It had been Gabrielle’s idea to stay another day in Melodia. “After all, how often are we in the musical capital of Greece?” she’d pointed out. “And now that the concert is over and Draco’s out of the way, you could get some time to really catch up with your mother.”
“I feel perfectly caught up with my mother,” Xena had replied, but she’d agreed to stay. As the winner of Terpsichore’s lyre and the most-beloved rock star in a city full of them, she’d taken Joxer, Jace, Gabrielle and Cyrene to a lavish dinner, free of charge — secretly pleased, Gabrielle thought, to be respected for something other than her fighting prowess. Afterwards they’d retired to the most luxurious inn in town, where Xena and Gabrielle spent the evening on the marbled balcony of their room, listening to the riotous, trumpeting, rock-and-rolling, jazz-swinging, rip-roaring parties that carried on long into the night.
At three in the morning, when the buoyant glow of victory and good wine had worn off and her head was pounding to the beat of an enthusiastic but amateur drummer on the street outside, Gabrielle began to think that the musical capital of Greece wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be. But at that point all she could do was curse Cacophony, goddess of drunken idiots with musical ambitions, and cover her aching head with a pillow.
Eventually she fell asleep to the droning buzz of Xena’s snore, only to be shaken awake in the hour after dawn. “Come on, he’s waiting for us,” Xena said, grinning as Gabrielle growled at her.
Xena looked so cheerful and well-rested that it made Gabrielle want to burrow back into the blankets in protest, but Xena was implacable and the sun was already pouring into the room. Gabrielle hauled herself up, dressed, splashed water on her face, and stumbled down to the city gates, resisting the urge to throw her sais at the songbirds twittering disharmoniously in the trees.
Jace was indeed waiting for them, dressed in a magnificent kimono of gray flower-embroidered silk that probably passed, for him, as drab traveling garb. His entourage of lean, well-muscled young men stood ready, resplendent as a flock of peacocks, and Gabrielle was pleasantly surprised to see Joxer with his helmet clasped under his arm, deep in conversation with his brother.
Jace threw his arms around Joxer and squeezed him, thoroughly pinched his cheeks, then turned to greet Xena and Gabrielle with a dazzling smile as they approached. “Ah, am I a lucky man, to be visited by two such beautiful Muses!” He took Xena’s hand and bowed over it as deeply as to any king, sweeping his kimono back in a beautiful courtly courtesy. “You are truly a Titan among women, and I hope our paths shall cross again.”
Xena returned his smile and clasped his arm in the traditional warrior’s salute. “We’d like that. You take care of yourself, now.”
“I shall! And I thank you for taking such good care of my thick-headed baby brother. I wish much joy to you, your child —“ he turned to Gabrielle and took her hand as well, but this time he brought it to his lips. “— and your lovely partner.”
Gabrielle grinned and pulled him into a hug. “Keep following the music in your heart, Jace. I’m sure it will take you to such beautiful places.”
They stood and watched until Jace and his train had disappeared into the forests, striking up a lively marching song, one young Adonis strewing a trail of flower petals out of a pack that seemed to be filled with nothing else. Joxer stood and watched too, quietly for once. If Gabrielle hadn’t known better, she would have said he was lost in thought.
She nudged him with her elbow. “Seems like you two are getting along better today.”
“Yeah, I ran into him at one of the big flings last night, and we talked.” Joxer nudged her back. “Thanks for saying that stuff yesterday, about him being my brother no matter what else he is. It’s nice knowing there’s at least one member of my family who doesn’t want to stab me.”
Xena was beginning to wander away toward the market, no doubt lured by the smell of breakfast; Gabrielle waved her on. “I knew you two would be able to connect,” she said to Joxer. “After all, it’s not like he’s the only person in your life who’s — different.”
Joxer’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
Gabrielle grinned. “Well, you know. Xena and I…” She paused, waiting for realization to dawn, but his face stayed disconcertingly blank. “Xena and I aren’t exactly the most…traditional of women.”
A passing carter blasted a horn at them as his horses cantered past, a hair’s width from trampling Joxer. “Okay, the music thing’s getting a little old,” Gabrielle muttered under her breath, as the carter shouted back over his shoulder again, waving his long golden horn like he might throw it. She hooked her arm through Joxer’s and tugged him down the street, following Xena’s path toward the market.
“Hang on,” Joxer said, as the slowly-grinding wheels in his brain caught up to his mouth. “What are you talking about, non-traditional? You and Xena follow in the most ancient tradition of the warrior’s path — defending the innocent and the weak, rescuing orphans, all that kind of stuff.”
Gabrielle hesitated. She’d had to revise her estimate of Joxer’s awareness down before, but never quite so sharply. “I mean, I guess, but — Joxer, you do know that Xena and I are —“
Joxer patted her hand. “You guys are real role models, you know? I mean, I’m glad I got to reconnect with Jace, and I get that he’s happy chasing the music or whatever, but it still kind of feels like he’s wasting his life — imagine what a man he could be if he picked up a sword!”
“Fighting isn’t the only way to be a man, Joxer,” Gabrielle said.
“I know, I know, I have to do my best to accept him for who he is,” Joxer added hastily. “But I still kinda wish he could be more like you and Xena. Tough, and strong, and brave in the face of adversity.”
Gabrielle remembered the savage snarl on Draco’s face when he’d seen Jace arrive. Her hand tightened on Joxer’s wrist brace until her knuckles went white. “I think Jace has faced his own share of adversity, and he’s braver than you know —“
Joxer plowed on as though he hadn’t heard. “You guys are just so different from him, you know? Nothing at all alike. I guess that’s why he and I have always had a rocky relationship. You and Xena are more my kind of people.”
“Xena and I have more in common with Jace than you realize,” Gabrielle said. “Much more, apparently.”
Joxer rolled his eyes. “I know you like to dance, Gabrielle, and Xena can sing, but it’s not the same thing.”
“Joxer.” Gabrielle stepped out into Joxer’s path and turned to stop him with both hands on his shoulders. “Do you seriously not know that Xena and I are lo —“
“Hey, lover boy.” Amoria materialized out of the crowd, all artfully disarrayed curls, smoky slept-in makeup and tight-fitting leather. (Although it was hard to be annoyed with her for the leather, since Gabrielle knew it was modest by Amazon standards, which prized freedom of mobility over inconsequential things like the opinions of uptight Greek villagers.) She stalked towards Joxer like a leopard on the prowl, and slipped an arm around his waist, grinning as he blushed up to the tips of his ears.
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest. “Someone else you got closer to at the fling last night?”
Joxer had the grace to look abashed. “Yeah, we, uh, came to an understanding. Right, Amoria?”
“Oh, yes. Mind if I cut in?” Amoria looked Gabrielle up and down with a cool, assessing gaze. Her smile was a sharp thing, brazen, possessive, but with a spark of interest in it that Gabrielle was almost positive she wasn’t imagining. “Meaning no disrespect, of course, my Queen.”
For a moment Gabrielle’s spine straightened as she remembered that she was a Queen, that she could order Amoria to —
Oh, for the gods’ sakes, this was Joxer.
“Take him,” Gabrielle declared, throwing up her hands in defeat. “Gods know what I was thinking trying to get through to him, anyway.”
“This was a great talk, Gabrielle,” Joxer called after her — rather half-heartedly, since Amoria chose that moment to run a hand up his back, presumably looking for chinks in his armor. “I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”
“Oh, don’t bother,” Gabrielle sighed.
“Hey, lover boy,” Xena said, leaning close to the bars of Draco’s cell. “I’ve got a proposition for you.”
Draco glared at her, silent and sullen. Not that he could have done much else. She’d thoroughly briefed the guards in Melodia’s small prison on how dangerous Draco could be, and she was pleased to see they’d taken her advice and kept him trussed up like a bird ready for the spit.
“It’s real simple,” Xena went on. “In the morning, Gabrielle and I are going to ride away from here. Three days from now, these nice gentlemen will untie you and let you go, with your word that you won’t make any trouble for them. And if you ever come within ten miles of Gabrielle again, I will rip out your spleen and offer it to her as a gift myself. Understand?”
Draco spat at her face, but he couldn’t aim very well from his position tied up on his side on the packed dirt floor of the cell, and Xena leaned easily out of range. “My angel Gabrielle doesn’t like that kind of gift,” he muttered. “Apparently.”
“Normally you’d be right, but she and I have an understanding. Now, give me your word that you’ll abide by my terms — or don’t you even have that much honor left?”
“You talk to me about honor?” Draco snarled. “You’re keeping a man from his true beloved! I was willing to die for her!”
Xena reached into the cell and grabbed the front of his tunic, hauling him forward until his face slammed against the bars.
”No, you were willing to kill her,” she explained patiently. “Now, I’ve been in your position, an evil bastard trying to mend his ways and wrap his head around Gabrielle. I know it’s an easy mistake to make when you’re first starting out, so let me clear something up for you — something that Gabrielle taught me, and that she would have taught you if you had two brain cells to rub together. Wanting to destroy something so that no one else can possess it is not love. It’s greed, and obsession, but it’s not love.”
“You think you’re better than I am?” Draco bellowed, thrashing against her grip. “I know you, Xena. You’re just using my darling Gabrielle. You’re ruthless and vicious — you’ve already stolen her innocence. And once you get what you want from her —“
“Shut up.” Xena gave him a good shake and dropped him like a sack of apples. “You know how I know you’re under a spell? Magic can’t change people. Love, real love, can bring out the better side to our natures, while all magic can do is cover what’s rotten in us with a little gilded paint. And you are the same old conniving cockroach you always were. Now, I don’t know if you noticed —“ she drew open one side of her heavy fur-lined coat, exposing the bulge of her belly, “— but Gabrielle and I are going to be very busy soon, and I don’t want you bothering us.”
“I dare you to try and stop me,” Draco growled.
Xena smiled. “Oh, I was hoping you’d say that. See, you say you’re willing to die for Gabrielle. And I happen to be willing to kill for her.” She drew her sword with a sibilant hiss of metal on leather and poked it between the bars, letting the point rest against Draco’s throat, just above the pulse she could see bounding under his skin. “If you really are willing to die for love, then I can grant your wish for you right now. What do you say?”
Draco, to his credit, had enough self-control not to jerk away and cut himself on the sword’s finely-honed edge. He did swallow convulsively, which nicked off a few hairs from his scruffy new beard. “Come on, it’s what we both want,” Xena said cheerfully. “Free of charge.”
Draco eyed his own wild-eyed reflection in the polished blade and gritted his teeth. “I would give my life for Gabrielle,” he said at last. “But not — not today.”
“Atta boy.” Xena let him go and reached through the bars to pat his cheek. “The offer’s always open. Whenever you feel ready to die for love, you just let me know.”
She turned to leave. “Xena,” he called when she was halfway to the door, and he sounded so utterly woebegone that she couldn’t help but turn to look at him. “Have some compassion, Xena. If I’m denied Gabrielle, I’ll never be able to love again.”
Xena rested her sword on one shoulder and gave him her sunniest grin. “Try,” she suggested. “Who knows? You might be in for a surprise.”
The central square was dominated by a massive fountain, a chunky cast-bronze monstrosity depicting the nine Muses at play in a flowering field. Each one pursued her particular art, and each one spouted her own jet of clear water that splashed down into the wide-mouthed basin below. After spending half of the day wandering through the hot and dusty streets looking for Xena, and finding only Terpsichore wanna-bes mauling ballads on every corner, Gabrielle was glad to at least find a landmark she recognized.
She perched on the fountain’s rim and splashed her face, then glanced up to see that she’d partaken of the water pouring from the eyes of Melpomene’s mask of tragedy.
“Oh, come on,” she muttered under her breath. “Can’t a girl get a break in this town?”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and started to her feet. “Cyrene!”
Xena’s mother came bustling across the square and pulled her into a hug. Gabrielle always found it so funny that such a short, soft woman, who carried the scent of fresh-baked bread around with her like the essence of hearth and home, had given birth to a statuesque, half-wild warrior princess. No matter what happened to Gabrielle and Xena out in the world, Cyrene at least was always the same, as dependable in her way as the turning of the seasons.
Gabrielle wondered briefly what Cyrene thought of the ways she’d changed since they had last met, but Cyrene only said, “I’ve been looking for you everywhere! Won’t you join me for lunch?”
“I’d love to. But I’m afraid I haven’t seen Xena all day. She said she had some things to do.”
Cyrene had a hand on Gabrielle’s elbow and was already steering her towards a bright, cheerful café sequestered off the main square, decorated by trailing grapevines and wreathed in the music of concealed harps. “Oh, that’s all right! It’s you I wanted to talk to, dear.”
Gabrielle let herself be deposited at a corner table, where there were two full glasses of wine and a spray of daffodils in a vase already waiting. “Of course,” she said warmly, as Cyrene took the seat across from her. “I wanted to talk to you, too. I feel like we haven’t had a chance to catch up at all. How are things in Amphipolis? Everything all right at the inn?”
“Oh, just fine, dear, I can’t complain. But I really wanted to talk to you about Xena.”
She’d known this conversation was coming, of course. Gabrielle straightened her shoulders and leaned across the table to clasp Cyrene’s hand earnestly in hers. “I know you must be concerned, Cyrene. Any mother would be. But I want you to know that you have nothing to worry about. Xena and I have been through a lot over the years, and I promise you that I will do whatever is necessary to protect her and her child.”
Cyrene squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “I know you will. You always do, and she’s so lucky to have you, truly she is. So I knew I could ask you — surely there’s some special someone she’s met somewhere, in all of your travels? That’s why she rejected all my prospects, isn’t it?”
For the second time that day, Gabrielle felt as though she had run up against the conversational equivalent of a brick wall in front of an onrushing chariot. “I — what?”
Cyrene waved her hand vaguely, the same gesture Xena made to say don’t be dense, you know what I mean. “The two of you must have met at least half the men in the known world by now. I know you’d notice if she took an interest in anyone.”
“Wait, hang on. Xena told me that she talked to you about this, that you said you’d let her do this her own way.“
Cyrene grinned conspiratorially. “Come on now, you know how stubborn Xena is. You think I raised a girl like her without learning how to pick my battles?” Misreading Gabrielle’s consternation, she added, “Oh, don’t worry, I won’t tell her it came from you. Hasn’t there been any man in particular she’s had her eye on? One of her letters mentioned the name Autolycus, he sounds like an upstanding gentleman. Is there any potential there?”
“Xena and Autolycus,” Gabrielle said numbly. “No, that’s — Autolycus is a good friend, and he’s helped us out of some tough spots, but I don’t think —“
Cyrene sighed. “No, of course not. That’s the trouble with my daughter, she’s too picky for her own good. I just can’t stand the thought of her having to raise this child alone, the way I raised her.”
“She won’t be alone,” Gabrielle protested. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. No matter where she goes, I’ll be there to help her every step of the way.”
Cyrene smiled — the fond smile of a mother indulging the grandiose dreams of a child too young to know the limitations of the real world. “You’re the best friend Xena could ever have, Gabrielle, but it’s not fair of her to ask that of you. You have your own life to live! Even if Xena never gets down off of her high golden horse to pick a man she can live with, you’ll surely be swept off your feet by a handsome young Hoplite one of these days, and you can’t be expected to abandon your own happiness just to help Xena change diapers. No, she needs a partner who will be a real father to this child, who will see it as his own.”
“Cyrene,” Gabrielle tried again. She was starting to wonder if Ares had switched her into another one of his little distorted playgrounds, maybe one where everything she said came out in Chinese instead of Greek — but that was probably too subtle a trick for Ares. “Listen to me. There’s no man that Xena’s interested in. She doesn’t need a man. I know you’re worried about her well-being, and about her child, but I swear to you, I will make sure she gets everything she needs.”
She hesitated, but Cyrene was peering at her now with a look halfway between bemusement and concern, so she drew in a steadying breath and added, “I don’t know how much Xena’s told you, but — I had a child, a long time ago. My daughter. Things — ended badly, but I never had to go through it alone. Xena walked that path beside me whenever I would let her.”
Cyrene nodded. “It’s a terrible thing, for a woman to lose a child,” she said softly. “All the more reason for you to be free to find your own happiness, and to have your own family when you’re ready.”
It was like talking to one of the bronze Muses on the statue outside. “Xena is my family,” she said firmly. “I already love her child as if it were my own. There is nothing I’d rather do than help Xena raise her daughter.”
“You say that now, but I’ve seen the way you look at that Joxer boy,” Cyrene replied, with a half-knowing, half-pitying look that only a mother could give. “Don’t worry, I’ll find someone for Xena. All I need is some help from you to figure out what kind of man she’d like best.”
Harps and flutes, bright and brassy trumpets, all the songs of working and marching and planting and harvesting, all faded away with the daylight. In their place rose drums and sultry seductive lyres, a slow crescendo to the deeper, driving rhythms of the night.
Gabrielle didn’t wait to hear Melodia’s evensong. She left town with the sunset, alone and on foot, heading west. As the stars were coming out, she reached the river and found a campfire already lit, a quail roasting to a turn, and Xena reclining amid their furs, looking half asleep and as self-satisfied as a well-fed cat in a sunbeam.
“Good,” she said as Gabrielle collapsed beside the fire and pulled her knees to her chest, resting her chin on her crossed arms. “You got my note.”
“‘Going out for some peace and quiet’? Could have been a little more informative.”
“It got you here, didn’t it?”
Gabrielle didn’t rise to the teasing in Xena’s tone or the wandering hand that came to rest possessively on her lower back; she was too busy staring moodily into the heart of the fire. “Xena,” she said at last. “Does your mother know that we died?”
Xena raised an eyebrow at the strangeness of the question, but didn’t comment on it. “Probably not. One of the first things I did after we came back was send her a letter telling her to ignore any rumors she might hear. I thought it’d be easier that way.”
“Easier in some ways, maybe,” Gabrielle muttered.
Xena whistled. “Lunch with her was that bad, huh?”
“She kept talking about how I’d find a nice man of my own someday, and settle down, and leave you alone with the baby.”
At that Xena laughed, a low soft sound that soothed Gabrielle’s spirit more than anything she’d heard in the musical capital of Greece. “Oh, yeah? Did she try to hook you up with the first man she could find, too?”
“We died on the cross,” Gabrielle said, mystified. “She thinks changing diapers is going to scare me away?”
Xena raised herself up on one elbow, and Gabrielle saw a faint smile tugging at the curve of her generous mouth. It was strange, she thought, how easy it was to talk about that cold agony of dying, and the dim memories of light and anger that followed it. That harrowing vision of death had shaped the course of their lives for more than a year, but there was no terror in the thought or the memory anymore. The worst thing that could happen to them had happened, and they had discovered that the threat was empty, that the dreaded Gorgon had no teeth. No matter what doom fell on them, they would not be separated; so what was there to fear?
Seeing her beginning to sink into the deep well of memory, Xena brushed an idle hand along the outside of her thigh, a brief and grounding caress. “What did you tell her?”
Gabrielle shook herself back to the present. “I just kept trying to convince her that I wouldn’t abandon you with an infant daughter, no food, and no help in the middle of the Siberian wastes somewhere.”
”And how did that go?”
”I don’t think she believed me,” Gabrielle replied. “What kind of person does she think I am? Does she think you mean so little to me? Xena, I dragged you up a mountain after your broke your neck, and then after you died I dragged your body across half of Greece for months—“
“She doesn’t know about that either.”
“I fought Alti in the spirit realm to defend your child! I’m not going to run off with some — some random Hoplite just because the baby might cry and wake me up in the middle of the night!”
“Try not to take it personally,” Xena advised. “She loves you like another daughter, Gabrielle, you know that. She’s just a little old-fashioned, and very stubborn.”
“And to think I used to wonder where you got it from,” Gabrielle said dryly.
Xena shrugged. “What can I say? I got the looks and the thick skull, Lyceus got the sunny disposition.”
Gabrielle threw herself backward with a groan, too distracted and frustrated to complain that she had to lay on the hard, cold ground because Xena had stolen all the furs. “We sat there for an hour, and she didn’t hear a word I said. I feel like no one’s listening to me. At least Draco has the excuse of being under a spell, but what about everyone else? Is it this town? Did the lyre backfire somehow and make everyone deaf?”
“That’d be ironic, huh?” Xena drawled. “You want the lyre? Technically it’s mine, I could give it to you. You could pour your heart out in song, have the whole town weeping at your feet, begging you for encores. It’d be one hell of a performance.”
“That’s just it, Xena! This isn’t a performance! When will your mother accept that I’m here to stay, that this isn’t just some kind of act? Will it be when the baby’s born? Or fifty years from now, when your child has children, and you and I are old and gray and withered? And Joxer —“
Xena blinked, her brow furrowing as she tried to follow Gabrielle’s rushing river of consciousness. “What about Joxer?”
Gabrielle buried her face in her hands. “Xena, I think Joxer thinks that you and I are just extremely close friends.“
“Come on, Gabrielle, you can’t be upset about that,” Xena protested. “He’s Joxer.”
“I know he’s oblivious, but it’s been years! And the way he talked about Jace, with me standing right there, like he didn’t know — by the gods, what does he think has been happening?”
“Who cares what Joxer thinks?” Xena tugged imperiously at Gabrielle’s hand until she sat up, then slipped one arm around her waist. With her other hand Xena turned Gabrielle’s face towards hers and kissed her softly. “Why are you so worried about everyone else’s opinion? Tomorrow morning we’ll be on the road again, and it’ll just be you and me.”
Gabrielle rested her head on Xena’s shoulder. In the warm safety of Xena’s arms, leaning into the familiar hard planes of whipcord muscle overlaid with the softness that came from carrying and nurturing new life, Gabrielle felt the frustration that had drawn her as taut as a lyre-string start to loosen. “I know things like this don’t bother you,” she sighed. “But I’m a bard — at least, I used to be. Stories are powerful things, they shape the world and the way people see it. Seeing Jace so sure in who he is, despite everyone doubting him — it made me realize how hard it’s been, to be living a story that no one believes.”
Xena was quiet for a moment, stroking Gabrielle’s hair. Her silence was significant, not empty but full of presence, accepting and undemanding. It was a gift to Gabrielle, a way of giving her a rest, a pause to let the conflicting emotions in her crystallize and cool. This silence, even more so than anything they said to each other, was a part of the language they had built together in the last five years — not as a machine is built, but as other, more settled families would build a home.
After a while she said, “You’re still a bard, Gabrielle. Writing and telling stories will always be a part of you. Maybe you’re living a story no one believes so that you can write it, and make them see it for the truth it is.”
“I don’t think I can write that well.”
“Try,” Xena suggested. “In the meantime, don’t worry about my mother. She’s stubborn, but not nearly as stubborn as I am. It might take a year, or it might take fifty, but she’ll realize that you’re better for me than any man, and you’re all the father this child will ever need. As for Joxer…” Xena paused. “I got nothin’,” she said at last, and Gabrielle stifled a snort. “If he didn’t catch on after he walked in on us on the floor of the Public Forum, there’s no help for him in this world.“
“At least he’s talking to Jace now,” Gabrielle sighed.
“You did some real good there. And who knows? Maybe Jace will be able to show Joxer a way of living life that he’d never thought was possible before.”
Gabrielle paused, incredulous. “You think Joxer’s —“
“I was talking about us,” Xena said drily. “But who knows? Anything’s possible.”