Her first thought is: Gabrielle?
Gabrielle is crying. Her hair is longer. These are the things Xena notices first.
“I’m sorry. I had to. I had to, Xena.”
She realizes she’s spoken aloud. That she has lungs, vocal cords, a tongue and teeth. She lifts up a hand and looks at it. The skin is pulsing with blood and she hears a heartbeat echo in her ears. Hers. She feels this life all around her.
And it feels wrong.
“What have you done?” she whispers.
Gabrielle smears away her tears with the back of her hand, like a child. “I had to. I’m sorry.” She extends her hand.
Xena sees the tears, making tiny rivers on Gabrielle’s hand.
“Come with me.”
Xena takes her hand. There was never any other option. “Where are we going?”
Silence. Gabrielle’s face is grim, hard. “I’m leading you out of the Underworld.”
The path is long, but Gabrielle never looks back at her. Xena doesn’t know if it’s because she’s ashamed or guilty, or perhaps because of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (not true, by the way, she should tell Gabrielle that), or simply so they don’t lose their way. Spirits are all around them, drifting. Most of them have lost their memories. They try to distract the two women from their path, asking for their families, appearing confused and sad.
Xena doesn’t remember it, but she has a suspicion that she was one of those spirits for a long time.
“How long have I been dead?”
Gabrielle doesn’t turn, but her hand tightens in Xena’s. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“They came after me first. They didn’t manage to kill me, somehow. I’ve been in a coma, is what the healers told me. When I woke up, I came to get you. They’ve changed things, Xena. Made a lot of the world wrong.”
She may have been dead, but her feelings are still there. At the thought of Gabrielle hurt, Gabrielle in danger, she feels that quickening of the blood she’s come to associate with protectiveness, righteous fury, fear, love. “Who came after you?”
Gabrielle’s voice is flat, purposefully disaffected. “It’s Dahak.”
“But… we killed Hope and her child.”
“And he’s had a few years to get strong again. He’s gained followers. And he has a new sacrifice. A woman carrying his child.” Her voice is clipped and harsh.
Xena grimaces. “What poor soul got condemned to that?”
Even from behind, she can see the way that Gabrielle swallows, hard. “I’m sorry, Xena.”
“Why? Is it someone we know?”
Gabrielle turns back to look at her, finally. And the world doesn’t end when it happens.
Her eyes are full of tears, but she’s refusing to let them fall. “Xena, it’s Eve.”
Okay, maybe the world does end.
“Eve? When did she—”
“I don’t know. I found her a while ago, I told her what—what happened to you. She traveled with me for a while, but she wasn’t happy. She said she wanted to travel on her own for a while and try to come to terms with your death.” Gabrielle’s lips form a thin, bitter smile. “I guess she made her way to Britannia at some point.”
Xena runs a hand over her face. “Why didn’t you two stay together?”
“We had nothing to hold us together, Xena!” she snaps. Immediately, she softens, swallows back more harsh words. “I’m sorry. You know I love her like my own daughter, but we were both hurting. We both just wanted to be alone for a while.”
“And now she’s carrying the next Hope,” Xena says helplessly.
Gabrielle nods once, quick. “She’s probably already given birth. You remember how fast my pregnancy went. I heard about it and came for you as fast as I could.”
A flash of hope, tiny and bright and fragile, springs in her chest. “So it might not be true? You might have heard a false rumor.”
“Don’t, Xena,” Gabrielle says urgently. “Please don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Eve is the next bride of Dahak. I heard from many people that the bitch of Rome was… well, was Dahak’s new bitch. They also called her the Messenger of Eli. Xena, it’s her.”
Xena says nothing, unable to speak, so Gabrielle continues.
“I’m not sure what her child is like, but I think we can assume the same from her baby as from Hope. We can only pray that she didn’t fall for her child’s false innocence the way that I did mine.”
Xena can see the old hurt in Gabrielle’s face. It’s a fading pain, but it’s there nevertheless. She reaches out a hand, still new-feeling and slightly wrong, and runs her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair. “Your hair’s longer,” she murmurs. “I missed it that way. I liked it short, but you looked like this when I met you.”
“It grew out while I was in the coma,” Gabrielle says matter-of-factly, but smiles at Xena’s touch. “Come on. We need to get out of here and save Eve.”
“Save our daughter,” Xena says firmly.
From here, they leave the Underworld hand-in-hand, on equal footing.
The world is on fire.
Well, only parts of it, but lava streaks the ground and comets rain from the sky. “Dahak,” Gabrielle explains, when Xena shoots her a confused look. “I told you, he’s making the world wrong.”
“I don’t understand how he gained so much power so quickly,” Xena murmurs. “We destroyed his living connection to the world.”
“People mistake Dahak for the god of Eli all the time,” she responds. “I did when we first went to Britannia. It’s an easy mistake to make. He promises to cleanse the world through… through fire. But he doesn’t mention all of the killing he’s going to do first.”
Xena wraps her fingers around Gabrielle’s. “It’s not your fault you were lied to. And I… I didn’t make it easy on you back then. I was so obsessed with defeating Caesar…”
“Stop,” she interrupts. She puts a hand through Xena’s hair. “I think we sang out all our feelings on that one, didn’t we? It’s forgiven.”
She grimaces. “Illusia was not my favorite place. But… it gave me a second chance with you.” She places her hand over Gabrielle’s. “And now I’ve got a second chance at life. I couldn’t ask for more. How did you do that, anyway? I thought it couldn’t be done without compromising the souls.”
Gabrielle grins. “I found a way, all right. I wasn’t Eli’s first follower for nothing.”
“An angel came to you, didn’t it,” Xena says dryly.
“An angel came to me,” Gabrielle affirms, laughing. “She said they couldn’t intervene directly against Dahak, but they could bring you back to life.”
“Why was I… in that wasteland, back there?” she asks. “What was that place? It looked like the Greek gods’ Underworld.”
She shrugs. “It used to be the Underworld. Once your spirit faded away, that’s where it went. I don’t know why. But without the gods, it’s a ruin. The souls just wander there, not knowing who they are or that they’re dead.” Gabrielle bites her lip and Xena watches, helpless. She’s not used to being the one without all the answers, but Gabrielle’s always been the smarter one, she knows. “I think Dahak’s using it to hold his dead, too. I’m not sure. Either way, I asked the angel when she came to me. She said you were in the remnants of the Greek Underworld and I could find you there and take you out.”
“What about everyone else who used to be there?” she asks hesitantly. “What about… what about Solan?”
“I asked about him first,” Gabrielle tells her. “The angel swore that he’d been moved to Heaven already, once Hades was killed. As for the souls, I asked and she promised the souls would be protected if you would come alive and rid the world of Dahak.”
“Always a price tag attached,” she remarks. “Funny how that never changes.”
Gabrielle takes her hand. “I know we can do it, together. But I… I guess I should give you this first.” She reaches into the folds of her robe and her hand emerges, holding the chakram.
Xena almost thinks about taking it. Her fingers itch with missing the feel of it—clean, strong, sure—in her hand. But she doesn’t. “No. For a couple reasons.”
“And?” Gabrielle smirks, missing their banter.
“First, I gave that to you. It’s your weapon now, I’ll make do with a sword. Second,” she falters, “I’m not sure I trust myself to use it. When Eve’s in danger, I’m… unpredictable at best. I don’t want to hurt you again.”
Gabrielle lets go of her hand to touch the scar on the back of her head. It’s something they’ve never really discussed, something covered by her blonde hair, but Xena knows it’s there. In her mind, she still sees that hair stained with blood, the way Gabrielle had to be dragged limply, like a corpse. How she bled in the rain and the mud.
“You wouldn’t hurt me, Xena. It’s different now. For one thing, I’m not being controlled by the Furies or trying to kill Eve. But, but if you want me to keep it, I will. I’ve gotten pretty good at using it,” she boasts teasingly.
For a minute, it’s like seeing a vision of the past. Sweet, terribly young Gabrielle, telling tall tales and getting away with it. A jokester, a storyteller, a miracle. Her miracle.
She kisses her. And Gabrielle kisses back.
Gabrielle pulls back first to breathe. A burning in Xena’s throat tells her she needs to breathe, too, something she’s unused to. She pulls her hand from where it tangled in Gabrielle’s hair, while Gabrielle’s hands stay on her waist. “Any particular reason for that?” Gabrielle laughs breathlessly.
“I just missed you,” Xena says simply. “And it’s been a long time.”
Her hand moves back up to Gabrielle’s face, to wipe away a stray tear. “Yeah,” Gabrielle chokes out. “It has.”
They kiss again, slower this time, less heat. A coming home kiss. Gabrielle’s hands tighten on her waist, and then she pulls away first, again. Xena feels a distinct annoyance at the fact the kiss has to end; she’ll have to do it again once the threat has been taken care of.
“We need to go before the lava gets any closer,” Gabrielle tells her. “And find Eve. I heard she’s back in Rome.”
“Then we go to Rome.” Xena smiles. “Hey, we’re at the mouth of Hell. What does a gal have to do to find a horse around here?”
It takes a few days to get back to Rome. Nights, sleeping in the woods side by side, reminding her of days gone by. Xena presses against a sleeping Gabrielle, who’s warm and soft, and smiles, her hand curving over Gabrielle’s arm. “I missed you,” she whispers, careful only to do it so quietly that she can’t even hear herself.
Gabrielle, as always, sees right through her. “I missed you too,” she mumbles, and leans in to press a casual kiss to the base of Xena’s throat. “Sleep.”
A bit embarrassed at being caught, but more overwhelmed with affection than anything, Xena obeys.
Eve isn’t hard to find. But along the way, they find others—more and more people who are clearly under the influence of Dahak. Their eyes are clear and inhuman, like being back in the Underworld among the dead. Like zombies.
Following them, though, leads them clear to the heart of Rome.
Eve sits in the emperor’s seat, at the top of the gladiatorial ring. Funny how their Roman adventures always seem to lead them here, Xena notes wryly as they enter the sands of the empty ring, and grips Gabrielle’s hand tighter when she catches sight of their daughter.
Poor, precious, pained Eve. Her belly holds the remnants of birth, to one familiar with it, although it’s draped in robes. A tiara sits on top of her head, and a few of the empty-eyed followers of Dahak surround her with food or fans. She looks like the empress of Rome—the role she had once been groomed for, before Xena brought her back to her true path. And Eve’s hair looks like when she claimed Livia as her birthname, wild and untamed. She looks like the girl who once would have killed anyone—her mother, the god of war, or any helpless innocents—just to get what she wanted.
Cold fear grips Xena’s throat, and she feels like she can’t breathe.
The most worrisome thing, though, is how she holds the baby in her arms. Delicately, cradled. Like something precious to her. Like something she loves, even if it is evil. Another Hope. Another Livia. Even, at one point, another Xena.
There’s a theme here, she thinks. Something about wicked daughters and strayed-from paths.
“Eve,” she shouts up to the sky, and Eve’s head snaps toward her.
She can see the way her daughter’s eyes grow wide in surprise, then joy. “Mother?” Eve calls back. “Mother!” She turns and says something to one of Dahak’s servants, who disappears to follow her orders and, before they know it, Xena and Gabrielle are rushed up to the emperor’s box.
Eve hands off the child, who looks to be several months old already, to a servant who looks overwhelmed at the thought of holding the child of Dahak. She hugs her mother good and tight before saying anything. Xena closes her eyes and holds on just as tight. They never got to hug like this before. There was always some kind of crisis getting in the way.
“Mother,” Eve says again into Xena’s shoulder, and a tear drips down Xena’s armor. “Mother, how?”
"You can thank Gabrielle for my rescue from the Underworld,” she answers, clearing her throat from emotion. “She’d have to explain the how and where, and all that.”
Eve lets go, but only to embrace Gabrielle. “I should have believed in you,” she says simply.
Gabrielle braces a hand on Eve’s back, her smile tight. “I should have protected you,” she answers back.
“What do you mean?”
Xena nods her head toward the baby. “Eve, who’s the father?”
Eve frowns. “I… I don’t know. I believe I’m experiencing the same thing you did with your pregnancy. An angel has placed its soul inside me. So, there is no father.”
“Eve, I was pregnant with you for nine months,” Xena explains. “A normal pregnancy, if caused by abnormal circumstances. How long were you pregnant for? A day? Maybe two? And the baby already looks like a toddler!”
She doesn’t respond, taking the baby from the servant into her arms and holding it protectively.
“Eve, that’s not normal!” Xena bursts out. “It’s a pregnancy influenced by magic! That’s not from the god of Eli—that’s something unnatural!”
The baby starts to cry and Eve shushes it, glaring at Xena.
“Xena!” Gabrielle grabs her by the arm.
Breathing heavily, Xena turns to look Gabrielle in the eye. “This,” Gabrielle says quietly, where Eve can’t hear, “this is why I didn’t believe you with Hope. You were too vehement, too murderous. I didn’t want it to be true, and you just gave me another reason to think it wasn’t. Let me try?”
Helpless, she nods and steps back.
Smiling, Gabrielle approaches Eve. “You know how your mother is,” she soothes. “She’s just concerned, that’s all. What have you named the baby?”
“Faith,” Eve answers, calming down a bit at the soft words. “It’s what saved my life after Mother died, when I separated from you. I went to spread the faith in Britannia, and that’s when I found myself pregnant. She saved me. She’s my faith.” She smiles down at the child.
“It’s a lovely name,” Gabrielle says. “Eve, by any chance… did you preach in the ruins of an old temple?”
She eyes Gabrielle warily. “Yes. There were some stones, the locals said the temple had been destroyed many years ago. Something about a battle with Caesar, it got caught in the crossfire.”
“Did you cut yourself? Did someone get hurt?” Gabrielle presses.
“I… a woman attacked me during my preaching, said she wouldn’t let me corrupt her people with a false god. I stabbed her in self-defense before she could kill me. Why?”
Gabrielle switches tactics—Xena can see the thoughts turning in her mind. “Did you know I had a baby of my own, once?”
Eve blinks. “No.”
“I did. She was beautiful.” Gabrielle smiles sadly. “Her name was Hope. Like your Faith… she was my hope. Or at least, I wanted her to be.”
“Your mother and I were in Britannia, fighting Caesar. At that temple, I was tricked into sacrificing my blood innocence,” she explains. “The god of that temple—a god called Dahak—used that to impregnate me with his child. Hope… she turned out to be not human. She could control people’s minds, she could move things with her thoughts. She killed people, Eve. She killed your brother, Solan. I wanted to trust her, wanted to believe in her innocence, but she nearly killed the whole world trying to bring her father into it. She tried to kill me and your mother several times.”
Eve clutches the baby tighter. “I don’t understand what this has to do with Faith.”
“Look around you!” Xena exclaims, unable to hold her tongue. “Eve, why do you think these people are following you, making you their empress? They’re being controlled by Dahak! That,” she points to Faith, “that is Dahak’s second attempt at an heir! She is not a human baby, Eve, she is a monster.”
Xena and Gabrielle share a glance, and Gabrielle takes her hand before nodding in agreement. “I’m sorry, Eve, but it’s true. I was deceived by my daughter. Please don’t blindly follow yours. Given the chance, she will kill you.”
“She wouldn’t!” Eve cries. “She’s just a child! Besides, this doesn’t make any sense. Gabrielle, you had to sacrifice your blood innocence—Livia gave up mine a long time ago!”
Gabrielle closes her eyes tightly, sighing. “I don’t know if it might be different now. Maybe your purification by Eli gave it back to you. Maybe you only needed a blood sacrifice, not complete innocence. I’m not sure. But to be impregnated at the same temple as me, after shedding blood—Eve, that can’t be a coincidence. Haven’t you heard the rumors? The ones that say you’ve borne the new child of Dahak?”
“I’ve heard the name Dahak, but those are foolish peasants’ rumors,” Eve says fiercely. “These people follow me because they believe in my child and what she can do, one day. Mother,” she turns to Xena desperately, “you knew I could do great things. That future was stolen from both of us because the gods forced us apart for twenty-five years. I became Livia, something I wasn’t supposed to be. Something dark and bad. I won’t let myself be separated from Faith like were separated—she can live up to the potential that I couldn’t. She can be a vessel for Eli on earth!”
Xena lays a hand on her daughter’s arm. “I’m sorry,” she says sorrowfully. “She can’t.”
Eve’s eyes widen. “Please,” she begs. “Please don’t hurt her.”
“Eve, I made a mistake all those years ago,” Xena tells her. “I let Hope live, and so many died for it. Your brother died for it, and that almost destroyed me. If we let Faith live, she could kill so many people. She could kill you. And that’s something I won’t allow to happen.” She reaches for the sword at her back. “I can’t lose both my children.”
Before she can react, an arrow whizzes past and grazes her arm, forcing her to let go of the blade. Blood drips on the stone. A Roman soldier stands by Eve, his bow still in hand. “I won’t let you hurt my daughter,” Eve whispers.
“Wait,” Gabrielle pleads. “Wait. We can solve this. No one needs to be hurt.”
“I want to believe you, Gabrielle,” Eve says. “But my first priority is to protect my daughter. You’re both mothers. You understand.”
Xena reaches back again and pulls out the sword before the Roman can shoot again. “Eve,” she says cautiously. “No one wants to hurt you. You’re smarter than this, you’ve always been smart. Let me prove to you that this child is not what you think she is.”
Eve hesitates, keeps her eyes on Xena, the threat.
And in that moment, Gabrielle strikes. The chakram leaves her hand, flying in the air in a wide, perfect arc.
Faith doesn’t take long to die.
The fight should take hours, but it doesn’t. It’s hard to summon up the strength when the person you’re fighting for is dead.
Looking at the fierce pain in Eve’s eyes, Xena knows she looks exactly like Gabrielle did when Xena couldn’t take her body back in Japa. Xena looks at the tip of the sword she’s holding, pressed up against Eve’s throat, and drops it before she can do anything else.
“Eve,” she begs. “Don’t make me. Don’t make me.”
“Let me kill her!” Eve shrieks. She holds no weapons—Xena knocked them away nearly effortlessly in the fight—but the fire in her eyes shows she’d easily kill Gabrielle with her bare hands. “Mother, please, I need justice!”
Gabrielle stands behind Xena, still holding Faith’s tiny, tiny corpse. To anyone that didn’t know the child’s true nature, she’d look like a monster. But Xena can see how much pain Gabrielle holds in her own eyes. How much she hadn’t wanted to do this.
“Eve,” Xena tries again. “Look around you. Don’t you see? We were right.”
Eve does look around, eyes wildly scanning the horizon, only to see that her protective soldiers have left her.
“They left as soon as Faith died,” Xena says gently. “Don’t you see? They’re no longer under Dahak’s control. As soon as Faith died, he lost his power on Earth.”
“I don’t care about any stupid gods or their power!” Eve snarls, but her hands drop from clenched fists, splayed open at her sides. “I just want my daughter!”
“If we give you the child,” her voice is clear and strong, though her hands are shaking just as hard as Eve’s, “you will bury her, and you will leave Gabrielle alone. All she did was go through with what you wouldn’t let me do. If you’re punishing anyone, it’s me.”
Breathing heavily, teeth bared and eyes full of tears, she nods.
Gabrielle, wordless, passes the body to Xena, who takes a minute to look at it. Faith had been beautiful. Her granddaughter. She bites her lip and gives the body to Eve.
Eve takes it, falling to her knees before she even has the child firmly tucked against her chest. She howls, a formless scream, and thunder strikes at the same moment. Dahak, voicing his displeasure. Xena winces. Gabrielle is dangerously still.
“Just go.” Eve’s voice is tired beyond measure, exhausted from both effort and pain. “Go, and pray that if I look, I don’t find you.”
She takes Gabrielle’s trembling hand. They go.
Rome is empty, quiet now without a new god to follow. The people hide in their houses from the raging storm. The emperor’s guards are nowhere to be found, probably still reeling from having their minds given back to them.
They make it to the gates. A mile past, another, another.
She’s really only been alive again for a few days. Xena squeezes Gabrielle’s hand in hers with the realization.
It’s the last straw, that touch. In a reflection of Eve, Gabrielle drops to her knees, burying her head in her hands. “It was so easy,” she chokes out. “I didn’t even feel anything, I just—did it. Gods, Xena, I’m becoming a monster.”
“I’ve been a monster,” Xena says carefully, sitting down next to Gabrielle. They’re on the side of a path, near the woods, and no one's traveling in this storm—no one will stop to see them. “I’ve been one, and you’re not it, trust me. You do hard things, but you feel the pain of it. You don’t enjoy it.”
“Of course I didn’t enjoy it!” Gabrielle spits out. “I was too numb to do anything! I can’t even mourn that child—I can’t even cry over our granddaughter—because I knew it needed to die!”
They sit quietly.
“I never wanted to be this person,” Gabrielle says, her voice soaked with exhaustion.
Idly, Xena takes one of her hands, forcing Gabrielle to look at her instead of her palms. “I don’t know what person you’re thinking of,” she says calmly, playing with her fingers, “but you’re not her. You’re Gabrielle. That girl who told me she could read the stars for me, if only I’d take her with her. I loved her from the first moment. You’re still that girl. I see her in you, all the time, no matter what changes.”
Unable to speak, Gabrielle stays silent. Xena lets her. Dahak’s rain falls all around them, turning Gabrielle’s hair darker blonde, streaking her face with water. As promised, she sheds no tears. Xena doesn’t either.
“I love you too,” Gabrielle says finally. “And that—that doesn’t change, no matter what you do.”
“I know,” Xena says, trying to suffuse her voice with that deep, terrifying, overwhelming pressure she calls love in her chest. “It’s the same for me.”
They move to the underbrush, where the trees will provide some shelter from the rain. Xena looks up at the clouded sky and thinks over a question she's been meaning to ask. "When you... brought me back. The first thing you said was you were sorry. Why?"
Gabrielle looks down, presses her lips into a thin, firm line. "You were ready to die. I remember. You wouldn't have chosen this for yourself."
"I was ready to die to do the right thing," she corrects gently. "But being here with you? Having more time with you? Nothing could make me choose differently. Don't think that, okay? I'm always happier with you around."
She gives Xena an unsure smile before throwing herself into Xena's arms.
They sleep uneasily that night, but it’s in each other’s arms, each littering kisses over the other’s eyes and cheeks and lips and throats. It’s a hard night, painful, but it’s spent together.
In the morning, once the storm is over, they travel back together to Greece, their hearts decidedly lighter. Perhaps they should be running from Eve, who no doubt will not forgive them anytime soon, but neither of them wants to. “I hope she finds us,” Gabrielle says firmly. “I need to talk to her, once her anger has died down. Show her that I’ve shared her grief.”
“Our daughter’s alive,” Xena says. “And the world with her. That’s what’s most important.”
“You’re alive,” Gabrielle responds, her eyes sparkling. “And I don’t think we’ve celebrated that quite enough.”
Xena smirks and can’t resist a quip. “What are you gonna do, write another one of your scrolls?”
Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle leans up and kisses her instead. “I’m planning on doing a lot of that, actually,” she teases. “Unless you’d… rather, I wrote a scroll instead?”
"No, no,” Xena says hurriedly, using her grip on Gabrielle’s shirt to pull her in. “Get back over here.”
They both laugh, though it’s hard with their mouths pressed together. They manage.
The nights still promise to be dark and painful—no Illusia here to wheedle Eve into forgiveness or understanding, and they have their own guilt to haunt them, too—but their days, less so. Gabrielle can cut her hair and write her scrolls and practice more with the chakram, if she’s willing to pick it up again. Xena can trace the lines of Gabrielle’s tattoo and go fishing and readjust to the simple reality of being alive. When Eve is ready, they can talk to her, and whatever comes after that, good or bad, will come.
But until then, they have this. Xena runs her hands through Gabrielle’s hair, feels them tangle in the strands as she clutches at her back, and listens to Gabrielle, still laughing as Xena presses kisses to her neck. Her fingers grip at Xena’s shoulders, nails digging in, holding tighter than ever as though Xena will slip away if she doesn't. Xena kisses harder and resolves not to give her more cause for worry. There's time for them both, before it's over.
Until then, they have a lot of living to do.