X X X
Chakram in hand, Xena stared ahead, a look of intense focus on her face. Next to her stood Gabrielle, her long reddish blond hair swept by the wind.
“Look at that.” Jackie nodded at the mural. “Funny, isn’t it. We get back to town, and -- there’s this.”
“Funny?” Lynn pressed her glass of cold, dark beer to her cheek, its chill oddly soothing. “You can find lots of Xena images in any town in Greece. She is something of a national hero.”
Jackie sipped her wine, looking pensively at the picture. Then she tossed her head slightly and turned back to Lynn.
“I hope they bring the food soon. I’m starving.”
The restaurant at the Thessaloniki Holiday Inn was nearly empty; it wasn’t really dinnertime yet, but Lynn and Jackie hadn’t eaten since leaving the site of the dig, and it had been a long drive.
They had spent five days at the site, going over the scrolls, taking notes in a marathon work session. Then the work was done, and Lynn had told Mario (who was still puzzling over just how the chakram simply came off the wall when she touched it) that they would head back to Thessaloniki right away. Mario had driven them to the hotel -- a journey past sloping hills cluttered with matchbox-like suburban houses, and then along the city’s wide avenues where the traffic lived a boisterous life of its own, past the glitter of modern shops and the reddish domes of medieval churches -- and dropped them off with a flourish of operatic good-byes and good wishes. The flight back to New York was in three days.
Jackie stared down pensively, light spots from the chandelier dancing in her wine glass. Then she said, “Don’t you think we should talk about it?”
Lynn could have said, “About what?”, but she didn’t want to play games. Maybe that was really why they had worked on the scrolls at such a frenetic pace, not just because they wanted to finish as quickly as possible. That way, they didn’t have time to talk.
“If you want,” she said, her voice level.
Jackie looked up, her face tense with a kind of nervous resolution, as if she were bracing herself for a jump. “Look -- we can’t just pretend nothing happened. We went into a two-thousand-year-old tomb -- and there was a man in there. And -- he woke up.”
“Yeah, I know,” Lynn said. What else was there to say, really? She picked up the fork on the table and turned it in her hands, running a finger along the dull edge of the metal. “We saw something. But Jackie, I don’t know -- maybe it was…” She didn’t know what to say next. Every explanation she had tried playing out in her head crumbled the moment one poked at it.
“Maybe it was what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Lynn…” Jackie paused and sighed. “It’s not just that. There’s something I haven’t told you -- ”
The waiter came up bearing the appetizers. He was elegant and dignified and took forever to put down the plates, and Lynn was suddenly beside herself. Jackie was about to tell her something -- obviously something that had to do with this whole thing, with Ares, with Xena -- and she had to keep herself from snapping at the waiter to go away. Finally, he did.
Jackie gave her a sheepish glance. “Please don’t laugh…”
“I won’t.” She wasn’t sure she was up to laughing at anything now.
“I’ve had more dreams.”
“Dreams,” Lynn said quietly. She knew what was coming next. Dreams in which --
“Dreams in which I’m Gabrielle,” Jackie blurted out. “God, some of them were just awful…” She rubbed her face and shivered. “The crucifixion… the time after Hope killed Solan and you tried to -- ” She quickly caught herself. “Uh, I meant when Xena tried -- tried -- ”
“Jackie,” Lynn said firmly. She was not going to get agitated over this. “We’ve been reading Gabrielle’s scrolls, day in and day out.” Lynn took a cheese puff from her plate and bit off a piece. “Don’t you think it that explains it? That it makes sense that you’d dream about these things?”
“But Xe- ”
Jackie’s voice broke off abruptly but it was too late. Even unfinished, the word was still there, slashed into what remained of the fabric of reality. They sat frozen for a moment, Lynn struck speechless, Jackie looking utterly terrified.
Finally, Jackie cleared her throat and said, in an unnaturally bright voice, “But Lynn…” She paused long enough to take another sip of wine, and scrunched up her eyebrows as if she didn’t quite remember what she was going to say next. “It was so lifelike. Those dreams, I mean.”
Lynn sat still, her eyes half-closed. She wanted to tell Jackie that she had had dreams too, wonderful, horrible dreams in which she was Xena -- dreams in which she fought and killed, and rushed frantically into a cabin to find her son dead on the floor, and watched Callisto sink into quicksand pleading for help -- in which she taught Gabrielle to fish and they splashed around in a lake, laughing -- in which she desperately hugged Gabrielle, back from the dead -- in which she and Ares made passionate love, or faced each other in anger and pain… With a start, she opened her eyes. If she told Jackie, there would be no turning back.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
In the restaurant’s spacious, sparkling bathroom, she bent down over a sink and splashed cold water on her face. Then she stood up straight and faced the mirror, studying her own face as if it weren’t quite hers: the angular cheekbones, the strong mouth, the light grey eyes. The water trickled from her chin, dripping down the open collar of her shirt. Did she really look like the warrior woman in those murals, minus the long jet-black hair? Obviously, Ares thought she was Xena … if that was really Ares. How totally insane. She closed her eyes for a moment, then shut the water off and wiped her face with a paper towel.
“Ares,” she whispered to herself.
And then it hit her, an overwhelming sense of a presence next to her, of being watched, almost touched -- an awareness that shot through every nerve in her body like an electrical charge. She stiffened and said in a loud, hard voice that seemed to come from somewhere else, “Come out right now!”
“I beg your pardon?” said a shocked, British-accented female voice behind her. The presence she had felt was gone abruptly, as if a switch had been turned off. Lynn turned around and saw a pair of sensible brown shoes in one of the stalls. Her face blazing, she fled the bathroom before her embarrassment could be complete.
Back at the table, Jackie looked tense and anxious. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” Lynn sat down, picked up her beer glass and slowly drank what was left, then absent-mindedly slipped another cheese puff in her mouth. She had to tell Jackie. She pushed the plate aside, looked up, and forced out the words. “I’ve had dreams too.”
Jackie stared, simultaneously aghast and relieved. “About Xena?” she asked in a hushed voice. “I mean -- about … being Xena?”
She nodded reluctantly. “Yeah.”
Jackie digested this for a moment, her face animated by a multitude of emotions -- fear, excitement, utter bewilderment, joy, disbelief. In her spellbound state, she tipped over her wine glass, flooding Lynn’s plate, and sat up with a start.
“Oh God -- I’m sorry…”
“That’s all right. Cheese puffs in white wine -- not too bad.”
Jackie leaned back in her chair, a blurry pensive look coming over her face.
“So do you think it’s true…” she muttered, more as a statement than a question.
Lynn was gripped by a surge of unaccountable irritation. “Do I think what’s true? That we’re reincarnations of Xena and Gabrielle? And that we just met Ares, God of War? For heaven’s sake, Jackie -- what do you expect me to say? Do you really believe in this?”
“I read this line once.” Jackie rested her chin on the back of her hand, in the philosophical pose of Rodin’s Thinker. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Or something like that.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Xena … Uh, Lynn…” It wasn’t quite as bad the second time around. “Look. I know this sounds totally insane and everything, but -- well -- ”
“Maybe you should try calling Ares.”
After a brief, uneasy silence, Lynn said evenly, “I tried.”
“What? When -- where?”
Lynn stared down at her soggy plate. “Just now, in the -- umm…” As if this wasn’t already ridiculous enough. “In the -- restroom.”
“Lynn!” Jackie looked genuinely shocked. “What do you think he is, some kind of pervert who hangs around ladies’ rooms?”
Rather to her own surprise, Lynn felt a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “We’ll see about that.”
“Nothing.” She felt almost giddy; the memory of that earlier sensation, that presence she had sensed, filled her with warm excitement. Then that subsided, and when her eyes met Jackie’s she was scared.
“You want another wine?” she asked.
“Sure.” Jackie paused, then reached out and touched Lynn’s hand. Her voice was hushed. "You know what’s funny. When I was a kid, I had this idea that I came from someplace else. It's not that I didn't love Mom and Dad -- I did, really. I just had this fantasy … like -- I was from some other world and they were just raising me…”
"What, like Superman? The girl from planet Krypton?"
"Or the Star-Child. You know, the Oscar Wilde story.”
Lynn didn’t know the story, and Jackie started telling her: A poor peasant saw a star fall while walking in the woods one night, and then found a baby in a basket, wrapped in a golden cloth embroidered with stars. He and his wife adopted the baby and called him Star-Child; and the beautiful boy grew up selfish, vain, and heartless, until he was punished for his cruelty and put through a harsh test, until he is willing to risk his life for unselfish love and compassion. It wasn’t like Lynn to be enthralled by a fairy tale, but this one struck a chord in a way she couldn’t quite explain.
After that, over dinner and coffee, they got to talking about other things, and Lynn found herself telling Jackie about parts of her life she hardly ever discussed with anyone: her relationship with Peter, and before that with a charming, sociable journalist whose cynicism she had initially mistaken for courage; and the fact that when she was six, her mother, a nurse in a small New Jersey town, had embarked on a spiritual quest that took her to California and never brought her back. As they got up from the table, she wondered what had made her open up like that. It felt strange, almost as if she had been talking about someone else.
X X X
“What are we going to do tomorrow?”
They waited for the elevator, standing next to a shiny, fake-looking potted palm tree. A group of tourists from some Eastern European country had just arrived at the hotel, and the lobby was filling with a tide of talk and clatter.
“I was thinking -- ” Lynn raised her voice slightly -- “we can go over our notes. Talk about how we’re going to incorporate this into the book.”
Jackie shot her an alarmed look. “Incorporate --”
“ -- the scrolls,” Lynn said evenly. “The new material from the scrolls.”
Jackie looked relieved, then amused and slightly exasperated. “You want to spend a beautiful day in a hotel room poring over our notes?”
“We did come here to work,” Lynn said weakly. She didn’t even want to think about how to incorporate … the rest of it into the book. She had always automatically assumed, of course, that Xena and Gabrielle’s up-close-and-personal relationship with Ares and other gods was a flight of Gabrielle's poetic fancy, or maybe a symbolic representation of the real story. How the hell was she supposed to deal with it now?
“It’s here,” Jackie said.
Lynn flinched a little and then saw the elevator doors opening in front of them. She followed Jackie inside. They had been given rooms on different floors, Jackie on the fourth, Lynn on the seventh.
“Come on, there is so much to see,” Jackie said as the elevator started up with a low hum. “The Roman ruins, the mosques, the tower -- the archeological museum is nearby, and there's a Byzantine -- ”
“You’re right. Let’s do the museums.”
“Oh yeah? Great!” Jackie beamed at Lynn, every bit the bright-eyed girl who had stepped into her office a hundred years ago, and looking at her one could almost believe that life would just go on as usual. The elevator thumped to a halt, and Jackie said, “See you tomorrow, then.”
“See you then. Sleep well.”
As the doors were closing, Jackie turned to call out, “Good night, Lynn!”
Left alone in the small wood-paneled cubicle, Lynn fidgeted, tugging at the collar of her shirt. Throughout dinner, especially when she and Jackie started talking about personal things, she had been dogged sense of déjà vu.
Jackie thought they had been Xena and Gabrielle in their previous lives. What if…
Lynn almost groaned aloud. She couldn’t think about it -- not now.
She realized that the elevator had stopped; she barely had time to hold the door open before it slid shut again.
Stop it, just stop it, she told herself, actually moving her lips to form the soundless words.
She slid her card into the door slot and went into the darkened room. It wasn't that late -- just after nine. She was going to watch the news and then look over her notes from the scrolls. Or maybe find a good movie to watch, or --
Lynn’s hand froze on its way to the light switch. It was back -- that weird, thrilling, scary sensation from before. He was back.
She tried to resist. She would turn on the light and there would be nothing -- no one there.
Sharply, she flipped the switch. All the lamps in the room came on at once.
He was sitting in the armchair by the window; not so much sitting as reclining in a casual lazy pose, one leg slung over the side of the chair, reflections from the lamp glittering faintly in the metal studs of his vest and in the gemstones on the hilt of the sword at his belt. She wasn’t as shocked as she should have been.
“It’s you,” she said, almost matter-of-factly.
He grinned. “Hello to you too.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You speak English.”
“You’re not the only one with many skills.”
He sat up. She walked toward him and then stopped, throwing her purse down on a chair. “You think I’m Xena.”
“I know you are.” He paused. “You know it too, don’t you?” She thought she heard a hint of pleading in his voice, but when she looked into his eyes they twinkled with amusement.
“Were you watching me -- before?” She felt herself blushing.
He was smiling. “Oh yeah. You can still pick up on that, can’t you.” Switching to Greek, he added, “You know you were always the only mortal who could.” For a moment his eyes were serious, and he seemed to search her face for a hint of acknowledgment.
“I was in the women’s room,” she snapped. “You can’t do that.”
“Any of it. All of it!”
“You’re the one who called me,” he said.
“I did not!”
“Sure you did. You said my name.”
She had, hadn’t she? What had she been thinking? Lynn sat down on the edge of the bed and pressed her hands to her forehead.
“Tell me,” Ares said. “How did you get to the temple? What were you doing there?”
With a sigh, she looked up. “I’m a historian. I’m doing research on Xena.”
“And it led you there.”
“They found Gabrielle’s scrolls. And the chakram… I had to come over. I live in another country,” she said defensively. “On the other side of the ocean.”
Ares nodded, rubbing his chin. Softly, he said, “I knew you’d come back.” Their eyes met silently; unnerved, she looked away. He went on, his voice brighter now, with a touch of teasing, “I knew you’d find it – it’s what you do.”
Stop it. Lynn stood up brusquely and turned to face him. “I want you to do something for me.”
“Oh?” He looked up at her, attentive, waiting.
“Come down with me to the lounge,” she said. “Where other people can see you. I want to know that I’m not out of my mind.”
He rose and came up to her, so close that he could have held out a hand and touched her. She could feel his closeness physically, almost as if there were some aura radiating from him and she could feel it on her skin -- or maybe it was just a trick of her mind. He didn’t touch her.
“So now you think this isn’t real?” He sounded hurt but she wasn’t sure if he was serious or teasing her again; and then his expression changed to a wry grin. “So tell me -- Lynn -- which one of us is making this up?”
On the way to the door, she stopped. “Wait -- you can’t go dressed like that.”
“Well, that wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t real, would it?”
“Ares…” she said impatiently.
The smirk on his face faded, and he was now looking at her with a small, warm smile that barely touched the corners of his mouth. With a mock shrug of resignation, he unbuckled his swordbelt and let it drop to the carpeted floor, and Lynn suppressed a gasp, wondering if he was about to take his clothes off. He straightened up and threw his head back. The black of his leathers blurred for a moment, as if a picture had gone out of focus, and then he was dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt with the same design as the one she’d worn to the temple -- the red and gold Chinese dragon.
She stared, and chuckled in spite of herself. “Why that?”
He shrugged. “I like the look.” When they were leaving the room, he added, “When I first saw you wearing that, I wondered if you were a warrior in the army of Ch’in.”
“I am not a warrior.” Lynn slammed the door behind her and made for the elevator. “Ch’in… No, I’ve never been to China -- I got this in Chinatown…” She realized that she had no idea how much he knew of the modern world -- and, in the same flash, that she was actually thinking of him as an ancient god awake in the twenty-first century. “In a Chinese quarter in a big city,” she said. “In a souvenir shop.”
At the very least Ares seemed to be familiar with elevators, because he readily stepped inside and watched Lynn push the lobby button.
“I’ll say one thing,” he said. “Being mortal is a lot easier than it used to be. You don’t have to walk everywhere.”
“That’s right,” she said. “Pretty soon, we’ll forget how.”
He gave her an amused glance. Their eyes met then, and she didn’t want to turn away. There was mischief in his expression, and tenderness, and more.
The slight jolt of the elevator coming to a halt broke the spell. She turned around and stepped out. He followed, no questions asked.
They walked into the hotel oak-paneled lounge, amber-hued in the low lighting. A platinum blonde coming toward them, in stiletto heels, a low-buttoned shirt and makeup that made her look like a mannequin, ogled Ares so brazenly that Lynn’s experiment instantly became pointless -- or, perhaps, was an instant success. For better or worse, others could see him. Glancing sideways, she saw him look back at the woman, with cool condescending amusement but also with frank recognition of her stare, and she was annoyed.
She could have turned back; but at this point it would have felt ridiculous, and besides, she didn't think she wanted to be alone with him just yet. Now that she knew he was real, she … well, in a movie or a novel, she would have needed a stiff drink, though she wasn’t sure how getting her brain addled even more was supposed to help.
The lounge was half-empty, a soft din of voices hanging in the air. The woman at the piano began to play a soulful Gershwin tune. Lynn looked around and waved awkwardly toward a free corner table; they sat down in the plush armchairs on opposite sides of it, staring silently at each other. When the waiter came up, Lynn asked for a double espresso; there wasn’t much of a chance she’d go to sleep anytime soon. The waiter again confirmed Ares’ existence with a “What about you, sir?”
Ares gave her a wry teasing look, as if to say, “Are you happy now?”, and then said, “The same.”
When the waiter left, Lynn glanced at Ares and caught herself grinning a little. “Do you know what you just ordered?”
He raised an eyebrow slightly. “No. But I figured I can trust you.”
“Really -- based on what?” Some part of her that listened from the outside could hear the teasing husky touch in her own tone. Was shebantering with him?
“Old memories,” he said, leaning back.
I love you, said a voice in her head. It was the only thing she could think just then, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to say it to him -- and at least for a moment, it was exhilarating.
“So,” he said. “What exactly are we about to drink? Curdled cow’s blood? Melted fish guts? Brew of soldiers’ boots?”
She smirked. “You’ll find out soon enough. Patience is a virtue.”
“Oh, I’ve got plenty,” he said. “You ought to know.”
Uncharacteristically flustered, Lynn was grateful when the waiter interrupted them. She told him to put it on her room bill, then picked up the cup and breathed in the heady roasted aroma. How would a strong brew like that taste to someone who’d never had coffee before? She sipped it, and watched with amusement as Ares sniffed suspiciously at his cup and finally took a sip. He winced and grimaced, and gave her a scandalized look.
“Brew of soldiers’ boots was pretty close.”
“Don’t knock it,” she said. “It’s supposed to be good for the fighting spirit.”
“I can see why. It would keep me pissed off all right.”
“That’ll teach you to trust a stranger,” she said.
The music had stopped and there was a momentary hush, except for the distant murmur of voices from the other side of the lounge. Lynn put down the cup; it clanked slightly on the table’s glass surface.
“A stranger.” He looked at her intently. “Do you always kiss strangers?”
A hot flush scalded her face and neck. She had kissed him, back there in the tomb, their fingers intertwined, the warmth of his hand seeping into her skin … Another memory came to her, only this time it wasn’t some overpowering vision of another place and time but a memory like any other: she was on top of him on a couch, kissing him, diving down to kiss his chest, his hands roaming her body and making a slow fever rise and spread under her skin, and then there was an explosion of noise and light, and -- she tossed her head and forced herself back to the present.
The pianist began to play again, a lush Italian song this time. Lynn looked at Ares, at his mouth, his lips parted in a hint of a smile. She wanted to kiss him again. She wanted to touch him, to feel his hands on her. She wanted him.
Her hand was shaking slightly when she picked up her cup and gulped down the rest of the coffee.
“Let’s go back to my room,” she said.
For just a moment Ares looked startled, then pleased; then uncertain.
“Just like that?” he said.
“Just like that.”
“That’s -- very tempting,” he said. She expected some kind of follow-up, some kind of “but…”, and recoiled inwardly; but he rose from his chair without saying anything else.
The blood pounded in Lynn’s ears as they walked to the elevator. Maybe she was crazy after all … having visions of herself as a long-dead Greek warrior princess -- about to take a man back to her room when she’d only met him a few days ago … Her face was blazing, and she actually felt embarrassed when a casually dressed middle-aged woman walking by with her husband glanced at them -- as if she could read it all in her face.
Maybe some part of her, somewhere, was still hoping that it would all turn out to be a dream. The scary thing was that another part of her didn’t want it to be.
They waited for the elevator, just the two of them. Her shoulder brushed his and she shivered.
“So you’re a historian and you study Xena,” he said. After a pause, he added wryly, “And you used to think I was an egomaniac.”
She turned to face him. Underneath the cool ironic expression, there was something almost apprehensive in his look.
“You mean, you’re not?” she said.
“So you do remember.”
“I remember,” she said quietly, without thinking. She wasn’t surewhat she remembered; but just then she knew, with a hard finality that made her chest tighten, that nothing would ever be the same. She would go back to the States, try to get her life back on track -- but there was really no going back, not since she’d walked into that damn crypt; he had made sure of that. She hadn’t really been in charge of anything since then. Of course, she could change that now. She could send him back. She still had that choice.
The elevator was here. She lingered for a moment, then stepped inside. He followed and the doors slid shut, and they were alone. Ares stood behind her, not actually touching her -- yet -- butshe could feel his nearness like a touch, a caress.
Brusquely, she turned around, pulled his head down and kissed his mouth.
He made a muffled, startled sound that became a low moan. When she pulled away and opened her eyes, she could see what she was doing to him -- his face clouded and transformed by desire, his breathing labored -- and the knowledge that she had this power turned to elation. With a bit of shock, she realized that he was back in his leathers. She slid her hand in the opening in his vest and stroked his chest, feeling the heat of his skin and the softness of his hair, feeling the small shudder of his response to her touch.
“Xena -- ” he gasped.
He pulled her toward him almost roughly, her whole body pressed against his, his hands moving down her back, his eyes searching her face, and she felt a powerful rush of excitement. He paused, holding her, still a trace of doubt in his expression; then it was gone, replaced by an intensity that jolted her. To stop now, to push him away now would be like refusing to breathe. Why do you continue to deny us, he had said to her once. He leaned forward and they kissed again, greedily, joyfully.
The elevator stopped and they pulled apart with a hushed laugh, both of them out of breath.
As the doors closed behind them and they walked down the hallway, Lynn felt a tug of anxiety. She still didn’t know him -- she’d found him in some two-thousand-year-old tomb in Greece -- she still couldn’t be sure she wasn’t insane -- he called her Xena … these thoughts stirred in her mind and gave one last twitch, and were gone.
“Ares,” she said. It felt good, saying his name.
He glanced at her, curiously and a little warily, and she grinned at him in response.
Then they were at her door, and she reached into her purse and the card key wasn’t there.
Lynn groped inside the purse in quick sharp movements -- wallet -- pen -- comb -- sticky piece of candy -- notepad -- nothing. Suddenly nervous, she looked up at Ares. His puzzled look turned to a frown. “What?”
“The door’s -- locked. I left the key inside.”
She didn't believe in signs, but --
He stared at her, maybe trying to figure out if this was yet another game, and finally smirked. “Perfect. Now I get to watch you kick down the door.”
She didn't believe in signs from God, but maybe some part of her, the still-rational part, had done this on purpose -- so that she'd have to stop, have time to come to her senses. The thoughts she had pushed away were back, all at once. She didn't know him -- he called her Xena -- she'd found him in some ancient tomb -- she was losing her mind. She didn't know him.
"No," she said quietly, flatly. "No."
There was a strange look in his eyes; no anger but a kind of hurt, and a touch of warmth -- concern -- more than that. He stepped closer and reached out to touch her face. "Xena -- "
"No!" She clutched at her purse, holding it up in front of her as if it could be a shield. She hadn't felt such terror since that time she'd almost drowned as a child -- or since the nightmares she'd had about it for the next few years.
"Leave," she said, her voice choked. "Leave now." She paused a moment, struggling for breath. "Please."
For a moment all emotion was gone from his face; it was perfectly still, perfectly closed. Then, there was a strange sound, like a harsh gust of wind, and a blue light flared up about him and burst; and when the smoke and the glare had cleared, then there was nothing but empty air. Come back, she wanted to say.
Lynn leaned back against the door and closed her eyes, letting out a long breath. She had to go down to the lobby and get a new card key; but she felt too weak, and her legs wouldn't move.
X X X
Ares watched her for a moment, from the far end of the hallway where she couldn’t sense him -- if she could sense him at all in this life. She had before … but maybe it was just a flash, a memory of their former bond that had come and gone.
He materialized in an empty corner of a ground-floor hallway, changing his leathers to simple black, and strode briskly into the lobby. For some reason he wanted, right now, to be visible to mortal eyes.
He stepped through the revolving doors and under the hotel's massive golden portico. There were voices and laughter; four or five barely dressed, suntanned, giggly blondes were clustered by one of the columns, engaged in this new world's odd ritual of puffing at burning white sticks and blowing out the smoke. Snatches of raspy music drifted from a lonely white taxicab parked by the sidewalk. Ares walked past it and down the wide street lined with quiet dark trees. The city greeted him with its still-open, still-noisy cafes, the still-lit windows of closed shops, the never-sleeping signs on the buildings shimmering in red and blue and green. In the distance, Thessaloiniki’s majestic White Tower rose against the night sky, Cars whooshed by, their huge round eyes bathing the night in white beams. For an instant the sight of these horseless chariots racing at great speed jolted him -- even though a few days earlier, on his first visit to one of the great cities of this new world, he'd gotten used to these things after about five minutes.
Something felt different. The lights and the colors were brighter somehow, the sounds more vivid, the cooling night air with a touch of sea breeze more alive on his face and bare arms; and in his mind he could seeher more clearly, this maddening woman he had left behind in the hallway, this woman who was Xena and not Xena.
His chest hurt. That was different too. As the breath caught in his throat, it hit him that he hadn't truly felt much of anything from the moment he had woken up in his tomb and until now -- except maybe for that first joy when he saw her and knew her, and knew that she knewhim. After that, everything had been a bit off; even when he realized that her companion was Gabrielle reborn; even when Xena -- this Xena who was Lynn, this Lynn who was Xena -- caught the chakram. It was as if he had been watching everything through a wall of glass, as if everything else around him had been real but he hadn't been quite there. Even his pursuit of Xena … He had known in his mind that his goal was to get her back, and he had desired her, of course -- but this desire had not, until now, become yearning.
And then … and then she had touched him, kissed him -- he had held her in his arms -- and just when he thought he had her back, she was gone.
Now, at last, he was fully awake, and it hurt.
Trying to make some sense of his jumbled thoughts, he walked faster. A loud screech made him halt abruptly and turn, and he found himself staring at one of those machines, its glowing eyes less than two paces away. The man inside leaned out and shouted, in the new Greek dialect of this age, "What are you trying to do, asshole -- kill yourself?"
It should have been amusing; but now it annoyed him, being insulted by some pathetic mortal whose ancestors had probably groveled at his altars. Ares clenched his fists and vanished in shards of light, no doubt leaving the man to gape in bewilderment.
The city's lights and sounds melted into a glittering whirlwind around him. At the very moment he took himself into the ether, he knew where he would go.
The temple where he had slept was dark and deserted; those damn vultures who had dug up the place had long ended their work shift. He could have lit their lamps -- there wasn't much of a trick to it -- but instead, he waved a hand and created dozens of candles and oil lamps. There was something soothing about their soft wavering glow; almost enough to fool himself into thinking that he was back in the time when he was still the true God of War, and when the Warrior Princess lived.
He came up to the mural of the Salonae battle and stood staring at the painting of Xena. Beautiful, so beautiful -- her features sharpened by that focused battle-rage he knew so well, her body taut with energy, her hair swept by the wind. He raised his hand to touch her face -- to touch cold, centuries-old stone -- and it was almost more than one could endure. The memories burst open in his mind: the moment when he knew, though still refusing to admit it to himself, that she was dead; the moment when he actually saw her, her face waxen, an ugly, ragged crimson gash on the side of her neck, that beautiful hair matted with thick blood, her limbs awkward and stiff; dead, completely and irrevocably dead, beyond any power or remedy he had.
Closing his eyes, Ares pressed his palms and his forehead to the rough wall. It was back now, all of it. The disbelief, the pain that ripped into his chest and stayed there -- he had lost her before, but not like this, not when they'd been so close to everything he had wanted –the awful sound of Gabrielle’s choked, shuddering sobs which he couldn’t shut out – the moment when he reached out to touch Xena’s cold pale face, and was suddenly seized by a black, horrifying anger at her -- because she would be at peace wherever she had gone, and had left him to suffer; because she'd been too stubborn to accept his gift of immortality.
At some point after that, he was numb to any further pain, and even when he watched the flames of the funeral pyre lick at her hair and billow around her body, there was nothing but the dull knowledge that it was over. He wasn't sure when the thought formed consciously in his mind that he did not want to go on like this. From that point on, he had carried out his plan almost mechanically, not allowing himself to feel much of anything, except at the very end when he spoke to Gabrielle.
His plan had worked as well as he could have possibly hoped. Xena's soul was reborn in this woman, and still had its connection to the chakram: she had been able to take it and unlock the doorway, and awaken him -- all as planned. He was back, she was back -- he had found her, or rather she had found him -- all as planned -- and for what? She had almost Xena's spirit, and almost Xena's looks, and by now many of Xena's memories -- but she wasn't really Xena, maybe never would be. And then what? What did he have left?
He had seen enough, here in Greece and on a short visit to Rome, to know that this world had no room for the Olympian gods, except as curiosities from a time long past. His once-majestic temple on the Roman Forum, built by Augustus and Livia, now lay in ruins, bright green lizards scurrying over the dirt-streaked wreckage of the marble columns; when he checked the place out, it was mobbed by gawking, chattering travelers apparently from the land east of Ch'in, armed with those tiny boxes that could capture images of things. An oily guide regaled them with tales about the temple's history, including a completely made-up story about how "la leggendaria Xena" and Livia had fought each other here. Listening to him, it was quite obvious that the man didn't believe -- no, didn't even admit the possibility -- that the ancient gods had ever been real.
The mortals still had their temples (Rome was full of them), but he didn't care much if they worshipped the God of Eli or some other deity. They still had wars, using machines that could rain death from the skies as only the gods could have done once -- machines no sane War God would have ever allowed to get into mortal hands -- but they wouldn't dream of calling on him, and he cared nothing about their wars or their other affairs.
Ares stepped away from the wall. Xena's eyes sparkled at him and her hair seemed to move in the wind; but of course it was only the shimmering reflection of those candles and lamps. Mortals, in this age, had learned to capture moving images and sounds; one could preserve any moment and then watch it again and again on a screen, rather like watching distant things through a portal as the gods could do. If he could watch Xena like that… or maybe that would be even worse. With a sigh, he wandered idly to another mural, depicting the battle at Thebes when the city was under siege by seven rival kings. A slain warrior lay in the foreground, an enemy spear protruding from his chest, his bloodied sword still clutched in his hand. In the dim light, the painted blood looked almost black.
He turned and looked at the wall that had sealed his tomb. At least he was alive. At least she was alive.
At his command, the crypt's stale air solidified into the ornate throne that had once stood in this temple's main hall. He sprawled in it, leaning back, closing his eyes. He thought of the first time Xena had let him take her to his halls on Olympus, the time he wanted to give her up and she came back. They had made love in a throne much like this one -- Xena leaning toward him, her long black hair brushing his shoulders and his chest, her eyes shining, her lips parted in tenderness and desire -- the lamplight giving her skin a soft golden sheen, her breasts heavy in his palms -- he groaned aloud and banged his fist on the lion paw-shaped armrest. That was the last thing he needed right now.
He sat up and conjured a goblet of red wine. Its strong, tangy taste brought him back to reality.
He could pursue her as she was. But it would be too much like replacing Xena with someone else. He had already tried that once, with Callisto; and even though he had no thoughts of love back then, he knew enough to know that this was not what he wanted.
He would get her back; he had to get her back. But how? Was there anything he could do? If he came to Lynn again, if he tried to make her remember, all it would probably do was raise her defenses. Maybe, for now, the best thing to do was leave her alone, stay away as long as he could bear it. Xena was in there -- she had to be. Some day, she’d be ready. Maybe, this time, he had to learn how to wait.
X X X
Lynn sounded barely awake when Jackie called her at ten to ask if she was coming down for breakfast; when she did come down, her face puffy, bluish circles under the eyes, Jackie couldn't help asking, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, fine," Lynn said curtly, avoiding her eyes.
There was an awkward silence as she sat down and rubbed her cheek, and absently poured herself a cup of coffee. Then, finally, she said, "I didn't get much sleep."
Before Jackie could ask what was wrong, Lynn had risen brusquely and was walking to the buffet table to get her food.
They didn't talk as they ate, and Lynn didn't seem to have much of an appetite; she picked apart a muffin and poked her fork at the fried eggs and sausage, staring away. Something had happened, Jackie could tell; something that had to do with all this -- with the temple, with Xena -- with Ares. It scared her, and yet she also wanted it to be true. Her chest was tight with anticipation. She could ask; but then, Lynn might get defensive and say nothing.
Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and blurted out, "What happened?"
Lynn looked up miserably.
"I -- I should see a psychiatrist when I get home," she said dully.
Jackie was torn between feeling bad for Lynn -- she'd never seen her so subdued -- and wanting, dying to know more. She knew, just knew --
"Did you see -- him?" she asked in a near-whisper. The waitress came up with the coffee and gave her an odd look.
Lynn waited until the waitress had left. Then she looked up again. The scared look in her eyes startled Jackie, making her feel guilty about her excitement.
"Jackie, I'm going insane. Those dreams, and this -- " she shook her head, as if trying to get rid of the invading visions -- "what else could it be?"
In her anxiety, Jackie took too big a gulp of coffee, and the hot sting of the bittersweet liquid made her wince.
"It was just -- so vivid." Lynn shook her head and moved her plate aside. "He was in my room, we went down to the bar and had coffee…"
Jackie felt like laughing. "You had coffee with Ares?"
"Shh, don't -- " Lynn said imploringly.
"Oh my God." She couldn't resist. "Did you, uh -- did you and he -- "
"I kissed him," Lynn said evenly.
Jackie sat still. The memory came to her, so clear, so real, more real than any of these dreams and visions had been until now: They sat over breakfast in a dining room at an inn, just like this -- well, not like this, some village inn and a half-dark stuffy room with rough wooden tables -- and they were talking … talking about --
"Jackie?" Lynn's voice pulled her back to reality. "What?"
She gasped slightly. "Don’t you remember? It was just like this -- we were having breakfast at an inn, and -- " she paused as more of it came back to her, not quite like the memories of this life but still clear, still real enough -- "I was upset because I'd knocked on your door that morning and you were in bed with him -- "
Lynn gave her an exasperated look. "Gabrielle, could you say that a little louder? I don't think everyone heard."
Jackie became aware of a middle-aged couple at the next table, watching them with rather blatant curiosity; but even more, in the same instant, she was aware of what Lynn had said. She looked her straight in the eye, and knew for certain that Lynn remembered, too.
"I don't understand this, but I'll be there for you." She paused. "That's what I told you."
"At a lake…" Lynn's voice was hushed, a near-whisper.
"You went to see him that evening. You remember, don't you?"
Lynn sat up abruptly, her face suddenly hard, and with a touch of awe Jackie thought that she had never looked so much like Xena. "No."
Jackie nearly groaned; it was like a door slamming in her face, a door that led to something rich and strange. "You called me Gabrielle."
"Just now! You didn't even notice? You said 'Gabrielle, could you say that a little louder?'"
"I said Jackie."
"Youdidn't! You sa-" -- she trailed off and then lowered her voice, in response to Lynn's impatient shushing gesture -- "you said, Gabrielle."
Lynn sighed and looked down. When she raised her head, the harshness was gone from her face and she looked, once again, gentle and a little frightened.
"Please let's not talk about it … not here."
"Sure -- you're right, I'm sorry… Are you okay?"
Lynn picked up her fork and poked it at a piece of fried egg. "I'm fine."
They didn't talk about it, or about much else, for hours after that; except that Jackie kept playing out conversations with Lynn in her head, thinking of things to say, things that could get through to her. Finally, that afternoon, when they were at the museum standing in front of a badly timeworn one-armed statue of Ares carved from black stone, she said, "Lynn."
A very brief pause, and then, "Yes?"
"You know" -- she turned and glanced at Lynn -- "if you want to find out if your … experience last night was real, we could ask some people at the bar. I'm sure someone would -- "
"Ask them what?" Lynn kept her eyes on the statue. "Would they please confirm if I was there last night with -- " her voice broke off for a moment -- "a tall, dark and handsome stranger?"
Lynn's face was unreadable. Frustrated, Jackie shook her head. "You don't want to confirm it, do you? Because then you'd have to believe it's real. Is it actually easier for you to think you're going insane?"
Lynn said nothing. After a long, awkward moment, she turned and they walked on, away from the statue; then, finally, she spoke.
"It's not about what's easier. It's about what makes sense."
"You think we both had the same hallucination?" Jackie said softly. "That actually makes sense to you?"
"I -- I don't know, Jackie. There is such a thing as mass delusions…" She trailed off and sighed. "Anyway, when I'm back in New York, I'm seeing a doctor."
X X X
Lynn did go to see a doctor; but not in New York, and not right away.
Two days after her return from Greece, she went to see her father. She took the train to South Orange, and a cab to the one-story house where Richard Doyle, high school history teacher and former girls' basketball coach, lived with his two Labradors, his overflowing collection of books and magazines, and his antique radios. He came out to the door in a faded White Mountains, New Hampshire T-shirt, the dogs Caesar and Livia barking happily and dancing around him; there was a merry sparkle in his still-young gray eyes as he hugged her and said, "Hey there, warrior princess." For the first time in her life the nickname bothered her, enough that he asked what was wrong.
She almost told him. She had always been able to share everything with him; everything except for her occasional, uncomfortable communications with her mother. Only now, she wasn't sure what scared her more: that Dad would think she had gone insane, or -- or that he wouldn't. So she said that nothing was wrong; and then they sat together over iced tea and sandwiches and she gave him the censored version of what happened on the dig. They talked about his favorite students and the school history club, and her Xena seminar (she managed not to show how much she wanted to change the subject) and his recent trip to Montreal; they played chess (she won two out of three rounds), and he proudly showed her his latest find, the 1926 radio he was rebuilding in the basement. Late that night on the train to New York, Lynn stared into the dark window where yellow lights flickered by and where her own reflection was a faded gray ghost. The thought that she had lied to her father made her feel empty and a bit dirty.
She went back to work. She repeated the socially acceptable version of her trip to her colleagues at a faculty lunch hastily gathered by the department chair. When a Newsweek reporter called, she considered declining, except that declining would have meant admitting to herself that everything was falling apart. She made herself listen to Matt, her clean-cut, inhumanly efficient teaching assistant, as he briefed her on the Xena seminar. (Carrie was writing her paper on Xena! the musical after all, supposedly analyzing its treatment of the historical record.) She considered going against all her principles and letting Matt grade the papers.
And all this time, there were still the dreams, and the even more troubling memories that came to Lynn when she was wide awake.
There was no sign of Ares; nothing at all, except in her dreams. Once, as she sat in her office looking over the course materials, she thought she felt his presence. She sat still, her skin burning, her heart thumping loudly and painfully. Then, there was nothing. The worst of it was that a part of her wanted him to be there. Or maybe the worst was that she didn't know what she wanted anymore -- just like, when the phone rang the morning after she got back and Lynn saw Jackie's number on the caller ID, she stood still in her kitchen and watched the phone ring. She forced herself not to call back that day; and then, the next day, she had to force herself to call. She told Jackie that she would be very busy the next few days. "Everything's fine," she lied.
When Lynn finally decided to see a psychiatrist, she looked for one out of town. A physician search website led her to a Dr. Constance Bergman, who had a practice in Hoboken; as if a twenty-minute ride across the river on the suburban train would somehow put enough distance between this and real life. As it happened, the doctor had an opening the very next day due to a cancellation, which was good because it didn't leave much time for Lynn to ponder canceling her own appointment. Even so, several times during her ten-minute walk from the train station to Dr. Bergman's office, she thought about turning back.
When she was almost there, it started to rain; by the time she was inside, her skirt and blouse were wet and her hair was clinging damply to her neck. The doctor's waiting room, empty except for a nervous, haggard middle-aged woman in thick glasses and with a heap of frizzy graying hair, was filled with the uncomfortable chill of air conditioning and with a too-bright light that made it look like a movie set. As Lynn sat filling out her first-time patient forms, she felt restless and out of place and vaguely ridiculous.
When she was done, there was nothing to do but wait and read magazines (she hadn't brought a book). The latest Newsweek had a cover story on the Hollywood diva Venus Madison, all glittering blonde curls and dimpled smile, and her new movie, Space Pirates in Love. As Lynn leafed distractedly through the magazine, her eye fell on a reproduction of a Xena portrait from a Roman fresco, and a small photo of herself from a couple of years ago. Life and Death of a Warrior Princess, said the headline. That was the article for which she'd been interviewed; she skimmed it and found the quote. "This is without a doubt the most exciting archeological find of the last 50 years, if not more," says New York University historian Lynn Doyle, author of a forthcoming biography of Xena, who flew to Greece as soon as she got news of the discovery. While Doyle won't provide specifics, she asserts that the scrolls and the other artifacts found in the temple will not only "revolutionize our knowledge of Xena's life and death" but "greatly enrich our understanding of the ancient world" as well. While the experts have yet to render their judgment, Doyle is convinced that the scrolls are authentic and that the chakram is the real thing.
Lynn was about to close the magazine when something else caught her eye: a tall man in black… blue light… Her face felt very hot; for a moment the letters on the page danced senselessly before her eyes. Somehow, finally, she managed to read.
History aside, the discovery seems to have given rise to ghost stories as well. Workmen swear that on a few occasions, they have seen a tall man in black lurking in the temple's lower chamber -- a man who, they claim, looked much like the painting of Ares on two of the murals, and who disappeared in a blinding flash of blue light as soon as they came in. The archeologists had no comment on the tale of the haunted temple, but it will no doubt enhance the site's potential as a tourist attraction.
She re-read this, and read it again a third time, and every time it said the same thing. A sullen girl in a flower-print dress came out of the doctor's office; the woman in the waiting room scrambled to her feet, and they went up to the front desk to talk quietly to the receptionist. Lynn, feverish and shivering, barely noticed. It was all she could do to force her hand to stay steady as she put the magazine back on the table. Someone else had seen him; this time it couldn't be written off as a dream or a collective hallucination. For a moment she thought she could feel his presence again, a flash that lasted only a moment and left her dizzy and drenched in sweat.
By the time she went inside the doctor's office, she had calmed down. She had also decided -- though she didn't fully realize this until the door shut behind her -- that she would say nothing about hallucinations, about her encounters with Ares, or about those unbearably vivid daytime memories of things that had never, never happened to her. She would only talk about the dreams, the nightmares, and ask if there was a way to make them stop.
The next twenty minutes with Dr. Bergman dragged on forever. Lynn assured the doctor -- a gaunt, strangely colorless woman of indeterminate age, with a clipped, vaguely European accent -- that there was no history of psychiatric disorders in her family, and politely rebuffed attempts to pry into personal things like her relationships with men and the trauma of her parents' divorce. Finally, she walked out of that joyless office with a prescription and a follow-up appointment that she suspected, in the back of her mind, she wouldn’t keep.
Back home, she sat for a long time at her desk, not turning the light on even when the dusk began to deepen, and stared at the bright orange bottle with the pills. The phone rang; she didn't have to look at the caller ID to know it was Jackie. She didn't answer.
She took the pills. That night, there were no dreams, nothing at all. She woke up with a heavy, empty feeling, as if she had spent the night in some thick gray void, knowing that beyond that void were terrible, wonderful things waiting to be seen, heard, remembered.
That day Lynn went to her office to grade the papers, and found that she couldn't do it. What a joke, all these good little girls and boys dutifully thinking exactly as she'd taught them: that the gods and demons of Xena's story were just figments of Gabrielle's bardic fantasy. One paper, oh-so-cleverly titled, "Xena's Ares: Patron God or Demon Lover?", examined depictions of Xena's relationship with Ares in literature and art; somewhere near the beginning was the matter-of-fact statement that Xena's romance with Ares had been undoubtedly invented by Gabrielle both as a status enhancer and as a way to cover up her friend's potentially compromising relationship with some human warlord, or maybe a priest of the Ares cult.
Lynn pushed the paper aside and closed her eyes, her forehead resting on her palm. Out of nowhere, came the quaint thought that if Jackie had been in her class, maybe she would have spoken up for gods and demons and other strange things. Suddenly, the need to talk to Jackie was so intense that when Lynn dialed her number, she was almost praying that Jackie would answer, and got her voice mail of course. She left a message that she hoped didn't sound too desperate -- please let's get together soon, we have to talk -- and went out into the hallway to get coffee, forcing herself to stay aware when people said hello. Back in her office, she leafed through the papers. It was the usual mix: a Freudian-tinged examination of whether Livia was really Xena's daughter, an exploration of Xena and Gabrielle's role in the transition from the old religions to monotheism, a Marxist analysis of Xena as a hero of the lower classes.
It was too much. She called Matt; he was available, and happy to help.
When she got home, she sat and stared at the bottle of pills again. She had no idea if she would ever see Ares again -- didn't want to think about it, right now -- but she knew one thing: she wanted her dreams back. She knew she shouldn't; she also knew that she had wanted them this whole time, even as she hated them and fought them. After a while she got up abruptly, went to the bathroom and emptied the bottle into the toilet, and watched as the blue and red swirl disappeared. She didn't know which feeling was stronger: fear or relief.
And just then, the phone rang, and a babbling, blubbering Artie told her that Jackie had been hit by a car and was in the hospital, near death.
X X X
"I, I -- " Artie bolted up from the chair, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, cast a wild look around and made as if to go somewhere, then sighed loudly and sat down again. "It was all my fault."
He had already explained it five or six times; he had waved to Jackie from across the street by their apartment building, and she had waved back at him, and he'd yelled that there was a package for her from the post office, and she couldn't hear him and started crossing the street, and --
Lynn shuddered and lowered her eyes. She saw her own hands clutching an empty Styrofoam coffee cup, crushing it in her fingers.
They sat in the waiting area of the emergency room at St. Luke's Hospital -- a clean and well-lit hell, a place of misery and fear; a place of hope, too, only not for her. Two teenage girls in soccer uniforms, gangly and fresh-faced, were standing by the wall nearby, crying quietly and hugging; their teammate, Lynn had gathered from snatches of conversation she had distractedly picked up, had been brought in with a broken leg -- only a broken leg … and Jackie was dying.
Jackie, dying. Jackie had called her and she hadn't picked up: That moment replayed itself again and again in her head, the hopeless ringing of the phone, the bottle of pills in her hand, the darkening room, the phone ringing, again and again until she couldn't breathe. Maybe if she had answered then, they would have been meeting for lunch today -- maybe this wouldn't have happened, maybe Jackie would still be all right. Her mind was racing, a jumble of memories and regrets and things that she should have said to Jackie, things tumbling through her head too fast to make any sense of them. If only she had picked up the phone… The last time they actually spoke, she had pushed Jackie away, frozen her out -- pushed her away with a "Look, I'm going to be really busy the next few days" and a promise to call … and now, Jackie was never even going to hear her message, not even that --
"Oh my God." Next to her, Artie sniffled. "You have no idea -- her head -- there was all that blood, oh God -- "
Choking back a sob, Lynn leaned back and closed her eyes. The darkness dissolved into a bright flash, and then she saw blood; blood on the grimy wooden floor, blood on her hands, on the horrible bright blade on the chakram -- Gabrielle's blond hair, slick and heavy with blood… and then she was outside, in the mud and rain, clinging to a last hope -- Gabrielle, you're the purest thing in my life --
"And her arm -- " Artie's shaking voice broke into the nightmare and snapped her back to another one -- "her arm was all twisted and -- oh God, her face… "
"Artie!" Her own voice, hoarse and bitter, startled her. "Stop it."
"Sorry." He fidgeted and took off his glasses again, twirling them in his hands. "Did they, uh -- did they call her – her family?"
"They said they would."
You're my best friend, my family… She had a vague memory of Gabrielle lying on a pallet somewhere, her face a ghastly color, weak and bathed in sweat, dying. Dying.
"You know -- if they'd at least let us see her or -- "
"She's in intensive care." Lynn crunched what was left of the cup in her hand. "They're not letting anyone see her."
"Oh God -- " Artie's voice rose -- "maybe she's already dead -- "
"No." Lynn whipped around with a ferocity that seemed to come from somewhere else, wanting to grab him, shake him. "Stop that. She's not dead."
He nodded, whined something inarticulate and stared down, wiping his glasses on his plaid shirt. As they sat next to each other in a tense silence, a few people stared at them, including the heavyset, thin-lipped nurse at the desk. Lynn's outburst, far from releasing her tension, had left her angry and restless. There was nothing worse than knowing you couldn't do anything; nothing worse.
"Mr. Kimmelman?" said a velvety, slightly accented female voice. Artie jerked spasmodically and looked up. The woman standing in front of them, with beautiful chiseled features, tawny skin and soft eyes, wore a white coat and a name tag that said, "Dr. Krishna." There was an odd discomfort in her look; not sympathy or solemnity, or the awkwardness of a bearer of bad news, but almost a kind of puzzlement.
"Please come with me." Before Lynn could say anything, the doctor turned to her. "Are you Ms. Doyle? Lynn Doyle?"
Lynn's heart was racing wildly. For a moment she felt such fear as she had never felt before; and yet now, somehow, there was hope.
"Yes," she said.
"Ah, very good. Both of you -- please come with me."
Artie scrambled to his feet, almost dropping his glasses, and they followed Dr. Krishna through the doors marked Authorized Personnel Only, inside a room where the peculiar hospital smell of drugs and illness saturated the air and there were many cubicles partitioned off with curtains, past the nurse's station and through another pair of doors, and finally into a sterile-looking hallway. The doctor stopped and turned toward them, again with that strange look in her face, as if she didn't quite know what to say.
"Your friend, Ms. Lyons," she said. "I -- I have some good news."
Artie struggled for breath. "She's -- going to make it?"
"Oh yes. She's -- " Dr. Krishna paused, as if trying to choose her words carefully. "She is, in fact -- completely well."
Lynn felt nothing at first; the words fell into some dreamlike void and disappeared into it. She saw, as if from afar, the comically stupefied look on Artie's face. Completely well. The emotions hit her all at once, and she wanted to laugh, to cry, even to hug Artie.
"W-what do you mean?" Artie choked out.
"The thing is, Mr. Kimmelman," said the doctor, "we don't quite -- understand it ourselves … yet. As your friend was being brought into the intensive care unit, she regained consciousness. When she was examined, she -- well, she didn’t seem to have any injuries at all."
Artie blinked and shook his head. "What are you talking about? I was there, I -- and the guy in the ambulance -- he said -- " He threw up his hands and trailed off.
Lynn was finally able to speak -- slowly, measuring each word, afraid that if she let go her voice would betray her.
"You mean -- there's been some mistake. She was never injured?"
"We're not quite sure, Ms. Doyle. The paramedics who were first on the scene did say that she had severe head trauma, as well as a broken arm. There is blood on her hair and her clothes. But we couldn't find actual injuries anywhere."
There was a strange sound from Artie, something between a laugh and a sob. "You mean -- it was like … some kind of miraculous healing?"
Lynn felt so faint that for a moment she thought she was tottering and would have to lean against the wall; but no, she was steady on her feet. Again, a memory from that other place came into her mind: You healed them without my blessing… -- I gave up my immortality to save them. There was a sudden dryness in her mouth. Miraculous healing…
" -- on the assumption that the paramedics were mistaken," the doctor was saying. "Of course, we still want to run some tests before we release her. To say that this is highly unusual would be an understatement."
"Is she --" Lynn fought a spasm in her throat -- "is she -- conscious now?"
"Yes, of course. She wanted to see you, as a matter of fact."
"Oh," Lynn said quietly. Her eyes felt strange -- heavy -- as if she were about to cry. "She -- said that?"
"Yes." Dr. Krishna smiled slightly. "Please, come with me. This way. But do try not get her too excited."
As they started down the corridor, Artie lingered behind them, still stunned, his features working frantically. The doctor turned to look at him and said, "Mr. Kimmelman?" and he bolted and scrambled after them, trying to ask a dozen questions at once and tripping over his own words.
"Mr. Kimmelman," the doctor said. "Please. I told you -- we really don't know anything ourselves yet." Then, as they walked on, she turned to Lynn and asked, "By the way, does Ms. Lyons know someone named Xena?"
Lynn's couldn’t breathe, and her own voice sounded strange to her as she said stiffly, "Why?"
"It was the first thing she said when she came to."
As Lynn searched for words, Artie unwittingly came to the rescue.
"It's about that book, isn't it?" he said with a nervous laugh, nodding toward Lynn. "They're writing a book about Xena -- you know, the warrior princess -- the Greek hero -- actually they just got back from some dig in Greece, and well, you know -- she's been pretty preoccupied with that -- "
"That's right," Lynn said. "That must have been it."
The doctor gave her an amused look. "She must be quite dedicated to her work. Oh well, it's not very important. We just wondered if perhaps it was -- someone close."
X X X
When Dr. Krishna showed them inside the hospital room, Jackie was sitting on the edge of the bed, in a light blue hospital gown that seemed too big for her, her light brown hair falling down loosely on her shoulders. She raised her head from the magazine she'd been reading -- that same Newsweek with Venus Madison on the cover. She looked pale in the room's yellowish lighting, and her eyes seemed huge and flecked with green.
She smiled a little and said, "Hey," and suddenly Lynn was fighting tears, and then no longer fighting. Everything before her eyes momentarily dissolved into sparkles as she didn't walk but rushed toward Jackie. She grabbed Jackie's hand and squeezed it, and on some impulse pressed it quickly to her face.
"You're all right," she said hoarsely.
Jackie looked at her, startled and moved, her lips parted slightly in surprise, and then reached out and hugged her, her body warm and slender in Lynn's arms.
When they pulled apart, Lynn became aware that Artie was staring at them, and that she was still clutching Jackie's hand. She felt stiff and clumsy. Get a grip, she told herself; Jackie was a friend, but they'd only known each other for about two months, and --
She's the only friend.
Something changed then. Lynn knew that this had happened before, many times: almost losing Gabrielle and finding her again. She could see it so clearly now, not as visions that came from somewhere else but as memories truly her own. There was a forest clearing, and she'd drawn her sword on Gabrielle thinking it was Hope -- thinking Gabrielle was dead -- and then she knew and hugged Gabrielle desperately, her heart swelling with joy and with anguish at the fear and hurt in her friend’s face. There was a temple filled with bleeding, broken people, and Gabrielle was wounded and dying; she shouted in grief and banged her fists on the girl's chest, refusing to give up -- and Gabrielle gasped and moved, her eyes flying open. There was the great hall on Olympus --
"Gabrielle," she said softly. There was no fighting it, from now on -- no point in even trying. She didn't want to fight it, not anymore.
Jackie's eyes widened a little, and Lynn heard the catch in her breath. Then a smile touched her face, and she whispered, "Xena."
Nothing else needed to be said; not right now. They looked at each other, and Gabrielle's fingers closed around Xena's and pressed lightly before she pulled her hand away.
Artie, standing at the foot of the bed, cleared his throat loudly and stammered, "Oh -- hi, J-Jackie."
Jackie turned and smiled at him. "Artie!"
He scrunched up his face and squinted at her as she slid off the bed and came toward him. "I'm -- I'm really sorry…"
"Well, it just -- it all happened because I was trying to get your attention and all … It's -- " He shook his head, his voice choked off by emotion. "I thought you were, you know -- "
Jackie reached up and kissed him sweetly on the cheek, and poor Artie didn't know which way to look or what to do with his hands. Embarrassed, Lynn looked away. Something about this seemed so familiar --
"Thank you for helping me out," said Jackie. "Did I really look that bad?" She turned to glance back at Lynn. "Come on -- I must have just bumped my head and passed out."
"Umm…" Artie blinked and stared at her. "You, um -- you looked really bad."
Jackie frowned slightly and shrugged, mechanically smoothing her gown. "I don't get it. The doctors are acting like I came back from the dead or something…"
Artie shuffled his feet and gave a tense giggle. "You ever see this movie with Meryl Streep? Where she breaks her neck and, and – she dies, only she comes back to life because she drank this potion – you know, like an elixir of immortality -- and they bring her to the hospital and the doctor totally freaks out -- "
Immortality. Something inside Lynn stirred at the word, a small jolt that turned to an unaccountable rush of excitement, or fear --
"Ha-ha," Jackie said. "Elixir of immortality. Right. That’s me." She brushed her hair away from her face, wandered back to the bed and plopped down on it. "Look, guys, you've got to tell them to let me out of here. They want to do some more tests and stuff, but really, I'm fine. There's no reason for me to be stuck here."
Lynn stared at her, still struggling to hold that strange agitation in check. "Are you sure?"
Their eyes met, and Jackie grinned a little, wrinkling her nose. "Completely sure," she said; and, of course, she was not just talking about being well.
"All right," Xena said. "Let's get you out of here."