The room they had been ushered into was decorated in the omnipresent Corinthian scarlet; the tapestries that lined the wall were that color, as well as the plush rugs that covered the marble floors. A portrait of Jason and Alcmene hung in this room, and Gabrielle and Joxer sat beneath it on a low couch, munching away on the sweetmeats that had been provided for them by a page.
The door opened, and the king strode in.
"Hercules," Joxer said, standing up, and Gabrielle rose with him.
The son of Zeus smiled. "Iím sorry I took so long," he said, "Especially considering who was waiting for me. I couldnít get out of it."
Joxer smiled. "We understand, " he said, "donít we, Gabrielle?"
I forgot how damned tall he was, she thought, eyeing the King of Corinth. The beard suits him, though. He wore a dark blue shirt and pants, and no signet of office. A single gold band decorated one of his fingers, which Gabrielle wondered about.
"Of course," she said, arching an eyebrow, the memories flooding back to her.
Hercules shook Joxerís hand, and hugged Gabrielle briefly. "It is good to see you again," he said, smiling, though only Joxer returned the warmth of his greeting. "So, what brings you to Corinth? What can I do for you?"
Joxer gestured to Gabrielle, who removed the sack from her belt. She emptied it out in her hand and held up the blue orb. "You can tell us what the hell this is," she said, "and why Salmoneus had to die for it."
"Salmoneus is dead?" Hercules echoed, his face clouding over. "No..."
"He died in Treus," Joxer explained.
"He died trying to get this to you," Gabrielle growled. "And Autolycus tried to steal it from me. And I was attacked twice for it." She gripped it tightly. "So what the hell is this thing?"
Hercules stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Itís... a very rare, and vary valuable object," he explained. "Itís called the Titanís Heart."
Joxer furrowed his brow. "What does it do?"
Hercules sighed. "That is what makes it so valuable. And why so many people tried to take it from you."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "You still havenít told me what it does..."
Hercules set his hands on his hips. "Itís an ancient artifact-- some say Hephaestus forged it from the actual heart of the titan Kronos, after my father killed him. No one knows for sure where it came from."
The half-god turned toward the window. "It is powerful, but it can only be used once," he said. "I was trying to recover it because I had heard that it had been discovered, and I didnít want it falling into Heraís hands." He shook his head, running a hand through his long hair, and sighed. "I had hoped that the tales I heard about it existing were false."
Gabrielle took a step toward him, clenching the orb in her hand. "What does it do?"
Hercules turned back to her and drew a deep breath. "It has the power, when shattered, to return any being to life."
"Thatís it?" Gabrielle asked. "Ambrosia can do that."
"Not any mortal," Hercules said. "Any being. A god, an immortal, anyone-- no matter how long ago theyíve died-- can be returned to life once that is broken, and the one who breaks it speaks the beingís name."
"So why do you want it?" Gabrielle asked.
"So that Hera doesnít use it to resurrect some terrible monster, or one of her henchmen, or some other terrible being."
Joxer inhaled deeply. "Gabrielle," he said.
"And you wouldnít want to use it?" she asked Hercules.
"Gabrielle," Joxer said again, softly, but more insistently.
"Me?" Hercules asked her. "What for?"
"To bring Daianeira back," the warrior replied.
Hercules shook his head. "I wouldnít toy with Hades that way. Daianeira is in the Elysian fields. Sheís happy where she is."
"But you..." Gabrielle started, but Joxer stepped in between her and the king. "Joxer, what?"
"You could bring Xena back," he said.
"What?" she asked, a cold chill running down her spine.
"Xena," he said.
Gabrielle closed her eyes. By the gods, could I? After so long without her... all that pain again, if she were to die once more... but to have her back, her smile, her voice...
"Itís... not that simple," Hercules said after a moment.
"What do you mean?" Joxer asked. Gabrielle likewise stared at the king.
Hercules shrugged, and pointed one massive hand at the orb. "Whoever shatters the orb gets to choose who returns from the dead," he said. "But that person has to take their place."
"What kind of a deal is that?" Joxer asked, and Hercules raised his hands.
"I didnít make the thing," he said. "I just know about it."
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered.
Joxer turned to her. "This changes things a little, Gabrielle," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Think about this."
Gabrielle nodded as if coming out of a dream. "Thatís exactly what I have to do," she said, her voice strong, and clear. "I have to think about this for a while." She eyed both of the men. "Alone."
"I donít think we should leave you alone with that thing," Joxer said, pointing at the orb.
Hercules folded his arms. "I agree with Joxer. You can have all the time you want alone, but Iíll hold on to the orb."
"Why you?" Gabrielle asked, her voice sharp.
"Because Iím not going to use it, and it would be pretty damn hard for anyone to take it away from me."
Joxer nodded. "He has a point."
Gabrielle frowned, but she relented and handed the blue ball to Hercules, along with the pouch it was housed in. "Iím going to think about this a while," she said. "Iíll let you know when Iíve reached my decision."
Hercules nodded, attaching the pouch to his belt and dropping the Titanís Heart inside. Joxer turned to her to say something, but stopped; she ran a hand along his chin, and left.
He turned to Hercules, his brown eyes full of worry. "You have to get rid of that thing."
Hercules nodded no. "I canít deny Gabrielle the right to make this decision. Iím going to hold onto it until then. If she doesnít want to use it, then Iíll get rid of it."
Joxer stepped forward. "Hercules," he said, and the son of Zeus raised an eyebrow.
"You canít let her do this!" Joxer said.
"Actually," Hercules corrected him, "I canít stop her." He tapped Joxer on the shoulder lightly with his fist. "I need to do some thinking too. Dinner is at sundown." With that, he turned and left the room.
Joxer slumped down on the low couch. Gabrielle, no, please, no, not now....
Gabrielle didnít show up for dinner. Hercules and Joxer ate quietly, making little more conversation than, "pass the salt," or, "more wine?" The son of Zeus ate a hearty meal, but Joxer picked at his food, constantly looking up at the doorway as the night grew darker. Come on, Gabrielle, come on...
"Joxer," Hercules said at last, and the warrior looked at the king.
"Worrying about it isnít going to do you any good. Itís her choice," he said, sipping at his wine.
Joxer nodded. "I know," he replied, "but I canít help it. I love her. Iíve always loved her. And I donít want to lose her."
Hercules tilted his head to one side, thoughtfully. "Itíll almost be tougher for her if she decides not to." He shook his head. "I wish she hadnít gotten involved in this," the king muttered. "Sheís had enough pain for one lifetime."
Joxer sighed. "That she has. I just wish sheíd let me..."
"Let you what?" Hercules asked, taking a deep draught of wine.
Joxer leaned forward. "I know that sometimes I remind her of Xena, of the three of us together. But I know I make her happy, too-- I know it. I just wish sheíd let me make her that happy all the time, take away that pain for her."
Hercules looked at Joxer for a moment, his blue eyes far away. "I didnít know you loved her that much," he said.
Joxer smiled lightly. "I always have. The days we were together were the best ones of my life." He sighed again. "I just donít want to lose her, now..."
Hercules closed his eyes. Why does someone always have to be hurt? Why canít everyone be happy, just once?
* * *
Much, much later, Joxer found her in the room they had given her; it was well past midnight. He had wandered the streets of Corinth for a while, after extracting a promise from Hercules that he would not let Gabrielle break the orb without telling him first.
Gabrielle sat on the floor, crying softly, with a pile of scrolls in front of her. She snuffled a bit, and Joxer opened the door. She looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes, tears still running down her face. All hope was gone from her features; it had been replaced by a deep despair, and her blue eyes were haunted.
Joxer sat down next to her and held her, burying her face in his chest, stroking her hair, soothing her.
"I know what I have to do," she said, between sobs. "I have to do it, Joxer, I have to..."
Joxer felt his heart swell suddenly, fear gripping it, and the tears welled up in his eyes. "No you donít, Gabrielle, gods, no, please. Youíre alive now... Xenaís been dead for five years. Please..."
She started crying some more, and he held her tightly to him. "I have to," Gabrielle managed. "Every day I live without her is too painful. I have no peace, Joxer. Not even you can give me that. I donít want to live in a world of pain any more." She looked up at him. "I have to be free of this life. And the world can have Xena back..."
Joxer slid his hands to her face, kissing her; she threw her arms around his shoulders, his neck, her lips parting his; their bodies met, and Joxer scooped her up off of the floor and set her on the bed, still clutching her to him. They parted a few moments later.
"Gabrielle," he said, "I love you. I have loved you from almost the first moment I met you. You have given me the best moments in my life. I canít let you do this-- I canít let you throw away your life for a person whoís already dead."
"You canít stop me," she whispered, stroking his face. "I know you love me, Joxer.. and I know this will hurt you, and for that I am as sorry as I can be...." She started crying again, pressing her face against his chest once more. After a space, she stopped, sniffling, and looked up at him. His face bore such pain, and the tears streaked down his cheeks.
"Please," he asked, his voice breaking, broken, as he held her shoulders.
Gabrielle couldnít even speak; she just nodded her head no.
Joxer closed his eyes and sobbed, and it was her turn to comfort him, to stroke his shoulders and his neck, to wipe away his tears, and to kiss him, to grab him... she lay down on the bed, pulling him on top of her, the fear of what she was going to do suddenly slamming her full force. This time tomorrow, Iíll be dead, she thought, distantly, as her fingers undid Joxerís shirt, sliding it over his shoulders.
She grabbed his head, her fingers running through his hair, and she kissed him passionately, letting her emotions go. Joxer, Joxer, this will be so hard on you... She continued kissing him. Let me give you one last gift, she thought, for all that you have given of yourself, for me, in my life...
She parted her lips from his, kissing away the tears that slid down his cheeks, and she moved her mouth to his ear. "Make love to me," she whispered, her voice trembling, "one last time, my dear, my love." She stroked his face with her hand. "Let me know you one last time," she said, and he buried his head in her shoulder, his tears hot and wet against her shirt.
This is what it feels like to break a heart...she thought as she held him to her.
Gabrielle slept deeply, all traces of worry and fear gone from her features. In the moonlight, she looked just the same as she had so long ago, the young bard who had stolen his heart and never returned it. Joxer smiled sadly, his heart heavy, as he leaned over and kissed her very gently on her forehead, smoothing back her red-golden hair.
"Goodbye, Gabrielle, my love, my heart," he said, and very slowly, very carefully, he slid out of her bed. He dressed silently, foregoing his armor, and wearing only his breeches and his shirt. Barefoot, he tiptoed out of her room and slid open the door. He closed it behind him and stopped for a moment in the hallway.
It didnít take him long to find his way to Herculesí room. He slid the door open silently and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. There were no guards near the kingís chamber; none were necessary. He was Hercules, the son of Zeus. Who would dare attack him?
Joxer waited until his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, and then he moved to Herculesí bedside, staring down at the bearded king. Any other man would have passed out in the dining hall, he thought. There was enough drug in that wine to down an elephant.
He reached over to the night table and grabbed the velvet sack; he drew it open, letting the blue orb fall into his hand. He looked at it in the darkness, a shaft of moonlight reflecting off the floor, giving him just enough light to see it. He smiled, a desperate, forlorn smile, and looked down at Hercules. "You tried to be fair," he said, and he stepped away from the bed and moved to the far corner of the room, where the moonlight shone through the window.
He held up the ball again, in the moonlight, and he saw something swirling inside, some sort of dim glow that got brighter as he looked stared at it. Suddenly the ball grew warm, and he heard his own heart beat. Joxer inhaled-- the air was thick, and moist, and suddenly hot, and he felt, rather than heard, a deep voice, as if the earth herself was given voice, say to him, "Who?"
He closed his eyes, but still the swirling remained, the glow remained. "Xena," he said, his voice raspy, fearful, a whisper.
"Who!" the thing demanded, and he spoke it aloud, more confidently. "Xena," he said.
"Crush the heart," the voice said, and Joxer threw the orb with all his strength to the floor.
There was an incredibly loud cracking noise, as if he were trapped inside a thunderbolt from Zeus himself, and a brief flash of Xena, her dark hair, her blue eyes, reaching for him... but then she was gone, and he was falling, falling... and then he was in a dim cave, on the floor, all alone... a cave that stretched for thousands of miles, as far as the eye could see, in every direction.
And he was not alone...the souls of the dead gathered around him...
* * *
Gabrielle stirred; sunlight shone down on her from the window. She stretched a hand out, seeking his warmth, his body. He always liked it when we cuddled in the morning... so did I... might as well give him that, too...
Joxer wasnít there.
"Joxer?" Gabrielle asked. Oh, no... oh,no, no, no....
"Not quite," the voice replied softly.
Her eyes shot open, only to see the raven-haired woman sitting on the edge of the bed, a slight smile on her face, tears in her eyes...
"Xena!" Gabrielle breathed, sitting up in bed, clutching the covers to her body. "You... but how..."
"Joxer," Hercules said, leaning against the doorway. "He used the Titanís Heart."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "No..." she murmured.
Xena leaned forward, grabbing Gabrielleís hand. "You were going to do the same thing for me," she said quietly. "He did it for you. He gave his life for mine."
"For me," Gabrielle said softly, clenching Xenaís hand.
"For you," Xena said. "He must have loved you a great deal."
Gabrielle nodded. "He did. Gods, he did."
Xena moved over on the bed and held Gabrielle to her. "It is so good to see you," Xena whispered to her, stroking her hair.
Gabrielle sighed, her body pressing against Xenaís. Gods, how I have missed you...
"Xena," Gabrielle breathed, "I have so much to tell you..."
The tall warrior smiled. "We have plenty of time."
Gabrielle smiled back. "Now we do."
Thank you, Joxer... thank you, dear one...