Copyright Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Hope, Hope's Pride and Joy, Herodotus, Hecuba, Lila, Joxer and Argo all belong to Renaissance Pictures. Thank you for inventing them. Thank you for letting me play in your universe without suing me. The story's mine, though.
Love: Xena and Gabrielle love each other. They engage in absolutely consensual sex in this story. The part in question is mildly descriptive and reeks of mushy love. If you can't deal with that... poor you.
Sequel: The Xena and Gabrielle in this story are the same as in my story "Elemental". You may want to read that one first, although it is not necessary to understand this one. It also begins exactly at the moment the fourth season episode "A Family Affair" ends, so you may want to rewatch that one.
Thank you S.X. Meagher for reading this story for me - twice ;-) and to EM, who braved nieces and work to be able to read this.
Drop me a line if you like the story. I love to get mail! I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
They sat on the cold slab of stone for a moment, just basking in each other's presence. Warrior and bard had not had a single quiet minute for themselves ever since their chance encounter in the forest, and this quiet before the next sure-to-come storm was to be relinquished. Finally, it was broken by Gabrielle's voice.
"Oh gods, Xena, what am I going to tell my parents?"
"Huh? About what?" Xena was not quite ready to leave the dreamy, relaxed state she found herself in.
"About... about this!" The younger woman indicated the disordered heap in the middle of her parent's barn. She untangled her arm from around Xena and stood up to walk over to the two figures locked in their deadly embrace. One was her daughter Hope, eerie in her mother's likeness, the other the monster son Hope had born.
Xena moved over to her friend, putting a hand on her shoulder. Her lover had had a hand in killing her daughter again, an action that had to have repercussions. "Do you want me to hide them, and we can bury them later? Pretend nothing happened?"
"How can nothing have happened?" Gabrielle murmured. "Look at her, she has all those bruises on her face - I don't."
Xena wished she could turn Gabrielle's face from the sight, then just did. "She told your parents that I did this."
"Which makes it even worse!" Tears of frustration sprang to the young woman's eyes. "From what you told me, she did everything so my family would hate you - I can't let that go on!"
"I don't think your father exactly loved me in the first place," Xena quietly pointed out. "Which is kind of understandable..."
"Don't you dare do that!" Gabrielle poked Xena's breast armor, her face threatening. "Don't you dare put yourself down! It was all my decision. I wanted to go with you! If there's someone they should be angry with, it's me, not you! I'm going to go and tell them right now..."
Xena was only able to stop her upset partner from storming out of the barn by catching her around the midriff and holding her close. "Shh... Calm down, Gabrielle."
"I will not let them demean you like that anymore!" Gabrielle struggled.
"I understood that. But I don't think that storming in there and tearing the house down would be very wise if you want to come home every now and then." When there was no immediate reaction, she said softly: "You do want to come home every now and then, do you?" Still Gabrielle didn't react. Xena drew a deep breath. "Because if you don't... Gabrielle... I could just tell them Hope is you, and you could walk away from this. They would believe their daughter is dead. Do you want that?" Again, there was no immediate reaction, but Xena just waited a bit longer. At least Gabrielle didn't struggle anymore. She just stood there, her weight against Xena's braced arms, trembling slightly.
Then suddenly, a great sob racked her body, and she turned around, clinging to her friend with all her might.
Xena held her, stroking her fair hair. To be able to hold Gabrielle again, to have her in her life after she believed her dead was a gift so large, it was hardly conceivable. She would do anything to make her comfortable, to give her a sense of security.
She still didn't know exactly how Gabrielle had survived jumping into a lava pit with Hope. She only knew that she had believed her dead, that three moons had come and gone that Xena had spent in fevered search for her beloved - only to come back to Poteidaia and find Gabrielle on her way there. Her body seemed to have healed - Gabrielle mentioned a hospice that had taken care of her - but she was obviously still in a state of emotional turmoil.
Xena felt her friend's small hands cling to her leather covered back and wished she wasn't wearing her armor. It was hard to provide a source of comfort with a bronze breastplate strapped to your front.
But Gabrielle didn't mind, reveling in the closeness of her partner. "I... I thought you had forgotten me," she sobbed.
"What?" Xena started.
"I was in the hospice for so long... you never came to get me."
"I didn't know you were still alive!" Xena's voice took on an urgent tone as she loosened her hold on her lover and took her grief-stricken face in both hands, looking intently at her. "Gabrielle, believe me, if I had known..."
Gabrielle fastened her own hands around her friend's broad wrists. "What... what did you do all this time?"
"I searched for you, "Xena said intently.
"Where? I was so close - you said my letters didn't reach you?"
"No, I..." Xena thought hard for a good way to say this, "I thought you were dead, Gabrielle. I asked Hades, but he hadn't seen you. Then I realized you must be in the Amazon Land of the Dead." She paused, searching for words.
But Gabrielle's face had taken on an expression of wonder as she touched the warrior's face. "You searched for me in the Amazon Land of the Dead?"
"Yes. Yes, I wanted to, but I had to help right a wrong before I could. And then I had a vision, and I knew you were still alive, so I came back here." Her face took on an expression of utter love. "And I found you."
Gabrielle stared at her, mesmerized.
"I missed you so much."
The bard threw her arms around the warrior and promised herself never to let go again.
* * *
"So you want me to believe that you... you are the mother of the Goddess Hope?" Herodotus angrily slapped the tabletop, getting up and pacing. "No daughter of mine..."
"Father, look at her." Gabrielle leaned forward. "Look at her, and you know the truth." She watched her father walk up and down in front of the fireplace. Both her mother and Lila sat opposite her, watching his agitated manner as well. "Father, remember she had all those bruises on her face. I don't. She did that to herself so you would resist Xena helping you."
"There were two Gabrielles," Lila said, quietly.
Herodotus swiveled around, glaring at his younger daughter. "You knew that?"
The dark-haired girl shrunk under his scrutiny. "Gabrielle came to warn me after... Hope came back with all the bruises."
Herodotus thought for a moment, stepping towards his older daughter. "How do I know... How do I know you aren't Hope? How would I know?"
Gabrielle placed both hands on the table, looking at her father intently. "Because I remember all those little childhood things. How you took me out with you onto the fields. How we watched that little lamb being born, and you let me name it Bellan. Remember?"
"How do I know she doesn't know that as well?"
Gabrielle looked back at him in helpless worry. Her father was confused, and angry, she could see that.
"Because I'm telling you that this is Gabrielle." Xena, who had stood in the darkness of a corner, stepped forward. Gabrielle had asked her to let her do this herself, and she had honored her wish. But the warrior could see that this was going nowhere, and she needed to step in.
Herodotus' face contorted with disgust. "I am supposed to believe that the Gabrielle who insisted on having you inside this house is my daughter and not Hope? Why should I believe that?"
"Because she left with me in the first place," Xena said, slowly. "Remember?"
They stared at each other, Herodotus fuming with fury, Xena evenly. Gabrielle's father could hardly deny the fact that he had lost his daughter to this dark stranger three years ago, and that it was consistent for Gabrielle to demand - again - that Xena was given a place in this house.
"Do you want to see them?" Gabrielle interrupted the silence.
When Herodotus didn't react, Hecuba spoke up. "I want to see her, Gabrielle." All attention was drawn to Gabrielle's mother when she reached for her older daughter's hand. "I want to see them."
* * *
"I watched them," Joxer said as they all entered the barn. Xena had placed him there as a guard, not wanting him to interrupt the undoubtedly sensitive chat that was about to happen in the house. "They didn't move at all."
Xena squeezed his shoulder as she walked by. "Good work, Joxer."
They formed an uneasy semi-circle around the two bodies. Xena was standing half behind Gabrielle, not wanting to leave her alone for one moment. Lila and Hecuba held on to each other while Herodotus propped his fists to his sides and glared at the two figures in their ghastly embrace. Hope's son, the Destroyer, still had Xena's sword sticking out from his back, and Hope's face was locked in its unbelieving expression, one of her son's hand spikes buried inside her chest.
"Oh, gods!" Lila gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. She turned away from the ghastly sight.
"How did this happen?" Hecuba asked quietly, without being able to tear her eyes away.
"I fought the Destroyer," Xena explained evenly, "then Gabrielle came in. He thought she was Hope, and went to embrace her." She noticed Gabrielle shuddering at the memory. "That gave me a chance to stick my sword in his back."
"I went and helped Xena get up," Gabrielle took up the story, "then Hope came in. She was furious. So was the Destroyer. He thought she was me and went and killed her." She didn't add that he had realized he had killed his mother when it was too late. His loud wailing would be in her ears for a long time to come.
Hecuba moved over to her older daughter and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle covered her mother's hand with her own.
"How do we get rid of them?" Herodotus asked.
"We can't burn them," Xena explained. "Dahak's essence is fire. I don't want her to be rescued by her father once again." Her brow contracted in thought. "Let me think about it. I'll take care of it."
"I'll help you," Joxer volunteered, and Xena nodded.
"Me too," Gabrielle joined in, turning towards the warrior with pleading eyes.
"Gabrielle..." Xena stepped towards her, not minding the other people standing around them. "I don't want you to see this if you don't have to. Let us do this. It's enough you had to see her burn once."
Hecuba inclined her head in thought, seeing her daughter and the warrior in such close proximity for the first time since Gabrielle had returned. There was caring, and genuine affection in both of their expressions. Unspoken words went back and forth between them by means of their eyes, until Gabrielle acquiesced. "All right."
"I won't be long."
A gentle smile lit up the bard's eyes. "No. I know you won't."
Xena smiled back, with the smile reaching her eyes and mirroring it. However, when she turned to look at Hecuba, her expression was all businesslike. "Hecuba, can I borrow your kitchen?"
"Of course. It's all yours. Anything special you need?"
"Well - for starters, I'll have to borrow your kettle..."
Deep into conversation, they left the barn.
* * *
Herodotus circled the bodies. Again. And again.
He leaned forward to investigate the blood on Hope's shirt, then shook his head, and got up again. Sighing heavily, he sat down beside the millstone, just at the spot his daughter and her companion had inhabited hours earlier. His head cradled in both hands, he tried to comprehend what he had done wrong as a father. Had he not loved Gabrielle, given her virtues to live by, guided her with a strong hand? What had made her choose a life with this... this... person?
Who was responsible for the tragedy that had unfolded here. Undoubtedly, she was responsible, because Gabrielle would have never...
Herodotus sighed heavily and resumed his pacing.
Even when Gabrielle had seen reason and married Perdicus, the one who was picked out for her a long time ago, they had not even been here for the wedding. And before they could return to Poteidaia, Perdicus was killed - by someone who wanted to get back at Xena. Not that Gabrielle had told them that.
In everything concerning Gabrielle, there was Xena now. The figure looming in the background, shaping not just Gabrielle's, but all their lives. He was so tired of hearing of his daughter's adventures only by vastly exaggerating bards coming through the village. To be told by others I heard in Athens that... or Isn't that your daughter who is travelling with Xena? and How could you allow her to take your fair daughter with her? I'd rather have died than let her...
The young woman who had left the barn with her sister, mother and... her not long ago wasn't the little girl he had known. He wasn't the cornerstone of her life anymore. She didn't look to him for advice, she looked at Xena. He had seen it. In that, he supposed, there was the proof that this was Gabrielle, and not Hope.
He jumped at the unexpected voice behind him, then turned. It was her, again. "What?"
"I need a sturdy wagon and a team of horses to pull them."
"You want mine?"
Xena inclined her head. "I'll be bringing them to the Destroyer's cave. No one from Poteidaia will go there for a while, so they should be safe from detection."
"You know where the horses are."
She nodded, and left the barn to get to work.
He followed her muscular form with his eyes. She moved in an unsettling graceful, muscular way, almost sensuous. There was something eerie about her for sure. Those eyes... he shuddered. That was just not how a woman should behave. She was unnatural - and luring his daughter the same way. All those muscles Gabrielle sported now, and her short garb that he had not been able to talk - or order - her to exchange for something more suitable for Poteidaia. She had said something about being the Queen of the Amazons now. Or had that been one of Hope's inventions?
The great west door of the barn opened, and Xena nudged his team of sturdy ponies inside. Backwards, no less, and right to the wagon he had placed close to the entryway. Experienced hands fit the leatherwork to the shaft and the wagon, murmuring to the attentively listening animals. They seemed pleased by her attentions.
"Will you help me or should I call Joxer?"
Her voice took him out of his thoughts and he grunted his assent to help her.
They moved the wagon inside the barn, just beside the pile of bodies. Together, they heaved the Destroyer's body off Hope's, but Xena had to pull out his hand pike with a sickening sucking noise, and more blood followed. Herodotus gagged, and turned away for a moment until a low thud signaled that Xena had placed Hope's body on the wagon. When he turned back, his eyes met Xena's, cold chips of ice, really, in a face as unmoving as if it was set in stone.
"Let me guess," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "this isn't the first time you've moved dead bodies."
He saw her lips moving into a snarl, but she checked herself back into the stone mask. When she started to speak, he thought her voice would freeze the blood in his veins. "If you weren't Gabrielle's father..." she growled. "I'm tired of your hostility."
"She will not go with you again if I can help it!" he called out, amazed at his own courage.
"That's for Gabrielle to decide. It's always been."
"Don't tell me you haven't lured her to your side! Don't tell me you don't keep her by some unnatural spell over her," he spat.
She stepped closer. "She chose to be with me," she said slowly. "I have since tried to find out why, but for whatever reason it was, I thank the gods she did. She's been a gift to me ever since. She's always made her own choices, and I honor them all. Why can't you?"
His mouth moved, but no words came out as he stared at the intimidating warrior. He had expected her to get into a fit, to lash out at him, but not this. This calm confirmation of his daughter's adulthood, of her freedom of choice unsettled him greatly.
Xena's left eyebrow rose and she tilted her head in an almost amused expression as she regarded his angry, but unsettled figure. "I thought so." She spared him a last glance, then went on a search for rope to help move the monster. There were things to get done, and she had said what she wanted to say.
* * *
"What did Xena mean when she said you had to see Hope burn once already?"
"Mother, please let's not get into this."
They were all inhabiting the kitchen now, Lila and Gabrielle sitting side by side on a bench, Hecuba busy preparing something to eat, and Joxer sitting in a seat by the fire.
"Why not, Gabrielle? You never tell us anything," Hecuba said, her tone accusing.
"It's not something I like to talk about."
"But if it happened to you, it concerns us, too." Gabrielle's mother moved closer, cupping her daughter's cheek in her callused hand. "We worry about you."
Gabrielle forced a smile on her face. "I know. And I'm sorry I give you reason to."
The older woman sighed with meaning, as only mothers can, then moved back to her task. "Did you really have to kill her?"
"Yes. After all, she's your daughter."
Gabrielle clenched her teeth. It wasn't as if she hadn't berated herself enough. First over staying with Xena, although her partner wanted to kill Hope, then over not having killed her daughter sooner, preventing Solan's death. "Mother, she was pure evil. She just looked like me." And if I tell myself that often enough, I know I will believe it, too.
"Hope tried to push me off the broken bridge up at the bridle path," Lila said, unexpectedly. "If it hadn't been for Xena, I'd be dead now."
Gabrielle squeezed her sister's hand thankfully, gracing her with a smile.
"Yeah, and she killed Xena's son, too!" Joxer said, wanting to help as well.
"Xena has a son?" Hecuba stared at her daughter.
"And she tried to kill me, but that was before Gabrielle pushed her into the lava pit to save Xena's life," Joxer continued, then turned to the bard: "But did you have to jump in with her?"
"A lava pit?" Hecuba's voice rose along with her eyebrows.
"Joxer, please... and mother, that's another one of those things I don't want to talk about right now." Gabrielle felt the situation slipping out of her hands.
Hecuba came closer, leaning on the table opposite Gabrielle and looking intently at her. "You, my daughter, have all those terrible things happen to you out there, and you don't want to talk about it with me?"
"Now you listen to me, young lady. I am your mother, and I have a right to know what you're doing. Do you know what the talk in the village is about you? Do you know how embarrassing it is?"
"Mother, I almost died, and you worry about being embarrassed by me?" Gabrielle had risen from the bench. "I can't believe this."
"Hello? I've come to get the kettle and Joxer."
Both women swiveled on their heels towards Xena's voice coming from the door.
"Am I interrupting anything?"
* * *
"Gods, Xena, thank you for taking me with you. I suddenly remembered why I left my parents in the first place." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's arm, smiling up at her.
"Me, too." Xena smiled back, then rolled her eyes. "Your father thought he had to talk to me in the barn."
"I'm not. I think he heard a few things he didn't want to hear."
"Like what?" Gabrielle held on to Xena's arm harder as the rocky path shook their wagon. Xena had covered the bodies with a big cloth to hide them both from Gabrielle's as well as from other people's eyes. Joxer walked behind the wagon to make sure they didn't fall out unexpectedly as they rumbled along the way. It was still night, and that's what Xena counted on. People hadn't left their huts and houses during the night for quite some time, fearful of the monster lurking in their woods. She hoped they wouldn't do so this night, either.
"Oh, I just said that you made your own decisions, and why he couldn't accept that."
"What did he say?"
Gabrielle sighed, then changed the topic. "What are you going to do with them?" she asked, indicating their lifeless passengers.
"We'll bring them up to the Destroyer's lair and I will take care of them there. I'll still need a few ingredients, but I think I saw the right kind near the cave. I want you to wait at the wagon. Maybe catch some sleep."
Gabrielle's nose wrinkled in doubt. "I'm not sure I can sleep, but I can watch the ponies."
Xena looked at her, then freed her arm to put it around Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard reacted immediately, moving closer and wrapping her own arm around Xena's back, sighing happily. "Mmm... better."
Suddenly, Xena started to chuckle almost soundlessly.
"What's so funny?"
"It figures that the first night after we've finally found each other, we need to dispose of dead bodies and have Joxer on our trail." She shook her head in disbelief.
"Promise me we'll be on the road again tomorrow."
"Absolutely," Xena confirmed, turning her head and kissing Gabrielle's hair. "Absolutely."
* * *
It was a beautiful night, Gabrielle had to admit. After unloading the bodies as close to the Destroyer's cave as possible, Xena had sent her away. Gabrielle had led the team to a nearby meadow, unhitching the ponies so they could enjoy the cool grass. Now she was lying on top of the wagon, staring at the night sky.
In the hospice, that had been one of the many things she missed most. The possibility of raising her eyes to the vast firmament and getting lost in it. That, and Xena's light breath beside her. That, and the crackling of the fire. That, and the sounds of Argo moving around. Combined, it was the sweetest lullaby Gabrielle could think of. Thinking about it had hurt so much.
Restlessly, Gabrielle sat up.
"And now I'm here and nothing has changed," she told the ponies who didn't mind her talking to them. "I almost died protecting Xena from Hope, and I came back only to see that she tried to kill her all over again."
Was Hope dead now? Or would Dahak find another way to bring her back and torment her? Them? Gabrielle groaned. She had done her penance. And so had Xena, ten times over. "It's enough," she said firmly, then looked up at the starry sky. "It's enough!" she yelled.
She waited a few moments, but no answer.
Gabrielle chuckled mirthlessly, knowing that to expect an answer had not been very realistic. Still, she felt better now that she had told the world what she thought. Shivering, she reached for a blanket to wrap herself into. Laying back on the driver's bench, she prepared to contemplate the stars a little longer.
* * *
"Joxer, I'm telling you, you're going to regret this."
"Really Xena, don't worry. I'll be fine."
"That's all right."
"Fine. Just don't come close to me and Gabrielle until you - and your clothes - have had a bath."
Joxer looked at the scantily clad - yet still intimidating - figure across the depression in the cave floor. The Destroyer and Hope lay there in an untidy heap, but Joxer's attention was riveted on the black-haired woman standing on the other side. "It can't be that bad."
Xena cocked a brow. She suspected that Joxer didn't want to part with his clothes because he was shy, but of course she couldn't call him on that. In his proud warrior wannabe bravado, he insisted on keeping his clothes on even though she had warned him that the smell of the concoction they were about to pour on the two bodies would penetrate the fabric and leather in a most unpleasant way. Already the mixture in the kettle stank like whole batteries of foul eggs. Xena was close to losing whatever bit of food was in her stomach. And it wouldn't get better once they poured the mixture over the bodies.
"Fine then, keep you clothes on. They needed a washing anyway."
"What are you saying? That I stink?"
Xena let out and evil grin. "I didn't say that. You did."
"Are we gonna get on with this or not?" Xena inclined her head towards the kettle.
Grumbling, Joxer agreed. "Fine."
Forcing their breaths through their mouths, they both approached the kettle from different sides. Xena had wrapped the handle with a cloth earlier, so they could both safely lift the heavy object off the fire. With a few grunts, they succeeded in their effort.
"Tartarus, this is heavy!" Joxer complained, wiping his brow.
Xena spared him a short glance. "Alright, and now over the bodies."
They dragged the kettle towards the depression, then tilted it, and poured the ugly smelling brew over the bodies.
"Goodbye, Hope," Xena said under her breath as the fluid started to dissolve the fabric of Hope's halter top. The disintegrating flesh added another component to the already nauseating smell, and Xena retreated. The fluid, she knew, would eat the flesh away from the bones and with time, would even dissolve the bones. The depression in the ground would hold the concoction until it had done its job. There would be nothing left but an ugly-smelling puddle. A fitting end to an ugly chapter in Xena's and Gabrielle's lives.
Beside the warrior, Joxer gagged.
"Let's get out of here," Xena suggested, and Joxer nodded wildly. Grabbing for the handle, they dragged the kettle outside. No evidence of who did this should remain at the site. Once in front of the cave, Xena looked for her leathers and armor. Grabbing her chakram, she checked the rock surrounding the opening of the cave.
"Joxer, get outta here, and take the kettle with you."
"What are you going to do?"
"Cause a rockslide. Haven't done this in a while, we'll see if I still know how." Xena's cocky smile and raised brow belied her words.
Joxer sneezed, and grinned back. "See you in a bit."
"Yeah." Listening for the sounds Joxer made as he retreated, Xena aimed for the keystone to cause the slide.
* * *
Gabrielle must have fallen asleep after all, because she jerked awake at the rush of cold air that followed the lifting of the blanket around her.
"Sh... it's just me," she heard Xena's hushed voice. Moonlight reflected off her friend's bright eyes.
Gabrielle blinked. The seat she was lying on was hardly wide enough for her, much less for both of them. She felt a cold hand descend on her stomach, caressing her. "Xena, what... are you done?"
There was a hunger present in those eyes, Gabrielle realized. Xena was famished, her body coiled to connect with her own at any given moment.
"Why... you are wet!"
"Me and your mother's kettle had to take a bath to get rid of the smell."
"Still doing the same. I told him to go back to the house when he's finished." Xena's eyes bore into her friend's. "Gabrielle..." she said, hoarsely.
The sound connected with Gabrielle's hearing and shot right down to her groin. She groaned in return, lifting a hand and cupping Xena's cheek. "You've come for me."
"Yes." Xena grasped the hand and kissed its knuckles. "And I will, over and over again unless you tell me to stop."
"Never." Gabrielle's eyes started to well up. "Never, you hear me? Only come faster the next time. Don't leave me alone so long anymore."
"Not if I can help it." Xena's heart constricted at the thought that she had moved heaven and earth to find her lover while Gabrielle had pined away at the hospice, thinking she had abandoned her. "I saw you in my dreams."
"Yes." Gabrielle let her head fall forward until she connected with Xena's. "Yes, I saw you too."
"Didn't you know I searched for you?"
"I hoped you would... I hoped so much."
Xena sat back on her heels, studying her friend. The same doubt and despair was visible now that had flickered up to cloud the young woman's features when Xena had found her in the woods, and later, when they had talked in the barn. "You said you needed to find your way."
"We will do that. Together."
Another expression of despair.
"What is it, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle choked on a sob, her hands squeezing Xena's in a fierce grasp. She fought with herself until she finally expelled a tiny cry. "I'm afraid of what I will find, Xena," she sobbed.
Xena moved to straddle the driver's bench, holding both of Gabrielle's hands while she listened intently.
"I'm afraid that what I will find will force us apart. I couldn't stand that," Gabrielle said.
"I said I'll be by your side," Xena affirmed her earlier pledge.
A sad smile. "I know you did, but - what if..." she searched for a scenario, "what if I found I have a calling as a sheep farmer somewhere. That's no occupation for you."
Xena's face took on a droll expression. "It's no occupation for you, either. If you still wanted me around, I'd find something to do."
A brief flash of Xena serenely guarding a flock of sheep brought the ghost of a smile onto Gabrielle's face. "But what if... You said I was your way... what if I found that I have the heart of a warrior. What if I descended into evil... I brought Hope to this world, after all... What if..."
"Gabrielle!" Xena called a halt to her friend's fiery conjuring up of worst case scenarios. "If the fact that Hope turned out bad had anything to do with you, then it was because I didn't let you take care of her." She raised a hand to Gabrielle's immediate objection. "We talked about that. No more assigning guilt. It's over. Even if Dahak managed to raise her from the dead again, it's got nothing to do with you."
As Xena's eyes continued to bore into her, Gabrielle nodded slowly.
"And as for you being my way..." Xena expelled a breath. "No matter what you did, I'd always believe in you. Even when you were not around, I couldn't become the selfish bitch I had been." She rubbed the bridge of her nose. Talking about this wasn't easy.
Gabrielle cocked her head. "The Amazon Land of the Dead?" she guessed.
"Yes." Xena closed her eyes for a moment. "I went back to a scary time... I invoked the spirits to be able to go to the Land of the Dead. And when I got there someone greeted me who I wronged a long time ago." She swallowed. "I could not proceed until I righted that wrong. And when I did, I was given a vision that you were still alive." She squeezed Gabrielle's hands. "You had given me a light of my own. A light that was not extinguished even as I was in pain over losing you."
A tiny smile of understanding formed on Gabrielle's face. In what seemed to be a long time ago, she had made Xena promise not to become a monster should she ever leave her. And somehow, Xena had not. Instead, she had started to believe in the goodness of her own heart. A wave of relief washed over Gabrielle, and she felt that a burden was taken off her shoulders. "I'm... glad." The smile broadened. "Very glad."
Xena returned it, the smile lighting up her eyes. "Welcome home, Gabrielle." She moved to take her friend into her arms. "Welcome home."
* * *
They were hunched up against a tree; Xena leaning against its sturdy trunk, Gabrielle leaning against her. The bard had finally noticed that Xena was not only still wet from her bath, she also only wore a very flimsy , threadbare shift. When she leaned back, Xena wrapped arms and legs around her, all covered by the blanket, and Gabrielle snuggled back with a sigh of utter contentment.
"When I wake up will you still be there?" she whispered into a conveniently close ear.
"Try keeping me away from you," the playfully growled answer came.
"I wouldn't dream of it." Gabrielle squirmed around until she was leaning against Xena's shoulder, all safe in the cocoon of her partner's warm embrace. She inhaled, letting Xena's distinctive scent invade her senses.
The warrior's hand traveled along her friend's arm until it reached its destination in the soft hair behind Gabrielle's ear, caressing her.
Finally together after the tumultuous day, the weeks of loss and grieving came rushing at them, leaving bard and warrior shaken. Yet again, they had survived and again, they were together.
"Do you think we're meant to be together?" Gabrielle asked in a low voice, not wanting to shatter the intimacy.
"I don't know." Xena placed a small kiss on the bard's temple. "All I know is that it felt wrong when I was alone and that this feels right." She emphasized her words by squeezing the bard closer.
"Yes," Gabrielle said, full of contentment. "I know what you mean." After a moment of silence, she added: "But wouldn't it be wonderful to know that whatever happens to either one of us, we'd always find each other again?"
The thought let tears spring to Xena's eyes. "Yes," she whispered, adding another kiss to the previous one on Gabrielle's temple. "That is a wonderful thought."
"Let's believe in it." Green eyes rose to meet blue. Fingers meshed.
"Yes," Xena said, her voice almost inaudible. "Let's believe in it."
* * *
The feeling of lips on her shoulder woke Xena from the first uninterrupted slumber since she had set out to find the bard. Somehow, right there under the tree, they had both succumbed to the long, eventful day, falling asleep with the wonderful feeling of the security and warmth of each other's presence.
The pair of lips explored her shoulder, then dipped towards her collarbone, pushing aside the shoulder strap and pulling down the fabric of the shift for better access. Teeth started to nibble on the naked skin over the bone, moving to the hollow that marked its middle. A small, hot tongue lapped at it.
Xena sighed with pleasure as two small hands rose to cup her breasts and caress both her nipples simultaneously. This was a wonderful way to wake up.
The lips moved up along her sensitive neck, licking along Xena's jawline until finally, finally, they met her own.
Bliss was all Xena could feel at that moment. The touch and feel of her friend, lover and mate finally in her arms, on her body, imprinting itself onto her senses, let her feel an unrivaled joy. Taking her time to reacquaint herself with texture and taste, Xena only opened her eyes when after a long time of loving, reverent exploration she could not deny her need for breath.
"You are so beautiful," she whispered, cupping her lover's face with both her hands. It was framed by the just rising sun.
A smile graced the lovely face. "I'm also very naked," the bard replied, placing Xena's hands on her hips.
"How thoughtful." Xena traced her fingertips along the bard's abdomen, eliciting a hiss of breath.
"What about you?"
"What about me?" Xena acted oblivious, her hands keeping up the exploration of the bard's soft skin.
Gabrielle's answer was prompt as two small, but powerful hands tore the front of the shift to shreds. "That's better."
Xena laughed. "What am I to wear when you're finished with me?" she teased.
"Nothing, for all I care," were the last words as the bard descended on the tantalizing flesh before her. "I'll never be finished with you."
Xena arched towards her lover, turned on by her aggressiveness. She loved it when Gabrielle was assertive, decisively taking what she needed. It was a part of Gabrielle that rarely surfaced around other people.
Xena dug a hand in Gabrielle's hair, keeping her lover's head close to her body. The indefinable hunger she had felt since she had found Gabrielle in the woods revealed itself as having been hunger for the bard; for her soft body, for the little moans, sighs and whimpers caressing her would elicit. Xena's soul had a place carved out for Gabrielle's to fit, and the hollow clamored to be filled. And Gabrielle did everything to fill it.
Xena shook under the onslaught of the bard's need, but it was a need she matched and reciprocated. Their encounter was rough, loud, and sweaty. They each needed to assure themselves of the other's presence, of her smell, touch and taste. There would be time for tenderness later.
When it was all over, neither of the two could've said how long it had lasted. They both lay there, breathing heavily and glistening with sweat.
"Oh gods," Gabrielle groaned. "I'm sure I won't walk far today."
"We'll take the wagon," Xena replied, which resulted in a double-groan by both as they imagined what sitting on the hard bench of the rumbling wagon would do to some - at the moment - rather tender parts of their anatomy.
Gabrielle rolled over to her side so she could look at her lover, then leaned in for a sweet, languid kiss. "Gods, I love it when you taste like that."
A rakish grin was the answer. "Oh, yeah."
The gravity of their finding each other had been eased by their bodily expression of it, and now both could feel the band that tied them had been renewed. Gabrielle smiled at her partner. "Wanna take a bath before we head back? I'm sure my father has worn a trench into the kitchen floor by now, but I'd rather be clean before we go home."
"What... you don't want to smell like me when we get back?" Xena feigned indignation. "I'm disappointed."
She was assaulted by one bard bent on tickling her, and they wrestled playfully until Xena was on all fours over Gabrielle, holding her down. "Well...?"
"I love to smell like you all over," Gabrielle said slyly through innocently lowered lashes. "But I don't want to share with my father just one bit."
"You're all mine."
"Aha!" Xena laughed. "All yours, huh?"
"And I don't share."
"I see." Xena blinked. "And how's your father going to know I'm all yours?"
"If you let me up, I'll show you."
"Huh." Xena wondered what her lover was up to now and let her go.
Gabrielle got up on her knees, kissed her lover's shoulder since it was conveniently close, and checked her back. And there they were, long red lines where the bard's passion had taken her beyond caring. "You're quite marked," she commented. "Maybe I should add my signature..."
"What?" Xena tried to turn her head so she could see her back.
"I scratched you," Gabrielle said matter-of-factly.
"You did?" In the throes of passion, Xena hadn't noticed. "They'll be covered by the leathers, right?"
"Well, I could add some..." Gabrielle had her hands poised already.
"Don't you dare..." Xena couldn't help another laugh. Being with Gabrielle again made her soul rise with delight. "But if you do want to mark me..."
"Yeah?" Xena's low voice made Gabrielle tingle all over.
Wordlessly, Xena displayed her neck for her partner to take.
"No?" The warrior sounded almost disappointed.
Gabrielle sighed, tracing the marks of her love bites on Xena's chest that had almost faded. "I can't hurt you intentionally," she said, "and you've quite left your mark on my heart... I don't think I need an outer sign to know it's there."
Xena forgot to breathe for a moment. "Yes," she simply said. "Me, too."
* * *
They did take a quick bath, solicitous to stay in the shadow of some undergrowth. The sun had risen, and soon the fields around them would be populated by busy farmers getting started on their day's work. Enjoying their newfound intimacy, they took care to dry each other meticulously. They had both used the sandalwood soap Xena had brought along, and Gabrielle sniffed on Xena's hair with obvious pleasure. "I missed this," she sighed.
"Oh yeah." Xena eyed her smaller, and still quite naked companion. "Though you wouldn't have liked smelling me while I was on that quest."
"Well, but I can now, can't I?"
A wicked glint appeared in Xena's eye, and before Gabrielle could react, the taller woman had caught her in her long arms, enfolding her and holding her close to her body. Gabrielle let out a squawk, but was very willing to be caught. "Now, what?" she asked, peeking up to her partner.
"Now, we'll exchange a bit of scent," Xena said matter-of-factly, ducking down to kiss her lover. Long, sweet, and thoroughly. By the time she was done, both were flushed and their bodies were covered in a light sheen of sweat. Gabrielle was happy to wiggle her lighter body against the warrior until the taller woman groaned her surrender. "If you don't stop now, this is going to be an exchange of something else," she warned.
"And this would be bad - why?" Gabrielle felt positively giddy. "But you're right, we have to get back. No use scandalizing a farmer or two." She slapped her friend lightly when Xena feigned sudden interest. "Gods, you're so bad," she laughed. "And I'm loving every moment of it."
* * *
They caught the reluctant ponies and harnessed them, then fastened the harnesses to the wagon and finally set out back to Poteidaia. The sun had risen over the fields, and on their way back, they encountered quite a few farmers who were busy in their fields, but always took the time to wave at Gabrielle, eyeing Xena with caution, but not unfriendly so.
"They like you," Xena remarked, just a bit of pride tingeing her voice.
"At least Hope didn't scare them," Gabrielle said. "I'm not eager to find out that she told them some outrageous thing or another."
"I think she tried to blend in," Xena said. "She was waiting for me, after all, and she must have known I'd blow her cover if she didn't play you to a T."
"What made you suspect it wasn't me?" Now that the worst was over, the connection with Xena renewed and Gabrielle's world view realigned, it was easier for her to talk about what happened.
Xena frowned in thought. "I don't really know," she said, finally. "Right in the beginning when we saw you - her - in the market place... I wanted to believe it was you, that I had found you, but something was... off. Then later, when the Destroyer attacked me in the barn but blew right by her several times, without her so much as blinking an eye, it was clear that this was Hope, not you." The warrior glanced at her companion. "Still want to be on the road today?" she asked, too casual to fool Gabrielle.
The bard put one hand on her friend's knee. "We have to get Argo back, right?"
Xena smiled back. "Right."
There was a moment of silence, then Gabrielle threw her hands in the air. "I can't believe you still think I would rather stay with my parents than go with you!"
Xena just shrugged, looking very caught and uncomfortable.
Gabrielle eyed her for a moment with an expression of reproach. Somehow, whatever she did, and how often she proclaimed her love and eternal devotion to the warrior, Xena still thought she would be better off staying in Poteidaia, safe and sound. Rather than launch into one more discussion about this, the bard laid her hand on her partner's leg for a moment, squeezing it. There was nothing she could do at this point, either Xena believed her or she didn't.
Silently, they rattled along the well worn path to Poteidaia.
* * *
"Xena, Gabrielle! You're back! What took you so long?" As soon as Gabrielle's mother heard the wagon, she appeared outside. "Come inside, breakfast is waiting!"
"We'll be right there, mother."
"Why don't you go ahead," Xena suggested as she halted the ponies and jumped off the wagon. "I'll take care of..."
"I'm coming with you."
Gabrielle glared at her. "I'm coming with you," she said again, but before they could get into a heated argument, Herodotus emerged from the barn.
"What did you do to my ponies? I won't be able to get any work done today!"
"Good morning to you too, father." Gabrielle raised a brow. "They are fine. They ate sweet meadow grass all night long."
"Then what took you so long?" Angry, Herodotus took the lead line out of Xena's hands. "You could have been back long ago. That Joxer fellow came back long before sun-up!"
"Xena, why don't you go inside already?" Gabrielle said after considering the situation for a moment.
Xena looked at her, astonished, then nodded and turned to the house.
Both Gabrielle and Herodotus watched her until she disappeared through the door, then Herodotus turned towards his daughter. "Well?"
"Father, Xena and I are friends. We share everything. We haven't seen each other for quite some time, thinking that the other was dead. We needed some time alone."
"For what? You home is with your family! She saw you were alive, now she can leave you..." Then a sudden understanding dawned on his face. "Oh no. Oh no, Gabrielle. Don't tell me you... That makes me sick!"
"What does, father?" Gabrielle asked, having a pretty good idea of what exactly made her father so sick.
"It's her fault, right? She lured you into it. She seduced you. She..."
"It was quite mutual, papa." Gabrielle took a step closer, threading her arm into his.
Herodotus plopped down onto the edge of the trough standing right behind him, his legs unable to support him for the moment. The knowledge of their intimate relationship dashed all hopes of Gabrielle coming back and marrying a man, and settling down close to her family. If she was involved with Xena, she would romp the countryside with her partner until one of them - or both - were dead. His daughter didn't give away her heart lightly.
"Why, Gabrielle," he finally said, his voice raucous. "What did I do wrong? Why can't you be like Lila or the other village girls? We raised you with the best intentions. I gave you everything I could. Why?"
It hurt to hear her father speak that way, but Gabrielle realized at the same time that this was her chance to maybe make him understand, or at least try to.
"I love her," she said simply. "The first time I saw her, I knew I belonged at her side, and that has never changed. There are good days, and there are bad, but we always come through for each other." She took a breath and contemplated the tips of her boots for a moment before she started to speak again. "To be at Xena's side gives me the chance to fulfil my dreams, papa. How many village girls can say that? I don't want to make you or mother sad, but this is what I need to do. I wouldn't be happy staying in Poteidaia, cleaning up after a man and raising his children. Can't you see that?"
He sighed, covering her hand with his own. "She is a violent woman, Gabrielle, with a brutal past. I worry about you."
Gabrielle chuckled mirthlessly. "So does she. Sometimes I ask myself why I even bother - both you and Xena want me to stay here. Who am I to defy both of you?"
"Xena... wants you to stay here?" Herodotus asked haltingly. It threw a new light on the warrior that he had not considered.
"Yes. She thinks traveling with her is too dangerous for me. Just like you do."
The silence between them grew long as both considered what had been said. Then Gabrielle sighed. "I wish you could be just a little bit proud of me, father. Just one bit. We try to help people. I put my life on the line for others, and so does Xena." Frustrated, Gabrielle kicked up a bit of dust with the heel of her boot. "But if you still want me to be someone I can't be, it won't matter what I do, right?" Abruptly, she stood. "I think I'll go inside and join Xena for breakfast. We'll be on our way later in the day. Will you be around?"
"I still have a lot of work to do..."
"Fine." Irritated, Gabrielle pushed the bangs out of her eyes. "I'll be inside." She turned on her heel and walked towards the house, her heart heavy.
Long after his daughter was gone, Herodotus' eyes were still fastened to the door where she had disappeared.
* * *
Stepping into the house, Gabrielle was immediately surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells she knew since she was little. Her mother was working on the hearth, stirring something, while Lila sat on a stool, busying herself with basket weaving. The sight of one lanky, clearly very uncomfortable warrior in the midst of all this, trying to look faintly excited about the breakfast before her, put a smile on the young bard's face.
Xena's eyes shimmered in the light when she turned to look at her friend, and Gabrielle thought she had never seen such an adorable sight. With a few steps, she reached the table, taking Xena's hand in hers and gracing the knuckles with a kiss that could hardly be misunderstood. Neither could the devotion in Gabrielle's eyes.
"We'll be leaving today," she said. "I can't wait to see Argo again."
A small smile graced the warrior's face, and she scooted along the bench to make space for Gabrielle.
"Already?" Lila piped up. "Do you have to?"
"We'll be back, I'm sure," Gabrielle appeased her sister, reaching for the rolls. "Where's Joxer?"
"In the barn, sleeping." Hecuba said, turning around from her chores and wiping her hands on her apron as she approached the table. "What took you two so long? Xena wouldn't say anything."
Gabrielle glanced at her friend who just shrugged, feigning innocence. The bard shook her head, smiling. "We had some catching up to do, mother."
Hecuba frowned, looking back and forth between warrior and bard. "I'm sorry to see you leave again so soon," she said, not making a difference between the two women. Then, she looked at Xena with intent.
The warrior froze in mid-chew, inclining her head in question.
"You," Hecuba said, "take better care of my child. If half the things I hear about you and Gabrielle are true..."
Hecuba waved Gabrielle's interference away. "I cannot keep you from going with Xena and getting into all kinds of scrapes," she said. "This is not the life I envisioned for you, but it is what you chose. I respect that. I wish you'd come home more often, or that you would write every now and then. We worry about you."
Suddenly caught in guilt, Gabrielle relented. "You are right. I should write more often."
Hecuba nodded. "It isn't nice to hear about you and your adventures only through the bards or other travelers coming here, Gabrielle. It would be nice to have some warning sometimes."
Her mother was right, and Gabrielle knew it. She was unable to keep the more ghastly aspects of her life from her family. The least they could expect was to be informed by her, not by someone else.
"I admit I am scared for both of you from what I heard," Hecuba concluded. "Take care of yourselves." She looked at both of them intently. "Promise me that."
Caught by the intensity in the older woman's eyes, both Xena and Gabrielle just nodded mutely. The warrior's heart constricted with the thought that, according to her vision, if Gabrielle followed her, she would follow her right into death. All of her instincts told her to leave the bard here, in Poteidaia. But she also knew that in all likelihood, the first thing that would happen was for Gabrielle to take her staff and some provisions and follow her anyway.
She glanced at the beloved creature beside her as she was consuming her breakfast. Had she not lectured Herodotus about letting Gabrielle make her own decisions, and honoring them?
The warrior's hand traveled to Gabrielle's and squeezed it. Gabrielle looked up and smiled.
"So, where are you headed next?" Hecuba asked, sitting down opposite them with a large mug of tea.
"I left my horse about two days north of here," Xena explained. "We'll need to find her first thing."
"We don't know yet," Gabrielle chimed in. "Sometimes we're just called away on some emergency." She fiddled with a piece of bread for a moment. "But I'd like for us to head south." She looked at Xena. "Would that be alright?"
"Sure," Xena said amiably. "We haven't been south yet."
Gabrielle looked at her partner for a moment, then nudged her. "Make fun of me, I dare you."
"Me? Never! You know I wouldn't..."
"Uh-huh, yeah right..."
Fascinated, Hecuba observed the banter between her daughter and the woman she chose to live with. All they really knew about Xena were the things they heard. Some were clearly exaggerated heroic tales, others spoke of blood and death. To watch her up close, to see how she interacted with her daughter, with Gabrielle, was something else entirely. The night before, in the barn, the interaction between bard and warrior had spoken of intimacy, of understanding without words, and of a closeness that clearly her family would not be able to break. But the feeling of despair that had clung to Gabrielle like a shroud last night seemed to have dissipated during the time she had spent alone with her friend.
Hecuba sighed, realizing that Xena gave Gabrielle something her family was not able to give. However outrageous what they did may seem to the ordinary villager, it was what Gabrielle needed, what she craved. And the love in Xena's eyes, changing her whole expression whenever she looked at Gabrielle, told Hecuba that Gabrielle was loved as well as she ever could be.
Her little girl had all grown up and had chosen her life mate.
* * *
They packed up the few possessions they had later in the day. Gabrielle used the time to chat some more with Lila while Hecuba prepared provisions for the two travelers. Somehow, even though the bard desperately wanted to be on the road again, she knew she would miss her sister, as she always did. Hugs were exchanged, and the promise to see one another soon.
"Wherever you are, I'll find you at your birthday!" Lila promised.
Gabrielle laughed "Good luck. I'll try to be there, wherever it is."
Joxer appeared around mid-day, still rather sleepy and not very talkative. He seemed reluctant to leave so soon and after some prodding, gallantly decided he would stay with Gabrielle's family for a bit longer to help with the harvest. Gabrielle tried to warn her mother, but Lila seemed so taken with the young man that she didn't have the heart to say more.
The young bard slowly made her way through the barn and stables, saying her goodbyes in her own way, trying to put into the past what belonged into the past. Herodotus wasn't to be found, the ponies gone.
Finally, Gabrielle gave up. "We can't wait much longer, or we won't get anywhere today," she announced.
"He did not come," she whispered when Hecuba hugged her.
The older woman hugged her daughter closer. "Give him some time."
"I've been traveling with Xena for years now..."
Hecuba loosened the embrace to look into her daughter's crestfallen face. "Make us proud," she finally said. "And don't forget to write."
"I won't. Thank you for everything."
"Anytime. Come by again soon."
"We will try."
Xena's goodbyes were less emotional than her partner's, a few nods and handshakes sufficing her needs.
It was with one last, probing look around that Gabrielle finally turned toward her partner. "Let's go, then." Her green eyes were trusting, her expression open.
Xena nodded, turning around with her.
With measured, ground-eating strides, bard and warrior stepped out of this part of their lives side by side.
- The End -
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