Gabrielle and Xena arenít the only ones dealing with the aftermath of the fourth seasonís A FAMILY AFFAIR.
A FAMILY REPAIR
"You talk about finding your way, but to me you are my way."
"How can I be your way? When Iím Ö Iím lost myself?"
"Iím searching for answers too. But how we look for them doesnít matter. As long as we look for them together. You and me."
Hecuba gazed through the doorway at the two figures seated on a bench in the yard. Her firstborn, home at last after a harrowing experience. With her, the warrior Hecuba blamed. Both women responsible for the birth and death of her monstrous granddaughter and great-grandson. To think sheíd embraced Gabrielleís look-alike child as her own - so happy to believe Gabrielle had returned, so willing to accept her changed personality as evidence of an "adventure" gone wrong. All of it a mockery of the dreams sheíd clung to for Gabrielle of a normal family life nearby. Instead, the daughter in front of her chose to hold on to the ex-warlord at her side, light head resting against the otherís dark one.
They looked so alone in the moonlight. Isolated from the surroundings Hecuba took for granted. Yet bathed in a surprising serenity untouched by horrors she could never have imagined. Their love for each other was palpable. Even from behind, she could sense it enveloping them, shielding them, entwining and feeding each otherís souls. Lending credence to the sentiments sheíd overheard them express. It truly didnít seem to matter what existed outside the two of them.
She shifted her eyes upward. As usual the twinkling lights touched her. Lifted heaviness from her heart. Reminded her of joys she could neither own nor lose. Promised brighter tomorrows far beyond her limited horizons. If she wanted, she could accept such in the forms quietly consoling each other a few feet away. Envision her daughter as one of those stars. The warrior as Gabrielleís night sky. Together as the universe intended.
Whatever Xenaís role in their familyís pain, she was Gabrielleís life now. Denying the warrior meant denying Gabrielle. Denying a spirit destined to shine regardless of whether in the setting Hecuba dreamed. No doubt Gabrielle would leave soon. Hecuba recognized this time it was her choice too - whether to see her child like the heavens or gone forever.
"Daughter?" Hecuba waited until Gabrielle wiped at her face and turned around. "I donít mean to intrude." Pulling her shawl closer, she took a few steps forward. "You girls must be cold. And tired. No proper sleep or sustenance in two days. Come in now. I made that hot apple cider you love." She smiled at Xena. "You might like it too."
Gabrielle stood, pulling Xena up with her. "Um, thanks. I Ö. We Ö."
"You will stay awhile, wonít you? Itís been so long since Ö. So much to talk about."
"Oh, yes. Please?" Lila practically skipped from her listening post at the door. "You can stay in my room, with me. Itíll be like old times."
Gabrielle glanced between the hopeful faces of her mother and sister, then at the expressionless warrior. "Lila, Iíd love to Ö. Itís just, with all thatís happened, Xena and I havenít had a chance to -."
"Gíwon." Xena smiled down at Gabrielle. "Barníll do fine for me. Joxerín I can get in some more bonding."
Xena rested her hand on Gabrielleís shoulder. "It wasnít really you they got to spend time with," she reminded softly. "You want to leave them with that?"
Gabrielle sighed. "No Ö. How long Ö. What about Argo?"
"No reason Joxerín I canít look for her while you -."
Gabrielle shook her head. "We leave together, maybe in a day or two."
"Sounds like a plan. Got some Ö unfinished business in the barn anyway."
"Oh, Herodotus and Joxer are taking care of that." Hecuba smiled her relief. "Perhaps you might go into the village? Let people know itís safe now?"
"Sure." Xena winked at Hecuba. "Think Iíll take you up on that cider first. One of my momís specialties too."
"Of course." Hecuba turned to lead the way back inside. "Iíll fill a wash bowl for you. You can clean up a bit before you go." She held the door open for the others to file inside. "When youíre finished, Iíll get my healing bag. Youíve let those wounds go far too long. Especially that gash on your arm."
Xena gave Gabrielleís shoulder a "see, everythingíll be okay" squeeze. To Hecuba, she replied simply, "Yes maíam."
"I appreciate all your help." Herodotus sat across from Joxer as the two worked on the mill broken during Xenaís encounters with Hope and the Destroyer. "Could use someone like you around here."
"Yeah, always been good with my hands. I have many - ouch!" Joxer sucked on the thumb heíd hammered. "Kinda outta practice. More used to swords, now that Iím a -."
"Your character is what I meant. Brave, reliable, good manners. A fatheríd be proud to give his daughter to you."
Joxer snorted. "Yeah, well, Gabrielle might not be too keen on -."
"Gabrielle? I was thinking of Lila." Herodotus relaxed back, regarding Joxer thoughtfully. "Of course, sheís younger. Couple boys around here wouldnít be bad suitors. Her sister Ö." He gritted his teeth. "Not much chance for her. Out on the road. With that Ö woman."
Joxer snorted. "You kiddiní? I see the looks she gets." An idea began bubbling in his brain. "Yeah, looks from guys you wouldnít like." He stuck out his chest. "Luckily Joxer the Mightyís around. You know, to defend her honor. Yeah, I could do that on a more regular basis. With your permission, of course. Um, not saying Xena wouldnít -."
"Xena?!" Herodotusí lip curled in disgust. "She stands between someone like you and my daughter?"
"Um, no Ö. I mean, yes Ö. What I meant is, in the fighting department, Xenaís -."
"I knew it." Herodotusí train of thought was on its own track - one that had taken his daughter from him toward a destination no self-respecting father would approve. "She always had these fanciful ideas. Never satisfied with how things were. Smart, pretty. Betrothed to a solid man. Enough for any other girl. Not her. First whiff of excitement, off she goes."
Joxer grinned. "Sheís pretty feisty all right. Thinkiní she can mix it up with the big boys. Whips that staff around like Ö. Well, after I took her under my wing, of course. Lotta work gettiní `er up ta my speed. Should see the bruises I got -."
"All those pipe dreams of hers. ëBeautyí this and ëinterestingí that. Imaginary places - people singing and dancing all day. What did it get her?" Herodotus shook his head. "A warlord? A killer? A walking corpse? Only way that womaníd see a flower was if it had blood on it."
"Uh, sir?" Joxer frowned. "You talkiní about Xena?"
Herodotus put his hand on Joxerís shoulder. "You see, donít you, boy? My Gabrielle was sweet, pure. What kind of a person would want to see blood on someone like her?" His jaw clenched. "See her trampled and twisted. Turned into fodder for monsters."
Joxer sat open-mouthed. As much as he secretly adored Gabrielle, heíd never pictured her quite like that. Certainly not dainty or fragile. Not squished into something ugly either. The only Gabrielle heíd known was more like a Ö weed. Tough to get rid of. Popping up where it oughtnít. In the shade, under rockslides, against the howling wind. Heck, between them, she and Xena Ö. Joxer bit his lip. His best friends were right. Sometimes he could be such an idiot.
"No, sir. I donít see. Not like you anyway." Joxer removed Herodotusí hand from his shoulder. "You donít know them like I do."
"I donít know my own daughter?" Herodotus got to his feet and glowered down at Joxer. "Even her daughter said it. How sheís changed being with Xena."
"Hope was Ö." Joxer circled his finger at his head. "She hated Xena. Probly Gabrielle too."
"Is it a lie Xena put Gabrielle in harmís way? Let that Ö that thing plant his evil seed inside her? Let her throw herself in that pit to spare Xena? To endure gods know what torment? Is Xenaís hold over Gabrielle a lie? Why else would she rather live that womanís awful life than be here with us?"
"I was there, you know." Joxer shuddered. "When Gabby jumped in that pit. Xena was ready to die herself. Sheíd never let anything happen to Gabrielle if she could help it. Iíve never seen her so broken up. She searched for her when everybody else thought she was cinders." He looked up at Herodotus sympathetically. "Xena doesnít let people close to her. Besides me and Gabrielle anyway. You call me brave and reliable and all that stuff? Xenaís 10 times that." He grinned sheepishly. "Guess I couldnít be your son-in-law after all, huh? See, Iíd pick beiní with Xena over anybody I know." He ducked his head. "`Cept maybe Gabrielle."
Herodotus squinted at Joxer. "You love my daughter?"
"Promise not to tell?"
"Pretty close to it. I do have my eye on Ö um Ö never mind. Yeah, sheíd be my first choice."
"Then why let Xena stop you?"
Joxer shrugged. "Sheís not. They kinda come together. A package deal, ya know?" He beckoned Herodotus to sit next to him. "Here, lemme show you how it works." He made a diagonal line in the dust with his finger. "This is Xena. She loves Gabrielle," he said, drawing another diagonal line that formed an X with the first. "I love Gabrielle. Which means I love what she loves. Which kinda puts me here." He pointed to where the lines intersected. "See, Iíd have to love Xena even if I didnít on my own."
"After all the heartache sheís caused Gabrielle."
"Heartache?" Joxer chewed his lip. "Well, sure, theyíve had their tiffs. Heh. Who doesnít? Mostly, she makes Gabrielle happy. Makes her laugh and feel like she can take on the world. Listens to `er." He snorted. "Me, Iím thinkiní sheís nuts most times. Not Xena. If Gabby says, ëI wanna touch the moon,í Xenaís busy figurin` how ta do it. If Gabby says ta give some bad guy a chance, Xenaís tryiní ta see where the good is. Isnít that how it is with you and Hecuba?"
"What?" Herodotus blinked. "Hecuba?"
"Everybody oughtta have somebody love `em that much. Sure hopiní I do someday." Joxer grimaced. "I may look like a babe magnet, but Ö."
The older man watched his guestís mouth move, but didnít hear a word. Hecuba?! If anyone else dared make such a comparison between his wife and that warrior woman, he wouldíve demanded an apology at the very least. Joxer obviously didnít intend insult. In fact, he appeared a man of honor, without a malicious bone in his body. Herodotus couldnít decide if Joxer was one of the most naïve people heíd ever met, slightly "touched" or deceptively wiser than the odd outfit he wore would suggest.
"Ö So you can understand the problem with my manly charms. A little too Ö." Joxer waggled his hand. "I think thatís what happened with Gabby. Nice girl, your daughter. Now Meg, sheís more used to us worldly types, if you get my drift."
"Youíre an amazing young man." Herodotus continued searching Joxerís face for some clue to his puzzling inner workings.
"True. I control it pretty well though. Otherwise Iíd be leaving a trail of broken -."
"Too bad my daughter doesnít see it."
"Ah, itís okay." Joxer patted the older manís shoulder. "Best to keep things professional. You know, traveling together, fighting as a unit like we do. Being friends keeps things from gettiní messy. Thatís important for us warriors. Like Xena says, ya gotta stay focused to stay alive."
"Better get back to work. Hecubaíll be calling us for supper soon." Herodotus hefted his hammer, seeming to weigh it in his hand. He gave Joxer another long look. "Iím a man of firm beliefs. Not often somebody makes me question them. Iíll consider what youíve said."
Joxer had begun sorting through Herodotusí tools, hoping to find something less dangerous than the hammer that had attacked him. His head jerked up when he caught Herodotusí last words. "Huh?"
"Doesnít mean Iíll be swayed, but Iíll consider it."
"Um Ö." Joxer so rarely experienced anyone paying attention to him, he often forgot to listen to himself. "Which part?"
"Your thoughts on my daughter."
Joxer winced. "Oooo. The Ö um Ö ëguyí talk? I donít usually Ö. I mean, I wouldnít want Ö. Can we keep that between us? You know, man ta man?"
Herodotus nodded knowingly. "Of course. Man to man."
Hecuba bustled about as though a dignitary would drop in any moment. She fussed at her daughters for using the frazzled everyday tablecloth. Stirred and sniffed and tasted her stew every few minutes to ensure it would be just right. Made Gabrielle change into one of Lilaís dresses, opining, "That green thing probably hasnít had a good wash in ages." When everything was finally to her satisfaction, she served the food and ordered everyone to sit.
"Everyone" at the moment consisted of her and her daughters. She wanted to make the most of each second she had with them while the others were occupied elsewhere. Suspecting they might never have this chance again, she decided to pretend it was hers forever.
"So, Lila, did you tell Gabrielle your exciting news?"
The sisters exchanged puzzled glances.
"Uh, which news is that?"
"About the bake contest, you silly girl." Hecuba addressed Gabrielle. "Your sister has become quite a celebrity. Her pies and cakes usually do well. This year she won every category she entered."
"Oh, thatís great, Lila." Gabrielle relaxed back into the familiar scene as though yesterday werenít several years ago or tomorrow a world apart. "You even beat out Old Lady Sweet Foot?"
"Old Lady who?"
Gabrielle smirked. "You didnít know? Itís what we kids used to call Zenobia. How do you think she won so much?"
"Gabrielle, what on earth are you talking about?"
"The judges are mostly men, Mother." Lila grinned at Gabrielle. "We overheard Zenobia spill her secret. ëSweetening,í she said. ëForget a pinch. Put in a foot. Men canít get enough.í"
"Oh, you girls." Hecuba clucked. "I didnít raise you to make fun of your elders."
"Hey, thatís what she said. Iím surprised Lila got to win fair and square."
Lila snorted. "More women judges this time."
"Muffin?" Hecuba was pleased to notice Gabrielle had finished off her first helping.
"Thanks." Gabrielle wafted it in front of her nose. "I definitely miss this on the road."
"Lila tells me youíve done rather well yourself. As a bard. I told your father those stories of yours werenít a waste."
"Uh, thanks. I think."
"You remember the ones about the princess who lived in the sky? Sometimes youíd make her a goddess. Sometimes sheíd have a castle. She always came down among her people, usually disguised."
"And sheíd walk around eavesdropping on how good and beautiful she was." Lila cut her eyes at her older sister. "I know, `cause I had to pretend to be them."
Gabrielle laughed. "I was awful, wasnít I? But you did make such compliant subjects."
"Gabby!" Lila swatted Gabrielleís arm.
"Girls, girls. Mind your manners at the table."
"Bet you donít have to worry about that anymore," Lila muttered out the side of her mouth.
"I heard that. I trust Gabrielle remembers her home training wherever she is."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I try. Itís not easy. Xena doesnít help either."
"Oh?" Hecuba tried not to look too eager. "Does she spear food with her sword?"
"Nooo." Gabrielle bumped knees with Lila. "Iím the one usually spitting my food out."
"What?! Gabrielle! I knew that kind of life would -."
"From laughing so hard."
Hecubaís hand paused between her bowl and her mouth. "Laughing?!"
"Uh huh. You wouldnít guess it, but Xenaís a comedian when she wants to be. Has me in stitches half the time."
Lila looked skeptical. "When? Between attacks from robbers or animals? Between rain drops or gods know what else?"
"Lila, life on the road isnít that bad."
"Humph. Thatís not what I hear." Hecuba pursed her lips. "We do hear things from time to time. About Xena. Battles with warlords and such."
"Oh, yes! A guy in Marathon said she led Tripolis in the defeat of foreign invaders."
"Um, not exactly." Gabrielle grinned. "She did that all by herself. Well, with a little help from an Ö a slightly gimpy friend."
Hecuba scowled. "Gimpy? Another time you were hurt?" She snorted. "Why am I surprised? Itís a wonder my little girl is alive to tell of it."
Silence descended like a damper on the get together. Hecuba focused on her food. She hadnít intended to express words of recrimination that had built up during her elder childís absence. Lila chewed her lip and glanced out the corner of her eye at her sister, fearful their reunion would be ruined. Gabrielle took a deep breath. She reminded herself how much she loved her blood family. How much she would miss them when she left again. Why she was and wasnít the girl they wanted her to be. She steepled her hands under her chin.
"Those stories of mine? Youíre right. They werenít such fantasies after all."
Hecuba scowled at her daughter. "Gabrielle, I havenít been out in the world much, but Iím not stupid. I accept your decision. Iím your mother. I only want you to be happy. You donít have to make me feel better by -."
"Remember that day Xena saved our village?"
"She was so much more than anything Iíd imagined up in the sky. She actually helped people. And you know what? She didnít care what they said about her. Whether they thought she was good and beautiful. It was what she thought was right. For her, for them. As happy as I was, as much as I loved you all, I felt Ö." Gabrielleís eyes drifted to the window.
"You know how weíd run out to your flower garden? To see if a certain bud had bloomed yet? Sometimes the cold lasted longer than usual or there wasnít enough rain. Youíd worry you hadnít planted something deep enough. That maybe blight or an insect had gotten to it. Weíd wait and wait. Run out with such hope. Come back feeling as though weíd burst if we didnít see that blossom. Weíd make ourselves forget about it. Then one day, maybe when it was dreary, weíd happen by. And there it was - that bit of color weíd been waiting for."
Gabrielle turned toward her mother. "Remember how relieved and joyous weíd be? How, no matter what else was going on, all seemed right with the world? Thatís how I felt when Xena came. Suddenly realizing there was nothing wrong with me. My urge to grow. To free the potential inside me." She reached across the table to take her motherís hand. "Donít you see? You mustnít blame Xena. It would be like blaming nature for what was meant to be."
Eyes moist, Hecuba squeezed her daughterís hand. "I canít help worrying. I didnít know. I imagined the worst. All youíve been through, I still fear youíll Ö."
"Mother, bad things happen no matter who you are. Where you are. It could happen right here in Poteidaia." Gabrielle snickered. "Like, from eating too many of Old Lady Sweet Footís cakes."
"Gabrielllle. I see youíre as mischievous as ever."
"Uh huh. And as optimistic. Almost as dreamy. In much better physical shape though, donít you think?"
Hecuba raised a brow. "For children or pulling a plow?"
Gabrielle and Lila both choked.
"Motherrrr. I think Gabby looks good. Strong. Healthy. Even after this demon mess, sheís Ö." Lila winced. "Sorry."
"Itís okay." Gabrielle sighed. "Iíve learned you canít hide from the bad stuff. Itíll get you at some point, some way. I have been through a lot. The first place I headed was here."
Hecuba smiled. "So you did."
"Itís the first place Xena came looking when she believed me alive."
Hecuba snorted wryly. "We wondered what took her so long."
"She knows how much you all mean to me." Gabrielle also took hold of Lilaís hand. "Sheís never tried to replace you. Sheís my family now because sheís all the things you taught me it should be. Youíll always be my roots. If only you could see Ö."
"How youíve blossomed into such a fine young woman?" Hecuba got up and put her arms around her daughter. "I do, my child. Forgive your old mother. Iíve missed you so much. Perhaps I am a little envious, not being a part of your new life. Never doubt my pride in you or that Iíll love you until my last breath."
"Hey, you two." Lila joined the embrace. "Youíre making me cry. I thought this was supposed to be our time for ëgirlí talk."
Hecuba chuckled. "It is. That other business took enough of our hours together." She moved back to her chair. "There is one question. Guess Iíd better ask it now."
"Hokaaay." Gabrielle planted a smile on her face and steeled herself.
"Hygiene. How exactly do you girls keep that up in the wilderness?"
Xena took her time returning from the village. She strolled beside the horse Herodotus had loaned her - which might as wellíve been a mule, far as she was concerned. "No offense," she said to the animal, rubbing his head. "Not your fault. Argoís the best. Youíd like her. Donít go gettiní any ideas though. Sheís already in a committed relationship."
Sighing, Xena realized finding Argo was the one bright spot she looked forward to. She loved having Gabrielle back, of course. Unfortunately that pairing wasnít as simple. Two minutes after reuniting, theyíd had to deal with Hope and the Destroyer. Two minutes after that came more pain and drama - this time involving Gabrielleís relatives who werenít demons. Xena snorted. At least not Hecuba and Lila. She wasnít so sure about Herodotus. She chuckled. He probably thought the same about her.
The horseís whinny reminded her where she was. She could see Gabrielleís home, candles flickering in the window. She hoped Joxer and Herodotus were there, leaving the barn free for some solitude. Just in case, she decided to spend awhile outside. She removed the horseís saddle. After taking him to his corral, she strode briskly toward the trees not far away. She made a fire in a small clearing and settled in to sharpen her sword. She focused on the metalís solidity, on the comfort she usually derived from this routine.
Despite her best efforts to stay in the present, her mind drifted to the vision Alti had shown her of the future. The vision that proved Gabrielle alive. And foretold her death. Xena shivered. No, simplicity certainly did not describe their life since Britannia. Since Caesar and Dahak turned their world upside down and Gabrielle inside out. She hadnít told her partner about the vision of their crucifixion. Partly she wanted to believe theyíd prevail as usual. Partly she feared they might not.
Suddenly tired, she let her head rest in her hands. Sheíd told Gabrielle they would find their way together. But did she have that right? To keeping putting Gabrielle in jeopardy because of her past? Her enemies? The justice sheíd so far managed to avoid? Maybe Herodotus spoke the truth, even though heíd mistaken Hope for Gabrielle. Maybe being with the Warrior Princess had changed Gabrielle for the worse. Dimmed the light in her eyes faster than maturing might have done under other circumstances. Xena stared into the fire, her brain soon consumed by her burning questions.
Herodotus felt the need for air. Not that the conversation between Joxer and the women bothered him. On the contrary, the scene came closest to his vision of how things could be. Should be. Might not be ever again. He paused a moment to gaze at the modest house heíd built from nothing. To be a husband and father. A provider and protector. A man. Heíd achieved all that. Been the envy of men with lesser homes, lesser wives, lesser children. But not good enough for his first fruit. The apple of his eye. Sheíd seen something better in someone else. A woman. A stranger whom decent people reviled. Who offered neither hearth nor home, but danger and deprivation.
The bitterness coated his tongue even now. Had over the years eaten away at his heart. As it would any father whoíd been rejected by his child. Herodotusí eyes clenched shut. When he opened them, he would see his daughter where she belonged. Hear the laughter he hadnít truly appreciated until it was gone. He was a stubborn man, but not the slab of stone heíd seemed when Gabrielle left. He loved his daughter. Sheíd obviously found what she wanted, whatever his opinion about that. It was up to him this time to decide if that was good enough for him too.
A sound caught his ear. The horse was back. Herodotus walked over to the fence and saw the saddle resting there. He carried it into the barn, not surprised to find the place uninhabited. He came out and squinted into the darkness. Ah. A light flickering through the trees. As if on their own, his feet took him toward it. He walked quietly to the edge of the clearing.
For someone so formidable, the warrior woman looked surprisingly vulnerable. Lonely even. Her face a mask of light and shadows. Her proud shoulders slumped. What could someone like that be feeling? It hit him how strange it was to believe she had feelings at all. His lips pressed together. What did it matter? Accepting Gabrielle and her choices was one thing. Caring anything about that woman would be asking too much. He turned to leave.
"Nice night for a walk." Xena gazed into the darkness where Herodotus blended with the trees. "Youíve come this far. Might as well finish it. If not, I thank you for the use of your horse. Not exactly what Iím used to, but he did the job."
Herodotus approached. "He usually does. Doesnít have to be fancy. Dependable is all I need."
Xena nodded. "Same with a fancy one like mine. All this time Iíve been gone, I know sheís waitiní for me. Gabrielle thinks Iím nuts. Sheíll see."
"Youíre going after her? Your horse?" Herodotus walked up to the fire and warmed his hands.
"Yup. Soon as Gabrielle Ö. Soon as weíve finished our visit."
"You know Ö." Herodotus lowered himself to the ground. "You considered doing it before? Before Gabrielle leaves? Itíll give her more time to spend with her family."
"I have. She said no. "
"Youíd let her? If she wanted to stay?"
"`Letí her? We talkiní Gabrielle?"
Herodotus met the warriorís eyes. "You canít deny having a hold over her. Hard to tell where she leaves off and you begin."
"I do worry about that. My end of it anyway." Xena crooked her head. "Lemme ask you somethiní."
"Did you let Gabrielle believe in fanciful dreams? Like castles in the sky?"
"As a child?" Herodotus narrowed his eyes. "I tried to give her a solid foundation. Values that would serve her well as a mature woman."
"Mm. Whyíd you let her follow me? That first time."
"I didnít. She wouldnít heed my warnings. Snuck off like a thief in the night."
Xena nodded. "Me too."
"I told her not to follow me. Next thing I know, sheís saving me from a stoning. My own kin. Hadnít quite forgiven me for leading their sons into battle."
"She did that?"
"She did." Xena smiled ruefully. "We all tried. Told her what I was like. She alone wouldnít hear it. Iíve had enough blood on my hands. The last thing I want is hers."
Herodotus studied the woman across the fire. The ice blue eyes had thawed. For the first time he saw in them pain, regret, resignation. Fear. None of the smug satisfaction he expected in the conqueror whoíd won his daughter. He dropped his eyes to his hands. "Suppose she got that from me. The stubbornness. I donít always listen either."
Xena shrugged. "Comes with strong convictions. Not many people wouldíve stood up to those slavers. Or a lynch mob. Iíve seen her throw herself in front of arrows to save someone. Disobey my orders in a minute, if she thinks itís right. Headstrong? Heroic? Whatever, sheís her own person. No one - father or friend - makes Gabrielle be other than who she chooses."
Herodotus nodded. "Joxer said as much."
"He believes she Ö freely stays with you. Hard to imagine, but he seems to know what heís talking about."
Xena bit her lip. "Yes, hard to imagine."
"A special young man, Joxer."
"That he is."
"I Ö " Herodotus lifted his chin. "I thank you both for Ö what you did. Took a lot of courage. And Ö fondness Ö for my daughter."
"Youíre welcome." Xena smiled. "I am like a good horse, if nothing else. Dependable."
Herodotus chuckled. He got up and stretched. "Time I headed back." He waited for the warriorís response.
"Think Iíll hang out here awhile longer. Until Joxerís settled in." Xena smirked. "His snores get quieter after he rolls over a couple times."
The corners of Herodotusí mouth twitched. "Even someone like him has his faults," he said, holding the warriorís eyes. They exchanged slight nods before he left her to her thoughts.
Gabrielle had never considered Joxer charming, let alone a good conversationalist. Obviously the other women in her family thought otherwise. They blushed at his compliments (and he gave many), held their stomachs at his jokes and malapropisms (many of those too), stumbled over themselves to anticipate his every whim. She felt a surge of pride in him on one hand. On the other, she feared sheíd gag. Wanting some air, she eased unnoticed out the door.
She entered the barn. Sheíd seen the horse and hoped Xena would be there. She wouldíve liked a bedtime chat after so many weeks apart. She glanced around. Her father and Joxer had done a good job putting everything back in order. No blood marked the spot where Hope and the Destroyer had lain embraced in death. Xena hadnít wanted her to touch them, but she felt the loss nonetheless. The coldness of a mother who believed it best not to mourn the passing of her child.
She whirled, startled to see her father in the door. "Oh, hi. I was looking for Xena."
"You seem troubled. Not surprising." Herodotus came closer. "Are you sure you should be here?" He gestured toward the patch of hay his daughter had been staring at.
"Iím fine. Just sorry she hurt so many people. Especially all of you."
Herodotus studied his daughter. "I shouldíve known it wasnít you. She had an edge. A glint to the eye. Not a light, like yours. Hard, more metal."
"You couldnít know. Who would? Even I canít believe it." She regarded her father with sad empathy. "You wanted your daughter back. Hope gave her to you."
"I got what I deserved."
"Thatís not true. None of us did."
Herodotus found a stool and dropped down tiredly. "I wanted to believe. That Xenaíd changed the happy child sheíd taken from me." He lowered his head. "I was wrong. Gods help me, I preferred that Ö illusion Ö over accepting you could be better off with Xena."
Gabrielle steadied herself against a stall. "Itís not easy being a parent. Xena was one. Did you know that?"
"Xena? A mother?"
"As a young warlord. She gave her infant to the Centaurs. So he wouldnít become like her. Years later we met him. Heíd grown into a wonderful boy." Gabrielle swallowed. "Hope killed him."
"Xena suspected my baby might be evil. I didnít want to hear it. I saved Hope from Xenaís sword. Secretly sent her off in a basket down a river. She grew into what Xena feared. Eventually into my likeness."
"Lila said gods were involved. You canít blame yourself for -."
"I named her ëHopeí because I wanted so badly for her to be good. Kept believing even when I shouldíve known better." Gabrielle snorted softly. "You were wrong about me, but at least Ö." Her voice caught. "At least no one died."
"Daughter Ö." Herodotus went to Gabrielle. He hesitated a moment, searching her eyes until he saw permission to embrace her. He felt her sobs before he heard them. "Itís all right," he soothed, stroking her hair. "Iíve got you." When she calmed, he led her to the mill platform. He sat beside her with his arm around her shoulder.
Gabrielle wiped her eyes. "When I saw them lying there Ö. I carried Hope inside me, Father. Gave birth to a part of myself. Had the same dreams for her as any mother. I wanted to cry. I couldnít. Not in front of Xena. For the murderer of her child. Not for myself, when Iíd caused my own pain."
"You can cry now all you want." Herodotus squeezed her shoulder. "Cry for your hard-headed father while youíre at it."
"Xena forgave me. I forgive you. Itís hard forgiving myself." She snuggled closer. "This helps. You were always pretty good at that."
"Chasing monsters away."
Herodotus chuckled. "The ones under your bed?"
"Uh huh. Youíd hold me until you convinced me theyíd gone. Tuck me in."
"Kiss your head."
Gabrielle peered up. "You did? After I fell asleep?"
He gave her a demonstration. "It was more for myself. Those screams of yours? Made your motherís and my heart stop sometimes."
Gabrielle laughed. "How else could I be sure youíd come? Get out of your warm bed to tangle with demons?"
Herodotus shook his head. "Maybe Joxerís right. You and Xena deserve each other."
"What?!" Gabrielle pushed away a little to gape at her father. "Joxer? Whatís he got to do with this?"
"Oh, a few things he said. How good youíve become at beating people up. His interesting theories about what makes you happy."
"Joxer? Guy in the pointy hat?" Gabrielle stared at the man not known for his fondness of other peopleís opinions. "You listened to him?"
"Iím not the only one. Xena thinks heís special too."
"Xena? Dark-haired woman? Brown battledress? Thinks Joxerís worth listening to?"
"Ask her. Sheís in that little clearing west of the barn. Might not mind some company." He snorted. "Yours anyway."
"I wondered where sheíd gotten to. Thanks." Gabrielle started to get up. "You Ö talked with her?"
"Some." Herodotus stood and helped his daughter up. "We came to agreement on more than Joxer."
"Really. Like what?"
He smiled enigmatically. "Like whatís important in a good horse."
"This a private affair?"
Xena was already looking at the area where Gabrielle emerged, having recognized the familiar tread. She decided it best not to comment on the unfamiliar dress. "Depends. Invitation only. One person on the guest list. You her?"
"Iíd better be. Even wore ëcleaní clothes for the occasion. Compliments of Mother."
Gabrielle came around to sit next to Xena in front of the fire. They didnít talk for a while. Neither felt it necessary to say how much sheíd missed this previously mundane aspect of the life interrupted by recent events.
"Sure I shouldnít camp with you here? Word has it you might want the company."
"Uh huh. We had a chat. I understand you did too."
"Mmhm. Howíd it go?"
"Pretty well. Yours?"
"Not bad. No sword pointed at me this time. How about your mom and Lila?"
"Progress there as well. To a certain point."
"Joxer. He was regaling them when I left."
"Seems toíve made quite an impression. On your whole family."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle chuckled. "Kinda makes me wonder about my lineage." She winced. "Pre-Hope in this case."
"Whatever he said made the air a lot warmer."
"You felt it too? Oh, I guess so. You really call him ëspecial?í"
"Absolutely. One of a kind." Xena snickered. "I hope."
"Well, thingsíre definitely on the mend. Iím thinking we can start our quest to find Argo tomorrow. Maybe after breakfast."
"Donít suppose your familyíll adopt Joxer."
"Heh. Like we could convince him to stay behind."
"Much as Iíd love camping here, might as well get it over with." Xena began putting out the fire. "Iíll suffer through more of Joxer in the barn. Gíwon back in the house. After everything, your folks deserve at least that much consideration."
"Strange how this is working out." Gabrielle got up and waited for Xena to join her. "Such tragedy and pain connected to our families. Our blood ones and the ones weíve made. Yet weíre stronger, closer in many ways than before."
As the two started back to the house, the vision of Gabrielle on a cross flashed through Xenaís mind. "You know Iíd be okay with you staying longer. You could probably use the rest."
"Xena, we settled that. Whatís with bringing it up again?"
"Sorry." Xena pushed down the image she feared and focused instead on her joy at seeing Gabrielle alive. "You know me - mountains out of molehills."
"Listen, weíve done what we can repairing my family here. Itís reminded me what I love about them." Gabrielle chuckled. "And why I knew my destiny wasnít battling senior citizens in bake contests. What about our family on the road? We need each other for healing. Argo too. All of us Ö re-pairing Ö so to speak."
"Re-pairing?" Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Kinda pushing it, dontcha think?" She snorted. "You and Joxer."
"Hey! Thatís really pushing it."
"I meant your Ö way with words. And something else coming back to me now. Not how much you and Joxer like each other. How alike you are." Xena smirked. "Special. Very, very special."
"Iím gonna do you a favor. Take that as a compliment."
"Oh, it is. Ask Herodotus. He came up with that."
"Speaking of which, what did he mean about you and him agreeing on horses?"
"Um, we want `em dependable. Like Argo."
"Ah." Gabrielle smirked. "I got the feeling he thinks maybe she shares that quality with her mistress."
Xena tilted her head. Impressed as always with Gabrielleís perceptiveness. As usual reluctant to concede too many smugness points. She shrugged. "So? You disagree?"
"Noooo. Definitely one of your better qualities." Gabrielle tilted her head. "Interesting though. Kinda funny when you think about it."
"You know, that heíd see Joxer as ëspecial.í" Gabrielle giggled. "And you as a horse."
Xena cut her eyes at her partner. Theyíd entered the yard. "Heís your father." She gave Gabrielle a quick hug. "Maybe you inherited his Ö broad Ö tastes," she said before sauntering toward the barn.
"Oh? How so?"
"Nutbread one minute," Xena threw over her shoulder. "Raw squid the next."
The warrior paused at the barn door, grinning. "Yessss?"
"Which oneíre you?"
Pleased with the warriorís wordless response, Gabrielle turned on her heel and headed for the house. Eyes glistening. Grateful her appreciation for family had been renewed. Theyíd all pushed through everything to display something miraculous she wouldnít have seen otherwise. Savoring these precious moments when she felt her world right again. A child once more discovering her motherís garden in bloom.