Chapter 1: BETRAYAL
I know what I have to do. I have to leave. Now. This won’t wait until dawn. If morning comes and I’m still here... I know she’ll talk me out of it, the same way she has many times before. Too many times actually.
Gabrielle checked to make sure her sais were in place and with her old satchel in one hand and her bedroll under her arm she walked out of the camp they set up at the beach that evening. Only thing she left behind was a parchment. Scribed inside was a simple statement, ‘I love you, Xena, but my life has no place in yours any longer. I see that now. Goodbye and good luck.’
The chatty bard has finally become the stoic warrior, Gabrielle thought bittersweetly as she had placed the scroll beside Xena.
But there’s no need to ramble on. She knows. She’s known for quite sometime now where things were heading, but she did nothing to stop it.
And Eve... if she’s not the spiting image of BOTH her mothers... How many times did I wish I had the power to creating another human being with the great warrior princess? How many? 1000? 2000? The honor, however, went to Callisto, the woman that killed my husband... Xena has her daughter alright and I played no part whatsoever.
No, Xena didn’t acknowledge that I had a place in Eve’s life. I spent months defending that child, laying my life down for that child, gave her my rite of caste. And what did Xena do? She scoffed at my every attempt in trying to create a family... She said we got OUR daughter back today. But today was just a little too late... Today, like many days this past year, was a living Hell. I can’t live in Hell any longer.
Gabrielle continued her journey down the beach lost in her thoughts.
I should have left sooner. I should have left in Egypt. Her attraction to Antony was almost more than I could handle. And her betrayal of him... well, let’s just say it didn’t seem all that different than what Caesar had done to her years before - winning her affections and stabbing her in the back. If Caesar was evil for doing that, what did that make Xena? Maybe Najara was right... In fact, maybe I should have left then; made Najara see the err of her ways and build a life together with her instead.
As Gabrielle continued to walk, she saw another figure heading toward her on the beach. She picked up her pace and within a few 100 yards she recognized the figure.
And just when I couldn’t feel any worse.
"Hello, Gabrielle. How’s the head?"
Are you really up for chitchat now, Gabrielle?
"Fine," she replied. "I didn’t get the chance to thank you earlier. You didn’t have to heal me too, but you did." Gabrielle looked at the former god of war and began to grin. Look at that. He’s blushing. Ha ahh.
Ares played nervously with the scruff on his face.
"Yeah, well ... You and Xena are a package deal and I accept that now. In fact, I think it sounds pretty damn interesting."
Oh jeez, Gabrielle thought as she watched Ares’ mind going off... imagining... well... she didn’t want to know precisely what he was imaging, but she had a fair assumption of what Ares found ‘interesting’. She wasn’t going to stick around to find out more.
"Hold up," he shouted and began to walk after her. "Where are you going?"
"Yeah, but you're coming back, right?"
"No. I'm leaving."
"Leaving for good? Just like that? Does Xena know?"
"She’ll learn soon enough. Especially when you go back there, fall on one knee and propose. She’s gotta thing for bad boys Ares, but between you and I, I don’t think Xena’s the marrying kind. You’ll just have to make do as her love toy - the position is official open now."
It took a lot to stun the now mortal god of war, but he looked truly mystified as Gabrielle continued along the beach.
"Wait a minute," he called jogging up after her. Gabrielle stopped again releasing a long sigh. "You can’t just walk away."
"Yes, I can," Gabrielle countered. "Watch me."
"Hey," he said as he grabbed her arm halting any movement. "Look I’m not good at these sensitive chat things... Where’s Dite when I need her?" he muttered under his breath.
Gabrielle and Ares turned to see a glittering shower quickly transform into the Goddess of Love.
"I’ve been following you for awhile, Ares. You look pretty pathetic by the way," she jabbed.
"Can we put the sib rivalry on hold a moment here?" he asked.
Aphrodite cocked her head and examined Ares. He was actually being... sincere.
"What’s up?" she asked taking a new interest in the conversation.
"She’s leaving Xena," he stated flatly looking for support.
"I don’t blame her," was the response. Ares eyes widened and Gabrielle pointed to Dite in a ‘See? She agrees’ manner.
"Thank you," Gabrielle nodded to Aphrodite. "I’ll be on my way now."
"If you go, it will kill Xena," Ares argued.
Gabrielle continued on her way as she spoke with the siblings who were following her. "Xena’s a strong woman. She hasn’t needed me for sometime now. I, however, will die if I stay with her. You can only survive so many chakrams to the head before you realize enough is enough."
"She was protecting Eve," Ares argued.
Protecting Eve my ASS!
"I noticed you didn’t get an open head wound for going after Eve so don’t give me that shit, Ares! I don’t believe it for a second!"
Gabrielle picked up the pace while the two of them continued to follow.
"That was different," she heard Ares whine behind her.
"How so?" Gabrielle countered as she spun around.
Ares immediately looked to Dite, hoping she’d toss him a line. The goddess just folded her arms and smirked.
"We’re waiting," Dite ribbed her brother.
Ares ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.
"Women!" he yelled. Gabrielle slapped him in the chest with the back of her hand as they heard the noise vibrate through the area.
"Keep it down. You’ll wake her up," Gabrielle said pointing back to the camp.
Ares got a glimmer in his eyes and Gabrielle regretted putting the idea in his head. She pulled her sais as Ares took a deep breath to yell again.
"Do it and your life as a mortal will be reallllly short."
Dite stepped between them, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. "Settle down boys and girls. Nobody’s gonna start yelling like a child for their warrior princess and nobody is gonna slit the throat of an ex-god, okay? Sheesh!"
"She started it," Ares muttered like a spoiled child.
"This is so idiotic," Gabrielle sighed. "Can I go now?" she asked Dite.
"Look," Dite began speaking to Gabrielle, "I don’t blame you for wanting to leave. There have been many times lately when she’s barely acknowledged you. There have been times when she’s been... less than attentive-."
"Less than attentive? She was willing to walk away from me because I wanted to rule a village and all because she was ‘bored’. Another amazon wanted to be her new ‘sidekick’ and Xena took advantage of that by turning her into a maid for the afternoon, all the while misleading me into thinking she wanted to settle down with me. You call that less than attentive!"
"No. I call that stupid." All three of them turned around to see Xena standing in her battle dress, armorless. "I can’t deny I did all those things. But I also read your scrolls as I had promised. And I came to my senses and realized... I need you in my life."
"You might need me, but you don’t want me," Gabrielle argued. "I don’t think a ‘needy’ relationship is best for either of us, Xena. I want a lover who WANTS me in her life and frankly I’ve felt like a nuisance. I’m tired of feeling like I’m asking too much of you. I’m tired that every attempt I make to get closer is seen as trying to control you or manipulate you. I’m tired of watching you and Eve and feeling like an outsider... That’s a terrible way to live. I can’t live that way any longer."
"We can change things-."
"You said that after we left the amazons remember?... What did I get in return? Huh? A ringside seat to watch you fuck Antony and a chakram upside the head? Pardon me if I’m a little leery with the ‘change things’ attitude. It’s been months, Xena, and nothing’s changed."
"I don’t want you to leave," Xena said trying to step closer.
"It wouldn’t matter if I left," Gabrielle retorted. "That’s the problem. My exist... it doesn’t mean much when it comes to your future."
"Gabrielle, you’re my soulmate," Xena tired in a final attempt.
"We WERE soulmates. But we haven’t been soulmates in a very long time. Apparently souls can have a change of heart too... Goodbye, Xena."
Don’t do it. Don’t start crying now. Just turn and walk away. Keep walking. That’s it. Keep walking. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right...
Xena imploringly looked at Dite for help, but the goddess showed no sign that she would intervene. Xena realized she’d sealed her own fate and all the potions and spells and arrows weren’t going to change that fact. Besides she’d always wanted the bard's love and not an illusion.
"I’m sorry," Dite offered sincerely before transporting away in a flash of light.
The wind picked up, leaving Xena and Ares alone on the beach. Finally, Ares spoke, "Mind if I camp with you tonight? I’m kind of stuck for a place to stay and I’m not quite sure where I’m going from here."
Xena grinned bitter-sweetly.
"Come on." She motioned him to follow her. "That makes two of us."
Chapter 2: DENIAL
Eve was sitting up in her bedroll as Ares and Xena walked back into the camp.
"What is HE doing here?" she asked unable to show her disgust.
"Try to remember he saved your life," Xena retorted.
"It’s okay," Ares said breaking into the conversation between mother and daughter. "She’s got every right to be angry."
"You’re damn right I do," Eve said as she stood up poking a finger at the former God. "Why in Eli’s name do you keep defending this jackass?" she asked Xena.
Why do I? Xena considered. He’s done more damage than good in my life. But still…
"He’s down on his luck right now," Xena answered with a sigh. "We’re gonna give him a hand."
"We are, huh?" Eve replied sarcastically. "And what does Gabrielle have to say about…Where is Gabrielle?" Eve said looking around, finally putting her anger with Ares on hold long enough to notice the bard was not present.
"She’s gone," Xena answered softly.
"What do you mean she’s gone?! What happened?!" Eve exclaimed.
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but nothing would come out. She didn’t know where to begin her explanation.
"Is she dead?" Eve asked, terror beginning to fill within her eyes at the thought.
"No," Xena said quickly to calm Eve who was beginning to shake. "She just doesn’t want to travel with us anymore." Xena didn’t add more. Instead, she chose to wait for Eve’s reaction to the news.
She’s gone? Eve thought. How can she be gone? How can she just walk away? I spent 25 years without a mother to finally discover, in truth, I had two... And now one of them is suddenly gone? Perhaps the responsibility was too much? Perhaps...
"Is it because of me?" Eve asked softly. "Is she leaving because I’m here?"
Xena could have sworn her heart broke at the sob she heard in Eve’s voice.
"No sweetheart, no. She left because of me."
"And me," Ares said piping into the conversation. Xena looked over to Ares when she heard the less than proud response. "I haven’t been a staunch supporter of your moms' relationship," he told Eve, avoiding eye contact with either woman. "I’ve been very much the adversary more times than I can count."
"Go figure," Eve replied tartly and rolling her eyes.
"Look," Xena replied moving closer to her daughter. "Gabrielle loves you very much and it wouldn’t surprise me if one day she comes back. If not to see me, then at least to see you... Did she tell you that you’re an amazon? That she’s a queen and gave you her rite of caste?"
Eve’s eyes widened at the news and she shook her head no.
"Well, it’s true," Xena continued with a proud grin. "Gabrielle couldn’t have loved you more than if she had given birth to you. I was too preoccupied or blind or... whatever... to see that. She said it often, but it fell on deaf ears and now I’m paying the price."
"No offense mother, but it sounds like I’m paying the price too. I might not get the chance to know her now." Eve mentally kicked herself for the way the remark came out so insensitive. She hurts bad enough right now and you gotta go lay her on a guilt trip. Real smooth. "That came out all wrong," Eve added, taking a spot back on the ground again at her bedroll. "I just mean it would be nice to get to know the woman behind all those scrolls I read... but that chance might be gone."
She’s right. It might be too late but then again... "I know Gabrielle pretty well. I don’t think she’ll stay gone long." Xena grinned. Ares cleared his throat and Xena snapped her head around. "You have something to add?" she asked clearly annoyed with the ex-god.
"I think you’re fooling yourself, Xena," Ares answered. "That look in her eyes and conviction in her voice - I think she’s gone for good," he concluded quickly.
"Yeah, well, I really don’t give a damn about your opinion, Ares," Xena retorted. "I still say I know Gabrielle better than you." Ares smirked and shook his head in disbelief, but said nothing. "What?!" Xena answered, her annoyance turning into anger.
Ares and Xena faced off for a moment, sizing each other up.
"She’s right. Gabrielle was right," Ares sighed. "I stood on that beach and tried to convince her to stay with you." That news obviously startled both mother and daughter. "Yeah, I know, hard to be believe, but true... Why? Because I see how much she means to you, Xena, and I know how difficult it would be if she left; even if you don’t see it. And I’ll tell you what else I see." Ares didn’t pause to find out if Xena wanted to hear. He just continued. "I see exactly why she left. Gabrielle isn’t the same woman you knew years ago. She will no longer follow you blindly into battle. She’s a warrior and a woman in her own right. You never recognized that."
"This from the man that views her as the irritating blonde," Xena said to Eve.
"At one time, yes, absolutely," Ares answered. "She irritated the hell out of me and I know why now. She could love you unconditionally. She had the POWER to make you see the goodness inside you... but somewhere along the way, you both lost sight of that. And it’s funny because her loss should be my gain. Right now though it feels like a hollow victory. I won by default because, in the end, I didn’t cause this breakup. You did."
"Perhaps I did." Xena nodded. "But you played a very big hand in it – telling me to seek vengeance for Solan’s death, making a deal with Gabrielle by using her jealousy over LaMao, offering to train Gabrielle as a warrior when she was grief stricken over Eli-."
"Well, I’m not the one who dragged Gabrielle cross country behind a horse. I’m not the one who left her standing on the dock feeling helpless. And I’m not the one who condemned her for not interfering when a friend asked her to look the other way... You did all those things on your own, Xena. You made the choice in the end, not me."
Xena could feel her pulse in her head. She’d been angry with Ares many times over the years, but at this moment it far exceeded anything she could imagine. I’m looking at a dead man, her mind hissed. She was ready to pull her breast dagger and slash Ares throat in that second and she would have if she didn’t hear Eve’s voice.
"I never read any of that," Eve said looking at Xena for conformation. "Did you do those things?" Eve asked, almost pleading that it wasn’t true. It can’t be true, Eve thought silently. All those scrolls never mentioned anything like that. They sang of all the people that she saved, all the good she’d done. How could she hurt Gabrielle? Gabrielle risked her life by walking into my Roman camp just to say that they loved me.
How could mother hurt anyone that brave and daring and noble? It can’t be true.
But the longer Xena didn’t answer, the more Eve realized that yes it was true. Gabrielle just never mentioned it in her writings. Eve began to wonder why.
Was it out of love? Was it too painful to put on parchment? Why?
"Eve," Xena began, "I was a terrible person for a very long time... and sometimes," Xena began to tear up but quickly swallowed them down. "And sometimes it’s hard to fight my ‘dark side’. That’s what Gabrielle called it. She understood it. And sadly, there were times that she felt the wrath of it. I’m not proud of that because I love Gabrielle very much. I do. And it’s hard to see that sometimes in light of all the things that have happened to us."
"You mean in light of all the things you’ve done," Ares corrected smugly.
"You are this close to death’s door," Xena said narrowly spacing her thumb and index finger in front of him.
"You’re right," Ares said. "That was a cheep shot, but if you want the bard back Xena you’ll have to start seeing the things that have happened and accepting responsibility for them. If you don’t... you’ll never get her back... ever."
"You’re suddenly the god of love, huh?" Xena rebuffed.
"No, I’m suddenly mortal with eons of experience with humans. I see things a lot more clearly now... I just wish you did too."
Suddenly, Ares stomach made an atrocious churning noise. All three looked to Ares belly and at each other, thankful for the break in the deep conversation.
"Hungry?" Eve poked fun.
"Is that why my stomach hurts and makes hideous noises?" the newly mortal god asked.
Xena grinned and shook her head. Boy o’ boy does he have a lot to learn about mortality. She reached into the saddlebag next to her bedroll pulling out some bread and cheese, tossing it to the former war god.
"Here," she offered. "That should quiet things down so we can get some rest tonight."
Ares took a bite and turned to Xena with a wince.
"Please tell me all food doesn’t taste this bad."
Eve and Xena grinned at each other and nodded. This is gonna be some road trip all right, Xena thought.
"Oh yeah," she replied,"Some of it’s even worse. In fact that’s the best of the best you’ve got there, pal." What’s the harm in making Ares believe all food is terrible? Besides it’s just desserts for his antagonism tonight. "Come on, let’s try to get some rest. It’s been a long day," Xena offered.
Xena gave Ares her bedroll and shared Eve’s. As mother and daughter lay next to each other, Eve turned to Xena. "Will you promise to tell me more tomorrow? Things I didn’t see in the scrolls? Maybe things about Gabrielle?"
Can I really do this? Xena considered. Yes you can. You have to. Eve deserves the truth.
"Yes, but only one story at a time," Xena considered.
"How about tonight?" Eve said snuggling closer. "Just a small one?"
Xena smiled. Story time with her daughter. She missed much in Eve’s growth, but perhaps some moments could still be saved and experienced. Xena cleared her throat to speak.
"I sing of Gabrielle. The girl I met... the woman I love ... "
Chapter 3: ACCEPTANCE
Ahhh ... is will do nicely.
Gabrielle picked up the last log she found and examined it after a brief toss in her hand. Quietly, she made her way back to the fire pit where her bedroll lay for the evening. She carefully stacked the wood in a triangle shape with plenty of kindling below. Normally she would just go to sleep, but this evening was chilly as a result of being so close to the water. She needed the warmth if she was going to get any rest.
With a few clicks of the flint the tiny twigs caught the spark and within moments a fire was blazing. The feeling that she was being watched suddenly draped over her like a wet blanket and she looked over her shoulder unsure and nervous of what she might find.
"You’re pretty good at that," her visitor said pointing to the fire.
Yeah, now. There was a time when I wasn’t, Gabrielle thought as she turned around. "Well, the first night I took off after Xena I ended up in her camp because I couldn’t start a fire to save my life."
She chuckled, remembering how helpless she felt back then. She was going to be the great adventurer, yet she couldn’t make twigs smoke. It took all the courage I had to walk into her camp that night. The next night she showed me just what to do in case I ever got lost or separated from her... Separated... The smile, formed from the remembrance of how young she was back then, slipped from her face as a feeling of melancholy took hold of her.
"So what brings you out here, Aphrodite?" the bard asked, hoping to clear her mind of the painful thoughts.
"Just checking up on you, I guess," Dite answered. When neither woman said more, Dite continued, "She’s taught you a lot, I know. It’s hard to let that go," Dite sympathized. Gabrielle’s eyebrows scrunched in examination of the goddess.
How could she possibly know what I-.
"Because little one," Dite continued, "when it comes to love I can see right into any mortal."
"I thought all the goddess of love cared about was her temples and her ‘evening’ wear." The bard grinned.
"Superficial airhead, huh?" Dite remarked. "Guess that’s why I’m still around and half of Olympus’ most powerful are gone, right?"
Gabrielle chuckled, "Very true. Wanna have a seat?" The bard offered patting her bedroll. Dite took the invitation and without physically moving appeared beside the bard. Gabrielle grinned and shook her head. "You only had to move 5 strides. Was it really necessary to ‘poof’ beside me?" she teased.
"What good are powers if you don’t use ‘em?" Dite countered. Gabrielle continued to grin and poked a stick in the fire for distraction until Dite continued. "Speaking of power... I tried to sway Athena from using the furies on you, but I had little control over it. I didn’t-."
"Aphrodite," Gabrielle interrupted. "that’s not your fault. If you hadn’t stepped in when you did things would have been much worse. I’m just glad that Xena didn’t overreact and harm you." Gabrielle rolled her eyes in disgust with the thought of the warrior.
Dite smiled. "That’s kind of you to say. But I knew that Xena wouldn’t harm me if I approached to offer help. Besides, I didn’t need to fight her. I had nothing to lose, so why battle her. The mortal world only needs two true gods. Only two factors play such a role in humanity - death and love. People don’t need wisdom to survive. They don’t need ‘hobbies’. They certainly don’t need war... But love... humans will always need love. And humans will always need death."
"I never knew you could be so philosophical," Gabby replied slack-jawed.
"There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Gabrielle. Not many mortals do. I show them what I want them to see and the rest well... I kinda keep it under wraps." The goddess winked. "But I don’t think my immortality is weighing on your mind tonight. And I thought perhaps I could share some insight with you - like things you didn’t know or might not have realized... But that’s only if you want to. If not, I’ll just ‘poof’, as you say, and be outta here," she added snapping her fingers.
"No need to ‘poof’." Gabrielle smirked. "I’m just not sure where to start I guess."
"Well, let’s see," Dite said looking up to the star filled sky in thought. "Would you like to know when Xena was first attracted to you?" Dite wiggled on the bedroll, beginning to get into this little ‘game’. "This could be fun," she squealed. "Wanna play?"
"Play what? Guess the warrior’s heart?" Gabrielle retorted.
"Sure," Dite said enthusiastically.
Do I really want to do this?... Oh what the hell..."Okay, what do I do?" Gabrielle sighed.
"Okay," Dite began before planning things in her mind. "We could do a ‘truth or dare’ kinda game or I could ask you a personal question and give you the right answer."
"I’m confused," Gabrielle answered, playing with her earlobe as she considered what Dite had in mind. "What do you mean by the right answer?"
"Well, let’s just start and you’ll see. Okay? Now ... When did Xena first realize she was attracted to you?" the goddess asked.
When did Xena first realize she was attracted to me? Hmmm... "After I got kidnapped by Baccus."
"Naaaahhhhh, wrong answer, sweet cheeks. Would you like to try again?" Dite grinned. This could actually be fun, Gabrielle considered with a growing smile. "Of course it’s fun," Dite said, reading Gabrielle’s mind. "It’s my game... Now would you like a second guess or not?"
"No. Tell me. When did Xena realize she was attracted to me?"
"The first day she saw you."
"Get outta here!"
Both women erupted into a fit of the giggles like two gals at a sleep over.
"It’s true!" Dite said soundly, confident in her answer.
"With the peasant dress and the barrettes?"
"Oh yeah," Dite smirked. "In fact, she was so distracted that Draco’s scrub solider managed to knock her down during the fight."
"You were there?" Gabrielle asked in amazement. Aphrodite simply nodded. "Why? Wait! You didn’t put a spell on me to follow her, did you?"
"Goodness no! You did that all on your own darlin’... I was there because Herc asked me to keep an eye on Xena for a little while to make sure she’d be okay. And it’s hard for me to say no to the big guy." She grinned.
"Well, I’ll be," Gabrielle stared at the fire mesmerized by this piece of news.
"Okay, next question," Dite said bringing back Gabrielle’s attention.
"Can I ask this time?" Gabrielle questioned excitedly. Dite grinned and nodded enthusiastically. "What did Xena think after our first time... you know... together?"
Dite cocked her head as she thought about the question.
"Fear," she answered after a few moments of consideration.
"She was afraid of me?" Gabrielle answered. Why in the world was she afraid of me? Didn’t she trust me? I gave her everything that night - all that I had.
"Exactly," Dite answered. "and that’s what scarred her. She wasn’t sure if she could measure up. She wasn’t sure that she could be everything you needed. That worried her because she didn’t want to lose you."
"Then what changed?" Gabrielle asked as a sob threatened to spill forth. Playtime was official over now and Dite took a deep breath to steady herself for it. "How did she get so far from what she wanted that night? Why did she just let me go?" Gabrielle added.
"Now I’m going to say something, and I need you to understand it. You’ve got a temper on you bard and I don’t want you reaching for the sais, okay?" The goddess paused to see if Gabrielle would agree. Once she got the nod of acceptance, she continued. "Xena isn’t the only one who’s done damage to this relationship, Gabrielle. You’ve done your share too. And when trust is betrayed it is soooo hard to get that back."
"I know I did wrong by betraying Xena in Chin. I know that now. Hell, I knew that then and I made every effort to show her that she could have faith in me."
"Like joining Najara’s cult to start a hospice? Like deciding that people who waged war weren’t worthy and that peace and light are ‘the way’?"
"I never said that," Gabrielle countered. "I just wanted to examine other courses in life."
"Yes. I see that. But did you ever consider that maybe the examination would have its toll on Xena? You were choosing courses that would take you farther away from Xena - opposite ends, in fact."
"Have you heard that opposites attract, Aphrodite?" Gabrielle said trying to defend her actions.
"Yes, and it’s true... but opposites don’t make lasting relationships. The sparks are great at first, but then it just kinda fizzles away. You can’t stay together if you’re walking down separate roads - that’s a fact. And by the time you ‘caught up’ to her again... she was already gone. Not physically, but emotionally. She couldn’t have you play a part in Eve’s life because what would happen if you changed your mind again? What if you decided that you wanted to go the bard academy or find a husband to settle down with or perhaps just go back home to the little hick town of yours for good? Xena couldn’t take that chance... And I don’t blame her."
"Whose side are you on here?" Gabby asked.
"Love’s side," Dite answered firmly without hesitation, "... I’m not on your side or her side. I’m on love’s side. And the only way love will survive for you or Xena is if you BOTH take the time to realize you weren’t completely honest with each other... perhaps even honest with yourselves... Once you find acceptance of the role you’ve played will you find love - be it with Xena or someone else. Ares top babe might not be the gal for you, but you’ll never move forward until you acknowledge your part in all this. So take it one day at a time, Gabrielle, and you’ll survive."
Gabrielle took the wine skin from her pack and took a deep long swig. She turned to offer the goddess a drink, but she had vanished. Gabrielle looked around the perimeter of the camp, but Aphrodite was gone.
Maybe she’s right, Gabrielle considered as she laid down on the bedroll looking up at the stars. How many times did Xena and I star gaze together?... It’s not the same without her. But then again when’s the last time we did take time to do this? The amazons ... I tried to touch her arm that night and she moved away. Like she’s been moving away for months. Damn her! Truth is I’ve been without her for months but it’s only now that I’ve left... Go to sleep, Gabrielle. Don’t do this to yourself. Just wake up. And move on tomorrow. One day at a time.
Chapter 4: STRIFE
"Ouch! Hold on! Hold on!"
Xena and Eve dropped their offensive stance and lowered their swords. They both looked at each other and rolled their eyes as the former war god called a truce for the third time in their sparring session that morning.
"Another pebble in your boot?" Eve taunted to Ares. What a wimp.
"It wasn’t a pebble. It was a rock - a very big, pointy rock," Ares whined.
Two weeks had gone by since Gabrielle’s departure. Many nights Xena felt the overwhelming urge to start out to look for her, but she always fought the temptation. It was best if she just left well enough alone for now. She had to get herself in order before she went searching. She had to prove to Gabrielle that things would indeed be different. At this point, she couldn’t make that promise. Too much had happened.
But the more she was around Ares, the more tempted she was to find Gabrielle. The bard had a way of cooling her temper when she needed it most. Besides, to see Ares at his worst would certainly bring a smile to Gabrielle’s face. The former god was always finding some ‘ailment’ during their drills, which broke the flow of the practice sessions and it was annoying Xena to no end.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Xena sighed. "You realize that your opponent is NOT going to let you call ‘time-out’ during a battle, don’t you?" Xena warned. "You’ve got to stay fit if you’re going to survive."
"Yeah, I know," Ares replied defensively, "but look at my hands, would ya? I’m getting bumps," he added outstretching his palms.
Xena inspected them and tried to hold back her smirk. She and Eve looked at each other and then back to Ares.
"It’s more serious than I thought," Xena replied as straight faced as possible.
"What?! What is it?!" Ares asked looking at his hands in terror.
"You’re getting... calluses!"
Eve couldn’t hold back her laughter any longer. Xena would have loved making Ares think his condition was terminal, but she just couldn’t pull it off. The harder Eve laughed, the more anger Ares became. And the angrier Ares became, the more Eve laughed. Ares raised his sword to strike the laughing young woman, but Xena put a stop to it with a quick grab to his wrist.
"Oh no you don’t," Xena warned. "Go to the saddlebag and get some ointment and bandages. That will help. Go on." Xena pointed.
Ares gave Eve a menacing glance on the way past her. But Ares was finding he couldn’t intimidate Eve any more than he could intimidate Xena.
Once Ares was out of earshot Eve asked, "What are we going to do with him? We can’t keep traveling like this."
"I’m not sure," Xena replied. So far it’s worse than I expected. He whines. He moans. He’s interrupting every conversation. It’s worse than owning a pet.
"We need to do something," Eve replied.
"We could always make him a god again," Xena offered with a chuckle. Eve chewed on her lip in thought. "That was a joke," Xena added when she noticed Eve was giving the idea serious consideration.
"I know you meant it as a joke, but think about it. We-."
"I don’t want to think about it. The answer is no. He’ll do more harm than good."
She’s right, Eve considered. Having the god of war back would only make more trouble. But then again ...
"What if we just made him immoral?" Eve suggested. "He wouldn’t get older. He wouldn’t get hurt and he wouldn’t have to travel around with us anymore."
Hmm, that’s not a bad idea. It would certainly get him out of our hair and we wouldn’t have to worry about him using any ‘godly’ powers against us someday. Besides with Ares out of the picture I can finally get back to focusing on things that matter, like getting to know Eve... and if I’m lucky... finding Gabrielle.
"So what do you say?" Eve asked interrupting Xena’s thoughts.
"Okay," Xena began, "I’ve got a friend that might be able to help... if he’s still alive that is."
"Hercules? THE Hercules?!"
Xena grinned. Umm ... Guess she’s heard of him. "Yep, that’s the one. In fact, you might not be here if not for him. He battled Zeus while your mom helped me give birth to you."
"Is that how Zeus died?" Eve asked as her eyes widened. I’d heard the stories about it but I never knew that ‘I’ was the child he fought to protect.
"Unfortunately, yes," Xena sighed. "It was very hard for Hercules, but he knew he made the right choice. After it was over, he took Gabrielle to the side and told her to protect her family and if she ever need him he’d give her a hand... He was a really good friend... In fact, he tried repeatedly to reason with Zeus, but he couldn’t get through to him. And in the end it cost Zeus his life."
"Self fulfilling prophecy," Eve muttered as she thought about the story Xena told.
"Yep. It’s ironic that Ares was the only god who saw it as such. Even Athena in all her wisdom was near sighted to that fact... Anyway, should we find ‘the big guy’ as some folks call him?"
Eve chuckled. The big guy. Her attention was turned however to Ares who was cursing because he couldn’t get the bandage on the right way. She shook her head vigorously, "By all means yes. I’m not sure how much more of this I can stand," she answered pointing to Ares, who at this point was fighting to get the lid back on the ointment tin.
"We," Xena corrected. "How much more of this WE can stand." After a few moments of watching him struggle, Xena sighed. "Go give him a hand, would ya?"
"Okay, but next time it’s your turn." Eve winked and then she jogged over to the ex-god.
As Xena watched Eve with Ares, the warrior smiled. Too bad you didn’t stick around to see this Gabrielle. Ares struggling with being ‘average’... up close and personal. Xena took a deep sigh. I don’t miss you until I’m alone like this. Hell I’m not even ALONE right now and I miss you. Someday, someway we’ll get back on track. One way or another I promise. Right now I just hope you’re safe and warm and well fed... Then again when are you NOT hungry. Xena chuckled out loud drawing Eve’s attention, whom had already walked back to be at her side.
"What is it?" Eve asked. "Still chuckling at Ares?"
"Huh?" Xena said slightly startled. "Oh no... I was just thinking about your mom... Did I tell you the nutbread story?"
Eve grinned as they began to walk down the road with Ares several yards in front of them now. She liked the stories her mother told about Gabrielle, or her mom, as she was now being referred to her. The longer more formal title of 'mother' had been given to Xena. The shorter, more playful term had gone to Gabrielle. Instead of being upset by Eve’s idea of how to tell them apart, the warrior shinned like a lantern at Eve’s suggestion.
"No, you haven’t," Eve replied, hoping it would prompt her mother into another tale.
"Well, it wasn’t long after our Titan trouble I had told you about," Xena began. "A father was going to sacrifice his son to the one god."
"Eli’s god?" Eve asked to clarify. Xena nodded.
"Turns out that it wasn’t the one god that was doing the ‘commanding’ but his older son, who was jealous. Anyway, I told Gabrielle to stay with the young boy while I went to see his mother, just to get some inside information on the situation. When I got back to the cave they were hiding in, I found Gabrielle face down and not moving."
"What happened?" Eve asked. This is getting good.
"Well, it seems the brother had been poisoning the family. Gabrielle ate all the boy’s nutbread. which had been tainted with henbane. Anyway," Xena continued with a smile, "Gabrielle ate it all. Every last crumb and she was so stoned." Xena chuckled. "That was the first day she told me I was beautiful. As much as I would have like to believe it at that point I couldn’t. Especially after she started talking to the cave rocks... and they started talking back... At least that’s what SHE believed."
Eve erupted into a fit of giggles, "Was she okay? I mean I know she survived and all."
"Oh yeah. Your mom is pretty damn tough. The headache she got afterward however rivaled an ale hangover, but she still came through when the going got rough." Xena chuckled. "She was so young then," she reflected. "But she was still the most gorgeous creature - inside and out - I’d ever seen... Somewhere along the way I lost sight of telling her just how much she meant... And it costs me," Xena said despondently.
"Perhaps things will change someday and you’ll get the chance again," Eve offered optimistically.
"Perhaps." Xena grinned.
They walked down the road in a bit of silence until Eve spoke again.
"So how did you and Gabrielle finally... get together?"
"Get together?" Xena teased, knowing full aware of what Eve was hinting at.
"Yeah," Eve blushed. "You know what I mean."
"It was after I died the first time," Xena replied nonchalantly. "I’ve been dead a few times, but I seem to keep coming back," she added with a grin as she explained. "We had just gone on an ambrosia quest with a crazy, power hungry amazon after us who wanted your mom’s throne. We succeeded, of course, and after I came back we just ‘hooked up’."
"You just ‘hooked up’," Eve mocked teasingly. "Just like that?"
Xena paused a moment, "Yeah, just like that."
"Hmm what?" Xena asked.
"I don’t know, but it seems kinda... boring. I mean after all the adventures and stories I’ve heard I figured your coupling would be more ‘exciting’." Xena laughed heartily at Eve’s appraisal of how she and the bard became lovers. "What?" Eve asked, not quite sure of what caused the outburst from her mother.
"Trust me Eve. That night was anything, but boring," Xena informed her with a chuckle still firm in her voice. "Besides, I already knew what was in Gabrielle’s heart. When I was dead I could hear her thoughts. In fact, she’s the reason I fought so hard to come back. Yes, the world needed me around to help those that couldn’t help themselves, but, in truth, the main reason was your mom. I couldn’t leave her yet... not with so many things left unsaid and unfinished. I think that’s why I’m having such a hard time now... it still feels ‘unfinished’... I’m not sure if you understand."
Eve didn’t have a chance to reply. Ares came running back up the road toward them.
"We’ve got trouble ahead," he said winded, pointing behind from where he came. Six snarling highwaymen stood before them looking anything but friendly.
"So we do." Xena smirked as she unsheathed her sword. Eve, in turn, did the same. "I love trouble." She grinned menacingly at the men as she proceeded forward. "Can we help you?" she asked the men.
"You can start by emptying your purses," the apparent leader of the gang answered.
Xena sighed. "Look fellas, I haven’t been in the best of moods lately. I’m trying to reunite with my daughter I haven’t seen in many, many moons while listening to a crybaby 24 hours a day. Add to the fact that my bard of five years recently left me. What does this mean to you, gentleman? It means you’re in for the WORST ass kicking of your life, if you don’t step aside now. So what’s it going to be?"
A collective and sarcastic ‘Oooooo’ noise went around the small circle.
Okay. That’s it!
Xena re-sheathed her sword and ran into the group of men with a thunderous charge. She could end this fight in a matter of seconds with the blade, but there wasn’t a real sense of satisfaction in that in the moment. She wanted to feel her anger expressed... repeatedly... flesh against flesh. Besides death was too easy. Perhaps after today these men would learn a lesson and they could find another occupation less hazardous and more human friendly.
She head butted the closest man to her and he fell limp instantly. The next got a right hook that sent him into the fellow behind him. The next one charged at Xena and she gripped him by his sword wrist, snapping it with such force it looked as if his hand would fall completely off at any moment. Two others charged her from the left and right. When each was close enough she grabbed each by the back of the head, slamming their faces together until they too, like their comrades, were sobbing masses on the dusty trail.
"Boy, do I still love to see her work," Ares whispered to Eve.
The only one left standing was the leader who was now left quaking in his boots; boots that Xena was sure probably were stolen. She motioned him toward her. "Come on pal," she taunted, "Let’s see what you got."
For a second, it looks like he actually considered taking her up on the offer. But common sense prevailed and he chose flight instead of fight. As he took off away from the group, Xena reached for her chakram and sent it hurling at the man. Eve took an unsteady breath. She couldn’t believe her mother would kill an unarmed man as he ran away. The tried to move faster but he realized he was going to be struck.
And struck he was... in the belt.
Promptly his pants fell to his ankles and he tried to pull them back up and run at the same time. With a mighty whoosh, the weapon returned to Xena and she secured it on her hip as she walked back and gathered Argo’s reins. Eve gave a sigh of relief. Her mother upheld the warrior code by not killing a fleeing man.
"All clear," Xena replied in a chipper voice. "After you," she said with a wave of her hand to her traveling companions. Ares and Eve stepped around the men who were moaning on the ground. As one tried to get his legs back, Xena gave him a boot to the butt that sent him head first into the road again. "I hope the next group’s a bit tougher. That was barely a workout," she told her travel party with a wink.
Chapter 5: ASTONISHMENT
It’s a gloriously sunny day; not that one could tell by the dim in here.
Gabrielle sat at the bar in the dark tavern, her back to the barkeep and her eyes watching the patrons around her. Perhaps it’s an unwritten rule in every drinking establishment that they have poor lighting and even poorer clientele. She was on the verge of taking a sip of her ale when she noticed a woman approaching her on the left with a crooked grin. She looked like a walking tree, as tall as Xena, but not nearly as beautiful. A small scar ran down the right side of her cheek and her broad shoulders were protected by armor that looked like it hadn’t seen polish in about three years. Oh boy, Gabrielle sighed nervously to herself as the woman got closer and the smile got wider.
"Gotta name?" the woman asked cocking her head waiting for a reply.
A few seconds passed and Gabrielle added no more. Get a clue Adonis wannabe. The woman released a chuckle at Gabrielle’s ‘hard to get’ demeanor.
"Why don’t I buy you a drink? It will loosen you up, I’m sure," she replied, running her fingertips down the bard's arm.
"No, thanks," Gabrielle said finally making eye contact. "I have one already. See?" the bard replied, showing her mug of ale before taking another sip.
Gabrielle didn’t notice, but a cloaked woman at the far end of the bar was taking the scene in with a great bit of interest, however she said nothing.
The admirer was starting to lose her patience, however, and her finger trail became a firm grasp on the bard’s arm.
"Don’t go acting like you’re too good for me missy or I’ll show you just how well suited I am for you." The woman tried to nuzzle against Gabrielle’s ear, but the bard reared her head back and hit her admirer square in the forehead, knocking the intruder a good four feet back.
"I don’t want any trouble," Gabrielle announced. Damn it my head hurts. How in the hell does Xena do it so easy? Right. She’s hard headed. Shake it off. Shake it off. "I’m not looking for a one night stand or happily ever after. I’m looking for... me. Thank you for the offer, but I'll repeat, I’m not interested."
The woman cracked her neck and menaced closer to Gabrielle.
"Well, that’s not good enough," she said getting closer.
Gabrielle held her ground, keeping an eye on the intruder, but also staying aware of her surroundings. Stay focused, Gabrielle. Even breaths. Be bold. The advice of Xena came to her mind. 60 percent of any battle is between the ears, the other is just muscle. Who ever can psyche the other will always be the winner. Gabrielle threw a cocky grin on her face, although at the moment she felt anything but confident. "Do I have to kill you? How about if I just beat the stuffing out of you instead?"
"Ooooo a gambling woman, eh?" the admirer taunted.
Hey, that’s not a bad idea. "Yeah, I’m a gambling woman. What do you say? Do you feel like you’re in a winning mood? I’ve got a proposition for you... if you do," Gabrielle offered in a lusty tone, taking a step closer in challenge, teasing her, taunting her.
The admirer grinned. Knew she was just playing hard to get. "What do you have in mind, beautiful?"
"Money," Gabrielle proclaimed with a wide grin. "Winner take all to the warrior left standing. How much do you have on you?"
"20 dinars," the woman answered.
"I can meet that bet," Gabrielle answered confidently. "So pick your weapon and your conditions."
"Oh no," the woman laughed heartily. "I’ll battle you, but it’s not your money I want when I win."
Oh lord. Could she leer and drool any more? How disgusting!... Okay. Think, Gabrielle. Could you really go through with this if you lost? No, you couldn’t, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to lose. Sure, she’s big, but you knocked her back with one headbutt. She obviously doesn’t have your speed either. The bard’s grin widened.
"Okay," she replied confidently. "I’ll take that bet. 20 dinars vs. my... ahem... virtue," she teased with a wink. "Show me the money and we’ll get it underway," Gabrielle instructed.
"I got it," the woman said defensively.
"Okay," Gabrielle said staying as cool as the Ganges. "Show it to me then."
"Well, it’s upstairs," the woman grunted, motion her head toward the rooms upstairs.
"It’s upstairs? I thought you said you had it?" Gabrielle toyed. All part of the game. All part of the game. "Anyway, doesn’t matter where it’s at right now. Later it will be in my hands. Still I’ll wait for you to get it," Gabrielle counted with a grin. "Unless of course you’re not a warrior of your word," she added in challenge.
That put the woman in motion. She stomped up the stairs and Gabrielle casually went back to her drink as all eyes on the tavern were on her. "Ahh... this is good ale," she told the barkeep in a friendly tone.
The cloaked figure came behind the bard and whispered, "She’s gotta glass jaw. Go for the face."
Gabrielle recognized the voice, but couldn’t quite place it. She tried to turn to see who was giving her instructions, but the clang of change purse next to her got her attention.
"You can count it, if you like," the woman said.
"Thanks," Gabrielle answered. "Don’t mind if I do."
Just as the woman said 20 shinny dinars were in the bag. Casually, the bard tossed it back to her.
"Shall we?" she asked with a grand gesture toward the door.
At this point, the entire tavern had come to a stop – no one was eating, speaking or even moving for that matter. As the intruder made her way out, Gabrielle followed close behind. Before they could clear the door, the tables began to rise spot by spot, following the women outside. THIS they had to see.
They walked outside, toward a weapons hut located adjacent to the tavern.
"Mind if we try out a few weapons," the woman called over to the shopkeeper.
"No, be my guest," he said hoping to make a sale. He did start to wonder, however, if that was the intention when the bar patrons all followed behind them.
The woman then turned back to Gabrielle. "Since we’re going to be getting to know each other much better after this little duel perhaps we should be on a first name basis. I’m Gailes," she introduced gallantly.
I can play along. "Pleasure to meet your acquaintance... And I’m sure that’s all it will be... an acquaintance... With that aside, let’s get down to business. I made the challenge so you pick the weapons."
The woman could tell this little blonde was a queen at being evasive. After all this trouble, she STILL didn’t have her name. Gailes noticed the sais on Gabrielle’s boots so she opted for a more ‘traditional’ and ‘old school’ weapon, something she was sure the young woman would be unfamiliar with.
"Fighting staffs," she said firmly, taking one in her hand.
Gabrielle gave the largest of grins and went over to collect her weapon. She walked back into the street to meet her challenger, but asked for a small moment to ‘get acquainted’ with the weapon.
"Take your time," Gailes answered, certain she had made the right choice. Her smile crept away more and more with each drill she watched the bard preformed, getting faster and faster as the weapon settled into her hands as if it were an extension of her body.
"By the way," the bard told her, coming to a stop. "My name is Gabrielle of Potiedaia."
"The amazon bard who travels with the warrior princess?" the woman asked, a sudden quake coming to her voice.
Is she starting to sweat? "Yep, that’s the one... well, at least I USED to travel with Xena, but I’m on my own now... I must confess, it’s been a few years since I seriously picked up one of these," she said with all the confidence in the world. "But I’m sure I’ll get back into my groove. The staff was one of the first weapons I mastered incidentally... Good choice," she mocked. Gabrielle watched the woman give a hard swallow, but say nothing. "Anytime you’re ready," she told Gailes.
Gailes took a deep breath to steady herself before taking an uncertain step toward Gabrielle. That’s all the bard needed. She opened up with a yell deep from her diaphragm and rushed Gailes with blow after blow. Gailes tried for a sweep, but Gabrielle on pure instinct jumped and avoided it. She chuckled loudly. "Not bad, but you did it wrong," the bard teased.
Without adding more, Gabrielle made two strikes and one sweep that promptly took Gailes on her backside. Gabrielle moved to give her a chance to stand and grinned down at her.
"That’s the proper way to sweep," the bard remarked egotistically.
The folks who gathered to watch the battle began to chuckle, especially the cloaked figure. Gailes confident facade began to unravel, but instead of backing down, just the opposite occurred. She got angry. And when she got angrier she was unable to even strike Gabrielle, let alone do any damage. She got sloppy. At one point, Gabrielle tried the turn and pivot move the amazons had shown her years before, but as times past she nearly knocked herself in the head. Enough of getting fancy bard. Take her down. And with that, Gabrielle saw her opening and took it.
With Gailes trying to regain control of the staff, Gabrielle let loose and whacked her clean across the face. The warrior dropped the staff and wobbled back on her heels. A second later she fell backward, the force so great that the impact lifted the warrior’s legs off the ground before they came crashing back to the dusty main street. She was out cold.
A cheer went around the crowd and the spectators began to throw their own dinars at Gabrielle’s feet.
What?! Why are you-?! "What’s going on?" she asked taking one of the on-lookers by the sleeve.
"We’ve waiting years to see someone put Gailes in her place," a man chuckled. "Congratulates sweetie. You’re one helluva fighter," he chuckled. "Here," he added putting five dinars in her hand. "This is well worth it."
Group by group, the villagers made their way back to the tavern. Since a bet was a bet Gabrielle snatched Gailes change purse that was on her waist and filled the bag with the rest of the dinars she’d earned from the townspeople. After she was finished she looked back at the unconscious woman. Gabrielle took 10 dinars from her pouch and closed them in the woman’s hand.
"You might need an ale later to nurse that jaw," Gabrielle teased, although the woman couldn’t hear a word. The bard wasn’t about to leave her ‘penniless’. She’d put up a good fight.
Gabrielle picked up the staff and gave it a few light tosses feeling the weight. The shopkeeper looked at her and grinned. Gabrielle returned the gesture and asked, "How much?"
He smiled. "For you... five dinars."
"Sold," the bard answered and handed over the coins. That’s when Gabrielle noticed the reflection of the cloaked figure behind her in a shield that hung outside. Before the informant could move away Gabrielle went over to her.
"Your turn and pivot is off," the unknown figure told her.
Who are you? "Yeah," Gabrielle said slowly, trying to find out who the figure was behind the cloak, not quiet able to see. That voice - I know that voice. "Seems the problem lies with my-."
"Footing," the two said in harmony.
The cloak hood came down to reveal a woman with salt and pepper hair, perhaps in her early 50’s, maybe late 40’s. "After all these years, I figured you’d have mastered that by now. But I can see you still nearly chuck yourself in the head," she laughed.
"It can’t be... Is it really you?"
"Yes, Gabrielle it’s me... But first things first, what’s your secret? How did you manage to stay so young?"
Sweet Aphrodite, the bard thought as her jaw fell and she gathered the woman into a tight embrace.
Chapter 6: EXPLANATIONS
Xena grinned when she spotted Hercules in the distance putting the finishing touches on a stone retaining wall that surrounded a small house. Xena climbed aboard Argo and called down to Eve, "I’m going ahead. See you when you get down there."
She took Argo into a full gallop, kicking dusty behind her on the trail.
Hercules looked up when her heard the hoofs approaching. Is that Xena? No she can’t look that young... Well I’ll be. It is Xena. He gave a smile and chuckled as she approached. He hopped the fence with ease to meet her. Xena reeled Argo in when she was close enough and leapt from the mare, jogging over to see her friend.
They both laughed as they embraced and Herc gave her a playful twirl in the air, gently putting her down.
"Where’s Gabrielle?" He asked with a smile. But soon his smile began to fade realizing that perhaps Gabrielle was no longer on the earthly plain.
"We decided to go our separate ways... well, she decided that, but we’ll discuss that later," Xena gave a nervous chuckle. He looked as old as when he had battled Zeus for Eve’s life and not a day older. "Anyway, you’re looking as young as ever," she commented on his appearance.
"You should talk," he said pulling her arms up and away from her body giving her an appraising eye. "Did you find the Tree of Fietus too?"
Xena smiled. Ah ha. "So you do know where the tree is? Any mortal that eats the fruit is said to become immortal? Looks like it’s true ummm?"
Herc smiled and dug his toe in the dirt a moment. "I didn’t want to do it, but Iolaus convinced me otherwise."
"Damn right I did. The world needs the big guy around," they heard a voice behind them add. Iolaus, it appears didn’t eat the fruit. His hair was thinning and graying. The laughlines around his lips and eyes were more prominent, but he still appeared very dashing with the same mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes. He offered his arm to Xena in greeting.
"How have you been, Xena? Forgive me for saying it, but the last we heard... you were dead."
"We were in a way I suppose," Xena said before silently cursing herself for using the word ‘we’. We? She’s not here anymore. When are you gonna realize that? "Gabrielle and I, I mean, we... ". Why the hell am I stumbling all over this? Just spit it out already! "Ares froze us accidentally when he thought we died, but we managed to escape and come back. Some... things... happened and she decided to go out on her own."
Xena’s voice cracked and Herc’s eyebrows crunched in examination.
"Actually I heard part of the story already. My sister told me. Are you okay?"
Sister? Ahh. Dite. Xena chewed on her lip to push down the tears that threatened to come forth with Herc’s question.
"Yeah, I’m doing okay," she sighed. "It’s been about two months now since she left. I’ve been so busy with dealing with Ares being a mortal and getting to know Eve that I haven’t had much time to really consider things with Gabrielle... I mean I think of her all the time, but I just haven’t thought about it... Does that make any sense?" she asked exasperated at trying to explain to the men who stood silently watching her.
"Well, do you mean that you miss her? You just haven’t had time to realize that it’s over...for good?"
"Yeah." Xena smiled bitter-sweetly. "Gabrielle was always good with words like that." The smile was only brief as she began to hear Herc’s words sink in deeper... It’s over. For good... She shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts. The sooner she could get Ares out of her life the better. She pointed up the path to Ares and Eve who were now almost within earshot.
"Anyway, I’ve got ex-god trouble and thought you could lend a hand," she chuckled.
With that Herc, looked up the path and he saw Ares and a young woman walking toward them.
"Who’s the girl?" Herc asked, nodding toward her.
"That’s our daughter... Eve."
You did it again - using words like ‘our’ as if Gabrielle is standing right here. Xena took an unsteady breath. Come on and get a grip here. Why are you acting so mushy now? Pull it together warrior. Xena wiped her eyes with her fingertips to guard against any tears that might escape. She didn’t think being near Herc would have this kind of effect on her - the overwhelming urge to ‘spill her guts’ as it were. At the moment, she couldn’t even lock eyes with the demi-god for fear of losing what control she had over her tear ducts.
"Ares gave up his godhood to save Eve’s life... and Gabrielle... I don’t want to make him a god again, but life as a mortal is just too painful for ME with him around," she joked. "And it’s tough for him too I guess. Will you help?... Make him immortal, I mean? Obviously you have the answer to immortality," she teasingly prodded.
Finally, Xena looked up to see the beam on Herc’s face as he watched Eve come down the path.
"She’s a beautiful girl, Xena."
"Yes, she is," Xena answered. "Does that mean you’ll help us?"
"Help Ares?" Herc chuckled.
Xena simply nodded.
"No," Herc answered. "But I’ll help you. And who knows since he did something unselfish for ONCE in his life... perhaps he could change too... but I’m not holding my breath." The demi-god winked.
"Eve," Xena called out, pulling her closer. "I’d like you to met Hercules and his partner, Iolaus."
"Nice to meet you sounds like an understatement," Eve said offering her forearm.
Herc took her gently by the hand and gave a light kiss to her knuckles instead. "It’s my pleasure." He grinned warmly. He escorted her over to Iolaus who still stood behind the wall where they shook hands.
"Come in everyone," Iolaus instructed. "Yes... even you, Ares," he teased.
Ares rolled his eyes, but joined the group passing through the gate, making their way to the house.
"So this is the kinda pad heroes have when they retire, huh?" Xena said giving the home an appraising eye. "Not bad." She grinned. "Kinda reminds me of Gabrielle’s hut at the amazon village."
"Yeah, but there’s no naked woman running around in the front window," Iolaus teased as they walked inside which earned him a jab from his buddy. "Have a seat. Supper’s almost done," he said pointing to the dinning table.
Xena noticed a limp as Iolaus went to the stew pot.
"Hurt your leg Iolaus?" Xena asked.
"Nahh, just old war wounds catching up to me. It comes and goes and today it’s flaring up. Come on and grab some spoons and bowls. There should be enough for everyone."
As Xena and Eve went to the kitchen area, Herc and Ares spent the time just looking at each other, neither one willing to lose in the staring contest.
"What?!" Ares finally asked irritated.
"I could kick your fanny allllllll over the place right now," Herc chuckled.
"Well, why don’t you give it a shot tough guy?" Ares taunted.
Xena could hear their voices behind her, beginning to rise. She didn’t even bother to turn around to face them. "Can’t you two give it a rest?" she sighed.
"I take it they don’t get along too well," Eve whispered to Xena.
"Like Greek Fire and water," Iolaus said whispering into the conversation.
"I HEARD that," Herc called into the kitchen.
"Well, it’s not like it’s untrue," Iolaus said bringing a bowl for Herc too as he sat down at the table.
Xena had two bowls and she slid one over to Ares. "Don’t argue. Just eat. That will keep your mouth busy for awhile."
"He started it," Ares rebutted pointing his spoon at his half-brother.
"Well, if Daddy were around you could go back and cry to him. But since he’s not, shut up and eat," Xena warned.
Herc could tell by the snap in her voice that Xena had about all she could take of the former god of war.
"I’m sorry," Herc apologized to the group, hoping it would give Xena a respite he felt she very much needed. "I promise Ares, no more arguing. Agreed?" Herc offered his hand in truce.
Ares pushed Herc’s hand away, along with the bowl.
"I’ll be outside if you need me," he told Xena.
Herc shrugged his shoulders and settled himself down to eat. "Well, so much for trying," he replied before putting a spoonful of stew in his mouth. Xena and Eve ate in silence until Xena complimented Iolaus on the food, a comment that Eve quickly echoed with a thanks.
"Don’t mention it." He grinned. "It’s just nice to see you again, Xena. We haven’t see our old friends in ages," Iolaus added before turning to Herc. "How long’s it been since we seen Autolycus?" he asked. "At least a year I think."
Herc nodded. "Yeah around last summer."
"You mean the King of Thieves is still around?" Xena smiled warmly. "What’s he doing?"
"Well, he DID about 15 years in prison after getting caught in a diamond mind." Herc grinned. "But he paid his debt to society and decided to take up woodworking."
"Woodworking?" Xena couldn’t hold back the laugh at the thought. "You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?"
"No," Iolaus said shaking his head. "That sofa over there was a house warming present he made for us when we built this place. He’s really creative and he’s got a knack for that kinda stuff. He’s actually making a better living doing that than stealing."
"Eh, who thought Autolycus had other skills," Xena said checking it out from across the room.
Everyone took a moment to go back to their stew. Autolycus is still alive. I wonder now about mother. And Lila! Lila is probably still alive. Damn it! We should have gone to Potiedaia. Maybe that’s where Gabrielle’s gone too. Maybe we should-.
"You okay?" Herc asked.
Xena realized Herc had been talking to her, but she got so caught up in her mind she didn’t hear him. "I’m sorry." She grinned bashfully. "I didn’t catch that."
"Yeah, you seem pretty distracted. Are you finished eating? Would you like some more?" the demi-god asked.
"Oh no, I’m fine. Thank you both. It was very good," Xena remarked.
"You’re welcome," Herc answered. "Now, let’s go out back. I’ll show you the pond we made. Iolaus... maybe you can show Eve some of those scrolls we’ve got?"
"Do you like scrolls?" Iolaus asked, the young woman.
"Are you kidding?! I love them - especially the one’s my mom wrote- I mean Gabrielle."
"Actually, I have a couple of Gabby’s scrolls." He winked.
"You do?" Eve and Xena both asked in harmony.
"She didn’t say she’d given any away... but then again I never asked," Xena replied guiltily.
The room fell quiet, not sure of what to add at the moment. The tone of ‘regret’ hung in the air a few more seconds until Herc spoke up.
"Well, we’ll be back later. Come on, Xena," Herc said wrapping his arm around Xena’s shoulder and leading her out the back door.
"So are you ready to tell me what happened?" Herc asked.
"About what?" Xena said evasively. Herc didn’t reply. He just gave her a ‘look’ that spoke volumes. No getting around it with him. "I’m not sure. I mean I know why I just... Oh, damn it." Xena broke down into sobs.
She wasn’t sure how long it lasted, but when she calmed her breathing enough to speak again she noticed that Herc’s shirt was slightly wet.
"I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did that," Xena chuckled nervous.
"Because you’re sad... you’re confused... and if I know you, you haven’t taken time to grieve yet. You’ve been babysitting Ares because of some unspoken debt you feel you owe him for saving your family and as a result... you’ve avoided dealing with your breakup with Gabrielle."
Xena gave a genuine chuckle of amusement for the first time since her arrival. "You’re good." She smiled. "I guess that’s exactly what’s going on."
Herc took Xena by the hand as they walked toward the water’s edge. They stood there for a moment and just looked out at the water and the small rippling when a fish would jump now and then. "Are you going to look for her?" he asked quietly. "Or have you given up on getting her back?"
Xena sighed and consider the question. Yes. No. Maybe.
"I haven’t decided," she answered. "I figured that if she wants to see me then she’ll come to me."
"What if she’s thinking the same thing?" Herc asked. "What if she’s waiting for you? Someone has to make the first step. You said it’s been what? Two months?"
"Are you ready to see her?"
"I’m not sure," Xena answered honestly. "I took Gabrielle for granted in many ways, but... "
"But what?" Herc asked sincerely.
"But she let me down too... No... she spent some time examining who she was and I didn’t see us having a future. She always did though... I was scared of her... and me."
"Scared? Of what?"
"Of losing her, of loving her... I mean she was on a path of non-violence. With our life it’s not the safest path to be on and I worried that I might not be able to help her. And then later... when she realized that the warrior life was what she was truly destined for instead of supporting that I... I got scared again. My brother was a warrior and I lost him. Then a time came and I lost myself. I was worried that Gabrielle might die. I was worried that I might lose her to the darkness of war someday - just like my soul had been lost... I didn’t say anything though. I just... shut her out.
She’d make comments about how much she loved Eve and how we could build a future together and instead of loving her like I should have... like I wanted to... I turned away because I was scared to get TOO close. I could give this woman my sword and my body... but I couldn’t give her my heart. And when I reacted and struck her with my chakram... that was it for her. She’d had enough and left... and the sad part is I don’t blame her. And the really sad part is what I feared most... losing her... came true in the end anyway."
Herc was speechless. He’d never heard Xena be so ‘wordy’; so open. He wondered if Gabrielle had heard all these thoughts Xena just expressed to him.
"But that’s my story." She grinned for show. "If I could take it all back I would. If I could show her how much I love her and trust her I would. But it doesn’t look like that’s meant to be. I’m sure she’ll move on. She’ll fall in love. She’ll find someone who sees how wonderful and special she is... that person could have been me if I hadn’t been so proud or so cowardly... perhaps both."
She’s gone. She’s really gone now.
Xena started to cry hysterically at that point. She never took the time since Gabrielle left that night on the beach to really cry. Her time was spent training Ares on being human or telling the ‘happy’ stories about Gabrielle to Eve. It kept the darkness of it all at bay. But now. Now that she had time to think about it. Emotions she didn’t have time for before hit her full force - the devastating feeling of loss and dread and on a certain level anger.
How could she just leave? After five years just walk away.
Xena pulled away from Herc’s embrace and she found herself starting to pace. Okay. Enough is enough. Quit feeling sorry for yourself Xena... I’m gonna find that damn tree. I’m gonna lay out all the cards for Eve about Gabrielle and I from now on, even the ugly ones. Then with Ares out of my hair and Eve knowing the whole truth...
Xena wiped her eyes and looked at Herc. "I need your help," she told him.
"You got it Xena. You know that. What do you want?" he asked noticing a shift in her mood to one of gloom to one of determination.
"I’m gonna find that tree. Will you help?" she asked him.
"Consider me there," he smiled.
"Good." She grinned confidently. "Because after that... I’m gonna find my bard."
Chapter 7: SIDEKICKS
"Gabrielle! Behind you!!"
Without looking back, the amazon queen raised her staff behind her head blocking the sword strikes of the two men that worked their way behind her. With cat like reflexes, she spun around taking one man out with a quick strike and then the other. As both men lay scattered across the ground, unmoving, she was finally able to rejoin her partner.
"Good work." Gabrielle smiled. "Come on," she said as she motioned her traveling partner toward a young woman who was curled up on the ground, timidly watching the action.
"Are you okay?" the bard asked.
"Yes... thanks to you," the young woman answered. She finally had the chance to look up and when she did she found herself getting lost in the green eyes that shined down upon her.
Great Aphrodite, she’s beautiful.
"No thanks needed," Gabrielle replied with a comforting grin. "Did you know these men?" she asked pointing behind her to the four men that lay unconscious on the ground.
"No, they’re not from my village. I’ve never seen them before," the young lady replied. Aside from a little dirt and some scraps the lady was quite beautiful – dark, flowing brown hair and eyes to match. "I was doing the laundry and they came out of nowhere."
Gabrielle dusted the woman off a bit and stood up offering her arm.
"Well, let’s get you home. Where’s your washings?" the bard asked.
"Over there," she pointed meekly, still a bit shaken by the events of the day.
"I’m all over it," Gabrielle’s new partner replied, before starting toward the bank to get the woman’s belongings. "I’ll tie the men up and catch up in a bit."
Gabrielle gave a nod and turned back to the young woman.
"Let’s get you back to the village and notify the sheriff," Gabrielle said starting to walk down the path.
The young woman couldn’t take her eyes off the bard and she tripped on a rock in the road. Gabrielle helped her catch her balance and couldn’t help notice the sense of awe transpiring in the young woman’s eyes. There was a time when you were in awe yourself Gabrielle so tread lightly here, she warned herself.
"Are you sure you’re okay?" Gabrielle asked.
Don’t blush now. She’ll think you’re just some stupid kid, the young woman berated herself silently. "Yes I’m fine. I guess I just never saw a real amazon before... I mean you are an amazon, aren’t you?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Last time I checked yes I was still an amazon," she teased. "My name is Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle, the amazon bard?! Is that Xena?!" the young woman asked excitedly, looking back over her shoulder to the woman just putting the finishing knots on the attackers.
"Yes, I’m the amazons' bard."I guess my reputation DOES proceeds me at this point. "And no that’s not Xena. That’s Eponin – she’s an old friend of mine that’s been traveling with me for the past moon now."
"Oh... " Come on! Come on! Think of something witty or clever. You’re a poet for gaia’s sake. It was obvious the young woman didn’t know what to add so Gabrielle picked up the conversation.
"And what’s your name?"
"I’m August," she answered. Yeah, that will really wow her. "I’m a writer too. Not stories. Just poetry. My folks think it’s a silly waste of time, but someday I’m going to be famous - like you!"
"I’m not famous," Gabrielle chuckled.
"Are you kidding?" the girl said excitedly, the pace of her speech quickening. "Every traveling bard that comes through our town has at least one story of the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Bard. I know lots of the tales about your journeys. Would you like to hear one?! How about Cecrops? Or Baccus? I could tell you one if you like. I said I write poetry, but I know I could do a good story too if you want."
Oh boy. Did I sound this over anxious when Xena road into town? Yep. You probably did. No wonder Xena was always so quiet. I did all the talking. Gabrielle chuckled out loud and the girl gave her an inquisitive look. Gabrielle shook her head to clear her mind of the memory and to let the girl know it wasn’t her jabber jaw that was making her grin. "No, that’s okay," Gabrielle told her. "I’m sure you’re a great storyteller. Let’s just get you back home safe, okay?"
The rest of the way Gabrielle learned practically everything about the young girl’s life. She was non-stop and very open about everything. The more Gabrielle listened, the more it sounded like an echo of years ago. But soon they were at the girl's home where she was met by her parents and her brother.
"Please stay for the evening at least," her mother insisted. "A hot meal and a warm bed are the least we can offer you for saving August."
Eponin and Gabrielle looked at each other and nodded in agreement to each other before taking the offer. Later that night, after dinner, August’s father offered to give Gabrielle one of their horses, but Gabrielle solidly refused. Dinner and shelter for the evening was more than generous enough. August’s father relented, but made the bard promise if she ever needed anything that their door was always open. That was an offer Gabrielle could accept in good faith.
As Eponin and Gabrielle walked around the village after supper they noticed August trying to follow close behind, but also trying to be inconspicuous. Eponin couldn’t help, but take note of the smile that played on the bard's lips.
"You seem awfully happy this evening."
Gabrielle looked around the town and then back to Eponin. "This little place reminds me of my hometown. It’s funny. When I was August’s age I could wait to leave it, but looking back now... it was a peaceful place. Quiet. Sometimes I miss it."
"Looking to settle down my queen," Eponin teased.
"Far from it," Gabrielle chuckled. "Poteidaia is a nice place to visit, but I don’t think I could ever live there again. Kinda like you and the amazon village. You miss it... but then again you don’t. Do you understand?"
Eponin considered the question. "Yeah... but I left because of love," Eponin countered. "After Ephiny and I broke up... I couldn’t sit by and let Solari build the life I hoped to share with Ephiny. It was too hard... I left because of love."
"I left Poteidaia because of love too." Gabrielle smiled. "Although the circumstances were different... the end result seems to be the same though, huh? Abandonment." I traveled the world with Xena and came full circle and what do I have to show -- numerous notches of kills on my swords and once more, a staff in my hand.
Eponin noticed Gabrielle’s mind at work and she could tell it wasn’t anything good. Gods, how I wish I could make that ache go away that’s in her eyes, her soul.
"At least we’re not alone," Eponin countered optimistically.
"I get the feeling in this village we’ll never be alone," Gabrielle teased pitching a thumb over her shoulder toward their ‘shadow’ who quickly turned to act like she was looking at some scarfs.
"You know what I meant," Eponin pushed. "We’ve got each other now. It’s been a long time since I had anyone I could relate too. I make a pretty good sidekick even though I’m almost 50 summers old."
"Partner," Gabrielle corrected. "I’ll never have a sidekick... ever."
Eponin gave an agreeable nod and let the conversation be. So what did the hero do to you Gabrielle? What’s happened that the word ‘sidekick’ brings such pain to your eyes? Gabrielle had opened up and told her of some of the facts that drove sidekick and hero apart. She was sure there were many more tales to be told and she was confident that in time Gabrielle would confide them to her.
Weeks before she was delighted that Gabrielle had recognized her. It HAD been a long time since she had a real friend to relate to. The years she spent away from the amazon village consisted mostly of traveling from place to place doing odd jobs here and there. Then suddenly she was there... And as gorgeous as ever. Eponin felt herself admiring her traveling partner a little too close and looked for another distractions. She soon found it when she turned around to see August move a few stalls closer.
"What are you going to do about her?" Eponin teased, nodding toward the young woman. "She’s been bitten by the love bug you know." She smirked.
Gabrielle chuckled. "Believe it or not, I remember what that’s like... hero worship I mean. I had Xena so high on a pedestal you’d never think she could fall," Gabrielle answered with a grin. "It seems like another lifetime some days."
"You gonna set her straight?" Eponin asked.
"What’s to set straight? Nothing wrong with admiration," Gabrielle countered.
That’s good to know for future reference. "That’s true," Eponin answered out loud. "But still... "
Gabrielle put down the bottle of wine she was looking at and faced Eponin.
"I gotta tell her, huh?"
Eponin shrugged her shoulders. "It’s your call... your admirer," she teased.
"Thanks," Gabrielle answered sarcastically before giving a sigh. "Why don’t you head back to the barn for the night while I have a sensitive chat, okay?"
Eponin gave a hearty chuckle. "Sensitive chat?" She grinned. "I like the sound of that... Okay, I’ll catch you later... PARTNER."
Gabrielle saw her young admirer taking a sudden interest in some horseshoes when the duo had turned around.
"August!" she yelled over toward her. When the girl looked up Gabrielle waved her over.
"Did you need something, Gabrielle?" the girl asked excitedly, nearly tripping over herself willing to help as she passed Epinon.
Gabrielle did her best to hold back a smile. "You’ve been following me around for some time now. Is there something you want to ask me? Something you need from me?"
You bet there is, the young woman thought lecherously. "You’ve done so much I really couldn’t ask for more," she replied instead.
"Care to tell me why you’re following me around?" Gabrielle asked without malice. The bard saw August’s cheek grow crimson and her suspicious were confirmed. "Look, August," Gabrielle began, "You’re a very beautiful young girl and we have a lot in common. I can see you admire me-."
"You really think I’m beautiful?!" the village girl replied hopeful.
Oh no, now you’ve done it. "Yes August, but let me explain. You’ve got a family and life here and come sunrise I’ll be leaving and-."
"Then take me with you! I can cook for you and clean for you. I sharpen my father’s sword all the time so I can even do that. Please say you will. I’m not meant for this town, Gabrielle. I’m not the little girl my parents wanted me to be. I’m meant for bigger and better things."
What?! Oh great. I should have let Eponin do this. "I can’t," Gabrielle replied. Why can’t you? Xena did. Oh shut up you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not up to babysitting a starry eyed kid. You could do it you know. You could be a mentor to her... Just great. I’m arguing with myself and losing. I think my mind IS going. "August," Gabrielle said holding her temples trying to regroup. "You don’t understand what you’re asking."
"Yes I do. I want to be a poet. I want to go to Athens. I can’t be a poet here. If I want to be someone - ANYONE - who leaves a mark it won’t be in this little town. I mean look at you! You did it, didn’t you?! I could do it too if the right opportunity comes along and like it or not YOU’RE that opportunity... So I’m begging... Please... Take me with you. You can’t leave me here in-."
"Potiedaia," Gabrielle mustered with a far off look in her eyes completing the girl’s sentence.
"No. Geddeus... Potiedaia is at least 10 towns away," August answered somewhat confused.
"Huh?" Gabrielle asked reflexively before coming back to the present conversation, pushing the one from years back further into her memory. "Anyway, August, the answer has to be no. I’m sorry."
Gabrielle started to walk away, but she heard August’s voice behind her. that stopped her in her tracks.
"Haven’t you ever dreamed?"
That stopped Gabrielle from taking another step away.
Dreams. Yes I did have dreams and despite the pain, the suffering most of my dreams came true... except for ‘happily ever after’... and the reason they did was because of Xena. She believed in me when no one else did. I was never the proper young lady and if I had stayed in that little town I would have been dead years before... perhaps not physically, but spiritually. You gotta do it. You gotta say yes.
"Okay," Gabrielle sighed before turning to face the girl. "But you have to tell your parents you’re leaving. No sneaking out. Understood? I made some mistakes when I left home and I don’t want to see you repeat them. Got it?"
August stood slack jawed, but quickly recovered. "I got it! No problem. We’ll go right now and I’ll let them know that I’m going to Athens with you! This is so great! I can’t believe it! Maybe while we’re on the road you can give me some bard tips and we could-."
"Your parents have yet to agree," Gabrielle pointed out. "If they say no, then I say no."
"Of course, of course. But I doubt they would say no. If I leave then father doesn’t have to pay the dowery for me to marry Erereous - he’s a nice guy, but very dull and boring... Hey! You know what?! Maybe at night I can read my poems to you? Would you like that? I’ve got one that I’ve been working on for the last month!"
Ohhhh boy was all Gabrielle’s mind could repeat.
Chapter 8: CONFESSIONS
"Mother? Are you crying?"
She had been crying, but Xena didn’t turn around to face Eve who was whispering from her bedroll. "I’m okay. Just get some sleep. We’ve got a big climb tomorrow. You’ll need your strength."
Within moments, Xena felt her daughter’s hand upon her shoulder as the young woman took a seat next to her on the boulder looking out over the valley they traveled through earlier that day. The Tree of Fietus, which only bared the special fruit once every ten years, would be in bloom this season. Many people tried to attain it and met their demise in the process. If the mountain didn’t kill them, the wild animals of the area did. The odds were against them, but what else was new.
"It’s a beautiful view from up here," Eve commented. "But I don’t think it’s the majestic scenery that has you so teary eyed."
Xena smiled. "No, I can’t say I’ve been one who’s moved by nature."
"Then what does move you?"
There was no pause between question and answer. Xena knew it immediately, instinctively. Xena loved her daughter dearly, but nothing, absolutely nothing compared to Gabrielle. It’s true I CAN live without Gabrielle, but it’s not a life worth living at this point.
"She’s got a wonderful way of looking at life," Xena offered. "She sees beauty and meaning in everything - even a broken down ex-warlord. I always loved your mom, but lately, with her gone, I realize just how much. I can see that I took her for granted in many ways. And I pray that Eli finds someway from the heavens to bring her back to me. Even if I never have her as my partner again, I just wish I have the chance to tell her how much she means and how much she changed my life for the better."
"After we get Ares out of the way, we’ll search," Eve responded. "We’ll find her again, I’m sure."
"I’m not sure if she wants to be found, Evie. That’s the problem. I did so many terrible things to her over the years. I let my anger do things I swore I’d never do. I blamed her for Solan’s death. I asked her to choose me over Hope. I shut her out at times when she needed reassurance and all because I was scared. I even hit her with my chakram while her back was turned. Some brave warrior that makes me, huh? I don’t blame her one bit for leaving. In fact, I’m surprised she stayed as long as she did."
"Mother," Eve began, "You said yourself that Gabrielle doesn’t blame you for those things and she’s found forgiveness."
"She’s forgiven me, yes, but I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m not sure I’ll ever find that. Eve, I told you that I was a terrible person for many years, but the worst things I’ve ever done have been to Gabrielle... I know now that I will never... ever... harm her again. But I don’t even know how to convince her. Hell, I don’t even know if she’s okay. I’m on top of a mountain, helping a man I can’t stand to be around when I should be at her side."
"You will be at her side again, Mother," Eve answered. "I have no doubt in that. Just be brave when you see her. Tell her all the things you never told her while she was here. That’s the first step... well, after ditching Ares that is," she whispered conspiratorially. "You can’t really expect to work on things with Gabrielle as long as Ares’s in the background. You’re doing things the right way. Get Ares out on his own so you can focus on Gabrielle... I have faith that things will work out."
"Always the optimist." Xena grinned. "Your mom’s that way too with many things."
Xena looked over to Eve and she watched as the young woman sat cross-legged, her elbow on her knee and her chin on her fist, deep in thought, looking at the valley below them. I haven’t realized it, but Gabrielle does the same thing when she’s pondering something.
"What is it?" Eve asked facing her mother after feeling she was being scrutinized.
And those eyes! My god those green eyes! I have blue. Callisto had brown. The green of those eyes. Could it be? Is it really possible? But how?
"Mother, tell me what’s wrong?!"
Xena held a finger up for Eve to hold on for a moment. She darted over to Ares bedroll and tore the blanket away. He woke with a start as Xena grabbed him by his leather vest.
"Hey! What the-."
"I want answers and I want them now," Xena began, giving him a shake for good measure.
"Well, good morning to you too, Sweetheart," Ares retorted.
At this time, Herc woke up with all the commotion. "Everything, okay?"
"Yeah, as soon as Ares answers a few questions. Such as who's Eve’s mother?" Xena said pushing him back to the ground.
"You are," Ares answered. "Is this is a trick question?"
"Who else?" she pressed.
"Callisto. At least that's what I’ve heard," he replied.
"Okay... Now who else? Come on Ares. I’ve been watching Eve for weeks now and the more and more I see, the more there’s someone else that’s not being figured in here. Tell it to me straight. What’s the real story here? Why were you trying to talk Gabrielle out of leaving Eve and me? You of all people would love to see her go... so why the change of heart? Hmm?"
Ares looked to Xena and then Eve standing behind her.
"You’re not supposed to know," Ares muttered.
"Wrong answer," Xena replied, pulling Ares to his feet. He oofed and ouched until they stood toe to toe. "I want the truth or you’ll be dead before you ever see that tree," Xena pressed as she poked him in the chest with a pointed finger.
Ares looked to Eve and then Xena and then back to Eve again.
"Eve is Gabrielle’s daughter too - flesh and blood."
I knew it! That son of bitch knew the whole time and never said a word. But how...
"Who gave the helping hand Ares? You? Your sister, Dite?"
"I did," Ares answered. "But it wasn’t help. Call it serendipity. I didn’t know Callisto gave you the little twerp when I did the meld."
Serendipity? Meld?... Mavican!
"When you put Gabrielle and I in one body then-."
"Part of Gabrielle became part of Eve," Ares finished. "Her love of scrolls, her blue-green eyes, her bad temper," he chuckled. "Boy, does that bard of yours have a temper when pushed, Xena. Worse than you or Callisto. Sometimes worse than the two of you put together... Eve’s that way too whether she admits it or not." He smirked.
"Wow," Herc mutter in amazement from his bedroll.
"You said it," Eve reiterated. "So I actually have three mothers?" she asked Ares who answered with a nod. "This is incredible... So Gabrielle IS my mom... We’ve got to find he, Mother! We’ve got to let her know," Eve said to Xena taking a step closer.
"Well, first things first. Tomorrow we get that damn fruit and you my dear ex-god of war will kindly get the hell outta our lives. You got that?" Xena said continuing to poke him in the chest with the end of every sentence.
"Yeah, I got it," Ares answered without argument. "Now that the family tree is all in order, do you mind if we get some rest?"
He didn’t wait for a reply. He crawled back under his bedroll and covered up. Herc followed suit.
"Come on," Xena said tugging her daughter to their bedrolls. "Let’s at least TRY to get some sleep."
Eve agreed and they snuggled into the bedroll, getting situated for some shuteye. Eve cleared her throat a bit and asked, "Do I really have mom’s eyes?"
"Yes," she heard three voices answer. "Now go to sleep," Ares mumbled gruffly.
Xena and Eve gave a chuckle. "He’s awful grumpy since he’s lost his godhood, isn’t he?" Eve teased.
"I heard that," Ares said.
"Ares," Hercules piped in. "Shut up and go to sleep."
"I think everyone should shut up at this point... Starting now," Xena ordered.
Eve lay next to her mother and watched her. Xena’s eyes were closed and she was beginning to breathe deep. My mother... the hero. And if you don’t find her... I know I will.
"I love you, Mother," Eve whispered.
"I love you too, Evie."
Chapter 9: KNOWLEDGE
"Up and over. Up and over. Again. Up and over."
August released a deep sigh and let the staff fall to the ground. "I told you. I don’t want to be a warrior."
Gabrielle released a sigh of her own and picked up the fallen weapon.
"That’s good," she said as she tossed it back to her student. "But this training isn’t about war. It’s about self-reliance and protection. If you’re gonna be living in a big city like Athens, you better damn well know how to protect yourself."
"Aren’t you the one who said to run away if trouble comes?" August questioned.
"Yes," the bard answered. "But there might be a time when you have to stand and fight. If that time comes, it’s better to be prepared."
"Okaaay," August groaned and rolled her eyes.
Impulsive, stupid kid. Come on breath Gabrielle. Take it easy.
"August," Gabrielle said in the most even voice she could muster, "why don’t we take a break from this huh? Go see if you can work on your fishing skills and get us some lunch, okay?"
August grumbled as she went to the fishing poles.
"Yet another skill I don’t need – fishing. There are tons of inns and taverns in Athens."
Gabrielle heard the comment, but let it go. Sure, there are lots of place to eat, but lots of places want money and if money is short you have to make due.
"Oh boy," Gabrielle sighed as she made her way over to Eponin who was trying to hold back a chuckle. She plopped down next to Eponin with a soft thud. She was already exhausted from today’s lessons - not a physical tired, but an emotional and intellectual tired. For every reason Gabrielle gave in their discussions, August had a counter point.
"She’s a head strong kid," Eponin remarked. "Not unlike a certain amazon princess once upon a time."
"You must be thinking of some OTHER amazon princess because it certainly couldn’t be me that you’re making the comparison to." Gabrielle grinned.
"Ohhh noooo," Eponin teased.
Gabrielle considered for a moment. "Was I really like THIS?" she asked, waving a hand toward August who was now at the riverbank, casting off.
"Like her? No. You were a different kind of head strong," Eponin answered.
"Meaning you had ideals, but you didn’t narrow yourself into a corner. August is very used to village life. I think she’s going to have difficulty adjusting, but who knows. A few more weeks with us, a small scuffle to see how dangerous life really is... it might be enough to turn her around."
Gabby watched the young woman as Eponin spoke.
"You do realize she’s in love with you, don’t you?" Eponin remarked.
"Yeah, I realize."
Now or never. "You do realize that I’m in love with you, don’t you?"
Eponin could feel herself swallow hard. There - I said it. Gabrielle gave a crooked grin, but continued to watch the young woman in front of her.
"Yeah, I realize."
Eponin played with one of the sais that Gabby gave her to hold onto during the staff sparing session with August. The longer the silence lasted, the heavier it felt in her grasp.
"So tell me the truth," Eponin asked when Gabrielle didn’t add more. "After all these weeks on the road so far... do you think it’s possible for a lovely, young lady like yourself to fall for an aging ex-amazon with graying hair?"
Gabrielle turned to face her companion, hoping to choose the right words.
"Here it comes," Eponin sighed.
"Really, that's not some throw-away line. I’m not ready to move on... but if I were, then, yes, I’d say it’s quite possible."
"Well, I’ll tell you what?" Eponin said cheery, rising to her knees to face Gabrielle.
"What?" Gabrielle smiled warmly.
Eponin closed the distance between them to where they were mere inches apart and her voice took on a deeper, more serious tone. "I’ll stick it out my queen and when you’re ready... I’m all yours."
Eponin closed the distance and proceeded to leave a slow burning kiss on Gabrielle’s lips. Gabrielle for her part felt herself sinking into the kiss. Oh my! How long’s it been since I’ve been kissed like this? Don’t worry. Just enjoy. Her eyes closed and she could feel her temperature go up a notch. When she felt Eponin pull away, she opened her eyes to see her friend smiling at her.
"Shh," the ex-amazon said placing a soft finger against her lips. "Whatever argument you’re going to give, please don’t." Gabrielle complied and with that Eponin rose to her feet and dusted herself off. "I’m gonna help the young one with lunch. Why don’t you get a fire started?"
Gabrielle could only nod and soon she watched Eponin walk over to August to give her a few pointers before she mindlessly began picking up sticks.
Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy. Come on Gabrielle. Don’t start feeling guilty here. It was just a kiss. A wonderful intense mind to the sex to the toes to the sex again kinda kiss. But still it’s just a kiss. And besides you’re free. You washed your hands of the warrior princess. You don’t owe her anything. You’re not being unfaithful. Of course you were almost unfaithful that night you learned Xena was pregnant and you were SURE she cheated on you... but that was different. You were drunk and angry and if not for Amarise stumbling into the back of that tavern you might have very well did more than share one kiss with that barmaid... That was foolish and stupid... but this is nothing to feel foolish or stupid about. Eponin is a wonderful friend and judging by that kiss she’s probably a wonderful lover. But no more kisses. You’ve got to figure out what you want for your life before you bring anyone else into it... Okay... What was I doing?... Oh yeah, firewood.
"Look at this!"
The excited voice of August waving a huge salmon in Gabrielle's face caught her attention to say the least.
"And she did it all on her own," Eponin commended, patting the girl on the back.
Gabrielle smiled. "And I bet it will taste better than any fish you could buy in Athens."
"Can you show me how to cut it, Eponin?" the young woman asked wiggling it in front of her.
"You mean gut; not cut, and, yes, I’ll show you," Eponin said waving the girl over to a nearby rock. "Come on over."
Gabrielle watched her ‘sidekicks’ begin the procedure as Eponin took a moment to look up and admire the bard for a moment before getting to her task. She gave a small wink and Gabrielle could feel herself blush.
"This trip is turning out a lot longer than I plan," Gabrielle mumbled to no one but herself. "...and quite educational."
Chapter 10: COMPLICATIONS
"Mother! Hold on!"
Son of a Bachee! Damn it, this hurts!
Xena teetered on the edge of the cliff after losing her footing on a loose rock.
"No!" Hercules shouted to Eve who was going to try to scale back down to get a grasp on Xena. "I’m immortal. You two stay here," he ordered.
Xena’s good arm that she used to hold onto the over hanging brush was getting tired. She knew she couldn’t use the other one in spite of the pain. Herc had to hurry or she was certainly going to lose her grasp and fall to the valley below.
"Did you break it?" Herc asked when he got close enough.
Xena knew just what he was talking about. She could feel the arm limp at her side. "Yeah, I think so... Gods be damned!"
"Just calm down," Herc said sensing her distress. "We’ll get you up the hill."
"That’s great, but how am I supposed to get back down again like this?" Xena jabbed.
"Let’s concentrate on one problem at a time, shall we?" Herc teased. "First, we have to get you back on the hill." He grinned warmly. He got his footing and reached out grabbing Xena by the back of her battle dress. With a strong heave he picked her up, tossed her to the hillside.
"Arrgghhhhh!" Xena exclaimed as she landed, sending an even larger shooting pain up her arm. "For crying out loud! Did you have to THROW me?!"
Eve and Ares came over at that point to inspect her as Herc climbed back up to join the others.
"Looks broken," Ares said assessing Xena’s limb.
"No kidding, Plato," Xena snapped back.
"We’ll have to reset it," the ex-god told her. "It’s gonna hurt like Hades, Xena," he warned her.
"How would you know, Ares? At no point in your mortal life have YOU gone through this," Xena taunted.
"Hey," Ares said getting short. "It’s not my fault you’re so distracted thinking about that irritating blonde that you take a header down the mountain."
"You son of a - arggh." Xena was going stand up to charge Ares, but when she put weight on her arm to hoist herself up she realized that wasn’t going to happen. Besides, he’s right, Xena considered. I think about her more and more each day. One way or another I’ve gotta find her and get things settled once and for all.
"Are you ready?" Herc asked as he walked over to get a look at Xena’s injury.
Xena turned her head, biting into the shoulder strap of her breastplate. She gave a brief nod.
"Ares, find two of the straightest pieces of wood you can find. We’ll have to make a splint... Come here, Eve," Herc instructed. "Feel the arm... feel how it’s out of place? Good. Keep touching it until you feel it together again, okay?"
Eve nodded nervously to Herc as she held her mother's arm.
"Ready?" Herc asked Xena. Xena closed her eyes. She bit down and nodded.
Without wasting another moment, Herc gave a light twist, given his strength. He didn’t want to make it worse than it already was or snap her arm off entirely.
"It’s in!" Eve told him.
"Good, hold it there in place. Ares, the splints?"
Without comment, Ares handed over the pieces of wood he managed to locate on the hill.
"Very good," Herc commended as he examined the wood. Ares only nodded his thanks as he watched Herc and Eve wrap up Xena’s arm with bandages.
"Can I do something else?" Ares asked Herc.
"Yeah. Go get my pack," he answered. As Ares left, Herc turned back to Xena. "Iolaus made me take some of his special ‘brew’ for pain relief."
"What’s in it?" Xena asked, her breathing labored in trying to fight the agony of her arm.
"I don’t know," Herc chuckled. "He won’t tell me his ‘secret’. He made me take it on the trip... just in case," Herc added.
"He’s a good man," Xena said managing a grin through her pain.
"Yeah, he certainly is," Herc agreed.
Ares returned with bag in hand and Herc weeding through it until he found the blue bottle. "Lift her up, Ares," he told the ex-god.
Ares knelt behind Xena and brought her to a sitting position as gently as possible, letting the warrior princess use him as a cushion.
"Here Xena, drink this," Herc told her lifting the vile to her lips.
Xena took a few sips and made the most hideous of faces.
"Yeah, it tastes pretty terrible, huh? But trust me, it works." He grinned. "Eve get the water skin. Don’t drink the water," Herc instructed Xena as Eve retrieved the water pouch. "Just swish it around your mouth to get rid of the taste. If you drink you might dilute the potion."
When Eve handed Xena the water skin she did as he advised.
"Thanks," she said as she wiped her lips. "Thanks to all of you," she sighed.
Ares fingers absently found their way to Xena’s hair stroking it as he held her. For the first time since their adventure began Herc noticed... Ares really did love Xena. But judging by the look of discomfort that was rising to Xena’s face at the affection gesture, he would never have her devotion.
Herc felt sorry for Ares in some regard. Yes, they had their share of quarrels to say the least, but still... unrequited love was one of the worst feelings in the world. He knew the feeling. He knew that feeling with the warrior princess herself. He wanted her to be a part of his life forever, but Xena had matters to attend to and would never be able to love him the way he needed. He accepted that and wondered if Xena would ever find that love everyone needs. The first time he saw the way Xena looked at Gabrielle he realized... Xena had found her true match... It was a pity that Ares never saw it. He would always pine for something Xena could never give him – her heart. The warrior princess’ heart was Gabrielle’s and Gabrielle’s alone.
"Well, there it is," Herc said looking over the troop to the top of the hill, "The Tree of Fieteus," he pointed.
Chapter 11: TRUTHS
"I’ve finished a new poem," August said in a shy tone. "Would you like to hear it?"
"Certainly." The bard grinned, looking up from sharpening her sais. The only sounds to be heard were the chirping of a few crickets and the crackle of the campfire. Nervously, August cleared her throat.
"Toned and tan she glistens in the sun. Her body moves like lightening and in battle she never runs. Her hair is golden silk and blows lightly in the breeze and I pray to the gods that someday that she’ll look upon me. And in doing so I hope she sees the truth that’s really there. Of all the friends and faces I’m the one that really cares."
August fiddled with the bottom of the parchment and chewed lightly on her upper lip.
Oh boy. Gabrielle’s fingers ran briefly through her growing locks, stopping at her temple to nurse her headache, which suddenly appeared. "August-."
"I love you, Gabrielle."
August looked as surprised as Gabrielle did by the omission.
"August, you’re a wonderful girl-."
Gabrielle didn’t have the chance to continue. Suddenly, she was bombarded with the weight of the young lady upon her. Her lips latched tightly to hers. But as quick as the ‘attack’ came, Gabrielle had the girl by the upper arms, keeping her at bay.
"Listen to me, August... please?"
Utter defeat washed over the young girl’s face when she realized she wasn’t quite as ‘wonderful’ as she assumed. Soon her cheeks became red with embarrassment.
"I got some huge rabbits!!" they heard Eponin say from behind them. The amazon looked at the scenario in front of her - Gabrielle with a firm grasp on August and August sitting in Gabrielle’s lap. "Should I come back later?" Eponin asked sarcastically at the display before her. I don’t believe it. She refuses ME, but she’ll take up with that... that... girl?
"It’s not what it looks like," Gabrielle explained.
"And it never will be either," August pouted rising to her feet. "I’m going for a walk," she announced and turned heel. "I’m sorry for being so foolish."
"August," Gabrielle called out. "Please stay. I want to speak with you."
"I think you said all you needed to say."
With that, Gabrielle and Eponin watched August go into the woods. Gabrielle let out a deep sigh and Eponin smiled.
"What’s so funny?" Gabrielle asked thoroughly frustrated.
"You... you sexy thing you," Eponin chuckled. "All the women just go mad over you - myself included," she laughed.
"Well, you I can handle." Gabby smiled as she stood up. "August, however, is a little different."
"You’re right you can handle me," Eponin said pulling the bard closer by the waist. "Anyway you want by the way," she added in a smoky tone.
Gabrielle chuckled in spite of a rising uneasiness about being so close to Eponin. She cared deeply for Eponin, but she knew she didn’t love her. At least not the way one should with a lover - the way she loved Xena.
"I haven’t been ‘handled’ in so long I think I’ve forgot how it goes," Gabrielle joked to lighten the mood Eponin was trying to set.
"It’s like riding a horse... once you learn you never forget. And I’d be more than happy to reintroduce you to... ‘handling’." Eponin’s fingers stroked Gabrielle’s cheek and traced a tiny pattern down to her lips.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and against her better judgment she planted a light kiss on Eponin's finger, which halted it’s movement. Gabrielle opened her eyes and took Eponin’s free hand in hers.
"It’s a wonderful offer, but as I’ve said-."
"You’re not ready," Eponin finished. "I understand. These things take time and I’m not gonna push... Look, why don’t you find the kiddo and do the heart-to-heart chat, okay? I’ll get dinner going." Gabrielle smiled and pulled Eponin down, giving her a light kiss on the cheek. "What’s that for?" the ex-amazon asked.
"You’ve really been wonderful to me these past few months when I’ve needed it most. Thank you."
Eponin released her hold and took Gabrielle gently by the hand, kissing her knuckles. "No, thank you. I’m honored to be your traveling companion. Now go find your admirer and set her straight."
Gabrielle nodded and started into the woods. She didn’t have to go far. She found the young woman sitting on a fallen tree limb, soaked in the moonlight.
"August," Gabrielle called gently. "Will you talk to me now... please?"
"I have nothing to say Gabrielle. I’ve already said too much."
"Hey now," Gabrielle said taking a seat next to the young lady, "That’s a beautiful poem, but you’ve got the wrong woman. I’m not the one for you, honest. You might not believe that now, but it’s true."
"Like I said, I was foolish."
"No, don’t say that," Gabrielle said firmly. "You’ve got a lot of courage to put your feelings out like that. I’ve seen ‘braver’ people carry a torch for years and say absolutely nothing about how they really feel out of fear." Like Xena. "And I’ve cared for people too and couldn’t give voice to it." Like me and Xena. "So don’t ever think for a moment that you’re being a fool for telling someone how you feel, especially when those feelings are full of warmth and light. The true fool is one who never says anything and let’s opportunities pass them by, never knowing what could have been. You may win. You may lose. But at least you were in the ‘game’."
That brought a small grin to August’s face. "So what you’re saying is that... it’s better to love and lose than to never love at all."
Gabrielle considered it a moment. "Yes, that’s exactly what I mean."
"I should write that down," August thought out loud. "That’s pretty good. Remind me to put that on my parchment when I get back."
It’s better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all? Yeah that is pretty good. In fact... that’s where I’m at now isn’t it? I wished things had turned out differently. But in light of it all I’m still grateful for the time we had together. And I realize we both gave all we could to each other... this past year just hasn’t been enough. And I can’t go on being angry with Xena for not giving me something that she couldn't give. I loved. And I lost. But the game was wonderful while it lasted.
"What’s that smile for?" August asked the bard as she watched the growing smile on Gabrielle’s face.
Gabrielle tousled the hair on top of the young woman’s head. "I don’t think I’m angry anymore, Sweetie. That has nothing to do with you and I know you have no idea what I’m talking about," Gabrielle chuckled. "But trust me. It’s a good thing." Because if I’m not mad... then I can move on . . .wherever that may be...
Chapter 12: DECISIONS
Xena, Eve, Hercules and Ares all meandered slowly up to the tree. It was a beautiful sight - Golden bark and leaves that bared silver fruit shaped like ovals. Ares lead the way and wrapped his fingers around the immortal food that was his for the taking. A few moments passed, but he still hadn’t pulled the fruit from the tree.
"Is there a problem?" Xena asked getting a bit perturbed as she waited impatiently for the former god to collect the prize they had sought.
Ares let go of the fruit and turned around. "As a God you wouldn’t give me the time of day, but as a mortal... You’ve helped me far greater than my expectations Xena... I love you... but I know if I eat this and become immortal I’ll never have the chance to win your love. As a mortal man I think I have that chance... I don’t think I can do this. I’d rather risk death and have a chance at winning your favor than to walk alone forever."
The circle stood in stunned silence for a moment.
"Excuse me?!" Xena exclaimed. "We traveled all the way up here. I broke my arm trying to get here. And NOW you decide you don’t want to be immortal?! Please tell me he didn’t just say that?" Xena added rhetorically to Herc, as she began to pace.
"I don’t think I can do it," Ares mumbled sincerely.
"Ohhh," Xena growled in frustration.
"Look," Eve offered going over to the tree and plucking an oval. "Here," she said tossing it to the former god. "Don’t eat it now. Take it with you and if you decide to change your mind and become immortal you can eat it whenever you please. Okay?"
She’d only known her mother for the course of a few months, but in that time Eve knew when Xena began to reach her ‘breaking point’. By the speed of Xena’s pacing, Eve knew that ‘point’ was close at hand. Perhaps offering a solution to both of them was the key to keeping the peace.
"I’m gonna kill him," Xena mumbled repeatedly as she walked back and forth.
Herc stopped her on one of her passes by him, "No you’re not," he told her as diplomatically as possible. "I think Eve has a wonderful idea. Take the fruit," Herc told Ares, "and if the time comes that you change your mind it’s all yours, okay?"
Ares walked over and faced Xena. "I’m sorry," he told her sincerely. "I appreciate what you’ve done for me here... what all of you have done... but if I thought there was no way at all that I could win your hand I’d eat this in a minute... But I know that somewhere deep down inside, you love me too, Xena."
Oh for crying out loud... why me? Xena wondered silently as she pinched the bridge of her nose, hoping to release the dull throb that was beginning from her frustration. Patience, Xena. Focus. Have patience.
"Ares," Xena began, "Thanks... but no thanks. I’m not going to love you the way you want me too. That is never going to happen because I found my true love... Granted, what I had with you was special. There will always be this ‘bond’ I have with you. But that’s not the course I want to take on my life’s journey. Gabrielle is the one I want to travel with in this life and the next and the next and the next. I swear by any god or goddess’ you name, I will search until I find her, in this life and all others. So, yes, I love you too, Ares because you’ve helped me when no one else would, but you’ll never be my soulmate... never. And that’s what you need to find to really understand love... I’m sorry I can’t be the one. I would, but... I’m already taken." Xena grinned bittersweetly and kissed Ares on his cheek. She took the fruit from his hand and placed it in his saddlebag. "Now let’s find a way off of this rock."
"Maybe you can call on your One God to help you," Ares playfully jabbed.
"I think the One God helps those that help themselves," Xena countered with a grin as she considered a way down the mountain. Hey! I got it! "But we might still have some help from Olympus." Xena turned and faced the valley below taking a deep breath. "Aphrooooditeeeeee!" she yelled as loud as she could.
A glittering shower appeared as the Goddess of Love materialized.
"You rang?" she replied with a teasing grin.
"Yes, I did. Do you think there’s anyway you could... you know... do your goddess thing and get us outta here?" Xena asked, unsure of how Dite would respond.
Dite looked to Herc first who gave a guilty shrug.
"So you got up here, but now you can’t get down, huh? Bummer babe," she responded as she started to fade away.
"Hold on!" Herc called, making her come back to her solid form again. "Look, I know that Ares and Xena aren’t your favorite folks in the world," Herc began. "But I’d really appreciate it if you’d lend us a hand... so please... will you help us?"
Dite crossed her arms in defiance and looked at the group around her.
"She killed my husband," Dite said pointing to Xena. "Hephaestus is gone and all because of that little brat, whom Ares swore to take care of," she added pitching a thumb to Eve and Ares. "... I’ll get you off the mountain Herc, but the rest of them-."
"No. All of us," Herc insisted. "I can’t leave them here."
Dite let out a deep sigh. "If I do this you owe me big time, got it?"
"Always," Herc answered, extending his hand in a deal. As soon as they locked palms, both of them they disappeared. Seconds later Dite was back.
"Her," Xena and Ares said in harmony as they both pointed to Eve. The warrior and former god shared a grin for thinking the same thing as Dite and Eve disappeared.
A few seconds later, Dite returned. "Next!" she said impatiently.
"Ladies first," Ares replied to the two women.
"How gallant," Dite snickered. With that Dite and Xena were gone and Ares stood alone on the hill.
Seconds later, Dite appeared. "Looks like it’s just you and me Bro," she replied as she returned.
"Yeah, it looks that way," Ares answered. When he didn’t give a sarcastic reply, Dite looked deeper and could see his heartbreak.
"Ares," she began, "It’s all for the best. Xena’s right about this... She’s not the one for you."
Ares gave a light chuckle in spite of his dark mood. "So tell me ever powerful goddess of love, will the ex-god of war ever find love?"
"Most definitely." She grinned. "But it’s gonna take time so hang onto that fruit. Ya might need it," she answered giving him a chuck on the shoulder. "Come on, let’s get you somewhere safe, okay?"
Ares nodded and with that they vanished from the hill.
Herc, Eve and Xena all looked around at their surroundings, trying to place the town they were standing in when Dite returned alone.
"Where’s Ares?" Eve asked.
"I sent him on another path," Dite answered. "Your path is here," she told Xena and Eve.
"And just where is ‘here’?" Xena asked.
"About three towns from Athens, in a tiny town called Aterrus," Dite answered.
"Athens?" Xena asked. "I have to get to Potiedaia," she stressed.
"Look," Dite replied. "There’s a big bad warlord on the way here and these folks need your help. It would be WISE, hint hint, to stick AROUND," she added.
"No," Xena answered, with the bard being the only thing on her mind. "Everything else came first before Gabrielle and this time I’m putting her front and center. I can’t stay here."
Dite sighed. "Are all warriors this thickheaded?" she asked Herc. Herc just chuckled. "Listen, babe," Dite began. "I’ve heard your thoughts. I’ve listened to your conversations and I can see your ready and rarin’ to get your bard back, so trust me... hang out here, take in the sights, go easy on the mead... Poteidaia is not the place you want to be right now. Get it?" Realization washed over Xena’s face and she started to look around the town. "Relax... she’s not here. Not yet anyway, so just chill."
"Thank you," Xena said sincerely.
"Don’t thank me," Dite said. "I’m just setting up locale. The events to follow will all be your doing so you better make damn sure you make the right choices. Gabrielle isn’t mad anymore so that means one of two things - she’ll move on with someone new or she’ll consider trying to build a life with you again... This is your moment of truth warrior princess so don’t blow it."
Xena nodded self-assured in the fact she could ‘do the right thing’ and she couldn’t hold back her grin at the prospect of seeing Gabrielle again. I’m going to see her again! she thought excited. She missed her so much and the ache returned stronger than ever. A moment later, however, a butterfly feeling grabbed her stomach and a nervous nature took over despite her joy. Oh Lord I’m going to see her again. What am I going to do? What am I going to say-?
"Well, little bro what do you think?" Dite said to Herc halting Xena’s worried mind long enough to hear their conversation. "Time to get you back to that hunky blonde in the cottage?"
Herc chuckled. "Sure, as long as you think Xena can handle things here in the village."
"Who? The warrior princess?" Dite teased. "Oh yeah... this little pissant won’t be a problem. She’s a big gal - she can handle it. Now we’ll get to see if it’s true if she can fight with one hand tied behind her back," Dite remarked, pointing to Xena’s arm.
"Very funny." Xena grinned.
Dite winked and put her arm around Herc. "Kudos, chicky babies. We’re outta here," she said snapping her fingers.
"Good luck, Xena," Herc told her as they began to vanish. Xena knew that Herc wished her well in the upcoming battle, but these well wishes meant something deeper - her relationship with Gabrielle.
"Thanks for everything, Hercules," she told him sincerely before he was out of sight.
Once alone, Eve and Xena looked around them. "So now what?" Eve asked.
"Well," Xena said putting her arm around her daughter’s shoulder, walking deeper into town. "We hang out here, take in the sights, go easy on the mead." Xena grinned.
"And we wait for her," Eve added.
"Yes," Xena agreed. "We wait for her."
Chapter 13: TELLING TALES
"She is I tell you!"
A group of patrons at the tables of the tavern laughed louder the more August protested.
"Well, if she is who you claim little girl," a man called out. "Perhaps the great bard of Poteidaia will favor us with a tale umm?"
Why couldn’t she just let it go? Gabrielle thought. Her fingers worked their way through her growing hair as she sighed in frustration.
"Come on, Gabrielle," August coaxed toward the stage. "Get up there and show ‘em."
Gabrielle looked to Eponin, who tried to hide her grin by taking a quick swig of mead.
Reluctantly, Gabrielle rose from the table and made her way to the stage as the man who had been teasing August began a round of applause.
"Give it up for the ‘bard of Poteidaia’," the man teased as he clapped, certain that the young woman was pulling his leg.
The barkeep put a stool on the small platform, which was used as a stage.
"Go on honey," he said warmly to the bard.
As Gabrielle looked out into the audience, judging the crowd, she wondered what kind of tale would do well with them. The longer she looked the more she realized something. Every tale she had was about Xena. Her ‘life’s work’ consisted solely of the warrior princess. Could she possibly pull of a tale of bravery and passion since she was so undecided about her former lover?
The longer Gabrielle sat the more hecklers joined in. She felt herself beginning to sweat. Stage fright. You’ve never had stage fright, Gabrielle. Just calm down and take a deep breath. Think damn it. Think!... What the hell. Just do it!!
"I sing of Xena," Gabrielle said loud enough to be heard over the crowd. The boldness of her words brought the chatter to a halt. "Destroyer of Nations, Tigress of Amphipolis... the Warrior Princess.
I came to know the warrior known as Xena in my 17th year. I was an idealistic farm girl who craved adventure... something more in life than someone’s wife and mother... On my journeys with Xena, I managed to become both... But this story, this adventure if you will, took place long before I took a bond oath, long before I had a daughter. It’s the story of bravery, heart wrenching decisions, pride of ones homeland and the power to change the world. That day came when the Persians landed at Marathon... "
Soon, the words flowed from Gabrielle’s mouth. It was second nature to the bard. All eyes and ears were fixated on the petite blonde woman telling the powerful, moving story. Women wept when hearing how torn the warrior felt for serving the ‘greater good’ instead of the woman she prized. Men cheered as the listened to how Xena took on Persian after Persian unwilling to surrender. By the time Gabrielle finished, the crowd was on its feet applauding the tale as the man who began the heckling came over to her.
"My apologies great bard," he said with a warm grin as he kissed her knuckles softly. "Thank you for the tale."
Gabrielle smiled in kind. "It was my pleasure."
August’s grin was as wide as the staff she now carried as Gabrielle returned to the their table. Eponin, however, didn’t look as pleased.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked upon seeing her friends’ condition.
"Yeah, I just need another mead," she said rising, going to the bar.
August and Gabrielle exchanged looks and August gave a shrug unsure of what was transpiring.
"I thought it was a beautiful story," she said as Gabrielle rose to follow the amazon.
"Thanks sweetie," Gabrielle replied sincerely. "I’ll be right back so stay out of trouble," the bard teased.
"Who? Me?" August grinned, knowing full aware of the havoc that she could wreak.
Gabrielle gave a light chuckle, but said nothing as she took a spot at Eponin's elbow at the bar.
"Come here often," Gabrielle teased as she wiggled her eyebrows.
That got a small grin to appear on the amazon’s lips. "You know for a bard you have some lousy pick up lines."
"I should work on that area, huh?" Gabrielle grinned. When Eponin did nothing more than drink from her mug, Gabrielle pressed on. "So what’s wrong, Ep?" the bard asked.
"Just feeling sorry for myself, if you don’t mind," Ep answered with a forced grin.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked genuinely confused.
"Because... you love her... and you’ll always love her. And I know in my heart of hearts you’ll never love me that way - or anyone for that matter."
"Ep-." Gabrielle tried to say as she sighed.
"No, Gabrielle," Eponin said, cutting her off. "I saw it in your eyes tonight when you spoke of her. The emotion, the gestures... You still love her."
"And I will always love her," Gabrielle argued. "But that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to love someone else."
Gabrielle would have continued, but a man burst into the tavern, letting in what was left of daylight.
"Does anyone know where I can find Xena, the warrior princess?!" he asked loudly, short of breath.
Everyone seemed to stop what they were doing and looked at one another. In unison, all the fingers in the tavern pointed back to the bar where Gabrielle was standing.
Oh boy, Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
The man rushed back to the amazon pair, still trying to catch his breath.
"Are you Xena?" he asked Eponin.
Eponin shook her head at the irony of the comment. No, but I wish I was, she thought silently. The bard would be mine then.
"I’m Gabrielle. Is there someway I can help you?"
"Gabrielle? The bard of-."
"Poteidaia," Gabrielle finished in a bored tone. "Yeah, that’s me. What’s the problem?"
"Well, my village sent me to find Xena, but it looks like I might have found the next best thing." He grinned.
"Next best thing?" Gabrielle grinned to Eponin.
Realizing his error, the man tried to make up for it.
"A thousand apologies. I meant no disrespect. We would be grateful for your help."
Gabrielle put her hands up to stop his rambling. "It’s okay. Tell me what’s going on."
"An army is going to attack our village. Our elders sent four of us out to the four corners to find the warrior princess. Rumor has it that she still travels the countryside after all these years. It was a long shot, but we thought if she did still live she could come to our aid."
Gabrielle nodded at the man’s story and cleared her throat. "Well, last I know Xena was babysitting the god of war. I’m not sure where she is, but I think we’d be willing to lend a hand. Wouldn’t we?" she added as she turned to Eponin.
"I’m up for it." The amazon grinned.
"Thank you so much," the man said as he profusely shook Gabrielle’s hand; nearly making her whole body vibrate.
"That’s okay," Gabrielle chuckled. "You look tired, friend. Why don’t you grab a drink and some food? Rest for a few candlemarks and we’ll head out before daybreak to your village. Okay?"
The man nodded and bellied up to the bar. "We’ll be forever in your debt, Gabrielle. May I call you Gabrielle?"
"Yeah. Gabrielle, Gabby, Gabs - I’ll answer to just about anything," she teased as she patted him on the back. "Rest now and we’ll head out in a bit."
As the man sat down to his stew, Gabrielle motioned Eponin toward the table where August sat.
"Do you think she’s up for it?" Eponin asked, looking at August.
"Weren’t you the one that said she needed a good dose of reality," Gabrielle teased.
"Touché," Eponin answered. "But seriously, when the battle begins-."
"You’ll stick to her like glue," Gabrielle answered. "Don’t confront anyone. Just watch our backs in case anyone gets by us. Okay?"
"So now I have to baby-sit?" Eponin teased. "Who knew Xena and I had so much in common?" she added in regard to Gabrielle’s earlier comment.
"I promised August’s parents I get her to Athens and I intend to keep my promise," Gabrielle replied. "So don’t go in there acting the hero on me tomorrow. Keep the kid safe."
"Aye, aye captain," Eponin saluted as the pair neared the table.
August was already on her feet when she saw them approach.
"What was that about?" she asked pointing to the man at the bar.
"Well, August, my dear." Gabrielle grinned. "Looks like we’re not going straight to Athens. Are you up for a little diversion?"
"Are you kidding?" August said excitedly. "You mean like a ‘real’ adventure? A mission of some kind?"
"You could say that, but you have to promise me to stick by Eponin at all times, no matter what... Promise?"
August crossed her heart with her pinky. "Promise!... This is toooo cool!"
Chapter 14: CONFRONTATIONS
"There’s two more!! Where in HELL are they coming from?!"
Eve kicked one away with the heel of her boot while striking another one down with her sword.
"We can’t keep this up much longer," she shouted.
To say that Xena was in full warrior mode was an understatement, despite the fact her arm was in a sling from the recent topple on the mountain. She parried a sword from an attacker’s hand and gutted him before he had the chance to re-arm himself or flee.
"Don’t tell me your getting tired already, kiddo," Xena teased. "Ahhrrrrahh," the warrior grunted as she took out two more men approaching behind her with a quick swipe left and then right.
The men of the village took up arms for the battle as well. Xena looked over to find one solider from the warlord’s army out fighting a group of villagers. The odds were purely in his favor because of his skill.
"Him," Xena pointed to the thug.
Eve didn’t need an explanation. She knew what her mother meant. She had to take the man down and do it quickly to spare as many villagers as possible. As Eve left, Xena found that four men had worked their way around her.
And Dite said this would be easy. I gotta remember to never trust the goddess of love again, Xena considered sarcastically as she watched them with smirks on their face as they closed in. Xena let out a powerful war cry that bought her enough time for a distraction as she somersaulted over the soldiers. Her back was empty after she landed and she could fight them head on.
And fight them head on she did. One by one they met Xena’s blade and fell. As the last one tumbled to the dirt, Xena looked over to check on Eve. She had managed to take out the target and a few of his cronies it appeared. For the moment, she was getting some of the walking injured inside to safety.
Xena didn’t see the attack coming, but she felt it – a hard blow to the back. She groaned in pain as she fell to her knees. Next, she felt her sword knocked from her hand a moment later as she tried to get her breath. She ducked and rolled toward her sword, but she came up inches short. As the man raised his sword, Xena knew this was it. Eve wasn’t there to back her up. Her time had come.
And I never got to see her again, Xena realized as she still struggled, reaching as far as she could to get a grasp of her sword. Her first reaction as soon as she hit the dirt was her chakram, but the sling prevented her from reaching it in time or with any accuracy. It had to be the sword and she stretched with all her might, coming up two inches short.
She closed her eyes when she watched his muscles bulge, knowing the strike would come. When a moment passed, and she didn’t feel the blade upon her, she quickly looked up.
A dagger appeared in the man’s chest.
Xena took a more intense look and realized...
That’s not a dagger. It’s a sai!!!
Xena’s head shot back for a brief moment to see the bard standing behind her. The momentary shock wore off as the man began to fall toward her. Xena rolled to avoid him and in the process put more weight on her injured arm than she should have. She groaned loudly and clutched at her arm, but not before picking up her sword.
Behind Gabrielle, Eponin and August battled a man with an ax. When it looked like he was about to get the best of August, Eponin took him down with two quick sword strokes.
The advancing army began to scatter and make their way back into the woods. The villagers began to cheer loudly in celebration of having defeated the army. Women and children started to come out of their hiding places. And all the while, Xena and Gabrielle locked eyes oblivious to the things around them.
Xena watched as the older woman and young lady came up to Gabrielle. Their arrival broke the eye contact as Gabrielle had a brief conversation and pointed to the local tavern across the street. The older woman’s eyes met Xena’s and Xena could have sworn she saw a scowl on the woman’s face as she departed with the young lady.
Gabrielle knew she had to go over. If not to offer her greetings, at least to retrieve her sai. Xena’s mouth suddenly went arid as the bard strolled over confidently. What do I say? What do I do?! The bard was coming closer, watching her with every step. At least until she was near the fallen man.
"Gabrielle." Xena nodded. Oh yeah! That was real poetic warrior. Think of something before she just walks away!
"Xena," came the short reply, void of emotion.
She pulled the dagger from the man’s chest and used his own shirt to clean the weapon off before putting it back in her boot. After all these months all she can say is my name? Of course…it’s Xena…What the Hell did I expect?
Gabrielle turned to catch up to Eponin and August in the tavern.
Gabrielle stopped her strides, but took a deep breath before she turned around. Here it comes, Gabrielle thought. She wasn’t quite sure what ‘it’ was, but she was certain it probably wouldn’t end very favorable.
Xena still didn’t know what to say as Gabriele turned around, but it seemed a little gratitude might help.
"Thank you," Xena said once she had Gabrielle’s attention. "You saved my life."
"Don’t mention it," Gabrielle answered quickly. Just keep walking. Don’t turn around again no matter what.
"Please. Don’t walk away. Hear me out first," Xena pleaded.
Gabrielle paused. You stopped anyway, didn’t you? After you said you wouldn’t, huh? Damn it Gabrielle! Get a backbone!! Tell her that this is it. Tell her she can’t play with your heart. Tell her it’s over and move on.
Gabrielle had lots of answers to give, but instead of voicing any of them she simply said, "What?"
"I want to talk to you," Xena said going on pure instinct. Act, don’t react. Go with your gut. "I’ve realized quite a bit since you’ve been gone and I want the chance to tell you."
Gabrielle chuckled in her growing misery. "That’s just it, Xena. You’ve been telling me things for years. Not talking to me, but TELLING me. I’m tired of being preached to. When you decide you no longer want to lecture me, look me up."
Sadness was Xena’s first reaction, but in the seconds that followed it became replaced with frustration and then anger. How dare she?! After all these months apart – after all the years together – she OWES me a real conversation about this. She’s not just gonna walk away. Not again.
"Hey!" Xena called out as she began to jog after the bard. "We need to talk about things here. I gave you space," she added as she grabbed Gabrielle gently by the arm.
That's it! The bard’s temper boiled over.
"And what are you gonna do if I don’t Xena, huh? Are you gonna drag me behind a horse? Fall for some Roman while I watch? Or perhaps you’d like to take the back of my head off with your chakram?... Oh wait," Gabrielle paused in her sarcasm. "You’ve done all those things already. What do I have to fear?" the bard concluded throwing her arms up in the air.
"I’ve been paying for my sins every day we’ve been apart and I would spend my life making it up to you if I could, but that’s a little tough when you won’t speak to me for more than 10 seconds... Besides there are other factors at play here that I’ve learned about. Things that you should know."
"Like what?" Gabrielle answered growing angry herself.
Like the fact Eve truly is YOUR daughter. No, don’t say it like that. Not when you’re mad. Xena took a deep breath. "Things that I think you should know... but not discussed while we’re yelling at each other. Please let me talk with you. If you want to leave me and keep going your own way, I’ll support that decision. I’m not your keeper. I never wanted to be your keeper. I only wanted to love you – the way you loved me. I’ve prayed to Eli that it isn’t too late and that we can repair things, but if you feel that isn’t possible," Xena said feeling a lump form in her throat before quickly swallowing it down, "you can walk away and never look back... All I ask is that you talk with me first."
The sob in Xena’s voice almost brought the bard to tears herself. She didn’t want to hurt Xena. She truly didn’t. She was only looking out for herself and trying to avoid what had become a very damaging relationship – both emotionally and physically. Perhaps Xena was right. Perhaps this is something they both needed in order to ‘roll up the scroll’ so to speak, a final chapter in the story of the warrior princess and her bard.
"Alright," Gabrielle sighed, trying her best not to sob as well. "Alright. We’ll talk, but first things first. That army isn’t going to stay away for long. These villagers are thinking they're in the clear, but you and I know better. They’re gonna plan a counter strike."
Xena smiled as she nodded in agreement. She’s good... She’s grown up... Why on earth didn’t I see it before. "True. What do you suggest?"
Did she just ask my opinion? Yeah, I guess she did. Ha. "Well, we’ll need to put some bucket brigades in place. Just in case he attacks with fire. And we’ll have to put some scouts up high," Gabrielle continued as she looked up. "Those trees would be a good place – lots of limbs and plenty of leaves to hide behind to go unnoticed."
"Leave it to an amazon to take to the air," Xena teased. Gabrielle grinned slightly. "I’m teasing. It sounds like a wonderful idea so far," Xena added when she reconsidered that her comment might be taken in the wrong context. "May I add something?"
Did she just ask me to give her opinion? Oh lord I think I’m gonna have a stroke. "Certainly."
"I noticed that his men aren’t heavily armored. We could bring out more villagers to fight if we gave them something more solid to strike with. The staff is an easy weapon – no offense-."
"None taken," Gabrielle teased. "Go on." She grinned.
She’s grinning. This is a good sign. "Anyway, if we armed them with staffs, mallets, anything they can strike hard and fast with it might be enough to take the majority of the army out once they make it inside the village."
Gabrielle considered it. "Very true... Okay. Let’s get some things in motion. I just got into town. Do you know who the leader is here?"
"Sure do." Xena grinned.
"Okay then. Let’s get everyone to the tavern and tell them what we have planned so far."
"And as for the rest?" Xena asked.
"We’ll do what we always do... make it up as we go along while trying to look brilliant in the process," she teased.
Xena laughed out loud heartily and Gabrielle found herself chuckling as well. Soon, Xena cleared her throat and a perplexed look over washed over her face.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena smiled and shrugged it off.
"Nothing really... I just... I haven’t laughed like that since you’ve been gone... It felt good is all." Xena grinned warmly. "Anyway, I’ll find the mayor while you organize the tavern, okay?" Xena replied becoming ‘strictly business’. Gabrielle simple nodded as Xena walked away.
As the warrior strode across the village street, Gabrielle felt the tears well up in her eyes as she thought of Xena’s laughter comment.
"For what it’s worth," she whispered knowing the warrior couldn’t hear her. "Neither have I."
Chapter 15: BATTLEPLANS
Gabrielle made her way to the tavern to catch up with Eponin and August, but she stopped mid-stride as Eve burst out from one of the buildings.
"Woooh," Gabrielle chuckled as she steadied Eve by the shoulders before they both fell to the ground in a tangled mess. "Slow down there," the bard teased.
It took a moment, but Eve realized it really was Gabrielle in front of her. She proceed to lock Gabrielle in a bear hug that brought a chuckled of delight from the bard.
"I missed you too, Sweetie." Gabrielle smiled, pulling back to see the brunette.
"The battle..." Eve commented as she looked around the village square.
"It’s over... for now," the bard answered. "How have you been, Eve?"
"Good." Her daughter grinned. I wonder if mother told her yet. "Have you seen Mother?"
"Yes, she’s going to talk to the mayor, so we can prepare for the counter strike," Gabrielle replied as she began to move to the tavern, taking Eve along by the arm. "Care to join me in rounding up some village elders and such?"
"Certainly," Eve replied with a growing smile.
Gabrielle looked different from the last time they had meet. Her hair was longer, but something else, something more settled appeared over the bard’s face. To Eve, it seemed she ‘glowed’ in a way she hadn’t noticed before.
"You’re looking good," Eve complimented.
"Thanks," Gabrielle answered. "You look as beautiful as your mother," Gabrielle added with a grin. "Speaking of... what happened to her wing."
At first, Eve was unsure of what Gabrielle meant. Ohhhh her arrrrm! "She broke it."
"She broke it? How?"
"Ares said it was because mother’s been too distracted by you." Eve grinned. "But she lost her footing trying to get to the Tree of Fieteus."
Gabrielle studied Eve a moment as they walked, "She’s immortal now?"
"No, we went there for Ares... But he wouldn’t eat the fruit once we got there. He thought he could win mother over as a mortal, but mother laid down the law," Eve chuckled.
"And what would that ‘law’ be." Gabrielle grinned.
"She belongs to you," Eve answered honestly. "And you alone."
Gabrielle’s grin fell and she was stumped for a reply. She wasn’t as certain as Xena was in regard to their relationship. And in a way, she wished that she had such convictions.
"I love your mother," Gabrielle began. "I do Eve, but-."
"But nothing," Eve stopped her and faced her. "You love her. She loves you. What’s the problem?"
What IS the problem? Gabrielle considered. It should be easy. You love someone and they love you and you live happily ever after. Isn’t that what it’s all supposed to be about? Of course that’s not real and sometimes love just isn’t enough.
"The past is the problem," Gabrielle answered. "There are a lot of things-."
"That are in the past. We’ve ALL done things in the past we regret and are ashamed of, Gabrielle. Believe me, I know... All I’m saying is that if you do love mother then tell her. Try looking at the future, because if the past is all you’re going to use as a judge, I think you’re not seeing what’s happening here and now."
Gabrielle scrunched her eyebrows in examination of Eve. "Did she put you up to saying that?" Gabrielle asked in annoyance.
"No." Eve grinned just as cocky as Xena. "Mother doesn’t need anyone to speak for her. She’s been doing a damn good job of that on her own lately... And if you could look beyond the past... You might see that yourself. I hope you do because it would be a shame if you missed it."
The two women looked wordless at each other and Gabrielle gave a deep sigh. Can I really do it? Can I look beyond the past? There was an unspoken plea in Eve’s eyes that Gabrielle couldn’t quite put her finger on. Why is this so important to her?
"No promises," Gabrielle firmly told Eve, who promptly broke into a grin. "She asked to speak to me later and I agreed. I don’t know what will come of it, but I will try my best to see things differently - not so... jaded."
"That’s all I can ask, mo-Gabrielle," Eve said changing her statement at the last minute. "I’ll round up the folks here in the east and send them to the tavern. How’s that?" Eve said hoping to change the topic.
"Okay," Gabrielle nodded. "I’ll see you there. And Eve... It’s wonderful to see you again."
Eve gave a bashful smile, but still made eye contact.
"You too," she replied in a shy voice. "Gotta go," she muttered as she turned away.
She looks a lot like Xena when she blushes.
Gabrielle grinned and stepped up her pace to the tavern. Once inside, she saw the people lifting mugs in celebration.
"I wouldn’t do that just yet!" Gabrielle voice boomed through the establishment. Everyone stopped to meet her eyes. "Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Gabrielle and your messenger brought me here to help defend the village. You all gave a wonderful front in the first attack... but note that I said FIRST attack. You can bet all your farms that this warlord, Siscerus, won’t give up that easily. He’s going to re-group and odds are he’s going to return."
The silence that took hold as Gabrielle began her speech slowly crumbled as people nervously talked among themselves about the impending doom.
"Please listen!!" Gabrielle yelled getting the room’s attention again. "Xena is meeting with the mayor and we’re putting plans into motion as I speak, but we need you folks sober if it’s going to work. So put the mead and wine down and hear us out."
At that point, Xena walked inside with the mayor of the town with Eve behind them.
"I’ve spoken with Xena and we have lots of ideas to turn back this army, but we all have to work together. We’ve come this far and we can go farther, right?!"
A course of cheers went up in approval.
"In a few moments, everyone is going to meet in the square and from there we’ll put everyone on ‘posts’ - we’ll tell you were to go and what you’ll be doing... Is that understood?"
Everyone voiced their agreement as nods went around the room.
"Okay then, file out and we’ll give you the orders once we’ve set things up."
Chairs and table screeched along the wood floor as people got up, making their way outside. Instead of heading out, Gabrielle weeded her way through the departing traffic to Eponin and August who were now on their feet as well.
The look on Eponin’s face was anything but approving.
"Did you speak to her?" were the first words out of the amazon's mouth.
Gabrielle could tell Eponin was trying to be neutral, but failing miserably.
"Yes I did. I told her we could talk more later," Gabrielle answered unable to look Eponin in the eyes.
From across the room, Xena was taking in the unheard conversation with a great deal of interest. Who is that woman and why does she look so damn familiar? Xena considered. She also looks... irritated... And she certainly has Gabrielle fidgeting quite a bit. Perhaps I should walk over and...
"Xena," the mayor said gently tapping Xena’s shoulder, "The village is getting assembled outside so anytime you're ready."
"Of course," Xena nodded. "We’ll be right out."
She watched the mayor give a nod and follow his constituents outside. What the hell? Go over and say hi. Where's the harm in that? she thought with a smirk.
Gabrielle could ‘feel’ Xena behind her before she ever caught sight of her.
"Hi there," Xena said in introduction to the group. "I’m Xena and you are?" the warrior began as she extended her hand to the young woman first.
"I’m... I’m... pleased to meet you," August stammered. "I’ve read all of Gabrielle’s scrolls and I’ve heard the tales about your adventures for years. I can’t believe it’s really you," the girl gushed. "Boy, I can see why Gabrielle was so smitten." Reflexively, August put her hand on her mouth for letting the last comment slip out. "I’m sorry," she quickly added offering her hand again for a more ‘formal’ introduction. "I’m August. A poet. Gabrielle is helping get me to the Academy in Athens."
"Ahh, I see. It’s a good school," Xena complimented. "Gabrielle was accepted there once before. If you’re half as talented as she is then I’m sure you’ll have no trouble fitting right in." Xena held her grin in place as she turned to the ‘true’ reason for her arrival. "And you are?" she asked Eponin.
"I’m Gabrielle’s... traveling companion... and former subject, Eponin... It’s been a few years, Xena." The ex-amazon grinned as she saw Xena’s reaction to the term ‘traveling companion’.
Stay gracious. Stay gracious. Don’t take the woman’s head off, Xena repeated in her mind as she shook the hand grasping hers. It would be so easy to ground this hand into powder and snap it off at the wrist. Traveling companion, huh? I’ll show you traveling when I send you to the moon.
"And just how long have you been traveling with Gabrielle?" Xena asked. Everyone noted the way that Xena said the word ‘traveling’ and it left little to what Xena was trying to refer to with the statement.
Oh my gosh! She thinks Eponin and I are lovers! Gabrielle realized. I would never intentional mislead Xena, however, if her overactive imagination is playing out scenarios...
"About three, perhaps four, months now," Gabrielle answered before Eponin could.
Eponin picked up on what Gabrielle was doing by evading the subtle unspoken question as to the nature of their relationship. She decided to join in.
"Yeah, that’s about right," Eponin agreed. "And it’s been a wonderful ride. Gabrielle is really great to travel with." Eponin added, making sure to stress the word travel like Xena had done moments earlier.
Why you little... Xena grumbled in her mind
"Well, it’s good that she’s had support," Xena said instead. "Not that she needs it, but every little bit helps. The reason I came over was because the mayor is ready," she added. Yeah right. Wonder if she bought it, Xena thought to herself.
Yeah, right. I ain't buying that, Gabrielle echoed in her own mind. You’ve come to check up on me and we both know it. "Okay, we’ll be out in a few minutes. Why don’t you see if August can help with the water preparations?" Gabrielle suggested.
"Absolutely," Xena nodded. "Eponin," Xena said offering her forearm. "Nice seeing you again."
Like Hell. Eponin couldn’t say the same so she only grinned and gave a friendly nod as she grasped Xena’s arm a little harder than necessary.
As Xena and August made their departure, August asked the warrior, "Can you show me how to use your Chakram?"
"Sorry, kiddo," Xena chuckled. "That weapon is mine and mine alone. Only the most skilled warrior could use it. But I might show you a new move with that staff if we have time," Xena offered instead.
Once the duo had left, Gabrielle turned back to Eponin.
"Traveling companion?" Gabrielle prodded.
Eponin laughed out loud, "Hey, that’s what I am, aren’t I?"
Gabrielle sighed, but she couldn’t help but smile as she did.
"You’re bad," she chuckled.
Eponin wiggled her eyebrows, but said nothing.
Oh boy. The battle is just beginning, Gabrielle thought... with Siscerus’ army being the last thing on her mind.
Chapter 16: CONVERSATIONS
Gabrielle crouched on a limb next to a young man high above the tree. He can’t be much older than the boy from the village when Xena pit Caesar and Pompy against each other. So young and already getting a taste of war.
"See anything yet?"
"Not yet, ma’am," he answered politely.
"Well, keep watch. I’m sure they’ll be back before sunrise," she told him. "Just remember to release that yellow scarf when you first see them and the red one when they are within a league. Okay? The runners down there will take care of the rest."
"I will, ma’am," he answered confidently, proud with the trust the town was putting into him. His warning was key to the town’s plan of defense.
"Gabrielle?" they both heard a voice call up. It was Xena’s.
"On my way," Gabrielle hollered down. "You’ll do just fine," Gabrielle commended the boy with a pat on the back before she scurried down the tree.
Moments later, she was on the ground next to the warrior.
"Everything okay?" she asked.
"Yes, everything’s in place," Xena answered. "Now it seems we wait... I thought it might be a good time to talk."
Gabrielle felt a little knot in her stomach that came up unexpected. She knew that she promised to converse with Xena, but she still was unsure of what to expect.
"Okay," she said as carefree as she could muster. She didn’t want Xena to see the depth of her nervousness. "Where would you like to go?"
"Let’s go check on the water brigade and make sure things are in order," Xena suggested as they began to walk through the town. "I’m not sure where to start." Xena grinned. "I’ve learned some things that you should know... I’m just worried you might think I’m holding it over your head as a way to get you back. It’s not. I assure you... but then again I’m not quite sure if my ‘assurance’ means anything to you," Xena said honestly.
Give her a break. "Look Xena, I spoke with Eve earlier today and I promised her I’d try to look at things from a different perspective. You’ve kept your word to me on more occasions than not. I’ll just have to go on faith and say that whatever you tell me I’ll believe," Gabrielle interrupted. "So out with it... What have you learned?"
Should I just blurt it now or do I put a little scenario to it first? "Eve’s your daughter." Well, that ended that debate, didn’t it warrior?
"Yeah, you told me that the last day we were together. ‘We’ve got OUR daughter back.’ I-."
"No, Gabrielle," Xena stopped her, giving a slight look of apology. "I mean she’s YOUR daughter. Your flesh. Your blood... Ares told me, and although I don’t put much faith in Ares as a god, he had no reason to lie to me as a mortal. Besides, he didn’t come right out and tell me," Xena chuckled slightly. "I had my suspicious after spending weeks watching Eve. She reminded me of someone - then one night it hit me. That someone was you. I rousted Ares awake and threatened to rearrange his face if he didn’t ‘fess up."
"So you threatened him until he told you what you wanted to hear?" Gabrielle asked, the condescension hung in her voice.
"No," Xena said quickly. "It wasn’t like that," she added.
"No, it wasn’t and if you were there you’d understand what I mean," Xena snapped.
Gabrielle released a sigh of impending frustration. "Yeah, I know I wasn’t there, Xena. You didn’t leave me much choice."
"I didn’t leave you much choice?! Who left who here?" Xena countered. "Who was willing to talk about things and who tried to sneak away in the middle of the night?"
"Look, I’m not gonna get into this now. We have an upcoming battle to face and-."
"And what?!" Xena replied getting louder. Both women looked around them when they noticed a few heads turning in their direction at the noise. "What else is going to come up, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, her voice lowered again. "How many more things can we manage to put ahead of this relationship? If it’s not this battle then it will be some other excuse, some other thing that needs your attention; everything except us," Xena hissed. "Well, I’m sorry Gabrielle, but I’m not buying any more of your ‘reasons’. You want to blame me for all of this that’s fine, but you’ve got a long list of sins too so don’t you dare stand there and play the martyr for me. You might have moved on with Eponin, but I need some kind of closure here."
"Look, I’m not saying I’m perfect, Xena."
"No, Gabrielle, you’re just saying I’m completely wrong. That’s not much of a difference if you ask me."
Gabrielle didn’t respond and she noticed that Xena was actually walking away.
"Where are you going?" Gabrielle called out. "I thought you wanted to talk."
"Talk, yes," Xena stopped as she turned around to face the bard. "Yell, no. I’m not going to get into a shouting match and that’s where this is heading. I’m willing to take responsibility for the wrongs I’ve done, Gabrielle, I am. But I refuse to be the only one here that’s to blame for our problems. Once we cool down then perhaps clearer heads will prevail. Until then, I’m checking on the archers."
What the hell does she want from me?! Gabrielle screamed in her mind as Xena continued to walk away from her. Why does she do this to me?!
"Love," Gabrielle heard a voice say behind her. "She does it because of love. And as much as I hate to admit it, she’s right... I thought you were ready, but looks like even the Goddess of Love still makes mistakes."
Gabrielle turned to see Aphrodite behind her, a pitiful look on her face.
"Don’t torment me," Gabrielle groaned. "I have enough torment going on in my life at the moment."
Aphrodite cocked her head as she looked at Gabrielle standing defiantly, with her hands on her hips. "You reap much of the heartache that you sow with your shortsightedness."
Gabrielle shook her head trying to comprehend what Dite was saying. "Huh?" was all she managed to get out.
Dite chuckled. "Sorry, let me put it in simple terms - you feel bad because you’re not looking at the whole picture, which is partially your fault."
"I’m not looking at the whole picture?" Gabrielle challenged. "The woman took the back of my head off with her chakram."
"After you stabbed her daughter," Dite pointed out.
"I wasn’t my doing Aphrodite," Gabrielle answered. "That was your sister and her friends the furies, if you fail to remember."
"Yeah, I know... but did YOU ever apologize to Eve or Xena for those events. Did you ever explain why? I’m sure they understand the situation. But did you ever voice your regret over it all... at least once?"
Gabrielle threw her hands up in the air. "I should apologize for Xena striking ME with HER chakram? Oh that’s rich."
"No," Dite answered. "You should apologize to both of them for playing a part in the stabbing... unintentional or not... Of course there’s more, much more, that you need to make amends for, but we’ll take it one step at a time ‘k?" Dite winked.
Why is it so hard to stay mad at her? Gabrielle thought as her anger began to give way to understanding.
"Because," Dite grinned. "I’m adorable. Admit it."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yes Dite, you are adorable."
"Well, at least we agree on one thing... Think you could give the warrior another shot before the impending battle? I don’t think either of you want to go into this thing with all that ‘unresolved’ daughter stuff. Do you?"
No I don’t, Gabrielle considered. In fact, I never did really give voice to the news that Xena told me. Eve is my daughter - MY daughter... No OUR daughter. Gabrielle gave a small smiled and took a breath to speak to the goddess.
"Save it," Dite told her. "You’re welcome. Now go find that warrior of yours already?" she added with a shoo of her hands.
"I’m all over it." Gabrielle grinned as she began to jog toward the archers.
Chapter 17: RECKONING
Gabrielle paused a moment, watching Xena giving instructions to the archers that stood on the wall, pointing left and then right. She watched as the men nodded and Xena gave her ‘well done’ grin before she walked away. She still looks damn sexy up there bossing the troops around. But should I meet her now or just wait? Gabrielle paused a few more moments as she watched Xena conversing with the soldiers. Go on Gabrielle. Get up there. Don’t second-guess yourself now.
Xena saw Gabrielle starting to make her way up the ladder to the top of the city wall.
"Hold on," the warrior called down to the bard.
With one leap and a flip, Xena landed a few feet from Gabrielle on the ground. She stumbled a bit, but never lost her footing. "Still haven’t gotten adjusted to the arm problem yet." Xena grinned bashfully at her lack of coordination. "But I’m getting better these last few days. I don’t fall on my ass anymore."
Gabrielle chuckled. "All black and blue?"
Xena chuckled herself. "You know I’d offer to show you, but that might be pushing my luck a little too much." Gabrielle smiled in response. "I’m glad you came over here," Xena added when Gabrielle didn’t interject more.
"Yeah, well," Gabrielle answered as her toe dug into the dirt nervously. "I was in the neighborhood."
Xena cleared her throat. "I want you to know that what I said earlier... about Eve being your daughter... It’s not a ploy of any kind, Gabrielle. I just thought you deserved to know the truth. And as for Ares, the reason I believe him is because it makes sense. I mean Eve’s your daughter because of the meld he did by putting us in one body. That, along with the fact that her gestures are so similar to you it’s unnerving at times."
Gabrielle nodded, but still continued to look at the dirt on her boot instead of meeting Xena’s eyes. When she did muster the gumption to look up she was meet with the grinning warrior who took a few steps closer.
"Thank you for telling me," Gabrielle said sincerely. A few moments passed and Gabrielle pondered, "Does Eve know?"
"She knows." Xena grinned. "In fact, she’s asked me lots of questions about you; about us. I told her everything. I was completely honest with her."
"Yes, completely," Xena answered soundly. "It wasn’t easy because it’s not all pretty. She read your scrolls about ‘the great warrior princess’. I think it was difficult for her to see that her mother isn’t that great. Her mother’s done some pretty painful things to her mom at times. But I thought she deserved the truth."
"Xena, you’re not a monster," Gabrielle answered upon hearing the warrior’s regret. "You can be harsh, stubborn and over reactive at times, but... Hell like I should talk," Gabrielle said with a light laugh as she rolled her head around to relieve her growing tension. "Point is... You ‘are’ a good person. I just hope you told her about the good times too."
"I did." Xena grinned. "In fact, I’ve become quite the bard since you’ve departed," she teased. "It’s a position I hope you will fill again since you do it sooo much better than I do... but I realize you have a new life and a new... lover... So I’m trying to walk a very thin line here... I mean, she is your lover, isn’t she?"
Wondered how long it would take you to ask. "I really don’t think that’s any of your business, Xena." Gabrielle smirked.
The warrior looked down in shame. She’s right. It’s not. She’s the one who’s free here ... I’m the one who’s holding on.
Gabrielle couldn’t see the pain in Xena’s eyes, but everything else conveyed an utter defeat - the pouting lip, the slumped shoulders. Oh enough is enough. No more games.
"She’s not my lover," Gabrielle answered breaking the silence, relieved by the fact she was being truthful. "Eponin wants the job, but ... " But what? I still love you. I still want to be a family. I still- "it just doesn’t feel right." Good answer. Truthful yet non-committal.
Oh thank you Eli. "Then what DOES feel right?" Xena asked, trying her damnedest not to smile at the news. "What would make you happy?" Please say me. Please say me.
Gabrielle gave a deep sigh. You. Like we were. Long ago. "I’m not sure. I just remember the first few years that we were together... All the faith. All the trust. I miss that. We haven’t had that for a long time. In truth, I think that’s what bothered me most about the whole incident with Antony. I watched you ‘falling in love’ all over again. But this time it wasn’t with me. You undressed that man with your eyes. And I couldn’t remember the last time you looked at me that way... But it’s more than just sexual longing."
"What else is there?" Xena asked. When Gabrielle raised her eyebrows at the question, thinking she was treated as a sex object and nothing more, Xena shook her head and hands to try to curb another shouting match. "Sorry, came out all wrong." Xena grinned. "I mean... what other things do you miss when you say ‘more’?"
"What is it that you think I miss?" Gabrielle countered.
"Oh no," Xena shook her head. "If I put my foot in my mouth it might end this peaceful discussion in a hurry."
"Okay," Gabrielle answered. "How about right now, for example? I ask a question, but I can’t seem to get an answer. That’s happened quite a bit over the past year. You seem ‘afraid’ to talk to me. And that really hurts me, Xena. There was a time when we could talk about ANYTHING with each other and we did."
Xena considered it and nodded her agreement. "I think that’s true. We haven’t talked to each other for a long time... For quite awhile I felt we couldn’t relate to each other. It seemed easier to be quiet than to ‘rock the boat’. We were changing - growing apart instead of together."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena paused a moment. "Because... you weren’t the girl I fell in love with any longer."
"And you fell out of love with me? Why didn’t you just tell me that Xena? Why go on together?"
Xena sighed as she noted the rise in the bard’s voice. Things were heating up again and she had to find a way to cool it.
"I never stopped loving you, Gabrielle... I just felt ‘different’ from you. We both fought for the greater good at one point. The key word is ‘fought’. You no longer wanted to fight and felt peace was the key to happiness... I couldn’t see it that way. I felt belittled when you talked about all the violence in the world. I started to feel like part of the problem instead of the solution. I’m not sure you understand and I’m not sure how I can explain it... All I know is that I was scared. The woman I love and respect more than anything ... no longer respected me."
"I never stopped respecting you," Gabrielle answered on the verge of tears.
"No, but you disrespected everything I stood for. I’m a warrior. I make war upon people who harm others, like this village. I had no place on your path."
"I gave up that path," Gabrielle countered.
"Yes, I can see that now," Xena agreed. "But that worry was still there for long time - the worry that perhaps you’d realize that peace really was the way. And we’d drift apart even further than the first time. But I did realized that you did choose the path of the warrior, like I did, and then that bothered me."
"You felt unhappy that I became a warrior?" Gabrielle asked, getting a little lost in the conversation. "I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. We’re on the same path again, Xena."
"I’m not unhappy really," Xena replied looking above to the stars, trying to form the proper words. "I felt... worried... that something would set you off. Somehow you would use your warrior talents against the greater good. Somehow you would... become me, or at least what I ONCE was. And when Ares took a sudden interest in you, that didn’t make me feel any better. He saw it too - that spark, that fire - and that weighed on my mind. So instead of coming together I felt pulled apart. Torn. I wanted you to have a place in Eve’s life... But I needed someone I could depend on."
Gabrielle felt her jaw drop and quickly closed her mouth. I can’t believe this. She needed someone she could depend on?! "How many times did I tell you I couldn’t love Eve more if she were my own? How often did I tell you I would die for that child?"
"Yes, but what if you changed your mind again, Gabrielle? What if you decided you didn’t want a family? Or that live on the road wasn’t for you? What if we did decide to settle and you wanted to go back on the road?"
"Then we’d talk about it, Xena, like we always did," Gabrielle answered. "I’ve told you before I understood what life with you would be like and I accepted it all. I still accept it today... what I can’t accept is being shut out. I can’t accept it and I won’t stand for it."
"I don’t blame you, Gabrielle," the warrior answered truthfully. "I told Hercules I’m surprised you stayed as long as you did... I could say I didn’t mean to do it, but that’s a lie. I did mean to shut you out. I didn’t want to get hurt by you. So little by little, I pulled away. I didn’t, however, intend to hurt you in the process. I wasn’t being ‘vengeful’. I only wanted to protect myself... and Eve."
Gabrielle gave a small nod. "I think I understand what you’re saying. And I know we’ve both been through so much these last three years. Dahok, India, Eve - it just seems like it’s one thing after another. I can’t remember the last time it was just about ‘us’ and us alone. I guess I just missed you too much to stay with you. It hurt to be in your life, but be a shadow."
Take her hands. Do it now or you might not ever get the chance again. "Gabrielle, listen," the warrior said pulling the bard’s hands to her until their fingers locked. Xena let a small grin creep out when she felt Gabrielle’s fingers squeeze around them instead of pulling away or staying limp. "I love you. I will always love you. I never wanted you to feel unwanted or unloved... All I’m asking for here is a chance. Give ‘us’ this chance to get to know each other again. If you don’t think we can go on together, I’ll bow out gracefully. I’ll see to it that you get to know Eve, if that’s what you want, with no arguments from me. I think it’s important you two get acquainted, regardless of what happens with us."
Eve. My daughter. Another daughter I tried to kill. Gabrielle felt herself tearing up and she quickly wiped them away. "I’m not sure if Eve would want that. After all, I did try to kill the girl."
"Hey," Xena said smoothing the back of her fingers over the bard’s cheek. "She understands. She knows it wasn’t really you at the time."
Gabrielle held up her finger for Xena to pause. Take a deep breath and try not to cry. She’ll get sympathetic with you and that’s not what you need right now. "I’m sorry that I tried to kill Eve. I tried to apologize to her in the throne room on Olympus, but she cut me short and I never did finish. So I want you to hear me out, alright?"
Xena only nodded, giving Gabrielle the chance to continue.
"I know I was under the influence of the furies, but I could have said something beforehand. I could have warned you somehow. I mean the furies went after you and you still managed to trick them and beat the stuffing out of Ares to boot. If I had said something, told you of my murderous thoughts, then I might have been able to overcome it. But I stayed quiet and it cost both of us our lives. I’m sorry, Xena. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make that up to both of you... I’m not even sure if you understand."
"I’m not so sure about that," Xena answered. "For months now, I’ve thought about many things I could have done different at Joxer’s that night. I think about how ‘I’ could have stopped you without relying on the chakram to do it. I could have tackled you. I could have knocked the sai away instead. I replay that moment over and over and every time I think of something different I could have done."
Gabrielle gave a small grin. "Perhaps you do understand," she answered, giving a nod.
"Yeah, perhaps I do." What I wouldn’t give to kiss this woman right now. Xena licked her lips subconsciously. But don’t do it. She’s not ready. Be happy to hold her hand. With that thought, Xena gave it an extra squeeze. She could have sworn she saw stars when she felt Gabrielle returned the grip again as she did earlier.
"They’re coming! They’re coming!"
The runner yelled as he ran through the town, warning the village. The sound interrupted their conversation to both of their relieves. Neither woman wanted to say too much nor did they want to make rash comments of love. It was far too soon for either of them.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Looks like it’s show time," she said looking at the wall, knowing Xena planned on staying with the archers while she took her spot with the armed villagers in town.
"Looks that way." Xena grinned. "You be careful."
Should I do it? Is it false hope thinking we’ll build a future together again? We might not survive this attack though and I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. I know I would. Oh what the hell... Gabrielle slipped her hands out of Xena’s and pulled the warrior’s head down, planting a slow, delicate, compassionate kiss on her cheek.
"You too," Gabrielle whispered giving the warrior’s injured arm a light pat. "Go easy on the flips," she teased before she quickly darted away.
Before Xena could open her eyes, which closed upon the gentle assault, the bard was already on her way, traveling deeper into the heart of the village. Her hand gently touched the flesh Gabrielle had just graced with her lips. One kiss. That’s all it was, but it spoke volumes to the warrior. That one kiss meant so much, but above all-else it meant purpose. She had a purpose in defeating this army. Yes she would save this town, but the true purpose was to move forward... with Gabrielle.
Chapter 18: FAVORS
"How’s it going?" Eponin asked.
"It’s going," Gabrielle said mustering a grin. "She ready?" Gabrielle asked nodding over to August who sat nervously on a bench.
Eponin grinned. "Yeah she’s got butterflies, but she’ll be fine."
"Butterflies?" Gabrielle said skeptically. She looks borderline terrified.
"Okay, she threw up twice," Eponin confessed, "but she’ll be okay."
"Maybe you should take her out of town," Gabrielle suggested.
"Is that an order commander?" Eponin asked with a smirk as she used the title that some of the villagers had bestowed upon Gabrielle.
"No," Gabrielle answered returning the grin. "Just looking for an opinion."
"Then I think she should stay," Eponin remarked. "I think it would do her good. Let her get her feet wet a little. Let her see what life outside her village can be like. She handled the staff well today and like before I’ll stand by her."
Gabrielle gave a confident nod. "Okay, I’m gonna talk to her. I’ll be back in a few," Gabrielle answered, giving Eponin’s arm a light squeeze before she left.
August darted to her feet when she saw Gabrielle approaching, but she said nothing.
"How ya doing, sweetie?" Gabrielle asked.
"I’ll be okay. I just hope I don’t disappoint you," August replied. Gabrielle could hear the shake in the girl’s voice.
"Stick by Eponin, okay? She’ll take care of you. And if something happens to her, make sure you come to me, okay? I’ll be right there in the square of town holding that position. I’ll either be walking away once the army is defeated or carried away to a funeral pyre. But know that I won’t be leaving that spot. And if I’m gone then go to Xena. She’ll get you to Athens."
"You said to run when you get outnumbered. I don’t understand," August countered.
"Yes I did," Gabrielle replied. "And that’s the best course of action if it’s just you and you alone. War is different. If my line falls, then the army will take the village for sure. They’ll reap the bounty and burn it to the ground. Hopefully, Xena’s line with the archers will take out most of them. Do you understand? My line has to stand or the village falls."
August took a deep breath as she nodded. "Yes, I understand. And I’ll do as you say. I promise."
"Then that’s all I can ask." Gabrielle grinned, giving the young lady a chuck on the shoulder. "Remember - Eponin, me, Xena. Okay?"
August didn’t reply vocal. She just nodded.
"You’ll do fine," Gabrielle said confidently. She was going to continue, but she heard Xena’s voice boom out.
"Fire! Next line... Fire! Next line... Fire! Next line!" Xena’s voice repeated over and over. Gabrielle couldn’t see what was happening because of the darkness, but she was well aware. Xena had three rows of archers firing one at a time so the army was met with a continuous onslaught of arrows.
Next, Gabrielle heard Xena call out to their daughter. "Eve! Go north! Go North!!"
North?! Oh no! The north was too rocky so we didn’t guard it as heavy. Gabrielle pushed past her men to stand front and center. She watched Eve and her ‘troops’ dash across the courtyard and scurry up the ladder to defend it from the attackers. As she and her troops arrived, the army began to come over the wall. If Eve’s forces had moved just a few minutes slower the army could have overtaken the city. But as it stood now, Eve and her men went toe to toe with the attackers, hoisting them back over the wall and into their comrade’s path.
"I need some archers now!!" Eve called out from across the square to her mother.
A man from Gabrielle’s unit stepped up to her. "We should go help her," he insisted.
"No!" Gabrielle snapped much harder then she intended and she softened her voice. "No, we stay here."
"But why?" he argued. "What good is just standing here when my brother over there needs help on the wall?"
Gabrielle watched as Xena sent a line of her archers down the ladder and over to Eve for reinforcement. As she turned back she looked eastward toward Gabrielle.
Great lord above! More of them?! When Xena looked westward she gave a sigh to see that no one else was coming. At least that’s one good sign. Xena pointed toward the back of the town. "To the east!" she shouted to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle turned around, but she couldn’t see anything coming... at least, not yet.
"That’s why." Gabrielle smirked to the man. "Come on!" the bard shouted as the villagers followed her lead as she went through town.
"I though you were going to stay in the square no matter what!" August shouted from the water brigade as Gabrielle raced by her
"Change of plans. Gotta be flexible. Comes with the job," Gabrielle retorted as she raced along.
Gabrielle came to a stop when saw about 20 men on horseback, riding hard toward them carrying torches. Trip the horses. Cause a back up.
"Jacob, Joseph! Get a rope! Wrap it around the hitching posts so it’s in the rider’s path. When I say pull, raise the rope and trip the horses! Go! Now!" Gabrielle yelled.
The men dashed inside the corral and returned seconds later. Jacob wrapped it around once and ran across the street to the other post and wrapped it once as well. Both men picked up their ends and looked to Gabrielle who was watching the army.
"Okay, you six on one side, you six on the other," she called to the rest of her men. They too obeyed and formed what looked like a wide tunnel as Gabrielle stood at the end. Closer the horse came, their hooves sounding like thunder as they tore up the earth behind them.
They were almost within the city when Gabrielle called out.
Both men heaved with all their might and they watched as the rope got as taunt as a bowstring, tripping the horses and sending their riders headfirst into the dirt. The men directly behind them got tripped up in the mass of human and horses scattered about. When the next wave came inside, they managed to by pass the commotion, going right into the ‘tunnel’ of Gabrielle’s men where they were dragged from their steeds and pummeled.
As the invasion from the east began to subside, Gabrielle looked to Eve who now had her archers in place and doing a good job of defending that side. Xena’s team, however, didn’t seem to be fairing as well. And Xena herself seemed to struggle as more men managed to climb the ladders and the wall. She was wearing down; getting tired and Gabrielle knew why. It was the arm. Her stance was off and what she was lacking in skill she had to compensate with harder blows. Blows that began to take their toll on Xena now as the warrior moved slower and slower.
Gabrielle knew she couldn’t leave her men so she prayed. She prayed hard. Keep her safe. If anyone is listening please don’t let me lose her. Not now. Give her strength. Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, almost as if she were straining to give Xena whatever strength she had within herself.
One more to go... One more to go... Xena’s mind chanted as she faced each man, taking them one at a time in her imagination. She didn’t feel quite as tired with this approach. She wasn’t as susceptible to give into her exhaustion if she examined the battle in such a ‘singular’ fashion, keeping that as her mindset.
Gabrielle watched Xena stumble against an attacker who, in all likelihood, was not that much of a warrior. That’s it! I’ve gotta get up there. Gabrielle took two steps when she felt a light hand on her shoulder.
"Let me," a voice told her.
Gabrielle watched as Aphrodite disappeared from behind her to instantly appear at Xena’s side. Dite blew something in the attacker's face and Xena watched as the man got a sappy look on his face and stumbled a bit. Dite released a giggle and took three strides to push the man off the wall with a poke of her index finger.
"Let’s see that arm," Dite said returning to Xena. She placed a light grasp on it and Xena could feel the throb that got worse from the battle melt away. "Good as new," Dite said with a wink, making the split and sling disappear.
"Aren’t you worried about the Olympian order holding that against you?" Xena asked with a smirk.
Dite grinned bitter-sweetly. "There is no Olympian order anymore, Xena," the goddess retorted. "All I have now are my friends," she added, as her head nodded toward Gabrielle. "Least I can do is answer their prayers."
"Look Aphrodite," Xena began. "I didn’t want to harm Hephesteus, or anyone, but they didn’t give me much choice. I hope you realize that," Xena offered.
"Yeah... men." Dite grinned as she began to tear up. "I told him not to go... but he didn’t listen. I told Artemis too. And Athena. None of them listened." Xena watched Dite’s mind going elsewhere, but she came back with a shake as if clearing her thoughts. "Did this conversation turn into a real bummer or what?" she said trying to grin. "Anyway, sweet cheeks, do right by the bardly one, okay? That’s all I ask."
"You got a deal," Xena agreed with a smile.
Without another word, the goddess vanished and Xena found herself face-to-face with a solider charging her as he screamed a battle cry. With two quick swipes of her sword, Xena’s attacker fell to the ground below quiet and lifeless. Xena gave a brilliant warcry and Gabrielle gave a sigh of relief as she watched the warrior do a double summersault before landing in the thick of the battle.
Eve’s troops gave a cheer, but the victory of the North end didn’t last long. The army at Xena’s line had worked its way deep into town and as Gabrielle suspected they fired flaming arrows to the rooftops in the hope of burning the village. The bucket brigade of woman and older children began to extinguish the fire while Eponin and her team kept guard over them. A few soldiers managed to make their way toward them, but the villagers took them out fairly quick.
Eponin beamed with pride as August gracefully kept her own against the intruders. She never left the young woman’s side, and unlike the battle earlier that day, she didn’t once have to go in for the save. With the remained of the army inside the village, now was the perfect time to lay siege. All four women – Eponin, Gabrielle, Eve and Xena all looked at each other, all of them knowing the same thing. If they all converged at once there would be no escape, the army would be surrounded.
The army noticed this as well when they realized their numbers were dwindling instead of growing now that they were inside the city. Siscerus, their leader, looked around and saw the deviation this ‘little town’ had done to his troops and he started to scream his retreat.
"Fall back! Fall back!" he yelled from atop his war-horse.
"Fall back?" Xena taunted him as she menaced closer toward him. "Well, if you insist." With that Xena leaped up into the air, knocking him backward off the mare he rode. "How’s that for falling back?" She smirked.
He scooted along on his butt, trying to move away from her. Cat and mouse, Gabrielle thought as she took in the sight. I have to admit I love watching her play cat and mouse. Men from the army began to rush past her trying to leave town. She could have stopped them, but since they posed no real threat anymore she let them go without harm. Besides, watching Xena work was too interesting to look away.
As Eponin congratulated August on a job well done, she turned to see Gabrielle studying the warrior intensely. Her eyes then focused to Xena and then back to Gabrielle. I’ll never be able to compete with that, Eponin considered as she watched how captivated Gabrielle looked. Never.
Siscerus began to plead to the warrior.
"Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me," he answered in a timid voice. "I’m begging you. Don’t kill me."
"Why not?" Xena taunted. "You were ready to kill these people in this village."
"I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just-."
"Just what? Thought it would be easy pickings? Thought you could take what you wanted although it wasn’t yours?... Oh don’t worry." Xena grinned. "I won’t kill you. That’s up to the people of this village to decide."
With that, Xena pulled the man to his feet and a group of villagers began to disarm him of any weapons and tie him up. Some townsfolk began to chant for his immediate death, but it didn’t go on very long until the village leader stepped up.
The mayor approached with a battle-ax in his hand to calm the crowd. "Everyone please listen," he began. "This man will not be harmed until he’s stood trial for his crimes tomorrow. He will be handled within the laws of this town. Justice will be served... Is that understood?"
A few of the villagers screamed for a hanging. A few others for a decapitation. The majority, however, agreed peacefully.
"We have no time to argue tonight. This warlord will go to the village jail. We have to attend to our wounded so I urge anyone who is not injured to please escort those who are to the tavern so we can give them the care they need," he offered instead.
Those words hit home and the protesters quickly went to work on finding people that needed care as Siscerus was taken to the village holding cell.
August and Eponin approached Gabrielle.
"You should have seen it!" August said proudly, "I put one warrior right on his backside. It was great! He never saw it coming," she added.
Gabrielle grinned. I remember the first time I did that. Xena looked so proud of me for being able to defend myself that I was in heaven... At least until the next battle when she had to save my ass. Gabrielle chuckled at the memory as she congratulated August, "Well done. I’m glad you’re both in one piece." She smiled warmly.
"I have to admit though," August replied. "It was exciting, but I’m glad it’s over."
Gabrielle’s smile began to slip away.
"Sorry sweetie, but it’s not over yet. We’ve got to make choices now -- difficult choices of who needs the greatest help," Gabrielle answered as she nodded toward two men who were carrying a third into the tavern. "In fact, the hard part is just beginning."
Chapter 19: CHOICES
"How you holding up, sweetie?" Gabrielle asked coming to August’s side.
"I can’t believe it," August answered in a low voice as she cleaned a man’s head wound. "Look around."
Gabrielle did just that. It was a long time since she actually LOOKED at the effect war brought. It had almost become routine for her in a sense. Hearing the despondency in August voice took Gabrielle back to the many battle she and Xena faced - especially the early ones when she was ‘fresh off the farm’ herself.
Despite all the heartache and pain floating through the tavern tonight, one thing remains.
"It was a good day fighting," Gabrielle answered.
What did she just say?! "A good day fighting? That’s what you call this?" August said, trying not to raise her voice in her anger. "Look at all the people that are hurt!"
"And look at all the ones who are still alive. We haven’t lost anyone yet tonight, August. Trust me. In the end, if you can walk away - if you live to see another sunrise - you’ve done a good job... Believe me, it was a good day fighting. It could have been worse... much worse."
August sighed. "I guess I didn’t look at it that way," she remarked.
"It’s the only way you can look at war and move on. It’s a senseless necessity," Gabrielle answered.
"A senseless necessity?"
"Yeah. Think about it... . If that army had turned back and walked away none of this would have happened. That’s senseless. They chose to return and the villagers had to defend what was theirs – it was a matter of survival... a necessity. The sad part is no one really won today. The warlord lost his army. Tomorrow he’ll probably lose his life. And as for the villagers, they’ve harmed human beings. They’ve taken lives. And those images will stay with them for all their days."
August considered Gabrielle’s words as she began to unroll the clean bandage. "Can you ... ?" August nodded to the unconscious man for Gabrielle to lift his head.
"Sure," Gabrielle answered. But first she felt for a pulse in his neck. Next, she went to his wrist. Gently, she put his head back down. "Save the bandage for someone who needs it," she told the young girl. "It’s too late for him."
August eyes got wide and her lower lip started to shake. Yes, Gabrielle wanted to give the girl a dose of reality, but perhaps not this strong.
"Here," Gabrielle said taking the bandage from her. "Go outside and get some air for a little bit, okay? We’ve done about all we can here tonight anyway."
August couldn’t make eye contact with Gabrielle. She simply nodded and rushed outside. Xena watched the young woman dart from the tavern as she was stitching up one of the villager’s arms that had a nasty gash. The smile Xena had as she conversed with the man fell when she watched the young girl flee.
"You’ll be better in no time," Xena said as she rose, patting his knee. She turned to make her way over to Gabrielle when the man stopped her.
"Thanks," he told her sincerely. "Thanks for everything."
"Don’t mention it," Xena answered with a warm grin.
Gabrielle looked up from the dead man when she felt Xena approach.
"Do you know him? You’ve been in town a bit longer than I have," Gabrielle remarked.
"He’s the mayor’s brother," Xena answered as stoic as ever.
Quietly, Gabrielle pulled a sheet over his body.
"You know years ago... I told myself that I would never get used to this. The death. The destruction... But now it seems like just another part of life - a ‘given’. So what’s the use in crying over it?... Do you think that makes me insensitive?"
"I think that makes you practical," Xena replied. "If you took everything you’ve seen in your journeys to heart then you’d be half crazy by now. You’re not insensitive," Xena added. "You’ve just learned when to care and when to walk away. And that’s not a bad thing."
"Speaking of caring," Gabrielle said, mustering a grin. "I still haven’t had the chance to speak with our daughter. Is she still up and around?"
"No, I sent her back to the inn to get some rest," Xena answered. "She was pretty beat."
Gabrielle’s grin grew into a smile and Xena cocked her head in examination.
"What’cha thinkin' about bard?" Xena grinned.
"Eve. Our daughter." Gabrielle smiled. "I haven’t really had the chance to examine that fact or enjoy it... I like the way that sounds... Our daughter."
"Well, she’ll be delighted to hear you say that," Xena offered. "She’s been hoping for awhile now that you’d learn the truth. She even calls you mom when she refers to you. Perhaps we can head to the amazons and you can show her ‘the ropes’ so to speak." Xena realized that she might have just made a wild assumption by including herself in Gabrielle’s travel plans. "I mean that’s if you want me there. If not, then the two of you could go. I don’t-."
"Xena," Gabrielle began, stopping the warrior from rambling any further. "Relax. She’s our daughter. I’m sure she’d want you there."
"What about you? Would you want me there?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle knew what she had just said, but she didn’t think it all the way through. If Xena were there, then that means they would be traveling together again. Am I ready? She looked up into Xena’s azure eyes and saw the warrior’s soul aching for a positive answer.
"Yes," Gabrielle said confidently. "I would... I have missed you, ya know?" Where the hell did that come from? she thought silently unable to look at Xena any longer.
Nah ah, the warrior thought. I can’t let her look away this time and hide her heart away from me. Xena’s fingertips gently pulled up Gabrielle’s chin forcing the bard to meet her eyes.
"I’ve missed you too," Xena answered. "And I don’t ever want to miss you again."
Gabrielle had the urge to hide her joy at Xena’s words, but quickly gave up, realizing it was useless. The warrior would see right through her anyway. So Gabrielle gave into her temptation and gave a bashful, red-faced grin. I feel like a sappy, love struck teenager again, Gabrielle thought as she looked into the warrior’s eyes. I have to admit... it feels pretty wonderful.
Damn. I wish the timing were better. I’d whisk you away from everyone and everything if I could. But duty calls. Xena rose, the warmth of her fingers leaving Gabrielle’s cheek.
"I’m going to find the mayor and break the bad news," Xena told Gabrielle. "Why don’t you head back to the inn with August and get some rest? We could talk more there if you like," she offered.
The spell Gabrielle felt was momentarily broken and she looked around. The wounded had been tended to and many of them were asleep. Xena was right. It was time to call it a day so she nodded her approval.
"Okay." Xena grinned warmly. "Head on over and I’ll be there in a few."
"See you then," Gabrielle answered.
Xena turned and walked out of the makeshift healer’s station to go in search of the mayor. Gabrielle, for her part, walked outside into the early morning air, searching for August. She found the girl hunched over by a well across from the tavern.
"Hey, sweetie," Gabrielle began, running a hand over the gal’s back in comfort. "Let’s call it a night, okay? You and I could both use the rest, alright?"
August could only nod.
The bard knew that the girl had gotten sick again, just like she did before the attack. She put her arm around the girl’s shoulder in support. Once at the inn, the two went to the grand room located downstairs. Since the rooms were all filled, they had to use the ‘living quarters’ for shelter. It had a decent sized fireplace and the room felt cozy and warm.
Eponin and Eve were already asleep on opposite sides of the room. Gabrielle helped August to bed and took the boots off the exhausted girl.
"Did you need some mint or something to settle your stomach?" the bard asked, keeping her voice low as to not wake the others.
"No, thanks," August answered. "Sleep is all I need." A moment after the girl’s head hit the pillow, she was out.
Gabrielle took a moment to examine the young woman. She grew up a little bit today. Perhaps Eponin was right. Perhaps she did need this in some way. Gabrielle rose and looked at the room. For the first time since seeing Xena again, she felt torn. Should she sleep on Eponin’s side like she did the last few months or should she sleep on Xena’s side as she did the last few years?
Ha. The irony, she joked to herself as she looked at the empty spaces she could take. I’ll sleep by Eve, the bard decided as she picked up some blankets and pillows that lay near the fireplace. Hmm. Warm, the bard thought as she snuggled into them feeling sleep begin to take her over almost as quickly as August.
She heard a door open, but didn’t raise her head. By the sound of the footsteps, she could tell it was Xena. When she heard the breastplate come off, she knew for a fact it WAS Xena and released a content sigh.
Well, so much for talking tonight, Xena thought as she looked at the bard with a grin. At least she’s on this side of the room.
The warrior came over and took a spot next to Gabrielle, leaving the bard now sandwiched between her and Eve. As Xena lay on her back, trying to unwind from the day, she felt Gabrielle roll over and cuddle into her shoulder without saying a word.
Xena didn’t know if it was intentional or force of habit. All she did know is that she enjoyed it and she wasn’t going to question it too much.
I’m still here, Xena’s mind thought before falling asleep. She’s here. Eve’s here. It was a good day fighting.
Chapter 20: REALIZATION
Eponin slowly opened her eyes to find August giving a light snore next to her. She wiped her eyes of the sleep and rolled over to face Gabrielle. But the bard wasn’t there. She can’t be up already, can she?
Slowly, Eponin rose to rest her weight on her elbows. That’s when she saw three sets of feet across the room. Quietly as possible, she rose and walked over to the other side of the room. Gabrielle was still nuzzled in the warrior’s arms. Xena’s cheek rested on the top of Gabrielle’s blonde crown.
Admit it, Ep. They look perfect together, the ex-amazon told herself. She needs her. They both need each other. Sure you want a lover, but you want THAT. You want exactly what you’re looking at - that kind of love and connection. And you’re never going to find that with Gabrielle. Yeah you could build your world around her, but she’d never love you like that in return. She couldn’t because she already gave her heart away.
Suddenly, Xena opened her eyes, but she didn’t move. Xena could have smirked at the amazon and threw it in her face that Gabrielle had chosen her as a sleeping mate this evening. But Xena recognized that Ep did love Gabrielle deeply by the pain that showed on the amazon’s face.
But you’ll never love her the way I do, Xena thought as she looked up.
"You better treat her right," Eponin warned the warrior in a whisper. "Or next time you might lose her for good."
Xena didn’t reply vocally she gave a slight nod to Eponin fully understanding what Eponin was saying and knowing that statement was very true. That single nod also conveyed that Xena would in fact do right by her. She wouldn’t give Gabrielle any reason to doubt her has a mate again.
Eponin gave Xena the ‘warrior nod’ that Xena recognized well. It was one of respect for being ‘bested’ by someone. It was one she herself had never given to anyone. She had never been bested. Nearly killed - yes. But never ‘bested’.
Without another word, Eponin left the room, closing the door behind her.
Gabrielle was jarred awake by the noise and darted her head up. When she didn’t find anyone standing above her, she took notice that someone was below her. She felt a bashful grin come to her face as she watched the smiling warrior.
"Mornin’," Xena said tenderly pulling her back down to her shoulder.
Without the slightest bit of hesitation, Gabrielle put her head back down and gave a sigh. "Mornin’," she echoed in a sleepy voice. After she became more awake she asked, "Who left?"
"Eponin," Xena answered.
Eponin was awake? Then that means she saw me... with Xena. Oh shit!
"I better go talk to her," Gabrielle replied as she sat up, rubbing her eyes to focus.
"She already read me the warrior riot act," Xena answered.
"I didn’t hear her," Gabrielle replied.
"Well, it was one sentence actually... You know how us stoic warriors are, Gabrielle. We don’t say much, but when we do we make it count."
"Oh lord," Gabrielle sighed, "What did she say?" the bard asked, dreading the answer.
"She warned me to treat you right or next time I’d lose you for good."
Gabrielle looked to Xena to continue. When she didn’t add more Gabrielle asked, "That’s it?"
"She didn’t need to say more. I knew what she meant. And I know it’s true." Xena’s fingers unconsciously found the bard's arm and began to rub it up and down. "I want to give it another chance... but you have to want that too, Gabrielle." Please say yes. Eli above, let her say yes.
Do I want to give it another chance? Gabrielle considered. Do I want to risk being hurt again? Am I strong enough to walk away again if I have to? Or will we find that connection we once had where we spoke our minds and led with our hearts? Gabrielle felt the grin pull at the corners of her mouth. It was useless to resist it.
"I think I want that too... but slowly... I need to take things slow."
Inside, the warrior was doing cartwheels, but on the outside she gave a tender grin. She moved to her elbows as she sat up.
"Do you have any idea how happy that makes me?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle smiled. "Real happy?" she teased.
"Very happy," the warrior replied, moving closer still until she was sitting directly in front of the bard. Her hands made their way to Gabrielle’s face. "So very, very happy," Xena added in a soft whisper.
She gonna do it, Gabrielle thought as Xena moved in even closer.
Just as Gabrielle had suspected Xena’s lips tenderly captured her own. The kiss was tentative at first - a few light pecks that lingered, causing Gabrielle’s blood pressure to rise. Suddenly, Gabrielle could feel her pulse in her head before traveling the length of her body. For the first time in months, she felt a torch within her ignite. The kisses that Eponin gave her now and then warmed her like a campfire. Xena’s scorched her like a blazing inferno through a thick forest. And she loved it... missed it... wanted more of it.
Damn, this woman knows how to kiss, Gabrielle thought merrily as more force came in the kisses that followed - a confidence growing between both women.
Neither woman was sure how it happened nor, in truth, did they seemed to care, but at some point Xena ended up lying on her back again. But this time, she had Gabrielle sparing kisses back and forth with growing speed as she hovered over her.
Slow, Xena said in her mind. Take it slow... But she feels so damn good... To Hell with slow. It’s been too damn long. Xena’s hands were on the verge of leaving the bard’s mid-section to cup her breast.
They would have continued, but a voice brought them to a halt.
"Oh please. There are children in the room for crying out loud."
Xena and Gabrielle both stopped the reacquainting of their lips to giggle like guilty teenagers at Eve.
"Should I kill her now or later for stopping us?" Xena asked Gabrielle with an arched eyebrow to Eve.
"Nah... Don’t kill her. Not yet anyway. We haven’t had the chance to talk yet - mother to daughter."
Eve couldn’t help but grin. "She told you, huh?" Gabrielle simply nodded. "And you’re okay with that?" Eve asked with a bit of uncertainty.
"I’m wonderful with that," Gabrielle answered without hesitation.
"Told you not to worry." Xena winked to her daughter. "And as much as I’d like to lay on this blanket kissing you all day," she added to Gabrielle, "I think it might be better if go check on the villagers and see how things are going."
Xena began to rise, but Gabrielle stopped her.
"Hey," she called softly.
Suddenly, the warrior found her lips coveted again by the bard's, and she couldn’t hold back the hum of pleasure at the sensation. When they broke apart, Xena took an unsteady breath to stand on even more unsteady legs.
"Ohhhhh Evie," Xena told her daughter. "I pray someday you find someone who can kiss like that," she added as she smiled to Gabrielle. The three of them chuckled loud enough to roust August from her slumber. "Hey sleeping beauty is up," Xena teased. August gave a yawn and sat up stretching. "Come on, kiddo," the warrior told the young lady. "A new day has dawned and it’s time to go out into the world so grab your boots."
August gave another yawn as she fumbled with her footwear. Once in place, Xena helped pull the girl to her feet.
"We’ll be back later," she told Gabrielle and Eve, who were sitting in the piles of blankets, looking quite cozy. Xena was almost to the door when she stopped and strode back to the bard, shaking her head. "I can’t leave just yet," she said as she leaned down and pointed to her lips. "One more," she said with a sexy grin.
Gabrielle reached up and stroked the warrior’s cheeks as her lips made a very delicate impact upon the warrior.
"How’s that?" the bard teased.
"Not bad," Xena replied, "But I think we should practice more later," she added with a stroke to the bard’s chin.
Xena then rose and walked with August who stood momentarily slack-jawed by what she just witnessed. Oh, she knew Xena was Gabrielle’s lover at one point in their lives, but she didn’t realize that things had changed... literally... overnight.
Once alone, Eve turned to Gabrielle who was beaming like a lantern.
"I’ve waited months to say this," Eve began with a huge grin.
"What?" the bard asked truly intrigued by what her daughter had to say.
Eve took a deep breath and released it slowly, savoring the moment with her eyes closed. When she opened them, she smiled at the bard.
"Mom... Will YOU tell me one of your stories."
Chapter 21: CHALLENGES
"After 25 years you’d think that this place would have changed," Gabrielle commented to the group as they walked through Athens.
"Now that’s not true," Xena answered. "It’s dirtier, smellier and a lot more crowded than before."
Gabrielle grinned at the warrior as they walked through the merchant section of town. A small commotion began just outside the marketplace and the group all looked at each other. Perhaps we should check this out, Gabrielle thought as she looked to Xena.
"Right behind you," the warrior answered, reading the bard’s mind.
The group went over to the scuffle to see that it wasn’t a scuffle at all. In fact, it was a friendly competition. It appears people were betting and cheering on two warriors in the ring.
"Tell me it’s not a fight to the death," Gabrielle asked one of the patrons who took a momentary break from urging his warrior on.
"Good gracious no!" he chuckled. "The first one to end up off their feet loses. I’ve got the red one," he answered, as he pointed to the man with a red scarf tied around his biceps. The other man in the ‘ring’ had on a blue scarf. "Come on RED!!!" he shouted getting back into the action again.
Slowly, a smile crept to the bard’s face.
"That looks like fun," she told Xena. "Let’s enter!"
"What?!" Has she totally lost her mind?
"Oh, come on," Gabrielle jabbed. "What’s the matter warrior princess... chicken?" Gabrielle proceeded to make a clucking noise until her laughter prevented her from doing it any longer.
"You could get hurt," Xena answered.
"It’s just a little competition," Gabrielle argued. "What could happen?"
Xena sighed. "Why do the phrases, ‘Just one more flip’ and ‘It won’t kill me ’ keep ringing in my ears?"
Gabrielle laughed heartily and Eve found herself smiling as well. She had read her mom’s scroll about the Persian attack and how Gabrielle ended up gimp for the battle - all because she started ‘on the wrong’ foot while practicing leaps.
"We’ll fight each other," Gabrielle answered. "It’ll be fun."
"It’ll be fun," Xena mimicked. "Beating each other to a meaty pulp?"
"Noooo," Gabrielle replied. "Beating each other into submission. There’s a difference." She winked playfully.
Xena had to chuckle now. It was obvious there was no getting out of it. The bard seemed to have made up her mind. Xena knew there was only one way out of this and it was through that fighting ring.
"Okay," Xena reluctantly agreed. "But we have to spar with each other. No one else. And if they say we can’t pick a challenger we both walk away. Agreed?"
Gabrielle spat in her hand and offered it to the warrior. "Agreed!" she said optimistically. Reluctantly, Xena took it. As the match between the two men came to a close, with the blue warrior firmly on his behind, the speaker called for two more combatants.
Xena and Gabrielle both stepped forward.
"We’ll compete," Gabrielle told him.
"WoooHooo, gentlemen!" the announcer shouted getting the crowd worked up, "Two lovely warriors to place your bets on. Let’s hear it," he yelled. "Blue goes to the lovely lady with blue eyes and red to petite, but powerful blonde. What do you say gentleman? Place your bets! Place your bets!"
Xena and Gabrielle took the scarves they were given and tied them around each other’s arms.
"Listen to this," Xena said shaking her head. "Listen to them hooting. Have you no shame?" she chuckled.
"Nope," Gabrielle laughed. "Relax. Have fun. And try not to hit me in the face. I might need my lips later tonight," she added wiggling her eyebrows.
Xena felt herself blush slightly. "Better watch those eyebrows Gabrielle," she warned. "This better be a fair fight. No pulling any ‘Tataka’s’ on me."
"Why what ever do you mean, Xena?" Gabrielle teased, batting her eyelashes innocently.
"What do I mean?" Xena smiled. "No face licking, no feeling yourself up in front of me, no feeling me up in front of the crowd-" she growled in the bard’s ear.
She would have continued, but Gabrielle stopped her. "Okay, okay. No using... ahem... sex as a weapon. Got it." She grinned. "May the best warrior win," she replied offering her forearm to Xena.
Lord how I’ve missed having that spirit of hers around. Xena took the arm offered her and gave a nod to her challenger.
"Okay!" the announcer boomed, "Rules are simple. Use any weapons you like, but no deathblows allowed. Anyone who delivers one will be sentenced directly to jail for prosecution of murder. No hitting below the belt. If you leave the ring for any reason you forfeit. The first one to fall loses. The one left standing - the victor! Understand?!" Xena and Gabrielle both nodded. "Alright then ladies... FIIIIIGHT!!!!"
A cheer went up through the crowd as August, Eponin and Eve all watched Xena and Gabrielle face off in the ring. But even among the yells they heard one voice ring out, "Kick her ass, Gabrielle!"
The warrior and the bard didn’t break eye contact, but both knew it was Eponin’s voice that called out in the crowd. Despite themselves, both women grinned at the outburst as they circled each other looking for a weak spot to land the first strike.
Gabrielle knew Xena’s weak area - her back. She had witnessed it in countless battles. She could jab the warrior in the face or in the gut. She could kick the warrior in her shins. But none of these would make the warrior tumble. She would simple shrug it off. But a blow to the back would have Xena on her knees like a sack of potatoes.
Xena sized up her opponent as well. Gabrielle had no ‘weakness’ per say. She was graceful for the most part. But once she went off-balanced Xena knew any blow could bring the bard down. Getting Gabrielle off kilter was the hard part, but if she could do it she knew she could win. It didn’t have to be anything forceful just a slight leg sweep would set the amazon on her backside.
When Xena didn’t make a move, Gabrielle realized that she would have to strike first. She began by firing a round of punches and kicks that Xena easily deflected, in the hopes of working behind her. When Gabrielle paused just a moment to re-establish her footing, Xena took full advantage and began an offensive attack that step by step pushed the bard backward.
Xena stomped toward Gabrielle’s shin, but missed, leaving her legs spread wide, Gabrielle took the opportunity and slide between them. Now she was behind the warrior like she wanted and the crowd gave a hearty cheer for the maneuver. Even Xena had to admit she was impressed, but she wasn’t about to let Gabrielle win. She knew what Gabrielle was up to. As Gabrielle rose up behind her, Xena let out a powerful warcry and leaped backward over the bard.
Two paces, Gabrielle’s mind called out. She knew after six years of watching her work, that’s how far Xena would land behind her. Without turning back, Gabrielle took two steps back and without turning around drove her leg up, kicking Xena in the stomach before her feet could even touch the ground. The warrior flew backward and the crowd cheered again as they watched Xena land - both feet on the ground, but teetering close to the end of the ring.
Gabrielle turned to face her and she could have rushed her to knock her out of the area, but she knew that somehow, someway Xena would turn it around on her and manage to throw her from the ring. So instead Gabrielle watched, holding her breath, as Xena’s heels and toes teetered back and forth near the ring, hoping she would tumble out on her own.
Gabrielle released her breath as Xena got her footing and gave Gabrielle a playful grin. Soon, however, the grin vanished and the warrior charged. Gabrielle steadied her breathing and dug in getting her footing in place. A second later she too dashed toward the warrior. They both locked arms and in the same moment turned in opposite directions. Two seconds later, both women were lying in a cloud of dust, sprawled out on the ground.
The crowd grew a bit quiet until some spectators began to speak up. "Blue fell first!" someone yelled.
"No way! Red went down first!"
Gabrielle and Xena both looked at the announcer to see if he would call the match. "Sorry folks," he answered. "It’s a tie. Take back your biddings."
A collective sound of frustration and disgust went through the crowd at the news as the announcer apologized, but quickly went to work in finding two more warriors for the ring.
Xena rose first and offered her hand to Gabrielle, which the bard took.
"Good match." Gabrielle grinned.
"Yeah. Good match," Xena replied. "We better find the academy before nightfall. Let’s go."
Gabrielle watched as Xena walked away and she cocked her head at the warrior as she moved. Something’s not right, Gabrielle considered silently.
"She get hurt?" Eve asked as she came up.
Gabrielle’s eyes didn’t leave Xena as she answered Eve’s question with one of her own. "What makes you say that?"
"I’m not sure. It just seems like something’s wrong with her," Eve answered.
Gabrielle looked to Eve briefly. "I’m glad you said that," Gabrielle replied. "I thought maybe I was over-reacting." I’ve gotta get her alone. "Look, why don’t you three head to the academy. It’s two streets up and then two blocks west, okay? We’ll meet you there."
"Alright," Eve answered, as she motioned Ep and August to follow her.
Gabrielle followed Xena and jogged a bit to catch up to her.
"Hey," she said getting the warrior’s attention. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I’m fine."
Gabrielle pursed her lips together for a moment.
"Okay. Now give me the real answer. What’s the matter?"
"Did I hurt you, Xena?"
"No, I told you. I’m okay. Really. It’s nothing."
"Okay," Gabrielle answered with a nod. "We agreed to be honest with each other, so I’ll believe you. Of course, if you’re not okay then this would be the time to work on that ‘opening up’ thing that we’ve discussed." She grinned.
Xena saw the grin and gave a small one herself.
"Okay," Xena sighed. "Maybe something is wrong. But it’s pretty damn petty and I feel stupid for even feeling like this."
"Like what?" Gabrielle asked, trying to look into Xena’s eyes that were looking everywhere but to her.
Finally, Xena willed herself to look at Gabrielle.
"I got my ass kicked by a bard," she answered. "I think I’m losing it."
Gabrielle didn’t know whether to be flattered or angry. Could she find humor in this situation or was it truly sad? She cleared her throat as she wondered how to reply.
"Instead of thinking that you’re ‘losing it’ as you say, perhaps you could see this as a testament to the fact that ‘I’ve’ gotten better."
"Yeah, better than me," Xena answered.
"Okay," Gabrielle began. "I’m starting to have a real hard time right now. I don’t want to argue with you and I don’t want to get upset. But I’m not sure how to put your ‘fears’ to rest without making myself look cheap in the process... I’m not going to tell you that you’re a better warrior than me. I’m not going to say that I’m a better warrior than you are. Neither of those points are true nor do they reflect anything in ‘real life’."
"Alright," Xena sighed, "Explain this to the warrior because I’m just not following you," she added.
Stay calm, Gabrielle, the bard warned herself. /Don’t get upset. Just explain. Calmly. Rationally.
"Xena," Gabrielle started. "I have strengths in battle. You have strengths in battle. What happened here today was NOT a battle. You didn’t ‘give it your all’ and neither did I. I mean let’s face it. If it was anyone else in that ring either one of us would have wiped the floor with our opponent or at least ended it long before we did. So don’t think the ‘draw’ means that you’re any less of a warrior because that’s not true."
Xena nodded and felt a small grin to her face.
"But in the same token please don’t think that I’m any less of a warrior. I put up a good fight, like you did. I hope you can recognize that without feeling threatened by it... I did what I set out to do all those years ago - I became a warrior - like Xena. Not EXACTLY like her... but ‘like’ her. I fight for the same things. I believe in the same things. I realize I might not every have the number of skills that she has..." Gabrielle grinned as she played with the word ‘skills’. "But I’m pretty damn good because I learned from the best... I just wish she’d see that," she added in more of a sober tone.
Xena grinned and nodded her head. "Gabrielle, I do see that. In fact, I’d venture to say that’s part of the problem. Looks like the student has surpassed the teacher."
"No," Gabrielle answered. "I think the student and the teacher can learn things from each other... if they are both willing... Are you? Are you prepared to truly see me as a warrior in my own right? I ask because I think you need to if we’re going to keep moving forward. That’s not an ultimatum, Xena. It’s a fact. You have to SEE ME if you want to be WITH ME."
"I want to be with you," Xena answered. "But just keep in mind that sometimes when I DO see you like today... well... it knocks me a little off balanced... But I’m more than willing to get back on track... as long as you have patience with me." Xena grinned.
"It’s gonna be a tough road."
"Yes, it will."
"It’s not going to be easy in the slightest."
"No, it isn’t."
Gabrielle grinned. "I’m always up for a challenge. How ‘bout you?"
"Always," Xena grinned as she took Gabrielle’s hand to catch up to their traveling party. "Always."
Chapter 22: RESERVATIONS
Upon finding the academy and getting August registered for the upcoming poetry competition in two weeks, the group made their way to the inn. Before they set foot inside, however, Eponin pulled Gabrielle to the side.
"Mind if I speak to you?" she asked, gently capturing Gabrielle’s arm.
"No, not at all," Gabrielle answered.
Xena steadied her breathing. No jealous fits. Not now. Give her space. Calmly. Quietly. "We’ll see if they have any rooms open," Xena offered as she lead Eve and August inside. Gabrielle gave a nod then turned to Eponin.
‘What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
Eponin looked unsure of where to begin.
"I know you’ll be staying with Xena tonight."
"Actually I hadn’t considered where I’d be staying, but in truth you’re probably right. Xena and I -."
"Are giving it another shot. I know," Eponin finished. "I don’t want to get in your way, Gabrielle. Not as if I could anyway."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She closed it again and tried once more, unable to find the right words. "I feel bad in a way," she finally muttered.
"Why?" Eponin asked. "I knew the score."
"I feel like I used you," Gabrielle answered, unable to look at Eponin.
"You did use me," Eponin replied. That made Gabrielle look up. Instead of the scowl she was expecting Gabrielle found the amazon grinning. "And truth be known, I used you too. That’s what friends do Gabrielle. They use each other. They use their strength, their faith, their laughter and even their tears at times when they need it most... I ‘hid out’ in that little town for so many years until you came along. You got me out into the world again. I used you as a crutch to come out. And I know that you used me as a test in your love for Xena. I’m not bitter about that. Disappointed, yes," Eponin chuckled in a carefree tone. "But not bitter... Friends want what’s best for each other. As much as I hate to admit it, the best thing for you is Xena, warts and all. I just hope she does right by you... and not just because I wished I could be your lover... it’s because you’re my friend."
Gabrielle was on the verge of tears.
"I’m glad I have friends left... After being gone all this time I think about the people Xena and I knew - Autolycus, Salmoneus, Minya." Gabrielle smiled bitter-sweetly. "All of them wonderful people. All of them friends that I might not ever see again... Hell with all this business with Eve I haven’t even made it home. My parents could be dead. My sister..." Gabrielle couldn’t finish and Eponin didn’t let her. The ex-amazon could only imagine what it felt like to lose 25 years of your life without a trace. She held the bard close and kissed the top of her head.
"I think your next trip should be home, Gabrielle. Find some closure on all this," Eponin advised tenderly.
Gabrielle wiped her eyes. "It will probably be Amphipolis first," she answered. They would hit that town first before traveling southward to Poteidaia. "Cyrene, Xena’s mom... I wonder if she’s alive."
Eponin smiled warmly, "Well, if she’s anything like her daughter I’m sure the old gal's still around and kickin’."
Gabrielle smiled too. "Will you come with us?" she asked.
It was Eponin’s turn to look around.
"Like I said, I’m not bitter, but I don’t want to be the third wheel in your personal life. You’ll have a lot of catching up to do with Xena and your daughter. I think I’ll bow out gracefully," she added, finally meeting the bard’s eyes.
"I understand," Gabrielle nodded. "But I have to ask, what will you do?"
"I’m not sure. Maybe stay here in Athens, keeping August out of trouble. Perhaps find another amazon tribe and settle down. Who knows? Maybe I’ll travel the countryside helping innocents along the way." She grinned playfully. "All I know is I won’t be hiding anymore; thanks to you."
"Come on," Gabrielle said leading Eponin into the inn. "You’re gonna make me cry again," she teased. They walked in arm-in-arm, to see the trio sitting at a small bar. August seemed to be eating as Xena and Eve were... arguing? What on earth are they arguing about? Gabrielle wondered.
Eponin gave Gabrielle her space and walked over to August as Gabrielle took a seat between bickering mother and daughter.
"So anything new?" Gabrielle said casually, hoping one of them would bite.
"I want my own room tonight," Eve announced.
Gabrielle turned to catch the tail end of Xena making a disapproving facial gesture at their daughter. Of course Xena tried to play it off as if she had something stuck in her teeth, but it didn’t fool the bard.
"Okaaaaay," Gabrielle answered, unsure of what was transpiring. "Any reason why? Hot date tonight?" she teased.
"No," Eve answered. "I just think that you and mother could use some time alone is all. I mean, let’s face it. You really haven’t been alone since you got out of Ares deep freeze. I think you might need it is all."
"Time alone?" Gabrielle asked her daughter. "Hmmm... I guess so. Do you have a problem with that?" she asked Xena.
"Not at all." Xena grinned. "We’re just running low on funds is all and I didn’t want to be presumptuous to think you’d want a room... alone... with me."
Gabrielle couldn’t contain her chuckle.
"What’s so funny?" Xena asked.
"You," Gabrielle answered. "You sound like a bashful bridegroom."
Eve started to chuckle too, but Xena just grinned and played it off.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Xena answered. "You two go ahead and laugh it up. I can’t help that I worry I might offend you."
"Xena," Gabrielle answered putting her hand on top of Xena’s that sat on the bar. "Say whatever is on your mind. If you offend me, I’ll let you know. It’s not like I’m gonna take your head off." Xena looked guiltily into her stew at the expression. "Sorry. Poor choice of words, okay? I didn’t mean anything by it."
"I’m sorry for hitting you, Gabrielle," Xena said looking over to her.
The bard tightened her hand around the warriors'. "I know, Xena. You’ve told me every day since we’ve met again. And I know each time you say it you truly mean it. But you have to move on here, okay? We both do."
"She’s right," Eve piped in gingerly. "Gabrielle, felt terrible about what happened between us. And I’ve forgiven her. I think you need to find forgiveness in yourself."
"I don’t think I’m ready to do that, Eve," Xena answered before turning back to Gabrielle, "I don’t ever want to forget it. I want to be reminded so it never happens again," Xena added.
"You don’t have to forget it," Gabrielle offered. "Just try to realize that I forgive you."
"I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything, Gabrielle."
"That’s all I can ask of you," she answered. "Just try your best, okay?"
Xena nodded and the trio finished their meal with minimal chatter. As night fell, August and Eponin retired to their room. They felt it was safer if the amazon bunked with the young woman in case of would be prowlers. True to her word, Eve made her way to her room for the night, leaving Xena and Gabrielle down at the bar.
"How ya feelin’?" Gabrielle grinned. A grin that refused to leave thanks to the amount of ale she had consumed.
Xena pursed her lips, looking around the room, nodding her head soundly.
"Drunk," she answered.
Both women erupted into a fit of giggles. "I just pray nothing BAD happens tonight," Xena confessed in a whispered voice. "No warlords, no vengeful gods, nothing... BAD... I don’t think I’m up to a battle at this point."
"Perhaps we should get the warrior princess to bed then."
Xena could hear the seductive tone in the bard’s voice. She loved it and feared it all at once. She’d pray she’d hear Gabrielle speak to her this way again, but she didn’t want it to be drug induced. The alcohol was doing most of the talking tonight and Xena knew that wasn’t what either woman wanted or what they needed. Jumping into the sheets would be the cure for all that pent up need, but she didn’t want anyone hating anyone in the morning.
"I thought you said we should take things easy; slow," Xena challenged as she swayed slightly on her bar stool.
"I can go slow," the bard said before capturing the warrior’s earlobe in her teeth. "and I can go easy," she added as she proceeded to nibble on Xena’s jaw line.
Xena cleared her throat and yelled to the barkeep, "Check please!"
Chapter 23: INEBRIATION
Xena was barely inside the door when bumbling fingers tried to unhook her breastplate.
"Here," she said stopping the bard's efforts to lend a hand. It took much focus, but Xena managed to free herself from the armor and toss it across the room. Before the brass could hit the ground she was falling back to the bed with the amorous amazon on top of her, showering her with kisses.
Xena did nothing to stop the bard's roaming hands and lips from conquering her body. She craved it. She desired it from deep within her. When playing the passive got to be too much, Xena rolled the bard over, passionately pinning her to the bed.
"Oh Gods, Xena," the bard mumbled.
Oh yeah, Xena’s drunken mind exclaimed. She still wants me.
"Xena," the bard called again. "I want you-."
"Oh Gabrielle," the warrior whispered in her ear, making sure to leave a few light kisses on her lobe. "I want you so much too."
"No, Xena. I want you to move," Gabrielle said pushing the warrior aside roughly.
Too much too soon, Xena realized as she watched the bard shove her away. She doesn’t want me after all.
Gabrielle rose to her feet at lightening speed and darted across the room to the chamber pot.
I made it, Gabrielle’s mind congratulated herself as she fell to her knees. Seconds later, the evenings ale she had consumed took up resident in the pot.
"Oh gods," the bard moaned after the first few heaves.
Xena was on the verge of laughing. Not that she wanted to see the bard meet this sickly fate. Perhaps it was a much-needed diversion to something that neither of them was quite prepared for. She had to admit she was relieved. I know it’s the alcohol and not me, she considered.
Xena slowly rose, since the room was spinning a bit for her too. Carefully, she walked over, bringing a hand towel with her.
"Here you go, Sweetheart," Xena said handing it to the bard. She took a seat next to Gabrielle and pushed her hair behind her ear. "Feeling a little better?" she asked.
Gabrielle wiped her chin and tried to grin despite the fact her stomach was still doing back flips.
"A little," she answered.
Xena just continued to stroke the bard’s hair. "It’s gotten longer."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, unsure of what Xena meant. She raised her eyes and tried to focus on Xena, meeting with only minimal success, although she was perhaps only two feet away.
"Your hair. It’s gotten longer... I like it," Xena answered.
"I didn’t think you noticed," Gabrielle replied.
"Yeah," Xena said kissing her cheek. "I noticed. You’re very beautiful."
Gabrielle recognized the look in Xena’s eye. Oh no. Not tonight.
"Xena, I don’t think I’m up to being affectionate tonight and I know what that look means... besides I just lost all the ale I drank tonight. You can’t possibly find that sexy," she added with a slight chuckle.
Xena continued to stroke the bard’s hair.
"Well... vomiting can be a very intimate experience. Next to my mother, you’re the only one who’s ever seen me sick... ever. You’re pretty damn vulnerable when you’re in that ‘position’," Xena laughed. "It might not be sexy... but it shows a level of trust. You can... be yourself so to speak and not have to worry about keep up ‘appearances’."
"Trust me, Xena," Gabrielle chuckled. "I didn’t have much of a choice. It was you or the pot... But I get the point. I feel I can be myself with you. And you’d still love me anyway, huh?"
Xena just simply nodded her answer. Forever and ever.
"You know I’d never had that until you came along. Perdicus loved me because he was supposed to, but I would have drove him crazy in the end. I’d never be the good little wife. My parents loved me but... I was a brash, outspoken girl who never realized my ‘place’. My sister loved me too, but we were never ‘equal’ – I was older, smarter, prettier... I miss them, Xena. I’d like to see them, but I’m scared to see them. Does that make any sense? It’s been 25 years and... And I’d like to see them, Xena. Could we see them do you think? Could we just go home for a little bit? Would that be okay, Xena?"
Gabrielle might have emptied her stomach, but she was still drunk. She was rambling. Xena didn’t often see the bard intoxicated in their journeys, but she could still tell she was a bit tipsy. Overly affectionate and running off repeatedly about the same thing were always the clues to Xena.
"For you?" Xena replied. "Yeah, I think we can do that. Did you want to leave tomorrow?"
Gabrielle bobbed her head up and down a little more than necessary. "Amphipolis is first. I’d like to see your mom. I love your mom a lot. She’s like my mom, you know? She threw me a birthday party. My mom didn’t throw me a party. Do you remember that, Xena? Do you remember my party? After we dumped Discord, we had a really good time. I love your mom a lot, Xena. I wonder if she’s still alive... It would be great to show her our daughter. Wouldn’t that be great, Xena?"
Xena smiled. Yes it would... if she’s still alive. 25 years is a long time. "I think that’s a wonderful idea."
"Yeah, but this time she can’t try setting you up. You’re mine warrior princess and if the lady tries to make it otherwise you set her straight this time. Got it? No beating around the bush, understand? Should’ve told her then. Eve didn’t need a daddy. She’s got two mothers that love her very much. Right, Xena?"
Oh my bard is on a roll tonight, Xena chuckled silently. Best if you just agree. "Yes, Gabrielle."
"Damn straight!" the bard nodded firmly. Soon after, however, the rest of her body began to sway.
"Okay," Xena replied moving to her feet, gingerly taking the bard with her. "Let’s go to bed now."
"But Xena I don’t think I can... you know... tonight," Gabrielle said concerned.
"Sleep was all I had in mind," Xena answered. "Let’s just rest tonight, okay?"
Gabrielle looked like she was going to cry.
"I’m not a tease, Xena. I don’t want you to think I’m a tease. I do really love you and I do think you’re sexy," she said as Xena took her back toward the bed. "The blue eyes. The leather. Ares likes you in leather. I like you in leather too. I like you out of leather most of all. You have a beautiful body, Xena. And blue eyes. Did I tell you you’ve got these great blue eyes?"
"Three times now, Gabrielle." Xena grinned.
"Well, it’s true. You have beautiful blue eyes. In fact... What was I sayin?... Oh yeah, blue eyes. You’ve got that ‘steely gaze’ that just does something fantastic to me. You know?"
Xena had to chuckle at this point while she took the bard’s boots and skirt off. Yeah, she’s totally gone.
"I have I told you lately that I love you?"
That questioned seemed to sober Xena up for a moment.
"No, you haven’t," she answered honestly.
"Well, I do... I love you Xena. You are my soulmate."
Xena was going to reply in kind, but the bard was now out - dead to the world.
Carefully, and with a bit of swaying, Xena managed to remove her battle dress until she only donned her shift. She rolled the bard a bit here and there until the smaller woman was tucked under the covers then she climbed into bed too. She snuggled around the bard, her head on Gabrielle’s shoulder and her arm protectively draped around the bard's mid-drift.
"I love you too, Gabrielle," the warrior said even though she knew the woman was in deep slumber. "You are my soulmate. My tree." She grinned.
She remembered the tale Gabrielle told once earlier in their travels about two trees in the forest forever being joined. She remembered how she joked about making a boat out of the trees and telling Gabrielle that someday she would find her tree. She never guessed back then that she would be the mighty oak that the bard searched for. But she was happy for the position.
"And I’ll never take it for granted again," she whispered into the bard’s shoulder. She looked up and gently stroked the bard’s sleeping face. "My source, my reason... my everything," she muttered to no one but herself.
With that, she settled into the bard’s arms as slumber fell upon her too.
Chapter 24: REUNITED
Gabrielle sat up in bed, her back resting against the headboard. Her head was pounding, but not nearly as bad as she thought it would. Xena finished opening the window to circulate some air in the room and turned back to the bard.
"Do you remember anything from last night?" the warrior chuckled.
"Everything," the bard answered. She watched as Xena reached down and picked up the chamber pot to take it outside.
"Even this," the warrior said raising the pot just a bit.
"Sadly, yes." Gabrielle grinned.
Xena paused a moment. "Last night you said you loved me; that I’m your soulmate. I didn’t get the chance to tell you, but... I love you too and you’re still my soulmate. You always will be."
Gabrielle grinned and fidgeted a bit with the blanket. "You know... that would seem really romantic and sweet if not for the fact that you’re holding that bucket right now," Gabrielle joked.
Xena briefly looked down and back to the bard. "Bad timing, huh?" the warrior nodded.
"Just a little." Gabrielle smiled.
"I’ll work on that I promise." The warrior grinned. "I’ll be back in a few."
Xena opened the door, but paused in the doorway. "I’d give you a kiss goodbye, but..." she said as she motioned to her full hands.
"I won’t take it personal. Believe me," Gabrielle laughed.
Xena gave Gabrielle a bright smile. "I’ll be right back, sweetheart."
No one was up, but the innkeeper, as Xena walked downstairs.
"Gotta place I can empty this?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, right out back," he said pointing to the back door.
"Thanks," Xena replied. She did has he instructed and emptying the pan. Upon cleaning it out and washing her hands by a well outside, Xena went back in. "Could I get some salt, cinnamon, ale and mint leaves?"
"Someone’s got a hang over, eh?" he grinned.
"Just a small one." Xena grinned.
"Let me see what I can round up." He smiled warmly.
He seemed like a nice enough fellow, Xena considered as she watched him make his way to the back, toward the kitchen. A few minutes later he returned with a tray and all the items, except for the cinnamon.
"What do I owe you?" Xena said.
"Don’t worry about it. You gals drank enough ale last night. It’s on the house," he said with a smile.
Smart ass... but very true. Xena grinned. "I’ll let her know we’ve kept you in business for the next month," she answered dryly before cracking a smile. "Thanks."
He gave a chuckle and a nod before he went back to his morning preparations. Xena climbed the stairs back to their room, doing a good balancing act. She managed to make it into the room and Gabrielle tried to dart over when she saw Xena’s hands were full, but she didn’t even make it to the end of the bed. She groaned and held her temples.
"I got it," Xena chastised. "Stay put." Xena slid the tray to the nightstand and put the pot on the other side of the room.
She inhaled deeply and turned to the bard. "Smells better in here already," she teased.
Gabrielle’s hand rubbed her forehead, trying to hide her face as she blushed. "I’m sorry," she answered in a meek voice.
"That’s okay," Xena replied, going to the stand to mix her concoction. She made a quick stop to her saddleback and pulled out some nutmeg. I’d rather have cinnamon, but this should do, she considered. Next, she got out the white powder they used for pain now and then. She put a little in the ale along with the salt and mixed it up. "Here. Drink this."
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Hangover remedy. You’ll feel as good as new."
"What’s in it?"
"Don’t worry about that." Xena smiled. "Just drink it."
Gabrielle gave a sniff. "It’s ale. You’re giving me ale?"
"Nothing else will stay down believe me. You will feel better I promise."
Gabrielle gave a small sip and cringed.
"Take a big drink," Xena coached.
Gabrielle looked at the mug. Then at Xena. Then the mug. Then at Xena.
Gabrielle took a deep breath before taking six healthy swallows.
"Oh Xena, that’s sick," she said shoving the mug toward Xena, trying to breathe again.
"Here," Xena answered, giving her the mint. "Chew this. It will make the taste go away and settle your stomach."
Gabrielle didn’t argue. Hell, anything has to taste better than that ale, she considered. As Gabrielle chewed, Xena downed the rest of the mug. The bard grinned as she watched the warrior cringe. At least, I’m not the only one who had to live through that, she thought as the warrior’s face contorted. Xena grabbed the other leaves and began to chew like the bard.
"Well, at least we’ll be minty fresh now," the bard teased as she rolled the leaves around in her mouth.
Xena grinned with closed lips. She then spit the leaves in the mug and handed it to the bard to do the same.
"How ya feelin’?" the warrior asked.
"Well, the inn has stopped spinning now," Gabrielle replied. "The room doesn’t smell like an outhouse and I can actually see just one of you now."
Xena chuckled and took the mug from the bard. She placed it on the dresser near the chamber pot and returned to bed, but not before stripping herself of her battledress and boots. Gabrielle was still propped up against the headboard, so Xena stretched out putting her head in Gabrielle’s lap.
The warrior felt rather than heard Gabrielle chuckle as she lay there feeling the bard stroking her hair.
"What?" Xena asked.
"You’re so big you don’t fit our bed." Gabrielle smiled and pointed to the end where Xena’s feet were hanging over.
Xena looked down at her dangling ankles. "So I see. Perhaps I should scoot up," she replied as she leered up at the bard.
"You can scoot if you want," Gabrielle replied in a soft tone.
Xena slowly threw her leg over Gabrielle’s and crept up her body until they were eye to eye. Gabrielle sat against the headboard while Xena knelt on all fours in front of her.
"Do I fit now?" Xena asked lecherously.
Gabrielle couldn’t even blink. She was so captivated by the sight in front of her. She realized at some point she had begun to hold her breath in anticipation and released it with a single word.
"Mmm, good answer," Xena replied as her lips covered the bard’s gently. Xena would have continued, but she felt the bard was a bit tense. When she looked down to Gabrielle’s hands she noticed the bed sheets were in a ball within the bard’s tight fists.
"Nervous." The warrior grinned.
Gabrielle released her grasp when she saw that Xena took notice of it.
No sense in lying. "A little. I mean... aren’t you?"
Well, now that you mention it..."I guess. But I know that I love you. And I know that you love me. And I know I desire you more than anything in this world. That just keeps my nerves at bay I guess," Xena concluded. When Gabrielle didn’t add more, Xena spoke up again, "Look, I’m not gonna push you, Gabrielle. If you’re not ready-."
Gabrielle put her finger over Xena’s lips.
"Believe me." She smiled. "I’m ready. I’m more than ready. I’m way past ready here... I suppose I’m just... worried."
Xena smiled warmly and sighed. Cool yourself down here warrior. Sensitive bard chat time.
"What are you worried about?" Xena asked with a smile as she stroked Gabrielle’s face.
Gabrielle started to blush and looked away for a moment. "It’s stupid," she chuckled.
"Come on," Xena prodded gently. "Tell me. What’s got you worried?"
It was Gabrielle’s turn to sigh. Just say it... "It feels like the first time... all over again."
"I remember the first time," Xena smiled. "We kept the amazons up all night." She grinned. "You were a wonderful lover. You’ve always been wonderful."
"I might have been wonderful, but I had butterflies in my stomach the size of seagulls."
"You," Xena said kissing the top of Gabrielle’s nose. "You’re so descriptive. I love you, my bard. I really do."
A comfortable silence fell between them as they just stared at each other, admiring one another; not just their physical beauty, but the traits they each had that brought them together.
"I love you too," Gabrielle finally whispered in response.
She stroked the warrior’s face and Gabrielle felt her heart skip when she watched the warrior soaking it up with closed eyes. Slowly, Gabrielle’s hand trailed down Xena’s neck. She could feel the warrior’s pulse pumping harder and as a result she felt hers rise as well. When her fingers drifted to play with the cleavage line of Xena’s shift, the warrior was so warm. Her blood was racing fast. Suddenly Gabrielle too felt too warm for her undergarments.
Slowly, Xena opened her eyes and focused on the bard who was so wrapped up in examining her body she didn’t notice she was being watched. When they did lock eyes, Xena was grateful that the bard didn’t shy away like before. She met Xena’s lustful glare with one of her own.
"You’re everything to me," Xena whispered to the bard.
Gabrielle’s fingertips reached up and traced Xena’s lips, feeling the warmth and fire that they promised. It had been months... in truth, years, since Gabrielle saw that kind of passion in Xena’s eyes when she looked at her. Xena wanted her unlike she wanted anything. Antony got some pretty lustful glances in Egypt. But it was nothing like the look that Gabrielle was getting this moment in Athens. Oh no, he never got this look. Not this one that says I’m it. I’m the one... God I have to have her.
With that thought, Gabrielle’s lips seized the warrior with abandon. Everything began to melt away - the trials they faced, the years they lost. All they had was this moment and in this moment all they had was each other. Hands searched and pulled and pressed and within minutes both women were totally nude and totally absorbed in each other. Both of their bodies started to become slick with excitement.
Glistened. That was the word Gabrielle used when describing how Xena looked when they made love. She glistened. On this morning, however, she glistened and shimmered and shined brighter than any star in the heavens. Gabrielle caressed Xena’s face moving the warrior’s damp bangs out of her eyes. Gabrielle had to admit she only saw Xena like this in bed and after a hard fought battle - and both made her blood boil with excitement.
Gabrielle raised her leg, making just the slightest of contact with the warrior’s center. The favorable moan she received as a result brought a grin to her face and a fire to her sex she’d never experience before. She loved Xena with her all her mind, body and soul. Yet today, when months before she never thought she’d have the warrior again, it had a greater depth and meaning to it. She felt charged. As if Zeus had struck her with a lightening bolt, rattling her soul to it’s foundation. She had no choice, but to moan in response.
Xena heard the sexy whimper come from her bard. Her bard. Not Najara’s. Not Eli’s. Not anyone whom Xena saw as a rival for Gabrielle’s talents or affections. Ares even tried his hand at taking her away with no success. Gabrielle had strayed from her path now and then, but Xena knew that Gabrielle’s heart was hers and hers alone. And she’d work everyday from this day forward to prove that Gabrielle had made the right choice. But for right now the only work that Xena wanted to engage in was bringing the bard ecstasy.
She loved the way Gabrielle whimpered in her desire. She loved the way Gabrielle looked deep into her eyes trying to read her soul. Just like she was doing at this moment as their bodies began a rhythm - hot and slick.
With all her prior lovers not a single one could she meet their eyes. At least not for the amount of time that she let Gabrielle see her - the ‘real’ her. She wanted to be the best lover Gabrielle ever had. She wanted to be the only lover Gabrielle would ever have. People could admire her, fantasize about her, perhaps even touch her if that’s what Gabrielle wanted. But no one, NO ONE, would be better than her... ever. Xena’s athletic prowess on the battlefield would be nothing like the prowess that Gabrielle would experience in bed. People called Xena the best of the best. Of course, they meant her warrior status. But Xena wanted to ensure that the term carried over into the bedroom in Gabrielle’s mind - into her mind, over her body and down through to her soul.
As Xena felt Gabrielle take hold of her hips, guiding her across her thigh, trying with all her might to help the warrior climax, the warrior closed her eyes.
She, not so quietly, fantasized about times past - the extended stays with the amazons, nights out under the stars, the booth at the back of a darken tavern in many a town. Xena was always amazed at how daring Gabrielle could be sexually.
The time at Gabrielle’s parent's house was probably the best and most dangerous. They stopped by for a quick visit and the bard tortured her all day long with sexual innuendoes that went over her family’s head, but were crystal clear to the warrior. The bard was gonna get it good when she got her alone, Xena decided. And Xena did get her chance.
In the early morning hours, Xena woke to find Gabrielle gone from her bed and a note on her pillow. ‘Meet me in the barn’ was all it said. Xena grabbed her leathers, but didn’t bother to put them on just yet. She walked out to the barn to find Gabrielle, stark naked. Xena couldn’t believe her eyes. Any minute now Gabrielle’s father would be rising to start the day and in all likelihood, be headed toward the barn first. Gabrielle sensed Xena’s indecision and gave the final prod.
"No guts; no glory," she told the warrior, casually flicking her long blonde hair seductively over her shoulder.
That did it. Xena had guts. And she’d have glory that morning too. She’d take that woman in the barn and she didn’t give a damn if the whole town came in to watch. Both women were close when the rooster began to crow.
"He’ll be out here any minute you know," Gabrielle whispered in the warrior’s ear as their fingers pumped in and out of each other.
Xena could only groan. She was well beyond the point of no return.
"He’s gonna walk out here and find you doin’ his little girl you big bad warrior," Gabrielle teased in a heated whisper, moving faster and harder. "He’s gonna hear you come all over my fingers and he’s gonna catch yours buried deep inside me. And you love it don’t you? Don’t you, Xena? Don’t you?"
"Yes," the warrior answered as her eyes shot open, returning from her fantasy. She looked down the see the shorthaired blonde smile up at her, feeling the quake that poured over both their bodies in the little Athenian inn this morning. So close, Xena’s mind called. A little more Gabrielle. A little more. "Please," however was all Xena could manage to say.
Not wanting to break the rhythm or contact Gabrielle rose just a bit and slid her fingers between her thigh and Xena’s sex which rode her harder now than before. She knew that Xena liked things a bit rougher closer to her climax. Once her finger were able to take over Gabrielle could move to sit up a bit. Given her size she fit perfect to the warrior’s bustline.
The bard seized the nipple in front of her with such force she was sure it would bruise. But she also knew that was something the warrior would love. Xena’s orgasm ripped through her body as she grabbed Gabrielle by the back of the head, burying her fingers into the blonde locks, crying out in a consuming pleasure.
The ripples still quaked through Xena’s body when she pulled Gabrielle from her breast and pushed the bard back to the bed. In one strong heave she picked up Gabrielle’s lower half of her body, tossing the bard’s knees over her shoulders until the bard was rested on square on her shoulders. Gabrielle looked up to the warrior who paused for a moment to teasingly blow on the bard’s slick center.
"Please," Gabrielle whispered.
"Please what?" Xena asked slyly. Gabrielle groaned as Xena gave a single playful lick from her clitoris to her anus. "You gotta tell me," she bantered.
The bard took a shaken breath. "Feast on me," she moaned.
With an arch of her eyebrow, Xena replied, "As you wish."
Gabrielle hands reached out and grabbed Xena’s legs as Xena’s mouth went wild against her. Only a few moments had passed, but Gabrielle knew it wouldn’t take much more. Besides, she wanted this release. She needed it beyond words at this point. Xena’s hair cascaded down and tickled her thighs and stomach. She loved every moment. Xena stopped the task with her mouth and gave a few light slaps and rubs to the bard’s center.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Come on, sweetheart. Let me hear you. Come on, sweetheart. Let it go. Release it. For me, Gabrielle. Give it to me, sweetheart... Let me drink you."
That sent Gabrielle over the edge. Xena’s hands and sexy request was all she needed. Wave after wave crashed over as she repeated the warrior’s name over and over with each vibration she felt in her body. Xena lapped at her like a thirsty kitten at a saucer of milk. Gabrielle watched as Xena licked her lips, all the while not breaking eye contact in the slightest. Gently, Xena returned Gabrielle back down to the bed.
"Mmmm" Xena hummed coming up to meet the bard face-to-face. "See how wonderful you taste?" she asked the bard before giving her a deep, soulful kiss. Gabrielle could taste her own excitement on Xena’s lips and tongue. It started a whole new set of fantasies in each woman’s mind.
Hands began to roam anew. Minds began to jump from the present to the past to the present again. Hearts they thought were lost to each other were once again found.
Eve, August and Eponin all looked up from their lunch when they heard a door upstairs open. Quietly, Xena and Gabrielle made their way downstairs.
"I’m surprised they’re dressed," Eponin remarked with a chuckle that got her a nudge from both Eve and August who were on either side of her.
"Good morning," Gabrielle answered with a grin that refused to leave.
"Morning?" Eve teased. "That was about 4 hours ago. The sun is quite high at this point," she added.
Before Xena and Gabrielle could reply, a warrior in armor walked in.
"I’m looking for Xena, the warrior princess."
Oh no, Xena sighed inwardly. And the day was going so good.
"I’m Xena," the warrior reluctantly raised her hand. Not that she was fearful of the solider. She just didn’t want to have to kick someone’s ass after such a beautiful morning.
"I deliver a message from Ares, the god of war," he said handing her a scroll. With a salute, the solider walked out.
Xena unrolled it and read it. "Seems Ares needs us to meet him... Guess he'll have to wait," Xena answered.
Gabrielle took the scroll. "I know what I said earlier Xena, but perhaps we should check this out. Besides, it’s not like it’s out of our way or anything. Let’s see what he wants and then head to Amphipolis. Agreed?" Gabrielle asked as she rolled up the scroll while Xena and Eve nodded.
Outside, however, they didn’t see the solider round the corner and vanish into thin air. Moments later, the solider materialized at Ares camp in the amazon hills. He strolled into Ares tent without announcement. Ares looked up.
"Did you do it?"
Suddenly the armor melted away and a pink nighty took its place, along with the body of Aphrodite. "Yeah, I did it... but I gotta ask... Are you feeling okay?"
"Since when did you care?" Ares replied sarcastically. "You could get me the ambrosia you know?"
She paused a moment with her finger to her temple in thought. "You know that’s a good idea. I could turn you back into the God of War and you could go off and kill lots and lots of people - - NOT!! You’re better off this way Ares. Trust me."
"I don’t trust you. I don’t trust anyone. Except Xena. Xena I trust. She’s coming right?" Ares asked.
"Chill out," Dite said. "Are you sure you’re okay because you’re acting a bit wigged there bro’?"
"Leave me," he told his sister.
Dite took a moment, but realized this conversation wasn’t getting her anywhere. "Whatever!" she retorted before disappearing.
Xena will come. She has to come. She helped before. She’ll help now. I just gotta get ready. I gotta prepare... She has to help. She has to. I’ve got no other choice.