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