Disclaimers: Not mine, just love writing about 'em. J
Sex: ohhh, yeah!
This is a story based on "what if" Perdicus had never been killed by Callisto after marrying Gabrielle, and instead, the two had headed off to Potidea to start a life together. Three years pass, and the gods have more in mind for the warrior and her wayward bard.
If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com.
Note: First X/G story in ten years, so be gentle!!!! J
(Come visit me at my ebooks site to find stories you won't find anywhere else by me: www.kimpritekel.com/ebooks)
They walked along the road, cliffs to their right and the sea to their left, Xena holding Argo's reins. She watched the man who walked up ahead of them for a few moments, his brown leather pants catching the light of the falling sun. His head was slightly bowed as his hand rested on the pummel of the blade at his side. Xena couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking about. Not wanting to think about him anymore, she turned to Gabrielle, who walked by her side.
"So what's your answer?" she asked softly.
Gabrielle paused for a moment before responding, "No, of course."
Xena wanted to feel relieved by that, but something in her heart told her to hold off on the internal celebrations. Right now, she needed to be a friend. "So why don't you tell him?"
"I'm waiting for the right time," Gabrielle responded cryptically.
"He's a good man," Xena said, doing her damndest to sound like she meant the words. She cringed at Gabrielle's next words.
"He is. He's so sensitive and kind. You know, I've never known anyone that I've been so comfortable around." Gabrielle looked up and briefly met Xena's gaze. "Besides you," she added with a small laugh.
Xena felt her stomach roil, but stopped Gabrielle anyway, a hand to her shoulder. "Look Gabrielle, if it's me you're worried about, let me set your mind at rest." She tried to not notice the way the dying rays of the sun burst into Gabrielle's eyes, turning the sea-green color radiant and glowing. She tried not to notice the way the red in Gabrielle's hair was turned into a fiery halo, and she tried not to notice just how much she wanted to cry. "Seeing you happy will make me happy. If that means settling down with Perdicus then… you have my blessing."
She looked into Gabrielle's eyes, noting the soft smile that graced her lips, and for a moment it seemed like something was passing between them: almost as though Gabrielle were about to say something… something… please, something. Then, Joxer had utterly destroyed the moment as he called down to her from the cliffs. Callisto was back.
Xena awoke with a jerk, her heart pounding and eyes frantically looking around the dark campsite for the form that would at one time be sleeping in the bedroll right next to hers. A hand reached out, only to find cold, hard dirt. With a heavy sigh, Xena flopped back down, a forearm coming up to cover her eyes, the other covering her still-racing heart.
It had been awhile since she'd had that dream. She was just glad she hadn't had the nightmare of having to watch Gabrielle marry again in more than a year, in the more than three years since it had happened. That one left her all but homicidal.
Hands flopping to her sides, Xena opened her eyes and looked up at the early morning sky. She could see the stars beginning to fade as Apollo's chariot would soon be racing across the heavens, bringing a new day with it.
Xena started as she felt something nudge her right hand. A glance over and she smiled, looking up into the lowered head of her truest and most loyal friend, and sometimes, she felt the only friend she had left.
"Hey, girl," she said, reaching up a hand and stroking Argo's nose. "You miss her too , don'tcha?" She smiled at Argo's soft snort. "Yeah, I knew you didn't think she was all that bad." With another sigh, Xena sat up. "Guess we're both up. What do you say we get on the road, huh?"
As the rising sun kissed the mountaintops, Xena and Argo were racing along the lush grasses, long raven hair blowing behind Xena as she encouraged the mare to go faster, both enjoying the speed and freedom. In truth, just about the only sober joy Xena had left in the world was when she and Argo were racing with the wind or when she was gutting a highwayman or warlord.
Short on supplies, Xena slowed Argo's gallop to a trot as they headed towards a small village where they could stock up, the sun high in the noon sky. As they passed through town, Xena eyed the people who manned the stalls loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, their voices calling out their wares, including supplies for horses, weapons and of course, Xena's current favorite -
"Port! Nice 'n strong port!" a bar wench called out, her ample cleavage beckoning road-weary travelers into the tavern behind her.
Xena pulled Argo to a stop in front of the stables and dismounted, tossing a couple dinars to the stable boy along with a growl and a sneer, no words necessary as the boy understood perfectly that if the warrior's horse wasn't given special attention, he'd surely find a very messy and painful end.
Eyeing everyone she passed, Xena headed to the tavern, in no mood for anything other than a nice strong port and, if she stayed conscious long enough, a nice warm body in her bed, though she doubted that would happen. It had been a long time since she'd known the touch of a woman, more often than not, the desire was not there.
Walking into the tavern, she reached into the leather pouch attached at her hip and pulled out a couple dinars. "Port," she said to the barkeep once she reached the bar, tossing the coins onto the wood-topped bar. The man simply grunted acknowledgment then turned away to do her bidding.
Xena turned around, resting her elbows on the bar as she looked out over the crowded room. It always amazed her just how crowded a tavern could be at high noon. It didn't look like too many were drunk - yet - and many were eating what looked to be bowls of a thick stew. Xena considered ordering one for herself, but she didn't much have an appetite anymore.
"Here ya go," the barkeep muttered, some of the dark liquid sloshing out of the wooden mug as he set it down in front of the warrior.
Xena muttered a thanks, then grabbed the mug and took a long drink, wiping foam off her lip with the back of her hand as she walked further into the place, taking a seat at the back, eyes on the other patrons. Some glanced her way, eyeing her warily while others continued on with their lunch or conversation. She leaned her chair back against the wall and propped booted feet on the table, crossing them at the ankles. As she watched, she saw a familiar face make his way through the bar, a bowl of soup and mug of port in his hand. Beside him was a pretty blonde who held a young boy in her arms.
"Xena!" he said, a bright smile on his face and affection in his blue/grey eyes.
"How goes it, Melas?" she asked, boots hitting the floor as she extended her arm for Melas to take. "Been awhile."
"It has. Haven't seen you since Callisto killed my wife and son. I'll forever be indebted to you, by the way."
"No need. Looks like you're doing well," she said, nodding toward the blonde and child, who looked to be no more than two years old.
"Xena, I'd like you to meet my wife, Leandra and our son, Miklos."
Xena nodded in greeting. "Have a seat," Xena said, indicating the other three chairs at her table.
Melas turned to his wife. "I'll meet you up at the room," he said quietly, giving her a kiss before taking Xena's invitation, the blonde and child headed to the stairs at the back of the tavern that would lead to the rooms on the second floor. He set down his bowl and took a sip from his port. "I hear Gabrielle doesn't travel with you anymore, and seeing she's not with you, I guess the rumors are true."
Xena shrugged a shoulder, taking a long drink from her port. "She's happy."
"Yeah? Is it true she married the boy from her hometown?"
Xena felt her jaw clench, but kept her temper under wraps. Instead, she took another sip, not even bothering to respond. Melas could figure it out on his own. Instead, she said, "Good-lookin' woman, Melas. The kid, too."
The look of adoration and love was unmistakable on his handsome face. "Yes, well… I never thought I'd know love again after Callisto killed my family. I thought that was it for me, but…" he shrugged a shoulder. "I decided to give it another chance. The moment I saw Leandra, I knew I had to go after what I wanted; I had to follow my heart." He pushed up from the table, again reaching his arm out to Xena, which she took. "I hope you do the same." With that, he grabbed his bowl of stew and mug of port and headed to the stairs.
A wooden spoon pushed chunks of potatoes and seasoned cubes of wild boar around the wooden bowl, the broth and peppered carrots falling off the spoon and plopping back into the bowl.
"Sweetheart, are you okay?"
Gabrielle glanced up from the dinner she played with, only to meet the concerned dark eyes of her husband of three years. "Yes, Perdicus. Everything's fine." She gave him a quick smile which didn't reach her eyes. "Guess I'm just not real hungry tonight."
Perdicus said nothing more about it, instead returning to his own meal, ripping off some of the fresh bread his wife and made that day, feeling her eyes on his actions as he dipped it in the leftover broth before shoving it into his mouth. He glanced up and met her gaze, only to get one of her small smiles before she looked back down into her own dinner.
Gabrielle kept listening, straining for the sounds of Hope's cries, as it would give her a reason to leave the table, but they never came. So, she forced herself to eat more of the stew she'd made; after all, she'd spent all evening working on it, so might as well enjoy it.
"Are you and Lila still heading out to the swap tomorrow?" Perdicus asked, grabbing his mug of ale and downing the last of it to finish off his dinner.
"As far as I know, yes. I'm going to take Hope with us, rather than leave her with Mother, though. Are you and Father still planning to mend the fences in the south pastures?" Gabrielle asked, giving up on her dinner and pushing the bowl away.
Perdicus nodded, pushing back from the table to head to his nightly drink down at the tavern with Gabrielle's father and some of the other men of the village. "Are you sure it's wise to take the baby? I mean, this is going to be a good days' travel, Gabrielle."
"I don't want to burden Mother for that long. She has enough to do," she said, pushing away from the table and began to clear it.
"Alright." Perdicus grabbed Gabrielle's coin pouch from the small table by the door of the home that he and his father-in-law, Herodotus had built when he and Gabrielle had arrived back in Potidea after their simple wedding ceremony in front of Gabrielle's friends, Xena and Joxer. He grabbed a few dinars then tossed the pouch back down. "I'll be sure the wagon is loaded before I come in tonight, then help you load the team in the morning."
"Alright," Gabrielle said. "Have fun and tell Father I said hello," she said, accepting the quick, whiskered kiss before Perdicus walked out the door. In truth, she hated the new beard he had grown, as its scratchy feel made her stomach want to revolt.
Left alone, Gabrielle tore off the bit of scroll that her list was written on and placed it next to her coin pouch so she'd remember to take it with her to market in the swap meet the following day. Dinner cleaned up and dishes set out to dry, Gabrielle lifted the skirts of her peasant dress and headed into the bedroom where her 18 month old daughter, Hope was sleeping. She walked over to the crib that Perdicus had made for her and looked down at her, who lay on her stomach, head to the side and arms bent at the elbows and raised overhead.
"My little one," Gabrielle whispered, reaching a hand into the crib and gently rubbing the baby's back.
Hope had truly been her hope. When she'd agreed to marry Perdicus, it had been in the heat of the moment, the guilt of feeling that she'd unwittingly led him into a life of fighting and battle had eaten at her heart since she and Xena had left Troy. Then, when he'd shown up in the middle of the night at their camp and had proposed, claiming that her face had stopped him from taking his own life after too many battles, too many lives lost, she had been completely torn.
When Xena had asked her what her answer was as they'd walked along that sea-side road, Gabrielle had meant it when she'd said the answer was no. She was still torn, but ultimately, she'd felt in her heart that she couldn't be what Perdicus needed, which was a wife and partner in life. As far as she'd been concerned, she already had a partner in life, and that was Xena.
"Then what did I do?" she whispered to herself, running her fingers over her daughter's dark brown hair, the same color as her father's, even though she had her mother's eyes.
Leaning down, Gabrielle placed a kiss where her fingers had just been, then walked out of Hope's room and into the one she shared with Perdicus. She made her way over to the wardrobe, taking out her sleeping gown to ready for bed. Her thoughts continued to the past.
The night they'd been battling Callisto's army, the village in fiery ruin, she'd watched Perdicus come undone as he knelt by the dead body of yet another slain man in battle: he was done, he'd said. He was going home. Again, that unbearable guilt had ravaged her soul, and again she'd made a split second decision without thinking of the future consequences.
"The answer's yes, Xena," she'd said, "I'm going to marry him."
Gabrielle slipped her peasant dress off over her head, not bothering to look at herself in the full-length looking glass, as she didn't want to see what she'd become. Once a woman of the road, a body made hard from hours of walking and fighting by Xena's side. Now, she looked like a common village wife and mother, though she certainly didn't lament the mother part. Despite her situation, Hope had been the best thing that had ever happened to her. Other than Xena.
Gabrielle hadn't thought of her in a long, long time. Correction: Gabrielle hadn't let herself think of her in a long, long time. It was another lifetime ago, and plainly over, as she hadn't seen the warrior since Gabrielle had walked away from her after giving her the flower bouquet after the ceremony. Perhaps the power of the bride's bouquet had worked and Xena had found someone and settled somewhere? She doubted it, and certainly didn't want to think about that aspect no more than she wanted to think of the other possibility, and that was that someone had finally bested Xena in battle.
Neither explanation for her absence felt right, so there was only one other possibility Gabrielle could think of: maybe Xena had never really cared at all, and in the end, she was glad to get rid of "the irritating blonde" in matrimony to Perdicus of Potidea.
Gabrielle slid her sleeping gown over her head and let the loose material drift down her body, so changed, with rounder curves and much paler skin. In so many ways she felt like she was back in the skin of that young girl who had first chanced it all and had left everything and everyone she'd ever known to follow her dreams by following Xena. Ironically, she, Lila and Hope would be taking that same route the following morning, as the swap wasn't far from Amphipolis in Thrace.
The swap was an annual event where merchants, buyers and sellers could meet with their wares, ranging anything from crops to animal skins to textiles and more. Gabrielle, Lila and their mother, Hecuba had worked diligently over the past seasons to sew and craft blankets, quilts and spun thread for Lila and Gabrielle to take to the swap.
Gabrielle sat at the small vanity tucked into the corner of the room, a round looking glass mounted on the back. She grabbed her boar's hair brush in hand and gently brushed out the long, blonde strands of her hair. To her surprise, her pregnancy with Hope had lightened her hair substantially, so now it was closer to the color of her mother's hair than the reds of her Aunt Helena's. If the sun hit it just right, a fiery halo could still somewhat be seen, but for the most part, it had turned a golden blonde.
Finished brushing her hair, Gabrielle studied her reflection in the dancing candle light that flickered from candles lit in various places in the room. She focused in on her eyes, noting how they looked grey in the orange/gold light of the flame. But, what she noticed the most was that they looked positively dead. As a young girl, that was one thing people mentioned most was, not just the color, but the life and spark within. Her mother used to tell her trouble, itself lived within those eyes.
Gabrielle quickly looked away, deeply troubled by what she was seeing. Instead, she blew out the candle on the vanity top then those throughout the room and climbed into bed. She wanted to sleep and not think about her past nor her future tomorrow, so close to Amphipolis.
"Who's my little Hope girl?" Lila gushed, holding the baby high overhead, the two grinning at each other, though Lila wasn't giggling like her beloved niece. Lila brought the girl down into her arms, giving her a kiss on the side of her head before she put her down. "I can't believe how big she's getting."
"I know," Gabrielle agreed, giving her daughter a smile of utter adoration. "I can't imagine my life without her."
Gabrielle and Lila had their wares set up in their wagon, most already either sold for dinars or traded for goods the sisters and their family's needed. The swap had been a success for the second year in a row for Gabrielle, though as she glanced up into the late afternoon sky, she could see that a late summer storm was rolling in. She and Lila planned to bunk down in the woods, but if the rains came, there was no way Gabrielle was going to keep her daughter out in the storm.
"It's looking ugly," Lila said, noticing where Gabrielle's gaze was. "Maybe we should find shelter for the night instead, huh, Gabs?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, I agree." She met Lila's wide, blue/gray gaze. "I know somewhere we can go."
"Micah, table three needs some fresh ale," Cyrene shouted out to her wait staff as she pulled the fresh bread out of the oven. "And here," she continued, handing the boy a small wicker basket of sliced bread. "Give them this, too."
"Yes, Cyrene." The boy grabbed the basket then rushed off to do his boss' bidding.
Cyrene tugged the towel free from where it had been slung over her shoulder and used it to handle the hot bread pan. She glanced over her shoulder through the opening in the wall where she could check on things in the main tavern area from the kitchen. She stopped, surprised.
Making sure the bread pan was safely on the table, she wiped her hands on her skirt and headed towards the swinging door, pushing through. Her eyes - so much like those of her daughter - once again found what had caught her attention.
Gabrielle turned from the table she and Lila were getting settled at. Hope still in her arms, she met the gaze of the woman walking towards her. "Cyrene," she smiled, genuinely happy to see her.
"How wonderful to see you!" Cyrene said, taking Gabrielle in a tight hug, though careful of the baby, which she looked at when they parted. "Who's this?"
"Cyrene, this is my daughter, Hope. And, this is my sister, Lila. Lila, this is Xena's mother, Cyrene."
"It's nice to meet you, Lila," Cyrene said, taking Lila's hand and returning her smile of greeting. "As for you," Cyrene said, the ache of a grandmother without a grandchild coming full force. "You are a beautiful little girl!" She looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "May I?"
"Please," Gabrielle said, handing over her daughter, secretly very pleased to see Cyrene's reaction to her child.
"Oh, Gabrielle," Cyrene said softly with the reverence of a mother in her voice. "She's beautiful."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said just as softly. As she watched Cyrene with her daughter, she couldn't help but wonder how Xena would be with Hope. Would she be as uneasy and unsure as she'd been with the baby they'd found and ultimately given to King Gregor? Or, would she be the loving, strong force that she was for Solan when they'd gone back to the Centaur village? She reached out and ran her fingers over the softness of the toddler's hair.
"Xena would be so proud," Cyrene said, smiling over the girl's head. "So happy to see your daughter."
Gabrielle nodded, giving as brave a smile as she could. "I'm sure she would."
Cyrene looked at the younger woman, whom she knew meant more to her daughter than anyone in the world, and she saw the same sadness briefly flash through those green eyes as she saw in Xena's every time she came through town, regardless of how much Xena tried to deny it.
"Are you here for dinner?" she asked, gently rubbing her hand in soothing circles over the little girl's back in her arms. She couldn't help but smile, as Hope just seemed to feel completely at home in her arms, her little head even resting on her shoulder. Cyrene was utterly charmed. "I think I've made a new friend."
Gabrielle chuckled lightly. "Yes, I think you have. She's had a long day and I know she's tired, but I've never seen her be so comfortable with a complete stranger before."
"Well," Cyrene said, placing a kiss upon the girl's dark crown. "that's because we're not strangers, Gabrielle." She gave the beautiful blonde woman - no longer the girl she had once been - a loving smile. "We're family." She reached out a hand and cupped Gabrielle's cheek, the younger woman seemingly on the verge of tears. "Just because my daughter's foolish doesn't mean that I am. I'm delighted that you all are here, and I want you to be my special guests."
Lila watched the exchange with interest. She knew Gabrielle and Xena were close, but in truth, Gabrielle hadn't spoken much - if at all - about Xena since she'd returned to Potidea. But, seeing the interaction between her sister and Cyrene, she had some questions beginning to mull. She could sense such sadness coming off of her sister which she'd felt before, but knowing Gabrielle as well as she did, she'd always just thought Gabrielle missed Xena and their friendship and time on the road. But now, watching how her older sister was reacting to Cyrene's words and touch, she thought maybe she needed to re-think things.
"And yes," Gabrielle said at length. "We're here for dinner, but also, if you happen to have a room you can spare - "
"Of course I do!" Cyrene exclaimed, sounding almost hurt. Just then, the skies outside split open with the power of Zeus' lightning bolt, followed quickly by the loud BOOM of thunder. No more than a moment later, the rains began to pound down upon the earth. "Looks like you arrived just in time."
Cyrene still held the baby in her arms as she led the sisters up the flight of stairs to the second floor, where she unlocked Xena's bedroom door, stepping through and quickly lighting a candle.
"You'll have more room and be more comfortable in here," Cyrene explained, smiling proudly at both young women.
Gabrielle knew whose room this belonged to, as she'd stayed in it once before during a visit with Xena. "Cyrene," she said softly, "are you sure she won't mind?"
"I'm positive, dear." Cyrene gave Hope a hug and made a funny face at her that made the child giggle, then handed her back to her mother. "As much as I don't want to let this little one go, I better get back to the kitchen." She gave a winning smile to both Gabrielle and Lila. "Would you like to eat downstairs or shall I have something brought up for you?"
"Oh Cyrene, no," Gabrielle protested. "I don't want to be any trouble -"
"Now you hush up," Cyrene smiled. "You're no trouble at all. You three get settled in and dinner will be on its way."
Left alone, Gabrielle set Hope down onto her feet. She looked up to see Lila staring at her, hand on her hip. "What?"
"What is there you aren't telling me about you and Xena?"
Gabrielle chuckled and turned away, heading to the bed where Lila had dropped their bags. "Nothing, Lila. She was my best friend at the time, but that time is over: plain and simple." As far as Gabrielle was concerned, the discussion was over. She began to rummage through their bags looking for toys for Hope.
Later that night, Gabrielle brought down their dirty dinner dishes, not surprised to find the tavern near-empty as the storm was raging, and Cyrene in the kitchen, kneading dough. The kitchen door was propped open, so Gabrielle stepped through.
"Hey," she said, not wanting to startle Cyrene with her sudden appearance.
"Hello, dear. How was your dinner?" Cyrene asked, glancing over her shoulder as she continued her kneading.
Gabrielle showed her the two empty wooden bowls with a smile. "You are such an amazing cook, Cyrene. And, you still need to teach me how to make that amazing nut bread that you make."
Cyrene smiled down at her dough. "I do, don't I? You can set those down on that table, there, Gabrielle and I'll get them later."
"No, I'll clean up after us, Cyrene; looks like you've got enough on your hands. Literally."
Familiar in a kitchen that hadn't changed from previous visits with Xena years before, Gabrielle walked over to the tub Cyrene used to clean dishes. She grabbed the bucket of hot water that warmed over the stove and poured some in over the dirty dishes along with some of the soap that Cyrene made from herbs and flowers she grew in her own garden out back.
They both worked in silence for a moment before Cyrene glanced over at Gabrielle. "How is your family, Gabrielle? Your sister is lovely."
"Yes, she's great. My parents are fine; Father has been busy building this wonderful little pen for Hope," she said, her smile wide and adoration in her voice. "That way, I can be outside weeding the garden or mending clothing and she can play to her heart's content without me worrying about her wandering off somewhere. And, Mother keeps busy with a group she belongs to; some of the wives in town meet up once or twice a week and either bake together or sew or whatever. She's invited me to join them, but, ugh… no thank you! Thank the gods Hope keeps me far too busy."
Cyrene listened, glancing over at the young woman from time to time to let her know she was listening. When Gabrielle didn't continue, Cyrene's brows fell. "And your husband? How is he?"
Gabrielle felt like a real ass, as it hadn't even occurred to her to mention Perdicus. "He's good," she said quietly, scrubbing a bit of dried carrot from the bottom of one of the bowls. "He works with my father in the fields."
"Oh," Cyrene said, trying to sound upbeat. "That sounds wonderful."
Gabrielle worked on in silence for a long moment before turning to look at the older woman's profile. "Cyrene?"
"Do you… have you… would you think…"
Cyrene stopped her kneading and turned her full attention on the pretty young woman. "Gabrielle," she said softly, wiping her hands on the towel slung over her shoulder then stepped over to Gabrielle and cupped her cheek. "Dear, dear Gabrielle. You know you can talk to me, don't you?"
Gabrielle nodded, leaning into the touch for a moment before she moved away, wiping her own hands on a towel that lay on the work table. The one thing she'd always noticed about Cyrene, and that she wished she had in her own mother, was someone who was so utterly kind and understanding. Cyrene was a woman who was filled with compassion yet unimaginable strength. Just like her daughter.
"Let me get this into the oven and we'll sit down and have a nice cup of tea, alright?" Cyrene said with a motherly smile, both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.
Ten minutes later, the two sat at the table, a hot mug of spiced tea in front of them. "So, my darling, what troubles you?" Cyrene asked, hands cupped around her warm mug.
Gabrielle squeezed a bit more lemon into her tea before setting the juiced fruit aside and blowing across the hot surface of the dark liquid. "Have you ever looked back on your life and wondered - questioned - certain things you've done? And then, you've had to sit back and look at the consequences of those things?"
Cyrene played with her mug for a moment before she responded. "I'm going to go out on a limb here, but … are you having second thoughts, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle's gaze shot up from where it had been looking into her hot drink. "No!" she said, far too loud and far too enthusiastic. She rolled her eyes at her own weakness, then crossed her arms on the table and dropped her head onto them. "Oh, Cyrene," she groaned, words muffled into her forearms.
Cyrene moved from her chair across from Gabrielle to the one to her left. "My sweet child," she murmured, a hand reaching out to caress soft, blonde hair before resting on her shoulder. "Tell me."
Gabrielle looked up, tears in her eyes. "There's nothing to tell, Cyrene," she sighed, sitting up fully and swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. She let out a heavy breath then reached for her tea. "I made my choice, and now I have to live with it. Besides," she let out a rueful snort. "It's not like it matters, anyway. Xena has moved on with her life and is apparently busy. It's okay, Cyrene." She gave the older woman a brave smile. "Xena never asked me to join her, anyway; I kind of forced the issue, so… Maybe this is for the best."
Gabrielle, Lila and Hope had left earlier that morning, and after making them all a wonderful breakfast and spending as much time as she could with the child, Cyrene went into Xena's room to change the sheets and ready the space for whenever her daughter returned. As she gathered the linens, she glanced over at the small table in the corner and noticed something sitting atop it. Walking over to it, she saw that it was a hairbrush, which had long, golden strands still stuck in the boar's hair bristles. For just a moment she considered taking it into her own chambers for safekeeping but then thought better of it. With a soft smile, she left it where it was.
Xena pulled the bear skin a bit tighter around her shoulders as the mid-October snow and wind bit into her very bones. She guided Argo the last bit of the way until she saw the familiar farmer's huts, their fields long frozen over. A few of the men were out chopping wood, all nodding a greeting at her as she entered the village limits.
"'Afternoon, Xena," one farmer called out.
"'Afternoon, Heston," she called back, raising a hand in greeting.
Finally, Argo entered the village proper, the stables just up ahead and Xena's mother's tavern and inn not much further beyond. She got Argo boarded and taken care of then walked to her mother's tavern, stomping her boots free of snow just inside the main room. The place was busy, most trying to warm up with mugs of strong port and hot tea, as well as a bowl of hot stew and her mother's famous nut bread, hot and fresh from the oven.
Xena turned just in time to be taken in a crushing hug from her mother, which she happily returned. "Hello, Mother." She leaned down to accept the kiss on her cheek from her much shorter mother then smiled down at her. "How have you been?"
"Oh, busy!" Cyrene stated, leading the way to the kitchen, fully expecting her daughter to follow, which she dutifully did. "Port or ale, dear?"
"Which is runnin' stronger?" She met her mother's disapproving glare. "What? I'm cold and it was a long ride."
Cyrene shook her head but poured her daughter her mug of port and sliced a healthy piece of nut bread with freshly creamed butter. "Sit down and eat."
Xena didn't have to be asked a second time, as she adored her mother's food and was so happy to be inside where it was warm that she could break out in song. But first, she took a long, satisfying drink, eyes closing in pleasure as she lowered the mug, feeling the strong brew glide through her system. Soon she'd begin to feel the dulling effects.
"I thought you'd have been back for the summer solstice celebrations, Xena," Cyrene said, sitting across from her daughter. "I really could have used your help."
"I know, Mother, I'm sorry," Xena said, setting her port aside and tearing off a piece of the buttered nut bread. Her eyes closed once again in pleasure at the first taste. She just barely suppressed a moan. "I got held up in Kaispar for awhile."
"A war of some sort, no doubt." Cyrene watched her child eat, cheek resting on her closed fist.
"Essentially," Xena muttered around a mouthful of nut bread. She washed it down with some port then studied her mother, feeling much better with some food in her belly. She hadn't wanted to stop once the weather had really begun to turn ugly.
"How long are you staying?" Cyrene asked, snagging a bit of Xena's bread and popping it into her mouth.
"Well," Xena said, sitting back in her chair, fingers sliding through the handle on her mug and lifting it to her lips. After a sip she set it down again. "I was thinking since I didn't come for summer solstice, I may as well stay for winter solstice."
"Xena! Do you mean it?" Cyrene asked, eyes wide with excitement.
"Sure," Xena shrugged a shoulder. "I can get to all those projects that you need done around here."
Cyrene was out of her seat in a flash. She hugged her daughter from behind and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Your room is all ready for you, love."
Xena inserted the key into the lock, which easily turned. She grabbed the door handle to the bedroom that she'd grown up in, a place that gave her solace when very few places in the world could. She always claimed she didn't need a home nor want one, but she would admit only to herself that her mother's inn always gave her comfort. Once that comfort came from Gabrielle, but now, her childhood bedroom would have to do.
The room was exactly as she'd left it during her last visit, even though she knew her mother came in and cleaned often, whether it needed it or not. She also knew she'd have clean linens and a soft mattress, which her mother would have had re-stuffed with straw end of summer, just like she did every year since Xena had been 5 years old.
She noted the same red quilt that had been made for her by some random relative when she was a child, and trailed her fingers along the smooth top of the wooden footboard of the bed, which she'd all too happily collapse onto at any moment. She considered it when she noticed something atop the table in the corner.
Walking over to it, Xena reached a hand out and grabbed the handle of the brush. "What in Hades' name is this doing in here?" she murmured, noting the blonde hairs still wrapped around some of the bristles.
Anger rising, she stormed out of her room and down the stairs to the kitchen, where she found her mother cutting up vegetables. What she didn't see was the look of knowing amusement on Cyrene's face as she heard Xena slam into the room.
"What's this?" Xena demanded, holding the brush up.
Cyrene - all innocent eyes - turned and looked at her daughter. "Why, it looks like a hair brush, dear."
"I know that, Mother. What was it doing in my room? You said you'd never rent out my room-"
"And I haven't."
"Then why was this left in my room?" Xena asked, waving the brush and raising a dark eyebrow in challenge.
"Because I figured hopefully you could take it back to its owner," Cyrene said simply, turning back to her cutting.
Xena was baffled and felt her anger turning into irritation at her mother's blasé attitude about this. "How would I know who it belongs to, and why would I care? All I care about right now is that someone else was in my room!" She knew she sounded like a petulant child, but didn't care.
"The woman that brush belongs to is a lovely young woman who stayed in your room with her child and her sister." Cyrene turned to meet her daughter's fiery gaze toe to toe: Xena's look of death had no affect on her.
"I said I never rented your room out, which I didn't."
"Then who was this lovely young woman, the kid and sister?" Xena growled, standing to her full height and glaring down at her mother.
"Gabrielle, Lila and Gabrielle's daughter, Hope."
Xena opened her mouth to spew some sort of angry remark, but it was left frozen in her throat, her mouth instead hanging open in utter shock. All anger drained from her, instead replaced with shock. "What?"
Cyrene turned back to her vegetables so Xena wouldn't see the smile that threatened to burst from her lips. "A couple months back they came in after a day at the swap to get out of a bad storm. The inn was full, so I put them in your room." She was lying about the inn being full part, but Xena didn't have to know that. She glanced over her shoulder at her daughter. "I didn't think you'd mind. Apparently Gabrielle forgot her brush."
"This can't be hers," Xena growled, tugging one of the blonde strands free. "Gabrielle doesn't have blonde hair."
"She did as of August," Cyrene said. "She looks rather lovely as a blonde."
Xena fell back against the table where her mother was chopping vegetables, looking out over the kitchen and into the main room of the tavern. "And you said Lila has a daughter, right?"
"You heard me just fine, Xena. Hope belongs to Gabrielle and she's every bit as beautiful as her mother."
Xena felt as though she'd taken a punch to the stomach at the news, which was ridiculous, she knew as Gabrielle was a married woman. However, Gabrielle having a child brought it all home full circle that Gabrielle had allowed that little bastard to touch her. That was a thought that ripped at her heart.
"I'm sure she is, Mother," she said quietly. She set the brush down on the work table. "I have work to do here; I don't have time to take a day trip just to return a brush." With that, she left the kitchen.
Cyrene watched her go, a heavy sigh released in disappointment. "Stubborn girl," she muttered.
"Son of a Bacchae!" Xena yelled, dropping the mallet and placed her throbbing thumb into her mouth, growling around it. "Ares' balls, that hurt…"
She sat back on her rear end on the roof of her mother's inn and looked out over the village. She'd been home for just over three weeks and the snow from the last storm had cleared up, though from the pregnant clouds overhead, it looked as though another were on its way. So, she decided to take the reprieve to fix some leaks. She felt bad, as no doubt the spring and summer rains had played havoc on the structure of the building.
She grabbed her water skin and took a long drink, the cold temperatures of the day keeping the water nice and cold. She tugged the heavy, winter cloak Cyrene had made for her a bit tighter around her, as on the roof, the icy winds were even more bone-chilling. Amphipolis was a busy little village, and as Xena watched her people making their way to market - even in the cold - and to their homes, talking in the streets, she felt a strange sense of pride at her hometown. And, even though she kept mostly to herself even at home, she felt a strange sense of camaraderie with them.
No sooner was the thought in her head when her attention was caught to a side street to the west when she heard a scuffle beginning.
"Hey! I paid good money for this armor!"
Xena rolled her eyes and grabbed the mallet she'd been using. With a loud war cry, she launched herself off the roof, flipping through the air until she landed between the two, legs spread and mallet raised in warning to both men. She looked at the traveler that had his hand around the neck of the other, grabbing him by his shirtfront and pulling him to her.
"Be nice," she said sweetly before sending him sprawling to the ground. She turned to the other man. "You alright, Joxer?"
"Let me at 'im, Xena!" he exclaimed, trying to pull his sword free from its scabbard. "I can take 'im!"
"So I saw," Xena drawled, a hand pressed to his chest holding him in place. She waited until he gave up and slammed the sword back into place then straightened his helmet. "Good ta see you. What brings you here?"
"Actually, your mom's nut bread," he grinned. "I'm on my way to Potidea to see Gabby, so figured I'd stop in here on the way." Together they began to walk towards the inn. "You seen Gabby's baby yet? Real cutie pie."
"Uh, no," Xena muttered.
"You're kidding? Aw, you really should go, Xena. Perdicus is pretty great, too," he went on, oblivious to the murderous rage stewing in the woman walking next to him. "Hey, I got an idea!" Joxer exclaimed, stopping their progress and putting a hand on Xena's shoulder, which he quickly removed when he saw the death glare in her eyes. "Why don't you come with me?"
Xena let out a heavy sigh and looked out over the village before glancing back at him. "Thanks Joxer, but I gotta lot to do here for my mother."
Later that night, Xena lay in bed, a hand behind her head as she stared up at the dark ceiling of her bedroom. After spending a little bit of time with Joxer earlier that day, she'd gone back to some of her mother's projects for her. Just like before, she and Joxer traveled together from time to time, as he'd show up seemingly from out of nowhere, or she'd end up running into him while in some jam, such as earlier that day. She knew Joxer and Gabrielle had remained friends, but hadn't realized he'd gone back to visit her as often as he did.
She felt like even more of a schmuck. There was no way in hell she could go with him the following day: she'd let far too much time go by. If she went with him, she would have no idea what to say, no idea how to act around Gabrielle anymore, and certainly no idea how to act around Perdicus. How would she treat her daughter? Hello, Hope I'm your mother's heartless friend who couldn't even stop by to say hello in three years. Nice to meet you.
"Damn," she muttered.
Joxer flipped his sword around as he walked along the lane, his breath coming out in white puffs as he whistled his favorite tune. He was about to belt out a few notes when he heard the galloping of a horse coming down the road behind him. Turning, he was surprised to see Xena slow Argo to a trot as she neared him until she stopped next to him. She extended a hand down to him.
"If you want a ride, you best get it now or you can walk," she said, voice dull and hard.
"Really? Me, up there with you?"
"Joxer," Xena sighed. "I am in no mood for you, so get on or I turn around. Your choice."
Smart enough to know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth - literally - Joxer took Xena's hand and let himself be pulled up on the horse behind the warrior.
Argo made good time, even with Joxer's extra added weight, and as they entered the village of Potidea, Xena couldn't help but feel her nerves begin to make her feel nauseous. She'd only been in the village the one time, after saving Gabrielle and the other villagers from Draco's men, but she easily recognized the buildings in the center of town as well as the outlying huts and homes of the people.
Across the village she saw Gabrielle's parents' house, and not far from it, a new structure had been built.
"That's Gabby's house," Joxer informed, pointing over Xena's shoulder at the house.
Xena grabbed his wrist in a steel grip and threw his hand away from her. "I figured as much." She stopped Argo and reached behind her, tugging Joxer from his place behind her and to the ground, where he fell with a yelp. "If you wanna ride back, meet me at the tavern, first thing in the morning."
Joxer picked himself up, straightening his helmet. "Thanks, Xena."
Before Joxer could say anything else, Xena got Argo turned around and galloped into the woods. He watched her go, then straightened his armor and made his way across the field to Gabrielle and Perdicus' house. He raised a gauntlet-covered fist and gave the wood three sound raps.
Xena pulled Argo to a stop in a thicket of trees then dismounted, leaving her at a small patch of wild grass to munch on. Eyes never leaving Gabrielle's small, wood and thatch home, Xena made her way to an ancient tree with a tree trunk wide enough to hide two men. She rested a hand on its rough surface and watched.
Joxer waited at the door until finally it was opened. Xena watched intently as Gabrielle stood in the door frame, dressed in a simple peasant skirt and blouse, much like what she'd been wearing the day they'd met. Her hair was long and, sure enough, blonde and flowed around her shoulders. The bard's smile was infectious as she saw who her visitor was, Xena unable to stop her own smile. She watched as they embraced, wishing it was her in Gabrielle's arms and not Joxer.
Xena moved closer to the tree, almost as though needing to feel close to Gabrielle, even though they were nearly forty yards apart. The two were speaking, though as excellent as Xena's hearing was, she couldn't even pick up the musical lilt of Gabrielle's voice, though she could see her lips.
… I've missed you! … No, she's not here. Come in!
Gabrielle stepped aside to let Joxer in, but she stayed standing in the doorway for a moment, her gaze scanning the area. Xena instinctually stepped further behind the tree, her fingers claw-like on the bark.
"What are you looking for, Gabrielle?" she whispered. A moment later, Gabrielle disappeared inside the house, closing the door behind her: show over. Xena let out a heavy sigh then rested her forehead against the trunk of the tree.
Gabrielle was beyond thrilled to see Joxer, who dutifully came to see her and her family at least twice a year, usually more. She got him seated at the table and immediately set about getting him something to drink and eat; she remembered those days on the road and how utterly exhausting they could be.
"So, how have you been?" she asked, sitting across from him, watching him eat the fresh bread she'd baked and a mug of water. "Anything new happening out there?"
Joxer took a long drink of the water before turning to the bread, still warm from the oven. "Wandering the countryside and saving lives," he said, stuffing his mouth full of bread.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "No doubt. Did you stop in Amphipolis this time?" she asked, sitting back in her chair.
Joxer nodded as he chewed, swallowing it down with more water. "Oh!" He jumped up from where he sat and grabbed his pack, which had been hung on a hook next to the door. "Cyrene wanted me to give this to you."
Gabrielle accepted the small wrapped package, delighted to see it was a generous chunk of nut bread. "Oh, yum!" She couldn't help herself as she tore off a piece and popped it into her mouth. "Well, I want to hear about all your travels," she insisted.
Xena took care of Argo, brushing her and spending time with her in the stables before she made her way into the town proper, intending to go to the general store to buy some supplies that her mother needed and she'd promised to pick up while she was gone. The village was bustling, which somewhat annoyed Xena, as she didn't spend a great deal of time in villages or inns anymore: that had always been a treat she'd given to Gabrielle, not something she wanted or particularly needed on her own.
She reached for the door to the general store, when suddenly the door flew open and a little girl ran right into Xena's legs. "Whoa there!" she exclaimed, on instinct grabbing the child and picking her up. Wide, green eyes looked into Xena's own, strands of long, dark hair in the girl's face. Xena placed the toddler on her hip, holding her with one arm and brushed the wisps away.
"Where were you headed, little one? Where do you belong?" she asked sweetly. In lieu of a verbal response, the girl pointed her tiny little arm back towards the store. "Is your mommy in there?"
The little girl shook her head vigorously, a little finger finding its way into her mouth. She muttered something around that finger that Xena couldn't understand then the girl's attention was grabbed by Xena's shiny breast plate. She took the finger out of her mouth and began to trace the swirls of the breast plate pattern with a slobber-covered finger. Amazingly enough, Xena didn't mind.
"What's your name, little one?" she asked, pulling the door open to the store.
The little girl looked up at her. "Hope," she managed, her talking skills not completely fluid and understandable yet.
"Yeah?" Xena said, partially understanding the tot. "I'm Xena."
"Ena?" the little one repeated.
Xena smiled, charmed. "Yes. Xena. Now, let's see if we can find who you belong to, huh?"
The general store was a small structure filled with wooden shelving filled with textiles, barrels of grain and hemp sacks of other goods. People shopped, loading up their own sacks with goods, most milling about, a few glancing suspiciously at the warrior woman. She ignored their looks, instead searching the store for the child's mother.
"Who do you belong to, sweetheart?" she asked, eyeing all the women. When the toddler pointed, Xena's blood froze.
Lila stood at the counter where bolts of material could be measured, cut and bought. It looked as though she were haggling with the shopkeeper over her purchase. Xena stared at the young woman for a moment, everything clicking into place. She realized she was holding Gabrielle's daughter, who had been out shopping with her aunt.
Xena made her way over to Lila, who was still busy with the shopkeeper, so Xena gave Hope one last smile as well as a kiss to the forehead, then she set her down on a nearby counter and walked away.
Lila's attention was grabbed by something out of the corner of her eye. She glanced down, stunned to see her niece sitting atop a high counter. She looked around in time to see the door to the shop close.
Later that night, Lila and Joxer enjoyed dinner at Gabrielle's house, Perdicus helping Hope to cut into the wonderful little dumplings his wife had made with the delicious red filling.
Gabrielle, Joxer and Lila were talking amongst themselves when suddenly Hope looked over at her mother and called out -
All eyes were on the child as she looked from one to the other, eyes wide and a big smile on her face.
"What, sweetheart?" Gabrielle asked.
"She was saying that all afternoon when we left town today," Lila said, looking at her niece.
"Maybe she means Xena," Joxer offered, biting into the turkey leg that he held in his hands. As he chewed, he froze, all eyes on him now. He swallowed reflexively, eyes nearly bulging out of his head. "Uh… I mean, you know, uh… It's a common name and all…"
Gabrielle unwrapped her long skirt, setting it on the plain wooden chair in the corner of her side of the room, Perdicus likewise was undressing on his. Dinner had ended an hour before, Lila going home and Gabrielle making Joxer a bed on the floor after the table had been moved over, and Hope had been put to bed.
"I thought you said she was out of our lives," Perdicus said, breaking the silence in the room.
Gabrielle glanced over at him. "What?"
"Xena," Perdicus clarified, sitting on the bed as he tugged his boots off. "You said she was out of our lives."
"No, Perdicus, I didn't." Gabrielle tugged her blouse off over her head, lying it atop her skirt then grabbed her sleeping shift, which was lying on the bed. "I said she hasn't been in my life for three years, but not that she's not welcome in it." She turned away, which shielded her from seeing the look of disgust on her husband's face.
"So, what? Now she's back?"
"What if she were?" Gabrielle challenged, whirling to look at him. "Would that bother you so terribly bad?"
Perdicus threw his boots across the room, his anger and jealousy building. "I don't want that woman in my house, Gabrielle," he growled. "It was hard enough for me to convince you not to name our daughter after her."
"Which, might I remind you, you said we could the night we got married."
Perdicus smirked, tugging his shirt over his head. "I had to say something to get you into bed," he muttered.
"What did you just say?" Gabrielle asked, stunned. She walked over to him, noting he wouldn't meet her hardened gaze. "How dare you," she whispered, part hurt and part disgusted. "You're nothing but a jealous horse's ass," she muttered, grabbing her boots as she stormed from the room.
She went into Hope's room to check on her daughter, also knowing that she could help calm Gabrielle far more and far quicker than anything in the world. The toddler was lying on her side, legs curled up to her chest. Gabrielle reached a hand down, brushing her dark hair away from her face before leaning down and leaving a soft kiss on the side of her head.
"I love you, little one," she whispered, then made sure the girl was tucked in and left the room, being as quiet as she could as she stepped by Joxer's sleeping body, his soft snores letting her know he hadn't been awakened by her and Perdicus' fight.
She tugged on her boots then grabbed her cloak, which hung on a hook by the door and wrapped it around her shoulders. Stepping outside took the breath from her for a moment, as it was cold and it smelled as though snow were in the air. She looked up into the sky, figuring there must be some heavy cloud cover as the moon and stars were nowhere to be seen.
She stepped out beyond the front porch, the frosted dirt crunching beneath her feet. She glanced back over her shoulder when she heard the front door open and then close. She smiled slightly when she saw Joxer walking towards her, his own cloak wrapped around his shoulders.
"You okay?" he asked, voice quiet.
Gabrielle nodded, though she turned her gaze back to look out over the night. "How is she, Joxer?" she asked, her voice so soft, it was almost a whisper.
Joxer didn't have to ask for clarification as the reverent tone in Gabrielle's voice said it all. "She's okay," he said, also looking out to the night. "She's still riding out there and busting heads, but she's okay. A little thin."
Gabrielle was quiet for a long moment, then, "Does she hate me, Joxer?"
Joxer studied her profile for a long moment, his eyes beginning to adjust to the darkness. Finally he smiled, even if Gabrielle didn't see it. "No. I think she's being as stubborn as you are, is all."
"I don't think she's being stubborn, Joxer. I think Xena is fine leaving well enough alone, and is glad to be rid of me." She could feel her friend's gaze still on her so turned her head to meet it. "I don't think she wants to see me."
"I understand why you think that, but listen, Gabby, it's just not true."
Gabrielle pulled her cloak a bit tighter around her shoulders. "Hope's initiation as an Amazon child is coming up. She'll be two in a few months, and they want to have the initiation ceremony the first full moon before her birthday."
"I'll go with ya!" Joxer offered, far more enthusiasm in his voice than was best for his survival as a man in the world of the Amazons. He backed down at Gabrielle's glare. "I mean, you know, I could escort you and little Hope there and protect you."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle chuckled. "I'm sure you could, but no." She turned to him and placed a cold hand on his shoulder. "Let's get some sleep."
Stripped out of her cloak and boots, Gabrielle lay in the darkness next to a sleeping Perdicus. She glanced over at him, his back to her, and studied the back of his head. Once upon a time, she used to run her fingers through his hair every night to try and help him get to sleep, as far too many nights he'd be awakened by nightmares of his days at Troy. Not anymore. As she studied him, she thought back to their wedding day. Actually, what she thought about was after the ceremony when she said her goodbyes to Xena.
Xena sent Joxer away, then they'd walked together a few steps, Xena's hand around Gabrielle's waist and head leaning down into hers.
"I'm so happy for you," Xena said.
"I'm going to miss you so much," Gabrielle said, never meaning seven words so much in all her life.
Xena stopped them and turned to face Gabrielle. "Hey, it's not like we'll never see one another again. I'll visit you all the time."
"You promise?" Gabrielle asked, doubt niggling at her belly.
Xena smiled at her. "I'll be knocking on your door so often you'll be sick of me."
Gabrielle couldn't help the small laugh that drew from her. "Never," she said, raising challenging brows. Together they looked over at Joxer who was messing with Perdicus, acting like a couple of little boys. As Gabrielle watched them play, she couldn't help but think of the boy she'd grown up with, rather than the man she had just married. "You know, I think I fell in love with him at Troy," she said, in all honesty, not sure why she'd said it. Later, she'd come to realize she'd wanted to see what Xena's reaction to those words would be.
"No kidding," Xena said, her words dry and dull.
Gabrielle looked up into her beautiful face, caught by Xena's tone and wondering where it came from. "Huh," she'd said in response. She took a breath, about to ask Xena to come with her, to hang out in Potidea for awhile, and to please never leave her life, but Xena stopped her, almost panicked as her hands came up to forestall what Gabrielle was about to say.
Xena rested her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Gabrielle, I am not going to let you say goodbye," she said softly, staring into Gabrielle's eyes. "That's not what this is"
Then what is it?! Gabrielle had screamed inside her head. Why are you letting me go?
"We'll see one another again soon," Xena continued, completely unaware of the war waging inside Gabrielle's head.
Gabrielle stared into Xena's eyes for a long moment, somewhere inside knowing this was the end. This was Xena's way of saying goodbye without saying goodbye, and she could swear she saw the same uncertainty reflected back at her in Xena's beautiful blue eyes. Finally, she nodded, nothing more she could do or say. Her eyes fell closed as Xena leaned down, Gabrielle breathless as she waited for the kiss that barely came: Xena barely touched her lips to the corner of Gabrielle's mouth then pulled away, only to take her in a tight hug, Xena's hand cradling the back of Gabrielle's head.
Gabrielle's eyes squeezed shut, her heart pounding and emotions right behind her eyes that she knew she couldn't shed: how would she ever explain that to Perdicus? Or to Xena, for that matter.
Gabrielle stared up at the ceiling, a single tear rolling down her cheek.
Xena finished packing her saddle bags then grabbed her cloak, draping it over an arm as she clipped her chakram into place at her hip, her sword carried in hand. Apollo was just beginning his ride across the sky as she made her way down the stairs from the top floor of the inn down to the tavern below, hoping Joxer was already there or would be soon; she wasn't in the mood to slap him around.
She could hear the tavern keeper beginning his day, the sound of pans rattling as breakfast preparations began. As she rounded the corner from the first floor landing, which would take her down four more stairs and ultimately into the main room of the tavern, she saw a lone figure sitting at one of the tables, her blonde head bent as if looking at her clasped hands which rested on the table top.
Xena froze in her footsteps, unable to take her eyes off the figure, especially when she lifted her head. "Gabrielle," she whispered.
"Hello, Xena," Gabrielle said softly, not moving an inch from where she sat. "Don't be mad at Joxer; my daughter is actually who gave your presence away."
Xena gave her the smallest of smiles. Gabrielle, sitting no more than fifteen feet from her, looked just like something the gods would send, far more beautiful than anything in the world. Slowly, she made her way to the table and set down her cloak, saddle bag and sword before she sat down across from her old friend.
"I was just giving him a ride into town and back. I didn't want to disturb you or your family…" Xena's voice trailed off as she felt like a jerk, yet again.
"You wouldn't bother my family, and that's not why I came here this morning."
Xena met Gabrielle's steady gaze, even as her own was shy and could almost be called timid. "Then why did you come?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle looked down at her hands once more, which remained clasped. Sitting across from her, Xena could now see the tension in her fingers. "Hope is to be initiated into the Amazon Nation in two months - "
"I'll take you," Xena blurted, not allowing herself to regret it.
Gabrielle's gaze shot up, eyes wide in surprise. "I wasn't going to ask you to do that, Xena. I know you know the quickest routes to get there, and - "
"I'll take you," Xena said again. "It's far too dangerous for you and a small child, Gabrielle. Please, let me do this for you and for Hope. I'll take you."
Once again, Gabrielle's eyes fell to her clasped fingers. After a long moment, she nodded. "Alright." She pushed back from the table and stood. "I need to get home; Hope will want breakfast. And besides," she smirked, "I'm sure Joxer is half frozen. I told him to wait outside while I talked to you so he wouldn't get killed for telling me he had to meet you here this morning."
Xena gave Gabrielle a lopsided grin. "Yeah, well it's a long ride to Mother's: no promises."
Gabrielle smiled. "Well, I'll see you later, then."
Xena also stood, walking with Gabrielle to the door, though sensed that close proximity was not welcome. "I'll be by to pick you up a week before it's time."
Gabrielle nodded. "Okay. Thanks." She was about to leave when she was stopped by a hand to her shoulder. Back to Xena, her eyes squeezed shut for a moment as she tried to get her racing heart and nervous stomach to calm. Finally, she turned to face Xena.
"It was good to see you, Gabrielle," Xena said softly, allowing her hand to drop back to her side.
Gabrielle simply nodded, not saying another word before she hurried out of the tavern.
Big fat snowflakes fell with deceptive speed and intensity across the yard as the morning melted into early afternoon. Gabrielle watched for a moment out the window, the new winter cloak her mother had made for her for Winter Solstice two weeks before, already in place. She watched in wonder, thinking it an absolutely beautiful sight. With a deep breath to ready herself for the cold temperatures she knew she'd have to forge, she grabbed the lantern, shielding it beneath her cloak, then opened the front door and darted out into the cold day, headed to the barn.
By time she reached the large structure, the crown of her head was nearly covered and a few flakes clung to her eyelashes. Once inside, she ran her hands through her hair to rid it of snow as well as brushed off her cloak. The straw had been freshly laid by Perdicus earlier that morning, and the two cows they owned were munching contentedly on feed, one glancing lazily at her over its shoulder before returning to its meal.
Gabrielle spied the ladder that led to the hayloft and walked over to it, taking it a rung at a time as she climbed, pushing the heavy cloak out of the way. Reaching the top, she set the lantern on the floor then grunted slightly as she pulled herself up to the floor, covered with loose hay as well as stacked bales.
Getting to her feet, she took the lantern in hand again then looked around, trying to remember exactly where she'd hidden it. Her gaze was grabbed by the south-west corner, memory seeming to serve that that was where it was. Walking over in that direction, she noted the couple loose boards that she'd discovered years before. Dropping to her knees, she set the lantern aside then wiggled one long board free and then a second. A gaping wound in the double-layered floor looked back up at her. Light was scarce in the barn as it was, let alone in the hiding spot. It was too narrow of a space to set the lantern down to illuminate the space, so she had no choice but to reach down.
Afraid of what she might find - or what might find her - she scrunched her face up in anticipation and flexed her fingers, waiting to feel them come into contact with what she sought. Within a few moments, she felt the rough texture of cloth. She wrapped her fingers around the bundle and pulled it up into view of the lantern light. She smiled wistfully, hand lovingly petting the familiar green fabric of the top she hadn't worn in three years. Setting it aside, she reached down again, screaming out when something crawled across her hand, which she yanked out and looked at it, as though the creature were still there.
"Gross," she whispered, a shiver running through her.
Sticking her hand back down into the long, narrow space, she once again felt around, fingertips coming into contact with the soft material that she knew immediately was the wrap skirt she used to wear with the green top. Pulling it free of the space, she smiled once more, placing the skirt atop the shirt. Two more reaches got her the pieces of her Amazon Princess outfit, which was the reason she'd come to the barn in the first place. She doubted she'd fit into it anymore, and alteration would likely be necessary, but she was glad she'd had the foresight to stow the garments away, rather than burn them, as Perdicus had suggested she do. After all, according to him, she'd never need any of those things again, anyway.
Gabrielle was about to replace the boards when something caught her eye, which she didn't understand how that could happen, considering the hidey hole was pitch black. Throwing the thought out of her mind, she reached in once more, her fingers coming into contact with something hard, wooden and cylindrical. Her heart stopped, instantly knowing what it was.
With careful maneuvering, Gabrielle managed to get her staff out of its grave, eyes wide as she looked over every inch. The wood was in perfect condition, the minimal ornamentation also pristine.
"My staff," she whispered, feeling a bit of adrenaline rush through her. She hadn't looked at, let alone swung the staff since the day she'd married Perdicus.
Gathering the clothing, Gabrielle wrapped them all in her cloak then dropped the bundle over the side of the hayloft where it fell with a material flop on the hay-covered floor below. Staff and lantern in hand, she carefully climbed down the ladder, thinking in amusement that Xena would simply jump off with a flip and a war cry, only to land with more grace than any cat.
Setting the lantern down on a bale of hay, Gabrielle walked to the middle of the barn, making sure she was clear of hitting the animals or anything else. She was nervous, feeling as though she were working with the staff for the first time again back in the Amazon village with Eponin, nearly smacking herself silly in the head.
"Okay," she whispered, trying to get the feel for the weight and balance of the long staff that was taller than she was. "You can do this."
Taking several deep breaths, Gabrielle slowly began to twirl the staff in both hands, gaining speed with every few twirls. She decided to get brave and tried a twirl behind her back, beginning with her right hand, left grabbing it and bringing it up to twirl over her head. It didn't work so well as she ended up smacking herself on the forehead. Again.
"Ow," she muttered, a hand coming up to the throbbing area. "Forgot how much practice this takes. Okay," she blew out a breath, determined.
She tried again, the move successful. As the staff was twirled above her head, she twirled her body at the same time, dress flaring out and feet moving to a wide stance to give power and balance. With a war cry of her own, she swung the staff, moving to aim at three stacked bales of hay, landing a solid blow, which nearly vibrated the staff right out of her hands. She stopped, breathing hard from exertion, and her arms aching from taking the power of the blow to the hay.
She held the staff with her left hand as she tried to shake out the ache from her right, then switched. She noticed a wooden pail hanging from a nail on the wall. Walking over to it, she snatched it then set it atop the bales of hay, which represented roughly the height of a man's head.
Keeping her eye on the pail, again she began her moves, every intent of knocking that pail silly. The sound of her own war cry caused her to not hear the sound of the barn door opening, and as she swung the staff around for momentum for a more powerful hit, she cried out in surprise when the staff came into contact with something very solid, and something that cried out in pain.
"Oh god!" she exclaimed, turning to see Perdicus lying on the ground, his left hand holding his right shoulder. "I'm so sorry!" She dropped the staff and fell to her knees beside him. "Are you okay?" She reached out and felt his arm and shoulder, but her hands were pushed away.
"I'm fine," Perdicus growled, wincing as he sat up. "What in Hades' name were you doing?"
Gabrielle got to her feet, tucking her lips in sheepishly. "I was just - "
"Practicing," Perdicus finished, getting to his feet. "I thought you burned that thing?" he said, pointing to the staff, which lay on the ground at Gabrielle's feet.
"I found it," Gabrielle said quietly, knowing that she'd have to come clean with him. She hadn't mentioned her upcoming trip before as she knew he'd do everything in his power to try and stop her from going. "I found it when I was looking for something."
"What were you looking for?"
Rather than answering a question which was only a small part of the situation, she skipped to the major issue. "Perdicus, I'm leaving in a week for a few weeks."
Perdicus stared at her for a moment, confusion in his dark eyes. "Wait, you're what?"
"Hope and I are going on a journey in a week. We're going to the Amazons so Hope can be initiated into the Amazon Nation."
Perdicus continued to stare, a slow grin spreading across his lips. "Huh?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, picking up her staff. "I want my daughter to have the rights and privileges afforded to her as the daughter of an Amazon Princess, Perdicus. She will be protected for the rest of her life and have choices as she gets older."
"And, when does this little initiation have to happen?" he asked, hands on hips and legs parted in aggression.
"The first full moon before her second birthday."
"And, how long have you known about this, Gabrielle?"
"I was taught many of the Amazon rituals and rites when I was traveling with Xena," Gabrielle said simply. She could easily see in his face that he was furious, though was trying to temper it.
"So, you've had nearly two years to tell me about this, yet you never said a word until it's a week before you head out?!" He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. "No. No way do I want my daughter exposed to those women, who are nothing more than wanton killers."
"Wanton killers?" Gabrielle repeated, incredulous. "If you haven't forgotten, I am one of those women, Perdicus!"
"No, you left that life, Gabrielle! The moment you became my wife, you left that life." They stared at each other, battle of wills begun. "Who will you be taking this little trip with? Xena?"
"Yes. She knows the fastest way to get there and will protect us along the way."
"Oh, I'm sure she will. I'm sure she'll do lots of things along the way," Perdicus spat.
"What is your problem with her, Perdicus?" Gabrielle demanded, hand on hip and the other holding her staff, which she'd picked up, needing to feel it's strength. "Why do you hate her so much? What could she possibly do to you, or how could she possibly threaten you?"
"Because I know you want to be back on the road!" Perdicus roared, turning away once the words had escaped.
Gabrielle studied the back of his head for a long moment, stunned by what he'd just said. She looked down at her boots then let out a shaky breath. "I see," she said at length. "Why do you think that?"
"I see the look on your face and in your eyes," he said quietly, back still to her. "You look so far away and wistful." He let out a heavy breath then turned to her. "Why did you marry me, Gabrielle? Huh? Why, when your heart wasn't fully in it?"
Gabrielle walked over to one of the bales of hay and sat down, the staff resting against it next to her. She had to admit, it felt wonderful to have it with her again. "I do love you, Perdicus," she said softly. "I love our home and I love our daughter. I won't lie, I do miss the road and I do miss Xena." She was quiet for a long moment, gathering her thoughts before she continued, her voice soft. "A long time ago, I knew I didn't want what Potidea had to offer. I knew there had to be more out there than simply farming or making baskets for a living."
"So what are you saying?" he asked, hurt in his voice.
"I'm saying that I've made my choices. I'm saying that I'm going to go with Xena to initiate Hope into the Amazon Nation and then I'll be back." She met his gaze, pleading in her own. "I'm saying that I feel like I've lost a part of me that I didn't realize until lately that I was missing."
Perdicus was quiet for a long moment, then finally he nodded, saying nothing as he turned and left the barn. Gabrielle watched him go, her heart heavy. She grabbed her staff with both hands and brought it to stand between her skirted legs, head leaning against its sturdy familiarity.
Gabrielle was admittedly nervous - and surprised - when she saw Xena coming up the road driving a team of two horses that were pulling a loaded wagon. Argo was following dutifully behind. Xena pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the house and gave Gabrielle a shy wave and smile before hopping down, her winter cloak flaring out behind her at the move. Also, in place of her normal battle skirt was a leather tunic with her customary armor atop it, and her muscular legs encased in black, leather pants.
"G' mornin," Xena said, walking over to Gabrielle, who stood in the open doorway of the house holding Hope, a packed bag at her feet. She bent down and picked up Gabrielle's bag then brought up a hand, poking Hope in the tummy to make her giggle. "G'mornin', little one."
"Ena!" Hope declared, pointing a little finger at Xena, all grins and leftover giggles.
"Good morning," Gabrielle smiled, enjoying the interplay between the two. She glanced past Xena at the wagon, a question in her eyes.
"Oh," Xena said, glancing back at the wagon, herself. "Borrowed it from Mom. Figure this way it'll be easier and a lot safer to travel with Hope. And," she headed toward the wagon, indicating that Gabrielle should follow. "I built this special," she continued, patting the small wooden seat that was tethered to the driver's bench seat, leather straps waiting to hold a child securely to it. "Figure Hope can sit next to you and see what's going on without you having to worry about her."
"Xena, this is amazing!" Gabrielle gushed, tugging on the seat to find it incredibly sturdy. Armrests were even built into it. "Hope will love this."
Xena smiled, pleased that Gabrielle was pleased. "I figure, I can ride Argo to keep lookout and you can drive the wagon. And," Xena said, a finger up for emphasis, "Mom packed some good stuff in here." She walked to the back of the wagon where bundles of food and bedding were neatly packed, including a barrel of fresh water. "We'll have plenty of supplies and at night, you and Hope can sleep in the wagon bed; keep you and Hope up off the cold ground."
Xena turned to see Perdicus stepping out of the house. She was surprised to see the beard and how much older it made him look; he didn't look quite the boy he had last time she'd seen him. She walked over to him.
"Good to see you again, Perdicus," she said, extending an arm, which he took in a warrior's greeting.
Perdicus nodded but said nothing, instead walking over to Gabrielle and taking Hope from her. "Daddy's going to miss you, sweetheart," he said, kissing the child on the cheek. Hope grinned and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tight before reaching for her mother again. Perdicus returned his attention to Xena. "I hope your journey is safe." With that, he turned and walked back into the house.
Gabrielle watched him go then turned to Xena, an apologetic smile on her lips. "He's not thrilled to lose Hope for so long."
Xena nodded. "I can imagine. Well, do you have everything you need?" she asked, heaving Gabrielle's bag into the back of the wagon.
"Yes. I need to grab my staff," Gabrielle said, holding Hope out to Xena. "Do you mind for a moment?"
Xena looked at the child with a bit of fear in her eyes, but she quickly swallowed it down when she heard Gabrielle's chuckle.
"She won't break, Xena; I promise."
Xena nodded, taking the child. "I'll get her settled into the wagon." Once Gabrielle had headed back inside, Xena looked down into the face of the beautiful child she held in her arms. "You ready to go for a nice long trip, Hope?" she asked, bouncing the girl to make her smile as Xena carried her over to the wagon.
"Trip!" Hope exclaimed, waving her fists around.
Xena gave the girl a lopsided grin, figuring the child didn't even know what she was talking about. "Yes siree! We're going on a trip: you, me and your mamma."
Gabrielle headed into the house and into the bedroom she shared with Perdicus, spotting her staff leaning against the wall. Between carrying Hope and their bag, she didn't have enough hands to grab it before Xena arrived.
"So, you're all ready to go, huh?" Perdicus asked from the doorway, which he leaned against.
Gabrielle turned to look at him, staff in hand. "Yeah." She gave him a smile. "We'll be back before you know it."
"So you do intend to come back, then?" he asked, fidgeting with a piece of wood he'd been whittling for weeks.
"Perdicus," Gabrielle said softly and with as much patience as she could muster as she walked over to him. "I told you: I'm only going for Hope's initiation and if men were allowed…"
"You'd probably still go with Xena," he finished, though there was no bitterness in his voice. He let out a heavy sigh. "I may not like it, but I think that I was just fooling myself this entire time. Fooling myself by thinking that you didn't need her anymore, that that part of your life was over: the fighting, the violence… the death." He looked down at the wood in his hands and chuckled ruefully. "I was stupid enough to think that when I threw my sword down, you'd do the same." He tossed the piece of wood to a table outside their bedroom. "I don't know," he met her gaze. "Maybe I had a foolish vision of marriage."
Gabrielle bit her tongue feeling anger bubble up as she felt he was trying to manipulate her, just as he'd done in the middle of that burning village the night she'd been stupid enough to fall for it and agree to marry him out of her own foolish sense of guilt. Instead, she leaned up and kissed him on the cheek, not wanting to fight as she was about to head out.
"I have to go. Take care while I'm gone, and I'll send word when we get there."
Xena entertained Hope as best she could, trying to keep the little girl from becoming bored while strapped to the special chair Xena had made for her, as they waited for her mother to submerge. Xena had to stop herself from going into the small house and finding out what was going on. Finally, however, the front door opened, only to slam shut as Gabrielle exited, staff in hand.
Xena glanced over at the blonde, giving her a small smile, as she could see the look on Gabrielle's face, evidence that something was wrong. "Ready?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle simply nodded, tucking her staff into the wagon where it wouldn't fall out, but it would be easy to access should she need it. "Let's get out of here," she muttered, climbing into the driver's seat and grabbing the reins. She glanced down at Xena. "Thank you for being here, Xena."
Xena nodded. "Always." She mounted up on Argo, and with the click of her tongue, got the party headed out.
Later that night, after many hours on the road, Xena and Gabrielle quickly and quietly fell back into a routine that had long ago ceased, and camp was set in record time. Hope was kept entertained with some toys Gabrielle brought with them, though she kept a careful eye on her, especially as she was sitting close to the fire to beat the cold.
"I got dinner," Xena said, coming out of the darkness, holding two rabbit carcasses in one hand and her blood and fur-stained chakram in her other. "I'll get 'em skinned and cleaned."
"Sounds good," Gabrielle said, finishing with the unloading of the wagon so a bed could be made for Hope, as it was getting very close to her bedtime. Buried beneath the supplies were four long wooden poles, not much bigger around than her staff, yet about a third longer. Beneath them was a folded treated animal hide. "What's this?" she asked, holding up one of the poles.
"Oh!" Xena exclaimed, setting the rabbit she'd begun working on down on a rock, and walked over to Gabrielle. "Obviously I had a great deal of time on my hands at Mother's and got industrious," she teased. She grabbed the pole from Gabrielle's hands and the other three, tucking them into the bend of her left arm as she walked to the back right hand corner of wagon. "I made these holes," she explained, lifting one of the poles up high enough so it could be fitted down through the hole, one end resting against the cold-hardened ground. "Here," she said, handing Gabrielle one of the poles. Together they got all four in place.
"Now what?" Gabrielle asked, glancing over at her daughter, only to see she was slumped over and asleep.
Xena saw Gabrielle looking over at the toddler so followed her gaze. "She's had a long day," she said quietly. "Why don't you grab her and I'll finish this. All I have left to do is stretch this animal skin across the posts and tie it on; you guys will have a bit of a shelter."
Gabrielle walked over to her daughter and gathered her in her arms, the girl whining for just a moment before falling back to sleep, her head resting on Gabrielle's shoulder. She rubbed Hope's back and gently bounced her as she walked back over to Xena and the wagon. The animal skin was large enough that it hung over the sides of the wagon as well as front and back, effectively cutting out the wind and snow, as Xena tied everything down.
"I can't believe you did this for us," Gabrielle said in utter awe, eyes wide as she inspected the warrior's handiwork.
"Yeah, well unfortunately Hope is turning two in the middle of winter; she's too little to survive the elements."
Gabrielle held her daughter closer, able to feel her beginning to shiver slightly. "Is this a foolish thing to do, Xena? Should we head back?"
"Is it a foolish thing to do?" Xena asked, tying down the final side of the skin. "Yes." She smirked. "Should we turn back? No. I promised you I'd get you and Hope there, and I will. In one piece, and not frozen."
Gabrielle looked deep into Xena's eyes, and in that moment she knew for a fact that Xena would give her very life to keep herself and her daughter safe. Finally, Gabrielle nodded. "Alright. We'll keep going."
Once Xena was finished with her masterpiece, Gabrielle got Hope settled, wrapping her in animal furs so she'd be comfortable and warm. Once finished, she joined Xena at the fire, gratefully taking the bit of rabbit Xena had cooked for her. It was plain and barely edible - as was Xena's cooking style - but Gabrielle was just glad to have something in her belly, so happily chewed on the over-cooked meat. She'd already fed Hope some berries and bread earlier while still on the road so she could get Hope settled and warm to sleep.
Xena handed Gabrielle the wine skin, the strong liquor inside helping to warm the insides. "Can I ask you something?" she asked as Gabrielle took the wine skin from her.
"What's that?" Gabrielle asked, taking a healthy drink, her face scrunching up from the taste, but she was certainly grateful for the warming effects.
"Perdicus isn't thrilled about you're leaving with me, is he?" Xena asked softly, her attention on the fire as she poked one of the logs, getting a better burn.
Gabrielle studied Xena unobserved for a moment, noting the same beautiful features that had caught her attention the very first time she'd laid eyes on her. She pulled the animal skin that Xena had taken from the wagon for both of them around her shoulders a bit tighter. "No. No, he's not."
"Why? Does he think you're not coming back?"
Gabrielle took another pull from the wineskin before passing it back to Xena. "No, I think it's more of, he thought - hoped - that I was finished with my life on the road and everything to do with it." She sighed, looking up into the night sky, her breath coming out in a white puff. "I think he feels threatened by it, considering it was the reason I left him in the first place." And for you.
Xena nodded, reaching behind herself to unclip her sword and scabbard and placed it and her chakram on the ground at her feet, then brought the animal fur up around her shoulders. She glanced across the fire at Gabrielle, who was staring into the flames. She was hard pressed to see the young girl in the woman who now sat in her place. She could see some lines of strain around Gabrielle's mouth, and wondered if she was happy.
Before, Xena could always read Gabrielle so easily, her beautiful eyes like an open scroll, just ready to be read. Now, as Gabrielle sat there, the animal fur pulled up around her, she seemed so … what was the word? Serious? Sad?
"How's your family?" Xena asked at length, trying to find something for a topic of conversation. The strange thing was, she was not one for chit chat, but Gabrielle's silence was killing her! Where was the girl who could find anything to talk about with anyone.
"They're good," Gabrielle said, meeting Xena's gaze. She was surprised at the question, considering her parents had been less-than-thrilled with Xena being in Gabrielle's life. "Father's pains are getting a bit worse, but he's still working the fields. Mother and Lila are doing well." A loving smile graced her lips at the mention of her beloved sister. "I just wish Lila could find love; I know she so desperately wants to settle down and get married, especially after I had Hope. I think her desire for children went through the roof after that!"
"Do you plan to have anymore?" Xena asked, surprising herself with the question.
The smile left Gabrielle's face and she looked back into the fire. "No," she said simply.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, a brow raised. It bothered her in no small way that she couldn't see what was behind Gabrielle's eyes. In fact, there was nothing behind her eyes. "Well," she said at length, tossing a small twig into the fire and watched it catch. "We should get some sleep; we need to get an early start tomorrow so we can get more travel time in before the sun goes down."
"Okay. There should be plenty of room - "
"No," Xena said, pushing to her feet. "No, you and Hope sleep in the wagon, Gabrielle. I'll bunk down here so I can keep watch."
Gabrielle stood, hands on hips as she stared at Xena. "What? Why? Xena, there's plenty of room, and it'll be a lot warmer."
"I'll be fine," Xena insisted. "I've slept in a lot worse than this, Gabrielle. Now, go get warm. See you in the morning."
Gabrielle felt disappointed for some reason, reasons of which she wasn't willing to explore. She knew it was a moot point to try and change Xena's mind, so headed for the wagon. Besides, maybe it was for the best.
Xena sat on her spread bedroll and stared into the fire long after Gabrielle had climbed into the makeshift tent with her daughter. She allowed her mind to go back over the past three years, where she'd essentially just been drifting, her safe harbor gone. She had beaten herself up more than once for staying out of Gabrielle's life, and she was doing it again as she sat in the cold night, warmed by the fire and the knowledge that Gabrielle was mere feet away, even if she seemed miles away.
With a tired sigh, Xena stoked the fire then cuddled in a cocoon of animal furs and closed her eyes.
Gabrielle straightened her skirt as she made her way out of the woods where she'd just relieved her bladder. She smiled as she heard her daughter's adorable giggles and wondered what Xena was doing to get it out of her. To Gabrielle, there was nothing better than seeing her little girl happy and filled with joy. In fact, Hope was pretty much Gabrielle's only joy, other than her sister.
Stepping into the clearing where their little caravan had stopped and couldn't help but laugh outright. Xena was holding Hope upside down by her ankles in one hand, Hope's long, dark hair brushing the snow-covered ground. With her other hand, Xena was tickling Hope's ribs.
"Be careful, Xena," Gabrielle said, walking over to the two with a huge grin on her face. "That one has a tendency to pee when tickled." A bark of laughter escaped Gabrielle's lips at the look on the warrior's face at her words. "I'm only joking!" She grabbed Hope from Xena and swooped her up into a tight hug and noisy bought of face kisses. "Who would've thought a big, bad warrior would be afraid of little girl pee," she said to the child, who grinned at her as they rubbed noses.
Xena rolled her eyes good-naturedly, secretly very much enjoying the playful side of Gabrielle that had come out. They'd been traveling for nearly a week, and though it was extremely cold - another snow storm on the way - it had been a truly good time.
"So, Gabrielle," Xena said, leading the way back to the wagon and horses.
"Yes, Xena?" Gabrielle responded, bouncing Hope as she followed the warrior.
"I haven't seen you bring your staff out since we've been on the road," Xena observed, slowing her pace so Gabrielle could catch up. Together they strolled towards their gear.
Gabrielle chewed on her bottom lip nervously as she glanced over at her old friend. "I'm kinda rusty," she admitted, her voice quiet in embarrassment. She spared a glance at Xena, almost afraid to see the look of disappointment she thought she'd see there. Instead, she got an understanding smile.
"Well," Xena drawled, "swinging a staff around is a bit dangerous with a toddler running around." Her initial grin to her friend turned into a full on, mega-watt smile when she saw the relief on Gabrielle's face. "Wanna practice?"
"Can we? Really?" Gabrielle asked, stopping their steps and eyes wide with excitement.
"Sure. Tell you what," Xena said, taking Hope from Gabrielle and sending the squealing child up in the air only to be caught by strong arms as they continued to walk again. "Once we get to the Amazon camp, we'll work on it." She sent a lopsided grin to Gabrielle. "That place will be loaded with babysitters."
Hope safely loaded into her special seat and furs wrapped around her, Gabrielle grabbed the cold metal handle to help pull herself up into the seat when she slipped, the handle having become somewhat iced over. With a gasp and wave through her stomach, she fell backwards, expecting to hit the ground, hard, but instead found herself pressed back against Xena.
"Whoa," Xena said, arms automatically wrapping around Gabrielle's waist, holding her close. "Slippery?"
Gabrielle nodded, unable to speak from the panic that made her heart flutter, and for the other reason that her heart was fluttering, a reason she couldn't let herself even begin to consider. "Thanks," she said softly, stepping out of Xena's arms and glancing at her over her shoulder. She could see that Xena was carefully hiding any expression behind her sky-blue eyes, which always told Gabrielle more than her words ever could. Feeling her breath catch, Gabrielle turned back to the wagon. "Guess I should be more careful," she murmured, climbing up into the driver's seat.
Finding fresh bear tracks in the snow leading up to the cave, Xena knew that option was completely out. A new batch of storms had arrived over the past two days, and the temperatures had fallen drastically. Holding her animal furs closed around her body, she turned to Gabrielle, barely able to see her through the driving snow.
"We'll have to bunk down in the wagon!" she yelled over the howling winds. "I know of a rock overhang that will help cut out the wind!"
Gabrielle nodded, holding Hope to her body, the furs wrapped around them both. "Okay!"
"Get on Argo!" Xena called, pointing towards her trusty mare. "I'll drive the team and Argo will follow."
Thirty minutes later, the horses were unhitched from the wagon and placed with Argo under some trees for as much protection as Xena could give them. The wagon was placed under the overhang and the tent-structure was set up. It was far too dangerous for a fire, so the three huddled together in the wagon.
"This weather is brutal," Gabrielle said, holding Hope against her chest, the girl asleep. She glanced over at Xena, studying her profile. "How much longer to the Amazon camp?"
"Another day or two," Xena responded, meeting Gabrielle's gaze. "Almost there. I think the weather's held up pretty good, considering."
Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "Cold, but yes, held up." Gabrielle's words were almost staccato as her teeth chattered.
"Lie down," Xena instructed. "On your side."
Gabrielle did as asked, holding Hope to her chest. She nearly purred when she felt the warmth of Xena's body press against her back, her body held close to Xena's chest.
"Let's try and sleep," Xena whispered into her ear. "It'll make this easier and time go by faster." Feeling Gabrielle relax and settle, Xena held her tighter to her and closed her eyes.
A few hours later, Xena was awoken by something. Eyes opening and blinking away the sleepiness, she looked around, noting that night had fallen, and so had the temperatures. She felt the body pressed to her front and then she heard it: whimpering. Turning her focus to the dark form in front of her, which she knew was Gabrielle, she realized that was where the whimpering was coming from, as well as a few jerks from the blonde's body.
"No," Gabrielle whispered, her legs scissoring slightly. "No…"
Xena was about to wake her up, but then stopped at Gabrielle's next words.
"Xena… No… Don't leave me! No!"
Xena's heart broke when she heard Gabrielle's soft sobs and felt her body shaken with them. She held her closer to her, nearly making them one. "Never again, Gabrielle," she whispered into her ear. "I'll never leave you again."
Gabrielle's tears slowed then stopped, her body relaxing back into Xena's, her soul seeming to calm. "Xena…" she whispered then fell silent.
"I love you, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, leaving a soft kiss on Gabrielle's head. "I always have."
Xena, on foot and leading Argo, held up a hand to stop Gabrielle in the wagon as she looked around the forest, using all her senses. Suddenly, she stopped, pulling her sword and launching it into the ground, hands clasped above her head in the Amazon tribute. Gabrielle stopped the wagon then jumped down, mirroring Xena. She was excited, as she hadn't seen her Amazon sisters in far too long.
Within moments, several Amazons landed from their hiding places amongst the tree branches, all wearing the mask of their tribe. Sword held at her side and long animal skin jacket weaving about her booted feet, one of the Amazons stepped forward, standing in front of Xena and Gabrielle. A breath later, she lifted her mask, revealing the smiling face of a dear friend.
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle exclaimed, hurrying forward to take the blonde Amazon in a tight hug.
"Welcome home, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, returning the hug, then turning to Xena, arm extended for a warrior's greeting. "We wondered when you'd be back," Ephiny said, turning her focus to Gabrielle. "Word was you'd had a child."
"Yes, I do." Gabrielle walked over to the wagon and pulled Hope from her special seat, holding her to her hip as she walked over to the Amazons, all raising their masks as they huddled in around Xena, Gabrielle and Hope. "Everyone, this is Hope. Hope, these are the Amazons."
Ephiny studied the child, a smile on her face. "She's beautiful, Gabrielle," she said softly, looking into the toddler's beautiful face, so much like her mother's. "I'm so happy for you."
Xena stood off to the side, feeling out of place as some of the Amazons wished her congratulations, obviously believing that she was still involved with Gabrielle's life and daughter. She simply nodded, then removed herself from the group, instead turning to tend to the horses.
Ephiny noticed Xena's absence, looking around until she spotted her, the other Amazons all cooing over the toddler held in the Princess' arms. She met Gabrielle's eyes, a question in her own. She was surprised when Gabrielle looked away.
Gabrielle's Amazon tribe was in full celebration mode as night fell, with fires lit all over camp and the tribe of warriors dancing and singing to the drum beats of their ancestors. Hope was passed around from woman to woman, all falling immediately in love with the adorable and friendly child, who was eating up all the attention.
"I'm excited to see Xenan tomorrow," Gabrielle said, watching her daughter with a couple of the younger Amazons as she sat next to Ephiny. "I think it's wonderful that he gets time with the Centaurs."
"I miss him when he's gone," the warrior said, "but, he needs to know his father's people, too." She smiled at Gabrielle, pride shining in her chocolate brown eyes. "You won't believe how big he's gotten; I swear, he grows another inch daily, it seems."
"Well," Gabrielle smiled in response, "he's got some pretty big shoes to fill."
Ephiny smiled, joining Gabrielle in watching the women with the toddler. At length, Ephiny asked quietly, "How have things been, Gabrielle? Your marriage and everything. Most of the other Amazons didn't believe it when they heard you'd stopped traveling with Xena." She looked over at her friend, met with her profile.
Gabrielle looked down at her hands, which were clasped in her lap. "It's been hard," she said, her voice so soft, Ephiny barely heard it. After releasing a deep breath, she met Ephiny's gaze. "Ephiny? After you married Phantees, was it hard? I mean, did you feel almost as though you'd betrayed the Amazons? Or even, yourself?"
Ephiny brought a hand up and placed it on Gabrielle's shoulder, easily able to see that she so desperately needed a friend. "No," she said softly. "No because I loved him."
Gabrielle kept Ephiny's gaze for a moment before she returned her focus to her daughter. "I'm so sorry he's gone, Ephiny," she said, her voice sad.
Gabrielle turned to see Queen Melosa walking over to them. She smiled and stood, accepting a hug from the Amazon Queen. "So good to see you."
"You as well. I need to speak with you, Princess."
Gabrielle nodded, turning to Ephiny and taking her hand and giving a gentle squeeze of appreciation for her freindship before following Melosa to the Queen's hut.
Ephiny felt eyes on her. Glancing around, she saw Xena standing off by herself, leaning against a tree with one booted ankle crossed over the other. Even in the darkness and distance, it was easy to see the sadness in Xena's eyes and just how lost she looked. Their gazes met for a moment before Xena nodded a greeting then disappeared into the darkness outside the ring of the firelight.
"Have a seat," Melosa offered, taking one herself. A warm fire blazed in her hut and a wineskin and two goblets sat on the table. She poured herself and Gabrielle a glass, handing one over to the blonde. "How have you been?"
"I've been good," Gabrielle said, accepting the glass after she'd gotten settled. "Busy, as you know running after a two year old can be trying."
They shared a smile, Melosa sipping from her glass. "It's truly good to see you, Gabrielle. After we'd heard of you and Xena splitting, we weren't sure if we'd see you again."
Gabrielle looked down into the deep red liquid. "I've been wanting to come back," she said quietly. "It just never worked out that way." Finally, she met the intense brown gaze of her queen. "I want Hope to know her sisters and the ways of the Amazons, Melosa."
"She's welcome here, Gabrielle, as are you. I'm sure Ephiny filled you in on the week before you: tomorrow evening her ceremony of initiation will commence and every day after that, Hope will spend the entire day with a different sister, learning and being initiated into the lifestyle of an Amazon. You're expected to bring her back every other season for training."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes. I think it sounds wonderful for her."
"You're also to choose a Spiritual Mother for her, Gabrielle. This will be the woman who will guide Hope, teach her of the ways of the warrior and the ways of the Amazons. It's your choice whom you pick, but preferably it be an Amazon."
Gabrielle nodded, Ephiny already filling her in on that bit of information as well. "Alright. I'll have my decision by morning."
"Excellent." Melosa gave Gabrielle a genuine smile, business taken care of. "Welcome home, Princess."
Gabrielle lay in the hut she'd been given as the Princess of the Amazon tribe. The hut sported a large, comfortable bed, its own stove - which was producing a wonderful fire to heat the space - and a curtained off area where Hope was asleep in her own small bed with rails raised to prevent her from rolling onto the floor. She had wanted to ask Xena to join her, as there was plenty of room, but the warrior had been nowhere to be found.
The day had been good but long. They'd arrived to camp late morning, and after a loaded day of reunions and celebrations, Gabrielle was more tired than she remembered being in a long time. Her daughter had essentially passed out the moment her head had hit the pillow, which was good, as it gave Gabrielle a few moments to herself before sleep.
As she lay there, she thought about Melosa's request for her to choose a Spiritual Mother for Hope. The obvious choice was Xena, of course, but in truth, Gabrielle wasn't sure if she would want that sort of responsibility. After all, it would mean that Xena would have to stay somewhat in Hope's life, and the past three years had proven that may not be the case, or something that Xena necessarily wanted to do.
With a heavy sigh, she turned to her side, staring into the flames that danced in the open stove, marveling at their beauty and warmth. She had considered Ephiny, as she knew Ephiny would take the position very seriously and would be so good for Hope, but it would be nearly impossible for Ephiny to travel to Potidea to spend time with Hope and teach her, given her duties with the Amazons, and having to deal with Perdicus in order to travel to the Amazon lands every six months made Gabrielle groan with dread. It was a burden, but at the end of the day, it was something that was important to Gabrielle; she wanted Hope to have choices, far more choices than Gabrielle had allowed herself to have.
Gabrielle raised her arm out from beneath the animal skin that covered her, the soft tinkling of her wedding bracelet hitting her ears before the glint of the fire on the silver met her eyes. The simple chain had many little silver charms dangling from it, each one meaning something to Perdicus. She brought up her other hand and gently took one charm between her fingers after another, looking at them all. Her gaze found the clasp of the piece of jewelry that hadn't been removed since the day Perdicus had put it on. Now, she brought her fingers from the last charm to the clasp and, after a moment of struggling with just the one hand, the clasp was released and the bracelet slid from Gabrielle's delicate wrist.
"Just while I'm here," she whispered, setting the bracelet on the small table that stood next to the bed. "Then I'll put it back on."
Ephiny stood back, silent as the grave as Xena concentrated, bow in hand and knocked arrow about to be released. With a thwang of the bowstring, the arrow was sent flying gracefully through the air, hitting its target with deadly accuracy. The buck was dead before it even knew what hit him.
"Nice," Ephiny complimented.
"Thanks." Xena lowered the bow and she and the Amazon walked over to Xena's prize. "So, has she chosen yet?" she asked, kneeling next to the animal and snapping the shaft of the arrow in half, leaving no more than an inch sticking out of the animal's heart.
"Not that I'm aware of," Ephiny responded, bringing out her knife. They'd butcher the animal where it fell, taking the meat back to the village and letting the other forest animals feast off of what was left. She glanced over at Xena, who had also pulled out her knife. "Honestly, I doubt there's much decision to be made, Xena."
Xena shrugged, gritting her teeth slightly as she made the first cut through the thick layer of skin and muscle to slice the animal open. "She's got the right to choose anyone she wants. Personally, I wouldn't blame her if she chose one of the Amazons." She glanced at her friend. "I think she should choose you."
"Why me?" Ephiny asked, meeting Xena's gaze. "I'm not the one she wants to raise Hope with, Xena."
Xena smirked. "Yeah, well better you than me," she said, continuing with her grisly task. "At least you're dependable."
Later that morning, Gabrielle scanned the village, bottom lip tucked under her teeth as she searched for Xena. She stood outside her hut, staff in hand and the end tapping lightly against the ground. She smiled when finally she spotted Xena entering the village on Argo's back, Ephiny following, her mount pulling a liter with packages wrapped in parchment stacked upon it.
Walking over to Xena, Gabrielle waited for her to dismount. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself," Xena said, smiling in greeting. "Are you happy to see me or ya got a staff in your hand?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Both. Can we practice today?"
"Sure. Let me get cleaned up and I'll meet you in the south sparring field."
"Okay, good! Good!" Xena ducked out of the way of a mean swing, which would knock any opponent silly if it had made contact. "Now, press your advantage! Come on, Gabrielle! Press it!"
With a growl of concentration, Gabrielle did just that, sending a nasty blow to be met by Xena's staff, the vibration washing clear through the blonde's body, but she was proud of herself, as she could see how impressed Xena was. With anyone else, the blow would have landed, but with Xena's almost god-like fighting skills, Gabrielle could feel confident that nothing would get past her, and she wouldn't knock the daylights out of her.
They'd been at it for more than two hours, and Gabrielle had lost her cloak long ago, her hair and dress plastered to her with sweat. Out of breath, she raised a hand to forestall another blow from Xena and leaned on her staff.
Xena walked over to her, twirling the staff that Ephiny had leant her. "You did great," she said, a smile of pride on her lips. "I think you're definitely back."
Gabrielle's grin was huge and infectious. "It feels great to be back." She brought her hand up and pushed her bangs off her forehead, grimacing at how slimy her hand came back. "I need to ask you a question," she said, wiping the sweat onto her skirt.
"Sure. What's up?" Xena asked, resting the end of her staff on the ground and leaning on it.
"I want you to be Hope's Spiritual Mother, Xena." She caught Xena's gaze and wouldn't let it go. "Will you do it? For me?"
Xena looked away, shame filling her even as she was utterly elated. "I don't deserve that honor, Gabrielle," she said quietly.
"Why? Other than me and maybe Perdicus, nobody would love or protect her more. You'd be so good for her, Xena."
Xena let out a heavy breath then finally garnered the courage to meet Gabrielle's demanding gaze. "You know I'll do it, but … " she shrugged. "I truly don't feel I deserve it. I haven't even been in her life until a couple weeks ago." She looked down at the toe of her boot as it kicked at the frozen ground. "Or yours."
Gabrielle stepped up to Xena, using two fingers to raise her chin so Xena would meet her gaze. "Xena," she began softly. "We've both made choices over the past three years that we regret. We're together now and that will never change again; I won't let you walk out of my life again."
Xena felt a huge weight lifted off her shoulders as she looked into Gabrielle's eyes. She couldn't keep the broad smile from her lips as she took the blonde into a tight embrace. "It would mean the world to me to be Hope's Spiritual Mother," she whispered into the sweet-smelling hair.
Xena was confused and more than a little bit concerned as she stood in her hut, three Amazons fussing over her: one brushed her hair to a shine, a second adjusting the white silk robe that had been placed over her naked flesh and a third who was applying symbolic symbols of growth and rebirth to her face with herbs crushed and mixed with water to create a paint that was similar to what was used in war. She was very familiar with just about all of the Amazon rituals, and the one for which she was being prepped wasn't exactly the one she was supposed to be engaging in with Gabrielle in an hour. But, she went along with it. After all, tonight was for Gabrielle and Hope.
The entire village was gathered, all the Amazons wearing paint which designs were indicative of their status within the tribe on their faces and bodies. Torches were lit in a large circle, a stage made of wood planks placed at the center standing three feet off the ground with stairs leading down.
Queen Melosa, wearing the impressive Mask of the Queen, stood on the stage, waiting as Xena and Gabrielle - dressed similarly to Xena - were led to the stairs, an Amazon at each of their sides. Cheers washed through the village as the two women mounted the stairs, Ephiny following behind with Hope in her arms, the toddler dressed in a similar robe to Gabrielle's and Xena's.
Once the women stood before her, Melosa raised her arms, the sudden silence almost deafening. Ephiny handed Hope to her, the child's eyes large as she sucked on a finger and looked around - looking more than a bit confused - then stepped behind Melosa to take her place as the Queen's lead guard.
"Amazons," Melosa called out, her words somewhat muffled behind the mask. "Tonight we bring a new life into the village and into the Amazon Nation." She raised the toddler above her head, Hope beginning to cry in fear. "Artemis! Our mother and protector! Bless this child, Hope, daughter of Gabrielle, Princess of the Amazon Nation and Xena, Spiritual Mother and sworn protector!"
Hope's cries became louder as the village cheered once more. Gabrielle listened to Melosa's words, but she was itching to go to her daughter, easily able to see the fear in her eyes and the upset in her tears. She relaxed a bit when she felt Xena's hand take hers and gently squeeze her fingers in comfort before releasing her hand.
"Xena," Melosa said, bringing Hope down and holding the child against her side. "Do you accept this child, daughter of our Princess, as your own?"
"Yes," Xena answered, without hesitation.
"Princess Gabrielle, do you accept Xena as your equal in all things?"
"Do you accept her guidance and protection for Hope?" Melosa continued.
"Yes," Gabrielle said, nodding. She couldn't believe just how many butterflies were beating their wings against her ribcage. Her palms were sweating, but she resisted the urge to wipe them on the robe she wore.
Melosa handed Hope to Ephiny and stepped up to Gabrielle and Xena, taking one of their hands into each of hers. "Face each other." Once they did, she brought their hands together to rest within her own. "The two of you will share a bond from this moment on that will last a lifetime and on into eternity." Two other Amazons stepped up, taking Xena and Gabrielle's free hand and wrapping a bracelet around each, made from vines and wooden beads. "These bracelets symbolize your bond and your commitment to each other and to Hope."
Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes, unable to look away. Why was it that she felt the two were being married? And, why was it that when she was being married to Perdicus, she felt nothing of what she was feeling in that moment? As she studied Xena's eyes, she saw so much love and adoration, which she knew was a direct reflection of her own.
"We now finish the circle," Melosa said, breaking into Gabrielle's introspection. The same two Amazons who had placed the bracelets on Xena and Gabrielle's wrists stepped up behind them and gently removed their robes, Ephiny coming in directly behind them with a piece of pristine white material, large enough to wrap around them both. Melosa removed Hope's robe and handed the naked child to Xena, a hand moving to both Xena and Gabrielle's back, gently pushing them to stand closer together, Hope between them. The three were now fully covered by the white material. "I now give to you, Xena and Gabrielle and their child of spirit and body, Hope!"
The Amazons went up in raucous cheers, the entire tribe moving towards the stage to accept the new family, which were being ushered through the crowd towards Gabrielle's hut.
"Xena, Gabrielle and Hope will remain in the Princess' hut until this time tomorrow, their nakedness bonding them together forever!" Melosa called out, her words barely heard above the cheering.
Gabrielle and Xena finally reached the hut, someone pushing the door open for them, then closing it behind them. Once inside, Gabrielle was able to breath, a bit frazzled and claustrophobic. "Wow," she said, moving out of the material that bound her, Xena and Hope together, and feeling rather vulnerable and exposed in her nakedness. What she wouldn't do for a robe…
Melosa had explained it to her already: she, Xena and the baby were expected to stay that way for the duration of the isolation in her hut to symbolize and solidify their bond. In truth, she wasn't so sure if she'd be able to stick by that rule, but at least it would be time for bed soon, and she could hide underneath animal furs. She wasn't as proud of her body as she'd once been, childbirth and lack of the same exercise she'd gotten on a daily basis had done its toll.
"That was something, huh?" Xena said, giving Hope a kiss on her tear-stained cheek and setting her down on her feet. She glanced over at her bracelet, wondering when the right time would be to tell Gabrielle what had just happened, even as she did her level best to keep her eyes off of Gabrielle's naked form.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said, bending down and picking up her daughter, who hurried over to her. She held the toddler to her, cradling Hope's head against her shoulder and rocking her. "I think Hope was traumatized," she said softly, smiling, relishing the feel of her daughter in her arms.
"I know. It's pretty intense for a little one," Xena said. She wanted to walk over to Gabrielle and Hope, but something kept her rooted to the spot. Unbeknownst to her, she felt the exact same way Gabrielle did: not exactly vulnerable, as Xena's own nakedness had never bothered her, nor was she shy, but to be naked in front of Gabrielle made her uncomfortable and feel dirty, somehow, as she knew her thoughts weren't pure. But, to be fair, she dropped the draping from around her, figuring that if Gabrielle had to be naked, she would be, too.
"I definitely hope it won't be cold for the next day," Gabrielle chuckled, a bit nervous as she tried desperately to keep her focus off of Xena's utterly glorious body. It was as beautiful as she remembered.
"We'll keep the fire stoked," Xena said, turning to the stove to do just that, more for something to get her attention focused on rather than because it actually needed it, considering Gabrielle's hut had been prepared for them earlier by some of the Amazons with a fresh fire and fresh food waiting for them. "Are you hungry?" she asked, plucking a cherry from the bowl of fruit.
"No," Gabrielle said, climbing onto the bed and laying Hope down next to her, a rag and water skin in her hand. She gently washed the paint off Hope's face, which matched the designs that adorn her own and Xena's. After, she lay on her side, head resting on an upturned palm as she smiled down at her daughter, who was looking back at her mother.
"Nekke," Hope said, making both Gabrielle and Xena chuckle.
"Yes, we are," Gabrielle agreed, leaning down and placing a noisy kiss on Hope's cheek to make her giggle. Gabrielle glanced up at Xena. "Come join us. After all, we are family, now."
Xena smiled, popping another cherry into her mouth and carrying the bowl with her as she climbed onto the bed on the other side of Hope, mirroring Gabrielle's position. She set the bowl between them, the toddler immediately grabbing a cherry. She grabbed the cloth and washed her own face.
"Remember to spit out the seed," Gabrielle reminded Hope, watching carefully as Hope stuck the fruit into her mouth.
Xena watched the child before her gaze moved to Gabrielle. "What is Perdicus going to say when he finds out about this?" she asked, a hand reaching out and absently combing through Hope's hair.
"He'll hate it," Gabrielle said honestly, "but he'll just have to deal with it. As much as he wants me to forget I had a life before marrying him is as much as I want that life back."
Xena studied Gabrielle for a long moment, Gabrielle's gaze unflinching. "I want that, too," Xena said softly. "Very much."
"Well," Gabrielle said, pushing up from the bed and grabbing a very sleepy Hope. "I doubt they'll mind if I put a diaper on her," she said, as Hope still had a few accidents at night.
Xena ate a few more cherries before she returned the bowl to the table with the rest of the food, which would keep over night, along with the cloth and water skin, which she took a drink from, then climbed into bed under the pile of furs. She watched as Gabrielle got Hope diapered up and then as she sat in the rocking chair next to Hope's bed. She rocked her and rubbed her back, sending the toddler into a deep, rhythmic sleep.
Hope tucked into her bed, Gabrielle blew out the candle in the small, curtained off area that was Hope's room of sorts, then made her way back to the bed, blowing out candles as she went. Soon, the only light in the hut was from the fire in the stove. She climbed under the furs on her side of the bed, feeling virgin-shy as she glanced over at Xena, who was looking back at her.
"Feels strange, huh?" Xena said, a small quirk to her lips.
"Yeah, just a little." Gabrielle turned her focus to the ceiling. Though there was enough distance between she and Xena for another adult to lie comfortably between them, she still felt nervous and uncertain. "Xena?" she said after awhile, still focused on the ceiling.
"Hmm?" came a sleepy reply next to her.
"Why did it feel like we were married tonight?" Gabrielle whispered. Finally, she turned and looked at Xena.
"Because we were," Xena said simply. "According to the Amazon Nation, we are."
Xena's words hit a cord deep in Gabrielle's heart and she felt as though the air had been knocked out of her. A mixture of absolute joy and confused anger rushed through her. "But," she said, turning to her side and facing Xena. "Melosa told me it would just be a ceremony to initiate Hope and solidify you as her Spiritual Mother."
"I know. When they were getting me ready, I had my suspicions." Xena could feel the anger inside of Gabrielle. "It can be changed, Gabrielle," she said softly. "Undone."
Gabrielle took a deep breath then raised the wrist that the bracelet was wrapped around. She fingered it then buried her arms beneath the furs once more. Turning to Xena, she said, "Good night, Xena. Sleep tight."
"Good night, Gabrielle," Xena whispered. "And, again: thank you for choosing me."
Gabrielle smiled softly. "Always." With that, she turned to her side, back to Xena and closed her eyes.
Xena sat on a stone bench in a garden, the birds easily heard in the trees and the sound of a waterfall in the distance. It was a sunny, warm day, and she had not a clue where she was. She sensed that she wasn't alone and turned, eyes widening in shocked pleasure to see Lyceus sitting next to her, a grin on his handsome, young face.
"Lyceus!" she exclaimed, pulling him into a tight hug.
"Hey, ya sis." He grinned, returning the hug. "Just stopped by to fill you in."
"Fill me on about what?"
"On the gift," he said simply.
"What gift?" Xena asked, brows drawn.
"The gift to you and Gabrielle. From me and from her," Lyceus said, hitching his thumb over his shoulder.
Xena looked and was surprised to see the beautiful goddess Athena walking towards them, her golden armor glinting in the sunlight.
"Hello, Xena," Athena said, vibrant blue eyes kind and filled with affection. "It's time for everything to come full circle and for you and Gabrielle to fulfill your destiny together."
"She's with Perdicus now," Xena said. "She's got too good a heart to hurt him like that, Athena."
Athena said nothing. She merely disappeared in an impressive array of golden light.
Xena turned, hearing her name, the voice that of Gabrielle and breathy, filled with passion.
Suddenly, Xena found herself in bed on top of Gabrielle, both naked and the bard's hands buried in Xena's hair.
"Xena," Gabrielle breathed before she pulled Xena down for a passionate kiss. "I want you to come inside of me," she whispered once the kiss had ended. "I want you."
Xena gasped as she awoke, her heart racing and body on fire. Her gaze flew to Gabrielle, who gasped loudly and arched her back so hard the furs covering her slipped down to reveal her perfect breasts. Panting, a hand came up to Gabrielle's chest as she fell back to the bed, her gaze focused on the thatched ceiling.
Xena couldn't take her eyes off of her, her gaze trailing over Gabrielle's profile, down her throat, which twitched as Gabrielle swallowed hard, and then finally on her breasts, which Gabrielle hadn't re-covered. The pale nipples were hard, the flesh around them pebbled.
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena, their gazes locking. As though by some silent means of communication between them, Gabrielle used her arm to slightly lift the furs that covered her body as Xena moved over and on top of her, Gabrielle spreading her legs to invite Xena into her most private and personal space.
Xena adjusted her body until she was pressed against the surprising amount of wetness that was already between Gabrielle's legs, much like her own. It was a very strange feeling of déjà vu as they assumed the exact position they had been in the dream. Though now, Xena wondered if it hadn't actually been a vision, as her gut told her Gabrielle also experienced it.
As she looked into hooded green eyes, Xena pressed herself further into Gabrielle, almost feeling as though she were entering her, somehow, their bodies connected. From the soft sigh that escaped Gabrielle's lips, Xena wondered if she felt it, too. As she began to move her hips, Gabrielle reached up and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, pulling her down until their mouths met, the kiss slow and deep, nothing rushed about anything they were doing.
Xena felt as though she'd died and gone to the Elysian Fields, as Gabrielle was so soft against her. She loved the unbelievable feeling of their hips moving together, even as Gabrielle raised her knees higher and spread her thighs wider, the kiss never breaking.
"Gods, Xena," Gabrielle whispered against Xena's lips. "I can feel you inside me."
Gabrielle was no stranger to the act of sex, even though she rarely allowed Perdicus to touch her anymore, but this, Xena moving with her, against her, inside her, was unlike anything she'd experienced before. In fact, as her hands ran down the strength of Xena's back, she moved her hips a bit harder against Xena's. She could feel Xena's breasts brushing against her own, so arched her back a bit, wanting to feel the full contact of the softness.
It was quickly getting too hard to continue the kiss as their breathing increased. Xena broke the kiss and raised herself to her hands, using the incredible power of her body to thrust into Gabrielle, their gazes locked together as they rushed toward the pinnacle of their mutual pleasure.
Gabrielle knew in the back of her mind that a little girl was sleeping just across the room so was struggling to keep her moans quiet as her pleasure built, her fingers claw-like up around Xena's shoulders. She was just barely being successful, as what she wanted to do was scream her pleasure and joy out to the Gods.
Xena's eyes fell closed and her mouth open as she slammed into Gabrielle, her release swift and intense, drawing a loud cry from her throat, no matter how much she, too tried to keep it down. She was so swept over the edge that she didn't even feel Gabrielle's fingernails dig into her flesh as she, too released, her body convulsing against Xena's. Xena literally felt like her soul had shattered in that moment, exploding into Gabrielle.
Soft whimpers left Gabrielle's lips as she hugged Xena to her, her legs wrapping around her trim waist, holding them together. "I love you," she breathed into Xena's ear. "This is how it always should have been."
Xena lifted her head from where it had been buried in Gabrielle's neck just long enough to place a lingering kiss on soft lips. "I love you, too," she whispered against Gabrielle's mouth. "I always have, and I should have told you that so much earlier."
Gabrielle brought a hand up and brushed the backs of her fingers across a chiseled cheekbone. She looked into Xena's eyes and saw the unshed emotion there. The sadness that radiated off of the warrior was heartbreaking.
"I'm sorry," Xena continued. "It's too late now, but I always loved you but just didn't know what to say. What to do. I never thought you'd love me, too."
Gabrielle glanced over towards the curtain that separated them from Hope's sleeping space, the blonde leaned up and placed a soft kiss on Xena's lips. "I loved you from the moment I first saw you," she whispered before she slid off the bed after Xena moved off of her.
Xena couldn't take her eyes off Gabrielle as they and Hope joined the entire village for an evening celebration that night, which would ultimately conclude the initiation of Hope into the Nation. Torches and fires burned in the eating hut, helping to keep the cold night air at bay. Massive amounts of food had been prepared, and now Gabrielle bounced around from group to group, talking and laughing with her Amazon sisters.
"So?" Ephiny asked, holding Hope on her lap, the toddler picking food off the blonde Amazon's plate.
"So, what?" Xena responded, sipping from her mug of ale, her gaze never leaving the bard.
Ephiny was amused, as it was so very evident that Xena was extremely in love with Gabrielle, so much more so tonight than this time the previous night. She thought back to when she'd first met the warrior and the bard, almost five years before. At first, Gabrielle had driven the battle-hardened Amazon up the wall, and she couldn't wrap her mind around why Xena allowed Gabrielle to stick around, or hadn't simply just run her through with her sword. Eventually, however, it was so easy to see the incredible heart that Gabrielle possessed as well as the tenderness she brought out in Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, when Xena thought nobody was watching. Including Gabrielle.
Now, Gabrielle was a mature, beautiful woman, so much of the wonder she had possessed before gone, now replaced by calm wisdom. Although tonight, she nearly glowed with seeming happiness and radiance.
"Ephiny?" Xena said, turning to look at her friend, who had become silent.
"Sorry. How are things between you?" Ephiny asked, snagging a few grapes from a bowl and putting them on her plate so Hope could gobble them up. "And, does she know the full meaning of the ceremony last night?"
"Yes. I told her what it means, though she was suspicious," Xena grinned.
"Did you two finally make love?" Ephiny asked bluntly. She was stunned: Xena blushes?? Ephiny laughed outright, causing little Hope to glance up at her. "Oh, Xena…"
Xena glared at her friend, though all that managed to do was make the laughter worse. Finally, she rolled her eyes. "Yes, okay? Yes we did. And it was fucking fantastic," she grumbled, into her ale mug. She found Gabrielle again and felt her body become suffused with desire, but also something had been niggling at her since Gabrielle had left the bed to go to her daughter. "Ephiny," she began, not looking at her friend, but instead at her plate and the remnants of what was left on it. "Something … strange happened."
"The word 'strange' and 'Xena' in the same sentence? Noooo!"
Again, Xena rolled her eyes. "Forget it." Xena hated feeling vulnerable.
"Okay, I'm sorry. Tell me," Ephiny said softly, knowing that she, too struggled with opening her heart. "What happened?"
Xena had been dealing with the gods for a large part of her life, starting when Ares decided to take an interest in her when she was just a teenager, and it hadn't stopped since. But, when Athena had come to her - with her beloved dead younger brother in tow - that had gotten her. She took a deep breath and turned to her friend; Ephiny had become a trusted confidante over the years.
"Last night." She let out another breath and took a long drink from her ale. She had to smile as Hope crawled into her lap, obviously losing steam. She cuddled the toddler, gently rocking her as she returned her attention to Ephiny. "I had a vision." She looked away from Ephiny, unable to meet those compassionate brown eyes. "Athena came to me," she said simply, hoping that would say it all and she wouldn't have to expound further. The raised brow told her she'd have to. She sighed. "She told me it was time to come full circle with things between me and Gabrielle and that I was going to be given a gift by my brother and by her." Xena glanced at her friend when there was no response. Instead, what she saw was the utterly stunned look on Ephiny's face. "What?"
"So Gabrielle is the one," Ephiny breathed.
"The one, what?" Xena growled, irritated at Ephiny's cryptic response. Rather than an explanation from the blonde, she got a huge grin.
Gabrielle had just finished a lengthy conversation with Eponin and her partner, Solari when she turned away, intending to go find Xena and Hope and see if they were ready to go back to their hut. She was seriously looking forward to some more alone time with Xena, and hoped that what had happened earlier that morning wasn't just a fluke.
Suddenly, the hut around her began to dim, torches seeming to snuff out, though she knew they hadn't. Also, any of the noises around her were now nothing more than distant murmurs. Out of the darkness, she could just barely see a figure walking towards her, a soft glow beginning around her until she and Gabrielle were surrounded by it.
"Artemis," Gabrielle breathed, surprised to see the goddess and patron of the Amazons.
"Hello, Gabrielle," the beautiful brunette goddess greeted with a kind smile. "I've come to speak with you for a moment."
Gabrielle nodded, her eyes wide in surprise. "Alright."
"You are my Chosen One, Gabrielle," Artemis said, stepping up to Gabrielle. "The time has come for you to fulfill your destiny and that of Xena. Athena has given you the gift of a new life," her dark eyes twinkled, "in a couple different ways. You must take Xena to your bed this night to complete the circle, not that I think that'll be much of a problem." She grinned, Gabrielle blushed. "Your daughter will grow up to be the new hope of the Amazons, and their greatest queen. The son you have with Xena, will grow up to create an empire."
Gabrielle stared at her, stunned. "What about Perdicus?" she asked stupidly.
Artemis gave her a warm smile. "Follow your heart, Gabrielle. It's your destiny." With that, she was gone, the surroundings of the food hut immediately coming back into focus.
"You alright?" Xena asked, suddenly standing next to Gabrielle. "You look like you just saw a ghost."
Gabrielle looked at her, eyes growing even wider when she saw Xena, Artemis' words coming back to her. She couldn't speak, still too stunned and filled with awe at what she'd been told.
"Hey," Xena said, getting worried now. She placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "What happened?"
"Artemis came to me," Gabrielle whispered, hands slightly shaking. She was grateful when Xena grabbed them, holding them in her own. She looked up into her eyes, her own showing so much love and adoration. "You're going to father my child."
Xena stood back, watching as Gabrielle got Hope settled in for the night. Her mind was reeling from what Gabrielle had told her. As she watched mother and daughter together, she had to smile. Gabrielle was such an amazingly good mother, which she always knew she would be. Gabrielle was kind and so patient with Hope, and the bond between them was undeniable.
As she watched her bard tell Hope a cute little story she was making up as she went, she couldn't help but scan Gabrielle's face and body, which was now dressed in the appropriate attire for an Amazon Princess. She smiled, remembering that Gabrielle had been so happy to discover that she could fit into it.
Her mind traveled back to the news that she and Gabrielle were going to be granted a child together, which of course now she realized was what both Lyceus and Athena were telling her. Their son. Would she get another chance of having a son? Being a mother? Being a partner for Gabrielle?
Gabrielle's soft voice rocked Xena out of her thoughts. "Yeah?"
"She wants to give you a kiss goodnight," the bard said, from where she stood next to Hope's bed.
Xena walked over to them and looked down at the little girl who looked like she'd be dead asleep in five point three seconds. "Hey, little one," Xena said softly. She leaned down and accepted the kiss the girl offered. "Sleep well."
"I wuv you, Ena," Hope muttered as her eyes fell closed.
Xena thought she'd cry at those sweet little words, and when she met Gabrielle's eyes, she saw tears in them. They exchanged a small smile then Gabrielle blew out the candles near Hope's bed, then grabbed Xena's hand and led the way back to the main part of the hut near the table. She met Xena's eyes briefly, feeling shy.
"Do you want to talk about what Artemis said?" she asked softly, having filled Xena in on the entire conversation once they entered the hut.
"How do you feel about it?" Xena asked, beginning to remove her weapons and armor. She smiled when Gabrielle stopped her with the soft touch of her hand, then began to take over the job herself; just like before. "I mean, what about Perdicus?"
"I don't want to be with him," Gabrielle admitted, gently laying Xena's sword and chakram down on the table before she turned her focus to unbuckle the scabbard from where it rested across Xena's back. "I made the biggest mistake of my life by leaving you, Xena, and I won't let you go again." She spared a glance into Xena's eyes before continuing her labors.
"What will you tell him?" Xena nearly whispered, so afraid to get her hopes up. She knew the immense amount of integrity Gabrielle possessed, and she wasn't entirely convinced that Gabrielle would have it in her to leave Hope's father, despite what any god wanted, or even what she, herself wanted.
"I don't know," Gabrielle said softly, finishing with Xena's breast and back plates before deft fingers released the straps on the leather battle dress. "I just don't know. He knows I'm not happy and he knows I don't love him like I should. I don't think it'll be a huge surprise, but I don't think he'll let go without a fight."
"Nobody with an ounce of smarts would," Xena smiled, bringing up a hand and brushing her fingertips down along Gabrielle's jaw.
Gabrielle smiled, leaning into the touch. "Xena," she breathed, her eyes closing and face lifting as Xena leaned down, their lips meeting. "Xena," she whimpered desperately, hands reaching up and burying themselves in thick black hair.
Xena returned the passionate kiss, her own hands reaching down and cupping an extremely shapely behind, pulling Gabrielle's body tighter against her own. She returned Gabrielle's soft whimpers, meanwhile pushing her towards the table, too impatient to go as far as the bed. She lifted Gabrielle up until she sat on the hard wood surface as she shoved her armor and weapons aside, Gabrielle immediately wrapping her legs around Xena, pulling her as close to her as she could. As though a wild animal, Xena's fingers pulled at the lacings of Gabrielle's top, nearly ripping them out in her haste to get to the full flesh beneath.
Gabrielle knew at a gut level that the same thing that happened that morning would again, so she reached down and awkwardly pulled her skirt up to her waist then lifted herself one side at a time, tugging her breeches down over her hips and thighs. Getting the hint, Xena pulled the material down the rest of the way then slide her own down. She grabbed Gabrielle's thighs and pushed them open then cupped her bare behind and pulled her to the end of the table. She reached down and pushed the leather strips aside on her battle skirt then pressed herself against Gabrielle.
Gabrielle gasped into the passionate kiss she was sharing with Xena, both their movements stilling as they realized what they were feeling. Once again, as she suspected she would, she could feel Xena inside her, she was absolutely filled with her. From the look of absolute bliss on Xena's face, she knew the warrior could feel her just as much.
"Gabrielle," Xena murmured, her hips slowly beginning to move. "You feel so good…," she whispered, eyes closing. "I can feel you all around me…" Her words trailed off in a breathy moan as she took hold of Gabrielle's hips and continued to gently thrust inside of her. Just as it had earlier that day, she felt as though her soul was inside Gabrielle somehow, like what she was making love to her with was all that love forged into reality.
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle whimpered, her eyes falling closed as her head fell back as the highest pleasure filled her body, and she wasn't even climaxing. Yes, Xena was thrusting between her legs, but she felt as though she were being stroked all over from the inside out, like her very soul was being stroked.
Xena's mouth found Gabrielle's exposed neck and began to lick and suck as her fingers moved up to Gabrielle's opened top, pushing the leather off smooth shoulders. "I love your breasts," she murmured into Gabrielle's neck, her fingers gently massaging the flesh, fingers tugging gently at the rigid nipples.
Gabrielle moaned, her hands burying themselves in Xena's hair as she arched her head even more to give Xena more access. She reached down and tugged on the heavy leather of Xena's battle dress, Xena stopping her movements as she helped pull the leather over her head, leaving her in the thin shift she wore beneath it to help with chaffing. Soon, that was gone, too, leaving her naked.
Gabrielle groaned as she ran her hands down Xena's strong back and to cup her behind. The groan turned into a gasp as suddenly, she was picked up and carried to the bed, where Xena fell to her back, Gabrielle straddling her hips. They were both stunned to look down and see a vivid white light emanate from the point where their bodies met between their thighs.
Gabrielle's eyes slid closed again as Xena grabbed her hips and encouraged her to move, her movements graceful and extremely erotic, once again Xena moving inside her. She opened her eyes and looked down at Xena who was the picture of sensuality. She cupped her breasts, wanting to feel their weight since the first time she'd ever seen her naked while bathing in a river.
"You're so beautiful, Xena," she whispered, keeping the movement of her hips slow and steady. She leaned down, continuing her movements as she took Xena in a leisurely kiss, groaning as Xena cupped her behind, kneading the flesh and moving her hips with Gabrielle's.
Gabrielle could feel her pleasure rising as she was getting closer to her release. She pushed up from the kiss and rested her hands on Xena's stomach, using it as leverage as she began to really move her hips, her breasts swaying with the movement.
Xena gritted her teeth as her climax came, releasing deep within Gabrielle. Gabrielle's words came back to her from the vision she'd had that morning: I want you to come inside of me. Xena knew she had done just that as she felt a part of her leave her own body and bury itself deep inside Gabrielle's. That knowledge hit her so hard, unbidden tears sprang to her eyes. Intuitively, she knew they'd just made their son.
Gabrielle cried out as she came, then was startled as she was engulfed in a hug as Xena sat up, holding her to her almost painfully hard. She hugged her back, rocking Xena in comfort as she felt her tears on the side of her neck.
"We did it," she whispered, out of breath and still able to feel the heat of Xena's essence inside her, like a warm fire that she was cuddling inside her womb. She kissed Xena's forehead. "I love you."
Perdicus was lost in random though as he sat on a small stool next to one of the cows, his work-roughened hands working the udders. Distantly he heard the sound of the warm milk shooting out and into the wooden pail. It was early in the morning and cold as Tartarus out, a new round of snow blowing in overnight. Now, the sun still a few hours from rising, he did all that he could to not shiver to death.
But, as he continued to work, his thoughts turned to his wife. And his daughter. They'd now been gone for nearly an entire moon, and with only one letter from Gabrielle - letting him know they'd arrived at the Amazon village safely - nothing. He continuously wondered if she was coming back, or if that warrior bitch had won her over, yet again. Maybe all that Amazon nonsense was just that: nonsense. Maybe it was all a ploy.
"And she will, you know."
Perdicus nearly fell off his stool in surprise at the deep voice that spoke across the barn. He glanced over and saw a large, muscular man leaning against the wall with his upper back and the sole of one booted foot. He was dressed completely in black leather, hugely muscled arms bare from the leather, studded vest he wore. His sword was belted at his side, and his dark, penetrating eyes made Perdicus nervous.
The man pushed off the wall and strolled over to Perdicus. "You let her go, huh?" he said, a hand coming up to stroke his neatly-trimmed goatee. "Not such a smart move now, was it, Perdicus?"
"Who are you?" Perdicus asked, releasing the cow's teat and getting to his feet, taking a step back from the casually advancing man.
"Who am I?" The man asked, dark eyes locked onto Perdicus. "I'm the one you sent your prayers to at Troy. I'm the one who created Xena, and I'm the one who can destroy her. With your help, that is."
"Ares," Perdicus whispered, eyes wide.
"Did you know your wife is porking Xena as we speak? Your fears were right, Perdicus," Ares said, voice low and dramatic. "It was all about Xena all along."
Perdicus could feel his blood boiling and palms sweating. "No," he said, more to convince himself than the God of War. "Gabrielle wouldn't do that. I know she loves Xena, but-"
"Loves Xena?" Ares challenged. "Don't you mean worships the ground she walks on? After all: she left you for her once. Didn't she?" With those cryptic words, Ares disappeared in a flash of light.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open, the hut still dark as the sun had yet to rise. She let out a deep, satisfied breath when she realized Xena was spooned behind her, holding Gabrielle almost possessively tight against her. She grabbed one of Xena's hands that was tucked between her breasts and brought it up to her lips, placing a soft kiss on the palm. She smiled when Xena let out a soft sigh and pulled the bard even further back into her.
"Cold morning," Xena murmured, followed by a groan that made Gabrielle laugh, as she sounded like a fat cat lying by the fire. She even began to purr as Gabrielle ran her fingernails along her forearm.
"You know," Gabrielle whispered, "we have a few minutes before Hope wakes up…"
Xena smiled, her eyes still closed. "What you got in mind?" she murmured, her hand moving to cover Gabrielle's breast, palm running over the hardening nipple.
"Well," Gabrielle sighed, arching into Xena's touch. "I know a warrior doesn't do well without her breakfast…"
Xena's grin grew. "So true." She leaned up and placed a kiss on Gabrielle's shoulder before gently tugging on the bard's hand. Gabrielle turned over until they were facing each other. Immediately their mouths met in a kiss, Xena's tongue teasing Gabrielle's lips until they were opened for her.
Gabrielle moaned, pressing her body against Xena's and running her hand down her back and over her hip before running her nails over one cheek, making Xena sigh into the kiss. Gabrielle pushed her to her back and moved on top of her, their slow, lazy kiss never breaking. She could feel Xena's growing wetness against her thigh, which she pressed into her, making Xena moan.
"I love kissing you," Gabrielle murmured, leaving Xena's lips and moving to her neck, licking a fiery trail down to the hollow of her throat.
"You're welcome to do so at any time," Xena sighed, her hands running up and down along Gabrielle's back, head falling to the side and eyes closing as Gabrielle's mouth moved down to her breasts. She moaned softly as one of her nipples was sucked into a warm mouth.
"Such beautiful breasts," Gabrielle murmured, swiping at the nipple with her tongue while her other hand caressed the other one. "I always used to stare at them when you weren't looking." Gabrielle froze in her movements for a moment as her stomach began to reel slightly. Dark blonde brows drew as she concentrated on what she was feeling. It passed so she returned her attention back to Xena's breasts.
Xena's eyes opened and she looked down at Gabrielle, who once again stopped what she was doing, instead hanging her head and taking deep breaths. "Are you okay?"
"I, uh…" Gabrielle suddenly flew off the bed and to the table, grabbing the large wooden bowl that held fruit and vomited loudly into it.
Xena climbed off the bed and walked over to a very pale blonde. "Hey, you alright?" she asked, rubbing soothing circles on Gabrielle's back. "Dinner not sit well with you last night?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle breathed, looking away from the bowl as the sight made her want to vomit again. She ran her hands through her hair and blew out a loud breath. "Not feeling so well."
"Maybe you should see the heal-" Xena winced as Gabrielle threw up again, "- er."
Later that day, as Hope was off with one of the Amazons for her week of training, Gabrielle sat on the bed in her hut munching on some of the treated berries she was given by the Amazon healer to help quiet her stomach. Xena sat with her, rubbing Gabrielle's feet.
"I can't believe how quickly this is starting," the warrior said quietly, her gaze focused on her task. Something was troubling her, which was easy to read on her face.
Gabrielle studied Xena for a long moment. "What is it, Xena?" she asked softly.
"Nothing." Xena gave her a smile then returned to the massage.
"Xena," Gabrielle reached over and stilled Xena's hands. "What's wrong? Are you having second thoughts?"
"No. Of course not, no… It's just that, with Solan, the sickness didn't start for weeks." She looked away, hating herself for her doubts. "It just seems odd to me that it's already begun… Maybe - "
Gabrielle reached out, gently grabbing Xena's chin and turning her face so she was looking at her. "Xena," Gabrielle said softly, "I haven't been with Perdicus in more than a year." She caressed the side of the warrior's face. "This child has nothing to do with him, only you." She searched Xena's eyes, which were so expressive, making her fears so easy for Gabrielle to read. "I love you and only you. I'm never leaving you again."
Xena studied Gabrielle for a long moment, seeing nothing but the truth that ultimately, she knew she'd find. She leaned forward until her lips were mere inches from Gabrielle's. "I think we should try for twins," she grinned.
"Only if you're having them," Gabrielle countered before the distance was bridged and the two shared a lingering kiss.
Xena grinned. "Nothing about this pregnancy or child is going to be typical, is it?"
"Is anything in our lives?" Gabrielle asked, bringing Xena's lips to her own once more, deepening the kiss.
Xena took the bowl of berries and set it on the small table next to the bed then gently pushed Gabrielle down to the mattress, easing herself on top of her as the kiss deepened. She reached down and ran her hand up the side of Gabrielle's thigh, which raised with Xena's touch, until Xena's hand slipped underneath her skirt and to her hip.
Gabrielle sighed at the touch, her hips lightly pressing up against Xena's, needing more purchase and pressure as her arousal grew.
"I love that I can touch you," Xena whispered, her mouth finding Gabrielle's neck, the hand up under Gabrielle's skirt coming dangerously close to where the bard needed it most.
"Yes," Gabrielle moaned. "Touch me, Xena…"
Xena slid one of her fingers inside Gabrielle's breeches, able to feel that the hair that covered Gabrielle's sex was already wet with her need. Xena groaned in appreciation, her finger pushing through the hair and folds to the saturated softness of Gabrielle's sex.
"You're so ready," Xena whispered, finding Gabrielle's lips again, flicking the blonde's bottom lip with her tongue as her finger flicked the incredibly hard clit she found.
Gabrielle gasped, her thighs falling open in invitation and need. "Please, Xena," she whimpered. "Oh, please…"
Xena pulled away fully to Gabrielle's profound frustration. The warrior undressed them both, then delivered a scorching kiss before she pushed Gabrielle's thighs open wide and settled her shoulders between them, her mouth immediately going to the even more scorching heat between Gabrielle's legs.
Gabrielle let out a long groan as her head fell uselessly to the side. She'd seen images of this sort of thing in Aphrodite's temples, but had never experienced it. Now, as Xena's magic tongue stroked her clit before it was sucked into her mouth, she felt as though she were about to die. It was one of the most incredibly intimate things she'd ever experienced, and the bond she felt with Xena intensified. She reached down blindly for one of Xena's hands, which she found, their fingers entwining.
Xena felt Gabrielle's body begin to tremble and knew she was close, so intensified her efforts until finally, Gabrielle's hips thrust into her face and Gabrielle cried out, fingers squeezing Xena's painfully tight, her breasts heaving with the intensity of her exertion. Xena's tongue was ruthless, bringing Gabrielle to a second climax.
"Please," Gabrielle gasped, weakly trying to push Xena's head away. "Enough…"
Xena left a final kiss between Gabrielle's legs then kissed her way back up her body and taking the bard into her arms. No matter how much her own body was begging for release, she held onto Gabrielle, gently rocking her as Gabrielle tried to get herself back under control.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, smiling and humming in utter satisfaction as her body thrummed. "That was absolutely incredible," she purred, accepting a passionate kiss from Xena. She moaned when she realized that what she was tasting on Xena's tongue was her own passion.
Xena was stunned when suddenly she found herself on her back and Gabrielle on top of her. She ran her hands down Gabrielle's back and cupped her behind before running her nails over the flesh, making Gabrielle shiver and a small growl released from her throat. Xena always wondered what Gabrielle's passion would be like during sex, and now, she was seeing that passion come out, and from the look in Gabrielle's eyes, she almost was afraid. Leave it to her bard once again to make her feel what nobody else on earth could: weakness.
Gabrielle looked into Xena's face, fire racing through her veins. In that moment, the only thing that she wanted was to hear Xena scream her name. Resting her upper body weight on her forearms, she leaned down and whispered into Xena's ear.
"I'm going to make you mine, Xena."
Xena shivered at the words, her breath catching. She met Gabrielle's gaze and knew in that moment that she was about to give Gabrielle everything she had: her body, her love and her very soul. She nodded. "Yes."
Gabrielle straddled Xena's hips and took her wrists in her hands, lifting Xena's arms and placing them on the bed above Xena's head, the look in her eyes letting the warrior know that to not comply wasn't wise. Xena's hands staying put as Gabrielle ran her fingers in feathery touches down her arms, making Xena shiver slightly. As Gabrielle sat up, her hands ended up on Xena's upper chest, more feathery touches.
Gabrielle watched Xena's face closely as she used those light touches to run over her breasts, around her rigid nipples without touching the tips. She could see that Xena was using incredible restraint, as she knew the warrior was incredibly aroused. In truth, she had no idea why she was taking this control over Xena, but somehow, it made her realize what she'd always suspected where Xena was concerned: there was nobody in the world whom could control Xena. There was nobody in the world that Xena couldn't defeat. Except Gabrielle. And, if they were to forge on this future together, she needed to know that she still held that place in Xena's life and heart. She could never go back to being that girl left behind again.
Looking down at Xena, she ran her fingernails lightly over hardened nipples, smiling slightly at the small moan that earned her. She leaned down and swiped her tongue over one of those nipples before she moved off of Xena's body and lay out beside her, her mouth latched onto a breast and sucking hard. She felt a hand in her hair so stopped what she was doing and grabbed Xena's wrist, looking her in the eye as she pushed the arm back up over Xena's head. A look passed between them of understanding. Gabrielle knew it wouldn't happen again as she returned her mouth back to Xena's breast.
Xena had slept with more lovers than most, and never once had she given up control, nor would she have even considered it. In fact, the very idea would have made her angry and that much more determined to control. Now, as she lay there, eyes closed and simply allowing the sensations Gabrielle was creating within her body to happen, she felt a weight lifted off her shoulders. She had known almost from the very first that Gabrielle would be her partner and her equal in every way, regardless of how she'd fought it and treated Gabrielle to deny that fact to herself. Right then, giving herself fully, she knew that initial suspicion was now not only true, but complete.
Opening her eyes and watching as Gabrielle tongued her nipple, she knew she'd never loved the bard as much as she did in that moment in all the time she'd known her. Gabrielle looked up at her and their gazes met. The fire within the green depths softened and Gabrielle moved up until she was lying atop Xena once more. She brought a hand up and caressed the side of her face, saying so much with that simple gesture.
She leaned down and placed a simple, loving kiss on her lips then began to kiss her way back down Xena's body. She was nervous as she reached the thatch of black hair between her legs, but she knew she'd always wanted to try this. She'd always wanted to taste Xena and had always wanted to give the ultimate intimacy. She flat refused with Perdicus, as she had no desire to have that worm in her mouth - it was bad enough to have it in her body. But, to taste a woman … Xena … that was intriguing.
Xena sighed, hand roaming down from their indicated prison to run through soft, golden hair. She moaned softly as a tongue ran through her folds, testing, tasting and experimenting.
"Gabrielle," Xena sighed, with nothing else in mind other than letting the bard know that she knew that it was her that had her mouth on her, her tongue inside her. "Yes…"
Gabrielle felt that she had been given the ultimate permission from Xena, Warrior Princess, to explore and experiment, so she did. She relished the feel and taste of Xena's most private parts, the parts that many men - and women - had literally died for to conquer. Now, it was splayed out before her, willingly and with a moaning Xena behind it.
"I love you," Gabrielle whispered, then attacked, using every instinct she had to conquer this warrior and to capture the woman she loved with all that she was, in a way that she never had before, a way that didn't involve swords, battles or staffs. She would fully conquer her heart.
"But son," Herodotus exclaimed, following Perdicus from the house out to the horse that had been loaded down with saddlebags. "This makes no sense!"
"Father!" Lila cried, trying to grab her father's arm, which was tugged out of her grasp.
Perdicus said nothing, simply stowed his sword and scabbard in the leather loops beneath the saddlebags.
"Perdicus!" Herodotus growled, grabbing the younger man by the arm. He was stunned, his daughter crying out in surprise, as he was sent to the snow-covered ground with a single blow from the young farmer.
"Don't get in my way," Perdicus hissed, standing over the fallen man. "I'm going to kill her." With that, Perdicus mounted his horse then rode away, leaving Lila to help her father up from the ground and stare after Gabrielle's husband.
Gabrielle knelt before her queen on one knee, trying to do her best to ignore the discomfort of the belly that was growing daily. It had been five days since conception, but she already looked to be six months along.
"Gabrielle," Melosa said, her voice strong, "please rise." She waited until the Princess did. "You came to us as a girl, just barely out of childhood. You now stand before me as a Princess in the Nation, future Queen and the mother of the new hope of the Nation. What has been a prophecy since the beginning of time, you are now bringing to fruition." Melosa smiled, stepping up to Gabrielle and taking her hands. "I couldn't be more pleased, Gabrielle," she said kindly. "And," she looked down at the huge swell in Gabrielle's belly. "I'm thinking we'll see this gift of the Gods sooner than we would expect!"
Gabrielle smiled and chuckled nervously, her hands going to her belly when they were released. "I'm just hoping that the Gods will make this delivery as easy as the pregnancy has been."
Gabrielle rested back against Xena in the large tub filled with steaming water. Hope had barely been with her mother all week, as the toddler was passed from Amazon to Amazon for her training. It had been extremely tough on mother and daughter, so Xena was trying to comfort and calm the bard with a nice, hot bath. Not only that, but the rapid pregnancy was putting immense strain on Gabrielle's back, legs and feet. Her body wasn't given nine months to adjust and adapt. It seemed she was growing by the minute.
Xena rested her cheek against the top of the blonde head, her hands reaching around the bard and rubbing her swollen belly. "I wonder if he'll grow this fast once he's born," she said, placing a kiss on the golden grown of Gabrielle's head.
"I don't know," Gabrielle said, sighing in contentment.
Xena stroked the soft skin of Gabrielle's hard belly absently as she thought about something. Ever since Gabrielle had begun to show, she'd been obsessed with Gabrielle's changing body, especially her belly. She knew that within was their child, protected within Gabrielle's warmth.
"Gabrielle?" she asked, her voice soft, unsure.
"Yeah?" Gabrielle answered, covering Xena's hands with her own, smiling when Xena entwined their fingers.
"As you know, now that the Amazons and Centaurs have joined alliances, the Centaurs will be coming to the celebration Melosa is throwing for us and our son," she began, knowing full well that Gabrielle knew all that and she didn't need to reiterate, but couldn't stop herself from babbling. She smiled at her own nerves.
"Solan will be there," Gabrielle provided, knowing exactly where Xena's heart was.
"Yes. Kaleipus will be there with his tribe," Xena whispered, holding Gabrielle even closer, staring off into a distance that involved her first born son.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, moving away from Xena enough so she could turn around in the water and face her, though kept hold of her hand. She had a strong feeling she knew what was bothering Xena, but knew the warrior was ashamed and scared to say it. "Don't you think that maybe it's time Solan knew the truth?" she offered so Xena wouldn't have to. "He knows you didn't kill Borias and he knows that you care. Shouldn't he know that you're his mother, too?" She looked into Xena's eyes, which were oceans of turmoil. "And that you love him?"
Xena let out a heavy breath, grateful for the billionth time that Gabrielle could read her so well and met her halfway on that bridge of guilt and remorse. "I want him to know his little brother and sister, Gabrielle," she whispered.
Gabrielle wanted to laugh with joy at the inclusion of Hope in Xena's wishes, but instead she remained focused on Xena's pain. "Why don't you talk to Kaleipus about talking to Solan? It doesn't mean taking Solan away from his home, Xena, it just lets him know that he has family beyond the Centaurs who love him. What do you think?"
Xena's bottom lip trembled with the emotion she was desperately trying to keep in. A tear fell down her cheek as she reached for Gabrielle, holding her as close as Gabrielle's belly allowed. "Thank you," she whispered.
Perdicus sat in the tiny room in the inn he was staying in. His supplies were loaded into the corner, as he didn't want to chance anything getting stolen from the stables where his horse was being stabled. He'd been traveling for four days, and from what he'd been told, he'd reach the Amazon village within the next day or two. He was ready. As he ran the sharpening stone along the blade of his sword, he knew he was ready.
"You think you can beat her?"
Perdicus jumped to his feet, heart pounding. He saw Ares lounging on the narrow bed in the room, just a few feet away from where Perdicus had been sitting in one of the two wooden chairs, a narrow table between them.
"I'm a good fighter," Perdicus said on impulse, though he knew that was a ridiculous statement regarding the Warrior Princess. He amended. "I'll die trying to get what's mine."
The intensity of Ares' dark and intense stare was unnerving. "You do that," he said, then disappeared in an impressive flash of light, leaving a shaken Perdicus behind.
"I'll kill her," Perdicus murmured, trying to convince himself.
Xena was glad to feel her very pregnant Gabrielle beside her as they stood with the rest of the village, watching as the Centaur Nation made their way toward them, all flags and pride.
"There he is," Gabrielle whispered, squeezing Xena's fingers, which she'd insisted on taking.
Xena followed where Gabrielle nodded, and she saw her son. She hadn't seen him in a couple years, and now, he was a 15 year old young man, standing tall and strong, just like his father. His dark blonde hair was past his shoulders, his mother's eyes proud and true as he walked with his people.
Xena took a deep breath, giving Gabrielle's fingers an affectionate squeeze before letting them go. She felt in her gut that she needed to be strong to face Solan, and she needed her wits and warrior instincts about her.
Solan walked in next to Kaleipus. And, the fact that he wasn't riding on his back told Xena a lot: her little boy had grown up and was becoming his own man. She was more nervous than she'd been in a long time, even before the worst of battles. Even before seeing Gabrielle again. She was about to go into the worst battle of her life: battle with her guilt.
Gabrielle's entire Amazon tribe, and that of a neighboring region had gathered, Queen Melosa standing at the front of the welcoming committee. Gabrielle and her wife, Xena - holding Hope - stood just behind. They all watched as the Centaurs moved in, Ephiny standing to Melosa's left as her Leader of the Guard, her son, Xenan standing next to her.
The Centaur's stopped, Kaleipus and Tyldus standing side by side. Tyldus, the leader of the local Centaur tribe - and Xenan's grandfather - bowed to Melosa. "Queen Melosa," he announced, his entire Nation, including Solan, following his example and bowing.
"Acoaelish!!" Melosa called out in the Amazon tongue, raising her sword. Her Amazons cried out in response, a jungle of blades raised. The Centaurs called out in response, stomping their hooves to join their male voices in rejoice.
Gabrielle, brought to hormonal tears at the display, turned to Xena, finding a smile of understanding sent her way. "Guess the hooves and the harlots are finally one," she sobbed, feeling foolish as a kiss landed on her head.
An hour later, Centaur and Amazon alike mingled and chatted, most exchanging stories of battle and the newest weapons available. Xena, however, was walking in the near woods with Solan, both bundled in furs and breathing puffs of steam.
She glanced at him often, amazed to see that he was nearly as tall as she was, but his manly features were very apparent, even a bit of stubble on his lip and crack in his voice. She smiled when she heard it, as it reminded her that her son was becoming a man, even if he blushed, embarrassed, feeling like a boy.
"So, Kaleipus tells me you've mastered the staff," Xena began, glancing over at the handsome young man that her son was becoming. "And, that you've outdone all your peers in studies."
"I enjoy my studies," he admitted, glancing over at her. "Especially the staff." His grin was undoubtedly his mother's. "I need to thank Gabrielle for introducing me to it."
Xena led them to an iced-over stream, the shine of the sun above it beautiful. "Solan," she began. She glanced at him, trying to decide how to continue. "You know…" her voice trailed off, frustrated with herself. She looked out over the ice, which she knew come spring would produce some amazing perch. "You know your dad is dead," she managed. She could feel the gaze of her son on her. "But …" here she faltered, silently damning herself for it and wishing for all her might that Gabrielle was with her, could comfort her and tell her what to say.
"My mom is alive," Solan said, sparing a glance at her.
Xena was so stunned she couldn't speak for a moment. "Uh," she stuttered, but then she thought of Gabrielle and what she'd do in this moment. She took a deep breath then looked at her son again. "Yeah. Yeah, Solan, she is."
Solan turned away, his June sky eyes looking out over the scenery before them. He swallowed several times, Adam's apple bobbing. "I thought so." He looked at Xena. "Will you tell me the truth?"
Xena knew there was no other answer other than, "Yes."
Solan nodded, hands tucked into his heavy cloak. "So? What's the story?"
Xena glanced at him then looked back at the frozen waters, the toe of her boot kicking at a snow-encrusted rock. "Borias and I were bad for each other, Solan," she began then shrugged. "I was bad for him," she amended. "He was trying to straighten out. Just as you've heard before."
"A true friend to the Centaurs," Solan said quietly. He was quiet for a long moment then turned to the warrior. "Why did you try and kill my uncle?"
The words cut through Xena's soul, as she knew how much he loved Kaleipus. "I thought I could … I thought I could become …" Xena couldn't say it. She couldn't even look at her son. "Well," she gave him a weak smile. "Someone once told me some things that I thought I wanted to be true. In the end, because of that and my own selfishness, I lost everything that meant anything to me." She met his gaze. "Including you."
Solan's jaw muscles twitched as he stared out over the day. "Why did no one tell me?" he asked at length. "Why didn't Kaleipus tell me?" He turned to look at her. "Why didn't you tell me?" With that, he stormed off, leaving Xena to stare after him.
The warrior felt anything but as she stared out over that stream, hands tucked into her cloak. She felt so weak in that moment, so utterly vulnerable and like she failed the one thing that she had yet to conquer: motherhood. She'd captured evil, she'd captured good and she'd even somehow managed to capture Gabrielle's love. But, to be able to capture the love of her child and more importantly, to capture his trust… It eluded her.
Xena turned to see Gabrielle stepping up to her, a cloak pulled as tightly around her body as her large belly would allow, her staff gently tapping on the ground with each step. "Hey," Xena sighed, turning to look back at the frozen stream.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked, putting a comforting hand on Xena's arm.
Xena sighed and looked at her. "He hates me."
"No, he just needs time to absorb all of this, Xena. He'll come back to you in his own time. He needs his mom in his life as much as she needs her son in hers."
"I hope so."
Gabrielle sat in her hut, a scroll spread out before her and quill in her hand. Since Xena had returned to her life, she'd felt the need to write again, something she hadn't done in so long, she worried that she wouldn't know how anymore, that the ideas wouldn't flow. She should have known better. After all, Xena inspired everything else in her life, why not her writing?
This was her third scroll filled in the little over a week that they'd been there, not to mention the ideas that had been building up in their weeks of travel to the village. She dipped the quill tip into the well of ink and was about to begin when she heard a soft knock on the hut door. "Come in," she called out, waiting where she sat on the bed, a hand resting on her swollen belly.
The door creaked open and Solan stepped through, giving her a shy smile as he closed the door behind him. "Hello, Gabrielle," he said.
"Hi, Solan." Gabrielle gave him a welcoming smile. "Please, come in." She patted the bed beside her.
Solan walked over to the bed and sat down. He glanced over at the scroll. "Am I disturbing you? I can come back later."
"No, really, it's good to have some time to talk. Since you all arrived yesterday, I really haven't had much of a chance to see you."
Solan nodded. "Helping to get everything going, I've been kept busy," he said, giving her a small smile.
Gabrielle could easily see that he was bothered and needed to talk, but she wasn't sure he'd have the courage to begin or ask for it. Just like his mother. She reached out a hand and placed it on his back. "Have you spent much time with Xena?" she asked gently.
Solan was quiet for a moment before he finally said, "No. Not since yesterday."
Gabrielle chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, trying to decide if she should just start the topic that she knew Solan needed to talk about. At length, she said, "What are your thoughts on what you've found out, Solan?"
He sighed then met her kind gaze. "I've suspected for a long time. Since you two came the first time when I was 10. But, I guess… I don't know. I guess I've always had this vision of who I thought my mother was, who I made her out to be in my mind. Kind of like my father. You know?"
Gabrielle nodded. "We all need to feel roots, Solan. And, we all need to feel like we know why we are who we are; parents are an integral part of that. Regardless of how wonderful Kaleipus and your Centaur family are, and how much they love you, you need to know where you came from."
Solan smiled, relieved. "Yeah! Exactly. I used to create these scenarios in my head when I was little. Used to pretend they were around me and talk to them."
"How do you feel now that you can talk to your mother, that she is actually around you?"
"Can I tell you something? Like, something kinda secret?"
Gabrielle could easily see the same fear of vulnerability in his eyes as she saw in Xena's. "Of course you can," she said gently.
"I'm afraid that she won't live up to the image of my mother that I've created in my mind," Solan said, his voice not much more than a whisper.
"Solan," Gabrielle said, bringing up a hand and brushing dark blonde bangs out of his eyes, so much like his mother's. "Xena is a human being, like all of us. She has her flaws and faults, but at the end of the day, she loves you. She tried to do as right by you as she was capable of during that time in her life. She's never regretted leaving you with the Centaurs, but she's always regretted not having you in her life and for you to know how much of a sacrifice it was for her to give you up. Xena is the most amazing person I've ever known, and I bet if you gave her a chance, you'd think so, too."
Solan let out a sigh as he stared off, the wheels clearly turning in his mind. At length, he nodded and turned to Gabrielle. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
"You're very welcome. And, you're a big brother now: you better stay in Xena's life." She gave him a playful nudge with her shoulder.
Suddenly the sun shone through the clouds as Solan smiled big. "I'm pretty excited about that, I have to admit."
"Well," Gabrielle said, rubbing her huge stomach. "It's coming pretty quick."
Perdicus stepped out from behind the tree, his gaze focused on the camp yards ahead. He was a little doubtful as he'd spotted not only Amazons, but also Centaurs. At this point, he had no idea why there was so much more muscle in the camp, but intended to keep an eye on things. When he'd spotted Xena, his fury and hatred had been rejuvenated. Now, his intention was to camp where he was for the night and find a way in the following day.
Xena held still, her fingers buried deeply inside Gabrielle as she was spooned up behind the incredibly pregnant blonde. She allowed her to catch her breath before she pulled out and hugged the bard tightly back against her, which was the only way for the two to be pressed flush together.
Gabrielle took Xena's hand, which now rested on her belly, and brought it up to her lips, able to smell her own passion as she placed a kiss on the palm. She smiled as Xena scooted up behind her as close as she could, able to feel the hair of Xena's sex - which she'd tasted liberally earlier in the night - press up against her behind.
"Solan came to talk to me today," she said softly, entwining her fingers with the warrior's and resting their hands on her belly.
"He did?" Xena asked, surprised.
"Does he hate me?" Xena asked, voice nearly a whisper.
"No. He's relieved to know his suspicions have been put to rest. And, though I do think he has some anger inside, I think he really does want to get to know you for who he now knows that you are as opposed to just a really great warrior who saved him from Dagnin," Gabrielle said, leaving Xena's hand on her belly and running her fingertips lovingly over Xena's forearm.
"What should I do?"
"Nothing. Let him come to you, Xena. He will. You have to have faith in that."
The following day, Xena and Ephiny were getting ready to set out to the woods to hunt for the village. She had just buckled a quiver full of arrows to her back when she sensed someone standing behind her. Turning, she saw a very uncertain Solan standing there. She smiled at him.
"Good morning, Solan."
Ephiny, who stood nearby also arming herself, watched out of the corner of her eye, wondering if she should walk away and leave the two to talk. Finally, she got an idea. "Xena," she said, walking over to the pair. "I really need to help Xenan with some stuff, so I have an idea…" she smiled, removing her own quiver and handing it and her bow to Solan. "Why don't you see what Solan can do?"
Xena met Ephiny's gaze and could easily see what Ephiny was trying to do. She gave her a ghost of a smile and nod. Turning to her son, she raised her brows in question. "How 'bout it, Solan?"
His grin was infectious. "Okay." He took the weapons from Ephiny then followed Xena into the cold woods, Ephiny staying behind, a hopeful smile on her face for her friend.
"Hey," Gabrielle greeted, stepping up to the blonde Amazon, her gaze on mother and son as they headed off. "I thought you and Xena were going hunting?"
"We were. But," Ephiny shrugged, "I think Xena and Solan need some time alone."
Gabrielle met Ephiny's knowing smile with one of her own. "What a great idea, Mom."
Ephiny laughed, slinging an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and walking with her back into the village.
Xena and Solan were huddled behind some vegetation, Solan with his bow raised, knocked arrow at the ready with a deadly point. Xena extended an arm, finger point leading the way for where Solan should be looking. The boy followed her guidance, seeing the elk munching on some grass that had managed to make its way out of the frosting of snow.
Solan focused, closing one eye as he raised his bow, following the shaft of the arrow to his target. With a deep breath, he released the arrow and watched as it flew, burying itself within the thick flesh and bone. The animal fell, instantly dead by the incredible shot.
"Good job!" Xena crowed, turning to her son, who was grinning like a fool. She raised her hands, Solan slapping them in camaraderie.
"My uncle taught me how to shoot," he explained, standing from their hiding spot, followed by his mother.
"Well, he did a great job."
Together they walked over to the fallen animal, which would feed many Amazons and Centaurs.
"He didn't suffer," Xena noted, seeing where the arrow entered. "Nicely done …" her gaze fell for a moment before raising to meet her match. "Son."
Solan met her gaze and a silent message passed between the two. He smiled, nodding. 'Thanks… Mother."
Xena nearly teared up, but instead managed to keep her composure. Suddenly, Xena froze, a hand on Solan's arm to still his movements. She felt… something. With a cry that startled the boy, she pushed him to the ground, landing nearby with an arrow shaft between her teeth and one caught in her hand. She barely had time to get off her son and to her feet before a war cry rang out from her left.
To say that Xena was stunned to see Perdicus running at her was an understatement. "Solan, run!" She yelled, unsheathing her sword. "Now!" Sure that her son was out of danger's way, Xena returned her attention back to Perdicus, who glared at her with those intensely dark eyes of his, bow slung across his back and quiver of arrows back behind the tree he'd shot from. "That was a real mistake, Perdicus," she said, voice chillingly calm. "Nobody goes after my son."
The two combatants circled each other, each with their swords at the ready. Xena's long cloak fluttered slightly in the chilly breeze.
"I figure it was only fair," Perdicus growled. "After all, you've stolen my wife." He snarled at the momentary look of surprise in Xena's eyes. "He was right," he muttered.
"Be smart, Perdicus," she said, hand tightening on the grip of her sword. "Walk away now and nobody gets hurt."
Xena knew she was in an incredibly tough position. What she wanted to do was gut the man and be done with it, but she knew that wasn't an option. He was Hope's father and the man that Gabrielle was still married to. She could only pray to the gods that he'd gain his senses and walk.
"Today isn't gonna be about someone getting hurt, Xena," he assured. "Today is about someone dying, and that person will be you!"
Xena easily deflected Perdicus' blows, though she knew she had to be careful; he was a trained soldier and angry as a many-headed hydra. The sound of metal clashing rent the cold stillness of the woods, the two engaged in one of the oldest dances on earth: battle.
Solan felt as though his lungs would explode as he ran as fast as he could back to the village, eyes scanning the scene for Gabrielle. When he spotted her and Ephiny talking, he nearly cried with relief. Though he knew Xena was one, if not the greatest fighter in the world, something niggled in his gut about the man who'd attacked them. The look in his mother's eyes told him that she knew him, and the look in the man's eyes told of hatred and murderous intent out of revenge.
"Gabrielle!" he cried out, running over to the two Amazons, nearly out of breath. "Gabrielle!"
"Solan," the bard said, immediately concerned and panicked when she saw him running over to her. "What is it? What happened? Where's Xena?"
"We were…" he gasped, trying to catch his breath as he rested his hands on his knees. "We were attacked. A man. She's fighting him now."
"Who is he?" Ephiny asked, sword already drawn.
Solan shook his head. "I've never seen him before. Dark hair and dark eyes. I think Xena knows him."
Gabrielle felt her blood run cold. Instinctively she knew exactly who it was. "Take me to them," she whispered.
Xena dodged a ruthless strike, able to feel the cold chill of the blade as it swiped past her face, slicing the air. She wasn't pressing any of her advantages with him, afraid that she'd kill him. She was simply trying to stay out of the way of his rage and wear him down.
"Come on, warrior," he taunted, slashing again at her. "You afraid of me?" He lunged, his anger getting the best of him. "Fight me!"
"Perdicus, I don't want to kill you," Xena exclaimed, sending a volley of swings his way, each one just barely parried as she backed him up towards a tree. Finally, she sent a booted foot out, sweeping his feet out from underneath him, sending him to the hard ground. As he fell back, he hit his head on the trunk of the tree, effectively knocked out.
Xena turned, horrified to see Gabrielle hurrying over to her as fast as her swollen belly would allow, Ephiny and Solan in tow. "Gabrielle," she sighed, hurrying over to her. "What are you doing here?"
"Solan told us you were being attacked," Ephiny explained. She looked past the warrior to the man on the ground, questioning brown eyes flicking back to Xena.
"He's knocked out," Xena explained.
"Oh my god," Gabrielle whispered, eyes glued to the slumped form on the ground. "Oh Xena, I never thought he'd come here." Tortured green eyes met Xena's. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Xena assured. "He's one angry guy, and I don't blame him. If he didn't try this here he would have back in Potidea."
"Are you hurt?" Gabrielle asked, gaze scanning what she could see of Xena's exposed skin.
"We need to get him - " Gabrielle stopped, her eyes suddenly getting huge, her hands going to her stomach. "Oh gods," she whispered.
"What? What is it?" Xena asked, her gaze going to the bard's belly. "We need to get you back to the village, Gabrielle - "
"My water just broke," Gabrielle breathed, able to feel the warm fluid running down her legs and melting some of the snow between her feet.
"Okay. We gotta get you settled," Xena said, trying to remain calm. She knew they were too far away from the village to safely get Gabrielle back. "Ephiny, run back to the village and get a liter and horse." Without a word, Ephiny was off like a shot.
"What can I do?" Solan asked, watching as Xena helped Gabrielle over towards a spot that had less snow on it.
"Spread this out on the ground," Xena ordered, removing her cloak and tossing it over to him.
"Oh gods," Gabrielle gasped, the contractions coming hard and fast, much more so than they had with her daughter. "Xena," she panted as the warrior helped her to lie down. "He's coming quick," she gasped, another round of contractions ripping through her body.
"I'm here, Gabrielle," Xena murmured, using two fingers on both hands to quickly jab at a pressure point in Gabrielle's groin to help ease some of the pain. "Breathe Gabrielle. I need you to breathe deeply."
Gabrielle nodded, trying her best to follow Xena's direction. She was beginning to sweat profusely, her bangs stuck to her forehead, her body feeling feverish from the pain. She tried to help as much as she could as Xena removed her breeches, but it hurt too much to move.
Not sure what else to do and feeling incredibly awkward, Solan knelt down next to Gabrielle and took one of her hands. "Squeeze if you need to, Gabrielle," he offered softly.
Gabrielle did just that as she felt another contraction rip through her. "Xena!"
"I know, love," Xena murmured. As much as she was looking forward to seeing her son, it was tearing her apart to see Gabrielle in so much pain. "I need to see how close," she explained, removing Gabrielle's skirt so she was left nude from the waist down. Unfortunately, when it came to childbirth, modesty wasn't an option. She raised Gabrielle's knees and spread her legs, taking a look at Gabrielle's swollen sex. It was obvious the bard was close. "He's coming," she informed, reaching down to touch the opening to Gabrielle's sex, able to feel the muscles contracting strongly against her fingers.
Perdicus felt a hard slap delivered to his face, causing him to gasp as he was startled back into the world of consciousness. Blinking several times, he realized that his head was pounding and that he was incredibly cold from lying in the snow at the base of a tree.
"Get up," Ares growled.
Perdicus looked to his right, stunned to see the God of War kneeling beside him.
"Are you going to let her get away with that?" Ares asked, tossing a glance over to Xena, Gabrielle and Solan. "Your wife is giving birth to Xena's son as we speak," Ares said, dark eyes burning into Perdicus'. "What should have been your son, Perdicus. She betrayed you. They both betrayed you."
Perdicus felt his blood turn to boiling lava as suddenly he heard the very obvious sounds of his wife in labor. He remembered the very same sounds when Hope was born. He knew for a fact that this child was not his. Getting to his feet, though wobbly, he didn't notice that his dagger had fallen from his belt when he'd hit the ground, it's deadly point sticking up from the snow. He looked Ares in the eye as the God of War handed him his sword.
"Do it," Ares encouraged.
"You're doing great, Gabrielle," Xena encouraged, her spine tingling with realization that she couldn't quite put her finger on. She felt like a god was near, but couldn't dare take her attention off of the bard as this baby was coming, and he was coming fast.
Sensing movement behind her, she glanced over her shoulder to see Perdicus pulling himself off the ground, sword in his hand.
Growling in her throat, she turned back to Gabrielle. "Push, Gabrielle, push!"
Gabrielle's pain and exertion-filled screams echoed throughout the woods, sending a few animals scurrying. "Xena!" Gabrielle gasped, feeling as though she were being ripped in two.
"I know love, I know," Xena panted, both in sympathy to her partner, as she remembered all too well what Gabrielle was going through, as well as panic as she heard Perdicus getting closer.
"He's coming," Solan whispered, eyes on the approaching man. "Mother!" he cried, seeing the stranger was lifting his blade high overhead.
Right as Xena saw the baby's head crown, she reached back with a vicious kick to Perdicus' gut, sending him flying back to where he'd just come from, the gleaming blade of his own dagger burying itself to the hilt inside his body.
"He's coming!" Gabrielle yelled out at the same moment, her body pushing the child out, the cries of a newborn renting the air.
Xena could hear Perdicus gurgling but knew there wasn't a thing she could do as she helped pull her son free from his mother's womb. Tiny arms flailed with balled fists and a scrunched up face.
"Here," Solan said, quickly removing his cloak and handing it to Xena, unable to take his eyes off the miracle he'd just witnessed.
Xena felt emotion rush through her at the sight of the child that she'd helped to create. Tears came to her eyes as she used part of the cloak to clean him off so she could quickly wrap him up and protect him from the freezing temperatures.
"Is he okay?" Gabrielle gasped.
"He's perfect," Xena whispered, handing the baby over to awaiting arms.
"What are we going to name him?" Gabrielle asked.
"Alexander," Solan said, looking from one woman to the other.
Xena met Gabrielle's gaze and they shared a smile and a nod. "Alexander, it is." Xena leaned down and placed a kiss on pale lips. "I love you," she whispered before pushing to her feet and walking over to Perdicus, dread in her gut. He was gone, hooded eyes looking off into a distance that only Charon could reach him at. "Damn it, Perdicus," she murmured. "It didn't have to end this way."
"Xena?" Gabrielle called weakly.
Xena turned and met her gaze, her own filled with sadness and finality. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle and the baby were brought back to the village on Ephiny's liter, one of the Centaur's bringing Perdicus' body to the village on his back, two others the butchered meat from the elk Solan had killed. For Xena, it was such a huge mixture of absolute bliss and sadness at the events that had happened less than an hour ago.
She sat in their hut with Gabrielle, who was feeding Alexander. She watched, noting the baby already had a lot of dark hair, his eyes June sky blue, though she knew they could potentially change, as could his hair lighten just as Solan's had.
Gabrielle could feel the weight of Xena's sadness as she sat next to her on the bed. She looked up and met her eyes. "Xena," she said softly, reaching a hand out to take Xena's. "It wasn't your fault. Please don't blame yourself."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand before bringing it up to her lips and leaving a kiss on her fingers. "Something he said," she murmured, her mind going back to the fight. "I think Ares was behind this."
"Why? And for what purpose?" Gabrielle asked, wincing slightly as the baby gummed a bit hard on her very sensitive nipple.
"Why does Ares do anything he does? His own gains. Maybe to stop our destiny from coming to fruition."
"Maybe he's angry you and I are back together," Gabrielle offered.
Xena studied the bard for a long moment then nodded, her jaw muscles working as she tried to keep her anger under control. Suddenly she saw it all. "If I killed Perdicus, he was betting on you walking away from me."
"If that's the case," Gabrielle said softly, "then Ares is a fool. Nothing will make me walk away again, Xena. Nothing."
Xena had held Gabrielle as she cried later that night, the bard's guilt over her husband's death nearly tearing Xena apart. Gabrielle told her she wasn't angry with her, and Xena believed her, but she was angry at herself. And at Ares.
As the village slept, Xena, wrapped in a warm cloak and walked alone, looking up into the night sky and all its countless stars. It was cold and the air smelled of snow. She wondered when they'd be able to get back on the road, and where they should go.
"You know it was bound to happen, Xena."
Xena turned in time to see Ares appear in a flash of light, one hand resting on the pummel of his sword. "That foolish villager would have tried to kill you the moment he found out you'd taken his woman."
"Trying to justify yourself, Ares? Yet again," Xena said, tempted to grab her chakram and send it flying, right through Ares' muscled gut. It wouldn't hurt him but it would sure as Tartarus make her feel better. "You took that little girl's father away, you bastard!"
"Yeah, well somehow I don't think he would have seen much of her while her two mommies are gallivanting all over Greece, do you?"
"It wasn't your place to make that decision for him. You sent him on a suicide mission and you knew it," Xena bit out. "His death was unnecessary and you knew it."
Ares glared at her. "What is it about that irritating little blonde that you can't walk away from?" he asked, taking a step closer to her. He reached a hand up to stroke Xena's face, but she moved away before his fingers could make contact. "I could have given you a son, you know? You didn't need her. You didn't need Athena or Artemis."
She met his gaze. "The thought of being with you disgusts me," she murmured. "Maybe you should talk to your sisters. You'll never be able to come between Gabrielle and I, Ares. Give it up." With that, she turned and walked back towards the hut, leaving Ares to stare after her.
"Maybe not this time," he growled. "But I will get what I want."
Back in the hut, Xena watched Gabrielle sleep for a moment before she shed her cloak and clothing then climbed into bed and curled up behind Gabrielle, pulling the bard back against her then fell asleep.
Xena slid her free arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, her other arm filled with Hope as Gabrielle cuddled Alexander to her beneath her cloak to keep the newborn warm. Solan stood on Xena's other side, the four watching the flames, which sent a warm wave to their faces, but sadness to their hearts as Perdicus' wrapped body quickly was consumed. They had considered taking his body back to Potidea, but Gabrielle didn't want Hope to have to stay around the dead body of her father, far too young to understand.
Xena placed a soft kiss to Gabrielle's head before gently urging the blonde to rest against her shoulder. Gabrielle had tears glistening in her eyes, though more for her daughter rather than for Perdicus. In part, she was greatly relieved that the situation was over and she could move on with her new life and new family. She did, however, dread going home to bring Perdicus' ashes home and to have to tell the family he was gone. The plan was to load up and leave within the next few days, as there seemed to be a lull in the snow and though still cold, the temperatures had warmed a bit during a warm spell.
"Mother?" Solan said, gaze still riveted to the flames before him.
"I've spoken with my uncle." He looked at her. "I want to travel with you and Gabrielle for awhile."
Xena met his gaze, surprised. "Are you sure?"
Solan nodded. "Yes. I can catch my own food and I'm hardly sick," he pleaded. He leaned forward past Xena to Gabrielle, who was looking his way. "Can I?"
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look, a small smile passing between them, the communication between them complete. Xena turned to Solan. "We can head to Kaleipus' village to gather your things on the way out."
Xena turned back to look into the flames, feeling complete for the first time in her life. She held Hope tighter to her, smiling as the toddler rested her head on Xena's shoulder. Her life had come full circle, just as Athena said, and the warrior was a happy woman.
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