Sins of the Mother (6) : Homecoming
By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright  ©  Nov 2002  L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
     All Rights Reserved

Dedication: Ari's story is for all survivors, and the people who love them.

Big Thanks:
* To Bill the Semi-Bard for his continual efforts to drill those grammar rules into my brain, someday, they may actually stick!  Also, thanks to Sue Rice for hanging in with the story and keeping me on track.
* To Jessica Michallet, a very big thank you to my partner/wife/soul mate and love of my life.  Her beta reading has caught many things that we've missed, AND although it's getting easier to write Ari's story, on those occasions when I become moody while working on the tale, she silently puts up with me.  Thanks honey!

Disclaimers:
* Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  All other characters are mine.
* This story in no way reflects the life or actions of the wonderful actress, Claire Stansfield.  Her portrayal of Xena's nemesis was so wickedly inspired as to make the character of Alti the absolute evil villain.
Rated:NC-17, not intended, or suitable for children.
Violence:Physical and mental child abuse issues are portrayed and its effects are completely explored.
Sexual Violence:Child molestation is depicted and its effects are explored fully.
Subtext:  X/G are portrayed as being in a loving, long-term relationship/marriage.
Extra Warning:
As Alti raised the main character, I feel it's necessary to warn that this story deals with child abuse and molestation issues.  It may trigger abuse issues for some.  This story should be unpleasant for all readers, but to know Ari, and the difficulties that her new family faces, it is important to know where she came from.
Note to Readers:
After discussing the matter with my best friend Ambyrhawke Shadowsinger, who is a collector of ancient coins, I am using the term drachm, in place of Denar. According to Hawke, six hemiobols equals one drachm, which is the currency that was used in ancient Greece. A denar is short for denarius, which is a Roman coin. Thanks Hawke! I'm learning something new with each new story that I write!
 

Ari glanced over her shoulder to her sister. The young woman seemed deep in thought, but when she caught the dark child's glance, she visibly frowned and turned away. Not for the first time, Ari released a soft sigh as she turned her gaze to the road ahead.

Sadly, Xena's eldest daughter wondered why she was always doing something wrong. Only yesterday, they had begun their last leg of the trip. The four women were once again left alone and although she briefly wondered where Virgil was, Ari decided to not ask after she saw Xena scowling at the table when Gabrielle's family had briefly mentioned him over yesterday's breakfast. She had noticed how her bard mother's family chose to ignore the warrior's anger as they quickly changed the subject. At the time, she had been curious at her mothers' reaction. But now, with everything that had happened, Ari decided that her mother's coolness toward Virgil was the least of her concerns. The only thing that consumed her thoughts were her own actions toward Eve that morning.

The dark child's memories of what she had just done to Eve remained in her mind. There were times when Ari knew that she did not fit in. Things that she said, or did brought to everyone's attention the fact that she was not a part of their world. Times like this, when she knew that she had really made a mistake, is when Ari found it hard to believe that she ever would be part of it.

As her memories replayed the morning's events, she felt a sadness filling her soul. After a day of traveling away from Potadea, they had spent the night near a meadow. The next day would see them reaching Amphipolis, and their new home. Excitement seemed contagious for the girls who awakened earlier than their mothers. At Eve's suggestion, Ari had followed her sister to a nearby clearing as their mothers slept. Because they were making good time, and would arrive at Amphipolis ahead of schedule, they knew that they could take extra time away from traveling. Because of this, neithershe, nor Eve felt it necessary to wake their parents. Ari found her memories replaying the incident over in her mind, as she tried to understand where she had gone wrong…

"Just try it, Ari," her sister had pleaded.

With eyes closed, Ari knelt beside her sister. She tried to concentrate on Eve's instructions, and did her best to feel anything from the prophets messenger, Eli. But all she had felt were her legs falling asleep, and her toes tingling from loss of circulation. As the silence droned on, she opened an eye and peeked at her sister, which was the moment she wished she could have changed.

If Ari had just kept focused, if she could have just listened to Eve and had managed to feel the same things that Eve felt, maybe then everything would have been ok. But instead, she felt a giggle escape at the sight of her sisters serious expression.

"Ari, you're not trying! Just try to feel the love of Eli!" Eve pleaded, the solemn, pious expression returned to the young prophets features.

With a mischievous grin, the dark child opened both eyes and smiled at her sister. "I'm not
f-feeling any love of Eli, but c-can you feel t-this?" Ari asked before she jumped and tackled her sister.

With a surprised yelp, Eve was suddenly pulled from her meditation lesson as Ari wrestled her sister to the ground. In less time than it took her to get into the meditation, Eve was wrestling back. Like two sibling cats, they fought, and rolled around on the ground, the occasional giggles escaping both women as light blows and tender slaps were exchanged. When it seemed that Ari had the upper hand, Eve grew still as the dark child straddled her body and pinned her arms to the ground.

Panting and out of breath, the two women were smiling at each other. For a moment, Ari saw an expression cross her sister's features. Confused, the girl blinked as she stared into Eve's eyes. In that moment, a familiar stirring rose and without thought, Ari lowered her lips until they touched. In that single instant, Ari felt her world crashing out of control. She felt the soft lips below hers and the smaller wrists in her hands. When the wiggling began, she misunderstood Eve's movements as encouragement. In response, the dark child growled low as her kiss grew deep, her tongue forcing its way past the prophet's lips. Before Ari could even think, her body moved instinctively above her sister. She felt herself moving Eve's wrists above her head and capturing them both with her left hand. As she held a firm grip on the smaller woman, her right hand snaked down the soft contours below. Her hand stopped momentarily to squeeze Eve's soft mound of breast, before her fingers made their way downward and past the fabric of Eve's skirt. With each wiggling movement from Eve, Ari felt her hips moving against her sister's leg, her desires suddenly growing even as her fingers found Eve's hidden treasure.

It was at that instant that Ari felt the sharp pain. With Ari's tongue deep in Eve's mouth, the prophet suddenly bit down hard, causing Ari to release her hold. Before the pain of her tongue could register, Eve lifted her knee and kicked the dark child hard between the legs. With a scream of pain, Ari was off of her sister and rolling on the ground in torment. Her hands clutched between her legs as the taste of blood filled her mouth.

"You repulsive perverted freak … you … you bastard! You stay away from me!" Eve had shouted as she waved a fist at the agonized Ari, before turning and running back to camp…

If Ari could have taken that moment back, she would have. But she couldn't, and now she had to live with the fact that Eve was, once again, angry with her. When her mother's had come to the clearing to find her, Ari knew that they were upset with her, just as the prophet was. After checking Ari for any damage, both mother's turned away from her and returned to the camp in silence. Ari was keenly aware of the disappointment and anger from her mothers, yet the dark child did not know what to do.

Now as they rode in silence, Ari looked over at her mother's. She saw Xena's straight back, her gaze never wavering from the road ahead. Gabrielle trailed a short distance behind her lover. Whenever Ari noticed the bard glancing back at them, the blonde's eyes seemed filled with a sad disappointment. Ashamed that she was the cause of their pain, Ari lowered her head and followed them in silence as her mind went over the entire incident yet she found no way to reverse what had happened. As she felt the isolation of her sadness fill her, she closed her eyes to the pain within.

At a slight sound near her, she glanced down at her sister and watched as the prophet scribbled something onto a small piece of parchment. Sensing the girl's eyes, Eve scowled at her, before turning away. She ignored Ari's curious glance as she blew on the parchment, then re-rolled it and tucked it back in her shirt.

"If you must know, Miss Nosy,its just a… a note to myself," Eve snarled up at her as Babu moseyed along behind Ari's horse.

Then, as if being even this close to her was repulsive, the prophet kicked Babu's sides and goaded him to pass Ari and catch up with her two mothers. With a sad sigh, Ari returned her attention back to the road. The whispers that were once prominent in her mind, were now silenced in a low hush. She knew that if she wanted to, she could have easily brought the voices back, but knew that both of her mothers considered this wrong. Also, truth be told, she was afraid of hearing what her sister really thought of her. Unhappily, the dark child kept her mind occupied with other thoughts in order to keep any inadvertent whispers from entering her thoughts.

'Better to not know how much she truly hates me,' Ari reasoned desolately as she followed her family down the dirt road that led to their new home.
~~~~~~
Eve felt a slow boiling rage building deep within her. Ever since the morning's attack, she found it hard to concentrate on the peace and love of Eli, and only longed to be able to strangle her sister. But she knew that her mothers would never let her get away with this, and deep down inside, she knew such anger went against all that she believed in. Yet, she was finding it hard to overcome the trauma of again being almost raped by her older sister. Just the memory of Ari's mouth over hers, and her hand that groped and reachedbetween her legs, sent a sick feeling through her stomach. More than once, she had to run off to vomit each time she remembered the attack.

The morning had began much as any morning did. Eve found herself pulled from a drowsy sleep of peaceful dreams. Ever since she had been spirited away from Chin, every night she dreamt of Chen Hu. Sometimes in her dreams, he was holding her close as he laid soft, sweet kisses over her. Other times, she dreamt that he was dozing with his head in her lap.

Chen Hu Xiao was so unlike any man she had ever known. He was kind and gentle yet, like the meaning of his name, fierce tiger, he could be ferociously protective of those he loved. From the first time she laid eyes on him, she knew that there was something different about him. He was not like the other people of Chin who would listen to her with mild amusement. He had begun to listen to her with interest. When she would stumble over difficult words of Chin dialect, he would only smile and correct her pronunciation until she was able to say the word flawlessly in his language. Although she had not intended to fall in love, after a few moons of travelingtogether, it seemed the most natural thing to do.

Of her small group of disciples, he was the only one who would not explicitly follow the teachings of Eli. As a student of a discipline called Kuntao, he would not abandon his weapons, nor would he vow to follow the path of peace. Instead, he managed to find a balance within that allowed him to cherish the values of peace, yet hold the ideals of self-defense at the same time. More than once, they had clashed over their ideas. Yet after each flare-up, they would agree that at times, it was best to simply disagree.

Despite their differences, there was never a night when they would fall asleep angry. Instead, they relished their time together, exploring each other's bodies. Or simply holding each other close as they slept through the night.

On the morning of her sister's attempted rape of her, Eve had awakened with thoughts of Chen Hu. She missed him so much, and wondered if he was all right after her abduction. The numerous attackers who raided their small encampment held little regard for her peaceful followers. She remembered, with horror, watching the strangers hacking their way through the people who threw themselves in front of her, trying to protect her from their attack. Even Chen Hu had tried to stop them. The last thing Eve remembered seeing was the look of terror in his eyes as she was picked up and carried on horse back away from their camp as Chen Hu tried to cut his way through the bandits with his sword.

With a sadness that filled her soul, Eve longed for her lover's closeness. She prayed, night after night, for his safety and hoped that he had survived the attack. After many months of hard traveling with her abductors, they had reached their destination where she was held captive for weeks by Alti and the stranger she would later come to know was her sister. During this time she prayed daily to Eli and made no move to resist her captors. Through her imprisonment, she watched the interaction of her kidnappers. By closely listening to their conversations, she learned of the bounty that had been placed on her head and only when she was later freed by her mothers did she learn the true story of Ari's true identity.

After the battle where her sister was injured, Eve tried to contact Chen Hu, entrusting her messages to merchants going that way. She sent him messages as often as she could, and then, when she began to travel with her family, she wrote to him telling him of her destination. After Ari's kidnapping, and she had arrived at Aunt Lila's home, she sent Chen Hu yet another message explaining that she was now in Potedia, and didn't know if she would ever see her mothers again.

The worst part about the separation was not knowing his fate. Each time she thought of him, she felt an uneasiness within her that was only quieted by silently meditating upon Eli's blessings. Once or twice during their travel to reach home, she thought she would speak to her mothers about her worries. But each time she saw them worrying over some new problem of Ari's, she held her tongue, afraid that her trifling difficulty mightbe the final straw that broke the donkey's back. So, instead of openly discussing her thoughts with Xena or Gabrielle, the prophet began to write them down on a scroll.

If Ari had been asleep when Eve awoke in the morning, the prophet would have gone off by herself to begin her morning meditations. But when she saw Ari's restlessness, she invited her sister to join her, in hopes that through meditation, Ari would be able to find the peace that Eve had through Eli. Once away from camp, she began to explain how to meditate. She demonstrated the sitting posture, and described how a devotee was to clear their mind. What began as an innocent venture, took a turn for the worst.

With a slight grimace, Eve glanced over at her sister. As if nothing had happened, the girl continued to ride behind them in silence. Ever since Ari's attack, Eve did not know who she was angrier with, Ari for the attack, or her mothers, for not doing anything about it. Looking away from her family, the young woman shook her head as she remembered the events after the repulsive incident.

Panicked and afraid, she ran into camp after her sister tried to rape her. She didn't even care that she had caught her mothers in the throes of passion. All she coulddo was run to them and through tears explain what Ari tried to do. To her hurt surprise, instead of comforting her, they each rose up, pulled on their shifts and ran to Ari's side!

'They were more afraid that I had hurt her than they were about what she did to me!' her dazed mind raged at the memory of their abandonment.

Neither one seemed the least concerned about her, instead they rushed off leaving Eve alone in camp. Confused, she followed and saw them clucking and whispering as they inspected Ari for any damage. Nothing could have caused the prophet more pain than their actions had. It was as if Ari was a delicate, fragile cub to be protected! They had circled around her, afraid that big bad Eve might have caused undue damage while escaping her tormentor. Then they returned to camp in silence, neither one seeming to care that Eve was the one who had been violated. Realizing that they did not intend to punish Ari, Eve could only remain silent as she broke up camp and followed them back onto the road to home.

'Chen Hu would care,' she scowled as she tried to ignore the close presence of her sister. Chen Hu would not have only confronted Ari, he would have taught her to never attack anyone again, the prophet's brow furrowed, then softened when she thought of her lover's face. She didn't even know if he was still alive and it was all that she could do to keep from crying. With eyes closed, she fought to will her turbulent emotions under control as she prayed for Eli's blessings while she rode in raging silence behind her quietparents. Her hurt and bewildered mind hadn't even registered the deep sadness that seemed to cover Ari.
~~~~~~
Xena spent the better part of the ride in silence. Her mind went over everything that had happened, and she felt a quiet anger within her. Just when she was beginning to think that it was possible for Ari to fit in, something like this happened and the warrior was faced with the problem of having to decide what to do. Punishment was in order, yet Xena didn't know what form of punishment would register with a child who had already lived through hell under Alti's hideous tutelage.

'And let's face it, it's not like you have any experience with children,' she told herself. 'You gave up Solan to protect him and then he … died, just as you thought you might get to know him. Then because of the damned Greek gods, you lost Eve when she was a baby and never got to see her grow up either.' At these thoughts, she frowned as she glanced back at her family. When she saw her eldest, riding at the end of the group, the warrior inwardly groaned as she returned her attention back to the road.

Xena knew Ari's true age, and despite this the warrior could not help but think of her eldest as anything but a child. Her childish mannerisms and thoughtless actions were enoughto give anyone the impression that she was barely a teen. Yet when Xena thought of where Ari had been all these years, the unknown tortures that she must have undergone while held by Alti, the dark woman could understand how this experience alone was enough to stunt Ari's maturity.

With supreme effort, the tall warrior managed to keep her anger under control. Each time she thought of her daughter's captivity, she felt her stomach turn to knots. A part of her wished that Alti was still alive, so that she could beat the woman to a bloody pulp. Never in her life had Xena hated anyone as much as she hated the woman who stole and brutally savaged her baby's innocence. If given the opportunity again, the warrior princess knew that she would not hesitate to inflict as much pain and damage as she could upon the evil sorceress. Unfortunately, she would never be given this chance, so all she could do was try to find a way to help her baby rebuild the lost part of her life that had been stolen from her.
~~~~~~
Like Xena, Gabrielle was silent and contemplative. Although she knew what had happened between their daughters, she found herself wondering what was going on in Ari's mind when she tried to rape Eve. There were so many things that were still an unknown about Ari, and day by day the tangled puzzle of their daughter's life was revealed to them. And by the gods, sometimes the revealed pieces were horrid enough to make the bard shudder!

With a sad sigh, the warrior bard closed her eyes in a vain attempt to keep her tears at bay. 'What Ari tried to do was wrong, yet something must have happened. Something must have triggered a memory in her to make her respond in such a violent way,' the bard thought. Each time Gabrielle tried to think through the problem, she was reminded of the numerous times that she had found her daughter huddled in a tight ball, her slender arms wrapped tightly around her legs as she crouched in shadows. As if trying to will herself to a smaller form, the girl would remain frozen, her eyes vacant as silent tears trickled down her cheeks and her body shivered ever so slightly. The first time she had seen this, Gabrielle wasn't certain what to do. As the days went by, she soon learned that by speaking softly and gently coaxing, she was able to help the girl get control of whatever dark memories were causing her to withdraw into herself.

The bard absently reached up and wiped at the tears that ran down her cheeks. Each time she thought about the girl's captivity, and the abuse that Ari had gone through, Gabrielle felt a deep sadness fill her heart. What information she had learned, the slight clues that the girl revealed, were more than enough to paint a vivid and sickening image of Ari's early life. Despite all that Ari had undergone, Gabrielle knew how important it was that she learn to fit in. Without any formal training in civility, it was going to be an uphill battle teaching their girl the proper way to act around people.

The bard knew how Eve felt, and acknowledged that their youngest was in the right when protecting herself. Yet a part of her could not help but ache for her eldest child. For as far as the blonde could ascertain, Ari's time alive had been filled with nothing butabuse, pain, and suffering. Aside from her days as a child before she was abducted by Alti and the short time since she had joined the bard and warrior, there was barely a moment when Ari wasn't being mistreated by the evil sorceress, and this tore at Gabrielle's heart.

"Is it any wonder that she doesn't know right from wrong?" Gabrielle muttered under her breath. When Xena's sharp hearing picked up her whisper, she turned and looked at the bard with a questioning brow. The blonde could only shake her head negatively as she lowered her tear-filled eyes. Now was not the time to talk about a suitable punishment for their girl, she reasoned as she kept her eyes lowered and mulled the problem over in her mind.
~~~~~~
Ari remained silent as she followed her mother's down the road. The few times they stopped for breaks, she made certain to avoid Eve, knowing that the prophet was still angry with her. At the few questions that her mother's had asked her, she answered in her normal tone of voice. To anyone who saw her, they would assume that nothing was out of the ordinary. Yet to Ari, she felt the numbness within her spirit comforting her aching heart.

From time to time the memory of her sisters words replayed in her mind as the images of the morning returned to her thoughts. As she rode in silence, she felt her bard mother pulling her horse close. When she glanced up, she noticed that the blonde had fallen behind and that Eve and Xena now rode ahead of them.

"Honey, is everything ok?" the bard asked, the concern etched in her words. Ari only shrugged her shoulders as she lowered her gaze, the numbness filled every avenue of her existence. "Drachm for your thoughts?"

At Gabrielle's words, the dark child glanced at her in confusion. The bard only smiled as she gazed at Ari's perplexed expression. When the girl did not respond, the bard nodded.

"It's a saying, Ari. Whenever someone is deep in thought, you ask to pay a drachm for their thoughts," Gabrielle explained. "It's a way to get someone talking."

"Oh," Ari frowned as she looked up at the two women who rode ahead of them.

For a moment, she contemplated her response. Ari wondered how much of the truth her mother really wanted to hear. Would her mother want to hear how she had become aroused when Eve wiggled below her? Did Gabrielle want to know her dirty little secret of longing to feel the sorceress' exquisite touch again? Did she want to know how her body craved and grew wet at the memories of Alti's touch? And through all of this, Ari remembered the initial battle where she first met her family and she wondered if the bard would have been there to fight to save Ari's life, as she had been for Eve. Yet even as these thoughts swam through her mind, she was certain that the bard did not truly want to hear any of it. Speaking such thoughts would only cause more pain, and this, she was tired of doing. With only a slight sigh, Ari wondered if there would ever be a time when she would not make her family mad at her.

When she thought of Eve, she looked up and watched the two riders in front of her. She could see that they were speaking softly. Their conversations seemed to come easy to the two women. With a frown Ari lowered her gaze. A part of her wished that such easy banter existed between her and the tall warrior. Each time she caught her mother smiling at Eve, or heard the laughter from the two, a part of the dark child grew angry at the closeness between her sister and mother. Ari knew that even though the warrior princess and bard had not raised Eve, they had been with her when she was a baby, and that alone seemed to cement their bonds. Bonds the likes of which Ari knew she would never have with her mothers, and something which a part of her dearly longed to experience.

'But why should they even care about me? I'm … I'm just something evil that Altimade … something that they are saddled with. And why wouldn't they love her more? She is perfect in every way!' she grimly thought as she lowered her gaze from the two riders.

"Ari, why did you do it?" the bard's soft voice pulled her from her tormenting thoughts.

The dark child thought over the question. Ever since the incident, she had been trying to figure out exactly how to explain it all. Yet no matter how hard she tried, she was unable to find the words that would best describe the confrontation. With only a shrug of her shoulders, she frowned as she gazed down.

"What were you thinking at the time?" the smaller woman prodded.

"I-I was … it s-seemed that…" Ari shook her head as the memory replayed in her mind. "I
t-thought s-she wanted it too." She finally answered in a low whisper.

"Eve gave you that impression?" the bard's voice was neutral as she made a point of staring straight ahead.

"I-I thought…" Ari stammered, then shook her head, and sighed. "I-I am a fool to th-thinkthat anyone w-would ever want m-me," her words trailed off as the feelings of rejection filled her.

"Oh, Ari," Gabrielle spoke in a soft, tender tone. "Honey, don't even begin to think like that. Of course, someone will want to be with you that way, but not your sister. Ari, siblings do not share in that way. There is love between sisters, but it's not to be a shared physical love. Do you understand?"

At her mother's words, Ari's brow creased in thought. She had spent all of her life with the knowledge that if she ever wanted to have pleasure with someone, all she need do is take the person. Even Alti, the only woman whom she had known as a mother, had taken Ari whenever she had felt like it. To now be told that there were boundaries that could not be crossed confused the young woman. With a sigh, Ari shook her head in defeat.

"I-I don't think I w-will ever understand things, sometimes I th-think it would have been better if…" Ari fell silent, allowing her thoughts to go unsaid.

"What Ari? It would have been better if what?" Gabrielle tenderly coaxed.

"I-I shouldn't be here… I s-should have never even b-been born," the dark child's voice was a hushed whisper.

"Oh Ari, no! That's not at all true. You are here because you belong. This whole thing, it was just a misunderstanding and I'm sure, in time, Eve will understand it," the bard had stopped her horse in front of Than. Pulling the horse to a halt, Ari tried to lookinto the bard's green eyes. But when she saw the intensity of her mother's gaze, she turned away, embarrassed that she had revealed one of her darkest thoughts.

"I-I don't k-know, it's just…it's a-all so very c-confusing," Ari grimaced as she shook her head.

"I know it is. Sweetheart, you need to learn to forgive yourself when you make a mistake. Ari, honey, you didn't know. Why, how could you have known with the way you were raised?" the bard reached up and lightly pulled on Ari's chin until the girl was gazing into her mother's eyes.

"Honey, don't worry, it will all blow over," Gabrielle spoke softly as she lightly placed her hand over Ari's.

"I-I don't know," Ari shook her head in part frustration and sorrow. "Eve is really m-mad at me."

Gabrielle only sighed as she turned towardthe two riders in front of them. "Have you tried apologizing to Eve? Maybe if you told her you were sorry?"

"She w-won't even t-talk to me," Ari said as Eve's words replayed in her mind. "Sometimes I can't help but t-think…." But Ari stopped herself from finishing the thought. Instead, she grew silent as she shook her head.

"Think what?" the bard glanced up at her as she turned her horse and continued to follow the two women down the dirt path.

Ari only shrugged her shoulders in defeat. A part of her wondered why she had been spared Alti's wrath when her foster parents had been murdered. But as she thought of this, she realized that everything had been her fault. If only the dark child had not fought against Alti during the last battle, then maybe she would not be here today. If things had been different, Ari would not be around to cause her warrior mother's brow to crease in anger, and Eve's hatred to flourish. If… if… if…. Ari thought silently as a gloom filled her soul. As her sister's words replayed in her mind, Ari glanced over at her bard mother.

"M-Mother what is a… a...repulsive freak b-bastard?" she asked softly.

"Where did you hear that?" Gabrielle turned sharply to her. When Ari shrugged, the bard nodded in silence, then spoke softly.

"Well, honey, repulsive means something is disgusting, it's distasteful and to be avoided, and a freak…well, I guess that would be something that is abnormal and, bastard…that could be something said in anger, but sometimes it means an illegitimate child. Now, do you want to tell me where you heard those words, or should I guess?" Gabrielle asked with slight anger in her voice.

"It d-doesn't matter," Ari said as she lowered her gaze and thought over the new discovery.

"Ari, no one has a right to talk to you like that. If Eve is the one, then I'm going to have a talk with her about it," the bard's voice grew stern as she glanced at the prophets back.

"N-No, please d-don't," the dark child turned a pleading glance to her bard mother. "I-It was nothing, and … and … I d-deserved it," Ari sighed as she turned away from Gabrielle's intense gaze. After a moment of silence, the blonde reached out and lightly touched Ari's hand.

"All right, if that's how you feel about it," Gabrielle softly said.

As an after thought, she asked the bard another question, "Mother … w-what is illegitimate? D-Does it mean s-something that shouldn't h-have been?"

"Well, I don't think that's exactly what it means. It's more like something that was unplanned," the bard looked at her with concern. At Ari's continual silence, the bard reached out and lightly touched her hand, "This does have something to do with what happened between you and Eve, doesn't it?"

With a grimace, Ari turned away as she felt a heat cross her cheeks. "I thought so," was all the bard said as she rode a bit in silence. "Ari, sometimes when unpleasant things happen, we say the first things that come to our mind. I know that Eve doesn't really feel that way. She does care very much for you and I think what happened… you just frighten her. The words she said mean nothing."

At her mother's words, Ari remained silent as she thought over what Gabrielle had said. Despite everything that had happened, and everything that the bard said, the dark child could not help but feel like she did not belong. Over and over her mind spun with different thoughts and they always returned her to the same place. No matter what Xena and Gabrielle said, Ari could not help but feel that everything about her life was a mistake. That she should have never been born, or at least, she should not have been saved on that fateful day when she took the life of Alti, the only mother she had ever known.

With a grimace, Ari rode on in silence knowing that she did not know how to make things right again.
~~~~~~
Gabrielle wasn't certain who it was she was angry at. Although she could understand Eve's fury, she had expected her youngest to understand the difficulties that Ari had undergone, and had hoped that Eve would have been able to hold her tongue better. Yet another part of her was angry with herself.

When the girls had left camp early, she took full advantage of the rare moments of privacy.After their night of love making at her sister's home, Gabrielle wanted to taste her lover again. When Ari and Eve left the camp, the bard decided that the girls would be fine alone and went full force into making love with Xena. Taking the sleeping warrior by complete surprise, she had spread the long, shapely legs, then dived under the bedroll to savor the taller woman's sweet nectar. True to her nature, Xena awoke with low moans of pleasure as she encouraged the bards exploring tongue.

'Damn! Why couldn't we have just gotten up and started on the last leg of our journey?' the bard silently fumed as her anger pushed away the exquisite memory of her lover's taste. If they had all gotten up together, then this whole thing between the girls wouldn't have happened, she reasoned as she tried, in vain, to find a way to make things between her twodaughters right.
~~~~~~
Ari rode in silence as her mind went over all that her bard mother had said. She had never thought that it was wrong to take her sister in that way. At the time, it never even crossed her mind that anyone would think that such contact between sisters was wrong. When Eve began to struggle, Ari assumed that it was normal since everyone struggled in the beginning until they finally gave up and moaned with pleasure when she took them. Even she had struggled against Alti until the ecstasy overpowered her, the dark child reasoned.

One moment, she was filled with a sadness that threatened to consume her as she thought over her bard mother's words, and the next, her memories returned her to a time long ago. She remembered her own futile struggles the first time her mother Alti held her down and touched her in ways that Ari had never been touched before. She vividly remembered the sorceress's initial strokes and penetrations, how the pain seared through her until a pleasure began to rise. Ari remembered all of the times when Alti's skillful fingers entered her body. The way that her mother felt laying fully over her, kissing, touching and stroking her as her words encouraged the girl's release. And Ari remembered the way that she had whimpered and begged for the older woman's touch. Even though the dark child knew that what Alti had done was wrong, a part of her yearned for it again. She longed to be taken completely, to be held and controlled as she rose in the ecstatic sensations of release.

"Ari, why don't you take care of the horses while I hunt us some dinner?" Xena's voice pulled the girl from her dark memories. "Can you do that sweetheart?"

Blinking in surprise, Ari looked around and noticed the open clearing. As she watched Gabrielle and Eve dismount, and caught a flash of her sister's shapely calves, she only nodded as she followed their moves. When she felt the familiar moisture between her legs, she closed her eyes for a moment as she willed her body under control.

After her short time with her family, she learned that what she had shared with Alti was wrong. Despite this, the dark child found it hard to keep her bodies yearnings under control whenever she remembered how Alti would touch her. The memories of Eve's small, wiggling body under hers did little to help Ari control her darkest desires. With only a shake of her head, she took the reins of the horses and led them to the nearby clearing as her family began to set up camp for the evening.
~~~~~~
Xena could not shake the feeling of déjà vu. As she gathered her weapons to hunt for their dinner, she found herself consumed with thoughts of Ari. When she glanced up at Ari, she noticed the vacant gaze as she instinctively moved through the motions of tending to the horses. The warrior was not blind to the pain that her eldest was going through. But Xena was not certain how to handle the entire situation between Ari and Eve. What Ari had done was very wrong, something that should have never happened. But how to punish her, or even get her to understand that it was wrong is something that Xena didn't know how to resolve. Once again, the dark woman was left to wonder how to punish someone who had undergone all that Ari had experienced. After the years of subtle and overt torture at Alti's hands, was there any milder form of punishment that would work on her child, Xena wondered as sheturned to leave the camp.

In addition to worrying about the relationship between her two daughters, Xena found her thoughts consumed with images of Ari and Virgil together. The same worry that she had before, when her child was brutally raped and beaten, remained etched in her mind. The idea that Ari might end up pregnant before she was ready to be a mother consumed the tall warrior. Of course, unlike the first time that she worried about this for Ari, Xena knew that she could do nothing about it. One dosage of the purifier was all Ari's body could take. So if a child did result from her daughter's indiscretion, there would be nothing that they could do about it but see the pregnancy through.

'Face it, Xena, you're just going to have to get used to the idea that somewhere down the road, someone will be calling you grandma,' the warrior frowned as she moved further into the woods. 'I had only hoped that it would be Eve first, after she found someone special to share her life with,' the warrior groused to herself. Hopefully Ari's cycle was such, that no child would result from her conduct because although Ari was her oldest, the warrior knew that in maturity, Ari was far younger than Eve. 'No, we'll just have to hope that fate will still be on our side,' she thought, then shook herself as her belly rumbled. 'Come on, warrior princess. Now it's time to hunt. Ari isn't having a baby tonight, so put it back in the box and focus on one thing at a time.' Deliberately she turned her attention to finding food for her family.
~~~~~~
By the time Ari finished brushing down all of the animals and letting them go to forage, she returned to find only Xena in the camp. With the fresh kill of pheasant cleanly gutted, skinned and over the fire, the older woman smiled at her entrance, then returned her attention to cleaning up the bloody mess. Seeing an open space between the bedrolls, Ari took her pack and began to set up her own bedroll.

"I hope your mom makes it back here in time, I'm not the cook she is and I wouldn't want to be responsible for burning our dinner," the older woman smiled and winked at Ari as if any anger she might have held was now gone. "Did you have any troubles?"

Ari only shook her head as she tossed her bag to the head of the bedroll. "N-No t-trouble," she stammered as she sat down on her bedroll and watched her mother at the campfire. In an unconscious manner, Ari pulled her boots off one at a time and wiggled her toes, then set the boots aside before returning her attention to Xena.

"Good … good. Hey, listen, keep an eye on this, all right? I'm going to go and hurry your mom along, maybe hop in the stream myself," Xena sniffed the air, then grimaced as if smelling something foul. The warrior lifted an arm, sniffed and mockingly made a gagging face, then smiled. "Yep, I'm definitely going to hop in the stream!" she winked as she stood up and turned away from the dark child. Ari watched as her mother disappeared on the path that led to a nearby stream.

Ari sat in silence as the sound of wind and birds reached her senses. In the distance, she heard the slight rustling of leaves that were being broken on the ground by the forest animals. As she glanced around the camp, she noticed the orderly manner in which everything was placed. When her eyes fell on her sisters pack, she saw the slight edge of the parchment poking out of a pocket on Eve's bag.

With a curious arch of a brow, the dark child turned toward the trail in an attempt to detect if anyone was returning. At the continued silence, she slowly crawled over Eve's bedroll toward her bag. Sitting on her knees, Ari carefully pulled at the small scroll and slowly opened it. For a moment, she marveled at the smooth, clean lines. The slight swerves and curves of the pigment seemed to flow easily across the parchment. Amazed at its intricate beauty, she stared at it with open mouth as she lightly touched the ink on the parchment.

"Ari!" Eve's angry voice startled the dark child. Surprised by her presence, Ari dropped the scroll as she jumped up and turned around. The hostility on the prophet's face was clear as she stomped across the camp and retrieved her parchment from the ground.

"You were reading my scroll?" Her sister angrily accused.

"Eve, honey, calm down," Gabrielle moved close to Ari, her hand resting in the tall girls arm.

"Mother, you're always defending her! How can you defend her after you saw the same thing?" Eve held her scroll up and shook it in front of them. "Mother, she was reading my scroll. This is personal, its - its private! No one has a right to read what I write down on my personal parchment!"

"I know Eve, please, just calm down. Ari honey, were you reading Eve's scroll?" Gabrielle turned to Ari, her features in a frown.

"I-I…" Ari heard herself stuttering uselessly as she struggled to find the right words. When none came to mind, she lowered her head in shame, aware that she had made another blunder.

"See mother, I told you, she was reading my scroll!" Eve's voice grew in volume as Gabrielle stood between the two girls.

"I know Eve, please try to be calm," the bard attempted to reason with the girl.

"Stay calm? Mother, how am I suppose to stay calm after everything that she's done? Not only does she violate my body, but now she's reading my personal thoughts as well! Mother, this … what I write down is very personalto me," Eve's voice was laced with tears as she tried to make her point with the bard.

Gabrielle nodded understanding as she lightly touched the prophet's arm in an attempt to calm her down. With a tired sigh, the smaller woman turned away from Eve as she ran her fingers through her short blonde locks. Frowning, sheturned her gaze toward her eldest daughter.

"Ari, you know it's wrong to read other people's scrolls without permission, right?" the blonde's grim expression held the dark child's eyes.

Ari could only nod as sheturned away, then glanced at Eve's fury, before looking away again.

"And after our talk today, you understand why what you did this morning to Eve is wrong?" the bard continued. Ari could only nod as she felt a heat rising to her cheeks.

"Then, Ari, I want you to apologize to your sister. For this morning and for reading her scroll … and promise her that you'll never speak of her private thoughts to anyone. Do you understand?" The bard took Ari's chin and forced her daughter to look into her green eyes. At the intensity of the bard's gaze, the dark child registered her mother's disappointment. As a sense of dread filled her, Ari gulped and nodded assent. When silence seemed to fill the air, Ari looked up at her sister as her heart was beating out of control.

"I-I am s-sorry," Ari stumbled over her words, then added softly, "I w-won't tell anyone ... a-and, I promise t-to never hurt you again."

"Eve, is that a good enough apology for you?" Gabrielle folded her arms before her as she looked at her youngest. With a slight sigh, Eve looked away for only a moment, the tears threatening to spill from her eyes. With only a shake of her head, she glanced at the small blonde.

"Yes mother, apology accepted," Eve's voice was frosty as a slight frown was still on her features.

From behind them, the soft sound of footsteps pulled at their attention. When they turned, the warrior princess entered the camp, armor and leathers over her arm, hair drenched and wearing her white cotton shift. At the silent reception, Xena stopped drying her hair with a towel as she glanced around the group.

"Did I miss something?" the taller woman asked warily, looking from face to face.

"Just a disagreement, Xena. We resolved it." Gabrielle brushed aside the question as she knelt before the fire and began to place some potatoes onto the burning wood. Xena glanced at Gabrielle, then at her two daughters, her expression piercing. In hopes of escaping any further questions, Ari nodded at the trail that ledto the stream.

"C-can I?" she asked softly as she pointed toward the distant stream. With an arched brow, Xena nodded, giving her permission.

"Honey, do you need help?" Gabrielle stood up from the food and looked at Ari with concern. From beside her, Eve only rolled her eyes as she sat heavily upon her bedroll. In answer to her mother, Ari negatively shook her head. When her mother smiled softly, the dark child blinked away her tears as she turned away, hoping that she could be away from them before she embarrassed herself again.
~~~~~~
Xena realized the minute she neared the camp that she was walking into trouble. Once Ari left, with head bowed in shame, the warrior turned her attention to her lover and youngest daughter. With only an arch of a brow, she glanced at them, waiting for an explanation.

"Xena, it's been resolved," Gabrielle shook her head as she sat down by the fire, reached into her pouch, and began to sprinkle the cooking meat with herbs and seasonings. When Xena looked at Eve, she noticed her youngest daughters grim expression as she frowned into the fire. At the continual silence, Eve finally looked up. Her determined gaze held her warrior mother's attention.

"Mother, I don't know how you're going to do it, but you've got to get things through Ari's head. She just can't go and do whatever she wants and then get away with it without even a slap on the wrist!" Eve's tone grew deep as she shook her head the moistness in her eyes indicated her level of anger.

"Eve, we resolvedit!" the bard's voice grew firm. At her mother's tone of voice, Eve only shook her head as she absently brushed a tear away.

"Your always taking her side of it, both of you," Eve accused as her gaze turned from the bard, to the warrior, "And no amount of apology is going to change what she tried to do to me this morning! Mother, don't you understand that Ari has no conceptof right or wrong? If you just talk to her, she's never going to understand why she can't just go and … and dothings just because she wants to!" Eve protested to her bard mother as shestared at her.

"Eve, I'm sorry for what happened to you, it should never have happened, but I don't believe in physical punishment. You of all people should understand my aversion to corporeal punishment. Besides, after everything that she's gone through, physical punishment will not work with Ari," the bard's voice grew firm and her expression turned to ice as she faced her youngest child.

"But … but … Oh, just forget about it!" Their daughter shook her head as she turned away, the frustration clearly evident on her face.

"Does anyone want to catch me up on exactly what Ari did this time?" the warrior princess released a sigh as she sat down on a log.

"Xena, Ari apologized to Eve already," Gabrielle offered.

"But mother, you sawher! She doesn't even understand that it's wrong!" Eve's voice rose in pitch.

"Dammit! Will someone please just tell me exactly what she diddo?" Xena unconsciously ran her fingers through her hair as she mentally prepared herself for the worst.

"She read my personal scroll, about some-one … th-thingthat I consider private, and … and she took it and read it andshedoesn't even understand why it's wrong to do that!"Eve all but howled.

Xena winced at the volume of her youngest daughter's voice. "Honey … what happened to you this morning is inexcusable and if I haven't said anything about it, it's because I haven't yet figured out how to handle the situation." The warrior sighed as she shook her head and averted her eyes. "To be honest, Eve, I'm at a loss as to how to handle this situation. Your mother is right. After everything that Ari has been through, physical punishment simply won't work. She's already conditioned to expect it and since it was always so … so randomfrom Alti, to be frank, it won't mean much to her." She pinched her nose as if to relieve a pain in her head before continuing. "As for your scrolls … well, your mother is right there too. She resolved the matter and you've got to accept it."

Eve's voice broke. "I-I know that mother, it's just that…" she shook her head as she stood up abruptly and began to pace. "I just … by the gods, sometimes I just want to … Oh, Hades! I don't know whatI want to do! I just wish I knew there was still a part of me that could be private, something that she wouldn't always be peering at."

Xena watched her youngest returned to her bedroll. In silence, the young woman gazed into the fire as the tears slowly fell from her eyes. At the girl's pain, Gabrielle sat down beside her and wrapped an arm over her shoulder while gazing up at Xena. Noticing the faint twinkle in the green eyes, it suddenly dawned on the warrior exactly what kind of thing Ari might have been reading that could have upset the prophet. With a slight smile, the tall woman nodded as she watched her youngest turn her gaze from the flames, to the bard, then up to her.

"What?" Eve asked, confused by the slight upturn of their lips.

"So, um, would'ja wanna fill us in on this certain some, uh, thingyou were writing about?" Xena asked Eve gently.

At her question, the prophet blushed crimson. Then, with the widest smile that Xena had ever seen on her daughter, Eve looked up at them. She sighed as she leaned into her bard mother's embrace, then turned back to stare into the flames of the fire. As she began to speak of a young man she had met in Chin, her face and voice became animated. Her eyes took on a faraway gaze as she explained how he had made her feel. Of how his laugh would send a team of horses racing through her stomach, and how just his dark eyes could cause her palms to begin sweating. When she pulled away from Gabrielle and closed her eyes, she smiled, then stopped herself short as if realizing whom she was speaking to, and a slight blush crossed her cheeks.

"He sounds very nice, sweetheart," Xena smiled at her daughter as she realized for the first time that Eve was no longer a child, no longer just a young woman with a very powerful gift. Xena realized that her youngest was well into the stages of womanhood, and quiet possibly, motherhood. 'Oboy!' Her thoughts spun a bit as the possible ramifications struck home. 'Now I've got twoof them to worry about? By the gods! I'm beginning to feel like a little old gray-haired warrior-lady.'

"You must miss him terribly," Gabrielle stated, her voice solemn as she tenderly brushed her fingers through Eve's hair.

"Yes, I do, and I'm sure he's worried about me. Hopefully the scroll I sent to him from Aunt Lila's home will reach him. Everything happened so quickly when I was abducted, I-I don't want him to worry, but it's so far away a-and I haven't heard anything from him for so long. H-He could b-be…" Eve tried to smile, but there was a quiver in her voice and tears in her eyes.

Xena smiled with assurance and spoke firmly. "Now, honey, let's not buy trouble. I'm sure he's fine, and is probably looking for you too, but like you said, it's a long ways off. Look, when we get to Amphipolis, I'll see about reaching some of my contacts. Maybe they can get a message to him as well." When she glanced out at the dark forest, the warrior frowned knowing that a lot of time had passed since Ari had left for her bath. She turned back to Eve, rose from where she was sitting, and walked across the camp to where her daughter and soul mate sat. In a tender manner, she bent down to kiss her daughter's forehead. "In the meantime, try not to worry too much about this. Everything will work out, I'm certain."

"Thank you, mother…" the prophet gulped. "I love you. And you too mother," she said to Gabrielle.

Xena hugged them both to her. "We love you too, baby-girl," she whispered. "Always know that." After a moment, she stood up and looked again toward the forest.

"Are you going to go check on her, or should I?" her bard asked, still holding Eve.

"I'll go see what's keeping our girl," Xena tiredly sighed, then left her family to their quiet conversations.
~~~~~~
In hopes of escaping the oppressiveness around her, Ari made her way down the trail. The dark child felt a part of herself going numb as she walked toward the stream. When she reached the brook, she stood for a few minutes and stared down at the flowing water. She had known when she was looking at Eve's scroll that it was wrong. Despite this, she had gone against her judgment and poked into her sister's personal belongings. The result was that her sister was furious at her, and her bard mother disappointed in her. Shemight have been able to live with Eve's wrath, but when she saw the look of displeasure from Gabrielle, it tore at something within Ari's heart.

With a sigh, the tall girl moved near a tree by the stream and sat, leaning heavily against the large thick trunk. As her mind wandered over the recent events, she pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms around her legs as she rested her chin on her knees. She watched the flowing water as her mind ran over a myriad of thoughts.

Just like reading Eve's scroll, Ari knew that her dark longings were wrong. Even though a part of her warned of the evilness of it, her body craved for Alti's touch. When she had thought that Eve might be interested in her, she jumped at the chance to experience those feelings again. The only thing that came even close to sating her needs is what she had experienced with Virgil. But now that she could no longer share even that with him, she found her thoughts continually drifting back to Alti, and this made her ashamed. The dark child knew that what she had shared with Alti was very wrong. She understood that what Alti had done was evil, and yet, a part of her longed for it again. The girl longed to be held and touched. She longed to feel the pleasures that Alti's caresses had brought, and this made Ari feel even more ashamed at her own weakness.

Remembering her two mothers conversation when they were at Aunt Lila's home, she thought over the notion of how children were born. Although she didn't fully understand how Eve had come about, what settled in Ari's mind was the idea that Gabrielle had been present at Eve's birth. Not only was she present, but Gabrielle and Xena had both fought for Eve's life. With this thought, Ari sighed as she closed her eyes to the familiar sensations that raged through her soul. Ever since she was little she had always known that Xena never wanted her. Alti had even shown her the images of when she was born. The dark child could never get over the scene of her mother turning her face away when an older woman tried to place the newborn girl in her arms.

Ari could remember the vivid images that Alti had shown her of Eve's birth. She remembered seeing the bard kneeling in front of her mother, offering words of encouragement and love as thewarrior princess brought Eve into the world. With a sad sigh, the dark child closed her eyes to images of her parents holding the baby close, smiling with such pride as they cuddled and loved the baby girl. Over and over, Ari remembered Alti's words, she could almost hear the sorceress telling her how much the two lovers wanted Eve, and how Ari was discarded like rubbish.

In shame, Ari looked down at her palms. 'Perhaps Xena knew even then,' Ari's thoughts tormented her as the image of Xena turning away from the babe replayed over and over in her mind. For Ari, only one thing remained clear. She should have never been born. Ari didn't know who her father was, nor was she certain that her warrior mother would have told her if she asked. But one thing she was certain of, her birth, unlike Eve's,was unplanned and unwanted. It was a mistake that Xena seemed to have known about at the very moment of Ari's birth.

Ari frowned as she tried to sort through her confusing thoughts. No matter how hard she tried, she was always doing something wrong. A part of her wondered if she would ever truly know what she was, or wasn't supposed to do. And if she did, would she be able to resist her own urges and do what was right? Or maybe Alti's way is how she was meant to be. Perhaps the sorceress knew her better than anybody and that is why Xena had turned away from her when she born. Maybe Xena knew before she was born that Ari was evil like Alti. But as she thought this, Ari shook her head. Not even being evil came easy to her. If it had, then Alti never would have felt compelled to lace her food and drink with the mysterious herb.

At a sudden sound, Ari glanced around. She saw Xena, wearing only her white undergarments, smiling at her as she made her way to where Ari sat huddled against the tree. In a casual manner, the tall warrior knelt down, keeping her gaze on the water. With her mother so close, Ari reached up and wiped at the errant tears that ran down her cheeks.

"I know what happened," Xena's voice was quiet as she picked up a twig and absently twirled it between her fingers. "I'm not sure what it was that you read, but it sure must have been something important for Eve to be soupset about it," the warrior spoke softly.

"Ari, reading your sisters scroll, although it was wrong, it's not serious enough for you to be sitting out here by yourself like this, so please, don't torment yourself over it. Your sister was probably just writing something personal about a young man in her life. In time, she'll forget about it. As long as you now know that it's not acceptable to look at other people's personal items without their knowledge, that's all that matters." The warrior princess kept her voice low and controlled.

"Honey … I know your mother already talked to you about what happened this morning," the warrior's voice grew soft as her gaze turned away from Ari. "I-I don't know what to say about that … I just have to trust that your mother was able to explain to you why that type of conduct is not acceptable."

Ashamed, the dark child remained silent as she kept her gaze on the tips of her fingers. She felt a heat coursing through her cheeks at her mother's words. Remembering what Gabrielle had said, Ari was well aware of why Eve hated her, and why both of her mothers were disappointed with her.

"Sweetheart, do you want to tell me anything?" Xena's usually powerful voice sounded helpless in the night as she looked at her eldest daughter.

Ari turned away from her mother's intense gaze and gripped her legs even closer. She watched the passing water in the creek then wiped at the slight tears that flowed slowly down her cheeks. A part of the dark child wanted to confess her filthy thoughts. She wanted to be able to tell her warrior mother that she missed the feel of Alti's touch. That she longed to be caressed and taken by the sorceress. To feel the woman's fingers wringing such exquisite pleasure from her that she screamed in ecstasy. She even wanted to explain the needs that arosewithin her when she felt Eve below her. But ashamed of her own desires, and afraid that this would be the straw that caused Xena to turn away from her, Ari maintained her silence. Unable to fully explain her thoughts, she only sighed as she shook her head in frustration.

"I-I … don't … b-belonghere," her voice came out like a whisper.

"Oh, honey, no," Xena moved closer to her, wrapped her arm around Ari's shoulder as she pulled her close. "Sweetheart, that's not true. That can't be further from the truth!" Xena whispered close to her ear and wiped at Ari's tears.

"Honey, this was just a mistake. We knew there were bound to be some. Your sister will understand this in time. As for the scroll, she's probably just embarrassed that you saw what she wrote, but I promise you, Eve does not hate you and she will get over it!" The warrior murmured as Ari leaned into her embrace.

"M-Mother…?" the dark child was afraid to ask the question which had been plaguing her thoughts.

"What is it, honey?" Xena held her close as she gazed down at the stream.

"Wh-why … I mean … h-how come…" But Ari stopped and shook her head, frustrated that her thoughts could not come out easily through her words. Finally, after taking a deep breath, Ari turned and faced her mother. "Wh-Why do you c-care so m-much about me?" she asked, then shook her head in defeat. "I-I shouldn't e-even be h-here," her words were a half whisper as she gazed down at her hands. "Y-You were right to have th-thrown me away when I was born." The deep despair threatened to consume her.

"Oh Ari, that's not true! That's not at all how it happened! Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry that you think that's what I did, it's just … so much had happened to me, and I was … Iwas far too young, too immature to be able to take care of you. But that in no way means that I threw you away!" Xena's voice was laced with tears as she spoke softly to her daughter.

"Ari, honey, I care so much about you because you aremy child and you dobelong here! You belong with me and your mother and sister," Xena's words were soft, yet firm as she pulled Ari close, her lips lightly kissed the girls temple. "Honey, don't you ever, everthink that you don't belong here. We're your family, and you belong with us!"

Ari felt her tears falling freely as she leaned into her mother's embrace. When control slowly returned, she shook her head as she closed her eyes. "It's j-just that… I-I a-always do things w-wrong… I-I can't seem to do anything right," Ari sighed as she closed her eyes to the flood of emotions that threaten to pull her under. "Mother, I-I am evil… I d-don't think I-I'll ever belong…. anywhere."

"Oh my poor little one," Xena cooed as she rocked Ari in her arms. "That's not true. You are notevil! You do belong, you belong with us! I'm so sorry you feel this way, I'm so very, very sorry."
~~~~~~
Xena felt her tears slowly falling for her daughter. After she had returned from her bath, she learned about Ari's actions. Since Gabrielle had already resolved the matter, she hoped that it would be over, but as the time passed and Ari hadn't yet returned, Xena went to find the girl. At first, she thought she would find the girl lost in thought as she was submerged under the water. To the warrior's surprise, Ari hadn't even entered the creek.Instead she sat on the edge of the embankment staring into the water as tears ran down her cheeks. 'Holy Zeus,' she thought with an inward sigh as she approached her daughter. 'First Eve is all upset and now Ari is too? Do parenting problems never stop?'

But now, as thegirl wept freely, Xena rocked her in her arms. The dark warrior had known that Ari would have a hard time adjusting to a normal life, but she had not realized that it would be this hard. A part of her had hoped that the girl's silence was simply Ari's true personality emerging from the years of abuse and drug addiction under Alti. But now, she realized that the silence was simply a symptom of a deeper problem.

At the sound of a breaking twig, the warrior princess glanced over her shoulder. She saw Gabrielle standing there, and could sense the bard's concern and indecision. When Xena smiled slightly and nodded, the bard only waved, then turned and left them alone. Knowing that this took supreme effort on the bard's part, the older woman closed her eyes and vowed to thank her lover for her understanding.

Ever since Ari had cringed and pulled away from her during her fever, Xena felt left out of her child's life. Although she was grateful that Ari was able to find comfort with Gabrielle, the warrior could not help the sadness that filled her at the thought that she reminded Ari of Alti. Of all of the people whom Ari could have mistaken her for, Xena had never thought she could be confused with the evil sorceress who was her worst enemy. But now that Ari was in her arms and accepting comfort from her, a part of Xena was elated, even though she was saddened by her daughter's pain.

When Ari's tears slowly subsided, the warrior looked at the girl's downcast eyes. With soft, quiet hiccups, the girl wiped at her tears as she pulled away from Xena. As if a blanket of sadness had been wrapped around her shoulders, Ari stared down at the rippling waves.

"Honey? Ari?" Xena examined her daughter closely. She saw the familiar, vacant look. The eyes that once wept were now void of emotions. When she lightly touched the girls soft cheek, Ari turned and looked at her. Buried deep within her eyes was a sadness that tore at Xena's heart, but then it was quickly replaced with a questioning expression.

"Honey, are you all right now?" she asked as Ari turned away. In answer to her question, Ari nodded as she stretched her legs out. "Then why don't we go back and join them for dinner. I'm sure the food is ready by now." Xena kept her voice soft as she stood up, then reached down, and helped her daughter to her feet.
~~~~~~
By the time they returned to camp, Gabrielle and Eve were already eating dinner. With a murmured word of greeting, the bard set her food aside and handed Ari a plate, and then Xena. The dark child only nodded as she settled herself on her bedroll and lightly picked at the meat. With eyes downcast, she listened to the voices of her family. Occasionally, she'd cast a sidelong glance at her sister in hopes of gauging her wrath. Whenever she caught Eve's eyes, the prophet would frown as she turned her attention away from Ari. With a sigh, the child would return her attention to her dinner in hopes that the delicious meat would take her troubling thoughts away. When she could not eat anymore, she set her plate aside, then sat cross-legged as she stared into the fire.

Ari allowed her thoughts to roam freely as she watched the brilliant colors of the flames. Around her, the conversations of her family continued unabated. At the end of the meal, Eve gathered up the plates to take to the stream for cleaning while Xena began to sharpen her sword in silence. When Ari heard a familiar scratching sound, she glanced over at her bard mother and watched as the blonde sat with head bent, as she scribbled on a parchment. Curiosity peaked by her movements, Ari watched for a moment, but when Gabrielle glanced at her, she quickly turned away, remembering that it was wrong to look at what someone else was doing. Yet no matter how many times she tried to control herself, the dark child could not help but cast sidelong glances at the parchment in her mother's hand.

"What do you think, Ari?" Gabrielle's voice caught the girl by surprise.

With wide eyes, Ari glanced at her mothers smiling face, then turned quickly away as she shrugged. At her move, the bard sighed then got up from her place and moved closer to Ari. When she sat beside her, she held the parchment open and in front of Ari's lap.

"Right here, honey, at this part. Do you think this is good or should I maybe add a little bit more action?" her bard mother asked as she pointed at the lines with the tip of her plume.

For a second, Ari didn't know if this was a test. She felt a brief moment when she thought she was supposedto turn away and avoid looking at what the bard was doing. But when she felt her mothers arm wrap over her shoulder, Ari gulped nervously as she looked from her warrior mother, to the blonde. When Eve returned to camp, Gabrielle only smiled up at her, then returned her attention back to Ari.

"You see, Ari, I'm not so sure if there needs to be an action scene in this one. I mean, I like telling compelling stories that have depth and plot, but I know that in order to keep some people involved, it also needs action. What do you think?" Gabrielle asked again as she pointed with her fingertip.

Ari gulped nervously as she looked back down at the markings. Her brows creased as she tried to decipher what her mother was asking. When nothing came to mind, the dark child looked back at her mother with pleading eyes.

"Ari, can you read?" the bard asked with deliberate slowness. At her question, the sound of Xena sharpening her sword suddenly stopped as the warrior looked at Ari.

"I-I can r-read," Ari stuttered as she felt a heat crossing her cheeks.

"Then what does this line say," Gabrielle asked as Eve returned to her bedroll.

Ari looked down at where her mother pointed, her brows creased as she tried to figure out what the lines all meant. When no meaning became clear, she turned away from the bard, ashamed that she couldn't even do this simple thing. At the sound of movement in the camp, the girl looked up in time as Xena was moving toward them.

"Oh, honey, you can't read, can you?" Gabrielle spoke softly.

"But mother, you saw her reading my…." Eve grew silent,as she suddenly understood the bard's words.

"Ari, do you understand anything on your mothers scroll?" Xena had sat down in front of her, the look of concern in her eyes.

The dark child looked at her sister Eve, then at her mother Gabrielle, before looking up at Xena. With a slight frown, she sighed before lowering her eyes in shame. As the heat crossed her cheeks, she tried to find the words needed to explain her thoughts.

"A-Alti, she showed me h-how t-to r-read," Ari explained. For a moment her family remained silent, then, Gabrielle leaned toward her bag and pulled out a scroll.

"Honey, can you show us what Alti taught you? Here you go, Ari. Here's a clean parchment, just take your time and put down whatever it was that shetaught you," the bard said encouragingly as she handed Ari the plume.

For a moment, Ari wondered if this was another test. She began to worry that whatever she did would be wrong. But when she saw her mothers green eyes watching her intently, she sighed as she dipped the tip into the black pigment, then turned her attention to the scroll. As she began to move it across the yellow fabric, she delved into her mind to remember. A few times, Ari had to close her eyes, the memory of everywhere they had been replayed in images before she opened her eyes and transferred it to the parchment. As the evening progressed, she moved silently through the task.
~~~~~~
Gabrielle watched her daughter in silence. While a part of her mind was cursing Alti, another part was watching Ari's movements with interest. When she saw the first line, she wondered exactly what Alti had taught the girl. But as the time passed, the bard found herself mesmerized by every line. A few times she looked up at Xena, and clearly saw the amazement in the warrior's eyes.

Like her, Xena sat watching Ari's creation. Occasionally, the warrior would shake her head in wonder as her eyes followed her eldest daughter's hand. When Ariwas finally finished, they glanced at each other.

"Wow," Eve exclaimed as she saw the finished product of Ari's creation.

With a fatigued sigh, Ari brushed her bangs away from her eyes as she handed Gabrielle a fully detailed, complete cartography of their journey up to this point. The map was explicitly detailed down to the names of the villages and towns that they had passed as well as the resident populations. In the areas that held no population, the child included images of forest, or vales as well as the number of animals that were seen in the areas. The rivers and streams were detailed enough to show the level of the water.

"It w-was a bit b-blurry here," she pointed to the towns they passed when she was in a fever, or in her world of silence. "And I-I had to stop here b-because I don't k-know the r-rest," Ari sheepishly said as she looked away, almost ashamed at the omissions.

"Ari, this is beautiful!" Gabrielle shook her head in amazement as she looked at all of the finely detailed markings, her eyes scanned over the smallest things that Ari had noticed along the way, but which had escaped the bards attention. "So you recognize the names of the towns and villages," the bard said out loud almost to herself.

"This is what Alti taught you?" Xena asked as she looked at the map over Gabrielle's shoulder. Ari watched the warrior's reaction carefully.

"A-Alti taught me," the girl explained at last as her eyes slowly closed.

"Then you don't know how to read full script?" Eve asked softly. "But then, how were you able to … I mean, why were looking at my scroll?"

Gabrielle glanced at her daughter, curious about the same thing. The dark child turned a slight shade of red as her eyes darted between Xena, then Gabrielle before looking back at Eve. With a shrug, Ari looked away from her sister.

"Th-The lines w-were…" Ari seemed to be thinking of a word, then glanced up at the bard, her brow arched as if remembering a word, "…beautiful."

"Oh, Ari, I'm sorry. I thought you had read my scroll," Eve sighed as she shook her head in apology.

Ari only looked away, her eyes downcast. When a yawn escaped her control, Gabrielle turned her attention away from the parchment. She wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulder and tenderly kissed her temple.

"Honey, you're sleepy aren't you?" the blonde asked as she looked at her child with concern. In answer to her question, another yawn made its way past Ari as her eyelids seemed to droop. "Come on, it's time for bed," she smiled as she handed the map to Xena, who took it and began to pace the camp as she examined it.

"You know Ari, I've seen a lot of maps in my day, and I'd have to say that yours is the most beautiful that I've seen so far," the bard smiled tenderly as she helped pull the girl's tunic over her head. Ari climbed under her blanket and removed her pants, then handed them to Gabrielle who carefully folded them and laid them next to the girl's bedroll. Once her child was tucked under the bedroll, the bard smiled down at her.

"It's a very beautiful map, Ari. But as soon as we get home, we're going to start some lessons. You need to be able to read and write so that you can pick up any parchment and know what is written on it." Gabrielle said softly as she stroked the girl's hair.

"I-I can l-learn it t-too?" Ari asked with a sleepy whisper.

"Of course honey, you can learn it too," Gabrielle promised.

"I'm n-not too…" Ari's voice grew low as her eyes closed and did not flutter open again. In a sleepy voice, she whispered very softly, "…s-stupid?"

"Oh no, honey, you're not stupid! Why, this map alone shows that you are far from being stupid!" the bard kissed her daughters forehead. "All you need is someone to teach you, and pretty soon, you'll have no trouble writing and reading just as well as anyone!"

"B-But … I always make … m-mistakes…" the pain was etched in her soft voice. "D-Doesn't that … mean that I-I'm…" Ari's voice grew quiet as her features turned to a frown. At the dark child's question, Gabrielle felt her heart twisting in pain. Knowing how little Ari felt she was worth, the bard fought off her sadness as she leaned down toward the girl.

With her lips scant inches from Ari's ear, she whispered very softly. "Don't worry baby, mistakes sometimes happen. This is all new to you and someday, you won't be making mistakes around people."

"I-I won't?" her whisper caused even the bard to strain to hear.

With a slight smile, the blonde tenderly brushed aside Ari's dark hair. "No, you won't. I promise."

At her words, Ari smiled in her sleep. As a soft sigh escaped the girl's control, Gabrielle smiled as she brushed her fingertips over her daughter's soft cheek. When the blonde noticed the girl's eyes moving behind her eyelids, the bard knew that her child was deep in sleep. After a slight kiss on the forehead, the bard pulled the blanket over Ari's shoulder, then moved away.
~~~~~~
Xena found herself pacing as she examined the map. She noticed her lover laying close totheir eldest, whispering something for Ari's ears alone, yet she ignored her soul mates actions and continued to examine her daughter's creation. Only when she noticed the bard disrobing and crawling under their bedroll did she glance around their camp. Already fast asleep, Ari lay covered under her bedroll. With a slight yawn and a wave, Eve smiled at her before rolling over to sleep. Following their lead, she moved to join her bard.

"Isn't what she can do amazing?" Gabrielle asked through a stifled yawn.

"It is. But I can see by that training what Alti had in mind for her," the warrior grunted as she snuggled close to her lover.

"To remember the layout of the land?" the blonde asked as she snuggled against her side. In an absent manner, Xena wrapped her arm around the smaller woman as she adjusted herself on the pillow.

"Basically, yes. Alti trained Ari with one single thing in mind. To learn everything about the land in order to conquer and enslave its people," she whispered.

"Well, Alti's not around anymore, so we shouldn't have to worry about that," the bard mumbled against the warrior's shoulder.

Perhaps Xena should have taken comfort in the bard's words, but instead she felt cold as she remembered seeing the notations on the map of the number of armed warriors, as well as civilian men, women and children, each township had. As the commander she had been, Xena knew that this was in order to keep track of the number of potential slaves that could be at the conqueror's disposal. To be reminded so unexpectedly of her own dark past depressed the warrior, for she knew that not so very long ago, she had coldly formed the same plans without care for the innocent lives she affected.

Silent tears filled the warrior's eyes at these memories and suddenly she somehow felt as if she were spinning backward through a void of space and time. When she stopped spinning, would she still be herself, or would she again be Xena the Warlord, leader of ravaging armies, conqueror of Corinth? She was the same person, wasn't she? No, but, yes too. Xena shivered. Had anything ever really changed? Had shechanged? Who was she inside; was she truly Xena the caring mother, or Xena the ruthless slayer? Suddenly almost scared, she hugged her soul mate tight as if this would keep her anchored to reality and safety.

Not noticing her lover's discomfort, Gabrielle snuggled sleepily against her and murmured, "Mmmm, you feel … good, honey. I … love … you…" her voice trailed off into a light snore.

Deliberately, Xena focused on the bard and forced her racing mind to stillness. "I love you too, Gabrielle…" she whispered, and just saying the words seemed to bring her back to reality once more. She was no longer Xena the Warlord. She was Xena, warrior mother of Eve and Ari and lover of Gabrielle and this was all that she ever wanted to be. The bad old demon Xena was dead and buried. She had put a stake through that evil bitch's heart thirty years ago and she would never walk the earth again, thank the gods and Gabrielle. Xena drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. Evil Xena was no more than a formless ghost, who arose sporadically to haunt her dreams and trouble her in moments like these. Gratefully, she felt herself relaxing again and lay there on her back with her soul mate warm beside her.

'Gods,' she thought sadly. 'If after all this time Ican still be affected by my past, what is it like for Ari still being so close to hers?'

In silence, the warrior princess stared up at the swaying branches of the trees. Although she scanned beyond them to the stars, her thoughts were on anything but their beauty. As she pondered this new discovery of their daughter's talent, she began to wonder what other surprises Ari might have. The warrior also wondered if the adjustment into an ordinary life would go easy for her eldest, since the girl had never lived anything resembling an ordinary life before. Ever since she had been kidnapped, her child had not only experienced great mental and physical abuse, but she had been reared and raised with one single goal in mind, and that was to kill and conquer. How could she break free of that monstrous upbringing?

'But I broke free of my evil past, thanks to Hercules and Gabrielle,' she thought firmly. 'Surely with all of our help, Gabrielle's and mine, and eventually maybe even Eve's, shouldn't Ari be able to break free from hers?'

With a faint sigh, Xena reached up and wiped at the wetness in her eyes. Just the thought of her baby daughter having to go through this savage upbringing tore at her heart and brought a sadness to her soul. 'This is all my fault; all of it. I've gotta make it right, I've got to! But, oh, gods. If only I had been tougher, stronger. If only I hadn't run away from my responsibility. If only I'd kept Ari…' she thought desolately. 'If only … if only…' When all of her thoughts led her to the same conclusion, she sighed as she lightly kissed the crown of the bard's head.

"I hope you're right about Alti, Gabrielle," she whispered so softly as to not be heard. "But we have a real job ahead of us yet, even without worrying about whether that sorceress bitch comes back." So saying, she finally took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then closed her eyes and composed herself for sleep.
~~~~~~
Gabrielle noticed her eldest daughter's solemn mood. On the last leg of their journey, Ari had been keeping to herself. Although they were beginning to talk, the bard noticed the uneasiness of her eldest daughter, and the smoldering anger from Eve. With little that she could do, she held back in hopes that the rift between the two girls would mend with time.
Although the bard understood where Eve's anger was coming from, she hoped that the prophet would begin to see why Ari acted in the ways that she did. She hoped that Eve would realize how little experience her sister had when it came to normal sexual encounters. Perhaps then, she would see that her older sister's actions were all a misunderstanding on Ari's part, the bard reasoned as a frown crossed her features. Eve's blowup from the night before was disturbing and although the bard conceded Ari was wrong to read her sister's scroll, she did not feel that the girl deserved such harsh indignation from her sister. The punishment did not fit the crime, especially when they later learned that Ari couldn't read. But as the bard thought about it, she realized that all of Eve's anger was centered around her sister's sexual attack upon her.

With a slight sigh, the bard stifled her own inner sadness as she thought over the problem. No, there was nothing that she could do to show Eve how truly damaged her sister was. There was no way to explain to her youngest that for Ari, no boundaries had ever been set up between relatives, in fact that such boundaries had been non-existent up until now. Ari did not understand that Eve would have never been sending the messages that she thought she was receiving. Short of breaking her eldest daughter's confidence, Gabrielle could not explain all of the atrocities that Ari had experienced at the hands of Alti. Yet even if she did, she could not be certain that Eve would understand and forgive her sister.

"Gods above," she thought glumly. "This is a ripe old mess."

Before the bard could contemplate this further, the sounds of loud banging, sawing of wood and numerous voices broke through her concentration.

"What in the…?" Gabrielle shook her head as she looked around at her family. Xena sat with straight back on Argo, a slight arch of a brow the only indication of surprise. Eve only looked confused as she turned her gaze to both of her mothers. Ari, like Gabrielle, sat with open-mouthed amazement as she watched the group of people around the old farmstead. With a slight smile, the bard turned to Ari. "You know, the last time we were here was with Ares, and it needed a lot of work then!"

"Who are th-they?" Ari asked as she looked at the people in the distance.

"I don't know honey. Maybe your mother knows?" Gabrielle said as she hurried her horse down the road.
~~~~~~
As the group of four approached what was to be their home, the figures on the roof and around the home stopped and waved, then returned to their work. In the center of the commotion was a loud voice booming over the others, giving instructions in a hurried manner.

Ari remained silent as she watched her parent's body language closely. When Gabrielle, Xena and Eve all dismounted, the dark child followed their lead, then looked around as she stood in front of the home. From inside of the house, the owner of the booming voice emerged. For a moment, Ari blinked in surprise as she gazed at a woman who seemed vaguely familiar, yet when she tried to place where they had met, the girl could not remember.

"Ah, Hades! You're too early!" the woman shouted as she raised her hands in exasperation. "Virgil," she called up to the workers on the roof, then without giving anyone a chance to answer, she hollered louder, "VIRGIL!"

At the second shout, Virgil stood up and looked down at the woman. With a bare chest covered with a sheen of sweat, and a slack jaw, his gaze moved from the older woman, to the four arrivals. He had a small strip of white cloth taped over the bridge of his bruised nose. "What?"

"You said we had a few days, what's wrong with you boy?" she shouted, then turned to Xena. "Goodness, just like his father, never gets the days right," the tall, slightly pudgy woman said as she moved to stand in front of Xena.

"Well, Meg, we sort of started our trip back early," Xena commented dryly as she glanced up at Virgil. The young man gulped nervously, then turned away, and disappeared over the roof peak.

Ari looked from the stranger, to Xena, then began to see the resemblance of the two women. Although Meg's wrinkles and laugh lines etched across her face, her features were similar to Xena's. Her hair, once jet-black, like her mothers, was now generously sprinkled with salt and pepper. In height, Meg might once have stood as tall as Xena, but with age, she stood slightly stooped. Where Xena had firm abs and a muscular body, Meg's was pudgy in the middle, and the skin under her arms flapped each time she pointed or moved her arms.

"Xena, Gabrielle, this was all supposed to be a surprise. Guess we sorta blew it, huh?" Meg laughed as she clasped each hand, then looked over the warrior's shoulders to the two younger women.

"And you must be Ari!" she exclaimed as she moved directly in front of the dark child. With a broad smile, the older woman reached out and lightly cupped Ari's cheeks. "Oh, and what a beauty you are! No wonder my boy is so taken with you," Meg stated, then turned to the older two women.

"Virgil didn't say anything to me, but I could tell the minute he said her name! A mother knows these kinda things," Meg returned her smile to Ari, then wrapped her arms around the girl and pulled her in a tight embrace. "Oh, you're such a skinny l'il thing, well, don't you worry none, we'll just have to put a little meat on your bones is all!"

"Xena, now that our two kids are smitten with each other, we're sorta gonna be related!" Meg snorted a laugh as she kept her arm around Ari's shoulder.

"Did Virgil tell you that?" Ari heard the quiet anger in her warrior mother's voice.

"Oh no, but he didn't have to! Why, I know these things! Not a girl can escape his charms and I justknow your Ari couldn't have either!" she chuckled as she turned around and held Ari at arms length. "He's just like his father in that respect, such a ladies man he was!" Meg beamed with pride.

"Meg, we're going to need more nails," one of Virgil's young friends interrupted the older woman. With a scowl, the woman looked to the heavens then shook her head.

"These boys just wouldn't get along on their own!" She exclaimed, then turned to the boy, "Well then, go into town and get some more! Lands sakes, you know I have an open line of credit at the mercantile!"

"Right away!" he said, then turned to leave.

"Meg, umm, what is this all about?" Gabrielle stepped forward as she looked up at the workers on the roof.

"Oh, of course, well, this whole thing was suppose to be a surprise, but, well, I guess the surprise is blown!" the portly woman chuckled. "We were just fixing up the place for you and your girls, making sure that the roof was patched up, the floorboards replaced."

"So I see," Xena cast her glance to the home, then turned to the older woman. "Thank you, Meg, but you didn't have to go to all this trouble."

"Oh, don't thank me, it was the least I could do, all things considering," Meg chuckled. "I mean, it's awfully kind of you to let me run the tavern and all."

At her words, both Xena and Gabrielle looked at her, the confusion and surprise evident in their expression. With only a questioning arch of a brow, the warrior princess looked back at Meg in confusion. When she saw their looks, Meg's smile disappeared.

"You mean my boy didn't tell you?" She asked.

"Tell us what?" Xena crossed her arms as she glanced at the nearby workers who were sawing through a rough piece of floor beam.

"Why … Virgil! Virgillll!"she hollered back up at the roof.

"What?" He shouted back down as he glanced over the edge.

"You didn't tell them about the tavern?" she screamed as he was making his way down a ladder.

"It didn't come up, mother," he explained as he moved to join them, his gaze turned cautiously to Xena as he made certain to keep his distance from her.

"Well, for Zeus' sake! What exactly did ya talk about then?" the woman asked, then shook her head and looked back at Xena, "Never mind, boy. You're just as scattered as your father used to be!" the woman commented, and then her tone grew softer as a sad sigh escaped her and an errant tear ran down her seamed cheek.

"Excuse me, I'm sorry. Sometimes when I think of my late husband, I just get all emotional," Meg said as she turned her head while removing a scarf from her apron. With a loud noise, she blew her nose into the cloth, then turned back around and looked at Xena.

"It's like this, see, when my tavern burned down, and I knew that your mothers was still intact, I decided to take it over. I figured you wouldn't mind, seein' as you and Gabrielle weren't around, and it was in perfectly good condition even with all of that Mephistopheles brouhaha, and the hell gate thing that happened. We even got a theme going with it!" Meg smiled broadly. "We renamed it the Ghostly Brew, and our motto is, 'Lift yer DEAD spirit's with our KEG spirits!' Catchy, huh? Ya like it?"

Xena couldn't help but smile at Meg's infectious enthusiasm. With a shake of her head, the tall warrior looked back up at the home. "Well, I can't see that there is any harm, and I'm sure mom wouldn't mind. She always did like a happy crowd in the place. But about this house; you certainly didn't have to go through all this trouble." She waved her hand at the busy workers. "Don't worry, Meg, we will eventually pay you back."

"Aw, nonsense, why, the Ghostly Brew is raking it in! We're actually giving that bordello owner a run for her money!" Meg added with a chuckle as she crossed her arms and looked up at the new roof. "So getting your home fixed up for ya all was my way of thanking you … besides, what does it matter between family?" Meg elbowed Xena knowingly as she smiled at Virgil, then turned and winked at Ari.

A red blush covered Virgil's cheeks, as he looked away from Xena, then glanced shyly at Ari. Confused by the words, Ari only turned her attention to the orderly chaos around her. When her mother began to walk into the home, Ari took Than's reins and began to walk him toward the barn.

"Your horse, miss?" a young man moved in front of her as he reached for Than's reins. Suddenly alert for trouble, Ari scowled down at him as she pulled the reins away.

"Of c-course h-he's my horse!" she frowned. When she felt her mother's hand on her arm, Ari turned and glanced down at Gabrielle.

"Sweetheart, it's all right. He just wants to take Than to the barn and settle him down." She explained. When she glanced at Xena, she noticed her warrior mother smiling as she nodded confirmation. With a suspicious expression, she looked down at the young man in front of her.

"I'll take him for you, miss," he smiled warily. With a slight scowl, she handed the reins to the man, who gulped nervously as he took the reins from her hands, then took Eve's reins and began to lead the animals to the barn while another boy did the same with her mothers horses. As he walked away, he glanced over his shoulder occasionally, then turned away quickly when he saw Ari following his every move.

"It's all right, Ari. He'll take care of Than," Gabrielle slightly chuckled as she wrapped her arm into Ari's.

"H-He'd b-better!" her voice was deep as she worried over her beloved horse. The bard only laughed as she shook her head.

"Come on in and see it!" Meg waved the four women into the home.

When the dark child walked past Virgil, she glanced up and noticed a sadness in his eyes. Before she could contemplate it, he turned away and began to make himself busy. Not certain why he reacted as he did, Ari only shrugged as she followed her family into the house.

As she entered the home, she noticed the cleanliness around her. The floorboards were new and sanded to softness. As she looked up at the rafters, Xena was looking around the large open room, she examined the fire place as Gabrielle was inspecting the kitchen. Before Xena could look into the second room, Eve emerged from a room off from the main living area.

"Mother, there are only two rooms here," Eve's voice was deep with annoyance as she frowned at the warrior.

"Two rooms?" Xena looked at her youngest.

"But there used to be only one room!" Gabrielle turned away from the newly stocked shelves. "Where did the second one come from?"

"Oh, that was a little surprise from me," Meg said proudly. She elbowed the bard in the ribs and winked lewdly. "Thought maybe you and Xena would want some, ah, privacy, so I had them put the girls' room over on the other side of the house."

"MO-THER," Eve's voice was stern as she stood with fists clenched. "I am notsleeping in the same room with … with … her!"

The strangers in the room looked curiously at Ari, then discreetly turned away as if they had never heard Eve's outburst. Ari felt a heat cross her cheeks as she turned away from her sister.

"What? Am I missing something? Did you two girls have a fight? Because if you did, I'm sure it will all blow over," Meg interjected.

"Ummm … we'll find a solution," Xena added.

"I-I can s-sleep in the b-barn," Ari spoke up for the first time.

"No, Ari, you don't have to do that," Gabrielle added.

"Mother, have you forgotten what she tried to do? I will NOT share a room with her, and that's final!" Eve's voice was low and harsh as she crossed her arms defiantly in front of her.

"Eve, just give your mother and I a chance to figure it out," Xena's tone grew harsh as her brows furrowed.

"Figure it out all you want, but I'm still not going to share a room with her. I'd rather go and stay at Meg's tavern," Eve's lips grew thin as she moved and sat defiantly with arms crossed on a chair in front of a table.

"Oh, hey, now," Meg tried to soothe Eve's growing anger. "Sisters fight sometimes, but it can't be all that bad, right?"

"R-Really … I-I can stay in the barn," Ari said again as she was turning to leave.

"No, Ari, you are not going to sleep in the barn, and you Eve, are not going to leave either," Xena pointed at her youngest as a stern expression crossed her features. "Your mother and I will figure something out."
~~~~~~
When Virgil first saw the women riding up, his initial instinct was to run and hide. But because he would have never been able to climb down from the roof without being seen, he decided instead to try to blend in. This worked until his mother called him, then he could not hide anymore.

At first he thought that Xena was going to try to kill him again and he cringed. Especially when his mother kept going on about Ari and he being almost family now, but whenever he glanced at the warrior, he noticed that whatever hostility she may have held, was either under careful control, or no longer existed. When he heard the voices from inside the house, he quickly pulled on his shirt, and then walked in and listened to them for a moment. After realizing that Eve was angry with Ari, a brow arched upward as he glanced at the four women and his bewildered mother. He wondered what could have happened between the two to cause such hostility.

As they bickered back and forth, he stopped listening as a thought crossed his mind and he moved to the scroll. When he unrolled the parchment, he took it to the table and began to glance at the general design of the house. He absently took a piece of coal and began to make changes to the design.

"We could add another room to it," their bickering drowned out his voice. When he looked up, he saw the bard come toward him to look over his shoulder. At her lover's move the warrior turned and glanced down at him.

"What, Virgil?"

"See, right here, right above the bottom room, we add another room, then layer the roof like this," he explained as he sketched the way the roof planks would lay. "It wouldn't be anything fancy, but it could be done in a days time, if that's what you want?"

"Virgil, you are a life saver!" Gabrielle hugged him close and kissed his cheek as a smile crossed her face.

"It could work," Xena agreed as she looked at the parchment. Her voice seemed relieved. "Very good Virgil, very good!"

At the warrior's open praise, he smiled as he looked back down at the plans. "So, for tonight…"

"…So tonight you'll all stay at the tavern! Thankfully, we're not all full up, so there should be plenty of places for all of you, and my son can start his friends on this new room." Meg smiled proudly as she clasped Virgil's shoulder, then wiped a tear from her eyes. "You're just like yourfather, so clever!"

Virgil only smiled as he rose from the chair. With plans in hand, he left the home to search for his friends so that they could begin the new designs. Although it would not be fancy, the additional room would be enough to satisfy all of the women, he thought with a smile.
~~~~~~
At his hasty retreat, Xena followed him closely, then reached out and stopped him before he could get off of the porch.

"Um, Virgil, can we talk?" the warrior kept her voice calm. At his surprised stare, she nodded toward a distant clearing near the house. With a cautious expression, he walked with her the short distance, then turned and looked at her. Before she could even open her mouth, his defenses rose.

"Xena, look, I'm sorry, really I am. It was all a mistake! I misunderstood. You were right, I should have noticed what was going on with Ari!"

"Virgil, I know," she waved away his words as she purposely looked away from him. Each time she remembered seeing him over Ari, the image of her daughter's blank expression, she felt her internal anger boiling. Yet when she was able to step away from the situation and think it through, knowing that Ari had been the one to go to him, she understood it much better. As a mother, it still didn't sit well with her. But as a person, she could understand how Virgil could have misunderstood.

"Listen, I just wanted to say that maybe I acted too hastily." She spoke low as she glanced down at the tips of her boots, then looked up at the young man. "I'm sorry about…" she waved at his bruised nose, "… this. I hope it's healing all right?"

Shocked by her admission, he stared at her with slack jaw. As if suddenly pulled from a daydream, he blinked, closed his mouth, and reached up to lightly touch his still black and blue nose. When he looked at her, a tinge of red crossed his cheeks.

"But you were right, Xena, I-I should have seen, I should have noticed that Ari is … well, that she's … different. But honest, I never meant to t-take advantage of your daughter," he apologized again. "I promise Xena, it will never happen again!"

Xena only smiled at the young man's look of fear, then reached up and lightly placed her palm on his shoulder. "I know, Virgil. I know it won't ever happen again, because if it does," she smiled as she leaned toward him and whispered, "…next time, I'll killya!"

The young man felt a cold chill slither through his stomach and swallowed audibly. "X-Xena, I s-swear…".

At his wide-eyed look of fear, the warrior princess laughed out loud and patted his shoulder. "By the gods, Virgil, I'm just teasing! You are so muchlike Joxer sometimes. Do you really think I could ever kill the son of one of our closest friends?" She laughed again as she shook her head.

Virgil sighed in relief as he brushed away the beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead. "W-Well, I would hope not. But as her mother, I … I guess you'd be entitled."

Xena looked seriously at the young man. "I understand, and … I trustyou, Virgil," she nodded as she turned away to rejoin her family. As an afterthought, she turned again to the young man.

"Oh, and Virgil?" she called to get his attention. Glancing up from the parchment, he arched a questioning brow. "You know something? Your father would have been proud of all that you've done here," she pointed to the house. With a wide smile, Virgil nodded at the mention of his father. "He'd be veryproud of you!" she stated for emphasis, then turned and reentered the home.
~~~~~~
As the four sat at a table and ate their dinner, Ari watched as Meg's eldest daughter swept through the tavern. Wearing a dress similar to the peasant village women, the young woman carried a tray laden with plates to various tables. As she watched the young woman, the dark child looked from the girl, to her warrior mother. Although Gabrielle had assured Ari that her warrior mother and Meg were not related, she found it hard to believe when she looked at Cenopa. The young woman could have been Xena's daughter, Ari thought as she watched the tall, dark haired beauty sweep through the tavern, then move directly to their table. With a slight smile, the young woman moved by Ari's side, then lightly rested her hand on the girl's shoulder.

"How is everything? Can I get ya anything else?" Cenopa asked the women at the table, then winked at Ari.

"No, we're fine," Xena answered for them as she smiled at the young woman.

"Good, just holler if ya need anything," Cenopa responded, then lightly reached down and affectionately brushed her fingers through Ari's hair.

At her touch, Ari nervously gulped as she averted her eyes. With a shy smile, she glanced up at the younger version of her warrior mother. The tall woman chuckled slightly before turning her attention back to the other tables. In a matter of seconds, Cenopa had moved through the tavern and quickly pickedup food orders from the other tables. Occasionally, she'd touch a patron as she had Ari, or she'd playfully swat away the hands of a man attempting to pat her rear.

Ari watched the woman for a moment before returning her attention back to her bowl of stew. When a raucous laughter rose from the bar, Ari glanced at a group of laughing women who were at the bar with some men. The dark child noticed their manner of dress, the way their bosoms were pushed together and out of their fancy tops. As if noticing her gaze, Meg smiled and shook her head as she returned to filling Xena's and Gabrielle's mugs with ale.

"Don't you worry none about them, they's only workin' girls, but they never bring their business here. Nope, them girls are professionals! They work out of Elenh's place, that fancy cat house on the other side of town," Meg explained as she smiled and waved at the girls.

Xena nodded understanding as she returned to eating the dinner meal. Gabrielle lightly sipped her ale, and then resumed eating as Eve cast a bored glance at the painted women. With a curious gaze, Ari marveled at the way that their dresses enhanced their shapely figures.

"Oh boy, Xena, looks like you're going ta have ta explain about them types of women to yer youngest!" Meg chortled as a blush crossed Ari's cheek. Embarrassed by the looks of her family, the dark child lowered her gaze as she returned her attention to her bowl of stew.

"Since when have so many tavern wenches been in Amphipolis?" Xena asked as she glanced over at the women who were doing their best to entice some of Meg's customers.

"Since they moved in across the village a few years back. I gotta tell ya, they proved to be some hard competitors, and for a while I thought I was gonna have to take some drastic measures to end their little operation," the tavern hostess explained as she absently wiped down a corner of the table. "I hated to do that, seein' as how I used ta be in the business myself before I married Joxer, but things was gettin' uncomfortable. Thankfully, me and Elenh come to an understandin'. Now her house hours of operations are only at dusk, so this way, once my customers have a belly full, they can go on over and work off the meal with her girls an both of us make money."

When a third woman walked in, Meg's face beamed with a wide smile. "Elenh, you ole harlot! What brings you here?" the older woman smiled, then nodded a farewell to the group at the table before going to meet up with the other woman.

Ari watched Meg's interaction with the woman. Like old friends, they embraced, then pulled apart. With an arm over her shoulder, the tavern owner smiled as she walked the newcomer to the bar where the other women were gathered.

With only a slight smile, Xena returned her attention to her dinner as Ari covertly watched the women at the bar. Unlike the camp followers who used to travel with Ari's army, these women were clean and dressed in clothes that flattered them. Through her time with Alti, Ari never indulged herself with camp followers, preferring instead to take the village virgins who were cleaner and better smelling. But if all of the camp followers had looked as nice and clean as these women, Ari might have chosen to partake of their pleasures as well, she thought as she glanced at their smooth, round hips that were hidden under the colorful dresses.

"Honey, are you wondering about those women," Gabrielle leaned toward her, the bards voice grew soft as she spoke to Ari. With a frown, Ari glanced from her mother, to the women in question.

"Th-They are like c-camp followers," Ari stated as she returned her attention her stew. Xena snorted with laughter as she took a chunk of bread from the loaf and began to sop up the gravy of her stew.

"Nope, Gabrielle, I think our girl knows all about camp followers!" the warrior princess chuckled, then winked at the bard as she ate.

As if bored with the women, Ari turned her attention away from them, and glanced at the older woman whom Meg had greeted so warmly. As soon as the woman had walked in, the dark child noticed her not so much for her beauty, but for her bearing. Although not as tall as Ari, the woman held a quiet strength and like the other women at the bar, this one wore a beautiful dress, but made of a fancier material. The clinging dress had a low cut top, which showed off her ample cleavage. Unlike the others, she held a silent strength within. With each confident step she took, Ari could see the leadership within this woman.

The woman spoke softly with her girls as her eyes scanned the room. Ari noticed the woman's slight smile and the way her long dark brown hair shimmered from the light in the tavern. Her face, neatly made up, showed off her blue-gray eyes and slight nose. Her lips that were as red as a rose held a calm smile, as she seemed to take in everything about the tavern.

Just as Ari's interest was peaking, the woman glanced up and stared across the crowded tavern. For what felt like an eternity in time, their eyes locked as they gazed at one another. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the woman turned and swept out of the tavern.

"See ya next time, ya ole' wench," Meg chuckled as she waved at the woman.

"I'm sure you will, Meg!" the woman named Elenh laughed as she swept from the tavern, the door closing briskly behind her.
~~~~~~
At first, Xena watched her daughter's obvious interest with mild amusement. To see Ari's eyes grow wide, as she peered over the heads of the patrons to get a better look amused the warrior princes. But when she turned to glance at what had captivated Ari, the warrior felt her irritation building.

"Ari, your food is going to get cold," she said in a harsher voice than she intended. Instantly, Ari lowered her gaze as she resumed her meal in silence, her eyes downcast as if she had done something wrong and had just been punished for it.

At Gabrielle's sharp look, Xena shrugged as she tried to understand where her anger stemmed from. "I don't want your food to get cold," the warrior stated is a softer voice, hoping to put her daughter at ease. In silence, Ari ate the rest of her stew as she kept her gaze lowered.

Angered at herself, Xena closed her eyes for a moment as she released a deep sigh. She tried in vain to understand why she had become angry. After their last talk with Ari, she thought she had become accustomed to the idea of Ari one-day falling love. But seeing her daughter's obvious interest in the older woman seemed to upset the warrior. With a shake of her head, Xena looked into her mug as she drank the thick ale. As she contemplated her feelings, she realized why she had grown angry. The woman, although beautiful, looked older than Ari, and it disturbed her that her daughter would be so instantly attracted to someone so much older than herself.

'But is she really that much older than Ari?' the warrior silently wondered as she glanced around the room, then looked back at her daughter's sullen form. Because of her actions, and the way she conducted herself, Xena found it hard to see Ari as her real age. If Alti had not kidnapped her to the strange dimension where time ran so slowly, Ari would have been in her forties. The warrior princess realized with shock that this may have made Ari a few years older than the stranger. Yet each time Xena looked at her child, seeing her age as anything more than late teens … maybe early twenties, was difficult. This in turn, made it hard for the warrior to see her daughter being attracted to someone so much older.

"Mother, I'm so glad to be home, I'm exhausted!" Eve exclaimed as she pushed aside her empty bowl. "I'm going to take advantage of Meg's offer for a hot bath, then I'm turning in," Eve broke Xena's contemplation.

"All right, honey, we'll see you in the morning," the warrior princess smiled as Eve leaned down and kissed her cheek, then moved to the bard and gave her a goodnight kiss.

"That actually sounds like a good idea, I think I'll go with you. Care to join us?" the bard asked as she rose from the table.

"Would I miss a chance at a warm bath?" Xena smiled as she followed her lover, then glanced back at Ari's silent form. With a sad frown, the girl quietly followed them up the stairs. "Joining us, or going to bed, sweetheart," she asked her eldest daughter. Ari only shrugged as she stood before the door to their room. "Ok. We'll see you in a little while," Xena brushed her palm over Ari's arm tenderly before following her lover down to the bathing room.
~~~~~~
While her parents bathed, Ari spent the time pacing in the room. As she glanced around, she noticed the large bed in the center of the room, and a smaller one against the farthest wall. Not trusting the dark child to be alone, Xena had insisted on a room for three rather than private rooms for all. Despite being left alone in their shared room, Ari noticed that her mother had taken all of the sharp items out of the room and stored them in Eve's private room.

With a slight frown, Ari turned around and caught her reflection in the wall mirror. As she gazed at her image, she moved close to the mirror. She saw the way her clothes hung loose on her body. After only a few months without her daily training routine, combined with her times of illness, she was losing the muscle and body weight that once filled out her clothes.

When she looked at her facial features, a slight frown crossed her lips. She lowered her eyes from the reflection and turned away, disgusted at what she saw. Although she could not have explained it, when she looked at herself in the mirror, all she could see was a hideous creature, a monster with no social redeeming value; a monster who never should have been.

As she tried to keep her gaze away from the mirror, she paced the length of the empty room. Each time, her eyes would look up she'd see the image of herself in the mirror, or catch a brief glimpse of the reflection. When the girl could no longer ignore it, she moved to the mirror and examined it. At first she tried to take it from the wall in order to turn it around, but frowned when she realized that it had been nailed down. As an afterthought, she moved to her bags and removed an extra undershirt. In an attempt to cover it, she hung her shirt over the mirror, stuffing a part of it between the crack in the wall. When she realized that her shirt was too short, she went to her mother's bag and rummaged through it. Without thought, she took one of Gabrielle's shifts and replaced it with her shirt. With a satisfied smile she stood back to admire her handy work.

The shift hung upside down in the mirror, its full length covered the mirror entirely as its empty arms dangled to the ground. With a nod, Ari moved back to her bed and sat down. As the sounds from the busy tavern filtered into the room, she leaned back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling. Her mind kept replaying the mistake she had made with Eve. Over and over she tried to figure out why she had allowed herself to think that Eve would even want her in that way. 'Especially after I almost raped her back when I was still under Alti's control,' she thought miserably. 'Whywould she want me?'

Throughout her whole life, there wasn't a single woman who had ever given of herself willingly. Ari sighed as the thought crossed her mind. 'Only Alti seemed to want to be with me, and even then, she always told me how unworthy I was. So who am I to think that anyone would ever want to share that part of themselves?' Ari asked the silent question as she gazed around the room as the memories of her time with Alti replayed through her thoughts…

"You are a filthy, repulsive little girl," Alti hissed close to her ear.

Ari didn't know why she did it, nor could she explain to her mother her actions. All she knew was that while Alti slept, Ari had a dream that she could not remember once she awoke. But when she woke up, she felt a need within her. Like a smoldering fire, it grew until she could not control her urges. While her mother slept under the furs next to her, the girl had reached under the covers and began to slowly touch herself. With eyes closed, she explored her nether region, her fingers stroking and rubbing, each touch bringing her closer and closer toward the exquisite release. But before she could climax, the scream of her mother yanked her attention away.

"You nasty,pervertedlittle girl, no wonder Xena threw you away!" the sorceress had screamed as she pulled Ari from under the covers. With hateful words and curses, the bigger woman dragged the child across the cave to where the magical implements were stored. Suddenly realizing Alti's intent, Ari began to shake her head.

"No, mother, please, I-I'm sorry! I won't do it again, I swear, I won't!" she begged even as Alti sat her in front of a magical crystal. In the few years that she had been with Alti, she had never experienced this severe punishment, yet the sorceress had alwayskept the threat of it looming over her head.

"Of course you won't, because you'll know better next time!" Alti screamed as she grabbed Ari's smaller hand. "Is this the hand, little girl? Is it?" she yelled as she yanked Ari's hand over the crystal.

"See what happens to nasty, repulsive little girls," the evil woman hissed.

Ari watched in horror as a thin flame shot up from the crystal. The orange, red, and white colors danced like a living fire. With a shake of her head, Ari closed her eyes as her right hand was held over the burning light. Her scream of pain echoed through the cave. When she opened her eyes, she saw her hand burning, the skin bubbling as it peeled away, melted into a glob of liquid flesh as the meat of her hand became charred. The pain was more excruciating than she could imagine and when it was over, the little girl felt the sweat on her body as her tears fell unheeded down her cheeks.

"This will teach you, little girl. Only I can give you release! This will be your lesson that you will never touch yourself like that again! It's nasty, you're nasty, you disgusting little girl!" Alti hissed as she released Ari's hand.

Fighting back her tears, Ari hardly dared look at her maimed hand. She blinked in surprise as she inspected it, expecting to find nothing left, but was surprised to see that it was unscathed. There wasn't a single mark on her hand. There would not be any burn marks to remind her of this lesson, yet it was a lesson that was permanently branded within Ari memories…

"You repulsive, perverted freak," Ari whispered softly the words that her sister had called her as she stared at the farthest wall, tears falling silently down her cheeks. At the sound of voices outside, she quickly wiped away the tears as she glanced at the door. When her mothers walked in, she gazed at them blankly as she watched them move around the room. They wore white robes and her warrior mothers hair was wrapped like a turban in a towel while the bard let her short, damp hair hang loose. As if confused, Gabrielle looked at her night shift on the mirror, then turned to Ari.

"Uh, is that my night shift?" she asked.

"Ahuh," Ari lowered her eyes, afraid that she would get into trouble.

"Well, um, why is my shift covering the mirror?" Gabrielle's brows were furrowed in thought.

"Because m-my shirt wouldn't c-cover it," the dark child felt her heart beating faster, afraid that she had made another mistake.
~~~~~~
"Well, there you go!" Xena chuckled as she tossed her dirty underclothes on the floor andthen neatly laid her leather and armor on a nearby chair.

"Of course, silly me, and here I thought there wouldn't be a logical explanation as to why my clean shift is hanging over the mirror!" Laughter escaped thebard's control as she shook her head and threw her dirty clothes on her lover's pile. When she turned to Ari, she noticed her daughter's pale expression, the look of dread etched her features. With a smile, Gabrielle moved to sit on the edge of the bed next to her daughter.

"Now then, would you care to tell me why the mirror is even covered up?" she asked as she reached out and gently brushed her fingers through the girl's dark hair. At her touch, Ari seemed to instantly relax as she glanced over at the mirror.

"I-I s-saw…" the girl's frightened eyesstared at the mirror… "There w-was a … m-monster in the mirror."

For a moment, Gabrielle felt an instant fear creep through her soul as she turned to her lover, then looked at the covered mirror. Frowning at their daughter's words, Xena moved in front of them and knelt down on a knee. Her voice was low, yet firm as she spoke to their child.

"Ari honey, what exactly did you see?" Xena asked tensely as she touched the girl's shoulder. At Ari's silence, the warrior forced herself to smile reassuringly as she brushed the back of her hand over the girl's cheek. "Do you think … did it look like … Alti? Could it have been one of her spirit creatures?"

Ari negatively shook her head as she stared with wide-eyed fear at the mirror.

"Sweetheart, can you describe what you saw?" Gabrielle spoke up as she held the girl's hand in hers. For a moment, it seemed as if Ari would not speak. But finally she spoke in a low voice, her eyes glancing between the two women, then darting back to the covered mirror. Through stutters and stammers, their daughter described an image that sounded vaguely familiar, at least in clothes. When she saw Xena release a sigh of relief, the bard frowned when she realized whom it was her daughter had seen. After the girl was finished describing her own reflection, the bard caught her lover's look as an unspoken thought crossed their minds.

"Ari, it's all right, don't be afraid. If you feel better, you can leave the mirror covered. Someday you'll be able to look in the mirror and not see that monster," Xena assured as she gazed into the girl's eyes. "Now, are you planning on taking a bath?" the warrior smiled.

With only a nod, Ari rose and quietly left the room. Once alone, the two women moved silently to their bed. Gabrielle removed her robe and dropped it to the floor. As she worried over Ari's words, the bard climbed under the bed covers.

"Xena, why does she see herself like that? Can't she see her real reflection?" the bard asked as she moved to snuggle into her lover's embrace.

"Her guilt won't allow her to see anything else, Gabrielle. Remember when you dreamed over and over about killing Meridian that first few months?"

The bard paled a bit and nodded. "I thought about her constantly," she whispered. "I felt like a murderer and seemed to see her dying face everywhere."

Xena swallowed. "Even though Meridian deserved death, it still preyed on your mind, didn't it?" the warrior's words were soft as she pulled the covers over them. "Like me, with all the things that Ari did to innocent people, it's going to take time before she's finally able to face herself and not see that … monster."

The bard stared at her. "Poor baby," was all she could whisper.

The warrior gazed at her soul mate through tear blurred eyes. "Do you mean her … or
m-me?" she asked and her voice broke.

Gabrielle's eyes were wet too. "All of us…" she murmured as she held her lover close. "You, me, Ari and Eve. We've all done things we will regret until the day we die. Our penance is to live for those who no longer can and to try to do the good that they cannot."

"Oh, Gabrielle…" Xena choked. "I love you."

"I love you too," the bard whispered against her side. They said no more, but silently clung to each other for a long time while the cheerful muffled noise from the tavern below filtered up through the floor. Finally, they closed their eyes to sleep.
~~~~~~
Once Ari found the room that held the large vats of water, she stripped off her clothes and climbed into clean, steaming water. As she felt the warm steam rising around her, she leaned back in the tub as her mind contemplated the day's events. When she failed to find any solutions to resolve her mistake with Eve, she closed her eyes and lowered her head under the water for some moments, then resurfaced, with wet hair.

At a noise by the door, she glanced up in time to see Virgil's surprised expression. With mouth hanging open, he held an empty bucket as he stared at her as if frozen in place. When she saw the instant bulge in his pants, she smiled as she leaned back against the tub and watched him with half-slit eyes.

"Ummm … sorry. I-I didn't know anyone was still in here," he gulped as he averted his eyes quickly. After a moment of silence, he turned and made a quick escape from the room.

At his hasty retreat, Ari smiled as she sat up in the tub and drew her knees to her chest. She watched the door close quickly behind his retreating form. With a curious arch of a brow, she sighed as she lowered her gaze in thought.

A part of Ari wished she could share the ecstasy and closeness with him again, if for no other reason than to have the distraction take her mind away from her sister's anger. But knowing how her mother felt, there was little that the dark child could do except to think about her own misconduct. With a sigh, she rested the side of her face against her palm as she stared at the rippling water in the vat.

Eve was mad at her. Xena was disappointed. Gabrielle … well, she wasn't altogether certain she could tell how the bard felt. Although the smaller woman had stood by her when Eve thought she read her scroll, before that, when Eve had ran back to camp to tell them what she did, Ari could sense a coolness from her bard mother. Once Xena and Gabrielle determined that her prophet sister had not permanently harmed her, they all packed in silence, then resumed their travels.

With an audible sigh, she leaned back into the steaming water. As she thought back to that fateful event, she now realized the telltale signs that had been her weakness. While Eve was pinned below her, she had felt the smaller body wiggling beneath her. The constant movements of the prophet's hips rubbing between Ari's legs caused a heightened sense of awareness. With each writhing, the dark child felt a wetness seeping from her body and before she knew it, her desires had taken control of her.

Ari closed her eyes and shook her head. The memories of the morning returned her to images of her past. She remembered the mornings when she would awaken to Alti's needs. The slight touch from the older sorceress was so skillful that it brought whimpers of pleasure from the girl. Yet even as she remembered how Alti made her feel, Ari felt a deep and unbidden shame for her own desires. If her mothers asked her why she hadtried to force herself upon Eve, she would have not dared to answer. The dark child knew that if they ever heard the truth, they would turn away from her and her disgusting ways.

With a slight gasp, Ari sat up in the tub. The realization that she desired the touch of her foster mother, that she longed to have the evil sorceress possess her completely, as she had done when Ari was only a child, bored like a worm into the depths of her soul. A part of her had wished that Eli's prophet was the one who could, and would, possess her, just as Alti had. Realizing her own nasty desires, Ari closed her eyes tightly as she held her fist against her lips in an attempt to stifle her cry as numbness crept into her soul.
~~~~~~
Gabrielle thought she heard a soft, familiar dream voice beckoning her awake. Ignoring the dream, she dived deeper into sleep until suddenly she felt almost as if she had been shaken awake by a cool hand. When she glanced around, she noticed Xena's peaceful features as she slept on the pillow near her. Sitting up in bed, the puzzled and sleepy bard glanced around the room but saw nothing. Yawning, she noticed that the candle had barely passed a mark since she had crawled into the bed with her lover. In the corner, her daughter's bed lay empty. Suddenly filled with concern, she rose slowly from the warm bed, donned her robe, and made her way from the room.

The sound of music and voices drifted down the hall from the main hall of Meg's tavern. As the bard made her way toward the bathing rooms, she felt a slight shiver cross her spine as she remembered the last time she had walked these halls. The memories of the demons and ghosts that had tried to trap them, and ensnare her youngest child for Mephistopheles remained in her mind. But the demon king was long dead and his minions had retreated when the hell gate was closed. Shaking away the memories of the ghosts, she moved to the door and slowly opened it.

Ari sat with head bent, her arm resting on the side of the bath as she stared into the water. When the bard entered the room and closed the door behind her, the girl suddenly looked up, surprised that someone had entered the room. Once she saw that it was Gabrielle, a slight smile crossed her lips as she sat back in the water.

"I was beginning to worry about you," Gabrielle smiled as she lightly touched the mildly warm bath water. When she felt how cool the water was becoming, she picked up a nearby hand brush, dipped it in the water, and then took the soap and worked up some suds as she knelt down by the tub. At her movement, Ari instinctively leaned forward as the bard began to scrub her back.

"Lost track of time, honey?" She asked as the girl took the soap and began to soap up her hair, then cleanse the front part of her body. With only a nod, Ari kept her eyes averted as she quickly washed herself.

"Well, that's understandable, considering how nice it is to just soak in the steam," the bard smiled as one by one, she took her daughter's arms and ran the soapy brush over them.

"I'm glad I woke up when I did, otherwise you might be sitting in cold water right now!" Gabrielle exclaimed with a slight chuckle. In silence, Ari only shrugged as she kept her eyes lowered. Although there were a multitude of questions that the bard wanted to ask her daughter, she refrained, holding her inquisitiveness at bay in the hope that she would get the answers in time.

When they had finished, Gabrielle rose and grabbed a nearby towel. As she held it open, she smiled as the lithe girl stepped from the tub. Ever since Ari had broken through her silence, Gabrielle had begun to notice her daughter's decreasing weight. She knew that Ari was losing muscle mass from her lack of vigorous exercise and training and she couldn't help but worry when she saw her daughter's thin, angular body.

In silence, the bard helped her daughter dry, all the while noting the girl's protruding bones. With a sad sigh, she lowered her eyes to mask her fears. When Ari was dry, the blonde took a clean robe from a nearby hook and helped her daughter into it. As they made their way back to their room, Gabrielle kept her arm loosely over the girl's shoulder.

Once alone, Gabrielle turned her attention to the girl. She helped her from her robe and damp towel, then tucked her under the clean sheets. With a smile, she sat on the edge of her daughter's bed and took Ari's thin hand in her own. When she gazed at the girl, she noticed the immense sadness within her eyes. Ever since yesterday's incident with Eve, she could feel Ari's silent torment. Although the healer longed to help her child, a part of her didn't know how. As if sensing her thoughts, Ari lowered her eyes as she squeezed Gabrielle's hand.

"I-I am so s-sorry, mother," Ari's voice was barely a whisper.

"Why are you sorry, honey?" she asked, hoping to learn why it was that her daughter had tried to rape her sister. As if afraid that Xena would hear, the girl looked to where the warrior slept, then turned to Gabrielle's soft green gaze. With a slight smile, the bard leaned down, her lips scant inches away from Ari's ear. "It's ok, honey, your mother is asleep, but whisper if you feel better," she encouraged.

"I-I am a r-repulsive, perverted f-freak," the girl whispered ever so softly. At her declaration, Gabrielle pulled away and looked down at the girl with concern.

"Oh, Ari, why do you say this?" she asked with a sad frown. The girl only shrugged her shoulders as she turned away, a blush crossed her cheeks.

"I-I am…" the dark child whispered, then looked up at the bard, a slight frown crossed her lips as her eyes grew moist. With a wiggle of her finger, she beckoned Gabrielle to lean forward again until her ear was close to Ari's lips. "Because … I-I'm a…" her voice took on a coarse inflection, "…a n-nasty little girl!" The tone of her voice was suddenly familiar to the stunned bard, yet so unlike her daughter's own, that her whispered words took Gabrielle by surprise.

Shivering, the bard realized sickly where she had heard that voice before. It was the sorceress, Alti and with that discovery, came a memory that Gabrielle had thought was long gone. It was a memory of a time that she had tried, unsuccessfully, to bury deep in the recesses of her mind…

Gabrielle was back beneath the merciless sun of Indus. It was blazing down as she was being held kicking in the air by her long hair and the ripping pain in her head was almost more than she could bear. A callused hand was clamped under her chin and a pair of black ringed, hideous eyes stared inches away from her own as the hoarse voice said, "Hahhh. You're the friend! Do you know who I am, little girl? Did Xena tell you about my powers? Did she tell you she's going to get you killed?"

All the bard could do was to wail in agony and from somewhere nearby she heard Xena's helpless shriek, "You bitchhhhhhh!"

"Give me that pain," the sorceress snarled. "Give it to me!" Then Gabrielle was on her back on the cross in the cold snow and the hammer was coming down to drive the iron spikes into her hands and she screamed and screamed as the indescribable torment went on and on and Alti laughed…

Gabrielle shook herself loose from the horrid memories and took a deep breath. When she spoke, her voice was gentle. "No, Ari, you aren't, I promise. You are not at all a nasty little girl. You simply didn't know, honey. That type of a relationship is…" she pondered what to say for a moment before continuing. "Well, touching in that way is not supposed to happen between family members. You didn't know, and I'm sure that Eve will understand that it was only a mistake. It may take her some time, but I'm sure she will eventually forgive you for it…" When she saw the child's brow turning into a crease, the bard realized that Ari had not finished.

"What honey?" she asked softly. Then at the girl's indication, she leaned down close to listen to Ari's whispered words.

"I-I…" Ari tried to voice her words, but failed and only lowered her eyes in shame.

Gabrielle hesitated, then said, "Honey, does this have something to do with what happened with you and Eve?"

A red blush fell over the girl's face as she looked away. With a forlorn sigh, Ari closed her eyes. Then, with a shake of her head, she half smiled.

"I-I am such a f-fool to think that … anyone w-would ever want me … l-like that!" the girl whispered, not looking at her.

At her daughter's words, Gabrielle's eyes widened for a moment as understanding finally crashed in on her. 'By the gods! All this time we've been thinking of her as just a child … suppose she's not?' While the bard was so worried about the sexual abuse that Ari had suffered, she had never once thought of her daughter as desiringintimate contact. Both she and Xena thought that the occasional hugs that Ari was just now getting used to receiving seemed to be the only thing she needed. But now that Gabrielle understood Ari's hushed words, she was faced with the fact that Ari desired actual physical release yet felt as if she were unworthy of ever finding anyone to love her.

With this new information, the bard lowered her eyes in thought. All this time she had been fighting with her own guilt over the past misunderstanding. She was filled with remorse that her daughter would have misunderstood her directions of being nice to Virgil as meaning to have sex with him. But now that she heard Ari's desires confessed, the bard wondered if Virgil's actions were not completely welcome to Ari. If she had these feelings for Eve, why wouldn't they be there for Virgil?

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and watched as Xena's chest rose slowly under the sheets, her eyes closed as she breathed softly. Assured that her lover was asleep, the bard turned back to Ari. She smiled as she took the girl's hand in hers.

"Honey, that's not true at all. Someday, you'll find someone who will want to share all of the feelings and desires that you have inside of you," the bard spoke gently as she reached out and lightly brushed her hand across Ari's cheek.

"N-No I won't, mother. H-How could I? I am … nasty and not w-worthy of a-anyone," the dark child closed her eyes as if to turn away from an ugly sight.

"No Ari, that's not true, and do you want to know how I know this?" she asked, and smiled when the girl opened her eyes and peered up at her through dark, thick lashes.

"I'm confident that someday you will find the person who you're meant to be with. You see, Ari, everyone on this earth has someone waiting for them because once, a long, long time ago, all people had four legs and two heads. And after the gods threw down thunderbolts, and split everyone into two, each half then had two legs and one head. But the separation left both sideswith a desperate yearning to be reunited because they each shared the same soul. And ever since then, all people spend their lives searching for the other half of their soul. So you see, there is someone waiting for you and when you find your other half, you'll never feel alone again," the bard smiled at the girl's wide eyes. With a gentle touch, she reached out and lightly brushed her fingers through Ari's hair.

"Honey, the one thing to remember is that your soul mate will not be your sister. What you tried to do with your sister, that cannot happen between such close blood ties but I think I know why you did it, why you might have misunderstood Eve's intentions," at her words, Ari's gaze lowered in shame. With a tender smile, the bard placed her fingers under Ari's chin and forced the girl to look at her.

"Ari honey, what you're feeling now, the longings that your body is having to share with another, are perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of. And there is nothing wrong with wanting that type of physical release. It's ok how you feel, it's normal," the bard made certain to whisper softly so as not to embarrass Ari.

"The thing that you need to remember is that you don't have to share these feelings with just anybody. Remember what your mother and I talked about?" she asked. When Ari nodded, she smiled as she held her hand. "Good, because if you want, you can wait until the right person comes into your life, until you find your other half. But in the meantime, you can find … umm … other ways to relieve some of your needs," she explained as she felt a heat cross her cheeks.
~~~~~~
After getting over her embarrassment, Ari listened to her mother's words with great interest. When she saw the bard's cheeks turn a bright crimson shade, she arched a brow in fascination. As the woman continued to hold her hand, the bard kept her eyes averted as a wrysmile crossed her features.

"Believe me, honey, before I got together with your mother, before Xena and I discovered we were soul mates and became lovers, I was not above getting to know … myself," the bard chuckled softly as she absently shook her head.

"Y-You did?" Ari's brows shot up as her eyes grew wide with surprise.

"Of course, honey. It's perfectly natural. And what else could I do? There were times when I was so frustrated it was all I could do to chase your mother out of camp so that I could … umm … take care of my own needs. I don't see how you would be any different, and it most certainly does not make either of us nasty," the bard's smile caused the lines in her face to crinkle. "As soon as our home is ready, and you have your own room, you'll have the privacy to … umm … take matters into your own hands, so to speak. Do you understand?"

At her words, Ari had a vivid image of Alti's wrath. She could almost feel her hand searing from the flames. As if sensing her fears, the bard lightly touched Ari's face as she called her attention back to reality.

"Honey, did something happen to you? I mean … did Alti tell you that it was bad to touch yourself? Did she call you 'nasty' because of it?" her bard mother asked.

Ari closed her eyes for a moment as the flood of memories spilled before her vision. With a strangled sigh, the dark child rolled over onto her side. She pulled her hand from the blonde's as she instinctively curled into the fetal position. With a grimace, Ari gazed at her right hand.

"S-She … c-caught me…" Ari whispered, then closed her eyes as she bunched her fingers into a fist. "S-She yelled … and … put m-my h-hand over the m-magic flame. I-It hurt so badly, m-mother." As Ari allowed her tears to fall because of the remembered pain, her mother leaned forward and wrapped her arms around the girl's shaking shoulders.

"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry, so very, very sorry," she heard her mother say as her silent tears racked through her body. When control returned, Ari wiped the tears from her eyes, then looked at her mother.

"Mother, I-I'm so s-sorry, honest I am. I-I don't know why I h-hurt Eve," she whispered. "I j-just wanted … needed…" Ari's voice trailed off in frustration.

"I know, sweetheart. And I bet a part of Eve knows this too. Please, Ari. Be patient, it might take Eve a while to get over what happened. But in time, I think she'll understand. You didn't intend to hurt her, did you?" Gabrielle asked, and Ari shook her head no. "I didn't think so, and I know you understand now, a physical relationship of that type should never happen between family, and most certainly not between siblings - sisters or brothers. You do understand, don't you?" Ari nodded a vigorous affirmation as the bard was wiping the tears from her cheek. "And you'll never try to hurt Eve, or anyone else like that again, will you?"

"N-No, never mother." She answered in as strong a voice as she could muster.

"Good honey, I know you won't. So why don't we just give Eve some space, let her work through this. When she's ready, you'll know," her healer mother's voice was soft and soothing, and it lulled Ari into calmness.

As if sensing the change, the blonde smiled. "Would you like a story to fall asleep to?" she asked and Ari smiled at the prospect of hearing her mother's melodic voice.

"All right, how about a tale of a Cyclops?" her bard mother asked, then began to tell the story of a young, naïve village girl who ventured after a warrior and came across a Cyclops instead. As the soft voice spun images in her mind, Ari felt her eyes slowly closing until she could not open them anymore. Rather than fight it, she allowed herself to watch the conversation between the young blonde and the Cyclops, her lips curving into a smile at the mental image of the small girl talking the hungry beast out of dining on her.
~~~~~~
Ari waited patiently by the horses as her mothers went into the mercantile. After her talk with her mother the night before, the dark child found herself thinking over many things. She began to wonder why Alti would have punished her for something that her mother said was normal. The painful punishment had been enough to teach Ari the lesson that she was never allowed to touch herself, yet now, after her mother's explanations, the feelings she had, the longing for Alti's touch, made more sense to her. Despite Gabrielle's talk, she still found a part of herself feeling guilty for her own desires. She wondered what her bard mother would have said if she had confessed her true shame and wondered if her mother would still feel the same way. 'Would mamma Gabrielle still feel that I was worthy of some day finding my soul mate if she knew of my dark secrets?' Ari thought, cringing within.

The concept of a soul mate itself was something hard for Ari to fathom. For Ari, she had always known what it felt like to be lonely. Ever since Alti had taken her, there was never a time when she felt completely whole. Yet if the truth was told, she had to admit that she really couldn't remember very much before Alti. What little images or snatches of feelings were just that, fleeting at best. All of her life, Ari always thought that she was lonely because her birth mother, Xena, was not with her. But now that Xena was always near, the tall girl had to face the fact that the feelings of loneliness and despair were still a part of her soul and she wondered if the bard was correct. Perhaps after finding her soul mate, these feelings would be gone from her.

Even as she thought this, a depression fell over her. After all that she had done, her crimes and nasty, dirty thoughts and longing for Alti's touch, she doubted that whatever gods might still be around, would deem her worthy of finding her soul mate. At this thought, she frowned as a sigh escaped her. The longings, the emptiness within her, would always remain and there wasn't anything she could do about it, she reasoned as she leaned her head against Thanatos. As if feeling her sorrow, her horse butted his head against her shoulder. With a slight smile, she looked up at him.

"You'll always be with me, won't you?" she whispered for his ears alone. With a slight neighing sound, he rocked his head to and fro as she began to scratch his neck.

As she wondered about her sorceress mother's actions and why the sorceress had punished her for longings which the bard had said were normal, she scratched Than's dark muzzle. When she glanced up at Eve, she caught her sister frowning at her. Like an examiner seeking out an answer, the young woman's eyes seemed to bore a hole through Ari's soul. At the intense gaze, the dark child looked away as the guilt weighed heavy upon her. With a slight frown, Ari moved from Than toward her sister. Eve glanced down at her for a moment, then dismounted Babu and purposefully walked away, leaving Ari alone by the animals. With a sigh, the girl lightly patted the mule's rump as she watched her sister walking briskly down the village street.

Eve was still angry, and although Ari tried to approach her several times to apologize again, Eli's prophet would have nothing to do with her. Even as the strain was weighing on Ari's heart, she knew that it was harder for her mothers. The mere fact that Xena had raised her voice when Ari offered to sleep in the barn showed how hard it was for the warrior.

With little else to do, the dark child moved to the wooden walkway and sat down dejectedly. With elbows on her knees, she rested her chin against her closed fingers as she stared down at the dirt. Ari found herself going over everything that had happened, from her first arrival with her family, to the latest incident with Eve. Each time she thought about it, she found herself growing more and more confused as to how she could make everything right.

From the corner of her eye, a small movement caught her attention. When she glanced up, she saw a small child sitting near one of the village store walls. By his side, he had a box that he occasionally reached into. Curious, Ari rose from her place and walked across the short distance of the dirt street. As she stepped up on the wooden walkway, the boy noticed her and smiled. Only when she was close was she able to look into the box.

Inside were numerous fur creatures each small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. Their constant meowing and scrabbling over each other brought a slight smile to Ari. As she watched them, a furry white and orange cat rose from the pile of fur. At the sight of him, she reached into the box and picked the creature up.

"You'll like that one, he's going to be a good mouser," the boy said eagerly as he stood up.

Ari stared at the struggling fur ball. For a moment, she was reminded of one that was similar in markings. As she stared into the tiny orange and green eyes, she found herself remembering the one she had long ago…

"He's yours Ari. You take care of him, feed him, and clean up after him. Do you understand?" Her sorceress mother had stated as she handed the little girl the bundle of fur.

At the time, Ari didn't know what she had done to deserve such a wonderful reward. All she knew was that her mother had disappeared again, and was gone for a long time. When she returned, instead of having a man in tow, she had a small bundle hidden in her fur coat. As the baby kitten crawled along Ari's arm, she couldn't help but giggle as she played with her new pet.

"You remember, little girl, he's your responsibility. Do you understand?" Alti asked.

"Ahuh," was all the girl could say as she moved with the baby kitten to the corner of the cave. The child did not know why her sorceress mother had given her the gift. Nor did she notice the evil grin that Alti had as she watched the little girl growing attached to the animal. In time, as the days went by, Ari would soon learn the awful truth of her mother's intentions…

As Ari remembered that time from long ago, a slight frown crossed her features when she remembered the fate of her first pet. When she held the furry creature in her palm, she stroked its soft fur and marveled at how it felt so much like her first pet. With only a sigh, she put the kitten on her shoulder.

"So, do you want a good mouser? Are ya gonna take it?" the boy eagerly asked her.

At his words, Ari gave it a moment of thought, then looked down at the boy. "Yes."

When she turned to walk away, the boy stepped toward her. "Hey! Wait a minute," he called. Turning to him, she saw his confused expression and wondered what he could want. Then she realized what it must be and chided herself for being so forgetful. But at least she had remembered before being too rude. Politely she nodded to him.

"Thank you," she repeated the words that her bard mother had taught, then turned and walked back to their waiting horses.
~~~~~~
Xena emerged from the mercantile with bags of food staples. As she strapped them to the back of Argo, she glanced around and saw her oldest walking across the street. With a curious expression, the warrior moved to her daughter, then glanced at the creature that was crawling on the girl's shoulder.

"Ari, what have you got there?" she asked as the girl took the kitten from her shoulder and held it up.

"A p-pet," Ari stammered, then nodded over her shoulder, "The boy s-said he would be a g-good mouser."

Looking across the street, Xena saw a boy running inside the other general store.

"Um, Ari honey, did you just takethe cat?"

"Y-Yes," the girl had an instant look of dread, as if she knew that she had done something wrong. "I-I said 'thank you,'" she offered defensively.

"Did you?" Inwardly Xena felt a laugh building, but tromped it down firmly. "Honey, that boy was selling these kittens. Did he tell you a price?" the warrior asked as she took the kitten and looked at it. Its furry little face scrunched up as it prepared to meow, then released the smallest, high pitched sound that she had ever heard.

"N-No … he s-said, it was g-going to be a good mouser," the dark child offered in puzzlement. "I r-really did thank him," she repeated.

Her warrior mother coughed slightly and looked away for a moment. "That's good, but Ari, whenever people have things out like that, they are trying to sell them," she explained just as the boy was pulling a man from the other general store and pointing at them. The man looked their way, rolled up his sleeves, then walked directly toward them with the boy following close behind.

"S-Sell them…?" Ari looked confused. "B-But he said…"

"Hey, my boy tells me that she's tryin' to steal his property!" the man's voice was deep with challenge. When Xena turned to him, her expression devoid of emotions, his tone and mannerism changed rapidly. "Well, umm, what I mean, my boy here, he's sellin' them kittens and she didn't pay for that one."

Though she was tickled by the situation, the warrior princess made sure to keep her expression neutral as she handed the crawling fur ball to her daughter. "There is no real harm here, just a simple misunderstanding and my daughter didn't mean anything by it," Xena's voice was controlled as she turned to face the man.

"How much are you asking?" the tall woman asked as she crossed her arms in front of her and gazed down at the man with narrowed eyes. At her stance, the man visibly gulped, then glanced down at the boy.

"Four drachms," the man stated after clearing his throat.

Inwardly, Xena gasped at the price, knowing that they didn't have that much left after purchasing their supplies. Outwardly, she maintained a stoic appearance. Just when she was ready to try her hand at bartering, a familiar voice called out to her.

"What's going for four drachms?" the bard asked as she threw the yardage of fabric over her horse's saddle. At her question, Ari held up the meowing kitten for the bard's inspection.

"What! Four drachms for that?" the bard's expression was filled with disbelief.

At the familiar sound of one of her lover's haggling ploys, Xena hid her smile behind her hand as she looked down at the tip of her boots, then back to her lover with her face held in a stony glare. "This boy here is selling it for four drachms, his father says."

Gabrielle glanced at the kitten again, then back at the man before looking up at Xena. "Umm … family conference, you don't mind, do you?" The bard did not wait for him to respond as she nodded toward an open area away from the man and boy. When they were by themselves, the bard flipped the cat onto its back, her fingers thumbing through the thick fur, and peered between its wiggling legs. Curious, Xena leaned toward her and looked for the confirmation of the animal's gender. Assisting the bard, Xena reached down and separated the cat's fur until they found what they were searching for.

"Good, a boy. At least we won't have to worry about having litter after litter of little ones around," Gabrielle nodded as she looked up at Ari.

"Ari, do you really want this kitten?" The bard kept her voice low as she inspected the animal. Xena noticed that her lover was managing to keep her smile under control with supreme effort.

"I-I…" Ari looked at the cat, her brows furrowed as if trying to discover how the bard wanted her to answer. When it seemed like she was having difficulties, the bard looked at the kitten once more.

"Honey, do you know how to take care of an animal like this?" Gabrielle asked.

"Ari, you do realize that it's a great responsibility to have a pet," Xena asked. "It's the same as having a horse like Than. They need care and love."

"Y-Yes … I used to have one along time a-ago," the girl stated as she looked down as if ashamed of her confession.

"What happened to it? Did you have it for a very long time?" the bard asked, as if attempting to gauge Ari's readiness to be responsible for another living creature.

"A-Alti … she … she m-made me…" Ari looked away, her face visibly frowning as if an image was replaying in her mind. "S-She told m-me I had to … t-to sacrifice its blood," the girl whispered so softly as she looked with longing at the furry kitten that was meowing in the bard's hands. "I-I won't have to do it w-with this one, w-will I?" A panic filled the girl's voice as she looked to Xena, then to the bard.

"Oh, no, honey! No, sweetheart! You won't have to do that with this one," the bard jumped in, her hand reaching up to softly stroke Ari's cheek and looked at the suddenly white-faced warrior.

Xena struggled to keep her rage at the sorceress out of her voice."Of course not, Ari. Honey, we'd never ask that from you. If you have a pet, you'll have to care for it for a very, very long time. Are you ready for that?" At the girl's affirmative nod, Gabrielle smiled.

"All right, you both leave this to me," she reassuringly patted Ari's arm, then turned and walked toward the man with deliberate slowness.

When Ari glanced up at her, Xena only smiled and winked at her daughter. "Don't worry, this is one of the many things that your mother does well."

"You really think your gonna sell this mange of fur for four drachms!" The bard released a snort as she held the fur ball up by the scruff of the neck.

"He's going to be a good mouser!" the boy offered in defense.

"Going to be and is, are two different things, why look at this little scrawny thing, I'd be surprised if the rats on the farm don't go and carry him away on us within a week!" the bard exclaimed.

"But in time he'll get bigger!" the boy stated with a slight frown.

"In time, maybe, but right now, he's only going to be another mouth to feed. A mouth that we can barely afford, and besides, how can you guarantee that he'll even live to be a good mouser, you know that most kittens don't live to be cats," Gabrielle added as she poked her finger at the paws that reached out to claw gently at her.

"Well, now, I can attest to that, ma'am. All of my boy's kittens are from good stock, they do grow up to be good mousers," the man answered confidently.

"But still, four drachms is four too much to ask!" the bard shook her head as she tsked, then looked at the kitten again. "I'll tell you what, I'll give you three obols for the fur ball."

At her offer, the boy looked up at his father with wide eyes. With a visible frown, the man shook his head.

"No, we'll go down to three drachms, but that's it."

"Hah! I would be a fool to waste that kind of money on something that's going to be more trouble than it's worth. Especially a runt like this! Four obols, and that's generous if you ask me," the bard snorted.

"No, no, out of the question. Why, the kitten's mother is a champion mouser; brings home two or three a day! We'll let it go for two drachms, and not an obol less!"

"Well then, I'm sorry, because the most I'd even go for a mange like this is four obols," the bard tsked.

"One drachm!" the father's expression grew grim.

"One drachm and you throw in two weeks supply of feed for the horses," Gabrielle gazed at the man intently.

"Sold! One drachm and two weeks supply of … of…" the man's eyes grew wide when he realized the bargain he had just made. "Hey now, wait a minute!"

"If we're going to have to feed this extra mouth for a few moons, we'll need to have horse fodderin order to go out and hunt, now won't we?" Gabrielle asked with a serious expression.

The man glanced from the bard, then to the kitten and the horses before conceding defeat. "The kitten and two weeks supply of feed for your horses for one drachm," he stated as the bard turned and handed the kitten to Ari, then began to open her coin purse to rummage for the payment.

"Good, it was a pleasure doing business with you. And when can we expect the feed to be delivered?" the bard asked in her sweetest voice as she smiled at the man. As if soothed by her smile, the man turned a shade of red, then handed the coin to his son.

"I'll have my man deliver it today, and what farm can it be taken to?" he asked as he released a sigh.

"My family farm," Xena stepped forward, the stern expression returned to her face. As if seeing her for the first time, the man gulped and nodded.

"It will be there, Xena, before sunset, I give you my word," he answered, then patted the back of his son's head. "Come along boy, best make sure your other stock didn't get away."

As they watched the father and son scurry across the dirt street, Xena looked back down at her lover.

"Very nice bartering, honey," she smiled, as she remembered that they were trying to find a way to afford enough feed to hold them over until the delivery from Lila's farm arrived.

"Thank you. It's nice to know that I haven't lost my touch," the bard smiled.
~~~~~~
Ari only heard part of her parents' words. She took the cat and allowed Thanatos to smell it. With only a slight snort, the stallion looked away from the crawling creature as if disinterested. She took the kitten and placed him on the horse's mane. The kitten almost lost its balance, but managed to dig its tiny nails into Than's hide as it released a meowing protest. With a slight neigh, Than glanced over his shoulder as his tail swooshed as if attempting to swat away a fly. Ari smiled minutely as she mounted her horse, then picked up the kitten and allowed it to crawl up her arm and rest on her shoulder.

"Are we ready?" Eve asked when she saw her family mounting their horses. At their nods, she climbed into Babu's saddle. When she saw Ari, she glanced at the kitten. A smile broke out on her face as she leaned toward her to get a better look. "Aw…" she began to say before she glanced up at Ari. Then as if remembering that she was angry with her sister, Eve compressed her lips to a thin line and turned away. With only a frown, Ari reined her horse around and began to follow her parents down the road.

While one part of her thoughts was on her sister, the other part was on the kitten. She rode in silence, not exactly knowing how to make it up to Eve. Each time the kitten lost its balance, she'd pick it up, and replace it on her shoulder. Finally, after this happened a few times, she took the fur ball and tucked it into her tunic. At first, the kitten tried to struggle, but after a moment it grew still. When she glanced into her tunic, she noticed it had curledinto a ball, its eyes partly open as it purred and its paws kneaded the cloth of her tunic. As she gazed at the small creature, she smiled because she knew that this kitten would be hers and hers alone, and if her parents promise held true, she would never have to sacrifice it, as she had done to the one she had years ago.

As they rode from the village, Ari glanced up and noticed a woman standing alone on the side of the road. Remembering her from Meg's tavern, Ari could not help but look her way. Her eyes took in the older woman's beauty, and the way her long hair shone in the afternoon sun. With only a slight tilt of her head, the woman nodded at Ari, then smiled ever so slightly.

For a moment, Ari was taken back by the action. But as she rode past with her family, she felt a smile crossing her lips as she turned in her saddle to gaze upon her beauty. As if in a trance, Ari's lips formed a wide smile as her eyes never left the strangers form.

"Ari!" her warrior mother's voice broke the spell.

Like a child caught being naughty, she turned in her saddle, her head bent as a heat crossed her cheeks. When she dared to glance up, she noticed the stiffness in her warrior mother's back as she rode astride Argo. Beside her, Gabrielle seemed to be shaking her head as she smiled at her lover, then turned away. After only a moment, Ari turned quickly and saw the woman still standing in her place, her eyes never wavered as she watched the group leave the village. With a slight smile, the brothel owner lifted a hand and kissed her palm, then blew the imaginary kiss toward Ari. When she saw this, Ari turned away quickly, her brows furrowed as heat crossed her cheeks again.

Bemused, Ari smiled when she realized that the woman had been watching her. When she noticed Xena glancing over her shoulder, the dark child did her best to wipe the smile from her face as she returned her attention to the road. Confused and bewildered by Xena's actions, Ari rode on in silence.
~~~~~~
Gabrielle had seen the way that Ari blushed the minute that Elenh, the madam of the local house of prostitution, had looked up at the girl. But when Xena looked back and caught the exchange, she was surprised by her lover's sudden scowl. After barking at Ari, Xena mumbled under her breath as she turned back in her saddle, assured that their daughter was obeying her gruff command. When their eyes met, and the warrior saw Gabrielle's look of surprise the warrior only shook her head and goaded Argo on.

She had seen her soul mate's response to Ari's interest in Elenh, yet hadn't had a chance to ask her about it. As they rode on the trail that led to the farm, Gabrielle mused over her lover's reaction. She had wondered if Xena was having a hard time seeing Ari as a young, sexual being. Although she didn't seem to have trouble teasing Eve about the prospective love in the prophet's life, the moment that Ari showed an interest in someone, the warrior princess seemed to get her hackles raised.

As they rode ahead of the girls, Gabrielle contemplated Ari's confession of the night before. Her heart broke knowing that her daughter was filled with such guilt and fear over something that was natural. With a shake of her head, the bard closed her eyes for a moment as she willed her tears of sadness for her daughter, and anger at Alti to be pulled under control. Knowing more of the facts did little to appease the blonde's feelings when it came to Ari. She had known of the sexual and physical abuse of her child, and knew that Ari would have the remnants of abuse to overcome. But when she learned of what Alti had done, how she had punished Ari for acting upon a normal human need, the bard cringed at the thought of what other mental abuse her child had to overcome.

"Are you all right?" Xena's question pulled her from her silent musings. With a sad smile, she glanced up at her lover, then back to their daughters. Eve trailed the furthest behind as the mule munched on the occasional blades of grass, then was goaded on by their youngest. At a short distance ahead of Eve, Ari rode, her attention drawn to the kitten that was inside of her tunic. Sighing, Gabrielle returned her attention back to Xena.

"Xena, when are you going to stop viewing our daughters differently?" she asked softly. At her question, Xena grimaced and looked away.

"I don't know what you mean." the warrior mumbled as her back grew stiff.

"You know perfectly well what I mean. You see our girls as being different, but they're not that much different from each other. They simply had different experiences to make them the people that they are today," the bard offered.

Xena seemed deep in thought, then she shook her head. "You don't understand Gabrielle, they aredifferent."

"How Xena? How are they different? They're both young, vital women who have strong personalities and urges … just like their mother, I might add," Gabrielle smiled up at her lover as a way of appeasing the warriors sullen mood. At her comment, Xena gave a half smile, then sighed as she tilted her head slightly.

"I know what you're saying Gabrielle, it's just … I don't know. With Eve, I see her as a young woman in the prime of her life, but Ari," the warrior shook her head. "Ari is only a child. I can't help but feel protective of her especially after all that she's had to go through…" she allowed her voice to trail off, but within herself she completed the sentence, '…because of me.'

"I know that Xena. Just try to remember that underneath that child's exterior, is a young woman trying to break free of all the constraints of her past," Gabrielle reached out and laid a gentle hand over Xena's. "Honey, Ari's our child, but at some time, we're going to have to let her experience the pleasures that life has to offer, including … sexual pleasures."

"B-But, Gabrielle, that's exactly what hurt her to begin with!" the warrior shook her head. "I don't want her to ever be hurt again. It was my fault that…" Xena stopped herself, then sighed as she shook her head. "I may not have been there to protect her but I'm here now."

"Xena, I understand that, but Ari's beginning to free herself from that past. She's slowly emerging and will one day want to move forward and experience everything life has to offer. We've got to let her make her own choices in her life," Gabrielle's voice grew softer as she tried to reason with her soul mate.

"Even if that means we don't agree with who she chooses to be with?" Xena arched a questioning brow. "Gabrielle, you saw how old that woman is, she looks twice as old as Ari! Hades, how does that make it different from what Ari had with…"

"Xena, don't even think that way! Just because she may be attracted to someone older, don't assume that Ari wants to be with someone like Alti, and especiallydon't assume that she wants the abuse, when all she may be desiring is the physical closeness," the bard kept her voice low, yet firm. "And you of all people should know that when it comes to love, age should not be an issue. Besides, at this point, I'm not sure if there is anyone you would approve of for Ari."

"That's not true Gabrielle! It's just … just…" the warrior's brow creased as she glanced down, then shook her head. "Ari is just too young to be concerned with that now, that's all."

The bard's gaze was penetrating. "Xena, you may feel that way, but it doesn't change the fact that Ari is a normal human, with normal human needs. She has natural, sexual urges of any woman her age. If you fail to understand that…" Gabrielle shook her head as she glanced over her shoulder and saw the great distance that her daughters had separated from them. For Ari, it was because she was too preoccupied with her kitten, for Eve, she was continuing the daily struggle which she always had with Babu.

"Xena, one day you're going to have to realize that your little girl is a grown up. If by then you haven't accepted that she's an adult with normal desires and feelings, you're gonna have a lesson in reality to contend with," Gabrielle spoke softly as she nodded affirmation at her own words.

Xena only frowned as she turned her attention to the road in front of them. In silence, the warrior rode with a stiff back, her lips thin as she frowned. Despite her silence, the bard knew that her lover was thinking over her words. Hopefully, Xena would understand and would try to see Ari in the same light that she viewed Eve.
~~~~~~
Xena's brows were creased in thought. Although they always shared with each other, the warrior began to wonder if there was something about Ari that the bard was not telling her. With a slight arch of a brow, she glanced back at her daughters. As if unconcerned with everything around them, Ari continued to reach inside of her tunic, her fingers playing with the hidden kitten while Eve struggled to get Babu away from the grass and back on the trail. With a slight shake of her head, she returned her attention back to the road as she thought over Gabrielle's words.

'By the gods, amI treating them differently?' She wondered as she struggled to find answers to her questions. True, she was protective of Ari to the point where she would have killed Virgil had the bard not stepped between them. In fact, she already hadkilled for Ari. Although she prided herself on being a controlled warrior, she had to admit that her rage had consumed her when she saw her daughter lying on the ground, naked from the waist down, with blood all over her bottom and legs. At that time, Xena's mind had turned to a cold numbness as she hacked down the man who had raped her child. 'Hades,' she thought sickly. 'If it hadn't been for Ari's plea, I would have also slaughtered the innocent man who had tried to help her!'

But gods'dammit! Ari isdifferent! Where Eve was raised by loving, caring foster parents who nurtured her as if she were their own, Ari had been kidnapped! She had been brutally molested and raped as a child, her mind completely altered until whatever sweetness might have been in her was pushed aside in favor of the hate monster that Alti had tried to create. And now that Ari was free, that innocent child that had been locked away for so long was finally free. Although Ari physically looked around nineteen or twenty years old and should have been forty, Xena knew in her heart, after observing her actions, that mentally the girl was still a child.

As they approached the homestead, she glanced up, her attention suddenly shifted from the musings of her daughter, to the sight of the young men cleaning up the area. The first thing that caught her attention was the new addition to the home. The higher wall on the side rose up above the roof.

"What in the…?" she heard Gabrielle's exclamation as they rode to their new home.
~~~~~~
Ari had not been paying much attention to her surroundings. Instead, she played with the kitten that was nestled in her tunic. When the kitten was not batting her hand, it suckled on the tip of her finger, or licked her hand as it meowed softly. At the sound of her mother's words, she glanced up in time to see the house. On the side was a large wall that jutted above the roof. With a tilt of her head, she wondered at the strange design as she followed her mothers examples and dismounted her horse. Just as it had happened before, a young man ran up and took the reins of their horses, then led the animals to the barn.

"Xena, I know what you're thinking, and I'm sorry, but there needed to be a change in plans," she heard Virgil say as she followed her parents into the house, then glanced up at the new portion of the home.

The room that Eve had claimed remained as it was. Next to its door was a single wooden ladder that led to a square opening in the wall. Curious, she moved to the ladder as she reached inside of her tunic and pulled out the sleeping cat. With a meowing protest, the kitten opened its eyes to small slits, then clung to Ari's tunic after she placed him on her shoulder. In quick strides, she climbed up the ladder, and then crawled through the dark opening.

Ari heard Virgil's voice from below as she stood up in the dark room. "You see, I didn't take into account the structural integrity of the roof. In order to have made the room a compete part of the house, we would have had to reinforced this part, and this, and that would have taken time. I got the impression that you wanted it by today. I'm sorry, but this was the best we could do with so little time,"

When she glanced around, she felt a strange, comforting feeling at the closeness of the walls and ceiling. Walking across the room she took the wooden board that was across one wall and removed it from its holders then pushed open the window of the room. As she inhaled the fresh air, she sat down in front of the window. With a smile, she reached out and touched the leaf that was dangling from the branch of the nearby tree. At the sound behind her, she glanced over her shoulder in time to see her warrior mother popping her head into the room, then disappear back down the ladder.

"Virgil, that's not even big enough to holda proper bed!" Xena exclaimed as the bard climbed up the ladder, then crawled through the hole. At her mother's entrance, Ari smiled up at her as she leaned against the window and patted the protesting kitty.

"It's very small, and there's hardly any light at all." Gabrielle remarked as she walked around the small space.

"I-I like it," Ari replied as she leaned back against the wall and placed the kitten in her lap.

The bard sat down beside Ari. "It's not too small for you, honey?"

"N-No," she shook her head, then looked at her mother, "Is th-this my very o-own room?"

"Is this the one you like?" Her mother gazed at her.

"Ahuh," she replied as she petted the kitten that nestled in her lap, its loud purr seeming to fill the room.

"Then I guess its yours!" Gabrielle smiled as she reached up and ran her fingers through Ari's hair, then turned to the opening and called, "Xena, Ari likes this room."

At the dead silence from below, the bard's fingers stopped for a moment. Then, when they heard Xena's low voice resume, the bard's fingers continued their tender touch.

"Oh … well, if she likes it…" they heard Xena say, then her tone grew firm. "But how in Hades are we going to get a bed in there?"

"See, we can get a bed frame on ropes, and pull it in through the window," Virgil's head popped into the room, then turned around and looked down the ladder.

"M-Mother, I don't want a f-frame, c-can I just have a mat?" Ari whispered close to her bard mother's ear.

"Virgil, can we just have a mattress and no frame?" Gabrielle called out to Virgil's disappearing form. At her question, he popped his head back in.

"No bed frame, just a-a mattress?" His mouth was agape.

"That's how they sleep in Japa, Virgil. No frame, just a mattress on the floor," Gabrielle smiled at his confusion. "It works just fine."

Virgil shook his head at such outlandish notions. "Well, if that's what you want, it'll certainly be easier." He began back down the ladder. "I'll get right on it."

"And another window! I don't want my girl having her room in the dark like that. Put another window on the opposite side of the other one," they heard Xena's instructions from the first floor.

At the warrior's tone of voice, both Ari and Gabrielle looked at each other as smiles broke free at the image of Xena, worried over her child, and fussing with Virgil to make the room perfect.
~~~~~~
Virgil had known the minute that they ran into troubles that Xena would not like the new plan. He only hoped that it would be enough to make due until he and his friends could cut enough wood needed to raise the entire roof and make a proper room for the warrior's daughter. Thankfully, Ari seemed to like it as it was, so aside from adding a new window, their work was almost finished.

After sending most of the workers home, he took his own tools, climbed back up the ladder, and began to work on adding a new window. Before he realized it, he felt the closeness of the girl beside him. He could smell her sweet scent, and feel her warmth so very close. Although he tried his best, he had a hard time wiping the memory of her softness and the beauty of her naked body from his mind. The feel of her legs wrapped around his waist, and her oh, so sweet folds that welcomed him into her, flooded his senses completely. Gulping at his own reactions to her nearness, he turned away from her for only a moment, then glanced at her and smiled. With a curious expression, she knelt beside him, watching the movements of his hands with interest. At first, he tried to ignore her. Once or twice, he smiled at her, until her presence became a greater distraction than he could handle.

"Umm, Ari … this is … a-a bit hard to focus on with an audience," he smiled as he tried to keep his voice neutral.

For a moment, Ari looked confused, then she glanced down and noticed the telltale signs of his arousal. With a slight smile, which became a wide grin, she nodded, took her kitten, and moved to the ladder. Once she was gone, he released the breath he had been holding and shook his head. He wasn't sure when, or if, her nearness would stop affecting him this way, he only hoped that it would never happen in front of Xena. 'Hades only knows, I don't need her trying to kill me again,' he mused as he turned his concentration to cutting out the second window.
~~~~~~
Eve could tell that Ari was trying to approach her. But she was not ready to confront her sister about the attack, let alone speak civilly to her. So rather than allow the girl to approach her, the prophet would turn away, or walk as far away as she could from Ari. The only thoughts that raged through her mind were those of anger at her parents for not punishing Ari, and anger at Ari for acting … well, like a child was the closest that Eve could come to describing how her sister had acted. Without thoughts or regards for others, the tall girl would simply move through life like a bull in a pottery shop, offending and hurting people and not even noticing or caring.

With a grimace of distaste, Eve turned away from the sight of her sister disappearing up into her new room. Although now she would not be forced to share a room with Ari, she still felt a bit uncomfortable with the girl sleeping right above her. As her mothers moved around the kitchen and exchanged soft words, Eve picked up her bags and took them to her new room. She glanced around the Spartan quarters, noticed the bed that could sleep two, then glanced at the old, wooden drawers that sat in the corner. When she closed the door, she examined it to see if it could lock; it couldn't. With a frown, she looked down at a chair, then moved it quietly from its place and pushed it up under the doorknob. After she tested the strength of the door, she felt confident that she would be able to bar herself into the room at night, and not have to worry about her sister trying to attack her while she slept.

'By Confucius, I would never have to do this if Chen Hu was here,' her mind grumbled as she moved to sit on the bed, arms crossed in front of her. In fact, once he knew what Ari had tried to do, Eve was certain that Chen Hu would have punished the girl and taught her a lesson.

"Xena!" the sound of her bard mother's anger caught her attention. Rising from the bed, the prophet moved to the door and placed her ear against the crack. For a moment, all she could hear was low mutterings, but as she closed her eyes and focused on the voices, she began to hear both her mothers' conversations.

"Gabrielle, Ari's alone up there with him," Xena's mutter was filled with tension.

"I don't care, Xena, don't you darego up there," the bard held a no nonsense tone in her voice.

"But, you know what he did, how he…" the warrior protested.

"Xena, how do you know that Ari didn't wantsome of it to happen with Virgil?" Gabrielle asked calmly.

"Ari wantedit?" Xena's tone was laced with disbelief and anger. "How can you even say that knowing what Alti made her do with men?"

"Hades, Xena, that's not what I'm insinuating! I'm just asking you to please think about it. Isn't it at all possible that maybe, just maybe, there is a small part of Ari that might have wantedthe physical contact with him?" the bard protested, then added in a calmer voice, "Xena, regardless if you accept it or not, Ari is a normal, sexual human being. She has needs and urges like anyone, she simply doesn't know where to channel it right now. We've already told her how we feel about it, now we've got to let her make her own decisions," the bard's tone was low and deep.

"What do you mean … Gabrielle, how can you say that?" Eve could almost imagine the look of disbelief on her warrior mother's face. "Gabrielle, from the time that she was kidnapped at the age of three summers, Ari was physically, mentally and sexually abused. How can you now say that this is what she wants?"

"Xena, there's a difference between wanting the abuse, and having sexual urges. Just because that happened to her, doesn't mean that she isn't a normal human being. The only difference is that Ari doesn't know where to go or what to do with those wants and desires. By Zeus, Xena, is it any wonder she attacked Eve?" at the bard's words, Eve felt her heart skip a beat as she closed her eyes tightly. When she finally released her breath, she pressed her ear firmly against the door.

"Gabrielle, I don't know whyshe tried that with Eve. But that should be all the more reason why we keep a close eye on Ari … to make certain she doesn't try that again, andto insure that no one takes advantage of her like … like hedid the last time!" Xena protested.

"Xena, by her own admission, she went to Virgil. As for what happened with Eve … think about it. Ari has never had a normal sexual experience. Now wait, before you say anything, just hear me out!" the bard's voice grew silent for a moment, then began again.

"Xena, the only thing that Ari has ever known is force; that might makes right! She learned from Alti that if she wants something, all she has to do is take it from someone weaker. Alti forced her to have sex from the first day of her abduction, and when they were moving over the land, Ari began to think that is what a normal sexual relationship with a woman entails … force, because that's all she's ever known. Well, now she knows that she can never do that with anyone, andshe understands that it can never happen between family members. Before I spoke to her about it, she didn't understand any of it. She didn't know that forcing herself on someone was wrong, let alone forcing herself onto her sister. Xena, remember what happened to you the first week we were on the road? Remember how Ari misunderstood your actions and thought that youwanted her sexually? Do you remember?" the bard's voice grew quiet. After a few moments, it resumed.

"Xena, that's what happened with Eve. When they were playing around, wrestling, mock fighting, whatever they called it … something happened between them. I don't know exactly what, but for Ari, it was as if … well, it was the only thing close to warmth that she had felt since Virgiland she misunderstood Eve's intentions, just like she misunderstood yours that day. For her, those feelings are only shared sexually, and if it was normal for her to be sexual with the woman she saw as her mother, do you think she would understand about the boundaries that are placed between siblings? Xena, please just listen…" the bard paused for a moment, then continued, "It's true that Ari misunderstood what I told her, but you have to admit that whatever happened between Ari and Virgil, it happened more than once. Honey, face the fact that what they shared was mutual, andit was consenting! So regardless of how we feel, it's not our place to stop whatever might happen between them," Eve heard her mother's words then the slight movement as Gabrielle moved in the kitchen. When Eve peered through the slight crack in the door, she saw the bard next to Xena, her hand resting on the warrior's shoulder.

"Sweetheart, I know how hard it is to not see Ari as anything but a child. And maybe you're right, in so many ways, she isa child, but like it or not, she's starting to become a woman - a woman with normal, sexual urges. Can't you remember what it was like for you when that happened? Can't you remember all of the longings and urges that you once had when your hormones were raging out of control? Xena … honey, please listen to what I'm saying, not just for Ari's sake, but for yours as well. We've got to trust Ari. We need her to know that we've given her our points of view, and we trust her to make her own decisions on what she does with it. It's all part of growing up," the bard's words took Eve by surprise.

Shaken, she moved to the bed as she thought over her mother's words. She sat down heavily as her mind raced through the new information. Although Eve had not realized it until now, on the morning of the attack, she had madea connection with Ari. For the first time since traveling with her sister, she felt a sense of happiness surge through her. All of her life, Eve had wanted to have siblings. She could remember always asking her parents for a little brother or sister, and although she didn't understand it at the time, as an adult, she realized that it was not possible. Her foster parents had tried to have children, but could not, which is why they were pleased to have her as their own. She was a gift from the gods, they had told her. It was not until she was older that she learned the whole truth of her birth and who her mother truly was.

With a sad sigh, Eve covered her lips. She realized the truth of her bard mother's words. The feelings of closeness, the complete happiness at finally having a sibling had swept through Eve on the morning that they were playfully wrestling. As she and Ari were there, each looking into the other's eyes, Eve had felt an intense surge of happiness and joy that she finally had a sister. She knew that an almost tangible love had shown through her eyes for her new sibling. 'And Ari misunderstood it,' she thought almost in wonder.

As her mind recalled the attack, she found her revulsion dying as she remembered the relationship that her sister had to Alti. She remembered being physically repulsed each time she had seen the evil older woman touching Ari so intimately. Each time her captor had called Alti 'mother', Eve couldn't help the sick feeling she got as a shiver of disgust crossed her senses. Then, thinking over all that her bard mother had said, she realized that an evil woman had held her older sister captive. She had been both physically and emotionally abused almost from the cradle. Knowing that whatever had happened to Ari had taken place when she was very young, allowed Eve to finally feel compassion toward her sister. Because she at last realized that from that time that Ari was first kidnapped, until she was finally free after Alti's death, her older sister had known only anguish, pain, and suffering.

"Oh, dear Eli, please forgive me," she whispered as she closed her eyes and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She moved to the door and listened for a moment. At the silence from the kitchen, Eve removed the chair from the door. When she opened the door, she glanced outside to see if her parents were still in the middle of their conversation. Gabrielle stood at the table, her head bowed as she poured all of her concentration into cutting the vegetables. Sitting at a kitchen table, Xena wore a loose, comfortable dress as she was busy fixing the leather on her armor.

With only a smile, Eve moved into the room and sat in a chair beside Gabrielle. When she reached out and took a knife, then began to cut some potatoes, she glanced up at her bard mother. As if nothing were wrong, Gabrielle smiled down at her.

"Mother," Eve began cautiously, then she looked from Gabrielle, to her warrior mother. "Umm … mothers…" she called to their attention. When Xena stopped fiddling with her armor, and Gabrielle stood silent, Eve sighed as she steeled herself to speak.

"I, uh … I just want to apologize to you both for how I've been acting. It wasn't very fair of me to take it out on you both and Eli only knows that I should learn to be more patient, especially with Ari," Eve offered in hopes that they would understand and accept her apology.

Gabrielle smiled broadly as she reached up to wipe at her moist eyes, then she reached down and lightly patted Eve's arm. "Thank you, honey," was all the bard said as she smiled and resumed her task with the vegetables.

"It helps to know, sweetheart, and I promise, it won't happen again. I won't let it," Xena gave a half smile as she reached across the table to touch her hand briefly.

"I won't either, mother. It … just happened and I know why. Now that I do know, I'll remember next time how not to act," Eve slightly chuckled as she shook her head.

As silence filled the room, Eve glanced up at the dark opening of her sister's room as she peeled the potatoes. Periodically they heard Virgil making loud noises as he was cutting the second window. But then it grew deathly silent. For a moment, Eve wondered if Virgil and her sister were making like rabbits in the second floor room, and found herself a bit envious, remembering that she did not have Chen Hu with her.

As if reading her thoughts, Xena sighed as she slammed her armor to the dinner table and looked up at the crawl space to Ari's room.

"Why is it so quiet up there?" the warrior asked, but was obviously not expecting an answer. "Maybe I should just see if Virgil needs my help…"

"Xena!" Gabrielle's voice grew stern as she pointed the tip of the cutting knife at her lover. Before anything else could be said, a commotion at the second floor bedroom caught their attention. They watched in silence as the thin girl backed out of the room, then climbed carefully down the ladder. Like a child who had been caught with her hands in the cookie jar, Ari stepped from the last wrung of the ladder, and looked at them with a blush on her face. The baby kitten that Ari had gotten from town clung desperately to her shoulder as it meowed, then moved to snuggle against her. When Eve looked up at her bard mother, the blonde winked at her, and assumed an air of innocence as she returned her attention to the vegetables. Xena, not wanting to be outdone, only frowned as she continued to fuss with her leather skirt. At her two mothers actions, Eve could only smile as she averted her eyes from her sister and returned to peeling the potatoes.
~~~~~~
Ari could only smile at Virgil's reaction. When she climbed down the ladder to rejoin her family, she noticed their various gazes. From Eve, she caught a slight smile, as the prophet's brow arched into a question. From her bard mother, she caught a wink, and from Xena, she only saw the warrior's deep scowl. At the intense frown on her warrior mother, Ari lowered her eyes as she moved toward her family. When she saw a piece of cloth on the table, she picked it up as she place the kitten on a chair.

"C-Can I?" she asked as she gazed at her mothers. Gabrielle smiled as she continued to cut up some vegetables into a bowl.

"Of course you can have it, honey. What do you need it for?" the bard asked as Xena resumed her task of … well, Ari wasn't at all certain what the warrior was doing, except that whatever it was, she was doing it with great intensity.

Taking the cloth, Ari wrapped it over her neck, and under her arm, then tied if off securely. When she had made a small pouch, she picked up the tiny furball and placed it in the pouch. With a smile, she looked at her mothers, then back down at the now secure kitten, who at this point, was just grateful to be able to nap after so many disruptions.

"What a clever idea!" the bard exclaimed as she took a carrot and began to chop it up.

"C-Can I take some to th-the horses?" She asked as she pointed at the pile of orange vegetables.

"Of course you can," the bard smiled as she handed her some carrots. "Here you go."

As she walked from the home, the girl took a crunchy bite off of a tip.

"Don't eat too much, it'll spoil your appetite!" Gabrielle called out. Turning, Ari nodded before closing the door behind her.

As the sounds of Virgil cutting through the wall came from the second floor of the house, she walked casually across the dirt path to the barn. When she opened the door, she heard the horses' slight grunts as if in greeting. With a smile, she moved to her sister's funny looking horse, then took a carrot and held it out for him. Like the greedy pig that he was, he champed down on it until there was nothing left but her fingers. Ari shook her head as she moved to her bard mother's horse. One after the other, she gave them each a carrot as she petted them and softly spoke to them.

So intent was she, that she hadn't noticed a change in the barn. As if a sudden frost had crossed the land, the temperature in the room grew icy cold. When she moved to Than, she crunched on part of his carrot, then held it out to him. As he munched, she noticed the coolness around her for the first time and glanced around the barn. The afternoon sun filled the barn with sunlight and warmth, yet as she breathed, she saw her breath coming out in a thin mist as a chill ran through her bones. Before she could understand the change, a soft voice called out to her.

"Ari," the strange woman's voice echoed in the barn.

Turning suddenly, Ari glanced around her. She searched for the owner of the voice, yet found no one near.

"Wh-Who's there?" her voice broke through the chill as she was suddenly on her guard.

"Ari, baby," the soft voice spoke from somewhere near her. Jumping, she turned quickly, but only found an empty barn.

As her mind raced through a multitude of thoughts, she gulped as she felt her heart racing out of control. For a moment, she felt an instant panic, afraid that Alti had found a way to reach her again. With a faint cry, she ran to the open barn door, then made her way out into the sun. When she felt the heat of the noon sun, she leaned forward, panting from the fear that had gripped her. Only when she felt the fear abating was she able to turn and look back into the barn.

"I-It c-can't be … Alti is … she's d-dead," she spoke out loud as she move cautiously away from the barn. Afraid of what had happened, she ran inside of the house, her only thought to tell her parents that Alti had found a way back.
~~~~~~
Gabrielle saw her child's ashen features. Dropping the uncut vegetables into the bowl, she ran to the girl, then made her sit to calm herself.

Xena put her armor aside, and knelt down before the girl as she took her hands. "Ari? What is it?" White, pale faced and panting, Ari shook with fear and was unable to speak.

"Honey, calm yourself so you can tell us, what happened?" Gabrielle asked softly as Eve handed her a cold, wet cloth. She gratefully smiled at her youngest, then took the cloth and wiped it over Ari's sweat drenched face. "Honey?"

"A-Alti … b-barn" was all she could get out as she pointed to the door.

With a slight growl, Xena jumped up, grabbed the chakram and sword, and raced from their home. Following closely on her mother's heels, Eve ran outside and followed the warrior princess.

"Honey, you saw Alti?" Gabrielle asked as she tried to calm the girl down.

"S-She … A-Alti…" Ari shook her head negatively as she gazed with horror at the door.

"It's all right honey, we won't let her take you. You're with us now, nothing and no one can hurt you anymore, do you understand? Shecan't hurt you ever again!" She tried to soothe her child as she wiped her face.

After a few minutes, her mother and sister returned into the dining room. "Sweetheart, there is nothing in the barn," Xena knelt in front of Ari and took her hand.

"It's true, Ari. I checked and couldn't feel any bad spirits there," Eve muttered as she crossed her arms in front of her. "Well, unless you count Babu's gas," she amended.

Ari seemed confused as she shook her head. "B-But … I-I heard…" the girl looked down, almost afraid to trust herself.

"What did you hear, honey?" Gabrielle kept her voice soft.

"Sh-She c-called my n-name," Ari grimaced remembering the incident.

"Honey, you might have only heard the wind. That barn is pretty drafty," Xena offered.

"Sorry, we didn't have time to really fix up the barn," Virgil, having only heard the last part of the conversation, piped up as he made his way down from Ari's new room. "We thought getting the house ready was our first priority. I promise, Xena, the barn will be fixed up before the first winter snow…" He added as he jumped the last few rungs to the floor, then wiped the sweat from his forehead.

"One room with two views and balcony!" he smiled, then looked at the group of solemn women for the first time. An expression of confusion crossed his face. "Did I miss something?"

For a moment, Gabrielle had to stifle a smile when she saw him standing there, mouth agape, and a clueless expression. At times like this, she could not help but be reminded of his father Joxer and his comical antics. Although at the time, some of his antics were less than comical for her and Xena.

With only a shake of her head, she brushed away his question and turned her attention to her daughter. When it seemed as if some semblance of calm returned, the girl was able to explain fully what had happened. Although neither Gabrielle nor Xena understood the strange occurrence, they both assured their child that they would never allow Alti back, whether in spirit or human form. Eve promised her sister that she would ask for Eli's protection. Assured by their words, Ari visibly calmed down, then returned her attention to her new kitten as if nothing had happened.
~~~~~~
Xena could not have explained what her daughter had heard. When she first thought that Alti had returned, all she could think about was finding the sorceress in order to pay her back for the pain that she inflicted on her eldest. Like a mother ready to kill to protect her cub, Xena flew out of the home, weapons in hand and ready to do battle against demon or human. With a battle cry, she ran into the barn, sword and chakram raised as she peered around the barn. As if in answer to her cry, Argo whinnied as she glanced over her shoulder while Thanatos and Babu looked at her unconcerned as they continued to munch on the hay that had been delivered just today.

With a scowl, the warrior moved toward the shadows of the barn, every muscle in her body alert for any troubles which might arise. When the door to the barn opened, she instinctively turned, the chakram at ready, but stopped herself when she saw Eve's scared eyes. Relaxing her posture, she lifted a finger to her lips to call for silence, then returned her search of the barn, sword in hand, ready to do battle against the sorceress who was her worst enemy.

After a few minutes, when nothing was found, and all the animals seemed normal, Xena lowered her sword. When she looked at Eve, she saw the prophet's eyes closed, her hands clasped before her as a serene expression crossed her features. Xena waited patiently until finally, the young woman opened her eyes, with a look of confusion on her face.

"Mother, I don't feel anything evil in here," she explained as she glanced around the barn. "If Alti's spirit wasin here, she didn't even leave any psychicresidue, there's just …nothing." The prophet shook her head in confusion.

Glancing one last time around the barn, Xena released a soft sigh as she moved to her daughter and wrapped an arm around her waist. "I don't know. Maybe Ari only heard the wind," she offered with a troubled expression. "By the gods. I hope that's allit was!" As she led her youngest from the barn and closed the double doors, she glanced into the sunlit area, and shook her head in confusion.

Throughout the evening, the warrior princess kept her silence as her family moved around her. As Gabrielle prepared the evening meal, the dark warrior collected her various herbs and plants of protection. She ignored the rift that had been prevalent between Ari and Eve as she mixed the potion. When the smell of the family's dinner wafted through the house, Xena took her own steaming concoction and walked through the entire home, as well as placing some on the windows and doors, gracing them with the herbal scent. After she climbed up to Ari's new room, she took extra precautions to place some of the moist herbs along the window ledges and spread the steam throughout the windows. After this, she did the same to the barn and outhouse, then took the remnants of the herbs outside and began to sprinkle them in the four corners of the property. Finally, she sat the fragrant smelling bowl aside as she sat crossed legged on the grass, her back to the house. Calling upon powers that she rarely used, she closed her eyes as she slowly fell into a trance.
~~~~~~
"Wh-What is mother doing?" Ari stood at the open window and watched the warrior princess.

"She's making a wall of protection for us," Gabrielle explained as she moved to her daughter, then wrapped an arm around the girl's waist.

"But I-I thought there was nothing?" Ari felt a fear returning, wondering if she really had heard her sorceress mother's voice.

"Your mother didn't find anything. This is just a precaution for us," the bard explained, then peered at the kitten that was wide-awake and crawling up the dark child's arm. As she watched, it suddenly mewed and tried to scratch itself and almost fell off Ari's arm. "I think it's time for us to do a bit of evicting," the bard arched a brow as she glanced down at the ball of fur licking and biting at itself.

"E-Evicting?" Ari was confused, then looked down at the kitten.

"Yes, we bought a kitten, not fleas, so lets go kick out some of the hopping freeloaders that are eating away at this little guy. He can't afford to lose any weight at this point." Gabrielle gave her most assuring smile as she took the cat from Ari, then walked it back to the table where a bowl of warm water had been laid out. Confused, the tall girl followed her mother and sat down to watch as the blonde began to dip the kitten into the water. As if it was being drowned, the little creature began to wail in protest as it fought to be free.

"Don't worry honey, he's not in pain, he just wants you to think he is," the bard winked, then began to apply an herbal mix on the damp fur which instantly caused black dots to jump into the warm water.

With only a sigh, Ari leaned her chin in the palm of her hand as she watched her bard mother's gentle hands work over the kitten. Each time the wet, ball of fur meowed in protest, the dark child smiled. When Eve moved to sit beside her and watch their mother's actions, Ari glanced at her in surprise, then quickly averted her gaze, afraid that her sister would send a scowl her way. As if reading her mind, she felt the prophet reach out and lightly touch her arm. When the dark child glanced at her sister through thick lashes, she saw Eve smiling at her mother then glanced at Ari and allowed her smile to continue. With a pleased sigh, Ari turned her attention back to the bard; her eyes never wavering from the mass of wet fur.
~~~~~~
Gabrielle could not have explained the sense of peace that fell over the home ever since her lover performed the protection ritual. Although the girls still seemed uncomfortable around each other, at least now Eve was not casting harsh looks in Ari's direction. After their first meal together and the dishes were cleaned and put away, they gathered in the small family room and exchanged stories. For Gabrielle and Xena, they told the girls about the time when the god of war had lost his powers and almost ended up a farmer in this very house. After a time, Eve began to tell of her adventures in Chin, and of a remarkable young man whom she had met while on her travels through the mystical land. When the evening grew dark, and Ari's yawns could not be ignored, they sent their child to bed.

"M-Mother, Alti can't come back, c-can she?" her daughter's voice pulledGabrielle from her thoughts. With a slight smile, she reached down and lightly stroked the girl's soft cheek.

Lying on the floor on only a mattress that had freshly cleaned sheets and a blanket, Ari glanced up at her mother through the diffused light of the family room. With a slight sigh, the bard pulled the cover around her daughter's torso, then gently scratched the kitten that had curled up against Ari's side. As she gazed into her daughter's eyes, she saw the genuine fear there.

"Your mother's magic is very strong, Alti cannot come back for you," the bard explained. At the girl's hesitant expression, she ran her fingers through Ari's dark hair. "Honey, did you know that your mother has battled Alti before? Oh no, I mean, before the battle that you were in with us. She has fought her more than once and every single time, your mother beat her!" she said, then added with as sincere expression that she could master, "I'm not lying, Alti has never been as strong as your mother. And if, by some slim chance, she does manage to come back, trust me, your mother will whip her good! And you want to know something else?" she asked, and was rewarded with the girl's quizzical expression.

"If Alti doessomehow manage to come back, Xena's not the only person she's going to have to contend with! She's gonna be dealing with me too!" Gabrielle's voice grew deep.

"Y-You would f-fight for me?" Ari's amazement was clear.

"I would dieto protect you!" The bard's voice was firm, her expression clear as she gazed into the girl's eyes. "I will never allow anyone to hurt either of my babies, neither you, nor Eve."

"Y-You p-promise?" the dark child whispered.

"Ipromise!" Gabrielle spoke without hesitation.

As if pleased by her words, the dark child smiled as her eyes slowly closed. "G-Good, because I d-don't ever want to go with Alti a-again," Ari yawned one last time before being pulled into sleep.

"You won't, honey, I promise. You won't everhave to go back with her. You're with us now, you're safe," the bard assured as she tenderly stroked the girl's soft cheek. When she noticed her child's slow, easy breathing, she lightly petted the snoozing kitten, then leaned down and kissed Ari's cheek, before she turned and made her way to the small opening into the new room.
~~~~~~
The dark child felt herself drifting in and out of sleep. Some dreams took her back to events of the recent days while others dragged her through a myriad of dark and frightening images. Yet each time she felt the nightmares of her childhood pull her under, or the more recent images of the bloody battlefield, or her rape, she heard astrange soft voice call her name, and a gentle touch against her cheek that soothed her fears and calmed her soul.

'Ari, baby... my little one. You're fine, it's only a nightmare, baby,' the dream voice cooed.

Once or twice, Ari felt herself drawn from sleep. The soft touch against her cheek brought a smile to her lips and she would open her eyes, expecting to see her bard mother beside her. Yet each time she awoke, she found herself alone in her new room. The sound of the sleeping house filled her senses as her eyes became adjusted to the dark. At the purring buzz of her kitten, she'd only smile and lay back down, pulling the covers over herself and the furry ball.

"Only a dream," Ari whispered to her new furry friend, as she'd close her eyes to dreams. Off in the distance she thought she heard the faint, melodic sound of a gentle lullaby.
~~~~~~
In the darkness of the home, the coldness moved from room to room inspecting each person as they slept and dreamt peaceful dreams. When nothing else could be done, the lone spirit moved to the familiar rocking chair and sat down in front of the closed window. Like magic, the wooden bar was lifted and set aside as the window was open to the clean night air. Pleased that the old place was once again filled with life, the specter smiled and leaned back in the chair. With slow, gentle creaks, the chair rocked as the solitary soul began to hum a soft, soothing tune to any that could hear.
 
 

The End

Of

Sins of the Mother (6) : Homecoming



 

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