The way down from Olympus had been long, and cold, and strange. Gabrielle found that she couldn’t remember much of it — only disjointed flashes of dark jagged rock and darker thunderclouds, above and below. What memories she did have from the day that had followed Eve’s initiation were jumbled and vicious, shot through with bloodlust and hate and fear and Hope. Those few flickers would be enough to fuel her nightmares for years to come, so she was grateful for the gaps and blank stretches. It was probably better not to know what horrors they concealed.
Xena, on the other hand, probably remembered everything. The whole way down she’d kept one hand pressed against Gabrielle’s back, heavy and warm between her shoulderblades, as though to steady and guide her on the treacherous mountain path. Even now, with the mountain behind them and level ground underfoot, that touch remained. It wasn’t hard to guess which one of them it was actually meant to reassure. Eve clung to her mother’s other side, and Xena didn’t seem about to let go of either one of them.
The sun was just beginning to rise as they reached the sea.
Without a word all three of them paused at the top of a shallow rise. The beach before them fell away in a long slow sweep to the water, pale green salt-grasses rippling with their own waves and eddies, stirred by a cool breeze from the west. The gray of false dawn was just beginning to flush with gold. Gulls called raucously to each other out of sight among the cattails, and Gabrielle thought she saw the startlingly graceful silhouette of a heron stalking at the water’s edge. It, like the other sea-birds and the green growing things and the shore and the sky, was utterly unconcerned with the twilight of the gods.
“It’s all still here,” Eve said quietly. “I wasn’t sure it would be, somehow.”
“The world goes on,” Gabrielle said, but as the words passed her lips she realized that she didn’t really believe them, not yet. Even though she’d been there through the increasingly desperate battles and seen forces of nature fall at Xena’s hands, the thought still struck her as faintly ridiculous. That the sun was rising, even though she knew for a fact that Apollo would never again crack his whip over the heads of his fiery horses to drive them out of the gates of Dawn; that the sea could still rise and fall, full of dolphins and naiads and mermaids, without Poseidon to stir it up with his temper and calm it with his breath. In the months since Zeus had died and Eve had been born, she’d been too preoccupied with keeping the three of them alive to spend much time on philosophy. Now, with every threat suddenly gone, she had time to think: Then they were just creations of the human mind after all, and nothing more. The world doesn’t need them and never did.
There had been a game she’d played with herself and Xena, lifetimes ago, of inventing explanations for things — the earth’s stickiness, life crawling out of the sea. She’d have to take it up again in her old age, now that everything she’d ever been taught about the way the world worked was lying dead on Olympus.
Xena, ever practical, shook off the daze of wonder first. “We should stop and rest here awhile, and find something to eat if we can. I have no idea how far it’ll be to the nearest town.”
Eve straightened and started to step away from Xena’s side, then hesitated and came back to put her arms around her mother. It was a brief hug, bold and shy at once, and Gabrielle saw in it the child she’d been — wanting to trust but wary of the world, full of a boundless love that she couldn’t understand, with no one to teach her how to bear it. That she’d missed the chance to hold and soothe that child made Gabrielle want to weep, but she caught her breath, not wanting to break the tender silence of the moment.
Xena held Eve for a minute and let her go. Gabrielle could practically see how every muscle in her body ached to embrace her daughter, to make up for twenty-five years of abandonment, but Eve’s heart was still too fragile. Eli’s way was a hard and dangerous one, and Eve had hardly taken her first steps on it. There would be time to give her all that love once she was strong enough to face it without being overwhelmed. For now, Xena only touched her shoulder. “You all right, sweetheart?”
“Yes.” Eve glanced at Gabrielle, then back at Xena. “I’ll find us something to eat, I had a lot of practice foraging when I was little. Take care of her.”
Eve loped off into the grass. “I’m fine,” Gabrielle protested as Xena turned to her. It was even true. Ever since she’d woken on the floor of that cold and misty hall, there had been a low heat burning somewhere behind her navel, a dim fire that sustained her far past the point where she should have collapsed from blood loss and exhaustion. It felt a little like the rush of battle, and a little like raw desire, and a little like death. She’d felt it before; when she’d stood burning in the desert, half-mad with rage and grief, driving her sais into the bole of a dead tree as though she could make it bleed, and Ares had come to her and offered to make her a god.
Ares’ last gift had been burning itself out for hours now, sinking lower and lower. Soon it would be completely extinguished, and then she probably would need to rest, but that wouldn’t be for hours yet. “I’m all right, really,” she told Xena. “Whatever Ares did took care of everything.”
“Ares knows how to inflict wounds, not heal them. I wouldn’t trust him to fix a papyrus cut.” Xena touched her fingertips to Gabrielle’s temple and ran a hand through her hair, searching for a scar that would trace the arc her chakram had cut into Gabrielle’s skin.
Her voice was calm and matter-of-fact, with the usual amount of scorn behind Ares’ name, but her eyes were bright with unshed tears and her touch ached in a way that had nothing to do with wounds of the body. All at once, as though she’d woken up from a dream, Gabrielle became aware of every part of Xena; her hands calloused and rough but painfully gentle, her wild hair windswept from their descent into the world of the living, her eyes deeper than the faultless sky, her lips parted, her breath coming fast.
There was no inch of her, no curve or blemish that Gabrielle hadn’t memorized long ago. The Slayer of Gods had been left on Olympus with her victims; this was only Xena, the woman she’d loved and pledged her life to. The woman whose soul had been strong enough to pull hers out of Hell, and who could sulk for days over a disagreement with her horse, and who had walked through a field of crosses to rescue her daughter, and who was too damned stubborn to admit that she snored like a Gorgon, and —
Her leathers were still stained with Athena’s blood, but she leaned forward as though her knees were weak, as though she was the one who needed to borrow Gabrielle’s strength.
“Xena,” Gabrielle murmured, and Xena’s hand reached the nape of her neck and drew her up, abandoning all pretense of checking for wounds. Xena’s lips touched the center of her forehead, then the corner of her mouth, as though she didn’t dare to kiss her properly. As though she were afraid. “Xena,” Gabrielle said again, and slipped her arms around the back of Xena’s neck to try to deepen the kiss herself.
Xena held back, and as she stroked the side of Gabrielle’s face with the backs of her fingers, Gabrielle felt her trembling. “I’m sorry,” she said, soft as a whisper but with all the strength of a desperate cry. “Gabrielle, I’m sorry —“
“Don’t be. Not ever,” Gabrielle said fiercely, and this time when she pressed Xena gave in, bowed her head and let Gabrielle kiss her as she hadn’t in more than twenty-five years. Even though they’d been asleep, Gabrielle suddenly felt the urgency of that lost time crash down over her like a waterfall, felt the need to reclaim every second that they’d been separated by air and ice and the essence of death.
Eventually Xena broke away and rested her temple against Gabrielle’s, her eyes closed. Gabrielle realized that while she and Eve had been bolstered by Ares’ healing, Xena had descended Olympus unaided, after two solid days of fighting and a night of terror. She was the strongest person Gabrielle had ever known, but she was — they all were — still mortal.
The mortal who taught the God of War how to heal, Gabrielle thought, and softly kissed the side of Xena’s neck. It wasn’t enough, was never enough. There was no way to express the blaze of love that filled her, that was bright enough to keep the sun burning after Apollo’s death, that bound her soul to Xena’s more perfectly than any vow.
Take care of her, Eve had said — talking to Gabrielle, not about her. As though she needed to be told.
“Listen,” she said softly into Xena’s ear. She couldn’t tell of the love she felt, she’d spend the rest of her life writing scrolls and still never be able to find words deep enough, but she could soothe one of Xena’s wounds at least. “Don’t regret stopping me, Xena. Since before Eve was born, I would have given my life to save her — from any enemy, even myself. You did exactly what I would have wanted you to do.”
Xena clung to her the way she had in the forest around Potidaea, a thousand years ago, after Gabrielle’s first journey back from death. “My brave Gabrielle,” she said, her voice low and rough.“The Furies — they showed you Hope, didn’t they?”
She should have known Xena would guess. “Yes,” she said, and pulled back far enough to cup Xena’s face in her hands, her thumbs tracing the track of tears that hadn’t fallen yet. “It doesn’t matter anymore. They failed, thanks to you. They used the daughter I couldn’t save to try to get me to kill the one that we could save — that we did.”
As though she’d heard them, Eve’s joyful shout split the hush of the morning. The sun was fully risen now, the whole world new and shining. Xena turned, and Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at the wild girl standing over a shallow rockpool with a live, wriggling fish in her hands.
Gabrielle laughed; Xena smiled. “Go on,” Gabrielle said. She slid her hands down to Xena’s shoulders, lifting herself up onto the tips of her toes to kiss Xena again, lightly this time: enough grieving, we’re alive. “Teach her a few tricks. I’ll bet with the two of you working together, you can catch us a shark for breakfast.”
Xena’s look made it plain that she knew exactly what Gabrielle was doing, and that she was grateful to be given a path back to the present, to the light. She shook her head in mock disgust. “Have you ever tried shark meat? It’s terrible.”
“And this from the woman who’ll eat things that even the horses won’t,” Gabrielle teased.
Usually Xena would have growled at her or quipped back, something about her palate being awfully refined for someone who’d spent the last five years living mostly off of rabbit stew; but Xena just pulled her close again, with a soft laugh that warmed Gabrielle’s soul the way the sun was beginning to warm her skin. “You’ll join us?” she asked softly.
“In a little while,” Gabrielle said. Eve had given her this time alone with Xena, the least she could do was repay the favor. “When you’ve gutted those fish and showed Eve how to cook them the way I like.”
“All right.” Xena pressed one last kiss to the top of Gabrielle’s head. It was a gesture she’d made a thousand times, before battle and after, in war-camps and palaces, in life and the afterlife. This time, on the other side of the twilight, in a world without gods, it felt like a sacrament.
Gabrielle watched Xena wade through the grass and join Eve, crouching low over the water and gesturing as she explained her method of catching fish unawares. The two of them made a strange, fierce picture, but if you looked past the leather and scars it was every bit as peaceful and domestic as any woman teaching her daughter how to mend a torn quilt, or play the lyre.
Heat haze blurred her vision and she blinked, rubbing at her eyes until they cleared. In a few hours the sun would be blazing, but for now the morning was still cool, with a breeze off the sea tempering the gathering heat of the day. Then why did she suddenly feel a pressure, a strange heaviness against the skin of her forearms and the back of her neck, like the humid tension of a thunderstorm about to break? Or like the tingling awareness of being watched —
She whirled around. The hills were empty, pristine as though they’d never been disturbed by mortal feet. There was no cover that could hide an ambush, nothing but knee-high grass that couldn’t have concealed a person. But she was being watched, she was certain of it now.
“Hello?” she called softly. “Is anyone there?”
For a heartbeat nothing happened. Then a golden shimmer caught in the air and fell in a glittering cascade, and when it faded Aphrodite stood with her arms wrapped around herself, looking wan and washed-out and faintly ridiculous in draped ribbons of black silk. “Caught me,” she said gloomily, but her eyes softened as she looked up at Gabrielle. “Just wanted to see if you made it.”
Gabrielle threw her arms around Aphrodite. For a second the goddess stood rigid, then she relaxed and returned the hug. “Geez, you don’t have to get all mushy on me,” she muttered, but it was only a half-hearted stab at her usual disdain.
“I’m so sorry,” Gabrielle said into her shoulder. “Your family —“
Aphrodite pulled away hastily and wiped at her eyes. “Yeah. I’m Last of the Olympians now. Who’d have guessed? That the last god standing would be vain, petty, shallow, useless —“
“Love,” Gabrielle said firmly. “Love is the strongest and most enduring part of any family. Even when everything else fades away, love remains.”
“I know, right? It sucks.” Aphrodite tried for a laugh, but it came out bitter and miserable.
Gabrielle rested a hand on her shoulder. “I really am sorry,” she said quietly. “Xena told me about what you did. I wish it could have ended some other way.”
Aphrodite shrugged. It wasn’t just the sunlight, or the vivid colors of the landscape — she was smaller than she’d been once, and paler, almost translucent, as if the loss she’d suffered had drained her somehow. “They never stood a chance against Xena, and everyone knew it,” she said. “If they did, Dad would have fried you all with lightning bolts ages ago and none of this ever would have happened.”
“If you knew it would lead to this, then why did you help us?” Gabrielle asked.
“For you. Duh.” Aphrodite looked down the hill toward the shore, and Gabrielle followed her gaze to Xena and Eve, who were weaving fish-traps from grass stems and reeds. “I haven’t been hanging out with you all this time just because you’re fun at sleepovers — even though you do have the top-notch gossip, so kudos. I am the Goddess of Love, you know? And you, well… you’ve got it.”
“Everyone loves,” Gabrielle protested.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Of course you’d think that. All mortals want love, and some of them even find it. But you — you really get it, you know? I know you think we were never good for anything but screwing around with your lives, but there is more to being a god than getting into great parties and making your every whim come true. At least — there used to be.” She looked down at Xena again, then out at the ocean, avoiding Gabrielle’s eyes. “I get why Ares was always so into her,” she said softly. “It’s hard for a deity to resist a mortal who really makes a life out of what they’re all about.”
There was a yearning in her voice that Gabrielle recognized — the quiet, resigned acceptance of loss, mourning for something that you might never have even really had. For a moment, just a moment, Gabrielle caught a glimpse of the ageless, timeless being given life by the thoughts and dreams of mortals, set apart from their daily troubles but tethered by their prayers, creating them as they created her — and yet, in the end, so deeply and painfully human.
There was nothing to say, but she had to try. “Aphrodite, I’m —“
Aphrodite gathered up her lacy black shawl and shrugged, turning back with a theatrical toss of her hair. “I’d better get out of here. Wouldn’t want to push my luck with those two around.” She hesitated, then took Gabrielle’s hands in both of hers. Her skin was surprisingly warm, and the small smile she managed was genuine, despite the pain behind it. “I am glad you made it, little one,” she said. “Keep that big heart open, all right? Keep giving me a reason to stick around.”
“I will,” Gabrielle said, but Aphrodite was already gone, transfigured into golden dust that drifted away on the wind.
Gabrielle took a breath, trying to listen with her spirit for any other watchers lurking around, mortal or immortal; but no ghosts, gods, or Furies appeared. There was nothing to fight and nothing to fear. There was only the day and the world and the future, theirs now to make whatever they would of it without divine intervention or retribution. A human world.
Xena was standing with her back to the water, shading her eyes against the sun while Eve made a fire out of driftwood. She raised a hand when she saw Gabrielle looking and waved. Gabrielle smiled, waved back and started down the hill to join her family.