"What!" Iolaus could barely contain the rage boiling up within him, "We did everything you asked of us, Hades!. We defeated Haleus and his minions, we forced them back to where they belong and equalized Elysia and Tartarus ... What *didn't* we do?"
"Yes, you did all I asked." Hades dark head lowered again with uncharacteristic sorrow and embarassment. "But while you were busy saving Elysia, and while I was on Olympus, Hera put a petition to the other gods. She said it was one thing for Hercules, a halfgod, to come into my realm and demand the return of human life but an entirely different story for someone like you, a mortal - no matter how worthy - to demand the same. She pushed the counsil and pressed the fact that humans would begin to believe they were equal to the gods if we let this incident pass ... and they agreed with her. Gabreille must stay."
"She did it because we were too accomplished, beating her spider, Titan and Haleus." Gabrielle murmured, contemplative. "Iolaus and I - together - defeated The Queen of the Gods. the decree is a punishment for embarrassing her and nothing more."
"But *we* had a deal, Hades." Iolaus continued to press, teeth clentched, every fiber of his being struggling for control. "I brought you the cloak and got rid of Haleus." Iolaus firmly took Gabrielle's hand in his own, "Now, it's time for you to send us home."
It was a stand off, Hades and Iolaus staring at one another.
"Hades," Persephone gently bit her lower lip and stood close to her lover, "Give them the alternative." she said and glanced sorrowfully at a stunned and disallusioned Gabrielle.
"Honey, I can't." Hades whispered to her, "It could be horrible. They wouldn't have a clue what to expect. They're mortals, after all."
"But we've already seen that they're not just *any* mortals. They're unique." Persephone insisted, lifting her hands to accentuate her words, "They should be given the choice."
"Do you mind clueing us in?" Iolaus asked, glancing quickly at Gabrielle who looked at him with a sensitive and lost expression.
"If I were to allow you to take Gabrielle back to Greece niether of you could *ever* come back. No Elysian Fields and no Tartarus. Not ever."
Iolaus blinked. For himself it was a tough enough decision but he couldn't picture Gabrielle in a colorless void, her own beauty - within and out - not added to the perfectness of The Elysian Fields. He even had scattered thoughts of sharing their afterlifes together in some fashion but now ... "Oblivion in the afterlife." He took a shaky breath. "Leave it to Hera ..."
"Never to go back and see our loved ones who have passed on." Gabrielle added, finding a trembling voice, and sadly looked over at Iolaus, "It's out of the question. I can't do that to you."
"Gabrielle, it's not ..."
Persephone yanked on Hades black sleeve, "Tell them the rest." she urged.
Hades looked undecided, "*Oblivion* isn't the issue." he said, "No one really knows this ... Some mortals suspect but few talk about it. Greeks are afraid of incurring the gods wrath if they even mention the possibility -- but there *are* places for people to spend eternity, other than Tartarus and the Elysian Fields."
The couple glanced at each other, recalling something one or the other had said earlier, during their pilgrimage.
"Countries all over the known world have their own "other sides" but there is a definitive end. Sometimes," Hades swallow hard and looked about the cavern as if expecting an eves dropping god to make himself known. Then, in a hushed voice, he said : "Sometimes I get people here that are *too* evil, even for Tartarus, and I have to send them to another place. It's an afterlife ruled by a master so mysterious and frightening that, some say, the mere sight of him, her or it is enough to cause brave men to go insane."
Gabrielle shivered and leaned into Iolaus a little. What she had told the blond hunter not long ago was being confirmed by the Greek God of the Underworld himself but, right now, she felt no comfort. She could not go to this place but, even more than that, she could never ask Iolaus to sacrfice himself for her, to live eternity in torturous agony.
"But there is also another place ..." Persephone quickly inserted when she saw Iolaus and Gabrielle's faces grow alarmed, "An incredibly beautiful afterlife that makes The Elysian Fields seem miniscule by comparison."
"Sh!" Hades warned, gently touching Persephone's back with a nervous hand. Again, he looked about to make sure they weren't being listened in on. "What she's saying is rumor. No one really knows anything about these other afterlifes other than they are both ruled by gods far more powerful than those on Olympus." His voice lowered again, "It's actually been hinted that the god of the good place, also known as "the light", is the god of ALL things. Nothing in the known world happens without its knowlege."
Iolaus stared at Hades and Persephone, "You're joking right?"
Gabrielle almost smiled, "And I always thought that was all there was. Hades and the underworld."
Momentarily feeling mocked, Hades frowned - "The decisions for youselves are hard enough, I know. You'll never be able to reunite with your families. Anya ... Perdicus ... or anyone who arrives here ever again. However, you will be together in this other realm ... and Hercules and Xena will be there too."
Iolaus and Gabrielle looked up at the same time.
"Whatever decision you make will include them. It is the judgment of the gods."
"But we can't assume to speak for them!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "It's not right. You can't make us do it ..."
"I don't want to." Hades stated.
There was a horrible lull as Gabrielle considered and Iolaus digested what was just presented to them.
"If I return to life I'm dooming my best friends to an uncertain future." Gabrielle summed up. She then turned to Iolaus and her expression held sorrow, but also a firm decision. "I can't come back, Iolaus."
"Gabrielle," He turned to her, "I won't leave you here."
"Iolaus," she placed a hand on one of his cheeks and was warmed when he lifted fingers of his own to carress her hand, "I care for you more than I ever imagined. You've brought something out in me I never knew I had ... and eternity with you, as well as Xena, would be bliss -- but I can't be responsible for Xena's eternal soul. That can only come from her." Failing in her attempt to remain strong, Gabrielle began to weep and fell into him, feeling his arms wrap around her. "No matter what I told you earlier, when we were talking about the afterlife and our places in it, if it's the decision of the gods I'll have to stay."
"Even though you know it's in your destiny to go on." he said, appreciating her sacrifice and knowing - despite his comment to the contrary - he couldn't possibly make such a decision for Hercules either. "But to leave you now ..." he murmured, "I came down here to make sure you returned with me, Gabrielle. I was willing to leave it alone when I thought you were happy with Perdicus but now knowing The Elysian Fields might be a Tartarus for you anyway ...."
"We have to think of Xena and Hercules, Iolaus."
And they couldn't be selfish.
"I know. Right now, they're all I can think about."
"I don't understand." Persephone appeared genuinely perplexed, "You two are almost assured a place in that blissful realm and if Xena and Hercules follow you ... Why can't you make the decision?"
"It would be taking Xena and Hercules' will away from them." Hades explained, "These mortals feel very strongly in an individual's right to speak for himself."
"If I mess up my life," Iolaus further explained, "I can't drag Hercules down with me. I can't do it."
Persephone, usually the embodiment of patience and understanding, suddenly appeared as if she wanted to wring both of their necks. "You really don't get it, do you? Gabrielle came so close to it but now, because you've become emotional, you're ignoring it. You four heroes are linked for eternity! You will all be together, in one form or another for the rest of time. No matter where you go ... the other will be there. You with Hercules, Iolaus, and Gabrielle with Xena -- and you will *all* connect, time and time again. You love each other and it's partially the strength of that love that will keep you all together. *No matter where you go ...*
"So you're saying what happens to us is our decision no matter what we choose and the same goes for Hercules and Xena -- because it's destined?" Gabrielle queried.
Iolaus was more blunt, "Then why give us the choice at all?"
"Because it's what you desire as human beings." Hades shrugged, "You independent natures betray you. You will be judged and depending on that judgement you will return to life again, in another body or form. How you behave in the world you are in will go far in determining what you will be in your next life."
"In other words, if I'm bad in this life I may end up as an Ares in the next life?"
"Or a jester."
An odd comment that Iolaus decided to ignore.
"And the same goes for Xena and Hercules." Gabrielle summed up.
With a sigh, Persephone concluded: "The question is, Gabrielle, do you want to live now and spend the rest of eternity with Xena, Iolaus and Hercules? And do they want to share that same space with you?"
"You know *my answer*," Iolaus said and looked down at the bard as he spoke to Hades and Persephone, "and I can almost guarantee what *their* answers will be." But then he thought of Dienerra and Hercules children and of Anya and Myles. What of Solan, Marcus, and Alicita? Iolaus looked over at a very thoughtful Gabrielle, knowing she was as torn as he was.
Persephone read their minds, "It's my believe that we all go where we are most needed." she said, "If that all important force is as kind and benevolent as we are led to believe, there is no way - if it is in a human's best interest - that it could allow a soul to go on in eternal agony, for loss of their loved ones. Everyone will be joined together eventually, even if we don't know how it will work out once the final judgement comes."
Her words confused them -- but there was hope in them as well. It was said that gods could not see into the future but Persephone had an uncanny ability to do just that.
Gabrielle sighed audibly, "I always felt we were soulmates, Iolaus. And I also felt that with Xena. Hercules?" A smile parted her lips, "Yes, why not?" She then looked at him and took his hand into her's - "Let's go home to our friends." Gabrielle finally said. "I just hope Xena and Hercules can forgive us for assuming."
"Don't tell them." Hades said
"We'll have to ..." Iolaus started.
"No." Hades insisted, his expression stoic. "Iolaus, Gabrielle ... *Don't* tell them. Because if you do ... it will become a weakness. Besides, this is something they need to learn on their own."
Hades waved his hand and the last thing either Iolaus and Gabrielle saw and heard in the underworld was Persephone leaning forward and whispering -- "Hades, mother thinks it's time for us to have a baby ..."
Darkenss. He could not breath. He had lost his grip on her hand.
Then light and liquid .... being propelled forward and breaking the surface of the water at a high rate of speed ...
Where was Gabrielle?
And a face. Two faces ... Hercules? Xena? Where was Gabrielle?
Strong hands were pulling him from the river, depositing him on solid ground, rubbing his back and talking. He could barely hear him but knew what he was saying ... He'd slipped something around his neck. The amulet. Hercules was telling him how grateful he was that he could actually do this ... return the amulet ...
They were back.
Iolaus shook as he looked over at the soaked Gabrielle as she lay beside him on the ground.
He smiled at her and closed his eyes. He was so tired ... and so hungry.
They stood close, looking downward at the leaves on the forest floor, but didn't allow themselves the sweet bliss of genuine physical contact. Already, there had been too much of it - having slept next to one another the evening before - absorbing the comfort of each other's presence and fearing - if they moved too far away from one another during those early hours of their return - that something would happen.
Iolaus awoke once every half hour during the night and eyed the Olympian River, almost imagining Hades suddenly breaking to the surface, telling them he made a big mistake and Gabrielle had to return.
With an equal paranoia, Gabrielle found herself almost falling asleep, then awakening with a start due to disturbing imgages. She would reach out to make sure he was still there, beside her, clutching his shoulder in fear. Haleus hadn't taken Iolaus away, seducing him with sweet words, promising Iolaus the perfect afterlife with Anya and Myles.
It was fear, pure and simple, but the possibility seemed all too real. For a little while, right after their return to Xena and Hercules, they allowed themselves to be swallowed by it. Even with the greatest heroes in Greece there to protect them from further harm, watching them, talking with them, praising and feeding them as if they were but toddlers, they were not entirely confident.
Iolaus and Gabrielle sat - with blankets wrapped around their shivering bodies, guarding their river drenched forms against the cold and shock of their ordeal. But the bard and hunter were in constant bodily contact. A hand from one or the other snuck out many times while they rested, just to be sure the figure next to them was real.
Niether Hercules or Xena were sure what to make of it, this uncharacteristic anxiety and possessive clinging between the two, but both heroes were somewhat assured while watching them eat. The drying couple sat in front of their campfire and plowed through their warm rabbit stews as if they hadn't eaten in a week ... which was very nearly true.
But now, the day after, which was clear and beautiful - something they might have saw in The Elysian Fields - they were saying good-bye.
"I'll never forget you." Iolaus spoke lowly, his head so close to her's they were almost touching, but not quite. He ached to reach for her just once more but didn't do it. If there was any further physical contact Iolaus knew he would not be able to part from Gabrielle -- and they had to. It was important for many reasons but mostly because - simply put - it was the *right* thing to do.
They were bound, because of friendship and love, to Hercules and Xena. And niether would have it any other way. Besides, if what Persephone said was true, they would have eternity to dwell on what they meant to each other. In one of those future lives they might even do something about it. They, all four of them, were linked for eternity and who really knew what the future might bring?
'Don't tell Hercules.' Hades had said. Would he believe him if he *did* tell him?
Somewhat comforted, Iolaus lifted his head and smiled, meeting Gabrielle's eyes with his own. "And I'll miss you."
This might have been a good place for a witty remark or even a self conscious chuckle but Gabrielle could manage neither, "It's not as if we're not ever going to see each other again." She smiled sadly and forced herself to stay strong, "Xena and I will be around Greece, doing what we do, and I'm sure our paths will cross again. We always do."
"You're right." And when they did they would talk about their adventures, the thrills and excitement of heroes doing heroic deeds. Good over evil. What else was there to life, really?
Yet, although none of the four knew it as yet, there would be changes. While facing new dangers, making new discoveries and encountering new loves they would all be faced with violence, death and possession.
It would not be until years later, after the birth of Xena's third child, that they would gather and realize just how closely their lives paralleled one another.
Perhaps this too was a part of their unending link.
"We're going to really lose them one of these days, Hercules." Xena said as she and the demigod watch the couple from where they stood, close to Argo. "And it won't be because of death. They won't be able to keep up with us and they'll need to settle. I hope they settle down together. I can see them having a child with his hair and her smile ...."
" .... her eyes and his laugh." Hercules agreed then looked down at Xena. "When that time comes we'll be ready and let them go. But," he added, "that won't be any time too soon."
"No, it won't." and she smiled up at him, poised to received a farewell kiss from the son of Zeus.
Somehow, it seemed very natural, as if they had done it before, often, in another lifetime.
The demigod and hunter waved as they watched the women ride off on Argo. They were in a hurry, having just heard word from Gabrielle's hometown that one of its own was scheduled as a sacrifice for an obviously blood-thirsty goddess. The bard recognized the young woman's name as a childhood friend. Xena thought it a good time to part so they could look into it.
Hercules, of course, asked the ladies if they would like help but Xena, understanding better than ever how all four needed to make a clean break from each other, declined his generous offer. There was no reason to believe they couldn't get through this one as they had so many other impossible situations in their lives.
"I think we ought to go back and see Iphicles and Megra. Maybe apologize for bailing on them?" Iolaus lowered his waving hand as the women disappeared from view.
Hercules shook his head; "There's no point. They've probably already left on their honeymoon. We'll come back and apologize later."
The men turned, startled to see a small and out of breath young man rushing up the gravel road to them, a look of anxiousness prevelent.
"Slow down. Catch your breath. What is it?" Iolaus said.
"I have a message ..." he gulped air, "It's from the former king of Corinth, Jason. It's about your mother, Alcemne ..."
Hercules tensed and glanced over at Iolaus who appeared equally concerned. Both had been wondering why Jason and Alcmne hadn't shown for the wedding.
"She's not well and it's serious, he says. He wants you to come home as soon as possible."
Corinth wasn't that far but now they had no horses. It didn't matter. Hercules and Iolaus made it to the tiny home, running all the way, in less than a day. By this time the following week, Iolaus would lose one mother and regain another ...
... and also lose and regain his brother, Hercules.
They were forever linked.