Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Autolycus, Eve and the horsies belong to MCA/Universal Pictures. Just the little story is mine

Love/Sex: Two women in love, but nothing graphic. The following chapters will also contain an m/f relationship. This is not the main part of the fic, but it is essential to the plot. F/F loving will prevail.

Angst: Yep....

Timeline: This is an alternative to the events following 'Looking Death in the Eye'

Comments: Any feedback can be sent to mjb1_1@hotmail.com

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21

Ritual complete, offering accepted, Xena felt a weight lift from her as she watched her son enveloped in white light.  Apollo had accepted tribute and taken the child as his disciple; quite what that would mean for the boys future she was unwilling to think about.  With his fate secure, for now, her attentions had to turn to her wayward spouse.   

Xena knew that she had to confront him, with the overwhelming evidence that Aphrodite had provided there was no other choice.  It was now three days since Lyceus’ birth and still no sign of the war god, it wouldn’t last, he was just biding his time.  Soon he would be there, all seductive smile and insidious words; trying to get her to surrender.  He would weave some tapestry of half truths and lies to justify his plots and schemes.  She had to head him off.

Clasping her son to her chest she planted a kiss to his fuzzy head and passed him to the seated soldier.  Kneeling down she took Eve’s face into her hands and locked gazes with eyes that mirrored her own.  She could see sorrow in their depths.

“Everything will be all right, Evie,” even as she spoke she wiped fat tears from downy cheeks.

“What about Daddy?”  Full lips pouted as she spoke.

“Daddy is working on some business, baby, and he might not be around for a while.  It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love you,” she really hoped that was true, “he will just be far away.  To make up for it he said that Gabrielle can stay with us to make up for it and because she is Mesella too, you get two new playmates in one.”  A hopeful look shone through.

“Will Claudius come with us as well?”  It wouldn’t make up for her daddy being gone but she loved the other boy a lot.

“We’ll see.”  She hoped that they would too.

********

Olympus, once the seat of godly power, now laid in wrack and ruin as she prowled the halls, searching.  Aphrodite had transported her here and now it was up to her to confront Ares alone.  As she ploughed a path through the dust, leaving little clouds in her wake, she knew that once their marriage was severed he would go back to his old ways.  She feared that this time he would be much worse, no longer swayed by the promise of her affections that he had already had.  The one hope she held was that he would be too busy recruiting new armies and followers to think about her, for a while at least.

Almost without thought she found herself at the huge iron doors that bore Ares crest.  She knew he was in there, that same familiar tingling, that had been absent in their time together, was back and buzzing in her mind.  He would be waiting for her.  Walking confidently forward, the doors parted without a touch revealing the blood red interior of the room.

Ares lounged negligently on a couch, decked out in leather pants and vest, heavy boots propped up on a low table.  In one hand he held a pewter tankard while in the other he balanced and flipped his sword.  There was no reaction as she entered, not even a raised head or a nod.  Xena knew that she was being baited so took what was her due.

“So I no longer even warrant a greeting?”

“Oh, so you’ve finally remembered you have a husband?  So sorry, I thought you would be looking for your whore.”  The words, like the pose, were laconic but Xena could hear the edge beneath them.

“I never forgot I had a husband, Ares, but I never thought I had a god!  You have lied to me time and time again.”

“And you’ve been honest?”  At this his head snapped up and his eyes burned.  “You’ve been lying to me from the day we got here, from the moment you saw her!”  The last word was spat with such venom that Xena visibly flinched.

“I did nothing wrong!”  Her voice had now risen to match his as she flowed across the room to stand, poised, in front of him.  “Yes I knew it was Gabrielle when I first saw her but she didn’t know me!  I have done nothing but speak with Mesella, while feeling guilty that I was betraying you!  All that time you were doing this!” 

Finally he stood, moving into her, forcing her to step back or fight.  Their eyes locked, full of fire and in that instant he wanted nothing more than to lunge forward and kiss her.  To lay down everything he had at her feet and beg for forgiveness but he was Ares, he was Mars, God of War.  The sun had set on their too brief time basking in it.  Neither one of them could ever go back now.

“What exactly is it you think I have been doing?  My powers have come back thanks to my son!  I will have him Xena!”

“A pretty lie, Ares but that’s all it is and you know it!  Your powers have nothing to do with Lyceus and I will not let you have him to shape into some perversion to carry out your will!”  She wasn’t expecting the blow and so was felled by it, crashing to the floor.

“You know nothing!  How do you suggest you keep the boy away from me?  I am a god!”  He was not expecting the laughter that bubbled forth from the woman as she bounced back to her feet.

“I managed to keep a great many things from you before, Ares, you seem to have forgotten!”  Her fingers hovered over the chakram that hung at her side.  “I know about your plan, yours and Agrippina’s.   She has been gathering worshippers for you and that is where your power comes from.”  Taking a breath, she moved her hand away from the deadly weapon. 

“I’m not angry at you; it just hurts that you would do this to us.  It isn’t just me you have left behind, it’s Eve as well.  You can pretend all you want that this is some sort of retaliation because I saw Gabrielle but we both know that you were working to cease power the day we arrived.”  Taking a step towards the door she dismissed the glowering warrior.  “I won’t fight you.  You have no hold on our son, he belongs to Apollo.  Play your petty games while you can, you’re time is up.” 

“Don’t turn your back on me!”  Energy bolts pounded the walls on each side of the door, a counterpoint to his howl.

“You destroyed us; I would have stayed with you.  You have given me back to her, she did not take me.”  Then she was gone, leaving Ares to stare sullenly after her, all his rage turned to pain as he fell back into his seat and threw back the content of his cup.

********

Augustus sat listening attentively to the head of his royal guard as she unfolded what she knew of the plot on his dynasty.  He could barely believe his ears as she revealed that his own family would go to such lengths.  Much of what he had heard in the last two hours left him stunned, not least of which was the fact that the stocky woman in front of him was not who she seemed.  Best damn guard I ever had and all this time an impostor, albeit a unknowing one.

“So, what now?”  The Emperor was glad that his wife was not present for this, at the urgings of the blond.  He needed to hear the facts with a clear head and not have rash ideas thrown around.

“That is up to you, Highness.  I have told you all we know; now you will need to use all that you have at your disposal.”  Her demeanour was every bit the dutiful servant that she had always been to the throne.

“I will have to give this some thought, for a betrayal such as this a more creative punishment is necessary.  What of your future?”

“I humbly ask to leave your service, Highness.  I have loved my life here but my place is with her, in Greece.”

“You will be greatly missed by the court and by its Emperor.  You have protected this kingdom with your life.  Let me give you something to take with you, a part of Rome that will keep u in your heart.”

“Well there is one thing…”

22

Pushing already burning legs to the limits, the small Amazon breezed through the woods, heading back to the palace.  Today would be her last in Rome and her feelings were ambivalent at best.  In the weeks since Xena’s confrontation with Ares they had talked often, growing closer and starting to rebuild the trust that had been eroded more than six years ago.  As her body healed so had their broken relationship; it was still nothing close to what they had shared but time would change that.

Even so, a part of her remained reluctant to head back to Greece.  That was the part of her that was still, and would remain, Mesella.  A sense of duty threaded through her psyche that she was finding difficult to ignore and so she ran.  Her body was yet to completely heal, regular sparring sessions and runs were helping and it would not be long before she was at full strength again.  The problem was that all the training in the world would not sweat Rome out of her pores and she hoped that would not one day turn into a dangerous weakness.

As she flew out of the woods, the great city standing before her like a crown, the palace the jewel at its centre, her thoughts turned again to Ares.  Xena had been tight lipped about what had happened on Olympus but her lack of injury testified to the fact that they had not fought.  Whatever had transpired seemed to have worked, for now.  Gabrielle was not foolish enough to think that they had seen the back of the war god.  He would be back, playing his games and trying to destroy them soon enough.  He could never be satisfied with just taking over swathes of the world with his corrupt ideas for power and manipulation.  Xena was in his blood as surely as Rome now flowed in hers.  He would never really let her, or his children, go.

The children were something else that laid heavily on her mind.  After she had told Augustus of Agrippina’s plans, he had offered her anything within his power.  She had made the foolish mistake of taking him at his word and requesting that she be allowed to take Claudius with her.  The Emperor’s reaction had been contemplative and she had held out hope that he would eventually say yes.  His wife’s reaction on the other hand had been swift and disastrous.  Livia would hear nothing of it, raving at her husband and his soldier.  The irony was not lost on Gabrielle, here was a woman who wanted her crippled son hidden from view and yet when given the opportunity to send him away she riled against it.  Maybe she does love him?  The idea was so alien that she had to dismiss it; she had never seen any evidence for it.

Poor little Claudius had been heart broken at the news that he would not be leaving with her.  He had sobbed on her shoulder like he had lost a part of himself.  After his initial sorrow he had pulled away from her completely and refused to speak to his hero or even go near her for more than a fortnight.  This saddened her and made her unsure whether she was making the right decision in following Xena back to Greece; and that was what she was doing, following the warrior princess’ lead as she always had before.

Desperate not to fall into the same malaise that she had been feeling since the situation began to resolve itself she pushed her body even hard, arms and legs pumping to focus her thoughts.  She and Xena had talked daily in an attempt to air grievances and feelings before heading home.  They were still working through things, nowhere near ready to renew any sort of physical relationship but definitely opening up to each other.  Gabrielle did enjoy the time they spent together, it was almost like the start of their friendship only this tie she was Xena’s equal in every way.  The old fears; that she was just a tag-along, following the other woman like a puppy, were a vestige of the past that she was trying hard to quash.

Xena had her own set of lingering problems which, try as she might, Gabrielle could not really help to remedy.  The biggest of those was also one of the smallest; Eve.  Eve had been sullen and withdrawn since she realised that her ‘daddy’ would not even be coming to say goodbye to her.  The dark warrior knew that this hurt her child but was powerless to remedy it.  In a vein attempt to alleviate her daughter’s pain she had even had Aphrodite tell Ares he could visit the girl, a gesture that had been flatly refused.  Unlike Claudius, Eve at least continued to speak to Gabrielle, not seeming to connect her presence with her father’s absence.

Lyceus was the only child not to be causing heartache, far from it.  He was an extremely happy and content baby, barely crying and equally happy with either woman.  He slept easily, seldom waking and was growing like a weed.  He seemed fascinated by his sister, making her smile when nobody else could.  He also seemed to be mesmerized by Claudius’ curly golden locks, tugging on them whenever the children were together.  Gabrielle kept her distance when they older children played, not wanting to drive the prince away from his best friend.

Nearing the palace, the former guard captain was greeted by salutes from the soldier’s who stood at rigid attention. Slowing her pace to a jog she joined them, exchanging a few casual words before entering the imposing structure.  Moving through the servants’ area of the palace, out of sight of nobles and dignitaries, she was greeted by the smiles of many people who she would never see again.  Sweat rapidly cooling on her skin, damp linen clinging to back and breasts she headed to the bathing chambers used by the soldiers.  At this time of day it would be empty and she could scrub the dirt and dust from her skin.

Eventually arriving at the steam filled room she pushed through the door and began to pull off her sandals when she suddenly realised that she was not alone.  It was hard to make out the face of the figure who lounged on the edge of the pool but the body language was unmistakable.

“I wondered how long it would take.”  Standing at her full height, body tensed and alert, she blankly stared at the God of War.

“You always were the smart one, Blondie.  I should have tried harder to win you over.”  Ares flowed to his face and stalked towards the young warrior who made no move to back away, even when he stood mere inches away.

“Whatever you have to say will just be more hot air in this room Ares, or should I call you Mars now?”  Voice casually neutral she hid her disgust well.

“I don’t know Mesella, you tell me.”  Imperious smirk firmly in place his gaze bore into her.

“Did you want something?  I have things to do that don’t involve stroking the ego of a sociopath.”  Making as if to push past him she found her wrist held in a vice like grip.  Refusing to show any sign of weakness, even though the pressure was more than bruising, she returned his cold stare as his face now became a mask of hatred.

“You ruined my marriage!”  She wasn’t expecting the low growl of the words, more used to the large man shouting the odds.

“I think you did that all on your own.”  Her answering stare was equally cool.

“Enjoy your victory for now, it won’t last for long.  You know you’re not enough to satisfy her, that’s why she could never really resist me.”  He knew this was her weakness and tried to exploit it.

“I never saw Xena as a trophy, Ares and I was never competing.  The only love worth having is that freely given, something you don’t understand.  If we she leaves, she leaves.  At least I will have tried.”  Seeing that he was not about to win this battle of words and wills, he released her arm and stepped back.

“Enjoy what time you have, Blondie. Once Rome is under my power, I will be coming after you.”

“I’ll see you then.”  Frustrated by her glib response he burst into a cloud of energy bolts and was gone.

Letting out a deep breath, relieved to be alone, she rubbed at her aching wrist.  He had not broken the bone but had come close.  Shucking her clothes she settled into the heated water, inhaling the perfumed air as she felt the water relax her stretched muscles.  This little altercation had been something she had been waiting for and the god had not disappointed.  He had always been jealous of her, ridiculous really that an immortal with such power should envy a simple peasant girl yet he had since the day she met Xena.

Submerging herself she allowed the heat of the water to seep into her aching muscles.  Her stomach was still giving her some trouble, even though the wound was healing quickly and the stitches had been removed.  The need for air soon meant that she had to surface.  Breaking through the water she was confronted by a face much too close to her own and, without thinking, lashed out with her elbow.  Her assailant’s head snapped back as he sprawled onto the smooth stone floor.

“Good to see there’s nothing wrong with your reflexes Messy.” Postumus rubbed his aching jaw and he used powerful stomach muscles to pull himself into a seated position.  Seeing the abashed look on his friends face he leant forward and dunked her head into the water, taking her by surprise.  Spluttering accompanied a blond head coming back into view.

“Et tu, Postumus.”  Slicking hair away from her forehead she moved beside her friend, facing him with her arms folded on the edge of the pool.  “I wasn’t exactly expecting to see you here.”

“You know me, Messy.”  Realising that he was using the familiar moniker, her turned troubled eyes to his friend.  “Is it ok to call you that?  Gabrielle just doesn’t seem right.”

“You can call me whatever you like; I think I shall always be Mesella within these walls.”

“I was on my way to find you and one of the serving girls told me you’d come in here all grubby.  I actually brought you a change of clothes,” he gestured to the pile of while linen that lay on one of the benches that bracketed the walls.  “I knew you wouldn’t have any; some things don’t change.”

“And some things do.  I’m sorry that so much has changed so quickly.”  A meaty hand closed on a muscular shoulder.

“You have nothing to be sorry for.  You lost more than I can imagine and now you have it back.  Never apologise for that.  Take this chance in both hands and squeeze the life out of it.  Take some of your own advice and live a little, Messy.  I listened and am so grateful that I did.”

“Yeah, Vispania is a great girl.  Don’t know what she sees in you!”  Then she was choking on water after the hand on her shoulder forced her under.  Bobbing up again she sprayed water all over her companion.      

“I was looking for you.  I wanted to say goodbye.  I know you leave in the morning but I’ll be on duty.”  A damp hand ruffled through already messy hair, leaving glistening trails over the strands.  “I’m no good at this, I’ve already said goodbye to Gabrielle, six years ago and now I have to say goodbye to Mesella.  I’ll miss you; you’re like a sister to me.  I trust you with my life.”  Eyes glistening, though he would not shed any tears, he smiled down at her.  “If you ever need me, I will come at your call.  You will always be my captain.”  He stood with a salute, before she could respond he was gone.  A tear tracked down a round cheek, swallowed up by the water. 

********

Agrippina sat in the dark dankness of the dungeon and wept.  She wept for the loss of her hopes and dreams, torn away by the Emperor.  She cried for her son’s uncertain future and her daughters ruined reputations.  All her hard work for nought.  A delicate lace kerchief dabbed at her eyes so that she missed the light show that heralded the god’s arrival.

“Buck up woman! We have much to do!”  His voice boomed around the tiny room but died before it reached the sentries outside.

“A…Ares?”  She hiccupped the word through her tears.

“Call me Mars, dear lady.  It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think.”  She nodded mutely.  “Dry those tears; we have things to talk about.”

“What can I do now, from this place?”  Blowing her nose loudly she could not miss the look of revulsion that quickly fluttered across dark features.  “Sorry.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.  You aren’t to stay here at all.  Augustus is shipping you off to some balmy little island with your children.  It’s perfect!”  Clapping his hands together in glee he began to set out his plan.  “You will be able to recruit followers for me and your son from there with very little scrutiny.  I will be able to mould little Caligula into a fine leader…”  Agrippina beamed as she realised that far from being over, her ambitions were just beginning.

********

Watching sailors load the cargo onto the ship, Gabrielle felt a real sense of loss welling in her stomach.  Most of her possessions would be staying behind, handed out to her loyal troops as a thank you and farewell.  True to his word she had not seen Postumus this morning which she accepted as his way of dealing with the separation.  The thing that really was breaking her heart was that neither Claudius, nor his brother Germanicus, had come to see her before she left the palace.  Holding back the tears that she could feel collecting, she felt a presence at her back, a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“You could stay a little longer if you need to.”  Xena spoke softly, meaning the words even though the idea hurt.

“If I don’t leave with you, I never will.  I never understood why all roads led to Rome, Xena.  I hated it so much because of all the pain we had suffered at the hands of Caesar, Pompei, Anthony,” the last of these still left a bitter taste in her mouth.  “Now I love the place like a part of me.  It just gets into your blood.  Makes you want to fight for it; it’s like the whole place is alive.” 

“Still weaving your words my bard,” without thinking she pressed kiss the blonde’s temple.  “I understand.”   Gabrielle remained stock still, stunned by the act of spontaneous affection.

The sound of running footsteps pounded along the dock, accompanied by panting breaths, broke the women apart as both prepared themselves for possible attack.  On seeing who the intruder was, the ex-soldier visibly relaxed, as did her dark companion.  The dishevelled and red faced youth skidded to a halt in front of the soldier and extended a rolled scroll before leaning over, hands braced on his knees, to try to catch his breath.

“I’ll leave you two alone.”  Xena smiled at the boy before walking to where Aphrodite looked after Eve and Lyceus, cradling the latter while entertaining the former with tiny magical feats.

“Gemellus come and sit down,” leading the boy over to a nearby docking post she sat him down.  “What’s this?”  She waved the unopened scroll in his face as he slowly regained his breath. 

“It’s from Lepida; she couldn’t come so she sent me.”  He didn’t tell the woman in front of him that the younger woman had been forlorn ever since her last visit.  The clerk felt sorry for her but ultimately she was a whore, people never stayed, even he realised that.

“Oh.”  Feeling tremendously guilty that she hadn’t given the young woman a thought, she grasped the parchment more firmly.  “When you get back, tell her that I will write to her from Greece.  I won’t forget.”  Knowing when he was being dismissed, the boy stood and started down the pier on to be stopped by a whistle.  Spinning of his heal he was just in time to catch the gold coin that flew towards him.  Beaming smile in place and jogged away.

Gabrielle sat in his vacated spot and unrolled the letter.  It was a short note, written in a shaky hand.  Finally she did allow a tear to fall from her eye as she realised just how much she had meant to this girl who would now be all alone again.  Retying it, she placed it into the satchel at her side and wiped away the lone tear.  Turning on the stump she now faced the sea, once again lost in her thoughts.

Xena had watched the whole exchange with a troubled look on her face and Eve on her shoulders.  Flipping the child onto the ground she was about to go and question her partner when Eve insistently tugged at a strap on her leather skirt.  Bending to her daughter’s level she quirked a questioning eyebrow.

“Mama, look!”  Excitement threaded through her voice as a small finger pointed behind her.  Looking over her shoulder, following the direction that Eve pointed, Xena’s face lit up at the sight.

“Well spotted, Evie.”  Receiving a huge smile from the girl, she was thrilled that her apathy seemed to be fading.  Pressing a kiss to her cheek she stood and called out, “Gabrielle, I think you have visitors!”

Aphrodite stood beside the Warrior Princess, handing her the infant as they both watched the golden head snap up at the call.  Gabrielle followed the direction of Eve’s still pointing finger until her eyes travelled up a pair of sandaled legs.  Looking up quickly she was stunned to see a grinning Germanicus, Claudius held securely on his back, standing their.  Not holding back the whoop of joy she felt, she rushed to the boys and pulled them both into a hug.

“Think she’s happy?”  Aphrodite’s whispered words held laughter.

“I think only one thing could make her happier.” More tugging on her skirt drew her attention to Eve.

“Do you think Claudius is coming home too?  Look he has bags.”  Seeing for the first time what her daughter had noticed almost immediately, Xena felt her heart swell.

“I hope so, Evie.”

Back at the foot of the pier Gabrielle now held Claudius on her hip while she ruffled the heir’s hair.  Good naturedly the youth swatted her hand away, amused that she had yet to ask why his entourage carried so many bags.  Her joy at seeing her so pleased to see them made his ceaseless begging worthwhile.

“We have a going away present for you, Messy, don’t we little brother?”  Claudius nodded shyly up at his hero.

“You didn’t have to boys; I am just sorry I have to leave you.”  Absently she kissed the top of the smaller boys head.

“Oh, well we could take it back,” seeing the horror stricken look he received from his brother he burst into laughter.  “Maybe not.” 

“What’s going on?”  Gabrielle looked curiously from one child to the other when out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of the packs that lay behind Germanicus.  “Claudius is coming with us?”

“Yep, I had to do a lot of whining, but mum’s a great teacher.  She finally caved to get me to shut up.”  A strong arm wrapped around his shoulder and pulled him in for another hug.  “All she demanded was that you continue his education and have him write a letter to court once a moon.”

“I think we can manage that, don’t you?”  Laughing blue eyes met her own, as the boy wriggled in pleasure.

“Thank you for all you have done for us, your name will be remembered in Augustus’ court.  I had better go; looks like you’ll be casting off once all of this is on board.”  Tousling his brother’s hair for the final time he turned and marched away, his entourage falling into step behind him.  He was the very picture of the young monarch which he would become.

********

Standing at the side of the ship, Xena enjoyed the feel of the salty air on her skin, the wind whipping her hair around her face.  Holding Lyceus to her shoulder, she rubbed his back as she thought about what lay ahead.  Next to her stood her soul mate, back in her rightful place, Eve balanced on Gabrielle’s hip and Claudius standing in front of her with a protective hand on his fragile shoulder.  All of the looked back at Rome as it receded into the distance.  A city that could take away everything and then return much more.

As the boat had left port they had seen the dark carriage pull up to a smaller boat and the figures of Agrippina and her children get out.  Escorted by a group of guards they had been herded into the vessel which would take them to exile.  Xena hoped that the woman would work at being a better mother to her children but a sinking feeling told her that they hadn’t heard the last of Agrippina and young Caligula.

Moving close to the trio beside her she extended her free arm and wrapped it around the shorter woman’s shoulders.  Standing together like this, there was real hope for their future, for their family.  Whatever they may face from now on, from vile despots to jealous gods they would face, together.  As if reading her thought Gabrielle turned to smile at her and all was well, time would do the rest.

The End

Well it has taken a damn sight longer than I ever thought it would, but this journey is now complete.  I hope that you’ve enjoyed it.  Remember feedback, good, bad or indifferent is always much appreciated.  Thank you for reading.


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