding it before her, ready to strike, chakram still in one hand but unmoving. At least for now.
"You never did fight fair, Mother," Hope chittered, her voice coming from before Gabrielle now, low and dangerous and angry. "You didn't have the strength to kill me, so you left me for the river to drown. And when that failed, you had just enough cowardice to fill me with poison and give me to the flames. But you didn't know you were sending me back to my father, and that he would send me back. That he would give me life once again. And once again you killed me, once again giving me to the fire, not realizing that I was Daddy's little girl, and he didn't want his darling and his grandson to perish. And once again, you were a coward and made my own son kill me."
She moved, once again that horrid skittering letting them know exactly where she was, where she stood, waiting at any moment to strike.
"You've never played fair, Mother," Hope said once again. "And even when you have? Well, two on one is also never fair. Which is why, if you get your precious little warrior, I get one too."
They dove as a fire ball exploded right where they had been standing before, instantly igniting the grass, the new flames burning against their skin even from a distance. Rolling away, Gabrielle scrambled to her feet as a familiar laugh rang out over the crackling, loud and joyous in the insanity that gripped her. Her knives in hand, desperately trying to catch sight of Xena out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet, standing tall as she turned to face Callisto.
"Why, if it isn't little miss goody two shoes herself," Callisto said pleasantly, twirling one of her curls around a finger. "Though," she continued, glancing at Gabrielle's knives, "not so much anymore. Get tired of almost dying? Or tired of watching everyone almost die for you?"
Gabrielle yelped as something sharp bit into her thigh- she had been so caught up with Callisto she had forgotten to keep track of Hope, allowing the monster to get close enough to score a hit. But before she could even turn around she heard the skittering that meant Hope had fled, closely followed by the sound of the chakram as it followed her, Xena's cry as she ran back into the clearing almost loud enough to drown out Hope's as she was struck once again. Running forward, flipping over the flames, catching the chakram on its rebound midair, Xena brought down her sword onto Callisto's head, landing what to everyone else would have been a killing blow.
Instead Callisto only stumbled back, removing the sword from the center of her skull as the wound began to heal, closing up without even a trickle of blood to mark it had been there.
Xena retreated back to Gabrielle's side as Callisto laughed once again and began to pace around them, her teeth bared in an almost feral smile. "Hera's apples made me immortal, Xena," Callisto said, her words almost a song. "But Hope- Hope told me I was supposed to be more. She told me I was supposed to be a god; I had always been supposed to be a god. Until you ruined it!"
She slashed out at Gabrielle who knocked the blade away with the flat of her dagger, ducking so Xena could swing before Callisto got too far away. Rolling out from between them, Gabrielle slashed wildly to her left- and grinned as Hope, who had been trying to sneak forward once again, withdrew in pain, a new score across her chest.
But as she rose Gabrielle couldn't help the gasp of pain as her back pulled, a handful of the stitches finally breaking, allowing blood to leak from the gash, as easily as it had that day she had gotten it. It wasn't so deep as to keep her from fighting, but already the pain was building, making it hard to concentrate.
"My prey never escapes me, Mother," Hope said as she circled around her, her voice just loud enough to be heard over the clanking of swords and yelling from Xena and Callisto as they fought. Gabrielle turned to keep her in sight, always ready, always looking for an opening. "My wounds never heal. And while you can sew them up, keep everything that's supposed to be inside in there, in the end, Mother?"
Hope paused, both in movement and in speech, her head tilting to the side and smiling- a nightmarish sight, her lipless mouth and the fleshy pincers spread to show off her twisted, misshapen teeth. And as she did, Gabrielle wove, the world around her spinning for a moment as she felt something inside of her twinge. Glancing over her shoulder, watching as the simple trickle of blood remained steady, Gabrielle shook her head, glancing down towards the ground-
And froze as she remembered the wound on her leg, the deep slash that was bleeding heavily, soaking through her boot into the ground around her.
"In the end," Gabrielle said, her voice slightly shaky, shrugging off the dizziness and forcing herself to stand up straight, "they still die."
Hope's smile only widened.
"If I'm to die," Gabrielle said slowly, starting her own pacing around Hope, "then you're coming with me."
They lunged at each other, Gabrielle batting away Hope's claw to sink her dagger into Hope's shoulder, only for her other hand to catch Gabrielle in the side with the blunt side of her claw, sending Gabrielle flying across the clearing. A pained cry broke from her as her back smashed against a tree, for a moment leaving her stunned as Hope began to advance upon her. Only for Hope to shy away as Xena's voice called out, the chakram passing dangerously close before Hope's face. Immediately Hope turned and fled, back into the darkness, as Xena disengaged with Callisto, leaving her to watch as she ran to Gabrielle's side.
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly, gently pulling Gabrielle into her arms while reaching up to wipe a strand of hair from Gabrielle's face. There was pain in her eyes- Callisto had gotten in a few good hits, leaving Xena cut and pained as she moved. But most of that was for Gabrielle, the pain only darkening as she examined every cut and scrap, trying, in that brief moment, to figure out what to do. "Can you stand?"
"Doesn't matter if she can," Callisto pointed out, her head tilted to the side as she stepped forward, smiling widely as Xena held her sword up with one hand, her other wrapped protectively around the stunned Gabrielle's shoulders. "Either way, whether on her feet or her ass, she's going to die. As are you, Xena." Stopping a few yards away, Callisto grew a fireball in her hand, casually playing with it. "I was supposed to be a goddess, supposed to rule this realm as the high priestess of Dahok. But you two stole that from me, just like you've stolen everything from me. It's only because precious little Hope here bound me to herself that I have my powers at all." She put out and relit the fireball a few times as she spoke- she was clearly just playing, just showing off for a show about to become deadly. "So maybe I'll have to steal something from you."
Turning towards a section of forest, Callisto smiled widely as she crooked her finger, motioning for someone to step forward.
That someone being a man, a thick rope in his hands. A rope tied around Solan.
"I found him while I was waiting for my cue to enter," Callisto said cheerfully as the man dragged Solan forward, kicking him when the boy stumbled. Xena took a step forward, rage and barely concealed panic dominating her face, but froze as Callisto shook her head, tutting softly. "You wouldn't want me to hurt the boy, now would you, Xena?" Callisto asked, the small ball of fire twisting between her fingers like a snake.
Xena nodded, her gaze never leaving Solan as her sword lowered, because what else could she do? With her powers, Xena was no match for Callisto, and watching as Callisto reached out, trailing a burning finger along Solan's cheek, the boy yelping out in pain, it was clear she knew that. And she was at a loss.
Fight and watch Solan die, or stand and die herself, knowing he would be soon after.
"You may go, Theodoras," Callisto said casually, waving her hand towards the man, barely noticing him as he turned and ran. A smart decision, for no moral should try and interfere in a battle containing demons and gods. But what else could they do? Stand aside and watch as the world fell around them, allow Hope and Callisto to burn to the ground everything they loved? Wait for Dahok to rise, his rule a never ending night that would finally free them, if only into the arms of death?
No. Gabrielle rose-slowly, painfully, but still she rose. Rose to stand behind the still distracted Xena, only a quick glance out of the corner of her eye acknowledgement that she was there. For a moment she wavered- blood loss and pain and a sudden sheer exhaustion weighing down on her, her body just asking for a rest- but Gabrielle shook it off, forcing herself to pay attention, both to Callisto before her and to Hope on her right, where the demon was stalking them.
"You know, Xena," Callisto said, chuckling as she walked a small circle around Solan, "he really looks nothing like you. It's hard to believe he's your son."
A small gasp, though only from Solan as his eyes widened, staring in disbelief at Xena. But from no one else- she and Hope already knew from their memories, long ago as they were, and Callisto had long since been filled in by her benefactor. It was only the boy who stood surprised, and it was clear why.
Callisto was cruel, and to kill him, knowing his mother just stood there and watched, would add that extra layer to make her revenge that much more sweet.
"The chakram," Hope hissed, interrupting the tense standoff that had started between the two women, neither Xena nor Callisto willing to be the first to move, to blink, to end the staring contest of wills they had started. Xena with her weapons, unable to kill a god but unwilling to back down, Callisto with everything she ever wanted at her fingertips, just waiting to take her due. Neither moved, neither looked away, but it was clear they both heard her.
"If you hand over the chakram," Hope said, her chattering almost excited as she spoke, "we will let the boy go."
"What," Callisto demanded, finally breaking the stare to turn towards Hope, her hand once again flaming. "No, no, he's mine." Her voice almost broke on the last word, hints of betrayal seeping into her voice. "You promised I could burn Xena's little brat before her, just like she burned Mother, my sister. You can't-"
"I can't?" Hope asked, though it was clear from the dangerous tone in her voice that it wasn't a question. It wasn't a request. It was just a statement, daring Callisto to challenge her. To try and start a fight Callisto would so easily lose. Like a master daring its dog to bite.
Xena's voice broke between the two as she threw her chakram, slicing deep into Callisto's hand, the godling crying out in surprise and as a reflex to pain no longer there as she snatched her limb away, Solan breaking for the trees as he tried to flee. Flipping forward so she was between Callisto and her son, Xena raised her sword once more, baring her teeth in a feral smile familiar enough to send dread into Gabrielle's stomach, even surrounded as they were. Because their enemies, even the burning fire that surrounded them, none of that was as terrifying as Xena when she smiled.
But she couldn't focus, not as Gabrielle dashed forward to intercept Hope, one arm raising to catch Hope's claw on the edge of her dagger, stopping it before it could fall and pierce Solan's back. Lashing out with her foot, forcing Hope a few feet back, Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief as Solan reached the edge of the clearing, almost free to disappear into the woods, safe from the fight that was to follow.
He, at least, would live this night; and if he was the only, well, Gabrielle would count that lucky. One less dead child to haunt her memories, reminding her of how much she still had to change.
Callisto's scream was almost feral, almost terrifying as she lashed out, a lucky strike catching Xena in the chest, throwing her to the side. Her gaze fixed on where Solan had gone, where the boy was hiding just out of reach in the trees, Callisto howled her rage as the fire in her hands grew; more than enough to cut through the forest, more than enough to burn straight through the wood that protected, more than enough to kill the boy.
She didn't think. She didn't think as she wrapped her arms around Hope and leapt forward, diving towards the flames. She didn't think as she felt her daughter's claws sink into her skin. She didn't think about the warning cry that came from Xena as Gabrielle dove straight towards the line of fire, hoping against hope to block it.
All she thought about was Solan, and the fact that she couldn't fail him. Not again.
"You're lucky," Hope's voice whispered in her ear as the wall of flame hit, the words almost inaudible over Gabrielle's scream as her flesh began to burn, Callisto's fire attempting to cauterize a wound that would never heal, would never close, her skin blackening and bubbling as the heat found a home in her body. "I'd never forgive myself if I wasn't the one to kill you."
Gabrielle was only dimly aware of Callisto yelling as, against her will, the fire fell from her hands, no longer her's to control. She was only dimly aware of Xena finally recovering enough to push herself to her feet, lashing out and catching Callisto on her side, actually drawing blood and creating a wound that didn't disappear, much to Callisto's horror. She was only dimly aware of Hope wrapping her claws around Gabrielle and moving them- out of the clearing, away from the fire, towards the cliffs that overlooked the ocean that lay so far below.
She was only dimly aware of Xena and Callisto following, the former driving the latter almost like cattle, getting some sort of sick joy in watching Callisto run, watching Callisto call for Hope, demand her powers back, only for her calls to be ignored.
She was only dimly aware because, between the mind numbing clarity as the pain drove everything else from her mind and the certain fact that she was, in fact, going to die, Gabrielle had a thought. A single thought that finally made everything make sense, her past life and this merging in one single moment of clarity that even the pain couldn't destroy as she realized what she had missed all this time.
As Hope released her and turned, Gabrielle refused. Stepping forward, wrapping her arms around Hope as tightly as she could, Gabrielle held on as Hope began to struggle, as Gabrielle began to pull them back towards the edge of the cliff, all while calling for the chakram.
But even as Hope's claws dug deep, even as her back burned, the remains of Callisto's flames licking at her skin, at the blood that dripped and spread up the open wound Hope had given her all those weeks ago, the fire only worsening the pain that was begging her to just lay down already, to lay down and give up because this was her end, still, Gabrielle held on. Held on as Hope struggled to free herself, tried to reenter the battle Callisto was so clearly losing, her powers now gone. Struggled to free herself from the vice like grip of her mother and flee, flee somewhere they would never be able to find her, because Hope knew.
Hope knew what Gabrielle had realized, knew what Gabrielle had finally put together after all those years. Knew that Gabrielle finally understood why, in all the lives they had lived so far, Hope was terrified of Xena.
Not because Xena was Xena, as terrifying as she was. But because Xena, holding the chakram and unshackled by a curse of the fates, was the only one in this world who could kill her.
It was the chakram of darkness, after all, a darkness greater than Dahok's, and the darkness could only hold one monster at a time.
"Xena," Gabrielle called as, for a moment, her grip slipped, Hope almost wrenching herself free. Even with her connection to Callisto cut, the warrior left a normal mortal now that the godly powers that had taken the place of her immortality gone, together the two of them would be more than enough to overpower Xena, something Gabrielle couldn't allow. But she caught her once again, dragging them back a few more steps, closer to the edge. The edge of the cliff that overlooked the sea, the waters raging below.
Waters Gabrielle knew well, though this time her entrance to them would not have the same happy ending as her last life. No forgiveness would be waiting, no love would be reforged in the flames, no sadness and hatred would be banished.
There would just be pain, pain before there was nothing.
But at least it would be a death Hope would never be able to come back from, the depths of the ocean out of the reach of her flame based sire, and so if she had to, it was a mutual death Gabrielle was willing to accept.
If she had to, which Gabrielle had no plans of doing anytime soon. That chakram in her chest, her body left to fall into the water below, all Gabrielle would have to do is let go- finally let Hope go- and it would be over.
Flipping over Callisto, catching her in the temple with her boot, Xena let out a triumphant howl as Callisto finally dropped, the wound too much for her newly weakened body. Turning towards Gabrielle, the look on her face a split second later telling her that Xena understood everything she needed to, it was with her signature cry that she snatched the chakram up from the ground and threw it, her aim true as it raced towards Hope's chest. As it flew straight towards them, a sure hit, Hope, with her claws either imbedded into her mother or forced to her side by Gabrielle's still iron grip, unable to defend herself.
So she didn't. She didn't defend herself. Watching as the chakram flew right towards her, all Hope did was smile, a hard, long, gruesome smile as her lipless mouth pulled back to show her twisted teeth.
Smiled as she doubled forward, Gabrielle's feet leaving the ground as Hope spun on her own, turning them so she was the one facing the ocean.
Smiled as with a low, dull thud, the chakram imbedded itself into Gabrielle's back.
"I told you there was no winning against me, Mother," Hope said as Gabrielle's arms finally fell to her side, releasing Hope from her grasp. "I told you. This time, I would win."
She barely heard her. Her arm weakly reaching back, her fingers grasping at the metal sticking from her form, Gabrielle barely heard a word Hope said. She barely heard anything over the ringing in her ears, over the pain that had blasted nearly every single other thought from her mind, over the instinct telling her this was the end.
Over Xena's pained, agonized scream from so far off, so far off yet so, so loud to Gabrielle's ears. Because it wasn't Xena, not anymore- it was some creature, some beast, some thing that was in pain, because it couldn't be Xena. That kind of noise couldn't come from a human, not one that wasn't dying- and yet it was. Gabrielle heard her, heard her scream over everything else as she grasped at the charkam, as she tugged at the metal band, desperate to remove the source of her pain, anything to end this agony.
All while Hope smiled, smiled and talked as if it was any other day, as if they were old friends catching up in a market, her smile never fading as she watched Gabrielle yank again, the chakram this time sliding free into her grasp. As she looked over Gabrielle's shoulder to watch as Xena broke before her, unable to even move as Xena stared, as she watched Gabrielle pull the chakram from her back, the sound of metal tearing free of flesh and bone almost audible even that far away. Stared at the blood soaking down her back, staining her skin and clothes dark in the night. Stared as Gabrielle wobbled, barely able to stand, only kept standing because the movement to lie down, to even fall, would be far too much.
All the while Hope continued to smile. Smile until, with the last of her strength, Gabrielle raised the chakram and drew it across Hope's throat, splitting the skin and spraying herself with the black blood that ran through Hope's veins, Dahok's evil unable to fight against the darkness of the chakram. Against the darkness of one killing their most loved, darkening the chakram's history that much more.
Hope finally stopped smiling then, as Gabrielle's arm fell to her side, her hand unable to continue to hold onto the weapon. As Gabrielle, the pain and the blood loss and everything far, far too much, took that step forward and embraced Hope, putting her weight on her. As, together, the two of them stumbled back those last few steps and, together, began to fall.
Hope finally stopped smiling as, together, they fell from the cliffs, into the water below, Gabrielle picking up the smile for her as, right before they hit the waves, finally, she let Hope go.