Callisto poked her head around the tree where Gabrielle was just beginning to doze off. The wanna be Bard could never keep her eyes open for long, especially when she was forced to sit still for more than a minute at a time. It didn't help that today was hotter than Hades itself.
Callisto usually loved to watch her friend sleep, though right now she didn't have any choice but to wake her. Matters were urgent. "Gabrielle! Hey, wake up!"
Gabrielle opened one eye and looked up at the taller, more voluptuous blonde that had become her closest friend since Marcus had sequestered her sister Lila in his harem over a year before. They shared each other's secrets, deepest desires for their futures and Callisto loved to listen to stories as much as Gabrielle loved to tell them.
They knew each other so well in fact, that Gabrielle could sense her friends fear before she could say one word. "What's the matter Cally?"
Gabrielle sighed with frustration and sat up. She hated that man. Ever since he'd laid siege to Potidea over a year before he'd done nothing but torment her and her family. The citizens of Potidea weren't his only victims either. Callisto and her family had merely been going to visit relatives in Torone when Marcus had taken them captive and forced them into a life of slavery behind the walls of the village. Luckily for Callisto, her sister Naomi and Gabrielle, they'd found one another and become fast friends.
"What's he doing now?"
Callisto looked back around as if to make certain no one could hear them, then stooped and whispered to Gabrielle. "Marcus is gathering together some of his men. They're moving out."
"Oh," Gabrielle said, perking up. "You're bringing me good news! I can visit with Lila while he's-"
"No, that's just it! He's taking Lila with him."
Gabrielle's heart leaped into her throat. Why would Marcus take Lila out to harvest slaves? It just didn't make sense.
"What could be going on that he'd want to take Lila out on a harvest?"
"That's the question of the day because I don't have a clue," Callisto said. She checked to see if they were alone one more time then voiced a thought already running through Gabrielle's mind.
"I think now is the time."
Gabrielle immediately shook her head no as fear tickled her gut. "No, it's too dangerous."
The Bard stood to her feet and walked over to the lake where she was letting the day's laundry soak. She stooped to her knees to continue her work as if this would somehow validate her reasons for not wanting to listen to the argument she knew Callisto was about to present.
"What do you mean it's too dangerous?" Callisto's voice was a mixture of disappointment and anger. "This is the best opportunity we've ever had. Besides, I was thinking."
"Callisto, I hate it when you think. It always gets us in trouble."
Gabrielle allowed her eyes to wander to the tip of a nasty scar on one of Callisto's freckled, well-tanned shoulders. They had been caught once, here at this very lake making fun of Marcus when a soldier over heard them and ordered them whipped. Callisto had insisted she was the only one speaking ill of their Lord, and in a rare display of mercy Marcus only had one of them beaten: Callisto. She spoke ill of him now more than ever, but she was definitely careful of who may or may not be around to hear her.
"Very funny. We can keep an eye on Lila this way."
"Now I know you've lost your mind. Its bad enough you want to attempt an escape. It's another to even toy with the idea of following Marcus. If we get caught he'll put us to death! Or worse, he'll put us in his harem."
Callisto took a step away from Gabrielle, her back stiff with determination. Gabrielle knew that posture and she gave up right then on even trying to talk the smallest measure of sense into Callisto. The daring blond wasn't about to entertain the notion of giving up her suicidal mission to follow Lila and Marcus, wherever they were planning to go.
"I guess I care more about Lila than you do."
Callisto's words cut Gabrielle to the core. Not just because they were cruel but also because Gabrielle half believed them. She was the older sister and every day she carried the guilt that she should be the one in Marcus' harem instead of Lila, but she was too afraid to even think of trading places. Besides, Marcus never gave her a second look and she doubted he would give up his favorite for her.
However, Callisto had gone too far in saying such a thing. "You listen to me Callisto," Gabrielle said, her voice trembling with pain. "Lila is my sister and nobody loves her more than me. Do you hear me? NO ONE!"
"Shhh!" Callisto tried to reach out to Gabrielle but she would have none of it. Callisto had hurt her and now she was angry.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I shouldn't have said that."
Gabrielle knew Callisto well enough to know she meant her words. In time, she would get over it and forgive Callisto, but for now...
"If you're not ready to leave this prison, fine. You can stay. I'm going to find out what they're doing and maybe I can free her when he's grabbing Virgins."
Callisto turned to head back to the village but she didn't get more than a few steps before Gabrielle was trailing behind her. The mission Callisto had in mind was reckless and would surely lead to their capture and possibly even their deaths, but she couldn't just stand back and watch while her best friend risked her life to save her sister. If they were to all die, Gabrielle thought, they would die together.
"Wait! She's my sister. I at least have to try."
Callisto beamed at Gabrielle with sisterly pride. "That's my Gabby."
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever."
They made their way back to the village before they could arouse the suspicion of any of the guards that were most familiar with them. They had a plan of action, and they were going to bravely see it through, regardless of the consequences.
Lila was completely unprepared for Marcus' sudden arrival into her rooms as she struggled to wash the stench of him from her body. It seemed that no matter how many baths she took she could never get his smell off her. Part of her knew it was all in her mind, yet part of her also wondered if he'd invaded her to the point she actually carried his smell.
"Get ready. We're going on a little trip."
"Since when do you take me on your raids?"
Marcus was not in the mood to put up with any of Lila's sarcasm. He'd struck a deal with Athena barely an hour ago that would decide the direction his life was going to take. If he succeeded Athena would have what she wanted, and he would also have her favor.
He knew that if he had the favor of the most powerful god on Olympus, second only to Zeus, Hera and Poseidon, then there would be no stopping him. She would guarantee his success until the day he died, which would be a very long time from now.
Marcus grabbed a hand full of Lila's wet hair and jerked her head back until she wondered if perhaps the pressure on her throat would choke her.
"If you ever question me again, I'll replace you with your precious sister. Do you understand me Lila?"
She did her best to speak around the fear that was oddly choking her. How many times had she imagined her death at his hands? How many times had she feared he would force Gabrielle into a life of misery with him once she was gone?
"I understand. Forgive me Marcus. I meant no disrespect."
"That's a good little sheep. Get dressed."
"Begging your pardon my lord," Lila said respectfully, as he turned to prepare his men. He turned to look at her, his patients dwindling by the second.
"Well?" he said, when she failed to continue.
"You've forbidden me to wear clothes, remember?"
"Then you'll just have to come naked won't you?"
Marcus stormed from the bathing room and out into the hot afternoon. He'd never cared much for the feminine members of Olympus, but now it seemed as if one of them just might be his saving grace. All he had to do to make his dreams come true was rid the world of a mysterious doppelganger.
Gabrielle found Xena waiting on her horse outside the Hestian temple facing the eastern path. Gabrielle didn't doubt Xena had heard every word spoken between her and Aphrodite. From the look on her face, Xena was every bit as confused about who Gabrielle really was as she was about the feelings she had developed for Gabrielle in the short time she'd been here.
Xena cursed herself for not being more forward. She'd known that regardless of what else might happen, she would eventually have to answer to Athena about the way she was feeling and the future, or even if there was a future, of their relationship.
Now Gabrielle was all but gone from her life, and she'd squandered the time she'd had with her. A war was raging in Xena. Part of her wanted to walk away from Gabrielle now before she said something she'd come to regret. Another part of her wanted to do something irrational, like kidnap Gabrielle and force her to miss her window of opportunity to return to the gate. A small voice inside her urged her to beg and plead with Gabrielle to stay and give her a chance to prove she could love her every bit as much as her counterpart in Gabrielle's home world.
"Hey." Gabrielle mounted her horse and came to a stop next to Xena. They shared a long look that seemed to communicate volumes before Xena broke her silence.
"I gather you're from out of town."
This brought a small smile to Gabrielle's face. "Way out of town. Though I do have a double. That's what I wanted to talk-"
"Well I don't want to talk. We've been together three days and you never said a word about what was really going on. How could you lead me on like that?"
"Lead you on?" Gabrielle seemed genuinely hurt and confused. "Xena, I never led you on about anything-"
"Oh yes you did." Xena said, interrupting Gabrielle again. "You could see I was falling for you but not trying to rush anything and you still kept silent about who you really are. Why?"
"Because I didn't think it was wise. I don't know you. I had no idea if I could trust you or not."
"I'm exactly the same as your Xena. If you can trust her, you can trust me."
"That's just it." Their voices were rising now and Gabrielle was relieved the Virgins had retreated to the relative cool of the temple to be with their goddess. "You're not exactly like her. There are a lot of differences between the two of you."
"Like the fact she's not half dead inside like you are! You're cold Xena."
"I am not cold," Xena said, though the chill in her voice proved her words to be lies.
Xena kicked her horse into a run down the road, but Gabrielle would be damned if she just allowed Xena to run away from the issue like this. She took off behind her, knowing if they kept this pace up they would reach the port by nightfall.
"She also wouldn't run away from a conversation like this," Gabriele called out to her as they thundered down the road.
Xena drew her horse to a sudden stop, making Gabrielle almost collide with her. The Bard brought her own horse around and until she was blocking the narrow path with the length of her horses body. If Xena wanted to get past her, she would have to go through her.
"Is that what you think I'm doing? Running? I am Xena. Favored above all others by Athena herself. I do not run. Not from anything, especially my-"
Xena brought herself up short and looked away. Though it had been brief, Gabrielle had seen very real tears wet Xena's eyes. The proud warrior took a deep breath and pulled herself together, then looked back at Gabrielle. If only Xena knew how much effect the pain in her eyes had on Gabrielle...
Being the friend to Xena that she was, and a bard to boot, Gabrielle finished the sentence for Xena. "Feelings? Xena, you've been running from your feelings all your life. Its time to stop and confront them."
"How? With Athena? She doesn't care about feelings. At least not mine."
"I'll bet she does. Have you talked to her? Have you tried to tell her your inmost secrets?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Xena said, evading the issue again. "I'm not bearing my soul to someone only to lose her in a matter of hours. I'm going back to Athens. I think it would be best if you wait at the temple with Aphrodite. I'm sure she won't mind keeping you company."
Xena charged Gabrielle, forcing her no choice but to move out of the way and allow her through. Gabrielle watched Xena thunder down the road in her champion's uniform for a few moments, considering what she should do.
Should she follow Xena's advice and return to the temple, or should she pursue Xena? After barely a split second Gabrielle kicked her horse into a run. It really wasn't that difficult a decision. In matters of the heart Gabrielle was very wise, and she knew that no matter what world she was in, she could never walk away and leave Xena in pain. Never.
Xena awoke the next day to the sound of the familiar, daily life of the villagers of Amphipolis outside her window and the wonderful smell of eggs and sweet cakes cooking downstairs. She rose from the comfortable cushions of her bed and winced in surprise as her warm feet made the first contact of the day with the nearly ice cold floor. That was the one minor detail Xena had forgotten about home: No matter how warm the room the stone floor always seemed impossible to warm.
She was mildly surprised when she found a pair of brand new slippers just beneath the stand next to her bed. Xena knew they had not been there the night before and Varia must have placed them there. Once again she was reminded of how amazingly thoughtful the sometimes-brash Queen was, and she was also reminded of how similar she was to Gabrielle.
Varia seemed to genuinely enjoy catering to Xena. Whenever the Warrior Princess smiled, which had been quite frequently the day before, Varia seemed to become filled with satisfaction that Xena was taking her first shaky steps back onto the road of happiness that life could hold, even without Gabrielle. Perhaps Varia was just what Xena needed right now to live life instead of merely surviving.
"Perhaps she is," Xena found herself whispering aloud. She shook the thoughts away and went into the washroom to find a tub of steaming water waiting for her. "Oh, this is too much." Varia was running herself ragged in an effort to keep her happy, and Xena wouldn't allow it any longer. She exited the room and made her way downstairs.
Varia had changed from her usual Amazon clothes and was now wearing a dress Xena had never seen before. Apparently Varia had been up with the dawn and had found a dress in Cyrene's closet that complimented her incredible figure. At least she'd done one nice thing for herself.
Varia gave Xena a beaming smile as she set two places at the kitchen table. "Good morning Xena. Breakfast will be ready shortly."
"I want to talk to you about that. Slippers, a hot bath and breakfast? You're running yourself into the ground to cater to me and I want it to stop."
She realized her tone was sharper than it needed to be, but Varia was nothing if not stubborn. Sometimes the only way to reach Varia was to be firm. What made this situation even worse was the hurt expression the younger woman didn't even realize she was displaying.
"I'm just trying to be helpful."
"And you are." Xena softened her tone and entered the kitchen. She guided Varia to the table and took the utensils to finish the job of setting the table. "I'll finish breakfast for you."
"No buts. It's my turn to do something for you."
Varia waited a moment then spoke again, this time in a rush before Xena could interrupt her again. "But I'd rather you didn't."
"Well why not Varia?"
"Because you can't cook."
Xena knew this to be true but it didn't stop her from being slightly offended. "I can too. When I have to."
"Yeah, in the jungle with no other recourse. Let me handle the food department huh? Please?"
With that kind of desperation on a woman's face, how could Xena refuse? Besides, Varia did have a point. Xena didn't have many skills in the culinary department. "Fine, but I've got the dishes."
"Take that bath first. I'd hate it to go to waste after all the work it took to prepare it."
Xena couldn't believe it. Varia was using legitimate excuses to force Xena into allowing her to do everything for her. Well, if that's the way she wanted it, then that's the way it will be. Xena turned with a shake of her head and ran up the steps to take her bath.
Amphitryon had been watching old Cyrene's Inn all day in the hopes he could catch a glimpse not just of the legendary Warrior Princess herself, but the exquisite beauty that had come into town with her. He'd watched from his window as the two women had ridden into town just before dusk the night before. From the shadows in the windows and the brief glimpses he'd caught of them through the curtains, he'd gotten the impression they were cleaning the old place up.
Perhaps, he thought, they were going to open the Inn again. Nothing would make him happier. Cyrene had been one of the nicest women in the entire town...at least until they'd discovered the evil happenings were because she was a witch. He'd regretted having to take part in her burning, but what could he do? His family and farm had suffered because of her evil doings...Amphitryon consoled himself with the excuse he'd done the right thing.
Now Xena had returned home for the first time since vanquishing Mephistopheles and putting Lucifer on the throne of hell in his place. Since that day the curses visited upon the farms of Amphipolis had all but vanished and they were once again thriving. The only inconvenience really, was the town no longer had an Inn to cater to visitors and most of the single men had been forced to learn to cook for themselves in Cyrene's absence.
As quietly as he could, Amphitryon eased around to the rear of the Inn. There was a door that he could use to peep into the kitchen without being easily seen by anyone inside. He just wanted to get one more look at the raven-haired beauty that had accompanied Xena into town the night before. Hopefully she had that skimpy outfit on from the day before. It signified her as an Amazon, and it was rare he got to see that much female flesh without bedding with a woman, and none of the women he'd ever slept with had such a firm body as hers.
When he reached the rear door the smell of ham, eggs and fresh bread wafted through the door. His belly growled at the thought of eating such delicious food since he had been one of the men forced to eat his own cooking since the death of the witch Cyrene. Now the village had two women who were going to run the old place and hopefully he could gain back some of the weight he'd lost since he'd practically stopped eating.
He peered inside the kitchen and to his disappointment it was empty. A dishrag hung over the back of one of the chairs, still swinging from the momentum of being thrown across the chair. Whoever had been in there was gone now. He spent a few moments struggling to see past the kitchen and into the main room but no one was there.
"Looking for someone?"
Amphitryon whirled around to find the very same woman he'd been looking for standing behind him. How had she come up behind him so fast?
"Uh...hi there," he said, trying to sound cheerful though he was horribly embarrassed and more than a little shaken by her stealth.
The woman only looked at him with distaste, as she would a bug she'd crushed with her boot. She had also regrettably changed out of the sexy clothes she'd worn the night before, and now she wore one of Cyrene's old dresses. It was out dated but it did her exquisite figure justice.
She kept her hands on her hips but her feet were spread shoulder length and most of her weight rested on the balls of her feet with her knees bent just slightly. She could spring in any direction at the drop of a hat. She was ready to fight, he could tell, and he knew he didn't want to come to blows with an Amazon warrior. He was no slouch but he knew he couldn't handle her.
"What are you doing, sneaking around here like that?"
"I'm not sneaking."
The woman only lifted her right eyebrow, not buying a word of his clumsily delivered excuse. Why should she? It was a lie after all. He decided he'd better come up with a better story, but he didn't want to come right out and tell the truth of why he was there "sneaking" around.
"Ok, I was sneaking. I wanted to see what you were doing with the place. That's all, I swear. I'm your neighbor Amphitryon. And you are?"
"None of your business."
Suddenly the door swung open, hitting him on the rear. He turned to find a leggy brunette leaning out to see what was going on. She made no apology for hitting him once she saw Varia's defensive stance.
"Varia? Everything ok?"
Varia, Amphitryon thought, trying the name out in his mind. He liked it a lot. It suited the fierce beauty of the woman he'd come to see. He turned back to her, not aware of the open admiration on his face that belied the crush he was developing on her with lightning speed. Varia rolled her eyes and pushed her way past him.
"No. We've just got a snoop, that's all."
Xena smiled. She'd seen the young man wearing his heart on his sleeve and pitied him. If only he knew he didn't stand a chance of winning Varia's affections. "Can I help you?"
"Hi." He offered Xena his arm and she took it in a strong, manly clasp. Boy she was strong..."My names Amphitryon. I live over in Rufus' old place."
"No kidding," Xena said with a smile. "I knew him. Whatever happened to him?"
"He moved about twenty years ago after his son Maphias was killed in the flood."
Xena's face fell at the mention of Maphias' death. "That's too bad. Maphias was a friend of mine."
"If it'll help," he said, wanting to cheer her up in some way, "he died saving a lot of people."
People that murdered my mother, Xena thought, but she hid the anger from her face. It wasn't necessarily this young man's fault that her mother had been lynched because of foolish superstition. "At least he didn't die in vain."
They shared an uncomfortable silence. The more Amphitryon thought about it, the more he realized it was uncomfortable for him, not Xena. These two were way out of his league and he began to curse at himself for even coming over. What in Tartarus did he think was going to happen anyway?
"Xena, breakfast is ready. Won't you come and eat?"
"I'll be there in a minute."
Something about the way they spoke to one another immediately bothered Amphitryon. As he watched the look in Varia's eyes when she looked at Xena, he got the distinct impression he was seeing something more than sisterly friendship. Varia sounded more like a wife calling a husband to a meal, and Xena responded more like a husband than a friend.
Nah, that's silly, he finally said to himself. These were honorable women who wouldn't be involved in a relationship like that. He gave Xena a short bow then backed away. "I uh, hope to see you again sometime."
"Sure you will," Xena said, offering him a bright smile. "We're re-opening the Inn so you're always welcome. Good-bye."
Xena disappeared back into the Inn, shutting the door behind her, and Amphitryon made his way back to his own home. He had a lot of work to do that day in the field, and he'd wasted too much time as it was. As he made his way home, images of Varia cooking meals like that for him filled his mind, yet he still couldn't shake the feeling there was more to the relationship between the two women than met the eye. But like he'd thought before...Nah, that's silly.
Xena watched Varia eat her breakfast as if it were possibly the last meal she would have in a long time.
"Hey, slow down. Enjoy your food."
"I'll bet-" Varia caught herself just before she could say something she would regret, but that didn't change the fact Xena knew what words had almost slipped from Varia's lips.
"You'll bet Gabrielle always ate slow? She did."
Varia looked away, embarrassed. "It's an old Amazon habit. Eat fast so you can get back to work."
Xena knew the younger woman was trying to avoid the subject of Gabrielle and in her own way maybe she was even trying to apologize for her near-slip. Xena appreciated it. "Don't worry about it. You're not Gabrielle, I know that. You don't have to try to be her to take-"
Speaking of near-slips. Now it was Xena's turn to look away in embarrassment. She'd almost promised something she wasn't sure she was ready to give, but Varia wasn't going to let it slide any more than Xena had. "I don't have to try to be Gabrielle to take her place?"
There was more than a small amount of hope in Varia's voice at the possibility that Xena may finally be ready to advance their relationship to another level. A more...intimate level?
"Not so fast huh? Look, the place could use a good dusting. What do you say we get started?"
"Ok. While you're doing that, I'll go out for some supplies."
"I'll give you the money," Xena said. They both stood and from the positions of their chairs they came face to face for one brief moment that almost seemed like a lifetime. It was all Varia could do not to move in for their first kiss. She wanted Xena so bad she could just taste her.
Sensing Varia's need-and her own-Xena decided space was just what they needed to keep from making a serious mistake this early in their budding friendship. Xena quickly moved away and went over to a secret floor space where Cyrene always kept the profits of the business. Just as she'd suspected there were two large sacs full of money.
"Impressive. You know Xena, partnering with you might be a very lucrative-"
"Hush-hush," Xena said, offering Varia a smile. She took out almost a few coins that together were worth almost fifty dinars, and then placed them in the soft skin of Varia's hand.
"I'll see you later. Let me know if you need help bringing everything in."
With that, Xena hurried away before she allowed herself to much time to notice how the morning light made Varia's skin glow with almost ghostly beauty, or how rosy and soft her lips really were.
Varia had seen Xena's moment of weakness, and as she made her way through the Inn to the front entrance, she wondered how long it would be before she and Xena not only shared the responsibilities of the Inn together, but their bed as well.
After hours of silence Gabrielle and Xena finally arrived at the port commonly called Demetra. "Xena, what are you going to do?"
It wasn't the first time Gabrielle had asked the question, and it seemed to Xena that her silence wasn't going to be enough to stop Gabrielle from asking it again and again until she got her answer.
"I'm going to catch a ship to the island of Salamis. From there I'll take another boat to the mainland and ride on in to Athens."
"I don't mean that. I mean what are you going to do?"
Xena turned to Gabrielle, genuine confusion on her face. "What are you talking about? Do what?"
"I mean are you just going to go back to Athena?"
"What do you mean 'go back'? I never left her."
Xena handed the reigns of her lathered horse over to a stable boy, tipped him then made her way into the local Inn. It was full of rowdy men that immediately lifted their glasses in toast to Xena in a sign of respect for the uniform she wore. Xena offered them a few nods as she made her way to the bar.
"Mead." The bar tender nodded and gave her a fresh mug. Xena was purposefully ignoring Gabrielle as the bard stood next to her, staring her down. Finally she could take it no more.
"What?" Xena barked.
"You know what."
"I need a room," Xena told the man behind the bar. He nodded and waved a serving wench over.
"Get Athena's champion the best room in the house. A hot bath Xena?"
"Get a bath for her too. No charge."
Xena smiled at him but threw money on the counter. "Thanks for the offer but I've got it covered. Next time you're in trouble, call on Athena in my name. She'll save you." Xena got up from the bar and walked briskly toward the steps, Gabrielle following close behind.
"Bartender," Xena added, motioning at Gabrielle. "Do something about this pest will you?"
Gabrielle wasn't aware her mouth could fall open as far as it did, but she could only stare as the bartender ran around to stand in front of her as Xena went up the steps, disappearing into the darkness.
"Sorry miss. Xena wants to be alone."
Gabrielle wasn't about to be put aside quite so easily, but she also wasn't going to hurt a well-meaning innocent either. "I get the picture. You don't have to worry about me."
Later that evening Xena sank down into the water of her freshly drawn bath and closed her eyes. As she'd waited for the bath to be filled she'd relaxed in the bed and forced herself to face the truth of not only what had happened in the past few days but of her entire life. She was disgusted with herself for allowing herself to believe in such a ridiculous concept as a soul mate. Where had she ever gotten the idea that she needed someone to complete her? There was no such thing as a soul mate, she repeated to herself. There was only family, lovers and enemies. That's it. It never got more personal than sex and she had Athena to supply that.
Xena was glad she was alone when the hot tears of disappointment sprang from her eyes to burn her cheeks. She'd allowed herself to get to know only what she'd wanted to know about Gabrielle, and she'd loved what she discovered. She didn't want it to be so but she had fallen for the beautiful blond stranger, and she'd fallen hard. Now Gabrielle was leaving forever and she would never again feel as complete as she had the few days she'd been with Gabrielle.
Startled by the now familiar sound of Gabrielle's voice, Xena stood and turned to face the woman, her body instinctively preparing for battle. Gabrielle was crouched in the windowsill of the room, which Xena had had her back to.
"You just won't quit will you?" Xena turned away, hoping Gabrielle hadn't seen the tears on her cheeks. She quickly splashed her face to mask the truth of her pain.
"Not on you I won't." Gabrielle stepped into the room and came over to the tub, forcing Xena to face her.
"What do you want Gabrielle?"
"I want you to be happy."
"Really? Is that what you really want?"
The almost child-like hope in Xena's voice hurt Gabrielle deeply for she knew what Xena had in mind. "Yes, really."
Xena came over to the edge of the tub and took Gabrielle's hands in hers. "Stay with me Gabrielle. You heard Aphrodite in the temple. The other Xena has someone named Varia. All I have is Athena."
Gabrielle looked away from the pleading in the eyes of the painfully familiar face. It was so hard for Gabrielle to deny anything of herself from Xena, especially when she was aware of how much the one she loved really needed it.
That's just it, Gabrielle thought. This isn't the woman I love. She has her face but it's not Xena. Not my Xena. Remember that Gabrielle, before you do something foolish.
"I can't do that."
Xena turned away again, helpless frustration on her face. "Then leave. Now."
"If that's what you want."
It's not what I want, Xena thought, but she refused to say so aloud. She only stared at the moon outside and wished she'd never laid eyes on Gabrielle. "It is what I want."
"Before I go, you should know one thing. I have a double here too. Find her Xena, and you will find your soul mate."
"You're my soul mate. Not some imitation of you."
"No Xena. You felt a connection with me because Xena and Gabrielle, regardless of which universe they're in, are destined to be together. We should never have met, but we did. We both felt what the powers that be have decreed should be."
"That we should be together?"
Gabrielle nodded, relieved Xena was able to understand her and believe this strange but true explanation. "Xena, give her a chance."
Xena came up out of the water and went over to the bed, grabbing a dry cloth to cover her naked flesh. Though the night air was humid and hot, her body was wracked with chills. Perhaps it wasn't the breeze on her wet skin that chilled her, but something deeper in her soul.
Gabrielle joined her on the bed and put a comforting arm around her. "Do you really think Athena is going to allow me to leave her for this other Gabrielle?"
"If she loves you as much as she claims, then yes. My Xena once told me that sacrifice was the ultimate expression of love."
Xena turned and stared her in the eye. "You don't know Athena."
They held the gaze a little too long and the heat of desire began to tickle both women deep inside. "Gabrielle..." Xena said, her voice barely a whisper.
However, Gabrielle had to end it before she did something she regretted. "Xena, no."
It took a little encouragement on Gabrielle's part but Xena finally pulled back. "That's what I like about you Gabrielle," Xena said, though her voice was full of both need and frustration from being pushed away. "You're so loyal."
"I'm sorry Xena. I just can't."
"Will you stay with me tonight?"
Gabrielle debated whether or not that was a wise decision, and then decided it couldn't hurt. "Yeah, I'll stay. But I have to leave early tomorrow to meet Aphrodite at the temple."
They lay down and Gabrielle allowed Xena to hold her close. After all, it was the least she could do for a friend.
That night Callisto and Gabrielle finally made it to the secret exit they'd discovered almost three months before. They'd been waiting for their chance to escape and now it was here. With Marcus moving Lila and the soldiers out, the guards were more than distracted.
"Are you ready?" Callisto asked. Gabrielle gave her a nervous nod. It was now or never.
"I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Let's go."
The escape route was literally a crack in the wall Marcus had had erected when he first took over Potidea. It was nothing short of a miracle that nothing had been done to seal it should any of the villagers discover it and escape. Now Callisto and Gabrielle were planning on doing just that.
With a final glance to make certain no one was watching the two girls slipped through the vines and weeds that had grown over the imperfection in the wall and emerged into the forest that surrounded the small village.
A wind had kicked up, blowing in a cold and steady breeze from the Aegean. This was fine by them. The noise gave them the perfect cover to make it easier for them to sneak past the lookouts on the wall.
They finally came to the main gate. Marcus and his men were riding out onto the main road, which led deeper into the forest. If Callisto had heard the whispered rumors correctly, Marcus was no doubt heading to Mende where he and his men would hop a ship that would carry them to the foot of Mt. Ossa where Xena had spoiled his attempts to capture a group of Hestia's Virgins.
It was a long trip, but the two had every confidence they would make it. Or they would die trying. With one last look at the village they hadn't left since Marcus began his reign of terror so long ago, Callisto and Gabrielle darted up to the rear of the caravan where they were hauling three extra horses and gently guided one away. It was a gutsy, dangerous move, but they pulled it off. In seconds they rode into the forest to begin their journey. Little did they know their lives were about to change forever.
Varia exited the main doors of the Inn to find the village of Amphipolis bustling with activity. She got her fair share of confused glances and nods from the men and women going about their business. Because Amphipolis was a coastal town, fish was a booming business. A lot of trading had sprung up over the past twenty years between Amphipolis and her neighboring village of Eion, so there was more than a fair share of supply wagons crowding the road between the two villages as well as in the main square itself.
Knowing she was in an outdated dress didn't help Varia's self-confidence, and it didn't take her long to find a shop that carried a line of the latest material. Her mother had taught her many things as an Amazon, and sewing was one of them. Her only problem was her sense of style didn't blend with that of the women she saw populating the bustling town.
Because of her haste Varia quickly had the wagon filled with the needed supplies to open the Inn, and just when she believed she was about to escape without having to encounter Amphitryon she rounded a corner in the dry goods store and found herself face to face with him.
"Hi!" he said, a grin splitting his not un-handsome face from ear to ear. He offered her his arm, which she reluctantly took, then pushed past him. She may not have any experience with men but she could recognize when someone had an interest in her, and this man had it bad. Needless to say, she didn't reciprocate. When was he going to pick up on that?
"Amphitryon. How..." What was it Xena had said about dealing with men? Something about being civil to them? "How nice to see you."
"Its good to see you too. So you and Xena are settled in then?"
Varia placed her packages into the wagon and turned to climb up. Just as she was halfway into the seat a gust from the Aegean blew through the split in the skirt, affording Amphitryon a very clear view of Varia's legs and underpants, though she was unaware of what had happened. When she turned to say her good-byes his face was once again beaming with that constant smile he always seemed to be wearing.
Men, she thought. They're so stupid. What could my mother have been thinking when she fell in love with my father and moved off with him? "I'll be seeing you. I suppose."
Amphitryon wasn't quite ready to give up yet, so he attempted to strike up a conversation about the Inn. It was a legitimate question and one he knew Varia probably wouldn't mind answering.
"You guys have been working pretty hard over the past couple of days. When do you think you'll be ready to open? I can't wait to taste one of your breakfasts."
I'll bet you can't, Varia thought, trying to decide just how rude she should or shouldn't be with this man. Finally she decided she didn't care. "We'll be ready when we're ready. Give us a couple of days ok? I have to go now. Xena's waiting."
With that, Varia led Argo and Braveheart back onto the main road and headed back toward the Inn. She could feel Amphitryon's eyes boring into her back every inch of the way. Men, she thought.
Xena entered the last of the six rooms for renting her mother had managed to keep in incredible condition alone all the years she and Gabrielle had been frozen, and set her supplies in the middle of the floor. She'd been cleaning all morning and now she was bone tired. She didn't want to change one more bed, dust one more shelf or mop one more floor.
Ah but that's the life of running an Inn, she thought. With every step she took through the halls of the place she'd called home since she was nine years old, Xena's spirits lifted a little more. Each room had its memories for her, some good and some not so good.
As she went about the business of cleaning, she desperately wished her mother were here just to talk with. There was so much she could have learned about the business from Cyrene had she not ruined everything by running off to conquer the world. Now it looked like she would have to do the best she could with what she remembered from her childhood.
Xena pulled the dusty bedclothes from the lumpy mattress and began to replace them with one of the fresh ones she and Varia had spent the entire day before washing. She had almost completed her chore when Varia entered the doorway and slumped against the doorjamb. Sweat glistened on her brow and she was panting heavily. Xena wondered what could have happened to get such a healthy young woman so worked up.
"What's the matter with you? You're all sweaty."
Varia shook her head and came into the room. She slumped back onto the mattress before Xena could finish spreading the comforter.
"Hey!" Xena said, but Varia paid her no mind. "You never did answer my question. Why are you all sweaty?"
"I have wonderful news. I just shared an hour of passion with Amphitryon." Varia answered. Her words had the desired effect when Xena's mouth dropped open in disbelief, but what made her happy was the momentary flash of jealousy in the Warrior Princess' eyes.
"I'm kidding Xena."
"I knew you were," Xena said, trying to recover from her unexpectedly jealous shock, and she knew Varia was aware of the true feelings the joke had inspired in her.
"I actually just finished unloading the wagons and packing everything away. After that I fed Argo and Braveheart and ran up here to see if I could help you." Varia's words ended in a yawn. "Only now I just need to rest."
"Well you go right ahead. You've worked hard the past few days."
Xena lay back beside her and they stared out of the window at the foot of the bed. The sky was darkening with more than the coming evening. Another fall rainstorm was moving in from the north it seemed, and Xena wasn't looking forward to another week of wet weather.
"What are you thinking about?"
Xena looked over at Varia. She couldn't help but to notice their faces were so close it was almost a strain for Xena to focus on Varia's beautifully strong face. They were close enough to kiss, and Xena found herself desiring just that.
I can't believe it, Xena said. I'm actually feeling desire for someone other than Gabrielle. I never thought it would happen. She decided to talk so she wouldn't be tempted to occupy her suddenly "thirsty" tongue.
"I was thinking about the rain."
Varia heard just how soft Xena's voice was now, and at this close proximity she couldn't help but to see the desire the older woman was feeling for her. It had finally happened. Xena wanted her as much as she had wanted Xena all this time. Should she make the move? If she let this opportunity to advance her relationship with Xena pass, would there ever be another?
"I love the rain," Varia whispered. "It nourishes the earth."
Almost as if a force separate from them was pushing them together, the two warriors' lips met in a kiss. It was tentative at first, but as their desire grew, so did their hunger for one another. What surprised Xena most was that it felt right, especially after the words of her dead soul mate played through her mind once more.
"...If anything should happen to me Xena, I want you to find solace and love in someone else's arms..."
They gave themselves over to their passion slowly, enjoying the taste and feel of one another's bodies. Silently each woman was determined to make this a night to remember.
Amphitryon hurried toward Cyrene's Inn with an armload of freshly cut wood. He knew that the supply Cyrene had kept in the back of the Inn had long since been looted, and he'd already seen Xena in the back yard chopping wood herself. It wasn't that she had not done an admirable job of it of course. He just did not think it right for a woman to be forced into such duties. Besides, maybe this act of kindness would win Varia's favor, at least a little.
He placed the wood, which would be more than enough to heat their separate bedrooms for at least one night, beside the back door and knocked to let tell them of his gift. However before he could touch the door a gust of wind blew it open for him and a momentary tickle of anxiety touched his gut. Since when did they leave their door open like this?
The thought occurred to him that something had happened. Since Xena had rid Amphipolis of Mephistopheles influence thugs had been drawn back to the peaceful village, and there was no telling what was going on inside.
Amphitryon stood back, torn about what he should do. If she can defeat the devil, he thought, surely she can handle a few thugs. Right? Besides, Varia had returned and she was an Amazon warrior. On the other hand, they were just a couple of women. What if they needed his help? What if something terrible were going on inside? The walls were made of heavy stone and they might not be able to scream loud enough for help.
Amphitryon made his decision and he stepped inside.
Xena had removed Varia's top, leaving her heavy, full breasts exposed to the fading light of the evening. Now Varia was clad only in the underskirt of Cyrene's old outfit, and soon Xena would rid her of that. For now Xena positioned herself on her knees behind Varia who also sat on her knees. Varia leaned into Xena and turned her face so they could share another sweet, deep kiss.
Xena used her right hand to cup Varia's breast while she eased her left hand down into the skirt until she found the hot, wet treasure between Varia's legs. She formed her forefinger and middle finger into a Y then began to stroke the outer edges of Varia's womanhood, teasing the Amazon warrior.
Varia ran her hands through Xena's hair, gasping with need. "Xena..."
Xena gave up her cruel game and began to stroke Varia, lightly at first, then with more intensity until her gasps became moans of pleasure. Xena's lips found their way to Varia's ear where she began to lick and moan with her own desire, adding to Varia's pleasure. They were unaware they had company.
Amphitryon searched the first floor of the Inn. Seeing no sign of trouble he bound up the stairs, debating whether or not to call the women's name. If they were under attack, he would best be able to help them by keeping the element of surprise in his favor.
When he reached the second floor his ears caught the sound of human life. It was clearly moans and gasping, and his heart began to pound. He'd been right! Someone had broken in and was raping them! He charged down the hall until he reached the only room with an open door, expecting to see either Varia or Xena being violated by some no-good tramp. Instead what he found horrified him even worse.
Xena was on the bed behind Varia, one hand furiously rubbing and probing between the younger woman's legs, the cupping a large, perfect breast. Varia was being violated all right, but she wasn't minding it at all. She called Xena's name over and over with her growing passion, and Xena responded with moans of her own. Amphitryon realized Varia had a one of her own hands between Xena's legs and was returning Xena's actions in kind. They had no idea they were making an enemy as they were making love.
Fearing he would be discovered, and sickened by the site of the two women making love with one another, he turned and ran. He wanted nothing more than to be out of the Inn where he could get some fresh air.
By the time he reached his own home he'd regained his senses enough to realize what he felt most wasn't disgust but disappointment. He'd hoped that he would be able to win Varia over, but now he knew that would never be.
"Why are you so surprised? She's an Amazon," he said to himself. She'd grown up around nothing but women. But Xena was a different story. She was of this very same village and she was...perverted.
He couldn't push the site of what he perceived to be the sin the two women were committing at the Inn right now, and his disappointment was quickly evolving into anger. How dare Xena return to their village and bring her filth with her? She was a disgusting creature in his eyes. A creature that had robbed him of any chance of winning Varia over.
"Well I won't let you get away with it," he said as he looked back at the Inn. It loomed, dark and frightening against the steadily darkening and stormy sky of the evening. "I won't let your filth corrupt this town. I'll expose you for what you really are. When the time is right."
The by the time the sun rose in the eastern sky Xena and Gabrielle had made their way back to the Hestia's temple. As they dismounted for Gabrielle to enter the temple they were painfully aware this would be the last time they would ever see one another.
"Well," Xena said, trying to put on a cheerful face. "I guess this is it."
"I guess so." Gabrielle let go of the reigns and Xena came around to face her. The Warrior in her was tempted to take Gabrielle and ride as far from this place as possible. She was convinced that given time the small blond warrior would come to love her as much as she had the Xena in her home universe.
Yet the woman in her knew she would not commit such a selfish act. This Gabrielle didn't belong here, and she never would. It was time to let her go.
"Can I walk you into the temple?"
"Are you sure you want to see me leave?"
"I don't want to see you leave at all. I just want as much time with you as I can."
"Alright. Let's go."
They entered the temple, and as they walked they couldn't help but notice how quiet everything was. "I wonder where the Virgins are," Gabrielle commented. They rounded the corner to the large double doors that led to the garden, knowing Aphrodite waited on the other side to take her home.
"Thank you Gabrielle."
The smooth skin of Gabrielle's forehead crinkled in confusion. "What for?"
"For giving me a glimpse of true love. Thank you for affirming my belief that I do have a soul mate somewhere out there."
"You do. Her name is Gabrielle, and she's waiting for you in Potidea. Go to her and you will both be complete."
"I will, I promise."
Their lips met in a soft, lingering kiss. "Good-bye Xena."
Gabrielle pulled the doors open, expecting to find Aphrodite waiting for her. The goddess of love was there all right, but she was bound and gagged in chains that were no doubt made from the metal of Hephaestus. The Virgins were in a similar predicament, tied with rope and their mouths covered to disable their ability to call for help.
In the center of it all were Marcus and Athena, standing side by side.
Xena stepped forward knowing her face wore the same expression of confusion Gabrielle knew must be on her own. "Athena. What in Tartarus are you doing?"
"Putting an end to your little affair, that's what I'm doing. Kill her."
Marcus advanced on Gabrielle, who quickly drew her sai's. Xena drew her sword and placed her body between Gabrielle and the advancing slaver.
"Xena, this is my fight."
"It's a battle you don't have the time to fight Gabrielle. That gate will be closing soon. She's leaving Athena. There's no point in killing her. She's gone."
"Yes, and she's got a double that she's convinced you to leave me for."
"I'm not leaving you Athena. Just let her-"
"Stop it!" Athena said. She sounded almost next to tears. It was obvious she loved Xena and she didn't know exactly how to deal with the possibility of losing her champion. "You have no intentions of staying with me. I'm going to make you forget all about Gabrielle. Both of them."
"I'm not going to let you kill her."
Athena stared at Xena with wide-eyed disbelief. She'd never allowed a mortal to challenge her before and live to tell the tale. However, she wasn't prepared to kill the woman she loved.
"Xena, when the hourglass is empty, the gate will close. She'll be trapped here forever."
Xena looked behind Athena to an hourglass that was more than half empty. They had five minutes tops to free Aphrodite before Gabrielle was trapped forever.
"Don't do this Athena."
Marcus had had enough. His blood was boiling for action and bloodshed. "No more talking!"
He executed an impressive flip, kicking Xena in the chest and sending her flying back through the open doors and into the hall. She hit the wall hard, and slid down to the floor, gasping for breath.
"Xena!" Gabrielle was torn between her concern for her new friend and freeing Aphrodite so she could escape to her own world. She didn't have long to consider it however, as Marcus took a swing at her with his sword.
Gabrielle deflected the blade with her left sai and used her right to put a nasty cut on his left leg. He fell back in surprise. He'd never fought against these particular weapons before, and he'd been unprepared for her skill. He wouldn't underestimate her again.
"You're nothing like my Gabrielle." He said. If he could make her angry, he would increase his chances of defeating her.
The last thing Gabrielle wanted right now was a chat with this flesh-peddling bastard but her curiosity got the best of her. "What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, didn't you know? Your sister Lila is my whore." Marcus motioned with his head to the rear of the garden where a large white sheet of material had been hanging up. One of his men pulled it down to reveal a naked Lila, nailed to a cross. She was alive but barely. Maybe if Gabrielle could get her off the cross Lila could still be saved.
If Marcus had wanted to upset Gabrielle he'd done a fine job of it. She went at Marcus with all she had, and though he was a veteran warrior, Gabrielle had learned a few things in her time as well.
Marcus held his own until he got clumsy and took a wild swing at her with his sword. Gabrielle took the opportunity to run her left sai through his sword arm while she crouched and ran her right sai through the already nasty gash on his left leg. He stumbled back with a cry of pain.
Gabrielle deflected another clumsy attempt to run her through and used her sais to yank his sword from his hands, and in one smooth motion she spun and tried to throw the sword into the trunk of his body. She didn't care where, just as long as he died a very slow, painful death.
Marcus fell back, barely managing to avoid his own weapon turned against him, but Gabrielle wasn't finished yet. She stepped behind Marcus and held her sai to his throat.
"Let my sister go Athena, or I'll kill your new little boy toy."
Athena only shrugged, earning a hateful growl from Marcus. "Go ahead. I can always get a new one."
Marcus began to laugh. "Something tells me you're no more a cold-blooded killer than your double here in my world. Face it. You've lost."
"Not if I have anything to say about it."
Xena's chakram whizzed past Gabrielle's ear dangerously close, but it hit its target perfectly. The lock on Aphrodite's chains fell loose under the sharp edge of Xena's unique weapon, and Aphrodite stood, pushing the weight of the chains off her.
"Xena!" Athena drew her sword then grabbed onto Aphrodite's arm with the other. The goddess of Love on this world was much weaker in will than the Aphrodite Gabrielle knew. She didn't resist Athena in the least.
Marcus took advantage of Gabrielle's distraction and elbowed her in the gut, hard. She doubled over in pain as he shot to his feet and went to stand beside Athena.
The goddess of wisdom gave him a stare of disapproval. "I don't know why you're running to me. You're on your own."
"Fine by me."
Seeing that Lila had precious few minutes of life left, Gabrielle made her choice. "Athena. Spare Lila and I'll give myself to you."
"Gabrielle!" Xena came to stand beside her, panic shining through her beautiful blue eyes.
"Xena, she's my sister."
"No, she's not. She's of this world and you need to get back to yours." Xena's eyes found the hourglass and saw it was dangerously close to empty. "I'll take care of her. I promise."
"You'll do nothing of the sort," Athena said, venom tainting every word. "The only thing you're going to do is come home with me."
"Not if Gabrielle or Lila die. Let them go, and I'm yours."
Athena answered Xena with a bitter laugh. "Do you really think I'm going to swallow that lie? You've fallen for her!"
"I'm not arguing the point with you Athena. You have a choice. Let them go and I return with you, or kill them. If they die, our relationship dies with them."
"You dare give me an ultimatum?"
"You're damn right I am."
Gabrielle waited in panic as the two warriors faced one another in a stand off and the sand quickly slipped through the hourglass.
Callisto and Gabrielle made their way to the rear of the temple where the gardens were located and stopped beside the door to watch what was happening inside. To their horror, Lila was being crucified while Athena and Marcus fought a woman dressed as her champion, and another woman who was a dead giveaway for Gabrielle.
"Who's that woman? She looks just like you!" Callisto whispered.
Gabrielle didn't know, and right now she was too worried about her sister to care. "I don't know, and right now I don't care. What are we going to do about Lila?"
"There's nothing we can do."
"That can't be right. She's dying Callisto. We have to do something!"
The horse Gabrielle and Lila had stolen from Marcus' supply danced behind them, giving Callisto an idea.
"I've got an idea."
Before Gabrielle could object the young blond mounted the horse and brought it around to face the door. Gabrielle could only stare in wide-eyed disbelief as Callisto gave her steed a swift kick in the sides, sending him charging through the open doors to the temple gardens.
As the stand off dragged on, which Gabrielle believed was Athena's intention; she became more and more desperate to do something to save Lila. The woman that wore her sisters face was moaning in agony on the cross, her breath coming in strained gasps. Gabrielle had herself been through that very same experience, and she didn't want Lila to have that kind of death.
Just when it looked as if all hope was lost to Athena's plan, the most unbelievable sight Gabrielle had ever seen happened right before her eyes. Callisto of all people came charging through the open doors and rode straight for Athena and Marcus, a scream of rage ripping from deep within her ample bosom. The startled Marcus and Athena barely managed to get back out of the way before Callisto's horse collided with them.
Gabrielle's eyes found the hourglass, then Aphrodite's eyes and the goddess of Love spoke to her. "You or Lila?"
"Lila," Gabrielle answered, without hesitation, though she knew she was throwing away all chance at ever being reunited with the woman she loved. "Take her somewhere safe."
Without further word, Aphrodite and Lila disappeared from the room, leaving an empty cross and an angry war goddess in their place. The last grains of sand slipped through the hourglass, leaving Gabrielle trapped on this world forever.
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