See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
As Xena had hoped, Marina toppled over with exhaustion, giving her plenty of time to start teaching Gabrielle the basics of staff use. They faced off against one another, armed with stout wooden sticks and thin cotton shifts, the overhead sun beat down on their glistening skin, adding heat to the already healthy dose of adrenaline.
"Now, do you remember the first move I taught you?" Gabrielle nodded her head, her tongue sticking out to aid her concentration, but seriously distracting Xena. Concentrate here or she is going to knock your head off. But that tongue shifted over her full lips, licking them with moisture, sending Xena's libido up a notch. If it wasn't necessary to teach Gabrielle, she could think of another exercise that would be much more beneficial to both of them at this point in time. Xena shook her head in the hope of dislodging the image from her brain. She looked up. Nope, still there.
Gabrielle looked with concern at her partner who seemed to be fighting some internal battle. She watched the piercingly blue eyes darken before her eyes and knew exactly what Xena was thinking. Her gaze wandered down the torso in front of her and her mind wandered to the same place. We're not going to get much more done today.
By mutual consent, they gave up fighting of one sort for a while and turned their attention to some wrestling. Well, they justified it as wrestling in case they got caught.
Bodies and minds were overheated and the sea beckoned. Warm hands skimmed over sun-darkened skin, the trail of fire left behind extinguished by cool clean water, washing away all sweat and dirt of the day's activities.
It was not only a coming together of two bodies but a merging of two halves of one soul. Xena felt her spirit calm under the steadying hand of the one person who had come to mean everything to her. As Gabrielle loved her with great passion and joy, Xena felt at peace with the world, a feeling she had never experienced before. Time had stopped for them and in this period of grace they abandoned themselves to their love for each other.
Marina awoke a couple of candlemarks later to find her parents hitting each other with sticks. After a moment of panic, her mama explained that she was teaching Gabby to use the stick to defend herself. In fact, her mama gave her a stick of her own and she used it to pound a tree while Gabby tried to hit mama. Grown ups!
The rabbit stew had been the best food Xena had had in a long time and made a point of complimenting Gabrielle for it. She looked out to the wreck, which by now was nothing more than a mast sticking out of the water. The sea had finally claimed the skeleton of the ship. It seemed so long ago since the shipwreck, but it was in fact only a matter of days.
As she gazed over the ocean, she let her senses absorb the sights and sounds that she loved so well. The shark carcass has disappeared during the night and she caught sight of two fins drifting along the water near the reef, a silent warning that escape through the water was no longer an option.
"Hey, don't look so sad."
Gabrielle could see the quiet depression sitting over Xena's shoulders like a well-worn cloak. "What has you so sad?"
"We have one more day."
"We could just stay here, you know."
"You're not in the least bit curious about where that path leads?"
"Not at the moment, no. Can you honestly say that the last couple of days have not been wonderful?" Gabrielle wanted Xena all to herself, without the interference of anyone else, save Marina.
"No, I can't. But I feel we have to at least try to find a way off this island. If the search comes to nothing, we can always return." Xena could see the contentment on her partner's face and was hard pressed to continue. "Don't you want to try to get home? Before you met me, that was all you wanted to do, if I recall."
"Yeah, it was, but my priorities have changed. You, and Marina, are all that matter to me now." The comment brought an indulgent smile from the older woman. "I have to admit, for a shipwreck, this has been pretty special."
They both managed to avoid talking about the seer's predictions for the time being. The thought of a great quest was scaring the willies out of both of them.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The sun broke the stillness of the last full day for them. Xena had a lot to accomplish before this day ended and she started early. She and Gabrielle had an early morning staff lesson, working on the finer points of a couple of moves and consolidating basic exercises to help build her upper body strength. Over breakfast, Xena sat with her family, explaining some concepts of staff fighting to Gabrielle, resorting to drawing figures in the sand to illustrate some point or other.
She watched the intelligent green eyes opposite her absorb the information. The young woman proved to be a very good student. She was agile and strong, picking up the instructions quickly and executing them very well for someone who had just learned the moves.
She secretly wished she had more time to teach Gabrielle as she was thoroughly enjoying the exercise of imparting some of her hard-earned knowledge and experience to her partner. She could see that, given time, Gabrielle would be very, very good at it and she found that she was enjoying this new aspect of their relationship and the closeness that resulted from it. Maybe if she survived this, Gabrielle would like to continue the lessons. She could live in hope...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Marina, honey, do you want to come with me to get some more vegetables?" Xena looked over the child's head to the enquiring eyes of Gabrielle. The child's head nodded slowly.
"What do you want me to do?" Gabrielle didn't know whether to feel hurt or not at being left out of this little hunting party, but suspected that Xena had something to say to Marina that she was not supposed to hear.
"Could you gather some more wood? We'll only need enough for today. We'll be packing up tomorrow morning." She could see the sadness there in those pale eyes but her plan was now in motion and putting it off was not going to make the separation any easier.
Gabrielle stood there watching the two figures walk into the forest until they were just specks in the distance, swallowed up by the vegetation surrounding them. She felt a roiling in her stomach, something akin to jealousy, over the fact that she was not party to the conversation that would be taking place. Stop it, Gabrielle! It's not like you're married or anything. That thought didn't stop the hurt though.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Honey, is something bothering you? You were awfully quiet this morning." Xena had an idea what it was but she wanted to hear it from her daughter. But the child refused to answer, steadfastly following her mother's footsteps through the uneven undergrowth.
They found the meadow again with little problem. They picked their vegetables and Xena showed her some hunting tricks, managing to snare a small pig which she hoped to smoke this afternoon for their journey.
Under the shade of a willow, they rested. "Marina, now listen to me. Tell me what's wrong. There's not much time left and I want to know what is bothering you."
Blue eyes, tinged with anger and frustration, looked up at her, surprising her with the emotion hidden in them. "It's her!"
"But I thought you liked Gabrielle."
"But you like her more than me!" Ah, just as I thought.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you were giving her hugs in bed. You didn't do that with me. Why?"
"Remember when I told you about grown-up love and how it was different? Well, it was some grown-up hugs that we were sharing." The child was not convinced. "I shared some hugs with you, didn't I?"
The child nodded, but she was still far from happy. "You spend all your time with her!"
"But I spend time with you too. Isn't that enough?"
"No, its not. You're my mama, not hers!" Marina stood up and stomped off in the direction of their camp.
"But... Marina, where are you going?"
"I'm going home!"
Xena could do nothing but follow a few steps behind. Marina didn't want anything to do with her at the moment so all she could do was stay out of her way.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle could see even from a distance that something had not gone well. The child kept walking and sat down the beach, pounding her fists into the wet sand. She looked around to Xena who shrugged her shoulders.
"Of me?" I know how she feels. Funny, we're each jealous of what the other has, which ironically is the same thing.
"Let me go talk to her."
"I don't think that's a good idea at the moment, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle ignored Xena's plea and continued down the beach to where the child was burying herself in the sand, sitting down with a thud. The child didn't even stir from her preoccupation with the sand.
"So..." Fiery blue eyes turned to look at her. Woow! She's angry.
"O.K. Here's your chance. Tell me what is bothering you."
The pounding continued and it looked as if Marina was just going to sit there without speaking. Before Gabrielle was ready, the child launched herself at her, toppling them both into the wash of the breaking waves.
"She's mine! I don't want you here any more!" This was serious stuff.
"Why, honey? What did I do?"
"Don't call me honey. I'm not your honey, or sweetheart. Go away! You are no longer my friend."
Gabrielle could feel the pain down to her soul. This child, whom she had come to love as her own, was disowning her. She was heartbroken but she was going to fight for her. Enough is enough!
"Now you listen to me, young lady. You stop this at once! You look at your mama. What do you see?" Marina looked up at the beach at the tall woman, seated in the sand looking downcast. "You have broken her heart, Marina. She survived ten years for you. Ten years! All she wanted to do was to die but she lived for you in the hope that one day she would have her little girl back with her."
Marina remained quiet, watching her mother with sullen eyes.
"I'm sorry that you feel that way about me, but I love her with all my heart and would do anything for her. People like me will come and go in her life, but you are her little girl and you will always be her little girl. She will love you no matter what."
The blue eyes lost a little of their animosity as she listened to Gabrielle. She had always liked Gabby. Why was it so hard to share her mama?
The young woman held out her arms and she reluctantly crawled into them. She whispered in her ear, "I'm the one who should be jealous, Marina. You will always have her love. I hope I do too but I'm not certain that will always be the case."
That last statement made Marina feel better. Maybe she wasn't second after all. She looked up into sad green eyes and realized that Gabby felt like she did. All this love stuff was hard work.
"Now, go and give your mama a big hug. It looks like she could use one." Gabrielle pushed the child to her feet and nudged her in the direction of her mother. A slow smile crossed her features as she watched mother and daughter reunite with a warm, gentle hug.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle stayed behind to look after the makeshift smoking box covering the cooking meat, which Xena hoped would be enough for their needs. She didn't want to waste time hunting unless it was absolutely necessary. Her reflexes would be on hair trigger until this was all over and looking for food would be a serious distraction.
She watched from the trees as mother and daughter played at the water's edge building wet sandcastles, Xena trying to reinforce their tentative bond. Marina's outburst this morning had shaken her mother to the core. Xena had quietly approached Gabrielle after things had been smoothed over and thanked her profusely for her help.
The child seemed a little more subdued but she was enjoying the one-to-one time with her mother. Little did the girl realize that if they got back to Amphipolis - no, not if, when the got back to Amphipolis - she was going to have to share her mother with even more people. Tantrums were going to be part of life for a while until she became confident in her relationship with Xena. It was going to take understanding on all sides.
Her mind wandered to future days and what it would be like. Xena said she would get her home to see her family. Then what? She hoped that Xena would ask her to stay with her but would she? It was idyllic here and life was so much simpler. Would the pressure from both families drive them apart?
The tall woman emerged from the surf, water sluicing off her lengthy frame in sheets. The child next to her waddled up, still bathing with her breeches on, looking a lot more relaxed than a candlemark before.
Xena laid out a couple of blankets in front of Gabrielle in the sun. Wet bodies sighed in relief as tired muscles relaxed under the heat. Xena raised her head and looked ahead. "You looked deep in thought."
"What were you thinking about?"
"The three of us." Gabrielle made a point of including Marina. A tiny mop of dark hair moved as the girl looked up. "Just thinking about what we're going to do when you get home."
"What brought that up?"
Do I raise this now? It may be my only chance. "Things are a lot simpler here than they will be back home. Your family - my family, if they're still alive – there will be pressure and expectations."
"What are you saying?"
"Where do we go from here, Xena? Am I going to get left in Potadeia?" There. It's out.
There was a guarded look on the older woman's face. "Do you want to be left at home?" Gabrielle could nearly see the hurt in her eyes.
"No. No I don't. I... I just don't know how you feel about it. Rome and here are different places and times, Xena. We are going home to people who know us. What is our future after this is all over?"
"First of all, I promised I would take you home. Then... then, I don't know." Xena didn't know how to ask her to stay.
"What do you want out of this relationship, Xena?" Gabrielle looked over to see Marina watching the exchange carefully.
Xena took a deep breath and hoped that she was not about to destroy what they shared. "I want you with me, Gabrielle. I want us all to be a family." She paused, "I need you."
A sweet smile broke out on the young blonde, sending laughter lines skittering across her sun-tanned face. "Just what I wanted to hear. I love you too." Her small hand reached across the gap to caress the tanned cheek of her partner.
She turned her attention to the youngster, "And what do you think, Marina? Do you think we can all be a family together?" Both women waited with baited breath while the child thought about her answer.
Marina still had some residual resentment towards Gabby, and she could see that her friend had done nothing to deserve it, but she still couldn't help feeling that way. She wanted Gabby to stay, she really did, but it was hard to answer, so she just nodded. Maybe later she could say sorry.
The three of them remained silent until moisture on wet bodies evaporated and they could get dressed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Preparations were nearly complete. Xena finished her instruction to Gabrielle, keeping the moves simple and direct. They exchanged some basic blows, enough that the young woman could defend herself and retaliate if need be.
Clouds gathered overhead, hinting that showers were close at hand. The two women grabbed some canvas and threw it over their shelter, extending it over the fire. Supplies had been sorted, most of which were going to be discarded as they could only carry sleeping gear, food and water.
Marina went to bed early, physically and emotionally exhausted from the day. Xena put her long arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her in, both enjoying the shared body heat as the temperature dropped with the cooling rain.
Together, they watched the dying sun sink into the sea, giving the water a fiery glow, until all that was left were clouds heavy with rain. As twilight descended and the light began to fade they sat side by side, feeling the touch of skin against skin, listening to the light pattering of raindrops hitting the shelter.
Xena stood up and leaned over to check her sleeping daughter. Reaching down, she hauled Gabrielle to her feet and led her out into the shower, gently laughing at the confused look on her partner's face. Slowly, hand in hand, they wandered down along the water's edge, letting toes mingle with the surf-soaked sand.
At a suitable distance, Xena pulled her young lover into an easy embrace, moulding herself to the vibrant body under her fingers. It still surprised Xena how easy her relationship with Gabrielle was. With all the others, it had always been a matter of her and whoever she was with. With Gabrielle, her heart and her mind agreed that it was always "us". Such unconditional love and trust given so freely had made that unconscious decision so very, very simple.
In the dying light, she gazed down to those verdant eyes, darkening with the arrival of night, and read all that Gabrielle was within those depths. She knew her eyes returned the emotion when she saw their look soften. She brushed her thumb over wet skin before she slowly pulled in the one she held so dear for a kiss that spoke volumes.
Rainwater cascaded over the two of them, soaking their shifts to transparency. Xena spared a glance back to the shelter, pleased to see that all still remained quiet. She turned her attention to the shorter woman, her large hands slowly running over all the dips and curves her mind's eye knew by heart.
There was no hurry here, only gentle affirmation and loving intensity. Tonight could possibly be their last together, and she wanted Gabrielle to carry this night with her in her heart, as she would do. For her, it would be a living beacon in a land full of dark memories.
By feel, Xena peeled off Gabrielle's soaked shift with some difficulty, the material refusing to give up its territory so easily. There was a quiet chuckle in front of her as she pulled harder, nearly hearing the sucking noise as the cotton gave way under her constant tugging. Warm hands replaced cold material and slowly heated the cool skin in front of her.
Xena lowered them to the sand, using their shifts as a barrier to the itching sand. Breaking surf gently bubbled around them, bathing them in effervescent water. With the light all but gone, Xena closed her eyes and used her other senses to slowly explore the warm, moist skin beneath her lips and fingers. She delighted in the gasps and whimpers she was able to elicit from the young woman, using them to push both of them to a higher plane of pleasure.
She continued her gentle assault, using her knowledge of the mapped skin beneath her to lovingly and reverently discover the many facets of her partner all over again. It brought her great happiness that there was no pressure to perform here, but merely to express her boundless love for Gabrielle in all its flavours, until finally her lover's cries broke the silence, her joy shared with the heavens above.
Xena lay her head on Gabrielle's chest, listening to the rapid heartbeat until it slowed and calmed. Small hands buried themselves in her wet hair, slowly massaging her scalp with firm fingertips. A hand moved to her shoulder and she looked up out of habit, forgetting that she couldn't see her in the dark. The firm young body moved and she found herself on her back on the sand, their wet shifts balled up in the middle of her back.
Xena arched up, grabbing the wadded material and moving it aside. Her body glided over the slick sand, the cool water flowing around her periphery and tickling her sensitised skin. She closed her eyes and gave her emotions free rein as warm lips teased and taunted her, promising, but not delivering, the pleasure to come. A smile touched her lips as an errant tongue darted out and coaxed a response from her, tantalizing her until she growled in frustration. A wicked little chuckle could be heard above her and she grabbed Gabrielle's head and brought her in for a hungry kiss.
"Don't do this to me," she whispered.
"It'll be worth the wait, I promise you." The disembodied voice dripped with emotion. "I love you, Xena. Now and forever."
"And I love you too, Gabrielle. Until the end of time." Two bodies took a moment to reaffirm their bond, as two souls made a solemn promise to one another for eternity.
Xena felt her wild and untamed spirit settle under the warm and loving touch of her little blonde. It was a place where only her partner could take her, where there was no outside world. It was only the two of them, suspended in time, and her soul could find peace for a while. There was no past to atone for and no future to live up to; only the now, without worries or fears, alone with the one person she was meant to be with.
She lay quietly as Gabrielle resumed her roaming, immersing herself in the sensations her lover was so cleverly drawing from her. Talented fingers found all her secret places, while soft whispers of love and devotion gently guided her towards completion. Xena soon found herself at that spot Gabrielle had been in not long before.
They lay entwined for quite a while, letting their emotions and bodies cool in the receding surf. Finally, the chill of the night forced them back up, foregoing wet shifts for dry, warm ones once they returned to their shelter. Slowly they wandered back to where Marina slept, each lost in their own thoughts.
Gabrielle stood in front of the fire, letting its warmth seep through her chilled skin. Xena retrieved a couple of dry shifts, emerging from the shelter to quietly watch the young woman standing in the firelight. Her eyes took in the young body, perfectly sculpted and well toned, unblemished by time or scars. She was truly beautiful and Xena felt her heart squeeze at the thought that this woman was really hers, that they were bound together by mutual love and commitment for as long as they both lived. And then some.
Gabrielle could feel Xena watching her even without her eyesight. She opened her eyes to see what she already knew. But it was not a look of want or desire, but one of adoration and understanding. She knew what Xena was silently saying to her, and she replied with a look of her own.
As the night wore on, they sat in front of the fire, sharing a warm herb tea, talking about inconsequential things to pass the time. The gentle lapping of water at the seashore was joined by the sound of raindrops, blending into a harmonious symphony of nature that lulled Gabrielle into sleep, wrapped in the arms of love.
With Gabrielle snuggled into her chest, Xena watched the firelight slowly dwindle until all that was left was embers, the dying light reflecting off pale eyes watching her precious family in slumber. Today was the last day. Xena contemplated the last few days and locked them tight in her heart as a small miracle in her life. It had been a chance to live a quiet life with her family without expectations or demands from the outside world.
Tomorrow, she would put aside her gentler side and take on the mantle of the warrior. She would don her armour for the first time in quite a while, and with that would come the responsibility that mantle bestowed on her. Tomorrow, it begins...
Continued in Chapter 6
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