But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are, Most worthy of comfort, now my greatest grief, Thou best of dearest, and mine only care, Art left the prey of every vulgar thief. -Shakespeare, Sonnet 48The various priests, priestesses and acolytes at the temple of the Oracle were becoming restless. The only supplicants the afternoon had brought were Swagrus and his friend, who had made their weekly pilgrimage to inquire as to the results of tomorrow's horse race on which they had bet all their dinars. Predictably, the oracle had refused to answer, and a few of the burlier acolytes had been summoned to remove the angry ruffians. After that, with no other questioners appearing, the high priest had prepared to close the temple early; but the priestess who was channeling the oracle today had said they must wait. And so they were waiting. The mountain remained quiet, save for the inhuman shriek of a few minutes ago, which the holy folk had uneasily decided was the call of some bird.
But wait ... ah! There were two figures approaching ... no, three: a horse, a woman walking, and a man riding. A ripple of interest went through the assembled devotees, and a few of them went to make the oracle ready. The rest stayed to watch the progress of the visitors. As with most of the oracle's supplicants, these were weary-eyed and grim. The young man in particular looked as if he would fall off the horse any moment. As soon as they arrived in the clearing before the temple, he slid to the ground and stood leaning against the horse, massaging his tired thighs.
The woman, who was tall, dark, and imposing in her leathers and armor, surveyed the small crowd blandly. "We're here to see the oracle," she said, the wry twist of her lips showing that she knew she spoke the obvious.
The high priest stepped forward. "Yes, of course," he said smoothly, not unkindly. "Have you an offering?"
The woman looked appraisingly at him. "We'll be asking two questions," she said firmly. "One each."
The assembled clerics winced. Tradition only permitted one question per travelling party, but no one particularly wanted to tell this woman that.
"Uh ... yes," the high priest said carefully. "The oracle, of course, answers only the questions it chooses to answer." The others sighed inaudibly with relief. "Offerings?"
"G-Taric?" The woman turned to her companion. He stared blankly at her for a moment, then turned and rooted in the saddlebags, eventually producing a matched pair of finely crafted medallions bearing the seal of Athena.
"Will these do?" he asked timidly, not meeting anyone's eye. The high priest nodded kindly. The young man held out one medallion to his companion, dropping it carefully into her outstretched hand, taking great care not to make contact. A few of the priestesses exchanged glances.
"If you'll just step into the altar room," the high priest invited, ushering them in. The tall woman looked somewhat taken aback when all the gathered worshippers followed, but she made no comment.
"Step forward," the high priest explained gently, "kneel at the altar, offer your gift, and pose your question." He nodded once more and stepped back.
After a moment, the tall woman nudged her companion in the back. Reluctantly, he moved forward. The priestess who was channeling the oracle watched him with a blank face as he knelt. His hands trembled slightly as he drew forth his medallion.
Callisto and Ares rematerialized in the god's bedchamber on Mount Olympus. The blonde was still looking around, trying to get her bearings, when Ares tackled her, throwing her onto his bed and pinning her down once again.
"I warned you," he grunted, "don't mess with me. You're bound to regret it."
"Oh, Ares," Callisto sighed with mock sorrow, "why must we be at odds? Why can't we work together?" She slid her hands along his strong upper arms and licked her lips suggestively. "We had so much fun together last time, remember?"
"Sure we did," he agreed, "before you betrayed me."
"Ohh!" Callisto pouted. "There you go again. It's always about your precious Xena, isn't it?" Her eyes narrowed again. "Sometimes I think you only wanted me then because I was in her body. Tell the truth, now, were you pretending I was her?"
"You don't know anything," Ares scowled, sitting up. "You're so blinded by your need for revenge, you can't even hear what I'm trying to tell you."
"No, that's not true," Callisto said earnestly, getting up and climbing into his lap, straddling his thighs. "You're the one who's not listening. My plan is perfect! Once I've killed Xena *I* will be the greatest warlord on earth ... and no one can kill me! Together you and I can rule the whole world!"
"Yeah, I've heard that from you before," Ares replied, removing her hands from his shoulders. "You-"
"Hey, you can't get rid of me that easily," Aphrodite interrupted for the second time, strolling into the room. "Dude, what a dump! Don't you ever clean your room?"
"Aphrodite, stay out of this," Ares warned. "We had an agreement, remember? I'm ... handling ... Callisto."
"Oh, get over it." His sister flicked her hand at him, palm up. Ares looked down at his lap, gave a shocked growl, flung Callisto off of him and stood up -- carefully. Callisto covered her mouth and giggled.
"Now listen," Aphrodite said sternly. "Xena and her little friend are talking to the oracle right now. You better have *her* under control by the time they get out!" She gestured angrily at Callisto, who gave another angry shriek and sprang at her. Ares stepped in just in time, deflecting Callisto's attack with the edge of his sword. Laughing maniacally, she drew her own sword and had at him.
"No problem," Ares grunted over his shoulder, parrying Callisto's blows with ease. "You stay with Xena. I'll handle this."
"Yeah ... well, if you say so," Aphrodite replied dubiously.
"Blessed Oracle," Gabrielle said, trying to ignore the heat of the worshippers' eyes boring into her back -- not to mention the icy blue gaze of a certain warrior princess -- "I've brought you this token of my esteem." She carefully laid the medallion on the altar. The priestess-oracle watched, expressionless. "I pray thee answer me this question: Who caused me to be changed in this way?"
The priestess lowered her head slightly and said, "The oracle will not answer a question whose answer is already known. Ask another."
A ripple of surprise went through the assembled priests and priestesses. The oracle *never* granted a second question! They looked at each other, and back at the timid young man, in amazement.
Gabrielle felt another wave of despair. The oracle's words had been as clear as if it had simply said, 'You idiot, you know perfectly well it's all your fault.' She could practically see Xena's expression of ever-growing suspicion behind her. "Um...." Another question? She knew her phrasing had to be absolutely perfect. She bowed her head and thought carefully, pondering for so long that Xena and even some of the younger acolytes began to fidget.
"How-" Gabrielle began finally, paused again, and then forged ahead, "How will I set this situation right?" She almost held her breath.
There was a short pause, and then the priestess spoke again. "You must not complete the cycle. If you do, all is lost to you." She lifted her chin slightly, indicating that she was finished speaking.
Gabrielle stayed unmoving, kneeling and staring up at the priestess-oracle, until one of the other priestesses moved forward and gently helped her to ... his ... feet. As she led the young man back to the edge of the room, the priestess nodded to his companion.
Xena stepped forward, knelt, put her medallion on the altar, and spoke without preamble. "What is my course of action?"
The priestess almost seemed to smile, and her answer was immediate. "You must speak to live." That was all. Xena rose to her feet and moved away unaided, deep in thought.
"Okay," Aphrodite mused, reappearing outside the Oracle's temple. "Now, let's get busy, okay girls? Like, that Ares can be so annoying sometimes," she added to herself. "Let's see, where should we set up camp?"
"Xena, wait!" Gabrielle/Taric hurried after Xena as she exited the temple. The assorted priests and priestesses and acolytes breathed another collective sigh of relief, and firmly closed the temple doors.
Xena's jaws were clenched in anger, but she said nothing, slowing her pace slightly to allow Gabrielle to catch up. To cover her growing apprehension, Gabrielle began to babble.
"What do you think the oracle meant by 'not completing the cycle'?" she asked, a little breathlessly. "Cycle ... could it have meant the moon cycle? Oh, gods ... if I don't get changed back within a month, I'll be a man forever? Or maybe it meant a year? Do you th-" She stopped abruptly, almost bumping into Xena, who had suddenly stopped walking and held up a hand for silence.
"All right," said Xena through gritted teeth. "This is really starting to piss me off."
"What?" Gabrielle peered around Xena's shoulder, and ... his ... mouth fell open. In the clearing where they had left Argo there was now a campfire, with Argo's saddlebags neatly unpacked beside it. "Xe-" But Xena's hand was still up, so Gabrielle fell silent again. The tall warrior looked around, frowning, thinking.
"Aphrodite," she said at last, scowling fiercely.
"Aphrodite?" Gabrielle repeated in confusion.
"Like, hi," the goddess sighed in resignation, appearing before them in a flash of light. "Gabrielle, babe, you make a totally dreamy man, ya know?"
On Olympus, Callisto threw her entire sword at Ares, who ducked it easily. "Enough!" she screamed. "Leave me alone!" She turned and leapt out the window.
"You have a lot of explaining to do," Xena growled dangerously. Aphrodite smiled nervously. Gabrielle's eyes widened in sudden understanding.
"You mean it was you who-"
"Listen, it's a lot more complicated than-"
"Shut up," Xena ordered. Surprised, both Gabrielle and Aphrodite obeyed.
Xena pointed at the goddess. "Why did you do it?"
"I can't tell you," Aphrodite said apologetically. "It's, like, beyond my control."
"It's my fault, Xena, like the oracle said," Gabrielle said, her voice shaky but her resolve strong. "I was wishing I could be a man, and I-"
"You were what?!"
"Well...." Gabrielle said miserably.
"Look, I'm like totally bummed about this, okay?" Aphrodite put in. "But I promised that psycho bitch, so I can't-"
"You better not be about to say you can't reverse it," Xena threatened.
"XEEEEEEEENAAAAAAAAA!" shrieked Callisto, descending from the sky with Ares close behind. She landed directly on top of Xena, knocking her to the ground. The two immediately began to tussle. Gabrielle stared in shock. Ares landed an instant later, grabbed Callisto by the shoulders, and hauled her up off of Xena.
"How many times do I have to tell you-"
"I said leave me alone!" Callisto cried, flinging a bolt of lightning at Ares. He tumbled backward and landed on his ass. His expression grew, if possible, even more angry.
"Ahh ... it's sooooo good to see you again, Xena, my love," Callisto purred, watching as Xena got to her feet. "Gabrielle, is that you? Don't you look yummy?" She advanced on Gabrielle/Taric, who backed away fearfully.
"Not so fast," Xena said, stepping swiftly between them. "Okay, Callisto. What is it this time?"
Callisto's smile was pure evil pleasure. "I want what I've always wanted, Xena darling. Only this time, I'm going to get it!"
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