Of course Xena knows about the unpleasant side effects of pregnancy; the nausea, the exhaustion, the dizzy spells and bizarre cravings. She’s fifteen years older now than she was the last time she went through it all, and back then she had phalanxes of slaves and brawny soldiers to wait on her hand and foot, and to carry her from place to place when she was too sore or unwieldy to sit astride a horse. Of course it’s going to be more difficult this time, from a physical perspective at least. She’s prepared for that.
What she isn’t prepared for is walking into the stables in Spamona with Argo’s saddle, only to have Gabrielle pluck it out of her hands and toss it onto the pile of the rest of their gear. “Oh, you won’t be needing that,” she says cheerfully. “I booked us another night at the inn.”
“What? Why? There’s still at least two hours of light left. We could be halfway to the next village by dark.”
“Yes, we could. And then you’d toss and turn all night on the rocky ground, spend the morning throwing up in the bushes, and doze off in the saddle all day.” Gabrielle’s new horse whinnies and bumps her shoulder with his nose, asking for treats. Gabrielle reaches back to pet him, looking enormously pleased with herself. “And if I’m riding this fine fellow, I won’t be able to catch you when you fall off Argo.”
Xena gapes, appalled. “I would never fall off.”
“Or,” Gabrielle continues, “we could have a hot bath, spend the night in soft, warm beds, and start off tomorrow morning with a real meal and some ginger tea so that we actually have a chance of making it to the next village without killing each other.”
Xena crosses her arms over her chest. Gabrielle leans back against the post of her new horse’s stall, with a smirk that Xena recognizes as the hallmark of absolute, unyielding tyranny.
“My being pregnant doesn’t change anything,” Xena says. “I’m just as capable today as I was yesterday. I would’ve thought you’d know that.”
“You fell asleep in the saddle all day yesterday,” Gabrielle points out. “And one of the traders told me you threw up into his fish-barrel in the middle of the street.”
Xena knows when she’s being outflanked, but isn’t ready to abandon the charge yet. “I paid for those fish — and they’d have made anyone throw up, they were three days old. My point is, I’m not some wilting flower now, and I won’t be treated like one. If you can’t learn that, this is going to be a long, miserable nine months.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle says, and she straightens up and takes a step closer. As she moves all of her smirking smugness drops away, showing the worry and love and tense unhappiness underneath. “You’re wrong. This changes everything. I know you don’t like to think you might be vulnerable or need any extra help, but you’re the one who’s going to have to learn how to deal with this or make us all miserable.”
“And you think you know how to deal with it? I have been pregnant before!”
Gabrielle takes another step. She reaches for Xena’s hand, and Xena lets her take it and hold it in both of hers, turning it over and running her fingers lightly over the sword-calluses on Xena’s palm as though she’s trying to read Xena’s fortune. “I wasn’t pregnant for very long,” she says, very quietly, without looking up. “And I was so terrified — more scared than you are now, I’m sure. But I remember how everything changed in a second when I found out. And I know that everything’s changed for us now.”
Xena lets out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Of course she’s thought of Hope, and she knew Gabrielle would be thinking of her too. How ironic that Gabrielle, who even after wading through oceans of blood still burns with the purest, kindest spirit Xena knows, brought such evil into the world; while Xena, who’s done so much evil, has been so unexpectedly blessed. And it is a blessing. She knows without knowing how — like knowing when a god is hovering nearby, or a spear is about to come hurtling through the undergrowth. It’s an instinct deeper than knowledge, a communication between her spirit and something vast and timeless, beyond comprehension and beyond question.
Of course, Gabrielle had known with the fiery strength of a mother’s love that Hope was good, too. And Xena knows, has always known, that somewhere deep in Gabrielle’s heart is a small fragment of that love, that longs for her daughter and always will. It’s part of having carried a child; you carry your love for them with you for the rest of your life, an ember in your soul that can never be fully extinguished, whether it’s a comfort or a torment.
And yet Gabrielle hasn’t accused Xena of harboring a demon-child like hers, has wholly accepted Xena’s premonition of her own child’s goodness, even though when she’d said the same words Xena had only ever doubted them. Gabrielle is too strong to let her own pain turn to bitter gall, or let it stop her from loving Xena or the life that Xena carries.
All of Xena’s anger and frustration melt away like snow at the warmth in Gabrielle’s touch. She lets them go with a sigh and strokes Gabrielle’s hair back from her face. “Not everything. Some things don’t change.”
Gabrielle looks up, and Xena sees a shift and settling in her eyes, from hesitation to quiet resolve. “I know,” she says, and brings Xena’s hand to her lips, presses a swift kiss to the center of Xena’s palm and lets go. “Do you really not —“
“For the thousandth time, Gabrielle, no, I really don’t know where this child came from,” Xena snaps. All of a sudden she’s ablaze again — mood swings, a part of her thinks distantly, but by the gods, they’re going to have to have this out sometime and it might as well be now. “I haven’t been with anyone with the right equipment for this in — oh, I don’t even know how long! And I can’t believe that you’d think it. That after everything we’ve been through, I’d just leave you by the side of the road or in a prison somewhere and run off for a roll in the hay with Hercules, of all people! Do you really think I’d do that to you?”
“I didn’t,” Gabrielle says, and at Xena’s black look she hastily adds, “I don’t, of course I don’t. But you can’t exactly blame me for asking! This is the kind of evidence that’s hard to argue with!”
“My heart is yours, Gabrielle,” Xena says, shifting closer, settling both hands at Gabrielle’s waist, where she can feel the curve of her hips even under the thick wool of her coat. “For this life and for eternity. You know that.”
“I know,” Gabrielle says again, and for a moment she leans back, resisting the invitation to tuck herself in against Xena. There’s still no anger in her, just resignation and a shadow of doubt that breaks Xena’s heart. “But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have slept with someone else.”
“I’ve never wanted to,” Xena says firmly. “You’re my soulmate. Soul, heart, body — they’re all yours.”
“I know that. But it is nice to hear you say it once in a while.” Gabrielle relaxes, relents, lets herself be folded into Xena’s arms. “What I was going to ask was whether you really don’t want to spend another night here. If you’d really rather get on the road, I’ll go pick up some tea that Talia was telling me about that might help with the nausea, so tomorrow morning won’t be too unbearable.”
Xena glances at Argo and at Gabrielle’s new horse, who’s twitching anxiously in his stall, and then out at the fast-fading daylight. There’s a cold wind blowing in from the east, and if they leave now they’ll be riding right into its teeth, not to mention further up into the mountains where the snow is bound to be deeper and the roads more treacherous, winding and slick with ice.
Xena’s pride in her own toughness is considerable, but the hungry new life inside of her and the strong, sure woman in her arms have other plans. Last time she was pregnant, she had a whole army at her beck and call; this time she has only a hard, cold road ahead of her, a bumbling buffoon and impulsive Amazon in tow, and Gabrielle, who’s wise in ways that Xena has never been and knows Xena better than she knows herself.
This pregnancy will be harder than the last, Xena has no doubt, but it will be more wondrous, more joyful, and full of love stronger than the foundations of the world.
She sighs and rests her chin on the top of Gabrielle’s head. “I think that a hot bath with you sounds absolutely perfect.”