Copyright: All the characters are owned by Renaissance Pictures/Universal, etc, etc, etc, but the story is entirely from my imagination.
Violence: No worse than you'd see in a regular Xena episode.
Teaser: Returning from Japa, Gabrielle dreams of terrifying things in Greece ; she and the spirit of Xena are confronted with old evils once again.
Part one of the: The Prodigal Daughter series (stories: The Return)
Started: January 1, 2010 Ended: February 3, 2010
Feedback: If you've got any, positive or negative, or if you'd like to see more to this story email me at AkielaXal@yahoo.com
Gabrielle had finally fallen into a fitful slumber in the wee hours of the morning. She had been completely unprepared for Xena's disappearance once again at sunset. She had no idea whether Xena's spirit would return, or if, in fact, she had just been imagining her soulmate's presence to begin with.
Once she did succumb to Morpheus' embrace it came as no surprise to her that her dreams were troubled. She dreamed of the battle of Higuchi. She dreamed of what she imagined Xena's final earthly moments to have been like. And she dreamed of what she would do to Akemi if she ever managed to get her hands on the deceitful little bitch. These dreams were to be expected. They made sense; they were recent events, or strong desires. But there was one dream Gabrielle had that night that made no sense whatsoever.
The room was large and very dark. It had definitely seen better days. There was dust and broken stone throughout. There appeared to be signs of recent, halfhearted attempts to clean up, but it hardly dented the mess cluttering the room, which had sat stagnant and unused for many years.
Gabrielle looked around herself in disgust and wondered why the room seemed somewhat familiar. She couldn't quite place where she'd seen it before. As she was wondering about where she was and how she'd gotten there she heard a noise outside in the hall. She looked toward the door and saw several robed and hooded figures enter, carrying a long, heavy bundle.
The lead figure was dressed in a glossy red robe and he was followed by four others in black robes carrying a long bundle between them. The men staggered under its weight as they made their way toward a broken altar.
The red robed figure knelt briefly at the broken altar lifting his arms above his head in supplication while the other four figures waited patiently behind him, heads bowed. Suddenly there was a brilliant flare of light in the very back of the room. The kneeling figure rose and led the others toward the source of this new light. Gabrielle felt herself drawn toward the back of the room as well.
As the red robed figure was making his way around something on the floor Gabrielle suddenly realized where she was and froze in place. This was Dahak's temple! And the priest was making his way carefully around the edge of the lava pit that contained Dahak himself.
Gabrielle tried to turn and run, but she found herself rooted to the spot; try as she might, she was unable to move. As she looked on, the head priest reached the far side of the lava pit and raised his arms once again. Suddenly flames sprang out of the lava pit. The four figures turned their bundle sideways to the pit and when the flames reached waist level they tossed the bundle into the center of the conflagration, but instead of igniting, it began to glow with an ethereal light.
Tendrils of flame began to caress the bundle. Almost unnoticed one tendril began to snake its way across the floor toward the immobile Gabrielle.
She stood transfixed, unable to move. She was terrified, though she had no idea what terrible plan Dahak had in mind this time.
Suddenly the bundle rose to a vertical position, flames surrounding it. Gabrielle could see it was a body, but could not make out the face.
Dahak's tendril was inches from Gabrielle's leg. Suddenly the figure in the flames opened its eyes and a flash of light knocked Gabrielle across the room – away from Dahak's tendril. The figure in the flames laughed and Gabrielle's head snapped up in shock as she recognized the voice. She cried out, “Noooooooo!!!!!!!”
“Noooooooo!!!!!!!” Gabrielle screamed as she sat bolt upright. She was shaking and covered in sweat from her nightmares. She allowed herself to take comfort in the pair of strong arms that wrapped themselves around her – forgetting for the moment that those arms shouldn't be there.
“It's ok, Gabrielle, I'm here,” soothed Xena.
“Xena, it was so horrible… I dreamed you were dead…” began Gabrielle.
Xena stilled her soothing motions with a sigh. “Gabrielle, honey, I am dead.”
“Then why… how?” Gabrielle turned in her partner's arms. “If you're a shade, why can I still touch you? Why are you here at all?” she finished angrily as she once again turned away from the raven-haired woman.
“I don't know why I can touch you, but I'm damned glad I can,” answered Xena as she ran her fingers through Gabrielle's golden locks. “But I'm here, sweetheart, because I meant exactly what I said, ‘Even in death, I will never leave you'.”
Gabrielle turned to face Xena again. “But you left last night, and the night before that…”
A low growl emanated from Xena's throat. “I know. That's something I don't seem to have any control over, but I'm gonna work on it, ok?”
Gabrielle couldn't meet her lover's eyes, “Nights are hard, Xena. I miss you so much.”
“I know, love,” Xena sighed. “I'll always be with you, even if you can't see me.”
“I don't know if I can go on like this, Xena.”
“What are you talking about, Gabrielle?”
“I need you, Xena. I don't want to live without you…”
“Stop it, Gabrielle! Don't talk like that!” Xena surged up from the bed they were sharing and rounded on the smaller woman. “The world needs you, Gabrielle,” she pointed a finger at her partner. “I need you… and you need to continue what we started. Promise me you won't give up!”
“Like you did?” Gabrielle asked softly.
Xena's ire was instantly deflated. She took Gabrielle's hand as she resumed a seat on the bed. “I didn't give up, honey. I did what needed to be done to defeat Yodoshi.”
“And you were so bent on seeking redemption, which you'd already earned many times over, that you were ready to believe Akemi's lies…”
“Xena!” Gabrielle burst out before gentling her tone, “She did lie. Think about it, Xena. It was Akemi's actions that caused the villagers to attack you, and it was her actions that brought Yodoshi's spirit to power in the first place.” Gabrielle took a breath. “If there was anyone who needed to atone for what happened at Higuchi, it was her .”
Xena was silent for so long that Gabrielle began to think she wasn't going to answer. “I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I should have listened to you… should have let you put my ashes in the Fountain of Strength.”
“Yes, Xena, you should have,” Gabrielle sighed. “I'll make sure that your ashes get to the family crypt in Amphipolis, and we'll see what happens from there.”
Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller woman in a warm embrace. “So, were all of your dreams about Higuchi?”
“Most of them were, but there was one that was so odd, and out of place.”
“Want to tell me about it, love?”
“I'm not sure…” Gabrielle felt Xena's arms stiffen and patted them reassuringly. “No, no, honey, it's not that. I'm not sure where to begin… and it all seemed so real…”
“What do you remember about it?”
“I have no idea why my subconscious mind would bring this up now, but that last dream, the one that woke me up… was about Hope.”
“Please tell me you mean ‘Hope that we'll be together again',” Xena begged.
“I wish I could, love.” Gabrielle sighed, “But it was about… my daughter.” Gabrielle kept her gaze on her hands as she relayed the details of the dream to her partner.
After processing what Gabrielle had told her for several moments Xena turned so that they were facing each other. “Gabrielle, do you think this could have been one of your visions?”
“Oh, I don't know, Xena.” Gabrielle let out a nervous chuckle. “I haven't had one of those in a long time.”
“That's not entirely true,” Xena said, squeezing Gabrielle's hands. “You told me not to go to Japa – that something terrible would happen, and it did…”
“Xena, that was just…”
“Gabrielle, you knew that with every fiber of your being, didn't you?” At Gabrielle's nod Xena went on, “and you said this felt real. You felt like you were there in the temple…”
“No, Gabrielle, I think we need to make a stop in Poteidaia as soon as we get back to Greece .”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
In the moons that it took Gabrielle and Xena to return to Greece they had a lot of time to work out their issues. It took Gabrielle a long while to stop resenting Xena's choice on Mt Fuji every time the sun set and Xena disappeared. They learned to compromise and make the most of their daylight hours and discover just how much the ghost of the warrior princess could do in the hours they did have.
As luck, or the Fates, would have it, the final leg of their journey found them aboard a ship whose home port was much closer to Poteidaia than Amphipolis, so Xena's plan to check on Hope's grave won out.
Due to a storm which had delayed their arrival by several candlemarks Gabrielle was preparing to disembark in the pre-dawn light. She came topside just as the rim of the sun broke the eastern horizon and watched, transfixed, as her partner shimmered into view. It was a sight she had rarely seen. She had made a habit of not looking at Xena as the sun was setting, because it broke her heart every time her partner disappeared. And never an early riser, Gabrielle usually found herself awakened by Xena's gentle caresses, so to see the warrior princess truly burst on the scene in a blaze of glory was amazing.
Gabrielle barely managed to keep from throwing herself into Xena's arms. She knew the sailors already thought she was crazy, talking to herself most of the time. In another ironic twist of fate Xena was every bit as real to Gabrielle during the light of day as she ever had been before, but Gabrielle was the only one who could see or hear Xena. It was maddening to the warrior-bard.
They strolled down the gangplank together, lightly clasping hands because that was something they could do without drawing undue attention. Once they reached the end of the dock Gabrielle asked for directions to the stable. She wanted to get a horse and be on her way as soon as possible, but Xena reminded her that their supplies were low, so Gabrielle took a detour to the market.
Finished haggling for her supplies Gabrielle turned her back on the merchant when Xena piped up, “You'll need a whetstone.”
“What are you talking about?” Gabrielle whispered.
“That katana you have strapped to your back. You'll need a whetstone to properly take care of it; mine's almost gone.”
Gabrielle had almost forgotten that in addition to the chakram now nestled on her right hip, she also bore a katana across her back – a gift from Harukata. She had surprised herself with how quickly she'd become acclimated to the weapon. It was by no means the first time she'd picked up a sword, but it had never been her weapon of choice. And even when she and Xena had sparred she rarely used one, preferring to stick to her staff or sais .
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, turning back to the merchant, “I need a whetstone.”
She then made her way to the stable and asked the owner if he had any horses to sell. Fortunately for Gabrielle he had two to choose from. One was an old swaybacked gelding that had seen a lot of hard use in his day, and the other was a young, newly broken, but well trained, chestnut stallion. Knowing that she wanted to get her journey over with quickly, Gabrielle made the decision to buy the stallion, which she named Ronin. She quickly saddled her new horse and, with Xena riding double behind her, set off for Poteidaia.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Gabrielle pulled Ronin to a halt. It still amazed her that the sleepy village she remembered from her childhood had grown into this huge thriving community. It had gone from a scattered collection of thatched huts to a walled city. And unless she missed her guess, her family's farm was now just outside the far wall on the road that would eventually lead to Amphipolis.
She rode slowly through the city taking in sights she didn't recognize. This was no longer her home, though she supposed that were true that spring night so long ago when she'd snuck away. Gabrielle continued through town, seeing no one she knew, and being recognized by none in return. It was a little disconcerting seeing this place that she once knew like the back of her hand. Xena tightened her grip around Gabrielle in a warm embrace meant to convey understanding, sympathy, and love. Gabrielle squeezed the arm around her in thanks.
The duo finally found themselves at the far side of the city that Poteidaia had become. Soon after exiting the gates Gabrielle began looking for the turnoff to her family's farm. It was a little farther away than she had expected with as much as the city had grown, but she was pleased to discover that she was far enough outside the walls that she could no longer tell they were there.
She once again stopped Ronin just outside the farmyard fence while she let memories of her childhood flit through her mind. She could almost see herself and Lila playing in the yard again. Gabrielle smiled at the memory of how many times she'd chased her little sister down to tickle her after Lila had taken one or another of Gabrielle's things. She rubbed her left wrist in painful sympathy as she caught a glimpse of the loft through the open barn door and remembered falling once when they were playing hide and seek. So many memories from so long ago. Gabrielle herself still looked and felt like she was in her mid-twenties, but she knew that she had been born nearly fifty years before.
Dismounting Ronin, Gabrielle led him through the gate and tied his reins loosely to a rail before stepping onto the porch. She automatically stretched to avoid the loose board in the planking, though after so much time someone was sure to have fixed it by now. She drew her hand up to knock on the door just as it was suddenly opened from within.
Lila's smile faltered only slightly when she recognized her visitor. “Gab…Gabrielle?”
“It's me, Lila. How are you?” the petite blonde asked, as she gave her sister a warm hug.
“I'm fine… a little surprised to see you.” She looked past Gabrielle. “Where's Xena?”
Gabrielle's smile faded. “Xena's… dead, Lila.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry, Gabrielle,” Lila said, giving her sister another heartfelt embrace. Lila knew what it was like to lose a spouse, though the pain of her own loss had faded over the years.
Gabrielle was mildly surprised at the sincerity of Lila's wishes. Ever before there had always been just a twinge of jealousy that Gabrielle had chosen to follow Xena, leaving Lila home to face the wrath of their parents alone. Even the last time the couple had visited, bringing Sarah with them, and much of Lila's animosity towards Xena had faded, that green-eyed monster had still made its presence known.
Lila stepped back and gestured into the house, “Forgive me, won't you come in?”
Gabrielle did so, and as she was letting her eyes adjust to the dim interior she asked with a light tease, “Were you expecting someone else?”
“Um… actually, yes,” Lila said with the slightest hint of embarrassment. “Sarah and Virgil are due back this afternoon, and I'm beginning to get a little worried.”
“Sarah and Virgil? I'm glad to see they've remained friends.”
“Friends? Goodness, Gabrielle! They're married and about to make me a grandmother!”
“Married?” Gabrielle was astonished. “Wait… a grandmother ? You?”
“Yes, dear. Sarah's due in another moon or so. I really didn't want her making this trip, but Meg's letter sounded so urgent, and Virgil has a hard time saying ‘no' to his mother…”
Before Lila could say more, they were interrupted by the creaking of a wagon. Lila opened the door and her hand flew to her mouth.
Gabrielle stepped in front of her sister, hand poised over the chakram. She assessed the situation quickly, and instantly knew something was amiss, but that the stranger assisting Sarah down from his wagon was no threat. Gabrielle smiled inwardly, if she didn't know better, she'd have thought it was the same kindly old man who had given her a lift when she first followed Xena. As she went over to take Sarah's arm, Gabrielle's gaze locked with that of the old man and she would have sworn she saw a twinkle of recognition. Nah… couldn't be , she thought.
As Gabrielle guided Sarah around the front of the wagon into her sister's waiting arms she heard a familiar whicker. Glancing behind the wagon she saw the welcome sight of Argo. “Hey, girl,” she said holding out her hand to her old friend. Argo tossed her head once before allowing Gabrielle to stroke her nose. “I've missed you. Here, let me untie you and get you taken care of.”
“I'm glad to see Virgil got my note asking him to pick up Argo,” Xena said, making Gabrielle jump.
“Don't do that!” hissed Gabrielle.
“Sorry. I thought you knew I was there,” Xena apologized.
Gabrielle led Argo over to her niece and laid a gentle hand on the younger woman's arm. “Sarah… where's Virgil?”
“Gone…” Sarah burst into tears at the admission.
Gabrielle and Lila exchanged worried glances before the warrior-bard said, “Why don't you take Sarah inside and get her settled while I take care of the horses?” After mother and daughter went inside Gabrielle turned to the wagon driver and said, “Thank you for bringing my niece home.”
“Niece? I'd have thought she was your sister, if I didn't know any better,” he said with a chuckle.
“It's a long story,” Gabrielle replied. She scrutinized the old man again and asked, “You are him, aren't you?”
“Don't know what you're talking about,” he hedged.
Xena stepped beside her partner and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Yes, you do,” she challenged.
“T'waren't me,” he shook his head.
“Wait…” Gabrielle looked from Xena to the old man. “You can see her?”
“Sure I can,” he grumbled. “I'm just like her, ain't I?”
“You… You're a ghost?”
“I reckon so. Don't know how long I've been cursed to travel that same stretch of road, picking up stranded travelers…”
“Cursed?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yep. See, when I was alive I was always in a hurry. Couldn't be bothered to stop and give anyone a ride. One day I passed by a man lyin' on the side of the road. At first I took him for dead, but then I saw him move. I could tell he'd been beaten something awful, but I had my delivery to make. So I kept on driving, pretended I hadn't even seen him. Couple of years later I died. Got as far as handin' Charon my coins, I did, when all of a sudden I found myself back on that same stretch of road. Heck, this is the farthest I've ever gotten from it, but I just couldn't leave that little gal. Not in her condition, with a lame horse and all.”
Xena stepped forward. “What's your name, old man?”
“Well, Metros, I think maybe your penance is at an end,” Xena said, placing a hand on his forearm. At the contact there was a bright flash and Metros, horse, and wagon were gone.
“Wow,” Gabrielle said. “Xena, did you do that?”
“I'm not sure,” Xena said, looking at her hand as if it could give her the answer she sought. “I don't think it was my touch… But maybe what I said to him… Whatever happened, I hope he finds peace,” she said as she turned and put an arm around her partner.
“So do I, Xena,” Gabrielle fervently replied. “Thirty Years… or more… is long enough to pay for that act of carelessness.”
“Thirty years? What do you mean, Gabrielle?”
“Xena, that's the same man who gave me a ride when I first followed you to Amphipolis, and again the first time I came home…”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
After Gabrielle finished grooming the horses, she and Xena walked hand in hand back to the house – Gabrielle's childhood home. Xena stepped onto the porch and said, “I think I'll stay out here awhile. You g'wan in and find out what happened.”
“No, Xena, I want to spend time with you…”
“Gabrielle,” Xena said, cupping Gabrielle's chin, “You should go inside.”
In answer Xena jerked her head to the western horizon where the sun was just skimming the tree tops.
“Oh,” Gabrielle replied quietly. In the moons since they'd left Japa Xena had told Gabrielle that she tried as hard as she could every day, but as soon as the sun disappeared, so did she.
Xena lowered her head and gently brushed her lips across Gabrielle's. The petite blonde threw her arms around her lover in a tight embrace – never wanting to let go. The sun sank lower, only half of the disc now visible when Xena said, “G'wan. I'll see you tomorrow.”
Gabrielle nodded into Xena's chest and without saying a word turned and entered the house. She crossed over and sat in front of the fireplace, next to the other two women. “Has she said anything yet?”
“No, I thought it best to wait until you got back. I didn't want her to have to go through it twice.”
“Good thinking,” Gabrielle said, patting Lila's hand absently. She gazed at her niece, who appeared a little dirty, but none the worse for the wear. So, whatever happened to Virgil, he kept his wife from harm.
“Sarah, honey, can you tell us what happened?”
Sarah looked up with watery eyes and fixed her gaze on Gabrielle. “We were on our way back home, about a half-day out. I was riding Argo, and Virgil was on our other horse, Blaze.” She sniffed. “Virgil thought he heard horses coming up fast behind us, so he told me to take Argo as fast as she'd go down the road for a quarter candlemark and wait for him there. He was going to deal with whoever was following us.”
Just like his father, Gabrielle sighed.
“I waited and waited, but Virgil never came. So I worked my way back through the trees to where I'd left him and all I found was his scroll bag,” she said, pointing to the bag lying on the table. “Somewhere along the way Argo must have thrown a shoe, so I didn't dare ride her anymore.”
“Lucky for you that old man showed up when he did,” Lila replied.
Lucky indeed, Gabrielle thought. Aloud she said, “You did the right thing.” She looked to her sister. “Maybe I should take my things and find an inn? It looks like it might be a bit crowded here tonight…”
“Nonsense, Gabrielle. I'll stay in Sarah's room – I don't think she should be alone tonight – and you can take my room – Mother and Father's old room.”
“Are you sure? I don't mind…”
“I insist,” replied Lila.
Sarah added, “Please, Aunt Gabrielle. I'd feel better knowing you were around.”
“Alright then,” Gabrielle said. “But I do want to nose around town for a little while. See if I hear anything useful.”
“I will,” Gabrielle said with a grin.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Gabrielle cradled the mug of cider between her hands, listening to the conversations around her. This was the third tavern she'd been to in as many hours and she had yet to hear anything useful. She'd known it was a long shot, but she'd had to give it a try.
She'd just drained the last of her cider and was about to stand up when a snippet of conversation between two men a few tables over caught her attention. She concentrated, just as Xena had taught her, filtering out the rest of the tavern nose until only that conversation remained.
“Did you hear?”
“The followers of the One God captured another group from Ixos today.”
“Ixos? That's too close. The magistrate better do something about this…”
Gabrielle let the sounds of the tavern drown out the rest of the men's conversation. She'd heard enough. The one god. Dahak. Icy tendrils crept down her spine at the mere thought. She didn't know if Hope had anything to do with it, but she'd bet her last dinar that her daughter was somehow involved.
Gabrielle hurriedly left the tavern. She had to know. Had to know if Hope's body was still in the ground where they'd laid it to rest all those years before. Free of the city walls she broke into a run. She kept running all the way to the farm and only slowed once she'd passed it and entered the dense forest where she and Xena had carried both Hope and her son. She followed a half-forgotten, unmarked path to the gravesite, never noticing the silent figure detach itself from the shadow surrounding the house to follow her.
Finally reaching the gravesite, Gabrielle could see immediately that it had been disturbed. She fell to her knees. Before her, a gaping hole marred the earth. Beside it lay a fallen headstone. Gabrielle let out a humorless chuckle when she read the simple inscription ‘ Daughter and Son '. “Who in Tartarus put that up? We wanted it unmarked so they couldn't find it.”
“I suppose mother did. It's been there as long as I can remember.”
Gabrielle was up in a flash, sais at the ready, before it registered on her conscious mind just who had spoken. Sheathing her sais , Gabrielle said, “Sarah, it's really not a good idea to sneak up on me.”
Sarah stepped forward. “I'm sorry, Aunt Gabrielle. I saw you running and wanted to find out what was wrong.”
“It's ok. I'm getting better about it, but sometimes when I'm on edge I go on the offensive when startled, before assessing if it's friend or foe…” She paused in thought. “You said ‘it's been there as long as you can remember'? So, you've been here before?”
“Yes. Mother and I come on the same day every year, Aunt Gabrielle.”
“Hmm… how about you drop the ‘Aunt' and just call me Gabrielle? It's just too strange for me having someone nearly my own age call me ‘aunt'.”
“Alright, if you insist.” Sarah smiled at the older woman.
“You said the same day every year?”
“Yes, we come together in the fall, though I come more often. I always wondered who they were,” Sarah said, gesturing at the grave. “I figured they were family, but I didn't know how we could be related. I didn't think Mother and Father had been married long enough to have lost any babies before me, and I don't remember any after… So I figured maybe they were Mother's brother and sister or something.”
“No, it was just your mother and I growing up. Tell me, Sarah, do you have any idea how long ago the grave was disturbed?”
“Oh, at least a season I'd say. Why?”
“A season, Hades, it's true,” Gabrielle said to herself.
“Nothing,” Gabrielle answered briskly. “C'mon, let's get back to the house before you catch cold,” she said, putting her arm around the younger woman.
“Aun… Gabrielle who were they?” Sarah asked, casting a shy glance at her aunt.
Gabrielle gave her niece a long, hard look. Finally she sighed, “My daughter and grandson.”
“That's not possible! That grave's older than I am.”
“I guess it's time you learned some family history. How about I tell you over a cup of tea?”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Gabrielle awoke to the sensation of feather-light kisses across her eyes, her mouth, and her throat. She let out a low moan as a wandering hand found a sensitive nipple. The other nipple was enveloped in a warm mouth.
“That better be my wife,” Gabrielle gasped softly as she opened her eyes. As expected she saw the raven tresses of her lover. She ran her fingers through the lustrous hair as her body thrummed to her lover's skilled touch. Gabrielle felt her growing climax as Xena's hands danced a familiar rhythm. She managed to bite back a muffled, “Oh, gods,” as she rode the wave upon which her lover had sent her.
The moment Gabrielle regained her senses, she pounced on her partner. One thing they didn't have to worry about with Xena being a ghost was how much noise the raven-haired woman made, so Gabrielle did her very best to wring every last bit of passion from her lover, leaving her panting and gasping in sated bliss.
When Xena finally came back to earth, she said, “I love you, Gabrielle.”
“I love you too, Xena,” Gabrielle said and snuggled into her favorite position with her head on Xena's shoulder, legs entwined. She traced idle patterns on Xena's stomach, content to stay right where she was.
“Gabrielle,” Xena said, running her fingers through her partner's short, golden locks. “I know what you found out last night…”
“Don't, Xena. Please don't ruin the moment with that.”
“Alright.” Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. “I promise I won't say another word about it until Lila or Sarah gets up.”
Gabrielle groaned as she heard the other bedroom door open and close quietly. “You knew, didn't you?” she accused, with a slap to the firm abs under her hand.
Xena just shrugged in response. “So, what's your plan, oh, Battling Bard of Poteidaia?”
This earned her another slap. “Well, I'm pretty sure Virgil was taken by the same group that hit Ixos yesterday, so I could just go straight to the temple. It would save a lot of time…”
“But, if I'm wrong and someone else has Virgil, he may run out of time before I deal with that and get back. Not to mention that any chance I would have had to track him would likely be obliterated.”
“So, what's your plan?”
“Yesss,” drawled the warrior princess.
“Was I this annoying to you, when you were in charge?”
Xena laughed at the indignant look on her partner's face, which just made Gabrielle scowl all the harder. Xena kissed her nose, which made Gabrielle giggle instead.
Catching her breath, Gabrielle said, “My gut instinct is telling me to go straight to the temple, but the smart thing to do would be to go to where Virgil was attacked and see if I can follow him from there.”
Xena looked deep into her lover's eyes for a moment. “I think you should go with your gut on this.”
“But Xena, if they're not the ones who took Virgil…”
“Alright. From what you could tell, how far out of the way would it take you if you went to the spot Sarah described?”
“Staying on the road, only a candlemark or two, but I was planning to cut across country from here if I was going straight to the temple…”
“How about a compromise then? We go to the spot and if the tracks look like they're heading to the temple, or if you can't find them in a quarter candlemark, you head straight there and if not… we follow the tracks?”
“Sounds like a plan. Now we'd better get up so we can put this plan into motion.”
Gabrielle dressed and wandered into the kitchen where she found her sister preparing breakfast. “Morning, Lila. Anything I can do to help?”
“Morning. No, I've got everything I need right here.”
Gabrielle took a seat at the kitchen table and watched her sister for a few moments. “How's Sarah doing?”
“Mm m… it took a long time for her to settle down last night. Poor thing,” Lila sighed. “She said that every time she closed her eyes, she would imagine all these horrible things happening to Virgil.”
“I can imagine,” Gabrielle commiserated.
Glancing at her sister, Lila said, “I'm sure you can.” She paused, debating if she should ask her next question. Finally deciding she had nothing to lose, Lila asked, “Gabrielle, what happened?”
Gabrielle had known the question was inevitable. She just wasn't sure she wanted to tell the tale. The pain was still too fresh, too raw. But she also knew that talking about it would probably help, and who better to discuss her disappointment with than her sister? So Gabrielle told Lila everything, starting with Kenji's arrival and ending with the sunset on Mt Fuji.
“That's just awful,” Lila said, reaching over to take her sister's hand. “And to think you went through all that for nothing.”
Placing her free hand over Lila's, Gabrielle said, “I'd do it all again, Lila. Though to be absolutely honest, I'd try harder to keep Xena from getting on the boat in the first place.”
“I don't blame you one bit! But I still can't believe Xena did that to you. I mean she had a choice unlike…”
“I know Lila, but Xena believed Akemi. And as much as I may disagree with her decision, I can't really fault Xena for making it with the information she had at the time.” Gabrielle felt a warm hand placed on her shoulder.
“You don't?” Xena and Lila both asked.
Gabrielle lifted a hand up to squeeze the one on her shoulder and masked it by then running through her hair. “No, I really don't.” It was the first time Gabrielle had admitted that and it made her feel better.
Just then Sarah came into the kitchen. She groaned and massaged her lower back. “Morning,” she grumbled.
“Takes after you, I see,” Xena teased.
“Hush,” Gabrielle whispered back
“Are you alright, dear?” Lila asked her daughter.
“Fine, just not used to riding this much, I guess. My back is killing me.”
“I used to massage Xena's back when she was pregnant with Eve. Would you like to see if it would help?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yes, please. Anything to make it go away.” Sarah groaned again.
Gabrielle led Sarah back into the bedroom and had her lay on her side; she then proceeded to work the tension out of the other woman's back. Every time she thought she had gotten the muscles to relax they would spasm again.
Standing up, Gabrielle said, “I need to rest my hands for a moment. I'll be right back, ok?”
Gabrielle walked into the bedroom she'd used the previous night and turned to face Xena, a worried look on her face. “She's in labor, isn't she, Xena?”
Xena placed her hands on her partner's shoulders. “I think so, sweetheart.”
“I was hoping I was wrong about that…”
“No, Gabrielle, your instincts are right on. You're a damn fine healer.”
Smiling Gabrielle said, “Not as good as you.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Unless you want to deliver this baby today, you might want to send for the midwife. I'm pretty sure we don't have the herbs we need to stop the contractions.”
After checking their medical supplies to be certain, Gabrielle walked back out into the kitchen where Lila was cleaning up the breakfast dishes. “Lila.” She paused, waiting for her sister to turn around. “I think we need to get the midwife.”
“I'm pretty sure Sarah's in labor. The stress of the last few days probably brought it on.”
“She can't be. She wasn't having any contractions.”
“I've seen it a couple of times. Some women have ‘back labor'. It looks and feels different, but the result is still the same. If she really isn't due for another moon, then the midwife might be able to give her something to halt the contractions – it might not work, though.”
“Don't you have what you need in that kit of yours?”
“I've already checked. I'm out. The only use for that particular herb is for stopping contractions, and since that's not a problem Xena and I have to face, we didn't restock it when we ran out.”
“I don't know, Gabrielle…” Lila still looked doubtful.
“Trust me, Lila. Either tell me how to find the nearest midwife, or I'll stay here and keep an eye on Sarah while you go get her yourself.”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
When Lila returned with the midwife it was pretty obvious to everyone that Sarah was indeed in labor. The midwife quickly made a tea with the herbs that would ease Sarah's contractions. Then leaving Sarah to rest, the three older women went back into the main room.
Taking a seat, the midwife said to Lila, “I've done what I can. Now it's a waiting game. We wait to see if the child is as impatient as its mother and aunt,” she said glancing to Gabrielle, “or if it will wait until the proper time.”
Startled, Gabrielle asked, “You know?” Not many people outside of the family and close friends knew that she was the same Gabrielle who had grown up on this very farm.
“Of course I do, child,” she said patting Gabrielle's hand. “I remember every baby I've ever delivered – especially the first.”
“First?” the sisters asked in unison.
“Goodness, yes,” the midwife chuckled. “I was helping my mother with another difficult labor when young Herodotus came running up babbling about the baby coming. I'd never delivered a baby on my own before, but mother figured that with this being a first pregnancy and all that there'd be plenty of time.” The midwife laughed at the memory. “Mother decided to send me along anyway to monitor Hecuba's condition. By the time I got here, you were already crowning and pretty much all I had to do was catch you when you came out.”
“That's my Gabrielle,” Xena said with tears of mirth.
“Really?” Lila asked. “It was almost the same with Sarah.”
“Yes it was, child. Though I did have a bit more to do with her delivery.” She looked at both women seriously. “With a history like that, this child just might not wait. And since it's such an early birth I'd suggest you fetch the father from wherever he's hiding so he has a chance to see the babe if worse comes to worse.” With that the midwife got up to check on her patient.
Lila and Gabrielle exchanged a significant look. Standing up, Gabrielle said, “I'll do my best, Lila. It might not be until tomorrow, if I'm able…”
“Stop it! Gabrielle, of course you'll free him.” Lila put on a brave smile. “My big sister was trained by the best. She can do anything.”
Kneeling in front of her sister, Gabrielle took both of Lila's hands in her own. “If I'm right, then followers of Dahak have him.”
Lila gasped, “No! Not them.”
“I don't know for sure that they're the ones, but I do know they're back… and I think they may have done something to bring my… daughter… back. I'll do my best to find Virgil and free him, even if I have to die trying.”
“Don't say that Gabrielle.”
“Lila, he deserves to be here to see his child grow up. I'll do everything to make that happen.” Before Lila could say anything else Gabrielle got up, strode into her bedroom where she settled her weapons into place, and was out the door to saddle Ronin.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
The sun was already halfway through its western descent by the time Gabrielle reached the spot where Virgil had disappeared. She'd known since the crossroads that led to the temple what she would find, a mass of tracks, both mounted and on foot, leading right to it. Still she gave careful examination to both sides of the road looking for another trail that could lead to Virgil, but all she could find was the spot where Sarah had surreptitiously come back – made distinctive by Argo's missing shoe.
Remounting Ronin, Gabrielle took off at a fast pace for the temple, which was still a few candlemarks away – if her memory was accurate. She rode hard, knowing time was not on her side.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Finally nearing the temple Gabrielle pulled Ronin to a halt. She dismounted and led him into the trees where she could do reconnaissance without being seen. She hunkered down just inside the tree line and counted the guards she could see; she didn't like what she saw. Gabrielle started to edge her way around the outside of the temple when she felt a hand on her arm.
“Gabrielle, let's put my ‘condition' to good use. I can go in there, take a good look around, and find out what's going on – all without being seen.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Alright. You do that; I'll look around out here for another way in.”
“Sounds good,” Xena said before she gave her partner a kiss and headed for the temple.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Gabrielle had made a full circuit of the temple and found all the exits equally well guarded. During her observations, however, she had seen several priests and priestesses arriving. She managed to find one by himself and he was now gathering dust in the surrounding forest, his robe conveniently awaiting her use.
Finally Gabrielle could see Xena returning from her reconnaissance mission. The warrior princess did not look happy.
Reaching Gabrielle's side, Xena sat down in a huff. “It's a no-go, Gabrielle. That place is swarming with guards. The few places without guards are full of priests.”
“Did you find Virgil?”
“Yeah, but I'm telling you, nothing short of an army is getting in there… of course by the time an army did get in there, Virgil and the other prisoners would be dead…”
“I seem to remember a time when I constituted an army.” Gabrielle gave a half-smile at the memory from Tripolis.
“Gabrielle, I'm not kidding. That place is too well guarded.”
“All the more reason why a single person has a better chance.”
“No. If you go alone, it's a suicide mission. I won't let you do that.”
“How are you going to stop me, Xena?” Gabrielle demanded. “I promised my family that I'd get Virgil out of there, and that's exactly what I'm going to do!”
“At least go and get some backup. If you can keep them fighting in the corridors they lose the advantage…”
“There's no time for that, Xena.”
“Sure there is, Gabrielle. Please, go to Ixos, it's closer than Poteidaia, and recruit some men from there to help you…”
“Ok, Xena, just for the sake of argument,” Gabrielle changed tactics, “Say I do go to Ixos and get help. By the time I get there it'll be dark. You won't be able to lead me through the temple.”
“I didn't think about that,” Xena said regretfully. “Hades, I hate being a ghost.”
“Me too, love,” Gabrielle said squeezing her lover's hand. “Will you draw me a map, please?”
“Alright, there are three entrances. Here, here, and here,” Xena said as she began drawing a map in the dirt. “The layout is fairly straightforward once you get inside. The prisoners are being held here,” she pointed to an area behind and to one side of the altar room. “But don't try to bring them out through any of these doors,” she indicated the three already on the map. “Instead bring them over here. There's a smaller, unguarded, one-way door back here,” she indicated a place much closer to the prisoners. “Apparently whoever built that place expected trouble and gave themselves a bolt-hole,” Xena grinned, “Which we can use to our advantage.”
“Nice,” Gabrielle smiled. “Did you learn anything else while you were in there?”
Xena looked down at her hands, not meeting Gabrielle's eyes. “You were right, Gabrielle. They're being led by Hope, and she seems stronger than ever.”
“Hades,” Gabrielle swore. “I wish I had been wrong about that.” She stared at her soulmate, “I guess that's one more challenge to face after I get Virgil and the others out of there.”
“No! Gabrielle, you can't face her! Promise me you won't try to take her on alone,” Xena begged.
“Xena,” Gabrielle said gently, “One way or the other, this needs to stop.” She sighed. “I brought her into the world and I have to take her out of it.”
“We've tried that, sweetheart. But, like a bad dinar, she just keeps coming back.”
“It doesn't matter, Xena. She and Dahak have got to go. If we leave them here, they will just find more victims. I can't have that on my conscious.”
“Maybe Ares can help…” Xena muttered. “No… he was on her side last time. How about Aphrodite? Maybe she could do something?”
“Like what? Hit her with a ‘love bolt'? Get her to feel ‘love' in her heart? Get real, Xena.”
“Ok, that won't work. Maybe Apollo? C'mon Gabrielle, work with me here…”
“I think I'll take a nap while you decide who else can help me,” Gabrielle said, feigning nonchalance. She stretched out on the ground and crossed her ankles; head pillowed on a convenient saddlebag, and closed her eyes. She prayed to every god still on Olympus that Xena wouldn't figure out what she was doing. In her heart Gabrielle knew she was right. Knew she would have a better chance of freeing Virgil and the others – alone. Knew her only chance of facing Hope was alone. She didn't know why, but she knew it was important that she not take anyone else into that temple with her.”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
When Gabrielle awoke, the sun was low in the sky. She opened her eyes to see Xena pacing their impromptu campsite and smiled inwardly to herself. “C'mere,” she said, patting the ground beside her. “You're gonna wear a rut over there if you keep doing that.”
“Good, you're awake,” Xena said, sitting down beside her lover. “You need to get going if you're going to make it to Ixos before it gets too dark…” Xena trailed off as Gabrielle reached up a hand and idly started playing with the warrior princess's hair. “Wh-what are you doing, Gabrielle?”
“Getting ready to make love to my wife,” she purred, as she grasped the back of Xena's head and pulled her down into a long, searing kiss.
Pulling back momentarily, Xena panted, “Gabrielle…”
“Don't fight it, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered as she sucked on a sensitive earlobe. Fingers long used to the task expertly began unbuckling Xena's armor and Xena soon joined her in the endeavor.
Bodies intimately familiar with each other were soon rocking together, bringing each other higher and higher. Gabrielle climaxed first, she couldn't hold off – she really needed this before she had to enter that temple and face her daughter. Gabrielle plunged two fingers into her lover and began slowly, gently stroking her.
Gabrielle glanced up at the sun through a slight gap in the trees and saw that only a sliver remained. Returning her gaze to her soulmate's eyes, she said, “Happy Summer Solstice, Xena.” She gradually increased her pace. “Someday, I hope you'll forgive me.” She knew Xena was close now. “I love you with all of my heart, and one way or the other, I'll see you soon.” She stroked the pad of her thumb over Xena's sensitive nub of flesh, sending the other woman over the edge. Gabrielle kept her gaze locked with her lover's as the sun finally sank below the horizon. As Xena disappeared, Gabrielle whispered once again, “I love you, Xena.”
Gabrielle lay there for a moment longer and hung her head. She knew what she'd done. She had purposely distracted Xena to keep the warrior princess from trying to talk her into going for help. Gabrielle knew there wasn't time. Before he had died, she had gotten the priest of Dahak to talk by using the pinch. It was not only the first time she had intentionally used it, but also the first time she had used it to kill. Instinctively she knew that she couldn't let him live. If she had, Hope would have been able to use him to find her.
Yes, she'd already known that Hope was in the temple. The priest had told her; she'd only pretended to be surprised. The priest had also told her that in honor of the Summer Solstice – when the barrier between realms was thinner – priests from all over the known world were arriving. There would be a big celebration that night, culminating in a mass sacrifice to Dahak at midnight. That gave her a little over two candlemarks to get in and free Virgil and the others. She'd worry about the rest later.
Slowly Gabrielle sat up and began dressing. She really did hope that Xena would forgive her someday. Especially if what she did here tonight got her killed. Gabrielle could feel it. One way or the other the events that took place here in this temple this night would change her life forever.
As she reached for one of her boots something caught her eye. Hemlock . An idea began to take shape in her mind. Finished dressing in her own clothes, she searched the area. Smiling to herself she gathered up all the hemlock she could find and crushed it into a bag which she slung across her chest before settling the priest's robes over her head. The robe was a little long, but not so long as to make her trip. It would have to do; it was the only chance she'd have.
She left her campsite and made her careful way back to the road. As she neared it she could make out voices. Peering through the trees she could see another small group of priests heading her way. Perfect! Gabrielle waited for them to pass, then quietly slipped in behind them – far enough back that they wouldn't immediately notice her, but close enough that the temple guards shouldn't become suspicious.
The group broke free of the trees and two of them started chattering excitedly about getting to meet the goddess. Gabrielle's stomach churned. If I have anything to say about it, it'll be the last thing any of you do. She patted the bag on her chest surreptitiously to make sure it was still there and then pulled her hood forward, trying to better hide her features from view.
When they were only a few feet away, one of the guards said, “Cutting it a little close, aren't you?”
“We were delayed by rough seas,” an older priest answered with an accent vaguely reminiscent of Brittania, but not quite the same.
“So did many of the others,” the guard said, stepping aside.
What? No passwords or code phrases? Gabrielle thought with disappointment.
Gabrielle and the small group passed through the main doors unhindered. The group she was following proceeded directly into the altar room, but Gabrielle ducked into a side room to get her bearings. She smiled to herself when she saw what the room contained. There were a half-dozen casks of wine in the small room. She had never once seen a celebration of any sort where the wine didn't flow freely. With only a slight twinge of guilt at what she was about to do, she pried open the first cask and poured a portion of the hemlock into it. She stirred the contents as best as she was able before resealing that cask and moving on to the next.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Poisoning the wine had taken longer than she'd thought; she would have to hurry if she was going to free Virgil and the others before the guards came to get them at midnight. She opened the door to the storage room a crack and peered out. Seeing no one she extended her other senses as Xena had taught her and determined that the coast was clear. She eased out into the hallway and quickly closed the door behind her. Then projecting all the confidence and sense of belonging she could muster she strode purposefully past the altar room and down the side corridor to the chamber where the prisoners were being held.
The fates were on her side. There were only two guards posted outside the chamber. Altering her voice so she wouldn't sound like Hope, Gabrielle said, “I've been sent to check on the prisoners.”
The guards exchanged startled glances. Apparently they hadn't been expecting anyone until it was time to lead the prisoners in for the sacrifice.
After a moment they stepped aside and opened the door to admit Gabrielle. She started to turn to close the door but realized that one of the guards had followed her inside. She let him close the door firmly behind himself and when he turned to face her he was met with two quick jabs to the neck. Gabrielle caught him before he fell and lowered him soundlessly to the floor.
She started to turn and caught the flicker of motion as a fist came flying at her jaw. Reacting instinctively she grabbed the arm coming at her and pulled it to her right, past her, while she simultaneously stepped to the left and lashed out with her right foot to bring her assailant down. It worked, but she got tangled up in the unfamiliar robe, bringing her down in a heap on top of her attacker. She smiled. “Hello Virgil,” she said and stood up offering him a hand. When he hesitated she used her other hand to throw back her hood. “It's me, Gabrielle.”
Warily he said, “How do I know you're not her ? She looks just like my friend.”
Gabrielle removed the cumbersome robe she no longer needed before she answered. “You've read my scrolls, Virgil.” She looked at him sadly. “You know why she looks like me.”
“Yes I do, but I also know that Hope has pretended to be Gabrielle before, when it suited her purposes,” he said as he stood up.
Gabrielle sighed. “That's true, Virgil. But there are many things Hope doesn't know. Ask me something that isn't in one of my scrolls. Something that only the real Gabrielle would know.”
Virgil discarded several possibilities before settling on one. With an evil grin he said, “Tell me what we did in the temple in Amphipolis while Xena was seducing Lucifer.”
Gabrielle blushed beat red. “Don't you mean ‘what we didn't do'? Because we didn't do anything, even though you did try to get me drunk,” she accused.
“Gabrielle!” he cried, taking her hand and pulling her into a hug. “What are you doing here? Where's Xena?”
“It's a long story, Virgil, but I'm here to rescue you.” She looked up to encompass the entire room, “All of you. There's not much time. Gather ‘round everyone.”
When they were gathered in a loose circle around her, she said, “Alright, once we leave this room turn left. When you get to the second corridor turn left again. It will seem to come to a dead end. Pull the torch on the right hand wall towards you. Then count three bricks to the right of the torch and two up and push in. This should release a hidden door to the outside. Once there stay down and head straight for the trees. If you circle around the temple to the right, it should bring you back to the road out of here.”
“But what about you Gabrielle?” Virgil asked.
“Someone needs to be the rearguard.” She looked at him seriously. “I'm counting on you, Virgil. I need you to see these people safely to the crossroads.”
“I have something else I need to take care of. I'll follow as soon as I can.”
“I want to help,” he offered.
“The best thing you can do is lead them out of here, then go home, Virgil. Sarah and the baby need you.” She put a hand on his arm. “She was in labor when I left. Go to her. The next generation needs you.” And with that Gabrielle got up and knocked on the door signaling the remaining guard that she was ready to leave.
The guard opened the door and was caught by surprise when a hand grabbed his tunic and dragged him inside. He didn't even have time to regain his balance as two quick jabs cut off the flow of blood to his brain.
Gabrielle looked down at her hands. That's the third time I've done that with the intent to kill… what have I become?
She was brought out of her reverie when Virgil hissed, “When did you learn to do that ?”
“In Japa.” She walked into the corridor, sais ready. “C'mon.” She took up a position on one side of the door while the prisoners filed out heading the other direction.
“Gabrielle, I…” Virgil began.
“Remember, I'm counting on you… Sarah's counting on you. Now go.” She gave him a gentle nudge.
Gravely Virgil nodded and patted her on the back before turning and leaving with the others.
The last prisoner had just exited their cell when a dozen guards rounded the corner from the direction Gabrielle was facing. “Run!” she shouted as she turned and pushed the straggler to go faster.
She spun back to face her attackers who were coming in a rush. Unfortunately for them, they were hindered by the narrow hallway and could only come at her two at a time. Gabrielle spun, kicked, punched, flipped, and stabbed her way through half the guards, all the while backing slowly towards the escape passage. She had no intention of following the prisoners, but she had to make sure they escaped.
She reached the passage and took out another of her attackers with a kick to the side of his head. She felt bone crunch beneath her foot and knew he wouldn't be bothering anyone else.
Gabrielle risked a glance down the passage just in time to see the door snick shut. She smiled to herself; her charges were safe.
“Ok, boys. Enough games,” she said and sheathed her sais . She held up her empty hands. I sure hope I know what I'm doing. “I surrender.”
The guards roughly grabbed her – each remaining guard sporting some injury she'd bestowed upon them – and dragged her to the altar room. She was taken directly to the altar and thrust upon it where she was chained to its surface.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
It was nearly sunset. Only two candlemarks until the ceremony that would return her father to this realm. Soon he would be restored to power – unless something interfered with his plans. Something in the form of a green-eyed bard.
“Where are you, Mother?” Hope muttered. “I can feel you near.” She would have thought that her mother would have made her presence known by now. Hope was looking forward to it. Looking forward to matching wits with her mother and the legendary Xena.
As soon as her priests had brought in the one called Virgil she had known that her mother couldn't be far behind. She wasn't sure how they were connected, but she could sense the connection between this Virgil and her mother. There was no way that Gabrielle would stand idly by and let a friend be sacrificed. As soon as Gabrielle made her appearance they would have her. And once they had her, capturing Xena would be easy.
If her father's plans were to be fulfilled, then the sacrifice of 100 innocents and the presence of nearly all of Dahak's priests were needed on this day. The day when the two realms were closest. Xena's presence would make it all the sweeter as her death would be the final act that allowed Dahak to cross over. Dahak needed the willing sacrifice of a warrior heart in order to enter this realm permanently. Hope knew that Xena would do anything for Gabrielle, including voluntarily taking Gabrielle's place on the altar.
Hope was secretly glad that she would have the chance to see her mother again. She couldn't put her finger on it, but there had been a growing feeling within her toward Gabrielle – even before her mother had taken them both into the lava pit. It had been what had caused Hope to use her powers to send her mother to safety instead of allowing her to fall to her death. It was also what had drawn her to Poteidaia afterwards. The growing desire to be with and know more about her mother.
She knew that her mother was loved by nearly everyone who met her, and Hope had learned that Gabrielle was full of love for nearly everyone she met. Why, then, didn't she love her own daughter? Gabrielle had told her once that she did what she had done out of love, but her father told her that wasn't true. Dahak told her that Gabrielle tried to kill her out of fear and hatred.
Up until now she had always believed her father. After all, he's the one who had always been there, right? But now something was different. She had felt different ever since the priests had discovered how to bring her back. Something felt… broken.
Hope's musings were interrupted when the head priest entered the small chamber she called her own and said, “Goddess?”
She turned to face him, irritated at the disturbance. “Yes?” she asked, using her telekinetic powers to lift him up by his throat so that his toes were just touching the floor.
“My apologies, Goddess, but the last group of priests has finally arrived.” He swallowed hard. “You may begin whenever you are ready, Goddess.”
Hope dropped him. “Thank you. I will be there shortly, then we will begin.”
The priest bowed and hurriedly left before feeling the brunt of his goddess' ire again.
“Now, where are you, Mother?” Hope let her senses extend down the connection she shared with Gabrielle. “Ah,” she smiled. “So, you've found your way inside undetected. Good, this will make things interesting.”
Hope pulled up her hood and left her chamber. A sense of anticipation coursed through her veins. She could sense that tonight was a pivotal moment in her life. Tonight, her destiny would finally be fulfilled.
She entered the cavernous room that contained the lava pit housing Dahak's essence. Hope paused just inside the door remembering the last time that she had come here to perform the same ritual. She remembered who stood beside her so long ago. Callisto – a poor choice of ally, though she did server her purpose, after a fashion. And Ares, the father of her child.
Ares had always been conflicted over his role in the new order, so it came as no surprise to her when he had ultimately failed in his duty. He had always been overly fond of Xena, Hope knew that, but she had hoped that the fear of his own demise would spur him on. The only thing it had spurred him to do was give her a child. A son that she had loved, even if he was too tender to serve Dahak's purposes. She couldn't blame him, really. Although her son had appeared grown, he was just a child. A small boy, really. He acted like any young human child, he wanted his mother's love and affection and she hadn't time to give it to him.
That thought gave her pause. She had treated her son no differently than she felt she had been treated by her own mother. But yet Gabrielle's actions when Hope had pretended to be Fayla gave lie to that belief. Her mother had actually cared about her and wanted to protect her. All that had changed, however, when she had killed Solan. Gabrielle had easily seen through the lie that she had found him dead. While Xena was off fighting Callisto, Gabrielle had told Hope that they needed to flee. Her mother had methodically gathered up her things and led Hope out into the forest. Feigning a twisted ankle, Gabrielle had called a halt and innocently offered Hope the waterskin which she had taken – never believing her mother capable of murder. Hope had been wrong of course, but even as she lay dying, Gabrielle had told her that she was sorry, and that she loved her.
That was the first time Gabrielle was responsible for Hope's ‘death'. The second time was in this very room. Xena had planned to do the deed in order to stop her from fulfilling Dahak's plans, but Ares had convinced the Fates to end Xena's life if she killed Hope. Gabrielle knew this and made the ultimate sacrifice by throwing both herself and Hope into the lava pit, but even as Hope felt herself losing her balance Gabrielle had whispered “I love you” in her ear. The sacrifice might have worked too if her father had not used his flagging strength to reach up and catch Hope's falling form.
The third time Gabrielle wasn't directly responsible for Hope's death, but she was instrumental in it nonetheless. Of course, that had been partly her own fault as well. If Hope hadn't been pretending to be Gabrielle in the first place, her mother might not have returned the favor. When Xena had stabbed her son while he was embracing the person he thought was his mother, he became confused, and when Hope had rushed in to help him he had accidently stabbed her.
So many confusing memories. Hope didn't have time for this. She couldn't afford to be distracted by conflicting emotions. Shaking her head to clear it, she called, “Assemble the guards – except those watching the sacrifices,” before striding briskly through the chamber and coming to a stop on the raised area before the lava pit.
What little chatter there had been ceased immediately as she lifted her arms to the heavens. “Chosen of Dahak, hear me.” A pin could have been heard in the expectant hush that fell over the room. “Soon my father will return. Soon Dahak will remake the world.” She paused. “But the time is not yet nigh. First we must make our daily devotion – as one.” The sound of hundreds of priests and three-score guards going to their knees in supplication rang through the chamber. Hope turned and faced the lava pit. Lowering her hands and clasping them in front of her she began the devotion, “Dahak, father of the new world order, hear us…”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
The devotion went on for well over a candlemark. Without turning Hope called out. “Guards! Bring in the sacrifices.”
Immediately a dozen of her guards sprang up to do her bidding. They were gone longer than Hope would have thought, and when they returned there was the sound of far fewer feet than she expected. When she heard the sounds of chains clanking on the stone altar behind her she knew what must have happened. She turned and, smiling, said, “Hello Mother.”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Gabrielle pulled at the chains on her wrists and ankles to test their strength. As was to be expected, they were sturdily crafted. She would not be able to break free. It would end here. Gabrielle was at peace with that. She had freed the prisoners, and if the priests held true to form, a good many of them would die with her tonight. And with any luck, so would Hope. If not, Gabrielle prayed that the loss of so many priests would weaken both Hope and Dahak to the point where it would be a very long time before they tried this again.
She took a moment to look around herself. It was much the way she remembered it, both from the last time she was here, and from her dream on the return trip from Japa. Gathered in a loose semi-circle around the altar Gabrielle saw what must have been hundreds of priests. She'd had no idea that there were this many. Where had they all come from? If, by some miracle, she managed to survive this night, would she have to travel the world in search of other temples to Dahak and his followers? Gabrielle would just have to cross that bridge if and when she came to it. After all, she still had to survive tonight first.
Looking toward the glowing lava pit, Gabrielle saw a lone figure in a glossy red robe with their back to her. As she watched, the figure turned, descended the three steps to the main floor and crossed the remaining distance to Gabrielle.
“Hello, Mother,” Hope said, looking down at the prone figure before her.
Gabrielle didn't react. She knew that she would find Hope here. Had felt her presence in fact. She wondered briefly about that. Gabrielle knew that Hope and her followers could sense each other – it was this, in fact, that had allowed Xena and Gabrielle to follow Seraphin directly to Hope the last time they were here. Why, then, could Gabrielle sense her daughter? She was certainly no follower of either Dahak or Hope. It must have something to do with Hope's unearthly origins.
Finally Gabrielle said, “Hope.”
“Surprised to see me, Mother?”
“Not really. I knew you were back.”
“You could know no such thing,” Hope said, irritation in her voice.
Gabrielle looked at her daughter. “Hope, the night your priests brought your body here and placed it in Dahak's flames… I saw it.”
Hope took a half-step back. She had thought that she'd imagined that part. Imagined that her mother's face was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes to this new life.
Gabrielle saw the recognition flash in Hope's eyes. So, that ‘vision' had worked both ways. Did that mean that Hope was conscious of what she had done in the vision, or was it sheer reflex after all? Gabrielle hoped it was the former.
Collecting herself, Hope gazed at her mother, scrutinizing the differences she found. “You've changed, Mother… though not as much as you should have given how much time has passed.”
“It's a long story.” Using her opening salvo, Gabrielle said, “Look, Hope, if you'd like to have a happy family reunion, why don't you get rid of these chains?” Gabrielle lifted her right hand slightly to emphasize her point.
Shaking her head, Hope replied, “I can't do that, Mother.” She looked up and scanned the cavern carefully. She examined every nook and cranny where a skilled individual could hide themselves. Finding no one in the shadows, she looked into the faces of each and every one of the priests and guards present, expecting to find a pair of piercing blue eyes peering back at her. Still not finding what she sought, she bent down to gaze at her mother. “Where's Xena?”
Calmly, Gabrielle answered, “She's not here.”
“What? Is she gathering an army to attack us; sending you in to stall for time?”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “Xena's not coming.”
“Why not?” Hope was surprised. “You two are inseparable.”
Gabrielle smiled ruefully. “There is one thing that could separate us.”
“What's that?” Hope sneered. She was positive this was some kind of trick. Xena would never leave her mother for long.
“Xena's dead,” Gabrielle said matter-of-factly.
Hope's eyes widened in surprise. This changed things. They could get by without the prisoners, but they needed the sacrifice of a warrior heart, and without Xena…
“ Prepare the sacrifice! ” a thunderous voice boomed throughout the cavern.
Turning to face the pit, Hope asked, “Father? There is no warrior heart…”
“ Yes, there is ,” Dahak's booming voice answered with an evil laugh. “ And she is already conveniently chained to the altar. ”
Hope spun around to face Gabrielle who met her gaze with a weak half-smile. “You?”
“Surprise,” the warrior-bard said.
“ And since she surrendered to the guards, it makes her sacrifice a willing one. ” Dahak laughed again. “ It will be sweet to enter the world through one who has sworn to oppose me. I had thought using Xena would suffice, but this will be so much better. ”
Gabrielle swallowed nervously. I might have made a tactical error here.
Once again, Dahak bellowed, “ Prepare the sacrifice! ”
Immediately several lesser priests scurried to bring in the sacred wine. As they labored with their burden and began passing cups to every priest present, the head priest came over and knelt before Hope. In his hands lay a ceremonial dagger that Hope would use to kill Gabrielle.
Reflexively Hope took the dagger. She stared down at the blade in her hand. Finally all of the priests were served and they awaited the point in the ceremony in which they would drink. The final goblet was placed in Hope's left hand.
“ Kill her! ” Dahak ordered.
Hope felt the dagger in her hand spring up, poised to plunge into Gabrielle's heart. She fought the control Dahak was exerting over her. Never before had he tried to control her physical actions in this manner. Hand shaking, she managed to keep the dagger from plunging into the breast that had suckled her as an infant. Staring intently into her mother's eyes, Hope whispered, “Did you ever love me, Mother?”
Without hesitation Gabrielle answered, “Yes. With all my heart.” She allowed the love that she had held in check all these years to show through.
Hope saw, and for the first time in her life allowed herself to believe. Allowed herself to feel the love Gabrielle had for her. Allowed herself to feel the love she herself had for her mother. It felt wonderful. She felt almost complete.
Still under Dahak's rigid control, and unable to move, Hope asked Dahak, “Father, do you love me?”
“ Love? ” Dahak scoffed. “ What is love, but a foolish notion created by mortals that allows them to ‘feel better' about succumbing to their baser instincts! Now! Kill! Her! ” he bellowed.
That was it. With that statement Hope felt Dahak's grip on her vanish. She was free. She knew what she had to do. It would be difficult though, unless… She gazed at her mother. Gabrielle, like her mentor Xena, always had a plan. Only loud enough for Gabrielle to hear, Hope said, “You've lost, Dahak.”
Did Hope really mean that? Gabrielle wondered. Involuntarily her eyes flicked to the goblet of wine still in her daughter's left hand before she returned her gaze to Hope's eyes.
Hope smiled. The first genuine smile Gabrielle had seen on her face since she was a baby. Raising the goblet high in the air, Hope called out, “Chosen of Dahak! Drink! Drink to his new order.” She slowly brought the goblet down to her own mouth and watched as Gabrielle's eyes briefly widened. Smiling again, Hope set the goblet down on the altar untouched. She watched her former priests down the contents of their own cups and waited.
“ What are you waiting for? ” Dahak Bellowed. “ Kill her! ”
Turning to face the lava pit, Hope said, “No. I will never again do your bidding!”
“ Guards! ” Dahak bellowed. “ Kill her! Kill the warrior and kill her treacherous daughter! ”
The guards rushed forward, but they were hampered as hundreds of priests began collapsing in front of them.
Hope's and Gabrielle's eyes locked momentarily and something unspoken passed between mother and daughter. Hope's gaze shifted to the chains holding Gabrielle in place and suddenly she was free, weapons in hand.
Gabrielle jumped off the altar and landed next to her daughter. She snuck a quick glance at Hope, not quite able to believe that she was about to engage in battle side-by-side with Hope.
They met their attackers head on, or at least Gabrielle did. Hope used her telekinetic powers much of the time and was able to take out many of the onrushing guards before they even got close. Gabrielle and Hope got separated as they each fought their attackers in their own way.
Although doing admirably in her defense, Hope found herself losing ground. Already she was at the top of the steps near the lava pit. One slow step at a time she was driven towards its edge. It was only fitting, she thought, that she would die at the ‘hands' of her father . She didn't care, as long as she removed enough of the threat to her mother as possible. Then she could die happy.
Gabrielle looked up from the guard she had just skewered and saw her daughter being driven towards the pit. “Hope!” she called. And in a weird kind of déjà vu Gabrielle found herself again running towards the lava pit. This time not to push her daughter over the edge, but instead to push her away from it. Gabrielle did a flip worthy of Xena as she vaulted up the steps and landed, still running. She did a flying tackle to Hope's side, knocking them both to safety as the last six guards came on. Unable to stop their charge every last one of them toppled into the waiting lava flow.
Mother and daughter both lay panting on the cold stone floor. It was over. The priests were dead – poisoned – and the guards lay sprawled among them.
Catching her breath Hope asked, “Why did you save me, Mother?” confusion evident in her features.
Gabrielle countered by asking, “Why did you save me Hope?”
“Because I… love… you.” The admission felt strange and oh so right at the same time.
Getting up, Gabrielle clapped a hand on Hope's shoulder. “You have your answer.”
Rising shakily to her feet, Hope asked, “You still love me? After everything I did? After what I almost did?”
Taking both of her daughter's hands in her own and gazing steadily into her eyes, Gabrielle said, “Hope, you're my daughter. I've always loved you.” She paused. “I haven't always liked you, or your actions, but I could never not love you.”
Hope closed her eyes, taking in this new emotion. She was completely unprepared when she felt herself pulled into a warm embrace. Hope then did something she'd never done before. There, in her mother's arms, she cried for the first time in her life. She felt Gabrielle rubbing gentle circles on her back as she spoke soothingly to her. Finally, feeling somewhat better, Hope pulled back a little and said, “Thank you.”
Gabrielle smiled, “Anytime.”
“You mean that, don't you.” It was more statement than question.
“Yes, I do, Hope. Just as I hope you really meant it when you said that Dahak had lost.”
“Definitely, Mother. I finally realized how wrong I'd been listening to him all this time.”
“I'd like to hear more about that, but maybe we should get out of here?” Gabrielle suggested.
“Alright, but there are a few things I need to do first.”
Gabrielle looked at her sharply. “Like what?”
Hope sighed. Although they were starting to bridge the gulf between them, it seem that trust would be a long time coming – if ever. “Mother, I need to make sure any written texts here are destroyed. I need to make sure no one else can use this temple to bring Dahak to power.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle looked a little sheepish. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Hope smiled inwardly. Maybe it wouldn't take that long after all. “Sure, you can help me burn the scrolls.”
Gabrielle winced at the thought of burning scrolls, but if it would help purge the world of Dahak, she would gladly do it.
The two women worked for the next few candlemarks scouring every inch of the temple for any written reference to Dahak. Those scrolls that they did find, they carried back to the altar where they made a big bonfire. Gabrielle suggested they just dump them into the lava pit. But Hope told her that even though Dahak was severely weakened, dumping the scrolls into his lava wouldn't destroy them. Dahak would just collect them and be able to redistribute them at a later time. Hope did, however like Gabrielle's suggestion that they dump the remainder of the wine down the pit. Hope admitted that it wasn't likely to kill him, but it might weaken him further.
“Ok, ready to go?” Gabrielle asked much later.
“I'd like to get a few things from my… room. If you don't mind?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle followed Hope to the small chamber she had called her own.
Entering her room, Hope said, “I don't have much.” Shaking her head ruefully she added, “I don't even have a change of clothes.” She plucked at the robe in disgust. “What I was wearing… before, wasn't salvageable.”
Placing a hand on her daughter's shoulder, Gabrielle said, “It's ok. You can borrow a spare tunic of mine until we can get into town and buy you something else.”
Hope smiled in response, and then turned to a small table beside the bed. She picked up a hair brush, two hair clips, and a handful of different hair ties and placed them on the bed. Then going to the foot of the bed she moved it away from the wall. She knelt and pried up one of the flagstones. Reaching into the hole she pulled out a cloth wrapped bundle and cradled it in her hands.
Not looking at Gabrielle, Hope said, “I hid this here before… well, after my son was born.” Partially unwrapping the bundle, she held up a corner off the covering. “This blanket is the one I wrapped my son in when he was born.” She smiled in memory. “The priests were going to throw it out, but I hid it from them.”
She unwrapped the bundle the rest of the way and held up something for her mother to see. “I always kept this with me. It's my most prized possession… because you gave it to me.”
Gabrielle gasped when she recognized the wooden lamb that Xena had given her for Solstice, and she had, in turn, given to Hope as a baby. “The lamb? You kept it?”
“Yes, Mother, and I will always treasure it. Now, more than ever.” She replaced the flagstone, stood up, and moved the bed back into place. “I don't know why I'm bothering to cover up my hiding place,” Hope muttered.
She placed the swaddling cloth and the lamb on the bed with the other items and turned to face Gabrielle. Hope lifted her closed hand and said, “I think this belongs to you now.” She placed the object in Gabrielle's extended hand.
Gabrielle looked down at the object nestled in her palm. It appeared to be a necklace made to resemble Xena's old chakram, crossed with a tiny replica of her old fighting staff. “Hope? What's this?”
Hope kept her gaze on the toes of her boots. “I…It was Solan's. I took it from him when…” she couldn't finish the sentence.
Gabrielle didn't know what to say. She looked at the necklace in shock, realizing all that it signified. Gabrielle had been so wrapped up in her own turmoil at the time that she hadn't noticed Solan wearing it… but for Solan to have this meant that he must have known. Known everything. Know that Xena was his mother, and known that Xena and Gabrielle were joined, making her, Gabrielle, his other mother.
Glancing up from the necklace in her hand, Gabrielle realized that Hope was in turmoil over what she'd done, Gabrielle did the only thing she could and pulled her daughter into a hug. It wasn't her place to absolve Hope of the guilt she felt, but she could offer her solace.
Keeping her head buried on Gabrielle's shoulder, Hope asked, “You were his… step-mother, weren't you?”
Gabrielle nodded, “Yes, but we hadn't told him yet – that Xena was his mother.” Looking at the necklace once again she said, “But I guess he figured it out anyway.”
Stepping back, Hope asked, “Tell me, please? I know he was Xena's son, that's why… but he wasn't with her…”
Gabrielle debated whether she should tell the tale. Deciding it might actually help matters, Gabrielle launched into the story of Solan's birth and how Xena had come to find him a decade later. Listening intently, Hope tied up her meager bundle and they left the temple, Gabrielle still in mid story.
It was nearly dawn. Hope and Gabrielle made their way up the slight incline toward Gabrielle's impromptu campsite in the pre-dawn light.
Turning at the edge of the forest Hope placed a hand on a nearby tree to steady herself. Drawing all her strength Hope reached out her senses and found the weak-points in the temple's construction. Then reaching out with her telekinetic powers she began poking and prodding at those weak points. It was a long, slow process.
Gabrielle had gone a few steps farther before she realized her daughter was not at her side. Turning around she saw Hope trembling. She took two quick strides and was at the younger woman's side. “Hope?” Gabrielle felt the ground begin to shake and looked up in alarm. Not far away Ronin whinnied.
The ground was now rumbling and Gabrielle could see sweat beading on her daughter's forehead. The rumbling grew in intensity and suddenly two things happened simultaneously. The temple came crashing to the ground, and Hope's knees gave out. Gabrielle was able to catch Hope before she fell and supported her while she regained her equilibrium.
The question came from behind. Turning her head Gabrielle looked into the blue eyes of her lover. “Um… Hi, Xena,” she said not quite sure of the reaction she would receive from Xena.
Xena looked from Gabrielle, to the ruin of the temple, to the woman in her lover's arms. Not quite knowing what to feel, Xena decided on levity. “Looks like you had all the fun without me.”
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. She knew from experience, and long talks, that Xena knew exactly what Gabrielle did and said during her nightly absences. It had been made painfully clear to both of them. One night, about a week after sailing from Japa, Gabrielle had been in her cabin ranting at the injustice of everything and made the mistake of cursing Xena for her decision on Mt. Fuji . The next morning when Xena had reappeared, she had asked Gabrielle if she wanted her to leave for good. They had come to an understanding that day. So Gabrielle was aware that Xena knew everything that went on in the temple.
“Xena, please don't be angry with me…”
“I'm not angry…” Xena said, “But why, Gabrielle?”
“I'll answer the best I can, but would you please be more specific?” Gabrielle paused, struggling to assist Hope. “On second thought, let me get Hope back to the campsite, then we'll talk?”
“Alright, Gabrielle,” answered Xena. “That'll give me a chance to get my thoughts in order,” she added with a half-smile.
Moments later the trio arrived at the campsite. Gabrielle helped her daughter over to a fallen log, then began to build a fire pit. “Since I don't have to worry about being seen, I guess I can make us a warm breakfast,” Gabrielle said with a chuckle.
Hope smiled at the humor her mother tried to inject into the situation. She adjusted her senses outward and found what she was looking for. “How about some rabbit stew?” she asked as she snagged the rabbit in question with her telekinesis and brought it toward the camp.
“Uh, sure, if I can find one. I've got the rest of the ingredients in my saddlebag.”
Swinging the dangling rabbit in front of her mother, Hope asked, “Will this do?”
“Aagh!” Gabrielle jumped, not expecting to be confronted with her breakfast in such a manner. “Yes, that will do nicely.” Gabrielle cast a sidelong look at her daughter before plucking the rabbit from the air and, with a slight grimace, began dressing it. Even after all her years traveling with Xena she still didn't like having to kill her meals, but she liked the meat too much to do without.
“That trick could come in handy,” Xena said, sitting down beside her soulmate.
“It's nice to use it for something constructive for a change,” Hope replied.
Gabrielle and Xena both turned to stare at Hope. “You can see her?” Gabrielle asked when she found her voice.
“Yes. Shouldn't I?” Hope asked.
“Well… no, not really. Xena's a ghost,” Gabrielle explained. “No one else has been able to see her…”
“Don't know what to tell you, but I can see her sitting beside you doing that eyebrow thing of hers.”
Gabrielle glanced sideways at Xena and covered her mouth to stifle the giggle that almost burst forth, because Xena was, indeed, giving Hope ‘the look'.
“What?” Xena said, in mock irritation to Gabrielle.
“I'm sorry, Xena. I'm really tired, and it just struck me funny,” Gabrielle answered.
“Hmph,” Xena muttered. Relenting somewhat, she said, “That rabbit sure smells good.” Wish I could taste it.
“Yes, Mother, it does smell wonderful,” Hope added.
“It should be ready soon,” Gabrielle said with a smile.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
After breakfast Xena said, “I know you're tired, Gabrielle. Why don't you get a few candlemarks shuteye and I'll keep watch.”
“Maybe in a bit, Xena,” Gabrielle replied. “I need to check the perimeter.”
“I can do that,” Xena started.
“Yes, you can, dear,” Gabrielle smiled, “but you can't do anything about it.” With that, Gabrielle got up and headed off into the woods.
“Wait for me!” Xena called.
“I'll just wait here,” Hope muttered from her log perch.
Xena caught up to Gabrielle and reached out to take her soulmate's hand. “Gabrielle, please talk to me.”
Sighing, Gabrielle asked, “About what?”
“Oh… anything,” Xena said, feeling her way cautiously. She knew that regardless of what she'd said, she was upset with Gabrielle. She felt used and betrayed and she desperately wanted to know why. She also knew that irritating Gabrielle wouldn't help matters any.
“Xena, just ask, will you?” Gabrielle was exasperated, and being tired was making things worse. “What do you want to know? Why didn't I listen to you? Why did I go in alone? Why is Hope sitting at our campsite? What? Huh, Xena? What would you like to know?”
Squeezing the other woman's hand, Xena said, “Everything. I promise I'll listen to everything you say. I just need to know why you did what you did so that I can understand.”
“Alright,” Gabrielle sighed again.
She walked on in silence for a few moments gathering her thoughts. Xena gave her the time she needed.
“Ok, Xena. Do you remember when you told me to trust my gut?”
“Yes,” Xena nodded in reply.
“Well, that's exactly what I did. I knew, absolutely knew, that you couldn't go into that temple with me. I knew I had to go in alone.” She glanced at Xena as they kept walking. “I don't know if it's that prophetic gift, which I have no control over anyway, or if it was something else. But we couldn't go in there together. As far as I know, I took a huge risk letting you go in there alone. I don't know how things would have turned out if Hope had seen you before everything happened.”
“Gabrielle,” Xena interrupted, “Did you know what would happen when you walked in there last night?”
Shaking her head, Gabrielle said, “No, I wasn't sure what would happen. From a tactical standpoint, I knew that trying to breach the temple defenses would have given them time to kill the prisoners anyway… Besides, I knew there wasn't time to go for help.”
“Another prophetic instinct?” Xena asked, not unkindly.
“Um… no… While you were scouting inside I managed to waylay one of the priests. He told me the big sacrifice was set for midnight. So it was then or never as far as the prisoners were concerned.”
Xena smirked, impressed despite herself. At times like this she was forcibly reminded just how far Gabrielle had come in their time together. “Alright. I guess I can understand that, but why couldn't you just tell me? Why did you force me to disappear?” Not that her method was exactly unpleasant…
Gabrielle stopped walking and turned so that she and Xena were facing one another. “Xena, do you honestly believe that you wouldn't have still tried to talk me out of going alone? Even if I'd told you I'd had a vision of failure if we went in together?”
Xena started to answer, stopped, and started again before shaking her head and saying, “I honestly don't know Gabrielle. I do know that I don't want you facing danger alone…” Realizing that by not allowing Gabrielle to restore her on Mt Fuji, that's exactly what she'd done. Xena swallowed hard. “Is that what happened?” she asked quietly. “You had a vision of failure?”
“No, Xena, it wasn't like that. It was just a very strong feeling. One so intense I couldn't ignore it.”
Deciding to accept this, Xena pulled Gabrielle into an embrace and said, “I understand Gabrielle. I guess I've had feelings like that before.” Pulling away a bit they resumed their walk hand-in-hand.
After a while Xena finally decided to ask the one question that was really bothering her. “And Hope…?”
“You want to know why I didn't at least try to kill her?”
“Yes.” Xena clenched her jaw to keep from saying ‘She murdered my son.' It was something they both knew, and would serve no purpose to bring it up now.
“I didn't really believe the hemlock would kill her, but I was going to give it a try, if all else failed.” Gabrielle paused a moment, thinking. “I realized something on the way up here yesterday.”
“What was that?” Xena asked.
“Every time I've seen Dahak he has been in flames. When we burned Hope's body back in…” She bit off that sentence and tried again, “When we burned her body she came back, but when we buried it, she stayed dead.”
“She still came back, Gabrielle.”
“Only when some of her priests managed to find the grave and brought her body back here,” Gabrielle gestured in the general direction of the temple they were circling, “and placed it in Dahak's flames.”
“Ok, I had suspected fire might have something to do with it. That's why I wanted to bury her the last time,” Xena said.
“Yes, but remember the vision I had on the ship?”
“I thought you believed it was just a dream?”
“Part of me did until I realized Hope knew exactly what happened.”
“What do you mean? What happened? Did you leave something out when you told me about the dream before?”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “I just misunderstood something.”
“And that was…?”
“Remember how I told you that Dahak's flame was reaching out for me, and the instant Hope opened her eyes she knocked me across the room?”
“Hope wasn't trying to hurt me, Xena,” Gabrielle said quietly. “She saved me from Dahak.”
“Xena, you promised you'd listen to me.”
“Sorry. I'll be good,” Xena answered with a half-smile.
“It's ok if you have a hard time believing that Hope saved me in that vision or whatever it was. So did I. At first, I was just too shocked at the thought that she might be back. Then yesterday as we were riding up here I took time to think about things.
“Like what?” Xena asked.
“Mostly about what we would find when we got here and how I would deal with Hope if she was here.” Gabrielle turned to face Xena. “It shouldn't be any surprise that I also thought about her birth and the little time I've spent with her.” She faced forward again as they continued walking. “In all those times, Xena, Hope has never once tried to hurt me physically … So if there was something ‘real' to that vision I realized that Hope was keeping Dahak from me, not trying to hurt me.”
Xena scoffed at this.
“Sure, Xena, she's tried to hurt me up here,” Gabrielle tapped her temple, “and here,” she placed her free hand over her heart, “but never physically.”
They walked on in silence for a few moments. Finally Gabrielle said, “You know, the last time we were here, Hope tried to get me to join her.”
“What?” Xena was startled. Gabrielle had never mentioned this to her.
“She did. The whole thing was kind of warped. I turned her down, of course, but I sensed that on some level she really didn't want us to be enemies.”
Gabrielle stepped over a fallen log. Glancing to her right she saw that they were about half-way around the temple and had seen no sign of trouble.
“I remembered something else,” Gabrielle said quietly.
Apprehensively, Xena asked, “What was that?”
“Ares lied to you.”
“When you were searching for me, and he told you I made a deal with him…”
“Gabrielle,” Xena said, pulling them to a stop and facing her partner. “I never once believed that you did.”
“I've never really remembered what happened after I knocked us over the side before. My memory of that whole day is a little fuzzy in places, but yesterday I finally remembered. As we were falling, I saw Dahak's flame reach up and embrace Hope. I knew I was going to die, and was prepared for it. Suddenly I felt myself flung into a niche in the wall. I must have hit my head, because I still don't remember anything until I woke up in the hospice. I think you may have been partly right about Ares, though.”
“You think he's the one who took you there?”
“Either he did so that he could play more games with you, or Hope came back and pulled me out of there. I can't really think of any other explanation for how I got from the temple to the hospice.”
Struggling to keep her voice even, Xena asked, “And that's why you decided not to kill her?”
“No. All those things together made me think there was a chance that I could reach her. I'm not sure I really believed I'd be successful though.” Gabrielle sat down on a log and patted the space beside her, which Xena took.
“Xena, I'll be honest,” Gabrielle said, hesitantly. “I fully expected to die in there.” She held up a hand when Xena tried to interrupt. “I was sure I would be able to get in and free the prisoners, but after that, I just didn't know.” She gazed off into the distance, not really seeing what was before her. “I figured my odds of survival went up once I found that hemlock. At least the priests would be out of the way. Hope was another matter. My gut told me that she wouldn't hurt me, but what if I was wrong?”
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand. So, that's what she meant. ‘One way or the other, I'll see you soon.' “So, why did you decide to trust her?”
Gabrielle looked at Xena questioningly. “You don't know? You didn't see her struggling against Dahak's control?”
“Excuse me?” Xena said, incredulously. “No, for whatever reason I couldn't see or hear anything from the time the guards chained you to the altar until I found you in the woods outside the temple.”
“That's weird,” Gabrielle said. “I wonder why?”
“I don't know. Maybe Dahak was able to block me somehow?”
“Maybe, I'm just glad he didn't stop your reconnaissance mission. That really helped out with the prisoners.” Gabrielle smiled at her soulmate.
“So, what do you mean Hope was struggling against Dahak? I didn't think that was possible.”
Gabrielle filled her partner in on everything she had missed. “There's one more thing, Xena,” Gabrielle said, reaching into a small pouch at her side. “Hope gave me this.” She held out the necklace for Xena to see.
Xena looked at it questioningly. “I don't understand. Why would Hope make a necklace like this?”
Gabrielle focused on the necklace in her palm. Tracing a finger around the miniature chakram she said, “Hope told me that she took it from Solan…”
Blue eyes met green. “Solan?”
Gabrielle could see the emotions warring on Xena's face.
“Solan?” Xena asked again. “Why would he…? How did he…? I mean, did he…?”
Gabrielle took both of Xena's hands in her own. “I swear Xena. I never said a word.” Gabrielle smiled wistfully. “He was a smart boy – look who his mother is,” she added with a grin. “I think he probably figured out that you were his mother when Kaleiapus told him that he should go with you if anything ever happened to him.”
“But the staff, too?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle blushed. “I um… guess he figured out how we felt about each other before I did, huh?”
Xena pulled the smaller woman into an embrace. “That's ok. I hadn't realized just how strongly I felt about you yet… but Thessaly did make me examine my feelings.”
Gabrielle snuggled into the embrace. “I'll… um… keep this safe for you.” Gabrielle closed her fist around the precious necklace.
Xena kissed the blonde head. “I know you will.”
Hesitantly Gabrielle asked, “Would it… would it be alright with you if I wore the necklace?”
“I'd be honored if you did,” Xena replied warmly.
Gabrielle gazed up at Xena and their lips met in a kiss that quickly deepened. The fire was just beginning to burn in Gabrielle's belly when suddenly Xena stopped what she was doing. Expecting something equally pleasant, Gabrielle waited. When nothing was forthcoming she opened her eyes. Xena was nowhere to be seen. “Xena?” Gabrielle called. Hearing no response she called again, louder, “Xena?”
Jumping up and turning in a circle as she searched for her partner, Gabrielle cried, “Xena!!!”
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Hope sat staring into the flames, lost in thought. She had known that last night her life would change forever. When the night had begun, she had assumed that it would end with her standing beside Dahak. Instead she found herself forsaking him to stand beside her mother in a battle for their lives.
How radically different things had turned out. Hope smiled, realizing that she didn't regret her decision for an instant. She knew she still had work to do, but she would need time to recover. She still felt weak from using her powers to destroy the temple. Using them no longer drained her as badly as they had when she was a child, but it would be a while before she could safely try something like that again.
Glancing down at the robe she still wore she knew that whatever her future held, she didn't want to face it wearing the robes of Dahak. “Mother did say I could borrow one of her tunics.” Hope stood up. “I hope she doesn't mind if I look for it myself…”
Hope crossed the small campsite and knelt beside Gabrielle's saddle bags. She opened the flap on one only to discover it was full of cooking supplies. She retied the flap and moved to another bag. Ah. This was what she was looking for.
She started to pull out a tunic but found it was wrapped around an object of some sort. Curious, she carefully unwrapped the object and cradled it in her hands. It was a small black jar devoid of any ornamentation. Clearly it meant something to her mother, but what?
Relying on one of her rarely used abilities, Hope tried to ‘see' why the jar meant so much to Gabrielle. “Oh,” she said softly as she lowered the jar to her lap.
She chewed her lip as she decided what to do. Making up her mind she moved to kneel in front of the campfire. Hesitating only an instant she broke the seal on the jar and poured its contents into the fire. Hope picked up the knife which Gabrielle had earlier used to cut the rabbit and sliced it across her left palm. Placing both hands into the fire she squeezed a few drops of her blood onto the ashes and began to mix them together.
“Xena, I took your son from you.” Hope swallowed. “There is nothing I can do about that, but maybe this will begin to make amends…”
Hope concentrated and the ashes began to swirl within the flames. She moved her hands in complex patterns and the ashes started to take form. Hope felt herself weakening, but she kept going. When Hope was finished, she collapsed, face first, into the flames.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Gabrielle looked around frantically, but could find no sign of Xena. “Why can't ghosts leave tracks?” she muttered. It was still early morning, so Xena shouldn't have disappeared like that.
She was torn. She really wanted to keep looking for Xena, but there were no tracks for her to follow. On the other hand, she really did need to finish checking the perimeter. After warring with herself for several moments, duty finally won out and she continued her circuit of the temple. She hoped that her daughter might be able to sense Xena somehow.
Traversing this half much quicker than the first, Gabrielle found herself three-quarters of the way around the temple in no time. There was a corral here, the gate hanging open. She could tell by the droppings that it had been recently occupied. She just hoped it was the escaping prisoners who made off with the horses and not more of Dahak's minions.
Soon she was back at the campsite and couldn't believe what she saw. Hope was sprawled it the fire, seemingly unharmed, but the robe had been burned from her body. Gabrielle rushed to her daughter's side and rolled her out of the flames. Fleetingly the thought, is that what I look like? crossed Gabrielle's mind. Shaking her head she said aloud, “I don't want to know.” She could see that Hope was indeed unmarked by the flames. Hesitantly Gabrielle reached down to feel for a pulse and was relieved to find one, though it was weak.
Sitting back on her heels she looked across the campsite. There, lying on their bedroll was Xena, naked as the day she was born. Slowly Gabrielle got to her feet and made her way around the fire. She stumbled when she kicked something. Looking down, Gabrielle saw the empty urn. She couldn't have… Gabrielle thought as she glanced back at the unconscious form of Hope.
She knelt at her soulmate's side and tentatively reached out a hand to touch Xena's face. Xena's eyes twitched, but remained closed. Gabrielle carefully brushed her fingers over Xena's eyes, cheeks, lips. Xena felt somehow different. Gabrielle didn't dare to hope, but as she brushed her fingers over the raven-haired woman's ruby red lips she felt the faintest touch of something. She brought her hand back to hover over Xena's nose and mouth. There it was again. Gabrielle could feel Xena's breath – something she hadn't been able to do since Japa. “By the gods…” She brought a hand up to cover her mouth as tears coursed down her cheeks.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she sat there watching Xena sleep. Finally she shook herself. She needed to tend to Hope. She got up and crossed to the girl's small pack and shook out her blanket. She spread it on the ground next to Hope and carefully maneuvered the other woman onto it. Gabrielle then went to her bag and pulled out two more furs. One she placed over the unconscious form of her daughter, and the other she took over to where Xena lay.
Curling up beside her wife she drew the fur up over the two of them. She smiled as the sleeping Xena curved her arm around Gabrielle in their customary position. It wasn't long before the petite blonde joined the warrior princess in much needed slumber.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Several candlemarks later Gabrielle awoke to the sensation of gentle fingers combing through her hair. Keeping her eyes closed she snuggled into Xena's side; reveling in the sensation of her very much alive lover. She felt soft lips kiss her forehead and tilted her face up to meet those same lips, at once familiar and new.
Breaking apart, Gabrielle looked deeply into the blue eyes of her lover. “Morning,” she said and reached up a hand to caress Xena's face.
“Morning,” Xena said before nipping at Gabrielle's fingers.
The smaller woman smiled. “You sure are playful,” she teased.
“I feel wonderful, Gabrielle,” Xena said as she gave her partner a squeeze. “I feel so vibrant, so full of energy, so… alive.”
“You are,” laughed Gabrielle.
“Am what?” Xena arched an eyebrow.
Gabrielle rose up on one elbow and placed her other hand on Xena's heart. “Alive.” She beamed. “I don't know how, or why, Xena, but you're alive!”
Xena was stunned. It couldn't be true. She must be hallucinating, or Gabrielle was. She brought a hand up to check Gabrielle's forehead and asked, “You haven't been eating spiked nutbread again, have you?”
“No, silly,” Gabrielle said, batting Xena's hand away. “Xena, what's the last thing you remember?”
Xena thought a moment, then said, “I found you outside the temple, you had breakfast, we went looking for stragglers, and we talked.” Xena smiled. “Then we kissed.” Her brow furrowed. “Then I woke up here.” She looked at her partner. “Gabrielle, how did I get here?”
Gabrielle bit her lip. She was excited, but wasn't quite sure how Xena would take the news. “I think Hope did something and restored you,” she said simply.
Xena quirked an eyebrow.
Gabrielle rubbed Xena's belly to calm her. “I don't know what she did, or how she did it, Xena. We were on the other side of the temple from here. Things were just starting to get good, and you vanished.” She shrugged a shoulder. “When I couldn't find you, I made my way back here.” She closed her eyes briefly. “I found you here on the bedroll, and Hope, face down, in the fire…”
“What?” Xena cried.
“Shh,” Gabrielle soothed, “I don't want to wake her.”
“Not a mark on her, but I am going to have to lend her something to wear – her robe is toast.” Gabrielle paused in thought. “I think using her powers tires her, and after the fight last night, demolishing the temple this morning, and then this, it's pretty much worn her out.”
“I don't know Gabrielle. I think you may be guilty of wishful thinking here…”
“Xena, you're breathing; I can feel your breath on my hand. I can feel your heartbeat,” she said as she moved a hand over the swell of Xena's breast to once again feel that powerful heart. She smiled broadly. “You said it yourself. You feel alive, and that's because you are alive.”
“I hope you're right, love,” Xena said. She pulled Gabrielle in for a kiss, which soon deepened as two bodies gently reacquainted themselves; almost as though it were their first time together once again.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Later still, the sated lovers lay in each other's arms. Content to just hold each other. Finally Xena said, “I guess we should head back before it gets much later.”
“Yes,” Gabrielle answered. She propped herself on an elbow so she could look across the campsite to her daughter. “I'm a little worried about Hope, though… I expected her to wake up by now…”
“Let's get ourselves ready and break camp. If she hasn't woken up by then we'll see what we can do, alright?”
“Sure,” Gabrielle replied, as she threw off the fur. Out of the corner of her eye she caught her partner ogling her bare body and laughed.
“What?” Xena said innocently, “You're beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle turned to give Xena a kiss. “And so are you.”
She was nearly dressed when Xena asked, “Um… where are my clothes?”
Gabrielle smiled to herself. “Gee, Xena, isn't your armor by the bedroll like always?” she teased. It was another sign that Xena was once again one of the living if her ‘ghost armor' was missing.
“No, or I wouldn't have asked,” Xena grumped.
Gabrielle reached into the bottom of one of the saddlebags and started pulling out Xena's armor, much to the other woman's amazement.
“How did it get in there?” Xena asked, as she donned her leather battledress.
“After I got back to Higuchi, I searched for the place you buried your armor. It wasn't easy to do in the dark, but I managed,” Gabrielle said, grinning.
“Wait…” Xena paused in the act of pulling on her boots. “You mean this is the real stuff?”
“But I can't touch anything… besides you, that is,” Xena said incredulously.
“Not if you were still a ghost, you couldn't,” Gabrielle said gently. C'mon, Xena. Believe .
Xena stared at the clothes on her body, then lifted her wide-eyed gaze to her lover. “I'm… alive?”
“Yes, honey. You're alive,” Gabrielle answered with a huge grin.
They embraced and Xena kept repeating, “I'm alive.”
Pulling apart finally, Gabrielle said, “Finish getting dressed, love. We have quite a way to travel before nightfall.” She stood up and threw dirt on the remains of the fire and then saddled Ronin while Xena finished dressing and packed their bedroll.
Finished with that, Gabrielle knelt by her daughter's side and gently shook her arm. “Hope? Time to get up.”
There was no reaction from the younger woman.
“Hope?” Gabrielle tried again. When there was still no response she checked for a pulse. It was still there, but very weak. “Xena?” she asked turning to her partner.
Xena came over and knelt beside Gabrielle. Stifling her initial revulsion she checked the girl's vitals. Discovering what had Gabrielle so concerned she thought about her options. Xena had to admit that there was still a part of her that wanted Hope dead, but she had to admit that she owed the girl her life. She also knew she needed to trust Gabrielle's judgment. Besides, if Gabrielle was right and Hope had reformed didn't Gabrielle deserve the same chance with Hope that Xena'd had with her own daughter? Making up her mind Xena said, “We have some herbs we can give her that should speed up her heart, but I'm not sure if we should use them.”
“Because you don't know how they'll react with her system, or…” Gabrielle was disappointed in her lover if Xena's reason was what she feared.
Xena took both of Gabrielle's hands in her own. “I won't lie to you Gabrielle. I am torn over this. But I believe in you and trust that you are right about Hope.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. “It can be dangerous to artificially speed up anyone's heart. But because of who her father is, I don't know how… human her system is. It could be that she'd need more or it could be that the dose that would be good for you would kill her…”
Gabrielle sighed in relief. It would be hard for either of them to trust Hope, but she was glad Xena was willing to make an effort. “Ok, I think we've got a pretty good supply of that herb. Why don't we start with a small fraction of the normal dose,” she said, reaching for the med-kit. “And if that doesn't work, we wait for that to work its way out of her system, then increase the dose?”
“Was that a test, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, slightly hurt. “You knew what to do, but wanted to see how I'd react?”
Gabrielle squeezed her lover's hand. “No, that's not it at all, Xena. I thought this was the right course of treatment, but wanted a second opinion.”
“Oh.” Don't be so sensitive, Xena, she chastised herself. “You know, I'm not sure I'd have thought of adjusting the dose quite the way you did.” Xena winked. “Good call.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle blushed as she put a small pinch of the herbs into some water and helped Hope to swallow by rubbing her throat.
“I think we should probably make a litter for Ronin to pull. Even if this works and Hope wakes up immediately, it would be better for her to rest on the way back,” Xena said.
Inside a quarter candlemark the two women had rigged a litter for Hope. Ronin wasn't too pleased with the strange contraption, but he behaved after Gabrielle chided him for being a baby.
“You used to tease me about talking to Argo as if she could understand everything I said,” Xena teased.
“Heh. I learned from the best,” Gabrielle chuckled and bumped Xena with her hip.
Checking Hope one last time before they left, Gabrielle was disappointed that there was no change in her condition.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Forced by the litter to travel slowly, it was nearly sunset before they neared the farm. The closer they got the more pensive Gabrielle became.
Finally Xena asked, “What's wrong, love?”
“I need to see if Virgil made it back alright, and check on Sarah, but I'm not sure we should stay here…”
“I guess things might be a bit awkward with me back… and with Hope…”
“Yeah. I don't know how they'll react to her…”
“I'll stay out here and keep an eye on Hope. You go on in and check on the family,” Xena said.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle stepped up on the porch, forgetting to skip the loose board and it squeaked like always. “Some things never change,” she chuckled. She knocked on the door which was answered several moments later by Lila.
As soon as Lila saw Gabrielle she threw her arms around her. “I was so worried about you.” Lila stepped back. “When you didn't come back with Virgil, I thought something awful…” she trailed off as she caught sight of Xena checking on her patient. “Xena?” Lila glanced between her sister and the warrior princess. “But I thought you were dead?”
“I was,” Xena said, simply. “I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I'm back.” Xena shrugged.
Lila stepped off the porch and walked over to Xena. In a move that surprised both of them, Lila embraced the raven-haired woman and said, “Welcome back.”
Xena exchanged a startled glance with her partner over the top of Lila's head. “Thanks. It's good to be back.”
“I'll bet,” Lila chuckled. “Now, who do we have here?” Lila asked as she side-stepped Xena.
“Lila…” Gabrielle said taking a step forward.
“Ga-Gabrielle…” Lila looked up at her sister, “Is this who I think it is?”
Gabrielle closed her eyes. “Yes, it's my daughter… Hope.”
“But how…” Lila started. “Never mind,” she said, “that seems to happen a lot around you two, doesn't it?”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look and both shrugged. “More than the average person,” Gabrielle said with a humorless chuckle. “Look, Lila, I just wanted to check on Sarah and Virgil. I know that with everything that's happened… well, we'll just head into town until Hope recovers.”
Lila stared at Gabrielle. “Nonsense. You'll do no such thing,” she said, determinedly. “You and your family will never be refused entrance to this house.”
“But… family?” Gabrielle was confused. She knew how badly Hope had treated Lila the last time she was here, and Hope's priests had captured Virgil. Gabrielle had expected animosity if not outright hostility.
Lila chuckled at the startled look on her sister's face. “Gabrielle, don't be so surprised. Your wife and daughters will always be welcome in my home.”
“Daughters?” Gabrielle was caught uncharacteristically without words.
“Yes, ‘daughters',” Lila answered. “You may not have born Eve, but you love her like your own, right?”
“To me, that makes her your daughter.” Lila smiled. “And I can only assume that you wouldn't have brought Hope back here unless you had sensed a major change in her…”
Xena put an arm around her partner and squeezed. “Gabrielle believes that Hope has broken free of Dahak's control and is a different person now.” Xena smiled down at Gabrielle. “If she's done even half of what you say she has, love, I'm inclined to believe you.”
Wide-eyed, Gabrielle asked, “You are?”
“Yes.” Xena tweaked her partner's nose with her free hand. “I've had a lot of time to think on the way back here. I don't know that I can ever forgive the woman who killed my son, but that is not the same woman.” Xena gestured at the reclining form of Hope. “The woman on that litter is the one who gave my life back to me, and for that I will always be grateful.” Glancing at Lila, she asked, “Is it alright if we bring her inside now?”
“Absolutely, but try to be quiet. Sarah and the baby are sleeping,” Lila replied.
“Oh, Lila,” Gabrielle reached out and took her sister's hand. “Are they alright?” Is the baby…”
Gently patting Gabrielle's hand, Lila said, “Everything's fine. Both are happy and healthy, just tired.”
“Good, I'm glad they're alright,” Gabrielle said squeezing Lila's hand.
It took a little maneuvering, but finally Xena and Gabrielle were able to detach the litter from Ronin and bring it into the house. Hope's pulse was much stronger, but she remained unconscious. They laid her litter near enough to the hearth to keep warm, but out of the way of the main traffic flow of the house.
As they got Hope settled, Virgil came out of the bedroom. When he spied Gabrielle he hurried over to her and threw his arms around her. “Gabrielle, I'm so glad to see you. When you didn't make it back, I thought something terrible…” His words trailed off as he spied the form on the pallet. “What… is… she… doing… here?” he got out through gritted teeth.
“Now, Virgil, I can explain,” Gabrielle said.
Standing up, Xena said, “Yes, Virgil, why don't you have a seat so we can fill both you and Lila in on what happened.” She placed a comforting hand on her lover's shoulder.
“Xena? But I thought…” Virgil stammered as he was gently backed into a chair.
Xena rolled her eyes. “I was, but now I'm not. That's part of what we have to tell you.”
Gabrielle smiled warmly at her partner before she launched into her tale.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Virgil sat stunned. He was having a hard time wrapping his mind around what he had just heard. “How can you believe she's changed, just like that?” He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
“I don't think it was ‘just like that',” Gabrielle said.
“Neither do I,” Lila added. Glancing at her sister, she went on, “The last time she was here, she seemed genuinely interested in the family. I don't think it was all an act. Up until you came home I thought she was you.” Lila paused in thought. “Sure, she was more reserved than you, but I figured that you'd changed on your travels. Anyway… I think she was changing even then.”
“I don't know…” Virgil hedged.
Placing a hand on his shoulder, Xena said, “Virgil, you were eventually able to put aside what happened and become friends with Eve, right?”
He blinked slowly. “Yes…” a long drawn out word.
“And if I can put aside what happened to my son to give Hope a second chance, I believe you can as well,” Xena said matter-of-factly.
Finally taking a deep breath, Virgil said, “I'll try.”
“Thank you,” Gabrielle said.
Lila came back into the main room from checking on her daughter. “Sarah's awake. She's asking to see you Gabrielle.”
Giving her partner a hug, Xena said, “G'wan. I'll take care of Ronin.”
“She's asking for you too, Xena,” Lila added to Xena's surprise.
“Go ahead Xena. I'll take care of Ronin. I need to see to the other animals anyway,” Virgil said.
Hand in hand Gabrielle and Xena walked into the same room Gabrielle had once shared with her sister. “Hi,” she said quietly so as not to disturb the nursing infant.
“Hi,” Sarah said shyly, still not used to nursing around others.
Xena nudged her partner. “Has your appetite, I see,” she teased.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Xena, my ‘appetite' hasn't been that bad since we first started traveling together.”
Xena encircled her partner from behind. “I know, love, but it's still fun to tease you.”
Sarah watched the exchange in amusement. “That's not the only way she takes after you,” Sarah said, pulling back the blanket to reveal light blonde hair.
Gabrielle smiled. “Well, she gets that from you.”
“Mother always said I looked more like you than her.” Sarah smiled fondly at her newborn. Seeing that the baby had finished for the moment, Sara covered herself. Glancing up at her aunt, she asked, “Would you like to hold her?”
“May I?” Gabrielle asked, as she eagerly held out her arms.
Sarah gently placed the baby in Gabrielle's outstretched arms and watched in bemusement. She's a natural, Sarah thought.
The baby opened its eyes and stuck a tiny fist in its mouth as it appeared to study Gabrielle.
“She's got green eyes,” Xena said. Unlike many newborns, the baby did, in fact, have eyes the same shade as Gabrielle's.
Stroking the soft fuzzy blonde head Gabrielle asked, “Have you decided on a name yet?”
“Yes,” Virgil answered as he entered the room and sat on the edge of the bed. Sarah immediately snuggled into his side. Smiling broadly he said, “We talked about it a lot. We've decided to name her Gabrielle. Without you, neither one of us would be here, so we wanted to name our firstborn after you.”
“I think that's a wonderful idea, Virgil,” Xena said as she hugged her soulmate.
Virgil grinned. “If we have another daughter, we're planning to name her Xena.”
“I think that would be nice, Virgil,” Gabrielle said.
“Hold on there,” Sarah interrupted. “I barely had this one; I'm not ready to try for another just yet.”
Xena and Gabrielle both chuckled, knowing that feeling well from their own experiences. Both women were secretly wishing that there was a way for them to raise a family together, since between the two of them, they hadn't managed to raise any of their three children.
~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~ ^ ~
Two days had passed, and Hope remained stable, but unconscious. The family was gathered in the main room of the house to escape the heat of the noonday sun. They had all the windows and doors open for ventilation, and so far it was working.
Sarah had just finished nursing the baby and was trying to get her to settle down for a nap, but it wasn't working.
“Have you tried the lullaby?” Lila asked her.
“I don't know if I remember it…” Sarah said.
“I bet you do, and if not, I'll help you,” she said with a fond smile. She had sung this lullaby many times to the young Sarah.
Taking a deep breath, Sarah began to sing:
Come now my baby don't you cry.
Put on your nighttime dreams.
‘Cause I'm gonna try to keep you safe through the night.
Maybe a little song is what you need.
So lay down, and put your cares away.
Rockabye babe until the morning light.
Hush the night, ‘cause everything is alright.
While I sing you a lullaby.
Heaven's been kind, to bless me with you.
And trust me with your keep.
Angels on high, look down from the sky,
And watch you while you sleep.
So lay down, and put your cares away.
Rockabye babe until the morning light.
Hush the night, ‘cause everything is alright.
While I sing you a lullaby.
Time's gonna take you away from here,
Nothin' bout that we can do.
Heaven bless you along the way, I'll sing again for you some day.
But until I do, I'll sing:
Lay down, and put your cares away.
Rockabye babe until the morning light.
Hush the night, ‘cause everything is alright.
While I sing you a lullaby.
While I sing for you this lullaby.*
Tears in her eyes, Gabrielle stared at her sister. “You remembered…” she whispered.
“Of course I did,” Lila said, giving Gabrielle a one armed hug. “How could I forget the lullaby my big sister made up to help me sleep?”
Looking up from her now sleeping infant, Sarah asked, “Aunt Gabrielle made up that song?”
“Yes. She was talented, even as a small child,” Lila answered, causing Gabrielle to blush.
“I didn't know you wrote that song, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “I always liked it when you sang it to Eve.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle replied. “Mother didn't have a lot of time for us when we were little, so I tried my best to take care of Lila.”
“And you did a wonderful job of it, too,” Lila said, hugging her again.
Getting up, Sarah said, “I need to stretch. Aunt Gabrielle, would you like to hold the baby?”
“I'd love to, but I thought we were going to dispense with the whole ‘aunt' thing?”
Handing her the baby, Sarah said, “I know, but it doesn't feel right to me not to call you ‘Aunt'. I'm sorry. If it bothers you that much, I'll try harder.”
Gabrielle sighed, “No, it's alright. It just makes me feel old, that's all.”
Nudging her shoulder, Lila said, “Look who's talking.” But her smile showed that she didn't mind.
Gabrielle laughed. “Sorry, Lila. I guess I shouldn't say stuff like that, huh?”
“Doesn't matter,” Lila answered. “We've lived very different lives. I'm just glad to know someone will be around to chase my grandchildren.” She grinned at her daughter and son-in-law.
“Oh, boy,” Sarah sighed. “I'm going to take a walk. Coming Virgil?”
“Yes, dear,” Vigil said. He felt like he was in trouble, but didn't know what he'd done to deserve it.
Gabrielle remained seated where she was, softly playing with the sleeping baby's fists and cooing nonsense words to her.
Feeling like she was being watched Xena glanced around the room and found another pair of green eyes focused intently on Gabrielle and the baby. She got up quietly and moved over to the pallet to sit beside Hope. “How are you feeling?” asked Xena.
“Still a little weak, but better. Thank you,” Hope answered. Her eyes never left Gabrielle.
“You know,” Xena said, sensing something was bothering the younger woman, “when you were born, Gabrielle used to hold you the same way. She couldn't get over how something so tiny, so perfect, could have come from her.”
Hope shifted her gaze to Xena. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Xena said. “If it had been up to her, we would have brought you back home with us and raised you ourselves.” Xena looked down at her hands. “I guess I was a little jealous. I could see how much she loved you.”
Hope stared at the other woman. This was news. Xena had been jealous of her?
Gaze remaining on her hands, Xena went on, “I knew Dahak was evil, and that somehow he had created you. I didn't… I couldn't believe that Gabrielle's indirect part in your creation would be a strong enough influence to keep you from being like him.” She finally made eye-contact. “I'm sorry that I didn't give you… either of you, the chance to prove me wrong.”
“Thank you for saying that Xena,” Hope said. “But to be honest, I don't know what would have happened either if things hadn't happened the way they did.” She sighed. “I always wondered what it would have been like to be raised by her, but somehow I think things would have turned out the same anyway.”
Standing up Xena held out her hand and said, “Come on over and meet your cousin.”
Grasping the older woman's hand, Hope was surprised at how weak she still was. She needed the help to stand, and leaned on Xena for the few steps it took to cross the room and sit beside her mother. “Hi,” she said quietly.
“Hi, yourself,” Gabrielle answered. “Feeling better?”
Hope knew that her mother was asking about her health, but thanks to her little chat with Xena she was feeling better emotionally as well. “Yes. Still weak, but better.”
“Thank you for everything you did, Hope. I know you risked a lot to help me…”
“It was something I needed to do, Mother. I'd been feeling the sense of wrongness for a long time, but didn't have the strength to break free until you came and showed me the way.” Hope smiled. “Thank you.”
Rearranging the baby to one arm, she used the other to hug her daughter. “Thank you for giving me my life back,” she whispered.
“It was the least I could do,” Hope murmured. Pulling back slightly she said, “As soon as I'm strong enough I need to head out.”
“What? Why?” Gabrielle asked.
“This wasn't the only temple to Dahak, Mother. I need to make sure the other two are destroyed.”
“Not without me you aren't,” Gabrielle said. “I just got you back; you can't get rid of me so soon.”
“And that goes for me as well,” Xena said. “Where Gabrielle goes, I go.” She winked at her partner.
“Ok, then, the three of us will go as soon as I'm strong enough,” Hope said.
“Make that four of us,” said a voice from the doorway.
The three women turned to see the new arrival. “Eve!” Xena cried and held out her arms to her daughter.
Eve entered the house and hugged Xena. Then she bent down and put her arms around Gabrielle, “Hi, Maia,” she said. “Who's this?” Eve asked pointing to the baby.
“My niece… well, grand-niece I guess,” Gabrielle chuckled.
“She's beautiful,” Eve said.
“I thought you were in Chin?” Xena said.
“And I'd heard you were dead, Mother,” Eve replied, but I see both reports are wrong.” She grinned. Turning to the remaining woman, she said, “I'm Eve, Xena's daughter, and I'm guessing that you're Hope?”
“Yes, pleased to meet you,” Hope said, a little bemused by this strange woman.
“Since this seems to be a ‘happy family gathering' am I to understand that you've had a change of heart, Hope?”
“You could say that,” Hope answered.
“It seems to run in the family,” Eve said with a smile. “So, when do we leave?”
“Good question,” Xena and Gabrielle said together. All eyes were on Hope.
“As soon as I'm strong enough to travel,” Hope replied, “however long that takes.”
The End (for now)
*Note the Lullaby is borrowed from the Eclipse album “Three Kings” Written by Russ Dixon, Arr by Patrick Rose
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